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Last Updated on 13/11/2021

New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. Endless mountain ranges, glacial lakes, Jurassic rainforest, pristine beaches and fjords pull out all the stops. There’s so much to do and see but don’t worry, I’ve done all the planning for you with this tried and tested itinerary. 

In this article, I will walk you through my ultimate New Zealand South Island itinerary. It’s packed full of jaw-dropping scenery, adrenaline-pumping adventures and all the top places you need to visit on your trip to New Zealand!

Head’s up, this post is a long one. Don’t have time to read it all now? Pin the image for later!

Click here to discover the best New Zealand South Island itinerary which is fully flexible to your trip. Featuring the best things to do, how to get around, where to stay and more!

About this South Island itinerary 

Milford Sound is one of the must-do activities on this New Zealand South itinerary!

This New Zealand South Island itinerary starts and finishes in Christchurch as it makes the most sense if you’re flying to Christchurch Airport. However, you can start anywhere you like and even do it in reverse. Whichever way works for you!

I started this itinerary in Picton after coming off the ferry from Wellington on the North Island which works too. You just finish with Kaikoura rather than start with it. 

Other than that, I followed this exact itinerary and had such an incredible time exploring the best places to go on the South Island. If you follow this route, I can guarantee you will too. 

Here’s your ultimate South Island road trip!

Want to cover New Zealand’s North Island too? Check out my epic 2-week itinerary here.

How much time should you spend on New Zealand’s South Island?

This itinerary fits comfortably into 16 days starting and ending in Christchurch. If you don’t quite have that amount of time, I’ve made some alternative itinerary suggestions: 

7 days South Island 

Start from Queenstown if you can. You can fly from any of the major cities in New Zealand. From there, spend a day or two enjoying the town before heading to Milford Sound. After that, go up to Wanaka and Franz Josef. 

You can then either go back down to Queenstown or as an added bonus, you can keep going to Greymouth and ride the TranzAlpine Railway over to Christchurch. 

10 days South Island

Follow the itinerary from Christchurch but skip Abel Tasman. Instead, take State Highway 7 to Westport and continue the itinerary from there. This will take you down to Queenstown. 

If you need to get back up to Christchurch, you can drive along State Highway 8. Bear in mind it will take about 6 hours. Alternatively, you can fly or take an InterCity bus.  

14 days South Island 

You can pretty much do most of this itinerary! If 14 days is all you have, just miss out the two days in the Deep South. 

If you can squeeze in those extra two days then I really recommend it. It’s not every day you get to see one of the most southerly cities in the world!

3 weeks South Island 

Lucky you! The perfect amount of time to New Zealand’s South Island and you can really slow down and enjoy it. Follow this itinerary and spend an extra day in Abel Tasman and Wanaka.

You can also stay longer in Queenstown and make the most of the town and surrounding day trips. You can venture out to historic Arrowtown, experience the Otago wine country or go further on to Mt Aspiring National Park.  

Check out my round-up of where to stay in New Zealand.

How to get around New Zealand

Just like the North Island, the best way to get around the South Island is by doing a road trip. Don’t drive? Don’t worry! The itinerary is still absolutely doable. Here are some options below: 

Hop-on, hop-off bus pass 

Hop-on, hop-off bus passes are the best way to get around New Zealand if you don’t drive or don’t fancy hiring a vehicle. Two of the biggest bus tours are Kiwi Experience and Stray. 

A popular choice for backpackers and solo travellers, these passes have set itineraries that are flexible. This means you don’t have to stick to their timeframe. You can hop off at a stop and hop back on the bus when you want to continue your journey. 

All transport is covered in the pass and you have the option to book activities and accommodation on board. 

Editor’s tip: I did the Kiwi Experience Whole Kit & Caboodle bus pass which includes the North and South Islands. Kiwi Experience covers the whole itinerary I’ve outlined below except for the leg to Dunedin. Read my Kiwi Experience review here!

Small-group tours

Similar to hop-on, hop-off passes, you can do a small-group tour. The most popular tour operators are G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. 

Both promote responsible adventure travel and offer authentic experiences. You can also pick a tour based on your interests – such as culture, the outdoors, food or all of them!

