There’s no better place to have a road trip adventure than in the South Island of New Zealand with all its untamed wilderness and scenery. If you’re going to entertain the idea, it’s best to have a decent amount of time, (10 days for example) and a good plan to follow. This is precisely why we’ve put together this 10 day itinerary that takes you from the proud city of Dunedin to our nation’s capital, Wellington!
If you’re still in the planning stage of your trip, make sure you check out the great deals on car rental in Dunedin or our hire cars in Wellington – we’re not New Zealand’s favourite rental car company for no reason!
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1Dunedin to Invercargill (205kms – 2 hours 34 mins)
Having landed in Dunedin and picked up your GO Rentals car you’re probably chomping at the bit to hit the road, but it would be a travesty to leave without first experiencing some of the great city itself!
Dunedin is a unique place in New Zealand as a city with strong Scottish roots. Its name, Dunedin, means “Edinburgh” in Gaelic. Evidence of this can be seen all over the city across a number of attractions as well as all the other things it has to offer and we’ve included a few suggestions to get you started
One of Dunedin’s most popular historical attractions has to be Larnach Castle, the only castle ever built in New Zealand. Dating back to the 1870s, the castle has been meticulously restored to all its original glory. The exterior of the castle is magnificent and the inside is equally so with all its intricate furnishings and collections. The surrounding areas and gardens have also been superbly maintained and attract visitors on their own merits. A real treat if you have time is to enjoy High Team in the Ballroom Cafe, an experience that will truly make you feel like you’ve gone back in time.
Toitu Settlers Museum
Dunedin has a number of fantastic museums and one of our favourites has to be the Toitu Settlers Museum. The reason why is that its a museum that really paints a vivid picture of the people of the region, their history and characteristics. As you’ll be encountering a lot of locals on your road trip, it’s definitely a worthwhile visit that will give you a good grounding and understanding of the people from the Deep South. It covers all aspects of their social history including relationships, arts, fashion, culture and more.
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After a few hours of checking things out in Dunedin, it’s time to hit the road to Invercargill which is just over 2 ½ hours drive away. It’s an easy enough drive to do in one go but if you’d like to take a breath considering it could be your first go on the roads, then we’ve found a great place to take a break.
Balclutha (80kms – 60 mins from Dunedin)
The stop we’re talking about is in the town of Balclutha, which is the largest of its kind in the region. It was founded because it was strategically placed at the heart of the Clutha River which is the largest by volume in the whole of New Zealand. It’s a great thing to see and offers much by way of fishing and scenic walkways (in case you want to stretch the legs). The town also has the South Otago Museum that chronicles the history of the region including many great stories from the gold mining era!
Invercargill (125kms – 1 hour 32 mins from Balclutha)
Invercargill is the southernmost city, not only in New Zealand but in the entire world. That pretty much gives you more reason than you need to visit the place but luckily there are plenty of other things to do there as well including these 3 top picks!
1) Bill Richardson’s Transport World – Vehicles have played an important part in shaping New Zealand’s history and success and Bill Richardson’s Transport World is a fantastic tribute to that with hundreds of trucks, tractors, vintage cars and more.
2) The World’s Fastest Indian – On the theme of transport, a local homeware/hardware store by the name of E Hayes and Sons has Burt Munro’s original World’s Fastest Indian Motorcycle on display. If you don’t know the story behind this, the movie with the same name is required viewing!
3) Queens Park – If you’re happy enough to finish your day off with a nice gentle stroll, then a walk through Queens Park will do the trick. It has a great Rose Garden, beautiful trees everywhere and a cafe in the middle. Everything one could need.
2Invercargill to Queenstown (187kms – 2 hours 28 mins)
A bright and early start is recommended for Day 2 with the tourist paradise that is Queenstown awaiting you. Before you do get away, we’ve included an option detour below that you may be interested in depending on your tastes… literally!
