21 Day South Island Itinerary


You've heard of Around the World in 80 days, well this is Around the South Island in 21 days!

It's a pretty good analogy, as New Zealand is said to be the best features of a bunch of countries all rolled into 1 and that's what you'll see here.

Majestic mountains, stunning lakes, wild waterfalls, deep fjords, abundant wildlife, huge forests, mighty glaciers and friendly locals everywhere.   

Abel Tasman Cleopatras Pool

Day 1. Welcome to Christchurch

We'll meet you at the Airport and get you to the The Quest Christchurch. The drive there gives you an idea of the character of the place. A city population of around 400,000 stoically rebuilding after the challenges of some years ago and maintaining the wonderful garden city appearance of the place.  Your thoroughly modern, fully serviced hotel, is within the tram loop that takes in the iconic Hagley Park, which is one of the biggest parkland areas in a central city anywhere in the world. Within the park are sports grounds, tennis courts and a golf course.

Lake Victoria is a popular stroll, with the Botanic gardens and the picturesque Avon river also in the precinct. A more leisurely pursuit after a long flight and luggage drop off could be to head to the Antigua boat sheds for some punting on the Avon. Your punters are charming chaps dressed in the bow ties and 'boaters' (straw hats) of the Edwardian age and they'll take you on a relaxing trip on the Avon through beautiful gardens and historic areas. Cushions and rugs are provided and it's perfectly safe. The 'tearooms' at the boatsheds has an excellent menu. While the Riverside and bars are handy, I recommend a quiet night, because tomorrow my friends, your wild affair begins.  

Day 2. To Mt. Cook

Driving time around 4 hours for the 311 km or 193 mile trip

Leaving Christchurch is easy, just follow the directions, though once you burst out into the country side you'll realise what an amazing voyage of discovery this is going to be. Keep your eyes on the road, keep left and adhere to 100 km an hour and other speed limits, as our cops can pop up in the strangest places. Take photo stops if you want, though pull well off the road and when driving don't let the traffic build up behind you, just let them pass.  After all the scenery is jaw droppingly distracting. Flat farmlands running away to foothills and higher mountains to the west, some of which carry permanent snow. Rural towns Geraldine and Fairlie, which has a brilliant pie shop, give way to the Mackenzie Country and Lake Tekapo village.  

The Church of the Good Shepherd is a popular pic and the story of sheep rustler James Mackenzie, is an intriguing local tale. From here it's about 70 mins to Mt Cook at just over 100 kms away. You're here for a couple of nights at the Aoraki / Mt. Cook Lodge, built to maximise to splendid views of the area and close to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine centre. In 1953 New Zealander Hillary, along with Tenzing Sherpa Norgay, was the first to scale Mt Everest. The centre is a must visit, as is the Mountaineer's cafe, owned by local mountain guides, Mary and Charlie Hobbs. You might want to book a helicopter flight, or a bi plane trip from nearby Pukaki airport near Twizel with Chris Rudge,  just to really top things off!  

Day 3. The Tasman Glacier Experience

From one high to another as today you'll partake in a unique guided treat departing your accommodation by bus and heading into the Tasman Valley. It's a short walk to board the MAC boat to explore the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. Ever changing due to currents and winds, the icebergs differ day to day, though the guides read the place well and will have you up close and personal with the bergs, while offering insightful commentary. Some refreshments later, peering through your phone pics and selfies of the last couple of days will blow your mind. Yet there's so much more to come!  

Tasman Glacier

Day 4. Dunedin and a Scottish City of Grace and Grandeur 

Pack up your sporan, press the kilt and get ready for the skirl of the pipes, as you're just under 4 hours, 317kms or 226 miles away from Dun Eideann, the Scots-Gaelic name for Edinburgh in Scotland.

The name Dunedin comes from this. The famous Moeraki boulders are in the area too and as a short side trip is well worth it. These large symmetrical boulders are 50 to 65 million years old and weigh up to 7 tonnes.  Just thinking about lifting them is good way to build up a thirst.   Which brings us to Dunedin. The Scottish influence is evident everywhere, just as a strong student presence is obvious, as it's always been a popular and very social university town. Gird your loins as you're here at the 858 George Street Motel for a couple of nights, an award winning complex right in the busy city centre.  

Day 5. Otago Peninsula Wildlife Cruise

Today's cruise around Taiaroa Head and surrounding cliffs is an area that acclaimed environmentalist Dr. David Bellamy described as 'the finest example of eco tourism in the world'.  New Zealand fur seals, albatross, petrels, penguins, dolphins and other marine mammals frequent the area, while the shy native yellow eyed penguin also nest here.  Steaming back up the harbour you may get to see where the famous Larnach Castle stands.

