If you’re flying into Wellington but wanting to do a road trip that starts at the top of the South Island (you’d be surprised how many people fall into this category) then we’ve got the itinerary for you! Our 10 day itinerary will take you around all the best bits of the South Island ending in Dunedin.
There are heaps of things to cover so let’s not dawdle and crack on into it!
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 one of New Zealand’s favourite rental car companies for no reason!
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1Wellington and around
But before you hit the road we’ve dedicated the first day to explore Wellington. You have of course flown into it for a reason and its a city that can easily take up a day as our suggestions below prove!
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.
Wellington prides itself on great coffee and boasts the best coffee in New Zealand (by their own admission). 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 its 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.
Hopefully, you were suitably impressed by those suggestions and made use of them. Be sure to get a reasonable nights sleep because tomorrow the South Island Adventures begin!
2Wellington to Nelson (210kms – 5 hours 20 mins)
On the face of it, Day 2 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 over the course of the day.
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.
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!
Nelson (107kms – 1 hours 47 mins from Picton)
Given this is your first big drive in the South Island it’s good to take your time with it. Don’t worry about rushing because of all the things to do in Nelson either as we’ve got a full day tomorrow to take advantage of. Just enjoy the drive and enjoy the evening at a nice restaurant when you get there (no shortage of those)
3Nelson to Blenheim (114kms – 1 hour 33 mins)
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.
Blenheim (114kms – 1 hour 33 mins from Nelson)
Like we said about Nelson, don’t rush yourself in getting to Blenheim as tomorrow is another day and it’ll be one that excites!
4Blenheim to Kaikoura (128kms – 1 hour 49 mins)
Blenheim is in the heart of the Marlborough Region, known throughout the world for its fine wines. There is no shortage of wineries where you can sample an entire range of wines from including 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.
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.
At the end of Day 4 we’ve assumed you’ve got a sober driver with you to drive to Kaikoura. If not, stay an extra night in Blenheim as drink driving is never a good thing and New Zealand has very strict laws against it, not that the thought had crossed your mind in the first place.
5Kaikoura to Christchurch (181kms – 2 hours 38 mins)
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.
Having had an exciting time in Kaikoura with the whales, leave enough time to get to Christchurch before sundown ideally.
6Christchurch to Tekapo (226kms – 2 hours 58 mins)
Upon arriving at the “Garden City” you’ll immediately understand how it gots 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 drive to Tekapo is a little bit of a stretch so you’ll want to leave mid-afternoon if you can. Because of the length, we’ve suggested a stop along the way.
Ashburton (138kms – 1 hour 11 mins from Christchurch)
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!
That should give you enough of a rest to do the last bit of the drive to the serene sanctuary that is Tekapo.
7Tekapo to Wanaka (213kms – 2 hours 36 mins)
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.
Like yesterday’s final drive, the one to Wanaka is a little long which is a great excuse to stop off at the following.
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 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 is the Omarama Hot Tubs. Filled with fresh mountain water the hot tubs are warmed by wood fire and are incredibly soothing.
From there, Wanaka is just over an hour’s drive which will give you plenty of time to rest for a full on day tomorrow!
8Wanaka to Queenstown (67kms – 1 hour 6 mins)
Many see Wanaka as a quieter, less busy version of Queenstown which makes it a good one to warm up on before you head to Queenstown later in the day. Here are our suggestions for the day.
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.
The drive to Queenstown is only an hour so you can definitely take your time in getting there. When you do you may be tempted to experience the nightlife as the town has over 150 restaurants, cafes and bars!
9Queenstown to Invercargill (187kms – 2 hours 24 mins)
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!
Best of the Best
The “best of the best” is an admittedly bold statement to make as there are so many awesome things to do in this town. We’ve tried to go for a bit of a range of experiences to suit a variety of interests so there’s something for everyone!
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.
Having had a good day out and about in Queenstown your drive to Invercargill is a pleasant one which will hopefully allow you to catch your breath after all this excitement.
10Invercargill to Dunedin (205kms – 2 hours 34 mins)
It’s hard to believe that this is the final day of your epic road trip. Hopefully, it’s been a blast and you can go out with a bang! Before leaving Invercargill, we recommend you try at least one of these great attractions.
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.
Balclutha (125kms – 1 hour 32 mins from Invercargill)
The penultimate stop on this trip is 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. The town also has the South Otago Museum that chronicles the history of the region including many great stories from the gold mining era!
Dunedin (80kms – 60 mins from Balclutha)
Your final stop in this journey is the great city of Dunedin. Hopefully, you’ve left enough time to see a few attractions like Larnach Castle, Toitu Settlers Museum, Signal Hill etc before returning your GO Rentals car as they are very much worth doing.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the itinerary and are pretty confident you’ll enjoy the actual trip even more!
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