10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary

Jagged glaciers reaching up into bright blue skies. Endless open roads winding around dramatic mountain passes. Icy blue lakes stretching as far as your eyes can see. These are just some of the spectacular sights that await you on New Zealand’s south island; a place so beautiful that it almost defies description. One of the most picturesque places on earth, it’s hard to choose where to go if you only have ten days to spend. We’re here to help with our personally tried-and-tested 10 days New Zealand south island itinerary.

Why go to the South Island of New Zealand?

We imagine that if you’ve reached this article, you’re already set on a trip to New Zealand and are keen to explore as much of the South Island in 10 days as possible. And if so, great decision, you really won’t regret it. But just in case you need a bit more convincing as to why it should be your next destination, here are a few of the reasons:

  • While it might seem strange to say that the country’s remote location is a plus, we think it’s the number one reason to visit! New Zealand is pretty far from everywhere, but boy is it worth that little bit of extra travel time. While you’ll definitely encounter other travellers, for the most part the roads, hikes and attractions are relatively empty.
  • If you’re keen on your adrenaline activities, then you’re looking at the adventure capital of the world. Whether you want to try your hand at white water rafting, sky diving, zip down a luge, go jet boating or do the world’s first bungy jump, this is the place to do it.
  • We love our hiking and walking, and the South Island offers some of the best hiking trails in the world. What’s even better is that, with the exception of the super-popular tramps like the Hooker Valley Track, you might even experience them all on your own.
  • And of course last – but by no means least – the stunning landscapes and breath-taking scenery. There’s nowhere else in the world quite like it. The South Island has some of the most iconic places and landmarks in New Zealand, if not the globe.
Christchurch gondola

The perfect 10 days New Zealand South Island Itinerary

  • Day 1 | Explore Christchurch
  • Day 2 | Christchurch to Lake Pukaki, via Lake Tekapo
  • Day 3 | Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook on to Queenstown
  • Day 4 | A day in Queenstown
  • Day 5 | Milford Sound Day Trip
  • Day 6 | Queenstown, through Arrowtown to Wanaka
  • Day 7 | Wanaka to Fox Glacier over the Haast Pass
  • Day 8 | Fox Glacier to Hanmer Springs
  • Day 9 | Hanmer Springs for the day
  • Day 10 | Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

Without doubt this is a whirlwind New Zealand South Island itinerary, but there is just so much to see and if you’ve only got 10 days, we hope you’d want to explore as much of this as possible!

However, if you are wanting to do a slightly more relaxed itinerary, then our suggestion would definitely be to cut out either the Fox Glacier and/or Hanmer Springs. Now both these places are excellent additions to your itinerary, but if you are also going to the north island, you’ll find amazing spas in Rotorua and there are plenty of other places to get your adrenaline fix on this route. And for the Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, you could also combine this as part of your time at Mount Cook, with scenic flights to these glaciers available from there.

Landmarks in New Zealand

Is 10 days on New Zealand’s south island enough?

If you’re happy to jump from place to place, then 10 days is just about enough for your South Island itinerary. You could even shorten it if you really needed to – one of our favourite parts of this New Zealand road trip was the Christchurch to Queenstown leg – we’ve got a full itinerary for that shorter jaunt here.

That said, if you really want to fully explore this amazing part of New Zealand, you’ll want to dedicate between 2 and 3 weeks. If you are able to spend a bit longer, we’ve included a bunch of additional activities to add into your itinerary. And of course, if you’d like specific advice on a longer itinerary, then drop us a note here – as we’d love to try and offer as much advice as we can!

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Getting around New Zealand’s South Island

By campervan: Most people will be looking to hire a campervan while travelling around the South Island. We took our first campervan on our trip in December 2019 on pretty much the below itinerary, and we wouldn’t change that for the world. New Zealand has amazing rules on freedom camping (meaning that, unless it says otherwise, you can pretty much camp wherever you would like). Essentially if you have a self-contained camper unit (i.e. it has a toilet on board) you can pull up in the most beautiful spots and spend the night there.

We booked with Wilderness Campers, and the camper was really top notch. Check out the options that they have here.

By car: If you’re not that keen on the idea of driving a big campervan around New Zealand, our second suggestion would be to look at hiring a car and staying in hotels and hostels on your road trip. Don’t fret, we’ve also added accommodation options if you decide hiring a car would be best for you.

We have hired cars with RentalCars all over the world and always had great experiences, finding affordable options that suit our needs. Check out their rental prices here.

By bus: And finally, if you’re not that keen on driving yourself, you can always look into the extensive coach service that links nearly everywhere you’d want to go! We’d recommend that you check out Intercity as they have great pass options that you can tailor to suit your itinerary.

Intercity bus, New Zealand

One thing to keep in mind if you’re taking a camper van or car is that the roads in New Zealand are usually single lane highways which are very hilly and suffer from a lot of wind. What this means is that you have to build in more time than perhaps Google Maps might tell you.

We’ve tried to give you realistic driving times in this guide but our advice is always to add a 15 to 20% buffer onto what your GPS tells you.

Where to start your New Zealand South Island Itinerary

So although we have started this itinerary in Christchurch as it’s the most likely destination that you’ll be arriving into the South Island of New Zealand, we’ve also outlined below some other top suggestions for your route in case you are in fact starting from another location.

Taking the ferry from the North Island?

