VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand
There’s something truly exceptional about the South Island of New Zealand. Something that stills your heart and mind. Something that makes you stop and listen to the whispers of the ancients in the winds.
Maybe it’s that dreamy purple dusk haze, that cover the hills and mountains before sunset every afternoon. Maybe it’s the untouched wide skies, and endless rolling hills that shimmer in golden light. Maybe it’s because here, everyone, and everything, slows down. It slows down enough to allow slivers of stillness and presence into each moment.
It’s probably all those things, and more.
Every day, as we travel around theses precious lands, I watch the magic unfold in front of me outside the passenger side window, I am so happy to be able to share my experience and favorite moments with you, of New Zealand’s South Island.
I am taking you around the island clockwise, in the direction we have been traveling, starting in Kaikoura, and going south along the east coast from there. I hope these words and beautiful images inspire you to, one day soon, have an adventure here of your own.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Kaikoura
Some places pull you in and hold you close for a little while. Kaikora is one of those places. Starting with the drive down, the views are spectacular, as with every corner, you get closer and closer to an astonishing landscape of sea and seals. The town itself is super cute, incredibly friendly and has lots of quaint little shops to explore. Julien went diving with the seals, while I went for a walk along the beach, had my hair cut, and did some unpretentious cafe-ing.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Christchurch
With just one day to explore this city, the tenure that it left on my soul was one of hope. This city literally fell to pieces during the earthquakes a few years ago, and it’s surprising to see how much rubble and ruin is still left in its wake.
But everywhere radiates with the spirit of hope and new beginnings. There are tonnes of street art, boutique stores, a mall made of shipping containers, and delightful restaurants and bars. My personal highlights were the botanic gardens, the giant playground, the collection of food trucks and colourful seats and tables in Cathedral Square, and the quirky and colourful New Regent Street pictured above.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Timaru
I absolutely loved some of the art deco architecture left behind in Timaru, that is supposed to represented luxury, glamour, exuberance and faith in social and technological progress, as beyond the architecture, this is a sleepy little middle-class family town. We had intended to settle here for three months as you know, but the universe had different plans.
The Farmer’s Market is rad; I bought a dozen free-range eggs, kale, silverbeet, tomatoes, spaghetti squash, garlic and jams, all organic, for under $20 NZD which fed us for half the week, and were amazing. There’s also a fantastic aquatic centre where we swam some laps, sweated out the toxins in the sauna and spa, and an amazing park complete with bird sanctuary, and a skate park. There are lots of old churches, and the main street is pretty cute, but mostly, it’s a ‘living’ town more than a ‘visiting’ town.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Oamaru
From the moment we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised: the town is filled with creative arts and unique characters. In the first hour we met a (real) wizard’s apprentice, tasted aged whiskey, went to the incredible steampunk museum ‘Steampunk HQ’ and were welcomed into the home of a local. Oamaru also has the amazing Scott’s Brewing Company, where you can sit amongst the casks and vats that the beers are being fermented in, a cute little Farmer’s Market, and little fairy penguins who wander through the street holding hands once the sun has gone down. (Seriously.) My personal highlights was the sunset at Bushy Beach — it was so wow — and the Grainstore Gallery which was like entering a magical wonderland that reminded me of Dr Pernassus’ Imaginarium .
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Dunedin.
Dunedin astonished me. I thought it would just be a big old grey city, but as it turns out, it’s a hub of creativity, art, music and self-expression. We spent the first day playing full-on tourists and took the spectacular street-art walk all around the city centre (you can get a map for it at the i-site), and drove to Sandfly Bay to see the seals and penguins. Seals we did see, but the penguins evaded us this time. This beach is so beautiful, there are no words, so the picture above must suffice.