Bluff (28kms – 24 mins from Invercargill)
If you’re interested in starting your day with a seafood delicacy, then this detour to Bluff won’t disappoint. That’s because it’s home to the revered Bluff Oysters, the most sought after and delicious oysters on the planet. People travel from all over the world to dine on fresh Bluff Oysters and if you’re a fan of oysters yourself, you won’t want to miss out on this. Bluff Oysters even have their own national festival which sells out quickly every year, just to give you an idea of how popular they are. Bluff also happens to be the last stop on State Highway 1, another milestone and feather you’ll be able to add to your adventuring cap.
Depending on whether you’ve decided to take the detour or not, the road to Queenstown via State Highway 6 is a pleasant one that’s definitely easy to do in one stretch. We suggest this because there are so many things to do in Queenstown that you’ll want to give it as much time as you can. If you’d feel more comfortable taking a break halfway, then the town of Lumsden (about an hour’s drive from Invercargill) is a good place to do so to have a coffee and a pie. It’ll give you a good energy boost too for the excitement that awaits!
Queenstown and Around
Queenstown. It just makes you smile. Quite simply it’s one of the most exciting places to visit in the world. When you start to think about it, there’s very little that Queenstown doesn’t offer to its guests. There’s great scenery, exquisite food and wine, adventures galore – and that’s just the start of it!
You’ll probably arrive around lunch and we’ve dedicated a good 24 hours in this itinerary to get and about so have included 6 x highlights to try and fit in your schedules (if you can):
1) AJ Hackett Bungy – You know about it. You’ve heard the stories. You’ve seen the videos. The real question is do you have what it takes? AJ Hackett Bungy has 3 different locations here (Kawarau Bridge, The Ledge and Nevis) for you to test your courage.
2) Skyline Gondola – If you’re after something a little less nerve-wracking then the Skyline Gondola is a great alternative. You’ll be slowly taken to a gentle height of 450 metres when you can enjoy wonderful views across the city out towards the Wakatipu Basin.
3) Skiing (seasonal) – If you’re a skier/snowboarder of note, you will know all about the slopes in Queenstown in which case you might spend your whole 24 hours hitting them. The Remarkables and Coronet Peak will be your go-to ski fields and they won’t disappoint.
4) Queenstown Hill – If you’d prefer to hit some slopes with your feet then a 3 hour walk to the peak of Queenstown Hill is definitely a good option to consider. Again you’ve got great views and scenery with the added bonus of a few sculptures too.
5) Jet Boating – If you’ve never had the opportunity to go on a jet boat ride than Queenstown is the place to do it. High speeds and ridiculous manoeuvres through narrow gorges in shallow water. What’s not to like?
6) Kiwi Birdlife Park – There are also some great wildlife opportunities to be had in Queenstown including getting up close and personal with the amazing birds at the Kiwi Birdlife Park. The Kiwis are great and the conservation show during the week is a winner too.
Not much beats the nightlife in Queenstown (especially during peak season) as a town that has over 150 cafes, bars and restaurants. You’ll be able to party there all night if you like though it’s still early days in your trip so perhaps don’t burn all your energy if you can help it!
3Queenstown to Wanaka (67kms – 1 hour 6 mins)
Day 3 has the shortest amount of driving with Wanaka only an hour away. Even with that in mind, we still recommend an early start, not just to make the most out of the day but to catch the glorious sunrise across Lake Wakatipu. The stunning hues of purple and pink that light the skies early on are just magical.
Your morning after this will be spent doing many of the things we’ve already suggested but we thought we’d throw in a few other suggestions too.
Arrowtown (20kms – 22 mins from Queenstown)
Arrowtown is a former town of the Gold Rush Era, much of which can still be experienced today. The main street of the town is filled with restored European and Chinese buildings from the time (with many miners migrating from China at the height of the Era). The history of the place is fascinating and its a very walkable place to visit with sites like the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and the Sawpit Gully Trail. If you happen to be visiting in Autumn you’ll also get the splendour of the autumnal leaves from all around which will really make your photos pop!
