New Zealand South Island is a place that feels like heaven on Earth. Be it going there as a Lord of the Rings fan, for the farm experiences or simply there to admire its snow-capped mountains and misty fjords, this land of happiness has a little something for everyone.
Our New Zealand South Island itinerary starts and ends at Christchurch. It is meant to capture a few sides of what represents New Zealand in just a short span of 7 days and under a budget.
Needless to say, 7 days is a hell of a short time to spend New Zealand South Island. Kiwis lived their whole lives there and still can’t get enough of it!
We have broken down the itinerary into 7 parts, where each section header refers to the start and endpoints of the road trip for the day.
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Disclaimer: This self-drive itinerary requires lots of driving on some of the days. The Guidesify Team clocked almost 3000 km during our road trip. Not to worry, the journey is worth every km. This was also done in mid-November so sunset timings were relatively late (8.30-9 pm). If you’re visiting New Zealand during the winter months or require more time to drive such long distances, feel free to adjust the trip length and use this guide as a reference for your New Zealand South Island trip.
Day 1: Christchurch Airport – Mount Sunday – Twizel
Upon your arrival at the airport, the first thing you do is to pick your rental car up. Make sure you make a booking prior to the trip to avoid disappointment. Availability can be very limited during the peak seasons (December – February).
Fun fact: Peter Jackson placed New Zealand on the map because of his Lord of the Rings Trilogy and more notably, the Hobbits Trilogy. There has been a 50% increase in arrivals to New Zealand since the Lord of the Rings.
Getting Fully Equipped for the Long Drives Ahead!
Head down to the nearest New World (supermarket) and grab some road trip supplies in case you get hungry!
Noticed that we didn’t purchase any travel SIM card yet? That’s because the supermarket is where you want to go for the best travel SIM card – Skinny. This is by far the most value-for-money SIM card, in our opinion.
Until 31st March 2020, key in anybody’s promo code to get an extra 4GB rollover data in the ‘Buddy Rewards’ option in the app. All you need to do is to purchase a plan of at least $16 and above. There are also free 2GB data weekends for all Skinny users (does not rollover).
This will get you a grand total of 5.25GB + 2GB (weekend bonus) of data for the entire duration of your trip!
Here’s one to get you started:
Even if you are late to the party with all these exclusive promotions that ended in March 2020, our calculations still show that Skinny is worth a trip to the Supermarket as compared to the more expensive alternatives at the airport.
Mount Sunday – Edoras, Meduseld, Plains of Rohan
Mount Sunday is home to the Rohirrim, a people of herdsmen and farmers who are well known for their horses and cavalry in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Universe.
They were the allies when Gandalf called for their aid on Gondor’s behalf in the battle for Minas Tirith.
And you may also remember the Rohirrim in this famous war scene.
Believe it or not, this set was real. Not done with any CGI, the team painstakingly completed the set after 8 months of hard work.
Unfortunately, the film set was torn down right after the filming of the original trilogy and any activities that are carried out for profit are supposedly prohibited.
You can still marvel at the beauty of Mount Sunday which is ridiculously close to how Edoras is described in the books by Tolkien. We also witnessed tons of diehard fans at the landmark bringing their gear with AR capabilities to have a time of their lives.
Lake Tekapo & Church of Good Shepherd
Next stop, drive 3 hours down and you will arrive at Church of Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo. Built to the glory of God, it is situated on the breathtaking blue waters of Lake Tekapo, with a backdrop of the Southern Alps.
The Church of Good Shepherd is one of New Zealand South Island’s most iconic landmarks, which was built in 1935 as a memorial church to commemorate new settlers.
It is on everyone’s New Zealand South Island itinerary so come here and be entranced!
Note: As we visited Lake Tekapo in mid-November, it was almost the “peak” season in the Mackenzie Region. The lupins usually bloom from September to February in New Zealand, and peaks in late November to just after Christmas. Lupins are actually an invasive species in New Zealand and pose a big environmental problem.
Alternatively, visit the Church of Good Shepherd at night for some stargazing. There are many operators that offer experiences that guarantee the best views and photos. Get your tickets from the widget above!
Just 30 minutes down is the last stop of the day, Lake Pukaki.
To Lord of the Rings fans, do you find this lake familiar? That’s because it is!
Sir Peter Jackson chose this part of the Southern Alps as the setting for “Lake-town” in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Your eyes will glisten as you look at this vast watery jewel between Twizel and Lake Tekapo. The lookout also offers generous vistas of Mount Cook peaks.
It is simply out of this world and you will definitely have a hard time convincing people that the colours are real and non-edited.
Where we stayed: Airbnb in Twizel
Day 2: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park – Arrowtown/Queenstown
Rise and Shine! It’s time to take the best walk of your life. The Guidesify team set off at 7 am to avoid the tourist crowd, which peaks around noon.
There are a lot of hikes available at Mount Cook National Park and all of these treks offer tons of beautiful sceneries and landscapes. None of the walks will disappoint you for sure.
The only limiting factor is time.
Since we had to choose, we took the Hookey Valley Hike and Tasman Glacier Hike, of which took a combined time of 4 hours.
Hooker Valley Hike
The Hooker Valley trek is the most popular short walking track due to it being a relatively flat walking trek. Anyone can do it! It can be quite windy at times so please be mindful of this. There are also three relatively easy-to-cross suspended bridges.
This walk takes about 3 hours (return) and the only complaint you would have is that you wish it could be longer.
Come on a day with perfect weather and you might even see a mirror-like reflection of Aoraki/Mount Cook!
Tasman Glacier Hike
When taking the Tasman Glacier walk, you will view New Zealand’s longest glacier.
We first started from the carpark and followed the signs to the Blue Lakes. Continue past the Blue Lakes to Tasman Glacier view. The viewpoint offers a good overview of Tasman Glacier and the lake.
It is sad to see that the glaciers have shrunk in size considerably.
When heading back, there will be a crossroad, which you can choose to either head back to the carpark or turn left towards the viewpoint of the glacier’s terminal lake/source of the Tasman River.
To summarise our time at Mount Cook National Park, it is best to spend more than a day here to marvel at the majestic Southern Alps.
But if you only have a day here like us, 2-3 hikes are completely doable and there are not many steep ascents.
There were tons of visitors of all ages doing just that, so fret not.
You will be more fixated on the beauty of Mount Cook rather than catching your breath. Besides, it pays off to start your day early with the Hooker Valley Hike as the carpark gets filled up really quickly and the trails get more crowded later in the day.
Once done, make a drive to Queenstown, where you could explore the city or simply have an early night’s rest.
Queenstown’s accommodation not within your budget or fully booked? Stay in a nearby town just a half-hour drive away from Queenstown, Arrowtown, where there are still tons of things to do.
Where we stayed: Airbnb in Arrowtown
Day 3: Queenstown
As usual, we recommend waking up early to start the day right!
Drive up a series of winds and bends to a mountain range near Queenstown called the Remarkables. This drive is recommended for more experienced drivers as it could be pretty dangerous if there are many cars around.
If you’re visiting in the winter season, the ski park would be opened. If not, visiting the Remarkables still grants you the best views in the Otago region.
Even if you choose to miss this, do not worry, you will still drive past the Remarkables on the way to Milford Sound.
Mount Nicholas Farm Experience
After spending the morning at the Remarkables, head to Queenstown, the resort town of Otago. There are a myriad of activities that you can do ranging from kayaking along Lake Wakatipu, jet boating, hiking (free!) to shopping for souvenirs. To be exact, there are more than 220 tourist activities that you can do here.
What did we do?
We took a cruise to Mount Nicholas for a farm experience with South Discoveries at 11am.
Mount Nicholas offers very hands-on experience at the farm and we have written a very detailed piece on it. Check out why we chose to visit Mount Nicholas farm over everything else!
