Congratulations for making the decision to do a South Island road trip, this is going to be one of the best trips of your life!
New Zealand’s South Island is a sublime and striking part of the planet, where you’ll find glacial lakes, lush native forest, cloud-piercing mountains and golden beaches within a few hours from each other.
Throw in some buzzing cities, plenty of character-filled towns, moody national parks and abundant wildlife on land, underwater and in the air, and you’ve got the makings for a seriously impressive adventure.
After coming home in March 2020 due to it-that-must-not-be-named, I immediately started planning a New Zealand campervan road trip.
We kicked off our six weeks in the Marlborough Sounds and made our way down the West Coast, through Central Otago, Fiordland National Park, Stewart Island, along the Otago Coast and through Canterbury.
We had a few mishaps along the way (like self-isolating after lockdown levels increased + a smashed window, ugh!) which messed with our itinerary BUT this blog is the perfect South Island road trip itinerary that we had hoped for.
Scroll down to find out more about how to travel the South Island, how long to road trip for, the best time to visit the South Island, then dig in to all the best places to visit in the South Island plus things to do while you’re there and where to stay.
How long should I spend doing my South Island road trip?
How long is a piece of string?
If you want to see a decent chunk of the island I’d suggest visiting for at least two weeks. But if you’re happy to stick to one city, like Queenstown for example, then five days will still give you enough time to experience the city plus add on a day trip or two.
If you’re lucky enough to have longer to spend in the South Island, you could easily fill a two month itinerary. On my South Island road trip in winter of 2020 I spend six weeks exploring and there were still places we missed or didn’t spend enough time in.
So basically, if you have a week or less stick to one place, two weeks and you can do a whirlwind tour of the main spots, and a month or more gives you much more time to see the island in-depth.
Under each destination I’ve listed how long I’d recommend staying as a minimum to get the best experience in each place. If you have longer or if you’re particularly interested in somewhere then by all means add extra days!
How do I get around the South Island?
If you’re travelling with a partner or friend, the easiest and most cost-effective way to get around the South Island is by driving. New Zealand’s transport infrastructure is limited so you can’t rely on inter-city buses and trains the same way you would in other countries.
Driving yourself gives you the freedom to plan as you go, change your itinerary to fit in with weather and events, and gives you access to places you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.
You can rent a car or a campervan from most major cities but Queenstown and Christchurch have the most rental outlets.
Renting a car in the South Island
Tossing up between a car and a campervan? Cars are cheaper to rent but you’ll need to include costs for accommodation, which can be pricey in New Zealand. Motels are common throughout the country, even in small towns, but the quality of cheap accommodation isn’t always great.
If you’re not comfortable driving a large vehicle, prefer modern luxuries and having a decent amount of space, or just don’t mind spending a bit more on accommodation as you travel, then a car is probably best for you.
Renting a campervan in the South Island
With a campervan you’ll have more freedom on where you can stay, with a huge range of campgrounds as well as designated freedom camping spots found all over the South Island.
There’s a range of campervan options to choose from based on your travel style. Jucy Campervans have cheap and cheerful self-contained green machines with portable cassette toilets and kitchenettes.
If you want space and modern amenities, check out the range available through Sunrise Holidays. We spend most of our trip in a Sunrise Holidays 6.3m four berth campervan called Judy, with loads of space, a full kitchen including oven and microwave, toilet, shower, gas heating and a big enough battery to let us freedom camp for two or three days.
For something in between cheap and luxury, search online with Camper Rentals NZ and see all campervan options in NZ.
What if I don’t want to drive?
If you don’t want to hit the road yourself, consider a group tour like this South Island Off-Grid Contiki tour or South Island Encompassed G Adventures tour.
Another option for getting around is Kiwi Experience’s hop-on hop-off bus passes, but these guys are currently mothballed and hope to reopen by October 2021.
When is the best time to visit the South Island?
It totally depends on what you’re into. Our trip in August/September South Island road trip was filled with hot pools, ski days, snowy evenings, great stargazing and less crowds, but if you prefer bikinis over beanies then summertime might be best for you.
The South Island can get cold in winter and snow is common so be prepared for chilly weather. In summer the temperatures are warmer obviously but New Zealand’s climate can be temperamental so heavy rain is not uncommon at any time of the year, particularly on the West Coast.
If you want to avoid the biggest crowds then don’t travel in December and January if you can help it, February onwards things start getting quieter and prices come down slightly.
