Ah, New Zealand. Sheep, Lord of the Rings scenery and… actually, a lot more than that. Pick up any travel guide and you’ll find a wide range of places to go and things to see in the South Island alone. You’ve heard about it all: bungy jumping in Queenstown, the glaciers, the vineyards… But beyond all the big famous structures and the famous natural wonders lies a country full of unique experiences to be had, if you dare to venture a little off-the-beaten-path.
Take the road less travelled. It’ll be an unforgettable ride.
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It might be small but New Zealand’s cool capital is jam-packed with things to do and places to see. Once you’ve picked up your GO Rentals car, there’s no hurry to leave.
Wellington Complete Guide
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.
Now that you’ve explored New Zealand’s capital, it’s time to drive to the ferry terminal and catch the Interislander ferry. Wave goodbye to the North Island as your journey continues to the spectacular south.
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2Picton to Nelson (134km – 1 hour 52 mins)
The Interislander ferry will leave you in Picton, the starting point for your South Island adventure.
Nelson Complete Guide
That’s where you’ll be able to dust off the hiking boots 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 – a good introduction to what the South Island has to offer. From the Snout Track car park, walk along the gravel road to reach the track, then follow the signs to the Snout Head.
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’re 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 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).
3Abel Tasman National Park (59.7km – 1 hour from Nelson)
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.
4Nelson to Greymouth (287km – 4 hours 9 mins)
World of Wearable Art Museum
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.
After a day exploring in the Able Tasman National Park, it’s time to hit the road again and get a bit more familiar with your new GO Rentals car. The first stop of the day is not too far away however as you head out on SH6 towards the west coast. Photo
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 breakfast and a bit of retail therapy before you hit the road proper. From the Jellyfish Café and Bar to Forest Fusion Functional Art, there is lots to see and do in Mapua as well as taking in the lovely surroundings.
Buller Gorge Swing Bridge (165km – 2 hours 23 mins from Mapua)
Heading out of Mapua keep following SH6 heading towards the west coast. After a relatively short drive 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’s 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.
Bev’s Dolls (46.2km – 41 mins from Buller Gorge)
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.
Formerly the Blackball Hilton Hotel (56.9km – 1 hour from Reefton)
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.
From here it’s a short drive to your final destination in Greymouth (23.1km – 31 mins)
5Greymouth to Franz Josef (via Punakaiki) (262.1km – 3 hours 31 mins)
Pancake Rocks (45.1km – 37 mins from Greymouth)
Although your journey is taking you south along the West Coast, 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.
Ross (110km – 1 hour 31 mins from Punakaiki)
It’s about a 3 hour drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef 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.
From Ross it’s a short hop down to your final destination of Franz Josef (107km – 1 hour 23 mins)
West Coast Complete Guide
After the longish drive down the West Coast the previous day, you’ll be glad to be out of the car (the car will surely have a name by now) and stretching the legs and what a site to wake up to – the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier. The Glacier was first explored in 1865 by Austrian Julius Haast and it has been advancing and retreating ever since.
Exploring the glacier
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 doubt the best way to experience the glacier is to walk on them. Small group walks with experienced 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!
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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 will 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.
Taking things one step further, 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!
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 – 6 hours 2 mins)
The drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown is one of the most spectacular as you cut through the Haast Pass towards Wanaka. Your GO Rentals hire car will be purring as you wind through the valley, heading inland from the rugged west coast and making your way towards the lakes and mountains of the lower south island.
Lake Matheson (27.8km – 37 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. Take the road west at the popular Fox Glacier township and you will 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 are not touring round 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 will 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 pit stop location for lunch with some stunning scenery in all directions. The highway makes its way back out to the coast at Bruce’s Bay and a stunning drive awaits.
Monro Beach (125km – 2 hours 8 mins from Lake Matheson)
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 Queenstown.
Blue Pools (129kms – 2 hours 1 min from Queenstown)
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 is 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.
The Luge, Queenstown (207km – 3 hours 32 mins from the Blue Pools)
Queenstown is known as the capital adventure of the world and it won’t take you long to figure out why. 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.
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8Queenstown and around
There is so much to see and do around Queenstown that it is worth staying the extra day and exploring either on foot or taking the car for a run out.
Queenstown Complete Guide
Bendigo goldfields (80.3km – 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 follow this for about 20km until you hit Bendigo where you will find lots more info at the tourist information station.
Arrowtown/Cromwell (20.1km – 22 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 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.
9Queenstown to Lake Tekapo (256km – 3 hours 26 mins)
Although it’s a relatively short drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo, we recommend booking yourself in for a stopover so you can truly make the most of the unspoilt views at night time.
Mt John Observatory/Lake Tekapo
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).
Lake Tekapo and Mt John are located about 3.5 hours’ drive north of Queenstown.
10Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
As your South Island adventure winds to an end, there are still plenty of things to be excited about as you head towards the South Island’s largest city.
Akaroa (280km – 4 hours 10 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.
Christchurch (81.3km – 1 hour 29 mins from Akaroa)
Although you have arrived in Christchurch, your end stop off for this journey around the South Island, don’t be too hasty to drop your GO Rentals hire car back off just yet – you must have become quite attached by now! Take the time on your first day to explore the ‘Garden City’ but there is another short trip to make on Day 11 which is well worth the extra road trip.
Christchurch Complete Guide
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.
11Christchurch to Kaikoura (180km – 2 hours 35 mins)
After an afternoon and evening spent in Christchurch, it is time to take the car out for one last trip as you head north up SH1 to Kaikoura. Although this is a 2.5 hour trip up north, we reckon it is 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.
Cellar View Café and Restaurant
As you head down from the magnificent wine tasting region of Marlborough you will hit Kaikoura. This 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
If you didn’t get chance in Akaroa, Kaikoura is also a top 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 water in 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
12Kaikoura to Christchurch (180km – 2 hours 35 mins)
After a great night in Kaikoura (and hopefully some delicious seafood – the crayfish are a GO Rentals favourite), it’s time to hit the road for the last time and head back down to Christchurch to drop off the car and head to the airport.
Depending on how early you are up and out, there’s a lot of things still to do in and around Christchurch so be sure to check out our City guide and get involved before you have to head off to the airport.
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