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US & Canada on Tour: New Zealand's South Island

New Zealand's South Island offers a wealth of adventures and experiences for United States and Canadian travellers. With so many amazing activities on offer, it can be difficult to know where to begin when preparing for your Kiwi holiday. So, from navigating the unique NZ driving challenges and coffee culture to Milford Sound Cruises and day hikes, this guide covers some top tips and activity ideas to consider for your South Island Kiwi adventure.

Driving is Different in New Zealand

Most travellers from the US and Canada hire cars and vehicles for their NZ holiday, and you must remain careful and focused while driving on New Zealand roads. 

The steering wheel will be on the opposite side of the vehicle to what you’re used to, and you’ll be driving on the left side of the road. Additionally, most of our roads are single-lane, often narrow and winding. So take your time when driving, give yourself extra time to get to where you need to go and take guided tours when possible so you can visit the best remote locations as safely and stress-free as possible. 

Book in Advance

If you’re visiting in the Summer months, you’ll want to book any activities, accommodation, and tours in advance as everything books up quickly during the peak holiday season. Even if you’re visiting in the off-season, it's still a good idea to book in advance as many operators reduce trips and take minimum numbers to operate.

We do Have Starbucks Here

Starbucks Coffee, Luxe Tours Nz

If you happen to feel a little homesick on your Kiwi travels, then you can pop into Starbucks for some familiarity. The drinks menu here is similar, and in the South Island, you’ll find Starbucks in Queenstown, Dunedin, Invercargill and Christchurch.

Note: Your US and Canada-issued Starbucks cards don’t work in New Zealand. However, you can purchase a Starbucks card from any NZ Starbucks store and load up to NZD 500 onto it to use in any Starbucks store in NZ. 

Coffee Tips

While we’re on the topic of cafe beverages, you may notice some coffee differences while over here. Here’s some info to keep in mind:

Espresso Coffee is the norm: We generally don’t have drip coffee here and most cafes will only serve espresso-based coffee drinks. Some places offer filter coffee, but you’ll want to browse Trip Advisor to find cafes that do.

We don't use cream or half & half: The standard here is whole cow’s milk unless you request it differently. For skim milk, you can ask for trim milk. Some places may be able to give you cream on the side if you ask, but it’s not guaranteed.

Double shots everywhere: Most espresso coffee here is made with a double shot unless you request it differently. If a double shot is too strong, just ask for a single shot when you order.

Common NZ Coffee Terms:

  • Short black: a straight double-shot espresso in a small cup. 

  • Long black: a double shot of espresso poured over the same amount of hot water. Some places may serve hot water on the side.

  • Americano: a long black made in reverse: a double shot of espresso in a larger cup with water poured on top.

  • Cappuccino: double-shot espresso with equal parts steamed milk and foam, sprinkled with chocolate or cinnamon.

  • Flat white: the most common coffee ordered in NZ. Similar to a cappuccino but milkier, with around two-thirds steamed milk and just a touch of swirled froth on top.

New Zealand Meat Pies

You’ll notice over here that fruit pies are not so common but meat pies are everywhere. You may feel hesitant to try one, but they are one of the best comfort foods you’ll find here, you just have to know where the best ones are. 

Top South Island Pie Locations:

Milford Road Merchant Cafe - Te Anau

This locally & family owned cafe & general store is a cute option on the edge of Te Anau township. Not only does it have great coffee but an interesting selection of pies with flavours such as 'Hamburger', similar to a McDonalds favourite, or the classics such as Pork Belly, Mince, Steak or a spicy Mexican Chicken.

Te Anau Cafes, Milford Road Merchant Cafe, Luxe Tours Nz

Miles Better Pies - Te Anau

This bakery specialises in gourmet pies, including their specialty taco pie if you’re feeling adventurous. You’ll find a range of meat pies as well as fruit-filled pies if you’re not quite ready to venture into savoury pie territory.

Ferg Bakery, Queenstown

Ferg Baker - Queenstown

You’ve probably heard of Queenstown’s Ferg Burger, world-famous for its specialty burgers, but next door you’ll also find Ferg Baker, a favourite eatery for many Queenstown locals.

You’ll find a range of delicious meat pies, including their perfectly tender pork belly apple pie and curried chicken pie, as well as a range of tasty sweet treats. 

Princess Street Butcher - Dunedin

The pies from this butcher are one of Dunedin locals’ best-kept secrets. You wouldn’t expect to find delicious pies here, but their freshly baked meat pies are hearty and delicious. Dedicated to high-quality local ingredients and ethical and sustainable practices, they are also a great local business to support.

Top Tours and Cruises

Milford Sound Tour and Cruise

With dark fiord waters surrounded by towering mountains and tumbling waterfalls, Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most stunning locations. A Milford Sound Cruise is a must-do activity while in New Zealand, providing the best way to see the entirety of the famous fiord.

