Explore the wonders of New Zealand's South Island with this action-packed 18-day road trip. Journey at your own pace through breathtaking landscapes such as Milford Sound / Piopiotahi and Hokitika Gorge. Try adrenaline-pumping activities in Queenstown—like bungee jumping—and join a heli-hike to the Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier. You'll also bike on the West Coast Wilderness Trail and catch a scenic train to Christchurch to finish the adventure.


  • Take a 4WD backcountry tour and explore the night sky near Lake Tekapo
  • Meet penguins and fur seals while driving around the Otago Peninsula
  • Take a guided eco-hike around Lake Matheson, known for its reflections
  • Ride an amazing 18.5-mile (30 km) scenic bike trail from Hawea to Wanaka
  • Get your thrills in Queenstown with a jet boat ride and a bungee jump

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch, Explore Christchurch
Day 2 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Backcountry Tour, Dark Sky Experience Lake Tekapo
Day 3 Morning Hike on Aoraki / Mount Cook, Afternoon Heli-Hike Lake Tekapo
Day 4 Drive to Dunedin, Explore, Speights Brewery Tour Dunedin
Day 5 Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour, Taste of Dunedin Tour Dunedin
Day 6 Drive to Te Anau, Explore the Glowworm Caves Te Anau
Day 7 Morning Walk, Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise Te Anau
Day 8 Drive to Queenstown, Visit the Kiwi Park Queenstown, Skyline Gondola Queenstown
Day 9 Jet Boat Ride, Walter Peak Farm Lunch, Onsen Evening Session Queenstown
Day 10 Kawarau Bridge Bungee Jump, Drive to Wānaka Wānaka
Day 11 Lake Wānaka Cruise, Bike Tour Wānaka
Day 12 Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier, Afternoon Heli-Hike Franz Josef
Day 13 Half-Day Lake Matheson Eco Tour, Explore Fox Glacier Fox Glacier
Day 14 Drive to Hokitika, Explore Hokitika Gorge, Treetop Adventure Hokitika
Day 15 Biking on the West Coast Wilderness Trail Hokitika
Day 16 Drive to Greymouth, Train to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 17 Full-Day Akaroa & Harbor Cruise Christchurch
Day 18 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch, Explore

Christchurch city center
Ride a tram through Christchurch's historic and charming city center
Kia ora! Welcome to New Zealand's South Island! Your adventure begins and ends in Christchurch, New Zealand's second-largest metropolis. The city is nicknamed "Garden City" and is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens. Pick up a rental car, drop your bags at the hotel, and then set out to explore. A stroll through downtown or one of Christchurch's gardens is always a good start. 

Day 2: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Backcountry Tour, Dark Sky Experience

Relish the contrasting tones of Lake Tekapo

Rise early and hit the road for Lake Tekapo, the first of the large Southern Lakes. Along the three-hour drive, you'll pass through Beautiful Valley and ascend Burkes Pass up to the high country plateau. On arrival, join a scenic 4WD tour through New Zealand's remote Braemar Station. Get to know beautiful Mackenzie Country and a working sheep, cattle, and deer outpost as you explore off-road tracks while soaking in the rugged landscape with views of Aoraki / Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, Lake Pukaki, and the Ben Ohau mountain range.

In the evening, travel to Mount John Observatory for the Dark Sky Project Summit Experience. Here you'll learn about the southern sky using telescopes and your unhindered eyes. Your guide will point out the Milky Way galaxy, Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri, and Sirius—one of the brightest visible stars. Learn about neighboring galaxies, such as the Magellanic Clouds, and constellations, like Orion and Scorpius. Other sightings include star clusters like the Jewel Box, plus awe-inspiring planets, nebulae, and clouds of gas and dust.

Day 3: Morning Hike on Aoraki / Mount Cook, Afternoon Heli-Hike

Tasman glacier in Mt Cook NP
See the marvelous Tasman Glacier from a helicopter

Located at an impressive 12,300 feet (3,754 m), Aoraki / Mount Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand. This is where Sir Edmund Hillary made many expeditions, and this morning you'll embark on your own self-guided hike. Take it easy with the one-hour Tasman Glacier Lake trail, where the lake freezes in winter and you'll see icebergs in summer. The Governor's Bush loop track takes a similar amount of time, or you can embark on the two-hour Kea Point or Red Tarns tracks.

Just make sure you're done in time for this afternoon's half-day heli-hike up Aoraki / Mount Cook. Take an exhilarating helicopter ride to the mighty Tasman Glacier. Witness the amazing icebergs of the Tasman Glacier Lake, and fly past the famous Hochstetter Ice Fall and the east face of the peak before landing on the glacier. You'll explore this world of ice equipped with crampons, an ice axe, or walking poles. As your guide cut steps in the ice, he or she will share fascinating tales and facts, such as how it flows and what makes the crevasses and sinkholes appear. 