Where do I start my South Island road trip?
The easiest places to start if you’re flying in would be Christchurch and Queenstown, which both have major airports and rental depots.
If you’re tacking the South Island onto a North Island road trip, or if you’re driving down from the north, you’ll need to get the Interislander or Bluebridge ferry from Wellington to Picton. The ferry trip takes about three and a half hours and you can drive your car/campervan onboard.
We began our trip in Picton after spending a month in the North Island so that’s where this itinerary starts, but you can start the circuit in Queenstown or Christchurch too.
The Ultimate South Island Road Trip
Picton & Marlborough Sounds
How to get there: The Interislander and Bluebridge ferries arrive in Picton from Wellington
How long to stay: 1-2 days
Picton is a sunny port town, and it’s the gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sounds and Blenheim’s wine country. It’s often missed off whirlwind road trips but is well worth a visit for a few reasons, particularly for the chance to swim with dolphins!
Things to do in Picton & Marlborough Sounds
- E-Ko Tours are a local operator who run wildlife tours and dolphin swimming, which was one of the absolute highlights of my South Island trip. The E-Ko team are extremely knowledgeable about these majestic creatures, working closely with DOC to ensure their tours don’t harm the sealife. This should be at the very top of your New Zealand bucket list.
- The Queen Charlotte Track is a 71km hiking trail that will take 3-5 days to complete, however you can do day walks (this day hike package includes a cruise to and from Picton) or mountain biking trips. One end of the trail is a gorgeous little inlet beach called Anakiwa, which is also my favourite freedom camping spot in the area.
- Deliver mail to remote Marlborough Sounds residents and keep your eye out for dolphins and fur seals with the iconic Mail Boat Cruise
- Do a self-guided winery bike tour around Blenheim’s vineyards
Where to stay in Picton
Budget: Anchor Down B&B has cosy rooms with comfy beds and excellent breakfast
Mid-range: Sennen House is a boutique 1886 homestead with beautifully manicured gardens
Luxury: Oxley’s Waterfront Apartment is a fancy apartment right on Picton’s main street with a view over the harbour, or the Nineteenth is a stunning two-bedroom home nestled between a golf course and a vineyard near Blenheim
Driving time from Picton: 1.5-2 hours, 140km
Where to stop on the way
- Cullen Point lookout for views over the Pelorus Sound
- Havelock for lunch, it’s the green-lipped mussel capital
- Pelorus Bridge & River, where the barrel scene of the Hobbit was filmed
How long to stay in Nelson: 1 day was enough for us
Nelson is often rated as one of the best cities to live in in New Zealand, with long stretches of beach plus a bustling town, thriving arts scene and some brilliant eateries. There’s not so much to do in Nelson to require a long stay but it’s a beautiful place to explore for a day on your way to Abel Tasman NP.
Things to do in Nelson
- The World of WearableArt is Nelson’s main attraction but unfortunately they are currently closed due to COVID
- Find a souvenir from a local artist in one of the many galleries or gift shops
- Go behind the scenes at Pic’s Peanut Butter World, then treat yourself to a PB-focused brunch afterwards
Where to stay in Nelson
Camping: Tahuna Beach Holiday Park has decent facilities, on-site mini golf and is a short walk from the ocean
Mid-range: Tuscany Gardens Motor Lodge has brilliant reviews, they offer self-contained suites with free WiFi
Glamping: Pepin Island is a private island/working farm 20 minutes from Nelson, and they’ve got three secluded glamping huts available for rent. We stayed at the Passage Hut and LOVED it, there’s an outdoor bath, panoramic views and it’s totally off the grid.
Abel Tasman National Park
Driving time from Nelson: 30 minutes from Nelson to Motueka
How long to stay in Abel Tasman National Park: 2-4 days
With golden beaches, clear water and an endless selection of adventure activities, Abel Tasman is an epic addition to any South Island road trip itinerary.
Unfortunately our stop here was hampered by a rare storm so we didn’t get to tick any of the Abel Tasman must-dos off our list, but that’s just a good excuse for another visit!
