Here in New Zealand, we have been super lucky to basically get rid of the virus from our community, and to be free to roam around within our borders. Unfortunately, I have not been able to make the most of that just yet, but there is someone who has just done an epic road trip in the South Island – and that is my mother. My Mum is just as big on exploring and sharing about her experiences as me (wonder where I got that from, hey?) so I asked her to do a write-up of her recent trip. She’s put in a lot of effort, and I’m excited to be able to share this with you now. So, this itinerary is for anyone who is planning a road trip in the South Island of New Zealand.

I recently did a road trip in the South Island of New Zealand. The route was from Christchurch south west to Queenstown, east to Dunedin and north back to Christchurch. We started and ended in Christchurch because that’s where our return flight from Auckland went, but you can modify this itinerary to start and end wherever it suits you. I suggest 7 – 10 days for this trip.  

A Snapshot of your South Island road trip Itinerary:

Total distance travelled: 1246km

Total time spent travelling: 16 hours

Duration of trip: 7-10 days

Places you’ll go:

  • Christchurch
  • Lake Tekapo
  • Twizel
  • Wanaka
  • Cardrona
  • Arrowtown
  • Queenstown
  • Cromwell
  • Clyde Dam
  • Alexandra
  • Lawrence
  • Dunedin
  • Moeraki Boulders
  • Oamaru

South Island New Zealand

Day 1: Christchurch

We touched down in Christchurch to start our road trip in the South Island. We didn’t head off straight away, though. Christchurch is the biggest city in New Zealand with plenty of history, and is a great place to spend a few nights. Christchurch has a huge range of accommodation, so depending on your budget, research the options. 

Must dos in downtown Christchurch

  •  Going on a punt along the river Avon, cost $30 per adult.  Tourists sit in low bottomed boats like canoes and are punted along the river by dashing young men in Edwardian costumes, propelling the boat with a long pole.   With the Christchurch gondola trip, the combo price is $55.  The punting trip and Christchurch hop on hop off tram ride is $50 for the combo.
  •  There are cycling options around the city centre to view historic sites, including Christchurch cathedral – severely damaged in earthquakes but being restored. 
  • The Antarctic centre near Christchurch airport is worth a visit.  Prices are $59 for adults, $29 for 5-15 year olds, under 5s free.  Senior/student $45 and family 2 adults and 3 children $149.00.  There is so much to experience – the Storm Dome at -5 degrees celsius buffeted by simulated antarctic winds.  It’s freezing and frightening but only lasts a few minutes, imagine what it was like for the early antarctic explorers.   Then, there is a trip on the hagglund – all terrain amphibious vehicle.  Experience what it’s like to travel in Antarctica in a vehicle like this.  Also husky dogs and penguin encounters.

Things to do in Christchurch - punting on the avon

Day 2: Lake Tekapo

On leaving Christchurch we drove to  Lake Tekapo (227 km).

I think Tekapo to Wanaka is unappreciated by North Islanders. Everyone flies straight to Queenstown or Christchurch then fly to Queenstown.  We travelled through the beautiful rolling farmland of South Canterbury.  Stopping in Geraldine for lunch, great choices including the Farm Shop and cafe or the Running Duck – set up like an iconic kiwi bach.  The Running Duck offers such great culinary delights as cheerio sausages and tomato sauce and potato chips and traditional kiwi dip.

Things to do in Tekapo:

  • Lakeside: Lake Tekapo is a small town with stunning scenery.  Across the lake are the Southern Alps.  In winter the lake is turquoise and the mountains are coated in a layer of snow.  Other than the breathtaking beauty of the town, it is famous for two things: the statue of the collie dog and the Good Shepherd Church.  Both sit alongside the lake and make a stunning place for people to pose with the spectacular scenery behind.  This area is called the MacKenzie country.  An early sheep farming area of N.Z.  Hence the collie dog which is iconic for the recognition that people could not have successfully farmed here without the help of dogs.
  • Star gazing: This area is an international dark sky reserve, one of eleven in the world and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere.  There are several companies that offer star gazing tours.  We went with Silver River, whose prices range from $75 to $95 per adult, they have 3 tours a night, the earlier the tour, the higher the price.  We drove to their office, near to Lake Tekapo village and from there were shuttled to a high point.  There is a powerful telescope positioned there and the guide located different constellations, stars and planets for us to look at.  A photo of each couple or group, was included in the price.  Tekapo Springs has two hour tours for $149, conducted in Mandarin or English.  Star gazing and then an opportunity to soak in hot pools and look at the stars.
  • Tekapo springs is a pools and ice skating complex at Lake Tekapo. Soaking in hot springs at night in winter was definitely a highlight of our trip! Go when not school hols if possible to avoid the crowds. There are three hot pools and two cold pools.  Prices range between around $20-$30 per person. There are also snow tubing 1 hour sessions available for around $20 per person. For the ice skating, it is an outdoor, international size rink, with skate hire included. Prices range from $14-$20 per person.There are day spa options and a sauna, as well.
Things to do in Lake Tekapo - stargazing
My Mum and stepdad on their stargazing tour in Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo places to stay

  • Peppers Bluewater Resort is at the high end of price range. (prices vary due to season). 
  • We stayed at the Godley Hotel, reasonably priced – $125 pn(for a couple), on the lake shore.  Rooms were basic but comfortable, with all usual hotel amenities.  There is a restaurant here, but was closed at the time of our stay, for renovations. 
  • Lake Tekapo motel and holiday park has a range of accommodation options and prices.

