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1 Week South Island New Zealand Itinerary – 4 Tried and Tested Itinerary Ideas!

1 Week South Island New Zealand Itinerary – 4 Tried and Tested Itinerary Ideas!

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Have a week to spare, an itch for adventure, and a rental car? Sounds like you’re ready for a South Island road trip!

I’ve traveled all over the South Island in my trusty camper van, so I know from experience how intoxicating exploring New Zealand can be. I also know how daunting it can be! I mean with so many epic places to check out, where do you even start? 

Whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or a step-by-step guide, I’ve curated 4 different 7-day itineraries that hit the highlights. There are some can’t-miss areas and some off-the-beaten-path spots, so you can find an itinerary that fits you, no matter what type of traveler you are!

Table Of Contents
  1. My Top 4 Itineraries at a Glance
  2. 4 BEST 7-Day New Zealand South Island Itineraries
  3. 1. Christchurch 1-Week Loop
  4. 2. Christchurch to Queenstown – 1 Week
  5. 3. Picton to Queenstown – 1 Week Via the East Coast
  6. 4. Christchurch to Queenstown via the Catlins
  7. Thanks for reading!
  8. Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

My Top 4 Itineraries at a Glance

1. Itinerary #1 (Christchurch 1 Week Loop)

Christchurch to Franz Josef to Wanaka to Queenstown to Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo to Christchurch road trip map new zealand
  • 7 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 Arthurs Pass, Franz Josef, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo, Christchurch

Day 1 – Drive Arthurs Pass from Christchurch

Day 2 – Franz Josef

Day 3 – Queenstown

Day 4 – Queenstown (Day tour to Milford Sound)

Day 5 – Mount Cook 

Day 6 – Lake Tekapo 

Day 7 – Finish in Christchurch

2. Itinerary #2 (Christchurch to Queenstown)

Christchurch to Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook to Queenstown road trip map new zealand
  • 7 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 Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Milford Sound (possible overnight cruise), and Queenstown.

Day 1 – Drive to Lake Tekapo from Christchurch

Day 2 – Lake Tekapo 

Day 3 – Drive to Mount Cook 

Day 4 – Mount Cook

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown

Day 6 – Day trip to Milford Sound

Day 7 – Queenstown

3. Itinerary #3 (Picton to Queenstown via the East Coast)

Picton to Kaikoura to Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook to Queenstown road trip map new zealand
  • 7 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 (drive past), Mount Cook, Queenstown and Milford Sound

Day 1 – Drive to Kaikoura

Day 2 – Kaikoura

Day 3 – Drive to Mount Cook (optional stop in Lake Tekapo)

Day 4 – Mount Cook

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown

Day 6 – Tour to Milford Sound

Day 7 – Queenstown

4. Itinerary #4 (Christchurch to Queenstown via the Catlins)

Christchurch to Dunedin to Curio Bay to Invercargill to Queenstown road trip map New Zealand
  • 7 days 
  • Starts in Christchurch but can also start from Queenstown
  • Starts and finishes at an international airport
  • Great for those wanting to get off the beaten path and see penguins and more wildlife
  • Highlights are Christchurch, Dunedin, the Catlins, Invercargill, Milford Sound, and Queenstown.

Day 1 – Christchurch 

Day 2 – Drive to Dunedin

Day 3 – Drive through the Catlins to Curio Bay

Day 4 – Drive to Invercargill for the night or Moray Terrace Reserve Freedom Camping

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown 

Day 6 – Day trip to Milford Sound 

Day 7 – 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.

4 BEST 7-Day New Zealand South Island Itineraries

1. Christchurch 1-Week Loop

Bailey in the Muller Hut area stands on a rock with Mount Cook in the background
At the Mueller Hut with Mount Cook in the background!
Bailey at a bar in Queenstown drinking beer
Cheers from Queenstown!

I certainly love all of the road trips listed here, but this one is first for a reason! It hits some of my favorite areas of the South Island, combining the outdoor adventure of Mount Cook National Park and the Franz Josef Glacier with the quaint city vibes of Queenstown. You’ll see an array of landscapes and all the things that make New Zealand so special in my heart. 

This route is a loop, and therefore starts and ends in Christchurch. You can also do this road trip starting in Queenstown, you will just have to adjust your days a bit – no problem! Regardless of where you start, you will just spend one night in Christchurch. This itinerary is focused on outdoor adventure and incredible views, so your city exploration can be saved for later!

