Explore the entire length of New Zealand's South Island on this exciting 21-day road trip. Start in the tranquil coves of Abel Tasman National Park before following the coastline to Kaikoura for some whale watching. Continue through Christchurch and Dunedin as you make your way to the deep, cold waters of Fiordland National Park and the frozen peaks of the Southern Alps.


  • Take one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world from Wellington to Picton
  • Drive along miles of stunning shoreline on your way to Kaikoura
  • Soar over and land on top of Tasman Glacier on a helicopter tour
  • Spend the night on Doubtful Sound, the deepest fjord in New Zealand
  • Speed along the Shotover River on an exciting jet boat ride

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Wellington, Explore Wellington
Day 2 Free Day in Wellington Wellington
Day 3 Take the Ferry to Picton, Transfer to Abel Tasman National Park Abel Tasman National Park
Day 4 Explore Abel Tasman National Park Abel Tasman National Park
Day 5 Drive to Kaikōura Kaikōura
Day 6 Whale Watching Tour Kaikōura
Day 7 Drive to Christchurch, Explore Christchurch
Day 8 Free Day in Christchurch Christchurch
Day 9-10 Drive to Mount Cook Village, Explore Mount Cook Village
Day 11 Drive to Dunedin, Explore Dunedin
Day 12 Tour Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula Dunedin
Day 13 Drive to Te Anau, Hike & Explore Te Anau
Day 14 Drive to Manapouri, Cruise Across Doubtful Sound / Patea Doubtful Sound
Day 15 Free day in Doubtful Sound / Patea Doubtful Sound
Day 16 Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner Queenstown
Day 17 Ride the Skyline Gondola & Visit Onsen Hot Pools Queenstown 
Day 18 Drive to Franz Josef Glacier via Wānaka Franz Josef / Waiau
Day 19 Explore Franz Josef Glacier Franz Josef / Waiau
Day 20 Drive to Christchurch via Arthur's Pass Christchurch
Day 21 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Wellington, Explore

Ride the country's only running funicular for city views and access to the botanic gardens
The Wellington Cable Car

Welcome to the North Island! You will be collected on arrival at Wellington Airport and transferred to your accommodation. You'll have the rest of the day to explore New Zealand's capital city, Wellington. Soak up the cosmopolitan vibes at a streetside bar, the famous Te Papa Museum, or one of Cuba Street's vintage stores. For something more outdoorsy, head to the nearby beaches or take the Wellington Cable Car up to Kelburn and visit the Wellington Botanic Gardens.

Day 2: Free Day in Wellington

photo of a takahe, a flightless bird with blue-green plumage and a thick orange beak, walking
A takahe, a bird endemic to New Zealand, walking in Zealandia

Your last day in Wellington will be free to spend how you'd like. And if New Zealand is synonymous with "The Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) for you, there's no better way to spend a day in Wellington than visiting Wētā Cave. This venue offers tours and exhibits dedicated to the Wētā Workshop, the company that worked on practical effects for the LOTR trilogy and many other iconic films. See props, weapons, and costumes from your favorite movies, and of course, pick a souvenir from the shop to bring home with you.

Tonight, consider heading 10 minutes outside Wellington center to visit the 500-acre (225 ha) wildlife eco-sanctuary Zealandia, home to native New Zealand wildlife. Surrounded by a predator-exclusion fence, the sanctuary protects animals like kiwi, tuatara, and tiny Madu Island frogs. The best time to visit on a guided tour is at night. Led by a guide and a flashlight, you can come face-to-face with one—or more!—of the over 100 nocturnal bird species that live in Zealandia.

Day 3: Take the Ferry to Picton, Transfer to Abel Tasman National Park

An aerial view of Picton
An aerial view of Picton

The three-hour, 57-mile (92 km) journey between Wellington on New Zealand's North Island and Picton on the South Island has been described as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world. Along the way, admire Pencarrow Head, where New Zealand's oldest lighthouse sits. You might spot dolphins and sea birds as you pass the Cook Strait and the Kaikōura Ranges before heading into Queen Charlotte Sound and arriving at Picton.

