A confession. I’ve been travelling and living in New Zealand for over a year now, and yet…I’ve never once set foot on South Island. If you’ve ever been to New Zealand, I’m sure you’ll appreciate how remarkable that is. South Island is the home to the most staggering scenery. Ice-blue lakes, mist-laden fjords, snow-capped mountains. In a nutshell, it’s extraordinary.
We haven’t yet set a date for our South Island travels, but that hasn’t stopped me putting plans in place for when we do finally take the ferry down south!
If you’re thinking about making a trip too, settle in and enjoy my guide to New Zealand South Island road trip planning…
1. Gather recommendations
The roads and trails of South Island are well worn by other travellers, so it makes sense to make their recommendations your first port of call.
Where to look
I like to start with a guidebook (from the library, I’m on a budget 😉 ) to give me the bare bones of where I should go, supplemented by advice from friends and online research.
Compile your recommendations
I usually note all of the recommendations down as I go. For New Zealand, I started a spreadsheet full of ideas before we left the UK. Unfortunately, this document quickly became unwieldy and therefore impractical to use on its own. I rarely consulted it while we travelled North Island and, given that I spent quite a bit of time on the research, that was a big fail/lesson learnt for me. Enter step 2…
2. Get your bearings
In order to better visualise and plan a route, I find it useful to plot locations on a map.
Alternatively, you could explore recommended itineraries (from guidebooks and blogs) to get your bearings and understand the relative proximity of your destinations and suggested routes/start points/end points.
This isn’t necessary for everyone. If you only have a handful of destinations in mind the logistics should be straightforward enough for you to skip the plotting step. But since I usually research a country to death and have tons of places to pinpoint, I like to physically mark each one off on a map!
What to use
Much as paper maps have my heart, Google’s My Maps feature is my favourite tool for this. You can search for a location with perfect precision and then (if you have a bit too much time on your hands like I did) colour code each one and add symbols and notes. You can even draw a few routes between places, which I used to mark off specific road trips I’d read about. It really is a travel planning dream.
3. Narrow down your “must sees”
I like to keep everything on the table initially, and then pare it back to must-see highlights by moving those locations into a My Maps layer of their own. That way you can toggle the visibility of rest of the markers and view only your main highlight destinations at a glance.
Naturally, decisions about what’s a “must see” will be influenced be numerous factors, including the duration of the trip and your own interests.
My South Island “must sees”
I have many more “really want to see” destinations on my list, but these are the key locations I’m prioritising for the moment:
Abel Tasman National Park
Franz Josef Glacier
Mount Cook (& Lakes)
Doubtful & Milford Sound
Kaikoura by Blake Lisk, Abel Tasman by Tyler Lastovich, Franz Josef by Cassie Matias, Mt Cook by Neil Hamilton-Ritchie, Milford Sound by Antoine Barres & ‘Nugget Point Catlins’ by Trevor Klatko.
4. Determine your ideal route
The large majority of South Island destinations fall in a neat loop, making it very easy to adapt no matter where you’ll start or end your journey. Since many travellers fly into and out of Christchurch, the typical route goes full circle:
- Head north from Christchurch up to Blenheim (with the road closures after the earthquake last year, you do need to weave in land rather than taking SH1 north of Kaikoura), then across to Nelson and Abel Tasman in the north west.
- Drive down the west coast to Greymouth and the glaciers, continuing south past Haast towards Wanaka and Queenstown.
- Make a detour westward toward Te Anau and Fjordland and then straight down to the south coast for Invercargill and the Catlins.
- Drive back up the east coast, stopping at Dunedin and Oamaru
- Head inland for Mount Cook and the Lake Pukaki/Tekapo, before arriving back in Christchurch
Most people seem to choose to head north and do the loop anti-clockwise, though I don’t suppose there’s any reason you couldn’t do it in the other direction.
If you’re short on time, you could also cut out the extreme north and south parts of the loop and cut straight across from Christchurch to the lakes (Tekapo and Pukaki) and then continue down the 8 towards Queenstown. From there you could make brief trips south (to Fjordland and Milford Sound) and/or north to the west coast and the glaciers.
Our route / itinerary
As for us, we don’t have onward flights booked, so our timescale for exploring South Island is totally up in the air, and will be very dependent on our allotted budget.
Since we’re in Wellington right now, we’ll be taking the ferry over to Picton. We’ll therefore start in the Marlborough region rather than Christchurch. Besides timecale, our route will greatly depend on whether we’re able to take a few weekend breaks to South Island in coming months (a jaunt to Kaikoura is already in the works!). If we tick things off on shorter visits, then obviously we won’t be as worried about seeing them on the road trip proper!
Over to you
If you’re planning a similar trip, how’s it going? What are your “must sees”? Or, if you’ve already been, do you have any tips for things to do and see on South Island? I’d love to hear in the comments!
And don’t forget to check out my New Zealand North Island Itinerary, if you haven’t already. 🙂
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