Have you been searching for the ultimate two week New Zealand South Island itinerary but can’t seem to find the right one? Not to sound arrogant or anything, but this could be the post for you! I’ll take you through some two week South Island itinerary options and will help you decide where to spend your time on your next trip to New Zealand.
New Zealand South Island Itinerary
New Zealand’s South Island may seem small, but with countless breathtaking landscapes crammed into it you’ll soon realise there is so much to see. No matter how long you have you won’t see it all — but I’ll run you through some of the highlights to help make your trip planning a little easier. Iv’e written full posts about heaps of the places mentioned below — click on the links for more details!
I give some suggestions on how long to stay in each place but it really depends on you — you might want to spend longer in some places and skip through other places quicker. It’s a pretty packed itinerary and some people may find it too rushed — just skip one or two places and it should be fine! There’s also a lot of driving, but most of it is fun driving — there’s always something new to see and there are nice places to stop along the way. If you’re travelling in summer (or late spring / early autumn) the days are really long so you can fit heaps into one day of travel (it doesn’t get dark until after 9 pm in the summer).
Marlborough Sounds (1 night)
If you’re driving over from Wellington (at the bottom of the North Island) you’ll arrive in Picton, the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, on the ferry. If you’re flying into Christchurch or Queenstown the route you’ll take will be quite different but you should be able to see all the same places (more on that later though). The Marlborough Sounds are home to some of New Zealand’s most scenic coastal roads and a couple of days exploring the various bays, winding roads and viewpoints should be on everyone’s New Zealand South Island itinerary. I’d spend some time in Picton and do the Tirohanga Track where you’ll get an awesome view of town and Queen Charlotte Sound. Also do the Snout Track if you have time or just hangout at one of the beaches close to town.
From there drive along Queen Charlotte Drive towards Nelson and pick either the road to Titirangi Bay (and several points along the Queen Charlotte Track) or the road to French Pass and Bulwer. Both roads pass by spectacular views of the Marlborough Sounds and there are various short walks to do on both roads. If you only have two weeks in the South Island you’ll probably only have time to drive one of these roads — if I had a gun to my head I’d pick the road to French Pass and Bulwer.
Abel Tasman National Park (1 night)
The Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” and will take you 3-5 days to complete. Luckily you can see some of the best bits on a day walk. From the Marlborough Sounds drive towards Motueka and then over the hill to Takaka. You’re now in Golden Bay, but head to Totaranui Beach (stopping off at Wainui Falls) and you’ll be right in the heart of Abel Tasman National Park. From Totaranui Beach you can walk in either direction to some of New Zealand’s top beaches (Anapai Bay / Goat Bay).
West Coast (3 nights)
From Golden Bay I’d recommend driving to Punakaiki on the West Coast (4-5 hour drive). The “Pancake Rocks” in Punakaiki are cool to see and there’s some nice coastal scenery on the “Great Coast Road”. From there drive down to Hokitika to see the Hokitika Gorge and then down to Fox Glacier. This little township would be a good place to spend the night (there’s also a camping spot nearby at Gillespies Beach).
The Fox Glacier Track is a nice short walk and Lake Matheson, with the Southern Alps reflecting in its (hopefully) mirror-like water, has to be one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand. From there travel down the coast to Franz Josef where you’ll see another glacier and some waterfalls (on the same track) and glow worms (if you happen to be there at night obviously).
West Coast to Wanaka
The drive from the West Coast (Haast) to Wanaka involves some great scenery, including a few waterfalls (Thunder Creek Falls, Roaring Billy Falls, Fantail Falls) and the Blue Pools (a little section of river with really clear water). It takes around 2 hours if you rarely stop so plan on spending a bit longer on the road.
Wanaka (2 nights)
Roys Peak is the main highlight in Wanaka but there are heaps of other hikes in the area, including Isthmus Peak, Rocky Mountain and (a bit further afield) Rob Roy Glacier. There are also some nice sections of beach and a slightly overrated tree standing alone in the shallow waters of Lake Wanaka. The town itself is also cool — you’ll find some decent places to eat and drink and it’s small enough to get around on foot.
Queenstown (2 nights)
Queenstown, New Zealand’s tourism hotspot, is a short drive from Wanaka. If you’re into hiking and / or scenic roads you’ll love Queenstown (its outskirts at least). The town itself is a jumble of shops, bars, restaurants, cafes and hotels — but at least the views are nice! The small beach right in town is a nice place sit and relax — maybe with a famous Fergburger in hand — and you can also take a trip up the gondola (or walk) to see the whole place from above.
If you’re in Queenstown for a couple of days I’d recommend doing some of the hikes (Queenstown Hill / Ben Lomond) as well as a trip to Arrowtown on one day and then do the drive to Glenorchy, Paradise and Kinloch on the other day. Of course Queenstown is most well known as New Zealand’s adventure capital, so you can fit in a bout of jet boating or bungee jumping on either day.
Milford Sound (1 night)
Did you watch the recent Alien: Covenant movie? I did, although all I can remember is that part of it was filmed at Milford Sound. Is seeing the filming location of a middling sci-fi sequel reason enough to visit a place? No — but you’ll want to visit Milford Sound anyway as it’s easily one of New Zealand’s most scenic spots. Many people visit Milford Sound as a day trip from Queenstown, and it’s an OK option if you really can’t spare the time. Otherwise, spend a night in the area (either at Te Anau or one of the camping grounds / lodges closer to Milford Sound) and see some of the beautiful nature close to Milford Sound. You can do a hike — Lake Marian and Key Summit have awesome views — or stop off at some of the easier to access sights including the Mirror Lakes and Humboldt Falls. You’ll see a bit on a day trip but you can’t beat having more time to explore the area.
