The Ultimate Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand

I get asked a lot about a suggested itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand. My childhood holidays were spent travelling around the South Island with my family. We stayed in our caravan, with Mum and Dad sleeping in the caravan, my sister and I in the awning, and my brothers in a tent just outside. The mighty Ford Falcon hauled us around, in the days before 4WD’s took over the roads. We travelled near and far, and I continued my NZ travels as an adult too- love of my own country and knowledge of my backyard are important to me.

Allow two weeks per Island

For a tourist coming to NZ, I would suggest two weeks in each island. I think the South Island is better, but I am biased. Sacrifice distance for depth of exploration.

The best way to explore NZ is driving

The best way to travel around NZ is by driving. We don’t have a train network and buses don’t allow you to take those back roads that will lead to the greatest discoveries. Rental cars are plentiful. Driving in NZ is easy due to lack of vehicles on the road, but the roads can be challenging. Narrow gorges, winding hills, no passing lanes, and the ability of our weather to go from bright and sunny to a torrential downpour in minutes means that roads can be treacherous. Just be prepared, and drive slowly if you’re uncomfortable. Most open motorways and highways have a speed limit of 100km, so if you are driving slower, pull over often and let all the other motorists pass you.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
You might encounter some livestock. Farmers use roads to move their stock- be patient, don’t hoot your horn, they slowly move out of your way.

Accommodation options in NZ

Accommodation is readily available from hotels, motels, and backpackers. Hotels are generally a bit more expensive. Motels are ideal as they usually come with a basic kitchen so you can cook your own meals. I recommend ‘tourist flats’ at places like Top 10 Holiday Park. They are cheap and have access to shared kitchens and bathrooms, or sometimes their own. The campgrounds will also have playgrounds, washing machines and dryers, and friendly locals.

Food in New Zealand; paradise for meat lovers

Food can be very expensive in New Zealand. The local supermarkets, Countdown and New World will have loads of food options and ready-to-eat meals that are cheaper than a restaurant.

Things you must eat in NZ:

Fish & chips. The NZ take on the British fish and chips, they come wrapped in newsprint paper. Cheap and best consumed with Watties tomato sauce on the beach.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Fish and chips at Sumner, Christchurch NZ

Seafood: NZ has some of the best seafood in the world. Our blue cod is amazing, the mussels pipis and oysters are delicious, and kina and paua are for the brave. Crayfish (lobster) is outstanding.

Sweets/ lollies: Go into the local supermarket. Find the aisle of sugar. Buy the following Kiwi classics: Pineapple lumps, Jaffas, Crunchie Bars (hokey pokey covered in chocolate), chocolate fish, Peanut Slab and grab an L&P drink from the chiller. Road trip classic food, sorted.

Vegetarian food: While there are vege options, they are not plentiful. It’s getting better – you won’t starve- but you’ll be sick of vegetarian lasagne by the end of your trip.

Pavlova: Don’t ask the Aussies, they try to claim this. An overgrown meringue generally eaten at Christmas time with lashing of whipped cream and strawberries.

Pies: NZ loves a hunk of meat cooked in pastry. In fact, we have National Pie Awards, we love them so much. Ask a local for the best, but if you drive through Farlie, stop at Fairlie Bakehouse. If you go through Sheffield, stop at the Sheffield Pie Shop. And, if you go through Roxburgh, try a classic Jimmy’s Pie. And the local service station, BP, has an award winning vegan pie!

Other things to know about NZ

  • There are loads of ATM’s that are safe to use and draw cash from. Credit cards are accepted in 99.9% of places though.
  • Don’t litter. You will end up having to pick it up anyway when a local tells you to.
  • Always lock your car, don’t leave valuables unattended, and hide belongings. Kiwi’s are awesome but some of us aren’t perfect. Protect yourself (and get insurance).
  • If you want to say ‘hello’ in Te Reo, the language of our indigenous people the Maori, it’s ‘kia ora’. Sounds like ‘key-oar-a’. Ka Pai!
  • Locals generally are a friendly bunch. If you ask anyone for their favourite restaurant you might get invited home for a ‘feed’. If you ask for their favourite place to visit, you’ll be rewarded with true, off-the-beaten-track experiences.
  • NZ weather changes in minutes. One minute it’s 25oC, then it’s blowing and raining and 10oC. Pack warm clothes and carry them always!

