New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary

Aotearoa is so beautiful that all you need to get a car and drive! Just make sure you can afford many stops and mind-blowing views. Here we share our 2 weeks on South Island (during December and January). We tried to cover as much as possible from the vast lands of this endlessly fascinating country. After two weeks on a road trip on North Island of New Zealand, now it’s time we continued our road trip itinerary to the South Island!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Picton

Day 13 The silver Christmas coin

By 9 am together with our car we were on a ferry sailing to the South Island. Arriving at Picton was a beautiful experience as you navigate around the fiords. We drove a while on the Queen Charlotte Drive to be mesmerized by the more and more views of the Marlborough Sounds. The secluded beaches were full of people on Christmas picnics. Our Christmas dinner was in Blenheim where we met some new friends in a beautiful garden villa.

It is easy to make friends in this country – everyone is so friendly and nice. And as this is New Zealand, the country that welcomes everyone – we had many nationalities on the table contributing to the multicultural feast!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Blenheim

Day 14 Wilder than Sauvignon Blanc on a lonely beach

We saw Blenheim coming to life on Boxing day and hurried up for a wine tasting before we leave for the west coast. We stopped at Nelson Lakes National park for a picnic lunch at Lake Rotoiti and being lunch for the insects at the lake Rotoroa. We reached Granity (Miners Bay) on the west coast just in time for the low tide of the Tasman Sea and to have the whole huge beach to ourselves.

Sandflies and mosquitoes are quite annoying if you don’t have the right repellent or the right amount of wind and local beer!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Nelson Lakes National park, Rotoroa lake
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Miners bay

Day 15 Watch out! A cart of coal passing!

As we were at the Miners Bay we visited the old village of Denniston and the coal mine. An experienced ex-miner took us through the history and guided us through the mine itself. We were assigned different mining jobs (paid 3 shillings per hour) and rewarded with scenic views from the historic train. We drove south along the gorgeous rugged west coast and stopped to explore the Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes. In the distance, we noticed a playful group of dolphins performing for us. The scenes along the coast were not worse while driving to Greymouth, the biggest town on the west coast. We walked on the Great Wall of Greymouth which was erected to protect the town from another flood.

Two hewers, countless Pohutukawa trees, a curvy stretch of road…

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Denniston coal mine
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Punakaiki rocks and beach

Day 16 Shiny bits in the punchbowl

Shantytown is a replica of a gold mining town where we rode the steam train to try gold panning and now we are wealthier with a few specks of gold. We approached Arthur’s Pass which is the highest highway in the Southern Alps. After the magnificent view of the Otira Viaduct and the local mountain parrot Kea we reached Arthur’s Pass village to hike up to the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall amidst alpine scenery.

Alpine huts, the shop closing at 5, picnic under the tree vs. sweaty hiking, that kind of stuff…

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Shantytown
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Arthur’s Pass

Day 17 Arthur has one hell of a pass

We couldn’t get bored on our way to Christchurch because of the even more magnificent views our road offered. Huge mountains hanging over the lake, stone forest – things like these. As soon as we arrived in Christchurch and finished our lunch we headed out to the sightseeing center of the city.

There are many nice things to see like the parks and gardens, the historic buildings and the cute vintage tram, but you can’t miss the post-earthquake impression. The cathedral is half-falling apart as many other buildings – old and new. The Re:start mall comes to support the cause of post-earthquake recovery. A danceomat where you pay for the music and you have the floor for yourself near the Regent street and next to an art sculpture home for swamp dwellers.

A place to visit like no place else. Let’s hope no quakes anymore!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Arthur’s Pass
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Christchurch

Day 18 From the Riviera to the Penguinarium

While you’re dreaming of being part of an Antarctica expedition you can visit the Antarctic center in Christchurch. It gives detailed information on every aspect of life there, including experiencing a snowstorm and riding haggalans. Don’t miss the little blue penguins feeding time! Only about 80km away, there is another beautiful peninsula – the Bank peninsula, which gives tourists drive opportunities and is a nice rural escape from the city. The little French village Akaroa is a picturesque and peaceful place to visit not only for the francophones. Just make sure you stick to the tourist drives and not the state highway 75.

Don’t let the narrow roads disturb you! That’s how you’ll drive slowly and have more time to take in the views!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Christchurch Antarctic center

Day 19 Your boat is never big enough

We drove towards the Alpine Pacific triangle to visit Kaikoura – “eat crayfish” village. The village lives for and from whale watching tours. The sperm whales are huge creatures that can scare you with their size – 20m long and 3 times heavier than the boat. They finish their dives with a spectacular tale splash. We saw two of them and it was totally worth the 2-hour shaky experience in open waters.

North Hagley Park in Christchurch the new year’s open-air party was rocking with high-quality local music and alcohol and smoke-free venue. We greeted the new year 2016 eleven hours earlier than our friends home did.

