Experience the wilderness and wildlife of New Zealand's South Island on this 15-day self-drive itinerary. By day you'll drive through breathtaking landscapes and embark on outdoor adventures, while nights are spent in a series of secluded luxury lodges. Setting off from Christchurch, enjoy alpine walks in Mount Cook National Park, discover rich marine life on the Otago Peninsula, and cruise through the remote Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park. After adrenaline sports in Queenstown and an unforgettable trek across the Franz Josef Glacier, the scenic TranzAlpine train whisks you back to Christchurch.

Highlights

  • Drive through the South Island's most spectacular scenery
  • Hike beneath Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak
  • Discover rare & wonderful wildlife on the Otago Peninsula
  • Sail through the remote Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park
  • Trek across the Franz Josef Glacier
  • Journey through the Southern Alps on the scenic TranzAlpine train

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive Christchurch Christchurch
Day 2 Drive Across the Canterbury Plains to Mount Cook  Mount Cook Village
Day 3 Explore Mount Cook National Park Mount Cook Village
Day 4 Visit the Moeraki Boulders & Drive to Dunedin Dunedin
Day 5 Discover the Wonderful Wildlife of the Otago Peninsula Dunedin
Day 6 Drive to Te Anau, Gateway to Fiordland National Park Te Anau
Day 7 Embark on a 24-Hour Cruise through Doubtful Sound Doubtful Sound
Day 8 Drive North to Queenstown, New Zealand's Adventure Capital Queenstown
Day 9 Explore Queenstown Queenstown
Day 10 Drive Across the Crown Range to Lake Moeraki Lake Moeraki
Day 11 Explore the Flora & Fauna of Lake Moeraki Lake Moeraki
Day 12 Drive to the West Coast Glaciers Franz Josef Glacier
Day 13 Scenic Flight & Hike to Franz Josef Glacier Franz Josef Glacier
Day 14 Catch the Scenic TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 15 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Christchurch!

New Regent Street in the center of Christchurch
New Regent Street in the center of Christchurch

Welcome to New Zealand! Upon arrival at the airport, a driver will take you to your accommodation in Christchurch. The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch is known as New Zealand's "Garden City" and is steadily transforming into a vibrant urban destination. Encompassing a large green belt, it is known for its wide, tree-lined avenues and lush gardens.

When you're ready to explore, see the sights on a double-decker Hop On Hop Off City Tour excursion, or ride a historic tram across town to the renowned Christchurch Botanic Gardens and the cardboard Transitional Cathedral.

In the afternoon, join a guided excursion to get a unique glimpse into the indigenous Māori culture at Ko Tāne Living Māori Village and Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. This activity begins with a guided kiwi tour of the reserve with one of Willowbank's experienced guides. Then enjoy a Māori cultural performance, where you'll be entertained with a kapa haka performance which includes action songs, poi dances, haka, stick games, and weapons displays. Afterward, you'll get the opportunity to learn the poi and the haka, then enjoy a four-course hāngī dinner.

Day 2: Drive Across the Canterbury Plains to Mount Cook 

Breathtaking scenery as you approach Mount Cook National Park

Today you'll pick up your rental car and journey into the heart of the South Island, crossing the vast Canterbury Plains. Catch your breath in Geraldine before continuing through Fairlie. Ascending Burkes Pass, you'll come to the picturesque lakeside town of Tekapo, where you can enjoy spectacular views of Aoraki/Mount Cook from the shores of the turquoise-blue Lake Pukaki. Continue along the lake to reach your final destination of Mount Cook Village. (If you plan to self-cater, make sure to stock up on supplies before you arrive, as Mount Cook has no food shops.)

Get settled into your accommodation, then set out to explore the area on a guided excursion. To see 500-year-old icebergs up-close, join a Glacier Explorers Tour. From the safety of a specially designed boat, you can marvel at towering ice cliffs and floating icebergs, and view unseen and inaccessible areas of New Zealand's largest glacier.

