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The ultimate road trip guide to New Zealand's South Island

Date: 7 May 2019

From stunning glacial lakes to golden sand beaches, snow-capped mountains to lush green forests, adrenaline-pumping extreme sports to delicious local food, New Zealand’s South Island truly has it all. One of the best ways to experience New Zealand is via a scenic road trip.

While this itinerary starts and ends in Queenstown, you can easily start from any point along the way. Another popular starting point is in Christchurch. We’ve provided estimated driving times and how many days you might want to spend in each area, but of course feel free to tailor the itinerary to suit your holiday.

Whether you’ve got 7 days, a few weeks or months to explore this amazing corner of the road, we’ve mapped out the ultimate South Island road trip to inspire your travel plans.

Arrive in Queenstown: 1 to 3 days

Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world, and as soon as you step foot off the plane you’ll understand why. Its prime alpine location on stunning Lake Wakatipu makes it perfect for every type of outdoor activity imaginable.

Spend a few days here doing iconic Queenstown activities like:

TSS Earnslaw

Queenstown to Te Anau: 1 to 4 days

Driving Distance: 170 km / 2hr45

Now that you’ve gotten your fill of Queenstown, head out to Te Anau, the jumping off point for famous landmarks like Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park. Spend some time exploring gorgeous landscapes and try one of these must-do activities:

Doubtful Sound

Te Anau to Bluff to Stewart Island: 1 to 4 days

Driving Distance: 185 km / 2h30

Ferry: 1 hour

Next, head south toward Bluff to visit New Zealand’s southernmost and third-largest island: Stewart Island. Over 85% of this island is National Park and thus is home to incredible hiking, wildlife and birdwatching. It is the best place in New Zealand to spot a rare kiwi bird in the wild – there are more kiwi than human inhabitants on the island! You may also spot rare yellow-eyed penguins and blue penguins.

Ferry: 1 hour

Driving Distance: 105 km / 1hr30

Take the ferry back to Bluff, pick up your car or campervan and head toward the Catlins. You’ll drive through Invercargill which is a good stopping point should you need to pick up supplies for your road trip or want to rest. There are many shops, restaurants and accommodation options in Invercargill.

Continue on to the Catlins, home to the southernmost point on the South Island, gorgeous waterfalls, lush forests and stunning beaches. Visit Instagram-worthy places like:

  • Nugget Point Lighthouse and Kaka Point
  • Purakaunui Falls
  • Cathedral Caves – go during low tide. There is a $5 NZD entry fee.
  • McLean Falls
  • Curio Bay to spot dolphins, yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals and sea lions
  • Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the South Island

Driving around Stewart Island

Driving Distance: 160 km / 2h30

Once you’ve taken in the beauty of the Catlins, head north along the east coast to Dunedin, the second largest city on the South Island. It’s known for its Scottish heritage and Victorian architecture. Here are a few things to do in Dunedin:

  • See wildlife on a yellow eyed penguin tour and visit the Royal Albatross Centre
  • Check out the Dunedin Railway Station
  • Take a photo on the Guinness Book of World Records’ steepest street
  • Head to the beach and go surfing, or check out Tunnel Beach
  • Enjoy a night out at one of Dunedin’s many restaurants or bars

Dunedin to Wanaka: 1 to 3 days

Driving Distance to Moeraki Boulders: 75 km / 1h

Driving Distance from Moeraki Boulders to Wanaka: 265 km / 3hr15

Drive north along the coast and make a quick stop at the Moeraki Boulders to see the giant spherical stones dotting the beach, then head back west toward Wanaka. Enjoy this quieter version of Queenstown with just as much to offer, including:

  • Mountain biking in summer and skiing in winter at Cardrona
  • Stunning day walks like Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak
  • Outdoor activities like jetboating, canyoning, skydiving and paragliding.
Cardrona

Skiing at Cardrona

Wanaka to Mount Cook: 1 to 3 days

Driving Distance: 210 km / 2hr30

Journey north to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook. This was the first peak Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to summit Mount Everest, ever climbed. No matter how adventurous you are, there are activities suited to all skill levels: 

  • Hike the Hooker Valley Track or Mueller Hut route
  • Enjoy the Tasman Glacier via heli-hike, kayak, boat or by foot
  • Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Reserve

Mount Cook to Christchurch: 1 to 2 days

Driving Distance: 332 km / 4h15

Now that you can cross the highest mountain in New Zealand off your list, drive back toward the coast to Christchurch. Stop at Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo along the way for a picnic. While it is the South Island’s largest city, it is still rebuilding after the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Spend a day here exploring the city and visiting:

International Antarctic Centre

Christchurch to Kaikoura: 1 to 2 days

Driving Distance: 181 km / 2h38

Drive north toward Kaikoura, a lovely coastal town that’s home to an amazing ecosystem of marine life. Not only is this a popular destination for whale watching and swimming with dolphins, but it’s a haven for those who love eating seafood. Add these things to do to your road trip itinerary:

  • Take in the view at the Peninsula Lookout
  • Say hello to the seals at Point Kean
  • Book a whale or dolphin cruise and get a chance to swim with the dolphins
  • Eat fresh crayfish and other seafood

Kaikoura to Marlborough: 1 to 2 days

Driving Distance: 152 km / 2h30

Get ready for a day of wine tasting - Marlborough is New Zealand’s most famous wine region, internationally renowned for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. But this region has plenty to offer outside of vineyards:

  • Take a wildlife cruise through Marlborough Sounds
  • Hike or bike part or all of the Queen Charlotte Track
  • Wine tasting at one of the many vineyards

Marlborough to Nelson: 1 to 5 days

Driving Distance: 113 km / 1h45

Drive to Nelson, the ideal base for Abel Tasman National Park. Known for its pristine golden sand beaches and clear ocean water, Abel Tasman is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Here are a few things to do in the region:

  • Go horse trekking, mountain biking or kayaking
  • Enjoy one of the many beaches
  • Sample local craft beer
  • Walk part or all of the Abel Tasman Great Walk

Nelson to West Coast: 1 to 3 days

Driving Distance to Westport: 222 km / 3hr15

Driving Distance from Westport to Greymouth:  101 km / 1h30

Driving Distance from Greymouth to Hokitika: 40 km / 35min

Today you have a few options for your South Island road trip depending on how much driving you want to do. The rugged West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is known as one of the most beautiful drives in the whole country, so it’s natural to want to take your time and really take it all in. Start by driving from Nelson to Westport, then drive toward Greymouth and Hokitika. No matter your pace, make sure you stop at these places along the way:

  • Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
  • Paparoa National Park
  • Hokitika Gorge

West Coast to Glacier Country: 1 to 3 days

Driving Distance from Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier: 134 km / 1h45

The final stop on this epic South Island road trip is Glacier Country, home to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. While we still have the opportunity to marvel at these glaciers up close, they are shrinking at an alarming rate. Make sure you take advantage of them still being around with these must-do activities:

  • Heli-hike or ice climb up the glaciers
  • Go skydiving over these impressive icecaps
  • Check out the reflection of Mount Cook in the Lake Matheson mirror lake
  • Soak in the hot pools after a day in the snow

Glacier Country to Queenstown: 1 to 2 days

Driving Distance: 327 km / 4h30

Take your time driving through this stunning region via the Haast Pass. Stop at the Blue Pools along the way to take in the gorgeous colours, then head on back to Queenstown. Congratulations, you’ve now explored a huge chunk of the South Island!

To learn more about things to do in New Zealand’s South Island, check out these Real Journeys experiences you won’t want to miss.

Get your photo featured: #RealJourneys

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