New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island

Following our New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island will allow you to experience the very best of New Zealand’s spectacular nature and wild life. Whether you’re in a car or campervan, there is no better way to get around this beautiful part of the country and experience the untamed, incredible natural environment.

In this article we’ve laid out everything you need to plan and organise your trip from start to finish. I’ll tell you all the best places to go and help you decide which of the South Island’s incredible experiences you don’t want to miss. I’ve also included the best accommodation options to round out the only New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island that you’ll need!

This article contains affiliate links. For more information please see our affiliate disclaimer here.

How to use the New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary: South Island to plan your trip

We’ve outlined the approximate driving times, as well as the amount of time we’d recommend spending in each area, although you can easily tailor the itinerary to your own needs or time requirements. Throughout the article we’ve made suggestions on how you can adapt the travel route to suit your needs.

The perfect Itinerary covering the whole of the South Island, all the best things to see and do in this ideal 3 week itinerary for nature, wildlife and adventure lovers. A complete self drive itinerary for New Zealands South Island. Includes all the best things to see and do, places to go, where to eat and where to stay on your road trip

How long does this itinerary take?

This is a 3 to 5 week itinerary! It’s long, but you won’t miss any of the South Islands best experiences. You can speed it up or slow it down depending on your preferences.

Where to start your New Zealand South Island road trip

If you’ve already been travelling around the North Island, you’ll most likely catch the ferry from Wellington, on the North Island, to Picton, on the South Island. You can begin your South Island Self Drive Itinerary from there, beginning with a beautiful scenic drive through Blenheim.

Alternatively, fly into Christchurch Airport. Make sure you take a day or two to rest before you collect your hire vehicle and head off on your self drive tour. Simpy scroll down and begin in Christchurch.

The ultimate New Zealand Self Drive South Island Itinerary

Picton to Christchurch

Drive time: Approx 4.5 hours or 340km.

Alternative routes and stops: Stop half way at Kaikoura

Days required:

  • Picton to Christchurch – 1 day
  • Picton to Christchurch stopping at Kaikoura – 2-3 days

What to expect

If you’re leaving from Picton, the you’ll drive through the beautiful chocolate coloured mountains of Blenheim and along the spectacular coastlines of the east. Enjoy the spectacular scenery as rolling mountains abut black sand beaches and steep cliff faces.

Don’t miss the Ohau Point Lookout where you’ll get to see the enormous seal colony calling Ohau Point home.

Seals on rocks at Kaikoura South Island self drive itinerary
Seals at Kaikoura

Stopping at Kaikoura

Lying between Picton and Christchurch is the gorgeous little sea side town of Kaikoura. While Kaikoura is one of the best places in New Zealand for whale and dolphin watching, there is so much more to do there, making it a great place to stop on your drive to Christchuch.

What to do in Kaikoura

  • Visit Kaikoura beach
  • Do one of Kaikoura’s many walks, the longest being the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway which will take you past rocky outcrops where you can get up close (but not to close) and personal with the local seal colony. The total walk is 11km but you can also do shorter portions. All the information can be found here
Unmissable wildlife experience: Don’t miss the whale watching tour where you’ll see sperm whales in their natural environment from the comfort of a catamaran.

Where to eat in Kaikoura

Try The Black Rabbit pizza place for a casual, cosy family restaurant with outdoor seating.

Hislops Wholefoods Cafe offers a great range of healthy and organic foods in Kaikoura

Zephyr Restaurant has a delicious dinner menu for you to enjoy

Where to stay in Kaikoura

Camping and campervans

The Top 10 Holiday park offers all the facilities you need and is only a 7 minute walk from the town centre, shops and restaurants. They also have accommodation for those who haven’t brought their own.

Budget: Backpackers and Hostels

The Lazy Shag Backpackers is located only 500 meters from the city centre and offers fantastic amenities.

Mid range: Hotels and motels

The Sierra Beachfront Motel offers great range of facilites at a reasonable price and has fantastic reviews.

The Mondello Kaikoura offers 4 star accommodation close to the beach and restaurants. They also offer free parking which is great.

After leaving Kaikoura continue your road trip along the coast to Christchurch.

