Two week New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary

With its rugged coastline, abundance of snow-capped mountains and fjords that seemingly stretch on forever, New Zealand’s South Island inspires awe in outdoor explorers the world over, despite being located in one of the world’s most remote areas. It may be a faraway land, but New Zealand’s South Island simply has to be visited at least once in a lifetime. Given that many of us may only be able to make such a journey once, it’s essential to have a structured itinerary to make the most of your New Zealand South Island trip. As a disclaimer, we should point out that two weeks is not enough time to experience everything New Zealand South Island has to offer, but it should be sufficient to see the island’s highlights if you know ahead of time where to visit, what to do and how to get around. You’ll need to hire a set of wheels to circumnavigate the island itself. That’s why in this guide, we’ve detailed a two-week New Zealand South Island road trip that’s perfect for first-timers as well as returning visitors. We’ll also suggest itinerary amendments for those who need to cut their time a little short or add a few days on. If you want to explore the North Island during your New Zealand trip, check out our complete two-week New Zealand travel itinerary.

Tailor Made Journey

Tailor-Made New Zealand: Adventure by Land, Air & Sea

Take in the scope of New Zealand on an introductory departure revealing hidden coves and a geothermal wonderland of geysers, and sample fruits of the winelands set amid a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, ancient forests and glacial valleys.

Mount Cook, New Zealand | Photo: Nicole Richstein

When is the best time to visit New Zealand?

Due to its position in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand’s summer takes place from December to March, which, incidentally, is the best time to visit. Long sunny days and temperatures of 61°F to 75°F (16°C to 24°C) provide the perfect conditions for outdoor activities like mountain biking and hiking. Having said that, the winter months of June to September bring snow and with it skiers from the world-over to the peaks of the South Island. If you’d prefer milder weather and fewer tourists, you might want to plan a trip for spring or fall, when Fahrenheit temperatures lie in the 50s and 60s.

Tips for the perfect New Zealand South Island road trip

To pack as many highlights as possible into a New Zealand South Island itinerary, we recommend starting your trip in Christchurch and following a counter-clockwise route around the island. While many visitors are drawn to the South Island’s breath-taking west coast, the southern, central and eastern regions should not be skipped. In central South Island, you’ll find dramatic mountain ranges and vast gorgeous lakes. To the south and the east, you can relax in cultivated cities like Dunedin and Oamaru.

Flying into Christchurch International Airport is the easiest way to reach New Zealand’s South Island. On top of international flights, domestic flights frequently leave from Dunedin and Queenstown as well as Auckland and Wellington on the North Island. When you arrive on New Zealand’s South Island, you’ll need a vehicle. You’ll find plenty of reputable car rental companies at the airport and in major settlements. Our New Zealand South Island itinerary covers a distance of about 2,000 km, so it’s worth hiring a car that’ll keep all drivers, passengers and luggage comfortable and protected. Remember that some mountainous terrains require a vehicle with a bit of grunt.

It’s worth knowing where to stay on South Island before embarking on your road trip. If you want a few nights in towns with a healthy selection of bars, restaurants, hotels, shops and gas stations, good options include Queenstown, Wanaka, Franz Josef, Te Anu and Nelson. Even though it would be impossible to see everything that New Zealand’s South Island has to offer in a fortnight, our itinerary will take you to some of the nation’s most epic destinations, which include mountains, fjords, coasts, urban centres and more.

Photo: Lachlan Dempsey

Photo: Tyler Lastovich

Day 1: Christchurch

You’ll start your New Zealand South Island adventure in Christchurch, a true city of adventure where urban regeneration and heritage thrive. Construction has been ongoing since the devastating 2011 earthquakes, but with one quick look at the vibrant city of Christchurch, you’ll know the city is open for business. Expect to see projects that embody innovation, history and culture as well as a bustling hospitality scene, stunning greenspaces and revered street art. In addition to its unique urban environment, where some of the nation’s oldest buildings stand side-by-side with cutting-edge architecture, Christchurch is intersected by the Avon River, adding a natural flair to the city’s charm. It’s also a jumping off point for South Island exploration, with mountain ranges, wildlife and picturesque towns all within easy reach.

