7 South Island Road Trips to Add to Your Bucket List

A view of Punakaiki on a sunny day.

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

Words by: Jess Willemse

Photography by: Neat Places & Supplied

 

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.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, West Coast.

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.

Nugget Point Lighthouse by Advocator SY.

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.

Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park.

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.

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

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.

Beach at Kaikōura.

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.

View of Wharariki Beach in Nelson, Tasman.

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.

Aoraki Mt Cook by Jean-Pierre Brungs

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.

Neat Christchurch & Canterbury Places

Kinji

The Chef of Kinji Japanese restaurant standing in the middle of the restaurant smiling.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Restaurants key icon.

Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted with Irasshaimase, a traditional Japanese welcome, and immediately feel transported to another continent. If you’re after an authentic Japanese dining experience with truly exceptional cuisine then you need to book a table at Kinji and do it soon.

Gelato Lab

Customer holding her Gelato Lab ice cream.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury

Gelato Lab churns out traditional gelato in a number of delicious and ever-changing flavours, all made on-site by two passionate ladies.

The Mayfair

A dark grey and white bedroom inside The Mayfair Christchurch.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Accommodation key icon.

For the discerning modern traveller, The Mayfair is a rare and precious find in the typically heritage-focused city of Christchurch.

BUTTER Pastry

A man smiling from a small window.
Place Christchurch & Canterbury
Cafes key icon. Goods key icon.

At the Phillipstown end of Tuam Street in Christchurch stands a small kitchen where award winning pastry chef Corentin Esquenet works his magic.