Ultimate New Zealand South Island Road Trip with Stray


I recently experienced the most epic road trip in the beautiful South Island of New Zealand with Stray.

I travelled the South Island for three weeks, exploring so many new places off the beaten path, doing Kiwi-typical adrenalin pumping activities and making new Straymates from all over the world - I had the best time!

Check out my video to see a snippet of my trip:



Who are Stray & why did I choose them?

I returned to New Zealand recently after living overseas for a few years and wished to travel the South Island properly as I hadn't done so since I was young.

Researching, I came across Stray - New Zealand's award-winning, guided hop-on-hop-off bus network for adventurous travellers.

This sounded right up my alley as I enjoy group tours, and they take you further off the beaten track to so many incredible lesser-known places, as well as hitting the most popular attractions and highlights.
They have hand-picked the best road trip routes, unique accommodation places and memorable activities to do.

All I had to do was sit back, relax and enjoy the journey!



Which Bus Pass to take?

Stray's hop-on, hop-off bus route runs in a loop showcasing the best of both islands.

They offer many different types of bus passes, depending on where you wish to travel to in New Zealand and how much time you have.
The passes are flexible and you can hop-on and hop-off wherever you like.

On your bus, you will have a super friendly Driver Guide full of local knowledge who can help you book accommodation and activities as you go.

The ultimate Stray pass is the Maximus Pass - covering both islands in full so you'll get to see it all!


The Ron Pass - the one I did

Because I wanted to concentrate on the South Island, I chose The Ron Pass, which includes their full South Island travel network.
I was thrilled to explore so many places, including the Deep South where I had never been.
I had never even met a single person that had been to Stewart Island before!

It was a real adventure.


Day 1: Christchurch - Kaikoura

My road trip began bright and early in Christchurch and headed to the coastal town of Kaikoura. One of the top activities to do here is Whale Watching, and we were lucky to see two Sperm whales, a few Dusky dolphins and plenty of seals. We finished the day having fish and chips and drinking L&P - Kiwi as!



Day 2: Kaikoura - Picton

Today we drove to Picton at the very top of the South Island, passing beautiful rolling green hills dotted with sheep along the way. We had the afternoon free to wander around and watch the ferries come in. Once it started to rain we took refuge in a local pub!


Day 3: Picton - Abel Tasman

We picked up more Strayers that had come over that morning on the ferry from Wellington and continued our roadie. We stopped at a Hobbit filming location, at the river where The Company hides in barrels!

That evening we had a social dinner and our awesome driver Bobby cooked us all a mean burger feast at our accommodation at Abel Tasman - which was located right on the very edge of the National Park.


Day 4: Abel Tasman

Today we had a full free day to explore the area. A popular activity to do here is kayaking but due to bad weather, the tours had been cancelled. Doing a day hike is equally as impressive, even in the rain. I had a wonderful time walking along the coastal track of one of New Zealand's Great Walks, nestled in native rainforest, with waterfalls, bubbling creeks and local birds and wildlife. It was great to spend a few hours out solely in beautiful nature.


Day 5: Abel Tasman - Westport

This morning, after a stunning pink sunrise we headed to our next destination, Westport. After a few hours on the bus, we arrived on the West Coast, known for its wild and untamed beauty. We were dropped off at Tauranga Bay where we got to stretch our legs for a nice one-hour hike along the scenic coastline. We passed by a local seal colony and ended at the Cape Foulwind Lighthouse.



Day 6: Westport - Franz Josef

Today we headed further down the coast and it was a perfect blue-sky day. The views as we were driving along the coast were insane! We stopped at the famous Punakaiki 'Pancake' Rocks - unique limestone rock formations and blowholes that began forming 30 million years ago.

We had another stop in Greymouth where we picked up some more Strayers before ending in Franz Josef. Those of us opting for the Glacier Heli-Hike (me, me, me!) got all booked in at the base for the next morning.
That evening at our awesome accommodation we had a fun pizza night with all you can eat woodfired pizza and a house drink for only $20 - choice!