Cromwell (60kms – 51 mins from Queenstown)
Another iconic little town from the Gold Rush Era is Cromwell, just under an hour’s drive from Queenstown. Like Arrowtown, much of Cromwell’s past can be experienced as it has its own Heritage Precinct and Gold Mining Centre where you can pan for your own gold and perhaps strike it rich (and maybe even pay for the entire trip). Cromwell is also known for being the stone fruit capital of New Zealand with many orchards to visit and fresh fruit to pick and try. Another altogether different experience can be found at the Highlands Motorsport Park with a good schedule of motor racing on show each season. The wineries in the region aren’t too bad either.
Wanaka (67kms – 1 hour 7 mins from Queenstown)
After a good part of the day of action in Queenstown (and neighbouring towns if you’ve had the chance), it’ll be time to make your way to the idyllic place that is Wanaka. Many see it as a quieter, less busy version of Queenstown and the parallels do ring true as you’ll see in some of our recommendations for your time there.
Possibly the most Instagrammed location in New Zealand has to be Lake Wanaka or more specifically #ThatWanakaTree. Skilled photographers have taken some amazing photos of this location over time but nothing beats seeing the Lake in person (especially at sunset). There’s a great little walkway you can follow that leads to nice spots where the lake meets the shore and is made even better if you’ve packed yourself a picnic to enjoy.
We like to go from one extreme to the other and going from picnic to skydiving is exactly that! The great crew at Sky Dive Wanaka give you the chance to take the ultimate leap from 15,000ft. You’ll reach an epic 200 kmph before the parachute is (hopefully) deployed and then enjoy the best seat in the house as you slowly float gently to the ground. A great way to impress the friends (not so much the family) and our customers also get a bit of a discount using their GO Play cards!
Roys Peak Track
The second most Instagrammed spot in New Zealand is also found in Wanaka on the Roys Peak Track. The view is one you’ll recognise and looks out across the Mount Aspiring National Park and Lake Wanaka itself. The hike itself is also very enjoyable at a casual 3 and a bit hours.
A newer attraction that has really taken off in recent times is Wildwire Wanaka, which offers a unique rock climbing experience. It’s one that caters to people at all levels of experience from beginners to experts with different courses to choose from. What makes it different is that it’s set up alongside one of the most picturesque sights in Wanaka being the Twin Falls. The photos are amazing but the actual pursuit is even better.
4Wanaka to Tekapo (213kms – 2 hours 36 mins)
Day 4 takes you from one beautiful part of the country to another. As a matter of fact, some would even say that Wanaka and Tekapo are the two most picturesque places in the country!
The drive there has a few turns and bends up State Highway 8 but nothing you won’t be used to by now. As is the case with every route, we’ve included a great stopover spot along the way.
Omarama (125kms – 1 hour 35 mins from Wanaka)
Omarama is a small town that meets at the intersection of State Highways 8 and 83 making it a popular spot for travellers on long road trips. Omarama actually means “Place of Light’ in Maori, a reference to its incredibly clear skies which has made it popular with stargazers. Omarama has a number of natural and commercial attractions that are definitely worth your time. The first is the Clay Cliffs, a unique geological formation which is probably the closest thing we have to our own Grand Canyon. They’re not quite as vast but still very impressive to see. Another great attraction are the Omarama Hot Tubs. Filled with fresh mountain water the hot tubs are warmed by wood fire and are incredibly soothing. They also do evening sessions where you can relax and gaze up at the stars above.
Tekapo (92kms – 1 hour 3 mins from Omarama)
Tekapo is another South Island town that was established around an amazing lake. Lake Tekapo is probably most well known for the Church of the Good Shepherd, a modest little building that sits against the most extraordinary background of the lake and the Southern Alps.
It’s always a must-see stop on the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown (or vice versa) but it’s a great place to stay in its own right. There are plenty of things to do here as you can see from some of our top picks!
1) Mt John Observatory – Stargazers all over the world know Mt John Observatory as one of the best places to look at the stars (and even catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights – Aurora Australis). They have New Zealand’s biggest telescope which observes 50 million stars on a clear night!
