DON’T MISS SPOTS ON A NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND ROAD TRIP
Are you planning a New Zealand South Island Road Trip? Smart move, the snow-capped mountains, stunning glacial lakes and incredible national parks will steal your heart. The South Island of New Zealand is a nature lover’s paradise. Photographers, hikers, and anyone needing a relaxing getaway. The epic scenery of the South Island will stay with you long after your New Zealand road trip is over.
We reached out to some experienced New Zealand travellers for tips on the must-see sights; these spots all deserve a place on your south island itinerary. We have listed these suggestions in a circuit starting from Christchurch and taking a trip right around the south island before returning back to Christchurch.
- DON’T MISS SPOTS ON A NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND ROAD TRIP
- New Zealand South Island Road Trip Map
- Abel Tasman National Park
- Arthurs Pass
- Fox Glacier
- Lake Matheson
- Moke Lake
- Te Anau
- Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
- The Catlins
- Tasman Glacier and the Blue Lakes
- Lake Tekapo
- More road trip inspiration
New Zealand South Island Road Trip Map
Christchurch is the perfect starting point or final destination on your road trip, with many van rental places in the South Island’s largest city. It is also a beautiful city to explore for a day or a little longer if you have the time.
If you want to enjoy the city’s highlights without having to park your van at each stop, a hop-on hop-off city tour is a great option, and the Christchurch Attractions city tram loop is a great way to enjoy the tour in retro style.
Then ride the Christchurch Gondola for beautiful 360-degree views of the city and Lyttelton Harbour. At the top, you will also find a restaurant and a ride suitable for all ages, taking you along a journey of Christchurch over time.
If you are visiting Christchurch with kids, they will love Willowbank Wildlife Reserve with many local and international animals to see and a fun play area. Christchurch also has many playgrounds and natural spaces to enjoy the outdoors.
There is no free camping in Christchurch itself; however, if you are happy to travel outside the city, Cust Domain and Chamberlains Ford Reserve are around 40 minutes from Christchurch and have excellent facilities. Jucy Snooze is a good option for budget accommodation near the airport.
For a great family dining experience, check out Formaggio’s Restaurant & Pizzeria.
Contributed by Holly Connors from Four Around The World
Next Stop Akaroa – 81km approx 1hr 20m
With a population of only around 700, Akaroa is a quaint harborside town in Canterbury founded by the French in 1840. Even hundreds of years later, the French influence is still prominent, as seen in the street names and building architecture.
Most people visit Akaroa as a day trip from Christchurch, but you can easily find enough things to entertain you for a couple of days. These include the beach, the Akaroa lighthouse, the quirky “Giant’s House”, and a vast selection of French pastries. Don’t forget to drop by at Barrys Bay Cheese to try some award-winning cheeses paired with local wines, craft beers, preserves, and more.
Akaroa is also famous for its unique wildlife, particularly the Pohatu Penguin (world’s smallest penguin) and the Hector’s dolphin (world’s smallest, rarest, and friendliest dolphin).
If you’re more of a mountain person than a beach person, there are many trails of varying difficulties that will take you up the hills. Along the way, you may have the pleasure of meeting curious farm animals or be surprised by random stone sculptures in the middle of green fields.
Contributed by Ummi Nadrah from Ummi Goes Where?
Next stop Kaikoura 264km – approx 3.5hrs
Kaikoura is a picturesque small coastal town on New Zealand’s south island with stunning panoramic views of the ocean and the mountains. The town is located approximately halfway between Christchurch and Picton on the east coast.
Kaikoura is famous for its abundance of marine life and is one of the best places in the world to see fur seals, whales and dolphins (there is a 95% chance of spotting giant sperm whales). Out to sea, Kaikoura has a continental shelf that plunges to a depth of almost 1000 meters below the surface, providing deep enough water for marine life to thrive in. You can book several wildlife experiences, including whale watching boat tours, swimming with dusky dolphins, kayaking with seals, and even scenic helicopter rides.