Day 1 – Drive Arthurs Pass from Christchurch

I wasn’t kidding when I said this road trip was about incredible scenery. You’ll see some of the best starting with day one! The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef is 381 kilometers (237 miles) and takes about 5 hours without stops. Of course, I don’t recommend blasting through this stretch of road – there’s so much to see, it’s best if you take the full day to enjoy the drive. 

I always stop to get some steps in by exploring the Hokitika Gorge, which is a 2-km (1.2 mi) easy walk and strikingly beautiful. For a unique experience, this West Coast Treetop Walk is an elevated walking path amongst the trees. You only need about 45 minutes for both of these stops, so they are quick additions to break up your drive!

But my true favorite part of this day is driving Arthur’s Pass! This pass is gorgeous, and you’ll want to go slow enough to drive safely and check out the views. Before you know it, you’ll be in Franz Josef!

Where to Stay in Franz Josef (1 or 2 Nights)

Budget – Glow Worm Accommodation 

Mid-range – Aspen Court Franz Josef

Luxury – Te Waonui Forest Retreat

Day 2 – Franz Josef

A group of tourists walk on the Franz Josef Glacier on a tour
You feel so small on the Franz Josef Glacier!

The main draw of visiting Franz Josef is seeing the iconic glacier, of course! I couldn’t believe how beautiful the Franz Josef Glacier was the first time I saw it (see my whole guide on visiting the glacier here!). Not only is it massive, but the color is incredible.

First, you can see it on your own by hiking to a viewing platform or by booking this guided nature hike. I think the guided hike is a good option for those keen on learning more about the glacier, flora, and fauna from your local guide. They also provide hiking equipment if you don’t have your own – bonus!

If you have a little more room in the budget, you can’t miss a scenic flight. You can join the same 30-minute scenic flight I did, and let me tell you – it was worth every penny! We saw glaciers, frozen waterfalls, and flew over snow-capped mountains. To say it was incredible is an understatement, and the best part was landing on top of one of these peaks to explore. 

And equally amazing was when I went on this guided heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier. Not only did it take us over the glacier in a helicopter, but we also landed and hiked on the glacier! This experience has hundreds of 5-star reviews, check them out and book it for yourself here!

These activities range from 30 minutes to 4 hours, so depending on your time and energy levels, you can either stay in Franz Josef one more night or do the 5-hour journey to Queenstown.

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 or 3 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Day 3 – Queenstown

If you decide to drive to Queenstown the day before and spend the night, that will leave all of day three for you to explore! I recommend taking a day trip to Glenorchy, my favorite small town on the South Island. Glenorchy is a 40-minute drive from Queenstown and the route is insanely beautiful (as are most in NZ!). However, if you want to take a break from driving, you can jump on one of these tours from Queenstown to Glenorchy

Glenorchy is home to many Lord of the Rings filming sites, so many of these tours are LOTR-focused. This is ideal if you’re a fan!

You also can spend some time enjoying this scenic area. The Diamond Creek Trail is my go-to hike, as it’s not terribly long or difficult, and the views are top-notch. The Glenorchy Walkway is also a must-see, along with the jetty and boardwalk. But the best part of Glenorchy is the famous pies from Mrs. Woolly’s!

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

After spending the morning and afternoon in Glenorchy, be sure to get back to Queenstown before 5 pm – you don’t want to be late for the evening’s activity! You’ll be embarking on this lake cruise to Walter Peak Station. Cruise along the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu on a historic steamship and have a farm-fresh dinner and live farm demonstrations, such as sheep shearing and herding. I’ve actually done this cruise and farm tour three times now, and have loved it every time, so it’s an essential Queenstown activity!

Day 4 – Queenstown (Day tour to Milford Sound)

Milford Sound is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve explored. I’ve been there more times than I can even count, and I can’t help but recommend this destination to everyone I meet! It is far from Queenstown (about 4 hours each way), and the road is a bit tricky, so I highly recommend taking a break from driving and joining a tour. Your whole experience will be far less stressful this way, so you can simply enjoy my favorite place in the world!

I’ve gone on this small group tour to Milford Sound, and can confidently tell you it’s fantastic! It includes transportation, plenty of picturesque stops along the way, lunch, and a nature cruise (an essential part of visiting Milford). This is one of the best cruises offered because it’s on a small boat, so it’s not as crowded and you can get closer to the unique wildlife and gorgeous waterfalls here! 

Seeing the “8th Wonder of the World” is no small feat, so it’s great to have a seamless experience on a tour that is entirely planned for you. And I’m not alone in loving this tour (and Milford itself!) – read the 1,100+ raving reviews here!