Suggested South Island Itinerary (one or two week)

Start in Christchurch, the biggest city in the South Island (I will do a blog just about Christchurch, so much to do here!).

Otago

Drive south, down State Highway one, along the coastline. The drive to Dunedin will take a day, but stop at Moeraki to see the alien-looking boulders. Oamaru has a great cheese shop along the way, for those of you with a cheese addiction (this is me).

itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Moeraki Boulders – Photo by Carol Bremner Photography

Oamaru is the NZ home of Steampunk. The range of Victorian- era buildings make this a great backdrop for the May-June festival- well worth a trip to take part in a unique part of NZ offbeat culture.

itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Oamaru Steampunk Festival. Photo by Carol Bremner Photography
itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
The Steampunk festival lights up the town! Photo from Carol Bremner Photography
itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Oamaru breakwater Photo from Carol Bremner Photography

Stay in Dunedin. It’s a small city with a large population of University students. Dunedin has Albatross viewing, a chocolate factory, a beach with a tunnel, Orokonui Ecosantuary for birdlife and a native bush walk, lots of great cafes and bars, and a very chilled out vibe. (I will write an exclusive Dunedin blog too, I lived here for five years!)

The following day, head south down to the Catlins. Drive through Balclutha, my home town, and marvel at how anyone could survive 18 years growing up there. However it is well known for the Clutha River- this has great fishing, ask a local for their best fishing spot (although they may not tell you…)

In the Catlins, there are a few places to stay- Owaka, Papatowai, or Pounawea. I could happily spend a week here alone- visit Purakanui Falls, McLean Falls, Slope Point, Tautuku Beach, and so many other incredible places. Bushwalks, wild isolated beaches, and blissful silence, broken only by melodious bird calls. Keep an eye out for our native Tui, the shy Bellbird, the curious fantail, and the whooshing of our large drunkard woodpigeon. The woodpigeon feasts on fermenting berries, leading to awkward social drunkeness and sometimes falling out of trees.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Papatowai Beach, the Catlins
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
If you’re lucky, you’ll see Rata in full bloom- NZ’s ‘Christmas Tree’
itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Nugget Point Lighthouse Photo by Carol Bremner Photography
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Cathedral Caves in the Catlins. Can only be accessed at low tide
itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Purakanui Falls, the Catlins. Photo by Carol Bremner Photography

Check out my post on things to do in the Catlins over here.

At this point, you have a choice. You can head south to Bluff and Invercargill, or find the road to Mataura/ Gore and drive to Te Anau.

Southland

If you head south, there is plenty to do, despite rumors to the contrary! There’s the Bluff Oyster Festival in May (which I will never attend, yuck), and car enthusiasts will enjoy a wander around Motorcycle Mecca, a classic motorcycle museum, and Transport World.

itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Bluff signpost Photo by Carol Bremner Photography

Fiordland

Now I feel like I’m letting out a secret of New Zealand here, because Te Anau is tiny, isolated, and not many tourists go there, most go to Wanaka or Queenstown. Both those places are amazing, but they are packed full of tourists and expensive. I avoid them. Te Anau is quieter, just as beautiful, and it’s closer to Milford Sound. There is lots to do here- Milford Sound for sure, Doubtful Sound is amazing, there are some of NZ’s great walks here, and it’s a nice, quiet place to be.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
The road to Milford Sound
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
The start of the Milford Track. Wear sensible shoes, our mountains can be cruel.
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Day one hut on Milford Track- this is the view you climb to.
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Milford Sound. It’s not normally this blue and full of sunshine!
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Doubtful Sounds. Saw dolphins playing here too.

Central Otago

Once you’ve stayed here, head up Mossburn and Athol to Central Otago. Of the premier wine growing regions of NZ, there is loads to do in this area. Stay in Queenstown, Wanaka, Arrowtown, Cromwell, Alexandra, or Glenorchy if you want to be super out-of-the-way. From here, you can find the first bungy jump in the world, skifields in winter, the Shotover Jet boat ride, white water rafting, and the place where  NZ had it’s own GoldRush back in the 1850’s. You’ll see stone walls and chimneys dot the dry, rocky landscape, remnants of the past. There is so much to explore here.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Lake Glenorchy, an hour or so from Queenstown.
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Central Otago, one of my favourite places in NZ. Vineyards, hills, the Clutha River.
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Central Otago. Bendigo

Head north. Here, you have two options.