The name ‘Kaikoura’ means ‘to eat crayfish’ in the Maori language.
No trip to Kaikoura is complete without trying some freshly cooked crayfish and other lovely seafood at either Nins Bin or the Kaikoura BBQ Seafood Kiosk.
We would recommend staying at least two nights in Kaikoura, so you can spend one whole day exploring the local area and going on a wildlife tour. A great place to stay is Kaikoura TOP 10 Holiday Park, which is just a 5-minute walk to the town centre’s bars, restaurants, and shops.
Contributed by Caroline Keyzor from CK Travels.
Next stop Abel Tasman National Park – 310km – approx 4hrs 15mins.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is one of the (many) National Parks in stunning New Zealand. Located on the northwest of New Zealand’s South Island, it’s a must-visit on your New Zealand road trip itinerary. The Park is about an hour by car from Nelson; Marahau is the most accessible entry point into the park.
Note: if you want to do the Abel Tasman Coast Track, you must book online. Spots are limited and often sold out. The hike takes between 3-5 days, and you’ll spend the night in a DOC hut or campsite.
But even if this marvellous 60-km is a bit too long for your taste, Abel Tasman National Park has plenty to offer. A much shorter trail is the tramp to Watering Cove, and despite being a short and easy walk, the views are still breathtaking.
Getting out on the water is a must in Abel Tasman NP; the water is a stunning blue colour, and you’ll see the park from a whole new vantage point. Kayak to one of the small islands just off the coast but beware of the strong winds and the waves. Don’t overestimate your strength; getting to an island may be easy, the hard part is getting back to shore.
If you plan on doing the Abel Tasman Coast Track, give yourself five days. Even if you end up hiking the track faster, you’ll have an additional day or two to relax on a beach or get out on the water. For travellers who don’t plan on doing the Coast Track, a full day is enough to see the area around Marahou. The South Island also offers lots of shorter hikes you should consider.
Kina Beach Camp is a good spot for road trippers; it’s a basic but nice campground about 10 km from Motueka.
Contributed by Lotte from Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog
Next stop Punakaiki – 283km – approx – 4hrs
If you’re driving along the West Coast on your South Island road trip, a stop at Punakaiki is a must. The Pancake Rocks are the marquee site in Punakaiki (they’re free). The 1km loop track gives you a chance to see these interesting rocks and native bush. The views are great too. If you can, plan your visit around high tide when the blowholes are at their best.
Other attractions in Punakaiki include the rarely mentioned Punakaiki Cavern, which kids love. This is a cave you can enter and explore for 10-15 minutes. Bring a head torch for the best experience.
If Punakaiki is a stopover on your south island road trip, these are the two quick and easy sites to visit. But as the trailhead of the Paparoa Track (a Great Walk) is here, stay a night in Punakaiki.
The Pororari River Track is a flat 7km out and back walk on the Paparoa Track with stunning scenery. Add in some beach time, and you’ll have an incredible 24 hours here. If you stay overnight, the Punakaiki Beach Camp has a variety of accommodation options for road trippers.
And it’s close to the locally owned and operated Punakaiki Tavern, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Contributed by Jub from Chur New Zealand
Next Stop Hokitika – 84km – approx 1hr 10mins.
Hokitika is a must if you plan to travel along the West Coast as part of your road trip. This quirky little town, and the roads leading to it, will not disappoint. You’ll want to allow for at least a couple of days in the area if you want to do all the walks and things to do in Hokitika beyond visiting the beach and its famous sculptures.
The main activity that you can’t skip is the Hokitika Gorge. On a dry day, this short 30-minute walk will guide you to a river with the most vibrant blue waters you have ever seen. Follow it up with a walk at the West Coast Treetop Walk, an excellent opportunity to see the native rainforest from a unique perspective… if you’re not afraid of heights.
Another great walk in the area is the Tunnel Terrace Track which takes you through native bush, through old gold mining tunnels, and you might even find one of New Zealand’s famous blue mushrooms, which often pop up after heavy rain!
