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Two Weeks on the South Island of New Zealand – 3 Tried and Tested 14-Day Itineraries!

Two Weeks on the South Island of New Zealand – 3 Tried and Tested 14-Day Itineraries!

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Planning a two-week road trip around New Zealand’s South Island? I’m officially jealous! I don’t think there’s anything better.

The only problem is that with so many incredible places, it can be difficult to come up with an itinerary! So if you want to see as much as possible while actually having enough time to enjoy each place, I’ve got you covered with these three tried-and-tested itineraries.

After living in Queenstown for years, I’ve taken more road trips around the South Island than I can count! In fact, I’ve become something of an expert on the subject, so I know what works and what doesn’t, and how to hit all of the highlights. So buckle up and let’s get started!

Table Of Contents
  1. Overview of My Top 3 Itineraries 
  2. BEST 14-Day New Zealand South Island Itineraries
  3. 1. Itinerary #1 (Christchurch Loop) 
  4. 2. Itinerary #2 (Picton to Queenstown via the East Coast)
  5. 3. Itinerary #3 (Christchurch to Queenstown)
  6. Thanks for reading!
  7. Why I Book Tours on Viator
  8. Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Overview of My Top 3 Itineraries 

1. Itinerary #1 (Christchurch Loop)

Christchurch to Kaikoura to Franz Jodef to Wanaka to Queenstown to Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo to Christchurch New Zealand road trip map
  • 14 days 
  • Can start in either Christchurch or Queenstown
  • Completes a loop
  • Great for those wanting to see a lot on a scenic trip
  • Highlights are Christchurch, Kaikoura, Arthur’s Pass, Franz Josef, Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo, Christchurch

Day 1 – Christchurch 

Day 2 – Kaikoura 

Day 3 – Kaikoura

Day 4 – Drive Arthur’s Pass from Kaikoura and stay in Arthur’s Pass Village 

Day 5 – Drive to Franz Josef 

Day 6 – Franz Josef

Day 7 – Franz Josef 

Day 8 – Wanaka

Day 9 – Queenstown

Day 10 – Queenstown (Day tour to Milford Sound) 

Day 11 – Queenstown 

Day 12 – Mount Cook 

Day 13 – Lake Tekapo 

Day 14 – Finish in Christchurch 

2. Itinerary #2 (Picton to Queenstown via the East Coast)

Picton to Kaikoura to Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook to Wanaka to Te Anau to Queenstown New Zealand road trip map
  • 14 Days
  • Can start in either Queenstown or Picton
  • Great for crossing to the North Island or crossing to the South Island
  • Perfect for those who want to see the Southern Alps as well as wildlife stops like Kaikoura
  • Highlights are Picton, Kaikoura, Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown

Day 1 – Picton 

Day 2 – Drive to Kaikoura

Day 3 – Kaikoura 

Day 4 – Drive to Lake Tekapo 

Day 5 – Lake Tekapo 

Day 6 – Drive to Mount Cook 

Day 7 – Mount Cook 

Day 8 – Drive to Wanaka 

Day 9 – Wanaka

Day 10 – Drive to Te Anau 

Day 11 – Te Anau 

Day 12 – Queenstown 

Day 13 – Queenstown 

Day 14 – Queenstown 

3. Itinerary #3 (Christchurch to Queenstown)

Christchurch to Kaikoura to Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook to Te Anau to Queenstown to Glenorchy to Queenstown New Zealand road trip map
  • 14 Days
  • Can start in either Christchurch or Queenstown 
  • Starts and ends at an international airport 
  • Great for those who want to hike more and see places in more detail
  • Highlights are Christchurch, Kaikoura, Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Wanaka, Te Anau, Milford Sound (possible overnight cruise), Glenorchy, and Queenstown. 

Day 1 – Christchurch

Day 2 – Day tour to Kaikoura

Day 3 – Drive to Lake Tekapo from Christchurch

Day 4 – Lake Tekapo 

Day 5 – Mount Cook 

Day 6 – Mount Cook 

Day 7 – Wanaka

Day 8 – Wanaka 

Day 9 – Te Anau 

Day 10 – Te Anau

Day 11 – Drive to Queenstown

Day 12 – Queenstown

Day 13 – Day trip from Queenstown or overnight stay in Glenorchy 

Day 14 – Finish in Queenstown

Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.

BEST 14-Day New Zealand South Island Itineraries

1. Itinerary #1 (Christchurch Loop) 

Bailey at Bob's Peak near Queenstown, New Zealand

In my mind, road trips should be super scenic and this itinerary certainly fulfills that criteria! Starting this road trip in Christchurch is super convenient, and it allows you plenty of time to explore the city on the front or back end of your road trip.

Either way, this itinerary is a front-row seat to the beauty of the South Island from Milford Sound and Mount Cook to the Franz Josef Glacier and the Arthur’s Pass. After completing this road trip, I just know you’ll want to do what I did and move to the South Island permanently! 

Day 1 – Christchurch 

Bailey stands on New regent Street in Christchurch, NZ

I’ve got an in-depth blog about how to spend one day in Christchurch, but if you don’t have time to check that out, I’ll share a few ideas with you here. I love to ride the Christchurch gondola for fantastic views of the city and the Canterbury plains. And if you’re picking your rental car up from the airport today, I suggest booking tickets for the International Antarctic Center, which is nearby! 

