Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Destinations > Australia & the Pacific
Reload this Page >

early planning for NZ South Island trip - please provide feedback

early planning for NZ South Island trip - please provide feedback

Jul 12th, 2017, 09:46 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
early planning for NZ South Island trip - please provide feedback

As some of you already know, Australia and New Zealand are always on my mind. This goes for my travel companions as well. We began thinking about a return visit Down Under back in January as we were concluding our last visit to Australia. We originally contemplated a 6 week long trip divided roughly evenly between the two countries. Given changes in circumstances, it will difficult for us to be away for the extended period of time. So instead, we're now aiming for a trip to New Zealand (this will be a 2nd visit; first one was to Auckland and Waiheke Island only as part of a longer trip) in 2018-19 and a separate one back to Australia in 2019-20.

We're interested in the stunning scenery that New Zealand is renown for, and look forward to getting up close and personal. Long day hikes are a definite. We are also very much interested in visiting Wellington - for Te Papa, the institutions of government, history, its setting, etc. We expect to travel by public bus (InterCity and the like) where possible, and supplementing with taxis and private car and driver hires as needed. Right now, I'm thinking 16-17 nights on the ground, concentrated on the South Island.

We would like feedback on the itinerary as well as thoughts on timing.

Proposed itinerary:

- Fly into Christchurch, 2 nights.
- Take TransAlpine to Greymouth, bus to Punakaiki, 1 night
- Bus from Punakaiki to Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, 2 nights [possibly stopping in Hokitika along the way]
- Bus to Queenstown, 4 nights [including visit to Arrowtown, and potentially Glenorchy and / or the wineries should we have time; we are not looking at the adrenaline activities]
- Bus to Te Anau, overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, 1 night
- Te Anau, 4 nights [a cruise on Milford Sound is a must, and we aim to do day hikes of one or more of the Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler tracks; thinking about treating ourselves with a stay at the Fiordland Lodge]
- Fly to Wellington, 2-3 nights

The ideal timing for us would be the last 2 weeks or so of November or sometime from mid-April through late-May. I understand that some of these parts are known for its wet climate, but I am hoping to select a time when I would have the best chances of better weather. I've done some research on historical weather data already. Our ideal would be temperatures from 55F to 75F. I am aware of the school holidays in late-April, and would be okay with some crowds if we are likely to have better weather. What do you recommend?

What do you think of our proposed itinerary and our allocation of time? Are there places you enjoy that would be good for us to consider? Does any part of it seem off or unrealistic?

The trip would take place in November 2018 at the earliest so we have the benefit of some time, although we usually try to nail down our longer trips up to a year in advance.

Thank you.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 12th, 2017, 12:47 PM
Join Date: Feb 2007
Posts: 1,938
You've given yourselves loads of time to plan, which is great.

I would recommend you read Auntie Em's trip report as she used public transportation to see NZ. She had 45 days to see both islands, but you might get some ideas and learn from her trip,as she faced some challenges having to rely on public transportation, tours and taxis. She also traveled in May, which is one of the possibilities you've suggested.

The morning Tranzalpine train arrives in Greymouth around 1 p.m. The Intercity bus to Punakaiki generally leaves Greymouth about 20 minutes later and the bus stop is near the train station. As you are planning so far out, you can't be sure of schedules, but my guess is they won't change much.

Will you do a glacier heli hike in Franz Josef or Fox? I highly suggest this.

In Queenstown, you can get to Arrowtown on the local Richie's Connectabus:
It even stops at Amisfield Winery, should you care to visit a winery with an excellent bistro.

To get from Queenstown to the walking tracks near Glenorchy, have a look at Glenorchy Journeys:

You can take the Skyline Gondola to the top, then walk the Ben Lomond Track.
If you don't want to take the Gondola, then you can start your climb from the bottom on the Tiki Trail.

