Discover the Magic of New Zealand’s South Island: A 12-Day Self-Driving Journey.

Driving New Zealand South Island

Words: Rhonda Bannister.

For those who prefer to travel at their own pace, this 12-day self-drive itinerary offers the perfect opportunity to explore New Zealand’s South Island’s stunning landscapes and unique experiences. From stunning mountain ranges to picturesque coastlines, this itinerary offers a glimpse into the diverse beauty of Te Waipounamu, the official name for the South Island, ensuring you are met with breathtaking scenery and unforgettable experiences.

Kaikoura New Zealand at sunset
Kaikoura – courtesy Miles Holden

From the adventure capital of Queenstown to the majestic and rejuvenated streets of Christchurch, the charming Alpine village of Hanmer Springs to the whale-watching capital of Kaikoura, the vineyards of Marlborough to the tranquil sounds of Queen Charlotte and the artistic vibe of Nelson. Each day brings a new adventure and a chance to immerse yourself in the natural beauty and cultural richness of this captivating region.

You could easily fill three weeks or more driving around this magnificent island – there are so many places we didn’t get to, especially in the south of the island and on the magnificently rugged West Coast. You will love this driving itinerary so much you will be planning a return trip to cover the missed areas even before you catch your plane home!

Get ready to fall in love all over again as you explore the beauty of New Zealand’s South Island.

12-day Itinerary Overview

  • Day 1 to 4 Queenstown and Milford Sound
  • Day 5 Drive to Christchurch
  • Day 6 & 7 Christchurch & Akaroa
  • Day 8 Hanmer Springs Alpine Village
  • Day 9 Marlborough Wine Region & Blenheim
  • Day 10 Picton & Marlborough Sounds
  • Day 11 Nelson & Abel Tasman
  • Day 12: Back to Christchurch, Queenstown or Wellington

Day one: Arrive in Queenstown – New Zealand’s Adrenaline Capital

Queenstown-New-Zealand
Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown

Flying into Queenstown is an excellent start to your South Island vacation, as the view of snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear lakes through the window is stunning and will set the scene for your onward journey!

After hiring a car, make sure you can drop off at another location and spend the day discovering the beautiful surroundings of Queenstown with a drive to Glenorchy, rated one of the top ten scenic drives in the world.

It takes a lot of work to concentrate on the road, given the breathtaking views of Lake Wakatipu and the mountain landscape that will mesmerise you with its beauty. The best photo stop along the way is Bennetts Bluff Lookout, about halfway, and the best short walk is the Loop Walk in Glenorchy, which also offers incredible views.

Fans of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy will recognise quite a few locations from the film in this area. Still, the best way to immerse in Middle-Earth is to organise a tour with a local company that will take you to many of the film’s breathtaking scenes – a must-do!

Related article: An off-beat tour of NZ’s South Island

Day two: Explore Queenstown

Queenstown offers some incredible, adrenaline-pumping activities for thrill-seekers. This morning, choose between bungee jumping off Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge or jet-boating on the Shotover River – or make time for both blood-curdling activities. The Shotover Jet, with its thrilling, gravity-defying stunts and 360-degree spins through the wall-to-wall canyons, is a stomach-churning journey you will love!

When you’ve recovered your equilibrium, make your way into town to join the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw for a sedate cruise down Lake Wakatipu, stopping for a barbecue lunch at Walter Peak High Country Farm. I promise you will never tire of the lake and mountain views!

Botswana Butchery
Botswana Butchery

Start your night with pre-dinner drinks at one of Queenstown’s fab Ice Bars before tucking into gastronomic delights at one of the town’s best restaurants, such as The Bunker for great food and a rooftop terrace for star gazing, Botswana Butchery to enjoy a fun atmosphere with your perfectly cooked steak, Nest Bar & Kitchen for the fabulous views and Madame Woos for divine modern Asian – the choices are endless.

Day three: Discover the Beauty of Milford Sound.

Milford Sound New Zealand
Milford Sound

Milford Sound is located in a very remote area of the island with only one road leading into the awe-inspiring fiord, so if driving, start your day early for the 290 km drive. Alternatively, book a Milford Sound sightseeing tour from Queenstown. Several local tour operators with experienced guides offer informative and entertaining commentary and best of all, they know the finest places to stop along the way! The tours arrive in Milford Sound in time for the scheduled scenic cruises, with many companies offering lunch as part of their tour.

Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters
Courtesy Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters

The ultimate vacation experience is flying from Queenstown in a helicopter or light plane. We chose a light aircraft to Milford Sound and back to Queenstown after enjoying a magical cruise through the deep fjord, surrounded by towering cliffs and dramatic peaks, spotting dolphins, seals and penguins on the shore.

The flight was incredible as the pilot took us down into valleys of dense rainforest and cascading waterfalls, where we had a bird’s eye view of the magnificent landscape. We highly recommend this if your budget allows.

Day four: Strike gold in Arrowtown

Arrowtown-New-Zealand
Arrowtown

Twenty kilometres east of Queenstown is the quaint Gold Rush Village of Arrowtown. The settlement grew as gold was found, and pioneers constructed cottages, shops, hotels and churches, over 60 of which can still be seen today. Dropping into the lovely restored houses turned into charming boutiques and galleries holding a treasure trove of beautiful goods will keep you busy for a few hours.

Try your hand at gold panning in Arrowtown River before driving to Amisfield Bistro and Cellar Door on the way back to Queenstown for lunch while enjoying the incredible views over the vineyards and surrounding mountains in this award-winning winery.

Day five: Drive to Christchurch.

Christchurch at Sunset
Christchurch at Sunset

After an early breakfast, hop in your car for the six-hour drive to Christchurch through some of the country’s most stunning scenery. The island is picture-postcard perfect, so wherever you drive, it will be spectacular!

Church of the Good Shepard
Church of the Good Shepard

The drive will take you past Lake Pukaki, framed by the snow-capped mountains of Mount Cook National Park in the background and then past Lake Tekapo with the stunning Church of the Good Shepard. This much-visited landmark building capitalises on its setting in front of the lake to frame the views through its main altar window – a beautiful spot for a wedding! By early evening, you’ll be checked into your accommodation and ready to discover the lovely streets of Christchurch.

Day six-seven: Christchurch sightseeing & day trip to Banks Peninsula

Christchurch beckons travellers with its unique blend of natural wonders, cultural richness, and a resilient spirit that has risen from the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Often referred to as the Garden City, Christchurch is a haven for those seeking a harmonious convergence of scenic beauty and urban vibrancy. From picturesque parks and historic sites to thriving arts and culinary scenes, here are our top picks for your list of must-do activities.

Discover the city’s unique charms – day one Christchurch.

Hop aboard the Christchurch Tramway, a unique way to view the city’s attractions. Drivers will provide you with entertaining commentary along a route that includes 17 stops. The circuit starts at Cathedral Junction and travels through Cathedral Square and High Street. From here, the tram rejoins a loop and passes by the Canterbury Museum, Hagley Park, Victoria Square, and New Regent Street. Stops include Punting on the Avon and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Each beautifully restored heritage tram departs regularly, and your ticket is valid for the entire day.

Punting on the River Christchurch
Punting on the Avon River Christchurch

Hop off at the Antigua Boat Shed to join the city’s iconic attraction, Punting on the Avon River. Settle back in your punt on plump cushions while your Edwardian-dressed Punter steers you along the tranquil river with its trailing willows lining the leafy banks of the stunning Botanical Gardens.

This afternoon, it’s time for more exploration, so make your way to the Antarctic Centre. Interactive exhibits, a thrilling simulated storm, and encounters with real-life Little Blue Penguins provide an immersive experience that educates and entertains.

For a taste of Christchurch’s rich cultural heritage, explore the Arts Centre next. This historical precinct, originally home to the University of Canterbury, has been meticulously restored to showcase a delightful fusion of heritage and modernity. Wander through the charming cobblestone lanes, discover local artisans’ creations, and immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the weekend markets.

Leave time to visit the Cardboard Cathedral. Erected as a temporary replacement for the earthquake-damaged Christ Church Cathedral, this architectural marvel showcases innovation and creativity. Constructed from cardboard tubes, the cathedral is a testament to the city’s ability to rebuild with a unique and sustainable vision. Take a guided tour to learn about the significance of this structure and its role in the community’s healing process.

French flair by the sea – day two Christchurch

Heathcote-Valley-New-Zealand
Heathcote Valley

This morning, drive to Heathcote Valley for a stunning scenic ride in the Gondola up the summit of Mt Cavendish for a unique view of Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains and the Southern Alps. If you’re keen on including some physical activity while you’re here, there are many walking and mountain biking tracks to suit. While here, hop on the Discovery Ride, an entertaining electric cart ride that takes you back to the area’s settlement.

