Mountain Top Goat

New Zealand South Island 14-day Itinerary Self Drive

by Mountain Top Goat
mount cook and lake pukaki

When you embark on your New Zealand South Island road trip, you can expect to be wowed by scenic landscapes with awe-inspiring glaciers, rugged coastline, lush forests, and snow-capped mountains.

It’s just like you saw in the travel brochures, but bigger and brighter. There will be plenty of sheep, paddocks, and the odd wave from a friendly farmer. I propose that you hire a vehicle for your travels. Before hitting the road, don’t forget to curate a Kiwi classic song list.

No matter how long your vacation in New Zealand is, you will always wish it was longer. I’ve designed a two-week itinerary for New Zealand’s South Island, but you can easily remove a few of the iconic stops if you have less than fourteen days to explore.

14-day Road Trip Through South Island of New Zealand

Day 1 – Christchurch (The Largest City in New Zealand’s South Island)

The resilient city of Christchurch, which has recovered from the 2011 earthquakes, is a charming way to start your journey of New Zealand’s South Island.

Also known as The Garden City, as you can imagine, there are plenty of blooming flower gardens, including The Christchurch Botanical Gardens, where you can have a picnic and feed the ducks your leftovers. 

The colorful street art in Christchurch is hard to miss. Local artists portray Kiwi culture with murals covering sport, Māori mythology, politics, nature, and fashion. These after-earthquake creations show how New Zealanders have used the creativity they are known for to rise again.

Another is the Christchurch Cardboard (Transitional) Cathedral, built to replace the destroyed Christchurch Cathedral. Yes, much of the interiors are made from cardboard, and it’s well worth a visit after you see Cathedral Square to see the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral being restored with expected completion in 2027.

Ride the Christchurch Gondola for the most epic views of the city. At the top, take photos of the scenery, explore pretty walking trails and learn about the area’s history. Also, make sure you take a tram ride through the downtown area of Christchurch just for fun. It’s an iconic ride!

christchurch cathedral on south island
Christchurch Cathedral in 2019.

Where To Stay

You have plenty of options for accommodation in the biggest city on South Island. Stay at The George if you want to be in the heart of the town. Additionally, this boutique hotel comes with complimentary mountain bike rentals and several excellent restaurants.

Or you could also book a room at Stoneleigh Lodge for a rural scene, which is on a working alpaca farm. Furthermore, enjoy the heated swimming pool, countryside strolls, and luxury amenities at this picturesque lodging, where the service is outstanding.

Special Places

  • The International Antarctic Centre
  • The Canterbury Museum
  • New Regent Street 

Allow three hours to get from Christchurch to your next destination. The adventure is just beginning!

Day 2 to 3 – Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook

The pastel blue-colored Lake Tekapo features on many postcards, but it looks more impressive in real life. So take a walk around the lake as soon as you arrive at the little lakeside town of Tekapo. Besides, if you come in November or December, the lupins surrounding the lake will be in bloom, creating one of those Instagram moments that no one can resist.

Grab lunch at Dark Sky Diner, which has the best kumara fries to go with traditional South American dishes. Then head for a relaxing soak at the Tekapo Springs. The thermal pools are believed to have healing properties. The steam and sauna rooms with a cold plunge pool are as exhilarating as the views of Mount John and Lake Tekapo.

mount cook south island
Muller hut hike

Mount Cook Hikes

One hour from Lake Tekapo is Mt Cook, the highest mountain on South Island and in the whole of New Zealand. Stop at Lake Pukaki on the way, which looks beautiful when the clouds are floating low in the sky.

Dramatic landscapes keep unfolding as you continue your drive to Mt Cook. You might be too chilled out from the hot pools to drive until the following day. But if you hit the road, you can get an early start exploring Mt Cook National Park.

For the hike of a lifetime, the Mueller Hut is a well-known overnight destination that offers breathtaking views in all directions across Hooker Valley. Additionally, the Hooker Valley Track takes you on a journey past fresh alpine streams, awe-inspiring glaciers, and lush grassland that will give you National Geographic vibes every step of the way.

hooker valley suspension bridge mount cook south island
Hooker Valley

Walking over the suspension bridge near Muller Lake is one of many highlights of the 10 km hike that takes approximately three hours. If you prefer a shorter walk, go for the Kea Point Trail (about 1 hour).

Mt Cook Helicopter Tour

During your trip around the South Island, you’ll see that many places offer helicopter tours. While many of these places would be sensationally scenic, Mt Cook is one of the best places to splash out on the aerial adventure. Some companies land on top of Mount Cook briefly so you can caption your selfies that you were “on top of the world.”

Stargazing

The Mackenzie Basin has Dark Sky Reserve status being one of the darkest places on the planet. Save some energy so you can stay up late stargazing. The Mt John Observatory in Tekapo is where to go if you are serious about admiring the night sky.

milky way over mount cook south island new zealand
Milky Way – Mount Cook National Park

Where To Stay

Connect to nature and admire the pristine Lake Tekapo and Two Thumb Mountain Range views when you check into the Alpine Suites On Tekapo. This secluded bed and breakfast makes a great base if you want to go hiking, horseback riding, fishing, or swimming. The Hermitage Hotel Mt Cook is another superb place to stay.

