New Zealand South Island Itinerary
Planning a New Zealand south island itinerary isn’t exactly difficult. Some people like to go top-down and then drive up to Christchurch, while others like to start bottom-up and end their journey in Christchurch. That’s entirely up to you.
On the other hand, there are those who go in a circle, driving all the way to the West Coast region, and then come up from Mackenzie District. Again, it’s up to you. Take into account also, the amount of time and days you have for the trip.
If you’re going in winter, you will find outdoorsy activities a teeny-bit difficult to bear because of the chilling wind and temperature. In summer, you will find more tourists, and places are always bustling with so much activity! Not to mention the expensive costs of almost everything! If you’re looking for a middle ground, you can always go late autumn or spring!
In this blog post, I’m going to share a top-down Mackenzie route going as far down as Dunedin and come back up along the Otago Coast. Most of the attractions cost zero to nothing and they are majority nature attractions!
Feel free to read about the budget breakdown for the 10-day trip!
An overview of the South Island Itinerary:
• Fairlie Bakehouse
• Lake Tekapo
• The Pines, Lake Pukaki
• Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
• Salmon at Twizel
• Crown Range Summit
Day 6 & 7
• Milford Sound
• Nugget Point Lighthouse
• Moeraki Boulders
Renting a motorhome
As my parents are coming along for this trip, we decided it’s best if we rent a motorhome. Apollo New Zealand’s 4-berth Euro Star motorhome accommodates 4 of us and has a toilet, shower, kitchen, and two seating areas. Best of all, it has heater that runs on gas and thick blankets when it gets really cold at night!
Day 1 Itinerary
A must-try in New Zealand when you visit the south island! Fairlie Bakehouse bakes the freshest pies I’ve ever tasted. In fact, they are so acclaimed that this bakehouse is said to bake the best pies in South Island, and most travel agencies or motorhome companies recommend travelers to try them.
I absolutely recommend pork belly in apple sauce pie. Although the apple sauce might be off-putting for some people, they go really, really well together surprisingly. In fact, I actually returned 2 more times for more of those crispy, hot pies!
The drive on the way to Lake Tekapo is absolutely scenic, overlooking the mountains in the distance. When driving, you will notice many scenic photo stops along the way. Stop at a few of the photo stops to take some pictures that look straight out of k-drama.
things to do at lake tekapo
Lake Tekapo is famous for its turquoise lake. The next thing you’ll notice is the Church of the Good Shepherd. This heritage-old building is one of the most photographed building in New Zealand! It’s a legend, really.
- Playground and flying fox: One of the highlights at Lake Tekapo. When it’s not too cold or windy, make sure you give this playground a go! Adults will enjoy as much as children!
- Futuristic toilet: Before you get to the playground, you will notice its world-class public toilet. It opens and closes automatically with just a push of a button, flushes automatically and plays music to you when you ‘eh-hem’. But, it only gives you a 10-minute time limit.
- Full-bloom lupins: In summer, catch these flowering lupins that will color the entire place in purple and pink hues! Otherwise, just go on a picnic and photoshoot by the lake!
- Four Square mini market: If you need to get your groceries done, you will find Four Square just along the road. There are also other liquor stores and small stores to get necessary things you need.
Church of the good shepherd
One the popular photo stops at Lake Tekapo! This Anglican Church is built in 1935. It is so iconic in New Zealand that you must have seen it already!
Lake Tekapo is famously known to be part of the International dark sky reserve in the Mackenzie District! They even have Stargazing Tours nearby at Mount John! Come when it’s completely dark and you can literally see the milk way!
how to take the milky way picture at lake tekapo
- Make sure you have a tripod to stabilize your camera. Or place your camera on a sturdy surface.
- Switch it to manual mode.
- Use manual focus instead of auto focus.
- Set your ISO to 6400.
- Aperture at f/2.8
- For shutter speed, take 500 minus by the focal length of your lens.
- For example, my lens is 18mm.
- So 500 divided by 18mm is 27.8.
where to stay in lake tekapo
We recommend booking.com if you’re looking to book an accommodation! You can easily find deals and promotions when booking your accommodation with them. If you make a booking from our links, we will earn a percentage of commission at no extra cost to you! Here are the most budget and affordable ones that we’ve handpicked for your convenience!
- Lakefront Lodge Backpackers: This budget backpacker is 3-minute drive away from Lake Tekapo Town and 5-minute drive away from Church of the Good Shepherd!
