Hello and welcome to the ultimate 3 Week South Island, New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary! I’m so excited you’re considering a three week (or longer) journey to the South Island of New Zealand. This was my home for five months in 2018, and where I think I’ll eventually end up living.
If you’ve already checked out my 3 Week South Island, New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, you’ll see a lot of repeat information. What you’ll also see, however, are recommendations for some very off-the-beaten-track destinations. These are destinations that don’t get nearly as many visitors as Milford Sound or Wanaka, but still have charm and beauty. Off-the-beaten path destinations like the Catlins and Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula are some of my favourite places. So without further ado, let’s get moving!
South Island, New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary – Logistics
In this guide, we’re going to make a big loop around the island by starting and ending in Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island. Christchurch is an easy airport to fly to and from Auckland, and there are even some direct flights to Australia.
Although it is possible to get by hitchhiking and using public transport, I wouldn’t recommend doing this. By renting a car or camper van you’ll have significantly more freedom to explore destinations off the main highways.
There are a quite a few options for accommodation in the South Island, depending on your budget and desired comfort level.
- Camper Van: Portable and (potentially) very cozy, more expensive than renting a car and also a bit more expensive for gas.
- Car Camping: There are a lot of campsite around New Zealand that you can access with a car, all you need is a tent!
- Hostels: Cities and towns have hostels, which are comfortable and range in price (typically between $25 and $40 NZD for a dorm bed). However, this isn’t the case in some of the really small destinations.
- Airbnb: This was my favourite option, because my boyfriend and I loved meeting Kiwis and getting their recommendations. Plus it’s cheaper than a hostel if you have two people (rooms were as low as $35 NZD for a night, but we typically paid around $50 for the two of us).
- Hotels: There are plenty of options for hotels, but we typically didn’t stay in them because they were the most expensive option and we liked to have our own kitchen).
South Island, New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary – 3 Weeks
In this itinerary, you will swim with dolphins and kayak with seals, go on day hikes and maybe even try out an overnight hike or two. You’ll visit all the main destinations and towns like Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown and Wanaka, but also relax in Akaroa and watch the sunrises on the east coast, take surf lessons and boat cruises.
Day 1: Drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura
Land in Christchurch, pick up your rental car or camper van and get on the road to Kaikoura. Kaikoura is a three hour drive north from Christchurch and situated on the east coast. Compared to Milford Sound or Wanaka, very few people go to Kaikoura. I’d argue that the opportunity to swim with dolphins in the wild, out in the open ocean, makes Kaikoura worth the effort. That being said, if you choose to include this in your itinerary, it’ll still be a relatively quick stop. There’s just so much to do in the South Island.
Arrive in Kaikoura and in the early evening, walk along the Kaikoura Peninsula for some beautiful mountain and ocean views. (Here you can find my complete list of recommendations for Kaikoura).
Day 2: Dolphins in Kaikoura
The early and midday is where the fun in Kaikoura really is. Choose between two wildlife activities:
- Snorkelling with dolphins – This is an absolute must-do; it is easily one of the best experiences of my life. The best part is that you’re out in the ocean with WILD dolphins, not dolphins held in captivity. I wish I had photos of it, but I didn’t have a GoPro at this time. Seriously, this is incredible.
- Whale watching – I’d recommend snorkelling with dolphins over whale watching, but if you have time for both then whale watching is a great activity.
I’d recommend taking an early tour, so you leave yourself plenty of time to drive to your next destination in the mid-late afternoon.
Speaking of your next destination, you’ll be going to Abel Tasman National Park! This is another destination often left off South Island itineraries because it’s far away from Milford Sound and Wanaka. It isn’t far away from Kaikoura though, so we’re making a stop!
You won’t actually be staying in the National Park, but there are plenty of options for accommodation in the towns outside the park. We stayed at this Airbnb and it is in the top two best Airbnbs of my life (mostly because the place is beautiful and the host is incredibly interesting and friendly).
Night: Motueka (the main town outside of Abel Tasman)
Day 3: Kayak in Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is best viewed from the water. I’d highly recommend doing a combined boat-kayak tour to get the most out of the park. If the conditions are right, you may be able to kayak into a secret harbour of baby sea lions.
- Full day kayak and boat cruise – Kayaking is the best way to enjoy the park. The reason I like the combined kayak and boat cruise is that the cruise takes you further away from the town and into the heart of the park, and then you can kayak into the areas the cruise boat can’t access. I’d highly recommend the tour that includes Shag Harbour, where the baby seals play.
What’s really cool about Abel Tasman National Park (and the entire Northwest area of the South Island) is that it looks like a pre-historical jungle. It was actually used to film scenes from Jurassic Park!
Since the kayak tour will take the a good chunk of the day, stay in Moteuka for a second night.
Day 4-6: Drive the West Coast & Visit Glaciers
After Abel Tasman, you’ll make your way to the west coast. Take your time driving down the coast making stops whenever you find something eye-catching. There are a few destinations where you’ll definitely want to stop, and I’ve listed them in the order you’d come across them driving south.
- Punakaiki (pancake rocks) – This is a quick walk you could do in under 30 minutes.
- Hokitaki Gorge Walk – Short walk to a beautiful gorge (650 m each way).
- Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers – There are a number of walks you can do for great views of the glaciers, or you can do a heli-hike for the opportunity to see the glacier from the air and then walk on it. It’s pricey ($500) so I didn’t do it, however it’s the top item on my bucket list for the next time I go to the island.
- Go skydiving – This is another activity I haven’t tried myself (it’s also expensive), but if you can afford it, I’ve heard it’s absolutely incredible. I know you can also go skydiving from Queenstown, but I’ve heard it is better at Fox Glacier.
- Lake Matheson – Check out the mountains’ reflection in this beautiful lake.
Between Motueka and the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers is about 6 hour drive. In the two week itinerary, I recommended doing the drive in one day, with three hour-long breaks. Since you have more time however, you can choose to break the drive up over two days, or just spend an extra day at the glaciers.
Three Nights: Fox or Franz Josef Glacier area
Day 7-9: Explore Wanaka and Queenstown
Wanaka is a three hour drive from the glaciers and the road takes you through Mount Aspiring National Park. Some things to potentially stop for on the drive:
- Blue Pools hike is an easy walk (one hour return trip), but leads to a beautiful swimming spot.
- Blue Valley Track – I haven’t done this walk, although I’ve heard it’s a nice one. It starts at the car park for the Blue Pools, but continues into the valley. It’s 2-3 hours each way, so do a little research on it before attempting.
Once you’ve arrived in Wanaka, there are a few things I’d recommend doing:
- Hike Roy’s Peak – this is that iconic hike you see a thousand photos of on Instagram, but it really is a spectacular view. The majority of people only go up as high as the view point (they take that iconic picture and go back down) – don’t do this! Go to the actual top and you get a much better view! And I highly (HIGHLY) recommend going for sunrise (or sunset).
- Visit the Wanaka Tree – no trip to New Zealand would be complete with out a visit to that Wanaka Tree.
- Paddle on Lake Wanaka – in the late spring-autumn, you can rent a kayak or stand up paddle board from the shore.
If you read the 2-week guide, you’ll know I recommended Wanaka over Queenstown. If you have extra time however, definitely make a stop in Queenstown. There are some great bars and restaurants there, but I’m not a foodie or a drinker, so I’m not one to give recommendations on those.
Three Nights: Wanaka and/or Queenstown
Day 10-12: Kayaking and more in Fiordland National Park
Fiordland (home to Milford Sound) is probably the most popular destination in the South Island. From Queenstown, it’s a two hour drive to Te Anau. Once you reach Te Anau, it’s another two hour drive to Milford Sound, however there are plenty of places to stop along the way (for views, not for services – fill up on gas ahead of time!). You also have the option to take a shuttle bus from Te Anau to Milford Sound because in the summer the drive can get quite congested.
I’d recommend spending a night at Gunn’s Camp, rather than at a campsite, located along the drive from Te Anau and Milford Sound. It’s pricier (we paid $70 for a cabin), but I think it’s very worth it. You’re cozy, right on the river and the couple who runs the place are so friendly and interesting. For your second night, stay in the Milford Sound lodge (a dorm bed is $40 NZD – just make sure you book early). This way, you’re close to Milford Sound to catch the sunrise and/or sunset.
Some things to do in Fiordland include:
- Hike to Lake Marion (3 hours) – best done on a clear day, otherwise you won’t see any of the view at the top.
- Hike Key Summit (3 hours) – also best done on a clear day.
- Join a Boat Cruise through the Milford Sound.
- Go kayaking in the fiord – this was one of the highlights of Milford Sound for me.
- If you have more time, you can go to Doubtful Sound for an overnight kayak trip or overnight boat cruise. I haven’t done either of these, but my friends who have highly recommended them.
Three Nights: Milford Sound
Day 13-14: Waterfalls and more in The Catlins
Here is where the two itineraries deviate. In the 2 Week South Island, New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, you drive directly Mount Cook after Fiordland. However since you have more time we’re going to make stops in Southland and Otago.
After leaving Milford Sound and Te Anau, drive south to The Catlins (see attached map for details) instead. The drive from Milford South to the Catlins is 4 hours, so I’d recommend leaving Milford in the morning, driving to the Catlins, do some exploring and then spend the night in the area. The next day you can do a little more exploring in the Catlins before moving on.
There are dozens of places to explore in the Catlins, and I’ve spent my fair share of time in this area. This map outlines all of the possible destinations you could visit, but here are the ones I’d most recommend.
- Cathedral Caves – When the tide is in, these caves are underwater. But when the tide goes out, you can walk in and around the caves. Be sure the check the website for tide times in advance though – you don’t want to show up and learn the caves are underwater! There is a small park fee (something like $5 NZD).