Drive time from Kaikoura to Christchurch: 2.5 hours or 180 km

Christchurch

Days required in Christchurch: 1-2 days (minimum) depending on what you want to see

Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. A beautiful and diverse city, Christchurch offers something for everyone and you could easily spend 24 hours in Christchurch, or more if you wanted.

What to do in Christchurch

  • Drive one of New Zealands most scenic roads, the Summit Road to the harbour town of Akaroa on the peninsula for some of the most scenic views of the area.
  • Explore some of the beautiful natural surrounds such as the Avon River, the Botanical Gardens, local hiking trails or Sumner Beach

Unmissable scenic views: The Summit Road between Christchurch and Akaroa town and harbour is spectacular and one of New Zealand’s best drives

Where to eat

If you’re into delicious food, you have to try Twenty Seven Steps, a delicious modern restaurant that has been voted one of the best things to do in Christchurch. It is on the pricier side, but you won’t be disappointed.

Vegetarians and meat eaters alike will love the Lotus Heart where you’ll get amazing international meat free dishes.

Where to stay in Christchurch

Camping and Campervan

The Top 10 Holiday Park Christchurch offers a great base from which to explore the city and offers everything you need including powered sites and great amenities

Budget backpackers and hostels

The Jucy Snooze Hotel is located near the airport and is a great place to recharge after a long flight. Located 20 minutes from the city centre, it is great value.

Mid range hotels and motels

The Quest on Manchester is conveniently located in the heart of the CBD and is walking distance from many of the local sights, bars and restaurants. You can also reserve paid parking for your vehicle.

Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

Drive time: 3 hours 10 minutes or roughly 243km

Alternative routes and stops: None. You could skip Tekapo if you wanted and head straight down the East Coast to Dunedin and the Catlins.

Days required: 1 day driving

What to expect

Drive through the beautiful rolling mountains and open farmland at the centre of the South Island. It’s easy to go for kilometres without seeing another soul.

Lake Opuha is a beautiful spot at Fairlie, about an hour outside Lake Tekapo and is worth a visit. It is also possible to freedom camp there, which we did, and it was one of our favourite freedom camping spots. Always check up to date freedom camping information as spaces are not always open all year.

Church of the Good Shephard, Lake Tekapo, self drive tour from Christchurch
The Church of the Good Shephard beside Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

Days required in Lake Tekapo: 1-2

As one of the most popular places on the South Island, Lake Tekapo is a must on your New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island.

Known for its brightly coloured lupins, the beautiful old Church of the Good Shephard and the magnificent Lake Tekapo, this beautiful region and quaint town are worth exploring.

It is also part of the Mackenzie region, and forms a portion of the Dark Sky Reserve, a large area where light pollution is strictly controlled ensuring incredible star gazing, unmatched almost anywhere in the world.

Lake Tekapo is also a great base for exploring the beautiful Mt Cook National Park where you can hike the Hooker Valley Track

What to do around Tekapo

  • Complete one of the many walks in the area. The Mount John Summit Track was our favourite. This 3 hour walk takes you up the the Observatory overlooking the area. Sit at Astro Cafe and enjoy the view! Note you can drive up there yourself, but the walk is worth it!
  • Do a star gazing tour for amazing views of the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve using high powered telescopes
  • Do the obligatory stroll around the lake, past the Lupins and the Church of the Good Shephard. It sounds a bit simple, but it is incredibly beautiful

Unmissable experience: Whether you walk or drive, make sure you head up to the Observatory for the views of the regions and if you love looking at the stars, a star gazing tour will give you the best view in the Southern Hemisphere.

Where to eat in Tekapo

The Blue Lake Eatery and Bar offers a casual vibe with outdoor seating

Our Dog Friday is open for breakfast and does amazing hamburgers

The Kohan Japanese Restaurant is delicious and you can sit outside overlooking the mountains.

Where to stay in Tekapo

Freedom camping at Lake Ophua Reserve Picnic Area

Check that it is open before you go, but this was one of our favourite freedom places to camp. It’s only an hour or so outside Tekapo.

Camping and Campervan

The Lake Tekapo Motel and Holiday Park is located on the shores of Lake Tekapo, offering spectacular views.

