The South Island of New Zealand is one of the world’s unspoilt wonders and Christchurch is a great starting point for your South Island adventure, making your way to Wellington in the North Island. On arrival at Christchurch International Airport, head across to the friendly GO Rentals team and pick up your lovely new hire car which will become your new best friend over the next 12 days as you explore some of the magnificence of the New Zealand’s South Island.
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
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Although you’ve just picked up your new GO Rentals car, don’t be in too big a hurry to leave Christchurch as there is plenty to explore. Take the time on your first day to explore the ‘Garden City’, the largest city in the South Island where you can relax your way into your latest adventure.
Christchurch has unfortunately made headlines in recent times for a string of earthquakes that caused serious damage to the city – but its charm remains untouched and the city is rebuilding.
The tree-lined Avon River and Christchurch’s many parks and gardens give the city its reputation as the Garden City so make sure you check out the botanical gardens and the beautiful parks. Check out the several Gap Filler projects that volunteers have created to temporarily “activate” sites left empty by the earthquakes – you’ll be able to see some unique and really creative work that is proof of Christchurch’s charm and resilience.
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2Christchurch to Kaikoura (180kms – 2 hours 35 mins)
Although your journey through the South Island is first going to head south towards Queenstown, it’s worth giving yourself a day to head up to Kaikoura. Although this is a 2.5 hour trip up north, we reckon it’s well worth the extra miles for an amazing opportunity to swim with dolphins or maybe sample some of the delights of the South Island’s world famous wines plus it’s a good chance to give your new GO Rentals car a run out and get used to each other.
Cellar View Café and Restaurant
Kaikoura is one of New Zealand’s best locations for seeing marine life including whales and dolphins. It is also the home to the Cellar View Cafe and Restaurant. This place serves up some pretty amazing dishes matched only by the stunning views out to the pacific. It’s easy to let an afternoon drift by, enjoying the delicious food and admiring the endless view. Nice.
Swimming with dolphins
Kaikoura is also the place to go for swimming with dolphins so, if that’s always been on your bucket list, it’s time to tick it off. GO Play partner Encounter Kaikoura offers a brilliant opportunity to get in the waters of the south Pacific and swim with these amazing animals.
Tours operate three times a day and hopefully your 12 day itinerary will allow you to stay over for the night so you can enjoy the wine without having to worry about a drive back to Christchurch.
It’s not just dolphins that pass through the waters around Kaikoura though and if you time things right, there is also the chance to see various species of whale as well as seals and birds.
Use your GO Play card here
3Kaikoura to Lake Tekapo (399km – 5 hours 34 mins)
If you didn’t manage to squeeze in as much as you had hoped on your first day in Christchurch, there is a chance to revisit the city on your way south towards Lake Tekapo. The Antigua Boatsheds offer lots of ways to get active on the river as well as giving visitors and locals alike a great photo opportunity in the picturesque riverbank settings.
For more ideas of what you can get up to in Christchurch, check out our Christchurch and around guide.
After a few leisurely days in and around Christchurch it’s time to hit the road proper and get out to take in the sights of the lower South Island. Heading out of Christchurch, a stop off at Lyttelton is well worth the detour and it’s a great place to grab some breakfast if you’re out nice and early. Hit by the earthquakes, Lyttelton has now rebuilt and is a thriving village with lots of bars and cafes – there’s a great road over to Lyttelton which offers you some fantastic views looking down to the city and the harbour as well as down to the Southern Alps – a great way to start this road trip.
Akaroa (264km – 3 hours 58 mins from Kaikoura)
Located 75km south of Christchurch and known by locals as the ‘Riviera of Canterbury’, Akaroa is a great stop off as you head down towards Queenstown and beyond. This village is located on Banks Peninsula within a harbour of the same name and is considered “the most French town” in New Zealand, as it was the only French settlement in the country. Spend some time exploring the small town and then head to the harbour for the best fish and chips meal of your life (at least that’s Akaroa’s claim so you be the judge and let us know). If you didn’t have the chance to head up to Kaikoura, GO Play partner Black Cat Cruises offer an amazing opportunity to swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins which are only found in these waters. With a 10% discount, you’d be a fool not to!
Mt John Observatory/Lake Tekapo (280kms – 4 hours 10 mins from Akaroa)
Stargazers all over the world know Mt John and Lake Tekapo, in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region, as one of the absolute best places to look at the stars (and even catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights – Aurora Australis).
