ROAD TRIP AT THE SOUTH ISLAND IN NEW ZEALAND

hobbiton hobbingen neuseeland

Here are all the tips, stops, must dos and a full itinerary for a road trip at the South Island in New Zealand. At the beginning of my world trip, my mum and I travelled the country for 8 weeks. We spent two weeks with my host family, from my student exchange in 2006, in Dunedin and then drove 3.5 weeks across the South Island and 2.5 weeks across the North Island.

If you are travelling to New Zealand for the first time and you are short of time, I highly recommend you to take a road trip to the South Island for 3 weeks. Even after three weeks of road trip you still haven’t seen everything, but the South Island is so diverse, so special and scenically breathtaking. The North Island is also very beautiful, but I would recommend it for a second visit or if you have a little more time.

A road trip at the South Island in New Zealand: Full itinerary, must do’s and campsites

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General tips for a road trip in New Zealand

I have already written you a detailed article with many worth knowing tips for a road trip through New Zealand. You can find the article here. But first of all I will summarize some general tips for you.

Travel with a Camper

I recommend to travel with a camper and not by car, where you need to book accommodation on the side. This is my personal opinion, but a camper is very practical for doing a road trip in New Zealand. You always have your home with you, you don’t need to pack your stuff all the time and you almost always get a spot on the campsite. You can stay flexible and decide on the go whether you would like to stay for another night or if you’d like to travel to the next stop.

Route planning

In New Zealand there is often little reception, especially in Fjordland and at the West Coast. I got a local SIM card at the beginning of the trip, but I would recommend downloading offline maps. I have the app maps.me for this, which you can use for the route as well as pinning camping spots and stops along the way.

Equipment for all seasons

For a trip in New Zealand you should be prepared for any kind of weather, even in summer. New Zealand consists of two islands and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the cold wind from Antarctica comes from the South and in some national parks it can get as low as -1 degree Celsius, even in summer. Make sure to bring a rain jacket, good shoes, a warm thermal jacket and a hat/gloves. You do not necessarily have to bring hiking gear, because you can borrow all the equipment on site.

Useful apps

To find campsites on the route, I recommend the app Campermate. On Campermate you will see the different campsites, the different categories and facilities. You can also see the phone numbers and location of the campsites offline. I also had the Currency App to re-check prices in Euro.

Itinerary for a road trip on the South Island in New Zealand

This itinerary can be seen as a suggestion. Each traveller has different ideas and preferences and can adapt the route individually. My itinerary is here to inspire you, provide ideas and increase your excitement about your trip to New Zealand. If you have any other ideas and tips, please let me know in the comments!

The listed prices are from January to early March 2017, high season.

If you have a little more time, I would recommend taking the additional route from Timaru > Oamaru > Moeraki Boulders > Dunedin > Caitlins / Kaka Point > Alexandra > Queenstown.

new zealand roadtrip

Moeraki Boulders

Arrival in Christchurch

From spending a couple of days in Sydney we flew directly to Christchurch, where we made our way directly to the car rental company to pick up our rental car and new home.

Accommodation

In Christchurch we stayed at the All stars Inn on Bealey. A cosy hostel, about 15 minutes walk from the city centre. There’s a supermarket close by and there are many parking spaces in the parallel street. The hostel looks very cozy because of its wooden walls, there is a TV room, the bathrooms are big, the kitchen is a bit small, but our room for two people was cheap and nice. We enjoyed our stay. When the weather is nice, you can sit outside in comfy chairs to meet other backpackers!

all stars inn on bealey christchurch

At my second visit in Christchurch, I stayed at the Dorset House Backpackers, which I can also recommend. The lounge is very nice and cozy, there’s a pool table and a sofa corner. The hostel is not far away from the park and you are quickly in the city or at the bus station by bus.

Where to eat

A few streets away there is the delicious Italian restaurant Tutto Bene on Papanui road, that my Kiwi friend recommended. The restaurant is cosy, the owner is nice and the pizza very tasty. However, best to make a reservation in advance.

