Perfect Road Trip Itinerary on New Zealand’s South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is the country’s most popular one with tourists, and for good reason. It offers scenic fjords, epic glaciers, dramatic mountains, and all the bungee jumping you can stomach. Since it’s a relatively small island, you can easily travel throughout and visit all the major points of interest in about two weeks. Part of the magic of New Zealand is that you can be on a beach one day and on a glacier the next!

This itinerary is based around using the Stray hop-on/hop-off bus pass, but you can definitely self-drive the same route. Note that this post isn’t sponsored by Stray, but I am a happy customer!

If you’re traveling over both the North and South Islands, you can easily tag this onto my North Island itinerary. Just follow this itinerary as written below! If you’re flying directly into Christchurch and only traveling in the South Island, I recommend driving to the first destination in this itinerary (Abel Tasman National Park) from Christchurch, stopping at Kaikoura for a night or two along the way for whale watching.

Read more: Our experience traveling through the South Island

How the hop-on/hop-off bus pass works:

You buy the pass online for the route and coverage you want for your trip. There are many passes available, but we opted for the Maximus pass which covers both the North and South Islands comprehensively.

Since it’s a hop-on/hop-off pass, you can choose to follow the standard route and stay the minimum number of nights in each place, or you can spend more time. You can even skip some places entirely by connecting to the next bus via public busses (but why would you really want to do that?).

The bus pass includes all your transportation, your driver/guide, and stops along the way for scenic viewpoints and small hikes. You also have at least one night guaranteed dorm accommodation at each stop (own expense), but you can definitely book your own too. The drivers also book your activities for you at a discounted rate, so you don’t have to do much research or planning at all.

Note: This post may contain links to book hotels or activities. If you book using these links, I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you!

ITINERARY:

Nights 1-2: Abel Tasman National Park

If you’ve arrived in the South Island via the ferry to Picton, the drive to coastal Abel Tasman National Park will take you through a picturesque wine region. Stop for a tasting at one of the vineyards before continuing on to Marahau or Anchorage. Both towns are well-situated near Abel Tasman.

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Split Apple Rock

Depending on how long you choose to stay near the national park (I recommend at least 2 nights so that you have a full day to enjoy), you can explore the landscape in a number of ways. Take in the rocky shoreline from the water via a sea kayaking or sailing trip. Alternatively, and for the more budget-minded, you can hike part of the Abel Tasman Coast Track between Anchorage and Marahau by either walking to the other and back again (approximately 6 hours, and 24 km), or taking a water taxi ($37 NZD on the Abel Tasman AquaTaxi) the first leg and walking back to the town you’re staying in (cutting it down to about 12km and 3 hours walking). If you take the water taxi, you’ll also get to see Split Apple Rock, the second-most photographed rock in the southern hemisphere (Ayers Rock/Uluru is the first) as well as a colony of New Zealand fur seals.

Night 3: Westport

Westport doesn’t offer a ton on its own, but it’s good to break up the drive from Abel Tasman to Franz Josef Glacier further south. On the way, stop at Cape Foulwind for a half hour walk along the coastal cliffs and an opportunity to observe a New Zealand fur seal colony.

In Westport, you can visit the West Coast Brewery for a great brewery tour that includes tastings of their most popular beers and a hotdog and chips at the end ($30 NZD).

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Views at Cape Foulwind

Nights 4-5: Franz Josef

From Westport continue the trip south to Franz Glacier. Along the way, stop at the Pancake Rocks in Paparoa National Park for a short walk to see this odd wonder of geology, and grab a stack of pancakes at the café across the street. Tip – ask for the backpacker’s pancakes to get a stack of 3 for $10 NZD.

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Layered Pancake Rocks

There are many accommodation options in Franz Josef, situated just below the glacier of the same name. This is the only place I’ve ever been where you can see the glacier from the center of town! You should spend at least 2 nights here, but I recommend more if you have time in your itinerary, particularly if you plan to skydive, take a helicopter tour, or do the helihike on the glacier. The weather here is very fickle and you’ll have a better chance of getting to do your desired activities if you give yourself wiggle room for weather-related cancellations.

Read more: Is Helihiking Franz Josef Glacier Worth It?

