new zealand - south island splendor - detailed itinerary

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Day 1 - 4 Queenstown
Start your trip in Queenstown, everyone’s favorite playground. If Auckland was your New Zealand gateway city, you’ll be able to connect easily from there.

Queenstown is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Spectacularly scenic, laid back, and providing easy access to more activities than you can imagine, Queenstown is terrific. Here, you can spend your days bungy jumping, white-water rafting, jetboating, river surfing, skydiving, or hot air ballooning.

But don’t get the idea that you have to be an adrenaline junkie to enjoy Queenstown. With some of the most sophisticated restaurants and lodging in the country, great shopping, and lots of low-key attractions, even the sedentary will love it here.

If time permits, plan to spend at least four nights. Otherwise, you’ll likely feel you had to leave before you were ready.

You can schedule your time based on your interests and in most cases, you can make arrangements just a few hours before. In Queenstown, you can’t spit without hitting a shop that sells sightseeing packages.

You’ll be overwhelmed with choices, but there are several things no visitor to Queenstown should miss.

The first is a trip to Milford Sound, the most spectacular of New Zealand’s glacially-carved fiords. For this trip, you will need to make arrangements in advance. And you’ll need to choose your options wisely.

There a several different ways to go. But if you can afford it, fly. Heck, even if you can’t afford it, fly anyway. After all, chances are you’ll only be here once. And if you go by "coach" it’s a 12-hour day, ten hours of which will be spent on a bus.

You can take the coach one way and fly back, but bear in mind that part of the reason Milford Sound is so beautiful is that the weather is so poor. On average, it rains there close to 200 days a year. So there’s a very good chance, your return flight will be canceled and you’ll be back on the bus, Gus.

Once you get there, the best way to experience the Sound is from the water. Magnificent peaks rise 4,000 feet from the water, and waterfalls spill from dense rainforests. It is indisputably one of the most beautiful places in the world. But you won’t experience it alone.

If you’re not careful, you’ll end up crammed on a boat like a sardine, serving as a human tripod for an ardent photographer.

To avoid this, make reservations on one of the small ships cruising the Sound, such as the M/V Friendship operated by Real Journeys.

Another option for exploring Milford Sound is to reserve an overnight cruise. These depart in the late afternoon, so you can fly in, drive yourself from Queenstown or take the coach. No matter how you get there, an overnight cruise will provide a more personal, leisurely experience at Milford than you’re likely to get otherwise.

Whatever you do, just don’t try to drive to Milford and back the same day. It can be done from Te Anau – it’s a three-hour drive from there – but it’s a very long day and chances are, you’ll be stuck behind a tour bus for the whole drive.

Another must-do in Queenstown is a jet boat safari up the Dart River into Mount Aspiring National Park. Jet boats operate on the Shotover River too, but the Dart River trip combines thrills, spills, and unbelievable scenery.

The trip leaves from Glenorchy, 45 minutes from Queenstown at the head of Lake Wakatipu. There’s not really any place to eat in Glenorchy, so stock up before you leave Queenstown. You can drive yourself or have your transfers included.

If you’ve never been on a jet boat, they are a kind of cross between a speed boat and an amusement park ride. They can travel at outrageous speeds in as little as six inches of water. Wear warm clothes, even if it’s a warm day. And plan on getting wet – even if you don one of the "waterproof" tarps included in the price.

There are several departures each day and a couple of trips to choose from. Walkers can opt for a package that includes a guided walk through the National Park before returning by jet boat. Allow about six hours for either trip.

This is one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had – anywhere.

A little tamer, but also quite enjoyable, is a cruise on Lake Wakatipu aboard the 1912 vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw. The scenery’s gorgeous. The ship is very comfortable, and you’ll get many great photos.

The third largest in New Zealand, Lake Wakatipu is an astonishing 1,240-ft deep.

There are several cruises available and many combine a visit to Walter Peak sheep station, which dates from the 1860s. While this was no great shakes, we enjoyed watching the sheep dog work and seeing sheep being sheared. But the cruise was the highlight here. It’s particularly nice at sunset.

