New Zealand’s South Island – The Best Adult Playground

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Arrive in Picton on the ferry from Wellington and travel to Abel Tasman National Park
  • Day 2: Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park
  • Day 3: Travel to Westport via Cape Foulwind
  • Day 4: Travel to Franz Josef Glacier
  • Days 5-7: Free days in Franz Josef for hiking
  • Day 8: Travel to Wanaka
  • Day 9: Travel to Queenstown
  • Day 10: Travel to Fiordland National Park and scenic cruise in Milford Sound
  • Day 11: Travel to Stewart Island
  • Day 12: Explore Ulva Island before returning to Queenstown
  • Days 13-14: Free days in Queenstown to explore
  • Day 15: Travel to Mount Cook and hike the Hooker Valley trail
  • Day 16: Travel to Christchurch
  • Days 17-19: Free days in Christchurch
  • Day 20: Fly out (to Fiji!)

Dates: March 6-25, 2018

Our Odyssey: 

People often ask before visiting New Zealand whether the North Island or the South Island is better, especially if they are short on time and can only fit in one or the other. My knee jerk answer is, “The South!” But then I think about the glowworm caves and hiking Tongariro in the North Island, and I’m not so sure! Even so, the South Island is a world of wonders, and it makes sense it’s the most popular one for tourists. With beaches, glaciers, mountains and more, there’s not much else an outdoors enthusiast could ask for!

We started our journey through the the South Island on the ferry from Wellington (North Island) down to Picton in the south. We had just spent nearly three weeks exploring the North Island with Stray, a flexible hop-on/hop-off bus tour company, and would be traveling the South with them as well.

Read more: Traveling with Stray through the North Island

Though it was an early morning, the ferry ride was incredibly comfortable. It had free strong wifi, nice seating areas and plenty of space for everyone. We also synced back up with others we had met on the Stray bus in the north. Because of the hop-on/hop-off style of the bus, people come and go as they please. This meant we were constantly running back into people we’d met in previous locations.

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On the ferry to Picton

Upon our arrival in Picton, our new bus driver picked us up and began our drive to Marahou, the town we’d be staying in on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park. Due to a cyclone that had ripped through the area a few weeks prior, the main road was wiped out, along with a lot of the backpacker camp we were staying at. They were actively repairing and cleaning while we were there.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great for us while we were there either. It rained basically the whole time, and since this is a coastal park, part of its allure are the beaches and water activities.

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Rainy day in Abel Tasman National Park

The one free day we had there, we took a water taxi a few kilometers at to a town called Anchorage and from the we planned to hike back to Marahou. Taking the water taxi was easily the most interesting part of our time there. Because the tides on these shores are so dramatic (they can rise and fall 15 feet), they don’t just have piers or docks from which passengers board a boat. Instead, they hitch the boat to a tractor, have the passengers board the boat, and then the skipper drives the tractor into the water. There, she then hops onto the boat and another employee drives the tractor back to dry land. From there it’s a pretty standard boat ride, until you arrive at your destination and get let off in the water!

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Tractors putting boats in the water

Along the way, she showed us the second most photographed rock in the southern hemisphere, Split Apple Rock (I didn’t know that was a thing, but Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia is #1). The rock looks like what it’s called – New Zealand, I’ve found, loves the literal. We also passed another rock with sea lions resting on them. I took way more pictures of those rocks than of Split Apple Rock!

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Split Apple Rock

When we arrived in Anchorage, we began the hike back to our hostel, which was three hours of mostly flat, painfully repetitive bends and curves. Every few minutes, deja vu would strike, as it felt like we were walking by the same spots over and over again. We weren’t, it’s just that the trail is that monotonous, as are the views. The fact that it was raining the whole time didn’t help, and honestly I left Abel Tasman feeling very “meh” about it. I think if the weather had been better, I would have thought it to be really similar and equally as nice as Hahei, a beach town on the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island.

From Abel Tasman we began the journey to the wild south, with a quick one night stop in Westport to break up the drive. On the way to Westport, we made a short stop at Cape Foulwind to do a quick scenic walk and to observe a sea lion colony. I loved watching the sea lions clamber over the rocks and bask in the sun. There were even babies frolicking about!

