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New Zealand: South Island

New Zealand is one of the most gorgeous, raw and inspiring places I've ever visited. 
An enchanting and faraway place, it was on my radar for a long time. (I know loads of Americans who say that and still have never been, mostly deterred by the long flight.) If you're reading this: consider it your nudge! GO! 
You need at least 10 days there. I spent 14 days between the North and South Islands -- and it still didn't feel like enough to take in everything I wanted to see. 
My primary reason for visiting New Zealand was work-related. I was slated to teach yoga at a Wellness Festival on New Year's Eve. Timing worked perfectly: I had a fun way to start 2024; I would get to escape North America's winter in exchange for summertime in New Zealand; and the trip would prime me to fly to Thailand to lead my 12th yoga retreat, this one across parts of Southeast Asia. 
I started in the South Island on Christmas Eve. 
Flight Path: 
Dallas >> Los Angeles >> Christchurch 
My friend Ariana met me at the Christchurch airport and all we had planned was the first night's stay. (She is a super-planner and I'm really proud of her for going with the flow.) 
We rented a car and stopped at hotels and Airbnbs -- sometimes booking same-day. We didn't stay at super-fancy places or big chain hotels. Our goal was to use lodging as pitstops for beds and showers-- and to spend most of our time exploring. This spontaneous travel strategy might sound crazy to some of you, but it's entirely possible in New Zealand. We felt safe, all of our accommodations were more than sufficient, clean, affordable and this allowed us to continue moving from place to place at our own pace, while also maximizing sightseeing. 
*Side note for the adventurous: if I had to do it all over again (or when I go back) I highly recommend renting a camper van to get around. Again, not the most common for Americans, but you can cover a lot of ground and pause for picnics along lovely lakes, sleep under the stars and travel at your own pace.
The one thing Ariana and I tried to avoid was driving at night, because outside of the main cities it is very dark with little to no light pollution. (Plus, that's when all sorts of creatures and wildlife come out.)
Our first stop was at an incredible farm house discovered on Airbnb! From there, we hit some of these highlights: 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
This is a lovely half or full-day stop to soak, eat, relax and take in the incredible scenery of the South Island! 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
We hiked through every possible climate during this hike! There was rain, it got hot, then cold... but I was in awe the entire time. This is a popular trail, so you won't be there alone-- and it's considered quite an easy path, so there are plenty of families, children and tourist groups along the way. No regrets for me... I absolutely loved being wrapped in the magnificence of these mountains! 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Wanaka is such a cool vibe! The town feels like a Colorado mountain town with coffee shops, bike trails, healthy eats-- anchored by the park and lake. I loved people-watching as families enjoyed picnics along the waterfront. The weather was pleasant so we rented kayaks and circled #ThatWanakaTree! The town center is a short drive from the Lavender Farm which is touristy-- but a sweet stop nevertheless. You pay a small entry fee and from there can wander around bright and beautiful lavender fields, shop the lavender teas and essential oils, and might I (strongly) recommend pausing for either a scoop of ice cream or one of their signature chocolates. You won't regret it! 
If you're looking for a short hike to get a nice viewpoint of this cute town, check out Mount Iron Track. 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
IYKYK: On our drive between Wanaka and Queenstown, Ariana eyeballed an Instagram-worthy stop: the Cardrona Bra Fence.
A sort of controversial tourist attraction in this tiny Alpine town, you'll find hundreds of bras attached to a rural fence. This tethering of bras started at some point in the late 90s and has since grown to what you find today. The property owners installed a donation box along the fence and have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. 
Queenstown is a fan favorite-- often lauded as one of the most spectacular and scenic sites for people who have stopped and stayed a while. Our experience was that this city is... crowded. Unlike so many of our previous stops, Queenstown was full of chain restaurants and shops, filled with tour buses and a place where parking is hard to come by. That said: I wouldn't skip it! Our time here was short because there was still so much of the island left to see. Downtown is lively and fun. You can duck in and out of bars, find unique shopping (hit up my favorite store, The Outpost) and catch sunset with live music at a patio near the waterfront. Really, there's no limit to what you can do here. It is a bit more pricey than our other stops, but if you fly into Queenstown, I have no doubt that you could marinate in and around the town for a delightful week-- and love every moment. 
We opted for a Queenstown hike that came recommended by a local: Check it out here!
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Fox Glacier was our next destination. We chose to move in this direction instead of heading toward Milford Sound for several reasons: Milford Sound would be a long journey, busy and crowded, plus the time it would take to properly enjoy it was more than we wanted to spend in one place. Also: we needed to make our way back to Christchurch to return our rental car. After comparing costs, it was more affordable to drive back rather than drop it off at Queenstown's airport.
The drive up the South Island's west coast region was gorgeous! We came eye to eye with Lake Hawea, New Zealand's 9th largest lake that lies in a glacial valley, took in a surreal sunset along the Tasman Sea and Tauparikaka Marine Reserve, and stopped along the way at parts of the Blue Pools for a refreshing dip in some of the bluest rivers I've ever seen! 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Fox Glacier lived up to the hype (for me). Is it touristy? Yes. It's a small village tucked in the forested foothills of the Southern Alps that visitors flock to for adventure, glacier hikes, chopper and plane flights and scenic treks.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
This stop is one of my happiest and most thrilling memories from the South Island! Taking a helicopter above this land felt magical. I was on the flight with 5 other people plus the pilot and it felt otherworldly from high above. You can read more here:
The next day, we headed back toward Christchurch with leisurely stops at the scenic Hokitaka Gorge and the Majestic Castle Hill. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
We didn't spend much time in Christchurch, but we did pause for dinner and a walk around the downtown area before heading to one last Airbnb farm stay for our final night on the South Island.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
I found the city center to be clean, walkable, modern and fun! We were there on a weekday night so there were no rowdy or overwhelming crowds, but from what I heard the young party scene comes alive on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and can go pretty hard. You have an array of restaurant and bar options with a range of food and price points from which to choose, making Christchurch a beautiful anchor for a night or two on the front or back end of any New Zealand trip. 
We weren't in New Zealand to check off touristy boxes, dip in and out of museums -- and we weren't traveling with children, so we weren't seeking family-friendly events or spaces.
If you're in those camps, a trip to New Zealand might require more planning and different stops. 

For me, this was the perfect start to an unforgettable Kiwi adventure!  

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Happy to see this, I remember seeing your post on social media at the time you were there and thinking “ wow what a trip she must be having, good for her. And if I remember right I think that was week 1 of like 6or 7 weeks of travel. And you also had a post of a incredible nighttime picture of the sky that left me in awe I could only imagine seeing such beautiful nature in real life.

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