The South Island of New Zealand is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever travelled to.

An untamed natural wilderness made up of mountain peaks, deep blue lakes, coastal towns, icy glaciers, lush green forests & sheep. Lots of sheep. The South Island is nothing short of a playground for all types of travellers; adventure junkies, nature enthusiasts, photographers and of course, anyone that loves a road trip!

Here’s our ultimate guide to road tripping around the south island of New Zealand in 2-3 weeks.

New Zealand Road Trip

Sheep

OUR ITINERARY (2 weeks + 1 Optional Third Week)

We recommend at least 2 weeks (10-14 days) for your New Zealand South Island road trip, but ideally, 3 weeks if you want to do a full loop.

If you have the third free week, make sure you see our 2 optional third-week itineraries.

New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary Interactive Map

Below, you can find the best New Zealand driving itinerary along with driving distances and times.

Weeks 1 and 2 (Shown in Red)

Please note, this itinerary is a not a loop so you drive from Christchurch to Milford Sound and then go back the same way.

Alternatively, you could fly out of Queenstown, although it is more expensive.

  • Christchurch – Lake Tekapo (228km/3 hours)
  • Lake Tekapo – Cardrona via Omarama (224km/2 hrs 45 min)
  • Cardrona via Arrowtown – Queenstown (51km/1 hr)
  • Queenstown – Te Anau (172km/2 hrs 10 min) 
  • Te Anau – Milford Sound (119km/1 hr 45 min)
  • Te Anau – Wanaka (226km/3 hours)
  • Wanaka – Christchurch (428km/5 hours 30 min)

New Zealand South Island Itinerary Weeks 1 and 2

If you have more time (minimum 3 weeks), you can continue towards the west coast and back around to Christchurch with either of the itineraries below:

Week 3 – Option A (Shown in Purple)

  • Wanaka – Frans Joseph Glacier via The Haast Pass (286km/3 hours 50 min)
  • Frans Joseph Glacier – Hokikita (134km/1 hour 45 min)
  • Hokitia via Arthurs Pass – Christchurch (248km/3 hours 15 min)

New Zealand South Island Itinerary Weeks 3 Option A

OR

Week 3 – Option B (Shown in Orange)

  • Frans Joseph Glacier – Greymouth (177km/2 hours 20 minutes)
  • Greymouth – Nelson (Abel Tasman National Park) via Punakaiki (309km/4 hours 15 minutes)
  • Nelson – Kaikoura (243 km/3 hours 15 minutes)
  • Kaikoura – Christchurch (181km/2 hours 30 minutes)

New Zealand South Island Itinerary Weeks 3 Option B

Let’s get started!

CHRISTCHURCH (3 Nights)

Christchurch

We began our road trip in the largest city in the South Island, Christchurch.  Christchurch is New Zealand’s gateway to the South Island. A city bordered by hills and the Pacific Ocean. Although it has been rather damaged from prior earthquakes, over the years they have done a great job of rebuilding it, however, you will still notice the occasional destroyed building.

Christchurch

What to do in Christchurch

City Tram Tour –  An interactive guided tour through the streets of Christchurch. The tram tour is a great way to see the city and the ticket allows you to hop on and hop off as you please. Alternatively, you could walk it and follow the tram route.

Christchurch Gondola – For epic 360º views of Christchurch, jump on the Christchurch Gondola. At the top, you can experience a variety of hikes, shop or learn more about the history of the area on an electric cart through a “time tunnel”.

New Regents Street

Punting on the Avon – Forget Venice, come to Christchurch and take a relaxing cruise down the picturesque Avon River and through the botanical gardens. A nice way to start or end the day. Tickets can be purchased here.

Christchurch Botanical Gardens – Take a stroll through the beautifully maintained, Botanical Gardens. Plenty of shady trees to enjoy a picnic or read a book. The park is free to visit and there are a variety of events scheduled throughout the year.

Botanical Gardens

Have a coffee on New Regents Street – This city street is lined with colourful buildings, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores. What makes it so unique is the city tram that runs directly through the centre of it every 15 minutes. A great place for people watching!

Visit Lyttelton – Lyttelton is a port town with a lot of history. Just 20 minutes from the centre of Christchurch, there are a ton of quirky bars and cafes. It’s a great place to visit for an after work drink, especially on a warm summer’s night.

Take a day trip to Akaroa (shown below) – Akaroa is a historic French and British town nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano. This beautiful town on the waterfront is just 1.5 hours from Christchurch. Visit The Giants House, take a wildlife cruise out to see the penguins/dolphins or enjoy a fish and chip lunch at Murphy’s. En route back to Christchurch, be sure to stop at Hilltop Tavern for utterly beautiful views over the valley below.