Our lovely Air BnB host happened to be a ‘IT guy’ which meant the wi-fi was most excellent, in perfect timing for my jam-packed mentoring days, while we were there. We also walked up the world’s steepest street, and on our way out, visited Tunnel Beach with its raw and rugged cliffs, powerful crashing waves and creepy caves to explore and hide in.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Invercargill
It really is the little things in life. Arriving at the Bella Vista Motel in Invercargill, we were warmly welcomed and greeted by the kindest manager motel manager in New Zealand, Neil, who immediately took his time to present us with the best things to see in town, before showing us our room for the night. Julien threw himself onto the bed straight away and practically melted with contentment, before inhaling the complimentary chocolate chip cookies.
The next morning we explored the recommended E Hayes & Sons hardware store. As strange as it sounds, this hardware store is the home of something quite unusual: over 100 exhibits of one of the world’s finest private collections of classic motorcycles, automobiles and engines, blended in to a store that sells pretty much everything you could ever need. Julien was in motorbike heaven, while I appreciated the sweet family atmosphere, and marvelled at the fact that most of the staff were somehow still involved in motorbike racing and knew everything about every piece of machinery we walked past. We also went to Queens Park to walk around the art gallery, hang out in the animal reserve, and explore the gardens.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Te Anau / Milford Sound
Te Anau / Milford Sounds
Driving from Invercargill to Te Anau, the final town before hitting the infamous fiord lands, was spectacular. I’ve driven down some pretty amazing coasts including the stretch along the Pacific State Highway from Los Angels to Santa Barbara, and The Great Ocean Road between Melbourne and Adelaide, but I think this one takes the cake. I couldn’t stop gasping with astonishment and wonder. Green lush rolling hills scattered with sheep and edged by wild ocean, gave way to rugged snow-capped mountains, golden grasses and steep inclines as we drove along the bottom edge of New Zealand.
When we arrived we checked into the incredibly efficient and friendly Distinction Te Anau Hotel and Villas, and were pleasantly surprised to have lakeside views, and that the hotel had a heated pool and spa to relax in. Also, the wi-fi works most excellently here, which is always a plus when you work online, and not something you can rely on. I sincerely wanted to stay in and chill for the rest of the day, but managed to pull myself together enough for a walk around the cute little town that is Te Anau, and the gateway to exploring the fiord lands.
The next day we made the unforgettable journey to Milford Sounds. It was my turn to drive, and I kept getting so distracted by the insane beauty of it all, that Julien disallowed me to look around anymore, not even to see the rainbow that had popped out behind us, because I was becoming a danger on the road. My wild driving however delivered us there just in time for our ‘Encounter Nature’ tour with Southern Discoveries. Which was so amazing! Dolphins came and played beside our boat, we saw baby fur seals, got up close with waterfalls and learned all about the fiord from our eloquent nature guide.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Queenstown
Thanks to the lovely receptionist Anna, we got to check in early at the sweet boutique Motel Colonial Village, and I immediately had a hot bath with my cup of coffee and enjoyed the lake and mountain view directly out the bathroom window. Traveling around a country while running a business has its challenges, which are made much more enjoyable when you have a comfortable place to stay, so while I promptly sat down to catch up on several days worth of email and work, Julien cooked up a storm in our little kitchenette, and we didn’t leave for the rest of the day.
The following day we explored the town, walked around the lake and met up with friends who serendipitously happened to be in Queenstown at the same time as us. Not to mention enjoyed the most delicious dinner at Caribe Latin Kitchen, one of the many excellent eating choices in Queenstown. Everyone kept raving about Ferg Burger too, but there just wasn’t enough time.
On our last morning, as I marvelled at the pink and purple sunrise from my steaming jasmine and sandalwood scented bath, in our quaint little cottage at Colonial Village, I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the natural beauty of this little corner of the world, and for having opportunity to be here, and breath in the vibe, that makes Queenstown the magnetic epicentre that it is. We took the Gondola up the mountain, marvelled at the view, raced each other down the mountain in Luge carts (6 times!), Julien bungy’d off the ledge, and visited a friend at the snow fields of Cardrona, before driving onwards to Wanaka.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Wanaka
Just when I think that this trip around the South Island couldn’t get any better, especially after the beauty of the Milford Sound, New Zealand turns it up a notch. We checked into Edgewater on Lake Wanaka in the late afternoon. Climbing the stairs up to our accommodation, we were excited to see what we would find, only to be greeted by the most beautifully designed one bedroom apartment, one that dreams are made of. Past the modern kitchen, through the living room, with office space (yes!!!), and into the grand master bedroom which led into the pristine bathroom complete with a giant waterfall bathtub, double sinks and double showers. Perfect for two, n’es pas?