Also stunning at sunset is the Skyline Gondola ride up Bob’s Peak. Take plenty of film because the view of the Remarkables is, well, remarkable. The hardy can reach the 1,425-ft. summit via the One Mile Creek Trail. There’s a restaurant at the top and a luge ride.

If you’re interested in wine, there are a couple of tasting tours available. Or you can explore on your own. The award-winning Gibbston Valley winery is a terrific place for lunch. It’s one mile past the Bungy Bridge on State Highway 6, so it can easily be combined with a morning sightseeing/shopping excursion to Arrowtown.

You can tour the wine cave and enjoy a tasting. Pinot Noir is their strong suit. But they also produce Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.

There are several beautiful golf courses in the area. Visitors can tee off at Queenstown Golf Club, Arrowtown, or Millbrook, where President Clinton played.

Adventure lovers can find all sorts of trouble to get into in Queenstown. Two of the most popular activities are jet boating or rafting the canyons of the Shotover River.

Be sure to save time for shopping – it’s great in Queenstown. But for woolens, the best buys are in Arrowtown, 25 minutes away. If you’re there at lunchtime and don’t plan to go to Gibbston Valley winery, have lunch at Saffron on Arrowtown’s main drag.

The Queenstown dining scene is outstanding. Right on Steamer Wharf next to the TSS Earnslaw, The 19th (named for the most appealing golf hole) has a wonderful terrace and a great menu. We loved the Thai Beef Salad and the Smoked Chicken Salad with spicy peanut sauce.

Also on the Steamer Wharf, Boardwalk Seafood has incredible views from its second-story location. And Fraser’s Bar & Grill below has great food. The Thai Green Curry here is a knockout.

Fishbone Bar & Grill on Beach Street is fun, laid-back and affordable. And the Glasshouse on Marine Parade is the place for a fancy, dress-up dinner.


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Day 5 Mt. Cook
The drive from Queenstown to Aoraki (Mount Cook) is very pleasant and takes about three-and-a-half hours. The last hour or so is particularly scenic as you pass shimmering, aqua Lake Pukaki.

Pray for good weather here, as your enjoyment of this UNESCO World Heritage Area is wholly dependent on it. On a fine day, this is one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The majestic mountains, glaciers, and meadows here rival the Swiss Alps. In fact, the park contains more than 20 peaks over 10,000 feet.

To make the most of it, reserve a room with a view at the Hermitage. The balcony and view are the only reason to stay here, and will help you overlook any other shortcomings.

If you arrive early enough in the day, take a stroll to get your bearings. Mt Cook Village, such as it is, is easily explored on foot. There’s a pub that doubles as a liquor store, a small grocery, and a gas station.

If you plan on hiking in the park, go to the Visitor’s Centre and pick up the Walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park brochure. It includes a map that shows all the major routes.

The staff at the Visitor’s Centre can let you know which tracks are navigable. Weather is always a factor, so make sure you know your path will be in good shape before heading out.

To get a little exercise before dinner, do the Governors Bush Walk. It leaves from the Public Shelter, takes you past a silver beech forest and leads to a beautiful view point. You can complete the walk in about an hour and there’s very little elevation gain.

Your dinner options will depend on the time of year you visit. During New Zealand’s summer – December, January, and February – you can add the Chamois Bar to your choices, in winter it is only open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Off-season, your choices are restricted to the Hermitage. For fine dining, make reservations at the Panorama. The views are incredible, service is professional, and the food is fine, although not as impressive as the bill would suggest.

The Alpine Room – the Hermitage’s other dining room – serves three meals a day buffet style. It’s packed at lunch with tour bus business. But as buffets go, it is better than most.

After dinner, take another stroll and check out the Southern Cross.

When you travel, there’s nothing as luxurious as clean clothes, and the Hermitage has a self-service laundry. So if you’re just hanging out in your room, you might want to run a load.

Day 6 Mt. Cook
If the buffet in the Alpine Room doesn’t appeal, or you don’t make it down there before 9:30AM, you can pick up something in the coffee shop. We had a great ham, cheese, and tomato pannini.

Hopefully, you got a beautiful day in which to explore Mt. Cook National Park.

