This year myself and my boyfriend decided to take an 18 day road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. This would be my second South Island of New Zealand road trip and my 5th New Zealand road trip in total. SO I’m here to share all my “expert” knowledge with you. Let me tell you everything you need to know about taking a South Island New Zealand road trip.
South Island New Zealand Road Trip
I’m going to be honest; we were after the cheapest rental we could get! So, we ended up with a 2003 Nissan Sunny that cost €350 for 18 days (between the two of us). It was an automatic, as are the majority of cars in New Zealand. If you’re after a manual you’ll have a hard time finding one. Our little Sunny did us well. We had no problems. Though, I’ll admit it took a while to change gear and was quite slow going uphill. But overall it survived and so did we.
If I had an unlimited budget I’d probably get a car that was a little higher up so that I could take in more of the scenery and get a better view while driving. Annndd maybe one that wasn’t 13 years old, but STILL, as long as the car can handle steep ascents you’ll be fine. I recommend using Kayak. I’ve gotten quite a few deals through them. Jucy rentals are also a good cheap rental company.
WHATEVER YOU DO, PLEASE DON’T RENT A WICKED CAMPER-VAN. They make my eyes bleed. They offend everyone. You may as well get “boozed-up idiot tourist” tattooed across your forehead. Ok, I’ll stop now. But yeah, just don’t do it. God, I hate those things.
The Route For Your South Island
New Zealand Road Trip
OK, so the major place we skipped was Kaikoura, and that is only because I’ve been before AND we had already done some incredible whale-watching in Hawaii. There was no way on earth we were going to top that, so we decided to drive to Nelson the in-land way via Hanmer. If it’s your first New Zealand road trip then I recommend a stop in Kaikoura, if just for a few hours to go whale-watching or swimming with dolphins. That being said, here’s what my itinerary looked like.
Day 1 – Pick up Car in Christchurch. Drive to Hanmer Springs.
Day 2 – Leave Hanmer Springs. Drive to Nelson. Stop for lunch & fuel in Murchison.
Day 3 & 4 – Nelson. Visit Happy Valley for horse riding/ quad biking. Visit Cable Bay.
Day 5 – Leave Nelson. Stop in Takaka for fuel/lunch. Visit Wharariki Beach. Arrive to Pohara.
Day 6 – Leave Pohara. Visit Lake Rotoiti for a photo shoot. Stop in Murchison for lunch. Drive on to Westport.
Day 7 – Leave Westport and drive to Hokitika. Have lunch and collect local jade on the beachfront.
Day 8 – Leave Hokitika. Visit Hokitika gorge in the morning. Lunch in Franz Josef. Arrive Fox Glacier.
Day 9 – Helicopter ride to Fox Glacier. Visit Mirror Lake. Drive Fox Glacier to Wanaka.
Day 10 – Walk around the lake at Wanaka. Lunch in Wanaka. Short drive to Queenstown.
Day 11 – Day in Queenstown. Walk around lake. Evening & dinner in Arrowtown.
Day 12 – Leave Queenstown. Lunch in Te Anua & stock up on groceries. Arrive Te Anua Downs.
Day 13 – Drive to Milford Sound. Have lunch at Milford. Stop along the road on the way back for photos. Back to Te Anua Downs.
Day 14 – Leave Te Anua Downs. Drive to Dunedin. Stay the night.
Day 15 – Drive to Christchurch along the “scenic route”. Stay in Christchurch for the night.
Day 16 – Drive to Akaroa. Have fish & chips by the harbour.
Day 17 – Friend’s wedding in Akaroa.
Day 18 – Drive back to Christchurch. Drop car back. Fly to Sydney.
The roads in New Zealand are great and, most of the time, no one is on them. They drive on the same side of the road as us (left), so it’s handy. You won’t find any big motorways on the South Island at all, NONE. I hadn’t driven in a year and I found New Zealand was the perfect place for me to get back into it. The only thing I will say is that you’d need to be confident with narrow, steep, winding roads. If you get vertigo while driving along the contours of a valley, you may find some routes difficult.
Though the roads are usually dead, you need to be INCREDIBLY vigilant. New Zealand has had some serious problems over the past year with tourists from other countries causing serious accidents on the road. I had a woman pull straight out in front of me from a view point while I was going at least 60km. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid running into the end of her. And then she just stopped dead…. in the middle of the road…… on a blind corner. Meaning I had to overtake her in order to keep driving, which was quite dangerous for me and on-coming traffic .
So yeah, this kind of thing happens all the time in New Zealand because tourists from countries with poor driving standards or VERY different roads want the New Zealand road trip experience. You’ll be absolutely fine as long as you’re a vigilant driver. Just be aware! Also, due to this problem New Zealand police are pretty hot on speeding tickets, so try and stick to the limit.
There’s so much to see in the South Island New Zealand road trip, I couldn’t possibly list them all. BUT here’s the highlights! If you’d like to see more pictures from these spot make sure you check out my picture post about my New Zealand road trip.