Your transport, activities and itinerary are taken care of but you don’t have the flexibility to stop and explore on your own on their South Island itineraries.

Local buses

New Zealand’s public transport is a little limited when you’re travelling across the country. However, it’s still possible to build a South Island itinerary using local buses like InterCity. 

You have the freedom to go wherever you want, but you’re still limited by bus routes and timetables. I recommend that you get a FlexiPass as you can make flexible bookings, top-up any time and manage all your routes online. 

Hire a campervan / car

If you want complete freedom, hiring a campervan or car is your best bet. A campervan is a good option if you want to save money on food and accommodation too. Alternatively, you can hire a car and stay in accommodation along the way. 

Only do this option if you feel confident driving and you’re happy to do long stints on the road. You may need to customise your itinerary to suit how long you feel comfortable driving.

Map courtesy of Wanderlog, the best travel planner app

New Zealand South Island Travel Itinerary

Image of the retro tram in Christchurchwith people sitting watching. One of the top things to do in Christchurch on the New Zealand South Island itinerary.

Brayden Gray

Day 1: Christchurch 

Stay: Jucy Snooze Hostel (budget) | Cosa Hotel (mid-range)

If you’ve just landed, welcome to New Zealand’s South Island! You’ve got such an exciting itinerary ahead. If you’ve come from the North Island, you’ll have already had a taste of some of this country’s incredible scenery. 

Unless you have buckets of time, I don’t recommend staying too long in Christchurch as there’s already so much to do on the South Island. Use this first day to rest and get yourself ready, whether that’s picking up your rental or working out your transport pickups. 

That being said, if you do want to explore, here are two things you can do in Christchurch: 

Quake City 

As you may already know, Christchurch suffered from some major earthquakes back in 2011. Quake City is a museum that recounts the events through personal stories of those affected. It has some really powerful exhibitions that explain why and how it happened. 

The tram 

Want to tour the city? Why not sit back and relax on a beautifully restored heritage tram? The activity comes complete with live commentaries about the city. You can also get hop-on, hop-off passes and go exploring on foot. View here.

Day 2: Christchurch to Kaikoura 

A whale preparing to dive down in the middle of the sea in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Davide Dalfovo

Highlights: A coastal drive to Kaikoura for whale watching and dolphin encounters!

Distance: 184km (114 miles) | Total drive time: 2.25 hours 

Stay: Dusky Lodge (budget) | The Fairways at Ocean Ridge (mid-range)

Take a drive along the coast up State Highway 1 to get to Kaikoura. Known as the place where the land meets the sea, this small peninsula and coastal town of its namesake is one of the best places to go whale watching in New Zealand. 

The most common whale sightings you encounter here are the resident sperm whales. The chances of seeing them is a pretty decent 95% throughout the year. Other popular residents are dusky dolphins, fur seals and little blue penguins.

If you don’t have time to see whales and dolphins on day 2 you can always do it in the morning of day 3 before continuing your journey around the South Island. 

Whale watching 

Operated by Whale Watch Kaikoura, this tour was one of the main highlights of my New Zealand trip!

The operator has a 95% success rate so there’s a good chance you’ll see one. If not, you’ll get an 80% discount. As a bonus, you may even see dolphins, seals, albatross and penguins too!

Tours run daily and all year round with scheduled times starting from 7:15am and ending at 12:45pm. Additional times are added on during the peak season (November to March). Prices start from 60–150 NZD. Book in advance to avoid disappointment. View it here.

Ethics: Animal tourism can be exploitative so I made sure to do my research. 

The operator’s catamarans have been designed with the wellbeing of the whales in mind. They’re powered by inboard diesel engines that minimise underwater noise to prevent noise pollution. This is important as whales use sound to navigate. 

Dolphin encounter 

You will almost certainly encounter dolphins if you go whale watching! If you want to get an even closer look experience, you can do a dolphin encounter too. 

This tour operator allows you to both watch and swim with dolphins all on the same vessel. Swimmers are kitted out in a wetsuit and snorkel and tours run three times a day. Only 13 people will have the chance to do this per vessel so if you’re keen, make sure you book in advance. 

