New Zealand was voted as the world’s best country for 4 consecutive years. With its stunning backdrops, friendly locals, and chilled out atmosphere, it’s no wonder why. The best way to take in all this country has to offer is to take things slowly by going on a road trip, cruising along those winding highways and through those towering mountains.
Here’s the ultimate guide for travelling around New Zealand’s South Island! The road trip begins in Christchurch, in which you rent a car (we rented from Apex) or campervan and travel down south till Dunedin and Queenstown and make a loop back to Christchurch. It would be really helpful to have GPS or a SIM card so you can access Google Maps. This is just a draft for a 14-day road trip covering most of New Zealand’s South Island and the important landmarks in each place. It is by no means exhaustive. Feel free to tweak or create your own itinerary with this as a reference! Now, let’s head to Christchurch!
Stop #1: Fairlie
Christchurch to Fairlie (2h 25mins, 185.5 km / 115.3 miles via State Highway 1)
Start your road trip by getting close to New Zealand’s rare animals, which is made possible when you visit the Gem Alpaca Stud. Gem Alpaca Stud is indeed a gem for all animal-lovers. It’s also a great way to stretch the legs and get close to nature before continuing on your trip. After all, it’s not every day you get the opportunity to meet these fluffy beautiful animals. The farm visit allows you to feed and touch them, as well as get close shots with the alpacas and llamas.
Stop #2: Lake Tekapo
Fairlie to Tekapo (29 mins, 41.3 km / 25.7 miles via SH8)
Featuring a crystal turquoise blue lake set against a backdrop of misty mountains, you will find yourself gasping in awe at how beautiful this place is. Lake Tekapo is in a little village that has some exciting things to explore. The sun sets early in New Zealand (it’s dark by 6pm), so go star-gazing on the first night. Lake Tekapo is one of the darkest spots in New Zealand, which makes it a perfect place for star-gazing. It’s literally pitch black outside – no street lamps or other lighting. The only source of light you get is from the occasional car passing by the village. Bring your torch if you plan to explore at night! And when you do, look out for wild rabbits! They will hang around at night and it’s amusing to watch them hopping into the darkness as you shine the torch at them.
You can star-gaze just by the lake (provided the weather is good) or go on an observatory tour with Earth & Sky.
Stop #3: Mount Cook
Tekapo to Mount Cook (1h 6 mins, 97.6 km / 60.6 miles via SH8 & SH80)
Mount Cook is a lovely place, surrounded by spectacular 360-degree views of the mountains and New Zealand’s longest glacier, The Tasman Glacier. You will fall in love with Mount Cook almost instantly! Get hooked even more at the Hooker Valley! Mount Cook is home to several other trails, of varying difficulty. Most of them are fairly easy to walk on, so don’t worry if you’re not the fittest person as there is something for everyone. The spectacular surroundings will leave you breathless, and you will be mesmerized by the natural beauty, so be sure to take lots of great photos here! Also remember to be properly geared because weather conditions change quickly in New Zealand.
Stop #4: Twizel
Mount Cook to Twizel (37mins, 56.1 km / 34.9 miles via SH 80)
Twizel is a quaint small town that will leave a deep impression on you. Except for the fact that it was a film site for Lord of the Rings, it looks like an ordinary town in New Zealand. It makes you realise how effortlessly beautiful New Zealand is. If you are not rushing for time, you can spend a night here before moving on. You can spend the day exploring the town, relaxing in a cafe, or fishing. Large salmon and rainbow and brown trouts can be found in the lakes, rivers, and canals.
You have to eat salmon here in Twizel! High Country Salmon is a must-stop place to get fresh salmon along with a great experience! This salmon farm allows you to feed the fish and relax and take in the scenery while doing so. If you’re on a trip with children, this will really entertain them!
Stop #5: Lake Pukaki
Twizel to Pukaki (16mins, 22.8 km / 14.2 miles via SH 8 & SH80)
Lake Pukaki is a beautiful stop to pause and stretch your legs after a long drive. It is one of the prettiest lakes in New Zealand, with clean turquoise blue waters, and it surely serves as a good place to enjoy a breather and take some pretty photos. Toilets can be found in the area too; be sure to visit the loo before heading towards Dunedin as there might not be toilets on the way!
Stop #6: Dunedin
Pukaki to Dunedin (3h 1 min, 253 km / 157.2 miles via SH 83 & 1)
The beautiful town of Dunedin is known for a variety of things, including its well-preserved Scottish heritage, wildlife consisting of rare creatures only found in this region, and its unique architecture and buildings. There’s plenty to explore in this town so give yourself at least three days here! Spend one day experiencing the different flavours of Dunedin compared to other towns in New Zealand. The Taieri Gorge Railway allows you to do just that; it will take you on a scenic trip through lush green gorges, rugged vast plots of land, the infrequently-photographed countryside that not many people know of in New Zealand. Find a different beauty in all of these when you sit through the scenic rail journey. The train will also slow down and stop at various scenic points on the way where you can to take in nature at its best.
Fun Fact: Larnach Castle is rumoured to be haunted, with members of the family said to continue to haunt the castle. Larnach himself eventually committed suicide in 1898 after a series of personal and financial setbacks. Larnach Castle has also been used as the film set for several horror films.
Stop #7: Te Anau
Dunedin to Te Anau (3h 25mins, 288.9 km / 179.5 miles via SH 1 & SH94)
The drive from Dunedin to Te Anau is long and can be very tiring, especially if you only have one person driving. Do take rests to stretch as it is easy to doze off while driving long distances. From Dunedin to Te Anau, some notable pitstops are in Balclutha, and Gore.
