Things to do in New Zealand South Island itineraries & planning
By Helen Wright
I finally ticked off a major bucket-list item and got to follow one of the epic New Zealand South Island itineraries I’ve been daydreaming about for years. Anyone who follows me on Instagram (@passportstampsuk) will already know that we loved our self-driving tour of New Zealand and it completely exceeded expectations. There are so many things to do in New Zealand South Island, it’s the perfect place for an amazing road trip. Here, we have put together our South Island New Zealand itinerary so you can plan your own adventure to New Zealand in 2021.
For a video of life on the road in NZ, see our three-part vlog series on YouTube.
New Zealand South Island itineraries: Things to do in New Zealand South Island
Itinerary, Picton to Queenstown
For this trip, we rented a Jucy Cabana Camper van and drove from the Bay of Islands in the North Island, finishing in Queenstown in the South Island. This, full, itinerary is perfect if you are planning a month itinerary to New Zealand.
If you’ve just joined us, this post forms PART TWO of our ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary and covers things to do in New Zealand SOUTH ISLAND. Click here to view the itinerary from the beginning (Auckland / Bay of Islands). For a less detailed list of everywhere we stayed on both islands, click here)
Take the ferry from Wellington (North Island) to the South Island, from Wellington to Picton.
THE INTERISLANDER FERRY
We took the Interislander ferry to the South Island, which was NZD $208 / £108 per camper. The journey is actually three-hours, which surprised me. I thought it would be a lot shorter (which says more about my world geography than anything else…). The ferry is fully equipped with basic shops, a café and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating to enjoy the cruise . And like everywhere else in New Zealand, the view was stunning.
Drive from Picton to Abel Tasman National Park (Marahau): 3hr 30min
things to do in New Zealand South Island:
ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
Where we stayed:
POHARA BEACH TOP 10 HOLIDAY PARK
Since, when we arrived it was pitch black, this site was a real treat to wake up to. Situated at the north of Abel Tasman and on the coast of Golden Bay, we were treated to a sweet spot adjacent to the beach. The camp was simple, immaculately maintained and very trusting (we had to leave our fee on the reception desk). The beach was blissfully serene and unspoilt and, incredibly, we had the whole stretch to ourselves.
Abel Tasman National Park is one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island. From here, it’s a short drive to the Farewell Spit – the northernmost point in the South Island. We drove as far as we could and then took a gentle hike to the vista for the Cape Farewell arch (cutting through a sheep field), for a picnic on the edge of the cliff.
Drive to Marahau (Abel Tasman): 1hr 30min
Things to do in New Zealand South Island
ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK (MARAHAU)
Where we stayed:
This was one of our favourite stops on the South Island New Zealand Itinerary. The campsite was a departure from the neat and tidy holiday parks we were used to after our regular stays with the Top 10 group. It had a more rustic feel, boosted by a great atmosphere and eccentric manager Rhonda – who we bonded with over Coronation Street! Our pitch looked over some wild scrubland and across to the coast, with a family of horses for neighbours. It was glorious.
By now, we were itching to get out on the water so we rented a kayak with Abel Tasman Kayaks, just a short drive from The Barn. We paddled (not particularly quickly) for 40 minutes before settling for lunch on the secluded Observation Beach. For a while we were the only ones on the water, which was an incredible feeling. Cruising up to a ‘desert island’ with the sun on our shoulders is the stuff travel dreams are made of – definitely one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island.
Drive to Marlborough: 3hr 15min
I think one of my early motivations for coming to New Zealand was, basically, to drink wine, so a stop in Marlborough was essential. We picked up a guide to the Marlborough Wine Trail, stopping at a few wineries to sample the goods at the cellar door. Our favourite was Rock Ferry Wines. The setting was beautiful with lush gardens, a tour of the vines and a sunny tasting room. We left with more than enough bottles to last at least a few days…at least!
