After a wedding in Melbourne in December, I continued my stay in the stunning sunshine of the Southern Hemisphere. Three weeks of summer during winter in the U.S. was a pretty perfect way to start off the new year!
My original reason to travel that distance was for a good friend’s wedding. Stacey and I met when we were 18-years-old working at an overnight camp for the summer. We bonded over our different accents, words like “jandles” instead of “flip flops,” and our mutual love of travel and finding the fun in whatever we were doing. Stacey and I have stayed in touch through these years and have visited each other all over the world including London, Boston, Auckland, New Zealand and Venice, Italy. Although this was my third time in Australia, it was the first time I was visiting Stacey there.
Stacey and her family are all from the North Island of New Zealand. I spent a week with Stacey and her family after the wedding. As soon as they learned that I had only been to the North Island (visiting Stacey there years ago), and not the South, they were emphatic that I had to experience it! Originally, my intention was to go to Tasmania. I’ve traveled through much of Australia, between living there and then going back to travel with my then boyfriend. Tasmania and Perth are the only areas of Australia I’ve never visited. Since I was traveling solo for this part of the trip, I was having a challenging time finding any accommodations that weren’t outrageously priced (also it was high season since it was summer and I was planning last minute- not my best move in this case).
Inevitably, I ended up deciding to go to the South Island of New Zealand to explore their “must-sees” and have a new adventure.
How Did I Get There?
I flew from Melbourne, Australia to Queenstown, New Zealand. It was a short three-hour flight on Virgin Australia. I confirmed that they weren’t serving bags of nuts before my flight. The flight was turbulent, but short. Pro Tip: The views flying in to Queenstown are unreal. Make sure to choose a window seat!
I decided I would travel around the area via tours and public transportation, however I did contemplate renting a car. Between the expense and the amount of stress it would take to drive on the wrong side of the road while also navigating alone, seemed like a lot to ask of myself on vacation. I had tried driving in Australia and felt pretty comfortable with it (although honestly, turns are pretty weird… I definitely had to think about which lane I was turning in at first). If I was traveling with a friend, I would have insisted on renting a car or a camper van, which is quite a popular way to travel there.
If you are not renting a car, make sure to buy a GoCard from the tourism booth. It is the city bus and it goes right into the city center and to various other places, including some of the touristy spots like Arrowtown. It’s $10 NZ and gives you five rides. If you buy a pass on the bus, I think it cost $5 for one ride (or something like that). I ended up using four out of five swipes, so it was definitely a money saver for me. The bus went right next to my accommodation, so that made it worthwhile. I took Uber once while there and it was expensive. I think taking a taxi is actually cheaper.
- The Info: GoCard
- Found at tourism kiosk in airport www.orc.govt.nz/GoCards
- If you are renting a car, all of the rental agencies are located at the airport and it appeared to be a simple process
Where Did I Stay?
Since it was the high season and I was planning this very last-minute, I went with the best options I could find. If you are planning to go during their summer, make sure to plan ahead. I ended up spending more than I wanted to for a pretty mediocre stay. The best part of where I stayed was the location. Since any activity you will do involves leaving from the city center of Queenstown, it is important to be close. It was less than five minutes to walk into town which made it really easy. I felt completely safe there alone and it was clean and decently maintained. However, I was charged an extra night I did not stay. When I contacted them, I did not hear back. They originally told me that I could stay for four nights (even though they typically have a five-night minimum) but then did not change the charges. Just be aware!
- The Info: Wakatipu View Apartments
- 14 Franklin Road, Queenstown, NZ
- Reserved this on www.Booking.com
What Did I Eat?
I actually did not dine out in Queenstown at all. I went to the grocery store for fresh food and got a coffee out, but that was it. It is expensive, tons of lines, and lots of fast food. I had no great desire to eat out knowing it would likely be mediocre at best. It felt like wasted time and money. I considered eating out only to be able to share some allergy-friendly options, however the expense of doing that for average food didn’t seem worthwhile.
There is a burger place that is renowned in Queenstown called Fergburger. This place is so popular that it literally has a long line formed throughout the entire day. I attempted going there every day I was in Queenstown, but whether morning or night, there was always a long line. With multiple food allergies, I knew it would be difficult to get the answers I needed. I did google and scour their website. From what I could tell, they can accommodate gluten (although I am not sure to what extent) and I couldn’t find anything about life-threatening food allergies. They have a bakery next door with pastries, etc. and I am guessing that is where the burger buns come from. It was a sign to me that in all likelihood, they would tell me there was a high risk of cross contact. I am still curious though and it probably would have been worth an e-mail. Next trip!
I did scope out the grocery stores though, and I think that is probably most beneficial to anyone with food allergies.
- Grocery Stores:
- Fresh Choice– This grocery store is on the outskirts of town but had the most options. There are a few smaller stores in town that have limited options. This one though, had a pretty impressive amount of choices compared to what I saw in town. It took me about 15 minutes to walk there and then I took an Uber back to my apartment. Not ideal, but if you only go once or twice it is worth it. I would not have been able to get through the week without going to that store. I was running out of safe snacks and needed to find some other options. I found some familiar brands that were packaged and safe also. A YouTube video of my grocery store finds will be posted soon.
- Four Square Alpine– This is in town and you will pass it on the way to Fresh Choice. I stopped in there first to see the options, but it was insanely crowded and had few safe packaged options. Since I was looking for some snacks for my day trips, I needed the bigger grocery store. I did get some fresh food here though when I started to run out before leaving New Zealand.
What Did I Do?
Queenstown and the South Island in general have more activity options than anyone probably has time for. It is impressive! It isn’t cheap to be a daredevil though, so know that before you go. If you are interested in sky diving, bungee jumping, and the like, Queenstown is your spot, however this activity part of my guide is for the more nature and wine loving traveler. If you are into seeing the great outdoors, adventuring on boats, wandering through old mining towns, hiking up mountains, and drinking wine, this is probably a good itinerary for you!
With limited time and money (since I was already way over budget, so I was basically riding it out on the YOLO philosophy), and because there is so much natural beauty to explore, I set up day trips to some of the “can’t miss” spots. To book tours and help decide which ones to choose (there are SOOO many), I went to one of the many tour companies. The one I happened to walk into was Peter Pan, but I don’t know that it is any better or worse than another company. They all pretty much do the exact same thing.
Day Trip #1: Milford Sound
Milford Sound isn’t actually a sound but beautiful fjords. It is said to be the most famous tourist destination in New Zealand, and was also called the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling. It is definitely an impressive place to visit and I would certainly recommend it. I made it a priority since it was on my “must-see” list.
There were many different choices and companies to use for a tour to Milford Sound. On the price scale, I chose the mid-budget option. If I were to do it again though, I think I would choose a more expensive company so that I had less people on the tour and learned more about the fjords. My main qualifications were that it wasn’t all college kids or all grandparent age. I ended up with mostly all couples and a few families. Where are you, single people? :)
It was a long day, as bus tours typically go. I don’t mind buses and I did see incredible landscapes that I wouldn’t have seen unless I did the tour, however I still recommend a car if you have the option. I did learn some interesting facts from the tour guide on our bus trip, however he was also pretty rude and chauvinistic which I really didn’t appreciate.
We drove for a few hours then stopped in a town called Te Anau. It is a holiday town and was an easy stop to get food. We were given a $15 voucher. I used it to get water, coffee, a yogurt, and some gum (nothing else was safe). I then went to the grocery store across the street to see what was there. I packed food, so I didn’t really need more. I was just curious! I didn’t find much for safe food besides fresh food choices.
A half hour later, the tour continued on. We drove a few more hours, stopped at a few beautiful spots to take photos and then drove until we arrived at Milford Sound. Pro tip: If you do rent a car and drive there, be aware that you will need to drive through a one-way tunnel. There is a light and signs so you know when to go through, however I felt a huge relief knowing I didn’t have to drive through that alone. I could only imagine how nerve-wracking it would have been! I drove through plenty of tunnels in Italy and that was scary enough and it was the same side of the road and both lanes of traffic.
Something else to note is the weather. It is known as one of the wettest places in the world. However, when you look at photos online you see beautiful blue skies and glimmering water, so of course that is what you hope for when you arrive. We had pouring rain and wind. Not ideal. The positive was that there were tons of waterfalls! The negative was that the boat was crowded and we were all soaked by the end (and we still had hours of driving back ahead of us).
Overall, I’m glad I did it and it is certainly a beautiful place to visit!
- The Info: Milford Sound Premium Cruise through Jucy Cruise, www.Jucycruise.co.nz
Day Trip #2: Hop on Hop Off Wine Tours
I love wine and ever since spending time in the Mornington Peninsula south west of Melbourne, Australia and not having visited a single winery, I was longing to have some winery time on this trip. The Central Otago Region is known for some of the world’s best Pinot Noir.
There were many different ways to go about this but I chose the Hop on Hop Off bus for a few reasons. Most of the smaller wine tours only went to between one to three wineries that were already chosen. They also went to the most touristy ones (which is not usually my type of place). I like the smaller, family owned and operated wineries and when I have the choice, I typically choose them over the larger, well-established ones. There is nothing wrong with going to those ones, and I’m sure I missed out on something by not choosing those. However, there are some touristy travel things that I know are not for me. I don’t like going to places that feel like Disney World but aren’t (because I do love Disney) and are covered with tourists all the time. I like to mix it up and I am more into smaller, local places. I will say though that it can go either way with food allergies. Some places are more able to accommodate while others are less. It totally depends!
Also, since I was traveling solo, I figured this may be a good way to join some people. If I chose one of the smaller tours, it would definitely be all couples, but with the hop on and off bus (which is still quite small with only 12 of us), I figured it was more likely that people would be friendly and welcoming to a solo traveler. This proved correct too because I had a lovely day at the wineries with new friends! As a solo traveler, I do often get adopted by families and groups of friends, which can often make the entire experience more fun!
There was a choice of a half day or full day for the bus. I did the full day ticket which cost $75 NZ (keep in mind the exchange rate in the US is stronger, so this was actually about $50 USD to be reliably and safely picked up and dropped off at whichever of 15 different spots).
There were 15 stops to choose from. These are the wineries we made it to.
- Amisfield– Lovely spot with a distinguished restaurant. If you plan to eat there make sure to make a reservation ahead. I did not inquire about food allergies.
- Wet Jacket– One of my favorites! The building is stone and cavernous which is fun. They also have cheese tasting. Everything was delicious. If you are not allergic to dairy, you should be able to safely try the cheeses. There were no nut cheeses when I was there and nothing else out to eat/sample besides cheese. It made the process very simple for me.
- Waitiri Creek & Cargo Brewery– Gorgeous setting. The beer was pretty good. The people running it were not.
- Brennan Wines– I think this was my favorite. The owner was incredibly friendly and interesting. The setting is stunning and we had a relaxing time here. We also sampled a ton of wine for a very reasonable price.
- Rosa Wines– This was across the street from Brennan Wines so we could walk right over. Another beautiful setting to enjoy. The service was a bit slower than we hoped for.
- Altitude Brewing– I suggest skipping this one! Unfortunately, we chose this as our last stop. I had a cider that was good, but the view of the lake is blocked by construction and it just wasn’t the best ending to such a lovely day.
If I had more time:
- Akarua Wines & Kitchen by Artisan– It looked so cottage-cute! I wasn’t hungry yet so it didn’t seem like a good first stop for me.
- Peregrine– The bus doesn’t stop there anymore which was disappointing. The architecture of the winery is supposed to be impressive.
- Chard Farm– This was not an option on the bus but it was recommended by a friend
- Gibbston Valley- We could have gone here but when we drove by, it looked like a wine theme park, so we passed on it. It is known for having a stone wine cellar that does look pretty cool. If you decide to go, make sure to buy tickets in advance. It was sold out that day (we were told by a couple on our bus that went there).
If you don’t want to do a full day of wineries, but want to try a bunch of wine, go to The Winery right in town. Fun atmosphere and endless amounts of wine to sample!
Queenstown on New Year’s Eve
I always imagined seeing the fireworks in Syndey, Australia for New Year’s but since I decided to go to NZ instead, I figured Sydney would have to wait. If you are with friends or family, I would suggest making a reservation for dinner in Queenstown if you aren’t planning to cook. I was meeting up with Stacey’s friends for drinks and fireworks, so I ate at the apartment before meeting them. Like I said, restaurants are expensive and the food just didn’t look worth the cost from what I read and saw. The winery friends I made were eating at the restaurant at the top of the gondola. I’m sure it was a cool experience and definitely worth looking into (but make reservations far in advance). I’m also not sure the food would be allergy friendly since I think it was buffet style. It would probably be worth calling to find out if they have any other options.
Stacey’s friends and I ended up watching the fireworks from the docks behind a bar in town. It worked out perfectly and was such a fun night! Also something to note, there are tons of college age kids there. Many of them were not on their best behavior and I would suggest trying a bar by the water not right in the city center area of town where the chaos loomed large (unless you are that age and want that… which is a right of passage I guess?)
I was originally supposed to spend New Year’s day in Wanaka, however I missed the bus because I stayed out late having fun and overslept. Note to Self: Do not book 8 a.m. bus rides for New Year’s Day. Also, Kiwis (people from NZ) know how to have fun. Remember that!
Instead, I spent the afternoon in Arrowtown. I was able to take the city bus (and I already had my GoCard so I didn’t pay more to get back and forth). It is a nice spot to wander around, get a coffee, explore little shops, and learn some history. I don’t think you would need more than an afternoon there though. I also did not have the best of luck finding safe options besides an espresso.
Day Trip #3: Wanaka
Wanaka is absolutely worth visiting! It is stunning and fairly accessible without a car. To get to Wanaka, I took a shuttle bus. I wish I had been able to stay longer but I was flying out late that afternoon. I would suggest planning at least a one-night stay there. It was my favorite place in NZ!
What I did there:
- Hiked the Mount Iron trail
- Walked along the banks of Lake Wanaka
- Coffee from Big Fig (it took a while to just get an espresso there and would not be a good food spot for food allergies because mostly pre-made dishes with many ingredients)
There is definitely more to see and do! It’s somewhere I would like to go back to and spend more time.
- The Info: Wanaka Expresslink www.ritchies.co.nz/wanaka
- You can get a schedule at the booth across from the bus stop in town. It leaves and returns five times a day
Other Places & Activities I wish I had time for around Queenstown:
- Franz Josef Glacier
- Shot over jet
- Something adrenaline pumping and daring! I was leaning towards paragliding.
Other Pro Tips:
- If you use Bank of America for your checking, look for Westpac ATM’s. There is no fee for transactions. Same goes for Westpac in Australia.
- Passports checks are going electronic now. You will likely not get a new stamp in your passport. Sorry to break this news to you!
- Australia and New Zealand have different currency. Plan accordingly if you are going to both. I pack separate change purses to switch out money on my travels.