3 Best Short Breaks in Winter on New Zealand’s South Island
Winter is a great time to go on a short break or weekend away in New Zealand. The snow capped mountains are stunning vistas, the weather although cold is often clear. Also there will be way less tourists (except for Queenstown which is always busy) which will make your short escape from the daily grind more relaxing and peaceful. While there is plenty of fantastic places to visit throughout New Zealand, I have made a shortlist of the 3 best short breaks in Winter on New Zealand’s South Island.
It doesn’t matter if you are a solo backpacker, couple or large family, each of these destinations is a great place to visit with plenty of fun activities, many of which are suitable for everyone. Even if they’re not, like doing a bungee jump in Queenstown, watching others brave the fall is a fun way to pass the time. All while appreciating that your feet are staying firmly on the ground!
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A weekend away in Mount Cook is perfect as you only need a couple of days there to see the highlights. However a trip to Mount Cook is one of the prettiest places in New Zealand’s South Island. Mount Cook is lovely in both winter and summer when the Mount Cook Daisy blooms, but in Winter you will see all it’s snowy splendor.
The drive to reach Mount cook is stunning, with the glacier Lake Punakiki a brilliant ice blue colour. Couple it with a pink sky as the sun sets behind the snow capped mountains for an unforgettable view. The atmosphere will instantly relax you with its natural beauty. Make the road trip part of your trip to get the most from your short break at Mount Cook.
Mount Cook Village will immediately send your thoughts to Christmasy alpine villages in Europe, although of course it’s summer in Europe. The wooden houses and hotels perch at the foothills. The lights are inviting and the scene intriguing.
What to do in Mount Cook in Winter.
The Hooker Valley walk follows hooker river to the hooker glacier and hooker lake at the base of Mount Cook. In summer the lake is clear but in winter it turns a milky grey due to the silt that is washed down with rain and snow melt. There is always glacial icebergs on the lake, but expect more of them and a larger size in Winter. The lake can partially freeze to. The ice sheets accumulate along the lake’s stony beach and tinkle in the wind.
The hooker valley is an easy 3 hour return walk, although conditions may make it more difficult. There is pushchair/wheelchair access to the viewpoint only, about a 15 minute walk. To go further babies and young children must be carried. Wear good boots and plenty of warm layers. Always check the weather before going on the hike and take snacks and water as conditions can change rapidly.
Nothing is more spectacular than gliding through the skies with amazing panoramic views of New Zealand’s highest mountains. The glistening snow is stunning to see, with beautiful milky grey rivers and lakes thanks to the silt in the melt water. There are multiple options for your helicopter ride, as you can also see Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, or land on the mountains too.
Observe the Stars
Mount Cook is a dark skies Reserve which means it’s one of the best places in New Zealand to see the night skies, weather depending. On a clear night seeing the milky way and Southern cross lighting the skies with snow capped mountains surrounding you is magical. Mount Cook Alpine Center also has a planetarium if you wish to learn more or don’t have clear skies. .
Other Hiking Routes
There are several other less popular walks in the Mount Cook area that are great for everyone, from families with young children to avid hikers. For more information and a full list of every walk check out this Department of Conservation (DOC) walks list.
Before going on any of these hikes please check the conditions and any avalanche alerts at the Mount Cook Alpine Center to ensure it is safe to proceed.
Governors Bush Walk : This 45 minute stroll is ideal for young children as there is plenty of space for them to run around. Keep your eyes open for Fantails
Kea Point: A 1 hour return buggy friendly walk with stunning views of Mount Sefton and the Hooker Valley.
Tasman Glacier: The Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes walk is a 2.6km stroll (1 hour return) is a moderate hiking route. It’s a quiet route so expect to see few other tourists. At the Blue Lakes you will get views of the moraine wall. Continue on for brilliant views of the Tasman Glacier front and lake. In the summer you can cruise to the glacier front but in winter the lake freezes over.
Mueller Hut : A grueling 4 hour return tramping track. In winter you will need crampons and proper gear to hike there. Always check condition at the Alpine Center in case its closed or unsafe due to conditions.