Bailey looks at a snow covered mountain on the milford sound nature cruise new zealand
Can you see why this is my favorite place in the world?!

Day 5 – Mount Cook

After your day of exploring Milford Sound, it’s time to hit the road again! Mount Cook National Park is about a 3-hour drive from Queenstown, so I recommend getting up a bit earlier so you can have plenty of time to explore the park. 

While in Mount Cook National Park, you have to do at least one hike! On this itinerary, you’ll just have one day here, so it’s best to stick to something shorter. The Hooker Valley Track is 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in total and takes about 3.5 hours, but don’t worry it’s a flat and easy trail, great for beginner or experienced hikers. If you can flex your itinerary a bit, I absolutely love hiking the Mueller Hut Hike, but you’ll need more time as it can take up to 8 hours. 

Mount Cook is the tallest mountain on the South Island, so it is also the best spot in the whole country to take a helicopter flight – at least it was from my experience! This 50-minute helicopter flight gives world-famous views, plus 50 minutes is a long time to be in the sky. We also got to land in the snow and explore around, taking us to remote places that you can’t even get to by hiking.

Bailey at the Mount Cook road viewpoint with the stunning highway in the background on a road trip in New Zealand
I can never get enough of Mount Cook!

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (1 night)

Budget – Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 6 – Lake Tekapo 

The next morning, you can take the hour’s drive to Lake Tekapo. However, this route is quite beautiful and has some fun stops, so I encourage you to enjoy the journey and take your time!

Once you reach this gorgeous lake, you’ll understand why I hype it up so much! Yet another scenic part of the South Island, you can enjoy the sparkling blue water and if you visit from November to February, catch all the colorful lupins in bloom. I also love relaxing in the local hot springs, for both the views and on-site spa. Or for another, more tranquil lake, I like to stop by Alexandrina Lake. 

All these things are great activities, don’t get me wrong, but the real reason to come to Lake Tekapo is for its night sky! The lake is in a Dark Sky Reserve, so it’s some of the best places in the world to see the stars – it’s actually insane. I had an amazing time on this stargazing experience at Mt. John Observatory.

I recommend booking this experience in advance as it is the most popular activity in Lake Tekapo. You can also visit the Church of the Good Shepherd when it’s dark, as it’s really beautiful against the backdrop of the night sky.

Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo (1 Night)

Budget –  Lakes Edge Lodge

Mid-range – Mantra Lake Tekapo

Luxury – The Mackenzie Suites 

Day 7 – Finish in Christchurch

For your seventh and final day of the road trip, it’s time to head back to Christchurch! Since we don’t have much planned today, you can take the scenic route. It is 259 km (160 mi) from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch and will take a little over 3 hours. It’s only a bit longer than going the direct route!

Gem Alpaca Farm is a unique stop that will be a hit for families or animal lovers, and I love swinging in for lunch at Geraldine Orchard. If you’re doing this trip in the winter, you can stop by Mt Hutt for some skiing! And in summer you can still enjoy the Mt Hutt area by driving up the access road for some final breathtaking views. For one more bonus stop, be sure to visit Rakaia Gorge.

Related Read: Looking for a great stay in Christchurch? Check out my guide to the best areas and hotels in the city!

2. Christchurch to Queenstown – 1 Week

Bailey stands on the road into Mount Cook National Park with Mount Cook in the Background
The road to Mount Cook National Park!
Bailey holds two drinks at minus 5 Ice Bar in Queenstown (1)
Meet me in Queenstown and I’ll buy you a drink at Ice Bar!

This 7-day road trip itinerary will take you from one famous South Island city to another! The route between Christchurch and Queenstown hits some of the most iconic New Zealand spots along the way. Both cities have international airports, so you can really dig into these areas and use them as a hub for your travels. 

I love this road trip because it has some great hiking opportunities in Mount Cook and Queenstown, but to be honest you don’t have to be an avid hiker to enjoy this trip. There are a ton of scenic viewpoints, quaint towns, and kind people to fill the journey! You can also do this road trip in reverse, starting in Queenstown.

Day 1 – Drive to Lake Tekapo from Christchurch

There are two routes to get from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: the scenic and the direct route. From driving both myself, I can easily say that the scenic route is much better (isn’t it always?). It’s 258 kilometers (160 miles) in total, so it will take you a little over three hours without stopping.

But of course, this is a road trip – stops are essential! I love the scenic route because it takes you by Rakaia Gorge and Mount Hutt, so take some time to explore those areas. You’ll still get to Lake Tekapo by evening, just in time to gawk at one of the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen! 

Either join this stargazing tour, led by astronomers at a mountain top observatory, or have a relaxing soak at the hot springs surrounded by the stars! You can’t go wrong, regardless of which you choose.

Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo (2 Nights)

Budget –  Lakes Edge Lodge

Mid-range – Mantra Lake Tekapo

Luxury – The Mackenzie Suites

Day 2 – Lake Tekapo 

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

As one of the most picturesque little towns in New Zealand, a full day here is such a treat! Although quaint, there are heaps of things to do, whether you’re looking to get active or relax. 

If you didn’t hop in the Lake Tekapo Hot Springs to stargaze last night, you definitely need to visit them during the day. I also love spending some time enjoying the bright blue lake, so if you’re visiting during the summer, grab a kayak or paddleboard for a fun few hours on the water. There are also so many scenic photo spots, so honestly one of my favorite activities is just wandering around snapping photos!

I always stop at Jack Rabbit Cafe, not only for their tasty coffee but also for lake views from the patio. They make a mean New Zealand pie, so you gotta give it a try! And for dinner, catch the sunset at the Dark Sky Diner overlooking the lake.

Day 3 – Drive to Mount Cook 

The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is only 104 kilometers (64 miles) and will take about 1.5 hours. However, as with most stretches of driving on this road trip, it’d be a real shame to drive straight through! That’s why I’ve dedicated an entire day to this route, there’s THAT much to see. You can check out all of my favorite stops on this route here, but I’ll give you a little introduction below. 

If you’re traveling during the summer, visiting NZ Alpine Lavender is a must. You’ll find fields of lavender (surprise!) as well as lavender-flavored/scented goodies to try, like the lavender ice cream! Another one of my favorite stops is Lake Pukaki, which makes for the perfect photo op. You can either stop at the viewpoint or if you have time, take the Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk. This “walk” is more of a trek at 13 km return (8 mi).

But if you’re looking for classic New Zealand photos, be sure to pull over for the iconic Mount Cook Road photo as you drive into the national park. Be careful when doing this though, as it isn’t the safest thing to do! Check out this guide to getting the famous photo here

Two people run down the road at the famous Mount Cook Road photo location
This is an iconic photo stop!

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (2 Nights)

Budget – Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 4 – Mount Cook 

A lady sits ona rock and watches the sunrise at Tasman River Viewpoint in Mount Cook National Park
I never get sick of sunrise at Tasman Lake. Just be prepared for the cold!

Mount Cook National Park is another place with a little bit of something for everyone. If you’re the outdoorsy and adventure-seeking type like I am, I can’t recommend booking a night in the Mueller Hut highly enough! If you choose to tackle this somewhat challenging (but epic) trek, you’ll want to start your drive to the national park early to ensure you have plenty of time. It is essential to book the Muller Hut far in advance and bring your own sleeping bag, cooking equipment, and trekking gear. 

All of this extra effort is totally worth it! You’ll spend your driving day hiking up, and your second day in the national park hiking back down, so be sure to plan accordingly. 

However, if you’re looking for something a bit less intense – I have you covered! Some of my favorite hikes in Mount Cook National Park are on the easier side, such as the Tasman Glacier and the Hooker Valley Track. You can still get epic views without having to hike on this 50-minute helicopter flight! It explores Mount Cook, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and has a mountaintop landing that was so beautiful I can’t even describe it. 

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown

The drive from Mount Cook Village to Queenstown is 268 km (167 mi) and will take about 3.5 hours driving straight through. But, I bet you can guess what I’m going to say next, why would we drive straight through on a road trip!? Today is dedicated to this drive and all the fun stops along the way. 

My favorite way to cure my achy muscles from all that hiking is to stop at the Omarama Hot Tubs! Conveniently located along the route, who doesn’t love a relaxing soak with incredible views? Not far down the road, you’ll drive through the gorgeous Lindis Pass, where there’s a scenic lookout (a great quick stop!). 

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

I actually planned this day of driving to go through Wanaka, which is a little out of the way but an important addition to the agenda. Wanaka is another cute “must-see” South Island town. While you’re here, check out the Insta-famous #ThatWanakaTree in the lake, and be sure to go on a thrilling 1.5-hour jetboat ride

Finally, stop by the historic Cardrona Hotel for a burger and beer. It’s one of the few remaining buildings from the Gold Rush Era!

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 or 3 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Day 6 – Day trip to Milford Sound

While I love hanging out in Queenstown, one of my favorite things to do when friends and family are in town is exploring Milford Sound. It is the most magical place in the world, so visiting it is well worth your time. There are two options to get there, either drive yourself or take a tour!

