South Island New Zealand is all about nature and adventure. The South not only has less people living per square meter, it also has a lot less trees and possibly even more sheep.
If you only have a short time to visit, I might have a suggestion for your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Important note: South Island accommodation can be booked out way ahead in New Zealand summer (December to March). I advise you to book in advance during this time to avoid disappointment and crappy accommodation.
14 nights / 15 days
from Picton to Christchurch
If you want additional tips on where to go and what to see on New Zealand's South Island, send me a message and I'll try my best to help you
Day 1: Picton to Nelson (135km)
If you’re coming from the North Island, the ferry drops you off in a pretty little place called Picton. Drive along the Queen Charlotte Sound towards another picturesque town, Nelson. It’s officially the place with the most sun hours in New Zealand and attracts a lot of artsy and crafty people. Walk around town to get the vibe.
Day 2: Abel Tasman National Park
This is a must-do and if you have the time, take more than a day for it. If you’re tight, however, a day is still great to get a glimpse of this beautiful park. To make the most of it, you can go on a tour with one of the many operators and walk, kayak and swim in the bays of the park. Here's just one of the many things to do in Abel Tasman
Day 3: Nelson to Hokitika (approx. 325km)
About half way between Nelson and Hokitika the road comes past the so-called Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki in Maori. They are limestone formations that look like piled-up pancakes.
Hokitika is famous for being the capital of pounamu, the New Zealand jade. If you’re lucky, you might find a small piece along the beach that have been washed down from Arahura River.
Day 4: Hokitika to Franz Josef (approx. 135km)
The drive is quite short but curvy, needs a lot of concentration and has some weird and funny stops along the route. The village of Franz Josef is rather sleepy, but there are a few bars and places to eat. The main attraction is definitely Franz Josef Glacier.
Day 5: Franz Josef Glacier
You can just walk the 1.5 hours return to the end of the glacier. But it has retreated quite a bit in the past years and to fully appreciate it you shouldn’t miss a glacier tour. After a short and impressive helicopter flight, the guide takes you on the ice as he gives you information on how it was born and where its name is coming from. You walk through an icy wonderland and even get to climb into the ice caves. Read a review of the Franz Josef Heli Hike.
After the day on the glacier, go and relax in the Glacier Hot Pools in the village. It is built into the rain forest and sure soothes your sore muscles.
Only a few kilometers further down the line lies Fox Glacier. The town is a little less touristy and the glacier is also well worth to explore.
Day 6: Franz Josef to Wanaka (approx. 286km)
The windy road takes you along the coast and through the rain forest of the West Coast to Wanaka that is nestled on a beautiful lake.
Visit the famous tree in the lake, walk up Mount Iron to take in the views and/or visit Wanaka's weirdly wonderful Puzzling World.
Day 7: Wanaka to Queenstown (approx. 74km)
Driving past ski fields, the street drops steeply into the valley to Queenstown adventure capital of New Zealand. On route, stop at the pretty place called Arrowtown. It was very popular during gold rush times and more recently because they housed the crew while shooting Lord of the Rings.
Day 8: Queenstown
Day 9: Excursion to Milford Sound
You could drive to Milford Sound and back with your own vehicle, but it’s a long and strenuous drive and you would probably be better off going on one of the many 1-day-tours that leave daily from Queenstown. While being driven, you can enjoy the spectacular scenery and stop at the famous Mirror Lakes.
At the landing, the boat will already be waiting for you as you go on a cruise past Mitre Peak and marvel at the unbelievable number of waterfalls. With some luck, you’ll even see dolphins!
Day 10: Queenstown to Dunedin (approx. 279km)
The road to Dunedin leads through lush green meadows and farmland and past many sheep.
Compared to other cities in New Zealand, Dunedin has beautiful architecture and you definitely shouldn’t miss out on visiting the Dunedin railway station, the First Church of Otago and Otago University. Try to walk or drive up Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world. It's not as easy as it sounds!
Hostel tip: Hogwartz Backpackers, it's beautiful and ultra cozy
Day 11: excursion to Otago Peninsula
Take a drive to the very tip of the Otago peninsula, where you can go on a tour to see Albatrosses, the huge sea brids at the Royal Albatross Centre, and the Dunedin Little Blue Penguins. With some luck you’ll spot even more wildlife just as you drive.
Day 12: Dunedin to Twizel (approx. 253km)
The first part of today’s ride goes along the coast and you should definitely take a break at the Moeraki Boulders. They are not only highly photogenic but also full of stories of how they got to the beach and where they might be coming from.
Twizel is the gateway to Mount Cook and worth a night’s stay. If you get there early enough, you can challenge yourself on the SUP board on the lake or discover the area in a kayak.
Day 13: Mount Cook and drive to Tekapo
The drive from Twizel to Mount Cook is spectacular! It takes you deeper and deeper into the mountains as you drive along ice cold lake Pukaki. At the end of the road, next to the huge luxury hotel, there are short walks that lead you close to the glacier and its lake where giant “ice cubes” are swimming.
Tekapo is famous for its ultra-dark skies and the chapel on the lake’s edge, called Church of the Good Shepard. A must-do is taking a picture of the church with the millions of stars in the background!
Day 14: Tekapo to Christchurch (approx. 227km)
After arriving in Christchurch, you should definitely go on a walk through the city. A lot of the landmarks, like the church, have been destroyed or damaged badly in the devastating earthquake of 2011 and are now being re-built. But Christchurch is still well worth a visit. The best is to get a Christchurch Pass, which includes most of the Christchurch attractions.
Day 15: Departure or excursion
Depending on your timeframe, you would either head towards the airport today or take a day tour to see the sights outside of the city. Worth a visit are the French settlement on the Akaroa peninsula, soaking in the hot water of Hamner Springs or whale watching in Kaikoura.
For even more tips on the South Island and some others on the North Island, click here
Handy tips and tricks
Driving in New Zealand is different to other places in the world, especially on the South Island. Remember to drive on the left is only one of the many challenges. Check out these 10 awesome tips and tricks by Suewan of RTW Families.
If you're still not sure if you should take a backpack on your trip or not, Meldrums on the move might be able to help you out. Also, check out this handy packing list for 2 months in New Zealand’s winter.
Budgeting your New Zealand Trip
New Zealand is an expensive country. However, there are ways to get around the country more or less budget-friendly. Check out this article by coddiwomp.co.uk/ to learn more.