South Island Exploration: Christchurch, Akaroa, Lake Tekapo, Mt Cook, Wanaka & Queenstown - 7 Days
- Go ziplining, punting, and have dinner on a tram in Christchurch
- Enjoy spectacular stargazing at an observatory in Lake Tekapo
- Embark on breathtaking, scenic walks through Mt Cook National Park
- Indulge in hiking, wine tasting, and plunge into a waterfall in Wanaka
|Day 1||Arrival in Christchurch & Self-Guided Tour||Christchurch|
|Day 2||Akaroa Wildlife Tour||Akaroa|
|Day 3||Tour Tekapo & Stargazing Excursion||Lake Tekapo|
|Day 4||Mt Cook National Park Walks||Mount Cook Village|
|Day 5||Wanaka Wine Tasting & Mt Aspiring National Park||Wanaka|
|Day 6||Queenstown Touring & Adventuring||Queenstown|
|Day 7||Departure From Queenstown|
Day 1: Arrival in Christchurch and self-guided tour
Welcome to New Zealand! On your first day in the South Island region, explore the world-famous Christchurch, also known as the “Garden City.” Expansive parks and public gardens are attributed to the founding fathers. However, in 2011, the central city and some of the neighboring eastern suburbs were devastated by the earthquake. Although many of the multi-story, historic buildings experienced destruction, rebuilding efforts are now fully underway. Despite reconstruction efforts, there is still plenty to explore in Christchurch. Consider the below when structuring your self-guided tour.
Start off by strolling through Hagley Park. This park has been at the heart of Christchurch since the 1850s and is now the most significant central city park. It offers a diverse range of entertainment and recreational facilities close to the city’s center.
Next, visit the central and unifying public space of Cathedral Square, which has been a landmark and a cultural magnet for more than 150 years. The space provides the perfect backdrop for events, with open spaces, historic architecture, and heavy foot traffic, despite being under reconstruction.
For a fun activity, consider punting on the Avon River, where a guide will give you a tour via a flatbottom boat, which is similar to a gondola ride.
In the afternoon, embark on a journey through Antarctica without leaving Christchurch at the Antarctic Centre. You'll experience snow and ice, a storm, learn about life in modern-day Antarctica and Scott Base, and hang out with penguins. For some added fun, take a trip on the Hagglund ride, as well as a fascinating simulated 4D cruise.
To continue the adventure, take the Zipline Tour at Christchurch Adventure Park. The zipline is dual-lined, which means you can race others through the park. With four stages ranging to up to a half-mile in length, this exciting way to experience Port Hills rivals no other. You can also take a tour that lasts about 2.5 hours and includes sites of geographical and historical significance, as well as some breathtaking heights.
In the early evening, visit Sumner Beach. This family-friendly destination is great for a walk on the beach or a refreshing dip in the water. The best local swimming spots here are Taylor’s Mistake and Corsair Bay.
When night falls, take a trip on via the Tram Restaurant, the only restaurant tram in New Zealand. You can experience a unique way to view the inner city while enjoying a delicious dinner.
Day 2: Akaroa wildlife tour
Today, make your way to the Banks Peninsula. There is a different vibe on this peninsula, where it sometimes feels like time stands still. Discover the picturesque bays, seaside villages, boutique galleries, and cafés. The highlight of this peninsula is Akaroa, a historic French and British settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano. Explore the village with its colonial architecture, galleries, craft stores, and more.
If you are interested in local wildlife, visit Hector's dolphins, the smallest dolphins in the world. You can even go for a swim with the playful natives. Additionally, embark on an evening tour of the little blue penguins at the Royal Albatross Centre to see them in a natural and undisturbed way. This is not a penguin parade, as the penguins are not acclimated to lighting, and will bolt back into the sea if people or lights are around. See penguins up close, including chicks in-season, while artificial nests are monitored. There is also a number of yellow-eyed penguins breeding along the bay often spotted on the tour.
