10 Reasons to Do the Ha Giang Motobike Loop

1. You can get from Hanoi to Ha Giang on an $8 overnight bus.

The bus leaves from My Dinh bus station in the morning and in the evening. The ride takes 8 hours, so opting for the sleeper bus is a good way to pass the time. However, they drop you off at 3 in the morning so you'll either have to stay awake until you can catch a local bus, or grab a cheap motel room if you can find one.

 

2. You can do the loop in 3 days and be back to Hanoi in no time.

The loop can be extended/shortened depending on how much time you have to complete it. The minimum time it should take is at least 3 days - 3 full days of riding. Our route was:

Day 1 - Ha Giang to Hung Ngai (near Dong Van) - this was our longest day.

Day 2 - Hung Ngai up to Lung Cu in the morning, then back-tracked down to Du Gia.

Day 3 - Du Gia to Ha Giang to finish the loop - some roads aren't safe depending on their seasonal conditions, so a longer route could potentially be better.

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3. Renting a bike only costs $10 per day from QT Motors!

QT is absolutely amazing. They have great prices and lots of options for motorbikes. The owner briefs all customers individually, explaining the hazards and challenges of doing a motorbike road trip. QT also provides a clear map of the area with updated route conditions, plus a list of recommended food and accommodation stops! 

QT also has an efficient roadside assistance team. My bike fell victim to a nail in the road only 20k into our trip, and they sent someone out immediately to change the tire. All included in the insurance! 

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4. The landscapes are breathtaking...

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5. You’ll drive through authentic Vietnamese villages.

The Ha Giang Loop continually rises and falls between mountain passes and river valleys. Sometimes you get to ride along a ridge-line or through a pine grove, but you can always rely on descending into a valley with gorgeous terraced fields and homely villages.

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Kids will scream and wave at you, hoping for a honk of your horn in return. Even along the mountain passes you'll see locals carrying crops in baskets, or a cheery cowherd herding his cows. 

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6. Staying in home stays is really, really fun!

Home stays are a much more intimate way to experience local life! They're owned by families who convert some of the rooms to house guests, with one big common room for everyone to hang out. Most home stays make family meals so everyone can eat together, so it's also a great way to try local food! 

Ma Le Homestay is 10 minutes north off the main loop towards Lung Cu, and it was the BEST experience ever! We didn't arrive until after dark, but our hosts rushed us in and filled us with home-cooked food and rice wine - granny drank me under the table. Plus, the guest room we stayed in had our own fire pit! Careful not to smoke out the whole house though...

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Du Gia Guest House (Du Gia Homestay) is another great place to stop for a night. Du Gia Guest House started as a local family hosting bikers on their way around the loop, but they became so popular that QT Motors helped fund a second location! Still run by the same family, but now there are two Du Gia Homestays. They're right on a beautiful river, and they have awesome backpacker vibes! A lot of people like to stay more than one night in Du Gia to explore the nearby areas if you're not rushing to get through the loop.

 

7. You can go to the northernmost town in Vietnam and look across China!

If you venture off the loop and head up to Lung Cu, there's a giant tower with the iconic red Vietnamese flag waving at China. There are a lot of stairs, but it's totally epic to stand in Vietnam looking into southern China.

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8. You can sneak into China… or just look at it extremely legally from Vietnam.

I'm not the one who told you, but there's a spot on the border that you can grab a China selfie. ..

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9. It's a great way to get the "Vietnam Motorcycle Experience."

A lot of travelers opt to travel the entire length of Vietnam on a motorcycle. For obvious reasons, this isn't everyone's choice. But if you're still itching for a taste of the biker life, spending a few days on the Ha Giang Loop will give it to you without having to commit to a cross-country road trip.

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10. You look like a total badass.

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Railay Beach

Railay Beach, best known for its iconic karst cliffs, is an awesome spot to spend a few days before or after the southern Thai islands (i.e. Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, etc.). Railay’s got climbing, kayaking, swimming, caving, and just all around general exploring for any type of adventurer!

Getting to Railay

Contrary to popular belief, Railay beach isn’t that close to Krabi. We took a ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Krabi, which runs multiple times per day. However, Krabi is an expensive 30-minute drive from Ao Nang, which is where you want to be staying.