From here, the self-drive portion of your trip begins. Drive along the sea-drowned valleys of the Marlborough Sounds on your way to Abel Tasman National Park and stop for lunch in portside Havelock. Don't forget to check out the famous Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve just outside town before crossing the Bryant Range to reach Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere. From there, continue to either Kaiteriteri or Marahau, two great points of departure to explore Abel Tasman National Park.

Day 4: Explore Abel Tasman National Park

Aerial view of a cove surrounded by trees in Abel Tasman National Park with the sea visible beyond
Abel Tasman National Park

Spend time exploring Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand's smallest national park tucked between granite cliffs and the Tasman Bay / Te Tai-o-Aorere and Golden Bay / Mohua. The park is best known for its coastal hiking trail that passes inlets, beaches, and lagoons. To see the park from the water, consider taking a cruise through the nearby sounds or a kayak tour through the two bays. On your journey through the park, expect to see animals like petrels, bats, geckos, fur seals, and wild pigs.

If you want more structure in your day, consider taking a kayak tour of the park. You'll see beaches, tidal estuaries, rivers, and Pinnacle Island and its seal colony. Or consider taking a scenic cruise out of Kaiteriteri to save your energy for a hike along the coast afterward. Popular trails take you to the turquoise Torrent Lagoon, the sheltered Bark Bay with its cascading waterfalls, the secluded Cleopatra's Pool, or one of many other beautiful natural spots in the park.

Day 5: Drive to Kaikōura

Golden sunset over Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, Canterbury, New Zealand
Golden sunset over Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway

The route today runs north through the Marlborough region, New Zealand's largest and most famous wine-growing area. Stop in Blenheim for lunch or a wine tasting from one of over 40 wineries in the area. Then, drive through the Kaikōura Ranges to the town of Kaikōura on the coast. Follow the shoreline for over 30 miles (50 km). Along the way, you might spot seals, seabirds, and other endemic species that call the coast home, like the whales you can spot all year round. 

Day 6: Whale Watching Tour

A sperm whale waving its tail with the Kaikoura ranges in the background
A sperm whale waving its tail with the Kaikōura Ranges in the background

Head out into the South Pacific Ocean today with New Zealand's only marine-based whale watching company. While your primary target is the giant sperm whale, you might spot fur seals, dusky dolphins, and albatross. If the season is right, you could see pilot, blue, and southern right whales or migrating humpbacks. Orcas and Hector's dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world, sometimes swim by as well.

To make the most of your time in the area, take a boat tour 15 minutes off the Kaikōura coast to spend time in a birding hotspot recognized worldwide. Expert guides will bring you up close to various albatross species, like the royal albatross, the great albatross, and Salvin's albatross. You'll also see countless other pelagic birds or birds that spend most of their lives on the open ocean, like petrels, terns, shearwaters, and gulls. 

Day 7: Drive to Christchurch, Explore

the Avon River / Ōtākaro in Christchurch with buildings in the background
The Avon River / Ōtākaro

Head to another of the South Island's most well-known wine regions, North Canterbury and the Waipara Valley. The route takes you through New Zealand sheep territory, and if you have time, stop by Hanmer Springs to check out the thermal pools. At the end of the drive, arrive in Christchurch, the largest city on the island.

Spend the rest of the day exploring the country's second-largest metropolis. Christchurch is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens—it's nicknamed "The Garden City," after all—so a stroll through one of them is always a good idea. For something more history-inspired, take a tour down the Avon River / Ōtākaro led by guides in Edwardian costume, or ride one of the city's 19th-century trams past Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum.

One option to consider is visiting the Ko Tāne Living Māori Village within the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Get a guided tour of the reserve before viewing a kapa haka (action song), a performance of Māori songs, dance, and choreographed movements. You'll learn the poi, which usually involves swinging balls from a cord, and the haka, a type of dance typically done to mark significant occasions, before ending the evening with a hāngī (traditional cooking method using a pit oven) dinner.