Budget backpackers and Hostels

The Lakefront Lodge Backpackers is the best value place in Tekapo. Located just outside the town center it’s a great place to meet like minded travellers.

Mid Range Hotels

Located only a couple of hundred meters from the centre of town, Peppers Bluewater Resort has amazing views of the surrounding mountains and an in house restaurant.

Driving Tekapo to Dunedin

Drive time:4 hours and 20 minutes or 348km

Alternative Routes and Stops: Stop at the Moeraki Boulders and Oamaru for Blue and Yellow Eyed penguines

Days required: 1 day, can be split in to two

What to expect

A well travelled driving route on the South Island, you’ll head back towards the east coast and continue south. This part of the road trip does not fail to disappoint with endless wildlife and nature experiences to be found.

A great place to see Penguins for free and in the wild is in Oamaru where they wonder the coastline at sunrise and sunset. This does mean that you’ll have to plan your arrival in Oamaru.

Further down, you’ll pass Moeraki and the popular Moeraki Boulders. If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll know that we weren’t that impressed when we went. The weather was awful, it was freezing cold, there were soooo many people and most disappointing, the boulders looked a bit like rocks in the tide.

After complaining about this on Instagram someone pointed out that you really need to see them at low tide, when the boulders are completely visible. So in fairness, I’ve added them here. I think we were simply there are the wrong time (and in the wrong weather!)

Seals at Omaru outside Dunedin

Dunedin

Days required in Dunedin: 1-2

Dunedin has earned a bit of a reputation as the wildlife capital of New Zealand. Home to seals, penguins, albatross, kiwi birds and more there are endless amounts of things to see and do in this beautiful city. If you want wildlife, Dunedin is an essential part of your New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island.

What to do in Dunedin

  • Do a hike and explore the many beaches and natural environments in the area
  • Dunedin has many museums and gallaries to explore
  • Visit the only castle in New Zealand, the Larnach Castle
  • One of the only places in New Zealand to an Albatross breeding colony on land is in Dunedin at the Royal Albatross centre

Unmissable experience: If you love birds, the Royal Albatross Centre and the chance to see Albatross is a must!

Where to eat in Dunedin

For a delicious, cozy meal try the award winning Ironic restaurant, located near the train station.

If you love Italian, Etrusco at the Savoy is the perfect spot for all your favourites.

Where to stay in Dunedin

Campervan and camping places

The Dunedin Holiday Park is located only 200 meters from St Kilda beach and offers a wide range of facilities for cars and campervans alike.

Budget backpackers and hostels

On Top Backpackers has its own bar and cafe and is within walking distance to the city centre. A great place to meet other like minded travellers.

Midrange hotels and motels

A popular selection only 1.3km from the city centre is the Dunedin Motel and Villas, offering complete self contained accommodation and free parking

Driving Dunedin to the Catlins

Drive time: About 2 hours 40 minutes or 182km

Alternative routes and stops: Drive the coastal route

Days required: 1

Nugget Point Lighthouse on the New Zealand South Island coast
Nugget Point Lighthouse, The Catlins

What to expect

Exploring the Catlins is often left off many New Zealand Self Drive South Island Itineraries as it’s a little further out of the way but it is so worth while we couldn’t leave it off. Stop all along the beautiful coastline to admire the view or follow any number of walks to spectacular waterfalls.

The Catlins

Days required in The Catlins: 1-2 depending on how many natural wonders you want to explore! We did not leave enough time to explore the Catlins, don’t make that mistake!

What to do in the Catlins

  • Don’t miss the incredible Nugget Point Lighthouse with its wild ocean views and fascinating wildlife
  • Hike to any number of beautiful waterfalls throughout the National Park
  • Arrive at low tide and explore Cathedral Cave. At high tide it is inaccessible as it is filled with water, but when they tide retreats you can walk throughout it.
  • Witness the views from Slope Point, the southernmost point of the New Zealand’s South Island.

Where to Eat in The Catlins

With a preference for fresh, local produce, the Niagara Falls Cafe in the South Catlins is a fantastic place to stop for a meal.

