In March 2019, my wife and I went on an “REI Adventures” trip to the South island of New Zealand for some hiking and kayaking. It truly was a memorable adventure!
What is an REI Adventure?
REI Adventures are multi-day group trips, usually involving hiking and other outdoor activities, led by professional full-time guides. Most of the accommodations and meals pre-paid.
The Flight on Air New Zealand
We flew in from Los Angeles to Auckland, NZ, then connected to Christchurch, the largest city in the South island.
For the long flight, New Zealand Airlines had something called a “Skycouch” where you can buy the whole row and have it to yourself, or to you and your traveling companion. The front of the chair folds up, and they give you a thin “mattress” so you can actually lie down, although with your legs bent.
We got a big kick out of this! But for two people, it was pretty cramped and we didn’t get great sleep to be honest. I think we were better off on the flight home when we had the exit row. But we still had fun with the novelty of it. If you’re travelling alone or with a child, the Skycouch is a great option.
Day Zero: On Our Own in Christchurch
We landed in the morning and proceeded to our hotel in Christchurch. This was the only day when the accommodations were not pre-paid, nor were our activities handled by REI. We were on our own.
We checked into the recommended hotel near the airport, Commodore Hotel Christchurch. It was clean and better than expected for a small airport-adjacent hotel
Downtown Christchurch turned out to be delightfully walkable, with many free things to do there. See my article, Fun Things to Do in a Day in Christchurch, NZ.
Day 1: Meeting the Group / Devils Punchbowl / Pancake Rocks
On the first official day of our REI trip, we met up the other travelers and our guides in the hotel lobby in the morning. There was a good mix of folks of all ages from a newlywed couple to a retired couple, plus single folks. There were thirteen travelers total in our group, not counting the guides.
Our guides were two New Zealanders, Chris and Rachel. They pulled up in a silver mini-bus with a trailer for our luggage. After loading our stuff and boarding, Chris led us in a memory “game” to help us learn and remember everyone’s names. It was an unexpected challenge, surprisingly effective, and a great way to help everyone get to know each other.
The first day had lots of driving. Our route would take us from Christchurch, which is on the dry east coast of the Southern island, through Arthur’s pass, one of the few roads crossing the Southern Alps mountain range, to the tropical West coast of the island.
Our first hike was at Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, off of Arthur’s Pass. The hike wasn’t very long, but had lots of stairs. At the end of the trail, we were rewarded with this breathtaking view of the falls:
Little did we know that later in the trip we’d be seeing hundreds of waterfalls!
After a few more hours of driving, we reached the lush West Coast and our second attraction of the day, the famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes in Punakaiki. It was a very easy walk along a paved trail to the rock formations along the see cliffs. The formations were cool and the overall vibe reminded me of Hawaii.
The stacked rocks themselves are somewhat of a geologic oddity. No one knows exactly how they were formed.
Across the street, we stopped for coffee at the Pancake Rocks Cafe, and yes, they do serve pancakes!
Our next stop was a nearby beach with great rock formations and tide pools.
Our accommodations for the night were at the Punakaiki Resort. Maybe “resort” is a bit of a stretch, but it was located right on the beach and pleasant enough. After cleaning up we met up with the group for drinks to get to know each other. That was a lot of fun.
From the restaurant there was a great view of the sunset.
I guess we weren’t prepared for how good the meals would be on the trip. Somehow we imagined that since this was a hiking trip, it meant that there would be hiking food. But, the restaurants during the trip was great for the most part, with the dinners usually at fairly high-end restaurants with wine, etc.
So as you can see, the first “official” day of the trip was packed with activities! We were off to a good start.
Day 2: Paparoa National Park Hike / Hokitika
On day 2, we woke up early, as we did every day during our trip. But it was fine because New Zealand is just four hours behind the West Coast of the U.S. (plus a day), so there was virtually no jet lag!
We set off to Paparoa National Park, where we hiked to the Pororari River Track hike. This was a much longer hike than any we had done the first day, first through lush rain forest to the top, then down along the river.
There were in the forest, as well as at the top, and along the river, where we saw more cool rock formations.
After the hike, we drove for about an hour south to the old beachfront mining town of Hokitika. Today, it has a small but charming downtown area where we had lunch and some free time to explore the town.
