7 Day South Island Road Trip Itinerary

Date: 28 February 2021

The South Island of New Zealand is one of the best places to take a road trip. Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island’s original Maori name, meaning the waters of greenstone) is known for stunning scenery, delicious food, and an abundance of things to do.

This itinerary is intended for you to choose what interests you most- if you’re attempting to stop at all attractions and areas on the road trip itinerary, an extra day or two is recommended. Roads in New Zealand are known for being windy, tight, and mentally demanding, which is why breaks to refresh between driving are a must. 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 Queenstown

Queenstown is a beautiful alpine township beside Lake Wakatipu and is known for its stunning vistas and adventure sports scene.

Things to do in Queenstown:

  • The TSS Earnslaw is the only hand-fired steamship in operation in the southern hemisphere, which can be found in Lake Wakatipu. Enjoy a leisurely and scenic cruise on this historic ship which runs tours daily. There is also a café and bar onboard.
  • For all the adrenaline junkies, there are plenty of adventure sports to immerse yourself in, including bungy jumping, jet boat rides, skydiving & more.
  • This town has plenty of nightlife for social butterflies, making it effortless to find the perfect bar for your mood.
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 hours (171km)

Te Anau is a township bordering on the Fiordland National Park. This town is known internationally as the eighth wonder of the world, and it’s not hard to see why when you see an abundance of wildlife, waterfalls, steep mountains and its beautiful lake. If you’re planning on spending longer than 7 days travelling, we highly recommend travelling further down this road towards Milford & Doubtful Sounds.

Things to do near Te Anau:

  • The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary showcases some rare birds found within this region from their natural habitat.
  • Lakes and surrounding rivers are packed full of trout! If you’re a keen fisherman and have a fishing licence, grab your rod and catch some dinner.
  • The Milford Track is a Great Walk of New Zealand which is a must-do for hiking enthusiasts. The full loop will require at least an extra 4 days added to your itinerary.

Day 2: Bluff

Drive time from Te Anau to Bluff: 2 hours (180km)

Bluff is known for producing world-famous oysters due to the cold and clean waters found in the Foveaux Strait where they are grown. 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: Stewart Island

Travel time from Bluff to Stewart Island: 1-hour ferry ride

Stewart Island is the third-largest island of New Zealand, based 30km south of Bluff over the Foveaux Strait. Access to the island is by a ferry ride, where you’ll find a peaceful and relaxed township.

Things to do in Stewart Island:

  • See the Ulva Island Wildlife Sanctuary through a leisurely cruise through Paterson Inlet. This cruise showcases hidden coves, unspoilt beaches, and wildlife such as fur seals and penguins.
  • Book a wild Kiwi encounter for a guided walk to the hidden spots of where our famous Kiwi lives. This nature guide is perfect for those who want a guided walk with something a little different!
  • The Rakiura Museum is the perfect place to visit on a rainy day. This museum holds a large collection of artefacts and photos about this 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 Ferry Transport to Dunedin: 2 hours 45 minutes (225km)

This city is full of life from both young professionals and students, as the University of Otago is NZ’s oldest university. Its nightlife is condensed in its famous octagon, however, there is no shortage of relaxing areas full of nature to explore. It has plenty of surf & beaches and is full of marine life such as Yellow Eyed Penguins, Sea Lion & Albatross.

Things to do in Dunedin:

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

Day 4: Wanaka

Drive time from Dunedin to Wanaka: 3 hours 20 minutes (270km)

Wanaka is an outdoor adventure sports paradise. In the winter, there are plenty of ski areas close, as well as numerous heli-ski services and guided alpine tours, while summer is great for paddle boarding, swimming & other lake sports.

Things to do in Wanaka:

  • 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!

Day 5: Aoraki Mt Cook

Drive time from Wanaka to Mt Cook Village: 2 hours 30 minutes (210km)

Aoraki, the Maori name for Mount Cook, is New Zealand’s highest mountain, at approximately 3,724 meters tall. Aoraki is considered incredibly sacred to Maori iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu as it represents the most sacred ancestors, Aoraki who is the link between the spiritual and natural worlds. The Mt Cook village is small and quiet, which feels polar opposite to the serene surrounding areas.

Things to do in Aoraki Mt 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.

Day 5: Christchurch

Drive time from Mt Cook Village to Christchurch: 4 hours (330km)

Christchurch is known as the Garden City, which isn’t hard to understand why when you visit 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 the 2011 earthquakes, which resulted in 185 deaths.

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.
Exterior of the International Antarctic Centre

International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch NZ

Day 6: Kaikoura

Drive time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 2 hours 30 minutes (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 hours 30 minutes (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’re wanting to spend a longer time in sunny Nelson, the Abel Tasman Coast 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 (Returning to Queenstown)

Drive time from Nelson to Hokitika (West Coast): 4 hours (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) must be mentioned for its stunning scenery between Haast and Wanaka. State Highway 6 routes from Hokitika to Wanaka with 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 & 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 short 30-minute walk and don’t forget your camera!

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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