Overall, I think the best way to really get to know Christchurch is by joining the historic tram tour. It takes you all over the city but is also really flexible so that you can see the places that interest you most. 

Where to Stay in Christchurch (1 Night)

Budget – Urbanz Christchurch

Mid-range – Tasman Holiday Parks Christchurch

Luxury –  Crowne Plaza Christchurch

Day 2 – Drive to Kaikoura 

Bailey watches the sunset at Kaikoura Lookout in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura Lookout!
Bailey with seafood at Nins Bin in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Nins Bin!

It’s a 180-kilometer (112-mile) drive down the coast from Christchurch to Kaikoura. It takes 2 hours without stopping, but there are a couple of nice places to visit along the way. Check out my favorite stops along this drive here! If you leave fairly early you should be in Kaikoura by the early afternoon, but make sure to say hi to the seals at the Marine Resting Area on your way into town. 

This afternoon, I recommend checking out the striking Kaikoura Beach and visiting Lavendyl Farm. In the evening, I love heading to Kaikoura Lookout for sunset, or I had such an amazing time on this sunset kayaking tour. I saw so many seals and took some incredible sunset photos!

Where to Stay in Kaikoura (2 Nights)

Budget – Dolphin Lodge

Mid-range – Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments

Luxury – Shearwater Apartments

Day 3 – Kaikoura

A large humpback whale breaches the water on a tour in Kaikoura
A humpback whale!

Today is super exciting because it’s all about whale watching! Kaikoura is famous for whales, and I had a brilliant time on this whale-watching tour, and so did thousands of others, judging by the 1,700+ 5-star reviews.

The great thing about whale watching in Kaikoura is that you can see whales year-round, one of the few places in the world where this is possible. Because of that, this tour has a 95% success rate and you get an 80% refund if you don’t see anything – I like those odds!

The tour lasts for 3.5 hours so you’ll have plenty of time to check out the trails at the Kaikoura Recreation Reserve afterwards. I also like to stuff my face with seafood at the BBQ Kiosk or drive 20 minutes out of town to get the best crayfish at the Nins Bin food truck

Day 4 – Drive Arthur’s Pass from Kaikoura and stay in Arthur’s Pass Village 

Bailey walks along the Arthur's Pass Walking Track
Bailey walks along the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track

It’s a 303-kilometer (188-mile) drive from Kaikoura to Arthur’s Pass Village, which would take about 4 hours without stopping. However, Arthur’s Pass is one of the most scenic roads that New Zealand has to offer, so take your time to enjoy this one. 

I usually drive straight for the first three hours because the best stops are all close to Arthur’s Pass. So get the bulk of your driving out of the way in the morning and then spend the afternoon enjoying this insanely beautiful road. 

I love to stretch my legs at Porter’s Pass Viewpoint, which is welcome after three hours in the car. Then, you HAVE to stop and walk along the track to the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. I was so impressed by it!

There are tons of viewpoints along the road that you can pull over to snap photos of the views from Arthur’s Pass. My favorite is the Otira Viaduct Lookout, and I love to walk the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track to enjoy even more insane views. 

Where to Stay Along Arthur’s Pass (1 Night)

Camping – Lake Pearson or Avalanche Creek Shelter

Budget – Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel

Mid-range – The Bealey Hotel

Day 5 – Drive to Franz Josef 

Hokitika Gorge, New Zealand

It’s a 233-kilometer (145-mile) drive from Arthur’s Pass Village to Franz Josef, which would take about 3 hours without stopping. However, I recommend making a day out of this drive! I love to take a little detour and admire the dramatic rocks and bright blue river at Hokitika Gorge. It’s an easy 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) walk from the parking lot, so this is a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs. 

I also booked the West Coast Treetop Walk to break up the journey, which was so much fun, and I could even see the Southern Alps in the distance. Meanwhile, the Pakihi Walk is an underrated 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) walk that takes you to a magnificent viewpoint. I was able to spot Mount Cook from here! 

Where to Stay in Franz Josef (2 Nights)

Budget – Glow Worm Accommodation 

Mid-range – Aspen Court Franz Josef

Luxury – Te Waonui Forest Retreat

Day 6 – Franz Josef

A guide leads tourists on the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand
Walking on a glacier was a surreal experience!

Franz Josef is a quaint South Island town, famed for its impressive glacier. This is one of those can’t-miss destinations if this is your first time visiting New Zealand, and there’s actually quite a bit of exploring to be done here!

Seeing the famous Franz Josef Glacier is the number one thing to do while in its namesake town, and there are a few different ways to do this. Hiking to the viewing platform is a fun introduction to the glacier (and it’s free!), and I loved this guided nature hike as I learned so much! 

However, seeing the glacier from a distance doesn’t compare to going trekking on its surface. I did the iconic glacier heli-hike and it was a truly magical experience that I’ll never forget. I don’t know what was better – flying over the glacier, or walking on its surface! Just make sure to book in advance, because it’s (understandably) super popular. 

Day 7 – Franz Josef 

Road winds its way along Lake Wanaka between Franz Josef and Queenstown
Driving along Lake Wanaka!