There are several free hikes you can do around Franz Josef as well. The Tatare Tunnels hike (3 hours return) brings you to a manmade tunnel that is now home to glowworms. Especially if you won’t have the opportunity to see them in greater abundance in Waitomo on the North Island, this is a decent alternative (though not nearly as magical, you will at least have a chance to see a few). Note that the tunnel is often wet inside, so waterproof hiking shoes are recommended. Even then, your feet may get wet!

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Heading into the Tatare Tunnels

From the same trail head as the Tatare Tunnels hike, you can take the Callery Gorge trail (2 hours return). The trail meanders through a lush green rainforest that has an almost whimsical, fairy tale quality to it before bringing you to a small but beautiful waterfall and a picturesque hanging bridge over a glacial stream. You can easily complete these two hikes (Tatare Tunnels and Callery Gorge) together in less than 5 hours.

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Callery Gorge

The most popular short hike for glacier views is the Glacier Valley Walk. This trail starts 3.5km outside of town, so unless you want to walk there, you can take a shuttle for about $16 NZD round trip. The walk through the valley takes about an hour and a half return and is an easy, relatively flat trail. You’ll pass by waterfalls on the steep cliffs before arriving to the closest permissible view you can get of the glacier face.

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Franz Josef Glacier

If you have more energy, Alex Knob trail (8 hours return) will take you up to a view point above the glacier, where you can look down on it from an excellent viewing platform.

Many more hikes are also available. Just look for the Franz Josef Glacier paper map at any of the hotels or stores in town for more details.

Watch: Our Helihiking Adventure

Nights 6-7: Wanaka

From Franz Josef, you’ll make your way to scenic Wanaka, stopping for views of Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson (known for its mirror-perfect reflections), and various points in Mount Aspiring National Park along the way to be inspired by the mountainous landscape and stunningly turquoise lakes.

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Blue Pools in Mt Aspiring National Park

If you are traveling on the Stray bus, they only have one night built in to their standard itinerary. If you are an avid hiker, however, I recommend that you stay at least 2 so that you can tackle the full-day, and very challenging, hike to Roy’s Peak. We only stayed one night in Wanaka and didn’t have time to do it, but the friends who did said the views were incredible.

If you are only in Wanaka one night, you still have time to check out Instagram’s favorite tree (#thatwanakatree) and make the short but steep climb up Mount Iron for great views of the town and its stunning alpine surrounds.

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View from Mount Iron

Night 8: Queenstown

If you are traveling on the Stray bus, you will end up in Queenstown twice – once for one night and a second time with the option to stay several nights. On the way to Queenstown from Wanaka, the bus will stop at AJ Hatchett’s original bungee jump off the Kawarau Bridge. This is the world’s first commercial bungee site.

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Kawarau Gorge

If you are self-driving, you can choose to head straight to Fiordland National Park on one long day, or take an overnight break in Queenstown.

Night 9: Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound

From Queenstown, head further south into Fiordland National Park. The Milford Sound cruise is a New Zealand highlight for many who come here (Real Journeys, $91 NZD). The cruise lasts about 2 hours and takes you through the large fjord, where you can look for dolphins and admire the dramatic cliffs and waterfalls. The fjord can be enjoyed in any weather. On rainy days, you’ll see more waterfalls, and on sunny days, you’ll see a blue and green paradise.

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Milford Sound cruise

With Stray, you can overnight in Fiordland National Park at historic Gunn’s Camp, which was the camp for the men who originally built the roads and infrastructure in this area. With no internet or cell reception, and generator electricity that cuts off at 10pm, a stay here is like going back in time. You can also book a stay here without being on the Stray bus, or, alternatively, visit Milford Sound as a day trip from Queenstown (this, in my opinion, would be a long and tiring day).

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Gunn’s Camp

If you have more time, an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound (smaller but more remote, starting around $250 NZD) is a great option as well. It’s hard to get to but popular with those who enjoy getting off the beaten path and have time to see more of the national park.

Scenic flights are also an option for those willing to spend a little more cash (about $400 NZD).

Night 10: Stewart Island

From Fiordland, the Stray bus then travels down to the very southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island – the town of Bluff. On the way, stop to visit the small Southland Museum in Invercargill to see the endangered and fascinating tuatara. The animal is a cross between a lizard and a dinosaur (this species lived alongside them!) and has a third eye. They are well worth a visit!

