Travelling NZ is like travelling through a dream. And a South Island road trip really is its nirvana.
This is an island where you can experience mountain ranges that run with the sky, seas that crash onto the shore in breathtaking fashion, lakes that are so calm everything around is mirrored, rivers that flow in incredible glacial blues, and the greenest of green lush rainforests. And …. you can also get a bloody good coffee almost anywhere. Yep – told you it was like heaven!
The South Island offers incredible, and incredibly diverse landscapes all in a relatively small island. This makes it the perfect destination for road tripping. And in fact, many of the places you’ll visit are relatively remote, so road tripping can often be your only way of getting there. Unless you’re super rich and can fly by helicopter, in which case, pick me as your guide please!
Here I share all you need to know to be able to plan your own itinerary around the South Island, that will work for your time frames, where you start etc. I hope this answers all your questions on where to go, where to stop, how long it takes to drive to, and more.
This is part 1 of 2 – there’s just too much to share in just one post. Coming soon also, is more detailed information on what to do in each area, as well as another post that will share all your basic pre-planning gen.
But right now, let’s show you just what you’re in for, when you’re ready to have your own epic New Zealand South Island road trip adventure.
Picton is your arrival destination if you’re travelling to the South Island via ferry.
It is a beautiful wee town, that is the lifeblood of the surrounding Marlborough Sounds region.
There is so much to explore here, that I highly recommend you stay a night, or two, or more, before you head away on your road trip. You’re going to quickly see why you really don’t want to hurry on a South Island road trip.
- Go do a walk (or hike) – here are some options for stunning walks in Picton
- Sea kayak the Marlborough Sounds
- Swim with dolphins with E-Ko
- Visit a local winery (or two, or more ….)
- Take a day cruise on the Marlborough Sounds
- Drive along the Queen Charlotte Drive for as far as you want for beautiful sights all the way
SH1 Picton to Kaikoura, 156kms/97mi
This is a stunning coastal drive, that will have you wanting to pull over constantly, to take in the views (and of course, photograph them).
- Blenheim – this is the largest town you’ll pass through enroute – but if you’re a wine lover, you may want to plan to spend some time here. Personally, I love the architecture and setting of the wineries, as much as the wine. Don’t miss Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills. BUT if you’re a wine lover, but don’t have time to enjoy a winery or two, consider a stop at The Wine Station.
- Still in Blenheim, if you have an aviation buff amongst you, check out the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
- Ohau Point lookout – 20 minutes before you reach Kaikoura, make sure you stop and check out this lookout point. Look down to see seals cavorting in the pools, or lounging on the rocks.
Kaikoura is a beautiful seaside town, framed by (often) snow capped mountains, and famous for its incredible marine wildlife.
In 2016 it was devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which demolished buildings, and in Kaikoura, lifted large portions of the coast, dramatically changing the coastline. The town also became isolated, as roads into the township were so severely damaged.
To some extent it’s still recovering today, and all visitors are welcomed with open arms.
There are two things that Kaikoura is most well known for – whale watch tours, and crayfish trucks, so be sure to see how you can incorporate these two activities into your itinerary. (In fact, did you know that Kaikoura in Maori literally means ‘to eat crayfish’?
- Whale watch tour
- Kayaking the Kaikoura peninsula
- Nin’s Bin (crayfish food truck)
- Lookout over Kaikoura (Scarborough Terrace)
- Walk the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway (and see for yourself how the coastline has changed since the earthquake)
- Visit the Lavendyl Lavender farm
Kaikoura to Christchurch SH1, 180km/112mi
Another lovely scenic drive. There are no major attractions along this route, but there are a few places you may like to stop for a looksy.
- Stop to enjoy delicious food paired with wine tasting at a Waipara winery – Waipara Hills, Pegasus Bay, Greystone, Black Estate
- Gore Bay – Cathedral Cliffs (detour)
- Stop for a leg stretch / picnic lunch at St Anne’s lagoon, just outside Cheviot
- If you’re travelling through Waipara on a Sunday, check out the Weka Pass Railway – you may just be able to book yourself on this volunteer run steam / diesel journey through the Weka Pass unique limestone area
Kaikoura to Christchurch via Hanmer Springs SH1 / H70 / SH7/7a /SH1 – 263km/163 mi
If you’re driving from Kaikoura to Christchurch, and have the time, detouring via the alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs is definitely worth it.
- Get out on the river – canoe, kayak, raft, or jet boat – choose your style!
- Ride the St James Cycle Trail to the Cow stream hot pools
- Snowsport activities (in season)
- Mountain biking
- Soak away all your troubles in the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & spa
- Walk up Conical Hill to enjoy a panoramic view over Hanmer Basin
- Enjoy a little retail therapy in the small but bespoke village shops
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo, SH1 / SH79, 226 km/140 mi
This is a beautiful drive, with lots of places to stop along the way, whether that’s to eat, walk, shop or see. Make sure you allow plenty of time to be able to do this.
- Geraldine – home of the NZ brand Barkers (preserves, drinks etc), and a very cute wee town on its own
- If you have time, take a quick detour off SH79 to Peel Forest Park and do a short walk (Dennistoun Bush Track, or Emily and Rata Falls track)
- Fairlie – a cute town made famous by the Fairlie Bakehouse – go hungry and enjoy a pie or two here
- Three Creeks – Burkes Pass – for a very unique shopping experience
The Church of the Good Shepherd on the shores of Lake Tekapo is an absolute NZ icon, and it’s easy to see why it draws tourists from around the world. But as beautiful as it is, there is more to see in Tekapo than just the church.
- Enjoy the hot pools at Tekapo Springs
- Learn more about the stars above you at the ultimate mountaintop stargazing experience at the Mt John Observatory
- View and photograph the wild lupins in season (Nov-Feb)
- Take a 4wd high country tour to truly experience this incredible landscape
- Hike one of the Mackenzie Basin walking tracks
Tekapo to Mt Cook, SH8 & Mt Cook Rd, 115km/71mi
This is likely one of the most scenic road trips you will ever take, so make sure your phone / camera is charged, and you’re prepared for lots of stops.
If the lupins are in bloom, you’ll see these along a lot of this route – their wild beauty is just amazing, especially when you come across fields of them.
Once you turn onto Mt Cook Rd (SH80) you’ll have views of Lake Pukaki on your right most of the way.
- Lake Pukaki view point Hayman Rd – this is a beautiful spot to stop and (hopefully) see Mt Cook in the distance, with the stunning blue of Lake Pukaki in the foreground. The stop is well signposted, with a turning lane off SH8
- Lake Pukaki visitor centre, SH8 – another fabulous place to stop for incredible views, toilet break, and if you like salmon, check out the Mt Cook Alpine salmon shop.
- NZ Alpine Lavender – if in season, and you’d like some great lavender photos, this is a great wee stop.
- Scenic lookout Mt Cook road – you’ll see signage for this, and will need to cross the road to enter. This is where another ‘iconic’ NZ road photo is taken, so if you’d like one of those on your camera, make sure you stop. Or just stop to be able to enjoy the spectacular views every which way you look.
The area around Mt Cook is subject to extreme weather conditions and changes, so whatever season you visit, you need to be prepared.
- Hooker Valley track / hike
- Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View track / hike
- Explore the Tasman Glacier by boat
- Take a helicopter trip
- Enjoy a drink at the Hermitage Hotel
- Visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine centre, and watch the movie
- Have dinner at the Old Mountaineers’ restaurant
Twizel to Cromwell, SH8, 141km/88mi
If you’re heading south, Twizel will be your next little town, whether you’re travelling from Tekapo or Mt Cook. Like those other areas, Twizel is an amazing place to see ‘dark skys’ and brilliant night shows. It’s an outdoor adventures kind of heaven, with great bike trails (it’s part of the Alps2Ocean trail), hiking, horse trekking, and salmon fishing.
If you’re just driving through, and don’t have time to fish, I still recommend you pop into the salmon farm and buy some super fresh fish.
But let’s get back on the road now.
- Omarama Clay Cliffs – these are a natural phenomena that are well worth the detour to see. They are on private land, and entry is via a $5 (cash) donation at the farm gate. Make sure you put the cliffs into your maps to direct you there, as you’ll be turning off the highway (onto Quailburn Road +).
- Omarama hot tubs – if you need a bit of bliss time, soaking in the views from your beautiful tub may be just the thing for you.
- Lindis Pass lookout – there’s a carpark you can pull into to get a great view of the Pass (in winter this could be snow filled!). There is a short track here up the hill for a better view, but it is a little slippery, so make sure you’ve got good shoes on.
I will confess to driving through Cromwell several times, stopping for the obligatory photo the first time with the ‘giant fruit’ and not much more, as I really didn’t get a great vibe from Cromwell. But really that was because I wasn’t giving it due time. There is actually lots to see and do in Cromwell, so I highly recommend a night (or more) here.
- Cromwell Heritage Precinct – when the Clyde dam was completed in 1990, Cromwell’s main street became buried under Lake Dunstan. But not before some of the historic buildings dating back to the gold rush days were saved or rebuilt on Melmore Terrace, overlooking the lake. The buildings combine open ‘museums’ with working businesses. It’s a really lovely area to wander, shop and eat. The local farmers market is held here every Sunday from 9am – 1pm.
- Ride or walk around Lake Dunstan
- Pan for gold at Goldfields and check out the Chinese Village
- Shop at local fruit stalls
- Visit one (or more) of the many local vineyards. (I’m partial to Quartz Reef bubbles – just sayin’!)
- Visit the Highland Motorsport Park (stop in here for a cuppa even if you’re not into motorsport, then head to the loos (toilets) – that’s all I’m saying!)
- Just a little further down the road from Cromwell is the wee town of Clyde, which also happens to be where a lot of people start their Central Otago Rail Trail cycle trip. This is an iconic NZ ride.
Cromwell to Queenstown SH6, 60km / 37 mi
Do you get tired of me saying this another stunning drive? Too bad – this is NZ! And it’s just amazingly how it is.
For part of this drive, you’ll follow the aquamarine waters of the Kawarau River. The colour is truly incredible, as is the surrounding landscapes.
