South Island Road Trip Itinerary
If you are planning your first visit to New Zealand, you may be wondering – which island is better, North or South. Well, they are very different! The North Island is more tropical, with amazing beaches and mouth-watering foodie lineups. The South Island is larger and is considered a nature wonderland for its dramatic mountains, lakes, fjords, and gorgeous coastline, as well as being home to the ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ – Queenstown.
With scenic and uncrowded roads, the South Island is also one of the best road trip destinations in the world. That’s why we decided to explore it by car. We put together an epic 15-day itinerary packed with 8 of the best South Island destinations that are too good not to be shared. So, without further ado, here is everything you need to know to have an unforgettable NZ South Island road trip of your own!
Check out our video of our trip:
15-Day Road Trip Itinerary to New Zealand’s South Island
Things to Know Before You Go
The South Island is dotted with attractions. So we decided to split them into two adventures – ride the train along the east coast and over to the west coast, and then drive along the west coast so we can enjoy the best of the Great Coast Road at our own pace, which is one of the top 10 best coastline roads in the world according to the Lonely Planet by the way.
How many days do you need to drive the west coast of the South Island?
Well, New Zealand’s roads simply won’t let you rush through them. Instead, the alluring landscapes beg to be observed slowly. So, if the GPS predicts a two-hour drive to the next destination, make sure to take into account the multiple stops you’ll be making to take photos and admire the scenery. Fifteen days was the sweet spot for us, but if you prefer to travel slowly, don’t hesitate to add on more days where you see fit!
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit the South Island is during New Zealand summer, which lasts from December to February. They are also the busiest months, though things start to quiet down towards February. If you long for ski slopes and hot pools, then align your trip with the winter months, June to August. But be prepared for rain at any time of the year. New Zealand is a bit unpredictable like that.
South Island Road Trip Itinerary: 8 Amazing Stops
The iconic Great Coast Road begins in Westport, which is where we kicked off our South Island road trip. We spent two days in town, gearing up for the journey ahead and exploring. It’s the oldest town on the coast, steeped in gold and coal mining history, and has many outdoor activities such as jet boating, underground rafting, kayaking, and hiking. Our favorite place in Westport was Cape Foulwind – a walk along the rugged coastline with beautiful views, charming lighthouses, and an entertaining seal colony. While we were in Westport, we even managed to squeeze in the Buller Gorge Half Marathon! When we learned it’s New Zealand’s most scenic marathon course, we had to do it and make the most of our time in Westport.
The road from Westport to Greymouth is home to the most visited natural attraction along the west coast – The Pancake Rocks. These beautiful rock blowholes, located in Punakaiki town, have formed over millions of years through the collaboration of limestone, seismic action, water, and wind, resulting in pancake-like stacks. We took a beautiful trail along the coast to watch the nature forces combine to create this magic show.
Greymouth itself is the heart of the West Coast. It’s the largest town that also serves as the arrival point for the TranzAlpine Train – one of the world’s most beautiful train passages we took from Christchurch. After brushing up on our history with a walk through the industrial ruins at Brunner Mine Site, we sampled the brew at Monteith’s Brewery, which once served local miners in the 1860s. If you want more history, it’s worth stopping at Shanty Town on the way to Hokitika, which is a replica of a town during the gold rush.
Our next stop brought us to Hokitika, where we spent two days discovering why it is considered South Island’s hidden gem. This tiny beach town was placed on the map by the great gold rush, where time seems to be frozen still. As a result, Hokitika is the perfect place to unwind, soak in the history, and immerse in nature. The area has heaps of incredible hikes and natural attractions, like waterfalls and glowworms. A mini adventure to Hokitika Gorge was one of our favorite places to visit on the South Island. It’s a short hike through native bush and over a suspension bridge with milky glacial water below that is just stunning. And, of course, no visit to Hokitika is complete without the obligatory photo by the driftwood sign on the beach.
Our Hokitika Gorge Short Video
4. Franz Joseph
From Coastal Highway 6, you can admire Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and Mount Cook in the distance. We decided to take a closer look and stopped to refuel in Franz Josef town. The town is tiny and serves as the gateway to ‘glacier country,’ crisscrossed with breathtaking hiking routes. But our favorite way to see everything this destination has to offer is by booking a helicopter ride over Westland Tai Poutini National Park! You get to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery of Mount Cook, Franz Josef Glacier, and Fox Glacier, land in the snow on one of the glaciers, and listen to insightful commentary from the pilot along the way. What an epic bucket list experience and an all-in-one method to see some of the west coast highlights without compromising your itinerary. We didn’t choose to take it, but it’s on the list for next time. We understand this is a nice operation:
After our thrilling experience in Franz Joseph, we spent two days exploring Haast, nestled on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s a much quieter town often overlooked by visitors but is absolutely worth checking out. There are plenty of things to do in Haast, ranging from calming boardwalk trails along dunes and swampland on the coast to jet boating down the roaring Waiatoto River. We craved some adrenalin, so we hopped on a Waiatoto River Safari. Zooming at high speeds one minute and slowing down to a halt the next to take in the scenery is a thrilling way to enjoy the wilderness of this World Heritage Area.
The next stop on the world-famous scenic highway was equally stunning Wanaka, often identified by the single willow tree amid the large lake. Unfortunately, vandals destroyed it, and we were unable to see it. We spent two days recharging in the tiny town and enjoying the views kayaking on the lake.
We also hiked to the Blue Pools. It’s a short and easy trail but is considered one of the most beautiful hikes on the South Island. The unspoiled Blue Pools simply cannot get any bluer. They are fed with the glacier water that runs down from the mountains in Mt. Aspiring National Park as if it were food coloring. Many people braved the freezing water temperatures by taking a dip, but we had something even bigger planned later in the road trip.
7. Te Anau
Te Anau is one of the most popular destinations on the South Island because of how close it is to the iconic Milford Sound. Although small, the town is full of activities, including hikes and glowworm caves, but we decided to spend the majority of our three days exploring the beautiful fjords.
We took a cruise and kayak combo excursion to get up close and personal with the extraordinary natural wonder. The highest peak of these majestic mountains rises up to 5,522 feet and dwarfs everything in comparison. Since Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, the top 32 feet is freshwater.
Kayaking is probably the best way to explore Milford Sound. You feel tiny next to the giant glacial waterfalls cascading down, especially if you get close enough to touch the mountains. If you are lucky, you may spot some wildlife like dolphins and rare penguins. Do bring waterproof layers and protect your valuables. If you don’t get wet in the rain, the waterfalls may get you.
Our epic South Island road trip ended with a bang in Queenstown – the Adventure Capital of the World. We spent four days finding the most [thrilling activities to do in Queenstown]. From riding down Bob’s Peak in a luge to jetboating on the Shotover river. But the most heart-gripping activity, which was born at Kawarau bridge not far from Queenstown, was bungee jumping.
Read all about John’s brave plunge 141 feet over the Kawarau River!
To wind down from all of the palm-sweat-inducing activities of Queenstown, we finished our South Island road trip with a relaxing afternoon at Onsen hot pools. It is a traditional Japanese bathing experience with a kiwi twist. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude our journey. It had a relaxing soak with a view of the Shotover river and mountains to ponder and appreciate New Zealand. It really is a dream destination, packed with scenery that’s even better than what we see online. Come and find out for yourself!
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