It’s 284 kilometers (176 miles) from Franz Josef to Wanaka, which takes 3.5 hours without stopping. I recommend heading out early and allowing 5-8 hours for the drive, as there are some excellent stops. South Westland Salmon Farm is my go-to spot for breakfast, and Knights Point Lookout offers super scenic views of the coast. Then, you’ll come to Haast, where I spent an hour or so checking out the pretty waterfalls – Roaring Billy and Fantail Falls were my favorites! 

By mid-afternoon, you should be safely in Wanaka, ready to explore tomorrow. I don’t know about you, but I always need to unwind after a long drive, so I recommend booking this happy hour cruise on Lake Wanaka for the perfect blend of sightseeing and chill time. 

Where to Stay in Wanaka (2 Nights)

Budget – Hawea Hotel

Mid-range – Archway Motels & Chalets (these are mini apartments and I stayed here with friends!)

Day 8 – Wanaka

Bailey poses for a photo with the Wanaka Tree
The Wanaka Tree is iconic!

Wanaka is a pretty close second to Queenstown for me (although don’t tell Queenstown I said that!).

If you love hiking as much as I do, then you’ll be itching to hit the trails in this picture-perfect town. For a full-day adventure, I loved both Roy’s Peak Track and the super challenging Isthmus Peak. Both will take at least 6 hours, so pack a lunch and plenty of water.

I also love to soak in the scenery here by quad biking in the Cardrona Valley or frolicking at the Wanaka Lavender Farm.

And aside from hiking, my other big passion is wine, so I absolutely loved this wine tour. It allowed me to try tons of local wine and cheese, and it was an amazing way to learn more about Māori culture – we even got to watch a haka!

Day 9 – Queenstown

Two people at Bradrona near Wanaka, New Zealand
There are so many bras!

In the morning, look lively and head to breakfast at the Cardrona Hotel. I love the toasted banana bread, and I recommend snapping a photo of the Cardrona Bras, which are just a few minutes down the road. Then, it’s time to head to Queenstown, which only takes about an hour. If you’re a confident driver, I recommend taking the Crown Range Road as it offers such beautiful views. 

Once you’re settled into your Queenstown hotel, I suggest heading up Bob’s Peak in the gondola to get to know the city a little better. The views are insane from up here and it’s a true mountaintop playground, with fun luge rides, a zipline course, and a restaurant with spectacular views. I love catching the sunset from up here! 

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Day 10 – Queenstown (day trip to Milford Sound)

Bailey on a Milford Sound cruise with Lady Bowen Falls in the background

You cannot, I repeat cannot, do a South Island road trip without visiting Milford Sound. I won’t allow it! I’ve been at least a dozen times and I never get tired of it – in fact, I only fall deeper in love.

It takes almost 4 hours to drive to Milford Sound, so leave the car behind today and take a tour instead, which includes a nature cruise. It’s still a fair amount of travel time but I really didn’t find it too intense on this tour, because we got to explore the stops along the way, like Eglinton Valley and the Mirror Lakes.

However, if there’s room in your budget, this scenic flight and cruise tour is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. My jaw was on the floor, and it’s also a much shorter day, which gives you more time to explore the city of Queenstown!

Day 11 – Queenstown

Bailet stands on the edgle of the Glenorchy Lagoon while walking the Glenorchy Boardwalk
Check out those reflections!

As much as I love being in Queenstown, the real reason I moved here is all of the beautiful scenery that surrounds the city. That’s why I suggest driving out to Glenorchy this morning to experience true Lord of the Rings country. The jetty, boardwalk, and Diamond Creek Trail are beautiful to stroll along, and driving through Paradise is a must. 

Then, head back through the city because it’s time to head to Mount Cook National Park! This 268-kilometer (167-mile) journey would take about 3.5 hours without any breaks, but I like to take my time and enjoy the scenic stops (check out my list here). I suggest taking time for a soak at the Omarama Hot Tubs and admiring the crazy Clay Cliffs nearby. And of course, snapping THAT famous photo on the way into the park is a must – I couldn’t resist! 

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (2 Nights)

Budget – Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 12 – Mount Cook 

Bailey hikes up to the Mueller Hut in New Zealand via the Sealy Tarns Track
Hiking to Mueller Hut!
Bailey stands on the egde of Hooker Lake in Mount Cook National Park 
The Hooker Valley Track is great during the winter

As a keen hiker, Mount Cook National Park is a paradise for me! I loved the Mueller Hut Hike, which you can tackle in a single day by heading out early, or split up by booking an overnight stay in this iconic DOC hut. This was one of my favorite experiences in Mount Cook! 

For something easier, I also love the Hooker Valley Track. It’s pretty easy and the return walk takes about 3 hours, with stunning views throughout. And this way, you’ll have time for another epic experience: this 50-minute helicopter ride over Mount Cook, aka “the cloud piercer.” There are many stunning places in New Zealand for a helicopter flight, but this is one of my top choices. 

Day 13 – Lake Tekapo 

View of Lake Tekapo taken from town with views of the church
Lake Tekapo’s blue waters are stunning!

It takes an hour to drive from Mount Cook National Park to Lake Tekapo, but I usually turn it into 2-3 hours with a stop at NZ Alpine Lavender during the summer, as well as a slight detour to see stunning Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel and a walk along the shoreline of bright blue Lake Pukaki.

