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This 10-day New Zealand itinerary takes you through the South Island, starting and ending in Christchurch. We will be driving through towns such as Kaikoura, Franz Josef, Lake Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Lake Tekapo, and Mount Cook along the way.
Ahh, New Zealand, The Land of the Long White Cloud, as it’s fondly known as, and for good reason. Even on a rainy day, New Zealand is still a beauty. We were spoilt by postcard views everywhere we turned and it is here that we really had our eyes opened to the beauty our planet holds. I don’t think anyone has come back from New Zealand and being asked what they thought of it, said ‘Meh.”, which makes a road trip down the South Island of New Zealand a must-add to your bucket list.
For 10 days–which I personally felt wasn’t long enough–we drove through some of the most picturesque landscapes we have ever laid our eyes on. So, let me share what I did wrong, where I went, what I ate, where we stayed, and what we did in this New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary!
The three of us landed in Christchurch, so we rented a car and did an anti-clockwise loop around the island and back up to Christchurch where we flew out.
This is the loop we did.
- Fly into Christchurch, overnight
- Drive to Kaikoura, overnight
- Drive to Franz Josef via Castle Hill (prepare for a long drive!), overnight in Franz Josef 2 nights
- Drive to Queenstown via Lake Wanaka, overnight in Queenstown
- Drive to Milford Sound, overnight in Te Anau
- Stopover at Queenstown on the way to Lake Tekapo, overnight at Lake Tekapo 2 nights
- Drive back to Christchurch, overnight
- Fly out of Christchurch
Total: 10 days
⇒ All prices are in NZD$ | 1US$ = 1.38NZ$
The best way to see South Island is by car, or even better, a campervan. We rented an SUV from Snap Rentals, which had one of the better rates in Christchurch airport ($684 for 10 days, including $0 Excess Insurance – quite the steal!).
I used DiscoverCars to compare prices of car rentals from all available car rental companies in Christchurch and that’s how I found this Snap Rentals steal!
However, if I could do it all over again, I would definitely do South Island with a campervan. With the car, and with 3 of us, we had to stick to a pretty tight schedule as we had booked accommodation in advance.
With a campervan, you have the freedom of just driving and stopping as and when you wished; staying longer in cities you really liked, and shorter if there wasn’t much to do. Of course, the costs of hiring a campervan would be higher, but you would save on accommodation rates, and you would get the chance to go to sleep under the stars or wake up in the most beautiful surroundings!
⇢ Read more: See how much we spent in this detailed budget breakdown of our South Island trip.
When road-tripping the South Island, one thing you’ll quickly learn is that the weather can get quite unpredictable. The Land of the Long White Cloud is famous for its “four seasons in one day” phenomenon, meaning you can experience sunshine, rain, wind, and even snow all within a few hours! As you venture from one region to another, you’ll encounter diverse microclimates, making it essential to pack for all eventualities.
In the summer months (December to February), the South Island experiences warm and pleasant temperatures, making it an ideal time for outdoor activities and exploring the stunning natural wonders. However, even during this season, rain showers can pop up unexpectedly, especially in regions like Fiordland and the West Coast.
We visited in late January, and the highest temperature we encountered was 28ºC in Christchurch, but it got colder once we went down south and more inland, reaching about 7º in Te Anau.
In contrast, winter (June to August) transforms the South Island into a winter wonderland. The snow-capped mountains offer excellent opportunities for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. However, be mindful of icy roads and colder temperatures, especially in alpine regions.
What to Pack
If you’re planning to do some hikes, which is a definite must-do in South Island, be sure to dress appropriately. It’s quite a no-brainer but I definitely underestimated this. I wish I had known earlier, but be sure to pack a waterproof jacket!
I was a total noob back in 2017 when we visited New Zealand, and I guess what I wore on our hikes? A denim jacket. /facepalm
I thought the trails would be easy, and just a literal walk in the park, but nope, not in New Zealand. You could be starting out your trail with the sun shining in your face, and then once you’re about 1 hour along on your track, away from any form of shelter, BOOM—thunderstorms.
So, our mistake, your gain! I’ve learned from my mistakes and now always pack my North Face Windproof Jacket–it’s waterproof, windproof and so light, you can pop it into your bag for emergencies. It saved me throughout my entire trip to Mongolia which is saying something.