If you are interested in a walk, Akaroa is the starting point of the Banks Track. The area is home to plenty of other day walks, too. You reach altitude here quite fast, and the views over the caldera are stunning.
The evening is on your own to enjoy.
Day 3: Tour Tekapo and stargazing excursion
Today, explore Lake Tekapo, which is a small town located at the southern end of its namesake lake. Since 2012, Lake Tekapo has been deemed one of the rare UNESCO World Heritage Starlight Reserves, making it somewhat of a national park in the sky!
However, before the sun sets, explore the town and take advantage of its nature-fueled splendor. Start the day with a 2-hour hike to Mt. John Summit, or visit by car. Once you reach the peak, enjoy breathtaking 360° views. For a post-hike refresher, take a swim in the nearby Willow Bay Beach glacier lake.
The outdoor adventures continue as you make your way to the hot pools located at the base of Mt. John and overlooking Lake Tekapo and the mountains beyond. Access the Alpine Springs, Spa and Winter Park, where heated alpine water supplies four, large, outdoor, public hot pools and several private pools if you prefer some alone time. If you would like to indulge in some pampering, book a massage at the onsite health spa, too.
Once you are nice and relaxed, embark on a scenic flight around Mt. Cook (Aoraki) and Westland National Parks. Here, gain access to the view of New Zealand’s highest mountains, along with 12 major glaciers and nearly 125 miles of alpine and rainforest scenery unique to the region.
Make sure you also take in a lesson on the town’s past. Visit the Church of the Good Shepherd for a history course. Built in 1935, this structure is a memorial honoring the glory of god built by the pioneers of Mackenzie Country.
After and fun-filled day, it is time to experience the town’s signature attraction. Mt. John Summit and Observatory consists of an asymmetrical rock shaped by the movement of ancient glaciers. The large mass of bedrock sits at an altitude of more than 3,380 feet above sea level, rising approximately nearly 1,000 feet above Lake Tekapo. On the summit of Mt. John is the University of Canterbury's astronomical observatory. The mountain was chosen as the best observatory site in New Zealand because of its high number of clear nights throughout the year, the stability and transparency of the atmosphere and the uniquely dark skies in the Mackenzie Basin, without the disruption of city light pollution.
A visit to the observatory under the starry skies is the perfect way to end an active and productive day in Lake Tekapo.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Day 4: Mt Cook National Park walks
Today, travel to Aoraki/Mount Cook—the highest peak of the country at 12,316 feet high—where Sir Edmund Hillary made many expeditions.
There are plenty of tracks to explore onsite. Consider the below Mt. Cook National Park walks when scheduling your day.
- Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View: Take in the blue lakes and Tasman Glacier view. Take a stroll from the Blue Lakes Shelter, past the lakes to view beyond the Moraine Wall. You can also make a pitstop to swim in the summertime. Duration: 40 minutes
- Tasman Glacier Lake: This walk branches off the Tasman Glacier View track, just past the Blue Lakes Shelter, and leads to a viewpoint of the glacier terminal lake and the source of the Tasman River. Icebergs can be seen floating in the lake in the summer, and in winter the lake freezes over. Duration: 1 hour
- Hooker Valley: The most popular walk in the area is the Hooker Valley walk. Starting at The Hermitage, the walk takes in the camping ground, the site of the original Hermitage, an alpine memorial, and two swing bridges until the final destination of the Terminal Lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier is reached. The trip will vary in length, based on your starting point. Duration: 2.5-4 hours
- Kea Point: The Kea Point track also begins at The Hermitage. The walk is relatively flat and provides great views of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the Mueller Glacier, and the hanging glaciers and icefalls of Mount Sefton. There is seating at the Kea Point lookout at the end of the track, so you can take in the views. Duration: 1.5-2 hours
