In December 2018, I went on an epic two week road trip across New Zealand's South Island driving more than 3100 kms in 14 days. So I've put together this two week New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary that is perfect for a first timer to the region, just so you don't have to.
The itinerary covers some of the best that South Island has to offer like rugged coastlines, white sand beaches, lakes bluer than the sky, snow peaked mountains, open seas, glaciers, wineries, dark sky reserves, never-ending fjords, forests, wildlife, bush walks and amazing adventure.
You can also read about the trip on my blog: www.getbusylivin.in
Watch the full video of the NZ road trip here!
The itinerary below can be done clock wise or counter clockwise, makes no difference.
I started the journey from Christchurch towards Kaikoura first and you'll see the reason for that below as you read on.
Arrive in Christchurch.
Landed in Christchurch about 10 am, picked up the pre-booked rental car at the airport and drove straight to the hotel. After a short rest, we went about exploring Christchurch.
Overnight at the hotel in Christchurch.
Cathedral Square- Cathedral Square has been the heart of Christchurch since the mid 1900's and continues to be just that.
Christchurch Gondola- For the most spectacular views, check out the Christchurch Gondola. Soar above the mountains for views of snow capped peaks. At the top you can explore tunnels, take a hike and learn more about the history of the peak.
New Brighton Pier - Stroll along the pier reaching into Pegasus Bay for views stretching up and down the coast
• Book your Car/Camper in advance and arrange for it to be picked up and dropped at Christchurch Airport. It will save you time and money for separately going to pick up and drop your rental.
• I recommend Ezi Car Rental for competitive prices. My car was less than a year old with only 1200 kms on it and checking out and returning the car was a breeze.
• Please see the 'Driving in NZ’ video before you go. Take special care of following speed limits and following ‘Passing / Overtaking’ protocols. Read up before you go.
• Always Fuel up before driving out of a town for long drives. Petrol Pumps are notoriously few and far between; I had a close call on the way to Queenstown when I forgot to refuel in Wanaka and the petrol light switched on in the Crown Range Mountains. It took extraordinary fuel saving driving skills to avoid being stranded.
Christchurch to Kaikoura
Expect scenic drives where you’ll be driving right along the coast for some part of the journey. Kaikoura is a very small town and the entire town center can be walked in 5-10 mins.
Overnight in the hotel at Kaikoura.
Peninsula Lookout & Point Keen Seal Colony- The first place you should head when arriving in town, this lookout provides the best views of the bay and mountains. I guarantee the view will take your breath away. At Point Kean, just a few minutes' drive from town, you'll find a colony of seals that you can get up close (but not too close!) to in their natural environment.
Whale Watch- The bay is home to an array of marine life all year round. Your best chance at seeing them up close is on a cruise and there are cruises that run daily all year round. Sperm Whales live in the bay year round and Kaikoura is one of only three places in the world where you can see them up close. If you're lucky you may also end up seeing Dolphins and many other species of Whales.
Dolphin Encounters- Want to do something epic and swim with Wild Dusky Dolphins on the open sea? Are you a proficient swimmer? Book a trip with Dolphin Encounters Kaikoura (they offer both Swim with Dolphins & Dolphin watching tours)
• If you are going by boat, book in advance with Whale Watch Kaikoura to avoid disappointment.
• If you’ve the slightest tendency of motion sickness, have a tablet about 20 mins before departure. They sell sea sickness tablets at the Whale Watch Gift Shop but they can be pricey, so carry your own in advance if you like
• You have the option to view the Whales & Dolphins by Air (either small plane or helicopter). There are about 3-4 operators to choose from, just google it.
• If you have the money to splurge, I recommend doing both the Boat and Air tours
Kaikoura to Nelson
Leave early today as its a long driving day with many detours and stops. Rather than go straight to Nelson I took the following route:
Kaikoura > Blenheim > Picton > Havelock > Nelson.
Overnight in the hotel at Nelson.
Marlborough Region- from Kaikoura to Blenheim to Picton you'll be driving through the Marlborough Region, a world-famous wine producing region in New Zealand. Thanks to aggressive growth in the export market the Marlborough wine region is now responsible for the production of 77% of New Zealand's wine. The most popular variety is Sauvignon Blanc, closely followed by Pinot noir and Chardonnay.
Picton- Although you can take a straight route from Blenheim to Nelson, I took a slight detour to the northern edge of South Island to a town called Picton- gateway to the North Island. You can find many lookout points here for breathtaking views of the bay and to see the giant ferry's departing for the North Island
Queen Charlotte Drive- The Queen Charlotte Drive is an alternate scenic route (winding roads through hills and forest) from Picton to Havelock. Although I took this route, you may give this a miss if you are short on time.
