The South Island of New Zealand is like no other place I have visited before. It has everything an adventure seeker, nature lover and traveller could ask for! From mountain landscapes, glaciers, epic lakes and incredible beaches.
I got to spend 3 weeks exploring the South Island, and this was not enough time to explore the whole island in depth. But was enough time to see some most of its highlights.
This itinerary follows my road trip, so as always, this includes a mixture of fast and slow pace travelling. By following this itinerary you will visit incredible places such as Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka and more.
This itinerary works in conjunction with my North Island itinerary. Both these itineraries can be completed back to front!
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Getting to New Zealand
To complete this road trip, you can will need to fly into Auckland. I use Skyscanner to help find the best deals on flights! You can also read my blog here on my top 10 tips to finding cheap flights.
I always recommend you buy travel insurance. I always go with Covermore Travel Insurance, as they have a large range of different policies. As I travel with a lot of camera equipment, it’s important to find cover which will cover these items if they are damaged.
What will you need for this Itinerary?
You will need a vehicle for this road trip. That can either be a campervan or you can rent a car. I will always recommend a campervan for travelling around New Zealand, as it’s much easier and much cheaper in the long run!
I went with Mad Campers for my 7-week road trip through New Zealand, and they were excellent. The customer service, the campervan and everything in between was wonderful. I travelled around in their MAD1 campervan, which is the only campervan made for solo travellers in New Zealand. You can read my full review here.
3 Week SOUTH ISLAND Itinerary
DAY 1: FLY INTO WELLINGTON/FERRY TO PICTON
This itinerary starts in Picton on the South Island, so the best way to start if you are flying into New Zealand, is Wellington. If you have followed my North Island itinerary, then you would of finished here and can begin your South Island road trip by catching the ferry to Picton.
You can read my full review of catching the bluebridge ferry here.
*As this itinerary can be completed backwards, another option is to start in Christchurch and end in Christchurch! *
After you’ve taken the ferry to Picton you can either spend the night here, exploring the area or drive to Pelorus Bridge. Here you can relax by the stream or go on one of the many short walks in the area. If you have time, I do recommend spending another day here, so you won’t feel as rushed.
Accommodation: Pelorus Bridge – $20 NZD for an unpowered site.
DAY 2: CABLE BAY
Today you will complete the 2hr drive to Cable Bay, which is a small coastal town in the Nelson area. There is plenty to do here from walking, kayaking, snorkelling and mountain biking.
- Walking the Cable Bay Walkway (or part of it). If you want to get to a beautiful viewpoint, you can walk uphill from the beach for about an hour. Beware it is very steep!
- Snorkel or dive at the Marine reserve
- Visit Cable Bay Adventure Park
Accommodation: Cable Bay Holiday Park – $25 NZD for unpowered site, $27NZD for powered site
DAY 3: COLLINGWOOD
Today you are going to make your way up to Collingwood, stopping at many attractions on the way! This is the only day of this itinerary where you will be doing a lot of driving and is more of a ‘fast pace’ travel day. You can easily split this into several days if you wish to travel at a slower pace.
On your way to Collingwood, stop at attractions such as
If you have an extra few day’s to spare, I highly recommend exploring Abel Tasman National Park. I unfortunately ran out of time and didn’t get to visit here. But there is so much to do from hiking, beaches, kayaking and more! So, if you love nature, it’s a place I would look into.
Accommodation: Collingwood Holiday Park – $35NZD for an unpowered campsite, $40NZD for a powered campsite.
DAY 4: NELSON LAKES
Today you will make the 4hr drive down from Collingwood to Nelson Lakes. I would recommend leaving early in the morning, so you have plenty of time to complete 1 or 2 hikes in the area. This itinerary only gives you one day in the Nelson Lakes area, but you could easily spend 2-3 as there is plenty to explore.
If the first 3 days of this itinerary are not something that interests you, I would head straight from Picton to Nelson Lakes and spend my first three days on the South Island here.
What I recommend:
- Mt Robert Circuit – a 9km return hike, offering beautiful views over the lake
- Walks around Lake Rotoiti
- Walks around Lake Rotoroa – ranging from 25mins to 3 hrs
- Whisky Falls – 10.8km return walk, around 3 hrs
- Boating/kayaking on Lake Rotoroa
Accommodation: Kerr Bay campground – $20NZD for unpowered site, $23NZD for powered site
DAY 5-6: ARTHURS PASS
Another long drive today. Today you will drive the very scenic 4hr route to Arthurs Pass and Arthurs Pass National Park. There is not a lot to do in Arthurs Pass but hiking. Even if you are not a big fan of hiking, I do recommend you spend 1 night here and complete some of the easy trails, because the scenery is just incredible!
If you are a hiker, 2 days is the perfect amount of time to complete some of the best walks in this area.
You can read my guide to Arthurs Pass here.
My favourite hikes:
- Arthurs Pass walking trail
- Avalanche Peak
- Devils Punchbowl
Accommodation: Avalanche Creek Shelter – $10NZD for an unpowered campsite.
