hiker looking at Mt Cook from lake with iceberg, New Zealand

Discover New Zealand by Car – South Island Road Trip

Striking mountain scenery, dramatic icy fjords, sacred Maori heartlands — you’ll find them all on New Zealand’s South Island. Also known by its native name, Te Waipounamu, this southern frontier is a jagged landscape of rocky extremities and plunging cerulean lakes. You could spend years exploring this thrilling natural playground. But if you’re short on a time, don’t worry. The very best of this beguiling region can be condensed into a well-planned South Island road trip.

tourist woman enjoy the scenery view of the national park

Photo| Woman enjoy the scenery view of the national park Milford Sound| GETTYIMAGES – ANUPONG SAKOOLCHAI

With 400 million annual visitors to HotelsCombined, we’ve found our users’ favorite destinations on this side of the Cook Strait and compiled them into the ultimate 10-day South Island road trip. From the top of a dizzying Lord of the Rings mountain climb to the bottom of a pint at one of the West Coast’s cozy seaside breweries, this itinerary works no matter how exhilarating or easygoing you want your Kiwi adventure to be.

For the most part, we’ll be focusing on highlights down the island’s north and west, which is where many of New Zealand’s most beautiful national parks are located. So if you’re visiting in winter (June to August), consider lingering for a little longer around destinations like Franz Josef and Wanaka to discover all that these bewitching winter wonderlands have to offer.

Getting In

Christchurch International Airport is South Island’s main hub, with direct flights available from Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong (S.A.R.), China, and Dubai. Flying into Christchurch means that you can spend a couple of days wildlife watching in coastal Kaikoura, which is en route to our first destination.

If you are strictly limiting yourself to a ten-day South Island road trip, we strongly recommend that you fly into Nelson Airport, which drops you off right where our itinerary begins. For international travelers, that will likely entail a layover in Auckland or Wellington, and trust us: that’s a good thing. Check out the links above for a few ideas on how to make the most of these sweet stopovers.

So you’ve made it to South Island — kia ora! Grab the keys to your rental from here (Christchurch) or here (Nelson) and join us on at our first destination:

1. Days One and Two: Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman bay landscape,

Photo| Abel Tasman bay landscape, Tasman and Golden bay| GETTYIMAGES – AGUSTAVOP

Backdrop of native foliage; Nikau Palms,

Photo| West Coast Backdrop of native foliage; Nikau Palms, Pungas and other native bush| GETTYIMAGES – LAZINGBEE

Cuddled by the balmy Tasman Bay, Nelson is South Island’s sunniest city and a perfect gateway to some top New Zealand scenery. Don’t run off too quickly though. Known for its creative energy and vibrant drinking and dining scenes, the “city” proper has plenty to discover. Get your bearings with a sunny cycle along the Maitai River, before checking out Nelson’s bustling weekend market. A real treat is the Moutere Hills Winery, which offers tours and a diverse selection of grapes.

Following the coast westward, the seafront is strung with tiny fishing villages and unspoiled beaches, like Kaiteriteri and Tahunanui. Beyond lies the stunning Abel Tasman National Park, whose diverse wildlife and forested littoral ridges make it must-visit on any South Island road trip. Arrive early enough to hike a stretch of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, which peaks out over some of the best views in New Zealand.

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • Takaka — An artsy, alternative community known for its art trail, national park access, and thriving hippy culture.
  • Te Waikoropupu Springs — The largest (and clearest) cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. The glassy water has a visibility of 75 meters, rendering it completely transparent.
  • Nelson Lakes National Park — Nelson’s gateway to the Southern Alpes. Head here for dramatic mountain views and a swim in the magnificent Lake Rotoroa.

Where to Stay in Nelson: The Sails Nelson

The Sails Nelson, hotel for south island road trip

Photo| The Sails Nelson| Provided by BOOKING.COM

A short walk from the town center and Nelson Marina, this water-adjacent hotel is an ideal base for exploring all that South Island’s sunshine center has to offer. The accommodation is nautical but not campy — a desaturated white, black, and blue palette and elegant sail-shaped partitions in between the private balconies. All rooms have ceiling-to-floor windows and feature king-size beds that (in most cases) can be converted into twins should you so desire. The Italian-marble bathrooms and rainforest showers are a nice little extra that makes a stay at The Sails that little bit more luxurious.