Once you get to Lake Tekapo, I recommend going for a relaxing soak at the hot springs and enjoying a sunset meal at Tekapo Springs. Then, when night falls, gear up for the most amazing night sky you’ve ever seen, as Lake Tekapo is world-renowned for its incredible stargazing opportunities. I highly recommend this stargazing tour at a mountaintop observatory, with professionals to guide you and explain what you’re seeing.

Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo (1 Night)

Budget –  Lakes Edge Lodge

Mid-range – Mantra Lake Tekapo

Luxury – The Mackenzie Suites 

Day 14 – Finish in Christchurch 

A tram travels down New Regent Street in Christchurch, New Zealand
A tram travels down New Regent Street in Christchurch, New Zealand

Today it’s time for the final stretch of the road trip, which will get you back to Christchurch. The scenic route is 258 kilometers (160 miles) long and would take 3 hours without stopping, and includes fun places to visit like the Gem Alpaca Farm and the Geraldine Orchard. I also like to drive up the access road to Mt Hutt during summer for the views, or during winter you could even grab a lift pass and hit the slopes for the day if you’re not in a rush. 

You can also drive the direct route, which will get you there a bit quicker and save more time for exploring Christchurch!

And if you’re sticking around in Christchurch until the evening, I suggest going for dinner at the Riverside Market. Or, I also love checking out one of the many restaurants at the New Regent Street Precinct, which has been dubbed Christchurch’s prettiest street.

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2. Itinerary #2 (Picton to Queenstown via the East Coast)

Bailey sips a glass of wine in the Marlborough Wine Region near Picton
Cheers from Picton!
Bailey enjos the view from the top fo the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown, New Zealand

This road trip is ideal for anyone crossing to or from the North Island since you can go from Picton to Queenstown, or vice versa. Not only is this road trip convenient, it showcases the raw beauty of the Southern Alps, as well as the South Island’s fantastic wildlife with a day in Kaikoura. This is one of the best whale-watching regions in the world – sounds like a winner to me! 

Day 1 – Picton

Bailey poses for a photo at the dock in Picton, New Zealand

Exploring Picton is one heck of a way to kick off your South Island road trip! It’s the gateway to the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and I loved exploring them on this mail boat cruise, where you follow the local mailman on his postal boat route to the area’s remote homes. Or, if you’re keen to sample some wine from this renowned region, I also loved this full-day tour which started off with a catamaran cruise and ended with lunch and a tasting at a winery. 

The Marlborough Sounds are also famed for being home to wild dolphins, and I spotted lots of them by booking this top-rated tour. It also includes a visit to Moturoa Island bird sanctuary, which I found really enjoyable and informative. If you’re an animal lover, you’ll get a lot out of this experience!

Where to Stay in Picton (1 Night)

Budget – Atlantis Backpackers

Mid-range – Harbour View Motel

Luxury – Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments

Why I Book Tours on Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book all of my tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here

Day 2 – Drive to Kaikoura

Two seals at Ohau Point, New Zealand
How cute!
Bailey walks along Ohau Point
There are so many seals!

It’s 156 kilometers (97 miles) from Kaikoura to Picton, which would take 2 hours without stopping, but I always like to make the most of this beautiful drive, so allow at least 4 hours. It’s tranquil and very scenic, with fantastic stops like the Monkey Bay Walking track, which only takes 20 minutes to complete. I also suggest grabbing lunch in Blenheim before continuing onto the Ward Beach Boulders, and Ohau Point Lookout for beautiful views and tons of seals.

Where to Stay in Kaikoura (2 Nights)

Budget – Dolphin Lodge

Mid-range – Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments

Luxury – Shearwater Apartments

Day 3 – Kaikoura

Bailey on Kaikoura Beach, New Zealand
Kaikoura Beach!

Sure, Kaikoura is beautiful, but the real reason to visit is whale watching! I suggest booking this whale watching tour for 10 am, so you can enjoy 3.5 hours of whale watching and have the rest of the day to explore Kaikoura on your own. This whale-watching experience is hard to beat with an astounding 95% success rate, you’re in good hands here. Seeing whales was incredible, but the staff also made this tour really fun and informative!

Afterward, make the most of your time in Kaikoura with a trip to admire the black sand and blue water at Kaikoura Beach. In the evening, I like to drive up to Kaikoura Lookout for sunset, or you can’t beat this sunset kayaking tour. I had a fantastic time and saw even more dolphins and whales while our guides taught us about Maori history.

Day 4 – Drive to Lake Tekapo 

Christchurch Botanical Gardens is a great quick stop!
Bailey with colorful lupins at Lake Tekapo New Zealand
The gorgeous lupins at Lake Tekapo

It’s a 400-kilometer (249-mile) drive from Kaikoura to Lake Tekapo, which would take five hours without stopping. However, in true South Island style there are plenty of beautiful stops along the way, so allow 8 hours. This is a full-day drive! 

I love stopping for lunch at Waipara Springs winery in the Waipara region – and a cheeky glass of wine if your co-pilot doesn’t mind taking the wheel for the next portion of the journey!

As the route takes you through Christchurch, I suggest stopping to stretch your legs in the beautiful botanical gardens. Then, from there, I always take the scenic route to Lake Tekapo so that I can stop at Raika Gorge and maybe take a quick detour along the Mt Hutt access road. 

Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo (2 Nights)

Budget –  Lakes Edge Lodge

Mid-range – Mantra Lake Tekapo

Luxury – The Mackenzie Suites 

Day 5 – Lake Tekapo 

The Milky Way over Lake Tekapo while stargazing
You can see the stars and Milky Way so well in Lake Tekapo!

Lake Tekapo is gorgeous and you had a long drive yesterday, so reward yourself today with a soak in the beautiful hot springs. Or, you can do what I did, and hike up to Mount John Summit and then soak afterward! 

However, the real fun starts after dark. Lake Tekapo is a Dark Sky Reserve, meaning world-class stargazing. You can head to the Church of the Good Shepherd to snap a truly incredible photo if you’ve got a good-quality camera, or I highly recommend this stargazing tour. It takes place at an observatory on the top of Mount John and is led by professional astrologers, who will teach you all about the mysteries of the southern skies.

Day 6 – Drive to Mount Cook 

The Mueller Hut, New Zealand
The Mueller Hut!
Bailey stands on the road into Mount Cook National Park with Mount Cook in the Background
The road to Mount Cook National Park!

It’s 103 kilometers (64 miles) from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook. It would take 1.5 hours without stopping, and I do recommend making this journey fairly quick, but I still recommend making a few quick stops along the way. The Lake Pukaki viewpoint is beautiful, and I like to stop and grab a coffee from Glenntanner Park Centre

Then, you should be in the national park by the afternoon, with plenty of time to hike. I love the gorgeous Hooker Valley Track, which takes about 3 hours out and back. Or, my favorite thing to do is book a stay in the Mueller Hut and hike there this afternoon. 

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (2 Nights)

Budget – Mueller Hut or Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 7 – Mount Cook

skydiving near Mount Cook National Park with mountain views
Just look at the view! Photo Credit: Skydive Mount Cook

If you stayed overnight in the Mueller Hut, you’ll need to hike back this morning, or if you opted for the Hooker Valley Track instead, then you could always use this morning to tackle the Tasman Glacier hike. It only takes about 30 minutes, but I should warn you that there are quite a lot of steps involved!

In the afternoon, I recommend taking advantage of one of the more extreme activities that Mount Cook National Park is known for. You can book an epic skydive over this stunningly beautiful area, or take a helicopter ride for aerial views you’ll never forget.

Day 8 – Drive to Wanaka

The Omarama Clay Cliffs near the town of Omarama, New Zealand
Don’t just stick to the outside of the cliffs, go exploring!

Today, it’s on to Wanaka! This is a 2.5-hour drive without stopping, but make sure you do stop! The Omarama Clay Cliffs are pretty crazy to see and make me feel like I’m on another planet, although for me nothing beats visiting the Omarama hot tubs. I recommend leaving Mount Cook early-ish and then taking your time on this drive.

Even so, you should be in Wanaka by the late afternoon… perhaps just in time for a happy hour lake cruise. With a free drink, a complimentary cheeseboard, and a fully licensed bar on board, this is guaranteed to be a good time!

Where to Stay in Wanaka (2 Nights)

Budget – Hawea Hotel

Mid-range – Archway Motels & Chalets (I stayed here last time I was in Wanaka!)

Day 8 – Wanaka

views of a winery and Lake Wanaka on a wine tour in Wanaka
Just stunning!
Bailey with a meal at Big Fig in Wanaka
I come to Big Fig all the time!

Honestly, I could stay in Wanaka for weeks, but sometimes just a day has to do! And you can really get a feel for this scenic town by tackling Roy’s Peak Track, which is an epic full-day hike that I personally love. Or, I had an incredible time on this wine tour, sampling plenty of the region’s best vino and eating as much cheese as I possibly could. There’s also a big emphasis on Maori culture with this tour, which sets it apart from other wine tours around. 

A quick visit to #ThatWanakaTree is a must, and make sure to check out a local craft brewery (or two!) because Wanaka has the highest density of breweries on the South Island. I love Wanaka Beerworks! And you can’t beat dinner at Big Fig!

Day 10 – Drive to Te Anau 

Bailey poses for a photo on the edge of Lake Te Anau in Te Anau on a sunny summers day

It’s 227 kilometers (141 miles) from Wanaka to Te Anau, which takes 3 hours without stopping. I always grab a coffee and bagel for the road from Curbside Coffee and Bagels before heading out, and then you could be in Te Anau by just after midday! 

Te Anau is the gateway to Milford Sound but there’s still lots to enjoy here, so make the most of it! I really enjoyed this historic cruise across the lake. And of course, Te Anau is also famed for its glow worm caves, which you can explore by booking this boat tour. I was blown away! 

Where to Stay in Te Anau (1 or 2 Nights)

Budget – Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and Motels (great for campervans!)

Mid-range – Aden Motel

Luxury – Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments

Day 11 – Te Anau 

Bailey looks at a snow covered mountain on the milford sound nature cruise new zealand

Today is my favorite day of this road trip because it’s time to visit my favorite place ever – Milford Sound! Te Anau is 118 kilometers (73 miles), which is why I personally like to drive from Te Anau and book a self-drive nature cruise. I much prefer the smaller vessels as they can access nooks and crannies that the bigger boats just can’t reach. 

