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New Zealand’s South Island: 9 Days, 6 National Parks

After two visits to New Zealand, I am very familiar with travelers’ number-one question: just how long does it take to get there? The answer: about 18 hours’ flight time from the U.S. East Coast, or three in-air viewings of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But here’s why Down Under is worth the long haul: once you land in New Zealand—no matter where you touch down—some of the world’s most varied and striking landscapes are a stone’s throw away. In fact, you can visit half a dozen pristine national parks in the time it took you to fly from New York to New Zealand; big on beauty and small on space, New Zealand’s geography favors travelers tight on time. Plus, all Kiwi national parks welcome visitors with free entry and hospitable overnight huts.

Exploring the South Island last month, I squeezed six national parks into nine days, and while I could have happily spent nine days in each one, my sizable sampler allowed me to taste a wide variety of what makes this island a magical destination. Here are the highlights of my park-hopping adventure.

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman

I spent two days and nights at this park near Nelson, led by a spirited guide from Wilsons Abel Tasman. In between hiking and kayaking excursions, my group enjoyed “cowboy coffee” on the trails and serious gourmet meals by a cozy fire at the Meadowbank Homestead. In case it doesn’t sound like we were roughing it (we weren’t), we also forded an estuary and tasted sweet sap produced by the, er, backsides of beech-tree insects.

Kahurangi National Park


With accomplished adventurer Rob Douglas from Simply Wild as my guide, I hopped a helicopter from Abel Tasman to Kahurangi to hike part of the Heaphy Track. The route is well-deserving of the praise it receives as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks: the portion I trekked led me through a jungle of Nikau palms to the Tasman Sea and whet my appetite for more of the diverse trail—and more of the stunningly beautiful ridges of Kahurangi. Luckily, I got a second helping of the park with an Oparara Valley Trust tour through the park’s Honeycomb Hill caves. Get your glowworm sightings there!

Paparoa National Park


I entered Paparoa in Punakaiki and walked the loop around the famous Pancake Rocks and blowholes. Drizzly weather and strong winds were perfect stimuli for the blowholes’ performances: water shot up and steam puffs poured out. Even without a steamy show, the unique limestone “pancake” formations would be worth a stop.

Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Franz Josef

A trip to the South Island wouldn’t be complete without a visit to either Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers, so I signed up for a heli-hike on the former. I entered another world—one that glistened with crampons traversing a hundred shades of white. The access to glacial formations is incredible (see above), if the rock slides slightly unnerving.

Mount Aspiring National Park

Mount Aspiring

There can’t be a more beautiful backdrop for a drive than Mount Aspiring National Park, whose roads lead from the South Island’s west coast to Queenstown. Even while driving somewhat nervously on the left side, it was difficult to keep my hands off my camera and my eyes on the road. I had an even more beautiful—and safer—vantage point from my seat on a thrilling Haast River Safari jet-boat ride.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

Arthur's Pass

Half the fun of visiting Arthur’s Pass is getting there on the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch via the Southern Alps. Andrew Wells of Unlimited New Zealand put me on the train and met me at the Arthur’s Pass station for a fun and challenging hike on the Bealey Valley Track. I drank from a crystal-clear stream, ogled at waterfalls, and passed only one other pair of hikers the entire day. The payoff for the exertion, other than views over Arthur’s Pass and the Temple Basin Ski Area? A flat white at the Wobbly Kea in Arthur’s Pass Village. It was a perfect Kiwi end to my South Island tour.


My name: Michelle Doucette

How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at

Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.

Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.

Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.



Its easy to see why so many travellers from the UK and USA make the trip to New Zealand, its beautiful.

Melissa Palmer

Wow…I am (almost) completely speechless after looking through your pictures and reading about your trip! Your pictures are breathtaking! Like I’ve said before, I’m living vicariously through you right now! Thanks for posting this so quickly! :)

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