- Tailor Made Tekapo Backpackers: Choose this if you’re coming in a big group! It has a bigger space and is close to Lake Tekapo too!
- YHA Lake Tekapo: This simple and cozy accommodation will let you feel like you’re on a retreat! YHA is also renowned all over New Zealand for its budget stays!
- Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park: If you’re driving a motorhome or a campervan, why not stay in this holiday park? Most importantly, it has an excellent lake view!
The Pines, Lake Pukaki
Drive another one hour down the road and you will arrive at Lake Pukaki, also where you will find freedom campsites. There’s one just beside the highway, and another further inward. We actually freedom camped here two times. I recommend the one beside the highway as it is safer with drop toilets within the vicinity too.
Lake Pukaki has fewer crowds than Lake Tekapo. The water is equally turquoise and its views equally epic. If you prefer a less busy area, I suggest that you spend more time at Lake Pukaki.
Day 2 Itinerary
aoraki mount cook national park
Mt. Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain. This mountain in the Southern Alps is one of the must-visit spots in New Zealand!
Unfortunately, when I came with my parents, it was raining cats and dogs, so we have to leave because the rain just wouldn’t stop. I did, however, go back to Mount Cook another 2 times after that—once in August, and another time in spring.
things to do in aoraki mount cook
Most of the things to do in Aoraki Mount Cook are hiking-related activities:
- Hooker Valley Track: Take this easy 5km walk to the end where you will arrive at a glacier lake in the end.
- Tasman Lake Viewpoint: It is said that Tasman Lake Viewpoint has a much better view compared to Hooker Valley Track, only shorter!
- Kea Point Track: If you are short on time, take this 1-hour short walk to Mueller Glacier Moraine Wall.
- Tasman Glacier Heli-Hike: Step on real glaciers as you explore the ice caves and crevasses.
- Mueller Hut Track: An advance track to Mueller Hut. The alpine views here are unparalleled!
where to stay in mt. cook
- YHA Mt Cook: A budget accommodation that features a view of Mt. Cook and free sauna!
- Mt Cook Lodge and Motel: This homey accommodation has a romantic touch to it when the sun goes down! Perfect especially for couples!
- Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge: A wooden-themed lodge with a cozy communal lounge and uninterrupted views of the mountains!
Day 3 Itinerary
Salmon at Twizel
On your way from Mount Cook to Wanaka, you will pass by Twizel. Find solace in this little town and take a quick bite at High Country Salmon. They offer the freshest Salmon to quench anyone’s thirst for fresh seafood!
Bonus: Walk out to the platform where they house the salmon fishes and feed them!
You have to be a salmon lover to be able to enjoy this big feast! Especially raw salmon! Sushi and other salmon bites can be found on their menu and over the counter.
Note: Some times bus after bus will bring tourists in and it can be really flooded at times!
The land of the lonely Wanaka tree.
Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s fourth largest lake! There are plenty of scenic spots around Lake Wanaka and ample of parking space too. Some of them have time limits though!
Locals love to park at the parking lots overlooking Lake Wanaka and have their takeaways while sitting in the car! Speaking about enjoying life!
things to do in wanaka
- Skydiving Wanaka: Free-falling just got better with views overlooking Lake Wanaka, mountains and glaciers!
- Roys Peak Track: New Zealand’s notable track to an unsurpassed view of Lake Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring! You may need to queue up for “the” picture!
- Isthmus Peak Track: Similar to Roy’s Peak Track, though with lesser tourists. 360-degree uninterrupted view of Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea and the alps!
- Blue Pools Track: Jump into the crystal-clear blue pools or just take a picture at the suspension bridge!
- Wanaka Lavender Farm: The best time to visit is in spring through summer!
where to stay in wanaka
- Base Wanaka: Closer to anywhere in town. This is the place to go if you’re looking for budget and convenience. Select dorms or private rooms!
- Wanaka Top 10 Holiday Park: Top 10 holiday park is one of our go-tos holiday park when we travelled New Zealand because their facilities are really good—at least most of them are! They also have powered and unpowered sites to plug in to powerpoint or to set up tents!
Day 4 Itinerary
Along the road from Wanaka to Queenstown, you will pass by the quirky bra fence—Bradrona. The story of this notorious bra fence started with a mysterious bra that appeared along the Cardrona Valley Road one day. Funny enough, more people started hanging their bras on the fences too. It got to the extent where it started interrupting traffic flow, so they moved all the bras inside finally.
