Great news! You’ve got a 5 day break and you’re planning a road trip around the lower South Island starting off in the adventure capital of the world – Queenstown! Although you have a lot of miles ahead of you, it would be rude not to sample some of the delights of Queenstown before you hit the road heading to Dunedin. No time to waste – let’s GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
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1Queenstown to Dunedin (283kms – 3 hours 29 mins)
With only a morning to spare before you hit the road, you’re going to have to pick your activity wisely from the action-packed to the more sedate – here are some of our top tips:
Adrenaline fuelled adventure
For those who have headed to Queenstown for adrenaline fuelled adventure, these are our highlights of things to do in a day:
1) AJ Hackett Nevis Bungy – Australasia’s highest bungy at 134m, this is not for the feint hearted – 8.5 seconds of freefall will have you screaming like a lunatic!
2) Skippers Canyon Jet – reaching speeds of up to 85mph this ride up the tight Shotover Canyon is sure to get your pulse racing. The 360 degree spins will get you closer to the wall than you feel comfortable with! Skippers Canyon Jet is also a GO Play partner. Bonus!
3) Coronet Peak ski resort (in season) – fantastic resort for pros and beginners alike, Coronet Peak is a GO Rentals favourite in the winter where lots of fun can be had on and off the slopes
Something a bit more…relaxing
We know that jumping off mountains and flipping jet boats is not everyone’s cup of tea but there’s more to Queenstown than adrenaline fuelled adventure. Here are our top three things for the more laid back traveller:
1) Ben Lommond – a 4 hour walk giving you some awesome views of Queenstown, the lake and surrounding mountains
2) Skyline gondola – take the gondola up Bob’s Peak and enjoy some award winning cuisine and some amazing views. If you want to get down a bit quicker, the luge is a lot of fun!
3) Arrowtown (22.1km – 22mins) – head out in your new GO Rentals hire car and check out this small town which was at the heart of the NZ gold rush. There are lots of nice shops, bars and places to eat as well as relaxing walks.
Heading out of Queenstown on the road east towards Dunedin, there are some great stops on the way to break up the drive:
Arrowtown/Cromwell (20.5km – 24 mins)
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 the 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.
Bendigo goldfields (66.5km – 1 hour 6 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 follow this for about 20km until you hit Bendigo where you will find lots more info at the tourist information station.
Alexandra (48.8kms – 51 mins)
Heading out of Bendigo, we carry on our journey towards the east coast with a stop off in Alexandra. If you have time in your day, there are some great trails in and around Alexandra. Another town that boomed in the 1800s due to the gold rush, Alexandra owes its current prosperity to wine making. If you didn’t manage to sample any Pinot Noir whilst in Queenstown, Alexandra is a great place to discover the delights of this Central Otago favourite. If wine is not your thing, the orchards around Alexandra in summer and into autumn are packed with delicious fruit including apricots, peaches, cherries and apples so give some of the local fresh produce a whirl.
From Alexandra, it’s another 190kms to Dunedin which will take you just over 2 hours.
2Dunedin and around
Dunedin is one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets and is one of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere. Often referred to as the ‘Edinburgh’ of the South, Dunedin is proud of its Scottish heritage and is steeped in history and culture. A day spent here is never enough but we have tried to include as many highlights as possible below so don’t be shy – get out there and explore:
Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle and is often why Dunedin gets compared to Edinburgh. The magnificent castle is perched on the side of a hill overlooking the Otago Harbour. Named after its builder William Larnach, the castle has quite a history and regular tours of the castle run where you can learn about the scandal of Larnach’s three wives and six children.
Speights Brewery Tour
A trip to Dunedin would not be complete without a trip to the Speights Brewery. New Zealand has many iconic beers from Steinlager to Monteiths but down in these parts, Speights rules the roost. A great way to spend a couple of hours learning about the brewing process and obviously getting to sample some of their finest drops.
Dunedin Botanic Gardens
A great place to spend a few hours relaxing and unwinding at any time of the year. The colours in the autumn fall are spectacular but there’s nothing quite a like a stroll through the gardens in the height of summer when everything is in full bloom. A definite favourite of the GO Rentals team for chilling out and getting lost in a good book.
Royal Albatross Centre
The Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head is the site of the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross in the world making it a pretty spectacular place to visit. It’s not just the rare albatross that can be seen though as the world’s smallest penguins, the little blue penguins can also be found here on the Otago peninsula – double whammy!
Use your GO Play card here
We have only scratched the surface of things to do in and around Dunedin here so make sure you check out our Explore New Zealand section for more ideas.
3Dunedin to Mt Cook Village (316kms – 3 hours 39 mins)
After a day out of the car yesterday exploring Dunedin, it’s time to hit the road as we head north and west to Mt Cook Village. Heading out of Dunedin, your drive will take you north up the coastline to Oamaru before cutting inland through the Waitaki Valley. There’s some pretty cool stop off points along the way including the impressive moeraki boulders – large spherical boulders which are scattered along the coastline some of which have been found to contain dinosaur bones.
