New Zealand: South Island Road Trip Itinerary
We spent 13 days road tripping around New Zealand’s South Island. One thing we learned is that people definitely aren’t exaggerating when they say New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world! We filled our days with scenic drives, hiking, and exploring new cities along the way. Here’s the break down of our 13 days on the curvy, curvy roads of New Zealand!
Days 1 and 2: Christchurch (no driving)
- Christchurch was hit by massive quakes in 2010 and 2011, which destroyed a lot of the city and killed about 185 people so a lot of our time in Christchurch was spent walking through the old damage and new developments of the city.
- Visit the main church in Cathedral Square, which has not been rebuilt at all since the quakes (it’s quite eery to see).
- Shop and dine at food trunks in Re:START Mall, which is a small mall created from shipping containers after the 2011 earthquakes in order to get small business back up and running as quickly as possible.
- Hunt for street art scattered throughout the city.
- Admire the colorfully adorable New Regent Street shops and cafés.
- Remember those lost in the earthquakes at the eerie 185 Chairs Art Exhibit.
- Hike to the lookout in Mount Vernon Park, which is a local favorite. This hike was fairly easy and gave us great views of Christchurch and a hilly bay on the other side of the mountain!
Accommodation: Jailhouse Hostel just outside of downtown Christchurch. This hostel was super clean and super cool. It’s in a historic jail so you get to experience living in a real life jail! Not only is the setting fascinating, but the hostel also has a great kitchen and common area.
Our Experiences: Our first night in Christchurch we got to experience a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which was quite exciting (and certainly unexpected). Johnny and I both woke up to tell each other to quit rolling around so much when we realized we weren’t causing our bunk to shake excessively, an earthquake was! We were evacuated from our hostel and waited through several big after shocks and a tsunami warning before attempting to head back to bed. This was definitely something we neither prepared for nor would want to experience again. I decided I can’t live in a place prone to earthquakes!
Day 3: Christchurch to Omarama (3 ½ hour drive)
- Stop at Lake Tekapo, where we took in one of our favorite mountain views of all time. We were greeted with a gorgeous blue lake lined with snow capped mountains and a field of purple-ombre flowers.
- Stop and see Church of the Good Shepard, a tiny church set right on the edge of Lake Tekapo.
- Drive up to Mount John Observatory and take in the panoramic (and WINDY!!) views overlooking Lake Tekapo.
- Make a pit stop at Lake Pukaki for another picturesque and less crowded lake surrounded by mountains.
- Visit High Country Salmon, a salmon farm where you can grub on fresh salmon. I even got to feed the big ‘ole salmon!
Accommodation: Countrytime Hotel, a basic hotel set in the middle of the mountains right next to an airfield where glider jets take off and land for tours of the area. We had a gorgeous view of the mountains and enjoyed watching the jets glide in and out.
Our Experiences: Unfortunately, I got really sick here, but the wonderful staff at Countrytime helped me get some help from a doctor (and the entire Omarama volunteer fire and police brigade, LOL) in the middle of the night! Shout out to Johnny for being a champ while I was sick and Dr. Beth from the neighboring town of Twizel for mending me right up!
Day 4: Omarama to Queenstown (2 ½ hour drive)
Activities: On day 4, we drove from Omarama to Queenstown, which took most of the morning. As per usual, the drive was beautiful as we drove through winding roads, flower filled valleys, and snow capped mountains. I still wasn’t feeling 100% so we didn’t partake in any activities
Accommodation: Alpine Lodge Airbnb, perched on the side of the mountain with gorgeous views of Queenstown, the lake, and surrounding mountains.
Our Experiences: Still sick and a bit rainy in Queenstown, but luckily, our Airbnb view made us feel better about spending some extra time on the couch!
Day 5: Queenstown (no driving)
- Walk the path around Lake Wakatipu, This was a low-key, easy walk with great views. You can walk or bike the path and if you’re feeling competitive you can play a game of Frisbee golf along the path as well.