Also, leave the heels at home. You would do well with a good pair of hiking or sports shoes, as you would be spending most of your time on hiking trails.
So, here we go! Follow along on my 10-day New Zealand itinerary around South Island.
Disclaimer: So this is going to be a very wordy post because it is so in-depth and there are just so many things to talk about New Zealand. So if you’re more of a visual person, scroll down to the end to check out my YouTube video on our trip, and then come back up for the detailed itinerary!
Day 1: Christchurch
Arrive at Christchurch International Airport and pick up your SIM Card. Data plans aren’t expensive in New Zealand and would be helpful when you’re navigating around the island.
But if you hate fumbling around with multiple SIM cards like me, I recommend Airalo, an app that solves the pain of high roaming bills by giving you access to 200+ eSIMs (digital SIM cards) globally at affordable rates. No more switching SIMs, just purchase a plan on your phone, on the go, anywhere, and stay connected.
Witness the city’s rebuilding efforts after the 2011 earthquake
The city was hit by an earthquake in 2010 and 2011, so the aftereffects of this natural disaster are still widely present in the city. There’s lots of construction going on around, and we found that the city was really quiet and there were hardly any cars around (not sure if this was due to the earthquake?).
There are many sights that stand as a result of the 2011 earthquake, like the Cardboard Cathedral, one of Christchurch’s most photographed buildings, which is made of, well, cardboard! Close by are the 185 white chairs, symbolizing each of the 185 victims who lost their lives in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
Where to eat
Enjoy a hearty breakfast at C1 Espresso which is a quirky little joint that’s equal parts delicious and entertaining. Look out for the sewing machine that has been repurposed into a water cooler, and the secret door that leads to the washrooms (they play the Harry Potter audiobook in the loo!).
TIP: Get yourself an order of fries and watch them whizz through tubes connected across the cafe to get to your table!
⇒ Where to stay: We stayed in an Airbnb in a quaint suburb called Shirley, 15 minutes drive away from the city center. But if it’s your first time in Christchurch, I suggest booking a hotel in the city center which is closer to most things.
Days 2-3: Kaikoura
Leave early for your 2.5-hour drive to Kaikoura, as there’ll be a lot to see and do!
Swim with dolphins
This was definitely the highlight of my trip and something I would recommend to everyone out there! I was so excited about the swim that I couldn’t fall asleep the night before!
You’re actually swimming out in the wild with the dolphins, not in some enclosure. The dolphins are really playful and friendly too! We were told to make lots of noise under the water, like pulling on our wetsuit zippers and humming to attract them! If you can’t swim, you can also watch them from the boat!
TIP: Unfortunately, due to bad weather, our initial dolphin swim got canceled. But luckily, I had reserved space the next morning just in case (smart move, Steph!), which is highly advisable!
I couldn’t really get a good shot of myself and the dolphins cause they were swimming so fast! And I was way too excited. Check out my YouTube video for more awesome footage 🙂
Watch seals sunbathing up close
Ok, not too close. You wouldn’t want some rando staring at you while you’re chilling at the beach, would you? Anyhoos, these cuties are a sight to behold, and you can see them sprawled around the Peninsula Walkway. Be quiet or you might scare them away! You can also walk up to Point Kean Viewpoint for a nice view of the peninsula.
Visit a lavender farm (and some cows)
Spend the rest of the day taking photos of cows and visiting a lavender farm. Just take a drive around and you’ll find plenty of these.
See more seal babies at a waterfall
I love seals. So I was utterly disappointed when I found out the Ohau Stream Walkway was closed due to the November 2016 earthquake.
This is one of the best places to get up close and personal with seals and baby seals. If you are planning a trip to Kaikoura, do check the latest information on closures.
July 2023 Update: The Ohau Stream Walkway is still closed. 🙁
⇒ Where to stay in Kaikoura: There aren’t that many options in Kaikoura since it’s a pretty small town, so book early! There are some pretty swanky beachfront properties you can find at Booking.com.
Days 3-4: Franz Josef / Lake Matheson
Wake up bright and early to catch the breathtaking Kaikoura sunrise!
And then, start your drive to Franz Josef, which is actually 7 hours long. So, we’ll make a stop at Castle Hill to break our journey in half.