The Point Cafe at Kaka Point is a great place to find fresh, perfectly cooked seafood.

Cathedral Cave Self Drive Itinerary New Zealand South Island
Don’t miss Cathedral Cave on your New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary: South Island

Where to stay in The Catlins

Budget backpackers and hostels

Thomas’s Catlins Lodge and Camp Ground offers an affordable base from which to explore the area. With great reviews and facilities it’s one of the best value accommodation in the area.

Midrange hotels and motels

The Catlins Gateway Motel has a beautiful garden and is located near restaurants in Okawa. With spacious rooms and free private parking its the perfect place to base yourself in the region.

With stunning views of Kaka Point beach the Breadalbane House is perfectly located. With free parking it provides a great location for your road trip of The Catlin region.

Driving from the Catlins to Te Anau

Drive time: 3 hours or about 234km

Alternative Routes and stops: Stop at Invercargill for a few hours to explore the city

Days required: 1 day

What to expect

The southernmost portion of New Zealand’s South Island does not disappoint as you drive through rolling farmland and small towns. As you arrive in Invercargill you have the option of spending a few hours, or more if you wish, exploring the southern most city of New Zealand.

Te Anau and Fiordland National Park

Days required in Te Anau and Fiordland National Park: 2-3

One of the most beautiful regions of the South Island, Te Anau and Fiordland National Park are a must for anyone undertaking self drive itinerary of New Zealands South Island. Home to the incredible Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound, this region is a must see part of the country.

Milford Sound Boat Tour New Zealand South Island
Make sure you take a tour of Milford Sound or Doubtful sound!

What to do in Te Anau and Fiordland National Park

Unmissable experience: We were lucky enough to do both a tour of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound and while there are similarities there are also substantial differences and both days were amazing. You can drive yoursef from Te Anau to Milford sound for the boat tour. The drive is spectacular and that alone makes Milford Sound worth a visit. For Doubtful Sound however, you’ll have to take a tour from Te Anau as it is not accessible by car. We did this tour of Doubtful Sound and it was fantastic! We wrote an article comparing Doubtful Sound vs Milford Sound so you can choose which you want to see.

Where to eat in Te Anau

This is a great article on the best Te Anau Restaurants if you’re looking for food options!

Where to stay in Te Anau and Fiordland National Park

Campervan and camping

Centrally located, the Te Anau Lake View Kiwi Holiday Park offers a great range of facilities.

Budget backpackers and hostels

The Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers is located in the heart of town and is incredibly popular, with amazing reviews.

Mid range hotels and motels

For something a little fancier, the Aden Motel is great value for money. Located near the centre of town this popular motel is one of the best priced in the area.

Te Anau to Queenstown

Drive time: Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes

Alternative routes and stops: If you’re freedom camping the Kingston Reserve is one of the most beautiful freedom camping places in New Zealand

Days required: 1 day

What to expect

The drive from Te Anau to Queenstown is largely along state highways but as with all drives in New Zealand, the views are incredible.

Queenstown

Days required in Queenstown: 1-2 minimum

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand for a reason. Offering everything the adrenalin junkie could want, and a central base from which to explore many of the South Islands most interesting attractions, Queenstown has something for everyone.

What to do in Queenstown

  • Explore the beautiful inland Lake Wakatipu
  • Visit Skippers Canyon and Gorge
  • Complete one of the spectacular hikes in the area
  • Visit the old Gold Mining town of Arrowtown
  • In winter, Queenstown is renowned for its winter sports

Where to eat in Queenstown

With it’s warm log fires, lake views and delicious menu the Botswana Butchery is an ideal place to enjoy a meal.

Blue Kanu is one of Queenstowns best restuarants for a cozy warm atmosphere and amazing drinks.

Where to stay in Queenstown

Freedom camping

One of our favrourite freedom camping places was the Kingston Reserve just outside Queenstown. For self contained vehicles only, it’s an amazing location by the river. It was also the only place where we saw rangers inspecting self containment stickers, so be warned.

Camping and campervan

Located just outside the city centre the Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park is a great option with all the necessary amenities.

