Jess Finds Out The Truth About Travelling the South Island in Winter: Freezing Cold or Unforgettable Experience?

We wanted to find out the truth about Queenstown and South Island. What happens when Kiwis experience Queenstown for the first time? Are they as blown away by the scenery and as excited about Ferg Burger as people from other countries? And what about the rest of the South, is the landscape really that awe-inspiring? We sent our mate Jess to find out.

Stray Reservations Superstar Jess (yes that is her on the phone, solving all your problems), jumped on a Stray bus in South Island for the first time ever over winter. Initially worried she was going to be cold and miserable, she was (almost) lost for words when she finally set eyes on the dramatic landscapes. Read on to find out what she thought…

New Zealand's South Island
All smiles in New Zealand’s South Island

I wasn’t sure what to expect out of my South Island trip on the Stray bus. My family is from the South, so they all warned me to prepare for freezing winter temperatures and battering rain all along the West Coast.  I naturally assumed the worst, and pictured snow falling in every destination – which would actually be a bonus because I’ve never seen snowfall!

I also had low expectations of Queenstown, because it is such a hyped-up tourist destination. Although I was imagining it would be overrated, expensive and underwhelming, I was proved wrong as I’m sure my face indicates in the above photo!

I was in for an awe-inspiring experience at each and every destination that I was lucky enough to visit in South Island. Although I loved every part of my trip, there were three destinations that are unforgettable, and completely blew my mind (and spoiler alert, yes, one of them is actually Queenstown).

Franz Josef took me by surprise

This quaint little town has breathtaking views. They are in massive contrast to North Island, and unlike anything, I’d ever seen before. The day we arrived, we were blessed with perfect weather, and I do mean perfect! Blue skies as far as the eye could see, a light breeze, and the sun shining on us like the angels we are. Despite this, it was freezing – my parents were right!

However, this just so happened to be the perfect conditions for Heli-hiking, one of Stray’s top-rated activities of all time. I was grinning from the very start, excited to be in a helicopter for the very first time! It was so different to travelling in an aeroplane, with more accessible window views and many exhilarating moments. Also no air stewards with coffee and tea and miniature cookies, but you can’t have it all. As soon as the Franz Josef Glacier came into view, my cold fingers and toes became a distant memory, and my jaw literally dropped!

Hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier
Ice, ice baby! An amazing hike on the Franz Josef glacier

Once we landed, our guide led us along the glacier paths – it was crazy to see massive blocks of ice, with stairs carved into them, I was half expecting Elsa to come running down the stairs and ask me if I want to build a snowman. The whole experience was totally instagrammable, every way we looked we had stunning backdrops, everyone was giddy with excitement.

At one moment, we heard a massive crack and rumble… which was obviously terrifying. My first thought was a thunderstorm, but then we saw the top of the mountain move, and a mini avalanche occurred as the ice tumbled down. We all watched in amazement as another one fell. And another one. The guide said that we were lucky to see so many as they don’t happen very often. This was definitely a highlight of my glacier experience, and I felt awestruck by this amazing landscape.

Heli-hiking was by far the best experience of my trip, and my fellow Stray mates said the same. I felt incredibly proud to be a Kiwi after witnessing the dramatic beauty of the glacier, right here in my own country.

Queenstown: from low expectations to an amazing experience

As I said earlier, I didn’t have high hopes for winter in Queenstown… but boy was I wrong. Even the journey in was full of thrills, as I did my first ever bungee jump at the Kawarau Bridge. I was seriously nervous, thinking about how on earth I was going to jump off a bridge, only attached to a measly cord. My awesome Driver Guide Spike gave me a great piece of advice: “Don’t let the fear take over. Once you let it, you will hesitate and this is not something you want to back out of”. And of course, he was right.

Bungee jumping from the Karawau Bridge
Jumping off on a hope and a prayer – and a bungee rope!

I’m sure it is the same for many travellers, but I decided I want to live with no regrets. So there I was strapped up and standing on the edge feeling the rush of adrenaline and fear pulsing through me. I threw my fear away, took a deep breath and took the plunge. The free fall felt like forever until I felt the reassuring cord pulling me back.  In between screams I was laughing, I felt so alive and exhilarated! Now that I’ve done one, I’m hooked – I want to do every bungee in New Zealand!

Finally arriving in Queenstown, the atmosphere was buzzing. The winter season had really kicked off in Queenstown, and there were lots of people heading to the slopes or perusing the shops with those telltale goggle sunburns.  I spent 3 days in Queenstown where I had heaps of time to do activities, which is awesome because there is so much to do there. I was glad that we were there for 3 days, so I didn’t feel rushed, and I also didn’t feel bad about having some downtime, and enjoying the glorious Ferg Burger (seriously, you’ve got to try it).

The view over Queenstown, South Island
Looking over Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps

Mount Cook and Aoraki National Park: magical mystery ride

Our drive to Mount Cook was shrouded in mystery, mainly because the scenery was actually shrouded in a thick fog for the entire journey. Despite this, we remained cheery… until the rain began to fall. I was watching the light droplets hit the windscreen at a very strange angle only to realise that it was SNOW! Like a kid in a candy store, I was so excited to see it falling for the first time ever.

I lifted up my hands and stuck out my tongue… the snow fell into my eyes and the snowflakes melted in my palms. After checking in to our accommodation in Mount Cook, we did the only thing there is to do in this situation… SNOWBALL FIGHT!

Although I was really excited to do the Hooker Valley walk, I can’t think of a better reason to miss out on it than a snowball fight. Next time!

Mount Cook, South Island, New Zealand
There’s “snow” place like Mount Cook!

It’s hard to describe how beautiful the scenery of South Island is, especially in the wintertime. I loved getting to fulfil my backyard travel dreams and finally understanding how vastly different the landscape in the South Island is from the North Island. With the same good old Kiwi hospitality that I’m accustomed to in the North, along with my awesome Stray group and our multi-talented driver, my experience was simply unforgettable.

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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