The Māori name for Aotearoa / New Zealand’s South Island is Te Wai Pounamu, which translates as ‘water and greenstone’. From the moment you first glimpse the blue and green expanse of rivers and lakes, fields and mountains from the air, you’ll realise how appropriate this moniker is. Although just two-thirds of the size of Victoria, the South Island manages to pack in a huge variety of astonishing scenery, as well as amazing food and wine experiences, adventurous pursuits and unique plants and animals. This is our guide to your ultimate South Island road trip:
As one of the main international gateways to the South Island, Christchurch is a great starting point for your road trip. After picking up a rental car or campervan, we recommend spending a couple of days exploring the local sights, then heading out on the road south.
As you travel south, you’ll cross several of the immense braided rivers for which Canterbury is renowned. Shortly after crossing the Waitaki River, you’ll arrive in the charming town of Oamaru, which is renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved Victorian architecture. The historic precinct of Oamaru boasts an array of elegant 19th-century buildings built from local white Oamaru stone; their Victorian style has helped establish the town’s reputation as the self-proclaimed steampunk capital of the world. Steampunk HQ offers a chance to immerse yourself in this fascinating subculture which blends Victorian aesthetics with science fiction.
Nearby Caroline Bay is home to a colony of adorable little blue penguins, which you can watch as they waddle up the beach to their nests. A little further south, the spectacular Moeraki Boulders are a photographer’s dream – huge spherical boulders that sit nestled in the sand of Koekohe Beach like giant dinosaur eggs.
This historic university city has a thriving arts and fashion scene, with numerous galleries, theatres and museums to visit including the excellent Tūhura Otago Museum and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. It’s a town of superlatives, from the most photographed building in New Zealand (the Dunedin Railway Station) to the world’s steepest street (Baldwin Street).
Just beyond the city, the Otago Peninsula is a wildlife lover’s paradise. Take a tour to spot the world’s rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed penguin, as well as sea lions, albatross, and other seabirds in their natural habitat, then explore the house and grounds of historic Larnach Castle, where you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the surrounding hills and harbour.
It’s worth taking a slight detour to experience the spectacular coastal scenery of the Catlins, where lush forests and cascading waterfalls meet pristine beaches and rugged cliffs. You may be lucky enough to spot sleepy sea lions, adorable fur seals, comical penguins, and even the rare Hector’s dolphin as you travel along the coast, before heading inland towards Te Anau. Be sure to stop in the rural town of Gore: as well as being both the trout-fishing and country music capitals of New Zealand, it’s a great spot to sample the iconic Southland delicacy known as the cheese roll.
The tranquil town of Te Anau sits overlooking the shining waters of the South Island’s largest lake and serves as the starting point for two of New Zealand’s Great Walks. A visit to the magical underground world of the Te Anau Glowworm Caves is a must – a guided tour will take you through a surreal and enchanting underground world where limestone passages are illuminated by thousands of twinkling glow worms.
Nestled within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is dominated by the towering Mitre Peak – a view that has frequently been described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Milford Sound is rightly renowned for its jaw-dropping natural beauty, with glacier-carved valleys hemmed by towering cliffs, and dense rainforests interspersed with cascading waterfalls that plunge into the deep waters of the fiord.
This pristine environment is a haven for an abundance of marine life including seals, dolphins, penguins and even whales, which you may encounter if you opt for a sightseeing cruise or a kayaking expedition.
The drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound is only 120 kilometres long, and although you could comfortably make the journey in less than two hours, there’s another incredible view around every corner so you’ll want to allow plenty of extra time for photo stops.
The journey from Te Anau to Queenstown is another spectacular section of road, which for the final third winds its way along the edge of Lake Wakatipu. Despite its menacing name, the Devil’s Staircase is a fantastic spot to stop for a picnic or just to catch your breath as you soak up the astonishing views of lake, mountains and sky.
On arriving in Queenstown, you’ll quickly discover that visitors are invited to do much more than simply soak up the scenery. This is the birthplace of modern-day bungy jumping, but other hair-raising activities on offer include white water rafting, jetboating, luging, zip-lining, parasailing, bridge swinging, snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking… there’s a reason why Kiwis call Queenstown The Adventure Capital of New Zealand.
More sedate activities include hiking, horse trekking, taking a steamship cruise on the lake, watching a shearing demonstration at Walter Peak Station, or visiting some of the region’s many award-winning wineries and art galleries.