Do you plan to stay 4 nights at Fiordland Lodge? Fiordland Lodge is 5 km. north of Te Anau. I've not stayed there, and I'm sure it's nice, but in all honesty, it seems an impractical place to stay, if relying on public transportation. Te Anau is served by at least one taxi company, but I recommend staying someplace in town, close to the lake, so you can walk to restaurants, shops, take a walk along the lake to the DOC's Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, have easy access to the dock, where you can catch the boat to the glowworm caves. Te Anau is a pleasant small town.

To get to tracks along Milford Road, have a look at Tracknet:
Or you might consider a small group tour with Trips and Tramps.

Can you shift your trip to late March-early April? It's a popular time, but the weather is generally nicer then. NZ weather is unpredictable. November can be wet, cold and windy in the south. May can be nice or not, it's highly changeable. This is when it starts to get colder again. The days will also start to grow shorter; these are sunset-sunrise times for New Zealand:
That extra hour or two of daylight can make a difference.
Diamantina is offline  
Jul 12th, 2017, 02:10 PM
Join Date: Jul 2014
Posts: 227
I think 4 nights in Te Anau is a bit much. And I would be concerned about what there is to do there if it's raining and you don't fancy walking the tracks in the rain.
deSchenke is offline  
Jul 12th, 2017, 02:55 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,764
I think it's a good itinerary.

Four nights in Te Anau may be be one too many if the weather is bad as mentioned above, but there's certainly enough to keep a keen hiker busy for that amount of time and much longer. It's a good base from which to also explore walks along Milford Road that you may not have time for in conjunction with the cruise, but will involve some backtracking (and transport). There are also walks south of Manapouri, so a plethora to choose from.

I've been in Te Anau in crap weather and it's either continue with your walking plans or...well not much else to do. There is a very nice visitor's center, the glow worm caves and of course Ata Whenua, which you should make a point of seeing regardless of the weather.


There are loads of hikes in/around Punakaiki, so a second night there would give you a full day to explore the tracks.

Having said the above, I don't know how you'd access some of the tracks without a car. There are shuttles to/from some of the popular tracks, but you'd have to check schedules in each area.

You probably don't want to hear this, but I just can't imagine visiting NZ without a car. It saves so much time and offers boundless flexibility. If driving on the left is a concern, you'd be amazed how quickly one can acclimate. And that's all I'll say on the subject as you seem to have already made up your mind
Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 12th, 2017, 04:07 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
Wow! Thanks to each and every one of you for the incredible feedback you've given me so far.

Diamantina, I'll take a look at Auntie Em's report; appreciate you bringing it to my attention.
- On the connection from the TransAlpine to the InterCity bus, yes, I am relying on the schedules that are available now. If the timing does not work out, we would arrange taxi or another form of transport.
- Yes, we plan on doing a help-hike to one of the glaciers. Is one better than the other? Would staying in one village be better than the other? Either way, we hope to participate in the night kiwi viewing as well as Lake Matheson so we will need transport from one to the other.
- Thanks for all the ideas in and around Queenstown. We may need to think about additional nights there.
- Re: Fiordland Lodge, right now, yes, I am thinking about all four nights there. It's Great Walks package appeals (http://www.fiordlandlodge.co.nz/packages.htm). But we're open and your suggestions for staying in Te Anau are compelling.
- On timing, it's possible to push it but not a guarantee at the moment. How are the last two weeks of April generally, aside from the school holidays?

deSchenke, good point about the weather in and around Te Anau. A drizzle may not bother us (we've hiked in wet weather before) but heavy rain would be unpleasant and potentially unsafe.

Melnq, very much appreciate your thoughts.
- Based upon the InterCity schedule now, we would have a late afternoon and evening at Punakaiki as well as the full morning the follow day. Would it be enough time for the trails or would we need 2 nights to give us a full, unbroken day? Certainly open to the possibility.
- On renting a car, I hear you and having the freedom of our own vehicle would certainly make things easier. As of now, none of us own drivers' licenses as we've lived in big cities our whole lives and have not had the need. Perhaps NZ is reason enough to learn to drive and acquire at least one license. That said, we worried about getting around in Tasmania back in January and didn't feel we missed anything without it. Did have to pay to hire private drivers from some of the tour operators though.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 12th, 2017, 05:37 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,764
Okay, I remember about the driver's license issue now from your Australia trip.