Must Dos in Christchurch

Since the earthquake in Christchurch, the city is in reconstruction. At first I found it strange to be in the city centre at 6 pm, which was very quiet, because there were hardly any people around. But it is also exciting to see how a city is rebuilt and reinvents itself. On many corners there is street art and art objects. Not far from the destroyed church in the city centre there is a container mall where you can go shopping or try delicious street-food.

If you want to, you can take a city tour on the cable car and go around the city. You can visit the botanical garden, the university and other sights.

Day trip to Akaroa

Only two hours away from Christchurch, there is the beautiful harbour town of Akaroa. We liked it here very much, we had a lunch break by the sea, enjoyed nature and walked along the waterfront. Akaroa is great for a day trip! If you are lucky, you can even see dolphins there.

Neuseeland Roadtrip Akaroa

From Christchurch you can take the route down South and make a stop in Ashburton and Timaru. In Timaru you can see the old colonial buildings or get up early in the morning to watch penguins at the beach.

Next stop: Lake Tekapo

The turquoise coloured Lake Tekapo is a special place to me. I came here for the first time when I was 16 on an organized tour. There was no other tourist on site and the lake glittered turquoise. I have never forgotten that beautiful moment. In summer, when the flowers bloom by the lake, it is even more beautiful. The best known site is the small church by the lake, but unfortunately that is not a secret anymore and attracts many tourists. But if you try to ignore everyone and go for a walk, you can still enjoy the panorama just as much.

We did a lot of walking here, ate homemade, delicious banana-strawberry ice-cream, watched the sunset in the evening and before we left, we went to the Tekapo Springs geothermal baths to swim and relax. At Lake Tekapo a must do: check out the sky at night! On a clear day it is amazing. If you want, you can drive up to the observatory on the mountain and look at the sky from there.

road trip south island new zealand

Accommodation

We stayed directly at the lakefront at the Lake Tekapo Motel and Holiday Park. At the camping spots, there is often an extra hot tap, so you don’t need to take a kettle. The kitchen was small but nice and wifi was available for an extra charge. Price per night with electricity for one person: about 22 NZD.

Lake Pukaki

On the way to Mt. Cook National Park you pass Lake Pukaki. Here you need to stop and enjoy the view – so beautiful! In a café by the parking lot you can buy fresh salmon and other kinds of fish directly from the lake.

road trip south island new zealand

Mt. Cook / Aoraki Nationalpark

We spent a weekend at Mt. Cook National Park with the grandchildren of my host parents. Since I was abroad twelve years ago, the kids are all in their early 20s now and we had such a good time together. While my mom and I started our camping adventure completely unprepared, the boys were much tougher.

In sub-zero temperatures they just slept with their sleeping bags underneath the car, went on the hike with shorts, rubber boots and beer (that’s typical kiwi-style), and while we hardly made it up the stairs up the mountain the next day, the boys were already waiting for us up there for over an hour.

When my mom and I finally made it to the top, we just enjoyed the view, met other travellers, took pictures and soaked up the sun while the boys went hunting in the mountains. Hunting is completely normal in New Zealand.

The Mt. Cook National Park is one of my favourite places in New Zealand. Even if it means a small detour on the route, I can really recommend you to go. The first night I got up and didn’t know where to look first: in total darkness the sky was covered with millions of stars and I could see the Milky Way. Absolute moment of stillness that I will never forget. So, must do: gaze at the sky at night!

Accommodation

We stayed at the White Horse Hill Campground. The kitchen was relatively large and simple, as were the sanitary facilities. To take a shower you needed to drive five kilometers further, so we made it through the two days with a quick wash, before we went to a campground with sanitary facilities again. It’s best to take a small flashlight or a headlamp with you for the night. Price for one night by car on the camping site: about 13 NZD.

Must Dos at Mt Cook Nationalpark

Hooker Valley Track

From the campsite you can start doing many hikes. The first evening, we did the beautiful Hooker Valley Track that finishes at the glacier lake. The track takes about four to five hours return and is easy to walk. You can find the whole article about my favourite hikes in New Zealand here.

road trip south island

Hike to the Mueller Hut

On the second day we walked up more than thousand stairs to the Mueller Hut (I’m not exaggerating here). Because the ascent was very exhausting, we did not walk up to all the way to the hut, but spent the day in the sun at the first lookout point. This hiking tour was one of my highlights, as the panorama you get from up there is breathtaking.

