The pinnacle of travel dreams for many, we’re excited to bring you this New Zealand South Island itinerary; 10 days of Kiwi highlights for the busiest of travellers.
With incredible mountain ranges, crystal clear lakes, braided rivers and native flora and fauna, New Zealand’s South Island really does need to be seen to be believed.
This guide takes you to the most beautiful parts of Aotearoa and when you’re seeing the most incredible parts of a country that is widely recognised as one of the most spectacular in the world, you know you’re in for a treat!
The following itinerary will help you plan the perfect New Zealand whistle-stop round trip around the highlights of the South Island, taking in Christchurch, Kaikoura, Abel Tasman National Park, Hokitika, Franz Josef, Wanaka, the Doubtful/Milford Sounds, Queenstown and Lake Tekapo/Mt Cook. All whilst enjoying incredible hikes, glaciers, adventure activities and much, much more.
Spend 10 days in the most amazing parts of our country with this highlight itinerary to New Zealand’s South Island.
What are you waiting for? Isn’t it time you planned your New Zealand road trip and hit the South Island?
Plan Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 10 Days of Incredible Kiwi Highlights
Wild, beautiful and relatively untouched, New Zealand’s South Island is a real favourite, both amongst tourists and locals.
This is the stuff of your Kiwi dreams!
Christchurch – The Start of Your New Zealand South Island Itinerary – 10 Days in Paradise
Begin by flying into Christchurch, the main domestic and international airport servicing the southern part of New Zealand. Badly affected by earthquakes in and around 2011, The Garden City is rebuilding with pride and is a great first stop on your South Island road trip.
What to Do in Christchurch:
- Ride New Zealand’s highest and longest zipline.
- Tour the city to see just what an impact the earthquake (and rebuild efforts) have had.
- Visit the International Antarctic Centre (it’s right beside the airport too, so a great stop on the way in/out).
Where to Stay in Christchurch (1 night depending on arrival time):
Mid: Sudima Christchurch Airport (perfect for a late-night arrival)
Luxe: The George
Drive time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 2 hours, 40 minutes (180km)
Known for its incredible ocean life, Kaikoura is the place in New Zealand for ocean encounters. With stunning sunsets, pebble beaches and snow-capped mountains setting the scene, this is one special spot.
What to Do in Kaikoura:
- Head out whale watching.
- Jump in the water and swim with wild dusky dolphins.
- Swim with playful New Zealand fur seals – we can’t guarantee that you won’t fall in love!
- Stay dry and visit the Ohau Point seal colony (free of charge)
Where to Stay in Kaikoura (1 night):
Budget: Dolphin Lodge
Luxe: Manakau PurePod – sleep in a glass cabin in the middle of the wilderness – incredible!
Drive time from Kaikoura to Motueka: 4 hours (290km)
Abel Tasman (via Motueka)
With a national park that’s bound to blow you away, if it weren’t for all of the bush, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on a tropical island! The Tasman region is a real highlight on any New Zealand South Island itinerary and with the most sunshine hours in the country, it’s hard to catch it on a bad day.
What to Do Near Abel Tasman:
- Stop off at Nelson on you way into Motueka – it’s a beautiful little town.
- Head along to the Abel Tasman National Park where you’ll experience sunshine, crystal clear water and tropical beaches set against native New Zealand bush. We recommend kayaking one way and walking through the National Park the other.
- Soak up the sun at Kaiteriteri, one of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches.
Where to Stay in Motueka (2 nights):
Budget: Laughing Kiwi Backpackers
Mid: Nautilus Lodge Motel
Luxe: Wairepo House
Drive time from Motueka to Hokitika direct: 4 hours, 15mins (330km) or via Charleston and Punakaiki: 4 hours, 50 minutes (350km)
or drive time from Motueka to Franz Joseph (direct): 6 hours (460km) or via Charleston and Punakaiki: 6 hours, 30 mins (485km)
Pro Tip: The drive to Franz is relatively long and making it in one day means that you won’t have time to go blackwater rafting (which is a real must-do in New Zealand. To account for this, we’ve given two options in this itinerary – you can either break the journey apart and stay a night in Hokitika or drive on through to Franz in one go, and add a night at the end of your itinerary to Tekapo and Mt Cook.