Hikers have their choice of walks. We especially liked the Hooker Valley Track. Following the Hooker River, the trail provides breathtaking views of Mt. Cook as it crosses the Hooker Valley en route to Hooker Lake. It’s suitable for hikers of all abilities, although those with a fear of heights may not enjoy crossing the swinging bridges over the river.

The roundtrip to the lake and back takes about four hours. But if you don’t want to invest that much time, the walk to the second bridge and back takes two hours.

If you’d like some expert commentary, Alpine Guides Trekking conducts guided day walks that include a picnic lunch.

The Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View track starts at the Blue Lakes shelter and leads to a magnificent viewpoint where you can see icebergs floating in the glacier terminal lake. The walk takes about an hour. For a really up-close and personal view, you can take a Glacier Explorers boat trip on the lake.

Mountain bikers can rent bikes at the Hermitage Hotel and the Visitor’s Centre has information about the best rides in the area.

To go deeper into the park, consider Allan’s 4WD Safari. Allan, known locally as "Tasman Dundee," is quite a character and he knows the area like the back of his hand.

Skiers – affluent skiers – can have the experience of a lifetime skiing down the face of the Tasman, the longest temperate zoned glacier in the world. You can reach the Tasman by ski plane or helicopter from Mt. Cook. You’ll be dropped on the glacier at about 10,000 feet and you and your guide will ski down eight miles of powder – twice.

Those who don’t want to ski can still experience the glacier first-hand. A variety of helicopter and ski plane flightseeing packages are available. Most include a snow landing on the glacier.

Don’t despair if the weather’s bad. If it clears up, you can take a scenic flight over the whole area tomorrow from Lake Tekapo.

If you’re too tired to move after a full day of hiking, skiing, or biking, order room service and watch a movie.


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Day 7 Christchurch
Lake Tekapo is a little more than an hour and a half from Mt. Cook Village. The drive, winding past the turquoise waters is beautiful.

If yesterday’s weather prevented you from taking a flightseeing excursion, Air Safaris in Lake Tekapo offers flights all the way to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. And if time permits, visit the Church of the Good Shepherd for the best views around.

Your best lunch stop en route to Christchurch is Geraldine, about an hour from Lake Tekapu. It’s a cute, little town, though there’s not much "there" there.

You can stroll Talbot Street and find a restaurant or pub that strikes your fancy. We tried Plum’s Café and felt we’d made a good choice.

Another alternative is to stock up on picnic supplies and visit one of Geraldine’s lovely parks. The Talbot Forest is a Scenic Reserve with many shady walks, and there are some nice spots along the banks of the Waihi River.

From Geraldine, it’s about two hours to Christchurch, although it seems to take forever from the time you enter Christchurch until you actually get to Christchurch.

If you’ve heard Christchurch described as "the most English city outside England," and seen photos of Gothic architecture, your first impression of Christchurch may be a little disappointing. But it’s not all strip malls and car dealerships, although you’ll see plenty before getting to town.

The city is divided by the River Avon. On the right bank, Christchurch Cathedral and its square is a good place to start your explorations. For great views of the surrounding Canterbury countryside and a speedy orientation, climb the 133 steps to the top of the tower.

The Cathedral Boys’ Choir sings Evensong Friday afternoons at 4:30PM. On Tuesday and Wednesdays, the Cathedral Choir sings at 5:15PM.

There are several other interesting buildings on Cathedral Square, including the Press Building from 1909, the Regent Theater from 1905, and the Central Post Office from 1879.

The Speaker’s Corner provides an outlet for anyone with an opinion. The best known of these is the "Wizard" who pontificates on a variety of topics, usually starting around 1PM.

Walk east along Gloucester Street to New Regent Street. Built in the early 1930s in the Spanish style, the area is now a designated historic district and home to many of Christchurch’s most stylish bistros and shops. If you see a restaurant you’d like to try, make dinner reservations for later. One of the most popular is Six Chairs Missing.

From New Regent Street, it’s a short stroll toward the river to Oxford Terrace, Christchurch’s "restaurant row." If you can’t find a dinner destination here, you’re just not trying. Viaduct turns out great Italian seafood and pizzas from their wood-burning oven. Boulevard has Mediterranean-influenced cuisine. Azure makes the most of fresh ingredients. And Coyote is good for Southwestern.