Next stop on the route: Wanaka

Wanaka is also popular for the Kiwis as holiday spot and you can see why once you get there: Wanaka is situated directly at a beautiful lake, surrounded by mountains. We were in Wanaka for three days, you can eat delicious food at Bigfig, you can get award-winning ice cream and good coffee at Patagonia. We just got ourselves an ice cream and sat down at the waterfront, which was very relaxing. If it rains in Wanaka, you should do a trip to the interactive museum Puzzling World.

Accommodation

We stayed a little outside of town at the camping site Albert Town. The campsite has very basic sanitary facilities and is right by a river with many trees. Price per person: about 10 NZD.

The remaining two days we spent in Wanaka Holiday Park with lake-view. The kitchen, the common room, the sanitary facilities and the terrace had just been renovated at that time. I used to sit there in the evening to work, because there was fast wifi (had to take the chance). But there are also many seating areas outside. Price per night for two people: about 55 NZD.

Must Dos in Wanaka

“The tree” – Crack Willow tree

If you are in Wanaka, you should check out Crack Willow tree. It doesn’t matter if the weather is sunny or rainy, it is a beautiful picture with the mountains in the back.

Hike to Roys Peak

One of my other highlights in New Zealand was the sunrise hike to Roys Peak. We started walking at four o’clock in the morning and made it to the top just in time for the sunrise. A better description and a list of my favourite hikes in New Zealand can be found here.

new zealand roadtrip südinsel roys peak

Take a flying lesson

One day, we decided to do a flying lesson and flew a round in Wanaka with UFly, and I was allowed to steer the plane. It went above the Clutha River towards Roys Peak over the mountains and the lake. Unfortunately it was too windy and we had to return. But it was really beautiful to see the nature from above and we were lucky to see a rainbow from up there! Price from 199 NZD for two persons.

Visit the lavender fields

Near Wanaka you can also visit the lavender fields at the right season. The fields are beautiful and it smells sooo good of lavender everywhere! We also tried lavender muffins and lavender ice cream, which was different but very tasty! The entrance fee is on a volunteer basis at 2 NZD, if I remember correctly.

roadtrip south island new zealand

Next stop: Queenstown

Queenstown is also known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, because the adrenalin beats faster there. From boat trips, mountain biking, skydiving, bungy jumping to wine tasting, boat trips, Lord of the Rings tours and anything else, you can experience a lot. Activities are relatively expensive in New Zealand, so think about what you would like to do before.

You can grab some food at Halo, you can get tasty baguettes and good coffee at Vudu Café at the waterfront of Lake Wakatipu. Of course you should also join the queue and try a burger at Ferg burgers.

Accommodation

We spent the night at one of the campsites directly in Queenstown. We had to book in advance, because at the peak season in February, it can get very crowded. Unfortunately it was also quite busy, when we were there, but it was only a five minute walk from the city and the gondola, the kitchen was very spacious, as was the lounge. We often sat outside to eat and enjoyed the view over the Wakatipu Lake. Price for two people per night: 55 NZD.

When I came to Queenstown with my friends, we stayed at a hostel right in the middle of the city at the Base Hostel. We booked a female dorm, and I can highly recommend the hostel to you. Price is about 23 Euro per night in a shared bedroom.

Must Dos

There is so much to see and do in Queenstown. I would recommend renting bicycles and ride around the lake Wakatipu. There are also many wineries nearby and there are no limits for the adventurers of you. Here are a few Must Dos:

Enjoy a ride with the gondola up the mountain and go on the luge downwards

Those who are in Queenstown should hope on a ride with the gondola, as from up the mountain, you have a wonderful view over Queenstown and the surrounding mountains. It is especially much fun to go on a ride down the hill with the luge. It’s so much fun. Price for the gondola for 2 people is about 66 NZD.

