Planning a road trip around the South Island, New Zealand? Well, I’m beyond jealous!
One of my all-time favourite countries, New Zealand, holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been there twice now and loved every second of each trip. It’s a breathtaking place, saturated with natural beauty, diverse sights and attractions, unique fauna and flora, and proud cultural traditions.
Trust me, the whole country’s incredible to travel around. However, the South Island stunned me with its wild and untamed beauty. This unparalleled place seems intent on astounding you at every turn.
And that’s exactly why planning a two-week road trip to the New Zealand South Island can be such a challenge. There’s simply too much to see and do in 14 days! Know the struggle?
Well, I thought I’d try to help.
I’ve put on my thinking cap, scoured the intellectual archives, and mined the memory bank to come up with a winning New Zealand South Island itinerary. Sound good? Keep reading to learn where to go and what to do on your upcoming road trip in South Island New Zealand.
New Zealand South Island Itinerary
Picton – Day 1 to 2
Many people who come to the South Island will arrive from its Northern counterpart! If that’s the case for you, then you’ll cross the Cook Strait and get off the ferry in picturesque Picton.
A cool, calm, and understated town in the northeast, Picton’s a great place to spend the first 24 hours here. You can explore the harbour, hire a boat, go for walks in the Malborough Sounds, or just sit and eat fish ‘n’ chips on the waterfront until your heart’s content.
Heads up, if you’re flying into Christchurch and starting from there, then you could always do this trip in reverse. You’d just have to allow yourself enough time for the five-hour drive from Picton back to Christchurch (if that’s where your return flight is going to leave from).
Abel Tasman National Park – Day 2 to 5
Wake up in Picton on your second day, enjoy the morning, and then get behind the wheel for a long drive to the amazing Abel Tasman National Park.
Famed for its Great Walk, this place has it all. Expect lush, verdant forests, rolling hills and golden sands complete with azure waters. Throw in an abundance of wildlife and incomparable vistas, and it’s truly heaven on earth. Spend at least two full days here to disconnect from the world, put down your mobile phone, and immerse yourself in what the Abel Tasman has to offer.
Want my advice? Aim for Takaka. Situated in the aptly-named ‘Golden Bay’ area, this is one of my favourite spots in the whole country. A tiny, hippy town with relaxed vibes, beautiful beaches, and easy access to the northernmost part of South Island, it’s a must-see in my opinion.
While you’re here, I recommend taking the trip up to Farewell spit, paying a visit to the seals on the wild and wonderful Wharariki beach, and stopping off at the crystal-clear Pupu Springs.
Hokitika – Day 5 to 6
Time to continue your road trip through the New Zealand South Island! Whenever you finally drag yourself away from Takaka, hop back in the car and make the five-hour drive down to Hokitika. My favourite town along the West Coast, it’s got a laid-back, unique atmosphere compared to others that you’ll drive through to get there.
Oh, and be sure to stop off at Punakaiki along the way. This teeny tiny hamlet is positioned right on the West Coast (expect more jaw-dropping views) and is home to the famous ‘Pancake Rocks’. Far from the edible variety, these so-called pancakes are a geological phenomenon that have formed over millennia of erosion. The result? Crazy pillars of rock with horizontal grooves that create a ‘stacked’ appearance–hence the ‘pancakes’. Along with the blowholes here too, they’re well worth seeing.
Anyway, back to Hokitika.
One night should be enough, but make sure you see the gorgeous Hokitika Gorge while you’re here. Renowned for its bright emerald waters, this gorge is another unmissable gem that’s typical of NZ! Back in town, you could carve some green-stone or check out the beach for more fun things to do.
Top tip: Looking for more cool stuff to do in Punakaiki? There’s a glow worm cave that’s worth checking out too. You’ll find it midway between the town itself and the Pancake Rocks. Nestled in the cliffs off the side of the road, grab a torch and follow the signs. It’s best to go at night if you want to see the glow worms, but cool to check out at any time of day nonetheless.
Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers – Day 6 to 8
Most people who road trip South Island New Zealand are hell-bent on stopping at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. And I don’t blame them…both glaciers are top attractions that fully justify a visit.
Arriving there on Day 6 of your trip, Franz Josef is the perfect place to bring home the end of your first week in New Zealand! Debate rages here about whether Franz or Fox glacier is better. In my opinion, though, Franz Josef takes the top spot.
It is, quite simply, spectacular to see (even though you have to view it from viewing platform that’s some distance from the actual ice). Park in the car park, take the short walk to the viewing platform, and gaze in awe at this marvel of the natural world. It’s worth going soon, too. At the current rate they’re receding and melting, we won’t be able to enjoy either glacier for much longer.
Want to push the proverbial boat out? Pay for a helicopter ride over (or onto) the glacier itself. I’ve never done it, but it’s supposed to be out-of-this-world incredible.