To see one of Chirstchurch’s oldest buildings, continue down Oxford Terrace to Durham Street and St. Michael and All Saints Anglican Church. Built in 1872, the white timber church is infrequently open, but the exterior is worth a look.

If it’s a pleasant afternoon, head for the Antigua Boat Sheds on the other side of the river. The sheds were built in 1882 and are the last remaining ones along the Avon. You can hire a punter – complete with striped jacket and straw boater – to pole you down the river, or rent a canoe and paddle yourself.

The trip through the botanical gardens is very pleasant and it’s a nice way to experience the charm of Christchurch while giving your feet a break.

With more restaurants per capita than any city in New Zealand, Christchurch’s dining scene is first-rate. Enjoy your dinner and cap off the evening with a stroll along the river.

Day 8 Christchurch
If you’re wondering where the atmospheric Gothic village you’ve seen in the postcards is hiding, it’s on the west bank of the river. After breakfast at your hotel, head for the Arts Centre of Christchurch. And if breakfast at your hotel isn’t included, have it at the Antigua Boat Sheds.

Canterbury College was founded in 1872. The first building was erected in 1877 and classes were held in these glorious, old Gothic structures for the next 100 years.

The complex now houses the Arts Centre of Christchurch, the city’s most popular attraction. Housing galleries, theaters, cafes, and the studios of more than 40 artists and craftspeople, the Centre is a great place to shop for gifts, to watch traditional artisans, and to enjoy the city’s British heritage and ambience.

The area is especially appealing on weekends when there’s a market on the square.

The Court Theater, the country’s best, is based here. If you’re interested in an evening’s entertainment, stop by their box office. Unsold tickets are sold at a reduced rate on the day of the show.

When your feet give out, there are several great places for lunch. We like Annie’s Wine Bar which is appealing inside and out.

Dux de Lux, which is one of the hottest spots in town on weekends, is a microbrewery serving great beer and bar food on their courtyard or in the beautiful Tudor stone hall.

After lunch, spend the afternoon based on your interests.

Gardens lovers should explore 450-acre Hagley Park, home of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. The gardens provide an opportunity to see hundreds of kinds of plants and trees found only in New Zealand. In addition to the stately trees planted in the 19th century, there are several hot houses with exotic species.

Inside the Botanic Garden, the Canterbury Museum is mandatory for those interested in natural history. The museum has more than 2 million objects documenting the history of the area. Of particular interest here are the Hall of Antarctic Discovery, and exhibits dedicated to the birds of New Zealand and Maori culture. There’s also a recreation of Victorian-era Chirstchurch.

Nearby on the corner of Worcester and Montreal, the Christchurch Art Gallery, recently opened in 2003, has a huge collection of art from New Zealand and Europe.

Mona Vale is one of Christchurch’s loveliest turn-of-the-century estates. You can tour the superb English-style gardens or go punting down the Avon. The café serves lunch and afternoon tea.

Those who are interested in Antarctic exploration will enjoy the International Antarctic Center. Its interactive exhibits and multi-media presentations vividly capture the experience of living on the white continent. This is one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand.

For a special dinner this evening, try Canterbury Tales in the Parkroyal Hotel, Pescatore in The George, or Le Bon Bolli.

Or, for something completely different, do the Night of Maori Magic at the Nga Hau E Wha National Marae (Marae of the Four Winds). This marae, or Maori tribal meeting place, is the largest in New Zealand. You’ll learn about Maori culture, have a traditional meal cooked in the hangi or earth oven, and enjoy traditional Maori songs and dances after dinner. It’s a great way to experience an ancient culture with a rich, oral tradition.

If your heart’s set on seeing a kiwi – the flightless bird, not the local talent – consider an evening visit to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. If you take one of their nocturnal tours, you’re guaranteed to see one.


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Day 9 Blenheim
Get an early start this morning for the two-and-one-half hour drive to Kaikoura.

The waters off Kaikoura provide a unique habitat that is unrivalled for observing marine mammals. It’s one of the few places in the world where Sperm Whales can be seen year ‘round. And dolphins, penguins, fur seals, and other types of whales are common too.

