The south island offers dramatic mountain scenery with the Southern Alps running north to south, and with pristine lakes, majestic glaciers, jagged peaks and deserted beaches. Add to this wildlife, birdlife and marine life along with friendly locals and a fascinating culture, and this island makes for a fantastic introduction to New Zealand.
Christchurch and Queenstown are the two key international airports on this island, and a looped route from either one will provide a comprehensive and diverse holiday.
Day 1: Christchurch
Begin your holiday in the city of Christchurch. Punt along the river, visit the botanical gardens or take a tram ride around the town centre. Unique attractions to pop up since the earthquakes include Re:Start – a shopping centre comprised of shipping containers, and the Cardboard Cathedral.
Two nights Christchurch
Day 3: Kaikoura
Collect a hire car and head north to Kaikoura. Located on the coast and jammed in between the mountains and the sea, Kaikoura is famous for its fish and chips and crayfish! It is also the place for whale watching – either by sea or from the air.
One night Kaikoura
Day 4: Blenheim
This area produces some excellent wines and many wineries are open for tastings. The Marlborough Sound and Queen Charlotte sound are both in this area and well worth exploring if you have the time.
Two nights Blenheim
Day 6: Abel Tasman National Park
Drive around to Abel Tasman. This northern tip of the South Island is so often overlooked, but it is one of our favourites. It is here that you’ll see the crescent shaped beaches backed by lush greenery – easy to spend a full day in the park, using the water taxis to get about, and perhaps walking one of the many trails in the park.
Three nights Abel Tasman
Day 9: Punakaiki
Coming down the west coast, it is nice to break the journey with an overnight stop at Punakaiki. This is the home of the Pancake Rocks – a strange rock formation, and the overnight stop simply allows you to take your time as these roads are so scenic that you will simply have to keep stopping for more pictures.
One night Punakaiki
Day 10: Arthurs Pass
Turning inland to the central spine of mountains that run through the South Island, this is alpine scenery at its very best. There are plenty of walking opportunities in the area with stunning views all around.
Two nights Arthurs Pass
Day 12: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef
Returning to the west coast, the next place of interest are the two glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Take time to visit one or both glaciers, the beautiful Lake Matheson and the dramatic coast at Gillespie Beach. From here also, you can take a sightseeing flight, with or without a glacier landing and hike, and hopefully good views of Mount Cook.
Two nights Fox Glacier
Day 14: Wanaka
The route to Wanaka takes you through the Haast Pass and past Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. Simply beautiful – this little town is surrounded by mountains and is the Queenstown of yesteryear. Where Queenstown has developed, Wanaka has remained delightfully small.
One night Wanaka
Day 15: Queenstown
Sitting on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a sizeable town with activities for every adrenalin junkie! Here you will find bungy jumping, sky diving, a luge and plenty more. Much of the Lord of the Rings was filmed in this area, and although the sets had to be removed, the scenery will seem familiar! For those not into extreme sports, a drive to Glenorchy is beautiful.
Two nights Queenstown
Day 17: Te Anau
Te Anau is the gateway to Fjordland National Park – for both Milford and Doubtful Sounds. For either, you can visit for a day, or take an overnight cruise. Of the two, Milford offers the more dramatic scenery but is busier. Doubtful Sound has fewer tourists and lovely scenery, but it’s not quite so dramatic.
Two nights Te Anau
Day 19: Stewart Island
At the very southern tip are areas of New Zealand that many never get to. Stewart Island is home to the only kiwi’s (the birds that is) to be found in the wild, and a must for birding enthusiasts. Access to the island is by ferry or by light aircraft – we suggest going by air as the ferry crossing can be quite choppy.
Two nights Stewart Island
Day 21: The Catlins
The Catlins is the area in the far southeast corner of the South Island – a wild and remote corner for those whose idea of paradise is the absence of anyone else at all (or pretty well!) and with good opportunities to see wildlife such as Little Blue Penguins, Yellow Eyed Penguins, seals and sealions.
Two nights The Catlins
Day 23: Dunedin
Visited by many for its Scottish appeal and for the colony of albatross that call this home. This is a must for birders. There are a number of other attractions in the area including the Rail Trail – great for cycling. The Otago Peninsula is beautiful, and a stay here rather than in the city itself may appeal too.
Two nights Dunedin
Day 25: Lake Tekapo
This is the home of the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Collie Dog Memorial often features in brochures. This is also a great place for stargazing as it is a ‘designated dark sky’ area.
Two nights Lake Tekapo
Day 27: Akaroa
Located on the Banks Peninsula south east of Christchurch, this small town has a French feel to it and is a lovely place to relax for a day or two. From here, one can take a cruise to swim with wild Hector’s Dolphins – the smallest and rarest dolphin, which is endemic to New Zealand.
Two nights Akaroa
Day 29: Depart Christchurch
Depart Christchurch today to head home or to your next destination.
Fox Glacier – Credit Jim bell
Franz Josef Glacier Credit New Zealand Tourism
Queenstown – Credit Jim Bell
Rippon Vineyard-Lake Wanaka- credit David Wall
23 Nugget Point The Catlins- Credit Graeme Murray
Te Anau Milfor Sound – Credit 100% New Zealand
Arthurs Pass National Park Canterbury Credit Tourism New Zealand