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Ao Nang is the beach just next to Railay. There are loads of accommodation options, and it’s easy to catch a long tail next-door for the day. Plus, most tours include pick up from your accommodation. We stayed in a chill hostel called The Moment, just a few minutes walk from the beach.

Rock Climbing

If you enjoy climbing even a little bit, or are looking for a good opportunity to start, THIS IS THE PLACE! The Krabi region is world renowned for its beautiful cliff landscapes, so grab a harness and get sendy.

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There are tons of companies that will take beginners and professionals alike to the best spots around Railay. DO some research before choosing what company to book with, and read their reviews. Experienced climbers have reported that not all routes in Railay are well-maintained, and some companies have been using worn-out, unsafe equipment. As such, we went with King Climbers, one of the oldest and most trusted companies in the area. We opted for a morning package, but there’s also an afternoon package, or full day for the brave-hearted.

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Beaches

Catching a long tail from Ao Nang beach is the easiest way to get to Railay. They will take you any time of the day, and all you have to do is buy a ticket at the window downtown. A boat driver will take you to his boat, fill it with other people, and zip you around the cliffs and onto West Railay beach.

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There are tons of activities to keep you occupied all day on Railay. We rented some kayaks and paddled around the cliffs for two hours.

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Check out Govinda’s at the Beach for some AMAZING veggie wraps! And stop by next door at Choop Coffee Break for some ice cream too!

Pranang Cave Shrine (Princess Cave)

It’s a penis shrine. A cave full of penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors. A penis shrine. Right at the end of the beach. You’ll see it.

Nearby Activities

We didn’t have enough time to really delve into the adventures in and around Railay, but here’s a list of recommendations we didn’t get to:

  • Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), and the Railay Viewpoint on the way!

  • Tham Phra Nang Nai (Diamond Cave)

  • Monkey Trail - easy walk with great views and monkeys!

  • Any of the day tours to islands off the coast!

Laid Back Langkawi

Getting to Langkawi

If you’re in Penang already, Langkawi is just a boat ride away, albeit, a long, uncomfortable boat ride away. The boat only leaves from the Swettenham Pier twice a day, so be sure to book ahead of time.

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The boat is almost always full. It seats all 80-100 passengers below deck in tightly packed, 4-seater rows. There is barely any airflow and the windows are small, making for a rough 3-hour ride. Definitely take some dramamine if you get sea sick. The boat brings you to the Kuah ferry port. Most accommodation is on the west part of the islands, only a 20-minute Uber/taxi ride.

We stayed at the Honey Badger Hut Hostel. It’s a bit out of the main downtown area, but it’s quieter, supremely relaxing, and has beautiful lighting in the afternoon.

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Private rooms are uniquely built a-frame huts scattered around the property, making for a boutique resort vibe.Except for the resident cows that hang out with you around the patio at night, who are very friendly nonetheless.

Things to Do in Langkawi

Whether you’re here to cross the famous SkyBridge or just kick back on the beach for a few days, Langkawi is perfect to slow down for a little bit. The easiest way to get around is on a scooter, which can be rented anywhere on the island. We rented ours from Vila Thai, the big green hostel on Jalan Bohor Tempoyak. 

BE AWARE THAT SCOOTERS ARE DANGEROUS. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but BE FKN CAREFUL. We ended up at the local Langkawi hospital at 2 in the morning. Everyone’s fine, but just be careful on scooters.

SkyBridge

The SkyBridge is certainly the most popular attraction on Langkawi, so expect crowds and long queues. It’s on the north part of the island, about 25 minutes from downtown via scooter. BE AWARE that Wednesdays are scheduled maintenance days, so the the skycar doesn’t open until noon - which we didn’t realize until we got there at 10:30 in the morning.

First, buy a ticket for the skycar which will take you up to the top of the mountain. The ride up is beautiful and will make your fingers tingle at the shear height of the cabs. You can opt for a glass bottom car for a few extra bucks, but the regular ones give you spectacular views anyway. 

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Then at the top, you can buy a second ticket to take another cab across to the bridge for $10, or you can just walk for $5. The walk includes a LOT of stairs, which is fine getting to the bridge. But the walk back will be a sweaty one.

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The bridge is stunning. Predictably amazing views of the island and surrounding water, but stunning nonetheless. There are some areas of the bridge built with clear panes of glass so you can see through to the forest below. It’s a bit exhilarating to trick your body into stepping out onto the glass, but makes for cool pictures if you can brave it. The far end of the bridge has more beautiful views, so make sure to go all the way to the end.