Nature lovers have a couple of opportunities to experience once-in-a-lifetime adventures here. You can cruise the waters off shore in search of Sperm Whales and other marine mammals. Chances of success are so great, that the tour operator will refund up to 80% of your cruise fare if you don’t spot one.

Another thrilling way to view these enormous creatures is from the air. Thirty-minute flights operate frequently and virtually assure whale sightings.

Those interested in an up-close and personal exploration can swim among a pod of as many as 800 wild, dusky dolphins.

After your Kaikoura excursion, continue on to Blenheim, the home of many of New Zealand’s finest wineries. Oenophiles may even want to stay at one of the vineyards that offer accommodations.

With so many outstanding wineries nearby, Blenheim has more than its fair share of good restaurants. For dinner, try D’Urville Wine Bar & Brasserie, Bellafrico Caffe and Wine Bar, or Rocco’s.

Day 10 Blenheim
A red letter day for wine lovers.

Marlborough, New Zealand’s sunniest state, is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most exciting wine regions. The Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, and sparkling wines produced here are consistently winning international competitions – and new fans.

You can create your own itinerary and tour the vineyards on your own. Just stop by the Blenheim Visitors Center for a map. If you want to burn off some of the calories, you can tour the wineries on a bicycle – on your own, or with a group. Or you can relax, take a tour, and leave the driving to someone else.

Perhaps the best known winery in the area, Cloudy Bay produces one of the most sought after Sauvignon Blancs in the world. It’s sparkling wine, Pelorus, is also a knock out.

Across the road, Allan Scott Wines and Estates produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling. There’s an attractive restaurant where you can dine inside or out.

Down Jackson’s Road, Corbans Marlborough Winery is best known for its Stoneleigh label. Their Sauvignon Blanc is exported to 18 countries around the world.

On Rapaura Road, Hunter’s Wines is well known for their Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, as well as their popular restaurant. The proprietress, Jane Hunter, is one of the five best women winemakers in the world.

Gillan Estate specializes in methode Champenoise, and their winery is one of the most attractive in the area. Cellier Le Brun is also noted for their sparkling wines.

The largest winery in the region, and indeed the country, is Montana Wines. Their new Brancott Winery is a multi-million dollar facility with an ambitious restaurant.

If you’re not a wine lover, there are still lots of things to do around Blenheim. Those who enjoy the water should drive the short distance to Picton for a cruise on Queen Charlotte Sound. There are dozens of cruise options through this spectacularly beautiful area.

Hikers can combine a cruise with a walk along the Queen Charlotte Sound Walkway.

Those who spent the day in the wineries can take a twilight cruise on Queen Charlotte Sound. The panorama of mountain, sea, sky is unforgettable at sunset.

Those who spent the day on the water can have dinner at Hunter’s Wines.


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Day 11 Abel Tasman
Winding above Marlborough Sounds, the Queen Charlotte Drive is one of the most beautiful in New Zealand. You’ll need to pay attention as the road snakes around the hills, but you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views.

It should take about two hours to reach Nelson, a sunny, laid-back artists colony. You can have lunch in town and explore the galleries along the city’s historic South Street, where there are 16 cottages dating from the 1860s.

If you’re lucky enough to be there on a Saturday, visit the open-air market on Montgomery Square.

Or if yesterday only served to whet your wine appetite, you can have a vineyard tasting and lunch at Denton Winery, or Moutere Hills Vineyard.

The drive to Motueka, your base for exploring Abel Tasman National Park takes a little over an hour. When you get to town, scope out the restaurant scene for dinner options. And stop by the Visitor’s Information Centre on Wallace Street for details on all the area’s attractions.

Everyone who visits Abel Tasman should get out on the water in a sea-kayak. If you’re not planning a full- or half-day trip tomorrow, take a Twilight Trip at sunset.

If dinner isn’t included at your lodge, the Gothic Gourmet Café is probably your best bet. The Seafarers Restaurant at Kaiteriteri Beach is another dependable choice.

Turn in early today so you can hit it hard in the morning.

