Awesome news! You’ve got a week off and you’ve decided to take some time to explore the South Island starting off in the adventure capital of the world – Queenstown! This trip is going to take you on a real kiwi adventure through amazing landscapes from the Southern Alps to the rugged West Coast with plenty in between. So, there really is no time to waste – let’s GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
Book a vehicle for this trip
1Queenstown to Mt Cook Village (263kms – 3 hours 19mins)
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 in and around Queenstown – 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) Wine tasting – The Central Otago region is famous for producing world-leading Pinot Noirs – this one is not for the driver but passengers can enjoy sampling some fine wines from the region before hitting the road.
Use your GO Play card here
Heading out of Queenstown on the road east, there are some great stops on the way to break up the drive:
Arrowtown (20.5km – 24 mins)
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.
Cromwell (47.6kms – 37 mins from Arrowtown)
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.
Your journey north will take you towards Twizel and over the Lindis Pass – a spectacular drive where you will often see snow down to the roadside throughout much of the year. If you’re 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.
Twizel (140kms – 1 hour 35 mins from Cromwell)
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.
2Aoraki/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?!!
3Aoraki/Mount Cook to Christchurch (330kms – 3 hours 53 mins)
After an awesome day spent exploring the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, it’s time to hit the road and head off towards the east coast and the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch. There are plenty of interesting stop offs on the way though so let’s get GOing.
Mt John Observatory/Lake Tekapo (107kms – 1 hour 13 mins)
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 – if you can park here for the night, you will 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).
Akaroa (284km – 3 hours 38 mins)
Located 75km from Christchurch and known by locals as the ‘Riviera of Canterbury’, Akaroa is a great stop off as you head towards the big city. 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). Black Cat Cruises, a GO Play partner offer an awesome opportunity to swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins which are only found in these waters – a must if you have never done this type of thing before.
Lyttelton (77.5km – 1 hour 18 mins from Akaroa)
As you head into Christchurch, a stop off at Lyttelton is well worth the detour and it’s a great place to grab some dinner if you’re arriving in the early evening. Hit by the earthquakes, Lyttelton has now rebuilt and is a thriving village with lots of bars and cafes – the road from Lyttelton to Christchurch 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 end the third day of this road trip.
4Christchurch to Greymouth (242kms – 3 hours 17 mins)
You should have time this morning to explore Christchurch as this leg of the journey over to the West Coast will take just over 3 hours. Christchurch is a city on the mend after the devastating earthquakes of 2011.
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.
After a morning exploring it’s time to hit the road. Heading out of Christchurch your journey is going to take you all the way from the East to the West Coast via the spectacular Arthur’s Pass. This is the only road to take if you want a real road trip and what better way to start this journey. The pass rises up to over 900 metres as you cross into the Arthur’s Pass National Park with stunning scenery on all sides.
The road itself is an engineering marvel as it cuts through the Southern Alps. One of the most popular ways to travel the route from Christchurch to Greymouth is on the Tranz Alpine Rail Service and the road runs alongside the rail tracks for much of the journey.
Arthurs Pass Village (146kms – 1 hour 59 mins)
Arthur’s Pass Village is a great stop off point on your journey and a great chance to stretch your legs. Although this 5 day itinerary does not allow time for a stop, there are plenty of places to stay up here if you fancy heading out for a hike. There is time for you to do the 1-hour leg stretching loop to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls before you start to head down towards the West Coast.
Punakaiki pancake rocks (45.1km – 37 mins)
Hmmmm pancakes as Homer would say! Although your day is going end in Greymouth, we highly recommend a detour north to end your day. These 30-million-year-old limestone formations are nothing to be scoffed at. They’re towering cliffs of rock which really do look like a sky-high layer of grey pancakes stacked one on top of the other. We reckon Homer would be pretty happy with these bad boys.
With a well-maintained path leading out to the best spots, this is a great chance to see the huge waterspouts that blast out towards the sky from blowholes.