Fun-filled Franz Josef (the town) itself is worth hanging out in as well. Chill out in the bars, grab some food at a restaurant, and hang out/party the night away with the fun-loving locals and fellow travellers.
Feel free to visit Fox Glacier on the same day or the one following it. Situated out of the town, you could even take the detour on your way onto Wanaka/Queenstown…
Wanaka or Queenstown – Day 8 to 11
No New Zealand South Island itinerary is complete without a stop here. Wanaka and Queenstown are two of my favourite places in the South Island. Alas, with limited time at your disposal, I suggest choosing between the two. Both towns are jam-packed with attractions and ‘must-do’ activities, which means you’ll struggle to fit both into your trip.
The good news? They’re both just amazing, and share many similarities.
Wanaka’s basically Queenstown’s little brother. It’s smaller (although it’s growing at a frightening rate), more laid-back (though getting evermore hectic), and pulls a (slightly) less raucous crowd.
Queenstown is mad. It’s party-central with a side of extreme sports. There’s always something going on here and the atmosphere’s buzzing 24/7. You’ll spend lots of cash but have the time of your life in the process.
Both Wanaka and Queenstown, though, are set in pristine landscapes. Go to either place and expect glacial lakes set to a backdrop of mountains. There are water sports, beaches, and hikes galore; this part of the country’s blissful if you’re an outdoor enthusiast!
One advantage of going to Queenstown instead, though? You could take a daytrip to Milford Sound while you’re at it. Situated in Fiordland (read: crazy mountains descending into breath-taking waters…with seals…and waterfalls!), this is one detour you won’t regret. You could travel here from Wanaka too, of course, but the drive would be monstrous. That’s why, with only a few days to spare, I only recommend it from Q’town.
Mount Cook – Day 11 to 13
Dragging yourself away from Wanaka or Queenstown is no minor challenge. However, the silver lining is that the next destination (and the penultimate stop) of your South Island road trip is another absolute wonder: Mount Cook.
The highest mountain in the country, this snow-capped peak in the centre of South Island will blow you away with its beauty. The very air you breathe feels, smells, and tastes different. It’s crisp, fresh, and a tell-tale sign that you’d entered someplace magical.
With giant emerald lakes, burning blue skies, and glistening glaciers, make sure you work this place into your trip. It’s only a few hours from Wanaka or Q’town, but it feels a world away in terms of the atmosphere. Long gone are the people, lively bars, and buzzing atmosphere. Get ready for nature- pure, simple, and unbridled.
Want a cool day hike to do? The Hooker Valley track is one of my favourites. Be sure to check it out.
Top tip: book early! There’s very limited accommodation around Mount Cook (especially of the budget variety) and it’s a very popular spot, which means the beds sell out fast.
Christchurch – Day 13 to 14
Alas, the time has finally come to draw your two-week road trip on New Zealand’s South Island to a close! Use the penultimate day to take the long drive to Christchurch (stopping at lovely Lake Tekapo for a nice spot to look around/eat lunch), before hanging out in the city and exploring the sights there.
Now, I won’t lie: Christchurch definitely isn’t my favourite part of New Zealand. That’s why I’ve only suggested staying here a single night. This once-proud city has suffered a lot in recent years. First, there was the almighty earthquake that devastated it; then, just as it was beginning to heal, there was the atrocious terrorist attack that took place in more recently.
Christchurch continues to lick its wounds, undergo massive redevelopment, and do its best to rise from the ashes. In future, I think it’ll be an amazing city that’s full of life and vibrancy. For now, though, it feels tired and uninspiring. Nevertheless, it’s well worth spending the afternoon/morning before your flight here to explore!
Don’t Forget This Two-Week New Zealand South Island Itinerary
New Zealand’s my favourite country in the entire world. Why? Because everywhere you go and everything you do is quite simply outstanding- particularly in the South Island, which is both sublime, ridiculous, and complete with all the attributes and attractions you could ever want in a travel destination.
In fact, it’s so full of good stuff that deciding what to see on a two-week road trip South Island New Zealand can feel almost impossible. If you’re in the process of planning one, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about! I hope this post will help out though. Keep this New Zealand South Island itinerary in mind and you’re sure to have an unforgettable time on the other side of the world.
Danny’s a travel enthusiast who’s determined to make the most of his life. He’s just set up a new blog to help others do the same! You can check it out at wisehealthynwealthy.com.
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Fjordland was my favorite part of the South Island. I also enjoyed a day driving around the Catlans on the Islands Southeastern corner.
Ruma Dey Baidya
Was looking for some solid information on New Zealand, found yours. Such an effectively planned itinerary for a road trip. Road trips become quite hectic, but yours is easily doable. Great work.
If doing this in reverse make time to stop in Kaikoura on the way back to Christchurch. It’s my second fav spot in the South Island (after Queenstown).