I love the drive to Milford Sound, as there are so many beautiful stops on the way. I recommend booking the cruise for 12:45 pm or 1:45 pm so that you have time to stop at Eglinton Valley, the Mirror Lakes, and Pop’s Lookout.

Or, you can take an overnight cruise in Milford Sound. This overnight cruise was on my bucket list for so long, and when I finally did it, it did NOT disappoint! Getting to experience Milford Sound after all of the other visitors had left was just incredible. I could go on about it all day! I won’t for the sake of brevity, but you can always check out my full review to learn more.

Day 12 – Queenstown 

Cars drive past on the Devil's Staircase Lookout Point near Queenstown

If you did the Milford Sound overnight cruise, then one, I’m jealous, but two, you’ll need to drive back to Te Anau this morning before heading onto Queenstown. And if you just did the daytime cruise, you can explore the glow worm caves or have a leisurely brunch at the Sandfly Cafe, which is my favorite.  

Then, it’s time for the 170-kilometer (106-mile) drive from Te Anau to Queenstown. I think it’s nice to stop and see the deer in Mossburn and snap photos at the Devil’s Staircase. Then, you’ll be in Queenstown in time to head up Bob’s Peak gondola for an epic sunset and maybe a fun luge ride!

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Related Read: Te Anau is not the only place in New Zealand with glow worm caves. If you’re heading to the North Island, make sure to explore the famous Waitomo caves!

Day 13 – Queenstown

Bailey enjos the view from the top fo the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown, New Zealand
Book in advance!
Bailey enjoying dinner on the Walter Peak Warm tour
The option with dinner is so worth it!

One of my favorite things about living in Queenstown is that it’s a big city, but it’s close to stunning places like Glenorchy. So, I recommend driving about 40 minutes down the road to check out the epic scenery here. I love the wholesome Glenorchy Animal Experience and the Diamond Creek Trail is beautiful. 

Head back to Queenstown mid-afternoon, because I highly recommend booking this cruise to Walter Peak Station for 5 pm. I had so much fun riding the historic TSS Earnslaw steamship, and then I was really impressed by the quality of the delicious barbecue dinner and live demos at the farm. The experience pretty much sums up everything that I love about Queenstown!

Day 14 – Queenstown

Bailey smiles at the Camera in Arrowtown, New Zealand

Depending on what time you need to leave Queenstown today, you could make the most of the morning by booking this segway tour through the Queenstown Gardens. I definitely think it’s the most entertaining way to explore them! 

Or, head to Arrowtown for brunch and a stroll around the cute shops. It’s only 20 minutes from the center of Queenstown and it’s a former gold mining town, so it’s pretty historic. I love to go to Provisions of Arrowtown for brunch and then walk it off with a short hike along Tobins Track

Related Read: Heading to the North Island after wrapping up your road trip? Be sure to read up on the best places to visit!

3. Itinerary #3 (Christchurch to Queenstown)

Bailey at Ohinetahi Viewpoint next to Sign of the Bellbird in Christchurch, New Zealand
There are some nice viewpoints around Christchurch.
Bailey enjoys a drink at Canyon Brewing in Queenstown
There are so many scenic spots in Queenstown to grab a drink!

Queenstown and Christchurch are arguably the South Island’s two most famous cities, and since they both have international airports, road-tripping between them just makes sense! You don’t have to begin in Christchurch, either – you can always start in Queenstown and go the opposite way. 

But this itinerary isn’t just convenient, I think it’s really enjoyable for anyone who likes to explore places in depth. So if you really want to get to know the South Island, I’m confident you’ll love this one! 

Day 1 – Christchurch

Views from the Christchurch Gondola
Views from the top of the Christchurch Gondola!

Christchurch is the oldest city in New Zealand, so I love to check out the history on this historic tram tour, which goes all over the city to places like the Botanic Gardens, Cashel Street, and Victoria Square. I also recommend riding the Christchurch Gondola to the top of the Port Hills for beautiful views of the Southern Alps and Pegasus Bay. I instantly fell in love with the views up here! 

Try to find some time to relax at the He Puna Taimoana Hot Pools, too – I mean, what a way to kick off a road trip! If you want an idea of how to structure your day, make sure to check out this 1-day itinerary.

Where to Stay in Christchurch (2 Nights)

Budget – Urbanz Christchurch

Mid-range – Tasman Holiday Parks Christchurch

Luxury –  Crowne Plaza Christchurch

Day 2 – Day tour to Kaikoura

A whale swims in front on a boat as people look on in Kaikoura, NZ
You can get pretty close if the whales are curious!

Kaikoura is a 2.5-hour drive from Christchurch, and it’s famous for its whale watching! In fact, what really sets Kaikoura apart in my eyes is that you can spot whales year-round. I’ve seen a ton of dolphins here, too, so it’s just a marine wonderland! 

You can book this whale watching cruise in Kaikoura for 10 am and drive yourself but reserve it well in advance as it’s super popular. I promise it will be worth the early start! 

I also think that booking this swim with dolphins tour is an incredible opportunity. This tour includes transport from Christchurch, so it’s ideal if you haven’t picked up your rental car yet or just want to give driving a rest for the day. Swimming with dolphins is certainly one of the best things I’ve ever done!

