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Our self drive tour of New Zealand’s South Island takes in some of the area’s most spectacular destinations and packs them into 15 awe-inspiring days.
The larger of the country’s two main Islands, South Island is the least populated, offering you the chance to discover your very own corner of majestic wilderness. Kick off your epic road trip in the vibrant city of Christchurch. Enjoy the chance to gaze at orca, sperm whales and blue whales off the coast of Kaikoura before unwinding with a crisp sauvignon blanc in the world-renowned Marlborough wine region. Next, stretch your legs along the stunning coastal trails of Abel Tasman National Park.
From the sandy beaches of the Nelson area, head to the sparkling glaciers and snowcapped mountains of Franz Josef and Mount Aspiring National Park, via turquoise lakes, lush rainforests, sparkling fiords and picturesque Queenstown, Nelson and Dunedin. Rafting, walking and adrenalin fuelled activities await for adventurers and families, while foodies will be spoilt by the fresh regional produce and world-class restaurants.
Take our New Zealand South Island tour and discover for yourself what makes this island one of the world’s most incredible outdoor destinations.
- Whale watching in Kaikoura
- Marlborough wine region
- Franz Josef Glacier
- Milford Sound
Start your Journey
Begin your self driving New Zealand tour in charming Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. Spend a few days exploring on foot, by bicycle or bus. Hop on a vintage tram for an easy way to take in some of the city’s highlights.
Wander through the award winning Botanic Gardens, home to fragrant rose and magnolia gardens and an extensive collection of tropical plants. Ride on the 862 metre Christchurch Gondola and gaze at wonderful views of the city from the top of Mount Cavendish before immersing yourself in the country’s proud Māori heritage at the Canterbury Museum.
A dynamic mix of boutiques, bars and a vibrant restaurant scene make Christchurch a delightful destination to start your adventure.
ChristChurch to Blenheim
Depart from Christchurch and head north on a two hour drive to the coastal village of Kaikoura. Sandwiched between the rugged Seaward Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean, this pretty town offers a thrilling range of wildlife experiences. Get up close to the local, lively seal colony and head out to sea for chance to view whales, dolphins and penguins, which live permanently in the coastal waters offshore.
Continue to Blenheim, the gateway to the Marlborough wine region. Stroll through vineyards and explore the wineries and craft breweries at your own pace or join a guided tour. For more gourmet delights, browse the local markets and sample the delicious wares of artisan producers.
Blenheim to Nelson
Leaving Blenheim, drive northbound via the Queen Charlotte Drive, and wind past secluded bays through forest fringed roads. Pause by quaint art studios and treat yourself to a memento or two.
Take in the stunning Marlborough Sounds on a scenic cruise and dine on fresh seafood, professionally prepared in the galley. Enjoy dolphin spotting from the comfort of a boat tour, or for an unforgettable encounter with these special creatures, brave the cold and take a dip.
A sophisticated art scene awaits in Nelson, which is home to the largest numbers of artists and galleries in the country. Be inspired by the National WOW Museum, which has a regularly updated collection from the annual World of Wearable Art event. At the adjoining Classic Car Museum, you can view one of the largest private collection of vintage cars on the continent.
Nelson’s in the sunniest region in New Zealand, so be sure to take advantage with a harbour cruise. The nearby Abel Tasman National Park is a big draw for adventurers, offering sheltered bays for sailing and sea kayaking. Walk its coastal track and feels the sand of its golden beaches underfoot.
Nelson to Hokitika
There’s plenty to see and do en route from Nelson to Hokitika. If time permits, stop for a coffee or a bite to eat at the small town of Motueka, which is a popular spot thanks to its abundance of beautiful bays.
Journey through scenic reserves to the historic town of Westport and visit the Coaltown Museum for an insight into the everyday lives of the early settlers. Afterwards, marvel at the ancient rock formations of the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, one of the most visited natural attractions on New Zealand’s West Coast.