Special Places

  • Church of The Good Shepherd
  • Scott Pond
  •  Mt. John Observatory 

The next leg of your trip is one of the longer ones, taking about five hours.

the church of god shepherd
The Church of God Shepherd

Day 4 to 5 – Fiordland

Head to Te Anau, a town that proudly claims to be the gateway to Fiordland. You are entering the Milford and Doubtful Sounds area, rich in fiords, mountain vistas, waterfalls, and homes to animals like penguins, dolphins, and seals. 

The glow worm caves are a mind-blowing experience unique to Aotearoa and Australia, so grab your chance to see the shining larvae that turn their cave into an illuminated wonderland.

You would think the cave walls were covered in tiny fairy lights, but the magical display is indeed Mother Nature’s. A boat tour will transport you to the isolated caves, where your guide will take you on another boat and walk once inside the ancient caves. 

lake the anau
Lake Te Anau

One hour from Te Anau, you can take the 40-minute Lake Monowai and Borland Nature Walk or Lake Gunn Nature Walk. From there, you can continue to Milford Sound, a picture-perfect place that will inspire your soul.

Take a Milford Sound cruise to see the sights from the water or try equally spectacular kayaking. As seen in Lord of the Rings, thrill-seekers will love a jet boat ride down the Wailua River. 

New Zealand’s Great Walks

Furthermore, if you have time to devote 4-5 days for the hike of a lifetime, Milford Track, Routeburn Track, and Kepler Tracks are three of the best hiking trails in this area. Besides, it is hard to resist NZ’s most famous walk, The Milford Track, which rewards hikers with the tallest waterfall in the country. It is 53 km with valley views and green native forest surroundings, encouraging you to continue.

The Routeburn Track is shorter at 32 km and equally stunning. Finally, the most challenging at 63 km is the Kepler Track. You can book a campsite or cabin through the Department of Conservation.

Where To Stay

My top pick for Fiordland accommodation goes to Fiordland Lodge. The rustic log cabins overlooking Lake Te Anau are luxurious yet cozy. You are near Fiordland National Park, so you can go for a hike or go wildlife spotting as you please. 

Special Places

  • Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
  • Rainbow Reach swing bridge
  • Ivon Wilson Park 

You will be on the road for a couple of hours as you head to Queenstown. 

milford sound south island
The Fiords

Day 6 to 7 – Queenstown (New Zealand’s South Island Adventure Spot)

The natural beauty of Queenstown can be compared to the most beautiful places on the planet. A must-stop on your New Zealand South Island road trip.

The resort town also beckons to foodies, adrenalin junkies, and nature lovers. Yes, there is something for every kind of traveler in Queenstown.

Ride the Skyline Gondola to Bob’s Peak, overlooking Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. You can skip the gondola ride down and luge your way back instead. It’s faster and more exhilarating if speed is your thing.

luge cart queenstown
Luge cart

Walk around Lake Wakatipu and find a place to rent a boat. Then, get out on the water and try jet skiing, kayaking, wakeboarding, or water skiing. Zip lining, sky diving, bungee jumping, and off-roading adventures await daredevil travelers looking for a buzz.

If you haven’t seen a kiwi yet, the Kiwi Birdlife Park is your chance to see the rare and endangered bird. You can also see over 10,000 native flora, fauna, and other bird species at the sanctuary and see an impressive Maori cultural performance. Finally, grab some honey at the Honey Bee Center and see the hives where the sweet honey is made.

Just out of Queenstown, the former gold mining town of Arrowtown is worth a visit. This heritage town is charming, with locals still talking about the gold rush days.

Where To Stay

Melbourne Lodge is a modern accommodation option that includes a complimentary breakfast. It makes a great base if you are there for wine tasting in the summer or skiing in the winter. Another excellent place in Queenstown Country Lodge with the hot tub and bikes for rent adding to the list of reasons to book. 

Special Places

  • The Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge (Bungie jumping optional)
  • Coronet Peak
  • The Remarkables

Depending on how many stunning photo pit stops you make, your trip to Wanaka tomorrow should not take longer than 1-2 hours.

Queenstown skyline
Queenstown is heaven for adventure sports

Day 8 – Wanaka

The resort town of Wanaka has a pretty walkway around the lake, so you can take a casual stroll to start your day off right. Then visit the Wanaka Lavender Farm to see rows of purple flowers used to scent spa products, candles, room sprays, soap, and many more products that you probably use every day. Indulge in ice cream and see the farm animals at this rustic farm turned tourist attraction. 

Around Wanaka, there is no shortage of wineries, hiking trails, glaciers, and pristine lakes, with Lake Wanaka ruling the waters. 

roy's peak trek
Roy’s Peak trek

Hike Rob Roy Glacier or Diamond Lake if you still crave walks in nature. Otherwise, wander to see Wanaka Lone Tree, which is so Instagrammable that it has its own hashtag. #thatwanakatree is featured on many IG feeds of travelers from around the world as the solo willow tree sitting in the water in Wanaka. 