Crown Range Summit
This is a highway between Wanaka and Queenstown. In fact, it is the highest highway in New Zealand at 1121 meters! The 360-degree view up there includes the view of the Queenstown airport!
Make sure you make a stop at Crown Range Summit, especially during winter! It is perhaps the highest freedom campsite in all of New Zealand!
After the first summit lookout, you will come to a few other lookouts. Stop by those lookouts because many of them show a different perspective of the range as you get nearer to Arrowtown!
Used to be a gold-mining town in New Zealand. Settlements were built near the Arrow River and grew very rapidly during the peak of the gold rush in 1862. Some of the cottages can still be seen today! One of the most prominent one is the Chinese settlement, built by the Chinese miners around the 1800s.
things to do in arrowtown
- Walk along Arrow town village: Walk along this quaint heritage town that brings you back to the mining days!
- Take a bike tour: A self-guided bike tour can bring you around the many historical places in Arrowtown quicker!
- Hike Sawpit Gully Track: Take this hike up to a bird’s eye view of Arrowtown and the surrounding mountains!
- Pan for gold at Arrow River: How can you leave this town without trying to pan for gold?! You never know—you might just get lucky!
Day 5 Itinerary
The famous Lord of the Rings film location—Glenorchy. Distance between Glenorchy to Queenstown is 45km. That’s an hour’s drive! Glenorchy is usually part of Queenstown’s activities, but I’d like to separate the both of them because Glenorchy deserves a spot on its own! It’s just that pristine and breathtaking! Even though it can be quite far away, the drive will be absolutely worth it. Along the way, you can see The Remarkables on your left. A true scenic drive! Make sure you drive safely as there are a lot of sharp corners!
Glenorchy is surrounded by mountains and Lake Wakatipu, so you can expect a lot of photo-taking going on. Nothing beats searching for middle-earth than Glenorchy!
things to do in glenorchy
- Glenorchy Lagoon Boardwalk: Take a 1-hour loop track through wetlands on a boardwalk!
- Drive to Paradise: Less than 30-minute drive and you will arrive at Paradise, also featured in LOTR!
- Horse-riding in LOTR’s locations: For 1 to 2 hours, you will ride through different landscapes and even rivers! That’s like being in LOTR!
- Kayak tours: Kayak to secluded places in Glenorchy accompanied by spectacular views and wildlife!
- Scenic flight: Heli Glenorchy will bring you through Glenorchy, Fiordland, and Mt. Aspiring National Park during this scenic flight!
- Routeburn Track: Get a taste of Routeburn Track by hiking a part of it starting at Kinloch! Those who don’t know, Routeburn is one of NZ’s great walks.
Everything happens in this Queenstown. From mild to adrenaline-pumping activities. In fact, this is the starting point of many tours and activities. Tours and transportation will arrange for pick-ups and drop-offs in Queenstown for those who are going to Milford Sound.
In Queenstown, you can find plenty of thrilling activities to keep your adrenaline going. At Kawarau Gorge itself, you can go jetboating, white water rafting, and bungy jumping at the bridge—while surrounded by gorgeous views of mountains and the distant sea!
With all the goodness that Queenstown is offering, it is easy to overspend as everything is expensive here.
free things to do in queenstown
- Queenstown Hill Hike: 2 hours return
- Take the Tiki Trail: Starting at the bottom of Gondola, this 2-hour return track is your free ticket to the top of the gondola!
- Hike Ben Lomond: 7-9 hours in total. Starting at Tiki Trail, this hike continues upward to the great view of the Southern Alps. You can choose not to go the entire way and stop at the saddle only.
- Queenstown Gardens: Take a stroll in the garden at the heart of Queenstown!
- Watch the jetboating and bungy jumping: You don’t have to buy tickets to take a thrilling ride. Take on the role as a spectator and watch others scream their lungs out!
bucket list things to do in queenstown
- Skyline Gondola: With the price of $39 per person, take the Queenstown Skyline Gondola up to the top to see a bird’s eye view of Queenstown and The Remarkables.
- Luge: At the same place as the Skyline Gondola, take this gravity ride and race down the track accompanied by fabulous views!
- Jetboating: You can choose to jetboat at Shotover River or in town (GoOrange company)!
- Kayaking at Lake Wakatipu: You can either Kayak or go Paddleboarding at Lake Wakatipu!