Finished in 1871, it'd taken 200 workers 3 years to build and 12 years years to decorate. Loaded with antiques and surrounded by glorious gardens, it's a relaxing spot for a wander. Or if you're up for it, the Octagon in the city centre is the place to be. It's an 8 sided plaza, bisecting the main street and packed with shopping, cafes and bars. Cheers, I think you'll enjoy it!  

otago peninsula penguins

Day 6. Te Anau - gateway to Fiordland – Glowworm Caves

We're off, inland and cross country to Lake Te Anau for 2 nights. 3 and half hours at least of travel, 290 kms or 207 miles.  

The route cuts through vast farming country and rolling hills, with cycle ways and the town of Gore, known as the country music capital of New Zealand. Cue Hokonui radio on the iheart phone app and be sure to buy some local Hokonui moonshine. Te Anau is about another hour and half. Here you're at the Lakefront Lodge and a short stroll to the Te Anau town centre.  Are you ready for this ? Bring on the glowworm caves. Your excursion includes a cruise across beautiful Lake Te Anau to a hidden cave entrance. Only 12,000 year young the cave system is still being formed by the rivers that flow through them, nevertheless it's a wonderfully twisted network of sculpted limestone passages with underground waterfalls and whirlpools. A smaller boat takes you through little lakes into grottos filled with thousands of small glow worms dancing in the darkness like a brilliant night sky. This is nothing short of extraordinary.   

Day 7. Spectacular Doubtful Sound!  

Hold onto your trousers, Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound beckon. It's remote so getting there is half the fun. Manapouri is iconic and more than 50 years ago was front page news over protests over hydro electric development.  From here you head over the Wilmot Pass road to Doubtful Sound. Here the Patea Explorer takes you to amazing corners of the sound, where rain forest and waterfalls take over. The wildlife is abundant with dolphins, fur seals and the rare crested penguin making appearances and if you're lucky, you may catch a deer wandering on the hillside.   

Day 8. Queenstown and Steamer to High Country Farm

The 173 km, 107 mile drive to Queenstown will take you about 2 hours 10.

So take your time. Just minutes from the centre of town is your accommodation for a couple of nights, the Alexis Motel and Apartments.  This evening's cruise on the grand old lady of the lake, vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw will take across the lake to the historic Walter Peak Sheep Station.  The gourmet BBQ dinner is stunning and you'll be happy to walk it off with a short farm tour afterwards. The steam home comes with a sing along by the ships piano.  

Day 9. Jetboating deep into the mountains

The jet unit and jetboat was invented by kiwi Bill Hamilton and the Hamilton jet is now a world wide phenomenon.  Today's adrenaline rush takes you into the Mt Aspiring National Park from Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. The scenery is breath taking and the ride on the braided streams exhilarating.  Be prepared for your driver to throw in a few spins and special touches to test your inner fortitude! The area is rich with history, Maori legend and greenstone, while some of the Lord of the Rings movie sets were also around these parts.  

Day 10. Lake Wanaka & Island wildlife walk 

Only 70 kms, 44 miles, in about 70 minutes, Wanaka is a gorgeous lake side town bristling with outdoor activity.  

The views are stunning, the vibe is chilled yet youthful and the amenities top draw.  You're at the Bella Vista Motel Wanaka for the night. Your cruise today will take in Mou Waho island. This place is a predator free bird sanctuary, home to the eccentric Weka, while the easy climb to the top of the island suggests you're as far from human population as you can be. When you're back among the populous though, there's plenty to enjoy around the waterfront with cafes and bars to right and left of you.   

Lake Mou Waho Island on a lake on an island on a lake

Day 11. To Franz Josef and Glacier Country

This is one of my favourite drives anywhere in New Zealand. It'll take you 3 hours 40, for the 285 km, 177 mile distance, yet it is breath taking. After passing through Makarora and leaving the lake area, the road crosses the Haast Pass. Everything round here is Haast this and Haast that, after the German explorer Juilus Von Haast.  Waterfalls plunging off steep mountain sides, huge rivers carving through big valleys and mountain tops as far as the eye can see.  Eventually you're on the wild West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, with the Tasman Sea on your left as you head north to Franz Josef. The stunning Punga Grove in Franz is your accommodation for two nights.  

Day 12. Twin Glacier Helicopter flight

The heli pads in Franz Josef are close to the town centre and the air here is busy with the sound of  'choppers'.  Your flight will blow you away. 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. Later a beer at 'The Landing' on the corner, is a nice way to round things off.  

Twin Glacier Helicopter

Day 13. Hokitika & Gorge walk. 

Hokitika is an hour and 40 north, 135 kms or 84 miles away.

A stunning beach, wildfoods and artists working greenstone. A short drive inland takes you to the Hokitika river gorge. An excellent track circuit gets you to vivid blue waters and stunning photo opportunities. You'll stay the night at the Bella Vista which is handy to local cafes and arts and crafts shopping.  

Hokitika Gorge

Day 14. Arthur's Pass

Near 100kms away, 61 miles or an hour and a quarter, is Arthur's Pass.

A genuine alpine village with all manner and grades of walks to enjoy. The iconic Devil's Punchbowl is arguably the most well known. The excellent Arthur's Pass Alpine Motel is your rest for the night.  