Things to do in Abel Tasman National Park
- Eat loaded donuts at the Smoking Barrel in Motueka
- Jump down waterfalls and abseil rock faces with Abel Tasman Canyoning
- Rent a kayak with Kahu Kayaks and explore the national park from the water
- Soak up the most incredible views with a thrilling skydive
Where to stay in Abel Tasman National Park
Budget: Abel Tasman Haven offer basic but comfortable studios with kitchenettes
Mid-range: Abel Tasman Lodge has been rated NZ’s best small hotel two years running, and they have charming rooms from only $170 a night, but they require a two-night minimum stay. If you’re only staying one night then consider the Kimi Ora Eco Resort for a mid-range place to stay.
Luxury: The Kite on Pemako Farm in Marahau is an ultra-stylish minimalist Airbnb with an outdoor bath
Glamping: Spend a night sleeping in a stylish yurt in an eco-village, just 15 minutes away from Motueka
Driving time from Abel Tasman National Park: Just over four hours from Motueka to Hokitika, 330km
Where to stop on the way
- Nelson Lakes National Park for some short hikes/glacial lake swims
- Cape Foulwind/Tauranga Bay for a seal colony
- Punakaiki for the famous Pancake Rocks
How long to stay on the West Coast: 1-4 days
Though the West Coast officially runs from Karamea in the north to Haast in the south, I’ve separated Franz Josef + Fox Glacier as their own section below so this is mainly talking about the northern half of the coast.
Rugged, wild and wonderful, there’s plenty to see and do on this side of the South Island. Spend your days hiking along icy rivers, visit the lesser known Paparoa National Park, and marvel at fiery sunsets.
Things to do on the West Coast
- Spot some glowworms on an eco-tour through Paparoa National Park’s cave systems
- Get up close and personal with some New Zealand icons at the National Kiwi Centre
- Do the short walk at Hokitika Gorge (free, 2hr return) or get the best views on the new West Coast Treetop Walk ($32, book online here)
- Carve your own pounamu (greenstone) piece at Bonz’n’Stonz
- Have a mind-blowing brunch at the Gatherer in Hokitika
Where to stay on the West Coast
Camping: The Ross Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park was one of the best we stayed at, right on the beach with modern facilities
Budget: Amberlea B&B has a 9.6 rating on booking.com and offers cheap rooms with either shared or private bathrooms
Mid-range: Awatuna Sunset Lodge has a 9.8 rating on booking.com and has comfy rooms with sea views and excellent breakfast included
Luxury: Stay in a stylish newly-converted fire station apartment in Hokitika with a perfect 5/5 rating on Airbnb
Unique: Out the Bay in Tauranga Bay has two off-grid tiny houses with stylish furnishings, sea views and a well-equipped kitchen. Our stay here has totally converted me into a tiny house obsessive!
Franz Josef Glacier
Driving time from Hokitika: 1h 40m, 135km
Where to stop on the way
- Lake Mahinapua for mountain reflections on a calm day
- Okarito, a small town with a kayak-able lagoon that has epic mountain views
How long to stay in Franz Josef: 1-2 days
If you’re based in Aotearoa while borders are closed, I highly recommend you add Franz Josef to your New Zealand bucket list, because it’ll never be this quiet again.
Remotely located behind the Southern Alps, only access via mountain passes above and below it (or by helicopter if you’re super fancy!), Franz Josef Glacier and neighbouring Fox Glacier are adventure hubs with insane experiences and unbeatable views.
Things to do in Franz Josef Glacier
- See the glacier! We opted for an expensive but well worth it helihike. Stepping foot on a glacier and wandering through narrow ice corridors is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll get sweet views on your ride up there too.
- If you’re not comfortable with walking on ice with crampons then consider a scenic heli flight instead. This one does both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier and includes a snow landing from $360, this one does just Franz Josef and is a bit cheaper at $280 each
- And if you’re travelling on a budget, you can walk to the glacier lookout point in 1h 30m for free, or take a guided tour that includes transport and a local guide who can teach you about the area
- Go kayaking in front of a backdrop of mountains in Okarito or on Lake Mapourika
- Soak in the Glacier Hot Pools, who have recently reopened after being closed for most of the year due to COVID
- Quad biking to get your thrills without having to book a flight
Where to stay in Franz Josef Glacier
Camping: Rainforest Retreat is 400m from the main township and offers powered sites + decent facilities amongst lush rainforest
Budget: Rainforest Retreat also has budget-friendly double rooms available for less than $100 per night and dorms from $30 a night
Mid–range: With cosy timber cabins offering peace and quiet away from the township’s tourist activity, Kahere Retreat is a good option for mid-range accommodation
Luxury: Te Waonui Forest Retreat is a world-class five star hotel with luxurious rooms, a pillow menu (!!!) and an on-site restaurant that serves up delicious meals made from local produce
Unique: Rainforest Retreat’s deluxe tree lodge is a two-bedroom tree house nestled in native bush with fancy furnishings and a full kitchen
Driving time from Franz Josef Glacier: 3h 45m, 285km
Where to stop on the way
- Fox Glacier just south of Franz Josef
- Lake Matheson for a lake walk and Aoraki reflections
- Thunder Creek Falls, Blue Pools and Fantail Falls along the Haast Pass
- The Haast Pass itself is magical, we stopped so many times for photos! Be careful driving as the windy roads can get dangerous in wet conditions, and only pull over in safe spots where you’re completely off the road
How long to stay in Wanaka: 1-4 days depending on your interests
Wanaka is the quieter, more relaxed, less commercial little brother of Queenstown, and is often preferred by frequent travellers to the area who want to avoid the craziness of NZ’s tourism capital.