Channel your inner Dalai Lama
3.5 hours from Kaikoura, Castle Hill is an area with a large collection of limestone rock formations that you can spot from a long way away on the highway. You can’t miss it as these formations seem to pop up as if from nowhere along the highway.
There’s an energy here that is almost tangible, which was recognized in 2002 by the Dalai Lama when he christened Castle Hill the “Spiritual Centre of the Universe”. It’s a good spot to stop, relax and meditate before continuing on the next 3.5-hour drive to Franz Josef.
“We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill…. ♪,” – Ed Sheeran
Hike a glacier
Once in Franz Josef, you’ll want to obviously see the Franz Josef Glacier. And the only way to get onto the glacier is via helicopter which is 1) pretty pricey and 2) weather-dependent. You used to be able to hike up the glacier, but due to global warming (thanks to us hoomans), the glacier is melting too quickly so hiking to the glacier from the valley is banned.
If you opt not to go for the heli-hike, your only other option is to do the Franz Josef Valley Walk which takes you the closest possible to the glacier.
Exhibit A of me wearing a denim jacket on all my hikes in New Zealand. /facepalm
Stare at your reflection at Lake Matheson
Just 30 minutes from Franz Josef town, is one of the most peaceful, serene places I’ve ever set foot on – Lake Matheson.
Despite the rain and clouds earlier on, the weather cleared up and we actually were pretty lucky to experience a very calm lake. Lake Matheson is famous for its mirrored views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.
Stay for dinner at Matheson Cafe and catch the amazing New Zealand sunset! NZ skies are just out of this world.
Hunt for glowing butts
Once it gets dark, grab your torches and take a walk along the Minnehaha trail and catch a glimpse of glow worms! The Minnehaha Walk starts off State Highway 6. Just look out for the Bella Vista Motel.
⇒ Where to stay in Franz Josef: We booked a quiet little cottage in Franz Josef on Airbnb and absolutely loved it! It’s a small town with only about 30-something hotels so book early! Compare hotel prices on Booking.com.
Day 5: Queenstown
Today we’ll be driving for 4.5 hours to Queenstown via Lake Wanaka. I would suggest budgeting more time for this drive as it is going to be a very scenic drive! You’ll want to make multiple stops to take photos, cause that’s what we did!
Along the way, you’ll pass the Blue Pools Trail which leads you to a lagoon that is amazingly turquoise, it’s almost unreal!
Find The Lone Tree
Stop by Lake Wanaka for lunch, but if you have time, I would highly recommend spending at least a night in this quaint little town. We fully regretted not budgeting more time here!
Then, take a walk along the beach and spot the infamous Wanaka Tree, possibly the whole reason most people stop by this little town.
Book yourself in for a spa–With a view!
Once you’ve done all that driving, you’ll want to reward yourself! Book yourself a slot at the Onsen Hot Pools in Queenstown. This was one of the highlights of our trip too!
Unfortunately, it was a very rainy day so clouds were covering the mountains, but it was still a pretty amazing experience staring out onto Shotover River. The rain kind of added an air of mystery to it! It was nice to be soaking in a hot tub while it was drizzling outside too.
Where to eat
After an hour of soaking, we headed over to join the infamous Fergburger queue in Queenstown. I’m not sure if I understand the hype, but at least we tried it. And you should definitely try it for yourself!
Day 6: Queenstown → Milford Sound → Te Anau
Today you’ll be driving about 4 hours to Milford Sound. This is another drive you’d want to budget more time for as there are many nice viewpoints on the way.
Watch out for the birds on the way there! They are pretty huge and will chew on your radio antennae. And hair.
Cruise down Milford Sound
Did you know that Milford Sound is actually a fjord, not a sound? Don’t know the difference between the two? It’s okay, me neither. Whatever they are, cruising down the Milford Sound is arguably one of the most spectacular experiences in New Zealand.
You feel so small cruising in between the towering mountains, and hearing the sounds of just nature and you. Our cruise got us so close to the waterfall and safe to say, we all got drenched. TIP: Bring a raincoat!!!
There are many operators that offer pretty much the same cruise, except some are just a basic cruise, and some offer lunch. You can even be helicopter-ed in from Queenstown and back! So you can cater your choices to your needs and budget.
On the way back, it’s just a 2-hour drive to Te Anau where you can put up for the night as there isn’t much or any accommodation in Milford Sound itself, so Te Anau is the halfway point to wherever your next destination is (refer to the map).