So if you’re actually coming over from the North Island to explore the south, then you’ll arrive into Picton. At this point you have two options, and this will also depend where you are dropping your car rental or campervan: you can either head around towards Blenheim (definitely worth a stop – check this out in the additional bonus section) and then follow this on to Christchurch. We’d then suggest missing out Hanmer Springs to keep to the 10 day New Zealand Itinerary.

Or alternatively, head up the West Coast and start the itinerary at Fox Glacier. You’ll be doing the itinerary in reverse and ending in Christchurch.

Flying into Queenstown?

Start your New Zealand South Island itinerary from our day 4, and then continue on the same loop, ending up back into Queenstown. Need flight options?

Why not check out the cheapest rates on Skyscanner?

Day 1 – Christchurch

Otautahi, or as it’s better known, Christchurch is one of our favourite cities in New Zealand. Back in 2011, the south island’s largest city was hit by devastating earthquakes that literally tore it apart. But like a phoenix from the ashes, Christchurch has emerged to become an even stronger place. The city centre has been totally rebuilt, and although still an ongoing project that will take many years to finish, it has a unique charm of old and new buildings that works really well.

Christchurch tram

If you are able to dedicate more time to Christchurch or would like to take the itinerary a little slower, the good news is that we have an all encompassing 3 day itinerary for Christchurch for you to explore, with everything you can possibly think of including what to do in the surrounding area!

But for this South Island itinerary, we’ve only allowed one day at the start – so we’ve crammed all the best things about the city into this day tour. We’ve also got the itinerary finishing into Christchurch and have slotted in some bonus things to consider for when you return!

Christchurch Tram City Tour

So whenever you only have a limited time in a city, we always find that the hop-on/hop-off style bus tours actually provide you with the quickest and easiest way to see all the important sights. However, and luckily for you, Christchurch is home to a much more unique hop on/hop off service – the Christchurch Tram City Tour.

Christchurch tram

First opening it’s doors to tourists since 1995, the Tram Tour company has taken old city trams from all over New Zealand (the one we first ventured on was from Dunedin) and restored them to their former glory. And part of the enjoyment is being able to ride these beautiful, vintage carriages around the town. On each tram your driver or conductor will act as your tour guide, filling you in with the history of the city, while you venture across 17 different stops.

You can book your ticket online here. Or actually just hop onto the tram at any of the stops and buy your ticket from the driver. It’ll set you back 25 NZD (16.50 USD/12.75 GBP), which we think is quite the snip, seeming you can use it all day long… We’d actually recommend that first thing you take the tram all the way around the loop, before venturing off at the following stops.

Stop: The Christchurch Cathedral

The old Christchurch Cathedral

Possibly the most famous city landmark to be virtually destroyed by the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, the cathedral sits in the heart of the city in Cathedral Square but is now surrounded by protective walls and gates. It was so badly damaged during the earthquake that for a long time it was expected to be completely demolished. However, the good news is that it will be rebuilt and restored to its former glory, although that is expected to only be completed in over 7 years time. So for now, you have to just admire it from afar.

Top tips: You’ll find some stalls selling locally made arts and crafts in Cathedral Square that are well worth a visit. And if you have time, pop to the corner of Hereford Street and Madras Street, where you’ll find the Cardboard Cathedral which was opened in 2013 as a makeshift cathedral for the city. As the name suggests, it’s made entirely out of large cardboard rolls!

Stop: Walk along the Avon River

Avon River in Christchurch

This bubbling brook of a river is a nice reprieve from the city, and worth taking a short walk along it (if you’re on the tram, this is Stop 9). You’ll probably spot some ducks, eels and trout, you’ll pass the Bridge of Remembrance (a war memorial for those who participated in some of the country’s wars abroad), and you might see a consummate boatman rowing patrons down the river.

This last one is known as ‘punting’, an old British tradition and you can actually book a 30 minute tour for about 30 NZD (20 USD / 15.25 GBP)per adult for a group tour, or private tours are 50 NZD (33 USD / 25.50 GBP) for adults.

Stop: Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

If you like a bit of nature, we’d recommend the Botanic Gardens. First opened in 1863, the gardens offers 51 acres of both native plants like the renowned silver fern (the fern on the jersey of the famous rugby team, the All Blacks), as well as beautiful roses, daffodils and even alpine plants in the conservatories.

The Botanic Gardens also boasts some interesting art pieces, like Diminish and Ascend by David McCracken, a staircase rising out of the lake and soaring into the sky, or the famous Flora and Otto armchair, constructed entirely out of broken china collected after the earthquake.

Stop: New Regent Street

New Regent Street Christchurch

We imagine all that walking has got you hungry? Definitely make a stop at New Regent Street (Stop 17 on the tram) – it’s a buzzing street full of candy-coloured houses and bustling small cafes, all set around a pedestrianized mall. It’s a great spot to sit and have something to eat, perhaps a salad or burger from Nook or Casa Publica, else a cuppa from The Caffeine Laboratory.

One word of warning though: watch out for the seagulls! They are pretty forward and you can’t leave your food unattended.

Christchurch Gondola

The top attraction in the city is actually this cable car which, technically, is about a 15 minute drive out of Christchurch itself. The gondola, which takes up to 4 people in each cabin, whisks you up to the top of Port Hills, where you’ll be greeted by sweeping views of Christchurch to one side, and the busy port of Lyttelton Harbour to the other.

Christchurch Gondola

You won’t find better views than at the summit, so we’d definitely recommend the gondola trip if you have time. Also, if you’re feeling energetic, you could always buy a one-way ticket and walk the mountain trail down.