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There are a bunch of shops and food options in the base village as well. You’ll have plenty other attractions to fill your day with if you so desire. Otherwise, if you’re just there for the sweeping blue skies and gondola rides, head to the Seven Wells for the afternoon instead.

Seven Wells

The Seven Wells are equally frequented by locals and tourists alike. They’re right nearby the SkyBridge on the north part of the island, so it’s the great stop for an afternoon dip. The place is like a naturally occurring waterpark. The slippery orange rocks create a network of smooth waterslides, complete with pockets of deep pools to float around and relax in - a perfect hotspot to cool off on any day.

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Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant

If you’re already on the North side of the island, do NOT miss the opportunity to get fish and chips at Scarsdale’s. It’s right on the beach, and they make some awesome fried Dory.

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Great spot for a sunset dinner. Or show up for lunch, grab a beer and spend the afternoon soaking in the sun out front.

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Beach

This is where you’ll want to head to for some adrenaline-based activities. They have banana boats, parasailing, jet skiing, or plain old sunbathing for the slower-paced beachgoers. There are a bunch of dive shops and snack shacks along the beach, too.

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Head here for a stunning sunset, and stick around for the late-night fire dancers. Bars along the beach will set out mats and little tables around the main performance area for audience enjoyment. Feel free to order some snacks, fruity drinks, or even a hookah for the show.

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Digs on Langkawi

  • Scarsdale’s Fish Restaurant - reference above.
  • The Kasbah on Langkawi - amazing burgers, outdoor lounge seating, and all around chill vibes.
  • Thirstday Bar and Restaurant - modern vibes with outdoor seating on the beach, plenty of cocktails and legitimate pizza options
  • Yellow Beach Cafe - A yellow restaurant on the beach, surprised?
  • Honey Badger Hut Hostel on Langkawi - they have cool huts for private rooms and friendly bovine pets.
  • Vila Thai - huge hostel with big dorms, and they have scooter rentals and massages available even if you’re not staying there.

More Pictures!

Shark Bay's War on Waste

Quietly tucked away at the end of the main drag in Denham sits a special little thrift store. If you’re in the mood to find some hidden treasure, look for the rainbow pinwheel taped to the charming chalkboard sign and take a dive inside.

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Chris and Josie welcomed us into their opportunity shop with cheery smiles and a quick introduction on the War on Waste mission. A few years ago, the Australian government shared images of how much ocean pollution comes from citizens’ waste output, and the coastal community quickly took action. Shark Bay’s War on Waste campaign was born on the simple plan to reduce ocean pollution by reducing waste production.

“We want to protect the natural beauty of our home. We love this place because of the ocean. People come here for the ocean,” explained Josie. It makes sense - marine ecosystems are such a part of the Shark Bay identity, so the community is keen to protect them. 

Thrift stores are a great way to encourage communities to reuse old materials instead of letting them go to waste. So WOW put out a few donation boxes around town and started their shop.

The campaign also passed a local ban on plastic bags. Sea turtles often mistake floating bags for jellyfish, one of their preferred food options. Once ingested, a plastic bag inhibits digestion and will usually kill a turtle. All the stores in Denham have stopped providing plastic bags and instead require a 10-cent donation to the War on Waste campaign if you want one.

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But 10 cents isn’t quite breaking the bank, so they took it one step further and offered a creative alternative. They took tank tops from the donation boxes and designed a no-sew reusable bag to disperse around town!

Not only does this take an article of clothing out of the waste stream, but it also reduces plastic consumption at the same time! It’s a win-win. Chris and Josie excitedly explained how they got the community involved at an annual festival. Their booth featured a hands-on workshop to show folks how to make their own no-sew grocery bags and engage with environmental protection from home.

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After teaching a visiting school teacher how to make the crafty bags, she brought the project back to her classroom in Perth as an activity to engage kids with sustainability. Not long after, a group of her students were awarded with a certificate of excellence from the Mayor for convincing three shops in town to stop using plastic bags.

“Environmentalism is a domino effect - it starts here, but it keeps spreading!” Josie was proudly grinning ear-to-ear.

Not long after the shop opened, they were making enough to hire a full-time overseer to keep their hours consistent. They were thriving. Their profits even covered a new sewing machine, which quickly changed the game.