Day 3 – Drive to Lake Tekapo from Christchurch

Views of Lake Tekapo from the Church of the Good Shepard
Lake Tekapo is a lake and town that’s definitely worth checking out.

I recommend taking the scenic route to Lake Tekapo, as it’s not that much longer than going direct and there’s way more to see. The drive takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes without stopping, so I usually allow around 4 hours for the journey so that I have time to stop at Mt Hutt and Rakaia Gorge.

Do try to get to Lake Tekapo before nightfall so that you can enjoy this incredible stargazing tour in this Dark Sky Reserve! The sky here is just unbelievable and having expert astronomers to teach you about the Milky Way (and beyond) as you peer through telescopes makes it even better.

Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo (2 Nights)

Budget –  Lakes Edge Lodge

Mid-range – Mantra Lake Tekapo

Luxury – The Mackenzie Suites 

Day 4 – Lake Tekapo 

Views from Mt John Summit looking down at Lake Alexandrina
The views from Mt John on a clear day are out of this world!

After last night’s stargazing fun, I suggest spending a leisurely morning having breakfast at my favorite cafe in Lake Tekapo – Jack Rabbit! Then, I like hiking to Mount John Summit during the day. My favorite route is Mount John via Lakeshore Track because the views are just beautiful and it’s not too long at around 3 hours out and back.

It’s also nice to rent kayaks or paddle boards and get out on the lake, but I have to warn you: the water is very cold, so try not to fall in! At night, my favorite thing to do is head to Tekapo Springs to stargaze while enjoying a soak. The views here during the day are beautiful, but on a clear night, going after dark is even more spectacular. 

Day 5 – Mount Cook

Two people run down the road at the famous Mount Cook Road photo location
I love this photo! Just be careful of cars!

It’s a 1.5-hour drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook, although I’d budget around 2.5 so that you can enjoy some of the stops along the way (check out all of my ideas here!). The journey is 104 kilometers (64.6 miles) long, and I love stopping at Lake Pukaki and NZ Alpine Lavender, and of course, my husband and I just had to snap the iconic Mount Cook road photo!

Once you get to Mount Cook, there are tons of amazing hikes to enjoy (see here for my favorites!) but the Hooker Valley Track has a huge payoff for not that much effort. However, if you’re an avid hiker like me, then I suggest booking the Mueller Hut for the night and hiking there this afternoon. I had such an amazing time on this overnight hike! Just be sure to book your overnight stay well in advance.

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (2 Nights)

Budget – Mueller Hut or Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 6 – Mount Cook 

Bailey at the top of the Sealy Tarns Track in Mount Cook National Park
Hiking in the winter is still possible!

If you stayed in the Mueller Hut then you’ll need to hike down this morning – after catching the beautiful sunrise, of course! Trust me, it’s worth waking up early for. 

Otherwise, you can enjoy yet more hikes in Mount Cook National Park this morning. I love the Tasman Glacier hike, which is a stunning 30-minute hike, or for something a bit longer, the Sealy Tarns Track takes 3-4 hours. It’s nicknamed “the Stairway to Heaven” which should tell you something about the kind of views that you get. It’s a lot of going up steps, but it’s pretty straightforward.

Then, it’s time to hit the road for the 206-kilometer (128-mile) drive to Wanaka, which is about 2.5 hours of driving. Today, I recommend a detour to explore Twizel and its stunning lake, and a stop to marvel at the Omarama Clay Cliffs

Day 7 – Wanaka

The famous Roys Peak viewpoint at sunrise
The epic viewpoint on Roys Peak!

I’m an avid hiker, so for me, the chance to tackle either Roys Peak Track or Isthmus Peak in Wanaka is pretty irresistible. These are both full-day hikes, but after Mount Cook National Park, I’m fully aware that you may have had enough hiking for now! Fortunately, there are plenty of other things to do here. 

For a more relaxing day out, I had a blast on this full-day wine tour. I went to six boutique wineries, had a fantastic gourmet lunch (with a serious view), and had plenty of time to really appreciate each vineyard. And it was a small group tour with only around 8 participants, so I made some new friends, too! 

Where to Stay in Wanaka (1 Night)

Budget – Hawea Hotel

Mid-range – Archway Motels & Chalets

Related Read: If you love wine as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to tick off lots of New Zealand’s best wine regions while you’re in the country!

Day 8 – Wanaka 

Bailey rides her cart at the Cardrona Mountain Carting in New Zealand
Getting ready to go!

Before leaving for Te Anau, I recommend booking this jet boating tour. I had so much fun and I loved racing past all of the stunning scenery. I especially loved the fact that it included a wilderness walk! It takes about 4 hours, so I recommend choosing the 9:45 am timeslot. 

Then, it’s a 227-kilometer (141-mile) drive to Te Anau, which should take 3 hours without stopping. The drive between Wanaka and Queenstown in particular has lots of great stops (see here for my full list!) and since this road passes through Cardrona, I recommend stopping to see the famous bras. I also had so much fun mountain carting here

Where to Stay in Te Anau (2 or 3 Nights)

Budget – Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and Motels (great for families!)

Mid-range – Aden Motel

Luxury – Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments

Day 9 – Te Anau (day trip to Milford Sound) 

Bailey looks out the window at the views from a table on a Milford Sound cruise
Wine and my one true love… Milford Sound! Or is it the other way around?

Te Anau is lovely in its own right, but it’s also famous for being the gateway to Milford Sound – aka my favorite place on earth. So you just HAVE to visit while you’re here!

I’ve done pretty much every Milford Sound cruise and tour imaginable. For me, this boutique nature cruise delivers the best experience. I’d say book it for around 12:45 or 1:45 pm, so that you have time to enjoy some of the stunning stops along this 118-kilometer (73-mile) drive, like Eglinton Valley and the Mirror Lakes. This is a quintessential part of the whole Milford Sound experience!

You can drive back that night or stay at the Milford Sound Lodge, which is a real bucket list place. I mean, talk about a room with a view! 

Alternatively, I had the most incredible time on this overnight Milford Sound cruise. It’s highly sought after so you’ll need to book it WAY in advance, but I promise it lives up to the hype. I loved every second and being in the fiord without any crowds around was jaw-dropping. You can read my full review here!

Day 10 – Te Anau

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves 
The Te Anau glow worm caves are incredible!

If you stayed overnight in Milford Sound, you’ll need to drive back to Te Anau this morning. Or if you opted for the day cruise, enjoy breakfast at the Sandfly Café. It’s my go-to spot! 

Then, I suggest booking this glow worm cave tour for 2 pm or 4 pm. I loved seeing the caves lit up as we glided through on the boat, and my guide also taught me lots of interesting info about the caves. For me, it’s the quintessential Te Anau experience! 

Then, in the evening, I love to grab takeaway (usually from Paradiso Pizza or Bao Now) and eat it near the jetty on Lake Te Anau. Sunsets here are beautiful and make for epic photos. 

Day 11 – Drive to Queenstown

Bailey onboard the TSS Earnslaw on her way to Walter Peak Station for dinner
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown is best experienced by steamboat!

It’s a 171-kilometer (106-mile) drive from Te Anau to Queenstown, which takes 2 hours without stopping. I usually grab some coffee at Five Rivers Café and Art Gallery, which is a great opportunity to check out some local works, and I like to hike the 7-km (4.3 mi) Wye Creek Track on the way into Queenstown during summer. This takes about 2 hours, so budget 4-5 hours for this journey in total.

Then, one of my favorite ways to introduce visitors to Queenstown is by booking the TSS Earnslaw Cruise over to Walter Peak High Country Farm. A historic steamship, beautiful lake views, a barbecue dinner, and live farm demos – what’s not to like?

Where to Stay in Queenstown (3 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Day 12 – Queenstown

Looking out from the summit of Queenstown Hill

This morning, I recommend grabbing breakfast to go and then taking a stroll around the city. Then, grab lunch at Fergburger, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Queenstown, and then use that fuel to propel you up Queenstown Hill! It takes just over 2 hours and is a local favorite – I do it all the time! 

Then, in the late afternoon, take the gondola up to Bob’s Peak. For an adventure, I recommend a ziplining tour but the luge rides are also a lot of fun if you want something a bit more low-key. Then, you can head to the Stratosfare Restaurant to eat dinner from the best seat in the city. 

Day 13 – Queenstown

One of my favorite things to do in Queenstown is drive out to Glenorchy! It’s only 40 minutes down the road and so worth it to see the magnificent scenery. In fact, I think it’s a great idea to book a hotel here so that you can maximize your time. There’s a ton to do, like riding down the river on the funyaks, and exploring the Glenorchy Walkway

Driving through Paradise is a must here. The scenery in Glenorchy and Paradise is real Lord of the Rings territory. In fact, lots of scenes from the movies were shot here, although the exact locations can be hard to find. It’s worth considering one of the LOTR tours of Glenorchy, especially as it will give you a bit of a break from driving, which you might be glad of by this point! 

Check out my full list of things to do in Glenorchy to have an amazing day out!

Day 14 – Finish in Queenstown

Bailey walks a cute street in Arrowtown, New Zealand
Exploring Arrowtown!

Saying goodbye to Queenstown is always sad, but if you’re not leaving until late, there’s no reason you can’t make the most of the day here! I love heading out to Arrowtown to explore, as it’s one of the must-see places in the city. I like getting brunch at Provisions of Arrowtown and hiking along Tobins Track, as it’s only about a 30-minute walk each way. 

And if you have a few more hours, it’s worth ticking off some other fun Arrowtown activities, like visiting the Chinese Settlement, satisfying your sweet tooth at The Remarkable Sweet Shop, or grabbing a pint of craft beer at Slow Cuts. I could spend all day in Arrowtown (in fact, I often do!).

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey enjoys a drink at Stratosfare Bar in Queenstown
Thanks for reading!

I’ve enjoyed so many epic road trips around the South Island, and I hope this blog post enables you to do the same! From beautiful fiords to the Southern Alps, there’s so much incredible scenery to explore here, whichever route you choose.

Now that you’ve decided on a route, make sure to take a look at my other blogs to fill out your itinerary! I have lots of other South Island blogs for your reference, and here are a few to get you started.

75 EPIC Things to Do in Queenstown

40 Best Hikes on the South Island of New Zealand

10 BEST Tours in Christchurch, NZ that You Don’t Want to Miss