Hokitika to the Glacier region
Soak up Hokitika’s gold rush heritage and maritime history with a visit to the Hokitika Museum. Learn more about New Zealand’s iconic bird at the National Kiwi House, where you can see these protected creatures up close, or instead go souvenir hunting for pounamu, a beautiful greenstone mined in the area.
Continue your adventure to the town of Franz Josef, which offers the perfect base for exploring this World Heritage Area. Take a guided ice walk on the Franz Josef Glacier, or see this natural wonder from above on an aerial sightseeing tour. Recuperate with some much needed relaxation in the Glacier Hot Pools.
Get your heart pumping in Queenstown, which bills itself as the ‘adventure capital of the world’. If bungee jumping, heli-skiing, zip-lining or white water rafting on the Shotover River sound a bit too high-octane, simply enjoy a picnic on the shore of crystal clear Lake Wakatipu instead, and explore the town’s diverse dining scene and fun filled bars.
Hop aboard the Skyline Gondola and enjoy alpine views from the top, where night time star gazing tours will leave you breathless. For spectacular views of the town and its surrounding landscapes from above, book a helicopter tour.
Queenstown to Te Anau
Follow the winding road from Queenstown to Te Anau as it gently curves around Lake Wakatipu. An easy 40 minute drive from Queenstown is the mountain range and popular ski resort, known as The Remarkables, which lives up to its name with its family friendly atmosphere and huge range of snow sports.
For a quick pitstop, head to the small town of Kingston and unwind next to its stunning lakeside landscapes, before following the rolling countryside all the way to the town of Te Anau.
Arrive in Te Anau where you will be welcomed by awesome views of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand's second largest lake.
Use this town as your gateway to the majestic Fiordlands. Milford Sound, described by Rudyard Kipling as the 'eighth wonder of the world,’ is ripe for exploration on foot or by water. Retrace the steps of early explorers by walking the cliffs and mountain peaks along the world-renowned Milford Track. Admire the views and learn about local marine life on a boat cruise or hire a kayak.
Travel to the heart of the Fiordlands with a trip to the serene Doubtful Sound, the country’s second largest fiord. Spot fur seals and crested penguins on the islets at its entrance.
Te Anau to Dunedin
The drive from Te Anau to Dunedin is rich with splendid views of deep rivers and fresh, green farmland. En route to the rural town of Gore, New Zealand’s country music capital, stop by Mandeville Airport for a chance to fly in vintage aircrafts, including the Tiger Moth. Fans of fishing can try their luck catching trout in the Mataura River.
Follow the Southern Scenic Route to the Catlins, a vast area of rugged, natural beauty. Stop and explore the diverse landscapes, from coastline to dense rainforest and dazzling waterfalls, including McLean Falls - to view glow worms after dark.
The petrified forest at Curio Bay and the Victorian lighthouse at Nugget Point are also worth seeing.
Dunedin is known as the Edinburgh of New Zealand, and it wears its Scottish heritage with pride. A UNESCO designated City of Literature, a statue of Robert Burns stands in its centre. Wander the Writers’ Walk and stroll through the city’s beautifully preserved Victorian and Edwardian streets, discovering facts about its heritage.
For the full story of Dunedin, from its early Māori inhabitants through to the present day, head to the immersive Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. Explore the city’s modern side on a 90 minute walk of its colourful murals and street art. Alternatively, escape to a nearby surf beaches like St Clair or Aramoana and drive to the Otago Peninsula to see the royal albatross and yellow eyed penguin colonies.
Dunedin to ChristChurch
If you have time to spare as you drive north out of Dunedin, enjoy a break in the fishing village of Moeraki. Savour a lunch of fresh local produce at Fleur's Place, a restaurant beloved by British chef Rick Stein. Also enjoy spotting the world's rarest penguins, the yellow eyed penguin at the Moeraki Lighthouse.
Another great option for making memories on your last day is Oamaru, a charming and dynamic town brimming with ornate colonial buildings. Refuel with fish and chips overlooking the harbour
Arrive back in Christchurch and return your hire car, or continue your onward journey with our Tour of New Zealand’s North Island.
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