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Cape Foulwind

Unfortunately not everyone on our bus got the memo about what time they needed to be back, and after a half hour of waiting for about half the group, our driver, Shorty, made the decision that we needed to leave to get those that were on time to the next activity (a brewery tour) before it closed. A few people volunteered to stay behind to let the stragglers know she would be back for them in about an hour. She felt awful leaving half the group behind, and I felt bad for her having to be in that position. At the same time, I was thankful that she was getting the others to the next activity. The lesson here – if you’re part of a group tour or activity, please respect the departure times!

We did make it to the West Coast Brewery in time for our tour, which ended up being a lot of fun! Their beer is all organic and very tasty, and they even fed us hotdogs and chips after for dinner! It was also a lot of fun getting to know others in our group. As an added bonus, Shorty also organized an ice cream social that night back at the hostel, with all the delicious toppings. Between the beer and the dairy, my 31-year-old stomach didn’t love me the next day, but my mouth was oh so happy.

The next day we carried on down south, stopping at some really beautiful rock formations known as the Pancake Rocks in Paparoa National Park. The Pancake Rocks look like mille-feuille crepes, their layers like crisp pastries on top of each other.

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Pancake Rocks

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Pancake Rocks

In the evening, we finally arrived in Franz Josef, a small town with a stunning view of the glacier by the same name. We were able to snag a private room (more like a standalone box) at The Rainforest Lodge, a nice hostel with the best shower heads I’ve ever seen for all 4 nights we were staying there.

Most people on the Stray bus just stay 2 nights in Franz Josef, but we wanted to take a slower pace. In the weeks leading up to our arrival to this town, Tim and I debated whether or not we’d splurge and do the helihike on the glacier. I’d included it in our budget but with the steep price tag, we wondered if we’d be better off saving the cash. We hiked a glacier in Iceland and loved it, but weren’t sure if the experience of flying in a helicopter up to the glacier and hiking would be different enough to be worth it. Making the decision even harder, we knew there were several great hikes you could do for free (a short valley hike brings you as close as you can permissibly get to glacial face, and a longer day hike can give you views looking down over it). After polling friends and people in an online travel community, we decided to go for it. We were there for several days, so we would be able to do the helihike as well as some of the other hikes in the area. We also learned the helihike gets canceled 60% of the time due to weather, since conditions have to be just right to fly the helicopters up there and safely land on the glacier. So, we rationalized, we’d sign up and leave it to fate if we got to go or not.

The next morning, our first full day in Franz Josef, was when we’d scheduled our helihike. When we woke up, we heard the hum of helicopters flying overhead – a promising sign.

We headed over to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides office at 9:30, checked in with 9 others, and then went through the standard safety briefing. This was going to be my first time in a helicopter, and while I wasn’t scared, I was definitely feeling the adrenaline of my excitement. We put on the pants, jacket, socks and boots they gave us and then walked as a group the 5 minutes to the helipad.

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Ready for our helihike!

Only 6 passengers are allowed in one helicopter, so our group was split into two. I was surprised by just how much wind the propellers generated – the force and volume of the air pushed out all around the helicopter was a little disorienting. Once inside the helicopter, we put on our headphones to be able to hear the captain, and shortly after, the aircraft levitated above the ground, hovered, and took off.

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Boarding the helicopter

The flight was incredibly scenic, as we passed over the valley and alongside mountain walls. A quick 5 minutes later and we were approaching the glacier, which, to state the obvious, now looked so much larger than it had from the ground.

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Loving the helicopter ride!

Once we landed and exited the helicopter, we all put on crampons (metal attachments for your boots to aid in walking on ice), got walking poles and followed our guide up a manmade set of stairs in the ice. Because the glacier is constantly moving and changing, the guides have to adapt the walking trail accordingly. This means carving stairs, installing temporary handrails, and checking the path ahead for safety every day.

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On the glacier, getting ready to hike!

On the ice, we were able to walk through narrow crevasses, explore little ice caves, and fill up our water bottles with pure glacial water freshly flowing through the ice. We also got a good view of a gushing waterfall pouring out of a cave in the distance. The amount of waste steadily rushing was astonishing, and put into perspective for me just how much ice melt is constantly flowing through the glacier.

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Tim in a mini ice cave

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Me in a mini ice cave

At the moment Franz Josef glacier is not retreating, but it has overall been in a state of retreat for the past several decades. Scientists predict it’ll be gone completely as soon as 20 years from now. Looking at old photos of the glacier from the early 1900s when it filled the entire valley that’s now just a bunch of gravel, I was saddened by how much of the glacier is already lost.

