In one week, enjoy an action-packed road trip through New Zealand's South Island. Begin in Christchurch to do some sightseeing. Then, explore the culture, wildlife and rock formations of Oamaru, the churches and cathedrals of Dunedin, and more. Tour native species along The Caitlins from different lookouts, followed by a full day of activities in Queenstown, from flying and cruising over the sounds and fjords to skydiving and bungee jumping over gorges and rivers.

Highlights

  • Enjoy ziplining, punting, and sightseeing in Christchurch
  • Visit the stunning Moeraki Boulders off the Otago coast
  • Tour Larnach Castle, the only castle in New Zealand
  • Go on a flying and cruising tour over sounds and fjords in Queenstown

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Christchurch & Self-Guided Exploration Christchurch
Day 2 Drive to Oamaru, Wildlife & Culture Tour Oamaru
Day 3 Drive to Dunedin & City Tour Dunedin
Day 4 Visit Larnach Castle, Royal Albatross Center, & Pilot Beach Dunedin
Day 5 Drive to The Catlins & Island Tour Papatowai
Day 6 Drive to Queenstown & Fly Cruise Fly Tour Queenstown
Day 7 Depart From Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Christchurch and self-guided exploration

Go punting on the Avon River
Go punting on the Avon River

Welcome to New Zealand! On your first day in the South Island region, explore the world-famous Christchurch, also known as the “Garden City.” Expansive parks and public gardens are attributed to the founding fathers. However, in 2011, the central city and some of the neighboring eastern suburbs were devastated by the earthquake. Although many of the multi-story, historic buildings experienced destruction, rebuilding efforts are now fully underway. Despite reconstruction efforts, there is still plenty to explore in Christchurch. Consider the below when structuring your self-guided tour. 

Start off by strolling through Hagley Park. This park has been at the heart of Christchurch since the 1850s and is now the most significant central city park. It offers a diverse range of entertainment and recreational facilities close to the city’s center.

Next, visit the central and unifying public space of Cathedral Square, which has been a landmark and a cultural magnet for more than 150 years. The space provides the perfect backdrop for events, with open spaces, historic architecture, and heavy foot traffic, despite being under reconstruction.

For a fun activity, consider punting on the Avon River, where a guide will give you a tour via a flatbottom boat, which is similar to a gondola ride. 

In the afternoon, embark on a journey through Antarctica without leaving Christchurch at the Antarctic Centre. Experience snow and ice, a storm, learn about life in modern-day Antarctica and Scott Base, and hang out with penguins. For some added fun, take a trip on the Hagglund ride, as well as a fascinating simulated 4D cruise.

To continue the adventure, take the Zipline Tour at Christchurch Adventure Park. The zipline is dual-lined, which means you can race others through the park. With four stages ranging to up to a half-mile in length, this exciting way to experience Port Hills rivals no other. You can also take a tour that lasts about 2.5 hours and includes sites of geographical and historical significance, as well as some breathtaking heights.

In the early evening, visit Sumner Beach. This family-friendly destination is great for a walk on the beach or a refreshing dip in the water. The best local swimming spots here are Taylor’s Mistake and Corsair Bay.

Explore the wide range of food offerings available in the city, from pop up stalls with all different types of cuisine to more traditional restaurants. The cheesemongers in the Art’s Centre curate a cheese lover’s paradise. For a unique experience, try ordering a slider at C1 Espresso on the corner of High and Tuam streets, and for a bit of a Latin atmosphere and South American food, try Tequila Mockingbird.

Day 2: Drive to Oamaru and embark on a wildlife and culture tour

Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders

Today, head south on SH1 to Oamaru, an area of lush rolling farmland, ancient marine landscapes, and the Moeraki Boulders. Enjoy encounters with native wildlife—view blue penguins, the world’s smallest in their natural environment. Additionally, visit one of the world’s rarest, the yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho. View priceless Maori artifacts, grand Victorian architecture, plus the unique, colonial heritage that shaped the nation’s wealth.

Some activities include:

  • Take a scenic drive along Danseys Pass, one of the most popular. Easily done as a day trip from Pen-y-Bryn, a drive along Danseys Pass will take you to the old Central Otago towns of Naseby and Ranfurly, as well as to Elephant Rocks to view some Maori rock paintings.
  • If you're interested in art, the Steampunk HQ is not to be missed. The phenomenon is uniquely suited to Oamaru. Conceived as an image of how Victorians might have pictured the future, it's a progressive and captivating local art movement. 
  • For cheese lovers, make sure to stop by The White Stone, a cheese factory in town that offers tastings every day of the week. 

Day 3: Drive to Dunedin and explore the city

Taieri Gorge Railway
Taieri Gorge Railway

Head south on SH1 to Dunedin. If you did not make time to see the Moeraki Boulders, view them today. The huge spherical stones are strewn along a stretch of Koekohe Beach near Moeraki, a small settlement just south of Hampden, on the Otago coastline. The Moeraki Boulders are geological marvels, exposed by erosion of sedimentary rocks laid down from 65 to 13 million years ago. They are formed by the gradual precipitation of calcite in mudstone over 4 million years. 