Te Anau is a really small town (with only one stretch of shops), but you can visit the Te Anau Caves where you can see glow worms in their natural habitat! Unfortunately, the cave was flooded due to the rain the day before so our tour was canceled. See! Weather can be such a party pooper, especially in New Zealand.
Day 7: Te Anau → Queenstown → Lake Tekapo
Today we head back up north towards Lake Tekapo, while making a stop in Queenstown again for lunch and the Queenstown Hill Walk.
Get a bird’s eye view of Queenstown (for free)
So you could take the Queenstown Cable Car up Bob’s Peak, which will give you breathtaking views of Queenstown without any effort, and luge down! The ticket price includes both the cable car up and the luge down! Book tickets in advance here.
For budget travelers or hiking enthusiasts, you can do it for absolutely free with a good pair of walking shoes and a little bit of stamina! This was one of the best walks we did with views to die for.
It’s a 500m climb that’ll take you about 3 hours return in total. I am one unfit chippy, and I hate hiking so if I can do it in 3-hours, anyone could do it in less. Anyway, this hike was so worth it. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Get your adrenaline fix
Thrillseekers, this is your mecca. Queenstown is the home of adrenaline sports, and is the birthplace of the bungee! Can you really say you’ve been to Queenstown without doing some sort of adrenaline-pumped activity? Yes, you can, because I am a scaredy-cat and I did. But why would you want to miss out on all that fun?!
From here, it’s a 3-hour drive to Lake Tekapo.
Look at the stars (look how they shine for you…)
Lake Tekapo is perfect for stargazing as it is part of the Mackenzie Basin, one of the darkest places on earth, especially from the Church of the Good Shepherd, which can actually get really crowded with tourists even in the dead of the night!
We could even do a bit of stargazing from our apartment, and you probably can too from almost anywhere in Lake Tekapo, but preferably away from the city lights.
⇒ Accommodation: We stayed at Ribbonwood Cottage, which was a really nice, modern apartment that we loved so much, we didn’t want to leave! Right in the backyard, there’s even a barn with sheep and livestock. It’s like modern country living!
Day 8: Day Trip to Mount Cook
Mount Cook is just an hour’s drive from Lake Tekapo so it can easily be done in a day, which is what we’ll be doing today.
Take charge of the highway
On the way to Mount Cook, you’ll be driving along a very straight, empty road so, why not seize the opportunity for some pictures?
Visit the Everest of New Zealand
Just slightly over an hour, you’ll get to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Don’t forget to admire the mountain from afar on the way there.
We did the Hooker Valley track, which is a 3-hour return walk. It is one of the most popular tracks and one of the most scenic. But you’ll be out in the open for the 3 hours so make sure you are dressed appropriately (unlike us)!
At the end of the Hooker Valley track, you’ll get to a glacier lake where you’ll get to see floating glaciers and icebergs. It ended up pouring when we were there, thus no pictures, but… we have video evidence of some very unglamorous running in the rain.
There is another trail to the Blue Lakes that you can take that is actually, well… 5 minutes and you get this view. You’ll see signs pointing to the trail on the way to the Hooker Valley trail.
Feed your salmon, then eat them
There are lots of salmon farms here where you can feed the salmon, and then you get to eat them! FRESH!
Day 9: Lake Tekapo → Christchurch
From here, it’s a 3-hour drive back to Christchurch. We didn’t have an itinerary planned for today and for good reason. After all the driving and jam-packed itinerary over the last 8 days, it was good to just relax and have a slow day.
We did, however, have breakfast at a cute little place called Strawberry Fare.
Day 10: Goodbye New Zealand
Get ready to say goodbye to Middle Earth and plan your next trip back!
Is 10 days enough to visit New Zealand?
10 days might be enough to visit either the North Island or South Island of New Zealand, but not both. We spent 10 days in just the South Island of New Zealand and found it sufficient but rather tiring. If you could afford a few more days, you could be able to spread things out a little more and travel at a more relaxed pace.
How many days is ideal to visit New Zealand?
For a well-rounded experience of both the North Island and South Island, 2-3 weeks would be ideal, allowing you to cover major highlights on both islands. However, if you have limited time, you can still have a fulfilling experience with 10-14 days by focusing on specific regions or islands.
