Drive the ultimate loop of the South Island and take in the most stunning scenery that New Zealand has to offer. Exploring the South Island by road is by far the best way to navigate through this unique geography.
The roads in New Zealand are accessible and easy to drive on with no shortage of gas stations and amenities to help you on your way. For a full rundown of what South Island has to offer read my 10 top things to do in South Island.
South Island Itinerary Route Map
I pride myself on researching the very best places to visit in every country I visit. So I am able to create the perfect itinerary that balances value for money but with a sense of pace to cover all the ground in the limited time available.
My 11 Day South Island Road Trip is the exact route and activities I followed myself. All the accommodation listings are 100% unbiased and un-sponsored; I stayed as a paying guest at every hotel listed and I always select the best places to stay, so I can assure you of their quality and value. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions!
South Island Itinerary Highlights, 11 Day Trip
|Day 1||Explore Chrsitchurch||Ibis Christchurch|
|Day 2||Explore Chrsitchurch||Ibis Christchurch|
|Day 3||Tranzalpine by Highway or Railway||3hrs||Lake Brunner|
|Day 4||Franz Josef & Fox Glacier Flight||2hrs 40mins||YHA Franz Josef|
|Day 5||Drive to Wanaka||3hrs 30mins||OakRidge Resort|
|Day 6||Drive to Te Anau via Arrowtown & Queenstown||3hrs||Aden Motel, Te Anau|
|Day 7||Milford Sound Cruise orFlight||4hrs||Aden Motel, Te Anau|
|Day 8||Queenstown & around||2hrs||Mercure Queenstown|
|Day 9||Drive to Mt Cook||3hrs 10mins||Mt Cook Lodge|
|Day 10||Mt Cook National Park: Hiking, Stargazing||Mt Cook Lodge|
|Day 11||Drive to Christchurch via Lake Tekupo & Mt Hutt||4hrs 20mins||Christchurch Airport|
|*Driving Times do not include breaks or stops!|
Day 1: Arriving on South Island in Christchurch
Landing at the Christchurch International Airport your first task is to collect your Hire Car. Car hire desks are located on the right hand side of the international arrivals. Its only a short walk into the ground level car park outside the terminal building to collect your hire vehicle. Conveniently there’s a large supermarket on the airport exit road, should you want to stock up on any supplies.
Now, if you’re not a fan of cities then head straight out onto the open road, travel west towards Arthurs Pass and begin the northwest passage of the South Island Itinerary. For those of you who want recover from Jetlag, a quiet few days strolling around Christchurch is the perfect antidote.
I can highly recommend staying at the Ibis Christchurch. It’s centrally located, right next to Christchurch Cathedral, with great reviews from the travel community. Ask for a room on the top floor as these have great views across the low-rise city-scape and mountains beyond!
Day 2: Exploring Christchurch and around
All the downtown sights are within walking distance of the Ibis Christchurch which makes a great base for your city stay. Sights to visit within Christchurch include; Christchurch Cathedral, Cathedral Square, Canterbury Museum, Botanic Gardens, International Antarctic Centre (at the Airport) and dont forget a ride on a tramway.
Day 3: Crossing the Southern Alps by Highway or Railway
The route across the Southern Alps from the Canterbury plains to the west coast can be undertaken by train or car; So you do have a choice here, and your car hire could be delayed until you reach Greymouth on the west coast, where you can collect your vehicle then. Described as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, Tranzalpine operated by KiwiRail offers stunning views as the train, with a unique open-air carriage (catering for tourists!), meanders from foothills to mountain passes.
The Great Alpine Highway is the driving option. It’s a total of 3 hours driving to cross to the west coast, broken down of course with lots of sights along the way. Make sure you get an early start as its a good 1hr 20mins to cross the Canterbury Plains. If you’re a snowsports fan, then a stop at Porters Pass in winter should be on your itinerary. Along this route are the famous limestone boulders at Castle Hill (popular with climbers)and excellent walking trails around Arthurs Pass and the Devils Punchbowl Falls. Read more in my Trans-Alpine article with interactive map of the Trans Alpine Highway.
A much better place to stay after a full day’s adventure than Greymouth, it a Lake Brunner and the very comfortable rooms at the Laker Brunner Accommodation and Golf Course. The owners even invite guest to use their 9-hole golf course free of charge!
Day 4: The West Coast and Exploring Glaciers
My top tip is to make an early start, because the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are best viewed in the mornings. Afternoon cloud forms from
midday and obscures the views, especially for scenic flights. The drive from Lake Brunner to the Town of Franz Josef is 2hr 40mins, So setting off no later than 7am will have you arriving in Franz Josef no later than 10am. If the weather is particularly good, book on a helicopter flight for stunning views over the glaciers and southern alps. Read more in my flight over glaciers article.
