Buckle up for an epic 14-day self-drive adventure through New Zealand's South Island. Cruise Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, spot fur seals in Otago Harbor, and land on a snow-covered glacier. You'll also ride a jet boat on the Shotover River, meet penguins, explore glowworm caves in Te Anau, and paddle a Maori canoe. But it's not all nature and aquatics. There's also time for a wineries tour, food safari, and the historic Larnach Castle before ending with a world-class train trip over the Southern Alps.


  • Touch icebergs and glaciers on Tasman Lake
  • Cruise past the waterfalls and cliffs of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
  • Ride the rapids of the Shotover River Canyon by jet boat
  • Indulge your wine palate in Central Otago's vineyards
  • Cross the Southern Alps on the famously scenic TranzAlpine train

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch, Avon River / Ōtākaro Waka Paddle Christchurch
Day 2 Antarctic Penguin Encounter, Whale Watching Tour, Māori Food Safari Christchurch
Day 3 Pick Up Rental Car, Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook Aoraki / Mount Cook
Day 4 Glacier Boat Trip, Hiking Tracks & Stargazing  Aoraki / Mount Cook
Day 5 Drive to Dunedin, Explore the City Center Dunedin
Day 6 Dunedin Castle & Cruise Tour, Penguin Place Dunedin
Day 7 Drive to Te Anau, Glowworm Caves, Kepler Track Te Anau
Day 8 Scenic Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise Te Anau
Day 9 Drive to Queenstown, Shotover River Jet Boat Queenstown
Day 10 Skyline Gondola Ride, Historic Steamship & Farm Dinner Experience Queenstown
Day 11 Central Otago Wine Tour, Visit Old Cromwell Queenstown
Day 12 Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau & Glacier Franz Josef Glacier
Day 13 Glacier Flight, TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 14 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch, Avon River / Ōtākaro Waka Paddle

Hop on and off Christchurch's historic trams

Kia ora! Welcome to Christchurch, New Zealand's "Garden City." Your driver awaits at the airport for a seamless transfer to your hotel. After settling in, dive into the city's green havens like the Botanical Gardens, explore the indoor Riverside Market for fresh local produce, arts and crafts, and yummy eateries, or hop on a 19th-century tram past Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum

Try whitebait fritters and chips (fries) for lunch, then team up to paddle the Avon River / Ōtākaro on a handcrafted Māori waka (canoe). Discover the waka's significance in Māori culture and engage in stories about the Ngāi Tahu Iwi peoples and the early settlers' use of waka. Then, you might like to cap off your day with an elegant dinner aboard a historic colonial tram.

Day 2: Antarctic Penguin Encounter, Whale Watching Tour, Māori Food Safari

International Antarctic Centre VIP Penguin Backstage Pass (Includes General Admission)
Meet the world's smallest penguins during a backstage tour

Get up close with little penguins (known as kororā in the Māori language) today on a behind-the-scenes tour at the International Antarctic Centre. Join your expert Antarctic guide in the birds' habitat to learn about feeding, husbandry, and what keeps the world's smallest penguins healthy and happy. Then, brace yourself for an Antarctic storm in the Storm Dome, followed by an exhilarating ride aboard the Hägglunds—the all-terrain amphibious Antarctic vehicle. 

After grabbing a snack at the café, pick up your rental car and drive 2.5 hours north to Kaikōura for an exciting South Pacific adventure on a purpose-built whale watching catamaran. Spend 3.5 thrilling hours spotting giant sperm whales, playful fur seals, and lively dusky dolphins before returning to Christchurch for a quick refresh before dinner.

Indulge your taste buds this evening on a Māori kai (food) safari. During this three-hour tasting tour, meet dedicated local hosts who'll guide you through the city's vibrant food scene, paired with locally crafted drinks. From superb vineyards to artisan distilleries, learn the best-kept secrets and Māori phrases as you savor each course.

Day 3: Pick Up Rental Car, Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook

Church of the Good Shepherd Lake Tekapo
Pause by the tranquil waters of Lake Tekapo on today's drive

Today, your Southern Alps adventure calls. Pick up your rental car and drive for five hours through the heart of the South Island, crossing the vast Canterbury Plains. Ascend Burkes Pass to reach the glacier-fed turquoise waters of New Zealand's highest lake—Lake Tekapo, then pause for a photo at the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd, framed by the majestic Alps.

Next, head to the shores of Lake Pukaki and marvel at the view of Aoraki / Mount Cook, standing tall at 12,316 feet (3,754 m)—the Southern Alps' highest peak. Follow the lakeside route to reach the village of Aoraki / Mount Cook. Unwind at your hotel, then explore the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, honoring the region's mountain climbing legacy before wrapping up the day with a delicious local king salmon dinner. 

