by Ian Mackenzie
18 December 2017
Updated 27 August 2018
by Ian Mackenzie
18 December 2017
Road trips are good for the soul. Whether you’re taking a weekend afternoon exploring your local countryside or driving the length of The Americas, there’s nothing quite like getting behind the wheel of a car and enjoying the journey for what it is.
We’ve experienced some great drives across Europe, Western Australia and New Zealand’s North Island. But, for us, our six-week camper van road trip in New Zealand’s South Island was the benchmark-setting odyssey that all our future trips will surely be measured against. It was a journey of empty roads, sublime scenery and enough stunning day walks to shake off the inevitable driving fatigue.
Which got us wondering. Is there a better road trip anywhere else in the world?
But until we’ve driven the length of America’s Route 66, Argentina’s Ruta 40 or Chile’s Carretera Austral, we can’t honestly say with any certainty.
What we CAN say, however, is that you’ll find our New Zealand South Island itinerary very difficult to beat.
The itinerary assumes that you’ve crossed over from the North Island by ferry from Wellington to Picton and you’ll drop off your camper van rental at Christchurch Airport when you finish. Your other choices might be to fly into either Christchurch or Queenstown, in which case you can join the itinerary at the appropriate point.
So, let’s get to it…
New Zealand South Island itinerary route
Marlborough & The North Coast
By arriving in Picton, you’ll have immediately been submerged into a stunning world of hills, farmland, beaches and dazzling blue water. And the Marlborough Sounds that lie to the north are perfect for exploring by boat. But they’re also home to a network of twisting and winding roads that are a joy to drive on – whether that’s on two or four wheels.
From Picton, head northwards on Queen Charlotte Drive before turning right towards Pelorus Sound. Eventually, you’ll arrive at Titirangi Farm and its gorgeous beachside campsite. The rocks either side of the beach are home to countless green-lipped mussels, which naturally triggered the hunter-gather instincts in both of us. Take a hike up into the hills above the campsite, too for majestic views over Titirangi Bay.
Next day, you can hike to the summit of Mount Stokes for panoramic views across the Marlborough Sounds, before retracing your route back to Queen Charlotte Drive. Another right turn will take you towards French Pass. But, before you arrive there, make sure you stop off at Elaine Bay and walk at least part of the wonderful Archer’s Track.
From there it’s an incredibly photogenic drive down to French Pass – which, like Titirangi Farm, is pretty much at the end of the road. Its Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite is again right on the beach. And while we were there we saw bronze whaler sharks and stingrays literally metres from the shore, together with a large pod of dolphins crossing the bay.
Don’t miss a half-day walk across private farmland which you can do by asking permission from the farmer (details from the camp ranger).
You could easily spend a week or more exploring The Sounds, either on or off the water. But it’s now time to continue north to Totaranui in Abel Tasman National Park. There’s no need to rush the drive as the scenery is never less than beautiful. But do make a point of taking a slight detour to The Smokehouse at Mapua Wharf, near Nelson, for a brilliant fish and chips lunch. Wrapped in newspaper, as it should be.
The condition of the road down to Totaranui Campground is undoubtedly the worst you’ll experience on the whole trip. But once you get there, make sure you spend some time on the glorious golden beach.
Backpackers come here to complete the five-day Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. But you can get a really good feel for the area’s beauty by completing the half-day walk from the campsite, through rainforest, over headlands and across deserted beaches to Mutton Cove.
We can also highly recommend renting a kayak from Golden Bay Kayaks at nearby Tata Beach and spending a few hours exploring the coastline as far as Taupo Point and its stunner of a beach.
Then, it’s on to the wild and windy northernmost tip of the South Island. Farewell Spit is a 25km finger of sand that stretches out into the ocean and can be visited on a pricey 4WD tour. But you can also do a 4-5 km loop walk, which will literally blow you away. The wind here is almost permanently gale force and it’s quite a task to walk against it. But it’s an experience like no other and you shouldn’t miss it.
Likewise, nearby Wharariki Beach has its fair share of wind. So much in fact that you need to negotiate large, constantly shifting sand dunes as you approach it by foot. The standout features, though, are the extraordinary rock structures just off-shore, which can be explored at low tide.
There’s also a fantastic walk we’d recommend from Wharariki Beach and up over the cliffs, via Cape Farewell, to Pillar Point Lighthouse. It can be quite strenuous at times and you do venture close to windswept cliff edges. But it’s so worth it.