The only road access there is via Milford Road from Te Anau, and the easiest option is to take a guided tour from Te Anau that also includes a Milford Sound Cruise. You’ll see all the most beautiful stops along the way while the planning and time management are done for you. 

Milford Sound Cruise, Luxe Tours Nz

Doubtful Sound Cruise

Doubtful Sound is a largely untouched and remote wilderness area full of lush rainforest, rare wildlife, and absolute tranquility, with its Māori name, Patea, meaning “place of silence.”

The only access to Doubtful Sound is via a cruise across the picturesque Lake Manapouri, a bus over Wilmot Pass, and then another cruise to explore the Doubtful Sound fiord. There are a few tour operators to choose from, and most will include a coach from Te Anau to Manapouri. Some, such as Luxe Tours, also offer packages that include a Milford Sound Cruise to get the best experience of the incredible fiords of Fiordland. 

Aoraki/Mount Cook Tour

Seeing NZ’s highest mountain is a holiday highlight for many travelers, where you’ll receive magnificent views of the snow-capped mountain amongst vibrant turquoise lakes, golden hills, and alpine foliage. 

There are many different options for Mount Cook tours, and you can choose to take the tours from Queenstown or Christchurch. There are also small group tours available from Tekapo, a beautiful lakeside town near Mount Cook. Take a look at Trip Advisor to explore some of the options.

Mt Cook Tour, Luxe Tours NZ

Kaikoura Whale Watch Tour

Located in the northeast of the South Island, Kaikoura is the whale-watching capital of NZ and home to our only vessel-based whale-watching tour. Giant sperm whales are year-round residents of the area, and on a typical tour, you may also see fur seals, dusky dolphins, and albatross. 

You will also receive an 80% refund if your tour does not find any whales, and even if you don’t see a whale, you’ll have an exciting marine adventure, likely with many other marine wildlife sightings. 

TranzAlpine Train

To see a range of landscapes all in one trip, take the TranzAlpine scenic train from the East Coast to the West Coast through plains, farmland, gorges, the Southern Alps mountain range, and rainforests. 

The train leaves from Christchurch on the East Coast and drops you in Greymouth on the West Coast. Greymouth is a great place to stay for a night or two and use it as a base for exploring the Paparoa National Park or visiting the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. You can then book the train back to Christchurch. 

Trans Alpine Train, New Zealand, Luxe Tours NZ

Nature and Conservation Activities

Most activities you do in New Zealand will include some interesting nature and conservation information, but if you’d like to gain some in-depth understanding, then you could visit one (or all) of the following wildlife sanctuaries.

Kiwi Bird Park

This wildlife oasis in the middle of Queenstown allows you to see and learn about various rare NZ wildlife with a self-guided audio tour, including the NZ Falcon, Tuatara, and Kiwi. Attend the daily 30-minute conservation show for bird flight demonstrations and fascinating information.

Te Anau Bird Sanctuary

Open from dawn to dusk, this little bird sanctuary on the shores of Lake Te Anau is the best place to go for a close look at the endangered Takahē, a bird once assumed extinct and rediscovered near Te Anau.

Orokonui Eco Sanctuary, Luxe Tours NZ

Orokonui Ecosanctuary

This large sanctuary is a community-led conservation project near Dunedin on the lower East Coast of the South Island. A 9km predator-proof fence has allowed native forests to be restored and a range of birds, reptiles, fish, and insect populations to thrive. 

You can take a guided walking tour to learn about the sanctuary and wildlife, or you can grab a map and spend the day exploring the trails and spotting the wildlife in a naturalised environment. 

Top Day Hikes

Routeburn Track: Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats Hut

To access this day hike, head to Glenorchy, around a 45-minute drive from Queenstown. You could take the opportunity to explore the picturesque little town, and then drive for another 25 minutes to Routeburn Shelter. From here, you can do the easy two- to three-hour hike along the Routeburn River through native beech forest teeming with birdlife. The grass area outside the hut is a great spot for a picnic lunch.

Kepler Track: Carpark to Luxmore Hut

This intermediate-level full-day hike can be accessed near Te Anau. Head to the Kepler Track car park, a 5km drive from Te Anau. From here, you can walk along the lakeshore to Dock Bay and then to Brod Bay before ascending through native forest past limestone bluffs. At Luxmore Hut, you’ll be rewarded with expansive, panoramic views over Lakes Te Aau and Manapouri.

Te Anau Day Walk, Luxe Tours Nz

Kepler and Routeburn Track Multi-Day Hike Options

Both the Kepler and Routeburn day hikes are part of two NZ Great Walks, and you can do both as full, multi-day hikes. If you’d like to do the full hike of either track, check out our Routeburn and Kepler Track guides.

Whether indulging in iconic New Zealand meat pies, cruising through breathtaking fiord scenery, or getting up close with rare endangered wildlife, every South Island experience will add its own unique Kiwi charm to your travels. So plan well, take your time, and allow yourself to savor every moment of your New Zealand South Island holiday.

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