Lake Tekapo is also famous for its unique turquoise colour, as well as its beautiful starry nights – a perfect spot for you romantics out there as Lake Tekapo has been the scene of many a wooing! If you can park here for the night, you’ll not regret it. Mt John, just above the Tekapo township, is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world, home to 6 telescopes, including New Zealand’s biggest telescope, which can observe 50 million stars each clear night (yes, you read that right).
4Lake Tekapo to Queenstown (256km – 3 hours 26 mins)
A relatively short drive south (around 3.5 hours) will take you to Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, and some say the world.
It won’t take you long to figure out why as your senses are bombarded with countless flyers showing you all the adrenaline fuelled activities available in this all-action city. If you can, ensure you spend at least a couple of days exploring the city and all its attractions. One of the coolest ones is the Luge, which combine some of the most stunning views you can get from Queenstown and its surroundings, with an injection of adrenaline.
The Skyline Queenstown Luge is open from 10am daily, all year round. For more ideas of activities in and around Queenstown, check out our Queenstown and around guide.
If you had an action packed first day in Queenstown, there’s still plenty to keep you occupied whether you stay around the city and just take in the sights and sounds or you decide to take the car out for some short trips.
Bendigo goldfields (80.3kms – 1 hour 10 mins)
There’s something about old abandoned ghost towns that makes you reflect on the life that once was there. The Bendigo goldfields include a number of deserted towns from back in the days of the gold rush, surrounded by some of the most spectacular Central Otago scenery. From the town of Bendigo, you can drive up to the deserted towns of Logantown and Welshtown, with crumbling stone cottages to let your mind wander and imagine the days of digging for gold. Take SH8 out of Cromwell and drive for about 20kms until you hit Bendigo. The tourist information station will provide you with more information about the area and things to do.
Arrowtown/Cromwell (20.1kms – 22 mins from Queenstown)
Unlike Bendigo, small Arrowtown is far from abandoned. The small historic village, a short 20-minute drive from Queenstown, is bursting with activity and includes a collection of beautiful old heritage buildings and miners’ cottages. The beauty of Arrowtown is that the heritage buildings are more than mere monuments of a time gone past – they’re still used for commerce and you get to experience life before modern days.
A number of hiking tracks start and end at Arrowtown so, if you feel like a walk, head to the Information Centre to find out more about these tracks.
6Queenstown to Franz Josef (350kms – 6 hours 2 mins)
The drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef is one of the most spectacular as you cut through the Haast Pass out of Wanaka (be sure to call in to Wanaka if you have the time). Your GO Rentals hire car will be purring as you wind your way through the mountains and lakes, heading towards the rugged west coast.
Blue Pools (129kms – 2 hours 1 min from Queenstown)
Heading west along route SH6 is a hidden gem (not so hidden since it made it into the top 10 things to do in NZ list!) not to be missed. The Blue Pools walk can be accessed directly from the Haast Pass and is well signposted along the route. Follow the track into the forest where you’ll find a series of crystal clear pools that have been carved out of the rocks by centuries of erosion. The glacier-fed water in these deep pools is the colour of deep azure blue, and so clear that you can see right to the bottom. Jumping in looks tempting but it’s not advised as it will be a particularly cold shock to the system as well as upsetting the resident brown trout and you don’t want to mess with a brown trout unless you like a wet face slap.
Lake Matheson (203kms – 3 hours 38 mins from Blue Pools)
One thing not to be missed as you near Franz Josef is Lake Matheson. Turn left at the Fox Township and you’ll find yourself at the idyllic lake which offers perfect reflections of Aoraki/ Mount Cook and will give you the picture to make all your friends jealous. You also get a fantastic view of the Fox Glacier in its full glory so be sure to have your camera charged and ready. We reckon you will end up with at least 39 photos on your camera as the best shot is always just around the corner!
7Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
An early wakeup call awaits if you’re keen to get out and explore one of the glaciers on day 7 of your road trip so make sure you set your alarm early.
There are so many ways to explore the glaciers whether on foot on a self-guided tour to the base of the glacier or for the more adventurous (and affluent!) a heli-hike to the very top of the glacier – there is something to suit everyone and give you a chance to explore this wonderful landscape.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
Exploring the glaciers is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip to the South Island no matter how you choose to explore the ice. Franz Josef and Fox offer similar but at the same time different experiences. Some say that the ice up on the Franz is a better place to explore, however it can be a bit of a trek to get there and is not for the feint hearted. The Fox Glacier on the other hand takes less time to get to the ice itself and is equally as impressive. The bottom line is, you get crampons and an ice axe when you go to explore any of the glaciers and that makes for an awesome photo of you, the intrepid explorer!