Visiting the Ferg Burger & More!
What’s next? Well if you are in Queenstown, you must buy the Fergburger. Do not let the crowd scare you because it is a must-try and the queue moves relatively fast! So, stand in line, it’s worth the wait.
And the burger is gluten-free.
It’s time for you to explore Queenstown on your own. If not, call it a night and prepare the best day of your life in New Zealand South Island. 😉
Where we stayed: Airbnb in Lake Hayes
Day 4: Queenstown – Milford Sound – Te Anau
Commonly known as the 8th wonder of the world, there are 2 ways you can visit Milford Sound in New Zealand South Island. Self-drive or a day trip via bus/helicopter with an operator.
We chose to drive there ourselves and take the cruise with Cruise Milford. Here’s a full guide on taking a cruise through the majestic fjords.
If you’re doing a stop at Te Anau, be sure to check out some of the famous landmarks. For example, just a short walk from the visitor center lies an iconic jetty situated at the Marakura Yacht Club.
If you’re a Lord of The Rings fan, Fjordland National Park has lots of notable locations for Peter Jackson’s Trilogy. Here are the coordinates of the Dead Marshes, and Anduin River, South of Rivendell and more!
We drove to Milford Sound from Queenstown and stayed at Te Anau for the night to reduce extremely long drives.
Where we stayed: Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels
Day 5: Te Anau – Wanaka – Lake Hawea
Since we didn’t make the full drive back to Queenstown the day before, the Guidesify team took a long drive to Wanaka via the Crown Range Summit.
Crown Range Summit Lookout Point
Getting to Wanaka via the Crown Range Summit lookout point was very tough. The Crown Range Road is actually a shorter distance between Queenstown and Wanaka compared to the usual route through Cromwell. But, the travel time is longer due to the challenging zig zags up towards the Crown Terrace.
Take a break at the lookout point to admire the massive views and if you’re lucky, you may be accompanied by some curious keas. If you’re driving during the winter season, it is very likely that you would need to carry snow chains and know how to fit them.
Either way, stay alert and go very slow!
It will be a memorable drive at the highest main road in New Zealand.
Lake Wanaka – That Wanaka Tree
Take a picture of #thatwanakatree or level up your Wanaka tree experience by kayaking in Lake Wanaka.
You can go up close to the Wanaka tree if you would like! But do note, you WILL attract some jealous eyes!
And it might get ugly.
Roy’s Peak – Not for the Weak
Brace yourself for the long but worthwhile hike ahead. It took the Guidesify team 6 hours for the entire 16km hike. It is a 200-storeys high hike!
Yes, it essentially takes up the whole day. But you won’t be complaining. Roy’s peak lets you discover the picturesque Wanaka region as you travel from the lake, through tussock grasslands to the summit of Roy’s Peak.
Descending was as hard as going up. As the slopes were steep, you should be careful at all times.
You should also bring food to snack on during the hike.
Most people stop at the lookout point where the iconic shot is taken. But that isn’t exactly the peak! That is only 6.5km into the track. The actual peak is another 1.5km away from this lookout point, which would take another 30 minutes.
Is it worth it? Definitely. Roy’s Peak is the most popular hike in New Zealand South Island and the views were more than rewarding. We saw people of all ages trekking up (even the elderly!).
So, do not be daunted by the sheer number of hours needed. Even if you do not hike on a regular basis, you will be able to reach the peak if you do it slowly and steadily.
Alternatively, you could hike up the Isthmus peak. This is a good alternative if you wish to avoid crowds or if the Roy’s Peak track is closed for lambing season.
The lambing season commences from the 1 October – 10 November each year.
We ended the day at Lake Hawea, just 15 minutes away from Wanaka, where you can enjoy true New Zealand beauty and call it a night.
Where we stayed: Lake Hawea Hostel
Day 6: Lake Hawea – Hokitika
Start your day early as it is going to be a long drive to the end point, Hokitika.
