The South Island in New Zealand is the ultimate place to travel if you’re looking for picturesque scenery. The South Island has it all, from the bluest of blue lakes to snow capped mountains, gorges, hiking, rivers, glaciers, and so much more. New Zealand is the perfect destination for adventure seekers and nature lovers.
If you only have 1 week to travel the New Zealand South Island I have the perfect road trip guide for you. This itinerary is based on flying in and out of Queenstown. If you are travelling in and out from Christchurch you’ll have to adjust your schedule accordingly. If you have more time to travel around the South Island, two weeks would be more ideal. At the end I’ll include some places to go if you have a bit of extra time.
DAY 1 – LAKE TEKAPO
The first day of your road trip you’ll fly into Queenstown, pick up your road trip vehicle of choice then head towards Lake Tekapo. If you’re hungry I suggest driving into Queenstown first for some lunch. There’s a famous burger place there called Fergburger. It’s know to have “the worlds best burger” so expect a long line. In my opinion, the burger was OK but not even close to the best one I’ve ever had. If you’re planning on cooking your own food in NZ I suggest stopping at the Countdown supermarket before heading out of town. Most of the other towns have smaller and more expensive supermarkets.
Drive to Lake Tekapo – approximately a 3 hour drive. Lake Tekapo is one of the bluest lakes I’ve ever seen, along with lake Pukaki which you’ll pass on the way there. If you are travelling there from mid November to mid December you’ll be there in the peak of Lupin season. These beautiful flower bloom only for about 1 month of the year and they surround Lake Tekapo making what already is a beautiful place even more picturesque.
DAY 2 – LAKE TEKAPO
Take a full day here to enjoy Lake Tekapo. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to so don’t move on too quickly. Relax and enjoy the scenery. While you’re there you can do activities such as hike up to the viewpoint, go for a swim in the lake, check out the Church of the Good Shepard, stargaze at the observatory, or simply relax and enjoy the view.
DAY 3 – MOUNT COOK
Drive to Mt Cook approximately 1h15 via Lake Pukaki & NZ Alpine Lavender Fields.
Mount Cook is a famous mountain range located in Aoraki National Park. Even from Mount Cook village you’ll get incredible views of the mountains. On the way there be sure to stop at Lake Pukaki, another incredible blue lake fed from glaciers and the NZ Alpine Lavender Fields which is the largest organic lavender field in the world (blooming from late December – early February).
During your time in Mount Cook there are a number of hikes to do. The most popular trail is the Hooker Valley track which takes approximately 3 hours round trip to complete. The Hooker Valley track is an easy trail, mostly flat, with picturesque views the entire way. Along the way you’ll come across 3 swing bridges and a boardwalk with beautiful mountain views. At the end of the trail you’ll find Hooker Lake which is a beautiful silver coloured glacier lake.
DAY 4 – WANAKA
Drive to Wanaka – approximately 2h30. Wanaka is a charming picturesque town on the edge of Lake Wanaka. I instantly fell in love with Wanaka’s charm and decided to extend my stay here. Here you’ll find a beautiful lake next to a small town with the main boardwalk filled with outdoor bars and restaurants. It’s a beautiful town to walk around and discover.
A fun thing to do in Wanaka at night is the Paradiso Movie Cinema. It’s an old classic cinema with comfy couches that you can watch the latest new releases.
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out my Great Ocean Road Complete Road Trip Guide.
DAY 5 – WANAKA
During your stay in Wanaka make sure you hike up to Roy’s Peak to get an incredible view of the lake. Be warned the hike is steep and long so it’s not for people with mobility issues or a low level of fitness. That being said you can get amazing views throughout the entire hike so you don’t need to go all the way up to the top. I had a limited amount of time so I hiked up for approximately 1 hour and got a great view from there. If you’re keen to go all the way to the top you can expect it to take approximately 5 hours return.
Also don’t miss out on visiting the Haast Blue Pools, approximately 1 hour drive from Wanaka. These picturesque blue pools are in a river fed from a glacier located underneath a swing bridge. The colour of these pools are a beautiful intense blue clear water. If you’re feeling adventurous people commonly jump off the swing bridge into the water – jump at your own risk.
DAY 6 – QUEENSTOWN
Drive to Queenstown – approximately 1h10 via Arrowtown. On your way to Queenstown stop into Arrowtown which was once a gold rush town and currently has the remaining old fashioned buildings. There’s an excellent candy shop there where you can taste their fudge which they make in house.
Queenstown is known as an adventure town. Many people sign up for adventure activities including bungee jumping, sky diving, boat rides, helicopter rides to glaciers, etc. If adventure activities are not your thing I suggest going wine tasting. There are a variety of wineries about 30 minutes Queenstown. My favourite winery was Peregrine Wines – make sure you taste the Rastaburn Reisling, it’s soooo good!
DAY 7 – QUEENSTOWN & MILFORD SOUND
No trip to New Zealand is complete without a trip to Milford Sound. Make a day of it and drive to Milford Sound (or take a tour) which is an 8 hour drive round trip. While you’re there hop on one of the boat cruises that take you through Milford Sound getting up close and personal to waterfalls and wildlife.
After you get back to Queenstown go relax in the famous Onsen Hot Pools. Be sure to book this at least a month in advance as it books up quickly. It’s a beautiful relaxing way to end the day while getting a beautiful river view.
IF YOU HAVE MORE TIME…
The South Island is filled with so many incredible locations it’s hard to narrow it down to a 1 week itinerary. If you have more time I suggest checking out some of the following locations.
DUNEDIN – Dunedin is a university city full with lots of students. It’s a fun city to spend a night or two. For a fun night out head to the Octagon which is a street area full of bars and clubs. Dunedin also has the steepest street in the world which makes for some fun photos.
FRANZ JOSEPH GLACIER – Franz Joseph is a spectacular world heritage area where you can get up close and personal with the glacier. You can also visit Fox glacier which is close to Franz Joseph. There are helicopter tours that take you up in the air above the glacier and landing right on top of it.
MOERAKI BOULDERS – The Moeraki Boulders located on the East Coast are a bunch of perfectly round boulder scattered along a beach. Mystery around them still remains as to how they got there and how they were formed.
HOKITIKA GORGE – The Hokitika Gorge has to be one of the worlds most picturesque gorges. It’s filled with the most stunning blue-green coloured water flowing below a swing bridge. This is definitely a place worth checking out if you have the extra time.
MARLBOROUGH WINE REGION – Home to some of the worlds most delicious Sauvignon Blanc wine, the Marlborough region is a must do for any wine lover. This famous wine region is located at the far north of New Zealand’s South Island. It can be pretty far out of the way from most tourist destinations. But if you are in the mood for some delicious wine I suggest spending a couple nights here.
I hope you found this guide to the South Island helpful. Enjoy New Zealand, it truly is a spectacular country to explore. If you have any questions leave them in the comments below or contact me directly @endlesslyactive.
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