Restaurants at Lake Tekapo village:   

  • Kohan Japanese – vegetarian,vegan, seafood and meat options.  Prices for meals high teens to low $20s.
  • MacKenzie Stonegrill and Bar  – $20s to $30s – steaks, seafood, gourmet burgers, chicken etc, range of desserts.
  • Blue Lake Eatery and Bar – Range of standard N.Z. fare including fish and chips and pizzas.  Vegan and vegetarian options available.  Price ranges from high $20s to low $30s.
  • Jade Chinese Restaurant – spacious restaurant.  Service was very slow when we went there, also highly priced for a Chinese restaurant.
  • The Greedy Cow is extremely popular for breakfast/brunch/lunch and we could not get a table there, when we went.
  • Doughboys Bakery & Cafe does breakfasts/brunch.  It is next door to The Greedy Cow and a lot of tourists just walk past to get to their cafe of choice. However Doughboys has freshly baked bagels, bread, scones, muffins etc. We could get a table here and the service was good, breakfasts were tasty but they do not seem to know how to toast bread and do not offer a range of breads for toast.  Coffees were of an acceptable standard.

Day 3: Aoraki/Mt Cook Village

Our next stop on our road trip in the South Island was at Aoraki/Mt Cook village only 1 hour from Lake Tekapo.   For Lord of the Rings fans, a lot of this area will look familiar, many scenes were filmed in this region. 

Things to do in Aoraki/Mt Cook

Things to do in Aoraki/Mt Cook:

  • There is no skifield on Mt Cook, however there are various options to be flown to the snow and ski down. One of these is offered by Southern Alps Guiding, you can book at the Old Mountaineers cafe at Mt Cook village.  For $995 per adult and $825 per child(10-15 years), you can be flown by ski plane to the top of the Tasman Glacier, where you can ski 8-12 kms with an experienced guide. There are ice caves to explore and another long ski run.  Skiers are then flown back to Mt Cook for apres ski activities.
  • Hooker Valley Track – 3 hours return walk from White Horse Hill campground, past Mt Cook village.  The track takes you to the Hooker River where you cross on two swing bridges.  The track takes you to the glacier lake with amazing views of the glacier and the Southern Alps.
  • Kea Point Walk – Start at White Horse Hill campground, 1 hour walk. You walk through sub alpine grassland. The walk ends at a viewing deck that gives stunning views of mountains and glaciers.
  • There are cycling and kayaking trips available depending on season and weather.
  • Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine centre – Sir Ed the famous New Zealand mountain climber, began his climbing career in this area.  There is a museum in the foyer and a 126 seat theatre with a 2D, 3D and digital dome planetarium – not operating at the time I visited, due to low visitor numbers.
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, Mt Cook
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre

Places to Stay in Aoraki/Mt Cook

  • Aoraki Court Motel  – $175-$350
  • Aoraki/Mt Cook alpine lodge – $144 – $240
  • YHA Aoraki/Mt Cook– $38-$191

Places to Eat in Aoraki/Mt Cook Village

  • Old Mountaineers Cafe, Bar and Restaurant – supports organic, free range and GE-free food.  Vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free meals available.  I had tomato soup made with a base of coconut milk, so suitable for vegans.  
  • Chamois Bar and Grill at Mt Cook village – Pub style meals, cosy corners, great views.

Day 4: Wanaka

Twizel is 45 mins away from Wanaka.  If you are coming from the Wanaka direction, it is worth a stop to find out at the information centre about activities in the Mt Cook area and which tours are operating.  If you have already been to Mt Cook, Twizel is a good place to get a coffee, use toilets and gas up before heading to Wanaka.

From Twizel it is a 2 hour drive to Wanaka, across the Lindis Pass, great views on a clear day.

Things to do in Wanaka

There are a great deal of outdoor adventures that start in Wanaka – boating, cycling, hiking, mountain biking etc. However we were there on a day when the weather was not good.

So, we visited Puzzling World.  This is a great place to spend 4 hours or so, if you have children.  Adults may be entertained for up to 2 hours.  It was $25 for an adult for the combo of the illusion rooms and the great maze.  There is also a cafe on site.  The illusion rooms are all different and challenge your mind.  The Ames room looks in proportion when you look through the window.  However, when you walk in it, you move from a place where you are small to the other side of the room, where you are too big and you can’t stand up straight.  There is a room of sculpted faces, they seem to turn to watch you as you walk past.  The toilet floors have a depth illusion, the floor looks normal but when you start to walk, it looks like the tiles are falling down through the floor.  The maze is made of wooden fences, with different coloured towers at each corner.  Older children could spend hours trying to complete this maze. Younger ones should be with their caregivers at all times, easy to get lost!