Driving toward Akaroa New Zealand
Driving toward Akaroa

From here, you’ll continue driving to Akaroa, situated on the Banks Peninsula, just over an hour away. Famed as New Zealand’s only French settlement and its oldest, Akaroa has a distinct French ambience, and that’s because, in July 1840, a shipload of French settlers sailed into Akaroa Harbour intending to claim it for France. The Brits, having heard of the audacious plan, set their sails into the wind and arrived six days before them! The French settlers stayed, and their legacy lives on.

The town is très chic with its lovely harbour-side location and high-quality dining, so grab lunch in one of the trendy restaurants on Rue Jolie or Rue Lavaud and settle in for some people-watching. Besides being a great place to chill out for a day, one of the major attractions in Akaroa is the abundant wildlife, including Hector’s dolphin, the world’s rarest, which is readily seen on a daily harbour cruise or a dolphin swim excursion. The locals also celebrate “the landing” in spring with a French Fest – a weekend of fun, food, and festivity, so don’t miss it if you’re here at that time.

Back to Christchurch in time to celebrate your onward journey with dinner and drinks at one of the city’s trendy bars and restaurants, such as award winners Londo, Gatherings or Majestic at Mayfair, or head to New Regent Street for local favourites such as The Last Word and Twenty-Seven Steps.

Day eight: Hanmer Springs

Hanmer-Springs-New-Zealand
Hanmer Springs

The drive to the alpine village of Hanmer Springs takes around 90 minutes, so there’s plenty of time to stop halfway at one of the cellar doors in Waipara’s picturesque valley, one of New Zealand’s premier wine-growing districts. Time your journey so you can indulge in a delicious lunch at Waipara Springs Winery and Restaurant, Black Estate or one of the other cellar doors.

Hanmer Springs is known for its natural hot pools and gorgeous alpine scenery, so it’s a top spot to pull in for the night. People come to enjoy the peaceful mountain ambience, pure alpine air and health-giving mineral springs, but for the more adventurous, there’s also bungy jumping, jet boating, river rafting, trekking, hunting, mountain biking and skiing on offer when you return – and you will!.

Related: Nine romantic things to do in New Zealand

Make your way to Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa to slip into the mineral-rich waters for a long soak. For the ultimate afternoon relaxation, book a private Sauna or Steam Suite to rid your body of toxins before indulging in a couple’s massage to rejuvenate and revitalise your mind and body for the drive to the Marlborough region tomorrow.

Day nine, ten and 11: Magical Marlborough

It’s a three-hour drive from Hanmer Springs to Blenheim, Marlborough’s largest town and the centre of this famous wine district. If good food and wine feature highly on your vacation plans, you will love spending a few days in this gorgeous area, and getting here is half the fun!

Halfway to Blenheim is the township of Kaikoura, one of the world’s best places for whale watching and New Zealand’s go-to place for all things marine life. With snow-capped mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, we rate the coastal drive from Kaikoura to Marlborough as one of the top five drives on the south island.

We highly recommend spending a couple of days in Kaikoura to do a whale-watching tour on sea or from the air and a Dolphin Encounter Tour (swimming with dolphins – yes, please!). As we are only writing a 12-day itinerary, we suggest stopping off briefly at Ohau Point, 20 km past Kaikoura. From here, you have prime viewing of the colony of fur seals lazing about on the rocks with their adorable babies – but a word of warning. Do not try to get close to them unless you have a good escape plan because they get very cranky and can move quite fast over the rocks, especially if mummy thinks you will harm her baby.

Kaikoura New Zelaand
Kaikoura

You should arrive in Blenheim in time for lunch, so do your homework by studying the Marlborough wine trail, choose a cellar door and then sit back and let the experts pair a wine with your choice of local produce. You’re in the largest and most famous wine region of New Zealand, surrounded by Mother Nature at her most alluring, so indulge your palates in some of the country’s best food and wine. You’ve travelled almost 800 km from Queenstown on the west coast to Marlborough on the tip of the country’s north-east, which is quite an achievement, so relax and soak in the serenity!

If you’re here in February, attend the fabulous Marlborough Wine and Food Festival with more than 50 wine producers, 25+ food businesses and a stage full of live entertainment for one day.

After you have checked in to your accommodation, stroll through Blenheim’s Pollard Park or visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre for a fascinating display of vintage aircraft. WW1 and WW11 history is brought to life with The Lord of the Rings movie-maker Peter Jackson’s rare collection of aircraft and memorabilia.

