New Zealand offers photographers an immense number of photographic opportunities to capture nature at its finest. These are just a few destinations which will offer a great experience. I’ve visited the South Island of New Zealand twice – in 2009 for 9 days, and in 2015 for 10. During both trips, I had rented a car, and driven a route that I had planned ahead of time. I would go back in a heartbeat!

As with all landscape photography destinations, the best times to visit New Zealand are during the southern late summer to mid autumn (March through late April), and the southern late spring to early summer (early September to late November). Winter attracts lots of ski enthusiasts. Summer is the busiest tourist season.

Getting there

While New Zealand is one of the most remote destinations in the world, it is a well developed country, and is quite easy to get to. Air New Zealand is the national carrier and offers several direct flights from destinations around the world. Qantas, Virgin and JetStar all fly from multiple airports in Australia. Several other major carriers will get you there, either directly, or via their code share partners.

I’ve flown into the South Island at both Christchurch, and Queenstown. In the past, I would have suggested both gateway points offered options. However, following the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, the city has been in a rebuilding phase, and at the time of writing this in 2016, is still not the greatest of destinations for visitors. Furthermore, Queenstown is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful approaches into an airport, and is a must do for every intrepid traveller.

Where to stay

This itinerary will lead you to to several different destinations. Hence there are a few different places to stay at. In Queenstown, I’d recommend The Novotel Lakeside. On the West Coast, I’d recommend staying at the The Alpine Glacier Motel Franz Josef. When in Milford Sound, you’ll want to stay at the Milford Sound Lodge. At Mount Cook National Park, the place to stay is the Aoraki Mount Cook Lodge. And there’s a lovely bed and breakfast at Lake Tekapo called Three Rivers Lodge where I had very good luck.

Getting around

New Zealand is well connected by road. In the South Island, you’re best off getting a rental car and self driving. You also have the option of joining a guided tour which will take you to all the major tourist sites without your need to worry about how you’re going to get there.

Recommended Itinerary

The Google Map above shows the locations of several places that I recommend visiting. The itinerary below assumes that you’ll fly in to Queenstown in the early afternoon, will be self driving, and spend about 11 days doing this. It also assumes that you’ll use Queenstown as your base while visiting the other locations.

Day 1 – Queenstown:

  • Drive the Crown Range Road

Days 2 and 3 – Wanaka and the West Coast Glaciers:

  • Visit the Wanaka Tree
  • View Lake Hawea and the mountains.
  • Visit Fantail Falls.
  • Hike across the valley up to the source of the Fox Glacier.
  • Hike to the Franz Josef Glacier
  • Go glacier hiking.*
  • Take a helicopter ride to the top of the glaciers.*
  • Visit Lake Mapourika.*
  • Return to Queenstown.

*  skip if doing this in a single day

Day 4 and 5 – Fiordlands National Park

  • Take an organised tour of Doubtful Sound
  • Visit Milford Sound.
  • Take a Milford Sound Cruise.
  • Visit the Chasm, and Falls Creek.
  • View Mitre Peak at sunset and sunrise.

Day 6 – Around Queenstown:

  • Visit Glenorchy.
  • Visit Arrowtown.
  • Have dinner at the Peak.

Days 7 and 8 – Visit Mount Cook National Park

  • Hike the Tasman Valley Trail and the Hooker Valley Trail to the bottom of Mount Cook.
  • Visit the Tasman Glacier.
  • Take a helicopter rider to the top of the Southern Alps and the Glaciers.

Day 9 – Visit Lake Tekpao:

  • Visit the lake when the wind is calm, both during the day, and at night.
  • View and Photograph the Milky Way above the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • View the lake and the valley from the summit of Mount John Observatory.
  • Visit Mount John Observatory for a star-gazing tour.
  • Stop at the mailbox at Irishman’s Creek.

Day 10 – The Moeraki Loop:

  • Visit the Moeraki Boulders
  • Stop at Lindis Pass
  • Return to Queenstown

Day 1 – Queenstown:

Queenstown is a hub for the Southern Lakes District and home to one of the most beautiful airports in the world. I recommend flying into this city, and using it as a base while exploring the area around.

On the first day, I would recommend allowing your body to adapt to the time difference and jet lag. I would recommend taking a drive up the Crown Range Road which overlooks Queenstown to photograph the valley and the mountain range known as The Remarkables. This is particularly breathtaking on a clear night when the stars come out.

Days 2 and 3 – Wanaka and the West Coast Glaciers:

While you could do this in a single day, I recommend that you split it across two days to fully enjoy it and not wear yourself down. The West Coast Glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – are a decent drive (around 5 hours) through winding roads from Queenstown. To do it in a single day involves about 14 hours of activity. I would recommend driving up there on one day, and driving back the next.

Wanaka is the first stop. Its main drawcards are the Wanaka Tree, the Mount Aspiring range on Lake Wanaka, and the Mount Aspiring National Park. How long you choose to spend here is entirely up to you. I am of the opinion that the true drawcard of the area is the Wanaka Tree, which is a mere few hundred metres from the main road, and is accessible via a well-marked gravel path.

Allow yourself about an hour to truly take it in. If you are adventurous, you may choose to photograph it on a clear moonless night to capture the Milky Way in the background.

The next point of interest along this route is Lake Hawea. You can’t miss it. There are a range of different spots to photograph it from. One of my favourites is the segment called “The Neck”.

On a calm day, the waters will clearly reflect the mountains in the distance. Allow yourself about 45 minutes to take this area in.

About 45 minutes further on, Fantail falls will present its way tucked on the right hand side of the highway. It is a stop that most drivers on this route make to rest and stretch their legs, and is a small cascade on a crystal clear stream that is surrounded by tomes. You may like to spend a 30 minutes photographing this cascade before moving on to the glaciers.

