With stunning mountains, breathtaking national parks and jaw-dropping scenic drives, a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand is an unforgettable experience – one of the best outdoor adventures in the country, in fact. See the highlights of 2 weeks in New Zealand with this complete road trip itinerary.
This itinerary is a loop starting and ending in Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest city. Of course you can always take the ferry from the North Island and drive from Picton around the South Island. This is similar to starting near Able Tasman – our second stop.
2 Weeks in New Zealand – Suggested Itinerary
- Christchurch – 2 days
- Able Tasman – 3 days (hiking)
- West Coast – 1 day
- Franz Joseph – 1 day
- Wanaka – 2 days
- Gibbston Valley – 2 days
- Queenstown – 2 days
- Aoraki & Lake Tekapo – 1 day
Driving in New Zealand
Kiwis drive on the left – the same as Australia, the UK and various other countries, but the opposite side to the USA and most of Europe.
You can either hire or buy a car (or of course, borrow one if you are able to!) to complete this New Zealand South Island road trip. If you’re looking to buy one, hostel noticeboards or facebook groups are a great place to begin your search. Or, if you like the idea of sleeping in nature, campervanning in New Zealand is a popular way to see the country.
Map of the New Zealand South Island Road Trip Route
Things to do in Christchurch
We spent a couple of days in town getting stocked up for our trip (car snacks,hiking gear and provisions) – Christchurch has a lot of shops and services so is ideal for anyone about to head off hiking!
- There are plenty of lovely cafes for coffee or lunch; such as C1 espresso which is located in an old post office.
- Check out Christchurch’s many restaurants; recommended is Cook N’ Gas in the historic district.
- There are many museums and art galleries within Christchurch – a favourite is Christchurch Art Gallery.
- For drinking, I’d highly recommend a visit to Whet Bar if you are into gin or cocktails.
- Christchurch is also full of parks and I would recommend visiting Hagley Park and the botanical gardens in the centre of the city, whatever the season.
- The Canterbury Museum is also by the park.
- I had my eyes open for street art in Christchurch. Since the earthquake in 2011 the city has been slowly rebuilding and street art is often the bright decoration in spaces where buildings used to stand.
- Container city was also constructed after the earthquake – it was the city’s response to needing temporary structures and remains today as a vibrant shopping area.
- In addition the city has unveiled a memorial by the river, which is incredibly poignant, especially for relatives of the earthquake’s victims.
Where to stay in Christchurch
Christchurch has a range of accommodations to suit different budgets.
Budget – JUCY Snooze Christchurch – this funky hostel is contemporary and spacious, with ‘pod’ style dormitories. There’s a huge communal area with lots of natural light, and each room is decorated with slick, bright features. Click here to find out more information and to book.
Mid-Range -Haka Lodge Christchurch – this homely accomodation is set within free standing huts. The communal areas and rooms are all cleaned to perfection and all the features make it very much a ‘home away from home’. Click here for rates and to book.
Driving day – 1 day
Drive to Marahau for Able Tasman National Park. The drive takes around 5 hours 40 minutes, so with stops, this will take most of a day of your South Island drive itinerary.
Accomodation in Marahau
The Barn Backpackers is a great option before starting to hike the next morning. Booking is recommended, as selection is limited here and you’ll want to stay here before your hike. Click here for more information, rates and to book today.
3 day hike
Abel Tasman national park is truly stunning. You can do a range of different activities here – from sea kayaking to tramping (the New Zealand way to say hiking!). We opted for a three day hike, starting at Totaranui (getting the sea taxi from Marahau) and then walking back to our car over 3 days.
You can read more about this hike in my post on the Abel Tasman coastal route – as one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks, it can get busy and you need to consider the tides when planning.
For some more ideas on things to do in the park, check out this article.
Accomodation in Able Tasman National Park
We stayed in the National Park huts whilst hiking or you can camp at designated sites.
I would highly recommend booking spaces in the national park huts in advance if you don’t want to have to carry camping gear. It’s a carry everything in place; and remember to take everything with you when you leave.
There are some higher end lodges available and the water taxi can take your bags for you if you have too much to carry.
