New Zealand South Island Itinerary: A 10 Day Highlights Road Trip

The pinnacle of travel dreams for many, we’re excited to bring you this New Zealand South Island itinerary; 10 days of Kiwi highlights for the busiest of travellers.

With incredible mountain ranges, crystal clear lakes, braided rivers and native flora and fauna, New Zealand’s South Island really does need to be seen to be believed.

This guide takes you to the most beautiful parts of Aotearoa and when you’re seeing the most incredible parts of a country that is widely recognised as one of the most spectacular in the world, you know you’re in for a treat!

The following itinerary will help you plan the perfect New Zealand whistle-stop round trip around the highlights of the South Island, taking in Christchurch, Kaikoura, Abel Tasman National Park, Hokitika, Franz Josef, Wānaka, the Doubtful/Milford Sounds, Queenstown and Lake Tekapo/Mt Cook.  All whilst enjoying incredible hikes, glaciers, adventure activities and much, much more.

Spend 10 days in the most amazing parts of our country with this highlight itinerary to New Zealand’s South Island.

What are you waiting for?  Isn’t it time you planned your New Zealand road trip and hit the South Island?

COVID-19 has come with its fair share of challenges for New Zealand businesses. Though we do our best to share accurate information, this can change quickly as some businesses make the decision to operate under reduced hours or hibernate. We suggest you double-check they are open before finalising your plans.

Plan Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 10 Days of Incredible Kiwi Highlights

Wild, beautiful and relatively untouched, New Zealand’s South Island is a real favourite, both amongst tourists and locals.

This is the stuff of your Kiwi dreams!

What’s the Best Way to Travel Throughout New Zealand?

Though New Zealand is well serviced by buses and tours and also provides safe driving conditions to those looking to explore independently.

By Car or Campervan

We genuinely believe the best way to see Aotearoa is by car or campervan. Offering full flexibility and the ability to pull over at any stage, you’ll discover those little parts of the country that go unnoticed by other visitors and come away with a much more personal experience.

These options obviously work well if you’re an experienced driver and if you’re travelling as a small group – they’re not perfect for every traveller to New Zealand but they are the modes we enjoy the most in our own country.

Though we tend to prefer the flexibility of a rental car, these is no doubt that New Zealand is an amazing campervan destination.

Book: Discounted campervans in New Zealand.

Book: Discounted rental cars in Aotearoa.

Related: Freedom camping in New Zealand.

By Tour

If you’re visiting the South Island of New Zealand by yourself, a tour is likely to be the best way to see the country. Hiring a car or campervan by yourself can both be expensive and lonely, but joining a tour is anything but!

By joining a fantastic social tour, you’ll be sure of meeting plenty of likeminded people, from all ages and backgrounds. You’ll also benefit from the buying power that big providers can offer and be sure to visit the top spots across the country.

We especially love Haka Tours, as although they’re social, they’re not a booze-fest. After all, who wants to travel all the way to New Zealand just to spend each day hungover?

Just be sure to include as many of the spots that we cover off in our New Zealand South Island itinerary as possible!

Your 10-day South Island Itinerary

Christchurch – The Start of Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary – 10 Days in Paradise

Begin by flying into Christchurch, the main domestic and international airport servicing the southern part of New Zealand.

Badly affected by earthquakes in and around 2011, The Garden City is rebuilding with pride and is a great first stop on your South Island road trip.

What to Do in Christchurch
  • Ride New Zealand’s longest and highest zipline.
  • Tour the city to see what an impact the earthquake had. The rebuild that’s happened since is incredible.
  • Visit the International Antarctic Centre – it’s right beside the airport too, so a great stop on the way in/out.

Related: Amazing Christchurch walks.

Related: The best cafes in Christchurch.

Related: Awesome activities in Christchurch.

Where to Stay in Christchurch (1 night depending on arrival time):

Budget:  JUCY Snooze Christchurch.  Sleep in a comfy pod.

Mid:  Sudima Christchurch Airport (perfect for a late-night arrival)

Luxe:  The George

Drive time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 2 hours, 40 minutes (180km)

Kaikoura

Known for its incredible ocean life, Kaikoura is the place in New Zealand for ocean encounters.  With stunning sunsets, pebble beaches and snow-capped mountains setting the scene, this is one special spot.

What to Do in Kaikoura:

There are a lot of things to do in Kaikoura!

Related: Amazing things to do in Kaikoura.

Where to Stay in Kaikoura (1 night):

Budget:  Dolphin Lodge

MidThe Fairways at Ocean Ridge

Luxe:  Manakau PurePod – sleep in a glass cabin in the middle of the wilderness – incredible!

Drive time from Kaikoura to Motueka: 4 hours (290km)

Abel Tasman (via Motueka)

With a national park that’s bound to blow you away, if it weren’t for all of the bush, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on a tropical island!  The Tasman region is a real highlight on any New Zealand South Island itinerary and with the most sunshine hours in the country, it’s hard to catch it on a bad day.

