South Island Family Itinerary

14 Day South Island Family Explorer

Strap yourselves in for the ride of a lifetime! Imagine the world’s greatest physical features and adventure challenges all in one place, here on New Zealand’s South Island. You’ll be blown away by the formidable, snow capped mountain peaks and ranges, huge glacial lakes, imposing fiords, dense native rain forests, wonderfully wild isolation and to top it all off, we’ll strap you in a jetboat for a ride through a narrow river gorge, or tie you to a bungy chord and throw you off something! The locals are tame and very friendly, the countryside unique and at times almost frontier like, though best of all, it screams ‘come and play’.


Salisbury Falls Golden Bay

14 Day South Island Family Explorer

When is the best time to visit?

Any time!

New Zealand is a great destination all year round. Though the summer months of November to February are high season and busier while autumn of March to May, is less crowded and just as stunning with the trees the colours of the forests in New England.

Why come here?

*The exchange rate in this part of the world is heavily in your favour. 

*Apart from the high summer season, it’s always less crowded.

*The people are very friendly.

*Rental car hire is easy.

*Your driver’s license is valid here though remember to ‘keep left’ and let others pass.

*Accommodation covers all requirements and levels 

*All accommodation is designed to fit your family’s requirements in terms of rooms and bedding configurations.

*The locals speak all sorts of English.

Tasman Glacier boat trip

Why these places and who’s recommending them?

This voyage of discovery is designed to introduce you the traditional destinations on the South Island of New Zealand as we know them, though also suggest some others so as to make your time here with your family truly memorable and worthwhile.

I’m John Dunne and born and bred not far away. Known to all as Dunney, I live in the high country of the South Island where I’ve been a tour guide, mountain host and am a ski teacher. 

These are my recommendations for The 14 day South Island Family Explorer

Places you’ll visit and some of the highlights

  • Christchurch, the Garden City. Mountain biking and punting on the Avon River. 

  • Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the South and the Otago wildlife sanctuary tour.

  • Doubtful Sound and a sea cruise.

  • Franz Josef and the glaciers.

  • Greymouth and the iconic Tranz Alpine train.

  • Lake Tekapo and Mt. Cook and the Tasman Glacier lakes.

  • Queenstown. The Adventure capital of the world!

  • The TSS Earnslaw steam ship, the Lady of the lake.

  • Te Anau and the glow worm caves.


Yet there’s so much more, so let’s get your self drive tour on the road

Day 1 Christchurch

Welcome to Christchurch and where the South Island is commonly referred to as ‘The Mainland’.

We’ll meet you at the airport, get you sorted and take you into the city through the leafy suburbs to your accommodation.

Once you’ve checked in a great way to get to know Christchurch, the Garden City, is on a private punting trip along the Avon River. These comfortable flat bottomed craft propelled by handlers in Edwardian costume will take you past some of the city’s historic buildings and through the Botanic Gardens and away from the busy streets.


We’ve taken care of everything. You’ll be staying at The Quest Christchurch. It’s located in the middle of Christchurch’s revitalised arts and tourist precinct. All serviced apartments have free wi fi and fully modern kitchens.

The inner city tram Loop passes by and many retail shops, cafes and restaurants are also handy and in the complex.

Family relax on Queenstown foreshore

Day 2 - Mt Cook

Giddyup, you’re moving out! 

311kms, or about 4 hours driving, though it will take longer as a first timer here and allowing for stops, will have you at Mt. Cook National Park. Deep within the massive mountains and surrounded by the vivid blue lakes, you’ll get to see the permanently snow capped Mt. Cook. 

At 3,724 metres, it’s Australasia’s highest peak and it’s Maori name, Aoraki, means cloud piercer. Mt. Cook is surrounded by 150 or so prominent peaks, with numerous glaciers, ice and snow fields, lakes or tarns and unnamed mountains and ranges that stretch forever. You’re in this wonderland for a couple of nights.

A Mt. Cook Helicopter flight, landing high on Tasman Glacier will have you thinking you’re ‘King of the Castle’ with the huge natural wonders around you.


Located within the National Park and in the village are the Mt Cook Lodge and Motels. Here you’ll find a range of accommodation styles with ensuite bathrooms and a patio or balcony while the Chamois Bar & Grill will satisfy any appetite or thirst.

Christchurch tram ride

Day 3 - Tasman Glaicer

Get amongst it on the Tasman Glacier terminal lake and the ‘growlers’. These small icebergs are ever changing due to wind and current, offering a different experience every day. This is a unique guided experience, including a bus trip to an easy alpine walk and then a aboard a MAC boat on the lake itself. You might even get to touch one of  ‘growlers’.

Day 4 Dunedin

Pack your sporran and be ready for the ‘skirl of the pipes’. You’re Dunedin bound, which in Scots-Gaelic is Edinburgh. The Scottish influence is this university city is obvious.

It’s a distance of 317 kms and will take just under 4 hours, though be sure to visit the Moeraki Boulders on the way. Some of which are up to 2 metres wide and weigh near 7 tonnes.

The iconic landmark Larnach Castle built in 1871, which took 200 workers 3 years to build yet 12 years to decorate is a stunning place to for wandering and photo opportunities.


858 George Street is a thoroughly modern complex the reflects the character of the area. Luxurious, fully serviced units with SKY and continental breakfasts and just minutes walk from city shops, restaurants, the university and also the Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Day 5 Otago Wildlife Cruise

Renowned environmentalist Dr David Bellamy labelled today’s wildlife cruise around the local peninsula and the dramatic Taiaroa Head, where you’ll see the Yellow eyed Penguin or Hoiho, as the ‘finest eco-tourism trip in the world’. You’re also likely to see fur seals, albatross, petrels, dolphins and other marine species.

Albatross Otago Peninsular

Day 6 - Te Anau

290 kms or 3 and half hours away is Lake Te Anau, one of our deepest and largest lakes, gateway to Fiordland and the Glowworm Caves.

It’ll suck the breath out of you! Some of the Lord of the Rigs was filmed here and the vast native bush and opportunities for fly fishing, water sports or a scenic flight, will get you right up close with nature.

The geologically young 12,000 years old glowworm caves are a twisting pattern of limestone passages, waterfalls and whirlpools. You’ll be pulled through this underground version of the milky way on a purpose built boat as you gaze up at the thousands of glowworms in the pitch black, subterranean grotto.


You’re here 2 nights at the Edgewater Motel. It features a range of accommodation with free wifi and all services and is just a 5 minute walk from the town centre.

Day 7 - Doubtful Sound

Your trip keeps going from strength to strength!

You’ll transfer to nearby Lake Manapouri to cruise the incredible expanse of Doubtful Sound. This has been described by some as a ‘spiritual experience’.  Getting there is also part of the fun. Once you’ve crossed Lake Manapouri, a coach winds up over Wilmot Pass and down into Deep Cove and the sound. The spacious ‘Patea Explorer’, with it’s expert guide will point out the wildlife and stunning natural features.


Doubtful Manapouri ferry

Day 8 - Queenstown

On the road again to destination Queenstown and ‘The adventure capital of the world’. It’s an awesome trip of just over 2 hours or 173kms. The trip takes you near fruitlands, the Kawarau Gorge, wine country which are all handy to Queenstown.

There’s time in the evening to board the ‘Lady of the Lake’, the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw. She’ll take you across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station, a gourmet BBQ dinner and farm tour. The trip home is usually a grand old sing along round ‘Earnslaws’ grand piano.


5 minutes walk from the lake’s edge is the Blue Peaks Lodge. It’s handy to everything, including Queenstown international airport and has all the services.

Day 9 Jet Boat Wilderness Safari Glenorchy

We’re going big now!

From Queenstown and north along Lake Wakatipu’s edge we’re heading to Glenorchy at the head of the lake and into the Mt. Aspiring National Park. The jetboat engine was invented in New Zealand by Bill Hamilton and we’ve always loved nothing more than taking you places you’d normally never get to.

The ride along these braided rivers dwarfed by huge gnarly mountains, with expert drivers twisting and spinning the boat, will have your heart racing. Expert commentary about the greenstone trails and Maori myth and legend, caps everything off. You’ll likely recognise some scenes from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies too.

As famous South Island mountain scribe Claver Esmond says ‘Yet tis still where the wind blows through with the years and screams of thousands’.

Dart River

Day 10 - Wanaka

Lake Wanaka beckons and is just over about 70kms or an hour and 10 away.

It’s another gem of place and once you’re settled we’ll haul you out on the lake for a short cruise to one of a bunch of islands, this one called Mou Waho. These days it’s predator free bird sanctuary and home to the ‘crazy one’, the Weka. You’ll be guided by an expert who’ll talk about the ecology of the area while from the top of the island, you’ll feel as if you’re the only people on earth.


You’re staying here for the night at the Bella Vista Motel in Wanaka. 150 meters from the lake and close to the town, it offers all the usual services. Continental breakfasts are also available.

Wanaka has plenty of cafes, bars, restaurants and shopping.

Day 11 - Franz Josef

It’ll take more than 3 and a half hours to drive the 285kms distance, though Wanaka to Franz Josef Glacier, is without doubt to infinity and beyond!

That might sound like a cry from ‘Toy Story’, though this IS truly justified.

This drive is one of the most brilliant you’ll encounter anywhere.. 

Claver Esmond says ‘Springs a wish at every turn and none of them the same’.

Rainforest, mountain passes and massive peaks, before you reach the wild wilderness of the West Coast of the South Island.

Franz Josef village is in the heart of the Westland National Park, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the whole country. 

Best thing to do once you’re here settled in and had a breather, is to head to the Glacier Hot Pools and luxuriate, relax and rejuvenate. Imagine that under a stunning South Island Glacier country sky!


We’ve locked you in here for a couple of nights at Franz Josef’s Punga Grove. You’ll feel like you’re tucked away in the rainforest and this stylish mountainside motel has all you’ll need and is within very easy access of the town. Make sure you’ve a good walk around the town and see what else is on offer and what your schedule might allow.

Day 12 - Okarito Lagoon

An easy trip from Franz, is to the country’s largest natural unmodified wetland, Okarito Lagoon Nature Reserve. Rimu and Kahikatea rainforest is all around and the shallow deltas extend in every direction. Kayaking is the way to go and offers superb encounters with the White Heron or Kotuku, Royal Spoon bills and Shags. This is a bird watcher’s nirvana with up to 70 different bird species recorded here and with stunning views to the tallest of New Zealand’s mountains Cook and Tasman in the distance, is an experience that’ll live long in the memory.

Okarito Lagoon

Day 13 - Christchurch

They say to leave the best wine till last and to quote Claver Esmond ‘ When a cork pops, you can’t be sure of what’s next’.

That’s because nothing will prepare you for what is listed as one of the world’s greatest train trips, the Tranz Alpine to Christchurch.

Getting to the start point at Greymouth will take you about 2 hours 20. Make sure your phone is charged ‘cos the 173 km journey is full of photo ops. and a shopping stop in Hokitika where you can watch carvers work with the native greenstone or pounamu as it’s known here, might provide a chance to obtain a real kiwi momento.

Greymouth is where you’ll kiss goodbye to your ‘chariot’ before boarding the Tranz Alpine!

Lush farmlands, river valleys, imposing gorges, huge mountains, the enormous Otira Tunnel, viaducts and small townships come and go as you surge from west to east and on into Christchurch.


You’ll be back at the Quest Christchurch which will feel like coming home to an old friend where you can shuck off your shoes, relax and enjoy the excited chatter of what it is you’ve all experienced.

At least you know you’ll sleep well and in comfort!


Day 14 - Farewell

This day has rolled round way too soon hasn’t it?

It’s never easy saying goodbye and parting ways after this magnificent voyage of grand discovery will be especially hard.

With great empathy and understanding of how you’ll be feeling at this sad farewell, we’ll get you to Christchurch International Airport for your flight out of here. Though we all know you’ll be hankering to get back, where we’ll be always waiting.

Travel well and keep safe. Bon Voyage!

To Find out more contact the team at First Light Travel and let the expert Travel Designers customise your dream family trip to the South Island


John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 3 Apr 2024 (Last updated: 27 May 2024)

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