If you need a day off from driving, it’s best to take a full-day tour from Queenstown. This specific Milford Sound tour is great, from my personal experience, and includes lots of stops along the way to break up the drive. They take you on a sightseeing cruise up close to the astounding fiord. It’s a day of adventure with minimal work on your end – the perfect vacation activity, right? 

However, if you have more room in your budget, I recommend going on this Milford Sound overnight cruise! This was on my bucket list for a long time, and after finally getting to do it – it was one of the greatest travel experiences I’ve ever had! If you’re curious about it, read my full review here (spoiler alert: it’s 5 stars!). You can drive back to Queenstown the following day, which is the last day of your road trip. 

A waterfall far away with sun comingg over the top on the milford sound nature cruise new zealand
Milford Sound has the prettiest waterfalls!

Day 7 – Queenstown 

Finally, you’ve reached the end of your road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown. Hopefully, you have a few days to explore my hometown before flying out. If so, here are my top recommendations!

This city is full of adventure, from a thrilling ziplining course and amazing views while paragliding at Bob’s Peak, to jet boating on the Shotover River. I’ve tried all three of these activities multiple times, but I think jet boating is my favorite, and with over 1,500 5-star reviews, I’m not alone here. 

Of course, I can’t mention Queenstown and adventure in the same sentence without referring to bungy jumping – it did start in New Zealand after all! If you’re not a huge adrenaline junkie, you can also take a day trip to Glenorchy. The drive itself is gorgeous and there are lots of Lord of the Rings film locations!

After a day of thrills, you can slow down and relax a bit on this scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu. This cruise is on the historic TSS Earnslaw steamship and will take you to Walter Peak High Country Farm for a freshly made dinner, (it is soo tasty, let me tell you!). You’ll get the full Kiwi experience with sheep shearing and sheepdog shows – how fun!

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

3. Picton to Queenstown – 1 Week Via the East Coast

Bailey sips a glass of wine in the Marlborough Wine Region near Picton
Cheers from Picton!
Bailey walks Peninsula Walkway and Kaikoura Recreation Reserve
Kaikoura Recreation Reserve is gorgeous!

This journey will head from the very north of the South Island in Picton, to Queenstown! Just like the previous itinerary, you can start at either destination and reverse the stops. If you’re coming from the North Island, this will be your perfect route, as the ferry lands in Picton. 

I love this specific itinerary because you’ll follow the East Coast and see the gorgeous beach and wildlife (I’m looking at your Kaikoura!) as well as the mountainous region of the Southern Alps. You’ll see the whole gambit here, so let’s get to it!

Day 1 – Drive to Kaikoura

Hopefully, you’ve had some time to explore Picton before taking off on this road trip, because we are diving right in! While in Picton, be sure to go wine tasting and explore the Marlborough Sound – I loved this 4-hour mail boat cruise. It gave incredible views of the sound and was super quirky and cute!

But now, it’s time to head south to Kaikoura, which is only 156 kilometers (97 miles) and will take about 2 hours without stops. I adore this drive because it takes you along the coast, which is simply gorgeous. You’ll want about 4 hours to drive slow, take in the views, and make a couple of stops along the way. 

One of my favorite ways to get some steps in is to check out the Monkey Bay Walking Track. It will only take about 20 minutes out and back but has fantastic views. Stop in the quaint town of Blenheim for lunch before making your way south to the Ward Beach Boulders! These boulders are perfectly round (crazy, right?) so climb on top of one and take the iconic photo. Last but not least, I always stop at Ohau Point for ocean views – you’ll probably see seals sunbathing here!

Where to Stay in Kaikoura (2 Nights)

Budget – Dolphin Lodge

Mid-range – Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments

Luxury – Shearwater Apartments

A humpback whale breaches the water in Kaikoura, NZ
Seeing whales breach in Kaikoura is unreal!

Day 2 – Kaikoura

Whale watching is easily one of the most popular things to do in Kaikoura. This area of New Zealand is super unique because you can see whales year-round, which is unheard of in most areas of the world! I went on this whale watching tour, and it definitely delivered. 

We saw sperm whales, seals, and the ever-playful Dusky dolphins. Plus, it was on a catamaran, which made the boat ride a lot more stable (perfect, as I get seasick!). This specific tour has a 95% success rate of seeing whales. They are so confident that you’ll see wildlife that if you don’t see any whales, you’ll get 80% of your money back. 

I recommend spending the afternoon/evening exploring the cute town of Kaikoura. Kaikoura Beach is one of my favorite spots to hang out and catch the sunset. Driving up to Kaikoura Lookout is another epic sunset spot! 