After finishing our hike we took a detour to Takaka to taste some gin (that’s my second passion after travel), then in a cloud of rain we had to back track to continue our route to Punakaiki.
Marahu to Punakaiki – drive time 4 hours
Pancake Rocks are famous blowholes and pancake-shaped rocks; some of the most intriguing formations in the area. Visitors are restricted to family accessible paths – when my friend used to go as a child she used to climb all over the rocks!
The rocks can be admired in a 15 minute walk around the area, and it’s best to visit at high tide to witness the blowholes at their finest.
By Punakiaki is Westland National Park, which has some fantastic short and long walks which wind past rivers, through mountains and around the coast.
Where to stay in Punakaiki
Punakaiki Beach Hostel is highly recommended for accomodation, especially for the budget traveller. Click here for rates and to book.
Punakaiki to Franz Joseph – 2 hours 50 minutes
Franz Josef Glacier
We had booked a heli hike at Franz Josef Glacier, however the weather did not cooperate with this. Unfortunately we were grounded like the planes and couldn’t rebook in the time that we had available. The heli hike is one of the best things to do in Franz Josef, so is highly recommended if the weather is fine.
If the weather is not so kind, you can take full advantage of the hot pools in Franz Josef like we did – which was great as our legs were still tired from the hiking!
You can also walk up to the glacier – however the walk has been getting longer and longer as the glacier melts and the ice retreats up the valley. We settled with visiting a view point on our way out of town.
Where to stay in Franz Josef
Glow Worm Accommodation is a good hostel option; it which has its own hot tub in the parking lot and included breakfast. Click here for rates and to book.
Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka – 3 hours 40 minutes
Suggested time – 2-3 days
As you descend further south, the terrain will become increasingly mountainous. Wanaka is a scenic area which encompasses a lake of the same name, mountains which turn into ski pistes in the winter, wineries and some of New Zealand’s best cuisine.
The best things to do in Wanaka
- Go hiking or mountain biking in Mount Aspiring National Park
- Abseil into Deep Canyon
- Go four-wheel driving on some of the amazing mountainous tracks
- Visit the quirky attraction of Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World – a maze of illusions, giant puzzles and games
- See the Southern Hemisphere’s largest selection of toys at the National Transport and Toy Museum
- Take a picture of The Wanaka Tree – New Zealand’s most popular tree!
- Take a stroll around the Mount Iron Track
- Ski or snowboard in the winter
Where to stay in Wanaka
YHA Wanaka is everything you could want in a hostel: it’s clean, social and has great facilities. Click here for rates and to book.
Wanaka to Gibbston – 1 hour 2 minutes
Gibbston Valley – Wine Country
Suggested time – 2 days
Our drive to the Gibbston valley was very scenic, taking us over the Cardrona pass. In winter this road may not all be open, due to the high altitude – so make sure you check before venturing on your trip!
Things to do in the Gibbston Valley
- One of my favourite parts of the Gibbston Valley was stopping in Cardrona for a distillery tour! (Yes I do find gin everywhere!).
- Their other attraction is the bra fence – which raises money for Breast Cancer Research.
- Another great part of the Gibbston Valley is wine tasting! We headed to Mount Difficulty Vineyard first then worked our way back up the valley closer to home. You can read more on my full post on wine tasting in Central Otago (famous for its Pinot Noir!)
- Also worth checking out is Arrowtown – off Arrow Junction. The old town is well preserved and home to some great bars and cute restaurants, including The Blue Door, The Postmasters Residence and La Rumbla (yes we managed to visit all three in one evening!)
Where to Stay in The Gibbston Valley
Kinross Cottages are cute cottages that are a bit of a splurge compared to hostels, but are worth it for the bit of luxury.
The cottages are situated in a working vineyard and there was plenty of wine available and a hot tub available to book for private star gazing (when not raining). Click here for rates and to book.
Gibbston to Queenstown – 26 minutes
Suggested time – 2 days
Queenstown is thought by many to be the most beautiful town in New Zealand; and amongst the most incredible in the world. It’s perfect to visit summer or winter – in winter, you can take to the slopes and throughout summer it is a world-class hiking destination. In all seasons, there are adrenalin-fuelled activities to participate in and the charming town to explore.