When is the best time to visit the South Island?
The best times of the year to visit the South Island of New Zealand for favorable weather are during the spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May) seasons.
- Spring (September to November): Spring brings mild temperatures, blooming flowers, and lush green landscapes. It’s an excellent time for outdoor activities like hiking and exploring national parks. The weather is generally pleasant, with fewer crowds compared to the peak summer season.
- Autumn (March to May): Autumn is another fantastic time to visit the South Island. The weather remains mild, and the landscapes transform into stunning hues of red, orange, and gold as the leaves change colors. This season is perfect for scenic drives and enjoying the region’s natural beauty.
Both spring and autumn offer pleasant weather conditions, making it ideal for exploring the South Island’s diverse landscapes, including its mountains, lakes, and fjords. However, it’s worth noting that weather in New Zealand can be unpredictable, so it’s essential to pack layers and be prepared for sudden changes.
Watch my video!
And watch my embarrassing run through Mount Cook’s Hooker Valley Trail and the amazing dolphin swim!
Planning your trip to New Zealand? You might like these posts.
That’s all folks! I hope you enjoyed this post and that it helped you in planning your own little road trip to New Zealand’s amazing South Island.
If you’d like to know how much we spent these 10 days, check out my detailed budget breakdown of our South Island trip.
Hit me up in the comments if you have any other suggestions that I might have missed! Til then, happy travels!
MY TOP TRAVEL TIPS & RESOURCES
Here are my top travel tips and resources to help you save money and plan your trips effectively! If you're looking for more tips, head over to my travel tips resource page or my comprehensive guide on trip planning.
- Booking Flights: When it comes to finding great flight deals, I always start my search on Google Flights or Skyscanner. To save some cash, consider flying mid-week or on the weekends, opt for carry-on only with budget airlines, and be open to red-eye or early morning flights. Check out my in-depth guide on how I find the cheapest flights.
- Accommodations: I'm a stickler for finding the absolute best deals on my stays, so I will obsessively oscillate between a few booking sites: Booking.com (in general) and Agoda (for Asian destinations). When it comes to vacation rentals, there's Airbnb or VRBO.
- Travel Insurance: It's always a wise decision to purchase travel insurance for international trips. I can't stress this enough - it's highly recommended! For international travel insurance, I suggest considering World Nomads or SafetyWing. SafetyWing, in particular, stands out as one of the few policies that cover Covid-19. They also offer excellent monthly policies that are perfect for digital nomads and long-term travelers!
- Travel Credit Card: My go-to travel credit card for booking trips is the Wise travel card. I love that there are no foreign transaction fees, so I can pay like a local and never get any surprises at the end of my trip. You can also withdraw cash from the ATMs wherever you are. With Wise, you are always guaranteed the best exchange rate, and I have saved sooo much money just by using this card. Most of the time, I get charged the exchange rate I see on Google, plus or minus a few cents.
- Tours: Most times, I prefer traveling independently but sometimes, getting a guide and a local's perspective makes the experience all the more enriching. When it comes to tour bookings, I trust Viator and GetYourGuide to provide me with excellent options. In Asia, I choose Klook as they are the biggest provider in the region. Plus, you can often get entrance tickets and discounted prices!
- Transportation: To navigate through public transit options and plan my journeys from one place to another, I rely on Rome2Rio. When it comes to rental cars, I compare rental companies and find the best deals through DiscoverCars.
- Connection: It's essential to me to have seamless connectivity wherever I go. I need it to navigate to new places, Google what's around me, and keep in touch with my loved ones. But fumbling around with multiple SIMs has always been a nightmare, which is why I choose Airalo when I travel. No more switching SIMs, just purchase a plan on your phone, on the go, anywhere, and stay connected.
- Luggage Storage: Whenever I need to check out early or take advantage of a long layover, I securely store my luggage with LuggageHero. It's a reliable service that allows me to roam around freely. As a bonus, you can use this link to enjoy your first hour of FREE luggage storage on me!
- What to Pack: I always have packing anxiety once I've left home—you know the phantom feeling that you've forgotten something even though you've checked 372836 times. So I made my own packing list and use it religiously before every trip, and by religious I mean I tick off that list at least 7 times before I zip up my bag. Check out my in-depth packing list here.