Star Rating: 5*
Price: USD 99 – USD 139
Guest Rating: 5*
Address: 7 Trafalgar Street, Nelson 7040, New Zealand

2. Days Three and Four: State Highway 6 and Greymouth

 State Highway 6, Haast,

Photo| Road at Dusk, State Highway 6, Haast, West Coast, South Island| GETTYIMAGES – RAIMUND LINKE

Coastline in Summer, State Highway 6, Barrytown, south island road trip destination

Photo| Coastline State Highway 6, Barrytown, West Coast, South Island| GETTYIMAGES – RAIMUND LINKE

State Highway 6 connects Nelson and Greymouth, wriggling its way around the Southern Alpes before meeting the west coast at Charleston. Hands down, this is one of the most spectacular drives you can do on a South Island road trip, hairpinning its way around mirror lakes and precipitous cliffs. If you want to break up the drive, Nelson Lakes National Park and blowhole-spouting Punakaiki are particularly gorgeous detours.

One of South Island’s real west coast treasures, Greymouth’s origins were in gold mining, a history you can learn all about in colorfully named Shantytown. There’s a fantastic heritage trail just outside of town as well as a nice spot for swimming: Rapahoe Beach. Conclude your day with a visit to Monteith’s Brewing Company, a 150-year-old point of pilgrimage for beer lovers across New Zealand. Stay for dinner, or a brewery tour — or just get cozy on their leather-upholstered smoking chairs with a pint in hand.

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • Left Bank Art Gallery — A locally-oriented space focusing on contemporary art. Housed in a beautiful neoclassical building that was formerly the Bank of New Zealand.
  • On Yer Bike! — An exhilarating offroad experience that throws you through native forest for hours of muddy fun.
  • Hokitika Gorge — Nature put its own filter over this striking turquoise creek which you can loop around on foot in about 30 to 40 minutes.

Where to Stay in Greymouth: Oak Lodge

Built-in 1902, this Victorian bed and breakfast offers personal hospitality within view of the snow-capped Southern Alpes. Oak Lodge is surrounded by 22 acres featuring landscaped native gardens, which you can tour every Friday afternoon. Unwind in the guest lounge with views of the villages and surrounding farmland, or visit the on-site spa and sauna for some well-earned you time. Contemporary design touches give the refurbished rooms a fresh look, and breakfast is included in the room rate. For a little extra privacy, request the self-catered Oak Tree Cottage, which includes a full kitchen and washing machine.

Star Rating: 4*
Price: USD 105 – USD 183
Guest Rating: 9.6
Address: 286 State Highway 6, Greymouth, New Zealand

3. Days Five and Six: Franz Josef Glacier and Lake Matheson

Franz Josef Glacier

Photo| Franz Josef Glacier | GETTYIMAGES – JILL FERRY

Travelers explore New Zealand's famous Franz Josef Glacier. Blue Ice, deep crevasses, caves and tunnels mark the ever changing ice. A man walks through a giant Ice crevasse, south island road trip destination

Photo| Travelers explore New Zealand’s famous Franz Josef Glacier| GETTYIMAGES – MATTHEW MICAH WRIGHT

A couple of hours further along State Highway 6, one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand comes into view. A deluge of blue-white water frozen in time as it crashes down from the central mountains and toward the Tasman Sea. The Franz Josef Glacier, also known as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, is one of the lowest reaching glaciers in the region, stopping just short of sea level. Its steep incline and low elevation mean that it is constantly changing, creating a dynamic landscape of otherworldly ice formations and striking blue crevices. Local groups like Franz Glacier Guides operate awesome alpine adventures up to the ice. Either on foot along the mighty Waiho River or airlifting thrillseeking mountaineers into the frozen scape by helicopter!

The next day, give your self some time to recharge post-adventure with a visit to the silent Lake Matheson. Formed by a retreating glacier, the lake holds the unusual distinction of being the stillest bodies of water in the area. As a result, it’s glassy surface reflects near-perfect images of Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, making it one of the most magical places in New Zealand.

Lake Matheson, South Island, New Zealand

Photo| Lake Matheson, South Island, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – SUSANWOODIMAGES

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • Lake Mapourika — kayak across the meltwater of Franz Josef Glacier, or fish for brown trout in its dark green depths.
  • Tartare Tunnels Walk — hike 3.2 kilometers through the decommissioned water tunnels that fed the Franz Josef mining settlement.
  • Fox Glacier — If you’ve more time to spare, don’t miss Franz Joseph’s impressive alpine neighbor, which is easily accessible as a detour.