If you would prefer to watch then the vessel has ample viewing decks to enjoy the show. An adult ticket for dolphin watching is 95 NZD and swimming with dolphins is 180 NZD. View it here.

Ethics: This tour operator sails out to find the dolphins. It doesn’t bait them with food. All tours are designed to have the least impact on the wildlife possible. It also donates a portion of each ticket sale to the Encounter Foundation to support wildlife conservation. 

Day 3: Kaikoura to Abel Tasman 

Person standing on a beach in Abel Tasman National Park on this New Zealand South Island itinerary.

Highlights: Head north through the vineyards of Nelson before crossing over to the pristine beaches of Abel Tasman National Park for hiking and boat tours. 

Distance: 305km (189.5 miles) | Total drive time: 4.20 hours

Stay: Kaiteri Lodge (budget) | Kimi Ora Eco Resort (mid-range)   

Head north up the coast through Blenheim and the vineyards of Nelson, New Zealand’s sunniest city, until you reach Kaiteriteri on the doorstep of Abel Tasman National Park. 

It’s renowned for its pristine golden sandy beaches, high granite cliffs, native rainforest and beautiful coastal track. There are also a few camping grounds here if you fancy staying longer. 

It’s a bit of a long drive that will take you most of the afternoon but feel free to take breaks. If you’re on a bus then you can sit back and enjoy the coastal views. 

You’ll have time in the morning to do some activities in Abel Tasman the next day. These include: 

Skydive 

If you want to see the gorgeous views of Abel Tasman from above, you can skydive. Do a 13,000ft or 16,500ft. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can do 20,000ft, one of the highest in New Zealand!

Hiking 

There are some gorgeous hiking trails in the heart of this National Park. The main one is the Coastal Track that takes about 2-5 days. 

If you only have time for a snapshot, do the Pitt Head Walk, a 1.5-hour long trail that takes you through rainforests and across beaches. 

If you’re starting from Kaiteriteri, you’ll need to take a water taxi over, like this eco-friendly one here. 

Boat tour

If you want to combine hiking and boats, do a scenic cruise to Anchorage Bay. This eco-certified activity takes you past Split Rock, the most photographed rock in New Zealand and onwards to the fur seals at Adele Island Bird Sanctuary. 

It then drops you off on the beach where you can walk to Pitt Head Lookout. Make sure you get the return ferry at 11:45 am to get back on the road in the afternoon if you’re doing this activity on day 4. 

Day 4: Abel Tasman to Westport 

Person looking out towards the Nelson Lakes with mountains behind.

Highlights: In the afternoon, make your way south to Westport on the West Coast. It’s famous for being a surfing hub and its close proximity to Cape Foulwind which you will visit the next day.

Distance: 235km (146 miles) | Total drive time: 3-4 hours

Stay: Bazil’s Hostel (budget) | Omau Settlers Lodge Motel (mid-range)

Nelson Lakes 

Before arriving at Westport, take a small detour to New Zealand’s Nelson Lakes. Located in the middle of Nelson Lakes National Park in the Southern Alps, these enchanting glacial lakes (called Rotoiti and Rotoroa) have panoramic views of rugged mountains and alpine forests. 

Make your way to Lake Rotoiti for a photo spot of the famous jetty that looks out across the waters to the snow-capped peaks behind. 

Once you arrive in Westport, you probably won’t have time to do any more activities which is why I’ve suggested a few for the next day as you have a much shorter drive time. 

Day 5: Westport to Lake Mahinapua

Yes, it’s another jetty pic!

Highlights: Try your hand at surfing before skirting down the South Island coast to rocks that look like pancakes before arriving at the remote but beautiful Lake Mahinapua. 

Distance: 150km (93 miles)  | Total drive time: 2 hours

Stay: Mahinapua Hotel

Before setting off, you have some time in the morning to do some activities including surfing or paddleboarding! 

There are also plenty of stops on your drive down the coast to Lake Mahinapua so get ready for some epic scenery. 

Alternatively, you can stay in Greymouth if it makes it easier, but I stayed in Lake Mahinapua for that extra element of adventure. You really are in the middle of nowhere with only the beautiful lake for company. 

