7 Day South Island Road Trip Itinerary

Date: 28 February 2021

Content updated December 5, 2023. The South Island of New Zealand is one of the best places to take a road trip. Te Waipounamu (the South Island’s te reo Māori name) is known for stunning scenery, adventure activities and delicious food and wine. 

Use this itinerary to pick and choose what interests you most! If you want to stop at all the areas on this road trip itinerary, we recommend an extra couple of days so there's no rush. Roads in New Zealand are like nowhere else in the world, they can be incredible, meandering, sometimes tight, and mountainous. Taking a break to refresh between the legs of the trip is important. Whether you’ve got 7 days to complete your South Island roadie or plan to take this route at a slower pace, we’ve created the ultimate road trip itinerary for travelling the South Island.

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Day 1: Arrive in Whakatipu Waimāori Queenstown

Queenstown is a beautiful alpine township on Lake Whakatipu and is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand as well as for its stunning vistas.

Things to do in Queenstown:

  • The TSS Earnslaw is an icon of Queenstown. It's the only hand-fired passenger-carrying steamship still operating in the Southern Hemisphere, and she can be found gracefully cruising Lake Whakatipu daily. Enjoy a leisurely and scenic cruise on this vintage vessel and you'll be well looked after. There's a café and bar onboard, and an option to disembark at Walter Peak, a well-known dining spot. 
  • For all the adrenaline junkies, there are plenty of adventure sports to immerse yourself in, including bungy jumping, jet boat rides, skydiving & more. There are plenty of free mountain bike trails in the area, or if you're here in winter, plenty of mountains to ski or board down. 
  • This town has plenty of bars, restaurants and events, making it easy to find the perfect evening activity.
The TSS Earnslaw cruises across Lake Wakatipu with Remarkables in the background

TSS Earnslaw in Lake Whakatipu, Queenstown

Day 1 – Day 2: Te Anau

Drive time from Queenstown to Te Anau: 2.5 hrs (171km)

Te Anau is a township on Lake Te Anau and is the gateway to the Fiordland National Park. Te Anau is a great place to stop before heading into the 'eighth wonder of the world' - Piopiotahi Milford Sound which boasts abundant wildlife, waterfalls, steep mountains and beautiful waterways. If you plan to spend longer than 7 days travelling, we highly recommend travelling further down this road to Milford and Doubtful Sounds.

Things to do near Te Anau:

  • Drive another 2.5-3hrs to Milford Sound and experience one of New Zealand's most popular and internationally known destinations.
  • Go off the beaten track and explore Doubtful Sound. This is a lesser-known fiord, but three times bigger than Milford Sound. Drive a short 20 mins to Manapouri before hopping onto our catamaran and we'll take you the rest of the way.
  • Explore the natural side. Head to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary - it showcases some rare birds found within this region. Lakes and surrounding rivers are also packed full of trout! If you’re a keen fisherman and have a fishing licence, grab your rod and catch some dinner.

Day 2: Bluff

Drive time from Te Anau to Bluff: 2.25 hours (180km)

Bluff is known for producing world-famous oysters due to the cold and clean waters found in the Foveaux Strait. This town is the gateway to Stewart Island and is full of character.

Things to do in Bluff:

  • Visit Stirling Point, the most southern point in the South Island. This historic site is a great spot to grab a photo and take in the fresh southern air.
  • Visit the Bluff Maritime Museum to learn about the rich history and culture of the area.
  • The Bluff Hill (Motupohue) lookout has a fantastic viewing platform to overlook the township and see far down the coastline.

Day 2 – 3: Rakiura Stewart Island

Travel time from Bluff to Stewart Island: 1 hr via ferry 

Stewart Island is the third-largest and the true south island of New Zealand. It's located 30km south of Bluff across the Foveaux Strait, and you can access the island by a ferry, or a flight, where you’ll land in the quaint and relaxed township of Oban. 

Things to do on Stewart Island:

  • Experience rare and native wildlife at a natural wildlife sanctuary. Take a leisurely sea cruise through Paterson Inlet before disembarking on the shores of Ulva Island where you'll go on a guided walk with your nature guide, who will identify incredible native birds. 
  • Embark on a Wild Kiwi Encounter for your best chance at spotting tokoeka in nature! This is a one-of-a-kind sea cruise, followed by a guided walk at night through remote bush. Nature guides will take you to the secluded spots kiwi love. 
  • The Rakiura Museum is the perfect place to visit on a rainy day. This museum holds a large collection of artefacts and photos about the Island’s history, settlements and more.
Couple checking out the view over Oban on the deck at Stewart Island Lodge

Couple overlooking Stewart Island, New Zealand

Day 3- Day 4: Dunedin

Drive time from Bluff to Dunedin: 2.75 hrs (225km)

This city is full of life, being the home of the University of Otago, NZ’s oldest university, and a hotspot for young professionals and students. Its nightlife is condensed in the famous octagon, though there is no shortage of relaxing areas full of nature to explore. Dunedin has plenty of surf, beaches and marine life such as Yellow Eyed Penguins, Sea Lion and albatross.

Things to do in Dunedin:

  • Visit the Otago Peninsula to discover the Royal Albatross Centre and Wildlife Sanctuary, which offers an observatory, exhibits and guided tours.
  • Pilots Beach is nearby, where you’ll find a colony of Little Blue Penguins.
  • Orokonui Eco-sanctuary is 307 hectares surrounded by a predator-free fence for native wildlife to flourish.

