How to Road Trip New Zealand’s South Island in 10 Days

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19 min read

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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 opend 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!

Trip Summary

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$

Getting Around

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 Rentalcars.com to compare prices of car rentals from all available car rental companies in Christchurch and that’s how I found this Snap Rentals steal!

rentalcars.com

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.

Weather

New Zealand is infamous for its unpredictable weather. Even in Summer, it can get really chilly so pack some warm clothing. Be sure to check the weather forecast before your trip, as it can vary quite a bit. We visited 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.

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! We encountered quite a bit of rain, especially on our hikes, and it’s not pleasant getting drenched out in the open where there is no shelter for the hours you are on your hike. A waterproof jacket with a hood will do you wonders. Our mistake, your gain! 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.

⇢ Read more: What to Pack for a New Zealand Road Trip: The Ultimate Packing Guide

PS. I’ve handcrafted a super handy printable checklist to help you pack for your New Zealand South Island road trip! Just pop in your email below and you’ll get it sent straight to your inbox!




Itinerary

So, here we go! Follow along on my 10-day road trip 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 on 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

Christchurch Aerial View

Arrive into 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.

Witness the city’s rebuilding efforts after the 2011 earthquake

The city was hit by an earthquake in 2010 and 2011, so the after effects 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?). But it’s great to see efforts like the Re:START Mall made up of shipping containers.

RE:Start Mall

There are many other sights that stand as a result of the 2011 earthquake, like the Cardboard Cathederal, 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!

C1 Espresso

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb in a quaint suburb called Shirley, close to a large shopping mall. Alternatively, if you’d still prefer the traditional route, head on to HotelsCombined.com to find your ideal hotel, or use this nifty search bar to to start your search!

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!

I went with Dolphin Encounter NZ and they were really professional!

TIP: Unfortunately, due to bad weather, our initial dolphin swim got canceled. But luckily, I had reserved a 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

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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 visit 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.

⇒ Accommodation: There aren’t that many options in Kaikoura since it’s a pretty small town, so book early! You can find more options at HotelsCombined.com.

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This was a little cottage we stayed at in Kaikoura.

Days 3-4: Franz Josef / Lake Matheson

Wake up bright and early to catch the breathtaking Kaikoura sunrise!

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 which 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 that takes you the closest possible to the glacier.

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That’s the glacier all the way at the back! That’s pretty much the closest you can get to the glacier on foot.

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.

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Stay for dinner at Matheson Cafe and catch the amazing New Zealand sunset! NZ skies are just out of this world.

New Zealand sunset

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.

⇒ Accommodation: We booked a quiet little cottage in Franz Josef on Airbnb and absolutely loved it!

Alternatively, how about this bed & breakfast with the glacier as your backdrop?

Ribbonwood Retreat, Franz Josef
Book this and more Franz Josef hotels on HotelsCombined.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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Accommodation: Seize the opportunity to stay by Queenstown’s famous Shotover River!

Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa and more on HotelsCombined.com

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, Milford Sound is arguably one of the most spectacular experiences in New Zealand.

The cruise down Milford Sound turned out to be pretty magnificent. 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!!!

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Yup, we went underneath this waterfall!

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 (like 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.

⇒ Accommodation: More river-front living!

Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments and more on HotelsCombined.com

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, but it’ll cost you $35.

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.

Queenstown Hill Walk
Simba?

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Sit in the Basket of Dreams!

Get your adrenaline fix

Thrillseekers. this is your mecca. Queenstown is the home of adrenaline sports, and is the birthplace of the bungee! There are so many adrenaline activities you can indulge in and here are some prices:

Bungy: from $195
Jetboat: from $116
Paraglide: from $199
Skydive (9000ft): from $299
Rafting: from $209
Hang glide: from $215
Canyoning: from $199



From here, it’s a 3 hour drive to Lake Tekapo.

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Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo
Church of the Good Shepherd, 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 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

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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.

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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 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!

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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!


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.

What to Pack for a New Zealand Road Trip: The Ultimate Packing Guide
How Much Will A 10-Day Road Trip in New Zealand Cost: A Budget Breakdown

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!


Further reading: Lonely Planet New Zealand Travel Guide is an up-to-date guide on what to see and skip, and the hidden secrets New Zealand holds. It features color maps and images, highlights and itineraries, insider tips, essential info, honest reviews and cultural insights.

Covers: Planning chapters, Marlborough, Nelson, The West Coast, Christchurch, Canterbury, Dunedin, Otago, Queenstown, Wanaka, Fiordland, Southland, Understand and Survival chapters.

For a limited time only, get 3 books for the price of 2!

Visiting New Zealand Checklist

⇢ Compare flight prices to New Zealand
⇢ Compare accommodation options and prices on Booking.com | HotelsCombined.com | AgodaAirbnb
⇢ Book your rental car on RentalCars.com
⇢ Don’t forget travel insurance! Travel insurance is the most overlooked purchase when traveling, but one of the most essential. Anything can happen when you’re on holiday and you’d want to be covered in the case of travel mishaps such as flight delays, personal accidents or theft. Choose World Nomads Travel Insurance, designed by travelers for travelers.


 

 


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20 Comments

  1. Yasss! New Zealand is on my list of places to visit soon! This looks like such an amazing and well planned trip around the country. I’m definitely going to check this post again when I start planning my trip!

  2. Wow my dream is to go there and you gave me more reasons to dream of going to New Zealand!! Great photos xx

  3. I am yet to explore South Island and I am for sure following this guide. You made my planning so much easier with this post. This is all that I’ve wanted. Thank you so much. 🙂

    1. That’s great! Glad this was helpful, Hiral 🙂 You are going to love South Island so much! Have the best time there and can’t wait to hear back about your adventures xx

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