Read more in our post, Three New Zealand Walks You Won’t Want To Miss.
Retracing your route back towards Nelson, you’ll then turn inland at Motueka to St Arnaud at Lake Rotoiti. The Kerr Bay Campsite has a gorgeous setting next to the lake. But it’s also perfectly placed for a half-day hike up and around the Mount Robert Circuit before you settle down during the evening to gaze above at the brilliant Milky Way from the lake’s wooden jetty.
The East Coast and Mount Cook
Your route now continues towards the east coast, following State Highway 63 through the Wairau Valley and past Blenheim. This is New Zealand’s premier wine-producing region and you might just want to stop off at one or two of the area’s many wineries for a spot of wine tasting or to buy a few bottles for the journey ahead.
Joining State Highway 1, you’ll now head south to New Zealand’s whale-watching capital, Kaikoura for an overnight stop. So if you’d like to get up close to these magnificent mammals you’ll need to pre-book your tour.
Alternatively, there’s a lovely coastal walk along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.
After another 200+ kilometre drive along the coast, you’ll skirt around Christchurch and into the Banks Peninsula – a circular piece of land created around two collapsed volcanoes. The best approach is to take the scenic Summit Road before arriving in Akaroa, a distinctively Gallic coastal town with a unique blend of French and Maori cultures.
Stay overnight at the Little River Campground outside of town as you’ll be getting ready for an early start the following morning.
Vines in the Wairau Valley
Day 11 involves a lot of driving, but trust me, it’s well worth getting up early and heading for the relatively unknown Mount Sunday.
After leaving the Banks Peninsula head back towards Christchurch and then turn inland along SH73 (signposted Arthur’s Pass), before turning left on SH77 and left again on SH72 to Mount Somers, Once there take a right (signposted Mount Hutt) for a glorious 47km to the Mount Sunday car park.
This spectacular area served as the dramatic backdrop for the city of Edoras in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. It’s an easy walk and absolutely should not be missed. Read more in our post Exploring Mount Sunday – home of the Rohan.
Having retraced your steps back to SH72, continue south through Geraldine on SH79 and then join SH8 at Fairlie. From there you’ll eventually arrive at beautiful Lake Tekapo.
The campsite at nearby Lake McGregor is a good place to base yourself. From there you can take a walk alongside Lake Tekapo on the Peninsula Walkway, drive up to the summit of Mount John (which is actually more like a hill) for incredible panoramic views, and visit the famous Church Of The Good Shepherd.
Amazingly, the walks and the scenery get even better when you continue on from Tekapo to Mount Cook National Park.
The White Horse Hill Campground is the place to head for. But get there early afternoon at the latest to secure the best pitches with views of snow-capped mountains.
There are stunning walks galore here but the one you shouldn’t miss is the Hooker Valley Track – an easy two-hour walk to a glacier lake in the foothills of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook. It will leave you speechless. And, if you go prepared with a supply of gin and tonic you can treat yourself to a celebratory drink chilled with your very own piece of iceberg. Just saying.
You might also want to try the Tasman Glacier View track (a 20-minute hike from the car park) and the more challenging Sealy Tarns.
Be aware that it rains here a lot so keep everything crossed that the weather gods are looking down kindly on you during your two-night stay. But if the weather is really bad you’ve still got the excellent Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre to visit.
After the relative crowds of Mount Cook, you might just find yourself all alone with nature at your next stop.
Returning to SH8, the road continues south through Twizel, after which there’s a right turn signposted for Lake Ohau Alpine Village. Just follow the spectacular road along the side of the lake as it turns into gravel and passes Lake Ohau Lodge, before arriving at Round Bush Reserve (DOC).
The setting is wild, raw and absolutely demands that you pitch a couple of seats on the pebbly beach and uncork a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc while you watch the sunset reflect off the Southern Alps.
Round Bush Reserve, Lake Ohau
Otago & Fiordland
After your exertions in the mountains, it’s now time to return to the east coast. After returning to SH8, take a left at Omarama on the NH83 to Oamaru. Stop off at this historic town and visit the quirky (yet brilliant) Steampunk HQ, a veritable treasure trove of sculptures, steam-driven machines and visual curiosities that are something of a cross between HG Wells and Mad Max.
