15 day South Island Highlights New Zealand Itinerary

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South Island Highlights 15 Day New Zealand Itinerary

Visiting Wellington, Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs, Christchurch, Lake Tekapo/Mt Cook, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Wanaka, West Coast glaciers, Punakaiki, Christchurch.

Handy Tips

1) You can view your interactive route map at the bottom of the page

2) Feel free to hire a car and use this itinerary as a guide, or fill out the form at the bottom of the page to talk to one of our local experts about a fully packaged self drive tour.

3) Place your cursor on a picture for a description of the picture.

Most people start their South Island holiday In Christchurch . Makes sense on a South Island itinerary, right?

But we would like to suggest an alternative. How about flying into Wellington on the lower North Island!

That may sound crazy, but it allows you to catch the inter island ferry across to Picton, taking you through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds.

Now that's a great way to start your New Zealand adventure.

Let us handle your rental car or campervan

We can provide all of your car rental needs at market leading rates. With access to all of the leading brands, we have the perfect car or camper van for you.

So, when you arrive in Picton you can collect your hire car and commence your journey at the top of the South Island.

To see our range of vehicles and make your bookings just click here.



Day by day -  click on each day for more detail, then when you finish just click on your browsers back button to return here

Day 1 - Arrive in Wellington

Day 2 - Wellington to Kaikoura

Day 3 - Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs

Day 4 - Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

Day 5 - Christchurch

Day 6 - Christchurch to Lake Tekapo or Mt Cook

Day 7 - Lake Tekapo to Queenstown

Day 8 - Queenstown

Day 9 - Queenstown

Day 10 - Queenstown

Day 11 - Queenstown to Wanaka

Day 12 - Wanaka to Franz Josef

Day 13 - Franz Josef to Punakaiki

Day 14 - Punakaiki to Greymouth / Christchurch

Day 15 - Christchurch to home



Day 1 Wellington

Today you arrive at New Zealand's Capital, Wellington. Located on the shores of a picturesque harbor, Wellington is the cultural hub of New Zealand, and is home to the National Museum, Te Papa.

Te Papa New Zealand's national museum

Te Papa is a wonderful attraction, with lots of interactive exhibits. And if you are new to New Zealand, it's the ideal way to brush up on your New Zealand knowledge.

If you have time it's well worth a visit, and there are a range of tours available. You can check them out here.

Where to stay in Wellington

We recommend that you stay the night in the city or in the Oriental Bay area so that you have a short trip to the ferry the next morning.

One of our favorites is the Copthorne Oriental Bay. Great position overlooking the harbor and close to the CBD.

You can search through a huge range of Wellington accommodation and read customers reviews here.

The Interislander Ferry

The ferry journey across Cook Straight and into the Marlborough Sounds is surely one of the best in the World.

We always take then time to have a snack on board, read a book, and just watch the world sail past.

To avoid any problems we always book our ferry tickets in advance.

You can book your ferry tickets here.



Day 2 Wellington to Kaikoura

Today your New Zealand itinerary takes you from Wellington to Picton on a morning ferry (about 3-4 hours duration).

Pictons beautiful waterfront

You then collect your hire car at Picton and drive to Kaikoura (a scenic 2 hour coastal drive).

Picton is the entry point to the Marlborough region, home to dozens of wineries, and you will pass several on your way South towards Kaikoura.

Around 25 kilometres South of Picton you pass through the region's largest town, Blenheim. Shortly after leaving Blenheim the road snakes its way inland through rolling hills, before returning to the coast.

From here to Kaikoura, the road hugs the shoreline and the views are incredible.

Keep a look out for the iconic Nin's Bin, a small roadside caravan famous for it's fresh local crayfish. This is one of those "must try" things. There's nothing like fresh crayfish, particularly when you can eat it looking at a view like that!

A fur seal relaxing at Kaikoura

As you near Kaikoura, the Seaward Kaikoura mountain range comes down to the sea, and depending on the time of year, may be snow capped.

Snow capped peaks on the right and ocean on the left. This is a beautiful area so have your camera charged.

Kaikoura has a good range of accommodation, and there are lots of motels and apartments looking over the ocean along the Esplanade.