DAY 7: FRANZ JOSEF
Today you will make your way to the west side of the South Island, stopping at a few places along the way. I recommend you first stop off at Hokitika Gorge, which is a beautiful easy hike. This will only take you roughly 1-2hrs to complete.
After, head into Franz Josef. Here you can walk one of the glaciers walks or if you don’t feel like walking book a Helicopter flight. If you are unfortunate like myself and your flight is cancelled today, you will have enough time tomorrow to reschedule for the morning.
Accommodation: Chateau Backpackers and Motel (budget option) or Montrose Lodge.
Click here to check out other accommodation in Franz Josef.
DAY 8- 11: WANAKA
I think four days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Wanaka, it gives you enough time to complete some of the longer hikes, explore the town and visit places like the Aspiring National Park. If you are a big hiker, there are heaps of multi day hikes in this area. I highly recommend the Liverpool hut hike if you have experience (and a car that will make it out there).
You can read my blog about 15 things to do in and around Wanaka here.
Things I recommend doing with your time in Wanaka:
- Hike Roys Peak
- Visit Thunder Creek Falls and Fantail Falls (can be done on your way into Wanaka)
- The Blue Pools
- Visit Aspiring National Park
- Hike Sentinel Peak – ONLY if you have backcountry experience.
- Take a walk around Wanaka town and lake
Accommodation: Luxury Secluded Wanaka Escape – if you are looking for some gorgeous accommodation. Wanaka TOP 10 Holiday Park for camping/motel rooms.
DAY 12 – 13: QUEENSTOWN
Queenstown is only a 1-hour drive from Wanaka, so there is no need to rush today. There are plenty of activities to suit anyone in Queenstown. There’s something for the natural lovers, hikers, adventure seekers and foodies. Two days here was enough time for me to tick heaps of activities of my bucket list, as well as spend a bit of time exploring the town.
If you are an adrenaline junkie like me, this is the place you want to visit! Here I went skydiving, on a canyon swing, Shotover jet and Bungy jumping. Plus there are heaps more epic activities to choose from!
You can read my blog here on 10 things to do around Queenstown
Accommodation: Lucky Lane Home Stay – $240NZD for 2 nights. Incredible accommodation, with beautiful views, close to town.
DAY 14-16: MILFORD SOUNDS ROADTRIP
You will spend the next three days of this itinerary exploring Milford Sounds, which is a bucket list destination in New Zealand. Here you will hike on top of mountains, cruise the sound, visit glacier lakes and experience the beauty that is Milford Sound.
I have already written a detailed itinerary for a three day Milford Sound road trip, which can be found here. This fits in perfectly with this itinerary.
DAY 17: BACK TO QUEENSTOWN
Today you will drive back to Queenstown, spending your day completing activities you didn’t get to a few days earlier. Or simply relaxing. This extra day in Queenstown is here to break up your driving to the next destination, where you will head tomorrow.
Accommodation: Drift Away Queenstown
DAY 18- 19: MT COOK/Aoraki NATIONAL PARK
Unless you plan on doing any overnight hikes, 2 days in Mt Cook National Park is plenty of time to complete some hikes and enjoy the scenery. I have already written a in depth guide to how to spend your time in Mt Cook/Aoraki National Park. This shows some of the best hikes and things to do in the area, as well as how long each of them will take.
Hikes I recommend:
- Sealy Tarns/Muller hut hike
- Hooker Valley Track
- Tasman Glacier Lookout
- Make sure to stop at the many lookout points driving into the national park!
Accommodation: White Horse hills campsite – $15NZD for unpowered campsite. Please note this is the only camping ground in the national park.
DAY 20: LAKE TEKAPO
Today is a relaxing day, where you will drive to Lake Tekapo. Make sure to take your time and stop at the many viewpoints along this scenic drive, there are heaps. This in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.
Once you arrive in Lake Tekapo, take a stroll around the lake, and look out for the famous lupins. Lupins are weeds, but they are beautiful and make for some great shots! You won’t have to look far, as there are heaps along the lake’s foreshore. Spend the rest of the day going for a swim in the lake or having a meal in town.
Accommodation: Lakes Edge Holiday Park (best views from your campsite!) – $70NZD for a Lakeview site, $60 for an unpowered site.
DAY 21: CHRISTCHURCH
Today sadly concludes your 3 week South Island road trip. Today, drive to Christchurch and either spend a day or two exploring the city, or settle in for your fly out day later that night or the following day.
I didn’t do much with my time in Christchurch expect catch up with work, but this is by far one of the most chilled major cities in New Zealand and is worth spending a few days here exploring.
That concludes this itinerary! As mentioned at the start this itinerary can easily be completed back to front and both end/start in Christchurch. If you plan on doing it this way I would recommend going from Christchurch – > Arthurs Pass -> Nelson Lakes. Like all my itineraries, there is plenty of room for changes. I hope this has helped you as a guide to planning your own South Island road trip!
You can find my North Island road trip itinerary here.
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