There’s so much to see and do on New Zealand’s South Island it’s like taking several holidays at once.
From tranquil lakes to rushing rapids, snowcapped mountains to coastal fiords, wineries and fine dining, jet-boating, wildlife, glaciers, golf, fishing and skiing … on and on it goes.
The scenery is stunning, distances compact and the locals are welcoming, making this one of the world’s great places to visit.
On this easy to navigate self-driving route, you’ll take in some of the very best the magnificent South Island has to offer.
ROUTE: Christchurch – Dunedin – Te Anau – Queenstown – Wanaka – Lake Tekapo – Christchurch
TOTAL DISTANCE: 1,384-kilometres – approximately 18-hours total drive time
SUGGESTED DURATION: Between 12-14 days stopping for two to three days at each location
GRADE: Easy driving along sealed roads and highways between major destinations
IDEAL FOR: Families, couples and groups. Plenty to see and do along the way for all interests
Start your spectacular New Zealand adventure in the South Island’s largest city. Spend a few days touring the city’s beautiful parks, museums and art galleries, or sit back and enjoy the Botanic Gardens’ views on a genteel punting tour down the Avon River.
The easygoing vibe of the city centres on Cathedral Square, where you’ll find several Heritage-listed landmarks. For some retail therapy, visit New Regent Street for a wide range of international and local shopping outlets.
Outside Christchurch, you’ll find all kinds of diversions. Just 12-kilometres away on the northwestern end of the famous Banks Peninsula lies the arty enclave of Lyttelton. Enjoy its picturesque harbour views, quirky shops and cafes and look out for the wonderful farmer’s markets.
For a great day trip, take the 130-kilometre drive to one of the South Island’s most famous hot spring pools, Hanmer Springs. These mineral-rich waters average 33-40 degrees Celsius year-round.
Christchurch – Dunedin (361-kilometres. 4.5hr drive time)
On the scenic drive down the east coast to Dunedin, take the detour to the historic bayside town of Akaroa (75km from Christchurch) – a beautiful French-influenced town with a rich history to share. Stop in at the local cheese factory and if you’re thinking of staying overnight in Akaroa, make sure to check out the eccentric Giant’s House, one of the most unique B&B’s to be found anywhere with its incredible art collection. For a unique activity overlooking the picturesque bay, be sure to book in advance for the Akaroa Cooking School for a day of hot culinary tips from owners Lou and Ant.
Once in the University town of Dunedin, that was first settled by disgruntled Presbyterians who opted to get as far away from Edinburgh as they could in 1848, make sure you visit the Yellow-eyed penguin colony on the Otago Peninsula, Lanarch castle, the Royal Albatross breeding colony on Taiaroa Head and the scenic Taieri Gorge Railway.
One of the city’s most popular attractions is the historic Dunedin Railway Station. Opened in 1906, the station was once the main rail stop between Christchurch and the southernmost part of the island. Today, the building’s stately Flemish features remain intact, including its beautiful art-deco tiled floors.
Dunedin – Te Anau (290-kilometres. 3.5hr drive time)
The gateway to the stunning fiords of Milford Sound, Te Anau is the perfect starting point for a scenic national park adventure. Hike the Milford Track where you’ll find stunning waterfalls and awesome 360-degree vistas and make sure to keep an eye out for the endangered flightless bird, the takahē.
Travel across Lake Te Anau to explore 12,000-year-old glowworm caves.
Extend your journey an extra day or two and drive to the heart of Milford Sound (118-kilometres north-west) and explore the fiords by boat or kayak. The Sound opens into the Tasman Sea and is home to all kinds of wildlife from birds nesting in the cliff-tops to seals and whales.
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Te Anau – Queenstown (171-kilometres. 2hr drive time)
The South Island’s most popular destination, Queenstown mixes outdoor adventure with the relaxing ambience of mountain scenery. It has also has a luxury edge as a playground of the rich and famous.
From downhill skiing and snowboarding at four surrounding mountain ranges from June to October, to high adrenaline activities like giant canyon swings and jet boating, to hot air balloons and gondola rides, this stunning town has something for everyone.
If you are looking for action, then Queenstown will not disappoint. Here you can visit the site of the world’s first bungee jump, A.J. Hackett’s at Kawarau Bridge, and try it for yourself!
Queenstown is nestled along the banks of Lake Wakatipu with walking trails and plenty of lake activities. A vintage steamboat, the TSS Earnslaw provides sightseeing cruises or you can stroll through the charming streets and enjoy the many bars, cafes, restaurants and boutique shops.
Queenstown – Wanaka (67-kilometres. 1hr drive time)
Enjoy lake life at Wanaka with eco tours, skiing, and of course, plenty of nature trails for hiking and biking in the summer.
At 45-kilometres long and 311-metres deep, Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest in New Zealand. Surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, the reflections off the lake make for a picture postcard image.
If you’re looking for a physical challenge, try the canyon climb at Hospital Flat. Popular with experienced hikers for its technical climbs, there are also trails for beginners. Try the steel ladders alongside Twin Falls before enjoying a refreshing dip under Wanaka’s iconic falls.
Give your feet a rest and try some 4WD action or a quad bike tour, or take in the scenery of Cardrona Valley where there’s some spectacular horse-riding terrain.
Wanaka – Lake Tekapo (200-kilometres. 2.2hr drive time)
Located in the Mackenzie Basin, Lake Tekapo is famous for its brilliant turquoise water. The colour is formed by the grinding rocks that turn into fine powder and are then collected by the glacial waters that feed the lake.
Arguably, Tekapo’s most famed landmark is the Church of the Good Sheppard. The church’s builders were instructed to leave the surrounding bush as undisturbed as possible, down to the original location of the matagouri bushes on the lakefront. The stones for the rock wall were procured from within a radius of five miles of the site and were to be unchipped and in their natural condition. And the finished product is simply remarkable.
The nearby Roundhill ski area is just a 30-minute drive and a favourite spot for skiing and snowboarding and popular with learners and experienced skiers alike. There’s also a large café/restaurant where patrons can sit back and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while gazing at the breathtaking mountain views surrounding Lake Tekapo.
In winter, try the open ice-skating rink nestled lakeside, and in summer, take in the sights on an alpine horse trek.
Lake Tekapo – Christchurch (227-kilometres. 3hr drive time)
As you head back to Christchurch, make one last diversion to Mount Hutt, just 80-kilometres west of Christchurch. Mount Hutt boasts the largest skiable area in New Zealand with 365 hectares dedicated to beginners, intermediate and advanced skiers.