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No-sew bags were soon accompanied by campy tote bags sewn from colorful linen donations. Eventually they started holding sewing workshops to teach others how to make things out of old cloth instead of adding it to the waste stream.

Chris stressed the importance of grassroots community campaigns, “you can’t wait for the big corporations to do it.”

Now, the shop proceeds go back into the community. WOW donates to local emergency medical volunteers, search and rescue teams, and local scuba divers. By providing the funds for oxygen tanks, WOW gives divers the opportunity to do ocean cleanups. They’ve created a campaign that interjects at each point of the cycle, from waste reduction to recovery.

Since the plastic bag ban, WOW has expanded to other waste reduction initiatives. Nowadays, if you bring your own reusable mug to any of the shops in Denham, you can save 50 cents on a coffee! There's also a local student working on a design for reusable titanium straws as an alternative to the harmful plastic ones.

Denham’s War on Waste is an exceptional example of how community-driven campaigns can make a big difference for environmental protection. Lifestyle changes are the best way for people to make a difference without waiting for political action. Chris and Josie explained how easy it is to create a holistic approach to saving our oceans. It all starts with initiative.

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When we walked in, they told us that they had so many donations that everything in the shop was only $1. Needless to say, we scored some sweet finds.

Shark Bay Heritage Site

Shark Bay is a peninsula located on the West Coast of Australia, 850km north of Perth. The World Heritage Site is known for its unique ecological features including the Shell Beach, Hamelin Pools, Francis Peron National Park, and the marine wildlife of Monkey Mia.

 

Shell Beach

Shell Beach is not your average white sand beach. While it might look that way against the endless blue sky, the white rolling dunes of the beach are actually made up of tiny shells! These shells are all from a single species, an echinoderm known as the Shark Bay cockle - Fragum erugatum for my fellow biologists out there.

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The water is only ankle-deep for most of the way out, so it’s easy to wade in the ocean and appreciate the beach from afar! 

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Hamelin Pools

The Hamelin Pools are what credits the Shark Bay area for the second criteria of a World Heritage site. The flat “pancakes” are an ancient type of stromatolite that has been around for 3500 million years!

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Enjoy a leisurely stroll on the boardwalk as you float above the starkly colored landscape. If you’re lucky, you can listen to the birds chirping as they dance in the sun. Check out this brochure if you’re interested in bird-watching throughout the area!

 

Denham

Denham is the first town upon entering the heritage area. It’s striking blue waters welcome you immediately upon pulling into the town centre.

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The town has a rich story of sea exploration, and is themed after the historic shipwrecks off the coast. Two of the significant shipwrecks have been memorialized in the town center: Dutch merchant ship named Zuytdorp (1712), and a Norwegian whaler named Gudrun (1901). Read more about the local history on their website!

There are plenty of accommodation options in Denham, from the Heritage Resort to the variety of holiday parks along the beach. Be sure to stop by the Discovery Centre in town to check out the gallery of awe-inspiring local photography!

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Monkey Mia

Monkey Mia is home to the friendly bottlenose dolphins. Every morning, the dolphins are treated to a free continental fish breakfast! For just AUS$12, you can get up close and watch them from the shore. The park is a marine reserve, so your fee is supporting a great cause. 

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The operations at Monkey Mia have a long history of caring for the dolphins. Wildlife biologists have studied the local pod extensively, and have built the Monkey Mia experience to be as ecologically sustainable as possible. The conservationists take exceptional care to ensure that the dolphins do not feel threatened, and that their natural behavior is kept a priority. The dolphins are only there because they choose to be. There are strict guidelines for being a part of the magic, so please listen to your hosts carefully - they are professionals, and they know what’s best for the dolphins. 

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If you’re lucky, you might even be chosen to help the volunteers feed the dolphins!

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There are accommodation options in Monkey Mia if you’re keen on living with the dolphins for a few days. Otherwise, Denham is an easy 30-minute drive away.

There’s plenty to do in Monkey Mia. Enjoy an early morning coffee before the feeding, or grab some lunch at the Boughshed beachfront restaurant. Be careful of the pesky seabirds - they are not shy! 

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Before leaving, say a quick hello to the giant pelicans roaming the beach! But don’t get too close, they’re stronger than you think! 

