There’s no doubt Millennials are obsessed with road trips, or even just the very idea of it. Check out #vanlife or #roadtrip hashtags on Instagram as evidence. There’s a good reason for it: road tripping is the best way to explore an area and take photos, while bonding with friends at the same time. More notably, road trips allow you to have the ultimate flexibility, something this generation values greatly. New Zealand road trips are some of the best you’ll ever experience. The country is just full of amazing and ever-changing sceneries and landscapes.
First off, one week is not nearly enough to explore New Zealand’s South Island. But, if you’re pressed for time, following this itinerary will allow you to see some of the best of the South Island on a limited time. It might not look too big on a map, but driving around the South Island takes time. It also doesn’t help that you will be tempted to constantly pull over because the views are just too stunning and you’re going to want to take photos or Snapchats (or Instagram Stories?). I guarantee that. Add to the fact that New Zealand roads are not the easiest to drive. The roads are often winding and if you’re not used to driving on the left-hand side of the road (like people from most countries), you’re going to want to take it slow, at least at first, and concentrate (just remember, always stay left). But you won’t regret your decision to go on a road trip in New Zealand’s South Island, it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do. I hope the following information will help you plan your ultimate Kiwi road trip.
I highly recommend Jucy. They have great deals and excellent customer service. I got a free GPS rental with them and the second driver fee was also waived just because I negotiated. Overall, renting with them is hassle-free. Jucy has great options from sedans to campervans. Of course, there are also other reputable companies. Do your research in advance so you can find great deals. And don’t hesitate to call them instead of doing everything online; you could get better deals by talking to a person.
Staying at hostels will save you a lot of money, and there are a lot of hostel options in New Zealand. Better yet, you can also try camping. The Department of Conservation has campsites all over New Zealand and rates are very reasonable and some are actually free. Their campsites have the best locations and are highly maintained.
CamperMate is a popular app that you should consider downloading before your road trip. Not only does it show you nearby locations of everything from campsites to petrol stations, other users can also submit travel tips so you’ll get more insights about your destinations.
This itinerary starts in Christchurch and ends in Queenstown.
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Arrive in Christchurch the day before you begin your road trip so you can pick up your car and start your drive early the next day. I haven’t really gotten a chance to explore Christchurch except for the Re:START Mall area so I can’t really personally recommend any sites to visit. However, check out Lonely Planet’s list of things to do in Christchurch.
The drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo is about 3 hours. As I’ve mentioned before, take it slow on your first day until you get used to New Zealand driving. Once in Lake Tekapo, make sure to walk around the lake and visit the Church of the Good Sheppard to soak in the beautiful sceneries and take some amazing photos.
At night, be sure to add stargazing to your list of things to do. Lake Tekapo is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. In fact, the area is the world’s biggest International Dark Sky Reserve. You can stargaze on your own or go with one of the tours. You can find the list of companies that offer night sky tours here.
Day 2: Lake Tekapo to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Aoraki/Mount Cook is only over an hour. But on the way, make sure to stop by Lake Pukaki. This lake is just unbelievably stunning. See the photo as proof. The view of Mount Cook from this lake is simply remarkable. The drive from Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook is probably my favourite. The view of Mount Cook just gets better and better as you drive down this highway.
One of the most popular hikes around Mount Cook National Park is the Hooker Valley Track. This 3-hour return hike provides some of the best views of the valley and the mountains. This track ends at the glacier lake and the view of Mount Cook from there is just breathtaking. For a list of other easy day hikes, check out this DOC page.
The village itself is small. There is no grocery store and the restaurant selection is very limited. It’s best to stock up on food and fill up your gas tank before heading to Mount Cook.
Day 3: Aoraki/Mount Cook Village to Wanaka
Driving from Mount Cook Village to Wanaka takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes. On your way, you will go through Lindis Pass. Once again, this area is another spot to pull over and take photos. There is a lookout along the highway where you can park safely.
Wanaka is the more laid back Queenstown. Once in Wanaka, there are a few activities you can do. There is skydiving, scenic glacier flights, boat cruises and of course hiking to name a few. If you want to check out some of the best spots to take photos around the area, Wanaka’s official tourism site has a handy page with a list and a map. Don’t forget to take a photo of the famous #thatWanakatree
One of the best hikes around the area is the Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. Be warned, to get to the Raspberry Creek carpark where the trail begins, you’ll have to drive on rough gravel road. I must tell you, it was a very unpleasant drive using a small sedan on this road. Plan to arrive early so you’ll have plenty of sunlight on the way back to Wanaka. Another famous hike is the Roy’s Peak Track, which is closer to town. The views from the top are just breathtaking.
Day 4: Wanaka to Queenstown
Wanaka to Queenstown takes about an hour drive. Queenstown is not called the “Adventure Capital of the World” for nothing. Bungee Jumping? Check. Sky diving? Check. Paragliding? Check. World’s Biggest Swing? Check? Scenic flights? Check. And in winter, skiing/snowboarding? Check. And the list goes on. I suggest doing at least one of the many activities Queenstown is known for.
Not a thrill-seeker? No problem. Relax and soak in the stunning natural sceneries that surround Queenstown. Take the gondola up to Skyline Queenstown to check out the unbelievable views of Queenstown and the Remarkables from above. Or, walk around the shores of the crystal-clear Lake Wakatipu. Another option is to have an afternoon picnic in Queenstown Gardens, where you’ll have some of the best views of the sunset.
Day 5: Queenstown to Te Anau
Te Anau is considered the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Driving from Queenstown to Te Anau will take you about 2 hours. When you get to Te Anau, just relax and stroll around the beautiful lake. I suggest considering this as a day to relax. After all, you will have done a lot of driving by the time you get to Te Anau.
Day 6: Milford Sound
In one word, I’d describe Milford Sound as “Magical”. The towering cliffs, peaks and the waterfalls are simply breathtaking. Taking a boat cruise should definitely be on your list of things to do when you visit New Zealand. Milford Sound is actually one of the wettest places on the planet, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, a rainy day means you’ll get wet and on the other, the waterfalls are absolutely more impressive.
The road to Milford Sound is steep and winding. Allow plenty of time to make this trip. Here’s a thought, why not go on one of the organized day tours that take you from Te Anau (or Queenstown) to Milford Sound. It’s pricier, but you’ll be more relaxed and you’ll learn more about the area from the tour. I recommend this option especially if you go during winter when this road is particularly harder to drive. You can usually find deals on Bookme.co.nz, so be sure to check that out.
Day 7: Back to Queenstown for departure
Unfortunately, you’ll have to leave New Zealand (or at least the South Island) at some point. You can catch your flight home from Queenstown or you can fly to Auckland/Wellington to start your North Island adventure.
If you rent your car with Jucy, they have a convenient drop off location at the Queenstown airport.
I hope you find this suggested itinerary helpful. Road tripping New Zealand’s South Island is absolutely incredible and worth it.
Don't forget to check out the rest of my New Zealand adventures so far.