Our favorite is the Anchor Inn, located on the waterfront strip south of the main shopping center. Clean, modern rooms and great views of the ocean.



Day 3 Kaikoura / Hanmer Springs

Thar She Blows! A giant Sperm Whale off Kaikoura

Kaikoura ("Kai" means food, and "Koura" means crayfish) is famous for its seafood and marine life.

Seal colonies can be viewed close to the township. About 20 minutes drive North at Ohau Point, there's a roadside car park from which to view the seals. There is also a track leading about 280 metres into the forest to a waterfall and pool, where you can sometimes see the seals playing.

Kean Point, which is accessed by following the Esplanade (Kaikoura's main street), is about four or five kilometres from the centre of town and is home to another colony. It's also a great place to take some pictures looking back across the bay.

But perhaps the major attraction are the well run whale watch Kaikoura tours. You will gasp at the beauty of these enormous creatures as your tour captain takes you up close.

Handy Tip

We recommend taking a morning tour, before the winds and swell increase.

After lunch, we head to the lovely alpine village of Hanmer Springs (about 2 hours).

Hanmer Springs is famous for its pool and spa complex, where you can unwind in a range of thermally heated pools of varying temperatures.

Relaxing in one of Hanmer's hot pools - image courtesy hanmersprings.co.nz

If you are lucky enough to be there in winter, a covering of snow provides a wonderful contrast as you laze in the warm waters. A lovely clean, alpine resort.

There is also a water park with several slides and rides, and it's a great place for a family outing.

And for those wanting to be pampered, their spa offers a range of options including massages, facials, and hot stone therapy!




Day 4 Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

Rolling hills North of Christchurch

Today your New Zealand Itinerary takes you to Christchurch (about 2 hours drive), the South Island's largest city.

Along the way you pass through typical New Zealand countryside, with rolling green hills, lots of sheep, and past numerous wineries.

Often referred to as the "Garden City", Christchurch is home to more than 700 parks.

If you have a green thumb and love your gardens, Organized garden tours are available.



Day 5 Christchurch

Today you are free to explore Christchurch.

The Christchurch Gondola offers amazing views of the area - click for more information

Christchurch is a thriving, bustling city of some 370,000 people.

The Southern Alps stand proudly to the West of the city, and in the cooler months their snow capped beauty is a thing to behold.

The city has a very "English" feel, reflected in the architecture (and the Avon river which runs through the centre of the city).

Where to stay in Christchurch

As befits a city of this size, Christchurch has a wide range of accommodation.

A couple of our favorites are the Airport Gateway Motor Lodge and Pavillions.

There's lots to see and do in Christchurch

There is a huge range of things to do in Christchurch (see our dedicated Christchurch page).

The International Antarctic Center, located at Christchurch airport, provides a wonderful overview of antarctic exploration.

Punting on the Avon River in central Christchurch - click for more information on available tours

It's also a convenient way to pass a few hours if you have a late flight out of Christchurch.

If the cold doesn't bother you too much, try the wind chill room. Brrrrr!

Other recommended activities in Christchurch are a tram ride through the city, a punt ride on the Avon, a trip on the gondola (excellent views of the area), and a drive to the quaint, seaside "French" village of Akaroa, where you can swim with the dolphins.

Christchurch is also close to the Mt Hutt ski fields, which are very popular in the winter months.

There are also several wineries close to Christchurch and a strong cafe culture, with lots of restaurants featuring local cuisine.



Day 6 Christchurch to Lake Tekapo or Mt Cook

Today your New Zealand itinerary takes you from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo (about 3 hours).

Where to stay

We always try for a lake view room. The scenery is to die for, and there's something special about looking out over the lake at Mt Cook, that always just blows us away.

You can search a range of Lake Tekapo accommodation and read customer reviews by clicking on the link.

Check out the highly rated Mackenzie Apartments.

Picture of Lake Tekapo and the much photographed Church of the Good Shepherd

Lake Tekapo is a small resort village located on the shores of one of the most amazing lakes you will ever see. Sediment from nearby glaciers is washed into Lake Tekapo, giving it an unbelievable turquoise color.

