So in reality, two weeks in this amazing country really isn’t enough. But if that’s all that you have, then here’s a two week trip around some of the highlights of the South island.
Day 1: Christchurch: fly into Christchurch and collect a car at the airport. There’s plenty of options so do some shopping around. Get one which has unlimited kms as you’ll need this.
Sadly, since the earthquakes of 2011, Christchurch is still undergoing rebuilding. The cathedral is out of bounds, but other parts of the city are still worth a wander, including the Re:START project. To get a quick overview of the city, hop on a tram tour ($20). The full circuit takes about 50 minutes and the ticket allows you to jump on and off all day.
Christchurch has some good eating options too (Fiddlesticks is popular) so do check out somewhere for a nice first dinner.
Day 2: Christchurch – Punakaiki (289km; 3.75hours): the drive to the west coast is pencilled to take 4 hours. This doesn’t take into consideration stops to admire the breathtaking views. The drive from Christchurch starts across the flats of Canterbury, and the mountains and ski fields seem a long way away. Heading up towards the pass the road winds slowly upwards past Lake Pearson and Craigieburn Forest Park to Arthur’s Pass National Park. There’s plenty of viewpoints from which to admire the scenery.
Dropping down towards the west coast, you encounter Cobden Bridge, the junction to take a left South or a right and North. If you’ve come this far then another 50kms of coastal road is worth the effort to take in the windswept beaches and Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (free). Head north via Greymouth to the windswept beaches and natural phenomenon of this part of the coastline.
- Punakaiki Beach Hostel (wifi paid)
Day 3-4: Punakaiki – Franz Josef (218km; 2.75hours): on paper a 3 hour drive. In reality, more like 5 by the time you’ve stopped for photos and a wander around some of the coastal towns. Again, this drive is spectacular. The town of Hokatika is worth stopping – there’s good coffee and some interesting shopping to be done, mainly around the local jade (greenstone) and gold mining boom.
Franz is set up for visitors to the glacier. Although only the 4th largest in Nez Zealand, it is probably the most visited, and this is due to some of the best organised guiding. There are various trips to the glacier, which range from a walk to the edge to a helihike. There are also hot pools for weary (and cold) legs. Franz Josef Glacier Guides are worth booking in advance in peak season.
There’s a range of accommodation in Franz and a growing number of places to eat (Alice May; The Landing). It’s worth spending at least one night here as the weather up on the glacier can be unpredictable and flying may be cancelled or delayed.
- Terrace Motel (free wifi)
Day 5: Franz – Wanaka (285km; 3.5hours): if you haven’t availed yourself of the slightly cheaper fuel in Hokatika (if you don’t detour you can do the Hokitika to Wanaka journey on a single tank), then ensure you fill up before you leave Franz as there are large stretches with no fuel options.
Once again pencilled as a short journey, this takes a little longer due to the amazing coastal scenery which rivals the Great Ocean Road. Knights Point is worth stopping at. As you approach Wanaka the scenery changes again and the sight of the mountains and lakes greets you. There’s plenty of cyclists in this part of the country so take care to avoid them.
Wanaka is nestled on a lake front and many of the accommodation and eating options have views across the water.
Day 6: Wanaka – Te Anau (228km; 3hours): heading south leads you to some of the most spectacular views in this part of the country. The first part of the drive is via the historic Arrowtown. Past Arrowtown and the drive winds around leading you to the next major feast for the eyes across the valley to Queenstown. If you’re an adrenaline junkie or fancy experiencing some of the legendary adrenaline sports, stunning views, amazing restaurants and great nightlife, then I’d add a night here.
Continuing on through the Crown Range is the Devils Staircase – a winding road through the southern alps. As tricky as it is beautiful, it isn’t a road for rushing. The drive flattens out when you take the right to Te Anau and its approx 75km from the junction.
A growing township, Te Anau is a stopping point for people wanting to join cruises around the Fjordland. The lake is beautiful, but if you have time take a short drive to Manapouri for some lesser seen views of the alps. There also some good hikes around this part of the country.
Day 7: Te Anau – Milford Sound (118km; 1.75 hours): a 2 hour drive through some of the most striking scenery; glacier topped mountains, mirror lakes and waterfalls will see you emerge into the very small community of Milford Sound.
A favourite with hikers, Milford is also home to cruises around Milford Sound and, if you can bear the cold water, scuba diving. Accommodation is limited so be sure to book ahead especially in the peak of summer (the road can often be closed in the winter due to avalanches). It is also recommended that if you dive you stay the night here.
- Milford Sound Lodge (restaurant on site, paid wifi)
Day 8: Milford – Dunedin (406km; 5 hours): this is one of the longer drives and if you have more days I’d recommend breaking up the trip with a stop in Invercargill. However, it is quite a straightforward drive and with strikingly different scenery to that of the previous few days. An early startin Milford should see you in the coastal, steep university town by mid afternoon.
Day 9: Dunedin – Oamaru (113km; 1.5 hours): a pleasant short drive on this day which means either a relaxed start or a casual early finish. Either option works well and Oamaru, a quaint Victorian town has plenty to offer. Stop off at Moeraki Boulders on the drive, about 40km south of Oamaru.
Best known (probably) for its colony of blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, Oamaru has an alternative, creative vibe, aided by it being home to Steampunk HQ. There’s a good range of historic buildings and many house good value accommodation.
A trip to the blue penguin colony is worth the entrance fee – monies go towards helping the conservation of these little birds. No photos are permitted but shore time is around an hour after sunset.
Day 10-11: Oamaru-Mount Cook (208km; 2.5 hours): an inland drive takes you through central farming towns to the majesty of New Zealand’s biggest mountain, Mt Cook. The drive is also through the of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and eagle eyes fans might recognise scenery from The Two Towers on the way. The road from Twizel (where you can join a LOTR tour) is windy and well known for accidents – the scenery is distracting, Lake Pukaki a mesmerising turquoise, and the road can be busy. Do take care.
The best views to treat yourself to are from the upper rooms at The Hermitage hotel which look out, unobstructed, towards Mt Cook.
It has been said that only 3/10 visitors to the area actually see the mountain, so don’t be too disappointed if the summit is shrouded in cloud, even in summer. There are some good hikes for all levels within easy access to the hotels, and activities such as glacier kayaking, helihiking and 4WD tours will also run weather permitting. There are limited eating options in the village, but the Old Mountaineers is a good value, great quality, friendly option, run by people who live and breathe the mountains and region.
Day 12: Mt Cook-Glentunnel (300km; 3.5 hours): Not a location high on the list of must see places in New Zealand, but this location is prime for taking in the sights of the Canterbury Plains via hot air balloon with Ballooning Canterbury. An early start (04:45) means that the closer you are, the more sleep you can squeeze in!
Day 13: Glentunnel-Akaroa (100km; 1.5 hours): a final trip to the coast, and this lovely town has a different beach vibe to the towns on the west coast. Although originally first colonists by the British, there is a large French influence here which can be seen in the buildings and signs. Take a boat trip out into the Bay – originally the crater of a volcano – to look for Hector’s Dolphins, penguins, fur seals and more.
Day 14: Akaroa-Christchurch (82km; 1.3 hours): a final short drive sees you back at the starting point. Fill your day with shopping, city tours or take a gondola to see the city and Littleton Harbour from a different perspective.