I love New Zealand. Full stop. And I don’t know why it took me so long until I finally travelled this awesome country! I only spend two and a half weeks road tripping though New Zealand’s south island, but experienced so much, seen so much, and have done so much, I still can’t believe it.
It won’t be an easy task to write down my best tips and recommendations for your next New Zealand south island road trip without repeating the words awesome, great, incredible, stunning, fantastic and impressive too much, but I’ll give it a try. Here are my best tips and recommendations for your next road trip to New Zealand’s south island!
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Off the Path’s ultimate guide to your next New Zealand south island road trip!
Where to start: Christchurch
A good idea is to start in Christchurch as this is where most international airlines fly to. Christchurch is pretty centrally located on the eastern side of the south island and you can easily start your road trip from here. Bear I mind that Christchurch was hit by a severe earth quake a few years ago which destroyed most of the inner city’s buildings.
You can still see and feel the impact of that massive earthquake as a lot of buildings are lying in ruins such as Christchurch’s famous cathedral or there are simply huge gaps. To be honest, I was really shocked by this as I didn’t expect Christchurch to be that destroyed. I had a chat with a few people from Christchurch and what I really love is that they are all very enthusiastic and optimistic about the city’s future!
Food and coffee in Christchurch
Though Christchurch seems to be almost dead at first sight, there’s still something going on and the city has started to live again. There are a few cool cafés, bars and restaurants and you just need to have a look and will surely find a nice place!
To make life a bit easier for you, here are my best recommendations of where to eat and have coffee in Christchurch if you are planning to stay there for a few days at the beginning or end of your trip, like we did:
This coffee place is located right in Christchurch’s city center and even though it seems like nothing is going on there as most buildings around it are destroyed, it is a really, really cool place! If the weather is good, people sit outside, soak up the sun and enjoy their coffees and food.
Inside you’ll find a lot of seating, yet it still feels very cozy and welcoming. The interior is quite hipster and if you look up you’ll see tubes running along the walls. And you’ll never guess what they are for: if you order fries they will come straight from the kitchen to your table travelling through these tubes. So cool!
The menu has a large selection of breakfast and pastries and the coffee is really delicious! They also provide free internet and we’ve stayed there the whole day as the atmosphere is so cool. A tall flat white costs 5,- NZD.
Pedro’s House of Lamb
If you come to New Zealand you’ll have to eat lamb! No excuse. A good place to get a really delicious shank of lamb is Pedro’s House of Lamb. Unfortunately, the restaurant was completely destroyed in the earthquake, but the owners managed to reopen a small food truck where they are now preparing the lamb for take away.
The lamb is super delicious, the meat very tender and the seasoning just perfect. A whole shank with potatoes and gravy costs 40,- NZD and is more than enough to fill two hungry people.
I think by now you kind of know how much I love burgers! And in every city we are I try to visit at least one burger place. In Christchurch this was Burgerfuel, a chain which I already knew from my short visit in Dubai last year.
The interior looks pretty old school and fancy, and they have a large choice of burgers. One of their signature burgers comes with mango and beetroot and you can also order milkshakes to your meal. The burgers are really yummy and so are the fries!
Accommodation in Christchurch
Despite the bad impact of the earthquake, Christchurch has a lot of accommodation to offer. There are especially a lot of motels in Christchurch, but the city is also home to a few really nice boutique hotels.
One of them is Hotel Montreal which we stayed in for two nights. The hotel has a good location close to the Hagley Park and about 10 minutes walking from the city center. The rooms are really spacious, come with a super comfy bed, a modern bath room, a cosy seating area as well as a small kitchen corner and dining table.
The whole interior design of the hotel has an Argentinian touch and uses elements of Polo. The hotel also has a really fancy bar, a gym and a nice seating area outside the bar. You can find more information about the Hotel Montreal at here!
The best car rental
One of the most important things when planning your road trip through New Zealand’s south island is choosing a good camper van. There are several car rental companies as well as car types to choose from and it always depends on what you wish to do, how comfy you like it to be and how much you are actually able to spend.
We got in contact with several car rentals and already knew what to consider when choosing a camper van as we spent six weeks road tripping in Australia before coming to New Zealand.
This time we wanted to have a little bit more comfort and more space and chose to rent a van from Britz Campervans (10% discountwith code “SEBASTIAN”). We’ve heard really great stuff about Britz, their cars and services before and can only recommend them!
