This 21-day road trip carves a figure-eight through New Zealand's South Island. From Christchurch, travel through the Mackenzie Country to Aoraki / Mount Cook, then on to Otago and Dunedin. Explore remote Doubtful Sound before heading north to Queenstown and the West Coast Glaciers, then cross the Southern Alps to enjoy a night in Arthur's Pass National Park. After exploring the Marlborough wine region and the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park, end your trip with a scenic train journey back to Christchurch.


  • Explore the remote Doubtful Sound on an overnight cruise
  • See the vast Franz Josef Glacier by helicopter
  • Spot rare whales & dolphins in Kaikoura
  • Take a tasting tour through the Marlborough Wine Country
  • Explore the pristine national parks of Arthur's Pass & Abel Tasman

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Christchurch Christchurch
Day 2 Explore Christchurch: Gondola, Trams & Punting Christchurch
Day 3 Drive Across the Canterbury Plains to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park Mount Cook Village
Day 4 Visit the Moeraki Boulders & Drive South to Dunedin Dunedin
Day 5 Explore Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula Dunedin
Day 6 Drive to Te Ana, Explore Glowworm Caves 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: Boats, Bungees & Zip Lines Queenstown
Day 10 Cross the Crown Range to the West Coast Glaciers Franz Josef / Waiau
Day 11 Explore Franz Josef Glacier: Valley Walk & Helicopter Flight Franz Josef / Waiau
Day 12 Drive North up the Coast to the Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki Punakaiki
Day 13 Cross the Otira Viaduct to Arthur's Pass National Park Arthur's Pass
Day 14 Drive to Kaikōura, Whale Watching Excursion Kaikōura
Day 15 Drive Through the Marlborough Wine Country to Blenheim Blenheim
Day 16 Follow Queen Charlotte Drive to Abel Tasman National Park Abel Tasman National Park
Day 17 Explore Abel Tasman National Park: Sea Kayaking & Wildlife Abel Tasman National Park
Day 18 Drive Back Down the Wild West Coast to Westport Westport
Day 19 Follow the Coastline South to Greymouth, Visit Shantytown Greymouth
Day 20 Cross the Southern Alps to Christchurch on the TranzAlpine Train Christchurch
Day 21 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in 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 accommodations 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.

Day 2: Explore Christchurch: Gondola, Trams & Punting

Punting on Christchurch's Avon River
Punting on Christchurch's Avon River / Ōtākaro

Pick up your rental car this morning and spend the remainder of the day exploring all Christchurch has to offer. Located in the middle of the Canterbury Plains and bordering the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand's newest city is an ideal gateway to exploring the South Island. Drive an hour in any direction to ski, mountain bike, wine taste, whale watch, bungee jump, or play golf.

Experience three of Christchurch's iconic attractions with a Triple Pass Tour, starting with a ride on the city's gondola. You'll enjoy a bird's-eye view of Christchurch and the Canterbury region, including all the distant peaks of the Southern Alps, as you fly to the top of the Heathcote Valley. Hop on the historic tram next for a delightful way to explore the inner city through the Spanish-style buildings of New Regent Street and the regenerating city center. End with an afternoon of punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro as you glide through the city's green belt, exploring the "Garden City" in a relaxing way.

For a truly unique dining experience in the heart of the city, board a historic colonial-style dining tram this evening for a moving four-course dinner. Journey along the inner-city tram loop, taking in the regenerating central business district as you enjoy gourmet cuisine and drinks.                    

Day 3: Drive Across the Canterbury Plains to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Drive towards Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak
Drive toward Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak

This morning you'll set off 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.

Back on land, join a rugged, back road 4WD drive adventure for awe-inspiring views over the Tasman Glacier and its gigantic moraine wall. You'll stop at several vantage points along the way and walk up to the top of the wall to view some of the most spectacular photographic opportunities within the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Learn about the area's remarkable geology and local flora and fauna from your knowledgeable guide as you gain entertaining insight into the rich pioneering history and stories of the past 150 years.

Day 4: Visit the Moeraki Boulders & Drive South to Dunedin

Visit the Moeraki Boulders en route to Dunedin
Visit the Moeraki Boulders en route to Dunedin

Get back on the road today with a short drive south along the spectacular Mount Cook Highway to join the main road south toward 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 sky diving, rock, and mountain climbing, and the nearby Ohau and Tekapo Round Hill ski fields are perfect for families.