2) Cowans Hill Walkway – This is a lovely little walk of 1 -2 hours that takes you to the top of Cowans Hill with stunning views of Lake Tekapo and the scenery around. On the way, you’ll pass a river bank, cross-bridge and forest plantation too.
3) Jet Boat – If you didn’t get a chance to try jet boating in Queenstown (or enjoyed it so much you’re thirsty for more) then taking a ride with Tekapo Jet will be the one to get to. You already know what’s involved and when you include the beautiful vistas you’ll get it’s hard to resist.
5Tekapo to Christchurch (226kms – 2 hours 58 mins)
You’ve officially reached the halfway point in your trip and you’re probably amazed already at how many great things you’ve seen and experienced. The good news is that there’s plenty still to come as we start Day 5 with your journey to the Garden City.
It’s a little bit of a longer drive than compared to the last few days so we’ve included a stop along the way to take a break.
Ashburton (138kms – 1 hour 43 mins from Tekapo)
Ashburton is one of the larger towns in the Canterbury Region and is well stocked with local amenities where you can restock and replenish the supplies you need. There’s a nice little mix of attractions you’d to take a little more time out. These include the Ashburton Aviation Museum, Ashburton Art Gallery, Trotts Garden and the Ashburton Domain. We also recommend stopping by Smithfield Berries to get some fresh raspberries straight from their farm because they are super sweet and super yum!
Christchurch and Around (89kms – 1 hour 15 mins from Ashburton)
Upon arriving at the “Garden City” you’ll immediately understand how it got its name. Christchurch itself is almost like one big garden thanks largely to the iconic Christchurch Botanic Gardens that runs through it.
You could easily spend a day exploring this alone and there are plenty of other things to do as well, the best of which we’ve listed below.
1) Christchurch Botanic Gardens – 21 hectares of beautiful green space and gardens. How many cities can boast that? The Rose Garden alone has over 250 varietals of rose. Absolutely lovely on a sunny day.
2) Christchurch Gondola – Gondolas are great and all the best cities in New Zealand have them and Christchurch is definitely up there. They climb the Port Hills here to a height of around 500 metres giving you magnificent views of the city.
3) Orana Wildlife Park – A different sort of attraction for not just Christchurch but New Zealand. The Orana Wildlife Park is the only open range park in the country. The closest safari type experience you can have here which features gorillas, white rhino, giraffes and lions!
The 2010 & 2011 Christchurch earthquakes devastated the city and saw 185 people lose their lives. Quake City is a new exhibition that pays tribute to the tragedy and chronicles the recovery that has taken place since. There are some amazing stories that are told with respect to the emergency services and locals that stepped up during such a difficult situation. An incredibly moving exhibition to experience.
6Christchurch to Kaikoura (181kms – 2 hours 38 mins)
If you’re not able to get excited about what’s in store for Day 6 then nothing will do it for you for today is the day we take you to Kaikoura, the home of Sperm Whales.
Before we get into that, we’ll tell you about a couple of little stopovers on your drive from Christchurch.
Amberley (46kms – 45 mins from Christchurch)
Amberley is a small little town known for its farming and wine growing industries. It’s got a fantastic vibe with a number of excellent local cafes to enjoy a brunch and craft stores to take nosey. You can also wander down from the township to Amberley Beach for a stroll or swim and they’ve also got a golf course too.
Waipara (12kms – 10 mins from Amberley)
A further 10 mins down the road you’ve got another great stopover choice in Waipara, known as one of the great wine producing towns in the country. Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnays are their specialities that flourish thanks to their warm summers and low rainfall. You’ll be able to pick up a few bottles for later or as gifts for your friends and family back home.
Kaikoura (123kms – 1 hour 43 mins from Waipara)
As we mentioned earlier, Kaikoura is home to the Sperm Whale, the largest toothed mammal in the world which is naturally what makes it a whale watchers delight.