The snow capped Southern Alps and Mt Cook seem to hover over the lake.

The Church of the Good Shepherd, perhaps one of the most photographed attractions in New Zealand, sits proudly lakeside.

Whilst in Tekapo, take a relaxing dip at the Tekapo Springs hot pool complex. In the winter months the complex houses an ice rink and a snow tubing area.

At night, go stargazing at the Mt John Observatory. Tekapo's clear night skies provide perfect conditions for viewing distant galaxies.

Other local activities include scenic flights, fishing, lake cruises and hiking.

The Glacier Explorers tour is an amazing experience

An alternative stopover to Lake Tekapo is Mt Cook. At 3,754 metres, Aoraki/Mt Cook is New Zealand's highest peak.

The World Heritage listed area is stunningly beautiful. Visitors can enjoy hikes, heli flights, and glacier landings.

Another point of interest is the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. Sir Edmund is arguably New Zealand's most famous person, and holds legend status in New Zealand.

In 1953, Sir Edmund and Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, were the first documented people to reach the summit of Mt Everest.

The alpine centre includes a 3D movie theatre, planetarium and museum, which documents the history of alpine exploration.

On our last visit to Mt Cook we spent several hours in the alpine centre, enthralled by the displays and the stories that they told.

Inside the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre

There are also numerous walks in the region, and in the warmer months, Glacier Explorers run a cruise on the terminal lake of the Tasman Glacier, where they take you up close to huge icebergs. This is one of those things you should really try.

Another thrilling option in Mt Cook is a scenic helicopter flight and snow landing. Oh, the views as you fly over snow capped mountains, glaciers, and river valleys, before landing on a snow field.

Where to stay in Mt Cook

Mt Cook accommodation is at Mt Cook village where there are backpacker lodges and the 4 star Hermitage Hotel, where most rooms have amazing views of Mt Cook.

We stayed at the Hermitage and have great memories of our time there. The bar and restaurant have huge picture windows and it was wonderful to sit there relaxing and taking in the ever changing views of Mt Cook.

You can search for your perfect Mt Cook accommodation here.



Day 7 Lake Tekapo (or Mt Cook) to Queenstown

Today our New Zealand itinerary takes us from Lake Tekapo (or Mt Cook) to Queenstown (3.5 hours), where you spend four nights.

Stunning views from the Skyline Gondola - click to see their range of activities

Queenstown is one of the highlights of your New Zealand itinerary.

There seems to be an endless supply of Queenstown activities, and four days is our recommended minimum time here.

We have spent up to a week there at a time, and have never been bored.

Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, and surrounded by 2,000 metre high mountains, Queenstown is surely one of the most spectacular resort towns in the world.

Pepper's Beacon lakefront in Queenstown, is a great place to stay - click for rates and reviews

Where to stay in Queenstown

There are literally hundreds of places to stay in Queenstown with everything from hostels to five star homes and apartments.

Handy Tip

Queenstown is very hilly, and parking is scarce, so we recommend staying close to the center of town. 

There are lots of apartments in the Frankton Rd and Fernhill areas, but you will need to get the car out as it's a bit of a walk to town from both.

Our favorite is Pepper's Beacon, which is lakefront, and two minutes level walk to the town center.

You can read reviews for the Beacon and check availability here.

For all other Queenstown accommodation click here.



Days 8 to 10 Queenstown

Explore Queenstown as much or as little as you like. Take the time to put your feet up and relax for a couple of days, but please keep one day free for a bus trip and cruise at Milford Sound.

The drive to Milford Sound is one of the most spectacular in the World - click for more information about the range of tours available

This is number one on your New Zealand itinerary.

Milford Sound has been referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and is New Zealand's most popular tourist attraction.

If you do one thing in New Zealand, visit Milford Sound. Pictures and words do not do it justice. You must see it for yourself.

The trip to Milford Sound is a big day, and the trip takes about 4 hours each way, so we recommend taking an organized bus tour, rather than driving yourself.

The road trip is an experience in itself, with spectacular scenery, and the eerie Homer Tunnel.

Make sure that your tour includes a cruise on Milford Sound, and if time permits, a trip to the deepwater observatory. The cruise is a must, as apart from a flight, it's the only way to really experience the grandeur and beauty of the sound. Towering peaks and enormous waterfalls will make you gaze in wonder.

The Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory

And don't be concerned if it rains. It's a wet place, but the mist and rain add to the experience and ensure that the waterfalls thunder!

The deepwater observatory takes you ten metres below the surface to view a range of marine life including corals, sponges and fish.

Handy Tip

Sandflies/midges can be a problem in Milford Sound. These annoying little insects will pester you if you don't apply some insect repellant.

In Queenstown itself, you will never be short of things to do. Home to two world class ski areas (Coronet Peak and The Remarkables), Queenstown is a popular winter destination for visitors from around the world.

Thrills on the Shotover Jet near Queenstown - click for more information on this thrilling experience

But it is much more than just a winter destination. Jetboat rides, rafting, hang gliding, and bungy jumping are all available in Queenstown, and although Queenstown is known as the "Adventure Capital" of New Zealand, it is also a place where you can choose to do nothing other than take in the amazing scenery.

We also recommended a cruise on Lake Wakatipu on the historic steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, and a trip on the Skyline Gondola to Bob's Peak (unbelievable views). Both provide a relaxing way to take in the beautiful scenery in Queenstown. 

Here's some more information on things to see and do in Queenstown.



Day 11 Queenstown to Wanaka

Today we leave Queenstown for the equally scenic lakeside town, Wanaka.

The serene waters of Lake Wanaka, pictured from the town centre

There are two routes to Wanaka. One via Cromwell, and the other over the Crown Range. The Crown Range route is much more scenic and is said to be the highest main road in New Zealand. It's also shorter than going through Cromwell and takes around 1 hour (without stops).

About 20 kilometres before Wanaka stop off at the old Cardrona Hotel for morning tea or lunch. In the warmer months the garden is a great spot to eat and have a couple of refreshments. And in the cooler months, the open fires welcome you inside.

Handy Tip

Be careful not to drink to excess, as the local Police patrol the roads in and out of town.

Where to stay

Once you arrive in town, find somewhere to stay. Wanaka has a wide range of accommodation options, and as always, we recommend a hotel overlooking the lake.

We choose to stay at The Moorings. Rooms are clean and modern, the lake views are awesome and it's only a minute or two walk to the town center.

A beautiful town and lots to do

Wanaka's scenery is similar to Queenstown, but the town is less hurried.

There are lots of pubs and restaurants across the road from the lake, and we have spent many a meal gazing over the lake towards the snow capped mountains. A beautiful spot.

The historic Cardrona pub - why not check out the high country horse ride. Click for more information

Across the road from the main shopping centre there's a small jetty. Every time we go there I cannot believe the size of the trout swimming under the jetty. I've always wanted to take one of the charter fishing trips to try my luck at catching one of them. Maybe next time!

One place not to miss in Wanaka is Puzzling World. Great fun for all ages, Puzzling World has a maze, a hands on area where you can try a range of puzzles before you buy, and a variety of illusions like the Wall Of Following Faces. Highly recommended.

Other great things to do are a winery tour, skydiving, fly fishing and kayaking.

You can search through a range of Wanaka activities by clicking on the button below.



Day 12 Wanaka to Glaciers

Today is another highlight of this New Zealand itinerary, as we head on State Highway 6 from Wanaka through Haast Pass, to the wild West Coast and Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers (about 4 hours). 

Lake Wanaka from State Highway 6

In early times this route was popular with Maori who headed west looking for valuable jade. Lonely Planet have rated the drive as one of the World's best.

Make sure you stop for a picture at The Neck, where Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea meet.

Between Makarora and Haast, there are a number of easily accessible walks including the Blue Pools (one hour return from the highway near Makarora), Thunder Creek Falls (5 minutes return), and Roaring Billy (25 minutes return).

From Makarora to Haast the scenery is stunning. Huge river valleys, and towering peaks.

The Haast River just west of Haast village

Haast is a good place to break your trip, top up the fuel and have a snack. It's a tiny village but has a few cafes and a hotel.

