The pinnacle of travel dreams for many, we’re excited to bring you this South Island itinerary; 10 days of New Zealand 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?
This article first appeared on Exploring Kiwis.
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.
Though we tend to prefer the flexibility of a rental car, these is no doubt that New Zealand is an amazing campervan destination.
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.
Just be sure to include as many of the spots that we cover off in our New Zealand South Island itinerary as possible!
The Perfect 10 Day South Island Taster Itinerary
Christchurch – The Start of Your 10 Day South Island Road Trip
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:
There are a lot of things 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 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.
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):
Budget: Mountain Jade Backpackers
Mid: Stations Inn. We’ve personally stayed here and can’t recommend it enough. With an award-winning restaurant and beautiful setting, it’s a winner.
Luxe: The Cabbage Tree
Drive time from Hokitika to Franz Josef: 1 hour, 40 minutes (135km)
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.
Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a couple looking for romance or a family looking for things to do in Queenstown – you’ll be spoilt for choice.
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 discounted day trip sightseeing boat, or 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!
- Head out on Faith in Fiordland – book discounted tickets through NZ Travel Tips.
- Walk the Milford Track.
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, we assure you, there’s nothing else like it.
Alternatively, we recommend splashing out on a night at the Milford Sound Lodge – this world-class accommodation is bucket list stuff.
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.
There is so much to do in Queenstown!
What to Do in Queenstown:
There are so many amazing things 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. Alternatively, if you’d like to end your trip here, it is possible to get flights out of Queenstown.
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. Book discounted tickets!
- 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 (in the hot pools!). Book discounted tickets.
- 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.
- Skydive over the most incredible landscape. Book discounted jumps!
Where to Stay in Tekapo (1 night):
Budget: Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers
Luxe: Peppers 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!