- Eat at Public Kitchen and Bar where we enjoyed delicious small plates and a view of the lake. We also got to indulge in our first nice beer and rose in a LONG, LONG while!
- Stroll the streets of downtown Queenstown where you can get lost in all the shopping!
Accommodation: Alpine Lodge Airbnb for a second night.
Our Experiences: Queenstown has your quintessential ski resort vibe with outdoor restaurants, cute boutiques and outdoors stores, all tucked in between the mountains. We thought Queenstown was fabulous!
Day 6: Queenstown and drive to Te Anau (2 hour drive)
- Ride the Queenstown Skyline Gondola up to the top of the mountain near town. The gondola will cost you about $23, but the view at the top of this mountain is amazing and there’s lots activities including luging down the top of the mountain on their luge track (for an extra fee).
- Zipline with Ziptrek Ecotours at the top of the mountain. We got to fly through the fir trees and take in awesome views of the lake while zipping along. We even zip lined upside down and did a zip line trust fall!
- Eat bomb burgers at Fergburger’s, the go-to burger joint in Queenstown. Don’t EVER miss this spot if you’re in the area. Seriously might be the best burgers we’ve ever had and we’ve had A LOT of burgers in our days.
Accommodation: Explorer Motel in Te Anau, which was a great, clean room with a small kitchen so we could cook our own breakfast and dinner (AKA Johnny could cook, I watched).
Our Experiences: This was the point in the trip when the weather started to take a turn for the worst and we started getting bursts of rain throughout the day.
Day 7: Te Anau and Milford Sound (no driving)
- Cruise Milford Sound with Southern Discovery Cruises. It’ll take you about 2 hours to get to Milford Sound from Te Anau, but the view makes it all worth it. On the water, we were completely surrounded by tall mountain peaks and even got to see seals and penguins enjoying their day in the sound! Definitely book an early morning cruise as it is not nearly as crowded as the afternoon times.
- Make a quick stop at Mirror Ponds on the way to or from Milford Sound where you can see the mountains reflecting in the calm pond water. This stop is well marked by signs and takes about 5 minutes.
- Stop at Humboldt Falls before/after Milford Sound for a quick 20-30 minute hike along a rushing river to a small waterfall. During this hike, we walked over crystal clear, crazy blue water on a suspension bridge and watched water rush down the rocky mountainside.
- Tackle the Key Summit Track in Fiordland National Park, which took us straight up to the top of a mountain. This hike was very steep and definitely took some energy, but was worth it! The top was a unique marshland with a pretty pond and we were surrounded by 360 views of snow-capped mountains. We even experienced some early spring flurries at the top! This hike is about 3 hours round-trip (or less when you have to keep up with Johnny’s long legs).
Accommodation: Explorer Motel in Te Anau for a second night.
Our Experiences: At the Humboldt Falls car park, we were greeted by a New Zealand parrot, which decided to attack Johnny and even climbed onto our car to try to get to us through the windshield (see picture). Turns out, it’s not just monkeys that are cheeky; it’s those parrots, too! We’re definitely taught to love the wrong animals when we’re little!
Day 8: Te Anau to Wanaka (3 hour drive)
- Make a pit stop in Arrowtown, the most adorable little town with a strong mining history. Don’t miss the Chinese Settlement, where the Chinese miners were forced to live during the mining days and indulge in the YUMMIEST meat pie from Arrowtown Bakery.
- Down some wine at Rippon Winery right outside town. We couldn’t get over the setting of this vineyard, which literally overlooks grape vines, Wanaka, the lake, and the surrounding mountains. The real icing on the cake was that the tasting at Rippon is free!! BOOM.
- Drink local beer and enjoy the weather at Whakapai Cafe and Bar.
- Eat 2 for 1 pizza at Urban Grind. Pizza is a budget traveler’s best friend, after all!
Accommodation: Fairway Motel, which was another clean, basic room with a small kitchen.
Our Experiences: We’ve officially been to wineries in 4 different continents now (WOW!!) and this one was definitely the most beautiful!
