South Island Travel Guide
I highly recommend renting a car / vehicle even if you have more time than I did. I believe it is the most flexible way to see a place as wide open as the South Island. Below is a quick summary of my tour:
Day 1: Landed in Christchurch in the early evening and headed to Charlie B's(this hostel is now closed, destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake). It's a great place to stay; clean and friendly (the only two things you really need from a hostel). It's also in a good location. I found a nice little Thai restaurant not too far away (the bar at the backpacker's across the green looks like a great place to hang out, but it had stopped serving food at that time).
Day 2: I headed over to the TranzAlpine (a bus picks you up right around the corner from Charlie B's) and boarded the 9am train to Greymouth. (Note: http://www.experiencenz.com was extremlely helpful in their recommendations (as was Garry) and actually booked the TranzAlpine and Fox Glacier hike for me at no extra charge. Ask for Ian or Glenn). The ride was great. Unfortunately, it's a tight squeeze for taking quality photos in the car where you take photos with everyone wanting the best shots, but I stayed out there the whole ride whereas many people went back in and had the car to myself, pretty much, with plenty of elbow room to take some nice photos). It's worth the trip and that was confirmed by everyone I spoke to on the train.
From Greymouth, I picked up my rental car right at the station and headed down the highway, taking my time to take in the views from the west coast. My whole trip, I was blessed with good weather and the driving is easy (be cautious on the many, many one-lane bridges however and most of all, STAY LEFT). I pulled into Ivory Towers around 7pm. This place is a good bet, as well. My "Rough Guide" (you can't go wrong with this book for NZ or Australia) described the huge kitchen accurately. It's a communal place with a nice side room with wood burning stove and tv. Dinner at Cafe Neve is worth it and the market has most of what you need, as well.
Day 3: Before I headed out for my 10:30am heli-hike (Fox Glacier Guides), I walked toward Lake Matheson and got stunning views of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. Once again, I was blessed with great weather and I think the clear morning was a rare occurrence, but I'm not sure of that. The hike to Lake Matheson is a long one and I didn't make it due to time constraints; I recommend hooking up with someone for a quick lift the 6km down there. If the weather's clear, do it then as the clouds can move in later on. I did have my car but didn't realize it was so far so just started walking. Live and learn. Needless to say, I got some great shots of the mountains just by walking a short distance down.
If you can afford it, take the heli-hike. However, weather can be a foe. The 3 consecutive days prior, the heli-hikes were cancelled due to weather concerns (altitude is approx 800m -- did I say I was lucky w/the weather??). So, a cancelled heli-hike may cause you to juggle your schedule. I spoke to someone who did the morning half-day hike and she had a great time. Flexibility and budget are definitely factors here. The glacier is very cool (no pun intended). We hiked around for almost 3 hours (the ride up and back was a thrill trip in itself). The blue ice and large crevasses can't be described here and you never get tired of seeing the natural wonder that is Fox Glacier. Our guide, Colin, was friendly and outgoing but professional when he needed to be as you are walking in a potentially dangerous place if you're not careful with the crevasses that go on forever. With the beautiful green mountains around you and blue and white ice under your feet, you better bring extra film.
After a nice lunch at the Hobnail Cafe, I decided to drive to Lake Matheson. A whole other world! Make the trip down. I got 1/3 the way around and got a nice view. The clouds moved in right before we left our hike and by 2pm, Mt Cook and Tasman were nowhere to be seen. But Lake Matheson is surrounded by lush rainforest (bring a light jacket for the changing temps) and it was simply amazing to be in 2 different worlds within the span of a couple of hours. It's got some nice stops along the way with signs describing what you see and what's around as far as wildlife. I think the entire roundtrip is 3 hours so plan accordingly. I did a hike to the first lookout and turned around due to time.
4pm, I left for Wanaka for a winding, wild journey by car. Arrived at Wanak Backpacka's and headed out to Relishes for dinner. Once again, highly recommended if you have the budget.
Day 4: Wanaka is rightfully focused entirely around Lake Wanaka. It's a nice little town that was described to me as a "little Queenstown". There is a lot to do around and in the town as there were ads for all kinds of activities. Take the time to sit down outdoors at one of the few cafes that face toward the lake, enjoy a latte and count your blessings as you are truly fortunate to be here. Again, my time was short so I hiked part-way along the Millennium walkway (45 minutes, half-way). This is a great walk (one of a few listed) that was easy and offered great views of the mountains nearby and back toward the town. There are also a handful of good sports shops in town so if you're looking to pick up anything, this could be your place.
After the hike, I headed out toward Timaru. The landscape changes quickly from green to brown as you move away from the coast. With the car, I had the chance to take my time and stop at Mt Cook Village and Lake Tepako. Very nice views. There are obviously many sights to see on the South Island.
Pulled into Timaru around 6:30 after a 4 hour drive and stayed at the Sea Breeze Motel (NZ$80 gets you an apartment with double bed - I'm not kidding, lg kitchen, bath, seating area). Tell Terry the gentleman who owns it with his wife that I say "hi". This is in the Bay Hill section of town. Get there by following Rte 1 to the right coming from Wanaka and down a couple of miles past Caroline Beach turnoffs and the road to Bay Hill will be to your left. I lucked out as I didn't know much about Timaru and Bay Hill looks like the place to be. Many shops, cafes and places to rest and eat. With my stay I got a free drink coupon at 3 different places (must buy dinner to redeem). I chose Zanzibar with a view looking toward the water. Once again, an excellent meal, recommended by "Rough Guide"!
Day 5: Headed back to Christchurch (2 hours) Airport and departed at 1:30 pm. I realize I didn't do the South Island justice by giving it only 5 days of my time. But, it was wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed everywhere I went and there's not a rude person in the country as far as I'm concerned (that goes for Australia, too, where I spent 9 days). Even the people from the North Island recommend the South Island if you have to make a choice. Lots to see and do ... bring a camera and an adventurous spirit!