It’s one of the highest rated experiences to do in New Zealand and an absolute must but there are also a number of other worthy things you can add to your list.
1) Whale Watch Kaikoura – The Sperm Whales that live off the coast of Kaikoura are nothing short of spectacular and can be seen all year round. Whale Watch Kaikoura will get you as close as you can get and you’ll have some amazing photos and videos to show for it. Our customers also get a 10% discount with their GO Play cards!
2) Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway – With landscape, this stunning you just want to be amongst it and the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a great way to do just that. The whole walk takes around 3 hours and passes historical Maori Pa and whaling sites too.
3) Cellar View Cafe and Restaurant – If you’re hungry for some amazing fresh seafood dishes then we definitely recommend a meal here. On top of this, you’ll also enjoy stunning views out towards the Pacific.
Swimming with dolphins
Another unique experience you can have in Kaikoura is with the crew at Encounter Kaikoura. The experience they offer is swimming with the dolphins, Dusky Dolphins specifically, that are frequently found in these waters. These highly inquisitive and curious creatures love to play and the interactions you’ll have are in the once-in-a-lifetime category. There’ll be plenty of other bird and marine life to spot as well.
7Kaikoura to Blenheim (128kms – 1 hour 49 mins)
Day 7 sees you leave Whale Country to Wine Country and the region known as Marlborough, famous around the globe for its world-class wines, especially its Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The drive is an easy one at less than 2 hours so we suggest you head straight to Blenheim so you can start sampling and enjoy all the other things you can do there.
Blenheim (128kms – 1 hour 49 mins from Kaikoura)
There is no shortage of wineries where you can sample an entire range of wines from including the three varietals mentioned above and the famous Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay is arguably the most famous of the lot in the region and is a great one to go to but there are others that are well worth considering like Wither Hills, Saint Clair Family Estate, Villa Maria and Spy Valley. There’s also no shortage of wine tours you can join that will take you to a mix of them (which avoids the need to have a sober driver who can’t partake in the fun).
Like we said earlier, it’s not all about the wine as there are plenty of other things to keep you happy and occupied in Blenheim.
1) Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre –The Omaka Aviation Centre is home to Sir Peter Jackson’s personal WWI collection of aircraft. It’s a great facility and one that provides great insight into an important part of human history.
2) Pollard Park – There’s no better place for a morning stroll than Pollard Park, not far from the main township. It’s got lovely gardens and there’s even a fitness trail for those who may be feeling guilty about overindulging during the trip.
3) Moa Brewery Bar – If you’re more a beer than wine person then fear not because Blenheim also has its own Moa Brewery Bar. Moa Beer is quickly becoming a national treasure and they have a great space here as well as awesome food.
8Blenheim to Nelson (114kms – 1 hour 33 mins)
You’ll hopefully wake up in the morning of Day 8 without too much of a hangover from all the wine tasting of Marlborough’s finest. This is important because you’ve got a big day in one of the nicest little places in the country. The city of Nelson.
Nelson’s only a short drive from Blenheim and like some of the other days we’ve scheduled, we suggest you go straight to the destination so you can get busy making the most of the day.
For us, Nelson is all about the natural beauty its surrounded by with not one, but two National Parks in close proximity. They are the Abel Tasman National Park and the Nelson Lakes National Park and either/or can easily take a day of your time.
The Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman National Park features one of the Great Walks of New Zealand known as the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk. The Great Walks (for those who don’t know) are walks that are given premier status in New Zealand and there are about 10 of them all around the country. To do them in their entirety typically takes several days but for many of them, like the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk, you can actually experience in sections as a day trip. The coastal walk is fantastic with some of the most picturesque shorelines in the country to be seen here. Another great thing to do is to hire some kayaks and follow the coast yourself where you’ll be able to experience the rich marine life too.