Day 8: Free Day in Christchurch

Cathedral Square in Christchurch
Cathedral Square in Christchurch
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

On your free day in Christchurch, you can see some of the new builds from its post-2011-earthquake revival, like the impressive Cardboard Cathedral. Or immerse yourself in Christchurch's history by punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro, boarding a vintage tram, or riding a gondola to the rim of an extinct volcano. For even more to do in the city, head to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens for a stroll or Oxford Terrace for a bite to eat.

Consider going outside the city today and toward the Southern Alps with a visit to Mount Potts High-Country Station. Just a few minutes away sits Mount Sunday, the mountain used as the filming location for Edoras, the capital of Rohan, in "The Lord of the Rings." Enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, sip a glass of sparkling wine, and head out for mountain biking, hiking, or horseback riding. 

Day 9-10: Drive to Mount Cook Village

The road to Aoraki Mount Cook. The road takes up the center of the photo and leads straight ahead to white mountains in the background
The road to Aoraki Mount Cook

Drive four hours west to Mount Cook Village at the base of New Zealand's highest peak, Aoraki / Mount Cook. The mountain measures 12,315 feet (3,754 m), rightly earning its Māori name Aoraki, meaning "Cloud Piercer." The drive winds through the pastoral Canterbury Plains. Stop off in Geraldine and Fairlie as you make your way to Burkes Pass and the lakeside town of Tekapo. Finally, you'll arrive in the village, your base for exploring the glacial wonders of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.

During your two days here, take your pick of options to see the park's mountains and glaciers up close, like a cruise around Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake. You'll see the country's largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier, as you weave around floating icebergs with a guide. Or hop in a helicopter to see the mountain at a new angle, flying over Aoraki / Mount Cook and landing on the glacier itself!

Afterward, visit the 19th-century Hermitage Hotel, home of the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre. The museum pays homage to the Kiwi explorer with a cinema, planetarium, and memorabilia. Later tonight, go outside for a stargazing experience at Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and the nearby Mackenzie Basin, designated an International Dark Sky Reserve for their clear, star-studded skies. A guide will help you spot constellations, planets, the Milky Way, and distant galaxies. 

Day 11: Drive to Dunedin, Explore

Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders

This morning you'll leave Mount Cook Village, heading 4.5 hours south to Dunedin, the "Edinburgh of the South." On the way, you'll pass Twizel, a "The Lord of the Rings" filming location, and Ōmarama, the gliding capital of the country. The last section of the drive takes you down the coast to Moeraki, where you can take a slight detour to see the Moeraki Boulders, a collection of large spherical boulders scattered across the beach, before reaching Dunedin.

While it may be best known for its Scottish heritage, the city also has Chinese and Māori influences and is famous for its eclectic architecture, like the gingerbread house-style Dunedin Railway Station and the Gothic Revival Larnach Castle. While in town, sit at a café or wine bar in The Octagon, drive to the coast to sunbathe, or visit the Otago Peninsula, the home of the only mainland royal albatross colony in the world.

If you're looking for a unique way to unwind after your long drive today, take an hour-long tour of the original Speights Brewery, established in 1876 and best known for its flagship Gold Medal Ale. The tour will reveal the behind-the-scenes action of the gravity-fed brewery and give you a chance to taste six different beers. You can also brew, bottle, and cap your own Gold Medal Ale to take home.

Day 12: Tour Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula

Larnach Castle
Larnach Castle

To see a little bit of everything in Dunedin, consider taking a tour combining the best of the area's wildlife and architecture. Start with a cruise around Taiaroa Head, the nesting grounds of a colony of royal albatross, and keep an eye out for fur seals basking in the sun along the rocks. Back on land, a guide will show you around Larnach Castle while regaling you with tales of scandal and history. Finally, visit Penguin Place, a natural nesting site for the rarest penguin in the world, the yellow-eyed penguin.