Lake Wanaka is an excellent hub for active adventures, with bigger houses and apartments available at cheaper prices than in Queenstown but still offering stunning views and great food.
Things to do in Wanaka
- Cable climb up a waterfall with Wildwire Wanaka (one of my favourite adventures from our South Island road trip)
- Hit the mountains! Cardrona and Treble Cone are the closest ski resorts to Wanaka
- See the city in a different way with a trike tour through Wanaka Trike Tours
- Need a rainy day activity? See a movie at Cinema Paradiso, they’ve got funky seating (like beanbags and old cars) and have cooked meals available in intermission, or head to Puzzling World to test your brain with games and optical illusions
- Hike up Roy’s Peak, it’s six hours return and offers the most incredible views over the lake. If you are short on time and don’t mind spending money then you can catch a helicopter up to Coromandel Peak, just below Roy’s Peak, for equally impressive views without getting sweaty!
- Catch a cruise across the lake and explore Mou Waho Island
Where to stay in Wanaka
Camping: Our campsite at Glendhu Bay Motor Camp was one of the most amazing places to wake up to. Facilities are basic but the view is to die for.
Budget: Altamont Lodge is 2km from town and has double rooms with shared bathrooms from $110, which is incredibly cheap for this area
Mid–range: Goodstays Wanaka has a huge range of rental apartments and homes to fit any budget and group size. We stayed at this three bedroom house just out of town, brand new, beautifully furnished and the ideal spot to relax at after a day on the slopes.
Luxury: Lakeside Apartments have well-equipped self-contained apartments with private balconies, lake views and access to a swimming pool and spa pool
Glamping: The Camp at Lake Hawea has lakefront safari tents and domes available just 15 minutes from Wanaka, or Wanaka Glamping Dome is in a rural, remote area with insane views after a 15 minute steep hike
Driving time from Wanaka: Just over an hour/68km via the Crown Range, or 1h 30m via Cromwell
Where to stop on the way
- Cardrona Hotel for mulled wine and garlic bread if you’re heading the Crown Range way
- Wineries near Cromwell if you go the other way (Misha’s Vineyard, Gibbston Valley and Rockburn Wines all have brilliant reviews)
How long to stay in Queenstown: 2-5 days
Queenstown probably takes the top spot on New Zealand bucket lists around the country and around the globe, for good reason.
You already know about the skiing, skydiving, jetboating and nightlife, but there’s actually plenty to do beyond the obvious attractions.
Things to do in Queenstown
- The usual! Ski or snowboard, skydive, bungy jump, Shotover Jet, Onsen Hot Pools, hitting the town etc.
- Ziplining with Ziptrek was an awesome adventure activity with crazy views. We chose the 6-line three hour trip and had a fantastic time learning about Queenstown’s history, the flora and fauna, and ending with the world’s steepest tree-to-tree zipline!
- I’m not a fan of freefalling so skydiving/bungy jumping aren’t for me, but paragliding gives you those sky high views without having to throw yourself out of a plane! Paragliding in Queenstown was my second time floating through the sky (my first was in Switzerland) and it was absolutely incredible, highly recommend the team at Coronet Peak Tandems if you want to try it.
- Eat your way around the city. I recommend Bespoke, Yonder or Vudu for brunch, Fergburger for an iconic lunch, Balls and Bangles for gourmet donuts and Eichardt’s Grill, Rata or the Nest for a classy dinner
- Explore Skipper’s Canyon and drive along NZ’s most dangerous road with an epic 4WD safari with Nomad Safaris. If you’re an LOTR fan then these guys also run legendary LOTR tours around Queenstown and Glenorchy taking you to filming locations from the movies.