Oamaru (kms – 1 hour 28 mins from Dunedin)
Oamaru is a great stop off point just before you head of west and inland towards the Southern Alps. If you didn’t make it to the Royal Albatross Centre this is another great opportunity to catch a glimpse of the blue penguin (Korora) up close. These little fellas head out before first light and return at the end of the day just as its getting dark. You can read more about the penguin colony at Oamaru and find out more about the town on of Explore New Zealand pages.
From Oamaru, it’s time to leave the coast behind and head inland. Next stop is the Benmore Dam.
Benmore Dam (kms – 1 hour 13 mins)
Benmore Dam is the largest artificial lake in New Zealand and holds back a 7900ha lake. This place is more than just an impressive dam though – there’s plenty to do year round including fishing and some fantastic trails. The Benmore Track is probably the best of these tracks taking you up to a lookout point with views across the Waitaki Valley towards your final destination for the day, Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Omarama (29.5kms – 21 mins)
This is not something you see every day. In the distance you can make out the strange shapes of the clay pinnacles that have been formed by the active Osler fault line which continually exposes the clay and gravel cliffs. The pinnacles are a unique sight and definitely worth a stop off as you continue to head west.
Twizel (30.7kms – 22 mins)
Twizel will be your final stop off point before you head into the Mt Cook National Park where you will spend your third night of your trip. The town was purpose built in the 1960s to provide homes for workers on the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme and it now offers a great base for people looking to head off into the National Park. There are a good range of shops here to stock up on goodies for the rest of your journey into the National Park.
Your journey from Twizel takes you up the shoreline of Lake Pukaki with some stunning views of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mt Cook which will leave you breathless. It’s a further 63.9kms from Twizel to Mt Cook Village which should take you just under an hour.
4Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
This is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular National Parks (and we have some amazing ones!) so spending the day here is going to be one you never forget. There is so much to see and do in the park so choosing your activities carefully to maximise your time here is going to be crucial. We recommend planning your day when you arrive on Day 3 leaving yourself the whole day today to take it all in and soak up that fresh mountain air. With so much to do here, we have pulled together some of our personal favourites:
It kind of goes without saying that the walking in these parts is pretty special. With walks to suit every degree of fitness, explore the national park’s rich flora including the Mount Cook ‘lily’, the world’s largest buttercup.
Skiing and snow sports – obviously this is an activity for the winter enthusiasts but many descend on Mt Cook Village as the winter sports down here are pretty awesome! There’s plenty for those who are not into skiing through from snowshoeing to climbing so there is plenty to do down here in the winter months.
Scenic flights and heli-hiking – If you have a few dollars to spare we can definitely recommend taking a scenic flight around these parts. For something extra special, try one of the ski-planes which can land up on the Tasman Glacier – now that is cool! For those true adventurers, you can also take a helicopter ride to go hiking or even ski the virgin snow up high on the mountains.
Best of the rest – no matter what you’re into, chances are you can do it down here from fishing to golf, cycling to horse trekking and lots in between. You can visit the official Department of Conservation website for more ideas of things to do in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
Whether you’re a sporting enthusiast, adventure junkie or a nature lover, this place is a truly special location to spend a day and night.
This part of the world also gives you the perfect opportunity to get involved in our GO Snap Happy competition – just send us your best photos for the chance to win back the cost of your car hire – how good is that?!!
5Aoraki/Mt Cook to Queenstown (262kms – 3 hours)
So your final day of this epic road trip has arrived. It seems an age ago that you set out for Dunedin and hopefully you will have crammed in a lot of adventure into this 5 day trip. Your final day means a 3 hour drive back down to Queenstown and if you have the time and you don’t have to drop off the car too early, there are some great stop offs along the way where you can pick up some of the things you may have missed on the road out to Dunedin.
Your journey back South will take you back along the shores of Lake Pukaki and through Twizel before you will head over the Lindis Pass and drop down towards Queenstown. The Lindis Pass is a spectacular drive where you will often see snow down to the roadside throughout much of the year. If you are making this drive in the winter months, be sure to check the conditions of the road before heading out as things can get a bit precarious and the weather can soon close in up above 900m.
Cromwell (202kms – 2 hours 13 mins from Mt Cook Village)
If you stopped off in Arrowtown on the way out and missed Cromwell, your drive back to Queenstown passes right through the township and it’s a great stop off point before you hit Queenstown. Located on the shores of Lake Dunstan, the town has a modern feel but in fact has a rich history dating back to the 1800s and the gold rush. You can get a feel for what the town would have been like by taking a trip through Old Cromwell Town – a feature attraction for tourists that’s a fascinating look back in time.
And so the final 60kms of your journey lie in front of you which should take you just under an hour. Depending on your preferences, the 3 hour drive today should leave you plenty of time to spend at either end either exploring the National Park before you leave or cramming in one last Queenstown adventure before you have to drop the car off and head off.
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Hopefully you have had an amazing time – this trip is a definite favourite of ours and if you have come across any hidden gems along your way, be sure to let us know on our GO Explore Facebook page so we can add them to the itinerary for future travellers.