Day 4: Wānaka

Drive time from Dunedin to Wānaka: 3.5 hrs (270km)

Wānaka is an outdoor adventure sports paradise. In the winter, there are two ski areas close by, Cardrona and Treble Cone, as well as numerous heli-ski services and guided alpine tours. Summer on the other hand is great for paddle boarding, swimming & other lake sports. Wānaka also doubles up as a great place to learn how to mountain bike, with numerous trails in the area. 

Things to do in Wānaka:

  • There is always an array of hikes and walking tracks for different abilities- Roy’s Peak for the perfect sunrise shot, while Mt Aspiring National Park is great for keen hikers wanting a longer duration or more challenging terrain.
  • Cardona Alpine Resort offers New Zealand’s only mountain carting experience- if you’re a thrill-seeker at heart, this is a must-do!
  • Head to Bike Glendhu for some really fun mountain bike trails, perfect for beginners to experts. Sticky Forest is a fun bike park for free, pedal-access trails, great for beginners to experts. 

Day 5: Aoraki Mount Cook

Drive time from Wānaka to Mt Cook Village: 2.5 hrs (210km)

Aoraki, the Māori name for Mount Cook, is New Zealand’s highest mountain, at approximately 3,724m tall. Aoraki is considered incredibly sacred to Māori iwi (tribe) Ngāi Tahu as it represents the most sacred ancestors, Aoraki who is the link between the spiritual and natural worlds.

Things to do in Aoraki Mount Cook:

  • The Hooker Valley Track is a great sunrise walk if you’re a morning person! You’ll hear the crashing of falling ice in the distance, as well as see the sun first hit Aoraki to reflect a mesmerising pink glow of the snow-capped mountain.
  • The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre showcases adventures from one of our greatest explorers of all time whilst showcasing this spectacular area. It also features a planetarium & 3D cinema.
  • Stay at the Hermitage Hotel and wake up with an incredible view of raw, inspiring nature. 

Day 5: Ōtautahi Christchurch

Drive time from Mount Cook Village to Christchurch: 4 hrs (330km)

Christchurch is known as the Garden City, which isn’t hard to understand why when you explore the impressive 21-hectare Botanical Gardens found in the heart of the city. This city has had extensive rebuilds in the past 10 years due to earthquakes. 

Things to do in Christchurch:

  • Stretch your legs on the way through with a visit to the International Antarctic Centre, which is an interactive museum great for both kids and adults.
  • Visit the Christchurch Botanical Gardens to experience an abundance of nature in the city.
  • Explore with your tastebuds and visit the Riverside Market, bursting with eateries, bars, farmers produce, and popups. 
Exterior of the International Antarctic Centre

International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch NZ

Day 6: Kaikoura

Drive time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 2.5 hrs (180km)

Travel north along the east coast to Kaikoura, a township known for plenty of marine life, including sperm whales which can be spotted from the Kaikoura coastline all year round. 

Things to do in Kaikoura:

  • Experience crayfish fresh from the sea! There are plenty of cray shacks along the seaside which offer crayfish ready to eat.
  • The Kaikoura Farmer’s Market is held every Sunday from 10am – 12am. Find fresh produce, artisan goods, home baking and more to enjoy here.
  • Visit the Point Kean Car Park, where you’ll find a colony of fur seals without embarking on a hike to find them.

Day 6- Day 7: Nelson

Drive time from Kaikoura to Nelson: 3.5 hrs (250km)

Nelson is known for sunny beaches, craft stores, art galleries, boutique shops and more. This area is a great place to stop to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of wine too- this region has a wide range of restaurants & many vineyards to visit.

Things to do in Nelson:

  • Visit the Founders Heritage Park- it’s a life-size village that replicates one of the early pioneers, including stores, machinery and more.
  • If you want to spend a longer time in sunny Nelson, the beachy Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, which will take an extra 3-5 days on top of your itinerary.
  • Golden Bay is known for its golden sand along the coastline, making it a great place to relax at the beach.

Day 7: West Coast

Drive time from Nelson to Hokitika (West Coast): 4 hrs (320km)

The west coast of the South Island is truly breathtaking for its rugged terrain, steep mountains, and amazing waterfalls. Haast Pass (State Highway 6), between Haast and Wanaka, has to be mentioned for its stunning scenery and more photo opportunities than your camera has space for.

Things to do on the West Coast:

  • The West Coast is known for quality whitebait- a small fish commonly enjoyed in a fritter around NZ. Find one of these classic Kiwi feasts in Hokitika.
  • Visit one of the South Island’s glaciers! Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glaciers are retreating glaciers that are found close to sea level, meaning they’re easy to access.
  • Make sure you stretch your legs at the Blue Pools, a short 30 min walk your camera will be impressed with.

Day 7/8 Return to Queenstown

Drive time from Hokitika  to Queenstown: 6.75 hrs (485km)

Take a drive back to Queenstown. You might want to stop in Franz Joseph to see the incredible glacier, Haast for some beautiful beaches, or Wānaka again for an extra dose of adventure. 

Don't forget - this road trip is full of recommendations, and we suggest readers pick and choose, and take the time they need when driving to have the most enjoyable experience. 

Where are you the most excited to visit? If you’re looking for more road trip inspiration, don’t forget to check out our list of unmissable experiences from RealNZ.

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