- Get off-road with a quad bike trip through the mountains
- Take a day trip to Arrowtown or Glenorchy
- Keen to visit Milford Sound but don’t have time for the long drive? See Fiordland from the sky with a scenic flight + cruise from Queenstown
Where to stay in Queenstown
Camping: You can freedom camp at the DOC site at Moke Lake for $15pp
Budget: Nomads Backpackers is right in town and has dorm rooms plus private rooms, probably the best value in the city
Mid-range: Goodstays Queenstown has loads of houses and self-contained apartments, ideal for families, groups or independent travellers who want their own facilities. We stayed at this funky townhouse just a short walk from town with lake views, garage parking and huge rooms.
Luxury: Kamana Lakehouse is a newly-renovated boutique hotel with panoramic views over Lake Wakatipu. Their rooms are comfy and modern, the on-site restaurant (the Nest) offers fine dining for a great price, and they have exclusive hot tubs for guest use at an additional cost so you don’t need to book Onsen weeks in advance. Ideal!
Ultra-luxe: Happy to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime accommodation experience? Treat yourself and a loved one to a luxury package at the Gibbston Valley Lodge private villas. Absolute bliss.
Glamping: Sleep in a secluded lotus belle tent at Remarkables Glamping
Driving time from Queenstown: 2h, 170km
How long to stay in Te Anau: 1-2 days
Often overlooked as being just a stopover on the way to Milford Sound, Te Anau is a peaceful lakeside town and is the commercial hub of Fiordland. Stop for at least a night here to experience the town’s friendly local vibes, nearby Great Walks or lake adventures.
Things to do in Te Anau
- Get hiking! The Kepler Track is the closest to town, and the Milford Track and Routeburn Track both begin between Te Anau and Milford Sound
- Go for a lake cruise and nature walk with Peter at Cruise Te Anau, or sail on a 1935 yacht complete with afternoon tea and wine on Faith in Fiordland
- Cycle (or e-bike!) the 30km Lake2Lake Cycle Trail from Lake Manapouri to Lake Te Anau. Rent your chariot from Wild Rides in Te Anau and they can transport you one way.
- See the glowworms
- Splurge on a helicopter or seaplane trip to get killer views that you’ll never forget. The cheapest option is a 30 minute Fiordland National Park flight from only $240, you can fly over Milford Sound for an hour from $530, or see both Dusky and Doubtful Sounds from the sky with this $605 flight.
- Want to go all out? Tick off the Fiordland trilogy with a helicopter tour over Milford, Dusky and Doubtful for a cool $1995 per person
- If you’ve been to Milford already, or if you prefer seeing places off the beaten track, consider booking a day trip or overnight cruise in the secluded and serene Doubtful Sound
Where to stay in Te Anau
Camping: Te Anau TOP 10 Holiday Park has excellent facilities, with a huge kitchen, decent bathrooms, a lounge with a fire and a hot tub available for guests to book
Mid-range: Anchorage Motel is a sustainability-focused motel with self-contained studio apartments as well as comfy one/two-bedroom options
Luxury: You can’t go past Fiordland Lodge if you’re looking for luxury. With a striking outlook over Lake Te Anau, impeccable service and elegant rooms, this is National Park accommodation at its best.
Driving time from Te Anau: 1h 30m without stops or traffic, I recommend you set aside 2.5/3 hours for the 115km drive
Where to stop on the way
- Te Anau Downs for views back towards the lake
- Mirror Lakes for reflections on a still day
- Lake Gunn Nature Walk
- Pop’s View Lookout
- Monkey Creek
Want to know more? For full info about the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound + tips on places to stop, read my full blog about driving to Milford Sound
How long to stay in Milford Sound: 1-2 days
Widely regarded as the unofficial 8th Wonder of the World, Milford Sound is an absolute Aotearoa must-do for Kiwis and international visitors alike. Plus the road is probably one of the best roads you’ll drive on your South Island road trip!
With abundant wildlife, towering mountains and crashing waterfalls, Milford Sound is simply magical.
Things to do in Milford Sound
- My number one recommendation for things to do in Milford Sound is a kayak tour with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks. Take a waterproof camera, paddle around the fiord, keep an eye out for seals and penguins, and see the waterfalls up close.