For a more "do-it-yourself" experience, hike or cycle on one of the Otago Peninsula's many trails and drop in at the Royal Albatross Centre on your schedule. Join a 60-minute tour of the center that includes a short film about their nesting grounds, and visit the observatory to see the birds in their natural habitat.

Day 13: Drive to Te Anau, Hike & Explore

Lake Te Anau
Lake Te Anau

Leave Dunedin this morning and drive 3.5 hours to Te Anau, the entrance to New Zealand's stunning Fiordland National Park. Drive through farmland toward the coastline for a brief detour at Kaka Point, with its views of craggy cliffs and torrid waves, before continuing to Te Anau. This lakeside town, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, is the base for visiting Milford Sound / Piopiotahi and three famed hiking trails: Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler.

Once settled, head to one of its most well-known attractions, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Cross Lake Te Anau in a catamaran and take a guided tour through the 12,000-year-old limestone cave network. You'll travel by small boat through the water that flows through the caves, and your guide will point out whirlpools, an underground waterfall, and thousands of glowworms living in the quiet darkness of the cave network.

Day 14: Drive to Manapouri, Cruise Across Doubtful Sound / Patea

photo of the calm water of Doubtful Sound with green valley walls on either side
Doubtful Sound

This morning starts with a short drive alongside Lake Te Anau through lush southern farmlands to the township of Manapouri, the gateway to Doubtful Sound / Patea, the deepest of New Zealand's fjords at 1,381 feet (421 m) and the second longest at 25 miles (40 km). Take a short boat ride across the lake, followed by a coach over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove to board the Fiordland Navigator for an overnight cruise of the fjord.  

As you sail across the teal fjord, your captain will provide commentary on the area and its history, pointing out landmarks like Browne Falls, which crashes 2,030 feet (619 m) into the sound. Look out for bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and Fiordland penguins along the way. Eventually, you'll anchor in a sheltered cove to explore the shoreline by kayak. The day ends with a three-course buffet dinner and stargazing on the upper deck.

Day 15: Free day in Doubtful Sound / Patea

a line of four yellow, two-person kayaks crosses blue water in a fjord in New Zealand
Kayakers exploring a fjord

Wake up on the calm waters of Doubtful Sound / Patea and enjoy breakfast on the cruise ship. Spend the rest of the day exploring this unique area surrounded by rainforest-covered hills. This extremely secluded fjord is home to a tight-knit group of bottlenose dolphins and unusual flora like black coral, typically found in much deeper water. After visiting the islands, coves, and arms of Doubtful Sound / Patea, return to land the way you came and get ready to drive to your next destination.

Day 16: Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner

The scenic drive to Queenstown
The scenic drive to Queenstown

Today, hop back in your car and drive to Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. This ruggedly beautiful region of the country is known as the adventure-sports capital of the world. Here you can enjoy hair-raising thrills like skydiving, extreme bungee jumping, jet-boating, zip lining, and much more. Besides adrenaline-pumping adventures, Queenstown is an excellent base for exploring the region's vineyards and historic gold-mining towns.

Tonight, you'll step aboard the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a ride on Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you'll enjoy a barbecue dinner featuring New Zealand's signature dishes. You and your guide will feast on rotisserie-cooked meats, seasonal vegetables, and salads, followed by dessert, New Zealand cheeses, and demonstrations about high country life on the farm. After the meal, join a sing-along with the ship's pianist and breathe in the fresh night air.

Day 17: Ride the Skyline Gondola & Visit Onsen Hot Pools

Spend a day exploring the adventure capital of the world
A paraglider soars over Queenstown

Hop aboard the Skyline Gondola, the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere! As you rise to over 1,400 feet (450 m) above Queenstown, you can sit back and enjoy panoramic views of mountain ranges like The Remarkables and magnificent Lake Wakatipu. While up there, visit the Skyline Complex and take an exhilarating ride down the 5,250-foot (1,600 m) luge track past banked corners and tunnels.