RE: Punakaiki - it depends on how keen a walker you are, transport (and weather) issues. Last time I was there, we spent a full day hiking sections of several tracks (some are multi-day).

If you just want to see the rocks and take a short stroll or two, you probably have sufficient time.

Details from that visit to Punakaiki can be found here, Day 10, maybe it will help, maybe it won't:


Here's some info from the DOC site regarding the tracks in the area:

Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 12th, 2017, 06:39 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
Thanks again Melnq8. Just read your entire report, and Abel Tasman is very appealing; perhaps a good reason to extend our time or think about it on a return visit. The other Punakaiki trails look appealing; we typically enjoy staying more than one night at any destination so knowing there are walks other than the famous rocks gives us good reason to do so.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 13th, 2017, 10:12 PM
Join Date: Feb 2007
Posts: 1,938
You asked:
"Is one [Franz Josef or Fox Glacier glacier walk] better than the other? Would staying in one village be better than the other? Either way, we hope to participate in the night kiwi viewing as well as Lake Matheson so we will need transport from one to the other."

My husband and I have only done the glacier ice walk on Franz Josef. Back then, in 2010, it was easy to walk to the base of Fox Glacier on our own; the viewing point behind the safety barriers was just a short walk from the parking lot and it offered a good view of the glacier. But both glaciers have retreated since then.

I would check Trip Advisor reviews for both these companies:

I prefer Franz Josef as it has more services, choices of accommodation and restaurants than than Fox village. Among the attractions in downtown FJ are the West Coast Wildlife Centre (http://www.wildkiwi.co.nz/) and Glacier Hot Pools (https://www.glacierhotpools.co.nz/). I find FJ's surroundings more attractive than those of Fox.

FJ is more practical if you plan on doing the Okarito Forest Kiwi Walk, as it's closer. (FJ is about a 30 minute drive from Fox via a curvy road.) You should contact Ian Cooper at Okarito Kiwi Tours to see if you can arrange for a pick up from a FJ accommodation. They might do so for an extra charge. It could be worth their while if there are at least 4 people in your group. (How many of you are there?) Their web page states, "Once back at the van – the heater is cranked up as we drive back to your accommodation."

We did the Okarito Forest Kiwi Walk few years ago, but drove ourselves to the starting point of the tour at Okarito Beach. The tour starts with an orientation session at Ian Cooper's house before traveling to the forest.

Fox is closer to Lake Matheson, though it's still 5 km. away. I don't know of taxi services in FJ or Fox, but NZ tourism services are ever-expanding.

I looked at the Intercity bus schedule, using a random November date, the bus goes twice a day from Franz Josef to Fox. The fare is reasonable: $10 to $16.

The below company does 3.5-hour tours to Lake Matheson. As someone with a car, it seems exhorbitant to me, as LM is only about 7-minute drive from Fox and as a tour is unnecessary. But as the below company is based in FJ, their charge is probably based on a tour from FJ, in which case it's not bad (as they'll be driving you there from FJ and back and they probably have lots of interesting info for you along the way). If you really want to see LM and you won't be driving, this is an option. I'd try to ask for a group discount.

All activities are subject to weather. Glacier ice walks can be cancelled, even for several days in a row. The Okarito Forest Kiwi Walk can be cancelled due to bad weather. The view from Lake Matheson, instead of offering those often-photographed clear views of Mt. Cook, could be obscured by clouds.
The last time we were in FJ, we wanted to do a helicopter flight over the glacier, but the weather was cloudy, grey, a little rainy. We agreed it wouldn't be worth it, even if flights could take off.

You asked, "How are the last two weeks of April generally, aside from the school holidays?"