Canterbury High Country

One is Twizel, Tekapo, Mt Cook. Mt Cook is out highest mountain, and it’s where Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth before he went off and conquered the highest mountain in the world, Everest. Take a walk from the Mt Cook tourist centre to the Mt Cook viewing place- on nice days, you can see avalanches on the mountain. If you haven’t seen Kea already, then you might see them here. Our Kea is a large, exceptionally curious dull-green parrot. You’ll often find them, chewing on rubber on cars and destroying things that seem interesting to them. Stay in Tekapo, with its vibrant hued water, and walk up Mt John. Tekapo is one of the best places to see the night sky in the world, and the Canterbury University has an observatory up there. There are also hot pools, where you can relax amidst the pines with a view of the vibrant-blue hued lake. You can head back to Christchurch from here, or back track to Wanaka and onto the west coast.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Our mountain parrot, the Kea. Will eat everything not tied down. Please do not (intentionally) feed them!
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Tekapo NZ, the McKenzie Country

The Wild West Coast

Option two is head through Wanaka to Haast. From Haast, you can make your way up the coast, stopping in at Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. With the advent of climate change, the views from the glacier head isn’t as startling as they used to be, but you can pay for a helicopter flight that lands on the glacier itself- I’ve been told it’s unforgettable. Franz Josef also has hot pools, set in a lush natural bush. Further North you have Hokitika and Greymouth, small and wild towns that are known for rain and their rocky beaches. Punakaiki Rocks, or ‘pancake rocks’, is worth a trip- watch out for the blowhole. The drive from Greymouth to Punakaiki is one of the top ten scenic drives in the world. There’s plenty to do in this wild region- a white heron tour from Whataroa is a must for any keen bird watcher. The West Coast is where much of NZ’s rough, tough history comes from- with gold and coal mining, there is loads of history (and if you’ve read the book The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, this was set in Hokitika).

If you head back to to Christchurch from here, you’ll travel through Arthurs Pass, a stunning road journey.

Nelson Tasman/ Marlborough

From Greymouth, head north through Murchison to Nelson. There’s a bunch of great places to stay in the area- Picton, Nelson, Blenheim (try the sauvignon blanc here, outstanding, and visit the Omaka Aviation Centre), Motueka, Kaiteriteri, or in the bays. From Picton, you can take the Queen Charlotte Track and take a few days to explore the area, or stay here and kayak around the bays, staying alongside these remote, beautiful bays.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Marlborough Sounds, top of the South Island

Then head south along the coast. Head to Kaikoura. Known for crayfish and whale watching, Kaikoura is a gorgeous seaside town with a fantastic seal colony you can reach by foot from the township. There was a large earthquake here in 2016, and it changed the landscape of the area dramatically. There was seabed uplift for those interested in geography, and an impressive road reconstruction happening along the way too.

Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
The seal colony is a short walk from the township- so many seals! Please do not approach them, they can move pretty quick when they want.
Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Kaikoura beach

From Kaikoura, it’s a couple of hours drive back to Christchurch, or, take a diversion or two!

Canterbury

Castle Hill is a strange, alien landscape of limestone rocks, set in the Canterbury high country. There’s a walk, looping through the hillside, the rocks are amazing for bouldering (if you’re into rock climbing) and in summer you can safely walk through Cave Stream- an underground cave with a stream- it is cold and dark so be prepared with head torches and check the water levels before attempting.

Hamner Springs has a pool complex with natural thermally heated pools. There is a great kids area, and a range of pools for relaxing in at different temperatures. This is set amidst a small alpine village, which often gets snow in the winter- there is almost nothing as magical as sitting in a hot pool with snow falling! Walk up Conical Hill and if you like mountain biking, there are a bunch of tracks here (and you can hire a MTB in the village too).

Akaroa is a stunning seaside town just out of Christchurch (well, an hour-ish drive over some very winding hill roads). It has dolphin watching and tours. It was also originally a French settlement, and still bears French street names and a distinctly French feel- it’s a beautiful village.

itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Akaroa wharf Photo by Carol Bremner Photography
itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand
Akaroa Lighthouse, photo by Carol Bremner Photography

And that’s it. My ultimate itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand. You can take as much time as you like doing this, but this trip would easily take two weeks. Good luck trying to cut it down!

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