Havelock- Known as the green-shell mussel capital of the world. Stop here for a bite if you haven't eaten already
Nelson - Arrive in Nelson by evening. Check in to your hotel and spend the rest of the evening walking around the small town center
• The Marlborough Region has more than 30 Cellar Doors for Wine Tasting and seeing the vineyards. I chose Cloudy Bay Vineyards- it has a nice restaurant and great outside area to sit back, relax, have a picnic if you like. For nondrinkers there are enough options for other beverages and the best part is that you don’t feel forced to buy a wine tasting package at all (which starts as low as $10) to visit this place.
• Not far from the Vineyard I stumbled across Makana – a small boutique chocolate factory/ store. The treats here are hand-made using only the freshest, natural ingredients with no artificial preservatives. A nice pit stop if you have a sweet tooth.
• There is a Burger King in Nelson open till 11 pm, just in case. (Did I mention shops in NZ shut really early :).
Day trip to Abel Tasman National Park
Most Abel Tasman tours start from Kaiteriteri beach which is about an hours drive from Nelson town center; so start accordingly.
Return and overnight in Hotel at Nelson.
Abel Tasman National Park- Covering an area of 237 sq km, the park is the smallest of New Zealand's national parks. It consists of forested, hilly country to the north of the valleys of the Takaka and Riwaka Rivers, and is bounded to the north by the waters of Golden Bay and Tasman Bay.
You can even access the park via the small settlement of Marahau. The nearest large town is Motueka, 20 kilometers to the south.
• If you don’t want to hike for long periods of time, take a cruise around all the high points of Abel Tasman National Park and opt to be dropped at one of the many drop off / pick up points which leaves you with 2-4 hours to enjoy yourself at your own pace. There are many cruise operators like this one that you can book online.
• The walk from Apple Tree Bay to Anchorage beach is easier of all the walks at 7 kms (2.5 to 3 hrs)
Nelson to Franz Josef Glacier
This will be the longest single day drive of your trip however it’s scenic and with appropriate pit stops, not tiring at all.
Overnight in hotel at Franz Josef or Fox town.
Punakiki- Stopover in Punakiki along the way to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, both are spectacular and must-see when visiting the West Coast.
If you're here in summer when the sun doesn't set until 10 pm, stopover in Greymouth town on the way and do a few activities if you like, you should still reach Franz Josef by Dusk. Greymouth has a lot of tours and activities to suit all types of travelers.
Explore Franz Josef & Fox Town
Spent the day exploring Franz Josef and Fox town.
Overnight in the hotel at Franz Josef or Fox town.
Quad Biking- Experience the adventure of riding through rain forest tracks, river and grassland areas complete with a glacial backdrop for an epic 2-hour adventure
Heli Hiking- A first-hand exploration of a glacier by chopper, seeing only what experienced mountaineers can reach is a wilderness experience you'll never forget. Fly up to the Franz Josef Glacier in the Westland National Park and land on a section of the 12 km long glacier. Equipped with glacier boots and crampons, walk for two hours amongst the ice formations and pinnacles and see first-hand the extraordinary colors of the ice-flow. You have to be reasonably fit for this hike. Make the bookings plenty in advance to avoid disappointment.
Helicopter Glacier Landing- If for any reason you can't do the Heli Hike mentioned above, opt for a just a scenic helicopter tour with a glacier landing where you land on the ice for about 10 mins. Many operators are available for such tours (I went with Glacier Helicopters). Make the bookings plenty in advance to avoid disappointment.
Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier on foot- You can drive to the public car park spot at the base of each glacier and then do an easy walk up to the farthest point allowed where you can see the glaciers from their base
Lake Matheson- 5 min drive from Fox Town brings you to this stunning lake with amazing views of the 2 highest peaks in NZ- Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. If you're short on time, just do the shortest walk to the 'reflection' point, where under perfect conditions both peaks are reflected brilliantly in the lake
• Plan your day like this- Quad Biking at 9 am followed by Heli Hiking at 12 noon. After your return drive up to Franz Josef Glacier base and explore. Then drive to Fox Town and drive up to Fox Glacier base before going on to Matheson Lake. You should be able to return to Franz Josef before dark.
• While driving up to the public car park at Franz Josef Glacier, keep your eyes peeled to the right side of the road a few hundred meters before the car park for a sign that reads, “In 1935 the Glacier was here” to truly understand the effects and impact of climate change
Franz Josef to Queenstown with a stopover in Wanaka first
Explore Wanaka town before driving on to Queenstown.
Overnight in hotel at Queenstown.
Wanaka is a picture perfect fit for a postcard town. Explore the lake, stroll the streets and be inspired by galleries, stylish shops and be spoilt for choice with a great selection of cool cafes and restaurants.
That Wanaka Tree- A tree so famous it has its own pin on Google Maps. From humble beginnings over 70 years ago as a wooden fence post charged with keeping stock from wandering, the Wanaka Willow has become the beautiful tree we see today with photographers flocking from around the world.