Then it’s a long drive south along SH1 until you reach The Catlins and another fabulous DOC campsite at Purakaunui Bay. Take a tip from us, though and drive past all the pitches beside the beach, head up the hill and pitch your camper van overlooking the cliffs. Another moment to break into your supply of Sauvignon Blanc.
The following day you can take easy walks to see Purakaunui Falls, McLean’s Falls and Nugget Point, with its lighthouse, seal colonies and off-shore island “nuggets”.
Spend the following night at nearby Curio Bay Camping Ground, where you can spot pods of Hector’s Dolphins frolicking in the surf.
A pitch with a view – Purakaunui Bay campsite
From the southernmost point in the country, you’ll now be heading over to the rain-soaked west coast and perhaps New Zealand’s most iconic tourist attraction, Milford Sound in Fiordland.
Follow the Southern Scenic Route all the way to Te Anau, where you can book your cruise along the Sound (we suggest one in the early morning – around 9 am). Pitch up overnight on one of the several basic DOC campsites beside the glorious Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway – Mackay Creek Campground would be a great choice. You’re then in a prime location to get up early the next morning and enjoy the drive to Milford Sound before the heavier traffic and tour buses arrive. And it’s a truly spectacular drive.
We managed to time our visit for clear blue skies. But we’ve heard others say that bad weather brings with it a whole new and memorable experience. Which is just as well as it’s one of the wettest places in the world.
Make sure you allow some time after your cruise to explore the footpath around the banks of the Sound, too.
Elsewhere, there are sensational walks to be discovered, such as the Nature Trail beside Homer Tunnel, the Gertrude Valley Track and the Key Summit Track.
If you can manage to drag yourself away from this sublime landscape, you’ll need to head back to Te Anau and then on to New Zealand’s self-styled number one visitor destination, Queenstown. If you’re an adrenaline junkie with plenty of money to burn this is a wet dream come true. But if you can resist the thrill of bungee-jumping, skydiving or zip-lining your days away there’s still plenty to see and do.
And you can take a drive up The Remarkables Road into the mountain range of the same name. Then, from the ski lift car park you can hike up to the Shadow Basin Lookout, with views over Queenstown and across to the Southern Alps.
A drive to the nearby ex-mining town of Arrowtown is also a worthwhile diversion.
Next, head over the Crown Range Road to the South Island’s other adventure hub, Wanaka. But before you get there, make sure you stop off in historic Cardrona for some lunch or just a drink at The Cardrona Hotel.
From Wanaka, there’s a great day hike to 1000-foot waterfalls at Rob Roy Glacier and some easier walks around the lake. Find some time, too to watch a movie at tiny Cinema Paradiso, with its comfy sofas, craft beer, home-made ice cream and muffins.
And, if you’ve put aside some cash for one splurge on this trip, we can highly recommend the light aircraft flight from Wanaka over the Southern Alps to Milford Sound. I know, you’ve already done the cruise so why do it all over again? Trust me, there isn’t a better way to experience it. For more on this, read our post The Day We Flew Into Milford Sound.
The West Coast
From Wanaka, you’ll now be heading over to the weather-battered west coast via the Haast Pass. As you travel north along the coast road you’ll arrive in Glacier country – and specifically Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. In years gone by these have been big-ticket attractions for New Zealand tourists, but the glaciers have been retreating at such an alarming rate over the past few years that we’d say Fox Glacier is not even worth the effort anymore (unless you want to see where the glacier USED to be).
Instead, if the weather happens to be clear, take a diversion at Fox to Lake Mathieson with its beautiful reflections and views of the mountains. Then head on to Franz Josef Glacier, where the walk to the glacier head is worth the effort alone. But don’t be surprised to find that the glacial ice has retreated even further by the time you get there.
Nicky proudly displays a bite-size iceberg from the glacial river, with Franz Josef Glacier in the background
You should still have time to continue north and stay overnight at Hokitika (try the Shining Star Holiday Park). Next day, head straight for Hokitika Gorge before continuing north to your next overnight stop at the excellent Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground in Mokihinui.
But, on the way, you must try and time your visits to the following two places to coincide with the changes in the tide. First of all, the beach walk at Motukiekie is a beauty (at low tide) and, secondly, the world-famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (at high tide) are a thrilling mix of weird rock formations and crazy blowholes. Lots more information in our West Coast post.
And, if the tides aren’t in your favour you can always re-schedule them for the following morning, before taking a trip to the hilltop ex-mining village at Denniston. Then finish off the day by taking a walk along a disused train line on the Charming Creek Walkway.