Once at Milford Sound you should take a cruise out to the edge of the Tasman Sea. This is iconic New Zealand tourism stuff — don’t leave a trip to Milford Sound off your New Zealand South Island itinerary!
From Milford Sound it’ll take you 4-5 to get to the Catlins. If you leave early in the morning you could drive there, see a few waterfalls and beaches and be in Dunedin by dinner time. It’s worth spending a night though if you can. Some of the Catlins highlights include Nugget Point Lighthouse, the waterfalls (Purakaunui Falls, Matai Falls, McLean Falls), the viewpoint above Tautuku Beach, Cathedral Caves and Curio Bay. Most sights are a short walk from their respective car parks and if you’re lucky you’ll see some wildlife at the beaches (penguins, sea lions, dolphins etc).
Dunedin (2 nights)
I grew up (after the age of 10 at least) in Dunedin and I’ve recently come to realise that it’s New Zealand’s coolest city. Hikes, bars and restaurants, beaches, waterfalls, historic buildings, a scenic train ride, viewpoints, surreal coastal formations, the world’s steepest street and wildlife are all on offer in the Edinburgh of the South (that’s what Dunedin means if you were wondering). There’s so much to do in Dunedin I’m struggling to come up with a two day schedule! Check out my posts and have a go at planning it yourself.
Personally I’d include the drive (or hike) up to Mount Cargill, the walk to Heyward Point, a drive along the Otago Peninsula (where you’ll find lots of hikes and beaches) a walk through the town centre searching for street art and old buildings, a drink in the sun (hopefully there’s sun) at St Clair Beach and maybe watch the sunset at Brighton Beach. If you’re into trains (or just want to see some nice landscapes without any effort on your part) you could do the Taieri Gorge Railway or take a cruise on the Monarch.
Dunedin to Mount Cook
The drive from Dunedin to Mount Cook should take around four hours, but this being New Zealand you could easily double that by stopping at interesting places along the way. I’d recommend leaving Dunedin early so you get to the Moeraki Boulders (around an hour from Dunedin) in time for sunrise. From there drive up the coast to Oamaru where you can explore New Zealand’s most impressive old town and experience a bit of steampunk weirdness.
Mount Cook National Park (1 night)
Mount Cook National Park is a special place and is home to some of New Zealand’s best short walks (and Mount Cook, the country’s tallest Mountain). Depending on what time you arrive and whether you’re camping or staying in hotels, you can either drive to Mount Cook National Park that afternoon and do some of the short walks — including the Hooker Valley Track, the Red Tarns or Tasman Glacier– or spend the rest of the day / night in Twizel. By this point a lazy afternoon might be just what you need. If that’s the case head to Mount Cook the next morning and then move on to Lake Tekapo or Fairlie in the afternoon.
The Canterbury High Country (1 night)
If you only have two weeks in New Zealand’s South Island you won’t be able to explore this whole area, so choose a few places you really want to see and build your itinerary around them. I’d recommend checking out Lake Tekapo — it’s one of the bigger towns in the area and has hot pools and a fun star gazing tour. There is also a great short walk (Tekapo Peninsula Walkway) and a slightly overrated stone church by the lake.
Fairlie is another small town in the area — definitely eat a pie if you’re passing through and check out Lake Opuha. Fairlie is a logical place to stay when driving through this area — there are several hotels to choose from as well as a good camping ground.From there you can drive to Mount Sunday (90 minutes away), one of the South Island’s most spectacular Lord of the Rings filming locations. There is heaps more to see in that area as well, including Lake Emily and Lake Heron.
Next up on the road towards Christchurch is the Rakaia Gorge Track — it’s a great 3-4 hour hike. If you have time you could check out Castle Hill / Arthur’s Pass (where you’ll see one of the South Island’s top waterfalls) or head straight to Christchurch and fly back to Auckland (or elsewhere) from there.
Depending on how much time you have you might not end up staying long in Christchurch. There is a lot to see though, including some nice coastal scenery and a historic core which was decimated by earthquakes in 2010 / 2011. You can also take a day trip out to Akaroa to see a little slice of France in New Zealand.
If you’re flying out of Christchurch I wouldn’t recommend driving up to Kaikoura and back, but if you’re driving back up to Picton it’s on the way and is worth a stop. The beach in town is a good place to eat some fish n chips and the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway features some of the most striking coastal views in the country.
Starting in Christchurch?
A lot of people looking for a New Zealand South Island itinerary will be flying in (and possibly out of) Christchurch. If that’s the case I’d just drive up to Picton via Kaikoura and then do this itinerary the same way. Obviously it’s a bit of extra driving so you may have to skip something or breeze through a place a little quicker than what I’ve recommended.
Starting in Queenstown?
The other common way to get to the South Island is to fly into Queenstown. From there I’d go — Milford Sound — Wanaka — West Coast — Abel Tasman National Park — Marlborough Sounds — Kaikoura — Christchurch — Canterbury High Country / Mount Cook National Park — Dunedin — The Catlins — Queenstown or back up to Christchurch if flying out from there or you can fly to Auckland from Dunedin. So many options!
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? What do you think of our New Zealand South Island itinerary? Let us know in the comments below!