While a series of backpacker buses and public transport can get you to many places, you ideally need to hire a rental car to maximise your time in New Zealand. Here’s a 10-day driving itinerary that covers the southern half of the South Island, taking in all of its top draws as well as its hidden attractions.
Start your South Island visit by taking in Christchurch’s vibrant art scene. Following the devastating 2011 earthquake, the city commissioned a series of art projects that have become permanent attractions.
Designed by a Japanese ‘disaster architect’, the Cardboard Cathedral was built as a temporary church to replace the one destroyed by the quake. The structure – made up of various materials, including cardboard tubes – has since evolved into one of the city’s main attractions.
Even more poignant is the 185 Empty Chairs memorial; each chair commemorates someone who died in the quake. Finally, there’s Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s Paua Shell House in the Canterbury Museum; it’s a cottage adorned with thousands of paua shells that the couple collected during their lifetime.
Other Christchurch must-dos include riding a double-decker London bus through the Victorian old town, taking the Christchurch gondola up to Mount Cavendish, as well as punting on the Avon River. The best digs in town are at The George, an intimate luxury hotel touted as one of New Zealand’s best boutique properties.
From Christchurch, it’s less than a three-hour drive to Lake Tekapo. However, if you include the dozens of photo pit-stops you’ll inevitably take, the journey will probably wind up closer to four hours.
Lake Tekapo is an unforgettable highlight. By day, the turquoise lake sparkles between the tussock-clad hills. By night, the park’s low levels of pollution and location in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve allow night owls to enjoy spectacular views of the Milky Way. The iconic Church of the Good Shepherd offers a great vantage point for stargazers and astronomers.
From Tekapo, it’s only an hour to Lake Pukaki, another emerald gem, where you’ll get your first views of Aoraki (Mount Cook), New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724 metres (12,218 feet).
Another hour down the road and you’ll arrive in Mount Cook National Park, where you can have stunning mountain views from ground level along Tasman Lake. Here, you can go for an easy three-hour hike in the Hooker Valley, or even spend the day climbing 2,000-plus stairs to the Mueller Hut, the closest you’ll get to the mountain other than scaling it or splashing out for a scenic helicopter ride.
Accommodation options here include camping, bunking in the youth hostel or staying in the snazzy Mount Cook Lodge right inside the park.
It’s a gorgeous two-hour drive from Mount Cook over the 971-metre-high (3,186-foot-high) Lindis Pass to reach the shores of magnificent Lake Wanaka, one of the South Island’s most beautiful natural sites.
Along the shore, you can spot the lonely willow tree that caused an Instagram frenzy – it even has a hashtag, #ThatWanakaTree. Carry on for a few hours by foot up Roys Peak – one of most famous trails in New Zealand – and you’ll be rewarded with some of the South Island’s most stunning panoramas. There are also plenty of charming cafés in the area to refuel afterwards. There’s also the much quieter Lake Hawea, which is best viewed from the Isthmus Peak Track.
The popular Purple Cow Hostel is a good backpacker choice for an overnight stay. And while Wanaka is all about being outdoors, make sure to catch a flick at Cinema Paradiso, a classic movie theatre with sofas, a Morris Minor and home-made ice cream.
It’s a 70-kilometre (43-mile) drive from Wanaka to the southern hemisphere’s adventure capital, Queenstown, where a load of activities await. History buffs can check out the old gold mining village of Arrowtown, noted for its preserved 19th-century buildings and golden autumn colours.
Adrenaline seekers can visit AJ Hackett, the world’s first commercial bungee jumping operation, for a dive off the original site at the Kawarau Bridge. If you’ve got the time (or the cash), you can trek in or do a helicopter tour of the amazing Earnslaw Burn – where dozens of waterfalls surround a hanging glacier – made famous as a location for The Hobbit (2012).
Other ‘musts’ in Queenstown include a hike up to the Ben Lomond summit, where you’ll get a panoramic view of the aptly named Remarkables mountain range; joining the queue at Fergburger for one of its legendary hamburgers; and skydiving for the ultimate rush.