Day 7 - 8: Franz Josef 

For the next two days in a row, my Heli-Hike tour was cancelled! The weather is super unpredictable and it was too windy at the top of the mountain for the helicopters to fly.
I spent my time doing some picturesque hikes in the area, eating nice food at the local cafes and catching up on work.


Day 9 - 10: Franz Josef 

The third time was the charm - doing a Glacier Heli-Hike was a huuuge bucket list tick for me and it was totally worth the wait! After an exhilarating helicopter ride, we got to spend a full three hours on the glacier. The beautiful blue ice, unique formations and mountain scenery were incredibly breath-taking. It's one of those top travel highlights that will stay with me forever.




Read More: Franz Josef Travel Guide

Day 11: Franz Josef - Wanaka

Today was a big travel day heading further south but there were heaps of exciting stops along the way to break it up, beginning with Lake Matheson. This is known as a spectacular mirror lake but it was foggy and raining so hard that we couldn't see it! We also stopped at a beautiful waterfall and Lake Hawea viewing points.

Arriving in Wanaka, the first thing I did was take a photo (or twenty) of #thatwanakatree - the most Instagrammed tree in the world. Wanaka is an absolutely stunning town, next time I would definitely stay for longer and do the Roy's Peak hike. 



Day 12: Wanaka - Queenstown

That morning a few of us did a one-hour return hike up Mount Iron which had beautiful mountain and lake views from the top. On the road again, we stopped at a Cromwell fruit shop before arriving at a super exciting destination - the Kawarau Bridge Bungy. 

I was the only person on the bus that wanted to do it, so I stepped up and showed them what us Kiwis like to do for fun! It was my third bungy jump and it was just as thrilling as the first. Finishing up in Queenstown, the first thing I did was have a Fergburger - the best burgers in New Zealand and an absolute must-have.



The Southern Swine Fergburger

Day 13 - 14: Queenstown

Over the next two days, I had a blast in Queenstown, walking around the cute tourist town, riding up the gondola for the best views (I was a bit guttered the luge was temporarily closed), going to the Ice Bar and doing a bit of a pub crawl with my fellow Strayers. 

I also did a day-trip to Glenorchy (45 minutes away) and did a Funyak tour which included a high-speed jet boat ride followed by floating down the Dart River in inflatable kayaks. 
I was amongst literal Lord of the Rings filming locations so as you can imagine, it was incredibly scenic!




Day 15: Queenstown - Fiordland

Today was one of my absolute favourite Straydays! We left bright and early and headed to Fiordland. The entire drive to Milford Sound was picture-perfect and we had a few scenic photo stops at mirror lakes and Te Anau along the way. Then it was time for our cruise in the 8th Wonder of the World which was mesmerisingly beautiful.

That evening our accommodation was off the grid at historic Gunn's Camp. We had no wifi or signal and the electricity generator shut off at 10 pm. I really enjoyed being offline for once and everyone hung out together and just chatted like the old days! Later on, we went out to search for glowworms and gaze at the stars - I had never seen the Milky Way so clear and bright before in my life!




Day 16: Fiordland - Stewart Island

We had another early start and began with a sunrise hike up Routeburn Track. If it was a clear morning we would have had great views of the nearby alpine peaks and valleys but it was a rainy and foggy one (still a great way to start the day). We headed further south to Invercargill and on to Bluff. Here, most of us caught the ferry over to Stewart Island for the night.

We had dinner and a couple of pints at the one and only pub. Some friendly locals gave us some temporary tattoos that said 'I love Stewart Island' which we gladly sported.
Later on, we went out to try and spot some kiwis. We were unsuccessful but apparently, it is one of the best places to see them in the wild.


Day 17: Stewart Island - Queenstown

Today we had the best part of a full day to explore Stewart Island. Most of us split into groups and hired cars, which was a great way to see as much of the island as we could in a short time. We saw so many pristine beaches, beautiful coves, went for little hikes in lush rainforests and played on rope swings.

Stewart Island blew me away and wasn't at all what I expected. It was like stepping back in time and a total paradise - I loved it! We caught the ferry back at 3 pm and drove back to Queenstown for the night.



Day 18: Queenstown - Mount Cook

Our road trip continued to another exciting destination - Mount Cook - New Zealand's highest mountain. We first stopped at Lake Pukaki which had the most incredible turquoise water I had ever seen, I couldn't believe my eyes!

At Mount Cook, most of us did the Hooker Valley track - one of the best day-walks to do there. It's a three-hour return hike amongst the beautiful landscape of the Southern Alps, across swing bridges, milky-blue alpine streams and ending with views of Mueller Glacier. On a clear day, you can see Mount Cook but it was clouded over for us. It was still probably the best hike I've ever done in my life.




Day 19: Mount Cook - Christchurch

Very sadly, it was my last Strayday! After a group photo, we arrived in Lake Tekapo where we had some free time. A few people braved the very chilly morning and walked up to the Mt John Observatory for the views, while the rest of us who claimed sore legs from the day before took refuge in Tekapo Springs, which had hot pools, an ice skating rink and a nice cafe attached.

We had one last photo stop by the lake and the Church of the Good Shepherd before expressing it to Christchurch. I hopped off the Stray bus for the final time and made my way to the airport, sad to say goodbye to my new friends, but full of new experiences, incredible memories and about a thousand photos on my camera!




How much does it cost?

Stray is a super affordable way to travel around New Zealand.

The Ron Pass which I had is only $895 NZD which covers the entire South Island travel network and is valid for a whole year. Check out their page here to see their different passes and prices.

Hostels in New Zealand typically cost between $27 - $35 a night. You have the flexibility to choose what suits your budget and pay as you go. You can book your accommodation daily via your Driver, often at a discounted price.

Food costs will depend on the person. New Zealand is known for being a bit pricey but you can eat quite cheaply if you cook your own meals. The Stray bus regularly stops at local supermarkets so you can get your own fresh supplies at a lower cost.

Activities can range from $60 - $400+ depending on what it is so it's definitely worth preplanning and budgeting for the ones you really wish to do. Stray also offers many of these activities at a discounted price which is awesome!



What's included?

All of your Stray transport is included on their private and comfortable buses.

Driver Guides are your bus driver and tour guide all in one, each of them are super friendly, helpful and great sources of local knowledge.

Reserved accommodation is available for you even in the busiest summer months - you are always guaranteed a bed!


The Stray Bus

I loved kicking back and relaxing on the Stray bus, you get to enjoy the best views! All of the vehicles I hopped on were clean and comfy and the larger buses have USB ports to charge your phone. The Driver Guides have microphones so you can easily hear them talking and music is played regularly on the journeys.



The Accommodation

I was generally very impressed by the places we stayed at. Each hostel was clean and always in the perfect location, only a short walk away from grocery stores and nearby attractions.
My favourites were located at Franz Josef (which had a spa pool!), Gunns Camp and Mount Cook.

Gunn's Camp

Who travels with Stray?

Stray is open to any adventurous traveller aged 18 years or older; there is no age limit.
On my bus, our group was typically aged between early twenties to early thirties.

I met so many awesome people from all over the world including Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Sweden, Wales, The Netherlands, USA, even Egypt.

So many people, like myself, were travelling solo, so it's such a fantastic way to make new friends. Strayers will soon become your Straymates, there's no doubt about that! 



When to travel?

New Zealand is an awesome country to travel year-round! Summer is our peak-tourist season and the busiest time of year but if you like swimming and going to the beach, that might be the right time for you.

To avoid most of the crowds, travel in spring, autumn and even winter! The South Island, in particular, is insanely beautiful in the winter as it snows in many places - but you're right in thinking it will be very cold!



Final Thoughts

I had such a fantastic experience with Stray from start to finish. We went to so many unique and beautiful places and I was very impressed by how organised and seamless my tour was run, even with multiple people hopping on and off at different places all the time.