Akaroa

Akaroa

Akaroa

Views from Hilltop Tavern, shown below.

Hilltop Tavern  Hilltop Tavern

Where to Stay in Christchurch



Booking.com

Or why not book an Airbnb and use this coupon code to get $40 off your first booking!

Moving on: Christchurch – Lake Tekapo (3 hours)

LAKE TEKAPO (1 Night)

Lake Tekapo

The drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo is rather underwhelming but the end result is absolutely beautiful. The moment my eyes saw Lake Tekapo, I was blown away by this picture-perfect lake. Due to the rock flour from the surrounding glaciers, the colour of the lake is bright blue, especially on a sunny day.

Lake Tekapo

When you’re done roaming around the rocks at the shore of the lake, take a token photo of The Church of the Good Shepard or visit the small town that has a grocery store, a petrol station, a few hotels and a handful of restaurants.

Lake Tekapo

Once night falls, step outside your hotel room and look up at the incredibly clear sky filled with millions of bright stars. Tekapo Star Gazing runs tours if you’re wanting to learn more about the astronomy of stars, otherwise grab a glass of wine, a blanket and possibly some cheese and get out into the fresh, unpolluted air of Lake Tekapo.

Consider Visiting Mt Cook: Due to having a baby on board, we chose to skip over Mt Cook (the highest mountain in the country) but if you have the time and it’s a good day, we’ve heard that it’s absolutely magnificent. There are a range of walks you can do once you’re up there, as well as places to stay. Mt Cook is 1 hour 25 minutes from Lake Tekapo.

Lake Pukakai

Lake Pukaki

Just 40 minutes south of Lake Tekapo, along the Mackenzie Basin was yet another jaw-dropping lake, Lake Pukaki. A glacier lake that is very well known for its incredible blue milky colour. Lake Pukaki doesn’t gain as much attraction as Lake Tekapo but in our opinion, we actually prefer it. In fact, it was my favourite place on this trip and we got very lucky with the sunny weather.

Lake Pukaki

Once you’re all laked out, continue on towards Cardrona via Omarama. Omarama is a small town, well known to glider pilots but to us, the real draw was Hot Tubs Omarama. How does relaxing in pure mountain water, in the privacy of your own hot tub, with views of the surrounding mountains sound? Yup, that’s what I thought. Just brilliant.

Omarama

You can adjust the temperature to your liking and attached are private changing rooms as well as a sauna. The time limit is 1.5 hours and we’d suggest booking in advance during high season. Before you jump back on the road, have lunch at The Wrinkly Ram across the street.

Where To Stay in Lake Tekapo

Or why not book an Airbnb and use this coupon code to get $40 off your first booking!

Moving on: Lake Tekapo – Cardrona via Omarama (2 hours 45 minutes)

CARDRONA (1 Night)

Cardrona is one of the most sought after mountains for skiing in the winter but it’s also a place for mountain bikers to let loose in the summertime.

Cardrona

Cardrona

We drove up the steep, 14km gravel road to reach Cardrona Alpine Apartments where we spent one night. Jacob had his adrenaline fix by mountain karting & mountain biking. Ah, boys will be boys. Once you reach the bottom of the mountain, keep an eye out for the old school, historic Cardrona Hotel and stop in for a bite to eat or at the very least, a little wander around.

Cardrona Hotel

En route to Queenstown, pop into Arrowtown. Arrowtown is a quaint heritage village and I felt as though we were travelling right back in time as we walked down the main street of this historic gold mining town. There are a bunch of high-quality restaurants (The Chop Shop is a must), along with boutique stores, a museum and quite a few places to grab ice cream (our type of town!).

The Chop Shop

Just outside the main street at the river, you can visit the Historic Chinese Settlement where the Chinese settled during the 1860’s gold rush. Arrowtown is only 20 minutes from Queenstown.

Tip: A few of the good restaurants stop serving lunch by 3:00 pm so don’t come for a late lunch here!

Arrowtown

Moving on: Cardrona – Queenstown via Arrowtown (1 hour)

QUEENSTOWN (4 Nights)

Queenstown is officially known as the adventure capital of the world, and home of the original bungy jump. It is unbelievable how many things there are to do in this ever-growing city. Summer or winter, you name it, it’s impossible to get bored.

Queenstown

Nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, there’s no question Queenstown is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with views of one of the most remarkable mountain ranges – The Remarkables (see what I did there). Although it is slightly overrun with tourists, Queenstown is still a must visit on anyone’s itinerary.

Queenstown

What to do in Queenstown

Skyline Gondola – For the best views of Queenstown, especially on a beautiful day, take the short Skyline Gondola and enjoy the scenery from above. Tickets can be bought online here and can be combined with Luge Rides (similar to tobogganing and appropriate for all ages).

