This post is a follow up to the itinerary we posted for our two week road trip around New Zealand’s North Island. It was surprisingly popular so we thought we’d share our South Island driving itinerary with you as well in case it helps you to plan your travels.
Our time here was pretty special – we enjoyed some beautiful beaches and coastal walks, were lucky enough to have good weather for exploring Glacier country and we spent a perfect few days relaxing and hiking around Wanaka and Queenstown.
There are a couple of caveats on this south island driving itinerary though – our time on the island was shorter than we would have hoped due to ferry issues caused by the earthquake. We’d aimed for this itinerary to take us through just over 3 weeks but in the end we only had 2.5. We also missed a couple of places we would have liked to see in different circumstances – Kaikoura was closed due to earthquake damage and a couple too many days spent in Queenstown meant we didn’t have the time to visit Dunedin.
In spite of these omissions it was still an amazing journey through the highlights of South Island – driving 2125km in the 2.5 weeks we were here. Here’s where we went, what we did and what it cost us:
1. Marlborough Sounds
Arriving early in the morning in Picton, we headed straight for Blenheim to spend a couple of days soaking in the sights of Marlborough Sounds. This is a beautiful area, famous for the production of Sauvignon Blanc and featuring many wineries to explore. Blenheim is the main town and a great base for exploring the wider region.
Blenheim: the town itself has plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants and is worth spending an afternoon exploring.
Queen Charlotte Track: this trail around Queen Charlotte Sound is 71km long stretching to ship cove and typically takes 2-3 days to complete. We took the easy option and did the 4 hour return from Anakiwa.
Pelorus Bridge & Sounds: famous as a film location from the Hobbit, this area has plenty of enjoyable riverside walks to take in. The path leading to the waterfalls has stunning scenery on offer.
Blenheim Top 10 Holiday Park – $42 for a standard top 10 experience with decent facilities. Wifi extra charge.
This is renowned as an arty town with a thriving creative community – expect to see numerous galleries and handicraft markers and shops. We only spent a day here on our south island driving itinerary, but the city centre is a nice place to while away a few hours at one of the many cafes or bars.
Tahuna Beach: it’s a coastal town so don’t miss the beach, Tahuna is particularly beautiful.
Cathedral: Changing the small town into a city in 1858, this cathedral is worth a visit if that’s your kind of thing. Best reached up the steps from the city centre, it features English Gothic architecture and is constructed using Takaka marble.
Sunday Artisan Market: If you can time your visit right, each Sunday a small artisan market takes place with food stalls and stalls selling handmade goods.
Top 10 Holiday Park, sadly whilst we had intended to free camp we heard a lot of nightmare stories about locals attacking and stealing from campervans so we ended up at a paid site. We’d expected the city to be supportive of free camping given its liberal reputation and many free camping sites, however apparently many residents are unhappy with this taking place and some make their displeasure known. Pricey at $49 plus internet costs.
3. Abel Tasman
New Zealand’s smallest but possibly most beautiful national park, we stayed here longer than we’d originally pencilled in on our south island driving itinerary – extending it from 1-2 nights – as we enjoyed it so much. There’s loads of stunning countryside to enjoy, as well as the famous coastline with all its hidden coves to explore. If we’d have had time we definitely would have tried the full coastal trail walk, which is 60km in length, but we stuck with the day hike which was one of the highlights of our South Island trip and something we’d definitely recommend doing. There’s also lots of kayaking trips in this area if that’s your kind of thing.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track: if you’re here, you have to visit the national park itself and the coastal track is just beautiful. Based on our experience we’d recommend getting the water taxi to Anchorage Beach and walking back to Marahau. Make sure you check out the little cove at the edge of Anchorage Bay past the rocks – stunning little area with amazing views. Our Abel Tasman hike was amazing, I really can’t recommend it highly enough!
Split Apple Beach: luckily this was included on our water taxi trip but we would have visited either way. The beach itself is really nice with its main feature the rock located just out in the bay that resembles an apple being split in half.
Tonga Island: Another stop off point on our water taxi trip, this island is known not just for being a typically stunning tropical island but also for its population of New Zealand fur seals.
Glow Worm Walk: there are several of these around but the one near Bethany Park campsite is awesome. It’s self guided and easy to find – we wandered round the trail for around 30 minutes and saw so many glow worms. A really fun and quick extra thing to do if you have time one night.
Bethany Park – another Christian campsite, this is run by a lovely family and offers great facilities in beautiful countryside surroundings. $35 for 2 on a powered site.