Cap off the day with a delicious dinner at one of the local restaurants such as Gramado’s Restaurant & Bar for Brazilian-inspired cuisine, Franks Oyster Bar & Eatery for a wide range of shared plates and Arbour Restaurant, known as the best fine dining experience in town for a fantastic degustation menu.

Day two Marlborough:

Head to the charming coastal town of Picton, an hour’s drive north, nestled at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound and check into your accommodation. It’s a lively town with tourists streaming in from the big inter-island ferries that arrive regularly from Wellington, a voyage noted as one of the world’s most stunning sea journeys.

Explore the town’s waterfront, visit the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, or take a short hike to the Snout Track for panoramic views of the surrounding bays. In the afternoon, embark on a scenic cruise through the Queen Charlotte Sound. There are several cruises to choose from, but for something unique, Beachcomber Cruises runs the Mailboat Cruise, designed to take guests off the beaten tourist path to experience what local life is like as the skipper delivers post bags, groceries and packages to those living on the waterway. The cruise offers a unique perspective of the stunning coastal scenery, with opportunities to spot marine life and enjoy the tranquillity of the sound.

Tonight, go to the picturesque waterfront for an evening of fun, food and music at Seamus’ Irish Bar, a highly recommended place for a hearty helping of excellent pub grub and live music.

Day three Marlborough:

Queen-Charlotte-Drive-New-Zealand
Queen Charlotte Drive

From Picton, you can drive the slow route to the centre of Nelson along the winding, 40-kilometre Queen Charlotte Drive, which hugs its namesake waterway and affords such spectacular views it’s a natural hazard for drivers!

The Marlborough Sounds are an ancient network of fjord-like channels that curl around tiny coves and inlets where forested hills run right into the water. Many luxurious holiday lodges, houses and small townships are only accessible by boat. It’s one of the most stunningly beautiful areas in the world!

Nelson New Zealand
Nelson

Nelson is known for local arts and crafts stores and art galleries. It’s also a popular base for nearby caving sites, vineyards and Abel Tasman National Park. Established by English settlers in 1841, the city’s history is showcased at Founders Heritage Park, a living museum with a vintage railway.

Explore the city’s numerous galleries, studios, and boutiques, showcasing the work of local artists. Stroll through Queen’s Gardens or visit the World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum for a unique and creative experience that chronicles 100 years of automobile history and looks at incredible works of art that have become fashionable outfits.

It’s time for choices now. Do you want to return to Queenstown, drive to Christchurch, catch the Coastal Pacific train from Picton to Christchurch or the inter-island ferry from Picton to Wellington to continue your discovery of New Zealand’s north island? All options are excellent but need thought.

Day 12: Choices on how to return home

Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park

If driving back to Queenstown, it’s an 11-hour drive from Nelson that will require an overnight stop because the roads on the West Coast are excessively winding, needing ultimate concentration. It also means staying for one night in Nelson instead of driving back to Picton, but this gives you time to explore the Abel Tasman National Park, renowned for its golden beaches, turquoise waters, and lush coastal forests. Explore the park on foot or by kayak, discovering hidden coves and pristine beaches.

Franz Josef Glaciers
Franz Josef Glaciers

If you extend your itinerary by one day, it gives you time to visit the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on your way to Queenstown. You can drive to Fox Glacier and do the one-hour return walk from the carpark to the end of the access road for great glacier views. When we did this drive, we stopped for a night in Hokitika and took an early morning light plane flight over the Southern Alps with fantastic views of the glaciers and snow-covered mountains.

Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier – courtesy Miles Holden

If flying out of Christchurch, do the return five-hour coastal drive, but if time permits, stop at Kaikoura for lunch to check out if you want to return on your next trip to the south island.

If you’re here between September and April, you can catch the Coastal Pacific Train from Picton to Christchurch, which runs alongside the coast road. It’s a comfortable, relaxing journey that allows you to sit back and take in the scenery.

Want to extend your New Zealand tour of discovery to the North Island?

Wellington City New Zealand
Wellington – courtesy Miles Holden

Great choice! Drive back from Nelson to Picton and spend another joyful evening at one of the great restaurants and bars. In the morning, either leave your car in Picton or take it on the inter-island ferry to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and fantastic foodie destination. You can fly home from Wellington after a few days of gourmand adventures or continue your discovery of the best Aotearoa offers. After all, you’re in the Land of the Long White Cloud, so why not make the most of it?

Related: Here’s how to do three days in Auckland

Feature image courtesy Miles Holden

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