Cathedral Square roughly marks the city center or Christchurch in New Zealand. Bursting with history, Cathedral Square is home to landmarks that include the remains of Christchurch Cathedral, where you can pay your respects to the victims of the earthquake and learn about the city’s past and future. Right next to the historic cathedral is the more modern Cardboard Cathedral, a church opened in 2013 to temporarily replace the damaged Christchurch Cathedral. As far as greenspaces go, it’s hard to beat the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, where you can stroll by duck ponds, greenhouses, colourful flower beds and large shady trees. For an overview of the city, ride the Christchurch Gondola over the city’s surrounding snow-capped peaks. When you reach the top, you can explore tunnels, trek the surrounding terrain and learn about the peak’s history. Remember to book your gondola tickets in advance.

If you can spare an extra day or two in Christchurch, you might want to visit nearby natural attractions such as the Southern Alps, the Banks Peninsula and the Canterbury Plains. The Canterbury region is home to zen-like retreats, postcard-perfect towns and plenty of thrill-seeking opportunities. Embark on a whale-watching adventure in the coastal town of Kaikoura, then treat yourself to a thermal soak at the renowned Hanmer Springs.

Christchurch | Photo: Greg Newman

Lake Pukaki | Photo: Haziq Tumaran

Days 2 – 3: Lake Tekapo & Mt Cook

On day two, leave Christchurch early and drive towards the Mackenzie Basin, where you’ll find the gorgeous Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook Village between the towering Southern Alps and Canterbury’s sprawling plains. The drive takes about three hours, giving you time to explore the region for the rest of your second day and, if time permits, the morning of your third day. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to spend an extra couple of nights around the Mackenzie Basin so that you can visit all the region’s highlights.

One of the most photographed lakes on New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Tekapo is famed for its powdery blue waters that glisten on a clear day. On the lake’s southern edge, you’ll find the Church of the Good Shepherd, where you can take in views of the lake through this quaint church’s altar window. Just a short drive from Lake Tekapo is Lake Pukaki. The colour of the water here is even more intense than at Lake Tekapo, and Pukaki is backdropped by the highest peak on New Zealand South Island, Mount Cook. In Mount Cook Village, also known as Aoraki, you can embark on hikes along trails that frame the surrounding mountainous landscapes stunningly. Follow the four-hour Hooker Track to see the Southern Alps in all their glory before arriving at the beautiful Hooker Glacier. Alternatively, climb to the summit of Mount John for panoramic views of the entire region. To end the night, marvel at the stars in the night sky at the Mount John Observatory in Tekapo. If you’d rather observe the stars with the naked eye, simply head out of town – the Mackenzie Basin is a designated Dark Sky Reserve thanks to having very little light pollution.

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand | Photo: Tobias Keller

Days 4 – 5: Fiordland

On day four, you’ll leave for Fiordland to explore some of New Zealand’s most stunning and dramatic landscapes that have been carved by glaciers over the past 100,000 years. It takes five hours to drive from Tekapo to Fiordland, making it best to leave early in the morning, particularly since you’ll likely want to stop and take photos of the wilderness along the way. During your time in Fiordland, you’ll have the chance to hike, cruise along fjords, admire waterfalls, discover unique natural wonders, and trek across a World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO-listed Fiordland National Park includes the fjords of Dusky, Milford Sounds and Doubtful Sounds. Rudyard Kipling once described Milford Sounds as the Eight Natural Wonder of the World, and you’ll understand why if you take a helicopter flight over it. Many fjords provide optimal conditions for kayaking, though you might have to join an eco-tour to see some of the less accessible fjords. Besides taking to the skies and kayaking, you’ll do plenty of hiking at the Fiordland National Park, which is home to three ‘Great Walks’: the Kepler, the Routeburn Tracks and the Milford. Spanning a distance of around 53 kilometres, the Milford trail is arguably the most scenic of the three, leading hikers from Te Anau by mountain valleys and lakes all the way to the Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s tallest waterfall. If you don’t have time to embark on a day hike of the Milford Trail, you can drive along it in about two hours. In the town of Te Anau, which lies on a beautiful lake of the same name, we recommend visiting the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves as part of a guided tour, during which you’ll cruise along the lake to this remote location, explore the caves, and spend a couple of minutes in complete darkness to observe the unusual glowing creatures.

