South Island
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South Island Self Drive Touring in Summer

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.

1. Christchurch (the Garden City)

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

2. Kaikoura

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

2a. Blenheim

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.

My picks for Blenheim...
For lunch or wine tasting visit Alan Scott Vineyard (I'm very fond of their chardonnays) Alan Scott
Spend the day cycling around the vineyards with Wine Tours by Bike

Blenheim to Picton is a very short drive on State Highway 1.
Approximate drive time: 30 minutes

3. Picton

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

4. Nelson

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

5. Greymouth

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

6. Fox Glacier

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 guided walk on them or if the budget permits take a scenic helicopter flight and walk on the glacier Mountain Helicopters
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

7. Wanaka

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

8. Queenstown

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

8a. Milford Sound

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

Shorter trip

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.

Longer trip

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

Helpful things to remember to pack:

  • umbrella or light rain coat
  • sunscreen
  • beach towels
  • insect repellent
  • picnic rug
  • basic picnic set (wine opener)
  • camera
  • camping equipment if you plan to camp
  • separate small pack for taking all necessary items for day trips


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 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!

Melissa Evans
Melissa Evans

Melissa Evans lives in Sunny Nelson, New Zealand. She divides her time between being Creative Director at SunRoom Web Design Nelson, writing for KiwiWise and being a Mum to Sophia & Nicky. In her spare time she loves to travel, illustrate and read.

Average Rating:   (15 votes)

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  • posted on 1342935873
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Its a perfect article for someone who wants to do a south island drive tour.

  • posted on 1332123550 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Punakaiki is only 20 minutes drive from Greymouth, so I think your choice would be based on what accommodation you liked best, rather than the location. Both have plenty going for them.

  • posted on 1332081814
    Overall Rating: 9.0 / 10

    Vey good synopsis. Just had one q - if you have day, which is better - greymouth or punakaiki to make your base? Have heard wonderful things about punakaiki

  • posted on 1331343942 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Hi Els, the cost really depends how much you wish to spend/save. If you are prepared to sleep in a tent for example then a typical campsite would be around $15 a night. Cabins at camp grounds that sleep up to 6 are also going save you money. The communal aspect of the camp ground is also nice, after all, the people you meet while travelling are all part of the experience. Our local camp ground in Nelson, Tahunanui is right on a beautiful beach and offers a range of accommodation options

  • posted on 1329302268
    Overall Rating: 9.0 / 10

    Interesting account, Melissa but do you think 4 or 5 senior citizens in their 60s can move around this way? Budgetwise, how much U think tour will incur for ground arrangement? We are planning trip in Sept

  • posted on 1311822902 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    No problems! We might be doing another driving holiday around the South this Summer too. If you are thinking about a motorhome, check out Wilderness Motorhomes. I haven't used them YET, but their "base jumper" 2 berth looks pretty amazing.

  • posted on 1311817078
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Thanks a lot Melissa. You have been very helpful and again, the article is excellent :)

  • posted on 1311808222 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Hi Abhi, New Years in Queenstown would be my pick. The South Island cities all have some sort of celebration events organised but you can't beat Queenstown for atmosphere. The main car rentals I can think of off the top of my head are: Avis, Thrifty, Budget and Jucy Rentals. You can have a look at their prices online and find the best deal that way.

  • posted on 1311791758
    Overall Rating: 8.0 / 10

    Thanks a ton Melissa! Me and my wife are travelling from Los Angeles to South Island Dec 2011 to Jan 2012 and so far your article has been the most helpful. I have a couple of question though: 1. What is the best place on South Island to enjoy New Years at? 2. What is a popular car rental service in New Zealand?

  • posted on 1289896896 0
    Overall Rating: 7.0 / 10

    You can not meet the best hikes in all over the world, without including the Milford Track in the deep South Island of New Zealand. The most dedicated trampers consider the famous Milford Track among the finest anywhere in the world. Four days are required to walk the 54km from Glad Jetty at Lake Te Anau's northern end to Sandfly Point on the western bank of the Milford Sound. The other popular walks in this area are the Hollyford Valley, the Routeburn, and the Kepler.

  • posted on 1261963372 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    While in Fox Glacier, a short trip (6km) to Lake Matheson is a very wise idea particularly if you love photography. Lake Matheson, famous for its picture perfect reflections of Mount Cook & superb views of Fox Glacier. Walking track, award winning café & unique gift gallery. Don't miss this incredible location.

  • posted on 1228862970 0
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Hey Pommie Prince I doubt you'll need a 4WD. You'd only really want to hire a 4WD for winter if you were heading up the mountains for snowboarding. As for surfing spots in the South Island I'd say check out Mangamaunu, Kaikoura on State Highway 1 can be a nice ride. Gore Bay can be great and has a good campground/beach but there is nothing to do there except go to the beach and relax...can also be flat for days on end.

  • posted on 1228762444
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    Cheers for the article! I will be printing this out and taking it with me when my wife and me tour the South Island of New Zealand in January. We are thinking of hiring a 4WD van and having a tent. What are the good surf spots of the South Island?

  • posted on 1224702515 0
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    If you want to see some of the all time best New Zealand scenery then make sure you visit Milford Sound. It will take your breath away and has to be one of the most beautiful areas in the world. I recommend getting to Te Anau and staying the night and then driving on to Milford Sound the next morning. On the way make sure you stop at "Pop's View" which is a viewing platform on a cliff high above the Hollyford Valley. Mirror Lakes are unforgettable and Chasm Walk is a great short walk! Milford Sound is very very popular with the tourists so get there before mid day to avoid the time when all the big tour coaches roll in. Spend the money and take a scenic boat tour.

  • posted on 1222120558 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    I'd recommend if you have a tent or travelling in a campervan to stay at Lake Rotoiti Campground in Nelson Lakes National Park. The lake is great for swimming in, the scenery is stunning, there is lots of tracks to walk in park ranging from short walks to 6 hour return peak tramps, and the campground itself has excellent facilities right on the lake.