- Go for a Milford Sound cruise all the way out to the ocean
- If you’ve got time, consider an overnight cruise to get a more in-depth experience
- Visit the underwater observatory
- See a full list of epic things to do in Milford Sound here
Where to stay in Milford Sound
The lodge has studio + two-bedroom chalets with mountain, forest or river views, and the campervan park has powered sites under towering trees with access to a large kitchen, living area, bathrooms and laundry.
TRAVEL TIP: If you’re heading to Milford Sound overnight in a campervan, stock up on food before you go as there’s no shops there. There is a small cafe in town and a brilliant restaurant at the Milford Sound Lodge (the goats’ cheese croquettes are divine) but stop in at the Te Anau Fresh Choice to top up your pantry before you start the drive.
Driving time from Te Anau to Bluff: 2 hours, 180km, then a one hour ferry
Where to stop on the way
- Lumsden for a snack from Bafe Bakery
- Gemstone Beach in Orepuki is about an hour off-route from Invercargill
- Bluff for oysters when they’re in season
How long to stay in Stewart Island: The ferry only runs a couple of times a day so a two day stop is easiest
Stewart Island (or Rakiura in te reo Maori) is the remote, unspoilt, lesser-visited third island of New Zealand, known for stargazing, native birds, and the epic Rakiura Track Great Walk.
Things to do on Stewart Island
- Find a kiwi in the wild. I’d highly recommend going on a kiwi spotting tour, the guides know all the best spots and are able to find the birds without causing harm or danger.
- Cross your fingers for a glimpse of the Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights
Where to stay on Stewart Island
Budget: Stewart Island Backpackers have basic dorm and private rooms for a good price
Mid-range: There’s a decent range of Airbnbs on Stewart Island that will suit any budget
Luxury: Church Hill Boutique Lodge has panoramic views and a fancy restaurant onsite
Driving time from Bluff: About an hour from Bluff to the start of the Catlins area
How long to stay in the Catlins: 1-2 days
With thriving wildlife, endless coastline and loads of nature walks ranging from easy to expert, the Catlins is an off-the-beaten-track South Island road trip destination that active adventurers won’t want to miss.
Things to do in the Catlins
- An early morning kayak with Catlins Kayak & Adventure to spot penguins, seals and a stunning sunrise
- Do the short walk to Nugget Point Lighthouse
- Watch penguins return to land at dusk at Curio Bay
- Spot sea lions (from a safe distance!) at Surat Bay
- Walk through native forest to visit Purakaunui Falls
Where to stay in the Catlins
Budget: The Lazy Dolphin Lodge has great reviews if you’re on a tight budget
Mid-range: We stayed at this cosy Airbnb near Curio Bay, it has a kitchenette, nice bathroom and comfy bed
Luxury: Molyneux House has modern self-contained apartments with beautiful ocean views, free WiFi and included breakfast
Driving time from the Catlins: It’s about an hour from the edge of the Catlins in Balclutha to Dunedin
How long to stay in Dunedin: 1-2 days
Dunedin is a bustling student town and is home to a mish-mash of breweries, heritage buildings, sandy beaches and a thriving entertainment scene.
Things to do in Dunedin
- Go out-out if that’s your thing!
- Visit Larnach Castle, a stunning real-life castle that was started in 1871
- Try a tasting rack of local craft beer at Emerson’s Brewery
- Spot penguins, seals and albatross on the Otago Peninsula
Where to stay in Dunedin
Luxury: Larnach Castle has a range of accommodation options if you’re looking for something special
Unique: We spent a night at the epic Cascade Creek Retreat about 45 minutes outside of Dunedin. It’s a beautiful timber farm lodge located on a working farm with a stunning rural outlook, two outdoor baths, ultra-comfortable beds and a well-equipped kitchen complete with ingredients for a hot chocolate and marshmallows for the fire.
Oamaru & the Waitaki District
Driving time from Dunedin: 1h 30m to Oamaru
Where to stop on the way
- Moeraki Boulders & Fleur’s for fresh seafood
- Purakaunui Beach
How long to stay in the Waitaki District: Day trip or 1-2 days
Hands down the most underrated district in New Zealand, the Waitaki region boasts character-filled cities, unique gift stores, wineries, award-winning restaurants, some incredible adventure activities and my favourite spot for glamping in New Zealand.
