New Zealand South Island Itinerary: A 10 Day Highlights Road Trip

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!

What’s the Best Way to Travel Throughout New Zealand?

Though New Zealand is well serviced by buses and tours and also provides safe driving conditions to those looking to explore independently.

By Car or Campervan

We genuinely believe the best way to see Aotearoa is by car or campervan.  Offering full flexibility and the ability to pull over at any stage, you’ll discover those little parts of the country that go unnoticed by other visitors and come away with a much more personal experience.

These options obviously work well if you’re an experienced driver and if you’re travelling as a small group – they’re not perfect for every traveller to New Zealand but they are the modes we enjoy the most in our own country.

By Tour

If you’re visiting the South Island of New Zealand by yourself, a tour is likely to be the best way to see the country.  Hiring a car or campervan by yourself can both be expensive and lonely, but joining a tour is anything but!

By joining a fantastic social tour, you’ll be sure of meeting plenty of likeminded people, from all ages and backgrounds.  You’ll also benefit from the buying power that big providers can offer and be sure to visit the top spots across the country.  We especially love Haka Tours, as although they’re social, they’re not a booze-fest.  After all, who wants to travel all the way to New Zealand just to spend each day hungover?

Just be sure to include as many of the spots that we cover off in our New Zealand South Island itinerary as possible!

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.

hat 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):

BudgetJUCY Snooze Christchurch.  Sleep in a comfy pod.

MidSudima Christchurch Airport (perfect for a late-night arrival)

LuxeThe George

Drive time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 2 hours, 40 minutes (180km)

Kaikoura

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:

Where to Stay in Kaikoura (1 night):

BudgetDolphin Lodge

Mid: The Fairways at Ocean Ridge

LuxeManakau 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):

BudgetLaughing Kiwi Backpackers

MidNautilus Lodge Motel

LuxeWairepo 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

If you do drive through, we definitely recommend a quick visit to the Hokitika Gorge and to the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes regardless.


Option #1: Hokitika (via Charleston)

A cute coastal town with a huge heart, Hokitika packs a surprise punch.  Whether you spend a night (or begrudgingly have to pass through), we recommend ticking a few of the following off of your list.

What to Do in Hokitika:

  • Get up early and head to Charleston on the way to Hokitika.  There you’ll find amazing blackwater rafting (an amazing combination of caving, tubing and bush walking, all amongst the glow worms)
  • Visit the Hokitika Gorge.  This incredibly easy (and short) hike makes the gorge’s stunning turquoise waters accessible to everyone – this is one time when ‘what comes easy’ definitely is worth having!  Don’t miss a stop here.
  • Take a picnic lunch out to Lake Kaniere (where you’ll find a jetty which is just perfect for your next Insta moment).
  • Visit (and feed) the local eels.  It’s a Kiwi tradition.
  • Enjoy a sunset cruise through native waterways and onto one of the local lakes.

Where to Stay in Hokitika (1 night):

BudgetMountain Jade Backpackers

MidStations Inn.  We’ve personally stayed here and can’t recommend it enough.  With an award-winning restaurant and beautiful setting, it’s a winner.

LuxeThe Cabbage Tree

Drive time from Hokitika to Franz Josef:  1 hour, 40 minutes (135km)

Franz Josef

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):

BudgetGlow Worm Accommodation

MidGlacier Highway Motel

LuxeRainforest 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)

Wanaka

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:

Where to Stay in Wanaka (1 night):

BudgetYHA Wanaka

MidManuka Crescent Motel

LuxeWanaka 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:

Where to Stay in Te Anau (1 night):

BudgetTe Anau Lakefront Backpackers

MidBlue Mountain Cottages

LuxeDunluce Bed and Breakfast

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.

Queenstown

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:

Where to Stay in Queenstown (2 nights):

BudgetSir Cedrics Tahuna Pod Hostel

MidJacks Point Family Homestay

LuxeKinross Cottages Boutique Vineyard Hotel

Drive time from Queenstown to Christchurch:  6 hours (280km) – Tekapo is half way if you decide to break your journey.

Option #2: Tekapo & Mount Cook

With Mount Cook not far away and Lake Tekapo on your doorstep, Tekapo is a photographers dream and sitting half way between Queenstown and Christchurch, it’s just begging for you to stop by as you wrap up your New Zealand South Island road trip.

What to Do Near Tekapo:

  • Relax tired muscles at the hot pools, with stunning views over Lake Tekapo.
  • Make sure your camera is charged and snap a few pictures at New Zealand’s most iconic church – the Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • Make the most of the dark sky reserve and join a stargazing tour.
  • Alternatively, you might like to get up nice and early and head out to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak.  With beautiful vistas and great hikes, it’s a fabulous day trip.

Where to Stay in Tekapo (1 night):

BudgetTailor Made Tekapo Backpackers

MidSimply Stunning Studio 2 Apartment

LuxePeppers Bluewater Resort

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!


Love this post? Pin it and start planning your New Zealand South Island Itinerary today!

Photo Credit:  Christchurch Adventure Park and Rosino

The South Island is the part of New Zealand people dream of when they think of our country, but it can be difficult to know exactly where to visit.  This guide is perfect for people with 9 or more days to spend and is full of adventure, nature and pure NZ beauty. #newzealand #travel

11 thoughts on “New Zealand South Island Itinerary: A 10 Day Highlights Road Trip

  1. Ryan K Biddulph says:

    Nice breakdown Sarah! We loved Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, Cheviot, Lyttelton and Cashmere by Christchurch and of course, the North Island rocked too. Saw seals at Shag Point, Arthur’s Pass, everything rocked!

    • Sarah - Exploring Kiwis says:

      I’m so pleased to hear, Ryan – thank you! This one is a tight itinerary but we did our best to squeeze in what we thought were the highlights. We’re going to do another for people with more time shortly and would really value your thoughts 🙂

  2. Amy says:

    While I didn’t hit all your stops, Hokitika was my favorite. The gorge is just so stunningly beautiful and the glowworm dell was fantastic.

  3. April says:

    What a wonderful post (and the photos are stunning!). I’m heading to New Zealand later this year and I can’t wait as it’s been on my bucket list for years. I’ll plan on spending more than 10 days there, but this is a great post for a jumping off point for me when it comes closer to me planning the trip. Thanks for the awesome looking suggestions!

  4. Savannah says:

    This is a great itinerary! I love your options for places to stay as well! I went to NZ for the first time back in November, but we missed Abel Tasman and unfortunately had bad weather that prevented us from hiking Roy’s Peak. Guess that means we just have to go back!

  5. Amanda Christmas says:

    Thanks for posting this. What stunning photos!! I’d really like to ask your advice about an itinerary I have set up, as I think I’m trying to cover too much. Would I be able to send you a private message somehow, or is it ok to put it on here?

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