For more thrills, consider heading to the Shotover River Canyons to ride in a high-speed jet boat. The Shotover Jet, owned by Ngāi Tahu, a local Māori iwi (tribe), hits speeds up to 55 mph (90 kph) as your driver navigates over rapids in the narrow canyon. Another option for jet boating lies in Mount Aspiring National Park, where you can ride along a glacier-fed river and stop to walk in the beech tree forests used while filming "The Lord of the Rings."

If that's not your speed, consider taking a tasting tour through Central Otago's best boutique vineyards. The excursion crosses through Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Cromwell, three sub-regions known for their excellent cool-climate wines, which are generally more acidic and lighter than other varieties. Pick your favorite wine to pair with lunch at a fourth vineyard, and take a walk through historic Old Cromwell to end your journey among some of the most picturesque vineyards in New Zealand.

Finally, relax this evening in a hot pool under the stars. Based on the Japanese bathing tradition, Onsen Hot Pools 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. The water temperature averages 101°F (38°C), but one of the summer pools is kept cold for those who relish the thought of an icy plunge!

Day 18: Drive to Franz Josef Glacier via Wānaka

Blue Pools
The Blue Pools

Leave Queenstown today and cross the Crown Range, following the highest sealed road in New Zealand, to arrive in the alpine town of Wānaka. Known as the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, Wānaka's remote wilderness, high mountains, and beautiful river valleys are also popular with hikers, making this the perfect place to stop for a hike on your way to Franz Josef Glacier

When you're ready to move on, skirt the shores of Lake Wānaka and Lake Hawea, then enter the small town of Makarora. You can stop for a short hike to the Blue Pools, glacier-fed pools within a beech and podocarp forest. Continue through the remote seaside settlement of Haast, then head up a 373-mile (600-km) stretch of bush and native rainforest along the West Coast. You'll see Fox Glacier before arriving at your final destination: Franz Josef / Waiau township.

Day 19: Explore Franz Josef Glacier

Helicopter landing on Franz Josef Glacier, South Island.
A helicopter lands on Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef / Waiau, a small town settled on the Waiho River among rainforests and the mountains of the Southern Alps, is known for the 7-mile-long (12 km) Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. The terminal face, or endpoint, of the glacier is just 3 miles (5 km) from the town, making it an easy stop while you're there.

To get closer to the glacier and even land on top of it, consider taking a helicopter tour. You'll fly over all three of the glacier's icefalls, landing for a two-hour guided trek through this otherworldly ice landscape. A guide will take you through ice caves and spot frozen pinnacles, explaining the geology and history of the glacier. You'll be provided with a waterproof jacket, over trousers, glacier boots, ice crampons, and woolen socks for the trip.

After that thrill ride, consider unwinding at the Glacier Hot Pools. The three main pools, ranging in temperature from 96.8°F (36°C) to 104°F (40°C), are fed by a glacial stream. Relax after an exciting day surrounded by lush rainforest.

Day 20: Drive to Christchurch via Arthur's Pass

Take in views of Arthur's Pass National Park on a scenic train ride
Arthur's Pass National Park

Start heading back to Christchurch today via Arthur's Pass. The five-hour journey snakes up the west coast past Harihari, where Guy Menzies landed after his pioneering solo flight across the Tasman. Take some time to visit Hokitika, an old mining town, and its famed gorge before continuing on scenic State Highway 73. Reaching heights of 2,952 feet (900 m), Arthur's Pass boasts fantastic views of the Southern Alps and a national park of the same name. Finally, cross the vast Canterbury Plains to arrive in Christchurch. 

Day 21: Depart Christchurch

The Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch at dusk
Christchurch's Cardboard Cathedral

Pack your bags and enjoy your last morning in New Zealand. Take in some last-minute sights around Christchurch as you drive to the airport to drop your rental car off and head toward home or to your next adventure. 

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore different ways to spend three weeks in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


Map of Best of the South Island Road Trip: Glaciers, Mountains, Coasts & Fjords - 21 Days
Map of Best of the South Island Road Trip: Glaciers, Mountains, Coasts & Fjords - 21 Days