- Skiing at the Remarkables: What better views than to go skiing at the Remarkables? Queenstown comes alive especially in winter when everywhere is ready for the ski season!
- Onsen Hot Pool: Take a dip in Onsen hot pool while you soak up an idyllic view of the southern landscape!
The best burger in the world according to CNN! It’s easy to see why.
From the moment we arrived in Queenstown, we passed by this burger joint 3 times, and there was never a moment that this burger joint was not busy. The world-renowned joint was ceaselessly bustling about and there seemed to be a perpetual queue there.
Their burger is famous for its generous portion. You may see many people making orders, but the queue moves pretty quick.
where to stay in queenstown
- Nomads Queenstown Backpackers: Those looking for an affordable stay in the town center can consider Nomads. They offer tea, coffee and toasts every morning!
- Base Queenstown: Just walk for 5 minutes and you will arrive at Lake Wakatipu, restaurants and shops!
- JUCY Snooze Queenstown: We’ve actually been to JUCY Snooze for a shower and the facilities look clean and well taken care of. Set at a bustling location, JUCY is perfect for those who are especially active at night! Reception is open 24 hours!
- Pinewood Lodge and Apartments: Pinewood Lodge is a walking distance away from Skyline Gondola, Luge and the town!
- Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park: Those who have activities planned at the Shotover River can consider Queenstown Top 10 as it is only a 5-minute walk away! Drive 2 minutes and you will be at Onsen hot pool!
- Melbourne Lodge: Some accommodation in this mountain-view lodge offers free continental buffet!
Day 6 & 7 Itinerary
Perhaps the most famous fiord in New Zealand. It is also notoriously known for being the wettest place in New Zealand as it rains all the time! Even so, it is a MUST-DO in every New Zealand itinerary!
The reason why Milford Sound took up 2 days of the itinerary is because the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound took us 4 hours. By the time we got to Milford Sound Lodge (the only accommodation in Milford Sound), it was already pitch black.
It is really important to fill up on gas as you will not find any gas stations along the way. The final place where you can fill up will be in Te Anau. I recommend Gaspy to search for the cheapest gas station.
DOC campsites and lookout points line the road toward Milford Sound.
milford sound cruise
At the end of the Milford road, you will come to a port where all the cruises depart on a tour around the fiord. The cruises will bring you through the best parts of the fiord, including Stirling Falls and Milford’s highest waterfall, Bowen falls. If you are lucky, you can also find dolphins swimming along your cruise, penguins and seals resting on the rocks!
Spots you can't miss along the Milford road:
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound may take more than 2 hours. Plenty of scenic viewpoints can be seen along the long stretch of road. An innocent 2-hour journey may just turn into 3 hours or more.
1. The Chasm
From the car park, walk a short 15 minutes and you will hear a loud roaring sound coming from below your feet. Go through a loop and you will see a huge gushing waterfall flowing down to an enormous chasm. The Chasm is notoriously known for being difficult to photograph – both the depth and the power.
2. Eglinton Valley
We pulled over at a stop in Eglinton Valley because we were attracted by the towering mountains, dried grass and rocky streams.
3. Mirror Lakes
Park along the and take the boardwalk for a few minutes. You will arrive at the lake in no time. What made the lake interesting was the cute little ducks and ducklings waddling on it. By the time we left Mirror Lakes, there were about 10 more cars parked up behind us.
4. Henry Creek DOC campsite
Stumbled upon this beautiful lake by mistake! We drove in to take a look, and found a majestic lake while the sun was setting!
Day 8 Itinerary
lumsden—Best Freedom Campsite
A famous freedom camp spot in New Zealand if you’re on your way back from Milford and Te Anau. This tiny and quaint little town called Lumsden has an information centre with plenty of overnight parking spaces available for motorhomes and self-contained vehicles. The best of all? It has great toilet facilities (no hot water though), dump station, dish-washing sink and detergent, and free WiFi (from the nearby library) – all for free!
Nugget Point Lighthouse
On our way to Dunedin, make sure to stop at this notable attraction—Nugget Point Lighthouse. If you’re wondering, its shape has no resemblance to a nugget whatsoever. In fact, it is called nugget because the rocks that the lighthouse is built on look like gold. It is on the Catlins coast, where you can witness seals, a whole colony of them, resting on the rocks below. Bring a binocular because you might see the world’s rarest penguins here and sea lions too! This is really a wildlife heaven.