• Plan on having lunch in Wanaka. You can have a picnic by the picturesque Lake Wanaka and then explore the town for a bit before leaving for Queenstown which is just an hour’s drive away.
• There are two main routes from Wanaka to Queenstown, Via Crown Range or Via Cromwell. I recommend taking the Crown Range- the ascent and descent through Crown Range Mountain is spectacular. Read up on both and decide for yourself.
Queenstown is my official favorite city in the world now! Known as the 'adventure capital of the world'- you’ll be spoilt for choice in things to do and see. You may want to extend your stay here and add another day.
Overnights in hotel at Queenstown.
Lake Wakatipu- It fills a deep valley carved into the mountains by ancient glaciers. You can go boating, cycle or walk around its shore or just picnic at the lakeside.
AJ Hackett Bungy- What better place for your first jump then in the birth place of bungy and with the inventors of it. You have 3 options /locations to choose from- Kawarau Bridge (43 m), Ledge (47 m), and the granddaddy, highest bungy in NZ - Nevis (134 m) with an 8.5 second free fall. If you have decided to take the plunge, I suggest you do it at Nevis (in for a penny, in for a pound). And while you are at the Nevis location try out the Nevis swing and catapult for an extra dose of adrenalin rush. You can watch my Nevis Bungy Jump video here.
Sky Diving- There are 2 operators offering Skydiving in Queenstown. I went with NZone. They offer jumps from 9000, 12000 and 15000 feet. The drop zone offers breathtaking views of the southern Alps and Lake Wakatipu. You can watch my Sky Dive video here.
Rafting- Queenstown's famous Shotover and Kawarau River provides whitewater rafting action for those looking for extra excitement and thrills. I recommend the Shotover river as the rapids here are Grade 3-5. experience the rugged beauty of the Skippers Canyon as you conquer the wild and untamed Shotover River. Tackle the thunderous 'Mother' rapids, a series of six grade 4-5 rapids, before the journey through the darkness of the 170-metre long Oxenbridge Tunnel. Shoot the drop into Cascade Rapid to complete your whitewater rafting adventure.
Shotover Jet- There are many Jet boat operators some offering Jet boat rides over the lake as well. Don't be confused and walk straight over to any 'Shotover Jet' booking office. Shotover Jet operates on an exclusive area of the Shotover River and is the only company permitted to operate within its spectacular canyons, carved out over the ages by a vast volume of fast flowing water. The only company offering real 360-degree spins and high-speed canyon passes (sometimes as close as 1 meter to the canyon walls).
Skyline Gondola and Luge- The Skyline Gondola and Luge site at the top offers spectacular Day and Night time views of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. Take the Gondola Up, enjoy the views, eat and drink at the café and take some thrilling Luge Rides (people of most ages and abilities can do this). There is an additional activity of Parasailing from this site- if you have the time, Do It!
Glenorchy and Paradise- Stunning scenery from Glenorchy and Paradise has been featured in the following films: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Wolverine, and most recently the Hobbit, to name a few. Just 45 minutes from Queenstown, Glenorchy is nestled on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu and is the gateway to hiking trails and middle earth magic. Paradise is 20 kilometers from Glenorchy; 8 km is sealed road and the last 12 km is unsealed. Rolling farmland changes to beech forest as you enter the Mt Aspiring National Park and drive past Diamond Lake. The sign posted at the junction is one of the most photographed signs in New Zealand.
Arrowtown- If you have time or staying in Queenstown, visit Arrowtown, a charming, quirky and delightful gold rush village nestled below the beautiful peaks that surround the sparkling Arrow River.
• If you would like to have the famous Ferg Burger in Queenstown, get ready for a long queue. I suggest going at an odd hour between lunch and dinner and you will be lucky to receive your burger in about 30 mins from queuing.
• If you are an LOTR fan and would like to see the exact filming locations, I suggest you buy the Location guidebook by Ian Brodie. You can find it in all gift shops across the South Island.
• Continue down the road from Paradise on the unpaved dirt track, cross a few small streams before reaching the end of the road at the Dart River- amazing secluded location to sit and stare or picnic.
Queenstown to Te Anau and Milford Sound
Overnight in hotel at Te Anau
Milford Sound- Deep within Fjordland National Park lies Milford Sound, New Zealand's most stunning natural attraction. With its magical combination of mountain peaks, ink-dark waters and superb dramatic forest-clad cliffs, it must be seen to be believed. Take a cruise around Milford Sound to experience the beauty of this pristine scenic destination, a must-do on every New Zealand itinerary.