If you’re itching to see some of New Zealand’s rare and endemic wildlife, a quick visit to the National Kiwi Centre in the heart of Hokitika will scratch that itch for you. Encounter Kiwi, Tuatara, and even feed the eels. If that isn’t enough for you, on the outskirts of Hokitika is a free glow worm dell that will give you a close-up look at wild glowworms.
When you have just about walked your legs off, you’ll want to visit Stella Cafe for some of their homemade goodies & a glimpse inside the bee colony. This is a real favourite with the locals and highly recommended.
Hokitika Holiday Park has excellent facilities, with two communal kitchens and an impressive children’s playground.
Contributed by Leah of Officer Travels
Next Stop – Arthur’s Pass 99km – approx 1hr 15mins.
Arthur’s Pass is one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It should be included in any South Island Road Trip. It has it all: mountains, lakes, rock formations, waterfalls. At each turn, you discover magnificent scenery where the mountains seem to have been painted by Mother Nature.
Except for a few steep sections, the road is easy to drive. It can be enjoyed over a day. However, spending a night in Arthur’s Pass is worth it. It will give you more opportunities to see this road under various weather and light. And if you want to enjoy some hikes, you could also stay a few days.
The Arthur’s Pass Motel & Lodge is convenient and well located. However, note that there are few places to eat in town—a couple of cafes and eateries. But motels have kitchens, so you can bring your own food.
The top attraction not to be missed is Castle Rocks (a.k.a. Kura Tawhiti). Here you can walk between giant boulders with shades of grey. Take the time to go up above those boulders, as you will enjoy majestic views of the surrounding mountains.
But there is a lot more to enjoy on this road, such as the Otira viaduct, views of the Arthur’s Pass National Park, the Cave Stream scenic reserve, the Devils Punchbowl waterfall.
Arthurs Pass is one of the most scenic roads in the country!
Contributed by Claire from ZigZag On Earth
Next stop Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson 261km – approx 3hrs 20mins
Fox Glacier is located in the wilderness of New Zealand’s stunning west coast, and it’s a great place to stop on a road trip around the beautiful South Island. One of the world’s most accessible rivers of ice, Fox Glacier is 12 kilometres long and flows through forests and snow-covered mountains. The glacier is around 6 kilometres from town. A bus will take you there if you don’t have a car. You can walk to the base of the glacier along the banks of the Fox River. Book a guided glacier hike to explore the ice or fly over the glacier in a helicopter. The scenery is spectacular and landing in a helicopter on the untrodden snow at the top of the mountain is an unforgettable experience.
With a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, the tiny town of Fox Glacier is quiet and scenic. Surrounded by lush, green pastures, it’s a lovely place to stay. It has everything you need with enough to keep you there for 2 or 3 days. Don’t miss beautiful Lake Matheson, just a few kilometres away. On a calm day, you’ll see a perfect reflection of snow-capped mountains in the still waters. Walk around the lake, spot Glow Worms after dark, visit the nearby Franz Josef Glacier or head to Gillespies Beach to look for seals.
Stay at the Ivory Towers Backpacker Lodge and eat a meal at the White Pub Café & bar.
Suggested by Linda of Muy Linda Travels
When you are in Westland with access to a car, you would be remiss to skip visiting Lake Matheson. This body of water, created by the receding glaciers at the end of the Ice Age, takes all of 5 minutes to reach from your base in the Fox Glacier town.
Keep checking your rear-view mirror—if it’s your day, you will see the peaks of Aoraki and Horokoau (Mounts Cook and Tasman), and that is your signal to keep going! There is a parking lot and an all-day dining restaurant (a decent one at that, too) at the start of the boardwalk that surrounds the lake.
The easy path takes you through native flora; while it takes about 1.5 hours to complete the walk, you will want to stop at the far end to admire the sight of the mountains reflected in the water. Go in the early morning or late afternoon, when the wind dies down, and the surface of the water will be as smooth as a mirror.