Exploring these amazing Glaciers by foot is also a great option. Walks are very accessible from car parks at both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Each walk can take upto an hour one way, so allow enough time to do each walk and spend time at the Terminal Face (where the Glacier ends).
The YHA Hostel in Franz Josef town is a good base with lots of great eating and drinking options on the main Franz Josef strip. The YHA provides a variety of room options from shared dormitories to private rooms with en-suite facilities. It’s also quietly located at the back of the town with views into the wooded forest.
Day 5: South to Haast and Wanaka
Today has a long drive ahead; 3 hr 30 mins worth. If the weather is good then consider the walk to Fox Glacier in the morning as its located on your route, south of Franz Josef.
The highway to Haast meanders close to the west coast through lush green rain forest. After crossing many impressive steel girder bridges you will come across Knights Point lookout with cliff top views across the Tasman sea. A little further on and you arrive at Ship Creek with a broad expansive sandy beach and lookout viewing tower. If you want to stretch your legs then there are a couple of Walking trails here.
For lunch, I cannot recommend more highly the Curly Tree Whitebait Company. A small sign leads you down a track to their “shack” selling traditional whitebait patties ($10 each). The whitebait pattie is a combination of fresh whitebait fried with egg and served on a toasted slice of bread. Delicious! Although at the time of visiting their business was up for sale so worth checking their website for opening details.
As the road heads inland you will pass many waterfalls, all of which are well signposted off the road. Thunder Creek Falls is the most impressive of these and a short 30 minute walk to the Blue Pools is an option close to the town of Makarora.
Finishing in Wanaka you can look forward to the outdoor spa pools at the Oakridge Resort. Although its situated just on the edge of town, I didn’t see any need to stay inside Wanaka itself or on the Lakeside. The Oakridge Resort has very comfortable rooms, all located around the resort’s spacious grounds, with the benefit of parking your car outside your front door. The outdoor spa is great and the water is comfortingly hot as the cool night sets in!
Day 6: Pass through Arrowtown and Queesntown
A quick 30 minute drive south towards Queenstown will have you driving along the Crown Range road. The road peaks at a lookout point with your first glimpse of Queenstown in the distance. As the road descends there are lots of lay-bys to pull into for taking pictures of this amazingly rich countryside of rolling green fields and grassland. You’ll see the aircraft turning sharply overhead as they make their approaches into Queenstown Airport.
The road splits at Arrow Junction where you want to now follow the signs towards Arrowtown. Popular with visitors to Queenstown you might struggle to find a parking space in the sprawling visitors car parkk set just behind the main strip. The colours around autumn time are spectacular and set a vivid backdrop to the traditional wood and stone buildings which make up the main high street. Arrowtown was born from the discovery of gold in the Arrow River and subsequently fuelled a Gold Rush in the 1860’s. Plenty of tea rooms to stop for a quick snack.
Push onto Queenstown and drive straight to the Skyline Gondola. Parking is available on-street. The Skyline Gondola provides panoramic views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. A word of warning; the restaurant caters for large bus tour groups of Chinese tourists. Drive down to the Queenstown Waterfront area (on-street parking available, pay by meter) for Lunch at one of the many pubs and restaurants.
But don’t spend too much time in Queenstown because you still have the 2 hour drive to Te Anau. The reason for the choice of Te Anau is because this is the best base for Milford Sound (if you cant find accommodation at Milford Sound it’self as its very limited. Its a long drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound (4 hours), so a rest stop in Te Anau makes the expedition to Milford much more manageable. The Road to Te Anau snakes around Lake Wakatipu with a great photo opportunity at the Devils Staircase.
Aden Motel in Te Anau is a great choice for car travellers. You can park right next to your room, which is surprisingly modernly styled with a fully equipped kitchenette and en-suite bathroom. The supermarket in Te Anau is popular for visitors stocking up on snacks for making packed lunches for their Milford Sound tours. Buy yourself some provisions for breakfast because tomorrow will be an early start!
Day 7: Milford Sound
A 2 hour drive awaits this morning. Its a surprisingly long distance to Milford Sound, with a winding road which commands safe driving. As with all things travel, often its the journey aswell as the destination which are equally important. None could be more truer than the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. The serene and beautiful Mirror Lakes is a highlight of many whilst travelling through the Te Anau Downs. Read my Road to Milford Sound article for a full list and interactive map of this route.
Unfortunately Milford Sound becomes overrun with day-tripping coach tourists from Queenstown. Because of the 4 hour drive they tend to all converge on Milford at the same time: mid-morning. So another reason for starting you day early and arriving in Milford by 10 am.