- Waterfalls – There are a number of nice waterfalls in the Catlins region (Purakaunui and McLean Falls are my favourite). Pure New Zealand outlines them all in this article.
- Nugget Point – This place is especially beautiful at sunrise, but worth a stop any time of day (see below). The lighthouse is a 25 minute walk from the car park on a very easy and well maintains trail.
I’d recommend either camping at Purakaunui Bay or in the town of Owaka.
Night: The Catlins
Day 14-15: Beaches in Dunedin
A little north of The Catlins is the town of Dunedin, my home for five months in 2018. While many people glass over the town, I think there are many great things to do in the area (13 of which I’ve written in this post here).
- Tunnel Beach – From the car park, it’s a twenty minute walk down to the view point (which is really pretty) and you can walk over this land bridge and stare out into the ocean (see photo below). What gives tunnel beach its name however is that you can go through an actual tunnel to get from the cliff shores to a secret little beach. This is a great place for a sunrise.
- Dunedin actually has some of the best beaches I’ve ever been to (Aramoana is another of my favourites).
- Speaking of beaches, St Clair beach is a great place to take some surf lessons.
- Otago Peninsula – The Otago Peninsula has a few great walks, like Lover’s Leap. I’d also recommend going to Sandfly Bay if you want to try spotting some sea lions (remember to stay at least 10 meters away from them).
(Here you can find a complete list of my recommendations for things to do in Dunedin).
Two Nights: Dunedin
East Coast Sunrises
And since you’re spending time on the East Coast again, I’d highly recommend getting up early each day to catch the sunrise (even if it means going back to bed afterwards). Here are some of my favourite destinations for sunrises (plus Nugget Point as mentioned above).
Day 16-18: Hike in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
After some time in Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula, drive from Dunedin to Mount Cook. I would highly recommend driving the route that takes you through the town of Alexandra. I’ve done the Dunedin-Mount Cook drive many, many times and this is by far the most scenic route. It takes a little longer than shooting up the east coast to Timaru, but it is such a nicer drive.
Here are some things to do in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park:
- Take a driving break at Lake Pukaki – there are beautiful views here.
- Check out the Tasman Glacier – To be honest, everyone says to do this walk (it’s only an hour return) but I didn’t find the view that nice. It’s not much of a time investment, so I guess it’s worth checking out, I just didn’t love it myself.
- Hike the Hooker Valley Track – This is a three hour walk, but a very easy one with little elevation change. It gives you beautiful views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mueller Glacier and Hooker Lake.
- If you have time for an overnight hike, go to Meuller Hut (only feasible in the late spring-early fall).
You can camp in the park or there are hotels/inns near the park.
Three Nights: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park area
Day 19-20: Relax in Akaroa
Akaroa (“long harbour”) is a little town outside of Christchurch on the Pacific Coast. Get started early so you can spend the morning/early afternoon driving from Mount Cook to Akaroa (5 hours). If you haven’t already visited it, here is a destination you’ll want to make a stop at on your drive:
- Lake Tekapo – Wonderful lake to make a stop at and take some pictures. If you’re visiting about November, you’ll have the chance to see the beautiful purple lupins.
I will admit that after the dramatic scenery of Milford Sound and Mount Cook (and even Dunedin and the Catlins), Akaroa will feel pretty anti-climatic. There aren’t mountains or stunning beaches or anything. What I like about Akaroa is that it’s a great place to really slow things down and relax a little. Have you ever ended a vacation that was so much go-go-go that you need a vacation afterwards? I have, so I like to spend two days at the end of a trip just chilling before I have to travel again. And Akaroa is great for this.
There are cute shops and some good places to eat and nice cafes. You can take a boat cruise along the entire length of the harbour and see seals and sea lions and albatross.
Two Night: Akaroa
Day 21: Christchurch
From Akaroa, it’s a 25 minute drive to Christchurch. For your last day you can wander around Christchurch (so many great restaurants) and explore the streets before flying out.
Bonus: Stewart Island
I unfortunately didn’t make it to Stewart Island during my time in New Zealand, but I’d be doing you a disservice to not at least mention it. Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third largest island (New Zealand has three islands? Yeah, I didn’t know either). Stewart Island is considerably smaller and almost entirely protected as a National Park/nature reserve. I can’t speak to what you should do or how long you should visit, since I haven’t been there myself, but keep it in mind when you’re planning your trip.
South Island New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary – Additional Resources
What do you think?
Have you been to the South Island before? What did you think of it? Haven’t been but it’s on your list? Comment below if you have questions or just want to chit chat about one of the most beautiful countries in the world!
Note: None of the links in this post are affiliate links, nor have I been compensated by any company for recommending them. These are the things I loved when I was living in New Zealand, and my opinions have not been influenced by anyone or anything.
“This is great, Mikaela, but what if I want to visit the North Island too?” I didn’t spend much time in the North Island, but here is a 2 Week North Island Itinerary that has been recommended to me.