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This about sums it up

After a few hours on the ice it was time to helicopter back down to town. This ride was even more exciting than the first because the captain made some sideways turns for fun – it was both a little scary and really exciting!

Watch: Helihiking Franz Josef Glacier

That afternoon back in our room we ended up taking a super long nap. It’s crazy how tired your body is after an adrenaline rush. We woke up in time to enjoy all-you-can-eat pizza night at the hostel bar/restaurant with some of our friends from the bus.

The next morning we slept in and then ventured out for some hikes nearby. Franz Josef has plenty to offer, and a local guide a friend of ours from back home knows recommended one called the Tatare Tunnels. It was an adventurous walk through an old mining tunnel, and it’s most popular as a spot to see glowworms. The hike starts on a dry forested trail. It’s flat at first but there’s a good 15 minutes of climbing up to the tunnel. The tunnel itself is wet and dark. We had headlamps, though, and I was able to avoid getting my shoes wet by spider climbing on the walls of the tunnel the whole way through. I’ll be honest, I was pretty proud of this, especially when Tim’s feet were soaked. At the end of the tunnel you can see many glowworms. There aren’t nearly as many as we saw in the caves in Waitomo on the North Island though. That said, for a free hike, it was a lot of fun and a good way to see a few!

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Heading into the Tatare Tunnels

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Inside the tunnel

On the way back to the main trailhead we branched off on a side path to do another short walk to Callery Gorge. I would best describe this hike as whimsical – there are trees that look enchanted, a waterfall, a picturesque bridge, and even little earthen cubbies dug into the sides of the ground along the trail that look like elf homes (they are actually decorated with sticks for doors and furniture!).

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Callery Gorge

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Little elf house

After this we had one more full day in Franz Josef, so we opted to do the most popular hike to the glacial face through the valley. This is aptly called the Glacier Valley walk and it takes about 2 hours return. It’s a great, flat, easy walk to a full-frontal glacier view. Along the way there are many waterfalls and a few info boards explaining the geology and the glacier’s recent retreat.

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Franz Josef Glacier

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Valley Walk

That night we went out to dinner to a great restaurant called Snake Bite with Renee and Leyton, an American couple from Texas we had met on the Stray bus in the North Island. We just happened to overlap a night with them in Franz so we took the opportunity to go out for a nice double date dinner. Since Tim and I hadn’t yet had a chance to do a wine tasting or vinyard visit, we decided to sample different New Zealand red wines from the menu. I regretted this the next morning when we had to get up for an early morning bus ride to Wanaka!

The long drive to Wanaka was a scenic one, passing Fox Glacier and visiting Lake Matheson on our way into Mount Aspiring National Park, where we saw the bluest alpine lakes. Eventually we made it to the scenic small town of Wanaka. Exhausted by the long day and big night the evening prior, we relaxed and slept in the next morning.

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Blue Pools in Mt Aspiring National Park

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Tim at a waterfall in Mt Aspiring National Park

While some people hop off in Wanaka to complete the Roy’s Peak hike, we were heading straight on to Queenstown for a night. We did get to do a small hike in Wanaka to the top of Mount Iron, the tallest hill in town offering great, easy views over the town and its surrounding mountains and lakes.

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Wanaka as seen from Mount Iron

On the way to Queenstown, we stopped by the world’s first commercial bungy jumping place at the Kawarau Gorge. I thought about doing it, and continued to think about doing over the next several days. I never did, and I don’t regret that one bit. Most people who have heard of Queenstown know it’s referred to as the adventure capital of the world. From ZORBing, to luging, to skydiving, to bungy, to a bunch of things I’ve never even heard of, Queenstown offers every adrenaline activity imaginable, gimmicky and legit.

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Kawarau Gorge, where the daring bungy jump

We had none of this in mind for our first night in Queenstown, however – our friend Blaire who we used to work with in Wisconsin (but who now lives in Finland) happened to be there the same night, glamping with her boyfriend on top of a nearby mountain that was also a location in the Lord of the Rings movies. So obviously we were hanging out with them! It was a lovely evening of delicious food, spectacular views over the Remarkables mountain range, and great conversation.