From Hokitika, it was about a two-hour drive to the town of Franz Josef Glacier. There, we had some free time so my wife and I went on a mini-hike of our own.
Day 3: Okarito Trig Walk / Kayaking
After a good night’s rest (and load of laundry done), we woke up early to do the Okarito Trig Walk, which starts out on a raised boardwalk on an estuary, then goes up to a peak.
At the peak there was an observation deck with spectacular views of distant glaciers.
During the second half of the day, we went kayking in Okarito Lagoon into a rainforest with orchids and more than 75 species of birds.
Day 4: Franz Josef Glacier
On this day we finally got to visit the town’s namesake, Franz Josef Glacier, named after the emperor of Austria by an explorer to gain his favor, and now one of the biggest tourist attractions of New Zealand’s West Coast.
We were not able actually set foot on the glacier because of how far back it had retreated. One person in our group later took a helicopter tour that landed on the glacier though.
All the way up to the end of the trail there are signs marking how much the glacier has retreated over the years. Especially shocking and sad is how much it has retreated in the last decade.
We hit the bus again for another long drive. But, our guides were always good about stopping at regular intervals for coffee and bathroom breaks. For lunch we stopped at a salmon farm.
We finished the afternoon with a mellow beach hike. Online reviewers for this trip had warned about sand flies. We had been mercifully spared from them until today, when they were out in force.
That night we stayed at one of our favorite accommodations of the trip, Clearbrook Wanaka. It had a grassy back area with a brook running through it!
The town of Wanaka was small and super charming, with lots of cool restaurants and shops. We only stayed one night here but future REI trips will stay an extra night.
Day 5: Rocky Mountain Hike
Up to this point, we had been fortunate to have really good weather. But, the West Coast of New Zealand’s South island is known as the “wet coast” for a reason, and our run of sunny weather ended when a huge storm hit the West Coast. Fortunately, our skillful guides modified our itinerary to avoid the brunt of it, but we still had light to moderate rain during our hike on Rocky Mountain near Lake Wanaka.
REI gave a detailed list of required items to bring, which included a rain jacket, rain pants, and hiking boots. I highly recommend that you get all of the required equipment, and make sure your rain jacket is really still waterproof. A good number of folks on our trip were soaking wet by the end of our hike, either because they weren’t wearing the recommended waterproof clothing, or because their old rain jackets were no longer waterproof. Test before you depart!
After our wet hike we drove down to the town of Te Anau where we were happy to unwind at our accommodations at Lakefront Lodge.
This day happened to be my birthday, and the guides had secretly circulated a birthday card which everyone had signed. Plus, they got a birthday cake after dinner. It was really thoughtful gesture on their part and a great way to spend a birthday.
Day 6: Hiking and Milford Sound
This was another packed day. In the morning, we did the Kepler Track along the Walau River. This was a really lush, beautiful rain forest.
This time, everyone came more prepared and used all of the waterproof gear they had!
On our way to Milford Sound, we stopped at the Chasm. After a short walk along a boardwalk we got to see some raging waterfalls up close!
Next was our overnight cruise in Milford Sound. This is the part of the trip I had the most reservations about, because I was afraid the accommodations on board the boat would be uncomfortable. I was wrong!
The boat had a spacious dining area and cabins with full size beds, albeit with space on only one side. It was small for sure, but comfortable! I actually liked the cozy feel on board. And they even had showers!
For me, Milford Sound had the most breathtaking views of the whole trip! The storms that we had narrowly avoided the previous day had dumped an enormous amount of water in the area, resulting in hundreds (thousands?) of spectacular waterfalls gushing out on either side of the boat!
Photos don’t capture the sheer scale of the towering walls of the fiord, which are thousands of feet high and were carved by an ancient glacier.
For me, Milford Sound was The Land That Time Forgot!
Day 7: Goodbye Milford, Hello Queenstown
After a pleasant overnight stay on the boat, we had breakfast on board and headed back. We got back on the bus and headed to a short rain forest hike near Cascade Creek off of Lake Gunn.
A short distance down the Te Anau-Milford Hwy we stopped at a beautiful spot near the Eglinton River West Branch, complete with rainbow!
We arrived at the Blue Peaks Hotel in Queenstown and had a bit of time to explore on our own. Queenstown has a vibrant downtown area with lots of nice restaurants, cafes, and stores. For dinner, our guides took us out of the downtown area to a charming upscale restaurant in the hills.
