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?

Some businesses are experiencing staffing challenges post-COVID. If you want to guarantee a space at a restaurant or attraction, we suggest pre-booking.

A small and old structure of Tekapo Church built in the middle of the lakes.

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. In fact, freedom camping is by far the go-to choice for many travelers in the country.

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, there is no doubt that New Zealand is an amazing campervan destination.

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. But there are still so many awesome activities in Christchurch that you can visit during your trip.

What to Do 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)

A person riding on a very long zip line passing overhead the trees.

Kaikoura

Known for its incredible ocean life, Kaikoura is the place in New Zealand for ocean encounters.  Some of the amazing things to do and see in Kaikoura are the 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!

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)

A sea lion on the grasslands.

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:

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.

A beautiful lakes with white shores surrounded by thick forests and mountain ranges at a distance.

Option #1: Hokitika (via Charleston)

A cute coastal town with a huge heart, there are so many good things to do in Hokitika that 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.
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).
Where to Stay in Franz Josef (1 night):

Budget:  Glow Worm Accommodation.

Mid:  Glacier Highway Motel.

Luxe:  Rainforest Retreat [discounted].  The deluxe tree huts are out of this world!

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

Me and my husband in blue jackets during our glacier hike in the pinnacle of Franz Josef.

Wānaka

Queenstown’s quieter neighbour, it’s well worth a stop in its own right. There are so many things to do in Wānaka that you should seriously consider if you’re in the area.

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:
  • On the way, stop off at Thunder Creek Falls and for an incredible (and surprisingly affordable) helicopter ride into Mt Aspiring National Park.
  • Visit one of New Zealand’s most famous pieces of greenery – That Wānaka Tree.
  • Pop on your hiking boots and take to the trails.  Both Roys Peak and the Isthmus Peak Track are absolutely stunning (if mostly up-hill).
  • Take on the highest waterfall via ferrata in the world (ending in a helicopter ride!)
  • Relax at Cinema Paradiso.  With sofas, an old-school car to sit in and delicious freshly-baked cookies, it’s as charming as movie theatres come.
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.

Scenic landscapes surrounding and shaping the blue lake.

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. Te Anau offers an array of amazing things to do as the starting point of your tours to the sounds.

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!
Where to Stay in Te Anau (1 night):

There are many accommodations in Te Anau to choose from, but here are my top choices.

Budget:  Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers.

Mid:  Blue Mountain Cottages.

Luxe:  Dunluce Bed and Breakfast.

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.

A lake with rocky waters and mountain ranges in front.

Queenstown

The adventure capital of New Zealand, and indeed, the world, Queenstown has to be experienced to be believed.  Head on to the best day hikes and 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:
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.

A beautiful island in the middle of a lake, and a small town built beside it.

Option #2: Tekapo & Mount Cook

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

There are so many fantastic things to do in Tekapo that you’ll wish you had stayed longer.

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.
Where to Stay in Tekapo (1 night):

Budget:  Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers.

Mid:  Simply Stunning Studio 2 Apartment.

Luxe:  Peppers Bluewater Resort.

A beautiful structure in the middle of an island in Lake Tekapo.

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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