Day 4: Drive to Dunedin, Explore, Speights Brewery Tour

Explore Dunedin and the surrounding Otago Peninsula

With a 3.5-hour drive to Dunedin, you'll want to choose some stops along the way. Cruise along the shores of Lake Pukaki, where you can enjoy spectacular views of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Stop at Twizel, where many scenes in "The Lord of the Rings" were filmed, or visit Ōmarama, the gliding capital of New Zealand. Another good stop is Oamaru, where you can explore the old quarter and perhaps watch the little blue penguins come ashore at dusk.

As you enter Dunedin's city center, you will see its Edwardian and Scottish heritage on proud display in its fine buildings, particularly around the Octagon. Use the rest of today to explore the city and the surrounding Otago Peninsula. Dunedin is full of grand Gothic Revival architecture and is home to the country's oldest university. Later, join an hour-long tour of the original Speights Brewery, established in 1876, and taste six different beers at the gravity-fed brewery.

Day 5: Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour, Taste of Dunedin Tour

Yellow eyed penguins found in New Zealand South Island
Yellow-eyed penguins are found on New Zealand's South Island

Get a dose of nature this morning when you discover the surrounding Otago Peninsula. Here the rugged beaches are homes to penguins, fur seals, and sea lions. Join an Otago Harbour cruise to visit Penguin Place, home to rare yellow-eyed penguins. Then take a scenic bus tour of the high road on the Otago Peninsula. Marvel at the windswept coastal scenery, spotting birds as you drive.

Later, get a taste of Dunedin and learn about the area's rich cultural and natural heritage. Take in iconic Dunedin sights and sounds as you journey past historic buildings, including the Dunedin Railway Station, St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, and The First Church of Otago. Stop to look at a local marae and see evidence of Dunedin's early heritage.

Day 6: Drive to Te Anau, Explore the Glowworm Caves

Glowworm Caves
Experience the magic of glowworms in Te Anau
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

This morning hit the road for Te Anau, about three hours west. You'll traverse classic Southland farming scenery and can choose to go off the beaten track today and follow the coastline instead of the inland route. Go through the Catlins area and detour to Kaka Point to view its majestic cliffs and pounding surf. Continue through Invercargill to Riverton and Colac Bay, and then head north to Manapouri. When you arrive in Te Anau, join a special glowworm caves tour.

You'll cruise across the lake aboard a luxury catamaran, disembarking on the western side to enter the caves through Cavern House. Read displays sharing the story of this 12,000-year-old underground cave network. Then follow your guide along a limestone path as they point out whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and a staggering underground waterfall. Board a small boat to glide through darkness, surrounded by the blue-white pinpricks of thousands of glowworms on the cave walls. Use the rest of your day to enjoy Lake Te Anau and Fiordland National Park your way. 

Day 7: Morning Walk, Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise

Milford Sound
The beauty of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi has to be experienced in real life

Milford Road is the gateway to Fiordland National Park, and it's also a great base for hiking and walking. One of the most famous walks is the Milford Track, a four-day hike through spectacular nature, but you can join an introductory one-day Milford Track encounter. Other options include the 45-minute Lake Mistletoe or Lake Gunn walks or the more challenging half-day Key Summit hike.

Return in time for your afternoon Milford Sound / Piopiotahi cruise. You'll float along the full length of the fjord and see Milford from a local's perspective as you feel nature up close and get soaked under spectacular waterfalls. Experience thundering waterfalls, sky-high mountains, and lush rainforests as you keep an eye out for local wildlife. You'll also visit the Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Underwater Observatory and journey through the natural history, geology, and conservation efforts of this unique marine reserve.

Day 8: Drive to Queenstown, Visit the Kiwi Park Queenstown, Skyline Gondola

Kepler Track
Kepler Track is one of many trails you can explore near Ta Anau

Lake Te Anau is a great base for walking in Fiordland National Park. This morning take your choice and experience the beauty of New Zealand's South Island up close. The Kepler Track is a favorite, and you can choose your trail length before you start the two-hour drive to Queenstown. You'll drive through Mossburn, the deer capital of New Zealand, and continue through the Southland countryside to where the Remarkables mountain range towers above.

When you get to Queenstown, take the rest of the day to get acquainted. Set on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the Southern Alps, this ruggedly beautiful region offers hair-raising thrills, vineyards, and historic gold-mining towns. Start at Kiwi Park Queenstown, a 5-acre (2 ha) wildlife center dedicated to saving endangered species. Then, ride the Skyline Gondola over 1,400 feet (450 m) to Bob's Peak for panoramic views of the Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and Lake Wakatipu. Enjoy an unforgettable dining experience at the top or ride the downhill luge track to town, where there are more dining options.