Where To Stay

Wanaka Homestead is an adults-only bed and breakfast near Wanaka Lake. The hot tub under the stars calls for a bottle of wine and the promise of a romantic evening. Lime Tree Lodge is as charming as it sounds, with spacious rooms with all the amenities. In addition, the lovely gardens are framed by the Southern Mountains, and you will feel relaxed the moment you arrive.

Special Places

  • Raspberry Creek
  • Aspiring National Park
  • The Puzzling World

It is about 3.5 hours from Wanaka to Franz Josef.

wanaka tree
The most photographed tree – Wanaka Tree

Day 9 to 10 – Franz Josef

Drive to Franz Josef to see Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. It’s an easy 1.5-hour hike to reach either of these New Zealand’s South Island natural wonders. The Glacier Hot Pools are the ideal spot to unwind after another beautiful day of sightseeing.

Where To Stay

Rainforest Retreat is as dreamy as the name suggests. The family tree houses and cabins look fun to stay in, and the Deluxe Spa Tree House with an outdoor jacuzzi is a slice of heaven amongst the native bush. 

Special Places

  • Lake Matheson
  • Blue Pools
  • Tatare Tunnels

It is about 5 hours from Franz Josef to Nelson.

Day 11 to 12 – Nelson and Abel Tasman

Welcome to Nelson, a place where you will be tempted to buy some local arts and crafts because the locals here are extra creative. Nelson’s food scene is outstanding, with trendy cafes, upmarket restaurants, and farmer’s markets stocked with the freshest local produce.

Visit Founders Heritage Park, a living museum featuring a genuine antique train. Then, after your train ride, you can meet artisans, wander the grounds taking photos and learn the history of Nelson through displays and info shared by knowledgeable staff. 

Abel Tasman National Park sits between Golden Bay and Tasman Bay and was named after Abel Tasman, the first European explorer to spot NZ. You may enjoy hiking, swimming, kayaking, or sailing, or you can just rest on the sandy beaches.

Where To Stay

As soon as you hear about the ponies and alpacas at Retiro Park Lodge, you’ll be sold. Also, this quaint country lodge has roaring fireplaces in winter and a swimming pool for summer. The owners of this adults-only lodge suggest visitors visit nearby Richard Plains for a wine tasting tour at a vineyard and winery.

Special Places

  • Cable Bay Adventure Park
  • Kahurangi National Park
  • Tahunanui Beach
abel tasman national park south island new zealand
Sandy beach at Torrent Bay – Abel Tasman National Park

Day 13 to 14 – Kaikoura

In the last stretch of your journey, I’m sure you’ve been told by many locals not to miss Kaikoura. Kaikoura is a treat for animal lovers with some of the exotic wildlife you usually only see in the zoo.

As the area is known for its whales, dolphins, and seals, taking a watching tour is a must. Many companies offer trips with a high chance of spotting a giant sperm whale flanked by playful dolphins.

swimming in the ocean with dolphins Kaikoura south island
Swimming with dolphins in the ocean

With the albatrosses flying high above in the clear blue sky, you will feel a sense of exhilaration and excitement every time your guide points out a whale. Depending on the season, orcas, humpback, pilot, and blue whales may also be spotted.

If you love seafood, a crayfish meal should be on the agenda. You might want to enjoy that hearty meal before starting a hike on the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway loop, which takes most people about 2.5 hours. You will see seal colonies swimming and basking in the sun. As cute as they look, don’t get too near as they can be territorial. 

The drive back to Christchurch will take about two hours. On your way out, stop at lookout points for your last look at Kaikoura’s stunning views. Point Kean and Kaikoura’s viewpoints are two of the best.

Where To Stay

The Kaikoura Boutique Hotel is a stylish stay with spectacular ocean views. The champagne bar is a unique feature that goes so well with stunning sunsets. In the heart of The Hamptons, a charming bed and breakfast is only steps from the ocean. It is a luxury stay that you deserve at the end of your road trip.

Special Places

  • Fyffe House
  • Maori Leap Cave
  • Kaikoura Museum
Kaikoura sunrise
Kaikoura Sunrise

As you head back to Christchurch, where you can return your rental car, you will already be reflecting on your fantastic New Zealand South Island trip. At last, I’m sure warm Kiwi hospitality, a few mince and cheese pies, and a whole lot of laughs were part of the journey. Furthermore, I’ve left a few days in the itinerary to rest or stay longer in your favorite places.

In the end, there are so many gorgeous areas, little towns, and off-the-beaten-track gems that you could stay on the South Island for months and not see it all. Design an itinerary that ticks off as many Kiwi landmarks as possible but doesn’t forget to spare a few days for unplanned exploration, deep discussions with the locals, and daydreaming in this paradise otherwise known as the Land of the Long White Cloud.

If you want to read more about New Zealand, check out the best things you can do when visiting the North Island here and my two-month solo backpacking trip around New Zealand, you’ll find here.


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