We chose their Trailblazer camper van and were really happy with it. It has the perfect size, is not too big and definitely not too small, has a kitchen with two stove tops, a sink, a fridge and a microwave, and all the kitchen equipment you need to cook a proper meal! There’s also a shower and toilet and therefore the van is fully self contained and you are able to camp on one of the many campgrounds provided in the national parks.
The seating area in the back can be changed into a comfy and quite big bed with more than enough space for two people. In general there’s really a lot of storage space and the car even comes with an air-condition which can also be used for heating.
The best route for your road trip on New Zealand’s south island
New Zealand’s south island has so much to offer, see and do, that it’s quite difficult to decide where to go, where to stay and where to even spent a little longer. Our trip lastet for two and a half weeks and we’ve decided to skip the most southern part of the island and to do a tour through the inland, all the way to the west coast, then up north and all the way back to Christchurch on the island’s east coast.
This way we’ve seen quite a lot of the island’s diverse landscapes and had enough time to fully experience its stunning beauty! 100 % Pure New Zealand’s website has some great recommendations and road trip itineraries where you can get a good idea of what to do and see, and how much time you need to plan for the distances. Just check them out here!
First distance: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
We started our trip from Christchurch driving west towards Lake Tekapo on the scenic inland route. This route is about 280 km long and you should plan at least 4 hours for driving as you will definitely stop several times to enjoy the incredible views and take pictures! One stop to mention is the stunning Rakaia Gorge which leaves you speechless. Though this might be difficult to follow, always try not to get caught too much by the views because you are risking serious accidents and car crash – no kidding!
What to do in Lake Tekapo
Once you arrive in Lake Tekapo it is a good idea to just jump out of your car and visit the lake straight away. It’s a stunning scenery and especially great to see once the sun is setting. There are a few camping sites to stay over night and it’s a good idea to do so.
The next morning you can choose for one of the many walking tracks around Lake Tekapo, but I would recommend you to either walk or drive up Mt. John. From up there you will have incredible views on Lake Tekapo and its small city, nearby Lake Alexandrina and on the massive Mount Cook – just stunning!
Second distance: Lake Tekapo to Wanaka
From Lake Tekapo we’ve continued to Wanaka, passing Lake Pukaki and the Lindis Pass. Again, this route will leave you speechless and you will want to stop almost every other minute to take pictures! This route is about 220 km long and you should plan about 3 hours for it.
Just before entering the city Omarama, about half of the route, you have the opportunity to leave the highway, drive a bit land inwards and see the amazing Omarama Clay Cliffs. They are on private land and you need to drive through two separate gates which you need to open and close yourself.
What to do in Wanaka
We arrived in Wanaka in the late afternoons and stayed for three nights in total as there is so much to do and see! The town has a small yet very vibrant and cosy centre and is beautifully located just at Lake Wanaka, offering amazing views on the lake and the surrounding mountains.
You can take a stroll at the lakefront and visit the famous Wanaka Tree, take a short hike up to Mt. Iron and enjoy the breathtaking views on the town and its incredible surroundings, or go on several hiking trips around Lake Wanaka. Wanaka is also the starting point to explore near by Mt. Aspiring and the National Park.
Deep canyoning in Wanaka
Another thing I really recommend you to do is to go deep canyoning! I went on a trip with Deep Canyoning and and did the Leaping Burn Max, which was so much fun and so much adventure! We met early in the morning already and drove to a canyon near Wanaka and were back in the afternoons.
This is the perfekt trip for adventure seekers like me as it starts with a 10 meters jump into the waters, continues with a lot of climbing and up sailing up to 60 meters and ends with a 14 meters jump into a pool! So much fun and so much thrill! You should do it!
Tip: You can also also watch my video to get an idea of the trip. Though it is in German I am sure you’ll get a pretty good impression of how much fun it is!
Third distance: Wanaka to Queenstown
From Wanaka it’s about an hour drive to Queenstown and you should opt for the route where you’ll pass the Cardrona Valley and the beautiful Crown Range, which is New Zealand’s highest main road. At the end you will have an amazing view on Queenstown and the Remarkables.
There’s also another way to get from Wanaka to Queenstown passing Cromwell. This rout takes about 1.5 hours and is also quite beautiful to drive.
What to do in Queenstown
Queenstown is a truly beautiful city! I even believe that there is no other city that offers such great views no matter where you stand. The city is located at Lake Wakatipu and just in front of the incredible Remarkables. The city centre is really cosy and there are a lot of shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.
However, this city is also quite touristy and you’ll especially see a lot of Asians as well as shops targeting Asian customers. You’ll find all operators of activities and adventurous stuff in the city centre whereas most of them are located on Shotover Street.