4. West Land: Greymouth & Hokitika
We broke up the long drive down the coast to Glacier Country with a couple of stop offs where we ended up lingering longer than expected. Our initial intentions were to stay at Greymouth after calling in at Punakeiki Beach (home of the famous pancake shaped rocks), but we didn’t see much there and headed on to the smaller Hokitika. It was so nice we spent 2 nights and explored several walks around local lakes and creeks, as well as seeing some impressive waterfalls and a famous blue water gorge. Sadly heavy rainstorms meant the water wasn’t so blue when we were there but don’t let that put you off.
Punakeiki Beach: it felt like a very long drive to see some rocks but it’s worth stopping off to see this. There’s an easy path along the coast where you can see many of the famous rock formations and get great ocean views.
Hokitika Gorge and Lake Walk: this would be great on a sunny day as we enjoyed it even in torrential rain! There’s an hour’s trail around the gorge and its suspension bridge, and the lake is also surrounded with easy trails to explore.
Dorothy Falls & Creek: not sure if it was just because of the weather but this is a seriously impressive waterfall – you can get right up close and take some great pictures.
Family owned campsite ‘Cloud 9’ was a great find – good facilities and just $35 a night – one of our favourite campsites on our south island driving itinerary.
5. Glacier Country
Famous (obviously) for its glaciers, one of the many unique features of this area is that the glaciers are so close to both rain forests and the ocean. Sadly the glaciers themselves have retreated hugely in recent years so whilst you can get some reasonable views on the nearby hiking trails, we 100% recommend a helicopter trip to Franz Josef or Fox Glacier to get the full experience of these amazing places. Also, whilst it was smaller than anticipated, Lake Matheson is only a couple of minutes down the road from Fox Village and offers stunning alpine scenery and the famous reflections of Mount Cook on a good day. Whatever the weather, this is a must visit on any south island driving itinerary even if you don’t use this one!
Franz Josef Glacier: we enjoyed a couple of nice walks round the glacier area, the Franz Josef Glacier Trail offering the best views. The town is also a good place to stop for a break and some food/drinks.
Fox Glacier: we chose to Heli Hike here due to slightly lower prices and less well worn hiking routes than Franz Josef and would definitely recommend as this was another huge highlight of our trip to New Zealand.
Lake Matheson: the full walk around the lake is worth doing and takes around an hour with time to stop for pictures. Amazing views of snow capped mountains and alpine meadows.
Sites start to get a bit pricier and stay this way as you travel further south – $46 for a powered site at the Top 10 plus internet costs.
Journey to Wanaka – Highlights
The road to Wanaka from Fox is beautiful, with many stopping points and lookouts signposted along the way. One of our favourite drives, we definitely recommend stopping off at Roaring Billy Falls and at the Blue Pools – both are around a 30 minute walk to explore the views.
Wanaka itself is a beautiful little Alpine town built around the lake. The waterfront is packed with lively bars and cafes and it’s a great place to sit and enjoy a few drinks and watch the world go by. Famous for its skiing in winter and many other adrenaline adventures in summer, it’s also a lovely place to relax for a day or two. We enjoyed some great walks around the area.
Roy’s Peak: if you’re a keen hiker and up for a more challenging walk, this return trip takes 5-6 hours. The trail starts just outside of town and the summit offers incredible views of Wanaka.
Waterside: as above, no trip to the town is complete without a wander round the waterfront and enjoying one of the many bars and restaurants it has to offer.
Lake & Wanaka Tree: there’s a nice easy trail around the lake where you can enjoy great lakeside views as well as seeing the famous Wanaka tree which thrives in the lake itself.
This was ultimately the best campsite we stayed at on our south island driving itinerary despite some stiff competition – Kiwi Holiday Park was $49 but included unlimited free wifi and had a spa and sauna to help relax after all that hiking.
The most famous stop on any South Island driving itinerary, if not any itinerary that covers the whole of New Zealand, we completely fell for its charms and spent several days longer than we’d initially planned. I’d advise 4-5 days minimum and longer if possible to enjoy the gorgeous lakeside and mountain views as well as the many brilliant cafes and restaurants in the city. Apparently more tourists visit Queenstown annually than live in the whole of South Island so be prepared for it to be busy and full of Brits! Great for adrenalin hunters with many options for Sky diving, bungee jumping, paragliding and countless more similar activities, it’s also a great place to just chill for a few days.
Queenstown Gardens: free to enter and overlooking the lake, the gardens are great for a wander with pine forests and a lovely rose garden.
Lake Wakatipu: you can’t really miss this as the city is built around it but take some time to explore the many trails leading around it which give great views, especially on a sunny day.