Milford Sound, Te Anau | Photo: Thomas Hetzler

Mr. Hudson highlight image

you’ll leave for Fiordland to explore some of New Zealand’s most stunning and dramatic landscapes that have been carved by glaciers over the past 100,000 years

Kepler Track, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand | Photo: Samuel Bordo

Days 6 – 7: Queenstown

After spending a couple of days in Fiordland, you’ll drive for two hours to Queenstown, a world-renowned destination for adventure sports. Heart-pumping activities include skiing, skydiving, jet boating, canyon swinging, bungee jumping, river rafting, horse trekking, and even gold panning. It’s also an excellent cycling destination, with easy scenic trails through to road rides and backcountry tracks. Especially daring visitors can try downhill mountain biking from a peak that’s accessible by a gondola ride. When you simply want to relax, you can browse boutique stores, get pampered at a spa, explore the Lakes District Museum, and indulge in excellent food and wine. Nearby natural attractions include Lake Wakatipu, Paradise Valley and the Mount Aspiring National Park. And that’s not to mention the area’s famous Lord of the Rings filming locations.

Fans of the Lord of the Rings shouldn’t miss out on the chance to visit Glenorchy, which is a 40-minute drive from Queenstown along a route that follows Lake Wakatipu. Just 25 minutes from Queenstown is the historic gold mining town of Arrowtown, home to around 60 historical buildings, the Historic Chinese Settlement, and a main street lined with local artisan stores and cafés. While exploring Queenstown itself, we suggest riding the Skyline Gondola to soak up the best views of this southern coastal town, its lake, and the backdrop of the Southern Alps.

If you can spend an extra day or two in Queenstown, you might want to take a day trip to the wineries of Central Otago for a spot of fine wine tasting. The serene setting of Central Otago will leave you feeling refreshed and renewed. If you don’t have time to tour a winery, you can taste some of the region’s best wine during a night on the town at a venue such as The Winery.

Queenstown | Photo: Omer Faruk Bekdemir

Day 8: Wanaka

Wanaka is about an hour from Queenstown, though you’ll need to leave early given that our itinerary only allows for 24 hours in this beautiful town, which sits on a lake of the same name. Attracting adventure seekers year-round, Wanaka boasts some of the best ski resorts on New Zealand’s South Island during winter, while scenic hiking takes centre stage over summer. Adrenaline-fueled activities include skydiving, climbing, canyoning, mountaineering, and jet-boating. For a more leisurely outdoor adventure, consider kayaking, hopping on a lake cruise, fishing or cycling – Wanaka boasts hundreds of kilometres of biking and hiking trails. Prefer to let somebody else do the work while you admire the view? We suggest booking a scenic flight over Wanaka and landing on a glacier.

While exploring the nearby Mount Aspiring National Park, you’ll see snow fields, sheer cliff faces, glaciers, waterfalls and stunning alpine scenery. Follow the Rob Roy Glacier Track for some of the most unforgettable views. Wanaka’s beautiful alpine lake, Lake Wanaka, can be enjoyed from the land or the water. Cycling, kayaking and guided boat tours are all on offer. Visit in winter to ski down one of New Zealand South Island’s most daring slopes; the Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone are less than 20 minutes away by car. If you want to stay around Wanaka for a day of hiking, ascend to the top of the 1,578-metre-tall Roy’s Peak. The 16-kilometre round-trip walk usually takes five to six hours.

Lake Wanaka | Photo: Andre Lergier

Days 9 – 10: Franz Josef

On day nine, you’ll drive from Wanaka to the town of Franz Josef, famous for a nearby glacier of the same name. The drive will take around 3.5 hours, though bear in mind you might want to stop at lookouts, waterfalls and the incredible Blue Pools along the way. You’ll have the entirety of day ten to explore the highlights of Franz Josef, so you can afford to spend an extra couple of hours on the road on day nine.

The most famous attraction of Franz Josef is the Franz Josef Glacier, which is unlikely to be around for much longer due to the rapid rate at which it is melting. For now, you can still get within 750 metres of the Franz Josef Glacier face after walking for about 1.5 hours. Book a helicopter tour, and you can land on top and even walk along the ice with a professional guide. The less famous Fox Glacier, which is almost as impressive, can also be reached in about an hour on foot. But Franz Josef has more to offer visitors than just glacier adventures.