- Governor's Bush: Named after the 1873 governor of New Zealand, Sir George Bowen, the Governors Bush track begins in the lower part of the Mount Cook Village. Walk through the only remaining native forest in the national park with beautiful silver beech and totara trees. This walk includes a light climb. Duration: 1 hour
- Glencoe Stream: Starting from behind the Hermitage, the walk zigzags through totara trees and emerges at a lookout near the water tanks above The Hermitage. Walkers are rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the village and beyond to the white ice of the Hooker Glacier and Aoraki/Mt. Cook. Sunrise and sunset are good times to catch the light on the mountains. Duration: 30 minutes
- Red Tarns Track: This track begins in the lower part of the Mount Cook Village. Cross the bridge over Black Birch stream, which is a 5-minute walk from the DOC Visitors Centre and near the public shelter. Climb the steep steps to reach the red tarns (colored because of the red pondweed in the water). More experienced trampers can continue past the tarns to summit the lowest mountain in the national park, Sebastopol, for a stunning view of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. Duration: 1.5-2 hours
- Sealy Tarns Track: For those who don’t mind a steep stair climb, take the Kea Point track and turn off at the signpost. The walk to the tarns (small glacial-formed mountain lakes) takes between 2-4 hours and provides beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. During the summer months, many of the region’s native alpine flowers can be seen alongside the track. From Sealy Tarns, more experienced trampers can follow the alpine route to Mueller Hut. Duration: 2-4 or 6-8 hours
Following the full day of exploration, enjoy the evening in Mt. Cook Village on your own.
Day 5: Wanaka Wine Tasting and visit Mt Aspiring National Park
Today, explore Wanaka, a beautiful destination filled with lakes, mountains, rivers, diverse attractions, and endless activities. It is the world’s first protected lifestyle reserve. A quaint, little town nestled amongst breathtaking scenery, the settlement is located on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka.
In the summer, you can launch into the day with hiking through Mt. Aspiring National Park. During winter, consider skiing through Treble Cone and Cardrona, which are some of the best locations in the country!
Once you have had your exercise, take a load off to enjoy some wine tasting. Some of the best pinot noirs in New Zealand can be found in the middle of Central Otago, which is famous for its vineyards. Consider tastings at Bald Hills and Mt. Difficulty, along with Rippon Valley Vineyard, where you can also indulge in a fantastic lunch.
Wind down the day indoors by making your way to Puzzling World, a unique attraction that specializes in the oddity of puzzles, which offers a great maze and incredible illusion rooms. In the evening, save some time to enjoy Cinema Paradiso, a small, classic movie theater, where you can watch a movie from a comfortable sofa or from one of three seats in an old Morris Minor automobile.
Day 6: Queenstown touring and adventuring
Next, head to Queenstown. Originally born out of the Gold Rush during the 1860s, Queenstown is now the world capital for adrenaline and outdoor fun. When planning your schedule, consider the below activities.
- Steamship Tss Earnslaw: Take a scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu. There is plenty of time to explore the decks and bridge, view the engine room, join a sing-along with the onboard pianist, or sit back and relax.
- Skyline Complex: One of the first sights to captivate visitors to Queenstown, gain access by scenic gondola. The best views in the region are found here, spread out in a spectacular, 220° panorama, with breathtaking views of Coronet Peak, The Remarkables mountain range, and across Lake Wakatipu to Cecil and Walter Peaks.
- Onsen Hot Pools: These natural, hot-water pools are very intimate, and have great views of the valley and the Shotover River.
- Central Otago Wines: From the world's southernmost wine-producing region, taste wine from the region—there are 177 vineyards here.
For thrill-seekers, go bungee jumping from Kawarau Bridge and skydiving over The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. You can also go jet boating or whitewater rafting through the Kawarau and Shotover gorges and rivers.
Day 7: Departure from Queenstown
Today, depending on your departure time, enjoy more of Queenstown. Then, drop off your rental car at the airport before boarding your flight back home.