A visit to the historic former mining town of Arrowtown is a must, especially during the autumn months when the streets and surrounding mountains are ablaze with the gold of falling leaves. Over ‘the hill’ (the Crown Range) in the equally spectacular town of Wānaka, you can go hiking amidst spectacular alpine scenery, lose yourself in the surreal illusions and mazes of Puzzling World or stroll through fragrant fields of lavender.
The Central Otago towns are connected by a network of impressive cycling trails which wind along river valleys, through craggy gorges and past picture-perfect snow-fed lakes – hike yourself an e-bike and enjoy.
To reach the West Coast, you’ll travel along the shore of Lake Wānaka and Lake Hayes before skirting Mount Aspiring National Park via the wilderness area of Haast Pass. There are plenty of spectacular places to break your journey and stretch your legs along the way, including the Blue Pools, the Fantail Falls and the Gates of Haast. When you reach the Tasman Sea, you’ll turn north, driving along the coastline before heading inland again to reach the tiny towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef.
Take a quick detour near Fox Glacier to enjoy an easy walk to Lake Matheson, which is famous for its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding lush forest and mountains. Finish your day with a blissful soak at Franz Josef’s outdoor rainforest hot tubs.
Start your day with a scenic bush walk that will lead you to the foot of the vast Franz Josef Glacier, or, for a different perspective, treat yourself to a helicopter flight-seeing experience that delivers a bird’s eye view of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and the Southern Alps.
Once back on the road, you’ll travel north along the coast to Hokitika: famous for its beautiful (often wild) beaches and its talented greenstone artisans. Pounamu is the Māori name for New Zealand jade, which is has great significance in Māori culture, and a visit to one of the local galleries is an opportunity to learn about the traditions and customs surrounding its use in jewellery, weaponry and tools.
In the 19th century, the West Coast was the location of one of New Zealand’s major gold rushes, which you can learn about during a visit to Shantytown Historic Village near Greymouth. Ride the heritage steam train, explore the town and embrace the spirit of gold fever by trying your luck at panning for gold.
Although the coastal route via Westport to Nelson is slightly longer, it’s well worth it for the spectacular view of the Tasman you’ll enjoy along the way. Stop for a coffee break at Punakaiki, where the sea crashes into spectacular pancake-like rock formations and explodes upwards like a geyser through a series of blowholes.
Beyond Westport, your route turns inland, clinging to the walls of the spectacular Buller Gorge. Test your nerve at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park, which offers thrilling jetboat and ziplining experiences and the chance to walk across New Zealand’s longest swing bridge.
Nelson has a thriving arts and cultural scene, and is home to numerous art galleries, studios, and craft markets. The region boasts a burgeoning culinary scene, with plenty of cafes, restaurants, and farmers’ markets that showcase local seafood, wines and craft breweries.
With beautiful Golden Bay, Abel Tasman National Park and Nelson Lakes National Park on the doorstep, you can go kayaking, hiking, mountain biking or simply sit on one of the region’s many secluded beaches.
The pristine waters of the Marlborough Sounds are an abundant source of amazing seafood, while the deeply forested hills provide the setting for another of New Zealand’s Great Walks: the Queen Charlotte Track. Further inland, the Marlborough region is famous for its amazing wines – especially its Sauvignon Blancs, which we recommend sampling at the many cellar doors you’ll pass on your way to Kaikōura.
Kaikōura literally translates as ‘eat crayfish’, so it’s no surprise that this is the place to visit if you love fresh seafood delivered straight from the ocean to your plate. The town is sandwiched between the immense Kaikōura ranges and the vast Pacific Ocean, which provides a rich haven for marine life including seabirds, dolphins and seals. It’s also one of the only places in the world where you can easily spot sperm whales year-round.
People have visiting the spa town of Hanmer Springs to enjoy the restorative properties of its thermal hot springs for well over a century. It’s a wonderful destination year-round, with a unique alpine village atmosphere and plenty of fun outdoor activities to enjoy. From here, it’s an easy scenic drive back to Christchurch via the award-winning wineries of the Waipara Valley – the ideal spot to pick up a few final souvenirs from your epic South Island journey.
The sheer diversity of natural beauty on offer in New Zealand’s South Island is best explored at your own pace, and a self-drive holiday allows you to do just that. Whether you’re chasing adrenaline-pumping adventures, immersing yourself in local history and culture, or revelling in the spectacular scenery, your personal travel manager can help you create an itinerary that’s just right for you.
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