Te Anau Glow Worm Caves- Book a tour with Real Journeys to experience a mysterious underground world of rushing water before drifting in silent darkness beneath the luminous shimmer of hundreds of glowworms. By geological standards the caves are very young (12,000 years) and are still being carved out by the force of the river that flows through them. The result is a twisting network of limestone passages filled with sculpted rock, whirlpools and a roaring underground waterfall. Deep inside the caves, beyond the roar of the water, you will be taken by small boat into a silent hidden grotto inhabited by thousands of glowworms, unique to New Zealand. In the subterranean darkness, they produce a glittering display that is nothing short of extraordinary.
• Book your Milford Sound Cruise in advance but ensure you don’t book anything before 2 pm as the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is stunning and breathtaking and you’ll be stopping a lot. Plus, the last hour of the drive is pretty slow.
• Go straight to Milford Sound without checking into your hotel at Te Anau. You can do that on the way back when you have a lot more time.
Te Anau to Tekapo
Drive from Te Anau to Lake Tekapo.
2 nights in hotel at Lake Tekapo
Dark Sky Reserve and the Starlight Highway- Since the end of 2016, Mount Cook Road and the State Highway number 8 connecting Fairlie to Twizel have been officially renamed "Starlight Highway" in order to make the region an internationally go-to place for stargazing. In 2012, a 4300 sq km area around Twizel, Tekapo and Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park was also classified as a "Dark Sky Reserve", with the intent of controlling light pollution and restricting the use of artificial light. It's the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. You will be taking the starlight highway on the way to Tekapo from Te Anau.
Lupin Blooms (Seasonal)- Although Lupins bloom in other parts of NZ as well, Mackenzie region is one of the best places to find these beautiful blooms against stunning backdrops. Starting November, huge, colorful fields of a distinctive flower begin to emerge along the lake shores, streams, canals and highways of the Mackenzie Region of New Zealand. This is the start of the Mackenzie lupin season. The lupin flowers range from brilliant pinks and lavenders to cool whites and rich reds and purples. They are a landscape photographer's dream, especially set against the Mackenzie Country's turquoise glacier lakes and dramatic skies. The peak Lupin bloom season is in December.
Lake Tekapo- Saving the best for the end of your trip- when I first saw Lake Tekapo, I couldn't believe my eyes- the color of the water in front of me wasn't blue, it was pure turquoise. Lake Tekapo is an idyllic alpine spot at the foot of Mt. John, on the South Island of New Zealand. The color of the lake's water truly sets it apart from other lakes. It's beautiful turquoise color is created by rock flour from surrounding glaciers. The glaciers in the headwaters of Lake Tekapo grind rock into a fine dust on their journey down towards the lake. This rock flour is suspended in the water and causes the magnificent turquoise. The amazing color of the lake set against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks and wild flowers makes Lake Tekapo extraordinarily dramatic and a must see on a trip to New Zealand. The best views can be had from the top of Mt. John, which is home to University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory.
Mount John Observatory- You can either drive or walk to the summit of Mt. John. Once you arrive, you will want to take a moment to soak up the impressive panoramic views of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding area. The Panoramic views of the Mackenzie basin will leave you in awe. Head up to the Astro Café on Mt John via the dedicated walking track- a beautiful 45 minute hike steadily climbing through a larch forest, opening out onto grasslands and ending at the summit of Mt John. Or you can do a 15 minute drive from the Tekapo Township up the winding Mt John access road during our opening hours. There is a $8 per vehicle fee (payable at the kiosk on the Mt. John Access road). The road is privately owned and operated.
Star Gazing- Tekapo has many operators offering star gazing tours but I would recommend Earth & Sky's Mt John Observatory tour. On a clear night, just by naked eye you can see the Milky Way, most of the southern hemisphere's constellations and if you're lucky even the International Space Station whizzing by. Then move on to looking through several of Earth & Sky's telescopes which are portable yet powerful.
• The reason for 2 nights in Tekapo is that if you get a cloudy night, you get another chance to make up for it.
• Check the moon phase on the dates of your trip. A full moon is too bright and it will wash out the milky way. The reason I started my trip by going to Kaikoura first and Tekapo last is because it was close to full moon at the start of my trip but close to new moon by the end of it so I can have a better star gazing experience with a lesser or no moon.
• See the Church of Good Shepherd once during the day and once at night. Get used to staying awake late for these 2 nights in Tekapo, you will not regret it.
• On a clear night, just drive off in either direction of Tekapo town centre in the middle of the night to truly experience the beauty of the starlight highway
Tekapo to Christchurch
Back to where it all started- you can take an evening flight out or take this evening to enjoy Christchurch some more, before leaving on Day 14.
Even if you don't do any of the above and just drive around across the South Island, you'll have the trip of a lifetime.
I hope you found the post useful. There is so much to see and do in South Island that it is practically impossible to fit in an itinerary or a blog post.
If you think of other great things I may have missed visiting or writing about, please mention it in the comments for everybody. Happy Trails!
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