Due to the rainy, drizzly grey during our days in Wanaka, and the luxurious comfort of our accommodation, apart from a walk around the lake and to check out the town, we remained indoors, catching up on work and enjoying a little downtime while we could. Wanaka is famed for being away from the hustle and bustle of Queenstown, while still being close to all the snow sports your heart could desire, and I can imagine in the peak season that it would be the perfect place to base yourself.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Franz Josef
Franz Josef Glacier
We must have seen over 100 waterfalls on the road from Wanaka to Franz Josef. I was mesmerised by the mass of water that seemed to be falling from the mountains sides all around us.
When we checked into our cosy little cabin at Rainforest Retreat, we were given all the best tips for hikes in the area, and planned a big day of walking for the next two days. There are so may hikes here, many of them are free, and there are some paid ones for when you want to go higher up into the glacier. We stuck to the ones we could easily access by foot and the next morning did the walk to the Franz Josef Glacier pictured above. Apparently the blue glacier has been receding and the mountains around in moving tremendously every year, partly due to global warming, and partly due to the mountains being alive, and constantly shifting. We could get to 150 metres close to it, whereas a few years ago the glacier actually began at the foot of the hike we did. The scenery along the way is worth every step, as we essentially walked with our mouths open in wonder.
That night we did another hike down a dark, forested pathway to see glowworms. There were so many of them, it seemed like little fairies were dancing all around us at every step. I was also quietly terrified because, well… I’m a little bit afraid of the dark in outdoors because I can’t see, and I feel like I’m being watched. We did happen to stumble upon a giant possum on the way which made me squeal, but it was actually perfectly safe.
It was rainy the entire time we were there, as the whole West Coast had predicted a very wet week of storms, but we persevered and went for one more hike, to see an abandoned mining shaft the next morning, before heading off to our final destination before completing the loop of the South Island.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Punakaiki
I happened to be really grumpy and tired on this day. After traveling non-stop for two and a half weeks, I just wanted to spend a day doing nothing. But I managed to pull myself together to see the Punakaiki ‘pancake rocks’ and I am so glad I did. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite capture the magic of them, you really have to be there, but they look like little cities where magical creatures would live. I was blown away, once again, by the spectacular natural beauty of this country, and so grateful to have the opportunity to see and be in so many beautiful, special places. I have a feeling that Punakaiki holds some incredibly powerful, ancient energy, because my entire mood shifted from low energy, to uplifted and spirited, and there was this magic in the air, that words cannot possibly convey. We spent the night nearby and then drove back to our starting point: Nelson, where we had been living for the 6 months prior.
VM's travel guide to the South Island of New Zealand: Nelson
Nelson / Picton
Nelson became ‘home’ for a while in December 2015, because we had heard that it was the sunniest part of New Zealand. And perhaps it was, though we have had amazing weather most of the time, so it’s hard to compare. Passing through a place is very different to living in it, so I”m just going to share some of my favourite places, that I spent the most time in. Hot Yoga Nelson, run by Anita, the loveliest owner ever, was a safe haven where I stretched and strengthen my body and soul on most days, while every Saturday morning was devoted to the Nelson Farmers Market with some of the freshest, most seasonal and well priced produce in the land. I adored my mornings at the markets, making sure I got to my favourite stalls before I ran out of the best things, and sharing tea and slices of cake at a gypsy themed Dutch caravan stall with friends. Dinners at the vegetarian East Street Cafe were devourd with gusto, and I loved sitting in the Morri Street Cafe, watching the world go by.
Today, we are driving to Picton, to take the ferry back up to Wellington and then zig zag across the North Island. I can’t wait to share this next chapter with you soon.

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