Budget backpackers and hostels

Located in the center of the city with breakfast included and free onsite parking, the Sir Cedrics Tahuna Pod Hostel is a quirky hostel with incredible reviews.

Mid range hotels and motels

With beautiful views of the lake and located only a couple of kilometers from the city centre and popular attractions the Amazing Queenstown Guest House is a great accommodation option.

Queenstown to Wanaka

Driving time: 1 hour or 70km

Alternative routes and stops: None

Days required: 0.5

What to expect:

The drive from Queenstown to Wanaka is an easy and short one as you start to approach the outskirts of the Southern Alps with rolling snow capped mountains in the distance.

Wanaka

Days required: 1-2

The relaxing town of Wanaka offers the perfect place to relax and unwind amidst a spectacular natural environment.

What to do in Wanaka

  • Do one of the short hikes up the mountains overlooking the lake, the Roys Peak track is one of the most popular walks in the area
  • See “That Wanaka Tree” that is so insta-famous

Where to eat in Wanaka

For mediterranean cuisine try the delicious White House, one of the best rated restaurants in Wanaka.

The Dripping Bowl provides a wide array of yummy healthy options.

Where to stay in Wanaka

Camping and campervan

The Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park offers everything you could need and only a short distance from the town.

Budget backpacker and hostels

The YHA Wanaka is located in the heart of the city and within walking distance of the Lake and ‘That Wanaka Tree’. It also offers free parking.

Mid range hotels and motels

The Fairway Motel and Apartments are within walking distance of the town and restaurants and offer free parking and WiFi.

Wanaka to Fox Glacier

Drive time: 3 hours 20 minutes or 260km

Alternative routes and stops: None

Days required: 1

What to expect

Drive across New Zealands Southern Alps, and over one of the best roads in the country the Haast Pass. Spectacular mountain and coastal views make this drive truely enjoyable.

New Zealand Self Drive Itinerary South Island Fox Glacier, walking on a glacier
Walking on a glacier was such a cool experience!

Fox Glacier

Days required: 2

The relaxed, yet adventurous town of Fox Glacier offers some incredible sights and experiences for nature lovers. Whether you’re there in summer, or winter, Fox Glacier is necessary stop in your self drive itinerary.

Things to do in Fox Glacier

  • Take a heli-hike tour of Fox Glacier. After a short helicopter ride, spend an hour walking across the Glacier and learning about the area from experienced guides, before taking a helicopter back into town.
  • Explore Lake Matheson with its spectacular reflective views of surrounding mountains.
  • Head to Gillespies Beach, about 20km from the Fox Glacier town for a spectacular sunset.

Unmissable Fox Glacier experience: If you’ve ever wanted to walk on a Glacier A Heli Hike tour is a must! It was such a cool experience! We did this heli-hike tour and everything was top notch from the equipment to the guides.

Where to eat in Fox Glacier

The Fox Glacier Guiding Cafe is located in the same building of the Heli Hike tours. It offers breakfast which is a great idea before your heli-hike!

At the start of the Lake Matheson walk is the Matheson Cafe, one of the most popular restaurants in the area it offers light meals and refreshments.

Where to stay in Fox Glacier

Camping and campervan

The Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park is a great place to park the Camper van for a couple of nights while you explore Fox Glacier Village and surrounds.

Budget backpackers and hostels

Sitting just outside Fox Glacier village on the outskirts of the National Park, IvoryTowers Backpacker Lodge is the most popular backpackers in town!

Mid range hotels

Offering free parking, the Rainforest Motel is within walking distance to the town and restaurants and only a 10 minute drive to Lake Matheson.

Fox Glacier to Greymouth

Drive time: 3 and a half hours or 256 Km

Alternative routes and stops: Detour off the coast to explore Hokikita Gorge

Days required: 1

What to expect

Witness the West Coast spectacular coastline and beaches as you make your way north on your New Zealand Self Drive South Island tour. Detour inland and walk to Hokikita Gorge, the beautiful milky blue river running between chalky cliff faces is a great place to stop for a few photos before returning to the coastal route and heading up towards Greymouth.

