Transport might be the tricky bit about this itinerary; hire companies don’t like cars left down south, and you might just be too late in the year to take the east coast train. So my trip is based on travelling by bus.
Day 1: Take the ferry from Welly. If the weather is fine, and you travel well at sea, the scenery is stunning, especially as you enter Queen Charlotte Sound. Look out for marine life. Mooch around the pretty marina in Picton, or take a hike through native bush in the Domain. Day 2: Coffee and pastries from the Picton Bakkerij, and hop on the bus to Nelson (2.5hrs). Catch up with family and discover some arty, crafty, and foodie treasures in town. Day 3: Hire a bike for the day and make a tour of local wineries. Sample a cheeky sauvignon or two and pedal CAREFULLY! Day 4: An early start to get the bus to Franz Josef (9and a bit hrs, but with reasonable rest stops at some of the best west coast sites). Day 5: Max-out your budget with a glacier hike. It’s a well known fact that wearing crampons, even just the once, makes you 10% more awesome than the average person. Day 5.5: Bus to Queenstown, arriving for the wedding all windswept and interesting.”
Crossing the Cook Strait
Before you board the ferry to the South Island, why not catch a slice of Wellington’s vibrant coffee culture? There are loads of great venues on Cuba Street, or try one of the cafes on Customhouse Quay, conveniently close to the terminal for check-in.
The crossing takes around 3 hours and 30 minutes in total, which can be either a wonderful introduction to the South Island, or the most hellish experience of your life. I’m not going to lie, it can get seriously rough, so prepare for the worst with anti-sickness tablets, and a warm sweater or even a blanket. A good book is a must, regardless of conditions. The good news is that only 1/3 of the voyage is in the open water of Cook Strait; the first third is leaving Wellington Harbour, and the final third cruising through the spectacular Queen Charlotte Sound.
Head out on deck as the ferry enters Tory Channel at the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound, and look out for wildlife. Sea birds, fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and sharks can all be spotted from your boat, against a panoramic backdrop of picturesque coves and rugged cliffs as you approach your destination, the township of Picton.
Drop-off your bags at The Villa, and steady your sea legs with a hike through the native bush in the domain above the settlement, or a mooch round the pretty marina. Your hosts will even let you borrow their dog for company! Later on, head to Seamus’s Irish Bar for food and drinks, and hangout with an eclectic mix of locals, backpackers and yachties.
Head to Picton Village Bakkerij for coffee and breakfast pastries, and you can even pick up an award winning pie for a packed lunch. Spend an hour or two at Eco World Aquaruim and get to know some native creatures, including the adorable little blue penguins, before catching your bus.
There are several bus companies that cover the 2 and a half hour route between Picton and Nelson, including a few specifically aimed at backpackers, such as Naked Bus. If you book your seat in advance online (as soon as you can), you can get deals for as little as NZ$1 (plus a booking fee). The buses also offer free wi-fi, so you can use the journey to catch up with folks at home. But don’t bury your head in the screen or book, as the bus route will take you through stunning scenery and into the heart of Marlborough wine country.
Before meeting up with your family, explore Nelson and discover why this laid-back little city is a haven for artists and craftspeople. It offers a range of foodie treats too, from cheeses to hand-made chocolate and locally-grown olive oil. The i-Site will be able to help with information and maps, and also book your activity for tomorrow.
Wheels and Wine
Cycling routes around Nelson offer options from gentle roads to technical mountain trails. There are also 25 boutique wineries in the region that you could pick from. To make the choice easier, why not take the Great Taste Trail between Nelson and Rabbit Island, around 3 hours fairly gentle cycling each way, with plenty of options en-route for a cheeky sauvignon blanc or pinot gris or two…
Several companies offer organised tours, which can be expensive, but i-Site staff should be able to provide you with route maps to get you on your way. Hire your bike from the Ubike mobile kiosk, and they’ll set you up with the best bike for your needs for NZ$60 for a full day.
Keep costs down by packing a picnic lunch, or picking up some tasty bites and a bottle on your ride, and eat in the pine forests of Rabbit Island. Stroll along the beach, paddle in the shallow water and lookout for some of the rare birds that make their home in the shallow estuary, before heading back.
West Coast Cruisin’
An early start to catch the Naked Bus from Nelson to Franz Josef today. It will be a long day on board, although the road along the West Coast is considered to be one of the best scenic drives in the world. Be your own tour guide by downloading the Roadside Stories audio guides to accompany your journey.
Make the most of your rest stops en route. Pack some snacks for your trip, or pick up a packed lunch in Murchiston. Make a flying trip to the Pancake Rocks and blowholes in Punakaiki. And in Hokitika, browse jade carving workshops and learn about the significance of pounamou in Maori culture.
Book into Montrose Backpackers in Franz Josef for a couple of nights, then take a hike through the surrounding rainforest to stretch your legs. There are various routes with different length and difficulty, so check out the Department of Conservation website for information.
Ice Ice Baby
It’s a well known fact that wearing crampons, even just the once, makes you 10% more awesome than the average person. So today you’re going to make that happen!
Book in with Franz Josef Glacier Guides for an Ice Explorer tour, which combines a short scenic helicopter flight with up to 3 hours of hiking on the ice. It will max out your budget, but the last few days have included a few bargains and plenty of penny-pinching opportunities to make up for it.
And it is most definitely an experience not to be missed. I’d recommend getting a morning tour, as often the weather can close in in the afternoon and the helicopter gets grounded.
The cost of the tour also includes free entry to Glacier Hot Pools, so after lunch at Full of Beans, you can spend the afternoon relaxing in preparation for your friend’s wedding. The i-Site/DOC office also has displays and information about the glacier, local geology and ecology, and is an interesting way to spend an hour or two.
Another travel day, to get you from Franz Josef to Queenstown. To arrive earlier rather than later, I’d suggest taking the Intercity coach. They offer a backpacker rate if you have a valid BBH or other hostel membership card.
The route is stunning, taking you through the Haast Pass, along the sides of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, particularly scenic with autumnal colours along their shores, and through alpine scenery, perhaps even with snow-dusted peaks, to Queenstown. Sit back and enjoy the view.
Bag a BBH Card. Buy a Budget Backpacker Hostel Club Card for NZ$45. Not only will it give you a discount on hostel accommodation, you’ll get a range of discounts from tour companies and ferry operators, and it’s also a NZ$20 phonecard.
Check your i-Site. I think NZ has the best tourist information service in the world. Helpful, informative and passionate about their country, they’ll help you book activities and tickets for any destinations en-route.