Skydive oder Bungee jump

Queenstown is probably one of the best places to do a skydive or bungee jump. There are several options for bungee jumping: either at the Kawarau Bridge or the 60 meter freefall at the Shotover Canyon Swing.

Boat trip to the farm

If you like to relax a bit, you can go on a boat trip at the Lake Wakatipu to the other side. There you will get to a farm where you will be explained how the sheep are shorn. We spent the afternoon in the garden of the Victorian house on site, enjoyed the sun and ate typical New Zealand or British scones with jam.

Daytrip to Milford Sound

Those of you, who do not have the time or do not want to drive the long way up to Milford Sound by themselves or don’t feel as comfortable driving on the roads. You can do a day trip from Queenstown via Te Anau to Milford Sound.

The tour starts early in the morning and stops at all sights on the road. The tour ends with a boat tour at Milford Sound and in the afternoon, you hop on the coach to drive back to Queenstown in 5 hours. I did this tour once in 2010 with my friends, as we did not have our own car. We had fantastic weather (which is rare in fjordland) and were glad that we didn’t drive ourselves, because the roads are very curvy and windy. Price for the day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound incl. the drive, boat tour and snacks: e.g. with Great Sights approx. 240 NZD.

Eglinton Valley

Mirror Lakes

Te Anau

If you have decided to drive to Milford Sound yourself or do one of the Great Walks in the area, I recommend a stop in Te Anau. We stayed in Te Anau for several days because I walked the Kepler Track for three days. My mother stayed in Te Anau during this time, enjoyed the time off (from me 😉 ), did a boat and firefly tour and visited the small cinema in the village. There you can even order drinks and food during the movie. When I came back from the track, we had dinner at Naturally Fjordland Pizza with my travel companion from the track.

Accommodation

Along the way between Queenstown and Te Anau we stayed at Mossburn Country Park for one night. Surrounded by mountains and rivers, we felt so comfortable at this campsite that it should definitely be mentioned. Price for 2 persons: about 36 NZD.

Staying overnight in Te Anau during the high season isn’t cheap. We decided to stay at the Kiwi Holiday Park Te Anau. There was a big kitchen, a rustic, large lounge with wifi and clean sanitary facilities. Price for 2 persons with parking space: 55 NZD.

Must Dos in Te Anau

Lake Manapouri

From Te Anau you can make many excursions. In 2006 I went on a school camp to Borland, which is not far from Te Anau. I can recommend a hike to Lake Manapouri or the day hike Mount Burns Tarns Track. The hike can be rough, but the view is well worth it. Tip from me: In Fjordland, the local sandflies are especially aggressive. So get a good insect / mosquito spray beforehand.

Kepler Track

As mentioned before, I did the Kepler Track for three days, which I can fully recommend. Just before, I was about to cancel the hike because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. But this three days hike was one of the best experiences of my life. The hike starts in Te Anau and you can walk for three or four days. But you need to book staying in the huts months in advance at DOC.

road trip south island new zealand

Milford Sound

My biggest dream when I was 16, was to visit Milford Sound. Unfortunately it did not work out the year I lived in Dunedin. That’s why I went there on my second visit to New Zealand. After almost five months of Work & Travel in Australia I had hardly any money left. The only trip I did during my eight weeks in Dunedin was a week in Queenstown including a day trip to Milford Sound. I was overjoyed and loved this magical place. For the trip with my mom, I wanted to show her Milford Sound, so we planned three days for it on our route.

road trip south island new zealand

Accommodation

It is best to book your accommodation or campspot at Milford Sound early, because there are not that many options. We stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge, which was about 54 NZD for two persons with parking space and electricity. The campspot was fully equipped. There were clean sanitary facilities, a kitchen and a small lounge. A little tip: if you have one, put a mosquito net up at the windows of your car at night. There’s lost if sandflies in the area.

Must Dos

Boat tour around the fjord

One day we made a boat trip around the fjord. It rained a little bit, but that did not matter. We really enjoyed the tour around the fjord, saw the waterfalls from up close and watched the sea lion colony. On my first visit we even saw dolphins here. Price per person for the cruise with Real Journeys: approx. 89 NZD.