- Roaring Meg – a great place to pull over and photograph the river and surrounds. There are two small hydro electricity power stations fed by the Roaring Meg Dam. This is well signposted on the road as you approach it.
- Wineries – Gibbston Valley, Peregrine, Amisfield and many others
- Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge – This beautiful bridge was built in 1880, but in modern day times, it is most well known as the birthplace of bungy jumping. Stop here for the views, to jump, or just to watch others jump.
- Arrowtown – a slight detour, but one well worth making. At the very least visit Arrowtown, but if at all possible, plan on spending some time here. Arrowtown is beautiful any time of the year, but in Autumn it is renowned for the fall foliage.
There are too many things to recommend seeing, doing and eating in Queenstown to add to this post. All you need to know will be covered in another post coming soon!
Queenstown to Haast via Wanaka SH6, 209km/130mi
I think you’ll understand by now, that your phone / camera needs to be fully charged as you start each day on this journey. Is there anywhere in the world where there is such consistently stunning, and varied countryside?!
Your journey today starts with a wee drive over the Crown Range (conditions allowing – note this road can be icy/snow covered in winter. If this doesn’t appeal, you can take an alternative route via Cromwell).
As you head up the crown range, you’ll be able to stop in places and look back with magnificent views over Queenstown.
- Cardrona Pub – iconic pub and photo opportunity outside. Beautiful inside, with roaring fires in winter, and a beautiful garden area in summer
- Wanaka – a pretty lakeside town, with ‘that Wanaka tree’
- Lake Hawea – you’re spoiled for choice on where to stop on this route – allow yourself plenty of time – this is another stunning lake
- Blue Pools – a short walk (including over a suspension bridge) to stunning blue pools – well signposted (good toilets not far past here also)
- You’ll see signage along the way for several waterfall stops – I highly recommend you see them all. The walks are all short and easy, and the waterfalls are beautiful. Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls,
Queenstown to Milford Sound via Te Anau, SH6 and SH94, 288 km / 179mi
This is a long days driving, with Te Anau the only large town before heading to Milford Sound. I recommend if you have time, to stay a night in Te Anau.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is truly a case of ‘the journey is the destination’, especially if it’s raining (so don’t be upset if the weather isn’t perfect).
- Kingston – home of the Kingston Flyer, a vintage steam train. This cute little town sits lakefront at the end of Lake Wakatipu
- Hollyford Valley Lookout
- Mirror Lakes – just off the road
- Knobs Flat – toilet stop and photo opp for LOTR fans
- Monkey Creek – pristine water – you can even fill your water bottle up from it
- Homer Tunnel – probably an enforced stop, as the tunnel is controlled by traffic lights. Watch out for cheeky kea.
- The Chasm – a 20 minute walk (there and back) to see water rushing through a gorge – pretty spectacular
Milford Sound is an iconic NZ destination – without even realising it, you’ll probably have seen images of Mitre Peak (in Milford Sound) advertising NZ.
- cruise Milford Sound – day cruise and overnight options
- scenic flight
- visit the Underwater Observatory
- kayak Milford Sound
- hike the Milford Track (multi-day) – one of NZ’s ‘great walks’
- do a day hike (recommend Key Summit, part of the Routeburn Track, another ‘great walk’)
Queenstown to Invercargill, SH6, 188 km/117 mi
The beginning of this route is beautiful, as you had down the country, past the most southern end of Lake Wakatipu. A quick stop in Kingston is recommended. And although the rest of the route is indeed beautiful (you are of course in NZ!), I don’t recall any stand out – you must stop heres.
So, if you’re looking for more, I suggest you do this;
Queenstown to Invercargill via Hwy 97/96/99 – 300 km
Turn off Hwy 6 at Lowther (onto 97) and follow this connecting to Hwy 96 at Mossburn. At Wrey’s Bush you want to take the 96 towards Ohai. It’s a bit of circuitous route but it’ll allow you to follow the Southern coast for part of the way, for more stunning sights.
- Clifden Suspension Bridge (jet boating and coffee cart option here sometimes)
- Orapuki Beach Cafe (delicious food in a beautiful setting)
- Monkey Island – fab place to watch the sunset (if you have time)
I’m not sure why Invercargill gets a bad rap around other parts of the country, I actually think it’s quite a nice place. And there’s lots to see and do here, especially for the blokes.
- visit the Bill Richardson Transport World
- visit E Hayes & Sons Motorworks collection
- drive to Bluff & up Bluff Hill – Bluff is the bottom of the South Island and also the beginning of State Highway 1. If in season (Autumn) enjoy an infamous Bluff oyster
- play on some ‘big toys’ at Dig This Invercargill
- head to Oreti Beach – one of the only beaches in NZ you’re allowed to drive on
WHEW – I hope that’s given you lots of options to begin your planning with. If you’d like to head down around the Catlins up to Dunedin, then to Christchurch via Oamaru and Timaru, stay tuned. Likewise for continuing up the West Coast, and across to Nelson. I can’t write as fast as I travel! But it’s all coming.
In the meantime, I’d love it if you left a comment, and pinned an image below to your planning board.