Day 9: Jet Boat Ride, Walter Peak Farm Lunch, Onsen Evening Session

Shotover Jet
The high-speed Shotover Jet beneath the historic Edith Cavell bridge

Lean into the thrills of Queenstown and kick off your day with an exhilarating ride through the Shotover River Canyon in a high-speed jet boat that seems to defy gravity. Be prepared to get wet as your jet navigates 46 miles (75 km) of rapids and narrow twists and turns. Then reward yourself with a more leisurely lunch cruise across the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Set off aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw and stop at the Walter Peak High Country Farm for a gourmet lakeside lunch. Soak up the alpine scenery at the homestead before returning to town.

Continue with more relaxing activities this evening. Slip into a hot pool under the stars with a session a the Onsen Hot Pools. Based on the Japanese bathing tradition, this onsen offers cedar-lined steaming pools on a cliffside overlooking the Shotover River. Enjoy an hour-long soak accompanied by a drink and snack as you take in the alpine scenery. 

Day 10: Kawarau Bridge Bungee Jump, Drive to Wānaka

Kawarau Bridge Bungy
Take a leap of faith from the Kawarau Bridge

Get your heart racing this morning when you leap from Kawarau Bridge. This destination is the home of the first commercial bungee jump, so if you're ready to take the jump, this is the place. Then make your way one hour north to Wānaka, stopping at Arrowtown en route. Travel back in time at this historic gold-rush town, which attracted miners from Europe and China to the Otago region in the 1800s. Walk along the Arrow River, through the town center, and visit the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and the Lakes District Museum to learn more about the area's history.

Continue to Wānaka, the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Kids (and kids at heart) will love Puzzling World with its multilevel outdoor maze and optical illusion rooms. If you prefer to spend the afternoon in the same dimension, choose to tour local wineries or walk the Wānaka Trails. You can also stop by the Department of Conservation information center and pick a short-and-easy or half-day trail to tackle. 

Day 11: Lake Wānaka Cruise, Bike Tour

Moh Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
Moh Waho Island on Lake Wānaka has an island within an island

This morning you'll explore the must-see Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve. The island is one of five islands set within Lake Wānaka, accessed via a 35-minute boat ride. Besides being a scientific reserve and home to native New Zealand wildlife, the island also once hosted early shipbuilders, steamers, and log rafts. Visit the famous Arethusa Pool, a small lake with its own island too. Climb to the top of Tyrwhitt Peak for panoramic views of Lake Wānaka and the surrounding glacial mountains and valleys, then return to the cruise.

Later today, you'll embark on an amazing 18.5-mile (30 km) scenic bike ride from Hawea to Wānaka. Cycling is the ultimate way to get away from the crowds and enjoy the beautiful scenery in peace. Guide yourself along a grade two trail that follows the Hawea and Clutha rivers, stopping for coffee or something to eat along the way. You will then be transported to Lake Hawea and finish on the lakefront in beautiful Wānaka.

Day 12: Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier, Afternoon Heli-Hike

Franz Joseph Glacier at sunset
Franz Joseph Glacier glowing at sunset

This morning you'll leave Wānaka behind as you drive 3.5 hours past picturesque mountain peaks and crystal-clear blue lakes. Along the way, you could stop at the Blue Pools, just outside Makarora, for a brilliant half-hour walk through pristine native beech forest. Descend into Mount Aspiring National Park, toward the Haast Pass, and watch the landscape of this remote and unspoiled region change dramatically as you first encounter Fox Glacier and eventually the village of Franz Josef / Waiau.

In the afternoon, you'll trade your wheels for an exhilarating helicopter ride to the top of the Franz Josef / Waiau Glacier. Look out over the staggering scenery and panoramic views of Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere before you land on the ice. This is the world's fastest-moving, commercially-guided glacier, which means the features are ever-changing. You might find yourself squeezing through narrow crevasses, winding between ice towers, sliding through ice caves, or, if lucky, all three!

Day 13: Half-Day Lake Matheson Eco Tour, Explore Fox Glacier

Half Day Lake Matheson Eco Tour
Enjoy reflections of Aoraki / Mount Cook and Mount Tasman on today's hike

Explore crystal clear waters, discover local flora and fauna, and learn about glaciation, geology, and natural history with a half-day tour of the famous reflection lake, Lake Matheson. You'll be collected from your accommodation and whisked to the start of a gentle 2-mile (3 km) track that follows the lake's edge. Take in the reflective qualities of the stunning lake and enjoy taking photos of the mirror-like images unfolding before you.

