Article submitted by holidayLOVER
August 18th, 2008
I am a "Mainlander" (that's a person who lives in the South Island) and have driven and holidayed extensively all around the South Island over the years. I have put this article together as a guide for people who want to do a self drive tour of the South Island.
The amount of time you spend doing this tour is up to you. I have devised a circuit route plan for exploring a majority of the special places of the island. Two weeks plus would be a good amount of time to do the shorter circuit trip and you would want a little longer to do the longer circuit if you intend to stop and enjoy some spots for more than a day.
Hiring a car to explore the South Island is the ideal way to enjoy this summer holiday. Self drive tours offer you the freedom and flexibility to fully explore the beauty of the South Island. If you like a spot you can stay for longer and if the weather is bad you might want to give it a day or two to clear or drive on to the next spot. Lots of the stunning New Zealand scenery is seen on the drives between towns...think "Lord Of The Rings" scenery. The most you would drive in a single day is probably around 5 hours tops including short breaks along the way. If you stop in a a bakery or supermarket before each drive you can enjoy a picnic lunch somewhere beautiful and remote on each drive too. There are picnic spots sign posted along all the major highways.
I would highly recommend you buy the "New Zealand Touring Atlas" by Hema Maps. This is a comprehensive book with all maps you will need plus it has a lot of extra info on the maps, such as walking tracks, camping locations, surfings spots, fishing points, picnic areas and even Lord of The Rings filming locations. You can pick up the "New Zealand Touring Atlas" at bookshops in New Zealand and some petrol stations.
The largest city in the South Island (still incredibly small in comparison to international cities).
My picks for Christchurch...
Take a walk around the Arts Centre, Botanic Gardens, Christchurch Art Gallery and Canterbury Museum (these are all in close walking distance of each other)
Relax on the Avon River with Punting in the Park
Drive to Taylor's Mistake beach for a swim in the surf
Drive to out to the Banks Peninsula and visit Akaroa, a pretty French settlement with lots of eco-tours
If you have some time and enjoy hiking then you should check out Bank Peninsula Track
Christchurch to Kaikoura. This is a nice easy drive just stay on State Highway 1 all the way. Expect to see a lot of rivers and farmland on the Canterbury plains with the Southern Alps in the distance. There is a very windy ascent and then descent before you see the sea of the Kaikoura region. This windy stretch is known as the Hundalees.
Approximate drive time: 3 hours
Internationally known for it's eco-tourism, Kaikoura is THE place to see whales, swim with seals or dolphins, dive, head out fishing or surf. Oh and eating the fresh seafood.
My picks for things to do in Kaikoura...
Eat fish and chips at the beach
Walk the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway and see all the wildlife including seals (walks range from a few minutes to a full day)
Swim with the dolphins with Dolphin Encounter
See the whales with Whale Watch Kaikoura
Go kayaking Kaikoura Kayaks
Swim with seals with Seal Swim Kaikoura
Go fishing with Fish Kaikoura
Kaikoura to Blenheim on State Highway 1. You will pass by some great surf beaches such as Mangamaunu. Seafood lovers should stop and pick up a crayfish, freshly cooked and wrapped in newspaper from Nins Bin, just before Half Moon Bay. Leave the coast behind and head into wine country. Best known internationally for it's sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Approximate drive time: 1.5 hours
One of New Zealand's most famous wine producing regions. I put this as 2a because you can either stop at one of the vineyards for a lunch on your way to Picton, have a small wine tasting and perhaps pick up some more wine for the rest of the trip. Or if you are like me and enjoy a good glass of wine (or three) then you might want to stay the night and continue on to Picton the following day.
Blenheim to Picton is a very short drive on State Highway 1.
Approximate drive time: 30 minutes
A pretty little town where the ferry from the North Island arrives. Picton is good point from which to explore the Marlborough Sounds.
My picks for Picton...