Milford Sound is a stunning oasis of shear cliff drops, lush green forests and cascading waterfalls. The best way to explore this out-of-the-world landscape is to take a boat cruise. I highly recommend booking with one of the smaller boat tours (try Mitre Peak cruises). The small boats avoid the herded coach tourists and are able to get much closer to the cliff drops and sail through waterfalls! Read more about cruising the Magical Milford Sound.
However, boat is not the only way to explore this unique geography. Visitors can hike, kayak, bike or fly themselves around. A scenic flight by aeroplane or helicopter is a great way to visit. Providing the weather is clear though, because it is often cloudy in Milford and renowned as the “Wettest place in New Zealand“. Helicopter flights are a magical experience, some of which include glacier landings at Mt Tetuko, the highest peak in this region known as Fiordland.
It’s a long day if you undertake lots of activities at Milford so consider it’s still a 2 hour drive back to your accommodation in Te Anau.
Day 8: Queenstown
Start the day with a 2 hour drive from Te Anau to Queenstown. Queenstown is the mecca for adventurous activities and adrenaline fuelled sports; Bungee jumping, paragliding, skydiving, boating and snow-sports are just a taste. But for a more calmer Queenstown experience, take the road around Lake Wakatipu to the picturesque village of Glenorchy. More adventurous activities await in Glenorchy should you wish to go biking, hiking or boating. It’s only a 45 minute drive to Glenorchy, with stunning views across the sky blue water of Lake Wakatipu.
The Mercure Queenstown Resort is another great accommodation offering in this area. Located just on the edge of town, although high up the hillside it affords views across the lake. A free bus shuttle operates into Queenstown, but it’s probably easy to drive yourself and use the on-street parking surrounding the waterfront area.
Have a look at my 15 photos to inspire you to visit Queenstown.
Day 9: Queenstown to Mt Cook National Park
The drive North from Queenstown to Mt Cook is picturesque, especially with the golden tree colours in Autumn. The total driving distance today will take you 3 hours and 10 minutes. As you pass the Arrow Junction (see Day 6) the road will split at the town of Cromwell with one route back to the West Coast and Wanaka, but you continue along the eastern edge of Lake Dunstan (pictured).
Today’s destination is Mt Cook National Park, so depending on how much time you want there in the afternoon when you arrive, then you are flexible over how long you want to spend on this leg of the drive.
The road is particularly scenic through the high elevation Lindis Pass. Rolling hills and sprawling farmland are bisected by turquoise coloured lakes as you pass through the town of Twizel. Just after Twizel our route heads north along the western edge of Lake Pukaki. This road leads into the Mt Cook National Park.
Accommodation in the Mt Cook National Park is found in the Mt Cook Village. The Mt Cook Lodge is a good option; Comfortable rooms at good value (for this isolated area). The lodge has a well stocked bar and offers hot pub style food with a salad buffet. Ask for a room with Mt Cook views!
Day 10: Mt Cook National Park & Tasman Glacier
Read more about visiting here in my Mt Cook National Park article. It’s worth a quick visit to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, also known as the “Hermitage” which is the visitor information centre in Mt Cook Village. The centre is home to a full dome planetarium which organises stargazing tours at night from the airfield. They also provide hiking trail maps, although the popular Hooker Valley Trail is well signposted and doesn’t require a map.
Day 11: Mt Cook to Christchurch via Lake Tekupo
The final leg of your South Island New Zealand itinerary! Its a total of 4hours and 20mins to drive straight back to Christchurch. So depending on what travel arrangements you have for the next day you could consider breaking up the journey by staying at Lake Tekupo (1hr) or Mt Hutt (3hr).
Lake Tekupo is another hub for winter snow-sports as well as horse ridding, hiking, boating and scenic flights. I highly recommend a pit-stop at the Astro Cafe, perched on top of Mt John. The cafe shares the Mt John peak Mt John University Observatory, which is New Zealand’s top astronomical research facility. To get to the top of Mt John you will need to drive up the winding road that is often single lane with a toll charge of $5.
Finally, if you take the Route 72 North after the town of Geraldine, rather than Route 1 back to Christchurch, you will pass Methven. Methven is really only busy in winter as it caters for snow-sports enthusiasts heading to Mt Hutt.
Some flights out of Christchurch have very early morning departures. If your itinerary requires one of these, a hotel local to the airport (there are none within the airport bounds) is a good option. The Airport Lodge Motel is a great option for these early starts with a 5 minute drive to the airport. Or you could drop-off your car back at the car rental return the night before and make use of the free airport shuttle service at Airport Lodge Motel.
For more New Zealand adventures visit my New Zealand page.
If you have any questions about my itinerary or the hotels listed, please leave me a comment below or email me on the contact page.
- Lonely Planet, Brett Atkinson, Sarah Bennett, Peter Dragicevich, Lee Slater
- Publisher: Lonely Planet
- Edition no. 1 (12/09/2016)
- Paperback: 128 pages
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