Glacier Hot Pools
If hiking up glaciers and early wakeup calls are not your thing, then maybe a dip in the glacier hot pools, right in the middle of the rainforest is more up your street? It sounds just as stunning as it is. The pools are located in the Franz Josef township on Cron Street and open between 1pm to 9pm all year round and if this didn’t sound perfect enough, Glacier Hot Pools are a GO Play partner so you can relax with a few more dollars in your pocket!
Use your GO Play card here
8Franz Josef to Greymouth (174kms – 2 hour 21 mins)
After all the adventure up on the glacier, it’s time to get back in your GO Rentals hire car and hit the road heading north up the West Coast. This is another fantastic drive, with the rugged West Coast on your left hand side as you set out towards Greymouth.
Ross (107kms – 1 hour 23 mins)
It’s about a 3 hour drive from Franz Josef to Greymouth and the perfect stop off point on the way is the small gold-mining town of Ross. In 1909, Ross became famous across New Zealand when the largest gold nugget in the country was found weighing in at an impressive 99 ounces. There is some conjecture over the origin of the nugget however with some claiming it was in fact mined in Australia and smuggled over to Ross to inflate the gold prices. Either way, it was purchased by the New Zealand government and presented to King George V as a coronation gift.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Although your day is due to end in Greymouth, a slight detour north is well worth it to check out the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki and let’s face it, you love driving your GO Rentals car that much by now that this is a great excuse to get some more miles under your belt! Get your camera ready because this is one of those places you’ll want to tell everyone about. The pancake rocks are heavily eroded limestone, layered like pancakes. Who doesn’t love pancakes? Exactly. These particular ones were formed 30 million years ago out of dead marine creatures and plants. Chances are you’ll have been driving most of the afternoon so hopefully you will catch the rocks at sunset making for an even more impressive photo.
9Greymouth to Nelson (287kms – 4 hours 8 mins)
The next leg of your journey takes you to the far north of the South Island and this day is filled with lots of little gems to break up the journey.
Formerly the Blackball Hilton Hotel (27.4kms – 31 mins from Greymouth)
At first glance, it might look like you’re just in a quiet small town in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand but, in fact, you’re standing in front of a hotel that was subject to global controversy. Well, sort of.
The hotel was built in 1910 and named The Dominion at the time. In the 1970s, the name was changed to The Blackball Hilton. Threats of legal action by you-know-who who owns a big hotel chain with the same name in the US forced the Blackball Hilton to add “Formerly” to the name in order to continue to operate.
The hotel is located on 26 Hart Street and offers both food and accommodation, if you feel like a break.
Bev’s Dolls (56.9kms – 1 hour from Blackball)
In a converted garage at 35 Main Street in Reefton, you’ll find Bev’s Dolls – a collection of over 2000 dolls, including a 180-year-old German stone doll and popular contemporary dolls such as the Harry Potter doll collection. Check that Bev is home and, for a fee, she’ll show you her impressive collection.
Buller Gorge Swing Bridge
After a pretty short drive north on SH6 there is another chance to stretch the legs and get the adrenaline pumping at the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge. From big thrills to big spills to serene walks, Buller Gorge offers some of the best adventure activities this side of Queenstown. From the comet line, a 160m flying fox zip line to jet boating on the Upper Buller Gorge with GO Play partner Ultimate Descents, there is plenty to keep the most adventurous happy. If you’re of a less adventurous disposition the Buller Gorge is also a great place to explore on foot with some lovely trails and falls to discover.
As you approach Nelson, your final stop off point for the day, it’s well worth a stop off in Mapua.
Mapua is a very picturesque village situated on a wharf on the Abel Tasman coastline. With a huge range of shops, galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes, this makes the perfect stop off for tea and a bit of retail therapy before you hit Nelson. From the Jellyfish Café and Bar to Forest Fusion Functional Art, there’s lots to see and do in Mapua as well as taking in the lovely surroundings.
World of Wearable Art Museum (32kms – 34 mins from Mapua)
If you get the time when you arrive in Nelson, The World of Wearable Art (WoW) is a New Zealand institution in its own right. The first ever show was held in Nelson in 1987 and has since grown (and moved to Wellington where it is currently held). The museum displays some of the supreme winners of the shows. Whether you’re interested in clothes and fashion or not, this is an important slice of New Zealand’s culture – one that you should not miss.