Things to do in the Waitaki District
- Explore Steampunk HQ, funky shops and penguin colony in Oamaru
- Have the best brunch ever at Riverstone Kitchen just north of Oamaru, their hot smoked salmon is something I dream about often
- Then visit the gift shops onsite and wander through the impressive gardens
- Stop off at Elephant Rocks to see some crazy rock formations
- Cycle along the Alps2Ocean bike trail
- Stop off in Omarama for a soak in a hot tub with mountain views and to see the otherworldly Omarama Clay Cliffs
Where to stay in the Waitaki District
Budget: Oamaru Backpackers has a 9.1 rating on booking.com from more than 800 reviews, so they must be good!
Mid-range: For a highly-rated farm stay, check out the Highlands on Homestead cottage on Airbnb
Luxury: The renowned Pen-y-bryn Lodge is a historic boutique hotel with brilliant facilities, including a billiard room, fitness centre, guest library and shared lounge with an open fireplace. Other fancy options in the Waitaki area include the brand new Mariner Suites (opened December 2020) and the Old Confectionary apartments.
Glamping: Valley Views Glamping near Waitaki Valley is one of the best New Zealand glamping spots, with spacious geodesic domes, a well-equipped shared kitchen, outdoor baths and panoramic views over farmland with a backdrop of mountains
Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
Driving time from the Waitaki District: About an hour from Omarama, 96km
Where to stop on the way
- High Country Salmon near Twizel for the best salmon pate of your life
- Ahuriri Bridge Campsite if it’s lupin season
- Pete’s Lookout for the best view of the windy road heading towards Aoraki
How long to stay in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village: Day trip or 1-2 days depending on how many walks you want to do
My first trip to Aoraki Village in August was cancelled by a terrible fire at Lake Pukaki, so I booked a second trip down for December of this year and had the most amazing time.
The drive to the village is truly one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever done, and I’d recommend giving yourself time so you can stop for photos whenever you feel like it.
Things to do in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
- Hike! Try the Tasman Glacier Hike if you’re short on time (30 mins) or the longer Hooker Valley hike (three hours) if you’ve got half a day. There are longer, more advanced hikes/climbs too depending on your experience, check with the visitor centre to get full info on the options that will suit you.
- Do a Tasman Glacier helihike
- See the mountains from the best vantage point with a scenic flight
- Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
- Do a 15,000 foot skydive for the most insane views
- Go for a boat ride on the Tasman Glacier lake
- Treat yourself to a fancy dinner at the Hermitage Hotel, their cocktails are incredible!
Where to stay in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
Camping: The White Horse Hill DOC campground is widely regarded as one of the best campgrounds in the country
Budget: YHA Mt Cook has an 8.9 rating on booking.com from almost 1000 reviews, and they have the best value dorm beds and private rooms in the Village
Mid–range: We stayed at the Aoraki Court Motel which was decent and good value for money. Rooms have comfy beds, kitchenettes and mountain views.
Luxury: Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat is somewhere for those who appreciate the finer things in life. Enjoy mind-blowing views over Lake Pukaki, elegant furnishings and free afternoon tea for all guests.
Driving time from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village: 1h 10m, 105km
How long to stay in Lake Tekapo: 1-2 days
I loved Tekapo so much that I visited it twice in three months! The bright blue lake looks out of this world and there’s loads to do in the area to fill any itinerary no matter what you’re into.
Things to do in Lake Tekapo
- Go stargazing in one of the darkest places in the world, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
- Interested in astrophotography? Book an evening astrophotography session with Silver River Stargazing
- Rest your mind and body with a soak in the Tekapo Springs hot pools
- Hit the countryside on a 4WD safari with Lake Tekapo Adventures
- Take the country’s best scenic flight over Aoraki, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, the Grand Traverse with Air Safaris
Where to stay in Lake Tekapo
Camping: Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park have campsites and cabins with lake views just a short walk from the hot pools
Budget: The YHA Lake Tekapo has excellent reviews and is ideally located on the lake, right next to shops and restaurants
Mid–range: Cairnsmore is a newly-built spacious studio apartment with a kitchenette, outdoor BBQ and lake and mountain views for a good price
Luxury: The Alpine Lodges at the Cairns is my favourite place to stay in Tekapo. The lodges have incredibly comfortable beds, cosy lounges with a fireplace, a full kitchen and a sun-soaked balcony, and they’re just a short walk from town.