The Fox Glacier is next on the route. It is the first of two glaciers in very close proximity to each other on the West Coast. The glacier is easy to access on foot, via a trail that passes through some very rocky terrain. Expect to spend about 90 minutes on a return trip from the parking lot to the glacier and back.

The Franz Josef glacier is about 30 minutes north of the Fox Glacier and is the second of the two glaciers. Both glaciers are impressive. You can park in the parking lots and then hike up the trail to the glaciers. The hikes are not particularly challenging but require one to have a reasonable level of fitness. It also requires good, strong hiking boots, and if you care for, a pair of hiking poles.

However, if you want to truly get up close and personal with these rivers of ice, consider taking a guided hiking tour through the ice caverns of the glaciers, or better yet, a helicopter ride to the summits of the glaciers.

I highly recommend the helicopter rides. Depending on your choice, you may require anything from a few hours to a couple of days in the area.

North of Franz Josef, Lake Mapourika lies on the left hand side of the highway. Its location is very understated and is easy to pass by. It is a flat lake with a jetty extending into its waters which, on a calm day, create a natural mirror.

Allow yourself 30 minutes to take in this location and photograph this lake.

Day 4 and 5 – Fiordlands National Park

There are two major drawcards here – Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound.

There is no road access to Doubtful Sound. The only way to access it is through a tour. I recommend the one organized by Real Journeys.

You have the option of doing the overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound (which is what I recommend), or the day trip to Doubtful Sound. Real Journeys offers the option to do both trips.

When you book with Real Journeys, they will pick you up from your hotel in Queenstown and put you on a coach that will take you to both Fiords. The serve excellent food on these cruises, and offer you the opportunity to kayak in the fiords, or take a ride on a skiff deeper into the sounds.

There is road access to Milford Sound, and you could stay at the Milford Sound Lodge. Driving will allow you to stop at the many places along the highway that are worth spending a few moments to take in.

Day 6 – Around Queenstown:

By this stage, you’ll feel like you need a breather. Queenstown will offer you that. I’d recommend making it a low key day to explore Glenorchy, which is an hour’s drive from the Queenstown city centre.

It’s a nice little town, that will allow you to take a walk by the lake and check out a few heritage structures. 90 minutes at Glenorchy is sufficient to take it in.

If you still have the energy, I recommend turning around and visitng Arrowtown, which is just outside Queenstown.

It offers a quaint little historic town which seems to have slipped back in time, and has a selection of tea rooms to grab a hot beverage.

I’d recommend topping off the day by getting dinner at The Peak observation deck and restaurant in Queenstown. It offers you panoramic views of The Remarkables and the city below.

Days 7 and 8 – Visit Mount Cook National Park

Mount Cook National Park is the heart of middle earth. There are heaps of drives and trails to walk, and it also offers amazingly dark skies with clear views of the Milky Way that look over the Southern Alps.

The national park lies beyond Lake Pukaki which is fed through braided rivers of the Tasman Glacier. There are lots of landscape photography locations in the park. This was one of the filming locations for Lord of the Rings.

This park offers dark skies, and amazing hiking trails, and is great for both landscape photography, and night time astrophotography.

Day 9 – Visit Lake Tekpao:

Lake Tekapo is a location that you must take in. One night is good. Two nights are even better. Ideally, you want to stay here during a clear moonless night. The dark skies in the area make the area great for night time photography.

When the wind is calm, the lake offers an amazing and surreal scene, where the glacial fed waters create a mirror that reflect the peaks of the Southern Alps.

At night, when the stars come out, the Church of the Good Shepherd becomes one of the most beloved subjects to photograph, with the Milky Way being clearly visible, even with the naked eye.

Also in the area is Mount John Observatory. You can book ahead to take part in an astrophotography and sky-gazing tour. I recommend booking ahead of time.

Last but not least, about 14km out of Lake Tekapo, on the highway towards Mount Cook, there is a sheep station called Irishman’s Creek which has a mailbox on the side of the road. It is relatively unknown and offers a far quieter location to photograph than Church of the Good Shepherd.

Day 10: The Moeraki Loop:

Moeraki is a bit out of the way, and has one claim to fame – the Moeraki Boulders. It is about three hours’ drive from Mount Cook National Park. There is only one thing to see here – the boulders which are sometimes referred to as God’s Marbles, or more simply, the Moeraki Boulders. I recommend leaving Lake Tekapo early, arriving here and allowing yourself about two hours to take photographs and get some lunch, and then start driving to Queenstown.

On the way back to Queenstown, the highway will lead you through Lindis Pass. While there isn’t much purpose to stay here, there are a few good hikes. However, the main appeal of this area is a few landscapes. I would stop here for about 30 minutes to take a few photographs and then continue to drive to Queenstown.

If you’re on a leisurely pace, you will drive into Queenstown after dark. There is a lookout on the Crown Range Road that overlooks Queenstown, and if you’re lucky, will give you a glimpse of, on the odd occasion, the Aurora Australis.

What else?

Being the youngest country in the world, New Zealand offers one a very unique landscape to enjoy. Christchurch, which was hit by an earthquake in 2011, continues to rebuild. If you’re inclined, there’s an iconic railway trip on the Trans-Alpine express to be taken between Greymouth and Christchurch that gives one a very unique view of the New Zealand countryside while going through a series of tunnels in the Southern Alps. You could alternatively drive across the Trans-Apline Highway.

Greymouth offers one the opportunity to pick up some traditional jade artifacts and souvenirs.

A word of caution – for folks who experience motion sickness in vehicles, it is worth taking along some motion-sickness medication. The drives around the New Zealand countryside, while scenic, involve a lot of winding roads which can challenge those who are sensitive.