Itinerary: 13 Days in South Island

Today we are featuring a self-drive itinerary in New Zealand. This is an actual trip designed and created by WIT Agent Wailana for clients heading out in March 2013. They are picking up their car in Christchurch and heading out to take in the best the country have to offer in the way of cultural excursions, natural beauty, stunning landscapes, and rugged roads. Their mission? To make a loop around the South Island, exploring glowworm caves, Franz Josef, Milford Sound, the Cairns, and Lake Pukaki along the way.

Day 1: Arrive Christchurch.

After you arrive in Christchurch, take a day to adjust and shake off your jetlag. Spend the afternoon idly exploring the city. In Feb 2011, Christchurch was hit by a huge earthquake, and suffered the destruction of much of the city’s beloved neo-gothic architecture. In the past year, the city has made serious efforts to recover, and it still remains a beautiful hub for fine dining, comfortable hotels, and fun activities such as surfing or biking. If you have time, check out the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs and the vineyards in Waipara Valley.

(With more time, you can include the north coast as well, and take the ferry from the North Island. This enables you to build in Abel Tasman National Park and Auckland to your itinerary.)

On your second day in Christchurch, you’ll pick up your car at the airport. WIT recommends automatic cars, and if you’re heading to the mountains, pick up a 4WD. Two driving tips:Don’t forget to drive on the left side of the road, and be prepared to share the road with lots of sheep!

To keep yourself up to date with the latest info on Christchurch following the earthquake, check out these links:

Accommodation: Two nights at Heartland Hotel Cotswold or similar.

Day 3: Drive Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass

If you’re driving from Christchurch to the West Coast, take Arthur’s Pass. Reaching more than 900 meters through Arthur’s Pass National Park, this is the highest and most visually stunning road of the Southern Alps. On the eastern side you’ll see wide riverbeds and oceans of beech forest. Descending on the western side, you venture through dense rainforest, driving along and over river gorges. You can either drive or take the spectacular Tranz Alpine rail. There’s plenty of hiking to do in this area, and chances to spot the rare alpine parrot, or kea. Check out the historic Otira rail tunnel or take a brief hike to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls just outside of Arthur’s Pass Village. In wintertime, skiers and snowboarders head to the Temple Basin Ski Area.

Arthur’s Pass. Photo by Rickcox, Creative Commons

Day 4: Greymouth

Greymouth is a treasure trove for adventurers. Wander into Paparoa National Park—a land full of deep caves and gorgeous rivers. Go blackwater rafting through the stunning glowworm caves. This area is one of the few places you can spot greenstone, or pounamu, a durable rock important to the Maori culture. Check out the amazing Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and their blowholes—head over around high tide for the best action. There’s a lot to see around Greymouth so good thing you have your own transport!

Accommodation: Two nights at Ashley Hotel or an upscale option.

Punakaiki Blowhole. Photo by Sally Quiltsalad, Creative Commons.

Day 5: Franz Josef Glacier

Note: Between Greymouth and Franz Joseph the road also is shared by the railroad, so this can make for some exciting driving!

Next, head up to mountains and ice—the magnificent Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These glaciers, being some of the few that still flow to sea level, are among the most accessible in the world. Hike in to the foot of these massive ice giants, and spot the vast cliff scars from where the glaciers retreated. Fox Glacier is the larger of the two, over 8 miles (13 km) long and 300 meters thick above the river valley. For some unforgettable and spectacular views and adventures, book a helihike. You’ll be lifted up above the glaciers in a helicopter and taken on a guided hike on top of them.

Accommodation: Two nights at Glenfern Villas or similar lodging.

Franz Josef Glacier. Photo by edwin.11, Creative Commons.

Day 7: Queenstown

Queenstown is a popular destination for adventurers, with activities ranging from bungee jumping, sky diving, canyon swinging, jet boating, horse trekking, and riverrafting all year round. For more mellow travelers, check out boutique shopping, sample excellent cuisine, take a small hike, go on a city tour and indulge yourself at the spa. There’s so much to do that you may want to spend a few nights here!

Just minutes from Queenstown are several other fantastic destinations—Arrowtown a historic gold mining town, Paradise Valley, or Mt. Aspiring National Park.

Accommodation: Two nights at Copthorne Hotel and Apartments or similar lodging.

Day 9: Te Anau

Te Anau is the main stopping post for visitors of Fiordland National Park. The park covers over 1.2 million hectares and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here we find three of NZ’s famous walks: the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks. Enjoy some of South Island’s rare fauna: the takahe, previously thought to be extinct, the kakapo, the world’s only flightless parrot. Cruise along Milford Sound, a stunning bay that Rudyard Kiping described as the 8th Wonder of the World. In the Fiordlands, there are endless places to explore, whether by kayak, airplane, or on foot.

Accommodation: Two nights at Kingsgate Hotel Te Anau or more upscale lodging.

Fiordland National Park. Photo by Harald Selke, Creative Commons

Day 11: Southland

Southland is a unique and vast landscape with some spectacular marine views. From Te Anau, drive through the Southern Scenic Route, which hugs the wild coast down through Te Anau, Invercargill, Manapouri and the Catlins. Don’t forget to stop and see the sights: the mysterious Moeraki boulders and Oamaru’s whitestone architecture. For more on this route, check out our blog post on it!

The Catlins are not to be missed on any itinerary of Southland. Take the Catlins River Walk that leads you through, a 160 million year old fossilized forest. Head over to the Nuggets, a dramatic seascape with a lighthouse, where you can enjoy fantastic glimpses fur seals, sea lions, spoonbills, gannets, shags, penguins, and sooty shearwaters. Drive down to Slope Point, the southernmost tip of the island.

When you’ve seen your fill and perhaps sampled the famous Oysters at Bluff, drive over to Dunedin. Dunedin is known as the “Edinburgh of New Zealand,” with a plethora of Scottish heritage, one of the best-preserved Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. Check out incredible wildlife, the world’s rarest penguins, and the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross at Taiaroa Head.

Accommodation: One night at Kingsgate Hotel Dunedin or more upscale lodging.

Day 12: Mt Cook National Park

Mt. Cook National Park (also known as Aoraki National Park) is an alpine wonderland—with towering peaks, massive glaciers and permanent snow fields. At 12,316 feet (3,754 metres), Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. The park is very accessible by road, drivers can take the State Highway 80 up to Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village, which rests beside scenic Lake Pukaki. Don’t miss the mighty Tasman Glacier—stretching about 16 miles (27 km) in length! Hike around the surreal landscape and photograph yourself on the foreground of one of the park’s incredible milky lakes. For a real challenge—only recommended for the most experienced of mountaineers—scale Mt. Cook itself and count yourself among the best climbers of the New Zealand Hall of Fame. This impressive list includes Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man ever recorded to climb Mount Everest in 1953.

Accommodation: One night at The Hermitage, Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village or similar.

Mount Cook and Tasman Valley. Photo by awiemuc, Creative Commons

Day 13: Christchurch

Congratulations, you’ve made a full circle! After your self-drive adventure, park your car at one of the depots in Christchurch. Use the extra day to unwind and relax from your whirlwind of a trip, before heading out. Now all you need to decide is your next stop: the North Island? Or maybe Australia and the islands of the South Pacific?

Most of our agents have traveled to New Zealand, and we’d love to share all of our expertise and knowledge with you. Call us for more information at 503-224-0180 or email

1 Comment

Filed under Features, Itinerary, New Zealand, Oceania, Travel by Car, Vendors, Where in the World is the WIT Client?

One response to “Itinerary: 13 Days in South Island

  1. Great post, i for sure love your website, keep on it.

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