It may be late by the time you arrive in Greymouth depending on what time you hit the road in Christchurch and despite this being a popular transit stop for those taking the Tranz Alpine, there is still plenty to see and do in the area and probably the most popular is the Monteith’s brewery tour and tasting. Monteith’s is one of NZ’s most famous exports and the master brewers will talk you through the process of creating multi-award winning beers…and then you’ll get to try them for yourself. Winner.
On yer bike! Adventures also offer some fantastic off-roading fun in their quads, go-karts, argo and hagglunds through amazing rainforest trails and flowing creeks. If you still haven’t checked out the gold mining history in these parts, GO Play partner Shanty Town offer a 5% discount for a tour back in time – definitely worth a look.
5Greymouth to Franz Josef (173km – 2 hours 17 mins)
This is one of the easier days of driving with a spectacular drive down the West Coast towards Franz Josef. Take your time to enjoy the stop offs on the way – there are some great little towns which really give an insight into life on the rugged West Coast.
Hokitika (83km – 1 hour 10 mins)
Hokitika (what a great name… go on, say it again!) is the last ‘big’ town you’ll pass on the drive south from Greymouth but make sure you don’t just drive on by. Hokitika is NZ’s major centre for the working of greenstone.
Why not get involved yourself and try some jade carving at the Just Jade Experience?
You and the GO Rentals car should be getting to know each other by now so before you know it, you’ll come across Lake Mahinapua which offers a fantastic stop off point for a picnic and a stretch of the legs. Once a coastal lagoon it’s a lovely place for a swim and the water is surprisingly warm. A great place for families, there is a suitable wading area for young children and bigger kids love jumping off the jetty or launching a canoe to explore. For the twitchers out there, you’re likely to see black swans and mallard ducks and if you’re extremely fortunate you could also spot a magnificent white heron or the rare fern bird if that floats your boat.
There’s a number of short walks or if you have the time try the two hour Mahinapua walkway which traverses board-walked wetlands and forest following an historic logging tramway.
The final pitstop before you hit Franz Josef should be at Ross (27.2km – 22 mins from Hokitika) which was made famous in 1909 when NZ’s largest ever gold nugget was mined weighing in at an impressive 2.807kgs. Your drive from here cuts back inland, passing many beautiful lakes before finally arriving at Franz Josef (107km – 1 hour 23 mins).
Arriving mid-afternoon in Franz is perfect as it gives you the time to plan your day for tomorrow. With so many activities to choose from, it’s nice to be able to wander round the village and take in the glorious surroundings of the Southern Alps. Grab a hearty bite to eat at night as you are going to have a big day ahead of you!
6Exploring the Franz Josef Glacier
The Glacier was first explored in 1865 by Austrian Julius Haast and it has been advancing and retreating ever since and now it’s your chance to get up close and personal with a variety of activities to tickle your fancy.
There are several ways to explore the glacier from independent walks to heli-hikes but however you choose to take in the sights and sounds of the stunning glacier, make sure you pack your bag for all weathers as things can change quickly up at the glacier.
There are a number of independent walks you can make which provide great viewpoints of the glacier. The best is probably Sentinel Rock which is 10 minutes from the car park or the Ka Roimate o Hine Hukatere walk which is a more energetic 40 minute walk that leads to the terminal of the glacier.
Without a doubt the best way to experience the glacier is to walk on them. Small group walks with experience guides and equipment provided (amazing socks!) can be booked in the town of Franz and offer half or full day trips up onto the glacier. We cannot recommend highly enough taking the full day hike as this will allow you to get further up the glacier with the chance to find new routes or even undiscovered ice caves. With your crampons on and your ice picks at the ready, this is another great snap for Facebook to show you as the true ‘explorer’ so don’t miss out on this one. Franz Josef Glacier Guides are also a partner of GO Play, offering a 10% discount for guided tours on the ice – cool!
Use your GO Play card here
For those with a few more dollars to spare, a heli-hike offers two fantastic opportunities; see the sheer scales of the glacier from the skies but also get onto the glacier much higher up where the ice is much purer. Here you’ll get the chance to discover blue-ice caves, seracs and pristine ice formations and let’s face it, a trip in a helicopter is pretty cool.