Conscious we still had so much to see, we didn’t stay overnight in Marlborough and decided to use the evening to make some headway and push forward to our next stop. We arrived late and went straight to bed meaning we could get up early and seize the day.
Our pick of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island itineraries
Drive from Marlborough to Kaikoura: 3hr drive
WHALE WATCHING IN KAIKOURA
Where we stayed:
ALPINE PACIFIC MOTEL AND HOLIDAY PARK
There is a Top 10 in Kaikoura but the prices were unusually high and so we decided to go elsewhere, opting for this small but handy site very close to the main town. We didn’t have time to indulge, but there was a decent-sized pool and hot tubs, plus motel rooms if you fancy a break from your camper. We arrived pretty late and weren’t fussy about what we ate, heading to the first place we found. Luckily we managed to stumble across this delicious pizza place – Black Rabbit Pizza. Fantastic food, a menu of local wines and a real bonus after a long drive!
This was the day I woke up like a kid at Christmas as we were going whale watching. This has to be one one the very best things to do in New Zealand South Island and I was so excited. We booked an excursion with Whale Watch Kaikoura. They have a 95% success rate for spotting a whale in the wild year-round and offer an 80% refund if you don’t. Can’t argue with that!
We did spot an amazing Giant Sperm Whale as he came to the surface twice. It was incredible – I was so happy I burst into tears! We also saw hundreds of dolphins that were chasing our boat and playing in the waves. It was a day I will remember forever. It was beautiful.
View our self driving tour New Zealand video here!
A little further down the coast is the Ohau Point Seal Colony, a great opportunity to spot New Zealand fur seals just chilling out by the sea. We were not expecting to see them and so imagine our surprise to stumble across loads of the little guys curled up in the grass, playing on the rocks and sunbathing. Be sure not to approach the seals or interact with them in any way to avoid scaring them or threaten their comfort within their natural environment.
In the afternoon, we went in search of the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ, an legendary street-food hut selling delicious fresh crayfish, which has been in residence since 2003. With plastic tables next to the bay, seriously good grub and the sun on our shoulders, it had pretty much been the perfect day. The fun is finding this place, but in the name of good seafood, we’ll give you the address – 85 Fyffe Quay, Kaikoura 7300.
Drive to Christchurch: 3hr
Where we stayed:
CHRISTCHURCH TOP 10
This was a big site with ample space plus hotel rooms and cabins, but still managed a local, friendly welcome. Use of the indoor hot tub (free for guests) was a real perk. There was a choice of kitchens here and they were spacious and immaculate.
Sad to say we didn’t get a chance to explore Christchurch properly because we were getting a little fatigued and fancied a rest and some time to catch up on editing our videos, so we opted to hang out at the campsite rather than spend the day exploring. Such is the travel blogger life at times!
Things to do in New Zealand South Island
A lot of people had recommended Arthur’s Pass, the highest and most beautiful pass across the Southern Alps. We were headed south and didn’t have time to drive (or hike) across the park but we really wanted to see it. After so much time on the road, we decided to leave the van behind and take in the scenery by train on the Kiwi Rail TranzAlpine railway. A return ticket from Christchurch to Greymouth on the west side of the country is NZD $358 / £189 and the views were sensational. Certainly, this is one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island. We found out that this is often voted one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world and we can see why. The landscape was breathtaking and the view from the train unrestricted. It was on the costly side for our budget but it was absolutely worth doing, we had a really good day and met some fun people on board.
Drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: 3hrs
Originally we had planned to follow a different of the New Zealand South Island itineraries, but we changed our minds at the last minute and I am so glad we did. The actual drive to Lake Tekapo was stunning and it ended up being the most beautiful place we camped overnight on the whole trip.
Where we stayed:
This privately-owned, quiet campsite couldn’t be in a better location for stunning views across the lake. Facilities were small and simple, but clean and tidy. Staggered pitches up a hill meant everyone could wake up to that million-dollar view.