Surfing & paddleboarding

The best place for surfing is Bazil’s Hostel and Surf School. For about 40 NZD you’ll get a surfboard and an instructor who will teach you how to do it. It’s suitable for all levels. 

You can learn how to stand up paddleboard here too. Instead of hitting the waves, you’ll head to the beautiful Kawatiri Lagoon.

Cape Foulwind 

Just 10 minutes along Buller Bay, you’ll come to the dramatic coastline of Cape Foulwind. Overlooking the Tasman Sea, it was given the name by Captain Cook in 1770 when his ship was blown off course by the high winds. 

It has a 1-hour walkway with panoramic views of mountains and windy coastlines. Start from Tauranga Bay car park and follow the track. About 15 minutes in, you’ll come to a viewpoint overlooking a fur seal colony. Further along is the picturesque Cape Foulwind Lighthouse. 

Buller Gorge 

Just 10 minutes out of Westport is Buller Gorge where the Buller River runs through a deep canyon between Murchison and Westport. It’s also home to the longest Swingbridge in New Zealand, being 11km in length over the river! It costs about 10 NZD to cross it. 

There are also other adventure activities here including a zipline and jetboat. 

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks 

Head back along State Highway 6 to the coast. About halfway down, make a pit stop at the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. This rock formation looks like a stack of pancakes! 

Formed of limestone 30 million years ago, seismic action gradually lifted them from the seabed where they became eroded by water, wind and salt spray. 

There’s a 45-minute track that leads you around the attraction. Look out for rare Hector’s dolphins close to the shoreline. If you visit at high tide, blow holes in the rocks trap the waves and make a loud ‘whoosh!’

Day 6: Lake Mahinapua to Franz Josef 

View of Franz Josef Glacier from Robert Point's Track. A top activity on this New Zealand Suth Island itinerary.

Highlights: Leave the remote lake for glacier country where the world-famous South Island scenery and heli hike await. 

Distance: 124km (55 miles) | Total drive time: 1.30 hours  

Stay: Rainforest Retreat

It’s a relatively short drive today to give you enough time to enjoy Franz Josef. 

Franz Josef sits on the northern gateway to Te Wahipounamu, the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage area. Here, you have Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini, Mount Aspiring and the Fiordland National Parks. 

From now on, expect dramatic mountain views everywhere you look. You also have the option to stay an extra day in Franz Josef if you have time. This is useful if you’re keen to do the glacier heli hike here. Check with the operator when you book. You might be able to do it today or day 7. 

Things to do in Franz Josef: 

Kayaking 

Do a three-hour eco-certified kayak tour of Lake Mapourika. This excursion has stunning views of the Southern Alps and Jurassic rainforest. I can attest it was such a fun outing!

Skydive 

Yes, you can of course skydive here. Go 13,000ft, 16,500ft or 20,000ft with glacial and mountain views rushing up towards you! It’s another place to do New Zealand’s highest skydive. 

Franz Josef Glacier hot pools 

After all those outdoor activities, why not relax in a glacier hot pool? There are three main pools surrounded by tranquil rainforest. If you want some peace and quiet there are private pools too. 

Day 7: Explore Franz Josef (optional) 

People hiking through blue / white ice on the glacier on Franz Josef.

Jackman Chiu

Franz Josef Glacier heli hike 

Franz Josef Glacier perhaps owes its worldwide fame to the heli-hike tours that operate there. This once-in-a-lifetime experience involves a helicopter that takes you up to the top of the glacier where you go on a guided hike in this otherworldly landscape. 

All the gear you need is included in the price and the activity runs in both the summer and winter seasons. It’s about 459 NZD. 

Unpredictable weather including snowfall and heavy clouds can result in the activity being cancelled. It’s advisable that you check the website for the day you hope to do it before you set your heart on it. View it here.

Roberts Point Track

If you’re on a budget you can still see a part of the glacier for free on the Roberts Point Track hike. It’s about 11km from start to finish and takes about 5 hours to complete. The track has a good viewpoint that looks directly onto the glacier. 

This hike is fairly hard with some steep scrambly parts at the end. Only attempt this on good weather as it can get dangerous in poor visibility. You can read more about this hike here!