Day 8: Kayaking and Queenstown
Queenstown is located on the shores of the enormous Lake Wakatipu. We drove further north along the lake shores where we set off in kayaks once again, this time to Pigeon Island.
We were led by two experienced kayaking guides who took us on a hike to the interior of the to tell us about the birds, plants, and history of the island.
When we returned to shore, we had a picnic lunch before heading back to Queenstown, where we had the rest of the day to ourselves. Some of the single folks decided to do activities together, while the married couples went off on their own.
Queenstown is an adventurer’s city. It’s at the base of a mountain and there’s a gondola that goes to the top. Activities on the mountain include mountain biking, para gliding, and bungee jumping. We chose the more tame but still fun Luge. These are basically go-carts traveling down one of two courses near the top of the mountain. Lots of fun!
On the lake, adrenaline-seekers can try the Fly Board (where you are propelled by a jet of water), the Hydro Attack (an 18-foot fully enclosed “torpedo” that jets in, above, and under the water), speed boating, or para sailing.
Tamer activities include wine tasting and horseback riding.
After the luge, my wife and I browsed the shops, then had a great dinner of Indian food in the downtown area.
Day 9: Mt. Cook National Park
We met this morning for a breakfast in town before heading back onto the bus. Our first stop was the Kawarau Bungy Centre, the world’s first commercial bungee jumping site.
We didn’t have time to do a jump, but a few people in our group said they would do it if they could. As for me, I wouldn’t even go on the bridge!
From here, we continued our journey, passing along milky-blue lakes fed by glacial water.
When we reached the Mt. Cook area, our guides took us on a short hike to the the Tasman Glacier terminus, where icebergs had broken off and were rapidly melting in the sun.
From there, we arrived at our accommodations for the next two nights, the Aoraki Alpine Lodge, with a view of Aoraki / Mt. Cook.
Day 10: Hike to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut
The storms in the previous days had knocked out some key bridges, so our guides led us on the more difficult hike up 1800 steps and scrambling up rocks after that to Sealy Tarns. This was by far the most difficult hike of the trip but the views on the way up were spectacular.
When we reached Sealy Tarns, everyone had a great feeling of accomplishment. We had made it!
At this point, some members of our group decided to head back down, while the rest of us pressed on to Mueller Hut, which required another hour or so of scrambling over huge rocks.
We also witnessed several avalanches in the distance.
Finally, we made it to our destination, Mueller Hut, after hiking up an elevation of over a thousand meters in just over five kilometers. Mueller Hut is a structure where anyone can stop and rest, or even stay the night with a reservation. We had lunch there but were eager to start heading down.
Although going down was much quicker than going up, my knees really started to ache on the way down. By the time we got to the bottom everyone was exhausted but so gratified by our accomplishment!
That night, our guides prepared a wonderful home-made salmon dinner for the group. My wife said it was her favorite meal of the trip. It was a great way to end our trip, and I was so glad to have such great guides and travelling companions!
Day 11: Heading Home
On the last day of our trip, our guides made us breakfast before embarking on the long drive back to Christchurch. There, we exited the bus, said our goodbyes, and headed into the airport.
It was truly an amazing, jam-packed trip. The South island of New Zealand had so many beautiful natural wonders, from the Mt. Cook National Park to Milford Sound, to all of the rain forests we hiked through, not to mention charming cities like Christchurch (read my article), Queenstown, and Wanaka. I had to skip a lot in this quick summary, most notably all of the charming coffeehouses that we stopped at along the way.
We were fortunate to have a really great group. Everyone was considerate and interesting! There’s not one person that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing again. I’d say that traveling with a group is one of the benefits of these types of trips.
Our guides were outstanding, with a great knowledge of the island and great hiking skills. But most of all – they were hard working. While we were resting in our hotels, they were out cleaning the bus, getting gas, shopping for the next day’s food, and probably many other things we don’t even know about.
At over $500/day, this REI trip was not cheap, but if you factor in the cost of accommodations, meals, gas, driving, and planning, not to mention having two full-time guides with you the whole time, it’s well worth it! There’s no way we could have seen as much as we did if we had gone on our own.
Questions about REI Adventures? Please leave a comment below! What was your experience like? – Brian