You mean April 2018, right? (NZ school holiday: Saturday 14 April - Sunday 29 April, includes ANZAC day 25 April). Usually nice weather, but as you noted, school holidays will make it a lot busier. Some Aussie families also holiday in NZ at this time. NSW holidays April 13 through May 1, 2018; Queensland and Victoria March 29 through April 16, 2018. For more dates, you can check here:

I traveled to Te Anau a few years ago in the "off-season" and found it busy. It wasn't NZ school holidays, but Aussie school holidays. I wanted to do a glowworm tour, but they were sold out, but then, as there were so many disappointed people, they added a couple of more tours for the day. So it worked out.

In fall 2018, in Queenstown, it'll also be a little busier because of the Chinese Amway tourists, 500 arriving each week.

November is looking better, isn't it? If your come in November, prepare for some rain and clouds in the south of the South Island. Waterproof jacket with hood and pants are helpful, maybe essential (you'll find out when you get here).
Diamantina is offline  
Jul 14th, 2017, 03:34 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
Thanks Diamantina. Yes, there are 4 of us and we understand and are prepared to spend a little more cash given that we don't drive.

On time, I am planning for sometime between November 2018 and May 2019 as we have all our travels locked down over the next 12 months.

On weather, I understand that there is no guarantee but at least try to plan for the best and prepare for the worst, as I usually do. It does seem a bit harder as most of the things we want to do in NZ are outdoors. We would be willing to go during school holidays if it means the chance of better weather is higher. I assume the crowds on the hiking trails are not what they are in cities such as NYC, London, and Paris during peak season, and I don't mind some company as we usually hike independently.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 16th, 2017, 09:22 PM
Join Date: Jul 2017
Posts: 4
Hi, just skimming over your trip and want to add some input into the weather. I'm a born and breed South Islander and I would highly recommend February for your trip. All the schools are back in class, Christmas holidays are well and truly over and the weather is beautuful and settled. It's a great month to travel the South. I also think that November/December is nice as well. Personally I think the weather is warm and sunny in the South at this time of the year, not cold, wet and windy (apart from the Canterbury Northerlies which are warm). Hope this helps, Cheers.
DawnRoss is offline  
Jul 16th, 2017, 11:45 PM
Join Date: Feb 2007
Posts: 1,938
DawnRoss, I agree, overall, February offers the driest, sunniest, warmest weather, but tripplanner001 wrote, "The ideal timing for us would be the last 2 weeks or so of November or sometime from mid-April through late-May."

Also, from Feb. 4 through Feb. 19, 2019, there will probably be a lot of Chinese New Year celebrants in New Zealand. Prices for accommodation in major tourist areas go up at this time and it gets crowded.
Diamantina is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 01:08 AM
Join Date: Jul 2017
Posts: 4
DIamantina, I was just skimming, but I thought I read the trip could take place anytime between November and May. I think all the info you have given is awesome and really good advice. IMO I would definately schedule for February and not worry too much about the Chinese New Year. Prices in the Deep South are high at any time of the year and always a very popular holiday spot for tourists for good reason, it's so beautiful down there. We sure live in a very beautiful part of the world ��
DawnRoss is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 03:22 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
Thank you DawnRoss and thanks again Diamantina. As tempting as a visit in February is, unfortunately, it's hard to make work with our jobs. November, December, April, and May are our likeliest options. We're going to do our best with one of these, plan for some wet weather, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 17th, 2017, 05:39 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,764
We've been to the SI many times and we liked our February visits the least - too warm, too many visitors, too much bad driving, too many dumb tourist antics (stopping in the middle of the road to take photos, etc). Not to mention Chinese New Year, which almost ruined a visit for us one year.