To get there, you can either drive yourself or take the shuttle, which costs 10 NZD return (6.50 USD/ 5 GBP) and leaves from Cathedral Square (Tram Stop 2) every 20-30 minutes. The gondola itself is 30 NZD (20 USD / 15.25 GBP) for adults and 15 NZD (10 USD / 7.50 GBP) for children between 5-15.

Where to stay

Budget: We’d recommend you check out the Foley Towers hostel – comfy beds, strong wifi and a lovely garden makes this is a wonderful option.

Mid-range: If you’re looking for an affordable option, we’d make a plug for Terra Vive , a self-catering block of apartments. They’re in a convenient location, with nicely set up kitchens and all the convenicnes you need.

Luxury: Top of the pile is undoubtedly The George. Luxurious suites, impeccable service and a super location near the river and with views of Hagley Park.

Camper van / Holiday Park: If you’re doing the camper van thing, then check out 219 on St Johns. We really enjoyed this park since it’s well-run, fantastic shower facilities and is close to the airport and camper van pick up and return locations!

Bonus things to do in Christchurch

Looking for a few more activities to fill your Christchurch roster? Here are a few ideas:

Quake City, the Earthquake Museum

Quake City Museum

A lot of the city’s current history is bound up in the earthquake. With that in mind, it’s worth swinging by Quake City, a museum dedicated to the topic.

You’ll find a few artefacts like the cathedral’s old spire but, more importantly, some heartwrenching stories and personal accounts from the residents of Christchurch.

Tickets are 20 NZD (13.30 USD / 10.20 GBP) for adults and children under 15 (when accompanied by an adult) go free.

The International Antarctic Centre

International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch

A great place for small (and big) kids alike, it’s worth checking out the many Antarctic exhibitions at the International Antarctic Centre. You can go for feeding time at the penguin rescue hub, or get a hands-on experience with gorgeous husky dogs, try the Hagglund Ride, an all-terrain Antarctic vehicle that will have your pulse racing or even make your way into the Storm room, to find yourself in the eye of an ‘Antarctic Storm’.

It’s near the airport so you’ll either need to drive there or take the free bus, the Penguin Express, which leaves every hour from the Canterbury Museum.

Canterbury Museum

Canterbury museum, Christchurch

Speaking of the museum, if you love history, this is the place for you. Opened back in 1876, it chronicles the heritage of the Canterbury region in a way that showcases both the Maori and European settlers. Check out the tools used by the Maoris when they first landed in the country, or see the fossils of the ‘lost monsters’.

There are more than 2.3 million pieces so enough to keep you busy. Luckily, entrance is entirely free.

Day 2 – Christchurch to Lake Pukaki

Driving time: 4 hours

It’s time to hit the road! Today you’ve got approximately four hours on the highways of the South Island, plus you’ll definitely want to plan quite a few stops to see the incredible scenery.

Your plan? To head out of Christchurch on State Highway 1, going in the direction of Ashburton and Geraldine, and then State Highway 79 towards Fairlie, where you’ll start to see some of those to-die-for views that you’ve been yearning for….

Coffee at the Farm Barn

After about two hours on the road, a good stop is the Farm Barn. It’s just shy of a lookout point and we were hugely impressed not just by the quality of the food (the toasties are delicious!), and the drinks (try the chai latte), but by the design.

This lovingly-constructed barn has plush interiors and a wonderful outdoor deck overlooking farmlands – the perfect place to drink your cuppa.

Lupin Fields

Lupin fields near Lake Tekapo

Now lupins aren’t native to New Zealand but, over time, they’ve really spread all over the country. These candyfloss pink and lavender-hued purple flowers can be spotted in many places but you’ll come across one of the best examples on State Highway 8, just past Fairlie and Burkes Pass.

The field isn’t signposted but as you round the corner you’ll inevitably find a lot of cars parked and see people wandering the fields. We’ve also put the location in the interactive Google Map for you.

Lake Tekapo

If you continue driving you’ll reach one of the most famous lakes in New Zealand, the dazzling Lake Tekapo. It’s a very instagrammable spot – perfectly azure blue water and a gorgeous stone church, the Church of the Good Shepherd, perched on its shores.

Church of the Good Shepherd Tekapo

Definitely get out here to take a short walk around the lake – it can get a little busy with photo-snapping tourists but if you head up to the Lake Tekapo lookout point at the top, you could always find a quieter spot with amazing views towards Mount D’Archiac.

If you’re hungry, Lake Tekapo is a good place to forage for some lunch.

Lake Pukaki

About 40 minutes from Tekapo is Lake Pukaki, the ‘sister’ lake. While it might not be as renowned, we found Pukaki far more striking.

Lake Pukaki near Queenstown

If you’re in a camper van, this is the area we’d suggest you park up for the night. If not, just take the time to take in the azure blue waters and the thrilling views. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see all the way to Mount Cook National Park.

Where to stay

Campervan: We’d highly suggest free camping near Lake Pukaki, one of the best nights we’ve ever had. If you take Hayman Road you’ll be able to park up nearly everywhere – we suggest driving along it to find a quiet spot. There you’ll find almost deserted spots on the water’s edge where you can stargaze in the night and wake up to the lake laid out before you. Bliss.

If you’ve not been free camping before it’s definitely worth spending some time getting to know some free camping hacks and tips, so you know what you’re doing!

Lake Pukaki

Budget: If you’re more keen on a hostel, we’d recommend Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers back in Tekapo village.