Day 4: Glacier Boat Trip, Hiking Tracks & Stargazing

Glacier Explorers - Tasman Lake
Pull up alongside a vast dripping iceberg on Tasman Lake

Weave around 500-year-old floating icebergs on Tasman Lake in a specially designed boat on this morning's 2.5-hour glacial adventure. Explore the melting ice face of the Haupapa / Tasman Glacier—New Zealand's largest—as your experienced guide points out key landmarks. Glide across the water, surrounded by towering ice cliffs, pull up beside an iceberg, and reach out to touch it.

This afternoon, stretch your legs on one of the many walking tracks or choose a thrilling ski plane flight over Mount Cook National Park and the West Coast Glaciers. For dinner, dine on Canterbury lamb, then immerse yourself in an evening of stargazing under clear skies at the International Dark Sky Reserve. Book a guided tour with state-of-the-art telescopes to spot constellations, planets, the Milky Way, and distant galaxies. 
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 5: Drive to Dunedin, Explore the City Center

Moeraki Boulders
Marvel at the four-million-year-old Moeraki Boulders / Kaihinaki

This morning, head 4.5 hours south to Dunedin, the "Edinburgh of the South," passing Twizel—a "The Lord of the Rings" filming location. Stop for a break at the Wrinkly Ram Cafe for sheepshearing demonstrations before continuing through the Waitaki Valley and down the coast to marvel at the huge spherical Moeraki Boulders / Kaihinaki scattered across Koekohe Beach.

Once in Dunedin—founded by Scottish settlers in 1840—settle into your hotel before checking out the heritage buildings of the city's heart—The Octagon. Admire the vibrant wall art as you wander the streets and alleys, or head to Olveston Historic Home—built in 1906 and a time capsule depicting the life of a wealthy merchant family. For dinner, choose a restaurant with every Kiwi's favorite meal—roast lamb—on the menu.

Day 6: Dunedin Castle & Cruise Tour, Penguin Place

Castle to Cruise Tour & Penguin Place
Explore Larnach Castle and its award-winning gardens with harbor views

This morning, head 30 minutes out of the city to the Otago Peninsula and join a one-hour wildlife cruise around Taiaroa Head, home to the world's only mainland nesting site for royal albatross. Spot New Zealand fur seals lounging on the rocks and New Zealand sea lions on the beach as you explore the beautiful and rugged Otago Harbor coastline while keeping watch for playful penguins and dolphins. 

On the way back, stop for a guided tour of New Zealand's only castle—Larnach's Castle—built in 1871. Learn about the castle's scandals and history, enjoy lunch or high tea in the ballroom, and explore the award-winning gardens with vistas of the harbor. Then, conclude your day at Penguin Place, a natural nesting place for the world's rarest yellow-eyed penguin. 

Day 7: Drive to Te Anau, Glowworm Caves, Kepler Track

Lake Te Anau
Cruise across the serene Lake Te Anau to begin your glowworm tour

Hit the road this morning for a 3.5-hour drive to Te Anau, the gateway to UNESCO-listed Fiordland National Park. Take a quick detour at Kaka Point to soak in views of craggy cliffs and crashing waves before continuing to Te Anau. This lakeside town, embraced by snowy mountain peaks, is your launching pad for exploring the national park and the famed hiking trails: Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler. 

Grab a venison meat pie for lunch, then cruise across Lake Te Anau to begin your two-hour guided tour of the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Follow your guide through the 12,000-year-old limestone cave network past whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and an underground waterfall. Then, glide through the darkness on a small boat to the glowworm cave, where hundreds of tiny lights glitter on the cave walls and ceiling.

Afterward, breathe in the area's beauty on a one-hour hike along the Kepler Track, following the lake's shore through red beech forest before following up with a dinner of green-lip mussels and garlic bread at a local restaurant.

Day 8: Scenic Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Cruise

Majestic Milford Sound
Have your camera ready for a scenic Milford Sound / Piopiotahi cruise

Dress warm and pack a waterproof jacket and insect repellent for today's Fiordland adventure. After breakfast, you'll travel in a luxury glass-roofed bus, immersed in awe-inspiring scenery along the alpine Milford Road to the majestic Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. Stop for photos and short walks along the way as your friendly bus driver provides insightful commentary.

Once at Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, you'll set off on a 1.5-hour cruise the entire length of the fjord aboard a modern, spacious vessel, soaking in views of cascading waterfalls, pristine rainforest, towering peaks, sheer rock faces, and abundant wildlife. See spectacular sights such as Mitre Peak and the Pembroke Glacier while enjoying a picnic lunch on board.

Day 9: Drive to Queenstown, Shotover River Jet Boat

Shotover River Canyon
Get ready for an adrenaline-fueled ride through the Shotover River Canyon

Cross vast tussock lands today on your two-hour drive to Queenstown—New Zealand's adventure capital. Pass through Mossburn, the deer capital of New Zealand, then continue through the picturesque Southland countryside, where the road begins to hug the lake's edge and The Remarkables mountain range towers above you. Settle into your hotel on arrival and grab a lamb burger for lunch.