Aoraki Mount Cook
Taking things one step further, Aoraki Mount Cook is within reach of Franz by helicopter with a number of companies running tours to see the highest peak in NZ. These tours can often be combined with a heli-hike on either Franz Josef of Fox glacier and is the ultimate Southern Alps experience. If you do head out on one of these amazing trips, be sure to let us know so we can all be super jealous in the office!
There are so many cool places to go skydiving in New Zealand and Franz Josef is definitely up there with the best of them. If you are looking for bragging rights over your mates, Franz Josef is definitely the place for you. Home of New Zealand’s highest skydive at 19,000ft, Franz Josef is also one of the most scenic places in the world to skydive as you soar down over the spectacular glacier with Mount Cook in the backdrop. Great news for anyone renting with GO Rentals is that Skydive Franz are an exclusive GO Play partner and will give you $30 off when you show your GO Play card. Awesome!
Glacier Hot Pools
Once you’re finished, how about a dip in the glacier hot pools, right in the middle of the rainforest? 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 all this sounds too perfect, it’s about to get better! Glacier Hot Pools are a GO Play partner so you can sit back and relax with a few extra bucks in your pocket.
7Franz Josef to Queenstown (350km – 4 hours 43 mins)
After a day on the glacier, today is going to be about the driving and some spectacular scenery (don’t worry, these GO Rentals hire cars love a good run out!). The drive to Queenstown takes you down the West Coast before cutting inland along the Haast Pass towards Queenstown. There are some spectacular view points on the way but be sure to pick one or two or you may never arrive in Queenstown!
Lake Matheson (27.8km – 27 mins from Franz Josef)
As you head out of Franz Josef, one stop that cannot be missed is a detour to Lake Matheson. If you’re looking for the photo to put on Facebook to make all your friends jealous, then this is it. Better still, send your photo in to our GO Snap Happy competition for a chance to win back the cost of your rental – can’t say fairer than that! Take the road west at the popular Fox Glacier township and you’ll be rewarded with views that take your breath away and make you question why you ever want to go back to whatever it is you do when you’re not touring around NZ’s South Island.
Famous for reflecting a near-perfect image of Aoraki Mount Cook in its waters, Lake Matheson was formed around 14,000 years ago when the Fox Glacier retreated from its last major advance towards the sea. If we had to guess, we reckon you’ll end up with 39 photos give or take on your camera – the best view is always just around the corner!
As you carry on down the Haast Pass, there’s loads of forest and lakeside walks you can take along the way depending on how you’re doing for time. Lake Paringa offers a great pitstop location for lunch with some stunning scenery in all directions. The highway then makes its way back out to the coast at Bruce’s Bay and a stunning drive awaits.
Monro Beach (125km – 2 hours 8 mins)
Enjoy the views along the rugged coastline as this is your last chance to take in the splendour of New Zealand’s West Coast – it’s soon time to turn east and head inland towards the lakes and mountains. Be sure to stop off for the walk down to Monro Beach just before you hit the Haast Pass going east where between July and December it’s possible to see the tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin). Make sure you cover up though as the venomous sand flies can be brutal at most times of the year. From here, your GO Rentals beast should be singing along as the road takes a meandering route through the Mt Aspiring National Park and on to Wanaka.
Blue Pools (78km – 1 hour 30 mins)
Just north of the Makaroa Tourist Information Centre is a hidden gem (not so hidden since it made it into the top 10 things to do in NZ list!) for Kiwis and tourists alike. 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.
From here you still have around 140kms till you hit Queenstown which will take you around 2 hours. Make sure you leave plenty of time if you need to drop off your car today. This last drive of the trip is a beast but one we think you will enjoy as the scenery is out of this world! Be sure to take loads of photos and don’t forget, if you come across any hidden gems on this road trip to let us know on our GO Explore Facebook page.
Related Blog Posts
- 13 Awesome Places to Surf in New Zealand (easy to extreme)
- 6 of the Best Events in New Zealand in March
- 17 New Zealand Events that are as Kiwi as they get!
- 7 of the Best Events in New Zealand in February