The next town south is Ōmarama, where you'll head down the Waitaki Valley and follow the hydro power generating system toward 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. Farther south, the Moeraki Boulders are a distinctive 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: Explore Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula

Dunedin's famous "gingerbread" railway station

Known as the Edinburgh of the South, Dunedin has a heavy Scottish influence. Surrounded by rugged coastal plains and wind-swept beaches, it's home to an eclectic mix of historical and modern architecture as well as industrial technology. Renowned for its Flemish Baroque-inspired "gingerbread house" Railway Station, this university town is bustling with life. Head to the Saturday farmers market held in the aforementioned railway grounds for a taste of organic produce, handmade crepes, and local honey.

Explore the many cafés and wine bars in the Octagon, then continue on a self-guided walking tour of the acclaimed street art dotted around the city. Drive to the coast and watch the freighters passing in the distance while you sunbathe, or hire a mountain bike and test your legs on some of the area's many trails. For a more immersive historical experience, follow the coast to New Zealand's only castle, Larnach Castle. On your way back, be sure to head to the Otago Peninsula to see the largest mainland albatross colony in the world.

Nature lovers can embark on 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's "high road" for breathtaking views.

If you're more of a beer aficionado, don't miss a trip to Speight's Brewery. Founded in 1876, the historic brewery still occupies its original Dunedin site—with several of its buildings dating back to the late 19th century. One of the only remaining "gravity breweries" in the world, your 60-minute tour will take you through its inner workings. You'll also have a chance to taste six different beers as well as bottle, cap, and brew your own ale.                

Day 6: Drive to Te Ana, Explore Glowworm Caves

Marvel at magical glowworms near 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 farther will bring you to your lakeside destination of Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.

After you've settled in at your accommodations, embark on a memorable glowworm cave experience. Starting with a scenic cruise across Lake Te Anau, a luxury catamaran takes you to the western side of the lake. On arrival, enter the caves through Cavern House, where informative displays detail the history of this 12,000-year-old underground network. Next, explore by limestone pathway while your guide points out hidden whirlpools, sculpted rock formations, and a rushing underground waterfall. See a magical display of thousands of glowworms as you glide through the darkness in a small boat.                 

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

Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass
Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

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 tranquillity 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 bus over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, where you'll board 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 fjord, 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. 

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

The scenic drive towards Queenstown
The scenic drive toward Queenstown

Following a hearty 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 toward 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.

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 barbecue dinner, cruise home and breathe in the fresh night air as you watch the lights of Queenstown draw nearer.                   

Day 9: Explore Queenstown: Boats, Bungees & Zip Lines

Try your hand at adventure sports in Queenstown

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 Wānaka, where you can drive through "The Lord of the Rings" 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 spend an afternoon exploring the area's many bungee jumping, heli-skiing, or zip lining 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 among the boutique vineyards and splendid alpine scenery of Central Otago. Enjoy visits to four premium wineries over two contrasting wine subregions, learn about the wine and pioneering history of the area, and visit the historic precinct of Old Cromwell.

Day 10: Cross the Crown Range to the West Coast Glaciers

Sunset over Franz Josef Glacier
Sunset over Franz Josef Glacier

Leaving Queenstown this morning, you'll cross the Crown Range to reach the alpine town of Wānaka—gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Traveling along the shores of both Lake Wānaka and Hawea, you'll enter the small town of Makarora, where you can stop at the Blue Pools for a walk through native beech forest to a glacier-fed swimming hole. Continue through Haast before heading up the wild West Coast, a 372-mile (578 km) stretch of bush and native rainforest. After passing Fox Glacier, you'll reach the village of Franz Joseph and your destination for the night. 

In the afternoon, 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 11: Explore Franz Josef Glacier: Valley Walk & Helicopter Flight

View the glaciers by helicopter
View the glaciers by helicopter

Franz Josef / Waiau is a small but lively town in the heart of the West Coast, known for its 7-mile (12 km) long glacier. Surrounded by lush, rainforest-clad mountains, the township has a vibrant and bustling atmosphere. Today you can explore the area and choose the perfect excursion to see the majestic glacier up close.

The Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk will take you up alongside the bed of the mighty Waiho River, following the glacier's path as it winds its way through the remarkable landscape. Learn about the glacier's history and the legend of Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. After a brief climb, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views of the glacier's rapidly changing terminal face. Following some exclusive trails, your hike will include a soundtrack of storytelling from your experienced guide. Following your scenic walk, enjoy access to the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools, the perfect end to an unforgettable day.