Day 8: Franz Josef to Wanaka 

Image of the Wanaka Tree in the middle of a lake with snow-capped mountains behind.

Highlights: It’s a long drive but it’s worth it to get to Wanaka, the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. There’s an amazing cinema here too!

Distance: 284km (176 miles) | Total drive time: 3-4 hours

Stay: Mountain View Backpackers (budget) | Te Wanaka Lodge (mid-range)

Hit the road bright and early to give yourself plenty of time in Wanaka. You’re back to skirting along the coastline until you reach Haast. It’s a beautiful spot for a pit stop before following the Haast River inland.

Lake Matheson 

About 30 minutes from Franz Josef is the glacial Lake Matheson. On a windless day, it has stunning reflections of Mount Tasman and Aoraki/Mount Cook. 

Things to do in Wanaka 

There’s so much to do in Wanaka! If you have the flexibility, you may want to stay an extra day here. 

Wanaka Tree 

The most famous photo of Wanaka is probably of the Wanaka Tree. This willow sits close to the shoreline in the waters of Lake Wanaka. Protect it by taking photos from the beach rather than wading in to touch or climb it. Branches have been damaged this way!

Cinema Paradiso 

Quite possibly my favourite cinema in New Zealand and the entire world. This retro cinema has sofas and funky seating – including a retro car! There’s an interval halfway through the screening for drinks and freshly baked cookies (seriously, more cinemas need to do this). 

Puzzling world 

Puzzling World is a fun little extra you can do in Wanaka. Perfect for a rainy day too. The interactive exhibition has head-scratching illusions. There’s also a maze at the end which you may find hard to escape from… 

Roy’s Peak 

The most famous hike in Wanaka and one of the top hikes on New Zealand’s South Island. This trail offers endless stunning views of Mt Aspiring National Park and across Lake Wanaka. You will need a full day to do this though. Heads up, it’s busy in summer. 

Mount Iron Walk 

If you don’t have time to do the big one, you can still get a taste of the scenery on Mount Iron Walk. Just 1.30 hours, it has excellent 360-degree views and is suitable for most fitness levels. 

Day 9: Wanaka to Queenstown 

Girl standing next to a truck with barrels with the Central Otago landscape behind.

Highlights: Straddle mountains and wine country as you descend into the Central Otago region. Stop for historic towns and the world’s oldest commercial bungy!

Distance: 74.8km (48.7 miles) | Total drive time: 1-2 hours 

Stay: The Black Sheep Backpackers (budget) | Queenstown Motel Apartments (mid-range)

Today is a short drive to Queenstown so you can make the most of it with plenty of pit stops along the way. It’s my favourite part of this South Island road trip itinerary!

As you enter the Central Otago region, you’ll start to notice the juxtaposition of alpine mountains and dry arid landscape that makes this area perfect for producing wine. 

Cromwell 

Take the slower route to Queenstown past the town of Cromwell on the shores of Lake Dunstan. The town was established in the 1800s during the gold rush but it’s since moved from its historic site with the construction of the Clyde Dam flooded it in the 1980s. 

Gibbston Valley 

As you follow the Kawarau River, you’ll come to Gibbston Valley, one of the most scenic wine-growing areas in New Zealand. Picturesque vineyards are sandwiched between mountains and the Kawarau Gorge. 

You can do a tasting at these wineries. 

Editor’s tip: If you’re driving you can book a wine tour in Queenstown instead which will take you here. 

Kawarau Gorge

The rocky Kawarau Gorge is the site of the world’s first commercial bungy. Relive history by doing the original 43m jump off the suspension bridge. 

Arrowtown (optional)

Another optional pit stop is Arrowtown. Another historic town from the height of the gold rush in the 1800s, it looks like it’s frozen in time. Visit the Chinese settlement built by Chinese miners with many original and restored buildings still standing. 

Day 10: Explore Queenstown 

Orange sunset hitting the snow-capped Remarkable Mountains over the lake in Queenstown. A stop on this New Zealand South Island itinerary.

There’s so much to do in Queenstown. It’s not for nothing it’s called the adventure capital of the world! If you have some flexibility, I recommend that you stay here for a few days to make the most of it. 

