No true road trip is complete without exploring the road less traveled. Throughout our two week road trip through New Zealand’s incredible South Island, we followed our planned route, but also took detours that led to hidden gems. These sights marveled us, and became more memorable than many of the activities we had planned. There’s nothing like spontaneity and curiosity leading you off the beaten path. Below you’ll find our favorite surprise experiences we encountered during our campervan road trip!
Alpine Lavender Field
aking our way north to Mount Cook we were searching for lupins, but to our surprise, lavender was also in bloom! Our eyes could not believe the vivid violet field as we drove past the NZ Alpine Lavender company. We returned the next day ready in our summer hats to frolic through the fields. In addition to the aromatic plants, there is a large tractor, haystacks, sitting swing, and chairs to make use of. By the end of our time, we were giddy with our photos in this picturesque scenery – definitely worth the $5 admission fee!
Secluded bay at Abel Tasman National Park
Known for its turquoise-blue waters and golden beaches, we were excited to explore New Zealand’s smallest national park. The best kept secret is how secluded each of the coves are along the Abel Tasman Coast track. This 37 mile (60km) track connects Marahau in the south to Wainui in the north, with many side tracks in between. After our short water taxi ride to Anchorage Bay, we decided to veer off the main coastal track to check out the Pitt Head loop. While the loop ends in a vista view, we were captivated by the serene Te Pukatea Bay. As we entered, we noticed that we had the entire bay to ourselves! This was our first taste at the park’s natural beauty, and we cherished it during our full day of trekking!
Friendly alpacas outside Te Anau
No trip to New Zealand is complete without spotting its host of furry animals. While we saw many sheep, we still had not seen any alpacas after more than a week of driving. To our surprise, they appeared when we least expected them! A small ranch is situated adjacent to the McKeown gas station in Te Anau. While refueling our van, the friendly, fresh-shaved alpacas bounced over to the ranch’s fence. From their shorn bodies, slight size, and facial expressions, we couldn’t get enough of this silly bunch.
Sashimi at Lake Pukaki
Driving along Lake Pukaki, we were amazed by the aquamarine lake water. We made a pit stop at the visitor center to check out the views and were surprised to find fresh salmon for sale! The information center shares its location with the Mount Cook Alpine Salmon company. The glacial currents from the Southern Alps in this region provide an ideal environment for sustainable salmon farming. The fresh water allows the fish to stay naturally healthy, which made them purely delicious! We arrived at the visitor center just before closing, and scored two large helpings of salmon sashimi for the price of one. The combination of the Lake Pukaki views and organic fish made this pitstop an absolute treat.
Crown range summit camping
After a full day in Queenstown, we continued our adventure driving along Crown Range Road in hopes of finding a glorious camping spot before heading to Wanaka. What we did not know, was that this was the highest highway in New Zealand, reaching an altitude of 3700 feet (1120 meters). We sweated, laughed, and held on tight as our campervan made its ascent with Joe’s foot heavy on the gas!
We arrived just before sunset and grabbed one of the last spots overlooking the valley. The view was absolutely incredible and we looked out at the zigzagging road we just ascended with the Remarkables mountain range in the distance. This vista point was our favorite freedom camping spot we stayed at in our self-contained camper. For spots like this and other hidden gems, we recommend using the Rankers App.
Lake Marian Track
With only two days to spend in Fiordland National Park, we wanted to make sure that we chose the right hike to fully experience the park. This was the most anticipated destination on our South Island trip and it definitely lived up to the hype. The track starts with a swing bridge that leads to Marian Creek’s rushing rapids. After this, we made our way through the lush forested area and avalanche clearings to ascend to Lake Marian.
Once we exited the forest at the base of the valley, our jaws dropped at our first sighting of this alpine lake. It was breathtaking – the calm reflective waters of the elevated lake juxtaposed with the rugged Darren Mountains looked almost unreal. We dipped our toes into the glacial water and immersed ourselves with the pristine environment. This track is steep and rocky, so it’s less trafficked than the nearby Milford Sound. Hiking the Lake Marian track was our first taste of New Zealand’s Fiordlands, and we were in love!
Both lovers of wine, we couldn’t wait to sip on a glass in Marlborough, New Zealand’s largest and most renown wine region. We had one afternoon in the area and decided to drive to the southernmost coast of Marlborough to check out Yealands Estate on our way to Kaikoura. We chose this vineyard for its location, but did not understand the scale until we drove miles through the endless rolling hills of grape vines before even reaching the visitor center.
Once we arrived, we watched a short film about the establishment and enjoyed a complimentary wine tasting before heading out on our self-guided tour of the massive vineyard. It all felt like the wine version of Jurassic Park! Stretching over 2,500 acres, we drove to each of the points of interest which included visiting the farm of chickens, pigs and baby doll sheep, picnicking with views of the Cook Straight, and dancing to classical music blaring in the butterfly garden. This was unlike any vineyard we had been to before! Our favorite part was the scale, we felt like we could easily get lost skipping through the seemingly infinite vineyards.
Fish and chips in Nelson
While we mainly cooked our own meals, we decided to try the local fish and chips in Nelson at The Smokehouse Cafe on the Mapua Wharf. We were shocked when they handed us a heavy paper bundle for our order. Opening the package felt like a Christmas day present and we were shocked by the amount of food! We voraciously attacked the fried filets and even had some leftover fries for dinner. It was a savory treat, and didn’t break our budget to boot!
Blue Pools and waterfalls in Haast Pass
Driving through Haast Pass to the West Coast of New Zealand showed off the range of biodiversity on the South Island. This mountain pass includes everything from rainforest to emerald pools, to a series of spectacular waterfalls. We were blown away by each of the sights that were generally within fifteen minutes of one another. The highlights were splashing in the waters of the Blue Pools and Fantail Falls.
Our first stop was the Blue pools. After crossing the swing bridge over the Makarora River, we sighted the translucent azure waters. Similar in color to Lake Pukaki, the distinct blue colors are created by refracting glacial water, which also makes them bone-chillingly cold! We did not have our bathing suits on, but nearby Fantail falls gave us another opportunity for a natural shower. The 75 foot (23 meters) waterfall allows you to walk right up to experience its thunderous outpour. It was the perfect afternoon wake up as we continued our road trip. Thunder Creek Falls and the Roaring Billy Falls are also great to check out, but don’t allow swimming.
Charlotte Sound campground
We had major luck finding scenic camping spots on our road trip, and none were more serene than sleeping adjacent to the Grove Arm of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Driving up to the small freedom camping site, we got the last of five spots situated across from the waterfront on Anakiwa Road next to Outbound NZ Adventure Sports. The ducks and cotton candy sky greeted us as we enjoyed one of our last meals on the South Island. Our favorite thing about this spot was waking up for an incredible beautiful sunrise over the sound.
Seals at Kaikoura
For our last excursion of the trip, we found discount tickets through Bookme to Seal Kayak in Kaikoura. While we were excited, we were not sure how this experience could top kayaking in Milford Sound. We quickly realized this trip was unique and memorable in its own way. The waters in Kaikoura were listerine blue and active with wildlife! The fur seals swam right up to our kayaks, and we even got to watch one devour an octopus for lunch! The pedal kayaks were also a nice change from the traditional type, and this allowed us to easily navigate our way through Kaikoura bay in under two hours.
As we reminisce on our two week campervan road trip, these hidden gems always come to mind. None were initially planned, but they became lasting memories. As we continue our travels, we remind ourselves that the path less traveled will often lead to greater adventure and happy surprises. All of these locations are mapped out below, and for full details, check out our full South Island Travel Route post!