If there is one palace that tops many a bucket list in the world, it might have to be New Zealand.
Specifically, New Zealand’s South Island.
Snow-capped mountains rub shoulders with icy glaciers that drop down into bright blue alpine lakes. Combined with every adventure sport imaginable, a growing wine culture and more beautiful landscapes than you could ever imagine, the South Island definitely packs a punch.
While exploring the South Island for two weeks with Haka Tours, everywhere I turned I continued to be surprised. And while the stunning vistas and unparalleled mountains took my breath away, I found the biggest surprises to be in the small things, the moments I hadn’t considered, and the things I hadn’t expected.
Here are the 10 things that surprised me the most on New Zealand’s South Island.
Kaikoura what? Is it just me or has anyone else not heard of this small town on New Zealand’s northeast coast?
Famous for its abundant marine life, Kaikoura is now a hot spot on the South Island for whale watching and swimming with wild seals or dolphins. That’s right, you can jump right off the boat and swim among pods of dolphins, how cool is that?
Kaikoura itself might be a tiny town, though it’s location is just incredible. A beautiful drive along the rugged coast from Picton and the ferry from the North Island, Kaikoura will knock your socks off before you even arrive. Not to mention the neon blue colored water of the ocean doesn’t fail to impress.
2. Christchurch doesn’t suck
When I announced I was heading to the South Island over the holidays, and I mentioned Christchurch as one of our stops with Haka Tours, everyone was quick to jump up and tell me it wasn’t worth visiting.
Ever since a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch a few years ago, killing almost 200 people and flattening a good part of the town, it now has a reputation of literally and figuratively being in ruins.
But for me, that wasn’t the case. While I found it incredibly sad that so many people had to abandon their homes around the city, leaving it with a moderately empty feeling, I realized that if you looked hard enough, you’d see that Christchurch is rebuilding and regrowing.
Many people are moving to Christchurch now because of the work opportunities in rebuilding and fixing up the city. There are a lot of creative art projects and new ideas floating around, encouraging people to come back and discover the beauty of Christchurch.
I was there for a day, and I can tell you now it wasn’t enough and I can’t wait to go back.
3. Greenstone or Pounamu
While I’ve been trying to learn as much about the Maori history in New Zealand as possible, one thing that slipped my mind was the importance of greenstone or pounamu. Found only in the South Island, pounamu is a durable type of jade of great significance to the Maori culture, carved into different pendants and tokens representative of different things.
In fact the Maori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu or the Land of the Greenstone Water, and if you visit, there are plenty of spots, especially on the wild west coast, such as Hokitika or on Franz Josef where you can carve your own greenstone.
Because of the importance of greenstone to New Zealand, this is a great opportunity to skip buying a souvenir in a shop and make one yourself.
4. The color of the lakes
There are blue lakes, and then there are New Zealand blue lakes which put all other lakes to shame.
Thanks to mineral deposits from ancient glaciers, some of the lakes take on a shade of blue that when it reflects the sunlight, looks fake.
From Lake Tekapo to Lake Hawea to Lake Pukaki, you will be astonished at the views and the beauty of the lakes
5. It’s basically Scotland
I’ve spent some times years and years ago visiting a friend in Edinburgh and exploring the Scottish Highlands, and absolutely loved it.
The further south you go on the South Island, the more it begins to look like an even more dramatic version of Scotland. Coincidentally, there was a decent chunk of Scots who came over to New Zealand with Captain Cook’s expedition, and who continued to come over to this day.
So don’t be surprised when you’re driving around Otago and Southland when Scottish names begin to pop up over and again, like with Dunedin, Invercargill or the Mackenzie Basin, named after the famous outlaw James McKenzie who stole a lot of sheep. Typical New Zealand.
And if you listen close enough, down south you’ll even hear wee Scottish burr and rolled “r”s if you listen closely enough.
6. Wanaka > Queenstown
As beautiful as Queenstown is and with as many fun things to do there, I quickly realized it was not my cup of tea. A resort holiday town through and through, Queenstown is a great place to visit, but to live, at least for me, it might be a different story.
To be honest it didn’t feel like I was in New Zealand while I was there, apart from the beautiful mountains and lake.
However, after leaving Queenstown we headed to Wanaka which I infinitely preferred. A gorgeous more rugged lake town, Wanaka is definitely more local and worth a visit on any trip to the South Island and a perfect place to go camping in New Zealand.
7. Flying a WWII plane
Another reason I loved Wanaka so much was that I got to fly in a vintage Tiger Moth plane over the stunning lakes and mountains with Classic Flights.
Complete with the classic leather bomber jacket, goggles and jumpsuit, I hoped in the open front seat and got to experience the skies the same way pilots did 70 years ago, even doing flips in the air.
A big WWII fan, while I’ve gotten to experience many of the sites in Europe living in Spain for a few years, I was surprised to find this opportunity literally on the other side of the world in New Zealand. However, New Zealand pilots were trained in these planes so it was exhilarating for me to get to experience that in my new country.
Near Haast and the glaciers, you can get to experience some real kiwi dining – the famous whitebait.
Small fish caught on the west coast of New Zealand, they can cost up to $140 per kilo because they can only be harvested 10 weeks of the year, but you can get it straight from the source and try the typical whitebait pattie for only $8.
While they look a bit iffy, trust me, it’s delicious.
9. Rainforest in Punakaiki
At this point, don’t be surprised. New Zealand pretty much has every landscape imaginable, including rainforests next to glaciers.
They say that the west coast of the South Island is the only place left that looks like New Zealand as it used to be. Overgrown with jungles and forests, every time I hike around there it feels like I’ve stepped back in time to Jurassic Park.
Punakaiki on the west coast might have surprised me the most. After experiencing all the rugged mountains and deep lakes of the Southern Alps, I was looking forward to being near a wild coast and getting lost in a rainforest.
10. The stars
If there is one thing that will surprise me over and over and over again in New Zealand, it’s the stars. How can the stars be so clear and bright here?
On a normal night you can see the stars like nowhere else in the world, shining brighter and clearer than anywhere I’ve experienced. New Zealand even has the world’s biggest star reserve on the South Island near Lake Tekapo where you can observe the heavens without light pollution.
Our last night of the Haka Tour, we got to sleep on a boat in the Abel Tasman National Park. Heading up onto the deck, I got to see the stars twinkling and shining as I’ve never experienced. It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip. What would have made it even better would be some of the best foods in New Zealand… but it was still awesome.
Have you ever been to New Zealand? Is it on your bucketlist? What has surprised you about a destination before?