Once in Bluff, travelers have the option of taking an exhilarating ferry ride ($79 NZD each way) to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. Alternatively, you can opt to stay in Invercargill with the Stray bus. My recommendation if you are self-driving, though, is that if you aren’t planning to visit Stewart Island, you may want to skip this region and head back to Queenstown.

For those going to Stewart Island, the one-hour jaunt through the Foveaux Strait is rough, so plan accordingly if you’re prone to seasickness! The ferry will arrive in the town of Oban on Stewart Island, and from the ferry terminal it is an easy walk or short ride to all local accommodations.

In the evening, walk down to the ferry port where you arrived to try to spot blue penguins. Additionally, the rugby field is known as a reliable place to find kiwis late at night. For both, bring a red-light torch with you, as the white light hurts their eyes and frightens them.

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Hello weka!

To visit Ulva Island, you will take either a water taxi (starting at $30 NZD; flexible times) or ferry ($20 NZD return; set times). Note that this ferry departs from Golden Bay Wharf, not Halfmoon Bay where you arrived! It’s a quick 15-minute ride. When you arrive, put a $2 NZD coin in the honor box and grab a self-guided pamphlet, which has walking tours and pictures of the birds you will see, so you can identify and learn about the wildlife. If you’re lucky (and quiet), you might even spot a day walking kiwi!

Watch: Bird Spotting on Ulva Island

One night is sufficient to explore Stewart Island and Ulva Island, but if you have more time and want to space out your travel days, it’s a relaxing place to spend an extra night!

Read more: What to expect visiting Stewart Island (coming soon!)

Nights 11-13: Queenstown

From Stewart Island, you can take an afternoon ferry back to Bluff and from there head to Queenstown for a few nights. Known as the adventure capital of the world, any activity you can imagine, from the silly to the extreme, is on offer here. Adrenaline aside, Queenstown is also strikingly beautiful, set on a stunning lake surrounded by the aptly-named Remarkables mountain range.

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View from the SkyLine Gondola

The most popular activities here are ZORBing (where you get into a clear inflatable ball and roll down a hill), bungee jumping, skydiving, hiking and luging.

Regardless of your choice of activities, taking the Skyline gondola up the mountain will offer you phenomenal views. Once at the top, you can bungee jump, luge (which is a lot of silly fun), or hike the popular Ben Lomond trail to even higher altitudes (8 hours).

Watch: Our luging fail in Queenstown

Night 14: Mount Cook

Mount Cook is a relatively short drive from Queenstown, and so you should arrive with plenty of time to do the easy and beautiful Hooker Valley hike (2-3 hours return). On a clear day, you’ll have stunning views of Mount Cook during most of the hike, and you’ll arrive at a picturesque lake filled with ice bergs before turning back around the way you came.

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Mount Cook views along the Hooker Valley trail

The lovely Mount Cook Lodge and Motel is a relaxing and beautiful place to stay the night.

Nights 15-16: Christchurch

From Mount Cook, you’ll leave nature behind and head to interesting and quirky Christchurch.

Christchurch used to be the second largest in the country, but in 2011 a devastating earthquake hit the city. It was utterly ruined, and the rebuilding process is still going on today. From the makeshift cathedral held up with cardboard pipes, to the buildings still with shattered windows, to the empty streets void of the typical city pedestrian life, signs of the earthquake are everywhere.

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It’s common to see ruins like this throughout Christchurch

A very walkable city, you can easily see all of the main sites on foot. I recommend visiting the ruins of the Christchurch Cathedral and the so-called Cardboard Cathedral built as a temporary church while the original undergoes repairs. The Cardboard Cathedral gets its name from the cardboard tubes that hold the structure up.

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Inside the Cardboard Cathedral

The botanical gardens are lovely to explore, and the Canterbury Museum next door is free, fun and quirky. It was probably my favorite thing we did in Christchurch. The museum covers a mash up of everything New Zealand – Antarctic explorations, geology, and culture. There are kitschy halls dedicated to 19th century daily life and an entire pseudo-house to pay homage to Fred and Myrtle, a couple who ran a seashell museum out of their house in the middle of the 20th century.

From Christchurch, you can fly out, or take a bus and ferry to the north island!

Read more: Our adventures on the north island!

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