Where to Stay in Franz Josef: Aspen Court Motel Franz Josef

Aspen Court Motel Franz Josef, hotel for south island road trip

Photo| Aspen Court Motel Franz Josef| Provided by BOOKING.COM

Located just downstream from the glacier and within walking distance of most tour operators, the Aspen Court Court Motel is perfect for anyone visiting the area on a tight schedule. The Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools, just across the road from the motel, is a great place to relax and recharge after a long hike on the ice. If you’re looking to simmer in a little more solitude, opt for Aspen’s Executive Spa Studio, which has its own spa bath. If that gets you feeling snoozy, you’ll be glad to know that the bedding at this hotel is pillowy perfection.

Star Rating: 4*
Price: USD 96 – USD 148
Guest Rating: 9.3
Address: 76 Cron Street, Franz Josef Glacier 7856, New Zealand

4. Days Seven and Eight: Wanaka

Wanaka Tree

Photo| Wanaka Tree & Star| GETTYIMAGES – TZU TAO LO

Man Standing On the Top of Mount Roy, south island road trip destination

Photo| Man standing on the top of Mount Roy| GETTYIMAGES – SELLWELL

Your South Island road trip has brought you to Wanaka, one of New Zealand’s great outdoor playgrounds. A popular gateway to the Mount Aspiring National Park, this tiny resort town has major draws for thrill-seekers. In winter, it’s the fresh powder in areas like Cardrona, Treble Cone, and Snow Farm. Not to mention some of the best heli-skiing in the Southern Hemisphere. In summer, it’s Mt Roy, Isthmus Peak, and other jaw-dropping hikes that extend out from the village. Adrenaline junkies shouldn’t miss Twin Falls, a 1,500-foot drop-off you can climb via a 2,500-rung iron ladder. If you prefer to have your feet a little closer to the ground, consider a horseback ride instead. The Cardrona offers some great itineraries.

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • Bistro Gentil — A seasonal French restaurant serving clever twists on local fare, like mezcal-cured Ōra King salmon.
  • Lake Hawea Esplanade Reserve — This serene shingle beach is a great spot for a swim or a picnic during the summer.
  • Minaret Burn Track — a twisting gravel track that follows Lake Wanaka’s western side. Best tackled on two wheels.

Where to Stay in Wanaka: The Moorings Hotel & Apartments

Recharge from the last leg of your South Island road trip to spectacular views of Lake Wanaka. The Moorings’ makes the most of its water-adjacent location by offering private balconies and garden terraces with most of its rooms and suites. If you’re traveling with a few buddies, consider the apartments, which can accommodate up to six people. The included kitchen and lounge areas are perfect for evenings in or a bottle of red by the log-burning fire. Moreover, if you fancy heading out, hotel is right around the corner from most of Wanaka’s drinking and dining.

Star Rating: 4*
Price: USD 165 – USD 247
Guest Rating: 9.2
Address: 17 Lakeside Road, Wanaka 9343, New Zealand

5. Days Nine and Ten: Te Anau and Fiordland National Park

Mitre Peak reflecting in the water, sunset, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, Te Anau, Southland Region, Southland, New Zealand

Photo| Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park| GETTYIMAGES – MORITZ WOLF

Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, south island road trip destination

Photo| Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, Southland, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – MATTEO COLOMBO

It’s fitting that Te Anau is the last stop on your South Island road trip because it feels like you’re reaching the ends of the earth. Beyond the lakeside town, the region’s great forested valleys give way to astounding fjords which bleed out into the Tasman Sea. Remote and wildly beautiful, Te Anau is a place to slow down for a couple of days. Discover the region’s fascinating wildlife, including fur seals, penguins, and ruddy-faced takahē birds. Descend into the Te Anau Caves, an enchanting world of natural fairy lights by colonies of bioluminescent glowworms.

Save a day before departure and venture out to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, in Fiordland. Long considered one of the best views in New Zealand, Maori legend holds that it was carved out of the island by demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa. We’re not sure if he was also behind the area’s remarkable black coral, but its evidence of the fjord’s enchanting uniqueness nonetheless.

Mitre Peak rising from the Milford Sound fiord

Photo| The Milford Sound fiord, Fiordland national park, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – PRIMEIMAGES

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • The Chasm Walk — A stunning forest trail that takes you thundering waterfalls and twisted rocky formations.
  • The Kepler Track — A 60-kilometer circular track that traverses mountains and takes you through quiet beach forests and past some stunning valley views.
  • Punanga Manu o Te Anau/Te Anau Bird Sanctuary — A fascinating local center where you can get better acquainted with feathery locals like takahē and kākā parrots.