Continuing further north you’ll enter a part of New Zealand that’s largely ignored by mainstream tourism. But Kahurangi National Park is a land of amazingly wild beaches, virgin rainforest and peculiarly brown and red tinted rivers.
On your way to the DOC campsite at Kohaihai, take a detour to the Oparara Basin and enjoy the easy walks to Oparara Arch, Moria Gate Arch and Mirror Tarn.
And at Kohaihai you’ll be based at the entrance to the Heaphy Track, another of the country’s Great Walks. But rather than do the whole five-day trek you can take a day hike along the initial coastal route as far as stunning Scott’s Beach. But don’t expect to do much in the way of sunbathing as the sandflies are a nightmare!
Our beachside pitch at Kohaihai
And then – finally – you’ll need a good night’s rest on your second overnight at Kohaihai as your final day of the road trip back to Christchurch Airport via Arthur’s Pass is a long one (442 kilometres / 275 miles). But, as you might expect, the scenery is never less than spectacular.
At which point, you’ll undoubtedly be gutted that it’s all over. But you’ll be able to reflect on 28 days, 3,800 kilometres (2,360 miles) and a whole host of memorable sights and experiences. As I said at the outset it is, in our eyes, the ultimate road trip. And yet we still feel like there’s so much more to see and do in this beautiful country.
If you’re planning on visiting New Zealand and have 28 days or more to spare then look no further. But if you’ve less time and need some help in putting your itinerary together, please feel free to contact us.
And if you’ve never thought of visiting New Zealand before, well what are you waiting for?!
The New Zealand South Island itinerary
Ferry from WELLINGTON to PICTON Drive to TITIRANGI (84 km / 52 miles) Do Explore the coastline and collect green-lipped mussels for dinner Accommodation Titirangi Farm Campground (recommended)
Drive from TITIRANGI TO FRENCH PASS (160 km / 99 miles) Do Stop off en route and hike to the summit of Mount Stokes and/or visit Elaine Bay to walk Archer’s Track Accommodation French Pass Campsite (recommended)
Do Spend a morning/afternoon on a walk over private farmland and secluded shingle beaches Accommodation French Pass Campsite
Drive from FRENCH PASS to TOTARANUI (233 km / 145 miles) Do Detour en route to The Smokehouse at Mapua Wharf (near Nelson) for a fish and chips lunch Accommodation Totaranui Campground
Do Trek from Totaranui to Mutton Cove (am); kayak along the coast with Golden Bay Kayaks at Tata Beach (pm) Accommodation Totaranui Campground
Drive from TOTARANUI to WHARARIKI (84 km / 52 miles) Do Stop for lunch at The Mussel Inn, Onekaka; visit Farewell Spit and walk the 4-5km loop track Accommodation Wharariki Beach Holiday Park
Do Complete the Wharariki Beach to Pillar Point Walk (am) – you’ll need transport back Drive from WHARARIKI to LAKE ROTOITI (209 km / 130 miles) Accommodation Kerr Bay Campground, St Arnaud (recommended)
Do Complete the Mount Robert Circuit Track Accommodation Kerr Bay Campground, St Arnaud
Drive from LAKE ROTOITI to KAIKOURA (233 km / 145 miles) Do Stop off and taste/buy some wine from one of the many wineries in the stunning Wairau Valley and around Blenheim; walk the Kaikoura Peninsular Walkway in Kaikoura or book for a whale watching tour Accommodation Peketa Beach Holiday Park
Drive from KAIKOURA to AKAROA (264 km / 164 miles) Do Drive the Summit Road scenic loop around the peninsula; explore Akaroa Accommodation Little River Campground
Drive (early am) from AKAROA to LAKE McGREGOR (338 km / 210 miles) Do Detour to MOUNT SUNDAY (92 km / 57 miles) and walk from the car park to the summit; stargaze at the Mount John Observatory, near Tekapo (if pre-booked) Accommodation Lake McGregor Campground (recommended)
Do Drive up to the summit of Mount John; complete the Peninsula Walkway beside Lake Tekapo; visit the Church Of The Good Shepherd at Tekapo Drive from TEKAPO to AORAKI/MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK (112 km / 70 miles) Accommodation White Horse Hill Campground (recommended)
Do Walk the Hooker Valley Track (early am to avoid the crowds) and the Tasman Glacier View track; walk the more challenging Sealy Tarns Track in the afternoon if you have the energy (if not, reserve it for the following morning) Accommodation White Horse Hill Campground
