Planning to go on an adventure and do a road trip in New Zealand? Hit the road with me, and my campervan, to discover some of the best destinations on the South Island – during this ultimate New Zealand two-weeks itinerary. With its snow-capped mountains, glaciers, temperate rainforests and azure blue lakes, the South Island of New Zealand is a paradise for nature lovers.
Road trip New Zealand South Island – At a glance
Nothing better than a map to explain this two-weeks road trip on the South Island of New Zealand that I did last September.
This complete itinerary is a great way to discover the “must-see” places of the South Island. However, two weeks being very very short to see/do everything in-depth, many hours of driving are to be expected. But that’s what you like about a road trip, isn’t it? Driving on the beautiful winding roads of New Zealand for hours. And why not stumble upon unexpected points of view that will finally be our best memories.
Of course, this itinerary is ours, adapted to our own needs and obligations. As Benoît could only take 2 weeks of holidays, we tried to see a bit of everything to get a first glimpse of the south island. Knowing that we can go back there to explore our favourite areas in more depth. It’s not the perfect itinerary (being rather slow-travellers – yes yes, we are the ones who took a whole year to travel around Australia and spend 2 months in Bali without being able to do everything) but it suited us for the time we had. This article is only meant to give you an idea of the itinerary on the south island. It is up to you to customise it according to your wishes and the duration of your road trip in New Zealand.
Before we get to our detailed step-by-step itinerary, I’ll give you some practical information to best prepare this road trip which will be, I’m sure, a memorable experience.
Useful information you need to know before your road trip to New Zealand – South Island
When is the best time to do a road trip in New Zealand and especially on the South Island?
If there is one thing that is certain in New Zealand, it is that the weather is unpredictable and can be capricious. It is often said here that you can experience four seasons in a single day! And it’s quite true! Keep this in mind and stay flexible as much as possible. Even though you have planned the best route, you may have to shorten it or even cancel some stages due to weather conditions. But don’t worry, there is so much to see that you will find an alternative.
Generally speaking, the most ‘popular’ season to travel in NZ is summer. However, during December, January and February the number of tourists increases and so it can be crowded. It’s up to you to see if this suits you.
Autumn, the perfect time for a road trip?
If you want to travel to New Zealand with still pleasant temperatures and less crowded than in summer, I would advise you to make your road trip in Autumn, between March and May. Spring (September to November) can also be a good alternative; however, there is a good chance of rain. I was there in September so in this article, you will get a glimpse of a road trip on the South Island during this season.
As for winter, be aware the average temperature in New Zealand decreases as you head south. July is the coldest month of the year, so I advise against planning your South Island itinerary during this month, for weather reasons, but also for safety reasons (unless you are very comfortable driving in snowy weather). The roads in New Zealand are very winding and snow + ice will be present. Some roads are even sometimes inaccessible like the one to Milford Sounds.
Driving in New Zealand can be very different from driving in other countries. And this is what we will see now. Extra caution is required if you choose to do your New Zealand road trip in winter.
Driving in New Zealand
As I mentioned earlier, driving in New Zealand is different and can be challenging. Especially if you are driving a rented vehicle.
So here is some brief information you need to know for a road trip to New Zealand:
- Having an international licence (in addition to your official licence) is mandatory to drive in New Zealand.
- Driving is on the left side of the road, so the driver’s seat is on the right. If you are not used to this, it can be a bit difficult at first. But with a little practice, it will be fine.
- There are very few motorways outside the main cities. And the roads are often narrow, hilly and winding with sharp bends. Most roads have only one lane in both directions and no barriers to separate them. So take your time! Accidents happen quickly. This is also an opportunity to remind you to always get travel insurance.
- Allow more time than your GPS estimates. We often underestimate travel time when following an itinerary. The roads are narrow and winding so you will certainly not be driving at 100km/h. Having experienced this, I now always plan for an extra of 30-40 minutes as I am driving a campervan.
The official website of NZ tourism has set up a travel time and distance calculator. I put the link right here.
And I also found a great touring map that you can use for your trip: it’s right here!
The essential apps
Campermate and Wikicamps – Two applications that are ESSENTIAL if you travel by campervan. They allow you to find free (and paying) campsites, water points, dump points in the area you are. Based on the recommendations of other travellers, it gives some handy information for your road trip.
Met Service – Perfect for keeping track of the weather! And it’s the most reliable application (forget about the weather apps on your iPhone – never been good with me). As mentioned above, the weather can change very quickly, so it’s imperative to check the conditions according to your activities.