Skyline Gondala

Skyline Gondola

Adventure activities – You name it, Queenstown has it. Get your heart pumping with 1 of the 100’s of activities Queenstown has to offer. From white water rafting to bungy jumping to shot over jet boats, mountain biking, indoor and outdoor skydiving, canyoning and ziplining. And that’s just the beginning. There are numerous stores located throughout the street where you can book these or visit bookme.nz for last minute deals!

Nevis Swing

Eat – There is no shortage of places to eat in Queenstown but bring your wallet. Meals aren’t cheap! I’m sure every other blogger and person in the universe has told you this, but make sure you grab yourself a burger at Fergburger. Once you’ve smashed the burger, grab a gelato from next door. Tip: Call up and make your burger order and you’ll skip the ridiculous line! 

Bespoke Kitchen is a great spot for breakfast, Cookie Bar delivers outrageously delicious cookies and for a quick cheap meal, Hawker & Roll has you covered. We recommend the lettuce cups! Saucey goodness.

Fergburger

Relax – Adrenaline activities aren’t for you? Relax at the Onsen Hot Pools (especially if you missed the Omarama Hot Tubs). You can use the pools only or combine it with a massage/facial. Treat yo self!

Waterfront – The Queenstown waterfront is a perfect place to take an afternoon stroll especially in the warmer months. There are plenty of restaurants and a grassy area to sit and take in all of your surroundings. You can legally drink on the grass until 8 pm.

Queenstown

Queenstown

Skiing – Throughout the winter months (obviously), Queenstown has 4 ski areas within an hours drive from the city. The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Cardrona and Treble Cone. Transport, rentals and lessons can be bought in town in packages.

Where to Stay in Queenstown



Booking.com

Or why not book an Airbnb and use this coupon code to get $40 off your first booking!

Moving on: Queenstown – Te Anau (2 hours 10 minutes)

TE ANAU (2 Nights)

Te Anau

Te Anau is the gateway to the Fiordland National Park and is the perfect place to base yourself when visiting Milford Sound. We were rather surprised by the size of this town, larger than expected. Although there is plenty to do to keep you busy, it felt very peaceful and worth a stop in its own right.

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves

Take a tour to the Te Anau Glow Worm Cave, splurge for a scenic flight, hike one of the many trails or spend the afternoon kayaking on the lake. Be sure to make a reservation for dinner at one of the local favourite restaurants, The Redcliff Restaurant & Bar.

The next morning, prepare yourself for the journey to Milford Sound, one of the most impressive drives in the whole country.

Moving on: Te Anau – Milford Sound (2 hours)

Where to Stay in Te Anau

Or why not book an Airbnb and use this coupon code to get $40 off your first booking!

MILFORD SOUND

Milford Sound

They say the drive to Milford Sound is just as impressive as Milford Sound itself and they weren’t wrong! Allow at least 2 hours from when you leave Te Anau to enjoy all the stops at a leisurely pace. The scenery along this drive was filled with breathtaking beauty and stunning vistas. At certain stops, it felt as though we had been plopped into the Lord of the Rings. Be sure to stop at Mirror Lakes (spectacular!), Monkey Creek, Hollyford Valley Look Out & The Chasm.

Mirror Lakes

Monkey Creek

Hollyford Look out

Once you reach Milford Sound you’ll park your car in the free designated car park and walk 10 minutes to the boat terminal where the cruises leave from. There are a ton of cruise companies that offer the 1.5-hour cruise and honestly, after doing some research, they’re all relatively similar.

The difference? The cost and size of the boat will change. In high season (December – Feb) be sure to book in advance but otherwise, we just booked the day before with JUCY cruises on their new premium boat. Other reputable companies are Go Orange Cruises, Cruise Milford & Mitre Peak Cruises. Prices range from $45 -$95 NZD.

Milford Sound

Cruising through Milford Sound and out to the Tasman Sea was pretty spectacular, no wonder they call it “The Eighth Wonder of The World”. Raw nature at its finest. Be prepared to get drenched by plummeting waterfalls, see impressive rock formations, mountain peaks and if you’re lucky, some wildlife.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Looking to stay as close as possible to this wonderful place? Book a night at the Milford Sound Lodge but get in early, they book up really fast!

Did you know? 

Milford Sound sees over 200 days a year of rain, but don’t worry if you catch it on a rainy day, it makes it quite majestic as the waterfalls are in full force!

Tip: If you’re self-driving, try and avoid the middle of the day cruises as this is when all the tourist buses arrive. You’re better off doing the afternoon or morning cruise with fewer people!  