Kayak-Tour

On the second day we did a five-hour kayak tour with Go Orange in the fjord followed by a short hike on the Milford Track. It rained, as it often happens in Fjordland, but we had a great time. It was mum’s first tour with the kayak, we ran aground and the sandflies were especially nasty on the water, but it was still a very nice experience. If you have ever smelled the New Zealand Bush, i.e. the forests of New Zealand, you will always remember its smell. Price for the kayak tour per person: about 149 NZD.

Next stop: Lake Hawea

If you want, you can make a detour on the way to Lake Hawea. Many New Zealand families also spend their holidays at Lake Hawea, it is less touristy, you can swim in the lake and the view of the mountains is unique. The lake was a little surprise for me, because I did not know it before.

roadtrip south island new zealand lake hawea

Accommodation at Lake Hawea

We stayed at the Holiday Park Hawea with a view of the lake and the mountains. There was a small kitchen and everything was clean. Price for two persons about 43 NZD.

Stop at the route: Blue Pools

Be sure to make a stop on the route and visit the Blue Pools nearby. If the weather is good, the water shines turquoise-blue and brave people jump from the bridge into the icy cold water. From the parking lot to the Blue Pools you can walk return in about 15 minutes.

Thunder Creek Falls

On the Haast Highway, in the Mount Aspiring National Park, you should also stop to check out the 96 meter high waterfall. From the parking lot it is a 10 minute walk return.

Fox and Franz Josef Glacier

If you have never seen a glacier in your life, you should make a stop here! Unfortunately we had to skip the glaciers on our trip, because it rained so heavily that the roads were flooded. But it is really worth it to make a hiking tour to the glaciers, a helicopter flight or a guided tour at the glaciers. A three hour tour is approximately 82 NZD per person.

The picture is from 2006, but in the meantime the glacier has shrunk.

Next stop at the Westcoast: Hokitika

In Hokitika it rained the whole time, so we spent most of the time in our car. Our plan was to visit the Hokitika Gorge and walk the Tree Top Walkway. Unfortunately this didn’t work out due to the weather, but there was one thing we couldn’t miss in Hokitika: to visit a local Green Stone factory. According to a Maori legend you return to the place where the Green Stone was made, which you received as a present. It is very important that you have been given the Green Stone as a gift and did not buy it yourself. My mum gave me one as a present for my master graduation and I was very happy about it. The Green Stone still is in my apartment and reminds me that I will go back to New Zealand one day.

Hokitika Gorge. Photo by Katie McBroom on Unsplash

Accommodation

In Hokitika we stayed at the Cloud 9 Lifestyle Park, a more rustic and easy going campground with a small kitchen. But everything was clean and we were not far away from the city by car. Price per person: about 17 NZD.

Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki

At the Westcoast you should make a stop at the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki, which get their name because of their shape, as it reminds you of pancakes. We drove from Hokitika via Greymouth and Punakaiki. But our final destination for the day was a bit further away, so we stayed there for two hours before we carried on.

Nelson Lakes Nationalpark

I discovered the Nelson Lakes by chance on Instagram and I really wanted to go there. If you have the time, you can so great walks around the lake. Unfortunately we were not so lucky with the weather, the sandflies were almost as bad as in Fjordland, but we enjoyed a nice walk along the lake.

Nelson Lakes Road trip south island New Zealand

Accommodation at the Nationalpark

In the Nationalpark we stayed overnight at the Kerr Bay Campsite directly at Lake Rotoiti. There is everything you need. You had to pay for a minute of hot showers and the facilities were a bit small, but you get used to that quickly and therefore you don’t have to wait that long in line. Price per person without electricity: about 18 NZD.

Abel Tasman Nationalpark

We continued our road trip to beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. If you have a little more time, you should think about doing a hiking tour of several days here. As we spent the next days in the Marlborough Sounds we only had one day to explore the national park. So the more reason to go back there again one day.