Leaving Haast you cross the Haast River over New Zealand's longest single lane bridge, and head to the coast.

Between Haast and Fox Glacier, be sure to stop at Knight's Point lookout, perched several hundred metres above the Tasman Sea.

Fox Glacier village is the first of the "twins".

Both glaciers have small villages nearby, but we recommend staying at Franz Josef rather than Fox Glacier as Franz Josef has more variety in accommodation and more places to eat.

Ice walks are the perfect way to see the glacier - click for more information on these great tours

Where to stay

We have stayed at Punga Grove motel several times and have always found the rooms to be clean and spacious. And it's also just a short walk to the pubs, restaurants, and the Glacier Hot Pools (a great place to relax after a long day).

On our last visit we stayed at the Alpine Glacier Motor Lodge and it was great. The spa suite was clean and comfortable, with a small kitchen area. The shops and pubs are around the corner, and the rooms have great views of the snow capped peaks.

Lots to do in Franz Josef

Franz Josef Glacier can be seen from the main road, but there are several ways to get up close.

New Zealand weather can change quickly, but if the weather and budget allow, take a helicopter flight on to the glacier. Unbelievable! We chose the optional snow landing and it was well worth the extra cost.

Other options are guided glacier hikes, or you can take the mostly level walk from the visitor car park to the face of Franz Josef (around 1.5 hours return). You won't believe the size of the glacier when you get up close. It's huge!

Take some time to read about the various trips available, and be sure to read the customer reviews.

For more information click here.



Day 13 Glaciers to Punakaiki

Your New Zealand itinerary now takes you from Franz Josef to Punakaiki to visit the unusual Pancake Rocks and the blowhole.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki

The west coast scenery is stunning and the views are spectacular.

Punakaiki is a small village with a few cafes, and a tavern, and although there is not much else there, it does have a beautiful motel called the Punakaiki Resort, which is absolute beachfront.

We have stayed there a few times. The rooms look over the ocean and the restaurant has floor to ceiling windows so you can watch the sun setting over the ocean. Beautiful.

And on a clear day, you can look across the ocean and see the snow capped Southern Alps!

Our other favorite is the lovely Wave Watchers cottage, located on the beach. We love the huge decks, bedrooms overlooking the ocean, and the short stroll to the tavern.

You can learn more here.

Relaxing outdoors at Wave Watchers Punakaiki

Pancake Rocks and the blow hole are accessed from the main road in the center of the village.

It's a short three minute walk from the main road to the rocks. They are at their best at high tide or when the sea is rough - it's the best time to see the blow holes.

There are also several great walks in and around Punakaiki, and just north of the village off the main road, is a small limestone cavern where you can see glowworms.

Punakaiki is a place where we love to relax, put our feet up, and admire the views and sunsets.



Day 14 Punakaiki to Greymouth then Christchurch

Today on your New Zealand itinerary you travel from Punakaiki to Greymouth (about 30 minutes).

The legendary Tranz Alpine train journey is a must

Drop your rental car off in Greymouth then catch the Tranz Alpine train to Christchurch.

Along with Milford Sound, this is one of the "must do" things in NZ. The train takes about 4 hours to go from Greymouth on the West Coast to Christchurch on the East Coast, and travels through the alps.

Have your camera ready, sit back and enjoy a wine, and watch the world go by.

The trip takes you over deep gorges, through tunnels, past towering peaks, and eventually across the patchwork of the Canterbury Plains, before arriving at Christchurch.

A taste of New Zealand rail travel is a wonderful way to finish your holiday.

Handy Tip

There are several motels within a kilometer of Christchurch train station, which is in the suburb of Addington. Check to see if they offer a shuttle service when you book.

Christchurch Airport is around 20 minutes drive from the train station. Shuttle buses to the airport are available outside the train station. There are also several motels close to the airport.

The closest motel to the airport is the Sudima which is less than 5 minutes walk. They also offer a free shuttle to and from the airport.

You can read about the highly rated Sudima by clicking here.



Day 15.

Fly home.

We hope that this South Island Highlights 15 day New Zealand itinerary has inspired you to plan your New Zealand adventure.

Enjoy your time in New Zealand.



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