A road trip around New Zealand’s South Island was something we’ve wanted to do for a few years now. At first, we contemplated getting a motorhome but being winter we chose to lux it up in some warmer accommodation like hotels and Airbnb’s.
We started our trip in Christchurch, for two reasons; it was the cheapest airport to fly into, and it also had the most affordable car/motorhome hire. But you could start anywhere.
Day 1: Lake Tekapo Town
Distance: 230km / 3 hours from Christchurch
Lake Tekapo Village is a small town sitting on the southern side of Lake Tekapo. It overlooks New Zealand’s Southern Alpes and is an Instagram haven. The lake like many others in New Zealand is an intense turquoise colour.
Why do the lakes in New Zealand have such intense colour? Well, Google tells me:
“The grinding action of rock against rock results in a powder as fine as whats called glacial flour. This flour is mixed into lake’s waters giving rise to the turquoise colour”
The famous Church of the Good Shepherd sits along the water’s edge and looks pretty spectacular at sunset.
Also worth checking out are the Tekapo Springs. Five hot pools overlooking the beautiful lake. Great place for kids and families. Lake Tekapo is also part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, so make sure you drive out at night and enjoy the starlit skies.
The town has a convenience store and a handful of restaurants, so don’t forget to stock up and grab some snack for your next day’s drive.
Day 2: Aoraki Mount Cook – Tasman Glacier
Distance: 100km / 1 hours from Lake Tekapo
Accommodation: The Hermitage Hotel
Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain, with a height of 3,754 metres.
Last year we drove into a town that was covered in snow. The kids were ecstatic to spend the night in a place where snow was at their doorstep. The snow was definitely a great kids playground, but unfortunately, for us, it meant closures of roads and no road access to the National Park and the Tasman Glacier. So the only way to get in was by foot, and there was no way our kids were going to make it very far. They were so distracted by the snow that they wore themselves out within a few meters of us leaving our hotel.
Check the weather forecast or call the hotel to get the latest road updates.
This year it felt like summer. Two very different experience, but both as memorable as the other.
Mount Cook would have to be one of our favourite places on the Southern Island. It showcases some of New Zealand’s most amazing landscapes.
The Tasman Glacier can be easily viewed from either afar or up-close, follow the map at the carpark. This is New Zealand’s longest glacier, covering an impressive 27 kilometres and reaching up to 4 kilometres in width. But to me what was even more remarkable were the floating icebergs. These are at the end of the lake. Link to the best viewing point – map link. The path out is flat and is no further than a 3km return trip.
Also next to the ‘lake lookout’ are the blue pools. These freeze over in winter and are just as stunning – map link.
Day 3 – 4 – 5: Queenstown
Distance: 265km / 3.5 hours from Aoraki Mount Cook
I feel like Queenstown is the tourism hub. My favourite town in the South Island for sure. These days its very busy and I can promise you’ll be stuck in traffic at some point, especially at the end of the day when everyone is returning home from the ski slopes. The town is close to both ski resorts; Coronet Peak and Remarkables.
There is plenty to do here in Queenstown. It meets everyone’s needs; from restaurants, parks, adventure and wine. But on this trip, my priority was to visit the new Queenstown Onsens. Private cedar-lined bathing hot tubs, each complete with a shower, changing area, and all overlooking the mountain range and the Shotover River. Book early; months ahead! Only six baths at present so first in best dressed. Children above five years of age are welcomed between 9 am and 4 pm only. After 5 pm the pools are restricted to those 11 years and older.
In Queenstown the kids also loved
- Hydro Attack or the shark – a submersible shark/boat that dives in and out of the Queenstown Lake at what Leo called “super fast” speed!
- Shotover Jet Boat – the iconic Queenstown jet boat ride. Reaching speeds of over 85 kph through the narrow Shotover Canyons.
Our favourite places to eat
Day 6 -7: Cardrona Alpine Resort
Distance: 43km over the Crown Range Rd. / 50 minutes from Queenstown
- In winter the Crown Range Road is often covered by snow and ice, making for challenging driving conditions. An alternative route through Cromwell is available but takes close to 2 hours.
- Car chains should be carried over the Crown Range Road.
Accommodation: Wanaka Town Accommodation- 20 minutes from the ski resort or ski in and ski out accommodation on the mountain in Cardrona’s ski resort.
Cardrona Alpine Resort is one of the three closest ski parks to Queenstown. It is the furthest one from town, but I feel it always has the best snow conditions.
Daily shuttle buses are available from both Queenstown and Wanaka town. Alternatively, you can park at the bottom of the mountain range and take the bus to the top, or it’s just as easy to drive up yourself. Chain bays are provided along the road up the mountain, and there’s plenty of Cardrona staff helping people put them on. Chains are predominately needed for 2WD cars. For more details on getting there and parking, LINK.
Day 8: Wanaka
Distance: 67 km over the crown range / 1 hour from Queenstown
In winter the Crown Range Road is often covered in snow and ice, making for challenging driving conditions an alternative route through Cromwell is available but takes close to 2 hours.
The very picturesque town lies on the southern end of Lake Wanaka. It has incredible views of the Southern Alps and Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s a great place to stay in summer and winter. Central to both ski resorts; Cardrona and Treble Cone, as well as Snow Farm for cross-country skiing. Lake Wanaka is said to be just as popular in summer for jet boating, sailing and kayaking.
Day 9: Makarora – Blue Pools at Mount Aspiring National Park
Distance: 65km / 1 hour from Wanaka
Accommodation: Makarora Tourist Centre – clean self-contained teepee styled cottages
The Blue Pools are a 10-minute drive from the Makarora Tourist Centre and are a quick 20-minute walk down from the Blue Pool’s carpark. The swing bridge which crosses the Makarora River is excellent for trout spotting and the best platform to see the crystal clear blue waters. Obviously freezing in winter but I’d assume beautifully refreshing in summer.
Day 10: Ship Creek and Franz Josef
Distance: 223km / 3 hours from Makarora to Franz Josef
Wow, to be honest, we initially only pulled over here to get a picture with the sign “ship creek”. But what a little treasure. A beachy cove surround by palm trees and a tea tree like creek, so different to everything else we’d seen so far. Stone beach with lots of different coloured rocks. A must when passing through!
Franz Josef Glacier is a 5 minutes drive from Franz Josef Town. Unfortunately these days you can’t walk onto the glacier unless you’re part of a guided ice walk or a heli-hike. Although if you choose to do the 1.5-hour walk in on your own, you’ll only get within 750m of the glacier’s terminal face.
Franz Josef Glacier Village is also another spot to enjoy Glacier Hot Pools.
Day: 11: Punakaiki
Distance: 217km / 3 hours from Franz Josef Glacier
Accommodation: Punakaiki Resort – beachfront accommodation
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is amazing. Sheer rock faces and cliffs line the coast. Stop as much as you want and take as many dirt roads as possible. It’s the dirt roads that usually take to the most spectacular spots.
Stay a night on the beach to enjoy the country’s best sunsets!
Stop by at Pancake Rocks and embrace nature’s artistic side. Hundreds of horizontal rock slices resembling the yummy pancakes, as well as many small tunnels creating loud and powerful blowholes.
Re-energise on your way out and stop for a coffee and, of course, a plate of some delicious pancakes at the Punakaiki Rocks Cafe.
Day 12 -13: Nelson
Distance: 265km / 3.5 hours from Punakaiki
You could definitely spend a week up North exploring the region from Abel Tasman National Park to Wharariki Beach. But we only had a few days spare, which honestly was plenty for what we wanted to see. We had friends in Nelson, and that’s why we ended up there. Nelson sits on the north-west of New Zealand’s South Island, and it is said to be the sunniest region in New Zealand.
We loved climbing up to the top of Cable Bays Hill – (Link) to watch what I thought was a pretty spectacular sunset. Park as shown on the link provided, and walk up to the left through a private property following the trail to the top of the hill. See the most magical 180-degree views of the bay.
Interesting Fact: The rock causeway between Cable Bay and connecting Pepin Island is naturally made.
Visit the Cable Bay Adventure Park. Home to farm animals, quad bikes, the world famous and longest “Skywire” flying fox in the world, horse riding, and the 8 wheeled Amphibious Argo. Or if you prefer to relax, sit outside on the wooden veranda and watch the nearby animals. Enjoy a drink of wine, and an oven-baked pizza.
Day 14: Kaikoura
Distance: 243km / 3.5 hours along the coastal highway from Nelson
A stunning and vastly different drive down the West Coast. A lot of the journey takes you along the beach highway. The ocean looks as pretty as in the Maldives, it has amazing colour and a beautiful Mountain backdrop.
A lot of the beaches in New Zealand have dead wood scattered throughout. These are great for teepee making! The kids were never bored. Or if you have a little Mr Imaginative like our Leo you can pretend you are in Jurassic Park amongst dinosaur remains.
As you approach the town of Kaikoura, you’ll be overwelled by how many seals line the coastline. Don’t stop like us as soon as you spot the first one, they line the coast for kilometres and are best viewed at Point Kean viewpoint. Here you can walk along the rocks and be just a few meters away from these sleepy sea creatures.
Last Day: Back to Christchurch and home
Distance: 182km / 3 hours from Kaikoura
Try not to shed too many tears. The last day of the holidays is always so sad!