After a fabulous holiday, I feel it’s only fair that we share our New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary with the Internet. New Zealand is a country full of attractions, lakes, mountains, marine life, and a whole lot of sheep. There’s enough sightseeing to overwhelm in the most experienced traveler. We spent 12 days traveling across the South Island, and felt it was way too little time. Truth be told, no amount of time would have been enough. So if you’re traveling to New Zealand anytime soon, feel free to glance over our itinerary.
Some Quick Notes
Our journey began in Christchurch which also served as our base. Although Queenstown is more popular as a base among tourists, I would recommend Christchurch to those seeking to explore more of the South Island. Queenstown, situated in the more scenic part of the island, offers more options in terms of adventure sports and day-trips. However, as there’s not much to see in and around Christchurch, you are forced to get out and explore more parts of the South Island. Also, I’d recommend this itinerary for two reasons:
- As the days went by, our journey evolved from a zero to a ten. With each passing turn, the landscape got more and more scenic! It’s was like setting off on a never-ending road trip of “wows”! We don’t think we could have appreciated the beauty the way we did had we landed straight in Queenstown.
- This itinerary also gave us a chance to explore Kaikoura (which by the end became our favourite town). Had we only explored the southern part of South Island, Kaikoura may not have been on our itinerary.
So, if you’re planning to visit the South Island of New Zealand, read on as I share our experience of road tripping. This is my personal New Zealand South Island road trip guide.
Christchurch->Greymouth->Franz Josef->Haast->Wanaka->Arrowtown->Queenstown->Mt Cook Village->Lake Pukaki->Lake Tekapo->Kaikoura->Akaroa->Christchurch
12 Day New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch
What’s to do/see in Christchurch: Here is my top 5 things to see in Christchurch. And for a night out, head to Victoria Street or High Street.
Hotels in Christchurch: We stayed in multiple hotels in Christchurch during our trip. However, my favourite was The Grange Boutique B&B & Motel, a B&B with a lot of character and very centrally located. The other hotel that we stayed at, The Rendezvous Hotel, was also good, and very centrally located.
Day 2: Christchurch to Greymouth
This was the only part of the journey we covered on train. The TranzAlpine Train covers the distance between Christchurch to Greymouth in just over 4 hours. The journey is absolutely spectacular and gives you a glimpse into the beauty that lies ahead. As seats are limited and the train is quite popular, I’d advise you to book your tickets in advance from TranzAlpine’s website.
Greymouth is where we rented our car and began our road trip.
What’s to do/see in Greymouth: With a population of 8,000 residents, Greymouth is the largest town on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Although there not much to see within the town, I’d highly recommend checking out the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki, which is a 30-40 minute drive from Greymouth.
Hotels in Greymouth: We stayed at the most charming B&B in Greymouth, The Alpine Rose Motel. I highly recommend it!
Day 3: Greymouth to Franz Josef Glacier (or Fox Glacier)
How’s the drive: The 180 km drive is mostly flat with some good scenery along the way. There are a couple of lakes to stop by, but other than that not much in the way of things to see. As you get closer to the Southern Alps, the drive does start getting more scenic.
Here’s a time-lapse video of our drive from Lake Ianthe to Franz Josef.
Day 4: Franz Josef Glacier (or Fox Glacier)
What’s to do/see in Franz Josef Glacier: Definitely make sure that the glacier hike is on your list. It’s a rare experience to be able to walk on an actual glacier, so make sure you do it! And of course, if you have some extra time on your hands, I’d highly recommend an evening at Lake Matheson, the mirror lake.
Hotels in Franz Josef Glacier: We stayed a couple of minutes outside the main town of Franz Josef in a motel called Franz Josef Glacier. Absolutely lovely property! And it’s right next to Lake Mapourika for you to enjoy those sunsets!
Day 5: Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka
How’s the drive: This was the drive I was most looking forward to. Often described as the most scenic drive in all of New Zealand’s South Island, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. We made sure to set out early from Franz Josef because the drive is close to 300 kms long and there is a lot to see along the way.
The two major highlights of our drive were the town of Haast and the Blue Pools of Haast. I’ve written a complete post on our drive to the Blue Pools of Haast for you to read. I’d recommend taking your sweet time on this drive. Appreciate the Gates of Haast, the Blue Pools, the seals and the Hectors Dolphins (if you’re lucky).
After Haast, you’ll be treated to the first of your big lakes. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea are the two that show up side by side. Both lakes are absolutely epic, in size and beauty! Here’s a quick look at our drive from the Blue Pools of Haast to Lake Hawea via Lake Wanaka.
What’s to do/see in Wanaka: Remember that I said the best thing about this itinerary is that keeps getting more beautiful. Wanaka was the first town that literally took my breath away! The town is so incredibly picturesque and beautiful that I found it hard to leave it! From the lonely tree, to the beautiful sunsets…sigh! Walk along the lake, sit at the numerous bars, cafes, and restaurants on Brownston Street and appreciate your life. Seriously! You’re one lucky soul if you’re sitting there.