Kayak in the Sounds with Sounds Wild Adventures
See the dolphins and other wildlife with Dolphin Watch Ecotours
Explore the Sounds on a little boat of your own with Waterways Boating Safaris
Popular track with 1 to 5 day walks available Queen Charlotte Track
Picton to Nelson. Take the Queen Charlotte Drive through to Havelock and marvel at the beautiful scenery. This road is windy and a little slow but the views are worth it. There are plenty of lovely picnic spots at tranquil bays, such as Ngakuta Bay. 20 minutes past Havelock you'll reach the Pelorus Bridge. Park your car at the car park before the one lane bridge and have a break. You can have a picnic here, a walk in the native bush or a swim in the crystal clear water.
Approximate drive time: 2 hours
Nelson is my hometown and a fantastic spot in Summer.
My picks for Nelson...
Follow the Maitai River walkway from town all the way to Sunday Swimming Hole and go for a swim
Visit one of the great beaches like Tahunanui Beach or Rabbit Island (great for picnics with coin operated BBQs)
Another stunning beach is Kaiteriteri Beach with it's golden sand
If you are in Nelson on a Saturday make sure you visit the Saturday Market, possibly the best market in the whole of New Zealand.
Take a thrilling 4 person flying-fox ride Happy Valley Adventures
Visit some of the numerous wineries for wine tastings and/or lunch
Visit the famous Abel Tasman Nation Park, either walk it, take a water taxi or launch, kayak it with Kahu Kayaks, sail it with Abel Tasman Sailing or swim with the seals Abel Tasman Seal Swim
Nelson to Greymouth
Take Highway 6, maybe turn off after Korere to Saint Arnaud and have a picnic lunch and swim at Lake Rotoiti (another stunning spot). Murchison is a great spot if you are interested in doing some kayaking or white water rafting (Check out Ultimate Descents). When you reach Inangahua Junction make sure you take Highway 6 so that you head toward Westport. The benefit is you will get to drive down the dramatic West Coast coast line past Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks, which are well worth a visit. Cave Rafting in Charleston with Underwater Adventures is also highly recommended.
Approximate drive time: 5 hours
A town that sprung up with the goldrush in the 1860s, Greymouth is a good base for exploring the surrounding area.
My picks for Greymouth...
Visit Lake Brunner
Take a tour of a brewery producing some delicious beer at Monteith's Brewery
Go cave rafting Underworld Adventures
Learn about the history of the area at Shantytown
Greymouth to Fox Glacier is a great scenic stretch of road
Maybe take a picnic lunch at Lake Kaniere on the way.
Approximate drive time: 3.5 hours
My picks for Fox Glacier...
The glaciers on the West Coast, Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier are amazing. You can do a short walk to see them or take a
See the beauty of the Haast River Haast River Safari
Fox Glacier to Wanaka
This drive will wow you. Fantastic scenery and diverse too. See mountains, short walks from the highway reveal many waterfalls, see Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. The Blue Pools are well worth a stop and also stop at the Gates of Haast.
Approximate drive time: 5.5 hours
Wanaka is a beautiful town on Lake Wanaka. It's a very popular holiday place in summer and winter (when the ski fields open).
My picks for Wanaka...
Go for a walk around the lake and possibly a swim
Go for a scenic horse trek Backcountry Saddle Expeditions
Go river kayaking with Alpine Kayak Guides
Take a flight over the Milford Sound with Wanaka Flightseeing
Wanaka to Queenstown
Take the Crown Range Road for some great views. The road is a little windy but worth it. Approximate drive time: 2 hours
The tourism capital for the South Island in summer and winter. Queenstown is stunning and packed with fantastic tourist activities.
My picks for Queenstown...
Take a walk around the lake and Queenstown Gardens
Travel up the gondola for million dollar views then take the Skyline Luge down
For a holiday experience you'll never forget, do a bungy jump, or a completely insane bungy jump or canyon swing
Take a walk around the charming historic town of Arrowtown with it's gold rush history
Take a wine tour Appellation Central Wine Tours
Go white water rafting with Queenstown Rafting
Queenstown to Milford Sound
More stunning lakes, native bush and walks. Five-Mile Lookout over South Fiord is a must. Take time to stop and take a photo at the Mirror Lakes. You'll pass through the Homer Tunnel which is 1.2km long. This is a fairly remote area so make sure you fill up your petrol tank at Te Anau.