Alternatively, if you’re short on time you could skip days 12 to 14 of this itinerary and stay in Queenstown instead. Make sure you do Milford Sound though. It’s 1000% worth it! 

Here’s a quick overview of the top things to do in Queenstown. For more information, read my full Queenstown itinerary here. 

Wine tour

Queenstown sits right on the doorstep of Central Otago, one of the best wine regions in New Zealand. Do this small-group Queenstown Wine Trail Tour which takes you to four cellar doors. You can taste up to 20 of the best Central Otago wines, including its famous Pinot Noirs. 

The tour is a flexible 5-6 hours and you get to stop for lunch (at your own cost) at one of the gorgeous vineyards. 

Queenstown Hill walk 

Queenstown Hill is a local trail with breathtaking panoramic views from the summit. At just 500-metres, it’s a short ascent but it still has its fair share of steep sections. 

Start the trail from the small car park just off Belfast Terrace, a few minutes from the town centre. 

Wind your way through pine forests to the summit of Te Tapu-nui (mountain of intense sacredness) and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Shotover Jet Boat

One of my favourite things to do in Queenstown is the Shotover Jet Boat. Located on the Shotover River, this thrilling experience treats you to the beauty of the canyons at top speed. 

Adult tickets are about 149 NZD and you get a thick waterproof jacket, a lifejacket and gloves because it gets pretty cold on the river.

Eat at Fergburger 

If you know about Queenstown then you might have already heard of Fergburger. It’s a bit of a legend in New Zealand, if not the Southern Hemisphere! 

Fergburger is famous for its deliciously enormous burgers. People queue around the block every day without fail to get their hands on one and then hang about outside devouring the lot. Plus, it’s open 21 hours a day. 

Skydive 

New Zealand is no stranger to epic skydives and where better to do it than over Queenstown where you’ve got mountains and lakes galore?

 A test for the ultimate thrill-seekers, Nzone Skydive offers tandem dives at 9,000, 12,000 and 15,000 ft. Prices start at 299 NZD but you can upgrade to get photos and videos of your best hair-raising moments.

Queenstown Skyline & Ben Lomond 

Queenstown’s most popular local walking trail is up Ben Lomond. If you don’t want to commit to a solid 7-hour hike then you can walk or take the gondola up Bob’s Peak to the Skyline. There, you’ll find a cafe, souvenir shop, bungy and luge. 

To get to the summit of Ben Lomond, follow the same route up Bob’s Peak and carry on going past the Skyline. The trail is pretty steep but you can cheat and take the gondola up some of the way.

Bungy jump

Also at the Skyline, you’ll find the formidable AJ Hackett Ledge Bungy. If that doesn’t satisfy you, Queenstown is also home to the Nevis Bungy (the highest in New Zealand), a catapult and a swing. Plenty of ways to hurl yourself through the air. 

Nightlife 

Queenstown has a legendary nightlife and there are bars on every corner. Some favourites include Winnie’s, Cowboys and World Bar. You can also visit two ice bars: Below Zero and Minus 5. You’ll need to book ahead for those. 

Have more extra days? Why not go further afield with these incredible day trips from Queenstown! 

Day 11: Queenstown to Milford Sound day trip 

Milford Sound view with a snow-capped mountain across from a body of water in New Zealand.

Highlights: Visit the eighth natural wonder of the world, an unmissable thing to do on this South Island itinerary!

Distance: 288km (180 miles) | Total drive time: 3.30 hours (one way)

Wake up early so you have enough time to make it down to Milford Sound and do a cruise at midday. 

Located in Fiordland National Park on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound is said to be one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Here, mountains push upwards out of dark inky waters, waterfalls cascade over sharp cliffs and lush green rainforests extend untouched as far as the eye can see. Unsurprisingly, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a top bucket list New Zealand destination. 

It’s also home to some incredible wildlife including seals, dolphins, penguins and the world’s only alpine parrot!

To find out more about what you can do there in a day, read my complete guide to Milford Sound here. There are also plenty of tours from Queenstown to Milford Sound so it’s a perfect opportunity if you’re driving and want to take a break. 