Hanmer Springs: These natural hot springs are the perfect place to spend a day. We spent about four hours trying all the different pools and their new waterslides (try the superbowl).
Wharariki Beach: This place is absolutely gorgeous. However, it is prone to the odd mini-sandstorm. I recommend not freshly applying sunscreen before you set off to find it. I ended up looking like a human sandcastle.
Lake Rotoiti: Have you ever seen that beautiful photo of someone standing alone on a wooden jetty before a wide open lake with mountains in the distance? Well that iconic New Zealand photo was taken at Lake Rotoiti. If you’re going, I recommend going early to avoid meeting several tour busses in the parking lot. Luckily, we accidentally found a very similar jetty on the other side of the lake where there were no tourists. Oh and make sure you look in the water, PLENTY of eels.
Hokitika Gorge: This was the major highlight of my South Island New Zealand road trip. The turquoise waters here are an incredible sight. We went on a rainy, misty day and it was still breath-taking. Do not miss this. There’s a lovely rope bridge there too. Also, on the beach in Hokitika you are allowed pick up your own jade rocks from along the beach. We got a few and polished them up, they’re gorgeous.
Fox Glacier: The helicopter flight to the glacier was incredible. You land at the top and even have time for a snowball fight. You can see some of the photos from this flight here.
Milford Sound: You can’t go on a South Island New Zealand Road Trip without visiting the Fjordlands. My boyfriend is a geologist so he was very excited about this. The drive to this place is as stunning as the place itself. Even when it is raining it is gorgeous because that’s when the waterfalls really come out. To see the best of it, take a boat trip.
Where to Stay
We didn’t have set plans as we drove around the South Island, we mainly booked our accommodation the night before using AirBnB & Booking.com. This is fine if you’re a bit more relaxed with your travel plans. To be honest, you could even drive around and just book into places you like the look of without pre-booking online. Most B&Bs and hotels keep rooms for “walk-ins”.
Also, free-camping is legal in New Zealand, but only in PUBLIC areas (no fields etc that would be owned by an individual) and not in places which local councils have declared “No Camping” zones. If you want to camp somewhere with great facilities I highly recommend Top 10 Holiday Parks. They have around 46 locations in New Zealand and are always clean and well-equipped.
If I’m being honest, Queenstown is a bit overrated. It’s beautiful in winter. But in the summer it’s just a very touristy little town on a lake. That’s how I feel about it anyway. In my opinion, Wanaka and Arrowtown have a lot more charm. I recommend staying in one or the other and taking a day trip to Queenstown if you want. Plus Queenstown is seriously over-priced. We really wished that we had allowed more time in Wanaka and less in Queenstown when we were on our trip.
Also, when travelling down the West coast on your South Island New Zealand road trip you might be tempted to stay a night in Greymouth as it’s between Westport and Hokitika, DON’T! It’s pretty bleak. We tried to stop off there for lunch but it was so grey and dull that we just kept driving. Wesport and Hokitika are both much nicer.
Make Sure You Try
You can’t go on a South Island New Zealand road trip without picking up an addiction to L&P, the local soft drink. Whittaker’s chocolate is also something that I have to get every time I go back to New Zealand. Try the peanut slab. You’ll also find they have a much more varied selection of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk over there compared to us. Oh and try the chocolate fish, a local delicacy 😉 Hmm, is that too much chocolate? Pineapple lumps are a good New Zealand road trip snack too. Basically they’re chewy lumps of pineapple covered in chocolate.
Weather is extremely changeable in New Zealand, just like Ireland and the UK. It can be raining one minute and then the sun will be shining the next. During the summer (Dec, Jan, Feb) the South Island is quite warm (20-30 C) and during the winter (June, July, Aug) it can be cold and snowy (10-15 C). BUT, you can’t depend on the weather in New Zealand at all. You will need to pack for all eventualities – LAYERS are key.
If wifi is like oxygen to you, then get ready to find breathing pretty damn hard in New Zealand. Free wifi is just not a thing ANYWHERE. Someone mentioned that there’s free wifi in the public libraries……… that’s how bad the wifi situation is. You’ll basically have to pay. If you find somewhere with free wifi, please understand that the Gods have blessed you greatly! All jokes aside, if you need internet I highly recommend you pick up a local SIM card, though in some parts of the South Island you will find that there is no coverage.
BUT, rest assured, despite the lack of free wifi/speedy internet connections, a South Island New Zealand road trip is an amazing experience. Plus, sure, it’s good to talk to your road trip partner, right?! If you really need Wifi check out my secret to getting great wifi around the world.
What it Really Looks Like
Let’s Wrap it Up
So there you have it. That was my South Island New Zealand road trip and it was incredible. We met some great local people by staying in AirBnB apartments and our ancient rental car survived the journey! I hope this was useful and let me know if you have any questions about specific places to stay/eat/see etc. Just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP.