The Best Road Trips on New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is perfectly suited to a good road trip
New Zealand’s South Island is perfectly suited to a good road trip | © Robin Noppel / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Bianca Ackroyd
14 November 2020

No matter how familiar you are with New Zealand‘s epic landscapes, they never get old. The South Island abounds with lush forests, rugged coastlines, sky-piercing mountains and glinting glaciers – perfect fodder for an unforgettable adventure with friends. Call shotgun, or rent a campervan, and hit the highway for an incredible road trip around New Zealand’s South Island.

Kaikōura

A scenic two-hour drive north of Christchurch, Kaikōura makes for an exciting road trip destination, or the perfect layover if you’re heading all the way to Marlborough. The storybook village is wedged between the rugged peaks of the Seaward Kaikōura Range and the Pacific Ocean, and is best known for its promise of marine mammal encounters. Whales, fur seals and dolphins swim in these coastal waters, and excursions leave from the port daily. Back on dry land, there are lots of cafés, restaurants and shops to explore before it’s time to hit the road.

Kaikōura is a great spot to see whales and dolphins | © Tim Cuff / Alamy Stock Photo

Kaikoura Boutique Hotel

Boutique Hotel
Map View
Kaikoura Boutique Hotel
Courtesy of Kaikoura Boutique Hotel / Expedia

Housed in a colonial-style villa, this boutique hotel has spectacular views over Kaikōura’s coastline. Opt for a waterfront room so you can whale-spot over your morning coffee in bed, and pop into the champagne bar for a glass of local fizz at sundown. Set in the heart of town, you’re a short stroll away from the many aquatic activities of the area, and you shouldn’t leave without sampling them. Crayfish are a local specialty, and Nin’s Bin (which is a short drive out of town) is the best spot to feast on them – they’ve been churning out crayfish from their seafront caravan since 1977.

Everything you need to know

Wild Sea Kayaking Tour

Natural Feature
Map View
Courtesy of Viator

This is the only sea kayak operator in New Zealand with a marine permit to view whales, dolphins and seals, so this thrilling adventure promises to get you up close and personal with a range of ocean wildlife. There’s a 100% guarantee to see fur seals on the tour, but you’re highly likely to encounter whales and dolphins along the way. With ruddered kayaks, spray skirts and experienced guides, you’re in safe hands – and will remain dry – as you adventure along the craggy coastline. Paddling alongside these ocean creatures as they hunt for octopus around the Kaikōura Peninsula makes for an unforgettable day.

Queenstown

Epic scenery and bucket-list adventures go hand in hand in Queenstown. Set among the dramatic Southern Alps on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, the town is a magnet for skiers in winter and spring, and thrill-seekers looking for their next adrenaline fix any time of the year. Bungee jumping, sky-diving, canyon swinging, river rafting, downhill mountain biking, you name it – it’s doable here. And if extreme sports aren’t your thing, you could make do with the many hiking trails instead – or indulge in boutique shopping and fabulous wine.

The area around Lake Wakatipu is a beautiful place to go hiking | © Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

Sherwood

Eco Hotel
Map View
Courtesy of Sherwood / Expedia

Housed in a mock-Tudor building that was once a motor inn, Sherwood has been revived into an alpine-chic hotspot that has design fans drooling. Rooms lean toward the Scandi side, with shearling pillows, hand-woven wool blankets and blonde wood furnishings. The restaurant is equally worth staying for. With a menu of mainly foraged ingredients from the property’s garden, you’ll be feasting on dishes like whole flounder dripping in seaweed butter while enjoying brilliant views over the lake and surrounding snowy peaks. If you fancy exploring the dramatic landscapes further, a campervan is the best way to the make the most of the awe-inspiring Fjordland National Park, which is nearby.

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Valley of the Vines Afternoon Wine Tour

Winery
Map View
© Rafael Ben-Ari / Alamy Stock Photo

Let someone else take the wheel on this late afternoon tour around a handful of Central Otago’s renowned wineries. Your guide will drive you from wine cave to cellar door, so you can sample a wide range of wines from the picturesque Gibbston Valley region. Set among the mountains, the topography of this area is truly incredible and makes for jaw-dropping vineyard locations. A cheese board at one of the stops will keep you fuelled for the day, and hotel pick-up and drop-off means you’ll be deposited back to your bedroom with ease.

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman may be New Zealand’s smallest national park, but you’ll still feel a million miles away from it all when strolling up sandy beaches or through mossy valleys home to ancient Māori sites and native wildlife. You can explore the park on land, on the water or even in the air, with local tour operators providing a full package of walking tours, catamaran cruises and heli-tours if that’s what you’ve come for. Out on the water, keep your eyes peeled for tiny blue penguins and fur seals in search of their next meal.

Kayaking is a popular activity in Abel Tasman National Park | © Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo

The Resurgence Luxury Eco Lodge

Eco Hotel
Map View
Courtesy of the Resurgence Luxury Eco Lodge / Expedia

Hidden among the lush New Zealand bushland, surrounded by ferns and the warbling of birds, Resurgence Luxury Eco Lodge has a fairytale feel about it. Your stay includes breakfast and a four-course meal in the evening made with seasonal produce from the lodge’s gardens and served dinner-party style so you can get to know your hosts and fellow guests. Stay in a bush lodge to spend a magical evening soaking in a claw-foot bath with uninterrupted views over the greenery.

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Abel Tasman and Golden Bay Tour

Natural Feature
Map View
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Tour this magical part of the world on a small group tour with a maximum of just 11 passengers. You’ll stop at a number of beaches along the way, including the beautiful Kaiteriteri Beach where you’ll take a cruise along the coastline before heading to Golden Bay, which is aptly named for the silky colour of its sand. Moving inland, you’ll travel into the depths of the Abel Tasman National Park, where you’ll visit the magnificent and remote Te Waikoropupu Springs, a sacred Māori spot.

This is an updated version of a story created by Bianca Ackroyd.

These recommendations were updated on November 14, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.