Day 15. Kaikoura – a marine wonderland with Whales

'The Great Alpine Highway No. 73' and then north to Kaikoura is a 4 hour drive, over 189 miles and 303 kms from Arthur's Pass.

The waterfront White Morph Motor Inn hosts you for the night. Here the mountains meet the sea, though Kaikoura's major claim to fame are the natural wonders of the rugged coastline and the the incredible marine life.  

Day 16. Whale watching

Today my friends is a cracker! The whale watching cruise gets you up close with the beautiful creatures that cruise these waters. 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.  

Wine country beckons and it's just over an hour and a half north up the coast to Blenheim wine country, 128 kms or 79 miles away.

En route 'Nins bins' 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.  You'll be at the Bella Vista Motel for the night. The area is known as Marlborough, so be sure to try one of the many world renowned sauvignon blancs.  

Day 17. Onward to the Abel Tasman National Park.  

Here you're at one of the ocean view Abel Tasman Chalets at Marahau. It's 4 and a half hours, 192 miles or 310 kms away.

Beautiful beaches and safe estuaries abound surrounded by lush forest, while the walks are short circuits or up to 5 days. Kayaking and sailing are also very popular. I can't imagine anything better than a private beach and a chilled Marlborough Sav. Your two nights here will give you plenty of opportunity for that.  

Day 18. Abel Tasman & kayaking to Split Apple rock  

This trip focuses on fun and safety. The paddle is a gentle,  relaxed pace, with frequent stops for your guide to point out features and explain things. The split apple rock, is exactly that, in that it looks like an apple that's had the knife put squarely through it.  The trip is a great opportunity for pictures and the surrounding coastline and scenery is typically stunning. It's usually best to do this in the morning as the sea breeze can pick up in the afternoon.  Be sure to get a good night's sleep cos you're on the road again in the morning! 

kayaking Split Apple Rock in Abel Tasman

Day 19. Back to the Wild West Coast and Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks

4 hours, 175 miles or 283 kms, is the drive ahead of you. The country is typical of New Zealand in the the views change at almost every turn.

The landscapes and farmlands, give way to mountain passes, forests and gushing rivers. The surprises keep coming, as eventually 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.  As walking among and on top off the rocks is amazing, so to is the beach combing on Paparoa beach.  Some more of that Marlborough Sav, that you'll have acquired cases of in Blenheim, is a fantastic prescription when relaxing here and watching that hazy sun sinking into the Tasman Sea beyond.  

Day 20. The Tranz Alpine Train Journey 

173 kms, 107 miles, 2 hours 18 minutes south is Greymouth.

The trip south along the coast is dramatic. The Tasman Sea is on your right and the evidence of its continued pounding over millions of years is evident. Incredibly, holiday homes or 'batches' as they're known in this part of the country, are dotted sporadically along the coast.  It's wild, impressive, captivating country, with an equally interesting history.    In time you're in Greymouth. It's here you say goodbye to your car from the last couple of weeks and meet the Tranz Alpine train for the trip through to Christchurch.  If you think this is just a train trip then you're mistaken.  Make sure you're phone is charged and you're in the mood for taking pics. The Tranz Alpine is rated as one of the world's great train journeys and for good reason.  

The train traverses the South Island from one coast to the other in purpose built scenic carriages and bombards you with unbelievable visual experiences. There's an on board commentary too. You'll work your way through West Coast bush, passing Lake Brunner and the remote valleys of Inchbonnie and the Taramakau river, to Otira and the incredible rail tunnel of the same name.  Digging the tunnel began before WWI and concluded in 1923 and was deemed then one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. Relying on dead reckoning, workers began from either end and when they met in the middle, were only a matter of inches out. Today the tunnel is a highlight of the trip and at 8 and half kms long, takes about 20 minutes to negotiate. Now you're on the East Coast side of the South Island, or 'Mainland' as we prefer to call it.

From the village of Arthur's Pass the run is downhill through the ever changing Waimakiriri Valley, a myriad of tunnels, under big mountains and onto the Canterbury farming plains. Soon you'll be back in Christchurch.  The Sudima Christchurch City will house you for the night. It's just 500 metres from Hagley Park, a stones throw to Victoria St. and handy to the Casino.  For your final night I'd jump on the Restaurant tram and have a meal, ask if my buddy Baz is driving and maybe get dropped off by Riverside and head down to the Irish bar, 'The Little Fiddle'. Reality is 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 21. Farewell.

I can't believe it, you can't accept it and never the twain shall meet, though it's all over.  All that remains is for me to reassure you, we'll collect you and get to the airport on time, to board the flight you need to board to take you wherever. As my dear, wise old, mountain dwelling friend Claver Esmond says, 'Oh if you must leave us then, go, though be sure to find me someone who really wants to stay'. Bon voyage and we'll be seeing you!           

Do you want to know more about this 21-day South Island itinerary? Click here or message us your questions! If you have more or less time, check out our other South Island itineraries

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

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