Did I mention that it’s all free? Don’t linger too long; however, the sandflies will make a meal of you if the people waiting behind you don’t! A shorter path to Jetty View Point is wheelchair accessible, while those looking for a tougher tramp can hit the 8-km Lake Gault Walkway.
The nearby Heartland Hotel is a good mid-range option for an overnight stay. Alternatively, the Top 10 Holiday Park has excellent facilities and a large variety of rooms.
Contributed by Nicholas from Rambling Feet
Next stop Wanaka – 266km – approx 3hrs 15m
At just an hour’s drive from Queenstown, it might be easy to miss a visit to Wanaka. But this charming town has a lot to offer! It’s also a spectacular drive.
Wanaka is probably most well-known for a particular willow tree that grows out of the beautiful Lake Wanaka. It has become an attraction for photographers and travellers alike, in the right conditions offering the chance for stunning reflective shots against the backdrop of the Southern Alps. A cruise on the lake provides a closer look at the Alps.
While there are plenty of things to do in Wanaka, depending on your interests, it is possible to hit the main attractions in just a day. If you have the kids in tow, you need to have Puzzling World on the list. Located 5 minutes from the town centre, it is full of optical illusions and tricky perspectives to confuse the brain, and the giant maze is much harder than it looks. If you don’t have kids, don’t worry. Puzzling World is just as much fun for adults!
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is also worth the visit, unless, of course, you have bad allergies. It’s stunning walking through dancing fields of aromatic purple flowers. Try the lavender ice cream while you’re there and browse their range of lavender products in the store.
Be prepared that if you’re arriving at night, you may not find restaurants open late. If you want to stay in Wanaka, the YHA has stunning waterfront views and is great value for money. For a great coffee and brunch, head to Urban Grind on Ardmore Street.
Contributed by Holly from Globeblogging
Next stop Arrowtown – 55km – approx 50 minutes
Arrowtown is located on the banks of the Arrow River, a small town about 15 mins drive from Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand and a must-stop on any South Island road trip. Arrowtown is a beautiful historic gold mining town made particularly more stunning during autumn when thousands visit to see the changing reds and golds of the autumn leaves surrounding the historic town.
Since the 1950s, the town has become popular with holidaymakers, and the historic buildings have been lovingly restored into cottages and holiday homes for rent. Not only is it popular in autumn, but Arrowtown is 15 minutes from the nearest ski fields, making it a great winter location as well.
A temperate climate during summer makes Arrowtown popular with visitors year-round, as it is the departure point for the Queenstown trails. It ticks all the boxes for those outdoorsy types.
Arrowtown is an excellent stop on the drive between Wanaka and Queenstown. The bakery is famous for delicious meat pies, and there are many new cafes and restaurants opening each year. The town is relatively compact, meaning that all places are within walking distance of your accommodation. The Remarkables Sweet Shop will be popular with the kids, but you’ll find that quirky souvenir from one of the stores in the main street to remember your trip.
Contributed by from Our 3 Kids v The World
Next stop Queenstown – 20km – approx 20 minutes
Queenstown is a lakeside resort town in southwest New Zealand on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s known for adventurous activities like rafting, jet boating, skydiving and mountain biking in the summer months and features four nearby mountain areas for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. While Queenstown is ideal for a weekend getaway, travellers looking to enjoy a variety of adventure experiences may want to stay up to one week.
A notable attraction in town is Skyline Queenstown, which features the steepest gondola cable car ride in the Southern Hemisphere. At the summit, there is a restaurant, gift shop and panoramic lookout point along with a range of high-energy activities like a luge track and para-gliding. Many visitors also use Queenstown as a base for day trips to the famous Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, which are popular stops on a tour of the South Island.
Tip: The drive to Glenorchy is a nice day trip from Queenstown.
Travellers who are road tripping on a budget can try staying at the YHA Queenstown Lakefront Backpackers, which features free on-site parking and full kitchen facilities. For those who are hungry after a day of extreme sports, stop by Fergburger for dinner. They have reasonable prices for a good-sized portion of food and many customizable burger options to suit vegetarians and other preferences.