Luxury: We’d suggest Peppers Bluewater Resort, Peppers has a number of high-end properties in New Zealand and this is a wonderful 4 star property with epic lake views.

Day 3 – Lake Pukaki to Queenstown

Drive time: 4 hours

A short drive first thing this morning, heading to the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Think thrilling hikes, glaciers and the tallest mountain in New Zealand.

Coffee at the Lavender Farm

Just after you set out on State Highway 8, you’ll turn onto Route 80 and find yourself at Lavender Farm. Obviously a farm with almost endless fields of lavender, its great for a photo but also they have a great coffee stall (with muffins and the like), to get you started today.

Hike the Tasman Glacier or the Hooker Valley Track

Here you’ve got two options – the easy (but insanely beautiful) Tasman Glacier Hike or the more difficult (but equally exquisite) Hooker Valley Hike. The choice really depends on your travel style…

Tasman Glacier

For the Tasman Glacier Hike you’ll park up at the Tasman Valley road parking (find the location in our map), and literally walk for less than 15 minutes to one of the most amazing viewpoints we’ve ever seen. Really – just fifteen minutes on an easy path gets you panoramic views of the Tasman Lake, Mount Cook and the surrounding mountains. If you’re keen on that hike, we have a complete guide and review here.

If you’re set on the Hooker Valley track, you’re in for about 3 to 4 hours to complete it. It’s actually also an easy hike since you’re on quite flat ground for most of it, but its more about the amount of time you need to commit. This hike will see you cross three stunning suspension bridges and walk right next to Mount Cook. The vistas are magnificent and well worth the time spent but we must warn you – this track is becoming overly popular due to its Instagram fame. So expect a slight struggle finding parking and expect quite a few other people doing this hike with you.

A bridge near the Tasman Glacier View Track

Lindis Pass

And for the afternoon, a little more of a road trip, with 3 hours drive from Mount Cook National Park along Route 8 to Queenstown, through the sandy-coloured Lindis valley. The valley has a different style to the rest of the landscapes you’ve seen so far: it’s tussock grasslands which are more reminiscent of wheat fields than the icy glaciers surrounding it.

Your best way to see it is to just hang out at the Lookout point – its about a 5 minute walk up to the top, which gives you sweeping views across the valley.

After that, you’re into Queenstown! Where it’s time to rest up for a big day of adventure tomorrow!

Lindis Pass Lookout

Where to stay

Campervan: We really liked Creeksyde. It’s one of the smaller holiday parks and is slightly out of town but easy enough to walk into town. We liked it for the relaxed vibe and since it was right next to the Skyline, which you’ll want to take in the morning.

Budget: YHA has a range of great hostels across the country, and YHA Queenstown Lakeside is no different. Fabulous views, good social vibes and great amenities make this a top pick.

Mid-range: Queenstown can be a bit more expensive than other places on the South Island, so we might suggest you go for a self-catering apartment. Closeburn Lake is a great option.

Luxury: The Novotel Queenstown is one of the leading hotels in the area, so our top suggestion. It even has relaxing spa pools to rest those aching muscles…

Day 4 – Queenstown

The adrenalin capital of New Zealand, you are pretty spoilt for choice in Queenstown. Set amidst rolling, whitecapped mountains, lush forests and in easy reach of ski slopes, Queenstown really offers it all.

It’s almost impossible to do even a tenth of what the town has to offer in just one day, so we’ve put a few suggestions below but you can read our entire Guide to Queenstown here, which has heaps more options.

Skyline Gondola

The Queenstown Skyline Gondola

Photo courtesy of Skyline Luge

We’d suggest starting your day with a trip up the Queenstown Skyline Gondola, a cable car that gives you striking views down across Queenstown. You can try to spot Coronet Peak, the glimmering Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables, a nearby ski area.

Gondola tickets (return journey) are 44 NZD (29.50 USD / 22.30 GBP) for adults and 26 NZD (17.25 USD / 13.20GBP) for children.

Walk Bob’s Peak

The view from Bob's Peak, Queenstown

Some of the best walks in Queenstown start right up at the gondola – the Loop Track and Lower Ridge track being two of them. The Loop is an easy 30 mint walk to the reservoir while the Lower Ridge takes you to another incredible viewpoint. Keep in mind that the latter has a lot of uphill so is a moderate hike, although it only takes 25-30 minutes.

If you’re looking for something a little longer, there are the many other hikes – One Mile to Lakefront (90 minutes), Moonlight Track (6 hours) and Ben Lomond Summit (5-6 hours). The Skyline Gondola actually lists them all on their website.

The Luge

The luge in Queenstown, New Zealand

Photo courtesy of Skyline Luge

While you’re up at the gondola area, you might as well get that heart pumping by doing a few rounds on the custom-built luge track. Its an 800m track with lots of hair-raising turns, and tantalizing twists, with an easier Blue Track and slightly more dangerous Red Track.

For us the most fun part of the luge is the chairlift, which lifts you back up the hill to do a second round of the luge!

Jetboating

Firstly, did you know that both bungy jumping and jet boating was invented right here in New Zealand. Actually, the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump just outside Queenstown was the first commercial jump in the world.

Anyway, back to the jet boating – if you haven’t yet done it, its an absolute must in Queenstown or Hanmer Springs (more on that later). You’ll go racing over the Shotover River, doing crazy turns while doing a white-knuckled grip on the boat, hanging on for dear life.

Jetboating in Queenstown on the Shotover River

It doesn’t sound like a fun activity but, trust us, its worth your money. We suggest you book the top-rated tour on Get Your Guide – this is a one hour ride which includes both the Shotover and Kawarau River.

Burgers at Fergburger

This one might not be worth all the hype, but have you been to Queenstown if you haven’t eaten a Fergburger? Apparently not.

This burger joint is a Queenstown institution and you have to line up for your burger there. Be warned – its busy as anything so it’s best to go early (try 6pm) or very late (they are open until 5am) to get your stack of meat, bun and lettuce.

Day 5 – Milford Sound Day Trip

Most people will tell you that you can’t do the South Island without Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park. In some ways, they’re right: Milford Sound is an iconic stop in New Zealand. That said, if you are really (and we mean, really) pushed for time on this itinerary, then you can give it a miss.

Milford Sound

We suggest you don’t though, and you book a trip out of Queenstown to get there. The reason? It’s a four hour journey one way, plus the boat ride – doing eight hours of driving (especially if in a camper van), plus the tour is a recipe for exhaustion.

More than that, at the time of writing this article, more than 200 tourists are stranded in the region after heavy flooding washed part of the road away. Please only attempt to visit these remote regions in good weather conditions!  Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth (rain falls 182 days of the year), so often the weather isn’t fit for a visit.

If you do make it to Milford Sound, you’ll really be rewarded. This fiord (yes, technically it’s not a sound) is a 16km stretch flanked by soaring rockfaces, incredible peaks , gushing waterfalls  and inky black water

Check out options for boat trips here.

Day 6 – Queenstown to Wanaka / Lake Hawea

Driving time: 2 hours

It’s time to leave Queenstown (yes, already!) and make your way to another favourite of ours: Wanaka. What’s great about this stretch is that there is actually quite a bit to see on the drive.

Arrowtown

Probably one of the most charming towns in New Zealand, Arrowtown is worth a small detour out of Queenstown. The town flourishing with the gold mining boom of the late 1800’s and while not much gold is to be found nowadays, it’s worth meandering around the high street for an hour or two.

Arrowtown main street

The main street is lined with lovely little shops as well as a bakery serving the best pies in New Zealand (really, trust us – buy one!). You can also head to the Museum and get a gold pan for about 3 NZD (2 USD / 1.50 GBP) – take it down to the nearby river and try your luck with finding a few golden nuggets.

Spoiler: We didn’t find any gold. But even if you don’t, you can buy a small thimble of the stuff and tell all your friends back home that you found it in Arrowtown…

Kawarau Gorge

We mentioned it earlier, but bungy jumping was invented by a Kiwi who subsequently opened the world’s first commercial bungy jump right here, a few kilometres out of Queenstown at the Kawarau Bridge.

AJ Hackett Bungy Jump is one of the most famous adventure locations in the world and if you haven’t ever bungy jumped, this is your chance! It’s a 43m drop down to the river which you can either attempt or – like us – watch from the sidelines with a cup of coffee and snack from the café.

Bungy jump near Queentown at Karawau Bridge

Bonus: On your way from Kawarau Gorge to Wanaka, you’ll drive past Roaring Meg, a hydropowered dam. If you need a stop, this is a good one to stretch the legs.

Wanaka

If you have more time on your itinerary, we might suggest you extend your stay in Wanaka. But, if you’re strict on the 10 day journey, you’ll just have an afternoon to explore.

If you make your way out of Kawarau Gorge, after Tarras you’ll take State Highway 8A towards Wanaka. The town is known for a few things – skiing at places like Cardrona and the Snow Farm, incredible hiking trails like the Rob Roy Track (another popular and quite busy trail) and horse trekking.

If you’re short on time, you can just stop to check out Lake Wanaka itself and then get to the most southerly point where you’ll spot the very famous #thatwanakatree. Definitely a key photo spot!

The famous Wanaka Tree

Lake Hawea

If you’re in a car or bus, we’d now suggest you settle in for the night, at Wanaka. But, if you’re in a camper van, we’d highly suggest you continue out of Wanaka towards the West Coast (and the Fox Glacier), stopping at Lake Hawea.

Check out the Lake Hawea Lookout point, as well as ‘The Neck’ lookout, which looks back over Lake Wanaka itself towards Mount Aspiring National Park. You can find a cheap campsite nearby which is the ideal way to kick off your drive the next day…

Lake Hawea Lookout

Where to stay

Along the route, you’ll come to Lake Hawea Lookout, which provides a great view of another crystal blue lake. Continue on this road towards ‘The Neck’ where there is another great lookout spot of Lake Wanaka to stop at. But if you are looking for camping, and a decent hike, take Meads Road, a small dirt track that will take you to Kidds Bush Reserve Campsite.

Campervan: Near Lake Hawea is a wonderful campsite, called Kidds Bush Reserve Campsite. There is a nominal fee to park up here, since it’s a DOC (Department of Conservation) camp site, and its worth every penny. Set on Lake Hawea this is a very quiet camp which also has working toilets and basins to wash your dishes. It’s a beautiful location to base yourself for a quick evening walk, or just to check out the stars that evening.

Lake Hawea Kidds Bush Reserve camp site

Budget: As usual, we’re recommending another YHA – YHA Wanaka. Good clean dorms, a nice atmosphere and a good place to meet likeminded travellers.

Mid-range: We could offer you a standard hotel but why not try something a bit more unusual? We love the idea of the Oasis Yurt Lodge – its got top-notch reviews so worth a try!

Day 7 – Wanaka to Fox Glacier

Driving time: 3.5 hours

Either you need to leave very early to be able to do Fox Glacier in the afternoon or you’ll have an early start tomorrow, with a long drive to Hanmer Springs.

Also, if you’re not staying up by Lake Hawea, this driving time is going to be a bit more challenging for you but, still entirely manageable.  While Google Maps lists it as 3 hours, you’re looking at more like 5 hours including stops, especially since there are some beautiful ones!

Regardless of the time that you set out, make sure you stop at the Lake Hawea Lookout (if you haven’t already), as well as pull over at the very famous ‘bra fence’ that is worth a snap or two!

10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary - Bra Line, Wanaka

Haast Pass

From there, head on through the wilderness town of Makarora (good for a coffee stop at least), before you need to head over the very hilly, but scenic Haast Pass.

There are a number of good stopping opportunities along your way, depending on your speed and travel style. Past Makarora is the insanely beautiful Thunder Creek Falls, while near Haast itself is the Waiatoto River Safari, a 2 and a half hour safari that takes you into a beautiful world heritage region. Alternatively call into Ship Creek (named after a prominent shipwreck of course) which gives you the option of two short walks – the Dune Lake Walk is 30 minutes through the dunes with beautiful views and the Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk is a 20 minute boardwalk showcasing the swamp and soaring trees.

Haast Bridge, West Coast, New Zealand

Photo credit: Rexness / Flickr

Continue along the Haast Pass to Lake Moeraki and Paringa (both great places to stop for a bite), and up to Fox Glacier Village.

Hike the Fox Glacier

Now you’ll either be doing the Fox Glacier hike or experience that afternoon or, depending on your timings, first thing tomorrow.

In case you didn’t know, the Fox Glacier is a 13 kilometre long glacier fed by four alpine glaciers, named back in 1872 after the Prime Minister at the time, Sir William Fox.  It’s a well-visited landmark in New Zealand but, more than this, is next to Lake Matheson, one of the most beautiful (and photographed) lakes in the country.

While it can be hiked (well, you can hike to near part of it), its actually better to see it from the air or do a heli-hike, which drops you on the glacier itself to discover incredible blue caves and immaculate ice formations. We’d highly recommend the heli-hikes – the best one to book is here.

If you’re doing the land hike, you’re looking at about 90 minute return. It’s a very well-maintained bush path with about 2 steep slopes and 3 river crossings, but all very manageable. It can be more difficult in winter (based on the slippery terrain), so please wear sturdy shoes and take care!

A last word of warning: Please check the Daily Glacier Access Update which will tell you whether the glacier is accessible and safe to visit.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Where to stay

Campervan: Our go-to when we don’t know where to stay is one of the Top 10 Holiday Parks. As the name suggests, these are usually highly rated holiday parks with good powered sites and modern shower blocks. The Fox Glacier Top 10 Park is no exception.

Budget: A hot tub at a backpackers? Yes! The Ivory Towers Backpacker Lodge has a hot tub, sauna, free wifi, a sun terrace, shared kitchen and more!

Mid-range: We like Bella Vista, with modern and comfortable rooms near the Fox Glacier, which also come standard with a small kitchenette (incl microwave), lovely helpful staff and a lovely central BBQ where you can meet other travellers!

Day 8 – Fox Glacier to Hanmer Springs

Driving Time: 5 hours

If you’ve got the Fox Glacier hike out of the way, brilliant. If not, this is your morning to do it! After that, it’s time to get on the road for what is, to be honest, another long stint. And, here, you have some options for your drive.

The quickest option is to use Highway 6 and 7 to Greymouth and Reefton, before going on to Hanmer Springs. Reefton would be a good stop since it has a museum, some walks to an old gold site and a few restaurants. Greymouth also has heaps of attractions particularly for young kids, as they can ride a steam train, pan for gold or go on a short rainforest walk; most of these located at ‘Shantytown’, a Heritage Park near the town.

An alternative on that route is to take a detour via Punakaiki, a town about 45km north of Greymouth with stunning rainforest and walks. This gorgeous coastal town is also home to some amazing 30 million year old limestone formations, called the Punakaiki Pancakes. They might not get your stomach rumbling but these towering cliffs sure do look like a grey-hued stack of pancakes!

Punakaiki Pancakes, New Zealand

Lastly, an option is to go from the Fox Glacier to Hokitika, and then onto Hanmer Springs via Highway 73 / Arthurs Pass. Hokitika has a nice beach area, a cave with glow worms you can visit for free (although best viewed at night) and you could stop off for a pizza at Fat Pipi Pizza.

Hokitika New Zealand

Once you’ve reached Hanmer Springs, you’ll probably want to curl up for the night. However, if you’re keen to get out on the town, we’d suggest getting yourself a pizza at The Roasted Bean. This lovely restaurant has some delicious pizzas, plus a full menu of other fare (like their ‘doorstopper’ sandwiches) and the best mocha on the South Island!

Where to stay

Hanmer Springs is one of the smaller towns in New Zealand yet has some fantastic options for hotels (and holiday homes), since it’s a bit of a tourist haven. Here are a few places you could consider:

Campervan: We loved our stay at Hanmer Springs Top 10. This park had mediocre ratings on the various apps we checked yet we thought it was great value for money and had a number of cool ‘extras’, like hot tubs you rent by the hour, playgrounds and jumping castles for kids and a wood-fire pizza oven you can use (with pizzas sold at reception).

Budget: Our vote goes to Kakapo Lodge – you get mountain views on a backpacker budget, and it has a wonderful central living room and clean kitchen with all the facilities you need.

Mid-range: The best option for mid-range is the Settlers Motel  – its right near the spa and all the key locations in town, plus has luxury rooms at bargain rates!

Day 9 – Hanmer Springs

It’s nearing the end of your itinerary, so you need to take full advantage of all the attractions available. Luckily, there are so many of them in Hanmer Springs!

Hanmer Springs - bridge viewpoint

We’ve listed out the top three things to do in the town but, if you want to change these out, we have a full guide on the Top Things to Do in Hanmer Springs that you should definitely check out. This includes everything from bungy jumping and jet boating to wine tasting or driving around town in custom buggies!

Thermal Pools

They are what made Hanmer Springs famous – the springs and the hot pools! The hot springs complex is the most visited attraction in the town for good reason – you’ll find an array of pools including relaxing rock pools, sulphur pools and colder waters plus saunas, steam rooms and, for an extra bit of pampering, spa treatments.

Thermal Baths at Hanmer Springs

If you’ve got kids, there are some awesome water-based rides including lap pools, water slides and the ‘Conical Thrill’, New Zealand’s largest aquatic thrill ride.

The pricing model varies but the single entry ticket including the waterslide and use of the entire complex is 35 NZD (23.50 USD / 18 GBP) for adults, 20 NZD (13.50 USD / 10.25 GBP) for children and free for kids under 5.

Conical Hill Hike

Now that you’re nice and relaxed from those soothing hot springs, you might as well get sweaty and hike up the renowned Conical Hill. After all, it’s the most popular hike in Hanmer Springs.

Hike Conical Hill in Hanmer Springs

Just walk up the end of the main ride and then into the forest – its about 3km there and back although is mainly switchbacks (like hairpin turns) so is quite steep and you might need a break or two. The views at the top are of course worth it, plus even the trek up sees you pass Japanese cypress trees and giant firs – beautiful to behold plus keeping you cool if doing the hike in summer.

Woodland Walk

If you haven’t got your fill of walking, the town also has a great walk in the forests themselves. This one is about an hour return, beginning at the Jollies Pass Road carpark, and you’ll see everything from pine trees to bubbling brooks and wetlands. It’s a surprisingly easy walk and you can even take kids, or strollers on this one.

Forest Walk in Hanmer Springs

Day 10 – Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

Driving time: 2 hours

It’s the last day of your itinerary – time to shed a tear as you leave the fascinating, breath-takingly beautiful country of New Zealand. For today, we’ve planned that you drive back to Christchurch from Hanmer Springs, which should only take you about two hours. That leaves you with quite a bit of time to tackle the things you might have missed in Christchurch the first time around!

We’ve already told you about the Antarctic Centre, the Canterbury Museum and Quake City, but a few other ideas include:

Akaroa

About 90 minutes from Christchurch is an extinct volcano complex, with two prominent points of interest: Lyttelton Harbour and Akaroa. This is an amazing day trip as you stop along tiny coastal villages, check out the arts and culture scene at Little River and end up in Akaroa, which has a buzzing main promenade, lots of great little restaurants and some cool boat excursions.

Pier at Akaroa

Ballantynes Shopping

You can get some last-minute gifts for friends and family back home at the country’s leading (and first ever) department store, Ballantynes. First opened back in 1854, its still the flagship place to get everything from homewares to clothing.

Sumner Beach

Perhaps you just want to chill on your last day? The best beach is Sumner Beach which, although it’s not the most picturesque beach, will still do the trick.

Interactive Map for your 10 day itinerary

Bonus places for your 10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary

We couldn’t just leave you with our itinerary, and not give you too many options to change it up, right? Here are a few more places worthy of mention – swap out our towns for these or adjust your New Zealand South Island 10 day self drive itinerary to suit!

Abel Tasman National Park

We wish we’d been able to add Abel Tasman to our own itinerary – we just ran out of time. Ask any South Islander about their most beloved spots and inevitably Abel Tasman makes their list! While it’s the smallest national park in New Zealand, it packs a punch with some of the most jaw dropping views and sights to see. Most people will go kayaking or take a boat trip but you can hike through most of this wilderness wonderland doing the 3-5 day Great Walk Track (known as Abel Tasman Coast Track) and staying overnight at camping spots.

10 day New Zealand South Island itinerary - Abel tasman

The park does have water taxis though so you can do day trips to some of the key spots. If this is your style, try to base yourself out of Kaiteriteri, Marahau or Golden Bay. Check out some options for cruises and walks here.

Note: if you’re travelling in peak season, Abel Tasman camping sites get booked fast, so book early to avoid disappointment.

Picton

The gateway to the impressive Marlborough Sounds, Picton is a fantastic addition to any South Island New Zealand jaunt, even if it’s just for the Sounds.

Renting a boat and getting out on the Sounds is such a relaxing way to spend the day – we just parked up at a small cove and spent most of the day chilling on the beach and going water skiing and ‘doughnutting’ in the deserted azure waters.

There is also an amazing tour of the sound on an old mailboat! Steam along just like they used to delivering the post, taking in the views. You can book it here.

You can go sea kayaking, or walk the famed Mount Charlotte Track or wander around the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, which has the 9th oldest ship in the world, the Edwin Fox.

Blenheim

The epicentre of the Marlborough wine region, Blenheim is a must-visit place if you are passionate about wine. Now world famous for sauvignon blanc, Blenheim has so many amazing wineries that you could spend a week here (We spent almost two!).

Notable favourites include Two Rivers, Wither Hills and possibly the most popular – Cloudy Bay. The Cloudy Bay wine tasting experience is great since you don’t need to book ahead and can just arrive, do a wine tasting and relax on the lawns, even ordering a tray of oysters (or two).

Kaikoura

This charming coastal town is all about whale watching but you’ll find far more in Kaikoura. Situated about 2 and a half hours out of Christchurch, it’s a great place to relax by the ocean, check out the local museum or even just do some shopping on the high street!

Kaikoura beach

Franz Josef Glacier

So, we talked about Fox Glacier but what about Franz Josef (commonly misspelled as Franz Joseph Glacier)? Situated just a 25 minute drive away from Fox Glacier, often people do both in a pair. That said, both are relatively similar and offer much of the same – a hike nearby the glacier or a more expensive heli-hike or experience.

However, Franz Josef does offer more in the vicinity, including a wildlife centre with a large kiwi hatching facility, as well as both scenic cruises and kayaking journeys across Lake Mapourika.

Franz Josef Glacier

Doubtful Sound

Now its quite far down the stretch of the South Island in the Fiordland region, making Doubtful Sound one of the lesser-visited places in New Zealand. However, if you are interested in Milford Sound, then Doubtful might be the place for you.

Accessed from the town of Manapouri, this fiord is the deepest and second longest on the island, characterized by an almost coal-black surface which is absolutely exquisite. It’s often referred to as the ‘Sound of Silence’, and is an eerily beautiful place to explore.

You will probably spot dolphins, penguins and seals on a cruise there, as well as gushing waterfalls tumbling over 600 metres down the cliff face in the wet season.

Invercargill

Also down near the southern reaches of the island is Invercargill which, while we knew the name, we didn’t know much about the city itself. Because of its remote location, Invercargill doesn’t see a huge influx of tourists but does have a lot to offer.

It includes epic wilderness regions like Stewart Island (most famous there is the Rakiura Track), the magnificent Waituna Lagoon and a number of great forest walks.

Dunedin

Like Invercargill, Dunedin doesn’t top the list of tourist hotspots on the South Island but ask anyone who lives in Dunedin and they’ll tell you how much they love their city. Originally founded by the Scottish and made famous during the 1800’s gold rush, the town has some amazing colonial architecture paired with dramatic landscapes and some epic hiking and cycling, as well as a cool seal colony you can visit.

10 days New Zealand South Island itinerary - Dunedin Seals

What is the best time of year to visit New Zealand’s South Island?

If you’re looking for the best possible weather, then the New Zealand summer months of December to February are right for you. However, remember that New Zealand has its major holidays over the Christmas/New Year festive period, so everything from flights to accommodation, will be at its most expensive. If you’re planning to visit over this time, make sure that you book well in advance.

If you’re looking to try out the New Zealand South Island ski scene, then the winter months are from June to August, with July and August being the better months for snowfall.

What camera equipment and other gear do we use?

We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.

What to pack for your 10 days New Zealand South Island Itinerary?

Whether you’re travelling to New Zealand’s South Island in summer or winter, you definitely need to pack some warm woolies! In summer, think jeans or long trousers, jumpers and some type of waterproof wind breaker. Even on the warmest of summer days, the temperature can plummet at night. That means, for winter, pack your warmest clothing. It can be bitterly cold…

Other important things to consider taking on your New Zealand road trip:

  • Good hiking shoes, there are some amazing trails and hikes, but you’ll want decent footwear to keep your feet well protected.
  • Sunglasses and suntan cream – although over recent years it has improved, the ozone layer is still pretty thin over New Zealand, so make sure you wear sunnies and don’t get burned.
  • Insect repellent – particularly in summer you can get sand flies. The bites are itchy as anything, so try to avoid getting chewed.
  • Any additional electronics gear – don’t forget that NZ uses a very different plug to US/Europe, so you’ll need an adapter.
All James packing laid out on bed

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a drone license for New Zealand?

No, if you are flying it over council land then you are absolutely fine. However, you’ll need permission to fly over any private land. And you can’t fly in any national park (DOC land), which is a surprisingly large area, without permits. The good news is that it’s actually a pretty easy process to get approved permits and took around 2 weeks to obtain. Although the information online is quite confusing.

First of all, work out which areas you’ll be visiting – if using the above itinerary to the ‘T’, then you’ll require DOC permits for Otago, Canterbury and West Coast. Download the overall form, and individual forms for each region here. Then submit these as per the forms instructions. You’ll then be contacted by one of the regions’ rangers who’ll ask you to sort payment (65 NZD per region – 42 USD/ 32.40 GBP) and voila, you’re all set.

The general rules are pretty similar to most places: don’t fly near the airport, don’t fly above people, don’t bother animals etc… but have a read of the rules set by the CAA here.

Download the app Air Share, and you can even submit requests in controlled flying zones that can be approved.

Which should I visit in New Zealand, North Island or South Island?

For us, we definitely preferred the South Island of New Zealand over the North Island. The main reason behind that is that the landscapes are some of the most beautiful in the world. And alongside this, it’s far less populated, so you feel like you’ve really landed somewhere remote.

That said, both the North Island and South Island have amazing places to visit and unique experiences that you won’t find anywhere else, so we’d recommend that if you are able to – split your time between both.

What did you think of our 10 day South Island road trip itinerary? If we’ve missed anything in this New Zealand travel guide, or something is incorrect please do leave us a comment below or get in touch!


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10 day New Zealand South Island itinerary
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