It is normally really packed at Nugget point Lighthouse. We were really lucky because we saw less than 6 people when we were there.
Day 9 Itinerary
If you’re into architecture, especially Victorian, Scottish, Edwardian, and Maori ones, then Dunedin is definitely for you. For those driving a motorhome in Dunedin, chances are, you can’t find a decent parking. This second-largest city in New Zealand is very packed everywhere.
things to do in dunedin
- First Church of Otago: A Scottish-built Presbyterian Church in the heart of the city. The exterior of this church looks really impressive on its own.
- St. Joseph Cathedral: A Roman Catholic Church in Dunedin that has an impressive Gothic Revival architecture too.
- Baldwin Street: Used to be the World’s Steepest Street. However, it has lost its title after Wales’ Ffordd Pen Llech, is measured to be steeper.
- Botanic Gardens: Take a stroll at this 28-hectare garden with 6800 plant species to gaze upon!
- Otago Museum: The museum can be entered for free. But, visitors can choose to give a donation.
- Tunnel Beach: Just a few minutes drive away and you will come to the coast, a paradise of cliffs, caves, and rock arches!
where to stay in dunedin
- Manor House Backpackers: Booking a stay with this commonwealth-designed backpacker comes with free breakfast! The staff are especially friendly too!
- Kiwis Nest Backpackers and Budget Accommodation: Kiwis Nest Backpacker is close to many shops, restaurants, University of Otago, and Otago Museum!
- Dunedin Holiday Park: This holiday park has an early-settler theme with its painted and vintage-designed cabins!
- Leith Valley Holiday Park and Motels: Leith Valley has a middle-of-the-woods feel to it as most of its cabins adopt a wood-like design. They have a sauna and is close to Dunedin Botanic Gardens too!
On your way back to Christchurch, take a detour to Moeraki Boulders. Check out these million-year old large round boulders along Koekohe Beach. You can also dine in the restaurant at the entrance to the beach, or buy a souvenir! Visitors are expected to pay at the trust box placed at the entrance before they access the beach.
Day 10 Itinerary
Welcome back to the largest city in South Island! I find it less compact than Dunedin. There are so many things to do here for free! If you’re ending your trip here, you can find different supermarkets or malls to get your souvenirs. The best souvenir to get would be Whittaker’s Chocolate or some other local snacks!
things to do in christchurch
- Christchurch Botanical Gardens: Go especially in Spring when you can see the flowers in full bloom, especially the Rose Garden!
- Godley Head Track: A 30-minute drive away from Queenstown and you will arrive at Godley Head Track, where you can see remains of war battery and unsurpassable views of the coast!
- Canterbury Museum: Entrance is free! I’ve actually gone twice because it’s just too large to finish walking! Learn about New Zealand’s history, it’s wildlife and the Maori culture!
- North Hagley Park: Go for recreation here or have a picnic!
- Christchurch Gondola: Take a gondola up Port Hills to get a panoramic view of Christchurch!
- Bridle Path Track: Park at the Gondola car park and hike up to the gondola! And views of Lyttelton Harbor. The path is very steep but the views are definitely unbeatable!
where to stay in christchurch
- At The Right Place: Feel like you’re at the right place with its peaceful vibe. At The Right Place is close to the airport and public transportation for those taking a flight home!
- Around The World Backpackers: Just a short walk away from the city centre, this budget-friendly backpacker is cozy and has free Netflix!
- YHA Christchurch: Stay close to Christchurch Botanical Gardens, the museum, and Hagley Park at YHA! There’s a locker if you need to keep your belongings safe!
- Christchurch TOP 10 Holiday Park: Christchurch Top 10 is a premium holiday park that has just been renovated! We’ve stayed here more than 2 times and really love the facilities they offer here! Check out the communal kitchen for free food that fellow travelers have left for others after their trip!
watch the video:
This 10-day itinerary is planned purely out of my own location of interest and what I feel is suitable for my parents. Traveling in winter may increase your chances of missing out on most of the scenic tracks and great short walks in New Zealand because many of them are closed due to rock fall and avalanche dangers. Avid hikers must not miss these walks in New Zealand!
They say that getting lost isn’t a bad thing. If you find yourself lost, chances are you will find yourself discovering a much stunning view that (possibly) no one has ever discovered!
So strap up your hiking boots and let’s go!