For thirty years I was lead to believe that New Zealand was an oversized sheep paddock hardly worth a visit when there are so many more exciting places in the world to explore. Nobody told me that a mere 3 hour flight away is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen in my life. Nobody mentioned that the South Island is so full of natural wonder that your eyes start to hurt from trying to take it all in. And most surprisingly nobody warned me to keep all this quiet because it seems as if New Zealand is the world’s best kept secret.
I was so inspired by what I saw in New Zealand that I started this blog purely to show you why you need to go there immediately. My first step when planning a trip is to look at other people’s itineraries to get a sense of a place, but itineraries can be tough to find, which is why I’ve put together this suggested two week itinerary based on my own travels in the South Island. The South Island is considered to be the prettier of the two islands and the least populated. The itinerary is self-drive (right-hand drive) and being circular can be followed in any direction (you will likely fly into either Christchurch or Queenstown). Below I’ve included a breakdown of each location which links to a detailed blog post (to be released fortnightly) featuring suggested activities, where to stay, how long the distances are and even what to wear. As New Zealand is a photographer’s dream I’ve also included plenty of photo stops with tips for taking the best shots. While this is the exact path we followed there are a few things I’d have done differently which is why you’ll see a breakdown of ‘actual’ (the actual trip we took) vs ‘suggested’ (the changes I’d make based on my experiences) so you can have the best possible time.
Fly into Christchurch, collect your wheels and take a drive around the city centre. If you see a ‘no cruising’ sign this applies to local speedsters and isn’t an indication of how slowly you should drive by the sights. 😂 Relax for the evening and sort out your jet lag.
The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are worth a morning stroll but don’t hang around too long as there’s plenty to see today! Drive four hours to the village of Mount Cook, stopping at Lake Tekapo where you’ll find the Church of the Good Shepherd, and then Lake Pukaki. The road to Mount Cook has to be one of the most scenic in the world so be prepared for numerous photo stops. If you arrive with time to kill take a short walk to Tasman Glacier for sunset.
Take a leisurely stroll along the jaw-droppingly scenic Hooker Valley Track. Afterwards rest your weary bones with an ale or two.
The drive to Oamaru is only 2.5 hours so perhaps fit in another Mt Cook walk in the morning before making stops at Omarama’s Clay Cliffs, Lake Benmore and Duntroon’s Elephant Rocks. Once you reach Oamaru spend the afternoon at the Steampunk Museum and Victorian District and the evening spying on penguins.
Today is a huge day so start early for sunrise at the Moeraki Boulders and then drive an hour south to reach Dunedin. Swing by the picturesque old railway station and take a tour at the Cadbury factory. Pop by St Clair Beach to see if you can spy a seal and then over to Baldwin Street for the world’s steepest street! For city views drive up Signal Hill, although it is a winding road so take it slowly. Drive around Portobello Road to the Otago Peninsula to spy an albatross and, if the budget allows it, stay the night at Larnach Castle!
Explore Larnach Castle before hitting the road to meander through the Catlins. This wasn’t my favourite thing to do so you could potentially spend this day elsewhere (refer ‘suggested’ list above). Otherwise recommended stops include Nugget Point Lighthouse, Purakaunui Falls, Cathedral Caves (check tide times) and Curio Bay, as well as whatever else takes your fancy. Spend the night in lacklustre Invercargill.
Try not to sing ‘Ti Amo’ too often on the two hour drive to Te Anau. Take a glow worm cave tour with Real Journeys and try and catch the 30 min doco ‘Fiordland on Film’ at the local cinema. Visit Lake Te Anau for sunset and choose one of the many excellent restaurants for dinner.
You have a tonne of options for visiting Milford Sound. For the most immersive experience take an overnight cruise with Real Journeys which gives you time in the morning to visit the free Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. Ogle at the epic Milford Road scenery from your tour bus before boarding your cruise and experiencing something truly magical.
Returning from Milford around midday, collect your hire car and head for adrenaline-fuelled Queenstown. Choose your own adventure or take a stroll through Queenstown Gardens (watch out for for frisbees, even the gardens aren’t a quiet affair!), catch sunset over the lake and head into Queenstown Mall for a choice of culinary delights and a spot of souvenir shopping.
Have breakfast at Fergbaker and then drive the utterly stunning road to Glenorchy stopping at Wilson Bay, Bennetts Bluff and Meiklejohns Bay. Visit Glenorchy jetty and boat shed and after lunch take a drive to Paradise for famous vistas from Lord of the Rings. Drive back to Queenstown via Moke Lake and either spend the afternoon relaxing or go HIKING, HELICOPTERING, CANYONING, SKYDIVING, KAYAKING, PARAGLIDING etc etc. Join the queues for dinner at world renowned Fergburger or pop round the corner to equally as good Devil Burger for chips with curry sauce.
Travel back in time with a visit to pretty as a picture Arrowtown. Take a look at the Chinese Settlement and wander around town soaking up all the lovely things. I’d recommend driving on and spending the night in Wanaka but we didn’t realise this until after the fact so we headed back to Queenstown via Arthur’s Point where we took a spin round the river on the Shotover Jet! Afterwards take a ride on the Queenstown Gondola for sunset and beers.
Leave Queenstown and stop over at Lake Hayes for some photos before driving the mind-blowingly scenic Crown Range Road over to Wanaka. Visit ‘That Wanaka Tree’, the world’s most photographed tree before hitting the Haast Pass over to the west coast. Pull over at whatever waterfall related pit stop takes your fancy and don’t miss the Blue Pools (like we did). Note how the landscape becomes Jurassic as you travel up towards the glacier region. Choose between Franz Josef or Fox Glacier to stay for the night (both are fairly uninspiring) and roll into bed early for the big day ahead.
If you haven’t managed to fit in a heli-hike yet, do it now! (you should try for every opportunity because they get cancelled often). Afterwards, if you’re not sick of glaciers, take a hike to either of the glaciers but be warned they are melting rapidly and no longer resemble the pics on Google images. Don’t ask the locals which one is better because you probably won’t get a straight answer. If the weather is good take a walk around Lake Matheson for fairyland scenery and picturesque reflections.
Point your car towards Greymouth and make a stopover at Willow’s Crafts in Harihari (even if you don’t like craft – just trust me on this one). Have lunch at Hokitika and wave to Greymouth as you pass through to Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks) taking in the stellar coastal views along the way. Wander through Pancake Rocks, marveling at the blow holes and keep an eye out for weka (birds that look like kiwis but aren’t). Head back to Greymouth or the more personable Hokitika (and Gorge) to spend the night.
Drive the much lauded Arthur’s Pass back to Christchurch. Swing by the Otira Viaduct lookout, Devil’s Punchbowl (walk and waterfall), Arthur’s Pass (for lunch and Kea sightings), Cave Stream (for a cave with a stream) and Castle Hill (for otherworldly rock formations), not to mention the stunning vistas EVERYWHERE. Back in Christchurch try and squeeze in an extra day to visit french-themed Akaroa before flying home.
If you need to reduce the length of this trip I’d suggest skipping Oamaru, the Catlins and Invercargill, and Franz Josef / Fox Glacier as well as the rest of the West Coast, however I’d still make time to travel some of Arthur’s Pass. Don’t forget to refer to the suggested itinerary above for tips for the best possible trip.
Tripadvisor for reviews
Booking.com for accommodation bookings
Lonely Planet’s South Island travel guide