 

Francis Peron National Park

Francis Peron is a wild, remote National Park covering the entire northern half of the Shark Bay peninsula. It’s an easy drive to the homestead, but beyond that requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Hiring a tour is the best way to see the vast wildlife haven. They can show you the best landscapes without you having to worry about getting “bogged” in the sand! Stop by the Visitor Centre in Denham to book, or check online.

Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.

 

Kaikoura

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Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!

 

Arthur’s Pass

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Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!

 

Road to Wanaka

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Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.

 

Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)

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Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!

 

Road into Mount Cook National Park

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There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.

 

Paradise Road

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The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise

 

Queenstown to Fiordlands

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The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 

 

Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables

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On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 

 

Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

A Day in Paradise

Literally, Paradise Road in Glenorchy.

 

I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I just didn’t understand what he meant by, “want to go to Paradise today?” Turns out, there’s actually a place on the South Island called Paradise - given, it’s actually Paradise Road, but it’s aptly named for it’s idyllic views. I made a new friend in Queenstown, and he suggested spending Sunday exploring an area just 45 minutes away from Queenstown - a place called Glenorchy on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu.

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The town of Glenorchy is slow and sweet, at least in the off-season. There are plenty of coffee shops, all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But if you continue past Glenorchy, you’ll find Paradise.

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The road winds through the valley and across a few rivers, showcasing the best landscapes around Lake Wakatipu. 

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On our way out of Paradise, we stopped at a secret spot upon Henry’s guidance. The sweet little homestead, home of the Paradise Trust, had charming pink buildings and a treehouse out front.

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There’s a small walking look called the Paradise Loop Track, marked by a tree with a pretty straightforward sign. Make sure to check out the welcome board for info about the Paradise Trust and an opportunity to make a donation!

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The path wanders through the forest for a bit, and eventually spits you out in rolling fields smack in between the surrounding mountains. 

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Everywhere direction you look could be a postcard. There’s even a wedding set-up for an even more enchanting vibe.

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Our little adventure was quite unplanned, but a great secret to uncover - thank you Henry for the perfect Sunday in Paradise.

Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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Mount Cook

and the winds of Aoraki.

 

Aotearoa, or New Zealand as many people know it, was created by a fisherman named Māui (yes, sort of like The Rock in Moana). The North Island was pulled out of the sea by Maui’s hook when he was out on a fishing trip with a few of his brothers. Unfortunately, they were caught in a relentless storm that flipped their waka, or war canoe. Luckily, Maui and his brothers climbed atop the overturned boat for safety. Unluckily, the chilly winds of the Pacific froze them to ice, eternalizing the brothers and their canoe into the mountains of the South Island. This is how the land of the long white cloud came to be.

Aoraki, the oldest and biggest brother, is what we know to be the tallest mountain of New Zealand: Mount Cook. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park lays just 2 hours north of Wanaka, and is easily accessible via one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It may seem like I say this about every road in the country, but seriously this road is beautiful.

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We decided to backtrack to Mount Cook after having been rained out in Tekapo a few days before. Both destinations are located within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an area nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional views of the night sky. But being that our night in Tekapo was unexpectedly cloudy, we saw it fit to come back to the region for a proper night under the stars.

As per usual, we headed straight for the DOC Visitor Centre to plan our short itinerary for 24 hours in the park. The DOC officer let us in on a little secret, “the best spots are past the third block of toilets,” he said. “Go as far as you can, and then all the way out into the field,” he said.

We plopped our party on the farthest patch of grass we could find, with a view of the mountain completely unobstructed by any of the nearby hills or vegetation. The perfect spot. 

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After relaxing in the sunshine for a bit, we headed down the Hooker Valley track, which begins right at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few hundred feet from where we parked. Only 5 minutes after the trailhead, there’s a beautiful memorial for all the alpine explorers who lost their lives among the peaks of the park.

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The track is an easy, meandering walk through the Hooker Valley, crossing swing bridges over lively rivers, winding through lush grassland flora, and ending at the Tasman glacier. Most of the trail is either gravel or boardwalk, making it extremely accessible to most visitors, so expect crowds.

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At the end, after about one and a half to maybe two hours, you finally reach the Tasman glacier. Sadly, the glacier was just a couple of icy islands amidst a cloudy blue lake. Still, the scene is pretty legendary. 

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We made it back to our campsite just in time for sunset. We ate our dinner listening to the rumbling of avalanches as the snow-melting sun beat down on the far side of the mountain. We even decided to leave the rain fly off our tent for the night so we could watch the mountain beneath the stars.