Do a cruise 

A cruise is the best way to experience Milford Sound. There are several you can do that vary in length but they all follow the same route so don’t worry about missing out on anything in particular. 

I went with this one as part of my tour from Queenstown and had an epic time. Highlights include tumbling waterfalls, towering Mitre Peak and spotting the local wildlife. 

Hiking 

The Milford Track is one of the nine New Zealand Great Walks and this epic trail takes you into the heart of Fiordland National Park. 

This adventure is 53.5km and takes about 4 or 5 days to complete. Bookings are essential as only 90 people at a time can start the walk each day. 

You won’t be able to do the full Milford Sound Track during the winter months as the season runs from October to April. 

Day 12: Queenstown to Invercargill (optional)

Orange sign post in Bluff in New Zealand. Grey clouds behind.

Highlights: Go down to the Deep South to Bluff. Take the ferry across to Stewart Island, a haven for wildlife!

Distance: 188km (116.8 miles) | Total drive time: 2.30 hours

Stay: Tuatara Backpackers (budget) | Victoria Railway Hotel (mid-range)

Days 12-14 of this itinerary are optional but I wanted to include them to give you the opportunity to explore as much of the South Island as possible – including the Deep South. 

If you choose to add in these extra days, you won’t be disappointed with top highlights including the beautiful beaches of Bluff, the petrified trees of Curio Bay and the steepest street in the world!

Bluff

Further south of Invercargill is the town of Bluff. It’s also the southernmost settlement on the mainland and one of the oldest European settlements in New Zealand. Go to Stirling Point where you’ll find the iconic signpost that points out distances to major cities around the world. 

Stewart Island

Take the ferry over from Bluff to Stewart Island, the third largest island in New Zealand. Here you can enjoy life in the slow lane. Go stargazing, bird watching, cruising, kayaking and more!

Day 13: Invercargill to Dunedin (optional)

Curio Bay beach on New Zealand's South Island.

Highlights: Travel along the Southland Scenic Route to the picturesque Catlins for petrified forests and a breathtaking waterfall. 

Distance: 250-33km (155-186 miles) | Total drive time: 4-5 hours  

Stay: On Top Backpackers (budget) | Scenic Hotel Southern Cross (mid-range)

Journey along the southernmost coastline to Dunedin, the second-largest city on the South Island – and also one of the oldest. Here you’ll find a mix of Scottish and Maori heritage and well-preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture. 

Before you reach Dunedin, here are some stops to make along the way if you take the Southland scenic route: 

Curio Bay 

On the outskirts of the Catlins Forest Park is Curio Bay. It’s home to the fossilised remains of an ancient forest which you can see imprinted in the stone. Don’t try to take any souvenirs. Some say there’s a curse on anyone who does. 

There’s also an abundance of wildlife, including Hector’s dolphins, fur seals, birds, penguins and sea lions. 

Mclean Falls 

Further along the Catlins is the dramatic McLean Falls. Take the 20-minute walk from the car park through Southland bush to reach the 22-metre waterfall surrounded by moss-covered rocks. 

Tautuku Bay 

Just 12 minutes from the falls is Tautuku Bay. It’s a striking sweep of beach popular with wildlife. The best view of it can be seen from Florence Hill Lookout. 

Day 14: Dunedin to Queenstown (optional)

Aerial view of Queenstown fom above with the lake and mountains behind.

Highlights: Visit the world’s steepest street!

Distance: 279km (173) | Total drive time: 3.35 hours 

Stay: In your previous Queenstown accommodation or somewhere new. Browse options here.

Baldwin Street 

Before heading back through historic gold rush country to Queenstown, you might want to check out the steepest street in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It briefly lost its status to Ffordd Pen Llech, in Harlech, Wales in 2019 before its title was reinstated. 

You can walk up it but I wouldn’t attempt to drive it. Top tip: hold onto your valuables tightly. I dropped my phone and it would have shot off down the hill if someone hadn’t caught it… 

Day 15: Queenstown to Lake Tekapo 

Lake Tekapo ith lupins in the front and mountains behind. A stop on the New Zealand South Island itinerary.

Highlights: Take State Highway 8 through the iconic Lindis Pass to Lake Tekapo, the final stop on this New Zealand itinerary before Christchurch. 