Nelson Lakes National Park
The Nelson Lakes National Park takes you inland and features a variety of landscapes, all of which are as magical as the next. As the name suggests, it’s most well known for its magnificent lakes. The largest of these is Lake Rotoroa and Lake Rotoiti and both have beautifully pristine and incredibly clear waters. Within the 100,000 hectare park, there are many walking tracks of varying lengths as well as picnic spots, campsites and huts. The natural flora and fauna here are amazing and there’s a wide variety of native birds that you’ll be able to see and hear thanks to their lovely birdsong. Like the Abel Tasman National Park, it’s easy to spend a day here and let the time float by.
9Nelson to Wellington (210kms – 5 hours 20 mins)
On the face of it, Day 9 looks like an unreasonable amount of driving but the time stated above is somewhat misleading. That’s because 3 hours and 30 mins of this journey is done by Car Ferry from Picton to Wellington.
It does eat away at a good chunk of the day but you’ll still have enough time to do one or two things in Picton before you leave.
Picton (107kms – 1 hour 47 mins from Nelson)
Picton is known as the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds and the port where all passengers arrive by ferry from Wellington. Because of this, it’s often overlooked as a viable destination in itself but that really does it a disservice as it has plenty to offer.
You might not have a huge amount of time here before getting on the car ferry to Wellington so we’ve picked a couple of things you can do reasonably quickly before you leave.
1) Edwin Fox Maritime Museum – Picton is home to the Edwin Fox, one of the Top 10 oldest ships in the world. It’s over 160 years old and has a fascinating history and is an incredible ongoing restoration project.
2) Kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds – The Marlborough Sounds are an amazing region of land and sea and a great place to do some kayaking. You can easily hire a few kayaks and do some quick exploring.
3) EcoWorld Aquarium – If you’re travelling with the little ones then stopping by the Ecoworld Aquarium will make you the most popular parents in the country. It’s a fantastic interactive aquarium with penguins, seahorses, a preserved giant squid and more!
As we mentioned earlier, the car ferry from Picton to Wellington takes around 3 hours and 30 mins. There are two different companies that offer the car ferry service, Interislander and Bluebridge, both with multiple journeys a day.
You’ll probably arrive in Wellington in the early evening giving your timings and we recommend making your way to Queens Wharf where there are a number of great restaurants to enjoy dinner with views across the harbour.
10Wellington and around
It brings a tear to the eye to admit this is your last day on your itinerary but we don’t want to waste time feeling sorry for ourselves because there are heaps to see in do in our nation’s capital so let’s get straight into it!
Wellington is spoilt when it comes to museums and the waterfront area is a great place to start. It has the fascinating Museum of Wellington City and Sea located in the old Harbour Board Bond Store and even has its own recreated cabin from an 1879 steamship! Also on the waterfront is New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, a modern complex that has become a national treasure as one of the largest new museums in the world full of interactive displays and history.
You’re probably not surprised to hear there are some great views to be had in Wellington (considering that’s the case for most New Zealand towns and cities). The lookout on Mt Victoria is a great place to start for panoramic views of the city and harbour. The Cable Car is a novel way to get there and there’s also an old historic canon at the top of the summit too.
It’s strange that we’ve made it through this whole itinerary without mentioning how good the coffee is in this country. Wellington is a good place to bring it up though as they boast that they have the best coffee in New Zealand. You’ll find plenty of unique cafes in and around the city, especially along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. While you’re on Cuba Street take time to find the cool Bucket Fountain. We won’t spoil the surprise by describing it further and it’s really fun to see live for the first time.
If you have some free time to get to the small suburb of Miramar you’ll discover a pretty big surprise. This suburb is the home of Weta Workshop, the costume and props design extraordinaire team that were behind Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and more. The 45 minute tour they offer is great as you get to go behind the scenes and see examples of their best work and learn how they do what they do. You’ll also get to meet some of the staff that have worked on the films who’ll explain the subtleties of their craft in detail which is an altogether enlightening experience.
So there you have it. The end of your epic Dunedin to Wellington road trip. We hope you’ve enjoyed the read and know that you’ll love the adventure, even more, when you get here!
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