New Zealand’s South Island is incredibly scenic. It’s the kind of setting that lends itself to descriptions like ‘awe-inspiring,’ ‘spectacular,’ ‘resplendent.’ It’s almost too much to take in when you’re actually there, when every turn reveals a different, equally impressive landscape. Now, in hindsight, having placed it in context with the rest of my three-week trip through New Zealand and Australia, and being able to reflect on the photographs, my appreciation for the island is only deepening.
The size of our group varied widely throughout the trip, but it started with just three of us: Jon, Pei, and me, traipsing through South Island for four nights. Jon and Pei were the best travel companions ever. They planned the entire trip and even put together a full production book for it. (They work as producers in Los Angeles). Plus, they gamely let me play third wheel for a week.
Here is just part one of many on our epic adventures through New Zealand:
We all flew direct to Auckland, New Zealand (which is on North Island), where we met and flew to Queenstown on the South Island. We spent a little time in Queenstown, a touristy little city, and we ate lamb and potatoes at Pedro’s (delicious), before driving out to our airbnb in Te Anau.
A gift shop foreshadowing awesome things to come.
Barina was our trusty orange companion!
Oh yes, they drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. Thanks to Jon for doing most of the driving. It definitely takes some getting used to, especially remembering to align yourself to the left within your lane when you’re used to sitting on the left of the car and accidentally hitting the windshield wipers when you mean to use your turn signal. And all of this happens on narrow two-lane roads where everyone is going 100km (60mph).
And then there was the moment when, as we were going 100kph, a herd of sheep ran onto the road! Terrifying! Somehow we and they miraculously stopped just in time and stared at each other. Good reflexes, Jon. This is, after all, a country of 4 million people and 40 million sheep.
Made it to our airbnb in one piece. It was a modest little house, surrounded by the most incredible views.
We grabbed dinner and caught this incredible misty light off the lake in Te Anau (pronounced “tee AH-noo”). Everywhere we went, we realized we had guessed pronunciations completely incorrectly.
The next morning, this was the view from my bedroom window:
Side yard of our airbnb.
And then we grabbed coffee at a cafe with ALPACAS in the adjacent field. Ahhh, my new favorite! What a funny looking, adorable animal.
The big goal for our first full day in New Zealand was to do the self-driving tour from Te Anau out to Milford Sound. Milford Sound is part of the fiordlands carved by glaciers and takes about 2.5 hours to reach if you’re not making any stops. We booked a 3pm cruise for the sound (one of the last tours, hoping to avoid all of the mid-day tour groups), and took our time visiting all of the roadside stops along the way.
Pei on our lovely cruise in Milford Sound.
Everyone told us how lucky we were to have a sunny day, since it’s almost always rainy and foggy there. In fact, we caught the one sunny day in a week of rainy days there.
We saw dolphins from afar and sunbathing seals nearby. But my favorite part was cruising right over into the mist of the waterfalls. Such a cool experience.
And then it was back on the road to Te Anau.
On the third morning, we woke up, visited another coffee shop with interesting animals adjacent, and headed back to Queenstown before we continued on our itinerary to other parts of South Island.
Once we were in Queenstown again, I stopped by Lululemon to re-up my warm clothing arsenal (it was in the 60s every day, and I had packed more with the hot temperatures of Australia in mind). And then we headed up the Skyline Gondola for lunch buffet overlooking the city.
We did not partake in the adventure sports that New Zealand is famous for, but we did watch lots of paragliders fly over the town.
So gorgeous. I hope to come back someday for the glaciers and other areas we’ve yet to explore.
Visit Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand
- Jon and Pei did an incredible job with planning our itinerary for South Island. The pacing, the locations, and everything were perfect.
- Day 1: Queenstown to Te Anau. Fly in to Queenstown (arrive in the morning). Grab lunch at Pedro’s House of Lamb. Explore a little bit, and then drive to Te Anau (about 2.5 hours).Don’t hit any sheep. Some people stay in Queenstown for their visit to Milford Sound, but it’s probably the most touristy town (think gift shops and international clothing brands) and the least interesting. We were glad to have stayed halfway in Te Anau instead. That evening, explore Te Anau, book your Milford Sound cruise for the next day if you haven’t already, and grab dinner. We stayed two nights in this cozy little airbnb in Manapuri with epic views.
- Day 2: The Road to Milford Sound. Get an early start if you want to beat the tour crowds. Grab coffee at the Alpine Centre Cafe & Bar and say hi to the alpacas. Google any map of the road to Milford Sound to get a sense of the stops along the way. They’re all just pull-offs with signs, mostly on the left side of the road. Be careful not to miss a stop, because it can be very difficult to u-turn and make your way back. We liked our 3pm cruise for Milford Sound, which avoided the tour-heavy cruises. Plus, our cruise came with carrot cake. After the cruise, we took our time driving back but were glad to have already finished the bulk of our sightseeing for the day
- Day 3: Queenstown and Onward… Drive back to Queenstown and head up to the top of the town at the Skyline Gondola for a buffet lunch overlooking the city. It’s a bit touristy, but we enjoyed it. This is also a great place to try parasailing or just watch the people who do. For the rest of our day three, tune in to the next part of the series!
- Driving on the left in New Zealand definitely takes some getting used to if you normally drive on the right side of the road. Speed limits can be quite high for how narrow the road is, and giant tour busses regularly just fly by. Plus, sometimes sheep run into the road. The biggest part is learning to realign yourself to the road, because your tendency will be to drift to the right. That said, I think self-driving is still the best way to experience Milford Sound, since you get to pace yourself at all the scenic spots versus being herded around in the tour bus approach, and it’s not very accessible otherwise.
Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in San Francisco but often traveling and working around the world. She creates beautiful, soft, and timeless imagery while capturing the most fleeting of moments. View her work at annawu.com, follow her daily adventures on instagram, or contact her to book your own session today.
Part 1: The Road to Milford Sound | South Island, New Zealand
Part 2: Wanaka, Hooker Valley Track, & Christchurch | South Island, New Zealand
Part 3: Auckland & Waitomo | North Island, New Zealand
Part 4: Hobbiton | North Island, New Zealand
Part 5: Hamilton Island, Australia
Part 6: Sydney, Australia
Part 7: Bondi Beach & Sydney, Australia
Part 8: Melbourne, Australia