The extra: if you are planning a hike, don’t hesitate to also call the information centre/visitor centre to check the conditions. They have the most up to date information and will be able to give you the best advice.
Mapsme – Offline GPS if you don’t want to use all your data. You can download maps of the island before you leave. Convenient! But don’t forget to still follow the road signs, as this GPS will sometimes take you through strange roads (not necessarily the shortest ones, but at least it gives you a good view of the country).
My itinerary step by step – Between Beaches, Glaciers,
Fjords and Lakes
Let’s get started! Here my road trip itinerary in the south island detailed step by step.
Living in Auckland, we had to cross the North Island to reach Wellington and catch the ferry that will take us to the north of the South Island. I’m passing this stage because it is not quite interesting. Only a lot of driving, around 9hrs and 645 km. We have already visited most of the North Island on our weekends so we just drove directly Auckland-Wellington to get as much time as possible on the South Island.
Day 1: Wellington – Picton / Marlborough Sounds
If like me you start your road trip from Auckland or the North Island, you have to get the ferry at Wellington and cross Cook Strait to reach the South Island at Picton. In Wellington, there are a few free campsites not far from the harbour. Great if you arrive early and need to sleep on at Wellington.
Two ferry companies are available: Bluebridge or Interislander. Bluebridge being the cheapest ($258 one way), we chose this company and took the morning ferry at 8 am. The crossing is about 3:30 hrs.
The last hour’s crossing to Picton is AMAZING, as you cross the Marlborough Sounds and the scenery is just breathtaking. Photos often have more impact than words so see for yourself:
Once we arrived in Picton around 11.30, we still had the afternoon ahead to enjoy the surroundings before leaving the next day for the northernmost point of the South Island: Wharariki Beach!
We took the road along the famous “Queen Charlotte Track” and discovered for the first time the magic of the Sounds.
Day 2: Picton – Whararariki Beach
Picton – Whararariki: 290 km (4 h 30)
Our first wake up in the South Island – What a view!
After a good winner breakfast (pancake tower ayyyy), we started the road to Whararariki Beach through Nelson and stopped a few time at the local viewpoints. Such as Havelock lookout where we tested the drone for the first time.
We made it just in time for the sunset on the emblematic beach of Wharariki! A short walk of about 20 minutes will make you reach it. And the locals are always there to show you the way.
We decided to sleep not far from the beach on a free campsite (Taupata Gravel Reserve) to return and enjoy the beach a wee longer in the morning.
And what about ABEL TASMAN NP in all this ?? Yes, I know! Those of you who have already done a little research must be wondering why we have not included this beautiful national park. Well, the reason is simple. It’s early September, it’s still too cold to swim and fully enjoy the area. This park is famous for its stunning beaches, its superb walks and the possibility to kayak between the different bays. We will certainly go back there! We are planning to spend several days or even a week there in the summertime. For this road trip, we’ve prioritised the west coast, one of the least populated and most difficult to access areas in all of New Zealand, and the mountains/lakes.
Day 3: Wharariki – Westport
Wharariki – Westport: 330 km (4 hrs 45)
We spent our morning at the beach, enjoying this peaceful place. We feel alone in the world on this huge beach. The perfect occasion to take our time, recharge our batteries and relax with this fresh breeze on our face. Then we set off to reach the west coast, towards Westport. Benoit was so much looking forward to it because the west coast = surfing spot
Arriving in Westport at night, we decide to stay at the free camp – Kawatiri beach reserve, located just across the sea. Unfortunately no surfing nearby for Ben. So we will continue the road tomorrow, looking for the perfect surf spot.
Day 4: Westport – Greymouth via Punakaiki
Westport – Greymouth: 100km (1h30)
Today is a special day! It is September 9th and it is Benoit’s birthday. What could be better than a tranquil day looking for the best surf spots around. A day in paradise for Ben, and the opportunity to discover this fabulous west coast. The landscape is completely different from the rest of New Zealand: palm trees on the edge of cliffs, tropical rainforests and raging waves. A little bit of Jurassic Park vibe can be felt here.
A stop in the emblematic town of Punaikaki to discover the pancake rocks is a must if you are passing through the region.
Tip: The Cobden Aromahaba Lagoon free camp, located just before Greymouth, is perfect for sleeping right in front of the local surf spot.