For bird's eye views, take to the skies for a spectacular scenic helicopter flight over two of New Zealand's most famous glaciers. Cutting through dramatic glacial valleys to tumble into a temperate rainforest, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers still flow almost to sea level, making them fascinating relics of the last ice age. Land at the head of one and view the incredible sight of a frozen river as it winds its way through ancient carved valleys.                     

Day 12: Drive North up the Coast to the Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki

The "Pancake Rocks" of Punakaiki
The famous rock formations of Punakaiki

Heading north today, you'll pass through many small West Coast towns, including Ross (an old gold mining town where you can stop and pan for gold) and Hokitika, home to excellent craft and gift stores offering a range of locally made items and souvenirs. Stop in the region's largest town of Greymouth to stock up on supplies before continuing up the coast to your destination of  Punakaiki. This small town is known for its "Pancake Rocks." These spectacular columns of limestone resemble flapjacks, and at high tide, seawater is forced upward through blowholes in a magnificent display. 

In the afternoon, delve into an ancient wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, and glowworms in the enormous Nile River Caves. You'll be equipped with caving helmets, coats, and boots and transferred to the Nile River Rainforest Train to reach the dry upper levels of the Aranui Entrance cave series. Entering the lower level of the cave system, you'll find galaxies of glowworms spanning over you. Your guides will enrich your journey with captivating illustrations, explanations, and stories connecting you with this special place. After emerging back to the daylight, a short stroll leads back to the train.

Day 13: Cross the Otira Viaduct to Arthur's Pass National Park

The spectacular scenery of Arthur's Pass National Park

Today takes you on a southwesterly route past breathtaking scenery on the main road between the West Coast and Christchurch. Take your time on this drive—with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the bush-clad hillsides, it's not a road to be rushed. Crossing the Otira Gorge, make time to stop at some of the numerous lookout points for great views of the valley, then continue to your accommodations in Arthur's Pass. 

Arthur's Pass National Park straddles the Southern Alps and offers a landscape of contrasts. Its western regions benefit from high coastal rainfall, creating lush rainforests. The east is much drier and dominated by beautiful beech forests. Between the two lie mountainous areas, home to kea parrots and soft snow tussock grasses. There are a number of ways to explore the park, including hiking, caving, and bird-watching. As well as natural wonders, there is a long history of human presence in the area, beginning with early Māori who used the pass to trade greenstone (pounamu) between the coasts. 

The historic village of Arthur's Pass provides amenities, including a store, cafés, restaurants, and the Department of Conservation Visitor Center. Here they can advise you on the most suitable walks for your ability and the weather conditions. You can stretch your legs on a short, gentle stroll or choose a longer hike to spend the afternoon exploring the park at your own pace.                

Day 14: Drive to Kaikōura & Whale Watching Excursion

Go whale and dolphin watching in the coastal town of Kaikoura
See whales and dolphins in the coastal town of Kaikōura

Today's drive takes you from the Southern Alps to the coastal town of Kaikōura. Along the way, you'll enjoy spectacular views of braided river valleys and travel through the rugged, rocky outcrops of Castle Hill Scenic Reserve. Descending onto the Canterbury Plains, continue through the rich farmland surrounding Christchurch before turning north through the small towns of Rangiora and Oxford. You'll then take State Highway 1 through the Waipara Valley, stopping at Hanmer Springs for a soak in the hot mineral pools.

The road hugs the coast for the final stretch of this drive before arriving at your destination of Kaikōura— a small town known for its whales and steeped in Māori history and legend. After your arrival, enjoy a whale watching boat ride (weather permitting), where you may see magnificent sperm whales as well as New Zealand's own tiny Hector's dolphins, fur seals, and royal albatross. Depending on the season, you may also see pilot, blue, and southern right whales, as well as migrating humpbacks.                     

Day 15: Drive Through the Marlborough Wine Country to Blenheim

Tour the vineyards of the Marlborough Wine Country
Tour the vineyards of the Marlborough Wine Country

Heading north from Kaikōura, the road hugs the shore and offers many opportunities to spot native wildlife, such as seabirds and New Zealand fur seals. One of the best seal-watching locations is Ohau Point, where you can observe adults on the shoreline and pups frolicking in the nearby waterfall. As you drive, the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean lie to your east, with the towering Kaikōura Range in the west. Crossing the hills, head toward Marlborough, New Zealand's largest wine-producing region. Your destination of Blenheim is ideally located to enjoy an afternoon sampling the local vintages.

