Ten of the best things to do on a South Island road trip
Spectacular natural beauty, thrilling adventure activities, a rich history to explore, and great food and cool climate wines are all part of the package on a road trip of New Zealand's South Island. Tick off these ten must-sees and dos along the way.
Te Waipounamu — the South Island of New Zealand — gobsmacks holidaymakers with its extraordinary natural beauty and array of experiences.
All interests are well and truly catered for, and a road trip is the ideal way to explore the region — giving you the freedom to go where you want when you want.
You can plan a self-drive holiday for any time of the year, but keep in mind that travelling in winter will mean a slower trip. Road closures do occur after heavy snowfalls, and some tourist activities and attractions are seasonal.
Here are ten of the best things to do on a South Island road trip, which can all be ticked off heading in an anti-clockwise direction from the top of the west coast. You’ll need around ten to twelve days to cover them all. Plan to spend at least two or three days in Queenstown.
Watch our video of ten top things to do on a South Island road trip:
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this video, we bring you ten amazing things to do on a road trip around New Zealand’s stun…
1. See the pancake rocks at Punakaiki
You’ll encounter plenty of geological oddities as you journey around the South Island. The much photographed Moeraki Boulders north of Dunedin are one popular example, as are the famous pancake rocks at Punakaiki in Paparoa National Park on the wild and woolly west coast. You can view these intriguing limestone formations from a circuit of well-maintained boardwalks. The blustery setting and pounding waves of the Tasman Sea only add to the experience. Rug up!
2. Shop for greenstone in Hokitika
Further south, the unassuming west coast hub town of Hokitika is renowned for the production of pounamu — also known as greenstone and jade. The Maori have long believed in the spiritual power of this semi-precious stone. Located right in the centre of Hokitika, Mountain Jade has been creating and showcasing greenstone carvings since 1986 and it’s the spot to learn more about this artform.
One of the highlights of a visit to Mountain Jade is the chance to watch carvers at work in the studio. There are free guided tours daily. You’ll learn about the complexity of carving jade by hand, and the significance to the Maori of some of the most popular designs — including the hei matau, the koru, and the hei tiki.
3. Take on the Franz Josef Glacier
From Hokitika, it’s just under two hours’ drive south to Franz Josef and the majestic Franz Josef Glacier. The glacier is situated a few kilometres from the centre of town and there are a variety of options for taking it in, depending on how energetic you’re feeling. The slow moving glacier has been gradually shrinking over the decades due to rising global temperatures, but it’s still an epic sight.
As you head back into town, the landscape morphs from glacial wilderness to rainforest wonderland, and hidden in the middle of it are the tranquil Glacier Hot Pools. This is the perfect spot to let your holiday cares drift away.
One experience that’s suitable for most age-groups is jet boating — a proudly New Zealand invention. Shotover Jet has been operating in the Shotover River canyon to the north of the city since 1970. Their drivers are expertly trained, and while there are plenty of thrilling moments as you hightail it along the course of the river, safety is the number one priority. Hang on extra tight for those three-sixty spins!
Lake Wakatipu covers about 290 square kilometres and thanks to the surrounding backdrop of snow-capped peaks, there are few bodies of water that can match it for sheer scenic loveliness. One of the most relaxed ways to explore the lake is on a cruise from Queenstown on board the historic TSS Earnslaw. Real Journeys offers leisurely 90-minute cruises on this iconic steamship, which was launched in 1912 — the same year as the Titanic!
Painstakingly restored to its original form, the Earnslaw remains a hand-fired steamship and has ferried plenty of famous passengers around the lake, including the Queen and Prince Philip, and former US president Bill Clinton. Cruises depart regularly throughout the day.
Got a penchant for pinot noir? You are well catered for on the South Island. Queenstown offers easy access to the Central Otago wine region, which is world-renowned for its cool climate drops. Book a half day wine tour with Queenstown Wine Trail Tours and visit a selection of boutique wineries, including Amisfield and Gibbston Valley — home to some of the region’s oldest high altitude vines and New Zealand’s largest wine cave.
It’s also possible to include a visit to Gibbston Valley Cheese, which specialises in sheep’s, cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses — handcrafted in traditional European style. Book a guided tasting and work your way through a variety of award winning cheeses.
Tip: If you’re tight for time in Queenstown, drop by The Winery in the heart of town. It’s a chance to try over 80 of the region’s finest drops under one roof. The Winery will even ship your purchases home.
UNESCO World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park is located just under four hours’ drive south of Queenstown, and is home to arguably New Zealand’s most famous natural attraction — Milford Sound. Millions of years in the making, the fiord’s deep water channels and surrounding glaciers were reputedly named a wonder of the world by the adventuring author, Rudyard Kipling.
There’s a variety of ways to experience the serene beauty of Milford Sound. Cruise the tranquil waters with Real Journeys, which offers daily scenic cruises on vessels with purpose-built observation lounges and large spacious decks. Next, splash out on a scenic flight with Milford Helicopters — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that lays out the full majesty of the landscape below you. It may even be possible to do a glacier snow landing, depending on the weather.
Finally, for those with extra time on their hands, consider taking on one of the finest walks in the world — the Milford Track. It encompasses 53 kilometres of winding trails and ever-changing scenic vistas.
8. Get the royal treatment at Larnach Castle
Over on the east coast, the city of Dunedin has a wealth of wonderfully preserved Georgian and Victorian architecture to enjoy. It’s also home to Larnach Castle — a step back in time to the early years of European settlement in New Zealand. The 43-room Victorian mansion was built by banker and politician William Larnach, and saw its fair share of misfortune over the years. So much so that it’s reputed to be a hotspot for ghostly goings-on.
Take in the exquisite period furniture, paintings and sculptures, then climb the central tower for spectacular views across the Otago Peninsula. The magnificent gardens that surround the property are well worth a wander.
Make your way up the coast to Oamaru — a town renowned for its devotion to the Victorian ‘steampunk’ movement. Converse in the street with ladies and gentlemen in full Victorian garb and visit Steampunk HQ — a gallery of elaborate steam-driven fantasy contraptions.
From there, hang a left and head inland towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park — home to Mount Cook (the highest mountain in New Zealand) and the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre — a tribute to the revered New Zealand mountaineer. In 1953, Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first confirmed climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The centre features a fascinating array of memorabilia from the life of this towering 20th century explorer, who passed away in 2008.
10. Go punting in Christchurch
Continue past idyllic Lake Tekapo (and the much photographed Church of the Good Shepherd) and on to Christchurch. While so much has changed in this city in the face of extraordinary adversity, some things remain comfortingly familiar. An Edwardian-style punting tour on the Avon River is one of the city’s most popular experiences — and has been for decades.
If you have the time, the pretty town of Akaroa — an hour and a half’s drive from Christchurch — is well worth visiting. Drop by The Giant’s House, which was built shortly after Larnach Castle. It’s also a former Victorian bank manager’s mansion — now a gallery with a colourful sculpture and mosaic garden.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do on a South Island road trip? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.