Where to Stay in Te Anau: Fiordland Lodge

Fiordland Lodge, hotel for south island road trip

Photo| Fiordland Lodge| Provided by BOOKING.COM

With stunning views over Patience Bay, this fantastic eco-retreat is difficult to beat. For one, raw wood interiors and ceiling-to-floor windows in the guest rooms make for a simply goregous accommodation. For another, both breakfast and dinner are included in the nightly rates. The onsite kitchen does a sensational job of showcasing seasonal Te Anau fare. What’s more, its knowledgeable staff will be more than happy to provide a local wine pairing with your meal. Though the town center is just a short drive down Highway 94, there’s really not much need to leave the premises!

Star Rating: 5*
Price: USD 527 – USD 973
Guest Rating: 9.3
Address: 472 Te Anau-Milford Highway, Te Anau 9679, New Zealand

Getting Out

If ten days is all you can squeeze into your New Zealand road trip, hop behind the wheel one last time. Heading south, State Highway 94 will take you to Dunedin International Airport, which has direct flights to New Zealand and Australia.

That being said, if you can’t bear to move on just yet, why don’t you consider…

6. Days Eleven and Twelve: Queenstown and the Otago Valley

Lake alive QueenTown, south island road trip destination

Photo| Lake alive Queenstown, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – ANUPONG SAKOOLCHAI

Man on Roys Peak, Wanaka, New Zealand.

Photo| Man on Roys Peak, Wanaka, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – FRANCESCO VANINETTI PHOTO

The thing about vacations is they end — unless you just stay a little longer! Extend your South Island road trip by an extra couple of days and loop back up State Highway 94 to New Zealand’s capital of adventure. A former mining town, Queenstown offers bungee jumping, vertical climbs, and high-powered boat rides across Lake Wakatipu in a thing they call a shark boat. Already had enough thrills for this year? Wind down with a tour of nearby Otago Valley, whose spectacular wineries make a juicy conclusion to any New Zealand adventure. Finally, if this is your last stop, Queenstown Airport operates direct flights to North Island and Australia. In other words, you won’t have to worry about a long return drive to one of South Island’s other hubs.

Local South Island Points of Interest:

  • Gibbston Valley Winery — One of the closest vineyards to Queenstown, this high-altitude estate is famous for its Pinot Noirs.
  • Bob’s Peak — Rising up behind Queenstown, this gondola-accessible lookout has some of the best views in the area. A great choice if you don’t have the time to go hiking.
  • Skippers Canyon — A dramatic waterway accessible from the same road that brings you to Coronet Peak ski field. Popular for bungee jumping and cruises.

Where to Stay in Queenstown: Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa

Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa, hotle for south island road trip

Photo| Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa| Provided by ICE PORTAL

Queenstown has cultivated an image for itself as one of New Zealand’s premier luxury destinations. Therefore, there’s no small number of upscale hotels and resorts. One of our favorites is the Sofitel Queenstown Hotel & Spa, which provides boutiquey accommodation and plenty of Old World charm. As you’d expect with any hotel in this luxury portfolio, the beautifully appointed rooms are decorated in sophisticated neutral tones. Double spa baths are a nice little extra in the Junior Suite and Superior Room. However, if you really want to spoil yourself, request the Penthouse No 5, with its private terrace and open-air jacuzzi.

Star Rating: 5*
Price: USD 271 — USD 1,550
Guest Rating: 9.2
Address: 8 Duke Street, Queenstown 9300, New Zealand

Hotel Location

Where Will You Go On Your South Island Road Trip?

Hokitika Gorge

Photo| Hokitika Gorge, Kokatahi, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand| GETTYIMAGES – RAIMUND LINKE

New Zealand’s largest landmass exceeds even the most ambitious itineraries, with its abundance of stunning scenery and outdoor adventure. We had to leave out some real gems from our South Island road trip, from Westport to the dreamy Marlborough Sounds. Even further off the beaten path is the Stewart Island / Rakiura, which is 80% national park and offers remote natural beauty and truly unique wildlife. Then there are stunning central island secrets, like Hokitika Gorge, which are worth honorable mentions in their own right. Our list of honorable mentions could go on. Ultimately though, it’s you that has some very tough decision making ahead of you.

So where will you head on your South Island road trip? Let us know in the comments below!

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