Longer travel days are always broken up with well-thought-out stops, including countless photo opportunities, places where you can go for little hikes, have lunch or do a grocery shop.

The drivers I had were all hilarious, super friendly and easygoing, and had a wealth of knowledge to share.

The ever-changing landscape of New Zealand is just incredible; even if you drive for half a day it is never boring because the views out of the windows are stunning. Multiple shades of green, snow-peaked mountains, rolling hills - it all looks straight out of a movie.

If you are thinking about doing Stray, 100% go for it! It's the ultimate road trip where you don't have to worry about planning routes, researching where to go, where to stay and what to do.
It's all taken care of for you and all you have to do is turn up with a heart of adventure. It is a truly enjoyable way to travel the South Island and it will be just the same for the North.

I have never done so many beautiful hikes or super fun activities in my life, all packed into three weeks. I can't wait to use my pass again in summer!

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Stray Australia and Stray Asia

Did you know Stray is Asia Pacific's largest hop-on hop-off adventure travel operator?
With the same flexible and off the beaten track bus routes in Australia and Asia - your adventure doesn't have to stop in New Zealand!

From Sydney to Cairns, Stray Australia offers various passes running north and south along their spectacular East Coast.

Stray Asia's guided network spans Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, offering access into remote and interesting parts of Asia that are otherwise hard to access.

If you're looking for a fun way to travel with total flexibility over your day-to-day itinerary, be shown extraordinary places and meet great people, then Stray is the best choice!

Happy travels,

Franz Josef, New Zealand Travel Guide


I visited Franz Josef recently while travelling with Stray - an adventurous New Zealand travel company with flexible Hop-On Hop-Off guided bus routes, and it was one of the top highlights of my time in the South Island.

Due to the exciting must-do activity I just had to do and unpredictable weather, I ended up spending five nights there and it didn't take long for the cosy town to begin feeling like a second home.

Franz Josef is a destination that should be on everyone's South Island road trip and this guide shares my recommendations and top tips for visitors, including that incredible South Island activity I stuck around for that was totally worth it!



ABOUT FRANZ JOSEF

Franz Josef is a true gem on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island and worth staying for a couple of nights at least, at any time of the year. 

Known for its stunning scenic surroundings where glaciers meet the rainforest, it's an incredibly picturesque place to visit and a nature-lovers dream, to say the least.

There are many beautiful hikes from short to long and Kiwi-typical adrenalin-pumping activities on offer to make your time in Franz Josef especially memorable.

The Franz Josef Glacier is the biggest drawcard and doing a Glacier Heli-Hike is the number one activity to do there. 


WHERE TO STAY

Rainforest Retreat is the perfect place to stay in Franz Josef. It's located just off the main village street, making it secluded but in close walking distance to every local activity, including the Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hikes which is literally one minute away.


At the feet of the Southern Alps, the property has magnificent mountain views and is nestled amongst native bush, making it the ultimate base to unwind and explore from.

For backpackers, travelling families, flashpackers and campervanners - they have cheap and cheerful Dorm Rooms, Motel Park accommodation, a Holiday Camp Site and even Deluxe Tree Huts and Lodges to suit everyone's needs and budget.

Onsite, they have a fantastic restaurant and bar Monsoon with daily Happy Hour specials, a great menu, fireplace and pool table, as well as a large outdoor spa pool, shared kitchen and laundry facilities and any tour information you might need. 

The staff are incredibly friendly and happy to help with any local tips or information you might need to make your stay a great experience.




WHAT TO DO

Glacier Heli-Hike

As mentioned, the top activity to do in Franz Josef is the Glacier Heli-Hike and trust me, it is worth every single cent! It's the steepest and fastest moving glacier in New Zealand and it's truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an #NZMustDo.

Beginning at the Franz Josef Village glacier base, you will be briefed with all the tour information you need and get geared up with everything provided for you, including jacket, pants, gloves, boots, socks, crampons etc.

