Road tripping is the ideal way to see all that New Zealand has to offer. The South Island is rich in natural beauty and we have developed the ultimate road trip that not only gives you the best driving in the South Island, but allows you access to some of the most beautiful wilderness.
Many people visiting New Zealand drive right past some of the most amazing spots, so we have developed a trip that gets you right amongst the overpowering beauty of natural New Zealand.
Coming in at just under three weeks, this stunning trip is the ultimate South Island adventure. If you have less time, we can, of course, tailor the trip to suit your needs.
Day 1: Arrive Christchurch
A private transfer brings you from the airport to Christchurch, where you will spend your first night. This world-famous 'Garden City' has well-established expansive parks and public gardens.
Day 2: Rental car pick up. Drive to Kaikoura region
Today drive north to the Kaikoura region (2H) via the Waipara Valley, one of New Zealand’s premier wine growing regions, producing world-class Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. It is worth stopping for a vineyard visit en route.
Few places in the world can boast of such natural wonders as those offered by land and sea in Kaikoura. The mountains are very close to the sea and covered by snow 10 months per year. Drive even further north to a farming community on the Kaikoura coast and the small settlement of Ngaroma where you will spend the night.
Day 3: Walk the Kaikoura Coast Track, Buntings Gulley to Ngaroma
Walk along the Kaikoura Coast Track, enjoying the secluded isolation of this stunning coastline, reserved for only 10 walkers per day so you will have the place almost to yourself. Afterwards, drive north to Picton (2H30) and view it’s very attractive seafront in a sheltered harbour.
Day 4: Queen Charlotte Track, Torea Bay to Punga Cove
Take an early morning Beachcomber Cruise Boat to Torea Bay and begin walking amongst the stunning scenery of the area with panoramic views of the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. Around 4pm catch the Tiri Cat vessel at Punga Cove back to Picton.
Day 5: Drive to Marahau. Abel Tasman Track. Boat to Anchorage Bay, walk to Marahau
Make sure you take the Queen Charlotte Drive (2H45), a beautiful and winding road which offers stunning views over the sound. You’ll find that the most spectacular views are behind you so don’t hesitate to stop at the lookouts so that you can fully take them in.
Take the afternoon boat to Anchorage Bay and then walk back to Marahau along the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Absorb these scenic surroundings of lush beech forest and stunning sea views before driving to the city of Nelson (1H), which is a great place to stay over, with some great restaurants with excellent local produce.
Day 6: Drive to Nelson Lakes, choice of walks
Today leave Nelson city after breakfast and drive into Nelson Lakes National Park (1H15). This park protects 102,000 hectares of the northern-most Southern Alps and offers tranquil beech forest, craggy mountains, clear streams and lakes both big and small.
There are 2 walks on offer today. You can either take the Black Valley walk, a short one) which starts in Kerr Bay and follows the Black Valley Stream through majestic beech forest, or take the longer, more challenging option, the St Arnaud Range Track which climbs up to just over a 1000m for spectacular views.
Day 7: Drive to Arthur’s Pass. Bealey Valley Track
Drive over to Arthur's Pass this morning (3H20), the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps of the South Island. On the way we recommend that you to stop at Castle Hill, a beautiful rock formation that provides an incredible view over the valley.
Upon arrival drive slightly further north of Arthur's Pass Village to the beginning of the Bealey Valley Track, a short walk that will take you through mountain beech forest and to the base of Mount Rolleston.
Day 8: Walk the Avalanche Peak and Scott Tracks
Take the Avalanche Peak Track and you will be rewarded with fine views of the surrounding peaks, particularly of Mt Rolleston and the Crow Glacier on its southern face. This walk is one that is defintely off the beaten track, one that few tourists will walk, but the rewards are well worth it. A stunning vista that will linger long in the memory.
Day 9: Drive to Glaciers region and Franz Josef.
Drive to the spectacular glaciers region of the South Island (3H). The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers cut through dramatic glacial valleys to flow into temperate rainforest. We recommend taking a day trip with a guide on the Franz Josef as you are not allowed to go onto the glacier by yourself. Booking in advance essential.
Day 10: Choice of Walks, Alex Knob Track, or Robert’s Point Track
Alex Knob Track is only for experienced walkers. You will zig-zag your way up to Rata Lookout for your first views over the Franz Josef Glacier through lowland forest, sub-alpine scrub, alpine meadows and herb fields and to the Alex Knob summit. Forest birds, such as tui, bellbird, kereru (New Zealand wood pigeon), are heard regularly along the track.
