14 Day New Zealand South Itinerary


Discover the unparalleled beauty of New Zealand's South Island on a 14 day self-drive vacation.

From the towering peaks of the Southern Alps to the crystal-clear waters of Milford Sound, this two week itinerary will take you to the heart of the South's most iconic sights.

Experience the charm of quaint towns and the thrill of outdoor adventures, all while surrounded by some of the world's most spectacular landscapes.

Kayaking the Abel Tasman National Park

Embark on an unforgettable self-drive adventure through New Zealand's most breathtaking landscapes. Explore the awe-inspiring Mt Cook National Park in a 4WD excursion, and experience the remote tranquility of an alpine island on Lake Wanaka. Witness the spectacular snowy neves of Franz Josef and Fox glaciers on a thrilling helicopter tour, and take in the majestic beauty of Fiordland from a scenic flight. And of course, no trip to New Zealand is complete without a cruise through the world-famous Milford Sound. With so much more to discover, this is a journey you'll never forget.

Welcome to New Zealand and Christchurch

Now that you know everything has been taken care of, you can relax.

You'll be met a the airport and transferred  to your central city accommodation. The trip to town is a pretty drive in itself along Memorial Avenue and and around the Hagley Park. You'll have time to look around the city should you wish and get to see a city rebuilding itself and marvel at it's stunning hinterlands.

The focus of the self drive itinerary is ease of use and hassle free, plus you have our 24 hour assistance contact should you need anything.

Christchurch Tram

Day 2. Towards Mt Cook

I suggest you pick up your rental car and start early. Mt Cook is only 326kms or 233 miles away, which'll take you about 4 hours, though there's so much to see on the way and you'll want pics to show the family and friends.

Getting out of Christchurch is easy and your drive is in a south westerly direction. You'll traverse the Canterbury farming plains, passing through small farming towns like Geraldine and Fairlie, famous for its pies, to Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki and the Ed Hillary highway into Mt Cook.

Lucky you. You're here in the Mt Cook Village for two nights at the Lodge and Motels. This place is  amazing, as much as you'll want to chill out at the Chamois Bar and Grill (pronounced 'sham wa', after the famous animal dwelling in these high hills), you'll want to get out around the village and beyond.

Located nearby is the Ed Hillary Museum and this is a must visit. It references Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay's summit of Mt Everest in 1953 along with a lot of other alpine history.

Mount Cook Village

Day 3. Buckle up like Indiana Jones in his all terrain vehicle!

This part of your package  4WD trip takes you along a rugged track where you're up close with the wild, ever changing moraine wall of the massive Tasman Glacier. You'll see the glacial lake and icebergs that have peeled away from the ice wall of New Zealand's largest glacier.

You'll have a professional guide on hand to answer your questions and give you all the relevant history. I've great friends, mountain guides, Mary and Charlie Hobbs who live here and if you want to hear some yarns, wander up to the Mountaineer's cafe, which they own.

Day 4. Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world

OK, once you've traversed the bold and barren Lindis Pass, you've two options in getting to Queenstown from here, via Wanaka and the stunning Crown range or the more sedate route past Lake Dunstan, through Cromwell and the Kawerau River gorge.

It'll take you about 3 hours and is 255kms or near 160 miles, either way. Both routes are  impressive. The Crown range is New Zealand's highest road and requires care especially in snowy winter conditions. I suggest the route through Cromwell leaving the Crown range for later.

Both routes are close to the Gibbston valley vineyeards and the world famous AJ Hackett bungy jumping. Invented in New Zealand the bungy is now a world wide phenomenon, though we retain the right to bring you here, have you pay us money, so we can throw you off things !

Queenstown is a genuine New Zealand alpine resort. Famous for world class snow sports in winter, with jet boating through wild river gorges, to internationally rated golf courses, rafting opportunities, sky diving, gourmet dining and bars and cafes.

There's an international airport just 15 minutes from the centre of town. You're here for two nights, though will likely wish it was more.

Your accommodation, the Autoline Queenstown is just 5 minutes from the lake and the centre of town. The lake is Wakatipu, one of New Zealand's finest with the Remarkables mountain range in the background.

Promise me, when you're here, you'll make time for a ride up the gondola to the restaurant at the top, as well as a trip on the TSS Earnslaw, the steam ship that plies the lake.

The Lindis Pass NZ

Day 5. Here are a bunch of options for reaching Milford Sound

If you can, fly. While the coach trip is a cruise in comfort from Queenstown through stunning country encompassing diverse farmland, beech forests, Lake Te Anau and remote valleys, including the incredible Homer tunnel, it's a long day out.

Though either way, the treat is still the same, the Milford Sound. The sheer perfection of the aptly named Mitre Peak, the Bowen falls and others that spew into this uniquely formed U shape valley and the unruly, brooding nature of the place is captivating.

Though the coup de gras is the cruise on the waters of the sound. The purpose built vessel get you up close and at one with the ruggedness of the place and if you're there after a rainfall, the scene is truly jaw dropping.

