7 South Island Road Trips to Add to Your Bucket List

View of Milford Sound in South Island, New Zealand.

Fill up the tank; a South Island road trip adventure awaits.

Words by: Jess Willemse

Photography by: Neat Places & Supplied

Hero Image: Nikhil Prasad

There's no denying it; the South Island delivers on all road trip essentials. World-class scenery, bustling small towns, and tasty destinations await lucky road trippers. If seeing New Zealand's most picturesque region by car is on your bucket list, here's your sign to stop dreaming and start driving. 

You can't make a wrong turn on this roadie, from UNESCO World Heritage-listed parks to snow-capped mountains and off-the-beaten-track gems. Turn up the tunes; here are seven road trips you need to take in the South Island.

Take On The Wild West Coast

West Coast

They call it the wild West Coast for a reason—this winding route along the South Island's own natural wonderland is not exactly breezy, but it's well worth the trek. You'll tick off a line-up of nature's finest, including the Punakaiki pancake rocks, Franz Josef Glacier and the magical Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area. Set off from Queenstown and meander through Mount Aspiring National Park for the full experience. Pit stops at Greymouth and Hokitika will help you get a feel for the region's history, plus refuel with a hearty meal and a good night's sleep.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, West Coast.

Scout Out Seascapes Across The Catlins

The Catlins

There's no better way to spend a blissful long weekend than with a short roadie through the Catlins. This one is easily done in three to four days, but we recommend wrapping up with 12 hours in Invercargill. Set off from Balclutha and journey through a wilderness haven packed with waterfalls, coastal views and untouched hidden gems. Our list of must-see places includes Nugget Point lighthouse, Cathedral Caves and the Petrified Forest. For sustenance, add Niagara Falls Café to the GPS, which you'll find just up the rad from Curio Bay.

Nugget Point Lighthouse by Advocator SY.

Do The Most On The Te Anau To Milford Sound Drive

Fiordland National Park

While this 90-minute drive might not seem road-trip worthy, it's because travellers are often focused on the end destination; the stunning fiord at Milford Sound. But if you like to take things slow, we guarantee the journey is just as rewarding. Dotted with scenic viewpoints, secluded walking tracks and glistening lakes, you could drive this route several times and never get bored. For snap-worthy views, stop off at Pops View and Gertrude Valley lookouts. On the lakes front, you can't miss the Mirror Lakes on a good day, or for moody vibes, take the short walk out to Lake Gunn.

Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park.

Traverse The Alpine Highway

From Greymouth to Christchurch (via Arthur's Pass)

Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur's Pass is easily one of our favourite gateways to the South Island's West Coast. Things start off pretty breezy along the Canterbury Plains en route to Arthur's Pass. After this, you'll descend into the abundant greenery of the West Coast, following along the Ōtira River. This route treats you to a world of landscapes, all within a mere few hours. If you want to make this a longer getaway, a night (or several) in Christchurch is a must—get inspired for things to do in Christchurch over here.

Hut at Arthur's Pass in South Island, New Zealand.

Make Tracks For Blenheim

Christchurch to Blenheim (via Kaikōura)

Whether you're a wine lover or keen to check out Kaikōura's scenic beauty, the top of the East Coast is sure to satisfy. Set off from Christchurch and make Hanmer Springs your first stop—relaxing hot pools await. Next up is Kaikōura, where you're spoiled for things to eat, see and do—we've got you sorted with a 12-hour itinerary to this region. Finally, you'll land in Blenheim, where Marlborough's epic wine and food scene is on your doorstep—here's some help with planning those tasty outings.

Beach at Kaikōura.

Adventure Around Abel Tasman

Nelson-Tasman Region

Kicking off in Blenheim and wrapping up at Wharariki Beach, you'll want to book a solid five to ten days to truly experience the wonders of the Nelson-Tasman region. Leisurely explore Marlborough's vineyards, take on Nelson's creative scene in 48 hours, and wind your way through national parks taking time to explore the jewel in the crown, Abel Tasman. Round out the trip with some well-deserved beach time in Golden Bay and Wharariki Beach. Fill up the tank; adventure awaits.

View of Wharariki Beach in Nelson, Tasman.

See Southern Gems En Route To Queenstown

Christchurch to Queenstown (via Aoraki Mt Cook)

It's fair to say this itinerary checks off some of our favourite South Island destinations, all within the span of 500 kilometres—score. Departing from Christchurch, you'll stop off at all the highlights, including Lake Tekapo in South Canterbury, Aoraki Mount Cook (the highest mountain in New Zealand) and Wānaka, before pulling in at Queenstown. You'll want to spend at least a night or two in each place, and we recommend booking a dreamy high-country cabin escape while you're in the region.

Aoraki Mt Cook by Jean-Pierre Brungs

Neat Christchurch & Canterbury Places

Native Café

Two women having coffee at the counter outside Native Cafe in Christchurch.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Cafes icon

Next time you find yourself Sydenham side of Christchurch town, stop at Native Café for a cup of top-notch coffee and an honest bite to eat.

Little High Lanes

View of a laneway with buildings on both sides.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Bars icon Cafes icon

Little High Lanes is an eclectic blend of food, fashion and industry.

Tramway Restaurant

Tramway Restaurant exterior.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Restaurants icon

The Tramway Restaurant is somewhat of a moving Christchurch institution. Most of us have seen it roll past us lit up with warm lighting, filled with happy diners waving at passers by.

Sweet Soul Patisserie

Fine patisserie on a white plate.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Cafes icon

This light-filled corner shop is the first fine patisserie shop in Christchurch.