Day 3 – Drive to Mount Cook

Today is a long day of driving as you go from Kaikoura to Mount Cook. The entire journey is 505 kilometers (314 miles) and will take around 6.5 hours without any stops. Even though it’s a long drive, you can stop along the way to break up the journey, see some epic sights, and eat yummy food! Get your road trip playlist ready for this long stretch. 

My favorite way to break up the drive is to stop at Waipara Springs winery, just an hour outside of Christchurch to pick up a bottle of wine for later! You can stop in Christchurch if you enjoy cities, and then take the scenic route to Lake Tekapo and catch views of Rakaia Gorge and Mt. Hutt. 

Of course, a stop in Lake Tekapo is a must! That bright blue lake will draw you in. I recommend stopping for lunch at the Jack Rabbit Cafe, which has lake views, good coffee, and even better food. 

And on your way to Mount Cook National Park, you can stop at another gorgeous lake, Lake Pukaki! There are also lots of good viewpoints to pull over and take photos as you see the giant mountain towering in the distance. Have your camera ready!

Where to Stay in Mount Cook (2 Nights)

Budget – Glentanner Park Center 

Mid-range – Aoraki Court Motel

Luxury – Hermitage Hotel

Day 4 – Mount Cook 

Hiking in Mount Cook is a must! If you’re an avid hiker, I highly recommend booking a night at the Mueller Hut and taking on the legendary track. Be sure to book well in advance, as it fills up quickly, and you’ll also have to pack your own sleeping bag and cooking gear. If you do this overnight hike, leave early enough the next day to continue the road trip after. 

For something a bit easier with just as spectacular of a reward, check out the Hooker Valley Track or the Tasman Glacier hike! Hooker Valley Track is a bit of a longer, but easy, journey and the Tasman Glacier should only take 30 minutes. 

No matter what hike you go with, Mount Cook is a sight to see, and the village is quaint and cute. This is one of my favorite areas in all of New Zealand, so I hope you love it as much as I do!

Bailey poses for a photo along the Sealy Tarn Track
Mount Cook National Park is epic!

Related Read: Looking for more hikes? Check out my 10 favorite hikes in Mount Cook National Park!

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown

The drive from Mount Cook to Queenstown is about 3.25 hours straight. So if you added the Mueller Hut hike to your itinerary, hike down early enough so you can make this drive after. If you didn’t take this hike, you can have a slow morning and then hit the road! 

This is another scenic stretch drive with lots of fun stops along the way. I usually take about 6 hours to see everything. 

One of the most unique stops is the Omarama Clay Cliffs, which will have you thinking you drove to Mars or something! You don’t need a ton of time here, just enough to stand and stare at this magnificent sight. I also recommend stopping in Wanaka to see the iconic Wanaka Tree and stop for lunch. I love Big Fig for some healthy but still very tasty dishes. 

Another super quirky sight to see is the Cardrona Bras – a fence with hundreds of bras attached! Finally, swing by Lake Hayes for more lakeside views right before you get to Queenstown.

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

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?

Day 6 – Tour to Milford Sound

This road trip is full of amazing views, unique wildlife, and everything that boasts New Zealand’s unique beauty. But Milford Sound is the pinnacle of it all! I’ve visited Milford so many times and I never get sick of those views. 

It is a bit of a haul for a day trip, as the fiord is a 4-hour drive each way from Queenstown. So I personally prefer to take a day tour. This full-day tour is a fantastic option, it’s well organized, the guides are informative, and it includes a small boat cruise, which means fewer people and better views! 

But if you’re looking for a truly memorable experience, join this scenic flight tour. They will cut the drive time entirely and instead fly you to Milford Sound. It also includes a nature cruise, then they will fly you back. I thought seeing the fiord from above was absolutely amazing! 

Day 7 – Queenstown

Hopefully, you can spend today exploring Queenstown and surrounding areas before your next adventure! If so, take the mini-road trip to Glenorchy and Paradise for more world-class scenery and hiking. These towns are small, so it will be a nice escape from the crowds of the South Island. Or visit Arrowtown, which has a cute downtown full of shops and restaurants, perfect for brunch!

If you only have a short bit of time in Queenstown, you can still get a feel of the city by exploring downtown. I love stopping by Patagonia Chocolates for baked goods and hot chocolate. Having traveled through Argentina myself, I can assure you the chocolates here are as good as the real Patagonia chocolate scene! 