Turquoise Lake Tekapo is framed by the southern alps and is a display of New Zealand’s natural beauty at its finest. The area forms part of a UNESCO dark sky reserve, which means it’s one of the best places in the world to view the stars. For the best way to get a glimpse at cosmos, Earth and Sky operate a night tour, which includes a trip to the Mt. John observatory and a peak through a giant telescope. We must thank Fraser Gunn for use of his amazing night sky images on our video – more from Fraser can be found at astroimage.co.nz
The following day we hiked up Mt. John for a panoramic view of the lake and the alps. Don’t miss Lake Tekapo, one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island and, in fact, the whole of the country (which isn’t short of stunning places to see).
the best things to do in New Zealand South Island
Drive to Mt. Cook: 1hr 15min
MT. COOK NATIONAL PARK
Where we stayed:
WHITE HORSE HILL CAMPGROUND
This was our first experience at a government campground and it was absolutely fine. There is no kitchen here, just a covered area for preparing food. No shower and only basic (flushing) toilet facilities, but the location was absolutely perfect. The site is situated in a valley completely surrounded by mountains and operates on an honesty policy (although the wardens do random checks so you could incure a penalty if you don’t pay). You leave your registration number and fee in an envelope and post into a locked box. There are no set bays, just park where you fancy sleeping for the night, it’s as easy as that!
The nearby Kea Point Walk is easily accessible from the campground. It’s an easy uphill hike that leads the way to a viewing point offering views of the Southern Alps and the Mueller Glacier lake.
This was a definite highlight from a trip that already had so many ‘must-do’ aspects but doing a glacier hike is one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island. We spent the day at the Tasman glacier with Mt. Cook Ski Planes. Just viewing the mountain – which actually doubled as Mt. Doom in The Lord of The Rings – from the base was pretty epic but we were very excited to take our first ever flight in a ski plane over the mountain, landing on the mid snowfields of the Tasman glacier. It was breathtaking. We were the only people up there and it felt as though we were on the top of the world. It was truly euphoric. (Tasman Experience NZD $339/ £178).
After a brief stop for lunch we were back at base and getting kitted up for a Heli Hike on the Tasman glacier. This involved flying to a safe spot on the glacier by heicoper and then ‘hiking’ back down with crampons and walking poles. I was beside myself with happiness. The glacier hike wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be and the whole day epitomized why I wanted to come to New Zealand to begin with – a chance to experience the incredible landscape first hand and I couldn’t think of a better place to do it. Don’t miss Mt. Cook from your New Zealand South Island itineraries, it is sensational.
Drive to Wanaka: 2hrs 15min
We had penciled in Wanaka as a convenient midway point between Mt.Cook and Te Anau, but as was becoming increasingly common for New Zealand, it made for another beautiful stop on New Zealand South Island itineraries.
Where we stayed:
WANAKA TOP TEN HOLIDAY PARK
Another picturesque campground with stunning views and really good facilities. The shower and laundry here were clean and spacious and it had a really good kitchen with a lot of ovens and a large range of utensils! Our spot overlooked Lake Wanaka and, again, made for a perfect pitch. After a few adrenaline packed days, this was another place we opted to relax and just chill out by our van for the day.
Drive to Te Anau: 3hr
This drive took us past The Remarkables, the mountain range just south of Queenstown, and down to the gateway for our next stop, Milford Sound – one of the most popular things to do in New Zealand South Island
Where we stayed?
TE ANAU TOP TEN HOLIDAY PARK
This camp had the feel of living in someone’s back garden but the cute corners and manicured lawns were very sweet. It was in a good location to be able to nip into town, pick up some groceries and book our sailing trip for the next day.
Drive to Mirror Lakes: 50 mins
The mirror lakes, so named due to the perfect reflection of the mountains above, were stunning. But along with Hot Water Beach, this got top score for the most touristy spot we visited on our South Island New Zealand itinerary. Even though we were there quite early, we were shoulder to shoulder with crowds spilling off a line of coaches so don’t go expecting the perfect spot to sit and ‘reflect’ (excuse the pun…) As stunning as it was, we were in and out of the van pretty quickly to avoid getting bashed by rouge selfie sticks and backpacks.