Then, hold on tight as you set off on a thrilling ride through the Shotover River Canyons in a high-speed jet boat that seems to defy gravity. Prepare to get wet as the boat executes 360-degree twists and turns while your experienced driver navigates the 46 miles (75 km) of dramatic rapids and narrow canyons in this pristine natural landscape.

Day 10: Skyline Gondola Ride, Historic Steamship & Farm Dinner Experience 

Take part in a fun steamship singalong on the return cruise to Queenstown

Start this morning by hopping aboard the Skyline Gondola, the Southern Hemisphere's steepest cable car. Rise 1,400 feet (450 m) above Queenstown and bask in panoramic views of The Remarkables, Walter Peak, Cecil Peak, Coronet Peak, and beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Once at the top, try a flat white coffee and a slice of kumara (sweet potato) cinnamon cake at the restaurant before heading back to explore the town or bungee a mind-blowing 440 feet (134 m) above the rugged Nevis River.

This evening, cruise Lake Wakatipu aboard a steamship to the Walter Peak High Country Farm. Here, watch demonstrations of high-country life on the farm, then dig into a barbecue dinner followed by dessert and a selection of New Zealand cheeses. Afterward, join a sing-along with the steamship's pianist and watch the lights of Queenstown reappear as you cruise back.

Day 11: Central Otago Wine Tour, Visit Old Cromwell

Central Otago Winery
Enjoy a wine-tasting tour in the world's southernmost wine region

Today, you'll join a full-day luxury minivan tour through Central Otago's picturesque wine country with a knowledgeable guide. Indulge in tastings at four premium vineyards across Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Cromwell—three wine sub-regions known for their excellent cool-climate wines, which are generally more acidic and lighter than other varieties.

At the fourth winery, pick your favorite estate wine to pair with a platter-style lunch made with local produce, and explore the vineyard, barrel hall, and winemaking facilities. Finally, imagine life in the 1850s as you stroll through the historic gold-mining village of Old Cromwell on Lake Dunstan and shop for delicious local stone fruit in season.

Day 12: Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau & Glacier

Blue Pools
Dip your toes in the glacial waters of the Blue Pools

Pack some picnic food this morning and head off on a 4.5-hour scenic drive over the Crown Range, along the highest sealed road in New Zealand, to the alpine town of Wānaka. There, you'll skirt the shores of Lake Wānaka and Lake Hāwea, then stop at Makarora for a one-hour round-trip walk through the native tawhero (beech) forest to a glacier-fed swimming hole at the pristine waters of the Blue Pools.

Continue to the remote seaside settlement of Haast, then head up the wild West Coast—a 373-mile (600 km) stretch of native rainforest. You'll see Fox Glacier first before arriving at your destination: Franz Josef / Waiau—a small town set among the Southern Alps and just a 3-mile (5 km) hike from the terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere.

Day 13: Glacier Flight, TranzAlpine Train to Christchurch

Franz Josef  scenic flight
Land on the snow on Franz Josef Glacier

Put on some sunscreen, grab your sunglasses, and head to the helicopter base for a spectacular 30-minute scenic flight over two of New Zealand's most famous glaciers—Fox and Franz Josef. Experience a snow landing, explore the ice falls, and marvel at these enormous rivers of ice winding over 7.5 miles (12 km) through ancient valleys carved from the mountainside. 

After landing, check out of your hotel and head north through the historic 1860s gold mining town of Hokitika, known for its pounamu (greenstone). Enjoy the sea views, grab a souvenir, and then continue to Greymouth, where you'll drop your rental car at the train station before boarding the Tranz Alpine Scenic Train—one of the world's most incredible train journeys.

Sit back in luxury as you cross the South Island from west to east in under five hours, traveling through Arthur's Pass National Park. View lush beech forest, deep river valleys, and the spectacular peaks of the Southern Alps through the panoramic side and roof windows. Then, descend to the windswept Canterbury Plains before arriving in Christchurch, where your driver will transfer you to your hotel. 

Day 14: Depart Christchurch

Punt on Avon river, Christchurch
Glide silently down the Avon River / Ōtākaro on a punt

Today, depending on your departure time, take a leisurely punt along the Avon River / Ōtākaro with a gondolier guide in period costume. Then, it's time to say goodbye to New Zealand's South Island. A private car will collect you from your accommodation for transfer to Christchurch Airport in time for your departing flight. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

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A note on diacritical and retroflex markings: In order to support the best technical experience and search functions, diacritical markings have been omitted from this article.


Map of New Zealand South Island Explorer: Southern Alps, Glaciers, Lakes & Fjords - 14 Days
Map of New Zealand South Island Explorer: Southern Alps, Glaciers, Lakes & Fjords - 14 Days