How To Get To Mount Cook
Mount Cook is easy to visit of you have your own transport. It is approximately a 3.5 hour drive from Christchurch, or 3 hours from Queenstown. There are public buses such as Intercity buses, or private tours that visit.
If you do have your own transport make the most of the scenic drive, as both routes are beautiful, especially in winter with stunning snow capped mountains. In particular, make sure you stop at the blue glacial Lake Punakiki before continuing to Mount Cook. On a clear day you can see Mount Cook across the iconic blue lake for fantastic photo opportunities.
Where To Stay In Mount Cook
Mount Cook has limited accommodation available but these range from the cheapest, with a bed in a dorm room the cheapest option, which is great for backpackers. The Hermitage Hotel is the most luxury option, but there are several mid-range and family friendly places too. You can also camp at the White Horse campsite near the start of the Hooker Trail.
Where To Eat In Mount Cook
There are only four restaurants in Mount Cook so you won’t have much choice, but you also won’t spend ages trying to decide where to go. Unfortunately they are on the pricey side. There is a small shop if you want to buy a few items, but again it’s not cheap, mostly due to the cost of transport to Mount Cook Village.
If you plan on self catering, even just for breakfast, do your groceries before going to Mount Cook as it will work out much cheaper.
Queenstown is a busy bustling town year round. With plenty of adrenaline furled activities that are suitable throughout the year. Therefore it’s perfect for a short break in Winter.
Queenstown has more than adventure activities to offer. It’s stunning location on lake Wakitipu opposite the remarkable mountain range is a huge attraction. Views from the top of the gondola are unforgettable, especially on a good day. Relax with a drink and enjoy the view. Alternatively enjoy a peaceful crust on a steamboat on lake Wakitipu. Try the world famous Fergburger, or enjoy a delicious hot chocolate at Patagonia Chocolates.
In summer hiking is great, in winter people head to the ski slopes. Queenstown is a lively hub year round and a fantastic place to spend a short break or weekend away. The only difficulty will be choosing which of the many activities you wish to do.
What to do in Queenstown in Winter
Riding the Queenstown Skyline Gondola is all round fun for everyone. The cable car rises steeply alongside the cliff face to 450m above Queenstown. This gives you amazing views of Queenstown, lake Wakitipu and the Remarkables. From the top enjoy refreshments in the bar and restaurant.
Combine your trip o on Queenstown Gondola with fun on the luge. There are two tracks to choose from making it great for different ages, abilities, and thrill seekers.
Paragliding is a surprisingly relaxing adventure activity, and not scary unless you struggle with heights. Take off from the hill above the to of the gondola for stunning panoramic views and enjoy gliding above the busy streets of Queenstown.
Bungee or Swing
Thrill seekers will love the choice of three unique locations to do a Bungee or Swing. You can Bungee at Kawarau Bridge, which is the oldest commercial bungee jump in the world. Nearby you can also do a canyon swing or zipline.
Alternatively jump at the Ledge, which protrudes from the cliff overlooking Queenstown. You will have amazing views as you jump or swing beside the Gondola. At the ledge you can choose how you want to jump, people often back flip, but some have jumped with props including a bicycle. Or choose Nevis, a staggering 134m tall and New Zealand’s highest bungee.
Lake Wakatipu Cruise
While there are several options for cruising Lake Wakatipu, the most interesting option has to be the Steamboat TSS Earnshaw. The vintage steamship was built in 1912. During your cruise you can visit the engine rooms and discover more about the history of the steamship while enjoying stunning panoramic views of Queenstown and snow capped mountains.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Cadrona ski and snowboard slope is a great place to enjoy New Zealand’s winter sports. It’s brilliant that you can choose to go skiing for just a day, or half day. At Cadrona you can hire the equipment you require. First timers can opt for a lesson in the beginners area which is ideal for complete novices. If you are rusty, simply have a practice then take to the slopes.
Kiwi Birdlife Center
See real Kiwi at the Kiwi Birdlife center. The sanctuary is a haven for several species of native New Zealand Wildlife including the Tuatara, a three eyed lizard which was around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. With 5 acres of native bush to explore a visit is great for the whole family.