Don’t worry, it won’t purely be a day of driving.
A Long Drive Via the Haast with Amazing Pit Stops
First stop, Blue Pools, which was about 45 minutes away. The Blue Pools walk took around an hour. Unfortunately, the pools were not blue and clear as advertised due to the heavy rain.
The second stop is Fantail Falls. It is just a 5 minutes walk from the carpark.
Additionally, you could also visit the more dramatic Thundercreek Falls, as claimed by some of the travellers we met.
Afterwhich, you will arrive at the Gates of Haast, the spectacular one-lane bridge above powerful rapids. There are limited parking spots here but in our opinion, you should stop to have a closer look at the sheer power of nature.
Lake Matheson Hike – See Both Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in a Single Frame!
Image Source: Flickr Photo taken by professional photographer Mariano Mantel
We hope you are ready for another long walk because Lake Matheson offers many views featured in quite a few postcard designs. Funny enough, one of which is named the View of Views. On a great day, you are supposed to be able to see a perfect mirror image of the mountainous range on the lake.
For us, the view turned out to be this after the skies finally cleared up for a moment!
Heal Yourself at Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools – Exotic Massage Optional
It’s now time to relax and chill in the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools (no pun intended!). You could book your tickets via Klook or GetYourGuide. No cameras are allowed so we weren’t able to take any photos of the inside.
If you have time and/or money to spare, there are definitely things to do in the Franz Josef Glacier region, most of which are heli-hikes and guided tours to the glaciers and ice caves of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Feel free to spend an extra day or two here if needed. Get your tickets from the widget above!
Make your way to Hokitika Gorge! However, do take note that if the weather is not in your favour, the turquoise blue will appear grey and murky.
Before the sun sets, check out the sunset point where the famous Hokitika sign is at. You might be able to time it right and get a perfect shot of the sun in the letter ‘O’.
Just one more thing before you go to bed, we recommend visiting the Glowworm Dell. It is free-of-charge and is a short drive from where we stayed. Just slightly after sunset, you can make your way there, follow a short path and be amazed by the twinkling glow worms. The later you go in the night, the brighter the glow worms are.
It is like looking at the starry sky.
Where we stayed: Kaniere Hotel
Day 7: Hokitika – Christchurch
We are now on the last day of our itinerary. That doesn’t mean the trip gets boring.
Too Heavy to Move – Londonderry Rock (Optional)
The first stop holds historical significance to the era of gold rushes in the Kumura area. The Londonderry Rock was a huge boulder that the miners were unable to move or break.
A Small Hokitika Town
Again, if you have time to spare, Hokitika is a nice town where you can spend an extra day or two. As our time did not permit, we only had time to take some photos of its symbolic clock tower.
Arthur’s Pass – Deflecting Rocks Since 1860
While driving through Arthur’s Pass on the way back to Christchurch, you will pass by the Otira Gorge Rock Shelter, which was constructed to capture and deflect the continuous rockfall. The Reids Fall Aquaduct is also constructed right beside this shelter to prevent flooding of the highway during heavy rainfall.
Do check out the Otira Viaduct Lookout too, which was built to prevent any rockfall hazards.
We encountered several birdwatchers here so if you’re into that, remember to bring your binoculars.
Devil’s Punchbowl Carpark
The only hike we did in Arthur’s Pass National Park was to take a short walk to the base of the 131metres high Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. There are 2 ways to experience this majestic falls – To stand right below or standing from afar.
The latter yielded us much better photos as we could feel the unforgiving splatter of the towering falls up close.
TIp: There is a chance of getting greeted by Keas here!
Afterwhich, we drove back to Christchurch for yet another adventure in the North!
Where we stayed before flying off: AirBnb in Christchurch
That marks the end of our trip in New Zealand South Island. Do remember to adjust your itinerary according to your needs, the season and your driving capability. Feel free to comment or shoot us an email if you think the 7-day itinerary can be improved in any way! We will entertain all legitimate requests!
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