Day 3: Explore Mount Cook National Park

Hooker Lake near Mt. Cook
Hike into the Hooker Valley for views of Mount Cook

Set off on a full-day exploration of Mount Cook National Park today, starting with a 5 mile (8 km) guided tour of the Hooker Valley. Providing breath-taking views of some of New Zealand's highest and most enthralling peaks, you'll hike through this amazing landscape as your knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide talks about the local history and unique flora and fauna of the region. Starting from the Hermitage Hotel, you'll head towards the White Horse Hill camping ground. The journey takes in the poignant Alpine Memorial and passes over the turbulent Hooker River twice by swing bridge to reach the unsurpassed vistas of Aoraki/Mount Cook's south face. Marvel at the surrounding glaciers and mountains, then continue to the terminal lake of the Hooker Glacier, enjoying a packed lunch along the way.

To see the landscape from a different vantage point, take to the skies with a scenic flight. View the spectacular Southern Alps—including New Zealand's highest peak of Aoraki/Mount Cook—and the constantly changing glacial landscape. You'll spot the Hochstetter Icefall as you fly beneath the mountain's face, then travel the length of the Tasman Glacier before landing on the glacier itself. Experience the silence of the mountains, broken only by the rumbling of avalanches and the creaking of ice beneath your feet.

Day 4: Visit the Moeraki Boulders & Drive to Dunedin

Stop en route to Dunedin to see the remarkable Moeraki Boulders
Stop en route to Dunedin to see the remarkable Moeraki Boulders

Get back on the road today with a short drive south along the spectacular Mount Cook Highway to join the main road south towards Twizel. Twizel occupies a central location in the Mount Cook/ Mackenzie region, and the town is close to five picturesque lakes, including a world-standard rowing course and Formula One-class boating area at Lake Ruataniwha. For the adventurous, Twizel's terrain is ideal for skydiving, rock, and mountain climbing, and the nearby Ohau and Tekapo Round Hill ski fields are perfect for families.
 
The next town south is Omarama, where you'll head down the Waitaki Valley and follow the hydropower generating system towards the east coast. At the town of Oamaru, famous for its white stone buildings, you can see blue penguins come ashore at dusk as they return from their day at sea. Further south, the Moeraki Boulders are a unique geological feature and worth the short detour to the beach to view. Finally, you'll reach your destination of Dunedin, where you can get settled into your hotel before setting out to admire the university city's Edwardian architecture and strong Scottish roots.

Day 5: Discover the Wonderful Wildlife of the Otago Peninsula

Explore the wild coastline of the Otago Peninsula
Explore the wild coastline of the Otago Peninsula

Start today with a tour of the Otago Peninsula and its unique wildlife, including a scenic cruise through Dunedin Harbor. Spot rare albatross nesting sites and basking fur seals as you explore the rugged coastline's many bays and beaches. The tour includes a visit to the Penguin Place Conservation Reserve to see rare yellow-eyed penguins and a bus trip along the Otago Peninsula's "high road" for breathtaking views. Return to Dunedin in the afternoon, and the rest of the afternoon is yours to explore the city at your own pace.

Day 6: Drive to Te Anau, Gateway to Fiordland National Park

A misty morning on Lake Te Anau

Today's drive to Te Anau takes you through classic Southland farming scenery. Head off-the-beaten-track and follow the scenic coastline instead of the inland route, making sure to take a 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. Just a short way further will bring you to your lakeside destination of Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.

A ten-minute walk from Te Anau, you'll find your accommodation for the night at the beautiful Fiordland Lodge. Set in a rural idyll of rolling grasslands and offering commanding views across Lake Te Anau, it's the perfect base to explore the three million acres of untouched wilderness in Fiordland National Park. Enjoy the lodge's innovative, locally sourced cuisine, join a fly fishing excursion or a guided nature hike, or just relax and enjoy the remarkable views.

Day 7: Embark on a 24-Hour Cruise through Doubtful Sound

Embark on an unforgettable cruise through Doubtful Sound
Embark on an unforgettable cruise through Doubtful Sound

This morning you'll drive south along Lake Te Anau, passing lush southern farmlands to reach the township of Lake Manapouri and the gateway to Doubtful Sound.

