New Zealand South Island Road Trip Highlights
The South Island has a bigger landmass than the north and takes a bit more time to experience. There are fewer people down here so the road network is not quite as extensive as up north. However, getting around the main towns and cities is easy. The main roads are modern and traffic is light. Prepare to see lot’s of sheep, epic landscapes and hitchhikers.
At many points along the coastal roads of the South Island, you’ll find yourself driving the Southern Ocean or the Tasman Sea to one side and the Southern Alps on your other side. It’s time to take out your camera. But a word of caution: Don’t stop at any random point along the route. The local authorities have put specially designated rest-stops, picnic areas, and lookout points all along every road (including motorways) in the country.
If you see some Instagram-friendly sights, you can be sure that there’s a safe stopping point closely. Be safe. Use them!
The Nelson Lakes area, near the top of the South Island, is a favourite for hikers, freedom campers, kayakers, and fishermen. There’s also skiing in winter at the Rainbow ski area. Head to St Arnaud, situated about 1 hour and 30 minutes from Nelson, to begin your visit to this lesser-known gem.
Journeying down the east coast from Nelson, Blenheim, or Picton (the ferry terminal gateway to the North Island), most people will spend at least a half-day in Kaikoura. The drive from Picton takes about 3 hours. Kaikoura is famous for the whales that visit the shores here year round. Sperm whales and other species can be seen at any time of year and if you’re visiting in winter (roughly June-September) you might also see migrating species such as humpback whales. This is one of the biggest draws for visitors to New Zealand so don’t miss it.
Christchurch, the South Island’s biggest city is about 2.5 hours drive from Kaikoura. Even if you’re not a fan of cities you’ll find Christchurch an easy-going, pretty city with an old-England feel. Check out the botanic gardens, the International Antarctic Centre where you can experience arctic conditions in a simulator, and the arts centres and art galleries throughout the city.
Queenstown is, for most people, the place to be for adventure sports and excitement. (See below). It’s a buzzing town set in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and should be on every visitor’s checklist.
Fiordland has probably been used as a backdrop for more advertising and publicity photos by the New Zealand tourist board than any other place in the country. Fiordland, near the bottom west corner of the country, is a magical place of waterfalls, wildlife, peaks, and spectacular ocean inlets. It’s hard not to expect dinosaurs to wander around a corner or some prehistoric animals to emerge from the sea. This is one of the last great wildernesses in New Zealand, and in fact, the world. Milford Sound is where most visitors will experience the beauty of Fiordland. It’s the only fiord here with road access but despite the accessibility, you'll feel like you've driven into an ancient land.
Check Out: Our Best South Island of NZ Itineraries