What to Do Near Abel Tasman:

Related: The best walks in Nelson.

Related: Things to do in neighbouring Nelson.

Where to Stay in Motueka (2 nights):

Budget:  Laughing Kiwi Backpackers

Mid:  Nautilus Lodge Motel

Luxe:  Wairepo House

Drive time from Motueka to Hokitika direct:  4 hours, 15mins (330km) or via Charleston and Punakaiki:  4 hours, 50 minutes (350km)

or drive time from Motueka to Franz Joseph direct:  6 hours (460km) or via Charleston and Punakaiki: 6 hours, 30 mins (485km)

Pro Tip:  The drive to Franz is relatively long and making it in one day means that you won’t have time to go blackwater rafting (which is a real must-do in New Zealand.  To account for this, we’ve given two options in this itinerary – you can either break the journey apart and stay a night in Hokitika or drive on through to Franz in one go, and add a night at the end of your itinerary to Tekapo and Mt Cook

If you do drive through, we definitely recommend a quick visit to the Hokitika Gorge and to the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes regardless.

Option #1: Hokitika (via Charleston)

A cute coastal town with a huge heart, Hokitika packs a surprise punch.  Whether you spend a night (or begrudgingly have to pass through), we recommend ticking a few of the following off of your list.

What to Do in Hokitika:
  • Get up early and head to Charleston on the way to Hokitika.  There you’ll find amazing blackwater rafting (an amazing combination of caving, tubing and bushwalking, all amongst the glow worms).
  • Visit the Hokitika Gorge.  This incredibly easy (and short) hike makes the gorge’s stunning turquoise waters accessible to everyone – this is one time when ‘what comes easy’ definitely is worth having!  Don’t miss a stop here.
  • Take a picnic lunch out to Lake Kaniere (where you’ll find a jetty that is just perfect for your next Insta moment).
  • Visit (and feed) the local eels.  It’s a Kiwi tradition.
  • Enjoy a sunset cruise through native waterways and onto one of the local lakes.

Related: The best things to do in Hokitika.

Where to Stay in Hokitika (1 night):

Budget:  Mountain Jade Backpackers

Mid:  Stations Inn.  We’ve personally stayed here and can’t recommend it enough.  With an award-winning restaurant and beautiful setting, it’s a winner.

Luxe:  The Cabbage Tree

Drive time from Hokitika to Franz Josef:  1 hour, 40 minutes (135km)

Franz Josef

Known as home to New Zealand’s glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef both offer a range of nature-based activities.  It’s the most visited part of the West Coast and for good reason – it’s magic.

What to Do in Franz Josef:
  • Join a local guide on a nature walk to the base of the Franz Josef Glacier.  Your guide will be able to get you off of the normal trails and help you spot treasures that would have gone unnoticed otherwise.
  • Enjoy the views from on top of a glacier with a world-class heli hike.
  • Soak in the beautiful Glacier Hotpools (which are even better in the cold or on a rainy afternoon).

Book: Discounted kayaking in Franz Josef.

Book: Discounted skydiving.

Where to Stay in Franz Josef (1 night):

Budget:  Glow Worm Accommodation

Mid:  Glacier Highway Motel

Luxe:  Rainforest Retreat.  The deluxe tree huts are out of this world (and come with a complimentary minibar and NZ chocolate!)

Drive time from Franz Josef to Wānaka:  3 hours, 45 minutes (285km)

Wānaka

Queenstown’s quieter neighbour, it’s well worth a stop in its own right.  Nested in between the Southern Alps and Lake Wānaka, this town is picture perfect and certainly deserves a stop on your New Zealand South Island itinerary.

What to Do in Wānaka:

Related: Things to do in Wānaka.

Where to Stay in Wānaka (1 night):

Budget:  YHA Wānaka

Mid:  Manuka Crescent Motel

Luxe:  Wānaka Alpine Lodge

Onward travel:  Tours To Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound leave from Queenstown/Te Anau and from within the National Park; because of this, travel times vary significantly and we recommend you investigate your own connection time based on the fjord you would prefer to visit and where you wish to join the group transport.

Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound from Te Anau

The most famous fjords in New Zealand, chances are you’ll only have time to visit one of the two but either way, prepare to be impressed.  During summer, keep your fingers crossed for a still day so you can snap that perfect reflection photo, but during winter, embrace the weather and enjoy the cascading waterfalls that come to life with the rain.

What to Do at the Sounds:
  • Jump onboard a day trip sightseeing boat, go kayaking or stay onboard overnight – the choice is yours.
    • Milford Sound:  Ducking through the Homer Tunnel, the approach to the Milford Sound is almost as impressive as the fjord itself.
    • Doubtful Sound:  With steep cliffs cutting into the ocean, Doubtful is a sight to behold!