Jet boating was developed in New Zealand and is one of the countries most popular water activities. The Shotover jet in Queenstown is probably the most famous of all the jet boating options in New Zealand. However there are several Jet boat tours in Queenstown that all offer a nerve racking, thrilling adrenaline filled ride along lakes or rivers and surrounded by Queenstown’s amazing scenery.
White Water Rafting
If you don’t mind getting wet and like an adventure then head out white water rafting. Not only is it a great way to enjoy network scenery, it’s alternatively thrilling and peaceful as you journey along the river and various sections of rapids. There are multiple tour options for river rafting in Queenstown, including the sedate option along the Kawarua River or a more adventurous one on the Shotover River.
Milford Sound (Day Trip)
Milford Sound regularly makes ‘New Zealand top ten’ lists. This popular tourist destination is usually visited on a tour from Queenstown or Te Anau. The Sound is actually a Fjord, but it makes it no less impressive. The drive there alone is beautiful. On the cruise you will see and have ample photo opportunities to capture the iconic Bishop’s mitre. The peak rises steeply from the Fjord. You are likely to see Kea, a cheeky native bird which loves to chew rubber, including that on windscreen wipers! If you are lucky you could see dolphins, fur seals and even Fjordland penguins during your cruise.
How To Get To Queenstown
Probably the best way to get to Queenstown (unless you are one of the few who live nearby) is to fly. There are plenty of flights from all major cities in New Zealand to Queenstown, making t very accessible. From the airport you can catch a shuttle into Queenstown. You could hire a car if you wish, but Queenstown is small enough to explore on foot.
Accommodation In Queenstown
There are plenty of places to stay in and around Queenstown. it’s not the cheapest destination but there is plenty of hostels, hotels, motels and self catering accommodation available. Alternatively try one of the nearby camping spots. Check the reviews and book accordingly, depending on what your requirements are.
Eating in Queenstown
Fergburger is reputed to make New Zealand’s best burger. They certainly have a good choice and the queue proves their popularity. Go early to avoid the worst of the Queue and see for yourself.
Patagonia chocolate shop by the beach and lake shore has a wide variety of ice cream flavours, if you can cope with ice cream during Winter. Alternatively, warm yourself up with a hot chocolate, they have several flavours to choose from. A box of chocolates from here is a must for chocolate lovers, or as a great treat or present.
Queenstown has a wide range of eating and drinking options, from Irish pubs to Thai restaurants, pizza bars, Indian restaurants and everything you could imagine. Ask at your accommodation for recommendations and local places. If you are self catering there are several supermarkets in Queenstown.
Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers
The West Coast glaciers on the south island feature on every must do list of New Zealand. In winter it’s great for a short break, with snow capped mountains adding to the winery atmosphere. The glaciers are beautiful and impressive, and great to explore. If you are on a budget doing the short hikes to the glacier front is the best way to see them. Alternatively splash out on a heli-hike where a helicopter will land you on the glacier so you can explore it’s cracked and crevices with a guide. Or out for a helicopter ride for amazing Ariel views of one or both fox and Franz-Josef glaciers.
There is a surprising amount of other activities to do around the west coast glaciers on your short winter break. One of the lesser known but beautiful thing to do is visit Lake Matheson. Lake Matheson is a beautiful mirror lake with fantastic views of mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Go at sunrise or sunset for a spectacular sight.
The west coast is one of the rainiest places in New Zealand. However, winter is often surprisingly clear, whereas summer can be more rainy, making Winter a particularly good time to visit. As with most of New Zealand, it’s likely to be quieter too. Don’t worry if you are unlucky with the weather though, there are some lovely indoor activities including hotpools for a relaxing break.
What to do at Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers in Winter
Hiking to a Glacier Front
You can hike to the glacier face of both Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers. It takes approx 1 hour return to walk to Fox Glacier Front, and approx 1 1/2 hours to walk to Franz-Josef glacier front. Along the way you will see waterfalls, plenty of rocks brought down by the river and glacier, and of course the blue icy glacier front too. You might even get to hear the crack of a chunk of ice splitting of and watch it smash to pieces when it lands. Keep your eye out for signs along the way which tell where the glacier front used to be. The amount they’re receding is a sure sign of global warming.
