Doing NZ’s South Island in one to two weeks

The drive along Lake Pukaki to Aoraki/Mt Cook is one of the South Island's most beautiful.

The drive along Lake Pukaki to Aoraki/Mt Cook is one of the South Island's most beautiful. Photo: Getty

More Australians are lured to New Zealand than any other international destination. And no wonder. Just a relatively quick flight across the Tasman Sea, the South Island offers the Aussie traveller scenery rivaling anything in Switzerland or Canada at a fraction of the cost.

The average traveller holidays in NZ for 10.3 days, according to Tourism New Zealand stats. And, a self-drive tour is the most common way to see the country.

However, visitors frequently underestimate the considerable driving distances between points of interest, because while distances aren’t great, many roads are perilous, winding passes.

While the South Island is small compared with Australia, two-thirds is mountainous.

If you want to do more than drive, decide what you want to see and do most, be it mountain scenery, golf, skiing, wildlife or family-friendly activities. Choose locations reasonably close to each other and devise an itinerary that allows you to stay two to three nights in each place.

Itinerary ideas for one week

Consider flying direct to Queenstown. Along with ski-fields, the Queenstown lakes region is one of the South Island’s best locations. It’s also about four hours drive from the island’s star attraction: Milford Sound. Within Queenstown are ice bars, water sports, the Onsen Hot Pools and more.

doing nz's South Island in one or two weeks

The road between Queenstown and Glenorchy. Photo: Getty

From Queenstown you can also get to Glenorchy (Lord of the Rings territory), Arrowtown (known for its autumn glory), lakes Hawea and Wakatipu, and Wanaka’s picturesque waterways and mountains, and unique attractions – like Puzzling World, Cinema Paradiso and Mou Waho island.

South island itineraries

Lake Wakatipu, the lake on which Queenstown lies. Photo: Getty

Alternatively, fly into Dunedin. Highlights in the wildlife capital include the Royal Albatross Centre and Little Blue Penguins, Larnach Castle, the Taieri Gorge Railway and the Otago Peninsula coastline.

From Dunedin, you can also explore the wilderness, waterfalls and coastline of the Catlins or the Queenstown lakes area. Or the Mount Cook National Park. But, you’ll only be able to fit in one of these. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and its lakes is one of the most stirringly beautiful parts of the South Island.

south island itinerary

The drive along Lake Pukaki to Aoraki/Mt Cook. Photo: Getty

Two weeks gives you more time to explore the island, but not all of itunless you want to spend all your time in a vehicle.

Best of the South Island in two weeks

From Christchurch, cross the country to the West Coast. Depending on preference, and how much time you have, you might go via Hanmer Springs, Nelson, Abel Tasman National Park (for great beaches) or the Marlborough Sounds.

south island itinerary

Abel Tasman offers kayaking, “tramping” or day trips by boat. Photo: Getty

The West Coast is one of the longest and wildest drives in the country. Break it up by visiting Maruia Hot Springs. Stay overnight (or longer) at Fox or Franz Josef glaciers and enjoy the forest, glacier and coastal walks of the area.

Spend some time within the Queenstown Lake District, then visit Milford Sound and enjoy a cruise and a walk into the ancient realms of the area. Head east to the Catlins and Dunedin, if time permits.

Give yourself at least four days to enjoy the mystical lakes of the Mackenzie country and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Top things to do here include hikes to see the country’s highest peak (Aoraki/Mount Cook), and the country’s largest glacier (the Tasman Glacier).

south island itinerary

The short trip to Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier is well worth a visit. Photo: Getty

Bathe at Tekapo Springs and  star-gaze, cycle around Lake Pukaki, and chill at The Astro Cafe overlooking Lake Tekapo.

Head back to Christchurch.

south island itinerary

The night sky over the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo. Photo: Getty

Getting around

Hire a car, campervan or motorhome, join a tour, the hop on hop off local buslines or the national coach service. Long-distance trains, such as the TranzAlpine (between Christchurch and Greymouth), are another method for getting around.

The South Island also has several domestic airports including Christchurch, Queenstown and Nelson, if you want to get from one part of the island to another quickly.

Survive the drive

  • Before booking accommodation, assess driving distances realistically with an accurate distance calculator
  • Get off the highway to discover hidden gems
  • Know where toilet, petrol and food stops are
  • Stay in touch with weather reports and heed warnings. Heavy rain, landslides and earthquakes are not uncommon in NZ
  • Take tours for a break from driving
  • If you don’t get to see everything, remember there’s always next time. The average Australian traveller makes three trips to the countryParts of Linda Moon’s visit were hosted by various South Island regional tourism organisations
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