New Zealand Campervan Adventures – South Island

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After a quick three days in Christchurch, including a wonderful Thanksgiving with friends, we hopped in a campervan and took off to explore New Zealand’s South Island. We hadn’t necessarily been planning to travel by campervan, but we had come to really appreciate planning only a few days in advance (and we knew we’d need to plan way further ahead during the busy month of December in NZ), so we decided to continue our nomadic ways and we booked a van with Spaceships. Plus, this way Jeff would finally be able to live out his dream of living in a van down by the river.

With about twenty-eight days to spend in the country (and eventually get from Christchurch to Auckland, where we’d fly out of toward the end of December), we initially booked the campervan for eighteen days and figured we’d use it to explore the South Island. We thought we’d be ready to sleep in real beds by the time we were ready to head to the North Island for our last ten days. We were both a bit nervous about some aspects of living out of a van. Beyond the more obvious concerns of driving/sleeping/eating/living in such tight quarters, we’d heard that December can be a cold, wet month so were worried about the possibility of being cooped up inside a minivan for days at a time with no escape.

Twenty-four hours into our adventure, all of those concerns fell by the wayside. In fact, we were so taken by campervan life that we decided to extend our trip so that we’d have the van ten extra days and drop it off when we flew out of Auckland. The best part of living out of a van was the freedom it gave us to explore new areas on our own terms and to follow the sun toward warm weather. Sure, it was tight quarters, but it had everything we needed and was quite comfortable for driving, sleeping, and cooking. Plus, there really was nothing more satisfying than the ability to pull off at a pretty spot on the side of the road and hop out for a picnic lunch or set up our table and chairs for an early evening happy hour (once we were finished driving, of course).

Here’s a run down of the stops along our South Island route, including our favorite campsites and things to do:

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  •  Akaroa – Our first stop, and such a wonderful one! This town on Banks Peninsula is just two hours east of Christchurch and features a stunning blue lake surrounded by rolling hills. We stayed at Onuku Farm Hostel and Campsite, and it was absolutely amazing. It had gorgeous views of the lake, several great hikes, clean facilities, friendly staff, and furry sheep all around. We stayed for two nights, and during the first I woke up just after midnight and looked out the window to see the brightest, most vivid star-filled sky I’d ever witnessed. I immediately woke Jeff up and we hopped out of the van to take it in. Definitely a moment we’ll remember forever.

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  • Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki – Turquoise water and purple lupines in front of a snowcapped mountain backdrop. Beauty in every direction. We stopped in Tekapo for a walk along the lake, a picnic on the shore, and a peek at the famed, eighty year old Church of the Good Shepard. And then we drove to Lake Pukaki where we pulled up right in front of the lake and camped for the night (for free!). This was our favorite campsite by far, despite its lack of clean bathrooms, cooking facilities, showers, and internet. It looked like a campervan commercial.

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  •  Cardrona & Arrowtown – Just an hour southwest of Lake Pukaki, situated halfway between the more well-known Wanaka and Queenstown, is the tiny, adorable ski village of Cardrona. We stopped here to spend the night at the Cardrona Hotel because we needed reliable internet, and it was the best hotel we’ve stayed at on our trip. Establish in 1863, the hotel is one of two remaining buildings from the gold rush era of the Cardrona Valley. From the facade that’s trapped in time to the old post office next door to the backyard oasis of fireplaces and picnic tables, this place is filled with history and charm. Just a little further down the road is Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town, in the valley on the bank of the Arrow River. We picked up meat pies at a market just outside of town and had a picnic in the park before walking around the adorable downtown filled with cafes and shops. It reminded us of the Colorado mountain towns we love visiting.

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  • Queenstown – We spent three nights total at a Queenstown campsite that provided great views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Unfortunately it was ridden with sandflies which put a damper on the otherwise lovely accommodations. However, we had ample time to explore the town and found it to be really nice. Our favorite parts were taking a long walk around the lake, eating a delicious burger and fries at the famous Ferg Burger, and taking the gondola up the mountain and hiking back down to take in the views.

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  • Milford Sound – Certainly a gem of the South Island, and a site that people dream about visiting in New Zealand. We were incredibly lucky to visit on a day with ideal weather – blue skies, calm waters, and warm-ish winds. The fjords really are spectacular, the waterfalls are intense, and the marine life on the shores is plentiful. We took a smaller cruise through the sound first thing in the morning, and it was a perfect way to experience this magnificent place. Afterward we ate lunch on the shore and went on a nearby hike to another beautiful lake hidden up on a mountain.

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  • Wanaka – After a few days at campsites near Milford Sound that were remote and pretty but filled with sandflies, we were ready for a change. We spent three nights at Kiwi Holiday Park in Wanaka, which was more commercial than we’d like, but had clean bathrooms, nice cooking facilities, unlimited wifi, and was wonderfully located. In between bouts of major relaxation, laundry, cleaning, catching up on blogging and phone calls, we walked into town, took in a view of the famous Wanaka tree, enjoyed a cup of coffee at Urban Grind, and tasted wine (and took in an incredible view) at Rippon Winery.
  •  Punakaiki Pankcake Rocks & Blowhole – A quick stop along an otherwise rainy trip up the west coast heading north. We got a mini lesson in geology while we walked around these limestone pancake-shaped rock formations, blowholes, and surge pools.

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  • Abel Tasman – Situated on the north of the South Island, Abel Tasman National Park is one of the best areas for single and multi-day treks in all of New Zealand. Jeff had been itching to do some good hiking, so we jumped on the opportunity to do it in this renowned spot. This park is only accessible by foot or water taxi, so we took a boat to Anchorage Beach and hiked back to town. The sun came out midway through our hike, and we had lunch on one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. A solid day indeed.

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  • Motueka – We drove to this town after our day of hiking in Abel Tasman and found a lovely little campsite, Vineyard Tourist Site, where we spent the afternoon relaxing. We backed up to a pretty vineyard and right next to a chicken coop and enjoyed a cold beer and veggie quesadillas while the sun went down.

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  •  Mapua – We stopped in this little town on our way from Motueka to Richmond and walked around the wharf area, where we found some shops filled with great design and some equally impressive food and drinks. We shared an order of fish and chips from Smokehouse, which was a highlight of our trip, and tried a local beer at Golden Bear Brewing Company.
  • Richmond – After looking at the weather forecast and seeing sunshine predicted for Nelson, we drove straight there and spent two nights in the nearby suburb of Richmond. We found it to be a nice area with friendly people and lovely scenery, and we spent a day exploring the area by bike. Our favorite spot was Tahunanui Beach where we had lunch next to the shore.
  •  Picton – It rained for the entirety of the time we were in Picton, but it was an inevitable stop since it’s the only place to catch the ferry to the North Island. After checking out campsites, we popped into a coffee shop for the afternoon where we started planning our South American itinerary. We were up early the next morning to take the ferry to Wellington to begin our tour of the North Island.
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