Driving time from Lake Tekapo: 2h 45m, 225km
Where to stop on the way
- Burkes Pass to see the old school Route 66-themed auto-stop, the ideal South Island road trip photo spot
- Fairlie for the famous Fairlie Bakehouse pies, I rate the pork belly one
- Geraldine to pop into Barker’s Foodstore for an amazing brunch
- Ashburton Lakes and Rakaia Gorge if you have time to drive a little bit out of the way
How long to stay in Christchurch: 2-3 days
Slowly being rebuilt after the disastrous earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Christchurch is a city with a huge amount of character as well as lots of fun things to see and do.
Things to do in Christchurch
- Visit the famous Botanic Gardens
- Hire an e-bike and hit one of the city’s cycle trails
- Take a day trip on the TranzAlpine Train through Arthur’s Pass
- Do a Lord of the Rings tour
- Zip along New Zealand’s longest zipline at the Christchurch Adventure Park
- Enjoy a four course dinner at the funky Tramway Restaurant
- See the city on a tram tour
Where to stay in Christchurch
Budget: Jucy Snooze is a pod-style hostel by the airport with great facilities for a really good price
Mid–range: This Central City Apartment on Airbnb is well-equipped and has a 4.92/5 rating from almost 400 reviews
Luxury: The Britten Stables is an award-winning restored stables that was a part of the 1896 Mona Vale Homestead. They have a range of rooms available with access to a gorgeous conservatory with an indoor pool, but I particularly love the Library Suite.
Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
Driving time from Christchurch: 1h 20m to Akaroa, 81km
How long to stay in the Banks Peninsula: Day trip or 1-2 days
Best known for its dolphins and French influence, Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula is a great add on to any South Island road trip if you have time.
Things to do in Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
- Swim with dolphins or do a wildlife cruise if you don’t want to swim
- Explore the ocean by kayak tour
- Join in on a small group tour to watch the penguins at dusk
- Explore Akaroa’s French-influenced eateries, gardens and homesteads
- Visit the weird and wonderful Giant’s House
Where to stay in Akaroa & the Banks Peninsula
Camping: Akaroa TOP 10 Holiday Park has good facilities and is the closest campground to the township
Mid–range: SiloStay in Little River is a really funky place to rest your head, with your accommodation inside a converted silo! You get an upstairs balcony with countryside views, a kitchenette and an en suite bathroom inside your silo.
Glamping: My mum and I stayed at the Te Wepu Intrepid Pods, who have three secluded wooden pods overlooking rolling hills and the Akaroa Harbour. Each pod has an indoor bio-loo, outdoor kitchen, BBQ, wood-fired hot tub and solar-powered lighting and USB charging. Kate and Richie have created an epic glamping spot and this was one of the highlights of our Canterbury road trip!
Driving time from Christchurch: 2h 30m, 180km
Where to stop on the way
- Hanmer Springs if you’re happy to take a slight detour
How long to stay in Kaikoura: 1-2 days
With ocean in front of you and mountains behind you, Kaikoura might be one of the best-looking destinations in the country.
Watch for whales and dolphins by boat, kayak or air, chow down on the freshest seafood you’ll ever find, and find baby seals playing under a waterfall.
Things to do in Kaikoura
- You can’t visit Kaikoura without a whale watching trip (even though I’m terrified of whales which is a story for another day). Do a whale watching cruise or splurge on a whale watching flight.
- See the sea by kayak with a guided kayak tour
- Spot baby seals playing in the Ohau Stream Walk waterfall (keep a safe distance and don’t disturb them)
- Eat fresh crayfish on the beach with a stop at Nin’s Bin
Where to stay in Kaikoura
Camping: Kaikoura TOP 10 Holiday Park has modern facilities and amazing mountain views
Budget: First Light Kaikoura has budget-friendly rooms with good reviews
And after wrapping up your trip in Kaikoura, it’s a two hour drive back to Picton to complete the circuit!
I hope this detailed South Island travel guide has helped you plan your South Island road trip itinerary. If you think I’ve missed anywhere important or think I should add something onto this road trip plan then let me know in the comments.
Drive safely and have the best time!
Planning a South Island road trip? Read more New Zealand travel tips in these blogs:
- The Ultimate New Zealand Bucket List
- The Best Places to Visit in the South Island
- All the Best Spots for Glamping in New Zealand
- 11 Epic Things to Do in Milford Sound
- The Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo
- Fun Things to Do on Stewart Island
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