Here you'll take in the tranquility and remoteness of the sound on a unique wilderness cruise. Beginning in Manapouri with a short boat ride across the lake, you'll be taken by coach over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, where you'll board the Fiordland Navigator, a purpose-built vessel designed like a traditional coastal trading scow. Get settled into your comfortable cabin, then climb to the spacious deck. As you take in the stunning scenery of the fiord, you'll be provided with a running commentary of the area and its history, points of interest, and wildlife. You'll have the opportunity to see dolphins, fur seals, and—if you're lucky—rare Fiordland penguins. After anchoring in a sheltered cove, explore the shoreline by kayak, returning to the ship for dinner and stargazing on the upper deck. 

Day 8: Drive North to Queenstown, New Zealand's Adventure Capital

The scenic drive towards Queenstown
The scenic drive towards Queenstown

Following a hearty cooked breakfast on board, spend the morning exploring other parts of the fiord before returning to Deep Cove at midday to disembark and travel back to Manapouri

From here you'll get behind the wheel again, crossing rolling tussock lands and passing through the small town of Mossburn. Continue north through lush Southland countryside towards Lake Wakatipu, where the road hugs the lake edge and the Remarkables mountain range welcomes you to Queenstown—the adventure capital of New Zealand and your base for the next two nights.

Day 9: Explore Queenstown 

Queenstown is known as New Zealand's "adventure capital"
Queenstown is known as New Zealand's "adventure capital"

Although celebrated as New Zealand's "adventure capital," Queenstown offers far more than a fast-paced, action-packed holiday. Settled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, beneath a soaring panorama of the Remarkables, this alpine town is surrounded by a plethora of historic, gastronomic, and scenic wonders.

Browse the waterfront cafés, take a leisurely lakeside stroll, or ride the gondola for breathtaking views. Venture further afield into the Fiordland National Park, or head over the Crown Range to Wanaka, where you can drive through Lord of the Rings (LOTR) country, or join one of many dedicated LOTR tours. Adrenaline junkies can hop on board a jet boat for an exhilarating ride through the narrow Shotover Canyon, or take spend an afternoon exploring the area's many bungee jumping, heli-skiing, or ziplining adventures.

If you're a wine enthusiast, take a trip down the Gibbston Valley Wine Trail to sample some of the region’s best grapes. Or join a small group tour for an afternoon amongst the boutique vineyards and splendid alpine scenery of Central Otago. Enjoy visits to four, premium wineries over two contrasting wine sub-regions, learn about the wine and pioneering history of the area, and visit the historic precinct of Old Cromwell.

For a memorable evening, go back in time on a round trip to Walter Peak High Country Farm aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw Steamship. You'll be greeted off the boat and guided through beautiful lakeside gardens to a charming homestead. After a gourmet BBQ dinner, cruise home and breathe in the fresh night air as you watch the lights of Queenstown draw nearer.

Day 10: Drive Across the Crown Range to Lake Moeraki

Pass the scenic Lake Wanaka on today's drive
Pass the scenic Lake Wanaka on today's drive

Today's driving route crosses the Crown Range, New Zealand's highest sealed road, to reach the alpine town of Wanaka. Here your route follows the shores of lakes Wanaka and Hawea before entering the village of Makarora, the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Stop here to visit the famous Blue Pools and walk through native beech forests to a glacier-fed swimming hole. Get back on the road to descend towards the Haast Pass, where a landscape of crashing rivers and waterfalls leads into the wild West Coast, a 372-mile (578 km) stretch of native rainforests. In a few miles, you'll reach the tranquil bush surroundings of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki—your base for the next two nights.

Day 11: Explore the Flora & Fauna of Lake Moeraki

Wilderness Lodge sits on the shores of Lake Moeraki

Today is devoted to exploring Wilderness Lodge's vast array of guided activities and adventures. Twice daily complimentary activities are led by expert naturalists and introduce guests to the area's remarkable natural history. Some of the activities on offer include:

  • Discover the Ancient Rainforest: Join an ecologist guide to learn about the remarkable diversity of life in the New Zealand rainforest.
  • Freshwater Ecology and Giant Eel Feeding: Discover what lies beneath the surface of the Moeraki River and hand-feed the world’s largest freshwater eels.
  • Glow Worms and Stars of the Southern Night Sky: Take a relaxed stroll after dinner to see glow worms light up the forest and marvel at a sky completely free from light or atmospheric pollution.
    Learn Easy Kayaking: Learn to use a safe and stable minnow kayak and explore the calm waters of Lake Moeraki.