Distance: 256km (159 miles) | Total drive time: 3 hours

Stay: Lakefront Lodge Tekapo

Things to do in Lake Tekapo 

Lake Tekapo

The aqua waters of Lake Tekapo can be seen clearly on a sunny day. If it’s overcast, the clouds are reflected in the water, giving off a moody and dramatic effect. 

You’ll notice the Church of the Good Shepherd close by. A little stone chapel, it’s a popular photo spot and services are held every Sunday at 4pm. 

Lake Pukaki

About 30 minutes from Lake Tekapo is Lake Pukaki, another lake with plenty of drama. It’s quieter too. The waters are a striking blue and you can see Aoraki/Mount Cook in the distance on a clear day. 

Hot springs

Soak in the award-winning Lake Tekapo Hot Springs for 29 NZD. You can relax with stunning views of Lake Tekapo and the mountain ranges beyond. Bliss. 

Stargazing 

If you’re a keen stargazer or astrophotographer, there’s no better place than Lake Tekapo as it has some of the clearest and darkest skies in the world. The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest one in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Even better? You can go stargazing while soaking in the Tekapo Hot Springs!

Day 16: Lake Tekapo to Christchurch 

Julia Hoddinott

Highlights: It’s the last leg of driving before you reach Christchurch and complete your South Island itinerary!

Distance: 225km (158 miles) | Total drive time: 3 hours

Stay: In your previous Christchurch accommodation or somewhere new. Browse options here. 

Next steps 

So, what’s next after you complete this New Zealand itinerary? You can either: 

Stay in Christchurch 

Tick off a few more activities in Christchurch. The city is also the start of the TranzAlpine Railway which runs across the South Island to Greymouth on the West Coast.

One of the most scenic train journeys in the world, it’s absolutely worth doing if you have the time!

Go to the North Island 

If you haven’t explored the North Island of New Zealand yet then I strongly recommend you do. Supervolcanoes, glowworm caves, Maori cultural experiences, sandboarding, famous beaches and a little village called Hobbiton await you. 

You can travel to the North Island by car or bus from Christchurch to Wellington. You’ll need to buy a ferry ticket to cross the Cook Strait at Picton. 

It’s a good idea to book your ferry tickets in advance to secure your spot – particularly if you’re travelling with a vehicle. 

Top tips for travelling New Zealand’s South Island 

Roy's peak in Wanaka mountains in New Zealand.

Best time to visit 

New Zealand experiences all four seasons of the year and honestly, the best time to visit depends on what you like doing. 

Most attractions are available throughout the year but winter tends to be cheaper as it’s the off-season. Summer is busy and more expensive.

Spring and autumn are ideal if you want to focus on hiking and outdoor activities without the crowds and the heat. 

If you love snow sports then the South Island during winter is the place to be. You can easily spend the whole season skiing in Queenstown. 

Winter isn’t so great for hiking as some of the bigger hikes are too dangerous so they’re often closed. The weather is also a little more unpredictable which is why it’s important to have some flexibility. 

Bring plenty of layers 

When travelling around New Zealand’s South Island, you can experience all four seasons in a day! Wear layers you can easily take off or put on – even in summer and winter. 

Pack a raincoat too. Parts of the West Coast are some of the wettest places in the world so you’re going to need it!

Buy a SIM card

WiFi can get patchy and it’s not always free. Buy a SIM card with a good amount of data as soon as you land. 

If you can, try to buy one at duty-free as it’s cheaper and they will set it up for you. All you need is an unlocked phone.

Be realistic and flexible 

This itinerary is meant to be a guideline with enough time built in to take it slow and really enjoy places along the way. 

Another important factor to note about the South Island is that the weather here can be unpredictable, particularly in winter. 

It’s a good idea to have some flexibility around some of the top activities you really want to do just in case the weather isn’t in your favour. 

Two prime examples of this are Milford Sound and the Franz Josef Heli Hike. 

Don’t forget travel insurance!

Don’t learn the hard way. Always make sure you have cover for all the activities you want to do. It’s just not worth the risk. 

I always use World First. It has affordable insurance plans that suit my needs perfectly.


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