Rock the boat or rock the party – they’ve got it all!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Kaikoura
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Kaikoura

Day 20 View of sea or sea of views?

Heading to Dunedin after regrouping our energy (we partied till late last night) and luggage. We stopped for a picnic lunch in the city of Timaru. It was so empty and soulless before we met a nice lady closing the ISite place. She told us that the people were on the beach and there were a fair there.

So this is our lunch picnic location, after driving no more than 3 minutes we arrived at a big green park full of campervans and retro cars and people having a party around them. A little more far the green park was evolving in a beautiful city beach. We found a small shady green hill with a view towards the beach, this is our romantic picnic for the first time in the new year. Moeraki Boulders was our next stop. Many almost perfectly shaped rock balls are laying on the beach attracting many tourists taking weird photos. Dunedin was also calm and empty but had enough open restaurants for our dinner while observing its Octagon central area.

Nothing stops working just because it’s New year. But be ready for the 15% holiday supplement unless you’re packed for another picnic or you a boat to entertain yourself, as every proud kiwi!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Moeraki Boulders

Day 21 Alice in Wonderland

Pretty tough schedule for today. Visited the central railway station with Saturday’s artisan market. A Lebanese old lady offered us homemade vegetarian meals, so we packed our picnic lunch. Then we walked on the world’s steepest residential street according to the Guinness book of records. Baldwin street gains 1 meter vertically for every 2.86 meters horizontally and is a major attraction for walkers, runners, bikers, drivers and so on. Not far from it is the Botanical garden of the city. It is a home of a species from all over the world and it is built on three vertical levels. You can lose yourself in the aromas if the herb garden or search for something more exotic in the South African garden. Then settle all your senses while having a picnic and protecting your food from those always hungry seagulls.

The Larnach castle in the Otago peninsula is the only castle in the whole country and therefore the most beautiful. If you ever wondered if bankers made enough money go and check the castle’s premises and garden. We ended up in the Penguin Place, reserve for the very rare yellow-eyed penguins who are so independent and anti-social that we had to hide in trenches in order to observe them in their natural habitat. While the older ones were in the see fishing we managed to see the chicks waiting for their meal. At the penguin hospital, we saw an adult female penguin recovering from its rendezvous with a shark.

Starting from Canterbury, Otago and Southland made no exception in terms of dryness. The fire alerts and a total fire ban were on. This was a whole new season/climate introduced for us in NZ. Especially if you compare with the lush green fields and forests in the north.

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Dunedin, Baldwin street
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Otago Peninsula, Penguin place
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Otago Peninsula, Penguin place

Day 22 Where the road ends and pure native begins

Early morning drive to Bluff for catching the ferry to Steward Island. In Bluff, we saw Stirling Point. This is where the start/end of the state highway 1 is – the highway crossing the whole country all the way to Cape Reinga. The ferry experience was more than shaky, for one hour the small ferry-boat was fighting big time with the huge waves while sailing to the island’s capital Oban. We were advised by the owner of the hostel we stayed in to take a three-hour hike to the Horseshoe bay passing bush, forests, secluded beaches and many of the birds typical for more virgin regions of NZ. A couple of seasons changed as well. This island has a special magic – only one small township and hundreds of hikes to conquer.

Birdwatchers – this is your place! The most native and intact bird life will greet you here! And there are small islands with no predators – imagine the bird diversity over there! 

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Stewart Island

Day 23 Let them take your breath away

We were happy to wake up on a nice summer morning which allowed us to take off the wind jackets and enjoy a smooth ferry ride back to Bluff. In about 400 km journey, last third of which under the no fuel warning, we arrived at Milford Sound in Fiordland. Those landscapes made by glaciers in the past or Maori gods (you choose which version to believe in) are impossible to describe. That’s why we choose to board on an overnight cruise to enjoy the fiords during different parts of the day. We hiked a bit of the famous Milford track while being bitten by the nasty sandflies. And when the night fell, all we could do is to stare the starry skies and don’t believe how beautiful and silent it is. No sound, just water below and majestic mounts around.

The road to Milford Sound is at least a two-hour journey in Magicland. Make sure you have enough time to stop and admire and also a wide-angle camera. Those cliffs could be quite high and out of sight! 

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Milford Sound

Day 24 The force awakens

Early wake up to see the color palette the sunrise offered. Approached the Tasman sea from the sound. On the way back we were entertained by playful dolphins and seals competing with our boat. As soon as the sun was up reflections in the water become surreal. We headed to Te Anau lake town where we enjoyed the lakefront sunset, organized some adventures for Queenstown, watched the Star Wars film (yes, with all the mesmerized locals wondering how two tourists found tickets –  someone canceled right before we go).