If you're feeling adventurous, book a longer guided excursion to explore further afield. Join a guided hike to a secluded wilderness beach and watch Tawaki penguins, take a challenging "wet footed walk" over the wild coastline to spot seals, or explore a dramatic expanse of seacoast as you search for jade along the shore and watch dolphins ride the breakers. Kayakers can paddle through ancient rainforests to the mouth of the Moeraki River, or take a leisurely trip around the lake. Independent adventurers can hire a fishing rod to try their luck at catching brown trout or explore the 6 miles (10 km) of walking trails at the lodge, strolling beneath 1000-year old trees and soaking up rainforest and river views.

Day 12: Drive to the West Coast Glaciers

Sunset over Franz Joseph Glacier
Sunset over Franz Josef Glacier

Your road trip continues today, as you follow the wild West Coast and pass through ancient podocarp forests. At Knights Point Lookout, an interesting display tells of shipwrecks in the region and at the right time of year, you can see elephant seals basking on the far beaches. As you continue north, you'll pass the imposing Fox Glacier and the reflective Lake Matheson as you enter New Zealand's glacier region. Nearby, a wilderness of crashing surf and distant snow-capped mountains welcomes you to the historic Gillespie's Beach, worth a short detour for its seal colony and colorful gold mining history. A further 45 minutes north takes you to your destination of Franz Josef township, nestled in the shadow of its eponymous glacier. 

After checking in to your accommodation, see two of New Zealand's most famous glaciers from the air with a scenic helicopter flight or head to the nearby Glacier Hot Pools to unwind and rejuvenate in a forest paradise.

Day 13: Scenic Flight & Hike to Franz Josef Glacier

Franz - Joseph
Hike across the icy Franz Josef Glacier

Start today with a spectacular scenic helicopter flight over all three of the Franz Josef Glacier icefalls. Landing high on the glacier, you'll take a two-hour guided trip through some of the most beautiful terrain in the country. Your guide will choose the route as you hike through a wonderland of blue ice and frozen pinnacles, rewarded with endless views of the surrounding mountains and rainforest as well as plenty of opportunities to take photographs. 

In the afternoon you can explore at your own pace, choosing one of the many walks and hikes in and around Franz Josef. Head to the Department of Conservation Information Center in Franz Josef Village to get updates on track conditions and suitability, and learn about the area, its natural history, and its people. Suggested routes include the Lake Wombat track through lush rimu forest to an idyllic lake, a hike to the coastal settlement of Okarito (home to a lagoon and over 76 species of native birds), and the short Sentinel Rock walk for impressive views of the glacier, the valley, and the Waiho River.

Day 14: Catch the Scenic TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch

Catch the world famous TranzAlpine train to Christchurch
Catch the world-famous TranzAlpine train to Christchurch

Today, drive north through the historic gold mining region of Hokitika. Known for its greenstone (pounamu) this seaside town has a rich history dating back to the 1860s. Head to the coast and take in the endless sea views, or pick up a souvenir at one of the many craft shops. Continue to Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast, and the starting point for the next leg of your journey—the TranzAlpine Scenic Train. Drop your rental car at the Greymouth Train Station depot, before boarding your train back to Christchurch.  

Considered one of the world's great train journeys, you'll travel across the South Island from the west to east coasts, crossing through Arthur's Pass National Park. From the comfort of your carriage, see lush beech forest, deep river valleys, and the spectacular peaks of the Southern Alps. Descend to the windswept Canterbury Plains before arriving in the city of Christchurch.

A driver will be waiting for you at the train station to transport you to your accommodation. Enjoy your final evening in New Zealand with a celebratory dinner and a night on the town.

Day 15: Depart Christchurch

Catch your departing flight from Christchurch Airport
Catch your departing flight from Christchurch Aiport

Bid New Zealand farewell today, as a private transfer takes you to Christchurch Airport in time for your departing flight. Safe travels!    

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