A Guide to Road Tripping Around New Zealand's South Island
New Zealand is the ideal road trip destination, with postcard-worthy scenery, plenty of adrenaline-inducing activities and friendly locals. The gorgeous South Island offers a variety of beautiful and diverse destinations, and you can cover a good portion of the island within a two-week trip.
Planning the itinerary is all part of the fun (well, it is for me anyway!), and there are lots of options in terms of routes. However, the South Island is pretty well laid out for a circuit route, which is great as it means you can start and finish in the same place (and avoid those one-way car hire fees!). Here are the best places to stop off en route:
Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city, and it’s likely this will be your start and finishing point as most international flights land here. Unfortunately Christchurch has suffered multiple earthquakes in recent years, and much of the city is being rebuilt. It’s worth spending a day or two here and there are some gorgeous beaches and lovely little suburbs surrounding the city, including the charming Sumner.
From Christchurch, it’s a three-hour drive to Lake Tekapo. New Zealand has a lot of stunning lakes but Lake Tekapo really is one of the most picturesque. The turquoise colour comes from the fine rock flour in the water, which is ground from the nearby glaciers. Lake Tekapo, and the surrounding area of the Mackenzie District, has been recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve, and is considered one of the best places in the world to see the stars. If you’re here overnight, book onto a stargazing tour or head to the observatory.
Mount Cook/Lake Pukaki
A 40-minute drive from Lake Tekapo is Lake Pukaki, spectacularly overlooked by Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Also part of the International Dark Sky Reserve, you can spend a night camping in the Mount Cook National Park for some amazing celestial viewing.
Queenstown is one of my favourite places in the world. You could spend the entire two weeks here and still have plenty to do, so allow at least a few days of your trip for this fun-filled town. It’s also a very beautiful spot, situated on Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains.
If you’re brave enough, this is the place to bungee jump. Queenstown is home to the world’s first commercial jump – Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, as well as the highest bungee in New Zealand – Nevis.
If adventure sports aren’t your thing, then there are some amazing walks, including the hike up Queenstown Hill. At the summit you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the town and lake below.
And for ultimate relaxation, the Onsen Hot Pools are definitely worth a visit, with Instagram-worthy views of the Shotover River.
If you have time, the Otago wine region is just a short drive from Queenstown. This is the world’s southernmost wine region, and produces excellent Pinot Noir. Stop off in the Gibston Valley, where you can discover myriad boutique wineries and sample some delicious varietals (well, not if you’re driving of course!).
South-west of Queenstown is Milford Sound. This gorgeous fjord is a must-visit destination on any NZ road trip. Located in the Fiordland National Park, the closest town is Te Anau, or you can take a day trip from Queenstown. Unusually, the soaring peaks and deep waters are actually best experienced in the rain, so don’t worry if the weather takes a turn.
An hour north of Queenstown is Wanaka. This little town also offers some great outdoor activities, and becomes vey popular in winter due to its proximity to Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort. In summer, you can jet-ski and kayak on the beautiful lake or hike up Roys Peak for impressive views across the Southern Alps.
Franz Josef is a small town on the west coast, home to the breathtaking glacier of the same name. Previously, it was possible to hike the glacier from the bottom, however due to the glacier retreating this is no longer an option. However, splash a bit more cash and you can embark on a heli-hike, which is a helicopter ride onto the top of the glacier, followed by a walk. It is, quite simply, amazing.
Abel Tasman National Park
This stunning national park is home to some incredible wildlife, including fur seals, blue penguins and stingrays. There are lots of ways to explore the park, and you can spend a few days hiking and camping the trails, but my favourite option is to hire a kayak and discover the coast and accompanying animals at your own, watery, pace.
Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest and most famous wine region. It’s a gorgeous area, known for producing delectable Sauvignon Blanc. A cycling tour is a great way to explore the region, and sample some of the delicious wines.
Kaikoura was a firm favourite on my road trip through the Land of the Long White Cloud, however due to the earthquakes in 2016, the road from the north is currently blocked. That being said, it is due to reopen in 2018 and, until then, it is still accessible from Christchurch. Here you can see whales, seals, dolphins and plenty of other marine life.
An alternate route back to Christchurch from Marlborough takes you through Hanmer Springs. This thermal town has a collection of natural and massage pools for the ultimate relaxation experience. What better excuse to get out from behind the wheel and unwind for a few hours?
The drives between these destinations are as beautiful and impressive as the places themselves, and there are lots of pools, waterfalls and lookouts to stop at on the way. Make sure you allow enough time between each place to really explore and make the most of the route, and try not to run too low on petrol, as gas stations can be few and far between!
Images: Hayley Lewis; Tamsin Gorman.
Explore the best of this region on our 15-day Essential South Island Journey. Make an appointment with one of our Travel Experts to find out more about this itinerary, and our other New Zealand holidays.