Day 5: Greymouth – Franz Josef via Hokitika
Greymouth – Franz Josef: 175km (2 h 20)
Back on the road after a fairly quiet day the day before. We head towards Franz Josef, as a very unique activity awaits us the next morning.
Don’t forget to stop on the way in the small town of Hokitika. This lovely town has many galleries and art studios where you can even carve your own Poumanu (also known as Greenstone or Jade Stone) and keep it as a souvenir.
You can also explore the Hokitika Gorge, just half an hour from the town. This place is superb. You will surely be, like me, awed by the water’s colour.
Arriving in Franz Josef, we decide for the first time since the beginning of the road trip, to sleep in a paying campsite: Orange sheep Campervan Park. And we are not disappointed. For only $12.5 per person, this campsite has everything you need: hot shower, toilets, wifi, kitchen, bbq area, a large pitch with picnic table. And all of this surrounded by a peaceful rainforest and a view of the snowcapped mountains. I advise you to arrive early enough at this campsite to choose your favourite pitch and enjoy the sunset over the mountains.
Day 6: Heli Hike on the Franz Josef Glacier
We were looking forward to this day with excitement. The flagship activity of our road trip in the South Island of New Zealand.
A hike of about 3 hours on the Franz Josef glacier. And the only way to get there is by helicopter. Hence the name heli-hike. A first time for us and it was memorable. Our guide was fantastic (we booked through The Helicopter Line company) and give us some great info about the area. Full equipment is also included. The price can be scary ($485 per person) but the experience is well worth it.
If you are not a keen hiker and prefer to enjoy this incredible view of the mountains from the sky, you can quite simply book just a helicopter tour that will fly over the area. Prices vary depending on the duration, starting at around $280.
After this extraordinary adventure, we decided to hit the road and move forward in our itinerary, as we have to be in Queenstown within two days for Benoit’s birthday present 🙂 Some ideas of what it can be?
A quick stop to discover the beautiful Lake Matheson and its mirror effect before stopping for the night around Lake Paringa. There is a super free camp right on the lake! Perfect to spend the night.
Day 7: Franz Josef – Queenstown via Wanaka
Franz Josef – Queenstown: 350 km (4 h 45)
Today, no special activity is planned, but we are still taking in the view. The advantage of self-driving is that you can stop wherever you want along the way.
The road between Franz Josef and Queenstown is beautiful, crossing the famous Mount Aspiring National Park. There are a lot of great stops on the road to discover some stunning lookouts, waterfalls, etc. Many hikes ranging from a few hours to several days are also available in the area.
Thunder Creek Falls and Fantail Falls
Both waterfalls are easily accessible from the main road. Thunder Creek is an impressive 92-metre waterfall.
A short 3 km round trip walk takes you through the forest of Mt Aspiring National Park to discover the legendary Blue Pools Wanaka. You will cross two suspension bridges and enjoy the natural spectacle of pure glacial water collected in the mountains.
If you have more time, I strongly recommend you to stay one night on Wanaka to really discover this pretty town and its lake. We will surely go back there to enjoy it more the next time. As the weather is not with us today, we only stop for a few hours and enjoy the breathtaking view of Lake Wanaka.
Being here, we take a look at the famous #thatwanakatree, making the buzz on Instagram. To be honest, apart from seeing a tree on a lake with a view of the mountains in the background, we didn’t found much interest in it. Not to mention the crowd on the spot trying to get THE perfect picture. As a good Instagrammer 😂, I manage to get some good shots of this tree, but I am still quite sceptical about the craze around this tree.
More seriously, this lakeside town is also the starting point for one of the most famous hikes in New Zealand: Roy’s Peak. My big regret of this stay: not having been able to do this hike. Unfortunately, the weather is starting to get very fickle so we won’t do it.
We keep going for another hour in the direction of Queenstown because we found a great place to sleep with a view over this resort town: Crown range summit. As usual (and this is what I recommend, as the free campsites can be quickly filled in high season), we arrive before sunset so we can enjoy the place. This is very windy but the view is gorgeous!
Day 8 – 9: Queenstown and surroundings
We will spend the next 2 days in the region of Queenstown to discover one of the most touristic towns in New Zealand. Situated on the shore of Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand’s largest lake), this town is famous for its many outdoor activities, from the most extreme to the most relaxed. In winter it is an ideal base for skiers. Queenstown is a popular destination all year round.
What have we seen/done in Queenstown and surrounding?