A final insider tip is to watch the sunset from Queenstown Bay Beach with a picnic or a drink to relax after a long day of adventure activities.
Contributed by Claire from Claire Pins Travel
While you are in Queenstown take the short trip to Moke Lake
Would you believe there is another stunning mirror lake just 20-minute drive from Queenstown? Bursting with natural beauty, Moke Lake is a little-known gem and is a lovely place to spend several hours. When weather conditions align perfectly, the most remarkable thing happens – the crystal clear waters transform into a gigantic mirror!
The serenity at Moke Lake is a welcome change from the busy heart of Queenstown. To soak up the breathtaking scenery around Moke Lake, there are many walking tracks that offer exquisite views of the nearby mountains reflecting on the water’s surface.
The walking track with the easiest difficulty takes around 1.5 hours. It can become muddy in parts and includes some steep inclines, but nothing extreme. I thoroughly enjoyed this walk and highly recommend it. The hike is one of the most scenic things to do in Queenstown in winter!
Prefer not to hike? Some adventurous activities at Moke Lake include mountain biking in the surrounding trails, fishing and kayaking. It’s possible to stay overnight in your own tent at the campsite beside the lake’s edge, however, make sure to bring enough water in winter as the pipes at the picnic area freeze. Don’t forget your insect repellant as the midges can be annoying, too.
As Queenstown itself is just a short drive away, I’d suggest staying at the Novotel Lakeside to make the trip truly unforgettable. If you don’t mind the wait, Fergburger has the most popular burgers on the South Island!
Contributed by Alyse from The Invisible Tourist
Next stop Te Anau – 171km – approx 2 hrs
Te Anau is a beautiful lakeside town, just 2 hours south of Queenstown, on the South Island of New Zealand. It is a popular jumping-off spot for the famous Milford Sound experience but has some incredible sights and attractions of its own that make it worth sticking around in town for.
Three days in Te Anau will give you a taster into the Fiordland region. Getting out on the lake is one of the best ways to experience Te Anau. Cruise across Lake Te Anau to explore the glow worm caves, or if you are after a more exhilarating experience, hop on the Fiordland Jet and whizz out to Lake Manapouri. There are so many great things to do in Te Anau it would be a shame to cut your time short.
Tip: Head to the Bao Now food truck early for tasty sushi bowls before the line gets too long. The dumplings are also worth going back for seconds.
To stay: Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park has the best views of all the campsites in Te Anau.
Contributed by Jennifer Parkes from Backyard Travel Family
Next stop Milford Sound 118km – approx 1.5hrs
Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage site and one of the most striking natural landmarks on New Zealand’s South Island. Depending on your itinerary, you can visit Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown (288 km) or from Te Anau (119 km). You could spend a night at the stunning Milford Sound Lodge that offers a selection of chalets and a campervan park. The lodge is very popular, and it is best to book your stay well in advance.
The drive to Milford Sound is almost as scenic as the fjord, particularly the road from Te Anau to the Sound. Make sure to stop at Mirror Lakes to see the stunning view of the Earl Mountains reflected on the lakes’ still surface. Another unmissable stop is the Chasm – a series of thundering waterfalls reached by a 10-min loop walk through fairytale-like red beech forest.
Yet as beautiful as the drive is, it is the cruise along Milford Sound that will be the highlight of your South Island road trip. The dramatic scenery of the fiord is almost otherworldly. Just imagine cruising between 1,200-meter-high cliffs rising out of the still dark water, streaming with waterfalls.
It rains about 90 per cent of the time at Milford Sound, and the rain creates more temporary waterfalls right in front of your eyes. Some of them are so fine that they get blown away by the wind, never reaching the bottom of the fiord. The cruise takes an hour to reach the Tasman Sea, turning around for the return journey. So you get to experience the magic of Milford Sound twice.
