The South Island of New Zealand offers a vastly different landscape to the North Island, with spectacular mountain ranges and long, rugged coastal stretches. One of the best ways to see New Zealand is to plan a road trip. A self-drive South Island tour will take you from coast to coast and everything in between. Discover the best of the south with this road trip itinerary for New Zealand: the South Island.
DAY ONE: START IN CHRISTCHURCH
Christchurch is the biggest city in the South Island and is back up and running after the devastating earthquake of 2011. Visit some of the earthquake memorials, such as the 185 empty white chairs in the CBD, representing the 185 lives lost during the quake.
Head to the Re:Start mall in the central city – a brightly colored container mall erected as a temporary shopping center after the earthquake. It was so popular, the mall is now a permanent feature of the central city with excellent shopping and a funky cafe vibe.
DAY TWO: EXPLORE BANKS PENINSULA
Take a day trip to New Zealand’s little piece of France, the charming village of Akaroa in Banks Peninsula. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Christchurch following a few winding, narrow roads before reaching the picturesque and quaint Akaroa Harbour.
Enjoy learning about the French influence throughout the town, and how France narrowly missed out to the British in claiming New Zealand.
In the harbor, you can go swimming with the protected Hector’s Dolphins – a dolphin species endemic to New Zealand.
DAY THREE: DRIVE SOUTH TO DUNEDIN
It’s time to head further south along the eastern coast to Dunedin. Be sure to stop off at Oamaru to see its renowned Victorian architecture. A little further south, you’ll come to Moeraki – a town known for the Moeraki Boulders. These boulders, which are scattered along the beach, are believed to have been formed around 60 million years ago.
An hour’s driving later and you’ll arrive in Dunedin. If you’re brave enough, head to Baldwin Street for a thigh-quivering walk – New Zealand’s steepest street.
Don’t forget to sample the local ‘delicacy’ – the southern Cheese Roll. You’ll find them at any cafe in Southland.
DAY FOUR: THE CATLINS
The Catlins highlight some of New Zealand’s most raw and rugged coastal terrain. Take your time driving and walking past lakes and waterfalls, native forests and spectacular coastlines and cliffs. The area is remote and unspoiled with a number of walks to choose from. Wrap up warmly to face the elements when walking out to the Nugget Point Lighthouse, witnessing nature at its most powerful as you watch the waves pound the rocks below.
Stay a couple of nights in The Catlins to make the most of the dramatic scenery in this southern part of New Zealand.
DAY SIX: BLUFF & STEWART ISLAND
It’s time to get on the move again, this time to Bluff – home of the world famous Bluff Oysters. Visit in May and be part of the festivities for the Bluff Oyster & Food Festival. Sample the wild foods on offer including muttonbird, venison, beef, and lamb.
You’ve reached the southernmost part of the South Island, but there’s one more island of New Zealand still to come. An hour on the ferry will get you to Stewart Island. The stretch of water between the South and Stewart Islands is known as Foveaux Strait, which can either be like glass or the most terrifying boat ride of your life. Alternatively, you can fly to Stewart Island and be there in 20 minutes. Stay at the Stewart Island Lodge, nestled among native bush and with views out to Halfmoon Bay.
DAY SEVEN: SHARK CAGE DIVING
It’s no secret that Great White Sharks love the cold and deep waters in Foveaux Strait. Learn about these incredible apex predators and get the chance to see them up close and personal by going on a cage dive! You’ll learn a lot about the habits of these fearsome creatures – while perhaps also gaining a new respect and understanding about them.
For dinner, be sure to book a table at the boutique Church Hill Restaurant & Oyster Bar, where everything on the menu is locally sourced and made to order. The company grows its own produce and herbs to complement the variety of New Zealand cuisine on offer, including blue cod, salmon, oysters, mussels, muttonbird, paua, crayfish and Southland lamb and beef.
DAY EIGHT: ULVA ISLAND
Ulva Island is a stunning and idyllic island sanctuary off Stewart Island. It’s been pest-free since 1997 and is the perfect place to see native New Zealand flora and fauna, including New Zealand’s national icon, the kiwi bird.