Book: A discounted Milford Sound cruise.

Book: A discounted motor yacht sailing, complete with drinks and nibbles.

Related: Amazing things to do in Te Anau.

Where to Stay in Te Anau (1 night):

Budget:  Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers

Mid:  Blue Mountain Cottages

Luxe:  Dunluce Bed and Breakfast

Related: Where to stay in Te Anau.

Where to Stay in the Sounds:

If you’d prefer to trade land in, in favour of being rocked to sleep, we recommend overnighting on the Sounds – having done it a number of times, I assure you, there’s nothing else like it.

Onward travel:  Again, this depends on which sound you decide on and where you leave from.

Queenstown

The adventure capital of New Zealand, and indeed, the world, Queenstown has to be experienced to be believed.  Set right on the lake, the township feels like a European fairytale, especially in the depths of winter.

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a couple looking for romance or a family looking for things to do in Queenstown – you’ll be spoilt for choice.

There is so much to do in Queenstown!

What to Do in Queenstown:

Related: Things to do in Queenstown!

Related: Things to do in Queenstown for families.

Related: The best day hikes in Queenstown.

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 nights):

Budget:  Sir Cedrics Tahuna Pod Hostel

Mid:  Jacks Point Family Homestay

Luxe:  Kinross Cottages Boutique Vineyard Hotel

Drive time from Queenstown to Christchurch:  6 hours (280km) – Tekapo is half way if you decide to break your journey.

Option #2: Tekapo & Mount Cook

With Mount Cook not far away and Lake Tekapo on your doorstep, Tekapo is a photographers dream and sitting half way between Queenstown and Christchurch, it’s just begging for you to stop by as you wrap up your New Zealand South Island road trip.

What to Do Near Tekapo:
  • Relax tired muscles at the hot pools, with stunning views over Lake Tekapo.
  • Make sure your camera is charged and snap a few pictures at New Zealand’s most iconic church – the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • Make the most of the dark sky reserve and join a stargazing tour.
  • Alternatively, you might like to get up nice and early and head out to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak.  With beautiful vistas and great hikes, it’s a fabulous day trip.

Book: Discounted hot pools in Tekapo.

Related: Things to do in Tekapo.

Related: Things to do in Mt Cook.

Where to Stay in Tekapo (1 night):

Budget:  Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers

Mid:  Simply Stunning Studio 2 Apartment

Luxe:  Peppers Bluewater Resort

Finally, hop onboard a flight out of Christchurch and wave your 10 days in New Zealand’s South Island goodbye.

Try not to worry though – you can always book another trip back to our little slice of paradise!

Photo Credit:  Christchurch Adventure Park and Rosino

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14 Comments

  1. Nice breakdown Sarah! We loved Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Cheviot, Lyttelton and Cashmere by Christchurch and of course, the North Island rocked too. Saw seals at Shag Point, Arthur’s Pass, everything rocked!

    1. I’m so pleased to hear, Ryan – thank you! This one is a tight itinerary but we did our best to squeeze in what we thought were the highlights. We’re going to do another for people with more time shortly and would really value your thoughts 🙂

  2. While I didn’t hit all your stops, Hokitika was my favorite. The gorge is just so stunningly beautiful and the glowworm dell was fantastic.

  3. What a wonderful post (and the photos are stunning!). I’m heading to New Zealand later this year and I can’t wait as it’s been on my bucket list for years. I’ll plan on spending more than 10 days there, but this is a great post for a jumping off point for me when it comes closer to me planning the trip. Thanks for the awesome looking suggestions!

  4. Thank you for a great post. My honeymoon itinerary was slightly different but I keep going back to New Zealand, it’s such a gorgeous country!

  5. This is a great itinerary! I love your options for places to stay as well! I went to NZ for the first time back in November, but we missed Abel Tasman and unfortunately had bad weather that prevented us from hiking Roy’s Peak. Guess that means we just have to go back!

  6. Thanks for posting this. What stunning photos!! I’d really like to ask your advice about an itinerary I have set up, as I think I’m trying to cover too much. Would I be able to send you a private message somehow, or is it ok to put it on here?

  7. So helpful and just what im looking for, We are a kiwi couple who after 50yrs have never been to the south island, I’m wanting to pickup a few extra spots that might be squeezed into a 14 day tour and would really appreciate your advice on what to do with those days, also condition wise what times of the year a best suited to self drive? Thank you.

    1. How exciting! I’m sure you’ll be blown away by the South Island. Did you spot our West Coast itinerary? There are some gems in there too. Also I’ve not been to the Catlins yet but have been told that’s an amazing part of the country. You really can self-drive anytime. They occasionally get snow on the South Island passes but it would be unlikely to have much of an impact on you. I’d choose my time of year based on what I was hoping to see rather the driving conditions 🙂

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