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View from Blaire’s campsite

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Lord of the Rings scene

The next morning we began our journey into the deep south. We’d be coming back to Queenstown afterwards for a few nights, so our first night there was really just passing through. This day we were taking in one of New Zealand’s biggest highlights – Fiordland National Park, and specifically, Milford Sound. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, not a sound. The primary difference is that fjords are carved by glaciers. It was misty and rainy as we rode into the park on the Stray bus, but our driver told us this was actually good for visiting Milford, since it would bring to life dozens of rain-dependent waterfalls down the steep cliff faces. We were already starting to see them on the drive. It was admittedly a very long drive to Milford; apparently some people visit as a day trip from Queenstown, returning afterwards. I can’t imagine how long that day must be…

Once we arrived, we checked in for our scenic cruise through the fjord with Real Journeys. The ship navigated through the main channel of water in the fjord, passing by the countless waterfalls and even getting close enough to put the bow under the spray. Legend has it, the waters from these falls will make you look 10 years younger, but to be honest I think I looked the same.

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Milford Sound cruise

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Milford Sound cruise

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Milford Sound cruise

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Milford Sound cruise

There were plenty of places to sit inside, as well as places to stand on the bow and stern. The rain had cleared up entirely by the time we were on the water, so we spent most of the trip outside on the bow, admiring the atmospheric fog leftover from the earlier showers. All told we spent about an hour and a half on the water.

We spent the evening at a special place in the heart of the national park called Gunn’s Camp. This is where the men who built the infrastructure of the park lived during the construction. Now, it’s a camp site for visitors. It’s very remote, and not only is there no internet, but there’s no power at all after 10 pm. It poured raining again when we were there, which made our cabin and the whole experience fell extra cozy and rustic.

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Our cute cabin at Gunn’s Camp

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Gunn’s Camp

The next day we made our way to Bluff, the port town from which we’d be taking a ferry down to New Zealand’s third (and lesser known) island. Along the way we made some scenic stops, and one really fascinating visit to a museum where we could see the world’s oldest tuatara. What the heck is that, you ask? It’s an animal that’s a mix between a lizard and a dinosaur (the species dates back to that era), with a third eye on the head. They live to be over a hundred years old, but are near extinction. Basically they are crazy animals I never even knew existed until I saw one.

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Tuatara – something between a dinosaur and a lizard

After this we arrived in Bluff and those heading down to Stewart Island hopped off the Stray bus to catch our ferry. It was a fantastically rough ride – the swells under the boat felt like the hills and dips of a roller coaster. An hour later, we’d arrived to little Stewart Island and the town of Oban. The primary reason to visit Stewart is its access to wildlife, especially birds. This is the best place to be if you want to spot a kiwi in the wild. The kiwi is New Zealand’s endangered and nocturnal national bird. Seeing one is very rare because there are so few of them and they won’t typically be out during the day. Little blue penguins also nest on the rocky shores, so it’s a good place to spot them too. If you’re lucky, you may even see the Aurora Australis (the southern lights) from here.

During our evening on Stewart, we didn’t find any penguins, kiwis or southern lights (but we did look for all three). We weren’t too disappointed though since we knew chances of seeing any of those things were slim, even here.

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The closest thing we saw to a kiwi on our night walk

The following morning (which was also Tim’s birthday!) we had a few hours to explore before we had to make the afternoon ferry back to Bluff to meet our Stray bus. Tim and I opted to take a water taxi to Ulva Island, another small island 15 minutes away.

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Ferry tickets are leaves from Ulva Island. These leaves are so sturdy, that they are actually accepted as official postcards.

Ulva Island is the highlight of Rakiura National Park and an island sanctuary for several species of birds. Even if you aren’t an ornithologist, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the constant birdsong, only ever interrupted by the occasional loud swoosh of a New Zealand wood pigeon whipping above your head.

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Tree on Ulva Island

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Looking for birds on Ulva Island

Upon arrival at the island, we donated $2 into the honor box to take a color pamphlet of self-guided walks. With the 3 hours we had at our disposal, we had ample time to do all three walks (History, Conservation and Nature). We saw many birds, and the guide book had great photos and descriptions of each species. We were able to identify most of the birds we saw!

