We love Japanese walking towns and guided tours of Europe, nothing feels as freeing as the boundless open road. Forget the Great American Road Trip – you’re one block leave away from the bountiful islands of New Zealand. Here’s our tried and tested two-week itinerary to exploring the rolling hills of New Zealand’s South Island, also known as Te Waipounamu in Māori.
Day 1: Check-in at Christchurch
The unofficial gateway to all things on South Island, Christchurch is large, accessible, and the perfect springboard to jump-start your trip. There’s a timely bus system, and reasonable amounts of food and lodging to get your bearings and acclimatise. Pop over to the Botanic Gardens or pop over for a quick hike at Port Hills. There’s plenty of time to drink in the scenery on your trip, but if you can’t wait to spot the elusive Kiwi, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve isn’t too far off, either.
We recommend a one-night stay over at JUCY Snooze hostel (minutes away from the airport). The toilets and rooms (which come in suites or pods) are impeccably clean, and prices are damn near the most affordable in the area. Even better, you can rent a camper over at their website (and drop it off at Queenstown, but more on that later).
Day 2-3: Graze and Stargaze at Lake Tekapo
Once you’ve loaded up on snacks for the road, hop on to Highway 75 toward the bayside town of Akaroa. Here, you’ll want to make a detour at Shamarra Alpaca Farm. Pet, feed, and politely annoy over 160 furry alpacas, then stop over town for elephant fish and chips. Because Akaroa Beach is on the eastern shore of Akaroa Harbour, there’re plenty of opportunities for sailing, stand-up paddling, and even dolphin spotting.
Being the region’s oldest town also means that Akaroa is also a trove for collectors and antique fanatics (the French settled here in 1840). So if weather doesn’t permit for any fun in the sun, stop over at The Giant’s House for some indoor entertainment, or scour the town for vintage stores.
With a four-hour buffer to continue your drive before the sun sets, turn your sights toward the icy blue waters of Lake Tekapo. Enjoy the drive up, and keep an eye out for Mount Cook on the horizon. Make camp at one of the holiday parks (most come with pretty decent amenities like toilets and shared kitchens), and search for constellations. At night, the lake is a stargazer’s paradise – cloudless nights reveal millions of sparkling pinpricks in a pitch-black sky.
Get up bright and early to venture around the lake and the town before moving onward to Mount Cook. Be sure to pay a visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd: it’s no Notre Dame, but the quaint stone church holds special importance to the farming community in Canterbury, and its beautiful garden offers peaceful respite for weary travellers.
Day 3-5: Traverse Mount Cook, New Zealand’s Alpine Wonder
From Tekapo, make your next stop Mount Cook National Park. It takes just a little over an hour, and driving there is a treat in and of itself. Pass incredible views of Lake Pukaki and its mountains, and stretch your legs on one of their many hikes – don’t worry, these range from full-blown alpinist to the occasional brisk-walker. The Hooker Valley Track takes just three hours to complete, and is just about one of the most famous day-walks.
It’s entirely possible to check Mount Cook off your list in a day, but we recommend staying around to watch sunrise and sunset – it’s not every day you get to see snow-covered mountains, glistening glacial lakes and flowery alpine meadows. Stop over near Mt Cook for the night, and depart early the next day.
Day 5-6: Visit the Hidden Gem of Dunedin
The ride to Dunedin from the mountains takes a little over three hours – but that shouldn’t deter you. 40 minutes in, visit High Country Salmon for a dose of fresh fish. Get it in a poke bowl or have some over a toasty seed bagel. Out back, feed schools of salmon (for free) and watch them get up close and personal. On your way out, swipe a fillet or whole cut of frozen fish for a dinner in advance.
Central Otago is one of New Zealand’s more famous wine regions, so you can (should) take some time out for a detour of wine country. Elect an unfortunate driver and set a game plan to visit The Cloudy Bay Shed and Maude Wines, among others.
If you were good about your schedules and left Mount Cook at daybreak, the food and wine detour should leave you time enough to reach the university town of Dunedin by late afternoon, with just enough time to explore the town and grab a bite to eat – we recommend the Prohibition Smokehouse.
On day six, venture out into the Otago Peninsula – the town’s best-kept secret. Seek out albatrosses at the Royal Albatross Centre, and picnic in the picturesque gardens of Lanarch Castle (NZ$34 per adult, NZ$12 per child). Don’t forget to make time for a quick walk down Sandfly Bay – it’s a quiet slice of beach that’s usually devoid of tourists, and the only residents are free-roaming sheep and the occasional sea lion.
If you’re feeling fancy for dinner, make reservations at Glenfalloch Garden & Restaurant on the peninsula. With fairy lights, omakase-styled five-course dinners, and delicious wine pairings, it’s admittedly too romantic for five road-tripping buddies, but perfect if your fellow traveler is a grumpy spouse weary from travel.
Day 7-8: Cross The Caitlins
After a refreshing rest in Dunedin, drive an hour West to explore The Caitlins. Some websites say you have to spend three days here, and our one-day attempt was rushed at best, so two days should be a happy medium.
Spanning the coastline from Balclutha to Invercargill, The Caitlins is a 170km stretch of cliffs, caves, and trails. Main attractions are all an hour’s drive from each other, give or take, so patience is key. Kaka Point and Nugget Point stand out to us for being both beautiful and most accessible, and we love their dramatic views and rock formations of the coastline that extends out toward the South Pacific Sea. The white sands of Purakaunui Bay and the Purakaunui Falls‘ “wedding cake” waterfalls are also a must-see, with Curio Bay‘s petrified forest coming in a close second.
There’s no shortage of places to stay in the area – try B&B’s and cottages like Hilltop Accommodation Catlins at Papatowai or the Lazy Dolphin Lodge at Curio Bay.
But if you’re looking for unadulterated, raw camping, The Caitlins also offer DoC (Department of Conservation) campgrounds – where die-hard eco-tourists can pitch a tent in more solitary locations.
On your way out of The Caitlins, you’ll be able to stop by Invercargills to load up on supplies and fuel. If you’re not keen on taking the ferry out to Stewart Island for more nature (and the Southern Lights in winter), begin your two-hour journey to Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound, and Te Anau.
Day 9-11: Fiordland National Park, Te Anau, and Milford Sound
When it comes to dramatic nature, we saved the best for last, with Fiordland National Park. From The Caitlins (or Invercargill), the small town of Te Anau is your next stop. It’s home to South Island’s largest lake, and is your stepping stone to the canonical eighth World Wonder that is Milford Sound.
But first – spend a day in town: catch a glipmse of endangered, flightless takahē birds at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary or fish for trout in Lake Te Anau‘s frosty waters. If you’re lucky enough to arrive at low tide, visit the Te Anau Caves for a rare chance to observe bio-luminescent glowworms and an underground waterfall – a truly magical experience.
Milford Sound should peak on priority when visiting South Island. The best way to enjoy it is on a leisure cruise across yawning fiords or a scenic flight over the majestic mountains. There’s plenty of wildlife to be seen, including penguins, dolphins and seals. On your way to the Sound, visit the various Mirror Lakes that reflect the scenery around the Earl Mountains, home to water fowl and a wheelchair-accessible walk.
Day 12-14: Queenstown For Fergberger, Skydiving
Wrapping things up with a bang, our road trip ends in the electrifying region of Queenstown. Also known as the adventure capital of the world, its the go-to place for commercial bungy jumping, scenic skydiving, skiing, snowboarding, among other things. But thrill-seekers aren’t the only ones in for a good time – the town is a paradise of beautiful gardens, historical monuments, and viviculture. South Island’s famous fast food joint Fergburger is also here, and sinking your teeth into their massive gourmet burgers after a perilous two-week journey is nothing short of euphoric.
The best part? If you rented your JUCY camper in Christchurch, it’s entirely possible to return it in Queenstown, saving you the long trip back.