Known as home to New Zealand’s glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef both offer a range of nature-based activities. It’s the most visited part of the West Coast and for good reason – it’s magic.
What to Do in Franz Josef:
- Join a local guide on a nature walk to the base of the Franz Josef Glacier. Your guide will be able to get you off of the normal trails and help you spot treasures that would have gone unnoticed otherwise.
- Enjoy the views from on top of a glacier with a world-class heli hike.
- Soak in the beautiful Glacier Hotpools (which are even better in the cold or on a rainy afternoon).
Where to Stay in Franz Josef (1 night):
Budget: Glow Worm Accommodation
Luxe: Rainforest Retreat. The deluxe tree huts are out of this world (and come with a complimentary minibar and NZ chocolate!)
Drive time from Franz Josef to Wanaka: 3 hours, 45 minutes (285km)
Queenstown’s quieter neighbour, it’s well worth a stop in its own right. Nested in between the Southern Alps and Lake Wanaka, this town is picture perfect and certainly deserves a stop on your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
What to Do in Wanaka:
- On the way, stop off at Thunder Creek Falls and for an incredible (and surprisingly affordable) helicopter ride into Mt Aspiring National Park.
- Visit one of New Zealand’s most famous pieces of greenery – That Wanaka Tree.
- Pop on your hiking boots and take to the trails. Both Roys Peak and the Isthmus Peak Track are absolutely stunning (if mostly up-hill).
- Take on the highest waterfall via ferrata in the world (ending in a helicopter ride!)
- Relax at Cinema Paradiso. With sofas, an old-school car to sit in and delicious freshly-baked cookies, it’s as charming as movie theatres come.
Where to Stay in Wanaka (1 night):
Budget: YHA Wanaka
Luxe: Wanaka Alpine Lodge
Onward travel: Tours To Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound leave from Queenstown/Te Anau and from within the National Park; because of this, travel times vary significantly and we recommend you investigate your own connection time based on the fjord you would prefer to visit and where you wish to join the group transport.
Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound
The most famous fjords in New Zealand, chances are you’ll only have time to visit one of the two but either way, prepare to be impressed. During summer, keep your fingers crossed for a still day so you can snap that perfect reflection photo, but during winter, embrace the weather and enjoy the cascading waterfalls that come to life with the rain.
What to Do at the Sounds:
- Jump onboard a day trip sightseeing boat, go kayaking or stay onboard overnight – the choice is yours.
- Milford Sound: Ducking through the Homer Tunnel, the approach to the Milford Sound is almost as impressive as the fjord itself.
- Doubtful Sound: With steep cliffs cutting into the ocean, Doubtful is a sight to behold!
Where to Stay in Te Anau (1 night):
Budget: Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers
Where to Stay in the Sounds:
If you’d prefer to trade land in, in favour of being rocked to sleep, we recommend overnighting on the Sounds – having done it a number of times, I assure you, there’s nothing else like it.
Onward travel: Again, this depends on which sound you decide on and where you leave from.
The adventure capital of New Zealand, and indeed, the world, Queenstown has to be experienced to be believed. Set right on the lake, the township feels like a European fairytale, especially in the depths of winter.
What to Do in Queenstown:
- Jump out of a plane at 15,000ft.
- Take a leap off of a bridge, a ledge or out of a gondola on your first bungy jump.
- Let the amazing team at the Shotover Canyon Swing show you a good (and terrifying) time.
- Enjoy incredible views and enjoy a few rides on the luge.
- Spent a day visiting either Glenorchy or Arrowtown – both are full of character and absolutely gorgeous.
- Ride the Shotover Jet– fun for the whole family.
- Spend a day on the water; both funyaking and whitewater rafting allow visitors to enjoy the environment up close and personal.
Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 nights):
Budget: Sir Cedrics Tahuna Pod Hostel
Drive time from Queenstown to Christchurch: 6 hours (280km) – Tekapo is half way if you decide to break your journey.
Finally, hop onboard a flight out of Christchurch and wave your 10 days in New Zealand’s South Island goodbye.
Try not to worry though – you can always book another trip back to our little slice of paradise!
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