There’s also a Puzzling World theme park, which is just outside the town. It might be fun stop if you’re into that kind of stuff.
Hotels in Wanaka: In Wanaka, we stayed at the Te Wanaka Lodge. The owners of the lodge were so warm and welcoming. The breakfast was incredible, and they even had a hot tub that we could use. We loved our one night stay at the Te Wanaka Lodge.
Day 6: Wanaka to Queenstown
How’s the drive: Quite short. I’d highly recommend taking a detour to Arrowtown before making your way to Queenstown. Arrowtown is a quaint historic town on the banks of the Arrow River. We stopped there for a couple of hours and ate lunch at the The Postmasters Residence. Highly recommended!
What’s to do/see in Queenstown: On the shore of Lake Wakatipu lies the Mecca of tourism that has something for everybody! I’ll let you do your own research for Queenstown because there’s just so much on offer. Oh, and make sure you try the legendary Fergburger.
Hotels in Queenstown: Queenstown is a big city, relatively speaking, with loads of hotel options. But the one we stayed at, The Waterfront, is highly recommended. The Waterfront in fact is a serviced apartment, and not a hotel. But it’s right on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, the rooms are massive and spacious, and it’s centrally located. And the view of the sunset in the evening is worth every penny!
Day 7: Queenstown to Mount Cook National Park
How’s the drive: Spectacular! Absolutely breathtaking! The scenery changes often, and changes fast. It was one of my most memorable drives, especially because I was on the passenger seat. The moment you get to Mt Cook National Park, you will see a sight so beautiful that it’s hard to describe in words. I’m of course talking about Lake Pukaki.
Unfortunately, the day we arrived at Mt Cook National Park it was raining and very gloomy. However, the weather wasn’t so bad at Lake Pukaki. But the moment we entered the mountains, it felt like we were literally driving into Mount Doom! Take a look for yourselves.
What’s to do/see in Mt Cook National Park: Quite a lot actually. From visiting Lake Tasman to Sir Edmund Hillary’s Alpine Centre, to just simply admiring the peace and quiet of the mountains around you. Unfortunately, we were there for only one night but it turned out to be the most magical night!
Hotels in Mount Cook: There are only a handful options at Mount Cook Village to spend the night. I highly recommend the Aoraki Court Motel.
Day 8: Mount Cook National Park to Christchurch
How’s the drive: Absolutely epic in the start, and then it just fizzles out as you get closer to Christchurch. We literally had tears in our eyes after we’d realised what we had left behind. It’s a rude shock, sort of like descending from heaven to Earth.
Once again, the drive is really long (close to 350 kms) but you get to see two of the most beautiful glacial lakes, Pukaki and Tekapo.
Soon we ran out of scenery to admire. But little did we know that there was still some more to come.
Day 9: Christchurch to Kaikoura
How’s the drive: I’d like to think of this route in three parts. From Christchurch to Cheviot, it’s quite relaxing and mostly flat roads. From Cheviot to Oaro, the hills and the sharp turns make it the most twisting and turning drive. But once you arrive at Oaro, the drive becomes extremely serene with the Pacific Ocean running beside you.
Here’s our video.
Day 10: Kaikoura
What’s to do/see in Kaikoura: Oh wow…so much to see and do in Kaikoura. From whale watching, to seals and dusky dolphins! Kaikoura is a marine life extravaganza. It’s incredible views of the sea on one-side and the mountains on the other. There are also a few great places to dine in Kaikoura – The Black Rabbit and Green Dolphin Restaurant and Bar are ones that I can recommend personally.
Hotels in Kaikoura: While in Kaikoura, you’d want to stay at a property that’s located along the shoreline. The one we stayed at was called The White Morph – Heritage Collection. Great location, great property, lot’s of parking!
Day 11: Kairkoura to Akaroa (and then back to Christchurch)
How’s the drive: The same as Christchurch to Kaikoura. From Christchurch to Akaroa is a fairly mundane drive. We did however stop at Lake Forsyth.
What’s to do/see in Akaroa: Akaroa is a former French settlement south-east of Christchurch. With a population of less than 700 residents, the town is a perfect getaway spot from Christchurch. You can read more about Akaroa in this post of mine.
Day 12: Depart From Christchurch
Ta-da! That’s the end of the road here, quite literally. That was our epic New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary.
Car Rental Options
After doing tons of research, I finally narrowed it down to Apex Car Rentals. They have a wide range of car options at very reasonable prices. More established rental brands were almost twice the price of Apex and that too with fewer car options. We had no trouble dealing with them while picking up or dropping the car. In fact, we’d gotten delayed while returning from Akaroa to Christchurch and they let us keep the car for an extra night without any charge. I’d definitely recommend Apex Car Rentals.
Notes about this road trip: The road trip we planned did not incorporate Milford Sounds or Dunedin. However, it’s easy to fit Milford Sound (or Dunedin) into the itinerary by adding an extra day in Queenstown and eliminating the final day at Akaroa.
Full credit to my incredible wife, Neha, for putting together this itinerary and actually making it happen (that’s the hard part).