Accommodation

We stayed close to where the boats leave from, at the Motueka Top 10 Holiday Park. The camping site was very nice, we had a lot of space, there was a big lounge with wifi and a big kitchen. Price for two people with electricity: about 48 NZD.

Must Dos

Hike at the nationalpark

By boat you can reach the various starting points for hikes in the nationalpark. Unfortunately we missed the first boat because I thought I had lost my necklace. But of course it was in its place, so we caught the second boat from Keriteri to Apple Tree Bay and made a shorter tour to Anchorage. Even though we walked fast, we had to hurry in the end not to miss the last boat back. We didn’t plan to stay overnight in the national park and didn’t have any equipment with us.

Abel Tasman Nationalpark New Zealand

Next stop: Nelson

I have not explored Nelson yet, as I was always passing through. But I have heard of many travellers who really liked Nelson. From Nelson, you can do many hiking tours and excursions to the national park, visit the surrounding wineries or discover golden beaches.

Marlborough Sounds

From Nelson we made our way to Havelock North to spend the next two nights at Hopewell Lodge in the middle of the Marlborough Sounds. This stay is still a very nice memory for me, because the Hopewell Lodge is not only well situated but also an oasis of peace. You can find a detailed article about our stay on this page.

Marlborough Sounds Road trip New Zealand

new zealand marlborough sounds hopewell lodge

Blenheim

If you don’t take the ferry from Picton to the North Island, but end your road trip in Christchurch, Blenheim is worth a stop on the way. Blenheim is famous for its many wineries where you can enjoy wine tasting or a delicious lunch. Here I was at my girlfriend’s wedding and can recommend a lunch at Wither Hills, with a wonderful view over the wine rubbing.

Accommodation

During my visit to Blenheim I was able to get to know a wonderful accommodation: the Driftwood Retreat and Eco Tours by Will and Rose. Here you can also experience a sunrise kayak tour in the Wairau Lagoon and get to know the alpacas, birds and animals of the region on an evening walk. The full article about the beautiful retreat can be found here.

Must Dos

Visit wineries

My friend Helen was still living in Blenheim when we visited and she showed us her favourite wineries, where we had a little wine tasting. It was a lot of fun and the view of the endless vinyards was very nice. We visited the following wineries: St. Clair Family Estate Vineyard Kitchen, Wither Hills Cellar Door, Allan Scott Family Winemakers and the Villa Maria Estate Marlborough Winery. But there are countless other wineries in the region.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura is the last stop on the route of the road trip on the South Island. In Kaikoura I experienced my absolute highlight at the age of 16, which for many of you might be a special experience at the end of the trip. I swam with wild dolphins in the middle of the sea and it was an unique experience. In Kaikoura you can decide whether you want to see whales or go swimming with wild dolphins. A little tip against seasickness: have breakfast in the morning and don’t go on the boat with an empty stomach!

Kaikoura New Zealand

Budget for 3 weeks road trip on New Zealand’s South Island

Travelling in New Zealand is not cheap and this breakdown of costs is only to be seen as an idea. For camping sites I have calculated a flat rate of 25 NZD per night per person. Those of you, who rent a self-contained camper or stay on cheaper campsites can save a lot of cash.

The same with excursions: I wrote as a guest author for another German blog and thus got many activities for free or cheaper. Thereby we could really experience a lot. Of course, you can decide for yourself which excursions you would like to do in the end.

Dining out in New Zealand is not cheap compared to Germany. We cooked a lot ourselves and rarely went out for a meal. This way we could keep the budget for food pretty low.

You can also save money if you do without comfort. For example, if you book a simple Cabana Camper for 21 days in January 2021 with full insurance with Jucy Campers, you will be at about 150 NZD per day, so about 3.200 NZD for three weeks. This is more expensive, but there’s also cheaper ways. We drove on our road trip with a station wagon and therefore spent less money on fuel as if we had been on the road with a camper. Just to give you a rough overview here.

Road Trip South Island New Zealand

Do you have any more questions about a road trip through New Zealand’s South Island? Or have you been there yourself and got an exciting tip? Feel free to write it in the comments!

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