After lunch, join a guided wine tour and spend several hours among the vines. You'll be collected from your accommodation and taken through three or four hand-picked wineries to taste the award-winning wines this region is known for. You'll also hear about the history of winemaking in Marlborough and learn the unique processes of each winery.

Day 16: Follow Queen Charlotte Drive to Abel Tasman National Park

Travel along the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive to Abel Tasman National Park
Travel along the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive to Abel Tasman National Park

A short drive this morning takes you to the small port of Picton, where the Interislander ferry connects with Wellington. A bustling seaside destination, Picton is well equipped with shops and cafés— and is also the starting point for the famous Queen Charlotte Walk. You'll travel along Queen Charlotte Drive, traversing the length of the Marlborough Sounds coastline. Magnificent views are abundant, so be sure to make time to stop and enjoy the scenery as you go.

Continue through the small port town of Havelock, home to a variety of cafés and restaurants. The highway between Nelson and Picton crosses the Pelorus River, where you'll find the famous Pelorus Bridge. After traversing the Tasman Bay and passing through Motueka, arrive at your accommodations on the outskirts of Abel Tasman National Park.

Day 17: Explore Abel Tasman National Park: Sea Kayaking & Wildlife

Split Apple Rock
Split Apple Rock in Abel Tasman National Park

Known for its coastal hiking track, Abel Tasman National Park has an abundance of golden beaches, inlets, and private lagoons. The park has a mild climate and is a special place to visit at any time of the year. Spend today discovering its many wonders with a scenic cruise through the Sounds, or take a kayaking tour around its many sheltered bays. Relax to melodious birdsong and get up close to some of the park's many animal residents, including native bats, geckos, fur seals, and dolphins. 

For a full day of adventure, hop on a Vista Cruise along the magnificent coastline to Torrent Bay. Here you'll complete a kayak training session and safety briefing before taking to the water to discover beautiful beaches, tidal estuaries, and rivers. Stop for a picnic lunch in a sheltered cove and take some time to swim, explore, or sunbathe on the sand. On your return trip, if the winds are favorable, sails will be hoisted, and you'll sail back via Pinnacle Island to view seal colonies and penguins.      

Day 18: Drive Back Down the Wild West Coast to Westport

Turn south and travel back down the wild West Coast today

Today you'll turn south again, driving past the spectacular scenery of the Buller Gorge. Head through the sleepy town of Murchison, and past Inangahua, the first major town in the region. You'll then come to White's Creek, home to New Zealand's longest swing bridge. As you cross the river, take in the magnificent views of the gorge before driving a short way farther to arrive in Westport, the largest town on the northern West Coast.    

Day 19: Follow the Coastline South to Greymouth, Visit Shantytown

Explore a replica of a 19th-century gold mining town in Shantytown

Continue south down the coast, passing the spectacular scenery and seal colonies of Cape Foulwind. Today's drive takes you back to Greymouth, sitting on the Grey River almost at the western end of State Highway 73. Get settled in, then head out to explore its charming town center and pay Monteith's Brewery a visit for an enjoyable tour.

Just south of Greymouth, you'll find Shantytown, a faithfully restored replica of an 1860s gold mining town and a living monument to the hardy pioneers who braved the rugged subtropical rainforest in search of their fortunes. A 20-minute ride on one of the original bush steam trains takes you deep into the gold country, where you can wander your way through the town as interlopers to a bygone era. Discover a vast collection of pioneer relics and "Kiwi-ana" housed in over 30 historic buildings, then try your hand at gold-panning under the helpful tuition of the experienced staff.                    

Day 20: Cross the Southern Alps to Christchurch on the TranzAlpine Train

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

This morning you'll 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 back through Arthur's Pass National Park. From the comfort of your carriage, see lush beech forests, deep river valleys, and the spectacular peaks of the Southern Alps. Descend to the wind-swept 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 21: Depart Christchurch

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

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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Map of New Zealand: Ultimate South Island Self-Drive - 21 Days
Map of New Zealand: Ultimate South Island Self-Drive - 21 Days