I'd go for April (after Easter).
Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 07:52 AM
Join Date: Jul 2014
Posts: 227

It won't just be the Chinese New Year that will have increased numbers on South Island. 10,000 Chinese Amway folks have been gifted a trip to Queenstown in the fall of 2018. So April and May will be affected.
deSchenke is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 08:43 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,764
Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 09:00 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,356
Yikes! Both of what you shared don't sound pleasant. While I don't mind sharing the beauty of the places I visit with others (it's especially welcome at times when we're hiking if nothing but to know that we've not strayed too far or that we're not reading our maps incorrectly), I enjoy being able to have a place to ourselves (and it is usually easy to do so) and would hate not to be able to do so.

Melnq8, late-April would be very ideal for us - and I too prefer cool rather than hot when hiking. Looking at the calendar, Easter 2019 falls on April 21. After Easter would mean the final days of April and the first 10 days or so of May. Generally speaking, would this be too late for hiking in the southern part of the South Island? How likely would we run into the risk of trail closures?
tripplanner001 is online now  
Jul 17th, 2017, 11:32 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,764
It's never too late for hiking in NZ!

We've been to the SI in the dead of winter - many times - and still went hiking.

Tracks in NZ don't close, but transport to a few of them (such as Milford Track) is seasonal (access is via boat). The season for the Milford Track runs through April 30, 2018.

Some tracks are affected by seasonal bridge removal, but those are generally multi day tracks.

Track damage can also lead to temporary closures, but there are so many tracks that there's always many alternates.

Because you won't be driving, access to some tracks could be problematic anyway, but potentially more so during the off season, when scheduled shuttles may not run.

You will find tracks virtually everywhere though, which is in your favor.

Keep in mind that Easter in NZ runs from Good Friday through Easter Monday, and in some sectors, Easter Tuesday. It's a looong weekend.
Melnq8 is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 02:21 PM
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 11,495
You've gotten a lot of good advice; I'll just jump in to say that late April-early May should be lovely. We were on the South Island from later in May into early June, and though we mostly had good weather, it was pretty chilly at times.

Lee Ann
ElendilPickle is offline  
Jul 17th, 2017, 03:19 PM
Join Date: Feb 2007
Posts: 1,938
deSchenke, I'd already mentioned the Chinese Amway tourists in my earlier posts in response to tripplanner's question about April-May.

tripplanner, if you decide to go to Abel Tasman (you mentioned your interest was piqued after reading Melnq8's report), you might be interested in knowing the top of the South Island is known for being New Zealand's sunshine capital (even though you don't mind cool weather). This article is from 2014 tells more about it:

I agree with Melnq8, you'll find plenty of open hiking tracks at the end of April-through May. You'll be going to well-traveled areas, but, if in doubt about the track's condition (say, after a heavy, unexpected rainstorm) ask at the local Dept. of Conservation office or at a town's visitor center. There's a list of DOC offices here:

The DOC website often posts alerts on their pages for various tracks. For instance, there appear to be no alerts at the moment for the Key Summit Hike, a hike you'll surely want to do:

But there are alerts for Mt. Aspiring Tracks:

Like you, I prefer cool weather to hot weather, and don't mind walking in the rain, either. The first time I walked on the Lake Sylvan Track (beyond Glenorchy), it was three hours of pouring rain. The second time I walked the track on a dry and sunny day. I preferred the rainy day: the sound of the rain falling on the beech trees, the smell of the damp forest, the super-green color of the moss (but we could return to our car when done).

If you stick with your plan of traveling along the West Coast down through Queenstown and Te Anau, consider adding a couple of days and nights in Wanaka (perhaps exchange a couple of your days in Te Anau for a couple of days in Wanaka). It's quieter and less hectic than Queenstown and surrounded with many walking tracks.

In spite of school holidays and growing tourism, I love April, especially in Central Otago (the region that includes Queenstown, Wanaka, Arrowtown, and several wine regions). South Canterbury (Mackenzie Basin)—though you have no plans to go there—is also beautiful at this time. The Arrowtown Autumn Festival and Wanaka Festival of Colour are both in April 2019.
Diamantina is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy -


All times are GMT -8. The time now is 09:07 PM.