The postcard-perfect Lake Matheson is backdropped by Mount Cook, which can be seen in the lake’s reflection on a clear day. You can walk around the lake in about 1.5 hours, and there are plenty of places to rest and enjoy the view. Alternatively, visit Lake Mapourika, where paddle boarding and kayaking are popular activities. If you want to relax your muscles after a day of glacier or lake hiking, head to the Glacier Hot Pools to unwind with rainforest surrounds.

Franz Josef Glacier | Photo: Jackman Chiu

Photo: Marek Piwnicki

Days 11 – 12: Nelson & Abel Tasman

At six hours, the drive from Franz Josef to Nelson is the longest journey on our two-week New Zealand South Island itinerary, but the route is an adventure in itself, following the beautiful wild west coast. On day 12, you’ll explore the most famous attraction of Nelson – the small but serene Abel Tasman National Park. Though you can’t drive through the Abel Tasman National Park, it’s easily accessed on foot. It can also be admired during helicopter rides and kayaking experiences. If you’re adventuring on foot, you can follow trails that include the Coast Track, which is widely considered to be New Zealand’s best ‘Great Walk’. During your visit, you’ll stumble across secluded golden beaches, marble and granite formations, mossy valleys, crystal-clear streams, hidden coves, and regenerating native forest. At Te Puketea Bay, you can relax on a crescent of golden sand and follow a trail to an ancient Māori fort, where food pits and terracing are still visible. In places such as Tonga Island, you’ll have the chance to spot seals, penguins, bellbirds and cormorants.

Besides being on the doorstep to one of the most picturesque national parks in New Zealand South Island, Nelson is a magnet for creatives. The town is home to one of the highest concentrations of galleries and artists in New Zealand. You’ll find a vast array of traditional, contemporary and Māori craftspeople in the region. We highly recommend visiting a few studios, browsing weekend craft markets and sampling some locally made artisan treats.

Both the town of Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park are busiest during summer, when plenty of tour operators offer water taxi services, cruises, kayaking, helicopter tours and catamaran trips. However, you may want to visit during the shoulder seasons to make the most of the quiet beaches, crisp mornings and calm waters. The town’s luxurious lodges offer amazing places to get some sleep, but dozing under the stars is the best way to experience the region’s beauty.

Nelson | Photo: Mathew Roswell

Abel Tasman Park | Photo: Lesly Derksen

Days 13 – 14: Kaikoura and back home

From Nelson, it’ll take you three hours to drive to Kaikoura. As you might be able to guess by now, there are lots of places to visit on the way, including the Marlborough Wine Region and the Kaikoura coast. The seaside town of Kaikoura occupies a paradisical setting, facing a wide-open bay flanked with rolling green hills and snow-capped mountains. On top of stunning natural vistas, Kaikoura is home to countless species of marine life.

When you arrive in Kaikoura, we suggest walking to the Peninsula Lookout to take in the view of the mountains and bay. Then, consider boarding a whale and dolphin spotting cruise or watching the seals of the Point Kean Seal Colony play in their natural habitat. From May to October, you can also see these adorable seals and their pups playing under the waterfall of the Ohau Stream. After spending the night in Kaikoura, you’ll drive for three hours back to Christchurch to catch a flight home.

Kaikoura | Photo: Tim Marshall

Kaikoura | Photo: Adrian Krajcar

More time to spend on New Zealand’s South Island?

Two weeks is enough time to see some of the most spectacular destinations in New Zealand South Island. But if you’re lucky enough to be able to explore the island for longer, you won’t struggle to find exciting places that didn’t quite make it into our New Zealand South Island itinerary. Dunedin, for example, boasts some of the nation’s most impressive architecture, while the charming villages of The Catlins – a popular destination for walkers – showcases rural life in New Zealand. If you have time, we recommend staying in the Marlborough Wine Region rather than just passing through it, and the same goes for the beautiful coastal village of Punakaiki.

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Tasman Glacier Trail, NZ | Photo: Gregory Gomez

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