Detour to Hokikita Gorge on your New Zealand South Island Road Trip
Hokikita Gorge is beautiful with its milky water

Greymouth

Days required 0-1

A old gold mining and jade collecting town, you can take some time to explore its rich heritage or continue on towards the Abel Tasman National Park.

What to do in Greymouth

  • Follow the Point Elizabeth walkway, found North of Greymouth to explore the local Reinforest and see an abundance of local bird life.
  • Visit Shantytown Heritage Park, a recreated gold mining town to get a feel for what it was like during the gold rush era of the West Coast.

Where to eat in Greymouth

Maggies Kitchen has a great value menu in a relaxed and cozy setting.

Monteiths Brewery has fantastic reviews and offers outdoor seating for the perfect summers day.

Where to stay in Greymouth

Camping and camper van

The Greymouth Seaside Top 10 Holiday park is the best ranked holiday park in the area offering fantastic facilities, beachfront views and good proximity to the city.

Budget hostels and backpackers

Only a kilometer from the centre of the city, the Global Village Travellers Lodge offers free parking, WiFi and a health and wellness spa.

Mid range Accommodation

The Alpine Rose Motel is close to everything in the area including the sea and city and has free parking and a garden for you to enjoy.

Greymouth to Abel Tasman National Park

Drive time: 6 hours or 327km

Alternative routes and stops: Stop at Punakaiki to see Pancake Rocks and the Blowhole. If the drive is too long, stop at the Murchison Motorhome Park for the night and continue on with the itinerary the next day

Days required:1-2

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks Self Drive Itinerary South Island
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowhole

What to expect

The drive from Greymouth to the town of Marahau in the Abel Tasman National Park is a long one, but there are a few places you can stop along the way to stretch your legs and grab a bite to eat.

Just outside Greymouth is Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowhole. To be honest I wasn’t that excited about looking at more rocks but the area is fascinating to see. There is a small walk and some cafes around so take an hour or so and enjoy the unusual view before continuing on.

Abel Tasman National Park

Days required: 2-3

An incredible mix of small town, golden beaches, untouched forest and azure sea, the Abel Tasman National Park is somewhere any nature lover could spend endless amounts of time.

What to do in Abel Tasman National Park

  • Follow the Abel Tasman Track as far as you dare. This track is one of the South Island’s great walks and takes days to complete, however simply start from the beginning in Marahau, and turn around when you’re ready. It was truely one of our favourite walks.
  • Kayak on the crystal waters surrounding the National Park and head to any one of the small islands dotting the coast
Views from Abel Tasman Track of the ocean
Views from the Abel Tasman Track

Where to eat in Abel Tasman National Park

The Fat Tui is one of the most popular takeaway restaurants in Marahau with their fresh and delicious burgers.

Offering delicious fresh locally sourced produce Hooked on Marahau is a must try while exploring the area.

Where to stay in Abel Tasman National Park

Camping and Campervan

The Marahau Beach Camp is by the beach and only 300 meters from the center of town

Budget backpackers and hostels

The Barn is a great backpackers located about 1.5km from the town center, and near the start of the Abel Tasman Track and glow worm caves.

Mid range hotels and motels

With a restaurant, garden, terrace, free parking and a beach nearby, the Abel Tasman Haven is a great little spot to rest after all that hiking!

Concluding your New Zealand self drive itinerary South Island

Once you leave the Abel Tasman National Park, either head to Picton to catch the ferry across to the North Island, or drive past Nelson Lakes to Christchurch!

With this itinerary you’ll have seen and experienced all the best wild life experiences while having an amazing road trip experience around the South Island.

If you’re just starting to plan, here’s how we do it

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This article contains affiliate links. For more information please see our affiliate disclaimer here.

The perfect Itinerary covering the whole of the South Island, all the best things to see and do in this ideal 3 week itinerary for nature, wildlife and adventure lovers. A complete self drive itinerary for New Zealands South Island. Includes all the best things to see and do, places to go, where to eat and where to stay on your road trip

About Christine

Christine and her partner Ben have spent the last few years traveling through New Zealand and then Europe by campervan. They travel with their dog Alisa, who they adopted in Croatia. You'll find them exploring old cities, hiking through National Parks, and taking unforgettable road trips.

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