Next, arrive in Dunedin, a nice university city with strong Scottish roots. The historical buildings are beautiful and the native wildlife is very present on the Otago Peninsula.

Some of the highlights include:

  • The Octogon, which was first laid out during Charles Kettle's surveying of the city in 1846. His plans for the center of Dunedin included a large octagonal area (Moray Place) enclosing a smaller octagonal space, originally designated as a reserve. 
  • St Paul's Cathedral, which has occupied its site in the heart of the Octagon in Dunedin since the first parish church of St Paul was built in 1862. This first St Paul's was built of Caversham stone and could accommodate up to 500 people.
  • The University of Otago, which was founded in 1869 by an ordinance of the Otago Provincial Council, and is New Zealand's oldest university. 
  • All Saints Anglican Church, which is the oldest church building still in use in Dunedin. Dating from 1865, it has a wonderful selection of stained glass, including a rare Arts & Crafts Movement example.

Additionally, make stops at the historic train stations, including Dunedin Railway Station and Taieri Gorge Railway—the latter affords a half-day scenic train ride to discover the central Otago region. Make sure to stroll Baldwin Street, as well, which is known to be the world's steepest street.

If you enjoy sweets, embark on an all-sensory Cadbury factory tour. If you're more of a beer aficionado, the Speight's factory tour is not to be missed.

Day 4: Visit Larnach Castle, Royal Albatross Center, and Pilot Beach

Larnach Castle
Larnach Castle

Spend today exploring the Otago Peninsula.

Visit New Zealand's only castle, Larnach Castle, and explore the beautiful gardens. An informative brochure will guide you through the rooms of the castle, and shares the exciting, tragic, and sometimes, scandalous history.

If you are an animal lover, head to the Royal Albatross Center. Witness the fascinating social and family lives of the breeding colony. This is a must if you want to visit the world's only mainland breeding colony of these magnificent birds. Additionally, visit Pilot Beach to see fur seals and sea lions, and perhaps little blue penguins at the end of the afternoon. 

Day 5: Drive to The Catlins and take an island tour

Nugget Point
Nugget Point

Drive south on SH1, through Balclutha, and then turn left toward Owaka.

The Catlins coast encompasses the area from Kaka Point in the north through to Fortrose in the south. This is a place where time stands still, and visitors can enjoy the forests and wildlife, as well as the lifestyle of a bygone era.

Since it is close to the rich, sub-Antarctic feeding grounds, some of the world's rarest marine animals are found here—three penguin species, Hooker's sea lions, Hector's dolphins, elephant seals, and New Zealand fur seals. The native seabirds are also notable if you enjoy birding. Make sure to respect the animals and follow the locally enforced rules. Make stops at the following destinations: 

  • Nugget Point: Take a 40-minute walk to the lighthouse, and keep a watch for seals along the way
  • Surat Bay: One of the best spots to watch both sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins, take a walk down this amazing beach
  • Florence Hill Lookout: This is one of the best views over the coast
  • Cathedral Caves: Embark on a 20-minute walk through the forest to get to the beach's impressive sea caves

Day 6: Drive to Queenstown and Fly Cruise Fly tour

Views of Queenstown
Views of Queenstown

Today, take SH94 to Gore, then drive north on SH6 to reach Queenstown. Originally born out of the Gold Rush during the 1860s, Queenstown is now the world capital for adrenaline and outdoor fun. 

Embark on the Fly Cruise Fly excursion which unfolds over the course of 4 hours. Sail with Mitre Peak Cruises to explore world-famous Milford Sound, Mitre Peak, the cascading waterfalls, towering cliffs, and often, seals, dolphins, and penguins. Your flight will pass over the alpine lakes, lush rainforest, rugged, snow-capped mountains, and glacially carved valleys of Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. You can request a picnic lunch to round out the adventure.

Additional activities include the below:

  • Steamship Tss Earnslaw: Take a scenic cruise on Lake Wakatipu. There is plenty of time to explore the decks and bridge, view the engine room, join a sing-along with the onboard pianist, or sit back and relax.
  • Skyline Complex: One of the first sights to captivate visitors to Queenstown, gain access by scenic gondola. The best views in the region are found here, spread out in a spectacular, 220° panorama, with breathtaking views of Coronet PeakThe Remarkables mountain range, and across Lake Wakatipu to Cecil and Walter Peaks.
  • Onsen Hot Pools: These natural, hot-water pools are very intimate, and have great views of the valley and the Shotover River.
  • Central Otago Wines: From the world's southernmost wine-producing region, taste wine from the region—there are 177 vineyards here.

For thrill-seekers, go bungee jumping from Kawarau Bridge and skydiving over The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. You can also go jet boating or whitewater rafting through the Kawarau and Shotover gorges and rivers.

Try some local fudge at the Remarkable Sweet Shop to end the day.

Day 7: Depart From Queenstown

Goodbye, New Zealand!
Goodbye, New Zealand!

Today, depending on your departure time, enjoy more of Queenstown. Then, drop off your rental car at the airport before boarding your flight back home. 

Map

Map of New Zealand Self-Drive Tour: South Island, Southern Alps, & Wildlife - 7 Days
Map of New Zealand Self-Drive Tour: South Island, Southern Alps, & Wildlife - 7 Days