4. Christchurch to Queenstown via the Catlins

Bailey at the New Regent Street Precinct in Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch is such a pretty town!
Bailey enjoys the views of Milford Sound from the side of the boat
Enjoying my favorite place ever, Milford Sound!

This 7-day road trip itinerary is suited for those who like to get off the beaten path and out of the major tourist zones. I’m taking you south to Dunedin, which is incredibly beautiful and full of unique wildlife, like penguins, sea lions, and albatross. But, not many people make it down there! So you’re in for a treat.

This itinerary is also convenient because you start and end in cities with international airports, so there is no backtracking to catch a flight. You can start this road trip in either Christchurch or Queenstown – it works both ways!

Day 1 – Christchurch 

Don’t race out of Christchurch yet! This city is super cute and there are a lot of fun things to do. If this is your first time in the city, a ride on the Christchurch gondola is a must! Let’s be honest, I ride the gondola every time I visit, so you can enjoy it no matter how many times you’ve been here. It’s the best way to see the entire city. The Riverside Market is also a great spot to grab a bite to eat and enjoy a pint in the beer garden!

The International Antarctic Center is a fun experience for families or animal enthusiasts. They have the most adorable Little Blue penguins and a “cuddle zone” where you get swarmed by Huskies – is there anything better in the world?! You can purchase tickets here!

The great thing about Christchurch is that it’s really easy to escape the city and get into nature. I much prefer a walking trail to a skyscraper, so I always visit the Godley Head Loop Track, just 30 minutes outside of the city!

Where to Stay in Christchurch (1 Night)

Budget – Urbanz Christchurch

Mid-range – Tasman Holiday Parks Christchurch

Luxury –  Crown Plaza Christchurch

Day 2 – Drive to Dunedin

Your first stretch of this journey will go from Christchurch to Dunedin, which is about 360 kilometers (224 miles) of coastal views. I like to make this a full-day excursion, but without stops, it will take 4.5 hours. But, who doesn’t love a drive along the coast, you’ll want to get out and take pictures about a million times (at least I do!).

My favorite stops along this drive are at the Moeraki Boulders, which are giant and perfectly round – it’s quite strange. Katiki Point is another unique stop as you can find seals and yellow-eyed penguins at the Lighthouse sanctuary. I also like to get some movement in to counteract the hours of sitting in the car, so I try to allow enough time to hike the Heyward Point Track. This hike takes about 2 hours and has more stunning views of the coast. Check out my full list of stops on this route here!

Tunnel Beach Dunedin
Tunnel Beach, Dunedin

Where to Stay in Dunedin (1 Night)

Budget – On Top Backpackers

Mid-range – 538 Great King Motel

Luxury – Distinction Dunedin Hotel

Day 3 – Drive through the Catlins to Curio Bay

The Catlins is the most underrated part of the South Island of New Zealand. You’ll appreciate exploring the Catlins area if you love rugged, untouched forests and tons of waterfalls (I’m talking TONS). It’s slightly out of the way, but so worth it to get off the tourist track! You’ll be driving 184 kilometers (144 miles), which will only take you about 3 hours, but you’ll definitely want to take more time with this drive. 

The first stop I suggest in the Catlins is the Cathedral Caves, but you can only access these at low tide. So it’s well worth checking the tide times and planning your drive around those – take my word, you don’t want to miss this! I spent some time exploring this area in my campervan and was able to see all of the famous Catlin’s waterfalls. The most impressive are Koropuka and Mclean Falls, but you can read about all of the waterfalls in the area here

Curio Bay is the destination for the night, and try to get there before sunset. You’ll find hundreds of yellow-eyed penguins doing their famous penguin walk as they return to their nests for the night! Last time I stayed at the campground, Little Penguins were wandering around at night – I couldn’t believe it! If you’re freedom camping, there’s a site nearby.

Where to Stay in Curio Bay (1 Night)

Budget – Curio Bay Camping Ground

Mid-range – Waikawa House

Luxury – Beresford Heights

A lady sits at Koropuku Falls in the Catlins region
The Catlins have so many great waterfalls!

Day 4 – Drive to Invercargill for the night or Moray Terrace Reserve Freedom Camping

Can you imagine waking up to see whales and dolphins swimming right in front of you? Well, that’s what you can expect in Curio Bay! Grab your binoculars because you don’t want to miss this sight. There is also a petrified forest on a reef, it’s an incredible place to explore (but you can only visit at low tide). So I recommend spending some time enjoying the area before heading out!