An easier walking choice today (but good fitness is still required) is the Roberts Point Track, which again has great views over the surrounding landscapes.
Day 11: Drive to Wanaka (Otago Region)
After breakfast, make your way south to Wanaka (3H30), which is in the heart of the Otago region. Central Otago is an area of matchless beauty with cold, glacier-carved lakes, barren hills and clear skies.
The hub is Queenstown, with a legendary setting looking across Lake Wakatipu to the craggy heights of the Remarkables range. Near neighbour Wanaka is Queenstown’s more restrained cousin, draped around the placid waters of its eponymous lake. The scenery here is particularly wonderful, as acknowledged by film-makers who have flocked here over the years to shoot major feature films.
Day 12: Roy’s Peak Track
On the Roy’s Peak Track you can take in breath-taking views over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring/Tititea and surrounding peaks after a steep climb through alpine meadows and tussock grasslands to the summit. This is a popular track and one of New Zealand's best day hikes.
Day 13: Drive to Te Anau via Arrowtown/Queenstown.
Today will be an amazing drive through the central Otago region and through Fiordland to Te Anau (3H), gateway to some marvellous Great Walks. It is worth visiting Arrowtown en route which is located just north of Queenstown. Ringed by snow-capped peaks, Te Anau stretches along New Zealand’s deepest and grandest lake of the same name.
Day 14: Milford Sound Cruise. Routeburn Track, Key Summit
Drive up to Milford Sound from Te Anau (1H45), then sit back and relax as your cruise departs from Milford Sound Wharf, and makes its way out past the iconic Mitre Peak. Be sure to keep an eye out for seals basking in the sun, pods of dolphins or rare Fiordland Crested Penguins that can be found seasonally within the region.
On your way back down the Milford Highway, you can walk up to Key Summit. As you begin to climb, immediately panoramic views of snow-capped peaks begin to unfold and you can take the turn off to Key Summit and see the unforgettable panorama from the top.
Day 15: Drive to Invercargill, flight to Stewart Island
Today drive even further south to the town of Invercargill, (1H55) from where you will catch a domestic flight to Oban (20 mins), located on Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third biggest and one that gives you a glimpse into a simpler, slower lifestyle, in rhythm with the sea and the tides, and attuned to the natural world of bush and beach.
Nature lovers are in for a treat. In the evenings spot the famous yellow-eyed-penguin in search of a place to hide! However the icing on the cake comes in the form of the Kiwi which can be spotted here even during the day!
Day 16: Port William Coastal Track (Great Walk)
The Port William coastal track, part of the Rakiura Great Walk, is one of the island’s most popular half day walks. Discover the former Maori Beach saw mill settlement on the 3 hour hike through the varied Rakiura National Park forest to Lee Bay.
Day 17: Flight back to Invercargill. Drive to Dunedin (3H30) via Catlins Coast
Dunedin is a place where time has stood still and visitors can enjoy the forests and wildlife as well as the lifestyle of a bygone era. As it is close to the rich Sub-Antarctic feeding grounds, some of the world's rarest marine animals are found here - the three penguin species (including Hoiho and the Yellow-Eyed Penguin), Hooker's Sea Lions, Hector's Dolphins, Elephant Seals, and New Zealand Fur Seals.
You can take a short walk to the Cathedral Caves, which are on the Catlins Coast. The track passes through the podocarp and kamahi forest of the Waipati Beach Scenic Reserve. After your exploration of this amazing coastline head north to Dunedin, the capital of the Otago region.
Day 18: Explore Dunedin. Drive to Christchurch
We recommend spending the morning in harbourside Dunedin. Nicknamed the “Edinburgh of the South”, it is incredibly proud of its Scottish heritage and given the chance locals will bring our their bagpipes and eat haggis at the drop of a hat! And the city even has it’s own tartan!
Drive north to Christchurch for your final overnight in New Zealand’s incredible South Island.
Day 19: Onward Travel
Drop your car off at Christchurch Airport (free shuttle from rental car office to the airport) before flying home or onto your next destination.
This driving tour of the wild places of the South Island covers all the tourist spots and much much more. To get out on foot and interact with the natural beauty of New Zealand's South Island is an experience not to be missed.