Day 9: Wanaka (no driving)
- Hike the Rocky Mountain Track just outside Wanaka. There’s a ton of great hikes around Wanaka and after lots of research we chose Rocky Mountain, which didn’t disappoint. This steep hike took us up, up, and up to the top of the mountain for 360 views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. We definitely recommend the east track of this hike as it has much better views than the west track.
- Photograph the infamous “Wanaka Tree”. Every morning and night, tourists and photographers huddle along the edge of the lake with huge tripods and lenses to catch a pretty photo of the lone, little tree surrounded by mountains. This is a funny phenomenon and locals will laugh at you, but snagging a picture of the Wanaka Tree is a right of passage for tourists!
Accommodation: Fairway Motel for a second night.
Our Experiences: Wanaka was one of our favorite stops (and it wasn’t just because of the wine!). It’s a much smaller, chiller version of Queenstown and just as beautiful! Don’t miss it!
Day 10: Wanaka to Franz Josef Town (3 hour drive)
- Stop at The Blue Pools, which is a short hike and was one of our favorites! We walked over a suspension bridge to the bluest water we have ever seen (Koh Phi Phi water included).
- See the glacier at Fox Glacier. I felt that this stop was a bit underwhelming. The glacier itself looks more like rock than ice so it takes some imagination to enjoy the stop. As Johnny put it, you have to focus more on the valley that the glacier carved than the glacier itself and I agree! You can book tours to actually hike on the glacier, which is supposed to be a lot more impressive, but it comes with a pretty high price tag.
Accommodation: Bella Vista Motel Franz Josef, this simple spot has a good location and very clean, nice rooms.
Our Experiences: This drive was super interesting because the landscape changed from mountains to lush rain forest very quickly. With the rainforests, comes rain. It rains about 255 days of the year in Franz Josef (including the 2 days we were there!!).
Day 11: Franz Josef Town (no driving)
- Get out of the rain at the glacier hot pools in town. There are 3 pools of different temperature and they are all covered so, despite the rain, it’s very relaxing. Our leg muscles thanked us for the relief from the hikes!
Accommodation: Bella Vista Motel Franz Josef for a second night.
Our Experiences: Rain, rain, and more rain! We hid in our room during most of our time in Franz Josef Town!
Day 12: Fox Glacier to Greymouth (3 hour drive)
- Drive out to Punakaiki to walk through the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. This stop was super awesome and definitely worth the added drive. The Pancake Rocks are an unreal feat of nature that scientists can’t really explain. Over millions of years, the rocks have been formed into thin, pancake-like layers. Also, no matter your age, watching water shoot through blowholes is super-duper entertaining! Go at high tide for the best blowholes.
- Try the signature beers from Monteith’s Brewing Co. in town. All of the beers were really delicious and kept us busy in the rainy weather! If you find yourself at Monteith’s, do yourself a favor and try the Velvet Stout. You can thank us later.
Accommodation: Global Village-BBH-Global Village is very clean hostel, has a great kitchen, and even free bikes and kayaks for guests.
Our Experiences: At this point in our trip we’re starting to get to “lasts” of things before heading home. So sad!! Staying in Global Village was our last stay in a hostel! While I’m pretty happy about no more shared bathrooms, we really enjoyed the community vibe and amenities in the hostels throughout our trip.
Day 13: Greymouth to Christchurch (4 hour drive)
- Drive through Arthur’s Pass, which seems like it would be totally amazing, but our visibility was horrible due to rain and fog on our way back to Christchurch. So, no views, just careful driving.
Accommodation: Airbnb near the airport
Our Experiences: This was our last day in New Zealand and Thanksgiving Day! We met up with our friends, Jeff and Catherine, one last time to celebrate Thanksgiving complete with rotisserie chicken, instant mashed potatoes, American Football, and of course, plenty of wine! We are definitely thankful we’ve been able to explore so many parts of the world with these great friends!
One more shout-out to Johnny, our fearless driver who did an A+ job staying on the left-side of the road, getting us safely through windy, mountain roads, and killin’ it in the many roundabouts!