Luckily, today’s road trip is pretty short at just over an hour. But, I’m adding some epic stops, such as the most southern part of the South Island – Slope Point. One of my favorite stops along this drive is the Waipapa Point Lighthouse where there are always seals and sea lions – I told you this itinerary was all about wildlife! For another breathtaking viewpoint, stop by the Cliffs at Fortros Viewpoint. It showcases the rugged coastline and is a lovely spot for a picnic!

Where to Stay in Invercargill (1 Night)

You can either stay the night in Invercargill or freedom camp at Moray Terrace Reserve. I’ve camped here a few times and it’s a nice coast-facing spot! If camping isn’t your thing, I’ve also stayed at the Bella Vista Motel Invercargill. It is a clean and comfortable spot for the night!

Day 5 – Drive to Queenstown 

The drive from Invercargill to Queenstown is 188 kilometers (55 miles) in length and will take about 2.5 hours without any stops. On almost all of these road trip itineraries, I’ve raved about the stops and scenery. I have to be honest – this stretch of road isn’t the most scenic (as it’s mostly farmland) but, I’ve figured out how to make it a little more exciting by adding in some unique stops!

There are quaint towns such as Gore and Winton, shortly outside of Invercargill. Gore is known as the “country music capital of New Zealand” so if that’s your thing, you’ll feel right at home here. Winton has a nice 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) Heritage Trail that will take you by gorgeous historic buildings, like the original post office! I also enjoy stopping by Winton Bakery if I need a road trip snack. 

Garston is home to the Garston Hunny Shop where you can pick up some locally sourced honey! Once you get closer to Queenstown, you can jump on the Wye Creek Track, which is a 7 km (4.3 mi) walking track with great views over Lake Wakatipu. After you complete this hike, you’ll nearly be in Queenstown!

Bailey at Garston Honey Shop, New Zealand
Come get some local honey!

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 Nights)

Budget – Absoloot Hostel Queenstown

Mid-range – La Quinta Queenstown

Luxury – Kamana Lakehouse

Day 6 – Day trip to Milford Sound 

A trip to Queenstown isn’t complete without a day trip to Milford Sound! As the most beautiful part of the South Island (in my opinion), you will have a memorable day to finish out your road trip. There are heaps of tours leaving from here, depending on your budget and time constraints. After visiting for myself more times than I can count, I’ve tried most of them!

I personally prefer to take a tour to Milford Sound from Queenstown, as the drive is a bit long and windy. This full-day coach and nature cruise is a great tour for anyone! The amazing guides give you tons of information about the area, stopping at scenic viewpoints and can’t-miss locations. Then you’ll join a small-boat nature cruise, and I love this one because it can get into the little crevices of the fiord. 

If you’ve been saving up to visit Milford Sound in an epic way, check out this scenic flight! I was lucky enough to go on this flight myself, and it is certainly incredible to see the fiord from above. It also includes a nature cruise, so you can see the waterfalls and wildlife up close too. 

Visiting Milford Sound will be a highlight of your trip, so enjoy the journey and the impressive fiord!

Day 7 – Queenstown 

On the TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu
On the TSS Earnslaw sailing back to Queenstown!

It’s your last day of 7 days of epic road trip destinations. If you have some time to spend in Queenstown, I highly recommend it! 

For a daytime activity, head up to Bob’s Peak gondola for sweeping views of the city. I also love the luge, which is a downhill track that picks up serious speed. Check out my tips on riding the luge before you take off!

However, the quintessential Queenstown activity is boarding the historic TSS Earnslaw cruise across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm for a gourmet barbecue dinner. You’ll be blown away by the scenery from the boat and on the farm. I think it fully encompasses New Zealand life, so I always bring people here when they visit. You can check the details and reserve your spot here!

Some other favorite Queenstown activities include a scenic drive to Glenorchy and brunch at Yonder! You can also head out to Arrowtown and have brunch at the Provisions of Arrowtown and explore this quaint mining town.

Related Read: Have more time? Check out my 14-day itineraries to spend two weeks on the South Island!

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 stands overlooking Mount Cook National Park from one side of Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Thanks for reading!

Phew, that’s a lot of driving! You’re in for an incredible road trip, no matter which of these 4 itineraries you choose. A week exploring the South Island is just enough time to dive into all the hiking trails, mountain peaks, and stretches of scenic roads. Hopefully, you can tackle one of these road trips, and then go for another one!

If you found this blog helpful, then check out some of my other South Island articles. Having traveled all over New Zealand, I’m a bit of an expert and love sharing my favorite tips – here are a few below!

16 Things to Know BEFORE Renting a Car in New Zealand

75 EPIC Things to do in Queenstown, NZ

North Island VS South Island of New Zealand – Which is Better?