Alternative Ways to View Milford Sound

Helicopter Flight Milford Sound

  • Take a coach tour from Queenstown (12+ hours) or Te Anau (8 + hours). Most cruise companies offer this transport option if you don’t have your own vehicle.
  • Scenic flight.
  • Scenic flight combined with a cruise (locals recommend this option).
  • For an all-out experience, you can take a coach tour from Queenstown + a cruise followed by a scenic flight back to Queenstown. Cost is approx $585 NZD p.p.
  • Overnight cruise with Real Journeys. The only company to offer this experience.

Note: After our cruise, we chose to spend another night in Te Anau to break up the driving, especially with a bub. Due to the location of Mount Aspiring National Park, you’re unable to continue on up the west coast without returning inland towards Te Anau. The return drive to Milford Sound + the cruise followed by the drive to Wanaka (12 hours total) was too much for us to do in one day.

Moving on: Te Anau – Wanaka  (3 hours)

WANAKA (3 Nights)

Wanaka

Leave Te Anau after breakfast and head straight for Wanaka. We absolutely loved Wanaka and could easily spend weeks here. Wanaka is often shadowed by the popularity of Queenstown but in our opinion, it was just as good and far less busy! Wanaka is a year-round destination with impressive ski fields for the winter and hiking trails for the summer.

What to do in Wanaka

Wanaka

Lake Wanaka – Sit, admire, pack a picnic, go for one of the many walks around the lake or jump in a kayak and view it from a different perspective. Say no more. Lake Wanaka, you’re pretty.

Mountain Bike – There are a number of scenic mountain bike trails within riding distance from the city centre, for all levels. Jacob went on the flowy intermediate trail along the riverfront which had views down onto the Clutha River. Half day rentals are $30 NZD for a hardtail bike or $50 NZD for a full suspension. Plenty of places in town to rent. Ask for a map and off ya go!

Mountain Biking in Wanaka

Haast pass – The drive between Wanaka and Haast is up there as yet another fantastic drive on the South Island. This drive is filled with vivid green forests & waterfalls with our favourite stops being Lake Hawea, The Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls & Roaring Billy Falls.

Note: Don’t do this drive if you’re heading towards Frans Joseph Glacier later as you’ll take the same road to reach there.

Fantail Falls

Faintail Falls

The Blue Pools

The Blue Pools

Haast Pass

Rippon Vineyard – Rippon is a stunning winery overlooking Lake Wanaka. They offer wine tasting for a donation of your discretion. Don’t come up here expecting to order a glass of wine or a cheese platter as they don’t do either. Yup, not even wine by the glass. A shame really because it is one of the nicest vineyards we’ve ever been too, in terms of the view.

Rippon Vineyard

#ThatWanakaTree – This tree located at the shoreline of Lake Wanaka has gained so much attention, it’s even got its own hashtag. Go on, join the party and snap a photo. You know you want too. Wanna know more about how this tree became so famous? Here’s why. 

That Wanaka Tree

Eat – Wanaka has some fantastic restaurants. Some of our favourites were WGK (Signature Lamb Dish for the win), Big Fig Wanaka (slow cooked meats and veggies), The Dripping Bowl (smoothie bowls and coffee) and Patagonia Chocolate (incredible massive scoops of Icecream) or watch the sunset from the balcony of Gin & Raspberry. There’s also a large grocery store in the centre of town.

Gin & Raspberry Bar

The Dripping Bowl

Rob Roy Glacier Walk – Unfortunately, due to our little Hugo, we weren’t able to do this hike but we’ve heard its unbelievable and people have rated this glacier walk better than Frans Joseph Glacier. Round trip, it is just under 4 hours and you can find all the necessary information for this walk here.

Where to Stay in Wanaka



Booking.com

Or why not book an Airbnb and use this coupon code to get $40 off your first booking!

Finishing up: Wanaka – Christchurch (5 hours 15 minutes)

Top Tips for your New Zealand South Island Road Trip

Top Tips

  • i-sites are New Zealand’s tourist information centres. You can find them in almost every town and they’ll provide maps, tours and essential information. The Intercity buses usually stop right next to these venues, and you can book your next ticket or tour upon arrival.
  • If you’re travelling to NZ during the high seasons (December – February & June – August), we’d strongly recommend booking your accommodation in advance, especially for hostels.
  • Looking to save some money on tours? Book through bookme.co.nz, search the city you’re in and you’ll get some great last minute deals on tours and activities.
  • Pack clothes for all types of weather as it can change quickly.
  • Ultise the coupons in the brochures the rental companies give you.
  • Book your rental car through GO Rentals NZ. Great prices, friendly staff and efficient services.
  • If you have the cashola, we’d recommend at least one helicopter ride in the South Island to view these landscapes from above.
  • Travelling with a baby? See here for our Top Tips (coming soon)

What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore New Zealand! Your bank account may not like it but the rest of you will 😉

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