Later you'll explore the mighty Fox Glacier, the largest and longest of the magnificent west coast glaciers. Remarkably, it ends in temperate rainforest, 820 feet (250 m) above sea level and only 7.5 miles (12 km) from the sea. Like all glaciers, the Fox Glacier advances and retreats. You'll see evidence of the latest surge forward in the bulging lower ice fall. Alpine guides have access to the lower part of the glacier via a secret track that climbs through regenerating native forests. From the track, you will have stunning views of the upper parts of the glacier.

Day 14: Drive to Hokitika, Explore Hokitika Gorge, Treetop Adventure

Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika Gorge offers stunning blue water

Today the adventure continues with a two-hour drive to the gold mining region of Ross and the town of Hokitika. This seaside town is known for its pounamu (greenstone), and it boasts a rich history dating back to the 1860s. Stroll along the beach, admiring the driftwood and mountain views, then venture inland about 9 miles (15 km) to Lake Kaniere, an idyllic spot for bush walks. Don't miss the beautiful Hokitika Gorge, a vivid milky blue pool surrounded by native forest and a magnificent granite gorge. It's a short walk from the car park to a number of viewing platforms.

This afternoon embark on an exhilarating treetop adventure among temperate rainforest giants with the West Coast Treetops Walkway. Experience life with the birds high in the ancient tree canopy. Here a steel platform sits 65 feet (20 m) high and stretches for almost 1,500 feet (450 m). Stretch your legs and enjoy a leisurely hour-long walk. Or chase an adrenaline rush at the top of Hokitika Tower, 130 feet (40 m) above the forest floor.

Day 15: Biking on the West Coast Wilderness Trail

West Coast Wilderness Trail
The West Coast Wilderness Trail is filled with lush ferns and native forest

Prepare for a big day of cycling when you immerse yourself in some of the most spectacular landscapes along the West Coast Wilderness Trail. Starting at the Kawhaka Canal, you'll ride amid majestic native forest, pedal through a stunning mountain-ringed valley, cross crystal-clear rivers, and then discover one of New Zealand's most picturesque lakes, Kaniere. The trail then plunges back into the bush for a fun cruise along a historic water race and then down the sweeping tree-lined pathway known as the Pipeline.

Take a breath while you meander down peaceful Kaniere Road toward Hokitika before the final leg along the historic Kaniere Tramway and the banks of the Hokitika River. The total ride time takes around six to seven hours. 

Day 16: Drive to Greymouth, Train to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner

The TranzAlpine Express Train travels throuigh the Southern Alps
The TranzAlpine Scenic Train travels through the Southern Alps

Enjoy your final half-hour behind the wheel as you cruise from Hokitika to Greymouth this morning. Drop your rental car off and board the TranzAlpine Scenic Train, destined for Christchurch. Considered one of the world's greatest train journeys, travel through Arthur's Pass National Park and past dense beech forest, steep river valleys, and the towering peaks of the Southern Alps. 

On arrival in Christchurch, a driver will transfer you to your accommodation. Spend your evening relaxing, or join an elegant dinner on a historic tram. Dress up and take your seat on the historic colonial-style tram that makes the rounds of central Christchurch's top attractions. Enjoy the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum, and the Avon River / Ōtākaro from your window-side table while enjoying a four-course meal.

Day 17: Full-Day Akaroa & Harbor Cruise

Full Day Akaroa & Harbour Cruise
Beautiful Akaroa is set on the water

Use your final day in New Zealand to boat to Akaroa, the only settlement attempted by the French in New Zealand. Your full-day cruise will traverse the beautiful Banks Peninsula, taking a high summit route that gives glorious views of farmlands, the Canterbury Plains, and remote bays indenting the coastline. Keep an eye out for dolphins, little blue penguins, fur seals, and plenty of local birdlife along the way.

You'll have an opportunity to wander around the charming 175-year-old French harborside village of Akaroa with its museum of settlers' history, art and craft shops, and studios before enjoying lunch at an award-winning café. If there's time, you'll explore Barry's Bay Cheese Factory, the Little River Art Gallery, and Birdling's Flat on the return journey to Christchurch.

Day 18: Depart Christchurch

Lake Wanaka
Enjoy a punt on the Avon River / Ōtākaro before departure
It's your final morning in New Zealand! If you have time before departure, take an authentic punt on the Avon River / Ōtākaro. A punter dressed in Edwardian garb will guide you quietly past trailing willows, woodlands, and leafy banks—a perfect end to a brilliant few weeks exploring the South Island. When the time is right, a driver will transfer you to the Christchurch airport for your flight home. Safe travels!

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Map of Active Road Trip on New Zealand's South Island - 18 Days
Map of Active Road Trip on New Zealand's South Island - 18 Days