The best way to tour around New Zealand is having your own transportation (even motorbike or bicycle works!). After 2-months on South Island, I still don’t think it’s enough to explore all! This road trip itinerary may not be the “ideal” or “perfect” but it brings you to explore detours where most travellers might have missed.
If you enjoy discovering places less commonly mentioned, this guide might help get you excited on a trip to one of the world’s most utterly beautiful regions.
After spending 1-week in Queenstown, we are hitting the road!
Week 1: Queenstown – Omarama – Mount Cook – Tekapo – Ashburton – Oamaru – Moeraki – Dunedin
This small township marks the end of a journey through the spectacular Lindis Pass through the alpine tussock lands and the beginning of your journey to Lake Tekapo and Aoraki Mt Cook (or vice versa).
Located about 4-kilometers north of Omarama is a range of staggering natural land forms with beautiful pastel colours known as Clay Cliffs. They are on private land thus you’ll have to pay a small admission fee (NZ$5 per car) into a honesty box.
A tranquil, deep lake beautifully positioned amid rugged terrain, Lake Ohau is often missed been seen by passing traffic. We were the only humans when we arrived, definitely more peaceful compared to batches of tourists getting off at Lake Pukaki.
If you’re a salmon lover like us, be sure to stop by High Country Salmon for a fresh salmon meal.
Accommodation: Lake Poaka Campsite (Free)
Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
Home of the highest mountains and the longest glaciers, Mount Cook National Park is among some of the most sought after wilderness in the southern hemisphere. You don’t need to be a world class mountaineer as there are lots of beginner trails in this park. All you need is a bit of fitness, proper outdoor wear and an enthusiastic sense of adventure.
One of the easiest yet gorgeous walks on South Island, Hooker Valley Track is a 10-kilometers round trip (2-3 hours return) of a mostly very flat track and 3 suspension bridges crossing. The track ends with an amazing view over the iceberg-speckled Hooker Lake and up to majestic Aoraki/Mount Cook and the Southern Alps.
Considering Hooker Valley is the most popular track in this park, my advice is to go either really early in the morning or at sunset to beat the crowds.
If Hooker Valley Track is not challenging for you, try Sealy Tarns (3-4 hours return) or Mueller Hut (3-5 hours one way).
The Tasman Glacier, located within the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, is New Zealand’s largest and longest glacier – covering a total area of 101-square kilometers and spanning 27-kilometers in length. It only takes less than 30-minutes up-hill walk in exchange for a viewpoint that looks down on a long, milky-colored lake. Quite a deal if you ask me!
Lake Pukaki is the largest of three alpine lakes (followed by Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau) in the Mackenzie Basin on New Zealand’s South Island. This bright turquoise lake is due to glacial flour, made from extremely fine rock particles that have come from the surrounding glaciers.
Only 5-minutes’ drive from the State Highway 8 turnoff on the scenic road to Aoraki/Mount Cook, you’ll pass by the largest certified organic lavender farm in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand Alpine Lavender. We stopped by on our way out for their signature real fruits ice cream with lavender essence.
Accommodation: White Horse Hill Campground (NZ$15/adult)
About 30-minutes drive from Lake Pukaki, this small town that has long been a Kiwi favourite holiday destination is now reaching international visitors. Tekapo is one of those places that’ll steal your heart without you even realizing and have you dreaming of coming back time and time again.
Driving along Burkes Pass, we can’t help but noticed a vintage warehouse. Three Creeks is a trading store providing a wide range of artworks, crafts, gifts, retro collectibles, wooden furniture, and much more.
If you love farm animals and get close to alpacas, don’t miss The Tin Shed located 15-kilometers north-east of Geraldine township. Of course, the main business of this place is selling New Zealand-made wool clothing and sheep skin products.
Ashburton is a major town that serves the surrounding farming district in Canterbury. If you have a thing for handicraft items, Ashford Village is the place for you. There are six museums in Ashburton, including a vintage railway museum, aviation museum and car museum. Lastly, enjoy a delicious hot pie at Sims’ Bakery.
Accommodation: Ashburton Holiday Park (NZ$32/2pax)
Oamaru is one of the South Island’s quirkiest towns with its impressive collection of Victorian buildings. This is a great place to savor an exotic-flavored ice-cream from Deja Moo while breathing in the old-world atmosphere at Victorian Precinct. Oamaru is the only place we get a glimpse of little blue penguins.
Accommodation: Top 10 Holiday Park Oamaru (NZ$20/adult)
Before arriving at Moeraki Boulders Beach, I would highly recommend to stop by at Vanessa’s Cottage cafe for a delicious pie! Trust me, it’s worth it and cheaper to eat than in Moeraki.
A small fishing town now famous for its spherical boulders on Koekohe Beach, Moeraki has became a must-stop town to see these bizarre geological phenomenon. Some theory says that the Moeraki Boulders are alien eggs and the cracked boulders are eggs that have already hatched.
Since you are already here, you MUST NOT miss having a meal at Fleurs Place. Honored by global chefs for its just-caught seafood, this tiny rustic restaurant focused entirely on flavor. This is our most expensive meal throughout our stay in New Zealand but we never regret at all.