But these birds are nocturnal creatures, so wait until the evening to team up with one of the dedicated Kiwi-spotting tour companies to try your luck at spotting a bird that most New Zealanders haven’t even had the chance to see in the wild.
DAY NINE: DRIVE TO TE ANAU
It’s time to say goodbye to Stewart Island and head back across the mainland, either by morning ferry or plane. It will take a little over an hour to arrive in Te Anau, a spectacular lakeside town next to Fiordland National Park and base town for some of New Zealand’s most scenic and internationally famous walks such as the Milford Track and the Kepler Track.
In the afternoon, join a tour to the famous Glowworms Cave to see these magnificent creatures unique to New Zealand. You’ll take a cruise across the lake to a secluded cave which you will enter by foot, before stepping onto a little boat into the heart of the cave system. Here, the only light is from the thousands of luminous glowworms, which together resemble a stunning night sky.
DAY TEN: MILFORD SOUND
The Te Anau to Milford road is said to be the most stunning and beautiful road in all of New Zealand. It’s easy to understand why – you’ll hug incredible mountains and fiords while driving past beautiful lakes and native bush. The road to Milford is no-exit – meaning you’ll have to come back to Te Anau, but the drive is worth it.
Book a day cruise along the Milford Sound and be prepared to have your breath taken away by the majestic fiords.
DAY ELEVEN: QUEENSTOWN
The center of southern New Zealand is vastly different to the drama of coastal New Zealand, but just as splendid, especially when arriving at Queenstown – the adventure and tourism capital of the country. Surrounded by ski fields and snow-capped mountains, Queenstown is a vibrant and international ski resort which is just as busy during the summer months as in winter. Summertime brings visitors and locals out on Lake Wakatipu, mountain biking, and trekking. Wintertime often sees a shortage of accommodation due to the influx of ski and snowboarding tourists, so be sure to book accommodation early.
DAY TWELVE: ADVENTURE TIME IN QUEENSTOWN
For the best view of the Queenstown Lakes district, head to the Gondola and ride the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere! While up top, jump on the luge ride and explore the 800 meters of adrenalin-fuelled racing.
If that’s not enough excitement for you, try the world-famous bungy jump, flying fox, or bungy swing – or all three, if you’re game enough. There’s no shortage of heart-thumping adventures in Queenstown.
DAY THIRTEEN: ARROWTOWN TO TEKAP
Just 25 minutes from Queenstown, Arrowtown is a gold rush village, where even today you can try your luck panning for gold. Nestled among beautiful trees, tracks, and heritage buildings, Arrowtown is an enchanting village for locals and international travelers.
Stroll down Buckingham Street to see the old heritage buildings, browse through the boutique stores and dine at one of the many restaurants, cafes, and bars.
In the afternoon, jump back into the car and say goodbye to the Queenstown Lakes District as you depart for Tekapo for the night.
Just under three hours drive from Arrowtown, Lake Tekapo is renowned for its views to Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, as well as the night sky. Visit the famous Mackenzie Church, the Church of the Good Shepherd which overlooks Lake Tekapo. A popular spot for weddings, the old church is an iconic building in New Zealand history.
When darkness falls, Tekapo is the best place in New Zealand, and one of the top spots in the world to view the night sky. The Mt. John Observatory runs tours to learn about the constellations which make up the Southern sky.
DAY FOURTEEN: TEKAPO TO CHRISTCHURCH
If you want a truly special way to conclude your southern New Zealand itinerary, then you need to rise above the mountains. Take a scenic flight Air Safari which will take you over Mt Cook, Westland National Parks, glaciers, peaks, and sub-tropical rain forests.
Alternatively, head to Tekapo Springs for its spa and winter park; an ice skating rink in winter and an inflatable water slide in summer.
In the afternoon, it’s time to drive through the MacKenzie Country and the Canterbury Plains back to Christchurch.
About Our Guest Blogger
Juliette is a New Zealand born travel writer and travel blogger at Snorkels to Snow, who has a passion for scuba diving and skiing travel. She spent eight months living in the Fiji Islands, making the most of the tropical waters in her backyard.