For a truly memorable stay, splurge on a night at Eichardt’s Private Hotel. This Queenstown institution has remained a firm local favourite since 1867, so even if you can’t stay here, it’s definitely worth stopping by for a drink.
Do not leave Queenstown without driving along magnificent Lake Wakatipu towards the sleepy hamlet of Glenorchy. Those with an extra day to spare might want to hole up here at Blanket Bay, a spot where nature and relaxation meet unconstrained luxury.
Leaving Queenstown and heading south, you’ll reach Fiordland National Park, where granite peaks rise from the sea and where fur seals and penguins play under waterfalls. Perhaps the most famous spot in this area is Milford Sound, but you can get a more comprehensive experience by taking a cruise or a ‘Great Walk’. The Milford Sound and the Routeburn Track Great Walks will both need to be booked early in order to get the permits and accommodations sorted.
You’ll need two full days to explore the best of Fiordland. Consider a day hike up the Gertrude Saddle, where you’ll get some of the best views of the mountains. Other options include a magical trek in the deep forest around the moss-covered Lake Gunn, or a stroll up to Lake Marian, where you ascend past waterfalls to a pristine alpine lake underneath some of The Divide’s most beautiful peaks. Don’t forget to keep your eyes open for keas, the native parrot endemic to New Zealand.
After a full day outdoors, make the 3.5-hour drive to Invercargill, otherwise known as the City of Water and Light. The town is known for its long austral summer days as well as being one of New Zealand’s wettest spots. Built in 1896 and one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, the Victoria Railway Hotel is a classic place to spend the night.
A drive through the southernmost part of New Zealand today will get you to one of the most off-the-beaten-path destinations on the island, The Catlins. Head east from Invercargill to Waipapa Point, where you’ll find a lone windswept lighthouse, a shipwreck memorial and sea lions lounging amid the dunes. This area offers an astounding variety of wild coastal scenery, wildlife-spotting opportunities and rolling green forests filled with stunning waterfalls and untrammelled hiking trails.
The wind here comes from the South Pole, almost 5,000 kilometres (3,107 miles) away, with nothing to slow it down. Its strength is best showcased at Slope Point, 30 minutes from Waipapa, where the trees are all gnarled, bent and flattened at the most southerly point of mainland New Zealand.
Continuing east another 20 minutes will bring you to Curio Bay, where flocks of shags, cormorants and rare yellow penguins can be spotted. There’s also a 180-million-year-old petrified forest. If the weather is bad, head inland 30 kilometres (19 miles), where you’ll find a series of waterfalls such as McLean Falls, which are surrounded by dripping ferns and lichen-filled podocarp-hardwood forests.
Make sure to call in at Kaka Point before leaving The Catlins, where you can do a short hike out to the Nugget Point Lighthouse. During the summer months, you might even be able to spot a few whales.
Finish your spectacular day by driving another 1.5 hours or so to Dunedin, a charming university town with beautiful beaches and Victorian architecture.
You’ll need a full day to cover all the amazing sights in and around Dunedin. Start your morning with a visit to ‘Gingerbread George,’ the famed Dunedin railway station. For something a bit more unique, head over to Baldwin Street, a cul-de-sac that was listed in the Guinness World Records as the steepest street in the world until 2019 (today, it’s the second steepest).
The Dunedin Botanic Garden is lovely, but for some real landscape thrills, head out of town to the Otago Peninsula. This 20-kilometre (12-mile) stretch of hill country is home to seals, penguins and a breeding colony of royal albatross, as well as the whimsical Larnach Castle and gardens. It’s also an excellent spot for surfers, who will delight at the miles of empty sand and big swells at St Clair Beach.
Round off your visit to Dunedin with a visit to Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel, a Victorian pub and seafood restaurant dating back to 1874.
On your five-hour drive back to Christchurch, make a stop at Moeraki, a site famed for a series of bizarre spherical boulders that are over a metre in diameter and have been eroded by waves for millions of years. Māori legend says that the boulders are the remains of fishing baskets that washed ashore from the wreck of a large sailing canoe.
While here, make sure to call in at Fleurs Place, a rustic little restaurant set in the sleepy Moeraki fishing village, where foodies come from miles around to sample the fresh seafood that gets delivered.