Reservation is highly recommended. (+64 3 439 4480)
Accommodation: Herbert Forest Campground (NZ$12.50/adult)
Shag Point is just a 15-minutes drive from Moeraki with cliff-top viewing areas allowing you to observe fur seals behavior without disturbing their rest.
Stood facing the sea, Matanaka is thought to be New Zealand’s oldest surviving farm with simple red-brown buildings that are still in their original position in the country.
Access to Matanaka is through a private property so you can only walk on designated track and restricted to other parts of the farm.
Stretch your legs and enjoy a short walk along Huriawa Peninsula. The Huriawa Historic Reserve is a 2.4-kilometers loop track overlooking the mouth of the Waikouaiti River.
Known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand, Dunedin is the second largest city of the south, with a whiff of Scottish heritage hangs in the cool air. Try finding 28 decorated walls on Dunedin’s Street Art Trail, check out historic architecture such as Dunedin Railway Station, drive along Otago Peninsula to spot some rare wildlife. There are tons of free adventure activities make Dunedin a budget backpacker’s best friend.
Accommodation: Leith Valley Holiday Park (NZ$22/adult)
Week 2: Dunedin – The Catlins – Bluff – Invercargill – Riverton
Arguably our favourite part of the road trip, The Catlins region is made up of Southeastern strip from Balclutha to Invercargill (or vice versa). It is a less travelled route as most travellers cut across from Dunedin to the Fiordlands and the Sounds.
Accommodation: Kaka Point AA camping grounds (NZ$17.50/adult) / Papatowai DOC Campsite (NZ$8/adult)
Bluff is the oldest European town in New Zealand, home to the finest oysters in the world and the gateway to Stewart Island. We didn’t get to try those yummy oysters because we were too early for the harvesting season, and we did not travel to Stewart Island due to its exorbitant ferry price.
Nevertheless, don’t miss the iconic landmark at Stirling Point and be prepared to get blown away up at Bluff Hill.
Invercargill is the regional capital and largest city in Southland region. It is also New Zealand’s southernmost city – and one of the southernmost cities in the world. Fondly dubbed the “City of Water and Light”, Invercargill is the place to try your luck catching appearances of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).
Visiting the Queens Park is the best free activity to do in Invercargill. Not only does it comprises a wide range of plants (native and international), it has an impressive bird aviary, farmyard area, and animal enclosures. If you arrive at the right season (March – August), don’t miss the world’s finest oyster at Barnes Wild Bluff Oysters.
Demolition World is an eerily, charming gem that take you on a journey back through time into a world entirely constructed from demolished buildings and recycled items. There’s no fee to look around, but a donation in a box is much appreciated.
Accommodation: Beach Road Holiday Park (NZ$15/adult)
A small town 30-kilometers west of Invercargill, Riverton is the oldest Pākehā settlement in Southland and one of the earliest European settlements in New Zealand. The exquisite Te Hikoi Southern Journey Heritage Museum provides engaging insights of the unique and dramatic history of Māori and European settlement in the area. Take a break at Postmaster Bakery before hitting the road!
Colac Bay is a 10-minutes drive westward from Riverton. The bay is very popular for surfing for all levels. The Colac Bay Classic, a surf competition for all ages, is held annually in the bay.
Accommodation: Riverton Holiday Park (NZ$15/adult)
Week 3: Riverton – Te Anau – Wanaka – Fox Glacier – Franz Josef Glacier – Hokitika – Punakaiki
There’s a few short stops you can make along the 151-kilometers road from Riverton to Te Anau:
- Gemstone Beach – Try finding semi-precious gems like garnet, quartz and nephrite
- McCracken’s Rest – A lookout perched on the edge of the cliff with commanding views of Te Waewae Bay
- Clifden Suspension Bridge – Longest suspension bridge in NZ
- Lake Manapouri – Another beautiful lake surrounded by Kepler Mountains, Turret Range and the Hunter Mountains
Labeled as “the Walking Capital of the World”, Te Anau is the perfect base to explore New Zealand’s largest national park. Apart from the Great Walks, one of the most popular (and costly) activities to do here is the ferry to Milford Sound.
Due to the heavy downpour few weeks back, the road to Milford Sound has been closed. We were lucky that the road was reopened again 2-days before we arrived at Te Anau. The downside was, only tourist buses are allowed to be on the road as they trying to minimize the number of vehicles while fixing the roads. All walking tracks were closed as well.
We did not use popular tour agency like Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries. Instead, we went with whatever tour the holiday park staff has offered us. It turned out that taking a tour bus seems to be a better option as it was a long, winding drive. Not to mention that the parking fee is expensive at Milford Sound (NZ$10/hour).
Accommodation: Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park (NZ$25/adult)
Another popular destination for water sports, Wanaka is a magnet for travellers who want the perfect combination of outdoor adventure and seriously good food and wine. Compared to Queenstown, I prefer Wanaka more due to it’s chill vibe and lesser crowds.
If you only have time to visit one lavender farm, I would highly recommend Wanaka Lavender Farm. For NZ$10 (December – February), you get to access to lavender farm, display gardens and animal farm.
Fancy doing some brain exercise? Head over to Puzzling World to get your head messed up by puzzles, illusions and mazes!
Accommodation: Lake Outlet Wanaka (NZ$14/adult)
The drive from Wanaka to the West Coast passes through incredible variety and breathtaking scenery. This route was a traditional pathway for Maori journeying west in search of pounamu (greenstone). There are certainly a few stops you mustn’t miss along the drive from Wanaka to Fox Glacier:
- Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka Lookout
- Blue Pools Track – Unique blue color pools caused by light refraction on the clear and icy cold water (45-minutes return)
- Fantail Falls – 23-meters fan-shaped waterfall tumbling into the Haast River (10-minutes return)
- Gate of Haast – One of the three passes where a road crosses over the Southern Alps
- Roaring Billy Falls – We missed the fall but we heard it’s incredible
- Knights Point Lookout – Viewing platform overlooking the coast towards Arnott Point, a resting area for New Zealand fur seals and occasionally elephant seals
Note: The West Coast region is full of ferocious sandflies!
We did not manage to do Fox Glacier as the access road was closed due to floods.
Lake Matheson was formed about 14,000 years ago, when the Fox Glacier retreated from its last major advance towards the sea and left a depression which later filled with water. On a clear day, it creates stunning reflections of New Zealand’s highest peaks – Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. We were there on a misty, rainy day which left us nothing much to view.
There is an unofficial/unsigned glow worms forest along Minnehaha Walk. Look for a brown signage pointing towards “Glacier Valley Cycleway Walkway” and enter the path. No doubt it’s going to be dark, but i would recommend not to keep walking with flashlight on. Find a spot filled with mosses (it’s everywhere) without blocking the walkway, switch off your flashlight and let your eyes accustom to the darkness. Let the magic appear in front of you.
Accommodation: Fox Glacier Lodge (NZ$20/adult)
Franz Josef Glacier
A trip to West Coast would not be complete without visiting Franz Josef Glacier. For those with tighter purse strings like us, the only way to view the glacier for free is by doing a 1.5-hour walk from Franz Josef Glacier car park.
This is another occurrence that proved how much damage humans has been doing to our Mother Earth.
Hokitika is the town to go to bring a piece of pounamu back home. We spent half a day visiting shop after shop just to get the “perfect” one for ourselves. Not only can you see master carvers working on the stones at their workshop, you can even design and polish your own gemstone.
Shop till hungry? Try Fat Pipi Pizza just in front of Hokitika iconic driftwood signpost!
Accommodation: Shining Star Hokitika (NZ$16/adult)
On the way, enjoy refreshing locally brewed beer at Monteith’s Brewery in Greymouth. Not sure what to drink? Get a tasting tray and try a different variety of beers.
Make a stop at Pancake Rocks – remarkable layers of natural limestone sculpted by rain, wind and sea from more than 30-million years ago.
Accommodation: Punakaiki Beach Camp (NZ$18/adult)
Week 4: Punakaiki – Nelson Lakes National Park – Richmond – Abel Tasman National Park
Nelson Lakes National Park
After seeing so many lakes, we planned to briefly pass through Nelson Lakes National Park. After making our way to Lake Rotoroa, we were once more being mesmerized by the beauty of the lake. We will be back in near future to cover the walks with more preparation against the sandflies.
With its ideal location at the tip of the South Island, Richmond is an awesome base to explore Nelson Tasman region. The district’s three national parks – Nelson Lakes, Abel Tasman and Kahurangi – are all within an hour’s drive radius from the town.
- Centre of NZ Monument – Stand right on top the middle of New Zealand (30-minutes return)
- Jens Hansen The Ringmaker – Take a look at The One Ring
- Isel Park – Don’t miss Isel Twilight Market on every Thursday from 4.30p.m.
- The Brook Waimarama Sanctuary – Take note that they only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (NZ$15/adult)
- Pic’s Peanut Butter World – Book a free peanut butter factory tour!
- Rabbit Island – Nope, there’s no rabbits here and you get the place almost by yourself
Accommodation: Queen Street Holiday Park (NZ$35/2 adults)
Abel Tasman National Park
You probably need at least 3-days to explore this region. With warm climate, this is the perfect place to do kayaking on crystal clear sea and tramping across the national parks.
- Jester House Cafe – Enjoy a fairy tale dinning experience without burning a hole in your pocket
- Hawkes Lookout – Be rewarded with panoramic views of the Riwaka Valley and Tasman Bay (10-minutes return)
- Rawhiti Cave – More than a million years old cave translated as “Sunrise” Cave (1-hour one way)
- Wainui Falls – The largest and most accessible fall in Golden Bay (1-hour return)
- Skinner Point / Goat Bay – Easiest walk in Abel Tasman National Park (1-hour return)
- Te Waikoropupu Springs – The largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere (15-minutes return)
- Golden Bay Lookout