Food and drinks
Joe’s Garage offers great coffee and a good breakfast and lunch menu. The place has a pretty laid-back atmosphere and can get very crowded in the mornings. The porridge tastes yummy and so does the burger for lunch!
Old Man Rock
This is a really cosy café with a warm and home-like atmosphere right in the city centre of Queenstown. It is just a tiny place, but offers a very comfy seating corner just in front of a real fire place! The muffins are super big and their hot chocolate is very good as well.
If you follow me and my travels a bit longer already, you know that I LOVE burgers and whenever I visit a new city I hunt for the best burger place around. And Queenstown can be very proud to have Fergburger as their burgers are amazing and super delicious!
They all come with a super yummy aioli and tomato relish, and also the fries are very good. Fergburger is very popular among both locals and tourists so at most of the times you’ll find a rather long queue in front of the small restaurant. Even if you have to wait, it is more than worth it and a visit to Queenstown is no actual visit if you haven’t been to Fergburger!
Flame Bar and Grill
Next to burgers I love steaks and spare ribs and there’s a damn good address for this in Queenstown as well: Flame Bar and Grill! This is not the cheapest place to go but the prices are absolutely fine for the quality of food and the side of dishes you get.
The stakes are really tasty, but even better are the spare ribs. The marinade of the ribs is super delicious and the meat is incredible tender. I even think that these ribs are the most delicious I have ever had!
Cherish Bed and Breakfast!
We’ve stayed at a really nice and cosy bed and breakfast place called Cherish Bed and Breakfast. Rose and her husband really make you feel at home and are super friendly hosts. When we arrived they greeted us with a glas of wine and told us what to do and see in Queenstown. The rooms and the living room offer amazing views on the Remarkebles and the lake.
The B&B is about 15 minutes walking from the city center and located in a quiet residential area. In the morning you will be offered with a hearty breakfast and there’s also free wifi. A really nice place to stay and relax in Queenstown!
Things to do in and around Queenstown
Queenstown is THE adventure capital of the world and there’s really plenty to do in and around Queenstown! It’s kind of unbelievable and makes Queenstown one of the best cities for me. And to safe you some time of searching and decision making of what to do, here are my favourite adventurous things to do in Queenstown:
Skydive with NZONE Skydive
WOW! Full stop. I seriously don’t know why I waited 26 years until doing this. Jumping out of a plane is the best experience I have made so far in my life. No kidding! When we jumped it was a perfect autumn day with no clouds at the sky and sunny 20 degrees. Since it snowed a few days earlier the mountains were covered in snow and I couldn’t wait to get to the NZONE Skydive drop zone!
I must admit that I was a bit scared but the minute we were in the plane and having this incredible view over Queenstown already I got all excited. And then we jumped! OMG, you can’t believe how amazing this is! If you do the 15.000 feet jump, and you should, then you have a free fall of 60 seconds over Queenstown and the Remarkables and another 5 minutes of paragliding. It’s just amazing! And afterwards you will walk around with a huge smile on your face, because you are so unbelievable happy!
Tip: Have a look at my video form the day we’ve jumped and you’ll see how much we’ve smiled!
Quad biking with Nomad Safaris!
Another really adventurous thing to do is to go on a quad bike tour with Nomad Safaris! They take you out to Queenstown Hill to a privately owned land. Before actually doing the quad tour they tests your skills to make sure you are safe. And then the fun begins!
The area is really fun to drive as you have muddy ways, puddles and even large rocky path to drive through. It can get quite speedy as well and you have to look out for the many sheep you’ll pass. Next to this incredible thrill driving a quad you will get some amazing views on this tour! They also stop for some coffee, tea and cookies on the way. This quad tour also is a must do when you are in Queenstown!
Take a trip to Glenorchy
If you like to explore Queenstown’s surroundings in a more relaxed way, you should take a trip to Glenorchy. The drive to Glenorchy is breathtaking as it goes all along the Lake Wakatipu. It takes about 45 minutes but you should plan a few stops to take pictures and enjoy the beautiful mountains. Once in Glenorchy make sure to head to the peer and have a look at the colour of the lake – it’s amazing! There are also plenty of walking trails lasting from a few hours up to several days.
Visit the Milford Sounds!
The Milford Sounds are actually fjords at the west coast of New Zealand’s south island. The nature and the scenery in the Milford Sounds is incredible and you should definitely take your time and explore this almost magical place! We drove all the way from Queenstown to Milford Sounds which takes about 4 hours.