Watch: Birdspotting on Ulva Island

Walking back towards the water taxi terminal from the Nature trail, we ran into a woman we’d been chatting with on the water taxi over. She motioned towards the woods to our left and put her finger to her lips, silently telling us to be quiet. As we got closer, she whispered, “I’ve been following a kiwi over there for 10 minutes!”

We stood with her and quietly watched some movement in the bushes. Soon, a large kiwi bird, with its fast fluffy body and long, distinctive beak, emerged, pecking at the ground. We couldn’t believe it – a day walking kiwi! Knowing how rare these sightings are even on Ulva, and having wandered around town for hours looking for one the night before, we feel so lucky that we got to observe one in the wild! Tim tried to grab a photo, but through the foliage it looks like a fuzzy brown blob.

Elated from our special sighting, we made our way back to Oban. At our hostel, we signed the “kiwi spotting log book” and fixed lunch before hopping on the afternoon ferry back to Bluff.

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Wekas are very common, curious and opportunistic birds

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Hello weka!

From Bluff it was a long ride to Queenstown, but we made it with ample time to meet up friends we’d met on the Stray bus over the previous 4 weeks who just happened to be in Queenstown that night. Bonus: it was also St. Patrick’s Day, and Queenstown appears to take the celebrating very seriously! We had an awesome, if exhausting, night.

The next day we slept in and eventually got out to do some requisite tourist activities. We rode the gondola up the nearby mountain, which was really fun in and of itself. The views are amazing, and once you arrive there are tons of activities you can do. We did a few rounds of luging, where you sit in a little plastic luge and ride down through curves and dips for a few minutes until you reach the end of the course. Then you take a ski lift chair back up and do it again! It’s good fun.

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Stunning Queenstown (and a bungy platform!)

Watch: Our Epic Luging Fails

We spent the remainder of our time in Queenstown relaxing and eating well. We also visited the Below Zero ice bar, where everything inside is made of ice (including your glass). Neither of us had been to one before and it was fun, hokey and cold!

From Queenstown, we rode with Stray to Mount Cook. Along the way we passed Lindis Pass, the highest in the country, and aqua blue Lake Pukaki. When we arrived to our lodge at Mount Cook, the clouds were clearing and we had plenty of time for the flat and rewarding Hooker Valley hike. The trail crosses a few suspension bridges before arriving at the glacial lake sprawled out at the base of Mount Cook. It takes less than an hour and a half to hike there, and the views of the mountain and the lake with all its icebergs are a reward way bigger than the effort needed to get there.

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Mount Cook views along the Hooker Valley trail

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Mount Cook and a glacial lake at the end of the Hooker Valley trail

Our time in New Zealand was quickly coming to an end. We stayed in Mount Cook for one night before heading to Christchurch, our last destination in New Zealand. We had several nights here to unwind and relax after so many consecutive travel days with Stray.

We did make a point of getting out to explore Christchurch before we left, however. The city used to be the second largest in the country, but in 2011 a devastating earthquake hit the city. It was utterly ruined, and the rebuilding process is still going on today. From the makeshift cathedral held up with cardboard pipes, to the buildings still with shattered windows, to the empty streets void of the typical city pedestrian life, signs of the earthquake are everywhere.

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It’s common to see ruins like this throughout Christchurch

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The so-called Cardboard Cathedral and the cardboard tubes holding it up

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Ruins of the original cathedral

Still, the city was one of my favorites to explore in New Zealand. The botanical gardens and the free Canterbury Museum make it a worthwhile visit on their own. The museum in particular (free) covers a mash up of everything New Zealand – Antarctic explorations, geology, and culture. There are kitschy halls dedicated to 19th century daily life and an entire pseudo-house to pay homage to Fred and Myrtle, a couple who ran a seashell museum out of their house in the middle of the 20th century. The museum is quirky and fun – we had a blast.

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Fred and Myrtle’s shell house in the Canterbury Museum

After the museum we walked by a street known for its pastel buildings harkening back to pre-quake Christchuch, and ended our tour spontaneously at a playground that had every kind of equipment imaginable – from a zipline, to super tall slides, climbing structures and all sorts of spinning things.

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Farewell Christchurch, and New Zealand!

It feels fitting to me that our last day in New Zealand was spent playing outside like kids – after all, the lakes, volcanos, mountains, glaciers and adrenaline-fueled activities make NZ the perfect big kids playground.

 

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5 thoughts on “New Zealand’s South Island – The Best Adult Playground

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