Getting higher – Skyline
Queenstown’s favourite attraction is most certainly Queenstown Gondola. The steepest cable car in the southern hemisphere will take you 450 metres above the city, where you can enjoy this postcard-like panorama.
Taking the plunge – Bungee Jumping
Did you know that New Zealand, and more specifically Queenstown, is the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping? AJ Hackett was the first company to launch this phenomenon. There are now 3 sites around Queenstown to try the big jump.
So, have you eventually guessed Benoît’s birthday present? I can tell you that it was more than a surprise for him. He didn’t expect it in the least. I almost wondered if it pleased him, given his reaction at first. Well, we can understand that. To be offered a 47m jump into the void and to hear that you’re going to do it in a few days can be scary. 😨 Finally, after he made it, he was more than happy! A gift idea to keep in mind if you are in Queenstown for a special occasion.
A stay in Queenstown cannot be successful without a visit to the legendary Fergburger. Whatever the season, at lunchtime you may see an unbelievable queue to order. So try it out and make your own opinion. There is also Ferg’s Bar, Mrs Ferg Gelato and the Fergbaker, Queenstown’s No. 1 bakery. I personally loved their pies and their famous “Boston Cream Donut”. To die for. 😋
Walk in the historic village of Arrowtown
A visit to the charming village of Arrowtown will take you back in time to the days of gold-digging. This historic village is absolutely unique. I recommend a short walk there on the way to Queenstown or Wanaka.
Visit the iconic town of Glenorchy
Glenorchy is a quiet little town just 45 minutes drive from Queenstown and it is best known for the many movies that have been produced here – Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Narnia and many others. When you visit this small village, you will quickly understand why many movie directors have chosen to shoot a few scenes there. The landscapes are breathtaking. I advise you to plan a day to enjoy this incredible place. And even when it rains, the place is always majestic.
Queenstown region has much more to offer, we could not do everything in 2 days. You can easily stay for a week or 2, there are so many activities. To name just a few: Skiing, skydiving, jet boating, horse riding, 4×4 driving,… and so much more.
Drive to Milford Sound / Drive to Lake Pukaki Queenstown – Milford Sounds: 288 km (4:15 a.m.)
Queenstown – Lake Pukaki: 221 km (2 h 45)
After 2 days spent in Queenstown, we decided to hit the road in the evening and sleep on the way between Queenstown and Milford Sound. Indeed, we booked a boat cruise in these beautiful sounds for the next morning and know that the road can be risky. So we wanted to get a head start on the road.
As explained at the beginning of the article, visiting the South Island in the spring can be very rainy. And no lack of it! The sun hadn’t been shining for a few days already and this night was the worst of all. Lots of rain, but we still have hope of reaching Milford the next day. Our hopes were only short-lived as the company for the boat cruise called us first thing in the morning to tell us that the road to Milford was closed due to weather conditions. Disappointed as it was one of the highlights of our trip but still a good excuse to return to the South Island for another road trip.
Good to know: it rains approximately 200 days a year in Milford Sounds. And the road to get there being quite risky, it is very often closed if there is bad weather.
On the way to Lake Pukaki
As our plan fell through, we decided to take the road to Lake Pukaki and the Aoraki/Mt Cook region, as the forecast for the coming days in the Fjords was not good. The road from Queenstown to Christchurch through the lakes region is a classic during a road trip in the South Island.
A very little known yet, I advise you to go and have a look at the clay cliffs of Omarama. Impressive! It looks like we are in another world for a moment.
Arriving near Lake Pukaki, we continued the road hoping to sleep at the Mount Cook campsite. But, the unfortunate weather having followed us, the snow joined the game when we went up towards Mount Cook. We preferred to turn back and sleep around the lake. For those who know us, everyone knows that we are not winter lovers. And so we weren’t quite comfortable driving the campervan in the snow.
We took advantage of that night by the beautiful lake to try our hand at astrophotography and the result was quite successful. What do you think about it?
Good to know: this region is part of the UNESCO ‘Dark Sky Reserve’, which makes it the perfect place for stargazing and therefore for photographing the Milky Way.
Day 11: Aoraki/Mount Cook
Lake Pukaki – Mt Cook: 42 km (30 min)
The weather can be really changeable in New Zealand, as evidenced today. We wake up with a beautiful sunrise over the mountains on the shores of this azure blue lake. After a good breakfast, we get ready for the hike: Hooker valley track. However, once we reach the top, towards the village of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the snow remains still there. This doesn’t take away from our determination and motivation, we will do this hike in any weather! And what a show was this hike!