No fuel next 130 km is a real road sign in New Zealand and it is not a joke. Make sure you have enough fuel or go back to the nearest gas station if you see this sign. You don’t want to explore the price of the emergency fuel stations if any!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Milford Sound
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Milford Sound

Day 25 Smart and slide

Moving to Queenstown region – the first stop is Arrowtown. This is another magical and well-preserved town from the gold fever times. It still has the Chinese village of Chinese gold-diggers and all of the main street buildings keep the outlook and memories from those times. We visit the Wanaka’s Puzzling World museum – the place to move your brain a little bit with plenty and illusions and riddles to guess and also the home of the great maze which we totally underestimated but eventually managed to exit. We arrived in Queenstown to climb with the cable car and take in the amazing views of the city, the mountains, and the lake while sliding down in our toboggan Luges. Lovely funny ride! And we were in our Fernhill road neighborhood just in time for an unexpectedly nice dinner in a local wine restaurant.

Those amazing wines of New Zealand need to be combined with great food. As we expected seafood is also fresh and nice but kiwis also have good cheeses from the many sheep on the island and tasty fresh fruits and veggies.

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Queenstown

Day 26 Some of them can fly, some of them can swim, but all of them can drink

We started with an extreme Shotover river jet ride. Those jet boats are initially invented for swimming in very shallow waters and nowadays for Formula 1 rides in the river. The feeling of riding with 85 km/h around killer-cliffs and then swirling around your own axis – great wet-windy-fun! Everything is expensive in the adventure capital but somehow the helicopter scenic flights were reasonably priced compared to other countries we check prices. So we hopped on a helicopter to explored the massive range of The Remarkables. They totally deserve their name! We landed on the rocks somewhere uphill to grab a 360-degree-view of the amazing area and sharply flew down to the airport. Enough adventure for today – we thought – and started our wine trail tour to explore the Central Otago wineries – from lavender cozy tasting doors and reconstructed churches to huge modern cellars and caves.

You should do at least one extreme thing to be able to call yourself a wanna-be kiwi! All the adventures are extremely safe and will bring you to test your limits – physical or emotional!

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Shotover river jet ride
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Queenstown, helicopter ride Remarkables

Day 27 Swing over the abyss

This was the scariest adventure we picked – the Nevis Swing over a canyon. Getting there only happens with a 4WD vehicle so image where you’re going to. The swing platform just hangs in the air about 160m above the river. The World’s Biggest Swing has 300 meters of arc and gives you options for tandem, backward, forwards, track’n’trailer, etc. positions just in case your adrenaline is not high enough. The guys working there have a particularly funny sense of humor and do their best to shoot the best photos and videos from 6 cameras. We survived the swing and are now proudly certified. It was that kind of day with shaky adrenaline and therefore the flight to Auckland was quite extreme on taking off. But later the flight assistant asked me for an ID to serve me wine and that compliment made me forget the mixed stomach feelings. The Mexican dinner in Auckland as well. Here are some tasty and affordable eats in Auckland.

They always ask us where our accent was from. When kiwis hear we’re from Bulgaria they become super excited and thankful because “We don’t get to meet many Bulgarians here” or even “Wow, you are my first Bulgarians”. It is really cool to have the privilege to build the image for a whole nation. 

New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Nevis Canyon and Nevis Swing
New Zealand, South Island road trip itinerary, Nevis Canyon and Nevis Swing

Day 28 Haere rā!E noho rā!

Last day – let’s explore another island in the Hauraki Gulf. We’re technically back on the North Island again. It was like yesterday when we sailed to Waiheke island but today we’re going to the less urbanized island – Rangitoto. No food, no hotels – just tramping tracks. We climbed through lava fields to reach the summit and see the Auckland skyline in the distance. Nature is quite adaptive – many bush and trees along the way to give us shade from the burning black ground sun. And the lava caves are cool to explore for the more flexible and tiny ones. Tired and dirty we returned to Auckland to catch the first flight of our returning home.

We did a lot and saw a lot but we also started compiling a list for our next visit of Aotearoa – Cape Kidnappers, the Abel Tasman National Park, Te Papa museum in Wellington, Mt. Cook, swimming with dolphins in open waters, …

New Zealand, North Island road trip itinerary, Auckland, Rangitoto Island

Hopefully, we’ll be back soon to the endlessly enchanting and breathtaking country! Thank you, New Zealand!

So this was our itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand! We’ll be happy if you check out our North Island itinerary as well! 

2 Responses

  1. […] One of my favorite things we did in New Zealand was the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walks.  I didn’t know what it was called at the time, just that we were in Tasman Valley and I liked it a lot.  My last post on this was, uhh, not good, so I’m here to update it (as of 10/23/2019) so you can actually plan a trip to the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walks.  These are the perfect addition to any South Island road trip. […]

  2. […] If you’re travelling in winter, Skiing in Queenstown should most definitely be on your New Zealand South Island itinerary. […]