The most important thing I’ve learned on my travels is the necessity of being flexible. That lesson has paid off today, as I’ve suddenly had to cancel my plans to travel from Brisbane to the Great Barrier Reef. My boyfriend has to fly back to London, and I’ve found myself with 9 days on my own before my flight home. I could go with him, but I can’t help wanting to stay in the Antipodes. I spend a few hours coming up with a plan, and the result is a 9-day New Zealand itinerary without driving.
9-Day New Zealand Itinerary without Driving
I know, I know. I’m supposed to drive when I go to New Zealand. It’s the best way to see the country. But as an American (and someone who has never quite mastered the difference between right and left), I’m a bit terrified to drive on the “other side of the road”. By myself. In a foreign country.
I’m not going to let it stop me from seeing New Zealand, though. I hop on a flight from Brisbane to Christchurch, excited to explore the South Island and Wellington by rail, bus, and ferry.
My first stop is Christchurch itself. I’ve arrived just weeks before the most recent earthquake, and I’m lucky to see the city at the peak of its reconstruction following the last two.
I stay with friends here, and seeing Christchurch with locals gives me a great introduction to this part of New Zealand.
One of my friends takes me to a viewpoint by the Sign of the Takahe to get a feel for the city, then over to London Street in Lyttelton for a taste of a local seaside neighborhood.
After that we explore The Tannery shopping arcade and the city center, which impresses me with its ability to improvise pop-up shops, restaurants, and cafes in spaces left empty by the last earthquake.
The next day I have time to explore alone on foot, and I discover more to love. From the street art to the Botanic Gardens and the flags in Cathedral Square, Christchurch is full of color.
As a Californian, I adore the Mission-style buildings on New Regent Street, as well as the trams that run along it. The Cardboard Cathedral and adjacent 185-chair earthquake memorial are moving tributes, and I can’t help drawing comparisons between this city and San Francisco.
Over at Re:START, I find great shops and colorful picnic tables, not to mention Dimitris, a favorite local lunch stop where I enjoy mouth-watering falafel. It has the feel of some of London’s markets, and is another example of how the city has made the most of the gaps left by the earthquake.
By the time I leave Christchurch, I’ve completely fallen in love with the city.
But it’s time to move on, and the next stop on my itinerary is Kaikoura, one of the towns hardest hit by the most recent earthquake. The train journey takes me through green hills and valleys before revealing the stunning coastline this part of the country is known for.
Three hours later, I arrive and set off to explore. The town itself is small, but the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is packed with treasures.
From adorable baby seals to fresh seafood on the beach, I’m on sensory overload all along the waterfront.
Then it’s up to the top of the cliffs for stunning views of beaches below. I’m amazed at the beauty of the coastline here, and wander for hours exploring it.
The next morning I’m back on the train and off to Blenheim, the third stop on my 9-day New Zealand itinerary. Blenheim is in the heart of Marlborough’s wine country, and some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc is produced here.
After a quick walk around Seymour Square and the city center, I head out on a wine tour in Blenheim’s vineyards.
I’m happy to be without a car, as the wines are oh-so-drinkable and the scenery so lovely I can’t take my eyes off the mountainous backdrop behind the vines. I taste at Giesen, Nautilus, Bladen, Spy Valley, No. 1 Family Estate, and Fromm before my tour returns to Blenheim in time for dinner.
And after breakfast, I’m off on the train again. This time my destination is Picton, a town at the very top of the South Island.
Picton has some great hiking trails, and I’m excited to discover where they lead.
On my first afternoon I head up Tirohanga Track to see the views across Queen Charlotte Sound. Even though it’s drizzling I still love walking through the wooded hills and taking in the islands in the distance.
The next morning I’m off to hike to The Snout, a skinny peninsula that juts into the sound. Sadly, the rain decides to join me. I get soaked on and off, and end up ankle-deep in mud. Given my trip is last-minute, I’m hiking in ballerina flats and they don’t exactly like the conditions.
I get almost all the way to the end of The Snout before I have to give up and head back to Picton. But despite my disappointment (and the downpour), I’ve enjoyed the scenery along the way.
In the afternoon I head to Nelson, the penultimate destination on my New Zealand itinerary. I arrive by bus in the afternoon, bringing the downpour with me. Thankfully most of the streets are graced with awnings, so I’m able to explore historic South Street and the downtown without getting too soaked.
The next day the sun comes out, and I go with it. After breakfast at the colorful Kush cafe, I spend the day exploring the Sunday wares at Monty’s Market, cooing over the ducklings in Queens Gardens, and walking along the river.
Eventually I make my way up to the Centre of New Zealand, which offers panoramic views over Nelson.
I commune with sheep, walk among trees, and wind up back in the city center with time for lunch at the adorable 7010 Your Local cafe before I leave.
It’s one of the most pleasant days of my trip, and goes a long way to make up for the rain the day before.
In the afternoon I hop back on the bus to Picton, then catch a ferry to Wellington. The capital is the seventh and final stop on my trip, and I can’t wait to see it.
Thankfully the sun has followed me from Nelson, and I spend an entire day outdoors (with a hat and sunscreen that do nothing to prevent me from getting terribly sunburned).
After breakfast at Flight Coffee Hangar, I make my way to Cuba Street, one of the city’s most celebrated areas for shopping and restaurants.
From there I walk along the waterfront, taking in everything from beaches to Victorian houses, marinas to parks.
I wander down busy Lambton Quay and up into the Wellington Botanic Garden, where I spend most of the afternoon wandering the paths and watching the cable car ply the route to the top of the hill.
In the evening I settle in for fish and chips at The Chippery in Thorndon, my mind and body preparing for the next day’s journey back to London.
And soon enough, I’m on my way home. My trip to New Zealand has been a whirlwind; there are things I’ve done right (I loved all the places I visited) and things I’ve done wrong (I should have left more time in Picton to walk some of the Queen Charlotte Track and Nelson to visit Abel Tasman National Park). But given I planned the whole 9-day New Zealand itinerary without a car in three hours from a hotel room in Singapore, I think it turned out pretty well.
Above all, it made me happy to have learned that adapting to changing circumstances can make for great travel experiences. Given the sad news of the earthquake shortly after I arrived back in London, it’s a particularly good lesson to hold on to. My thoughts are with New Zealand, and I hope that in time others will be able to replicate my journey and fall in love with this part of the country as much as I did.
Have you been to New Zealand? What were the highlights of your itinerary?