Do Visit the Edmund Hilary Alpine Centre Drive from MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK to LAKE OHAU (103 km / 64 miles) Accommodation Round Bush Campsite (recommended)
Drive from LAKE OHAU to PURAKAUNUI, via Oamaru (391 km / 243 miles) Do Visit the Steampunk HQ Museum at Oamaru; view the Moeraki Boulders (if low-tide timings permit) Accommodation Purakaunui Bay Campground (recommended)
Drive from PURAKAUNUI to CURIO BAY (53 km / 33 miles + detours en route) Do Visit Purakaunui Falls, McLean’s Falls and Nugget Point; look for Hector’s Dolphins in Curio Bay Accommodation Curio Bay Camping Ground
Drive the Southern Scenic Route from CURIO BAY to TE ANAU (238 km / 148 miles) Do Book your Milford Sound and/or Doubtful Sound cruise(s) Accommodation Mackay Creek Campground on the Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway (recommended)
Do Take a cruise on Milford Sound (am); walk around the edges of Milford Sound; walk the Nature Trail near Homer Tunnel; walk the Gertrude Valley Track Accommodation Mackay Creek Campground (or any of the other DOC campgrounds on the Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway)
Do Walk the Key Summit Track Drive from TE ANAU to QUEENSTOWN (171 km / 106 miles) Do Detour to Arrowtown en route and/or walk the circular trail around Moke Lake; evening in Queenstown Accommodation Moke Lake Campground (recommended)
Do Jet boat ride on the Shotover River or Skipper Canyon; drive along The Remarkables Road to the ski lift car park and walk to Shadow Basin Lookout Accommodation Moke Lake Campground
Drive from MOKE LAKE to WANAKA, via the Crown Range Road (81 km / 50 miles) Do Stop for lunch at the Cardrona Hotel; walk to the summit of Iron Mountain Accommodation Albert Town Campground
Drive to Rob Roy Glacier Track Car Park, MOUNT ASPIRING NATIONAL PARK (52 km / 32 miles) Do Walk the Rob Roy Glacier Track Drive back to Wanaka Do Walk along Lake Wanaka to Rippon Vineyard; watch a film at the Cinema Paradiso Accommodation Albert Town Campground
Drive from WANAKA to FOX GLACIER via the HAAST PASS (262 km / 163 miles) Do Walk the trail to view Fox Glacier or walk around Lake Mathieson Drive from FOX to FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER (24 km / 15 miles) Do Walk the trail to view Franz Josef Glacier Drive from FRANZ JOSEF to HOKITIKA (134 km / 83 miles) Accommodation Shining Star Holiday Park
Drive from HOKITIKA to MOKIHINUI (182 km / 113 miles) Do Visit Hokitika Gorge; walk along the beach at Motukiekie (low tide); visit the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (high tide) Accommodation Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground (recommended)
Do (Pancake Rocks or Motukiekie Beach if the timings of the tides weren’t kind yesterday); visit Denniston; walk the Charming Creek Walkway Accommodation Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground
Drive from MOKIHINUI to KOHAIHAI (71 km / 44 miles) Do Visit the Oparara Basin, including Oparara Arch, Moria Gate Arch and Mirror Tarn Accommodation Kohaihai Campground
Do Walk the coastal section of the Heaphy Track as far as Scott’s Beach Accommodation Kohaihai Campground
Drive from KOHAIHAI to CHRISTCHURCH AIRPORT via ARTHUR’S PASS (442 km / 275 miles) Do Visit the waterfall at Arthur’s Pass
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – 1. The Essentials
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – 2. Marlborough & The North Coast
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – 3. The East Coast & Mount Cook
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – 4. Otago & Fiordland
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – 5. The West Coast
…or visit our New Zealand page.
What did you think? Have you been on a New Zealand road trip? Do you have any recommendations to add to our itinerary? Or perhaps you have a personal favourite of your own you’d like to share? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
SOME USEFUL LINKS
Our go-to guide for New Zealand’s best walks – superb!
Essential information on New Zealand’s Great Outdoors
Official tourist information and essential visitor centres on the road
Extremely helpful app for choosing and locating campsites
PIN IT FOR LATER
THANKS FOR READING!
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.
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