Approximate drive time: 5 hours
Milford Sound is a fjord in the south west of New Zealand's South Island, within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. It has been judged the world's top travel destination in an international survey, and is acclaimed as New Zealand's own most famous tourist destination. Rudyard Kipling had previously called it the eighth Wonder of the World. Fans of Peter Jackson's "Lord of The Rings" will LOVE this drive, you'll find filming locations for "Dead Marshes", "River Anduin", and a short drive to reach "Fangorn Forest".
My picks for Milford Sound...
Go for a nature walk on one of the many tracks including; the Kepler Track, the Routeburn Track, Milford Track or Hollyford Track
Go for a scenic cruise with Mitre Peak Cruises
Milford Sound back to Queenstown.
Then drive through the beautiful MacKenzie Country with stunning alpine vistas from Queenstown to Christchurch. Make sure you have plenty of space left on your camera's memory stick for this part of the drive. See Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain and the milky ultra turquoise blue waters of Lake Tekapo. At Lake Tekapo see the Church of the Good Shepherd which is an extremely pretty stone church with an amazing backdrop of the lake and mountains. This is probably the most famous church in New Zealand for weddings due to the beauty of the location.
Approximate drive times:
Queenstown to Lake Tekapo 3.5 hours
Lake Tekapo to Christchurch 3.5 hours
The drive from Queenstown to Christchurch can be done in a day or you might want to split it into 2 days and stay at Lake Tekapo or take highway 80 to Mt Cook Village. Both Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook Village have a variety of accommodation options for all all budgets.
From Milford Sound to Invercargill via Manapouri on the Southern Scenic Tourist Route. Then Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins. There are numerous walks in the Catlins to enjoy the native forest and waterfalls. Of interest in the Catlins you will find Nugget Point, there is a 20 minute return walking path to the Roaring Bay viewing hide where you can see a vast array of wildlife; seabirds including the rare yellow-eyed penguin, elephant seals, fur seals, and Hooker’s sea lions. Travelling with a surfboard - there are numerous great surf breaks from Papatowai to Kaka Point, Long Point with a left-hand break & Purakaunui Bay a right-break, are meccas for experienced surfers.
Milford Sound to Invercargill
Approximate drive time: 5 hours
Invercargill to Dunedin
Approximate drive time: 3.5 hours
My picks for Dunedin...
Fans of chocolate take a tour of Cadbury World
Fans of beer take a tour of Speight's Brewery
Art fans visit the Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Take a drive out to the Otago Peninsula and see the albatrosses and seals
Dunedin to Christchurch on State Highway 1. You'll pass through Oamaru which is famous for it's Blue Penguin Colony. Check out Caroline Bay in Timaru when you pass through, it's a great place for a picnic lunch or a swim at the beach.
Approximate drive time: 5 hours
Don't pre-book all your accommodation, you might want to stay an extra day somewhere and throw all your plans off. Having said that, I would recommend if you are travelling around the Christmas/ New Years period to book some of your accommodation, particularly for Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Christmas Day and Boxing Day are notoriously quiet, so find a spot with a nice beach to relax for a couple of days and work on your tan or enjoy a book. Also accommodation around Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph can get overrun by tourists around summer so book ahead for these spots. Book hotels/motels through www.wotif.com for THE best bargains. Backpackers are great for the social aspect, a place where you can meet fellow travellers and exchange info. Many backpackers offer some lovely double rooms with ensuites (as well as dorm rooms for the budget minded).
In conclusion I'd just like to add that this is by no means a definitive guide. There are so many great places to visit and amazing things to do in the South Island that I couldn't possibly include everything...this article is long enough already!
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