Dunedin to Balclutha (1 hr, 79.7 km / 49.5 miles via SH1) Balclutha is known particularly for the Clutha River. You can drive past the Clutha Bridge, a great way to view the Clutha River.
Balclutha to Gore (1h 17min, 97 km / 60.3 miles via SH1) Gore, a countryside town known for its music and fly fishing, is worth stopping by to stretch your legs and perhaps grab lunch. Howl at the Moon is a popular restaurant among locals, serving a wide variety of reasonably priced food. They also have gluten-free options.
Stop #8: Queenstown
Te Anau to Queenstown (2h 11 min, 171 km / 106.3 miles via SH 94 & 6)
Activities are plentiful in Queenstown, and 3 days is the minimum number of days you should give to this town. The first thing you should do when you visit Queenstown is head down to Fergburger to get your burger fix and a taste of some authentic burger-making magic. The rest of the day can be spent walking around the town, visiting local shops, and buying souvenirs for friends. This charming town has so much to offer, so take some time to get used to its pretty surroundings. Don’t forget to head down to Lake Wakatipu to take some stunning shots and immerse yourself in the picture-perfect panoramas. Calling all dare-devils and thrill-blazers! Queenstown is a paradise for all you adventure-junkies. This town is the ideal spot for many cool and exciting activities, such as canyoning, bungee jumping, para gliding, and mountain biking. Imagine jumping off the sheer cliffs, into blue skies and towards lush greenery. Seriously, at that moment you’ll feel nothing but infinite and fearless, and afterwards you’ll probably feel like you have enough energy to conquer the world.
Stop #9: Wanaka
Queenstown to Wanaka (1h 5 mins, 67.2 km / 41.8 miles via Crown Range Rd & Cardrona Valley Rd)
On the way to Wanaka, you will drive up a high mountain with winding and narrow roads. Be careful and drive slowly, and beware of oncoming cars. You will encounter lookouts that where you can stop and admire the views. The prettiest one, with the most impressive view, is the highest lookout point. Try to leave by 4 pm so you have plenty of time to drive as it’s dangerous driving when it gets dark. Wanaka has plenty of activities for the adventurer, but by now it’s likely you are tired of all the heart-stopping activities. So why not visit a vineyard instead? New Zealand is home to plenty of vineyards and it is known to create some really tasty wine. Go wine tasting at Ribon Vineyard for a relaxing experience, and get to taste and enjoy bio-dynamic wines on the shore of Lake Wanaka.
Stop #10: Haast
Wanaka to Haast (1h 44 mins, 141.9 km / 88.2 miles via SH 6)
Haast serves as a good pitstop when driving from Wanaka to Haast. Stop at the Knights Point Lookout to stretch, go for a toilet break, and enjoy a good view of the coastline. The rocky cliffs and jagged coastline from such a high point will take your breath away. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see penguins too. Remember to bring insect repellent though, as there will be sand flies.
Stop #11: Franz Josef
Haast to Franz Josef Glacier (1h 54 mins, 146.8 km / 91.2 miles via SH 6)
Housing two reputable glaciers, the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, Franz Josef is a must-visit when on New Zealand’s South Island. The Franz Josef Glacier is an incredible glacier experience not to be missed. Book a tour that allows you to experience the most magnificent glacier environment. These tours include a heli-ride that brings you directly to the top of the mountains to be up close with the icy surroundings! Afterwards, dip yourself in glacial hot pools, the perfect way to unwind and experience a blissful state of pure relaxation.
Stop #12: Hokitika
Franz Josef to Hokitika (1h 47 mins, 138.2 km / 85.9 miles via SH 6)
Unfortunately, your time in New Zealand is coming to an end! End the trip with a bang as you drive through a scenic loop to Hokitika Gorge. Head inland to admire its unbelievably turquoise waters, enjoying views of the stunning rivers and mountains on the way. You will also pass the Kowhitirangi Memorial that honours the victims of the Stanley Graham shootings. (Stanley Graham was New Zealand’s first mass killer who killed a total of 7 people.) Activities are plentiful at Hokitika Gorge. If you feel like it, you can walk the Hokitika Gorge Walk, which is just a short walk from the car park through a forest that opens to a viewing platform with impressive views. If you walk further, you will reach a swing bridge that hovers over the stunning blue river. It’s an easy walk and only takes about 15 minutes there and back.
Hokitika to Christchurch (3h 14min, 245 km / 152.2 miles via SH 73)
Driving in New Zealand
One way to go about this road trip is by booking a Campervan (incredibly convenient because you won’t have to worry about where to stay), or driving and stopping at various hotels on the way (which we did because it was winter). It is a must to have snow chains (and know how to put them on!) when travelling to mountainous areas like Queenstown and Milford Sound. If caught, you will be fined a hefty sum of 700 NZD (505 USD).
Also, always make sure you keep to the speed limit, even though you might think that there won’t be any traffic police around. Things always happen when you least expect them to! When driving through town areas from highways, the speed limit usually drops from 100 km/h (62 mph) to 50 km/h (31 mph). We got fined a heart wrenching 400 NZD (289 USD) for ‘speeding’, when we were merely passing through a town. Guess it’s always best to be safe than sorry!
Make every moment count
Towards the end of your trip, you might feel very exhausted and the activities won’t appeal to you as much as before. But try to keep your spirits up because you will definitely miss this place when you leave. While the drive may be long and tedious, you will miss those vast empty plots of land, the clear blue skies amongst fluffy clouds, the soaring mountains that after a while start to look the same, and the occasional lost sheep stumbling down the road. So make every moment in New Zealand count!