However, I recommend you to take your time for this trip as there are so many great places to stop, take pictures, go hiking and even to camp legally in the wild. You might even want to take a few days for your trip to the Milford Sounds as there is plenty to see and do! The rain forrest is just magical, the mountains and waterfalls stunning and the colour of the rivers amazing.
Once you are in Milford you can take a cruise to discover this amazing part of the fjord lands. We did a tour with Southern Discoveries and had really fun times! You can also stop at their Discovery Center and do a kayak tour to be even closer to nature!
Fourth distance: Queenstown to Haast
On this tour you will pass the Crown Range and Wanaka again as well as the beautiful Haast Pass . Though it’s less than a 300 km drive you should really take your time as you will pass some stunning scenery again! We drove this in one go but you can also take a few days for this if you are into hiking and want to have all the time to fully explore everything. Approximately one hour after passing Wanaka you will find a sign for the Blue Pools. As the name suggests, these are amazingly blue-coloured pools and you should definitely stop here!
Shortly after Haast towards the direction to Jackson Bay you’ll pass the small village Hannahs Clearing where you can do a jet boat safari on the Waitoto river with Waiatoto River Safari. This is a really fun trip to do as you’ll speed up the river, walk through the rainforest and also learn a lot about this area and it’s incredible nature!
Fifth distance: Haast to Franz Josef
This again is a pretty epic drive along the south island’s west coast, offering fantastic views! The route is about 150 km but you should plan a bit more time for it as some parts are quite curvy and you need to drive carefully. We stayed for one night in Franz Joseph and visited the Franz Joseph Glacier the next morning.
From the parking place to the Glacier itself it takes about 30 minutes of walking. Alternatively, you can also take a helicopter which is the only way to really get on the glacier and hike it. If you are looking for a good place to have dinner in Franz Josef, make sure to visit the Monsoon Bar and Restaurant – they have a fireplace, the atmosphere is cosy and the lamb shanks fantastic!
Sixth distance: Franz Josef to Punakaiki
Just another pretty drive to go where you will pass beautiful valleys, mountains, the ocean and a view small tons. Make sure to stop in either Hokitika or Greymouth and go grocery shopping at one of the big supermarkets! The drive takes about 3 hours and once you are in Punakaiki there’s plenty to see!
Punakaiki is famous for its Pancake Rocks, which are quite funny looking stone formations right at the beach. You can also go for a short walk on the Truman Track which passes another amazing stone formation looking like a huge wave breaking just in front of you. Also a good idea is to walk the Pororari River Track which follows the Pororari River upstream and passes rainforests and great valleys.
Horse riding with Punakaiki Horse Treks!
If you are tired of walking and want to be a bit more adventurous I recommend you to explore the beautiful nature of Punakaiki on a horse back! Punakaiki Horse Treks offers amazing horse riding trips through the country side where you will go through rivers and feel even closer to nature.
The trip takes 3 hours and includes a relaxing stop at a quite romantic hut where you will get some coffee, tea and cookies while the horse are grazing freely around you. There’s also time for some more speedy distances in trot or canter and you will have heaps of fun! The trip finishes along the beach of the southern end of the Pancake Rocks – simply amazing!
The horses are very calm and easy to ride, the guides super friendly and the owners really take good care of the horses. The perfect experience to explore the surroundings of Punakaiki!
Seventh distance: Punakaiki to Nelson
This is one of the longest drives but again a very beautiful one! You’ll pass impressive mountains and beautiful valleys as you also enter the wine region. The route takes about 3.5 hours and you can easily do it in one go. Nelson is one of the oldest city in New Zealand and the gateway to both the stunning Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay, the Marlborough wine region and the Marlborough Sounds.
Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman National Park is approximately 70 km north-west of Nelson and known for its many beautiful beaches, blue waters, jungle like forrest and cute fur seals. The park is not accessible via car and you either have to walk or take a water taxi to get to one of the many beaches and accommodations. T
he boats leave from Motueka several times a day and you can choose between a few operators, all selling their tickets on spot. You should plan at least half a day to spend in the park, however, many people also choose to stay several days and overnight.
There are several drop off points and tracks you can walk and we chose to be dropped off at Torrent Bay and then walk all the way north to Medlands Bay. This walk lasts approximately two hours, offering great views and also passing a swing bridge. At the end you’ll arrive at a tiny but really pretty beach – the perfekt hike!