Then you get to experience a fun helicopter ride with the most amazing scenery that lands on the glacier itself.


Once all set with your crampons on, you are then guided on an incredible three-hour hike on the glacier by your professional and friendly guide. 
They show you through the best and most beautiful parts of the glacier and tell you a lot of interesting facts and history about it as well.

Of course, there is plenty of time to take some Insta-worthy shots and soak in the magnificent surroundings around you.




I found the hike to be not too challenging, it is quite easy-going as you move at a fairly slow pace to be safe. The three hours spent on the ice went by so quickly - probably because I was having such a great time!

I was so glad to have stayed behind in Franz Josef to do it. My tour was cancelled due to high winds three days in a row, but on the fourth day, it was perfect conditions!

The weather is very hard to predict so I would advise being flexible with your dates if the Glacier Heli-Hike is something you really wish to do.




Glacier Thermal Hot Pools

If you do the Heli-Hike the entrance to the Glacier Thermal Hot Pools at the base is included in the cost, otherwise, you can pay separately.

Surrounded by rainforest, it's the perfect way to relax and rejuvenate after an exciting day of adventuring. There are three natural hot pools with different temperatures to suit any preferences.

They also have private spas, showers, lockers and even massage facilities onsite to make it an ultra experience.



Scenic hikes & walks

Franz Josef is spoiled for beautiful hikes and walks. If you may not be able to afford the Heli-Hike you can still hike pretty close to the glacier to get a good view of it.

The start of the hike carpark is 5 kilometres from the village centre. To save your legs until the real hiking begins, there is a shuttle bus service that will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation for $12.50 both ways. 

The hike to the glacier is 1.5 hours return plus there is a beautiful mirror lake walk that is 20 minutes return. You can also do a guided tour if you choose which you can book through Franz Josef Glacier Guides. You will learn a lot more about the area, walk through lush rainforests, get close to the glacier and get taken to a hidden waterfall. 


Spot some local wildlife - the native Kea is protected on the West Coast

Other activities

Those are the main activities that I enjoyed myself but there are so many other great ones on offer too including:



WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

There are a few little bars and eateries around the township for you to take your pick, but one that I especially enjoyed eating at was Rainforest's own on-site restaurant and bar Monsoon.


From 7-9 pm they have happy hour specials with $5 beers, house wines and cocktails which you can enjoy on their deck for sunset or in front of the cosy fireplace.

They also have an excellent dinner menu where they specialise in gourmet woodfire pizzas, and their burger was one of the biggest and best of my life!



Another great option that I frequented for lunch is The Landing (a popular spot for a drink also). Our Stray bus driver recommended it to us and they do great food there and coffee and cake.
I had their soup of the day and eggs benedict (at different times), both dee-lish.



TOP TIPS

Summer is peak tourist season in New Zealand and the Heli-Hike is extremely popular and busy. If you're around during the shoulder months, why not go then? There is just as much chance of flying in winter as there is in summer and it's not too cold at all, especially when the sun is shining. I went in early June and it was a warm 13 degrees up there.

As mentioned earlier, I would recommend staying in Franz Josef for at least two nights if you are wanting to do the Glacier Heli-Hike. The weather at the top of a mountain is super unpredictable and tours can often be cancelled at the last minute. 

If doing the Heli-Hike make sure to wear a pair of pants/trousers that aren't jeans. Jeans aren't allowed on the ice, nor are selfie/GoPro sticks. Wear your own thermal layers underneath and bring your sunglasses, everything else is provided.

If it's a wet day (as it often can be on the West Coast), grab an umbrella and browse the cute souvenir shops in town or bunk up in the local cinema to kill a few hours.





I was travelling the South Island with Stray's Ron Pass - a 2-3 week route that explores the best parts of the South Island, including Stewart Island!

More information about my incredible time travelling with Stray is coming very soon on the blog, stay tuned!

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Is hiking a glacier on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy Travels,

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