10Abel Tasman National Park
From Nelson, you will have an early start to head off to gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. The roads are windy so make sure you allow enough time to drive the relatively short distance of 60kms. Once you get to the park there are so many activities to choose from it really is up to you how you plan your day – these are some of our top tips:
Cruise and water taxi
If you’re after a fairly relaxed, laid back day, there is no better way to see the park than on a cruise of in a water taxi. The crystal clear waters of the Abel Tasman are a sight to behold to getting out on the water is a must.
Use your GO Play card here
if you are feeling a bit more energetic, we highly recommend hiring a sea kayak for the day and heading out into the park. You will be amazed at what you can see over the side of the kayak as you peer down into the depths of the sea. Park up (is that even a saying for a kayak?!) on a secluded beach and enjoy a spot of lunch – spectacular.
Cruise and walk
The best of both worlds if you want to get out on the water as well as waking through this beautiful national park. Take a cruise and get dropped off deep into the park before following the route back along the rugged coastline.
11Nelson to Picton (134kms – 1 hour 52 mins)
After a full day exploring the Abel Tasman yesterday, there are still a couple of things worth checking out before you head to catch the ferry to the North Island:
The Wainui Falls are located inside the Abel Tasman National Park and are 20 metre waterfalls, a welcome reward at the end of an easy bush walk. The hike takes about one hour (return).
The Boulder Bank
The Boulder Bank is another spectacular example of the South Island’s natural wonders. The 13km long bank is one of the very few of its type in the world so you are in the presence of something very unique. It has been formed from large granodiorite boulders that have been moved by wind, water and tide to form the spectacular line in front of you.
The lighthouse was made in Bath (England) and shipped in parts to New Zealand, then assembled in 1861.
You can access the bank by turning off SH6 and driving along Boulder Bank Drive, 7km north of Nelson.
The Snout Track
Heading towards Picton to catch the Interislander ferry, there is one last trip to make before your South Island adventure ends and you head to the North Island. If you haven’t done enough already, dust off the hiking boots for one last time and have a true Kiwi experience by venturing into the great outdoors with a 3.5 hour return hike to awesome views of Queen Charlotte Sound. From the Snout Track car park, walk along the gravel road to reach the track, then follow the signs to the Snout Head.
Make sure you prepare in advance and book your place on the Interlislander ferry about a week in advance, ensuring you give yourself plenty of time to enjoy your last day on the South Island booking late on day 10 or first thing on day 11 of your trip.
It might be small but New Zealand’s cool capital is jam-packed with things to do and places to see.
After arriving on the ferry, park your car and head for a walk around the waterfront where you’ll find the fascinating Museum of Wellington City and Sea in the old Harbour Board Bond Store, complete with its opulent 1920s board room and a complete teak cabin from an 1879 steamship. It’s not far from New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa – a futuristic multi-storeyed complex that forms one of the largest new museums in the world, with numerous interactive displays.
For the best panoramic views of the city and Port Nicholson all the way across to the Hutt Valley, head up to the lookout on Mt Victoria. The historic cannon on the summit was installed in 1877 and was fired each day as a time signal for many years. If you look down below, in the suburbs, you will spot the New Zealand Cricket Museum, located in the Old Grandstand at the Basin Reserve, not far from the Colonial Cottage Museum on the site of one of the original 1840 New Zealand Company Town acres.
Grab a coffee (Wellington claims to have the best coffee in New Zealand) and visit the cool one-of-a-kind stores along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. When you’re on that street, notice the cool Bucket Fountain that doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to (take a close look at it and you’ll see the water doesn’t actually obey the easy bucket system and sometimes misses the buckets altogether).
Treaty of Waitangi
A visit to Archives New Zealand on 10 Mulgrave Street allows you to see the Treaty of Waitangi (the document that is considered the foundation of the country). You can also take a tour of the Beehive, the country’s parliament, if you’re feeling politically-inclined before taking a stroll along the waterfront, decorated with interesting sculptures and populated by numerous bars (including some decent craft beer spots).
If you have some free time, we suggest a visit to the Weta Workshop, nestled away in the Miramar suburb. Weta is known worldwide for its weird and wonderful creations for film, including creatures, makeup and digital special effects for movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and The Chronicles of Narnia among others.
You can take the 45-minute guided tour through the workshop, which provides unique behind-the-scenes glimpses into the work of this award-winning company.