Contributed by Margarita Steinhardt from The Wildlife Diaries
Next stop – you need to return to Te Anau to make your way back to the east coast – you might want to stop another night here; otherwise its 357km and approx 4.5hrs drive
Tucked away at the bottom of the South Island, on the opposite side to Milford Sound, lies the gorgeous Catlins. One of the most underrated places to visit in New Zealand, due partly to its slightly inconvenient location, The Catlins indeed are a must-do New Zealand experience.
The region is dotted with numerous natural attractions that combine to give it an untouched beauty that defines the South Island. Perhaps the most iconic is the Nugget Point Lighthouse, where an inconceivably photogenic lighthouse sits precariously atop sheer cliffs.
Other top attractions include countless stunning waterfalls (Purakaunui Falls is an absolute winner), quirky attractions and the opportunity to see some of New Zealand’s native animals in the most natural way possible.
The best way to explore the Catlins is by car, either driving north to south or south to north along the coast between Dunedin and Invercargill. You could tick off all the popular attractions in a day if you hurried, but 1-2 nights would be the perfect amount of time to spend here as part of a longer South Island road trip.
Mike & Jenny’s Kaka Point accommodation is our favourite place to stay when we visit The Catlins. Located along the coast near Nugget Point, making it perfect if you’re planning to catch the sunrise. There’s also a decent fish ‘n chip shop in Kaka Point if you forgot to pack food.
Contributed by Delilah from Our Travel Mix
Next Stop – Make your way back up to the middle of the South Island – you can do this via Dunedin and along the coast to the famous Moeraki Boulders (234km)
From Moeraki Boulders to Tasman Glacier in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is 212km and takes approx 2.5hrs
Tasman Glacier and the Blue Lakes
Tasman Glacier and the Blue Lakes is a great short and easy hike on New Zealand’s south island that will treat you to a view that is stunning in more ways than one. This is a hike to easily do on your own, and you don’t need a permit or to book anything in advance.
Tasman Lake, though, is icy blue thanks to the glacial water. Give yourself some time at the viewpoint to admire the lake, mountains, and glacier, then enjoy the view of Tasman Valley on the way up and down. The whole hike is just over a mile round-trip.
While the glacier is the main attraction here, the Blue Lakes is a cozy little spot to stop and rest on your hike to the top. This is a fun little stop not far from a major hike (Hooker Valley Track), where you can easily enjoy some solitude with incredible views all around you. If you want to splurge, there are several scenic flights by helicopter or fixed-wing plane.
Contributed by Megan Johnson from Red Around the World
Next stop Lake Tekapo – 212km – approx 2.5hrs
Lake Tekapo is so pretty that it is impossible not to stop there when you drive between Christchurch and Mount Cook. The blue colour of the lake looks unreal, and the mountains in the background create stunning scenery.
You should spend at least one full day in Lake Tekapo. To try something different from hiking, we chose to book a horse trekking tour to enjoy the views of Lake Tekapo. You can also paddle on the lake or opt for a more relaxing experience at the Tekapo Springs. Photographers won’t want to miss the popular Church of the Good Shepherd and the lupins flowering near the lake at the end of the year.
Apart from its beautiful lake, Lake Tekapo is also famous for being the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s an observatory at the top of Mount John, which is great to visit by day for the views of the lake and by night to watch the stars through their giant telescope (booking required). The Astro Café is a nice option to have lunch with a view, and the Dark Sky Diner is perfect for drinks and dinner at sunset. Booking a guided tour at Dark Sky Experience is affordable and a great way to learn more about the links between Māori astronomy and Western science.
Lake Tekapo is a very popular destination, so you’ll need to book accommodation in advance. There are many small beds and breakfasts in Lake Tekapo. Budget travellers will like the YHA Lake Tekapo, which has stunning picture windows throughout the property to take advantage of the magnificent views.
Contributed by Eloise from My Favourite Escapes
It’s time to head back to Christchurch 225km and 2hr 40 mins away