You can go heli-hiking at both Fox Glacier and Franz-Josef Glacier. You will be kitted out with boots, crampons and warm gear. After you board a helicopter for a shirt but fantastic flight onto the glacier, which you then explore with your guide. It’s not a cheap activity but one that’s well worth while.
One of the most impressive ways to appreciate the size of Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers, and the scale of the Southern Alps in which they lie is from the air. There are multiple helicopter tour options so you can find one suitable for your budget. You can also choose an option where you can land on the glaciers on Mount Cook for a super fun snowy winter experience.
Skydiving at Fox Glacier is undoubtedly one of the best places to skydive in New Zealand. From the air (both in the plane and during the freefall) you will have amazing panoramic views of Fox glacier, Franz-Josef glacier, Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, as well as the sea and west coast. It is one for the adventurous thrill seekers, but an experience you will never forget.
In the heart of Franz-Josef town take a trip to the glacier hot pools. Soak in one of three main pools. These vary in temperature too. There are also three secluded private pools and spa treatments available. Take a hat in Winter to keep your head warm while you soak.
West Coast Wildlife Centre
At the West Coast Wildlife Centre you can meet rare New Zealand natives, in particular the Rowi Kiwi, one of five formally recognized Kiwi breeds. Sadly this small bird is one of the rarest breeds, with only around 500 surviving. Thankfully New Zealanders are very aware of todays threats to their Native wildlife, a visit to a Kiwi Sanctuary or wildlife centre will both help save these interesting creatures, and be a fun experience for you. In particular, families will love seeing the Rowi Kiwi and other wildlife.
There are approximately 30 hikes in Fox and Franz-Josef glacier region, check out the full list here. Below are some of the best ones, especially in Winter.
Please check the weather before going out, particularly as it can change quickly. Dress warmly with sturdy footwear and always take a waterproof/windproof layer. On longer walks make sure you have water and snacks.
Lake Matheson: The beautiful mirror Lake Matheson near Fox Village is best visited at dawn for amazing sunrise views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. However the views on any clear day are spectacular. Lake Matheson is easily one of the best placed to get great views of Mount Cook.
Terrace Walk: Near Franz-Josef Village is an easy 30 min walk through native rainforest. Go at night for a chance to see glow worms, but make sure you take a torch for the walk. (Turn it off to see the glow worms at their best). This is a great walk for kids.
Minnehaha Walk: From Fox Village this 20 minute loop is a great way to explore the native forest. It’s suitable for kids, and at night you can see glow worms.
Tatare Tunnels Walk: From Cowan Street at Franz-Josef Village follow a 4WD track for scenic views of the Tatare Gorge. The track then becomes steep and narrow, so wear sturdy shoes or boots. You have to cross a stream so you may get wet feet, but it shouldn’t be more than ankle depth. From there you can explore the tunnels with your torch, and see glow worms.
Ōkārito Wetland and Lagoon Walks: There are actually 3 walks at Ōkārito Lagoon, ranging from a 20 minute wetland walk to a 3 hour hike. The lagoon is a reserve with 76 native bird species living there.
How To Get To Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers
It’s easiest to get to the glaciers with your own transport. From Queenstown it’s approximately a 4.5 hour drive. From Greymouth its approximately 2.5 hours, and from Hokitika (which you can fly to) it’s just over 2 hours. It’s one of the most isolated parts of New Zealand which both makes it a little harder to visit, but more worthwhile when you do.
Where to Stay at Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers
Franz-Josef Village is larger than Fox Village, however both are small and isolated. despite that there is a decent range of hostels, motels, hotels and self catering accommodation available. I recommend choosing the village based on the activities you wish to do, as most places within each village should be in walking distance of your accommodation.
Where to Eat at Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers
Both Fox and Franz-Josef Villages have a few cafes and restaurants available. These generally cater to tourists rather than locals, but there is a decent choice and there should be a few options within walking distance of your accommodation.
There is only small dairy’s (corner shops) available to buy food supplies, so if you are self catering it could be worth stopping at a supermarket before heading to the West Coast.
So there you have it, my top 3 Winter getaways on New Zealand’s South Island. With snow and winter scenes pretty much guaranteed they are prefect for a short trip or stop on a longer journey.
Have you visited any of them in Winter? If you have please let me know your thoughts below.