Things to do in Queenstown
- Get your adrenalin pumping – Queenstown is the adventure activity centre of New Zealand. So it seemed only fitting that we embrace that and do a bridge swing. In Queenstown we steeled ourselfs for a tandem swing at Shotover Canyon. Other adrenalin fuelled activities to do in Queenstown include paragliding, bungee jumping and heli-skiing!
- When you have nice weather then you can take the cable car up behind Queenstown to see the view over the town and lake. There are also lots of hiking paths around town and a disc golf (frisbee) course!
- Queenstown is also the gateway to Fjiordlands National Park and Milford Sound. You can easily book day trips to visit Milford Sound, so we did! We went with the BBQ bus – which obviously included a BBQ lunch.
- Of course, if you’re doing the South Island Road Trip in the winter, there’s nowhere better to strap on your skis than Queenstown!
Accomodation in Queenstown
The Flaming Kiwi Backpackers has a fantastic reputation for being one of Queenstown’s best hostels. It offers affordable dorm-style rooms, and a homely sociable atmosphere. Guests love the location and the free wifi. Click here to check out prices and book today.
YHA lakefront hostel is in a DREAMY location – right on the shore of lake Wakatipu. As well as having the most idyllic surrounds, the hostel features clean, well-facilitiated dorm and private rooms and a fun, social atmosphere. Check here for rates and to book.
Queenstown to Milford Sound – 3 hours 45 minutes
Suggested time – day trip
Encompassing waterfalls, mountains and gorges, Milford Sound may well be the epicentre of New Zealand’s natural beauty. It was described as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ by Rudyard Kipling and the glacial landscape is an absolute must-see.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is known as one of the most spectacular in the whole country – and in a place like New Zealand, that’s no easy feat! Your Milford Sound adventure starts here, but this is certainly not where it ends; it’s the kind of place that just keeps giving.
You can self-drive to Milford Sound, or take part in a tour that includes transport from Queenstown.
Things to do in Milford Sound
- Hike one of the many walking trails around the area
- A boat trip – we did one and they dunked us under the many waterfalls – a cruise is a must-do in Milford Sound
- We also flew back to Queenstown, rather than taking the bus back, which is an amazingly scenic flight and is well worth the trip!
Drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo – we detoured to see Aoraki on the way. I’d recommend stopping at the Hermitage hotel for great views and great hot chocolate (it was cold when we were there in April).
Drive time Queenstown to Lake Tekapo – 3 hours
Suggested time – 1 day
Mount John Observatory
The main reason to stop in Tekapo is for the Mount John Observatory. The night sky around here is deliberately kept clear of the wrong kind of artificial light to aid the Observatory with its work.
I was astounded at what I could see just from the carpark! It was definitely worth the tour up to the Observatory though.
Whist onsite they take you around the different points of the Observatory and show you different star formations. They have both portable and some of the big telescopes set up so you can detail the details of the nebular.
If you have a DSLR camera then they can also help you get some shots (they can’t do this for other cameras though). It was a breathtaking experience.
Eating at Lake Tekapo
We had pre-booked dinner at the Japanese restaurant on the advice of our accommodation. Tekapo gets busy with tour groups and I think there are only 2 or 3 places to eat in town – so that’s the top tip!
Where to stay in Lake Tekapo
Lakefront Lodge Backpackers has a breathtaking view, and shines in all other aspects. It is clean and tidy, and has a roaring log fire in the communal room. It is close to all the attractions around the lake. Click here for rates and to book now.
Return to Christchurch from Lake Tekapo – 2 hours 50 minutes
I hope this New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary has whetted your appetite to see some of the incredible nature that this country has to offer!
Katie from What’s Katie Doing? blog first got into travel blogging when she quit her job and took a year off to travel the world. In this belated gap year she visited 20 countries over 13 months and hasn’t looked back since! Now she fits her travels in alongside her day job in London (normally) and passions for gin and food, which also feature on the blog. Katie likes to get under the skin of a place via its food, drink and culture. Follow Katie on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.