Flying Milford back to Queenstown will blow your mind. The Sutherland Falls out of the elevated Lake Quill, the southern lakes Te Anau and Manapouri and then the descent into Queenstown will have you thinking you've seen God and all His Angels !

I hope your camera was well charged. You'll sleep well tonight.

Milford Sound Cruise

Day 6. We back track a little at this point and head to Wanaka

It's just over and hour away at 70kms or 44 miles. You'll recall I suggested traveling via Cromwell on coming to Queenstown, now you'll get to travel the Crown range in going to Wanaka.

The nice thing about this route is that you can sneak through historic Arrowtown on the way. It's an easy side track and any local will happily steer you along the right road.

As mentioned the Crown range is impressive, starting with a bunch of switchbacks from the Arrowtown side. Pause at the summit and you might even catch an Air New Zealand commercial jet in the valley below on approach to Queenstown airport.

Head on down the valley to Wanaka, past Cardrona and the famous bra fence ( a breast cancer fundraiser and donations welcome ) and to your accommodation at the Bella Vista Motel. Fully serviced and only 150m from the stunning lake front and a busy town centre with a supermarket, shops, restaurants and bars.

Today you'll cruise to the Isle of Mou Waho one of the magical islands on Lake Wanaka. The island is predator and pest free and a guide will see you round the place. The views are amazing and the Arethusa pool is one of nature's wonders, as it also has its own little islands ! Make sure you have your swimwear in season as a plunge here is pretty special.

Another Wanaka must visit is Puzzle World not far from the centre of town with its bizarre, weird and wonderful images, mazes and illusions. If you're feeling fit the Mt Iron walkway is just over the road and a quick climb up an easy track to the summit offers a spectacular view of the Wanaka basin to the snow capped Southern Alps beyond.

You'll be ready for a rest and refreshment and with everything within easy walking distance, the town's waterfront is just the place to go, with its bevy of cafes, bars and eateries. Wanaka has a great vibe and like everywhere in New Zealand, the locals love to talk.

Day 7. To the wild West Coast and Glacier country

Today is a big day though I rate it as arguably one of the countrys' great road trips. Wanaka to Franz Josef  is 350kms, near 220 miles and will take you around 4 hours 45mins.

Initially you're alongside Lakes Hawea and Wanaka on a broad, flowing highway drawing you nearer to the mighty peaks of the Southern Alps. As you approach the little settlement and shop at Makarora near the head of Lake Wanaka, the beech forests get closer and soon you're in incredibly bush country heading towards the Haast Pass. The blue pools are an easy diversion while the pass itself and the  'Gates of Haast' feature dramatic river rock formations.

Most things around here are called Haast, after German explorer Sir Johann Franz Julius von Haast, who by all accounts was a pretty good chap who did much for the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch,  though quite liked naming things after himself all the same.

Case in point, once you're over the Haast pass and through the Gates of Haast, you'll head out toward the West Coast and the town of Haast, on the Haast river !

The road this far is spectacular, with wild rivers and waterfalls, though north along the coast from Haast, things change dramatically. The trees lean away from the ocean and the prevailing westerly winds of the Tasman Sea, though the rivers remain big and wild.

Reaching Fox then Franz Josef signals your arrival in Glacier Country. The road between the two twists its way through the forest and takes about half an hour.

Your accommodation in Franz Josef is two nights at 58 On Cron Motel. It's only 5 minutes from the town centre and handy to your heli pad.

Day 8. Twin glacier helicopter flight over Fox and Franz 

The heli pads in Franz Josef are close to the town centre and the air here is busy with the sound of

'choppers'. This flight will really 'rip your shorts' and the views up here are jaw dropping. The expert commentary of your pilot points to the landmarks and features as you try to absorb the vastness of this snowy mass of undulating steeps and gullies.

Best of all, is you'll land here and walk on the white gold, with rugged peaks all around and the Tasman Sea below. Imagine how those pics are going to look on your social media.

Franz has good bars and restaurants and I've great memories of watching an American superbowl final over a few beers at 'The Landing', or if you've time, a trip over the hill to Fox and the historic Sullivan family White pub is always well worth a visit and you might even find one of the Sullivans' at the bar!

Twin Glacier

Day 9. Pancake Rocks

Today is not such a long drive, about 2 hours 50, or 217kms, 155 miles. vGradually you'll make your way out of glacier country as the land opens up a little more around you.

It's farming country though with a magnificent history of gold mining and greenstone, or ponamu as it's known in New Zealand. The little gold mining town of Ross boasts a great story and the pub and its open fire, is quintessential West Coast.

Further north Hokitika's greenstone factory and shop gives a great account of the greenstone story with beautiful and interesting pieces available for purchase. By the way, the pie shop a few doors down on the corner, is a beauty.

Trucking north, through Greymouth, Barrytown and the truly rugged mid to northern part of the West Coast highway, with the Tasman Sea out your passenger's window, is an experience in itself.

Occasionally there're little dwellings perched precariously among the rocks and just beyond the clutches of the ocean and you wonder who might live here.