Tiki Trail to Bob’s Peak: save 33NZD per person on taking the gondola and enjoy a steep but manageable hike to the top. Awesome views and a nice cafe at the summit and experienced hikers can extend the route to take in Ben Lomond.
Milford Sound: splash out on a trip to Milford or Doubtful Sounds – we did Milford and loved it although we were lucky enough to get brilliant weather. We saved the 4 hour drive there and got coach transfers to Milford as well as taking the cruise.
There are a couple of sites in town, we spent our visit at Creeksyde as while it was a little pricey at $58 not including wifi, it was a great location just a couple of minutes walk outside the centre of Queenstown.
Journey to Timaru: highlights
Probably our favourite drive in the whole of our South Island driving itinerary, the journey from Queenstown to Timaru follows an alpine highway through beautiful countryside and a huge variety of stunning landscapes. Be sure to stop at Roaring Meg lookout and the Lindis Pass which are just 5-10 minute stop offs. Late spring / early summer brings fields of lupins in every colour so get some pictures of these if you can.
A larger than expected city located in the ‘roaring 40s’ on the east side of South Island, we really liked Timaru. The coastline is really beautiful with centrally located Caroline Bay apparently one of the most loved beaches by New Zealander’s. We were due to head here after a stop off at Dunedin but arrived straight from Queenstown. The centre is packed with shops and some great food options – try to stop for brunch at ‘Replenish’ cafe on the Main Street.
Botanic Gardens: you can drive through these which is a bit strange but we think you’re supposed to stop off and look at the various features of the garden as you go round. Duck ponds and rose gardens were a highlight for us.
Caroline Bay: as already mentioned, a popular town centre beach with a fair nearby and some lovely gardens to walk through. If you’re lucky you can see penguins and seals although sadly we didn’t spot any.
Coastal Walkway: this is an easy path that takes you past a picturesque lighthouse before seeing the rugged coastline which is the site of several historic shipwrecks on dashing rocks.
Prices go back to more typical costs at this stage – $38 for a powered site for two at the Glenmark Holiday Park. Really nice family owned site a short walk from the beach.
Devastated by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, Christchurch is a city that’s getting back on its feet as major building works continue to re-establish the city centre. We were taken aback by how bad the damage was and how 5 years later the signs of how the city suffered are still so visible.
Sadly we only had a day here on our south island driving itinerary but we crammed in a lot – visiting the coast at New Brighton, before spending time exploring the centre. If you head to Quake City, the museum dedicated to remembering the earthquakes, which we highly recommend, do try to make time to watch the feature length documentary featuring survivors’ stories. This is incredibly moving and explains the human impact of what took place. The Canterbury museum is another great spot – free entry and contains plenty of interesting exhibits on the history of the area. The model 19th century street and virtual reality experience in the Air New Zealand exhibit are highlights.
Quake City: a museum dedicated to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, this is paid entry but more than worth it. We spent a couple of hours looking at the exhibits and watching the documentary and were shocked to learn how badly the city had been affected.
Empty White Chairs Installation: After visiting the museum, we took a walk to this installation which features a chair for each of the lives lost in the earthquakes, including baby carriers, high chairs and wheelchairs. Another stark reminder of the city’s loss.
Canterbury Museum: This reminded us of Te Papa, as well as the American Museum of Natural History and is a great collection that gives a great social and natural history of New Zealand.
Botanic Gardens: Right next to the Canterbury Museum, the Botanic Gardens are free to enter and a lovely place to spend a couple of hours wandering round, they have a great rose garden amongst other features.
We paid $36 for a powered site at South Brighton Holiday Park but wouldn’t recommend. It’s quite far from town and is pretty run down – portaloos and shower blocks.
Finally – the best place we stayed the night before our early flight was the Jucy Snooze right by the airport. It was about $50 for 2 ‘pods’ which are really comfortable dorm beds, just like the kind of pods you get in Japanese capsule hotels. It’s super clean and has an awesome common room area and great kitchen facilities.
South Island Driving Itinerary Summary
Total driving distance: 2125km
Fuel cost: $537
Camping: we did no free camping on this leg of the trip as we needed good internet for work and saved money by cooking more at campsites than eating out and therefore spent $805 on 17 nights at powered sites.
South Island Activities & Prices (per person)
Abel Tasman water taxi to Anchorage Bay: $35
Heli Hike Fox Glacier: $425
Queenstown Underwater Observatory: $5 (241)
Quake City – $16
All other hikes / activities were free so we did less paid stuff here than North Island but the things we paid for were more expensive on the whole.
Here’s a sample list of prices for activities in Queenstown that we took a picture of which gives more of an insight into typical pricing for popular activities to help you budget your south island driving itinerary: