South Island Itinerary

If you’ve ever looked at a photo of New Zealand and been absolutely blown away by how beautiful the place looks, there’s a good chance it’s a photo of the South Island. Try it now, do an image search for ‘beautiful New Zealand scenery’ and you’ll see photos of Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mount Cook, Abel Tasman and the West Coast. As Kiwis growing up, there was always something special about loading up the car and jumping on the ferry down to the South Island for family holidays, and that’s exactly what we want to capture for you in our South Island itinerary. 

We know the views are pretty amazing, but everyone tells us what they love most about the South Island is the feeling of space, the laid back lifestyle and just how friendly the people are. Wander round Hokitika and pop your head into any of the little shops there and say gidday and you’ll see what we mean. Here are our suggestions for your New Zealand South Island Itinerary, for anyone with 10 to 14 days, read on and enjoy!

Photos from the Milford Sound Cruise - NZ South Island Itinerary

Why travel New Zealand’s South Island

What is it that makes the South Island so special? What makes it different from the North, or anywhere else in the world you might be thinking about going to visit? We’ve done more than our fair share of South Island trips, so here’s what we reckon:

The Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana)

Look at a Satellite image of the South Island and the Southern Alps are really easy to see, about 600km / 370 miles of continuous mountains, with permanent snow and ice near the peaks, glaciers sliding down both sides, ancient rainforest draped all around and sparkling lakes of all sizes dotting the landscape. The mountains are nowhere near as high as the alps in North America or Europe, making it’s so easy to get out and enjoy our alps, for absolutely everyone, not just mountaineers. New Zealand’s Southern Alps are one amazing playground!

The West Coast

Pretty much all Kiwis have memories of a family holiday down ‘the Coast’, our family still talks about the kindness of the coasters on our trips there as kids. On the western side of the Southern Alps it’s all there, including easy access to the glaciers, but what surprises people is how close the ocean is and that there’s a thick band of luxurious rainforest between mountains and sea. Where else in the world can you hike on a glacier, walk in a rainforest and dip your toes in the ocean in the same day? On the Coast, you can do all this before you tuck into your whitebait fritter for lunch!

The People

Somewhere along the line, Kiwis picked up a reputation for being friendly. We don’t know how it happened, it’s not like we get taught it in school or anything, but we’ll run with it. We reckon that Kiwi friendliness is turned up a notch when you cross the Cook Strait going south. Give it a try for yourself and see what we mean, when you’re in Nelson, Kaikoura, Wanaka or Punakaiki, just walk up to anyone you see that looks like they live here and ask the for directions or a bit of local info and see what happens. You may not do this back home, here in NZ you do have to be careful too, you’re likely to be killed by kindness! South Islanders are great people and we’re proud to call them our mates!

There’s so much to do, everywhere!
Travelling through all this wonderful countryside is one thing, but you’ve come here to do things too right? Lucky for you, there’s a million handy South Islanders more than willing to help you. You can cruise out on the fiords, bungy jump off a bridge, jet boat up a remote river valley, cycle or walk on miles of amazing tracks and trails, fly over and land on glaciers and mountains, get close to our crazy wildlife, step into Middle Earth and try the best of our ‘new world’ wines. Is that enough? We could go on. Whatever is on your bucket list, there will be some crazy Kiwi sitting in a corner of the South Island whose purpose in life is to help you do it!

It’s Middle Earth

Come on, admit it, even if you’re not a huge Lord of the Rings fan, the idea of visiting a magical land with Hobbits, Elves, Wizards and magic spells is kind of cool. Surely all that scenery on the movies isn’t real, it’s done on a computer right? Wrong! Travelling around the South Island is literally a trip through Middle Earth. If you’re a huge fan, you can make this the theme of your whole trip, or if you’re like us, and loved the movies and are interested to see where things were filmed but not quite going to dress up in your elf costume every day (it happens!), it just adds another little layer of magic to the South Island that make your trip all the more memorable.

Middle Earth like Dart Valley near Queenstown - NZ South Island Itinerary

Our favourite South Island Itinerary for anyone with 10 – 14 days

So you’ve heard why we think the South Island is so awesome, but how to roll all this into one itinerary for your trip? Don’t worry, we’ve thought of that for you too. We’ve spent our entire lives travelling all over the South Island and have learnt a few tricks in our time. Here’s how we always show off the South Island to our mates when they come visit:

We’ll start from the top and head down, for anyone who has two weeks to travel the South Island, this is our favourite 14 day itinerary, including a rest day either side of what we’ve suggested here:

Day 1 – Cook Strait Ferry to Picton – Marlborough Wineries – Nelson Lakes National Park – Nelson

We reckon there’s no better way to cross over to ’the mainland’ than coming in by ferry, that last hour through the Queen Charlotte Sound is magic, make sure you’re outside with your camera! You’ve probably heard of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and you’re probably keen to give it a try, well lucky you, the heart of the Marlborough wine region is just half an hour from the ferry! There are so many wineries to choose from, our favourite is Forrest Estate, (tip – try ‘the Doctors’ sav, yes, John and Brigid are doctors turned winemakers!) After lunch and tasting (enjoyed all the more if you’ve got someone else to do the driving) we love to take the scenic route to Nelson, a little taster of the Southern Alps via St Arnaud in Nelson Lakes National Park, our favourite short track here is the Bellbird Walk, right on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. From the National Park head through to the city itself, Nelson’s great for walking and we love staying central, within easy distance of everything in town.

Day 2 – Abel Tasman National Park for the Day from Nelson

The first ‘crown jewel’ of your South Island trip, Abel Tasman National Park. Nelson’s really close to the park, making it super easy to head in for the day and be back in time for dinner. Look at a photograph of Abel Tasman and you’ll know right away you have to get out on the water, take your pick from kayaking or cruising the coastline, keep your eye to for dolphins, seals and the odd penguin too. Try this for a great combination of sea and land – jump on a morning cruise from Kaiteriteri to Awaroa, then walk on the Abel Tasman Coastal track to either Tonga Quarry or Medlands Beach, then pick up a return cruise back to Kaiteriteri. This make for a perfect day out in Abel Tasman from Nelson, they’ll even pick you up at your accommodation and drop you back at the end of the day too!

Cruising Abel Tasman with dolphins - NZ South Island Itinerary

Day 3 – Nelson – Pelorus River – Kaikoura

Once you visit the South Island for yourself you’ll come to realise that getting around is half the fun, and today’s little journey sums that up perfectly. Grab a cafe breakfast either right in the shadow of Nelson cathedral or out on the waterfront by the yacht club before heading on your way. First stop is the Pelorus River, your first chance to step into Middle Earth, this is where the ‘Barrell Run’ scene from the Hobbit was filmed. On a nice summers day you’ll be tempted to join the kids jumping off the rocks, go on, you’re on holiday! After a dip, or one of the short walks from reserve, sit down for morning tea before heading off for Kaikoura. The best part of the trip is when you hit the coast south of Seddon and Ward with the Pacific ocean on your left and the snowy Kaikouras ahead on your right. Our favourite stops along the way are Waipapa Bay, Okiwi and the Ohau Point Seal Colony. This is a pretty easy day that will have you into Kaikoura by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to jump on a Whale Watch tour or stretch your legs on the short but stunning Kaikoura Peninsula Track. For dinner tonight, you’ve got to try some of the local seafood, it’s all super fresh and the local speciality of course is the Crayfish (Rock Lobster). Maori Lesson #1: Kai = Eat Koura = Crayfish, so do as you’re told and get stuck in!

Day 4 – Kaikoura – Mt Cook

There are a couple of different ways to make your way south from Kaikoura, what we like to do is take it all in from the amazing Kaikoura Coast, through to the alps and glaciers of Mt Cook National Park, dropping in on friends for lunch at Akaunui Homestead, just out of Ashburton. Nothing like a really tasty home cooked meal and the Southern hospitality of Ian and Di to pass a couple of hours, country living South Island style looks pretty idyllic! Our favourite stops through the Mackenzie country are Geraldine (local market on Saturdays), Mount Michael lookout and of course Lake Tekapo and Pukaki (Peter’s Lookout about 25 minutes after the Mt Cook turnoff offers the best views over the lake all the way to Mt Cook and the Tasman glacier). The best way to see Mt Cook is to stay right in the National Park village itself, you’ve got a couple of different accommodation options but we love the Hermitage – a real NZ icon. Once the sun sets it’s not over, you’re in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve now, those amazing night skies are just out your door or for the full experience jump on a guided tour from the hotel.

Day 5 – Mt Cook – Queenstown

It’s a relaxed half day through to Queenstown from Mt Cook, so take the time to explore Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, it’s right on your doorstep! If you asked us for something in Mt Cook you’d never forget, then we’d say you should go up the Tasman Glacier. Google a picture of the Tasman Glacier and tell me you don’t want to put yourself right there! You can jump on a helicopter and go hiking with our mate Charlie, buzz around the massive terminal lake in a little inflatable boat on the ‘Glacier Explorers’ tour, or how about a SkiPlane, a canny Kiwi invention from right here in Mt Cook, planes with retractable skids that can take off on a normal runway and land on the ice high up on the glacier!

The best short walks are right out your door too – Kea Point and the Hooker Valley are excellent easy tacks and offer stunning views of the Mueller and Hooker Glacier Lakes and Mt Cook itself. There are also a couple of great little visitor centres and a mini museum in the village – the Department of Conservation National Park Visitor Centre, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Hermitage Hotel and the little alpine gallery in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe, run by long time Mt Cook guide Charlie and his writer / photographer wife Mary, stop in for a coffee and tell them we said hi!

Grab some lunch out on the deck of the Hermitage looking right up the Hooker Valley and Mt Cook, before heading on your way south to Queenstown. It’s an easy half day’s trip down to Queenstown through the beautiful South Island high country, our favourite photo stops are the Lindis Pass lookout, Lake Dunstan, Mrs Jones’ just pass Cromwell for fresh fruit or ice-cream, Roaring Megs in the Kawarau Gorge and the Bungy Bridge just past the Gibbston Valley before arriving in Queenstown.

Photo with friends in Queenstown, lake and mountain scenery - NZ South Island Itinerary

Day 6 – Milford Sound for the day from Queenstown

Everyone loves Queenstown so much, you’ll want at least 3 nights here, that’s what we always do. Milford Sound is a must see and here’s how we like to do it – travel one way on the famous Milford Road, cruise out on the sound, then fly back to Queenstown right over the top of it all, for a day you’ll never forget! The road is an engineering marvel, especially that Homer Tunnel, rated as one of the world’s great scenic drives and you won’t want to miss it. When we’re showing friends around they always tell us they love the views of Lake Te Anau and Wakatipu, the our favourite stops at the Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Monkey Creek, the Homer Tunnel and the Chasm. Once you get there, getting out on the water at Milford is a must, there is a bit of choice but we prefer the small boats and super friendly staff on Cruise Milford, they’ll come and chat with everyone and make you feel right at home as well as sharing all their fascinating knowledge and the odd local legend (ask them about the Moose!). Sheer mountainsides rising right out of the ocean, beech trees clinging for dear life to the rock faces, the birth of a waterfall right in front of your eyes, dolphins, seals, even whales have been seen in the Sound. If there’s one New Zealand image that comes to mind for millions of people around the world, it’s right here, Milford Sound Piopiotahi. Once you’ve been out the water, now see it all from above on a scenic flight back to Queenstown, all those stops you made on the way in look tiny from above, as does Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. You might even fly back over the world famous Milford Track. You’ll love getting back to your Queenstown accommodation by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to head into town, go up the gondola or walk around the gardens before dinner at the Steamer Wharf!

Day 7 – Glenorchy – Paradise – The Dart River for the day from Queenstown

The northern end of Lake Wakatipu is amazing, so much so that we reckon it should be illegal to come all the way to New Zealand and not make the trip to the ‘Head of the Lake’. The scenery up here has been marvelled at by millions of people round the world now after featuring in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, it’s also the scene of the UK TV series ‘Top of the Lake’. The road itself is spectacular, the best views of Mt Earnslaw, the Dart Valley and Humbolt mountains unfold just around the corner at Bennetts Bluff, about 35 minutes out of Queenstown. Stop for a coffee at the Glenorchy cafe and check out the own possum fur goods at the trading post, you’re supporting our native birdlife if you buy something! What we love doing most of all up here is heading up the Dart River by jet boat, this amazing Kiwi invention was were designed for exactly this purpose, getting you into remote backcountry rivers where there are no roads. Google a picture of ‘Dart River JetBoat’ and see for yourself why we rate this as the best activity in Queenstown. Also in the neighbourhood is one of our ‘Great Walks’ the Routeburn Track, there’s a fantastic little nature walk of around half an hour at the at the track head, through some of the best Red Beech forest in the country, or for a full day’s hiking, head out on the track for the whole day, up to Routeburn Flats for Falls, the best day walk in New Zealand.

Day 8 Queenstown – Arrowtown – Wanaka

If you’re anything like us, you’ll want to squeeze as much as possible into your Queenstown adventure, so we always like to leave a little time on our last morning for a few more fun activities, like going up the Gondola. No visit to the Wakatipu is complete without going to Arrowtown, along the way is one of the best views of the whole area – the Coronet Peak skifield carpark. It’s a great road all the way and chances are there’ll be no-one around! Arrowtown still has all the character and charm of the gold mining days, and if you’re visiting in autumn there’s no prettier place in New Zealand. The Lakes District Museum is right on the main street, and there’s an excellent historic walk just out of town to the old Chinese settlement, then stop for a coffee or a pie at the bakery on the way back.

From Arrowtown there are two ways to Wanaka, both take about the same amount of time, but we like the high road, over the Crown Range. A couple of great lookouts on the way are compulsory stops, and once you’re over the high part of the road the Cardrona Hotel is where we always stop for a coffee. There’s a bit of a ‘Wild West’ feel out here, this was a real hub during the Gold Rush in the 1860s and a lot of the original buildings are still here. For a bit of a history tour, stop by the Cardrona cemetery. It’s just a short hop into Wanaka from Cardrona, we always like to get into town around lunchtime to visit friends on the Lakeside for lunch and leave the rest of the afternoon free for exploring town and the beautiful lake. Rent a bike or walk along the lakefront track, if you didn’t get to any vineyards in Queenstown then Rippon Valley wines is just out of town and must have the best views of any winery in the world! Our favourite short walk close to town is Mt Iron, under two hours to the summit for amazing views of the lake and Mt Aspiring National Park.

Reflections of Mt Cook in Lake Matheson - NZ South Island Itinerary

Day 9 – Wanaka – Fox Glacier – Franz Josef

Here’s our Kiwi tip for today – slow down and take the whole day to get through to Franz. There’s so much to see on the ‘Heritage Highway’ and too many people try to rush this through only to regret it later. We always like to get up and on the road straight after breakfast, the lakes are nice and calm early in the morning and there are some great views to be had at both Lakes Hawea and Wanaka. We always make a quick stop at the little town of Makarora before heading into the Mt Aspiring National Park. This is the heart of the World Heritage Area and as soon as you hit the park you’ll see why, no more civilisation and lots of untouched wilderness! Our favourite short walks and stops are the Blue Pools (jump in for swim!), Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek and Pleasant Flat, but there are more too. This is what we loved about travelling the South Island as kids, even getting from A to B is fun. Once we hit Haast and the Coast, the fun’s not over though – Ship Creek is our favourite little stop on the whole West Coast, there are 2 excellent short walks here and it’s pretty common to see dolphins jumping in the surf just off the beach! You’ll get to Fox Glacier first, so keep an eye on the weather and head up the Glacier access road just before the township, it’s a quick and easy walk to the glacier lookout from the carpark.

The other ‘must-see’ spot around Fox is Lake Matheson, just 5 minutes out of town. There’s a great little loop track around the lake, get the weather right and you’ll get your own award winning photo of the reflections of Mt Cook from the far end of the lake. The journey from Wanaka to Glacier Country is in three parts, the big lakes of Hawea and Wanaka, the beech forest and glacier valleys of Mt Aspiring National Park and the remote coastline and glaciers of the West Coast. It’s hard to imagine that you can see all this in a single day, but by now you’ll be getting used to the South Island surprising you!

Day 10 – Franz Josef Glacier – Okarito

Over the years visiting the Coast if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that you have to slow down, in fact we recommend locking your watch away in your suitcase and running on ‘Coast Time’. That’s why we always spend two nights in Franz Josef, where we unpack and relax, but most importantly we’ve got plenty of time to get off the beaten track and see the real Coast. Here’s our favourite little ‘off the beaten track’ gem which we know you’ll love too, Okarito. The little settlement here is home to about 30 people, just over half an hour from Franz Josef, down the Okarito Forks road, which is just great because it means the bigger bus tours can’t visit (and usually don’t have time either). Okarito is New Zealand’s largest tidal lagoon and home to some of our rarest wildlife (the White Heron and Okarito Brown Kiwi breed right here), it also backs right onto the perfect windswept West Coast beach and has a couple of great activities and walks right there too. Take your pick from a guided kayak or a wildlife cruise out on the lagoon, you’ll see and learn all about the area from some folks who live and breathe conservation in the area. Our favourite little short walk here is the Okarito Trig, a quick 45 minute climb to the best view of the whole coast and Southern Alps. Our mates Baz and Gemma in the kayak base make a mean espresso too, take a seat in the arm chairs and have a chat with them after your adventures.

There’s still more to do though, and for the rest of the day, we like to head back inland and up to Franz Josef Glacier itself. You’ve got a few options to explore the glacier – a short walk to the terminal face or some of the longer hikes like the Alex Knob or Roberts Point but you’ll probably need the full day for these. To get on the glacier itself jump on a hell hike or snow landing, nowadays this is the only way to get on the ice.

They weren’t here when we were kids, but what we love doing when we visit nowadays is to head to the Glacier Hot Pools after dinner for a hot soak listening to the sounds of the rainforest. You’ll sleep well tonight!

Day 11 – Franz Josef Glacier – Hokitika – Punakaiki

A lot of people head straight from Franz to Christchurch, but we reckon that misses out two of the best little towns on the coast, Hokitika and Punakaiki. If you want to test the friendliness of Kiwis to strangers, then give it a go in Hokitika, walk on into any of the greenstone or possum shops and ask the most random question you can think of, and stand back and see what happens. Our bet is that people will bend over backwards to help you. Hokitika is also the Greenstone capital of New Zealand, and there are plenty of carvers working their craft right here for you to see. It’s also the setting of the Booker Prize winning novel ‘The Luminaries’, a rollicking yarn set in the 1860s Gold Rush, drop in to the visitor centre, grab yourself a map and transport yourself back in time as you wander through the world of Goldminers, Greenstone Hunters and tricksters. Just an hour or so up the road is the heavenly spot of Punakaiki, we like getting here nice and early so we’ve got time for the excellent short walks in the area – our favourites are the Pororari River and the Truman Track. Being just north of the turnover back to Christchurch, a lot of people miss Punakaiki, but we reckon that would be a travesty! Check the tide and time your visit the famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes to maximise the show, our tip here is to go in the evening for the best photos and there are less people there after all the day trippers have gone through.

For us, Punakaiki is the end of our South Island trip, so we just love taking a moment here to sit on the beach with our friends, watching an amazing Kiwi sunset for the last time and saying a cheer by the campfire.

Three nights on the coast, split between Glacier Country and Punakaiki will give you plenty of time to see all those cool little spots you’d otherwise miss. How you split this is up to you, one night in Glacier Country and two in Punakaiki works really well too.

Happy couple on the West Coast - NZ South Island Itinerary

Day 12 – Punakaiki – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch

Today’s another one of those amazing New Zealand days that you just can’t do in other parts of the world. Wake up to the waves crashing on the beach on the West Coast, head up and into the Southern Alps, stopping for glacier views and short walks through the alpine flower fields or beech forest, cross the main divide and the stunning Canterbury High Country before dropping down to the flatlands of the Canterbury Plains and back to the Garden City of Christchurch. We always like to take our time and make plenty of stops – the fist of which you will love, the cool little Station House Cafe in Moana – the TranzAlpine will stops outside the door. Up at the pass, the Temple Basin walks and the new Arthur’s Pass Walking track (just pull in to the Temple Basin Carpark on the left are the best easy access alpine flower walks in New Zealand, don’t miss the Kea at the Otira Lookout either. Take a break in Arthur’s Pass village for lunch, there’s a great little walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall right from town and on the ‘Great Alpine Highway’ we love Lake Pearson, Cave Stream and Castle Hill.

Finish your journey back in Christchurch, check out the city’s history around the Art’s Centre and Museum, and also the new legacy of the Garden City, the rebuild mall and cardboard cathedral. Sumner Beach is just 20 minutes away, if you want to complete your ‘Coast to Coast’ journey in style!

More New Zealand Itinerary Tips

See our suggested three week New Zealand itinerary, which combines this South Island Itinerary with a week in the North Island

See our recommended two week New Zealand itinerary, which combines a week in the North Island with part of this South Island itinerary

Read our favourite North Island itinerary suggestions

Still figuring out how to come over for? Read this article about how long you need to visit New Zealand

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