The road back to the lake also offers us a splendid view of the lake. I promise, there is no filter on these pictures. The lake has just an exceptional blue!
Hiking around Aoraki/Mountt Cook :
- Hooker Valley Track: 10km – 3hrs return – easy
- Blue Lakes & Tasman Lakes/Glacier 3.5km 1h15 return – easy
- Mueller Hut 10.4km – 7-8 hrs return – advanced
Day 12: Lake Tekapo – Banks Peninsula (Akaroa)
Lake Pukaki – Lake Tekapo: 63 km (45 min)
Lake Tekapo – Akaroa: 278 km (3 h 45)
We are heading towards the second well-known lake on the South Island: Lake Tekapo and its Church of the Good Shepherd. We will only make a short stop there due to the weather conditions, but this little village is still very pretty. I recommend, if you can, to come and discover the surroundings during the Lupins flowers season between November and February. The best period is at the end of November.
Then we drive a good part of the day to reach Christchurch area, where we will join a friend living there the next day. We take advantage of arriving there the day before to visit the Banks peninsula and especially the charming town of Akaroa. This village has a strong French influence and for a good reason. It was founded in 1840 by French settlers. It is a very pleasant place to spend a few days and visit the peninsula.
Day 13 Akaroa – Christchurch
Akaroa – Christchurch: 83 km (1h30)
It is so nice to stay in this peninsula forgotten by many during a road trip in the south island. Which makes us happy, because we have the place to ourselves. And especially Benoît who got this secret surf spot just for him. After a long search and several detours, we finally found it and enjoyed a quiet morning on this superb beach. Before joining our friend in Christchurch where we spend the evening discovering the best local places in town 😉
By the way, the city of Christchurch is “campervan friendly” – you can sleep up to 2 nights in the city without any problems. More info on this map of Christchurch Council.
Day 14: Christchurch – Kaikoura
Christchurch – Kaikoura: 181 km (2h45)
Our stop in Christchurch was short, but we know that it is easy to fly back there for a weekend. Having to catch the ferry the next day (and yes 15 days goes by quickly), we set off for our last destination: Kaikoura.
This town is known for its seal colonies, but also its few surfing spots. The opportunity for Benoit to surf one last time the southern waves.
PHOTO KAIKOURA – Seals
Day 15: Kaikoura – Picton
Kaikoura – Picton: 156 km (2h15)
The end of our road trip to the South Island is approaching. After watching the seals soaking in the sun one last time, we head back up to Picton to catch our ferry in the afternoon. Then arrival on Wellington, it will take another day to finally be back home in Auckland.
Review of our road trip New Zealand – South Island + idea of alternatives
That’s it, it’s over! Congratulations if you’re still here, it was a long one. But hey, there’s a lot to say about the South Island, isn’t it? And there were much more to discover if we had more than 2 weeks. So, it’s now time to do a quick summary and to give you a little bit of my opinion on this trip, the positive and negative points:
|The West Coast – FANTASTIC||2 weeks is very short to see everything|
|Few people – Thank you Covid||Weather forecast|
|Having had a general overview of the South Island – this will help to prepare next itineraries/weekends focus in a single region.||– Not having been able to explore Milford Sounds neither visited the South-East: Caitlins region|
Ideally, my opinion, and my way of travelling, would say that it takes at least 3 weeks/1 month to visit the south island, being able to stay several days in some places and taking into account the unstable weather factor.
An extra week or more? Ideas for alternatives itineraries
If you’re lucky enough to have some time to spare:
- head down to the bottom of the South Island. The Caitlin’s region is also a must on the South Island. So take advantage of this extra time to go and discover this part.
- visit the Abel Tasman National Park for 2-3 days.
- plan to stay several days at each of the places mentioned in the itinerary to really soak it up and maybe do some more hiking.
Ready for your road trip New Zealand
This article is just an idea of an itinerary to show you that it is possible to travel in the South Island of New Zealand with a limited amount of time. But the important thing, as I said at the beginning of the blog post, is to prepare your trip according to your profile and your tastes.
The most important advice: be flexible! Be ready to change your plans if the weather is not with you.
And last but not least, take a look at the official 100% Pure New Zealand website. It proposes a lot of itineraries according to the duration, but also according to your interests.
So, when will you take a road trip to the South Island of New Zealand? What do you think of this South Island Itinerary? What do you like, what would you change, what would you add? Let me know as a comment.
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