The surprises keep coming, as the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki jump out at you. These are exactly as named. Flattened rocks stacked upon each other over 30 million years and beaten about by the ocean waves. The area is within the Paparoa National Park, which is famous for its limestone canyons and caves.

You're here for a night at the Paparoa Park Motel nestled in bush and just across the bay from the rocks and blowholes. Everything here is an easy walk or short drive away.

Day 10. Over the hills to Nelson

You'll be heading away from the 'Wild West' today and inland through river gorges and forested lands to Nelson. The drive is about 3 and a half hours, 264 kms or 188 miles.

The country is spectacular yet quite different again. Murchison is a well serviced stopping point on the way and has a couple of eclectic second shops. vThe speed limit as you head to Nelson is often 80kms an hour and the route can be quite busy.

Nelson city is often referred to as New Zealand's sunniest spot and is beautifully set on the flats and surrounding hills overlooking the gorgeous Tasman Bay.

It's famous for its craft beers, cafes and seafood restaurants. Apparently the jeweler who created the One Ring for the Lord of the Rings movies lives here and you can even buy your own identical replica.

You're here for two nights at the Palms Motel in the centre of town. Again it's modern and well, well placed and guaranteed hassle free.

Day 11. The Split Apple Rock Kayak

Nelson is a magnificent base for access to the Abel Tasman national park area and one of the iconic trips round here, is kayaking to the Split Apple Rock. So named cos this is exactly what it looks like.

You'll travel to the designated start point of Kaiteriteri beach through the vineyards of the Moutere valley, where you'll meet your guide.The paddle is in sheltered waters and gentle and no experience is necessary. The focus is on safety and enjoyment and your guide will see to that.

The trip is around 2 hours and at an easy pace, though if you've little people with you, mornings are best before any afternoon sea breeze.The coast here is incredible, with little nooks and crannies and wildlife everywhere.

You'll be full of chat and conversation after this and needing a good local wine to settle you down. Any of the sauvignon blancs round here will do the job! Perhaps drop in at Gravity Wines ion the Old Coach Road in Mahana for a state of the art experience.

kayaking Abel Tasman

Day 12. Kaikoura and the Whale Watch

This magnificent whirl around the South Island, or Mainland as we like to call it, continues. Two and a half hours, 184kms or 131 miles away is Kaikoura,

It's not a straight forward run and if you get a little queasy, then 'Mother's little helper' might be a good idea about now. The countryside never ceases to disappoint, with changes at every turn and soon enough you're through the hugely productive Blenheim wine territory and out on the opposite coast with the Pacific beyond.

You swing south in your journey to Kaikoura and ultimately your start point of Christchurch. 'Nins bins' will come up on your passenger side and if open, is well worth a stop. The local delicacy is crayfish, or lobster, as you you may know it. 'Nins' is known globally and there's many a pic, on many a phone, all over the world of folk having been here, so you may as well join the club.

Kaikoura is just another breathtaking Kiwi destination. Huge mountains meet the sea and it was on the highest of these peaks where the conqueror of Mt Everest, a young Ed Hillary, first plied his trade. You've great accommodation here too. The White Morph Motor Inn on the waterfront is an easy stroll to the town centre, the shops and the bars.

Of course the big deal here, is the world famous whale watch. You'll get amongst this on a tour out of the South Bay harbour. Sperm whales and dolphin visit year round while the enormous humpback calls in during June and July. The tour boats get you respectfully close, where you can see them breach and dive safely.

This is something you'll never forget and what better way to revel in it, than a visit to the Boutique Hotel and cocktail bar, where my great friend Jen will make you a cocktail that'll put a major tilt in your kilt. This a place that is hard to leave.

Day 13. Back to Christchurch.

Two and half hours away, 185 kms or 132 miles..and you know what this means. Your stunning trip here is coming to a close.

Cruise on south through the Waipara wine country, stop and buy some product if you wish and head on into Christchurch. It's a beautiful city and in the evening the new precincts come alive. Again you're at the City Central Motel and Apartments and handy to everything.

For you final night I'd jump on the Restaurant tram, ask if my buddy Baz is driving and maybe get dropped off by Riverside and head down to the Irish bar, 'The Little Fiddle'. You'll have mixed emotions and struggle to sleep, as you'll likely be plotting your next trip here. Rest assured you're in goodly company!

Day 14. You're out of here..

I can't believe it, you can't accept it and never the twain shall meet, though it's all over. All that remains for me is to ask you to drop your rental car at the airport and board the flight you need to board to take you wherever.

As my dear, wise old friend Claver Esmond says, 'Oh leave us then and get me someone who really wants to stay'.

Bon voyage!

Are you interested in taking a self drive trip to the South Island in New Zealand? We can help with that!

Take a look at the self drive itineraries options provided by First Light Travel

Contact FLT’s travel advisers directly, online, to customise your own version. If you still have questions, the many articles on FLT’s dedicated New Zealand travel blog could help to answer them.

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John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 20 Apr 2023 (Last updated: 20 Jul 2023)

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