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We spent some time satisfying our stargazing needs, but quickly snuggled into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I tried to sleep, laying facedown with my eyes closed for maybe two hours. Come midnight, I decided to drag myself out of the tent and put the fly back on for a bit of extra warmth, as the wind was starting to pick up. Soon enough, the wind was shaking the sides of the tent so hard that it was impossible to sleep - if not for the loudness of it, the sides and ceiling of the tent were literally slapping us in the face. Neither of us slept, for our concern of our tent ripping open kept us awake all night. While we picked a good spot for views, we realized a little too late that we picked a place smack in the middle of a wind tunnel beneath the biggest mountain in New Zealand. Nice job Einsteins. Needless to say, we accepted complete and utter defeat once the rain came for the last few hours before sunrise. That morning was pretty wet and pretty miserable. 

Worth it though.

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Exploring Wanaka

Wanaka is that not-so-hidden “hidden gem” of the South Island. Similar to Queenstown, it’s full of fun-loving young folks hanging out by a beautiful lake. Unlike Queenstown though, it’s not nearly as big, which means it’s not nearly as crowded. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to go adventuring around Wanaka.

We chose to start with an excursion to the Blue Pools. The rivers are fed by glacial melt, giving them that crisp, icy tint. After spending some time tip-toeing at the edges, we finally bit the bullet and took the plunge.

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Arguably though, the drive to and from the Haas Pass area was more breath-taking than dipping into the freezing cold water. The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of (you guess it…) Lake Wanaka. Just to the east lays Lake Hawea, and at one very special place on SH 6, the isthmus between the lakes narrows to a point called (you guessed it again…) Isthmus Peak. 

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After 8 km of steep uphill switchbacks across grassy pastureland and around rocky outcrops, you reach the most stunning panorama possible at 1,385 meters high. Every direction lays glistening lake water rimmed by robust, white-frosted giants.

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Even the walk back down will get you giddy with awe. It’s like you’re tightrope walking a very wide (safe) line between sacred pools - almost like you’re not even supposed to be able to float that high above them. 

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The entire hike takes more or less a full day, summit snack included.

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It’s tiring, mostly from the steep decline going back down. Talk about a quad workout. Obviously we spent rest day lounging by the waterfront. It was absolutely lovely. The birds flutter in and out of the trees, and the entire park feels like it’s buzzing with energy. Everyone was out in the sunshine, playing at the waters edge. It’s not the warmest water, but there are docks that some bold souls were jumping off in the middle of the day. Otherwise, for those adverse to cold water, you can opt to stand up paddle board or pedal boat if you still want to get out there! 

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We didn't do nearly as much as Wanaka had to offer - but overall, we had a fantastic time! 

Arthur's Pass

A day of grey between the mountains.

 

Arthur’s Pass lays among the towering giants of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that trails the entire length of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique mountain pass is one of thirteen National Parks in the country, protected for its rugged landscape within the main divide of quite an idyllic mountain range. 

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On the way into the park (coming from the east), we stopped at the Castle Hill Conservation Area, otherwise known as Weathertop from Lord of the Rings. For those of you who need a reminder: the Battle of Weathertop, in the first movie, is when Frodo gets stabbed by the Morgul Blade and gets rescued by Aragorn.

You can’t quite get an idea of what the true lay of the land looks like from the dark, gloomy battle scene, but here’s the actual landscape of where they filmed it:

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It’s a fun stop on the way into the pass! There are a few walking trails through the big boulders, and you really do feel like you’re exploring Middle Earth for a bit - especially during golden hour.

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After our LOTR adventure, we kept on towards the mountains. Unfortunately, our entire time in Arthur’s Pass was a bit hampered by dreary weather. The fog settled in overnight, so we ended up taking the shorter, backup itinerary for the day. We started with the 252 stairs up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a waterfall that cascades down 131 meters from the ridges above the viewing platform. 

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The rain cloud really started to settle in by the time we got back to the car, so we decided to see a few more sites from the dryness of our Hyundai. The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Aqueduct are just north of the main village - you would pass it on the way out to the west coast. With the fog, the shelter felt like a magical mountainside passageway, as if we were back in Middle Earth again.

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Luckily on our way back east, we managed to sidestep the storm long enough to climb all over the park sign.

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