Drive to Milford Sound: 1hr
This drive takes you through the incredible landscape of the Fiordland and the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2km-long tunnel carved through solid rock. Completion of the tunnel took 19 years! Before it opened in 1954 there was no road access to Milford Sound. I found that pretty cool. You will also pass cavernous switchbacks, waterfalls and flowing rivers, so the drive is pretty epic.
We took the Southern Discoveries Nature Cruise (NZD $65 / £34) which sailed the sounds with an audio tour (but we didn’t listen to much of it as we were too busy running around the boat taking pictures). The route takes you under Stirling Falls – but be careful you might get wet! It also stopped at the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory – hidden underneath the surface at Harrison Cove.
Te Anau to Queenstown
Drive: Te Anau to Queenstown: 2hrs 10 minutes.
Where we stayed:
QUEENSTOWN TOP TEN
If you are using sat nav to get to this park, be careful as I believe it moved locations a few years ago and we ended up in the wrong place! This holiday park had a definite, younger backpacker vibe than the others but it was still quiet – no rowdy teenagers! The kitchen area was huge, with ample space to cook and eat dinner. There was even a camp cat that Simon was very fond of. The site is a little out of the main town of Queensland but a free shuttle bus operates all day (until around 11pm).
Often called the ‘capital of fun’, Queenstown didn’t disappoint and there was so much to do, although we didn’t have the funds left to do everything we wanted! My bungy days are long gone (I did my first one when I was 15) but Queenstown is home to the original, infamous AJ Hakett Kawarau Bridge Bungy so the real thrillseekers might want to start there (NZD $205 per one adult jump).
We opted for the slightly tamer but equally as exciting ‘World’s Steepest Zipline’ with ZipTrek Eco Tours. The Kea 6-line tour (NZD $189 / £99), zips through the forest canopy that overlooks Queenstown and was really good fun. I liked this company as they had a really strong ecotourism message about sustainability and the environment which, after spending such an incredible month enjoying New Zealand’s natural beauty, really resonated.
In the afternoon we couldn’t resist a cheeky ride on the Thunder Jet, jet boat, zipping down the Kawaru river doing 360º turns, – the ultimate joy for two big kids. Pretty much every activity on offer in Queenstown is on the list of every adventure-seeker’s things to do in New Zealand South Island.
As expected, Queenstown had a great atmosphere and after staying in some pretty remote places, we fully embraced the nightlife and city offerings.
Drive to Glenorchy: 45 min
It was our last day in New Zealand after what was, without question, the best trip of our lives. Wanting to make the most of our time left, we booked to do something really special in the rustic town of Glenorchy. It’s fair to say you won’t find this on many New Zealand South Island itineraries because it’s pretty remote and with so much going on in Queenstown, it can get overlooked. This location is often cited as the ‘middle earth’ depicted in the Lord of The Rings Trilogy and filming actually took place here over three years. We explored the area on horseback with Dart Adventures on the River Wild Tour (formally called The Ride of the Rings – which is a much better name in my opinion…). It was gorgeous. As well as being able to take in breathtaking views of one of New Zealand’s three world heritage areas, it was an opportunity to really reflect on our month here and how lucky we were to experience so much and create so many lasting memories.
Sad news! We have reached the end of our guide to New Zealand South Island itineries, featuring the best things to do in New Zealand South Island. We had hoped to visit Dunedin too but sadly there just wasn’t enough time. A less detailed list of our route and all the places we stayed can be found here. I really hope you enjoyed reading our itinerary and that you have as amazing a time in New Zealand as we did. If you found this article helpful, please help us keep doing our thing by following us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (but preferably all three). We’ve worked really hard to make sure this guide is accurate, user-friendly and entertaining. Building an online community is critical to the future of our site.
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