Golden Bay is famous for its stunning beaches and about 2 hours north-west of the Nelson, passing the Abel Tasman National Park. Major attractions include the endless Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach with its amazing rock formations.
You can access the areas by driving to Collingwood and going on a hiking adventure, or by using an operated bus tour taking you all the way from Nelson to Farewell Spit. Plan a whole day for visiting the Golden Bay area!
Eight distance: Nelson to Marlborough Sounds
This is a pretty curvy drive as well and the Marlborough Sounds are about 100 km east of Nelson. As the name suggests it consists of many sounds, islands and peninsulas and is perfekt for water sports, hiking and climbing. Cute fur seals are living in the sounds and if you’re lucky you can spot dolphins and even orcas!
The town Picton is located in Marlborough Sounds and this is where all the ferries to New Zealand’s northern island depart. So if you are planning to visit the north island, this is where you can catch the ferry to Wellington!
Sea kayaking with Sea Kayak Adventures
One thing I definitely remained you doing is a sea kayaking trip with Sea Kayak Adventures! This is a small, family-owned operator offering really great, personal kayak trips trough the Marlborough Sounds. We did a tour with one of the owners, Nat, and she was so much fun to go kayaking with. She makes you feel really safe in the kayaks and she knows really a lot about the area. I seldom experience such customised and friendly service, and I am still impressed by this great trip!
We started early in the mornings and met at their base in Anakiwa, and after a short introduction we went into the waters with our kayaks. The trip lasted about 4 hours and was pretty relaxed – e even met some really cute fur seals which were swimming just next to or kayaks!
Ninth distance: Marlborough Sounds to Kaikoura
The next route takes you all the way from Picton through the beautiful wine area of Marlborough to Kaikoura at the east coast of New Zealand’s south island. The distance is 160 km and it takes about two hours to drive. Only half an hour from Picton you will pass the city Blenheim, which has many cute cafés, restaurants, shops and a large supermarket as well.
After passing Blenheim you are driving towards the coastline and continue driving right next to it, offering great views. Kaikoura is a small city on the Kaikoura peninsula and having the Seaward Kaikoura mountains just behind it – a stunning scenery!
The sea in front of Kaikoura is pretty special as it is home to a huge underwater canyon, which is one of only a few world wide that is located so close to the mainland. Because of these circumstances Kaikoura is known for its great sea life with whales, dolphins and large sea birds being regularly spotted in Kaikoura around the year.
Swimming with dolphins
One thing you should definitely NOT miss is swimming with wild dolphins! Yes, you’ve read it correctly, you can go swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura! There is only one company offerings this exciting adventure, namely Encounter Kaikoura. Make sure to book your very own Dolphin Encounter with them, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!
We took a morning tour and left the peninsula on a small boat to go looking for dolphins. Once we’ve spotted a group of dusky dolphins we took on our snorkelling gear and jumped in the water. And then it was just pure happiness and fun! You have to make strange noises, go diving and all sorts of things to make the dolphins interested in you and they really are!
They are so curious and come to you, start swimming around you, beneath you and come really really close! It’s such an incredible experience, that I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s just one thing I can say: DO IT!
Watching great sperm whales!
Another great way to encounter sea life is to go on a whale watching trip. Because of its deep canyon just in front of the peninsula, Kaikoura is the place to spot whales anytime of the year. We went on a trip with Whale Watch Kaikoura and they have a 95% guarantee to spot whales.
And on our trip we even managed to spot three whales in total, three gigantic sperm whales! And the best was, two of them were swimming right next to each other which doesn’t happen very often! It was really great seeing these big animals and we’ve also learned a lot about whales and especially sperm whales on the trip. The stuff was great fun, too!
Tenth and last distance: Kaikoura to Christchurch
Unfortunately, every great trip has come to an end, and so does this great New Zealand trip on its south island. The very last distance takes you from Kaikoura to Christchurch, which is about 180 km long and takes about 2,5 hours of driving. You’ll pass some really pretty valleys on that drives and should also make sure to stop at some point for a visit to the beach.
Christchurch is probably where you will return your camper van, like we also said goodbye to ours and gave it back to Britz. If you don’t want to leave New Zealand yet, just take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland and visit the country’s north island!
Have you been to New Zealand’s south island as well? What are you favourite spots and activities no adventurer should miss? Share them in the comments below!
If you are planning a trip to New Zealand you should take our guide with you.
– 109 Pages full of information about New Zealand’s South and North Island
– Things to do for individual travellers
– Every penny we spent broken down into different categories
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– 6 different Route recommendations for the North and South Island
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