Day 12 Abel Tasman
Abel Tasman National Park is an absolute paradise for sea-kayakers, hikers, and fly-fishermen.

The best way to enjoy it is by sea-kayak. There are a variety of full-day excursions available. Some combine sea-kayaking and walking along the coast to waterfalls and pools. And many visit the seal colony. Chances are lunch is included as part of the package.

Those who prefer not to paddle can cruise the area via launch, stopping off at any of the beautiful beaches en route. The water taxi from Marahau Beach cruises all the way to Totaranui.

Lovers of marine life can don a wet suit and swim with the seals off Tonga Island. Half-day trips are available through Abel Tasman Seal Swim.

If you just want to hit the beach, Kaiteriteri is nine miles from Motueka, and it’s a beauty – great for swimming or sun bathing on golden sands.

There are a number of great short walks in the National Park leaving from the road end at Marahau. In fact, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, which takes three days to complete, has become one of the most popular in the world. You can pick up the trail and go as far as you like. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the sparkling Tasman Sea and its islands.

The Motueka River is recognized for its wild brown trout. If you’d like to do a little fly-fishing, check with the Visitor’s Information Centre for local guides.

However you choose to enjoy the park, consider yourself privileged to have experienced nature at its best.


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Day 13 West Coast
The drive to Westport on New Zealand’s West Coast takes about two-and-a-half hours. But if you’re interested in some serious fly-fishing, make a bee-line to Lake Brunner.

When it’s lunch time, the best restaurant on the West Coast is the Bay House Café in Tauranga Bay, south of Westport. Winner of the Best Café Award for the West Coast, the Bay House occupies a beach house built in the 1920s. Views are terrific and the Pacific Rim-influenced cuisine is outstanding.

There’s also a large fur seal colony at Tauranga Bay. A walkway takes you along the cliffs from the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind to the seal colony. The roundtrip takes about two hours. If you have less time, you can park at Tauranga Bay and walk about half a mile down to the bay.

Continue along Route 6 – the Coast Road – for one of the most spectacular seaside drives in the country. About 30 miles north of Greymouth, you’ll come to the Punakaiki-Paparoa National Park Visitor’s Centre. Park your car here and go inside for information on walks in the park.

One of the highlights of Paparoa National Park is the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. The path to the rocks begins across the street from the Visitors Center and takes you along the beach . On clear days, you can see Mt. Cook in the distance. And keep your eyes peeled for the Hectors dolphins that often swim near the rocks.

The pounding surf of the Tasman Sea has sculpted the layers of limestone here so they resemble a huge stack of pancakes. Tremendous bursts of sea spray shoot through the blow holes where the water has eaten through the rock, and there’s a surge pool called the Devil’s Cauldron that captures the run off.

There are a number of other great walks in the area. About two miles north of Punakaiki, the Truman Track takes you through dense forest to a pebble beach with huge caverns. You’ll be able to see fossilized sealife in the face of the sandstone cliff.

There’s not much to see and do in Greymouth, unless you’re interested in the gold mining history of this once-hopping town. If so, visit Shantytown, a recreation of the town as it was in the 1880s.

Hokitika, 25 miles south of Greymouth, has the best accommodations and restaurants in the area. For dinner, try Café de Paris or reserve in advance to have dinner at your lodge.

Day 14 Christchurch
Sleep in, stroll the beach, or go into town to shop for jade before lunch.

This afternoon, you’ll board the Tranz Alpine Express in Greymouth for one of the world’s great rail journeys. You’ll travel from one side of the country to the other in a little over four hours.

En route to Arthur’s Pass, you’ll pass dense forests and beautiful lakes before entering the Southern Alps. The scenery is breathtaking as you cross viaducts and travel through tunnels.

The mountains give way to the rolling farmlands of the Canterbury Plains as you travel toward Christchurch.

Make your last dinner in the South Island a special one. If you haven’t dined at Canterbury Tales in the Parkroyal Hotel, Pescatore in The George, or Le Bon Bolli, choose one and enjoy remembering all the fantastic things you’ve done and seen in the last two weeks.

Day 15
Connect to your flights homeward.

Image of West Coast courtesy of Virtual New Zealand.