Wanaka Puzzling World
Puzzling World

Where to stay in Wanaka

  • Great place to stay: Lake Outlet holiday park – powered sites, cabins, motel units, acres of native bush with great views. 6km from Wanaka.
  • The Camp, SH6, Lake Hawea  – quintessential kiwi camp, sites, cabins, cottages, glamping and tiny house.
  • Hotels and motels galore in Wanaka.  Great range of prices and accommodation styles.

Where to eat in Wanaka

Dining options are also plenty.

  • Ashraf’s Indian at 2 Brownston St, is a great little restaurant.  I had a delicious prawn malabari there.  My husband enjoyed an excellent Rogan Josh – usual prices for Indian Restaurants – affordable.
  • Amigos Mexican Grill at 71 Ardmore Street.  Hot Mexican, cool Margaritas. Tacos, nachos, burritos, quesadillas and all the usual meals to delight fans of Mexican food.  Very reasonably priced.
  • The Cow Pizza & Spaghetti House, Post Office Lane. Open 3pm – 11.30pm.  Can be delivered by WanaFeed. Pizza and spaghetti choices, including veggie options.  Spaghetti with mushrooms, cream and cheese was a good choice.  Prices in low $20s. Beer sold in house.
  • Alchemy on the lake front – great views, open 8am til late. Some of their options are beef fillet, with baked potato and chimichurri ($38), pasta with creamy mushroom sauce  ($25), and tofu stack ($27.50) – vegan. Fully licensed, great dessert menu too.

Day 5: Cardrona & Arrowtown

From Wanaka we decided to drive over the Crown Range to Queenstown, which is a 68km drive. This can be a particularly snowy part of your South Island road trip, so take snow chains in winter. The drive time is about 1 hour.  About 15 minutes from Wanaka is the iconic Cardrona Hotel.  The pub was made famous by the Speights beer ad from Dunedin.  It is a restaurant and a pub.  Guest accommodation here is under the name Benbrae Resort.  Nearby is also the infamous Bradrona bra fence.  Here women leave their bras and there are donation boxes for breast cancer research.

Things to do in Cardrona
Cardrona Hotel beer garden

Things to do in Cardrona

  • The Cardrona Company does quad biking and horse riding in the area.  Horse rides are $149 for 2 hours, and $199 for 3 hours.  Quad biking tours range from 1 – 2 hours and $149 – $249. 
  • Cardrona ski resort is near here.  It is ideal for beginners and intermediate skiers.  From one nursery slope is a magic carpet ride to take the children back to the top of the run.  There is ski equipment hire, a ski school, bar and cafe.  There are 15 self catering apartments for an accommodation option here.
  • Snow Park N.Z. is also nearby with ski slopes, cross country skiing and dog sledding.  Good for snowboarding.  This resort has a cafe, restaurant and bar.

Cardrona to Arrowtown is a 34 minute drive(32.8 km).

Things to do in Arrowtown

Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town in the Otago region.  It’s located on the banks of the Arrow River 7.5km from SH6 turn off.  Drive to Queenstown via Shotover gorge or picturesque Lake Hayes.  Gold was found in the Arrow River in 1862 and a township of 1000 miners soon sprung up.  Arrowtown is best visited in autumn – April to May, the trees become ablaze with colours. 

Things to do in Arrowtown

  • There is an area 6km away on Alan Reids Rd, called The Playground, which offers Paintball, Human Foosball, Archery, Bubble soccer and more(prices are around $30 for most activities).
  • There are bike hire places – Arrowtown Bike Hire offers $38 for a half day and $49 for a full day. You can cycle 2-3 hours to Gibbston vineyard and tour, have lunch, cycle back or be picked up by the company van.
  •   You can bungy jump from the original site of bungy jumping by A.J. Hackett – the Kawarau Bridge Bungy.
  • There is the historic Chinese miners settlement to explore – a number of Chinese men came during the gold rush of 1862.  A highlight in Arrowtown is panning for gold.
  • Or you can just walk around the town and admire the historic buildings and drink in the charm.

Where to eat in Arrowtown

Lots of bars and restaurants here.  Especially catering for the lunchtime crowd.

  • Postmasters Cottage Cafe – cute and cosy.  Open from 8am most days.  Good for kids. 
  • The Blue Door – open for dinner and drinks.  Exceptional cocktails.
  • The New Orleans Hotel – offers accommodation and a 19th century themed restaurant/bar offering a terrace.  
  • Just walk along Buckingham Street and you will find many bars, cafes and restaurants.

Day 6: Queenstown

We then continued on to Queenstown – 22.5km.  Queenstown is a necessary stop on your road trip of the South Island. It is of course world renowned for its spectacular winter scenery.  I would be quite happy to spend the day sitting in a restaurant overlooking Lake Wakatipu, with a view of the Remarkables(mountains) and sipping a glass of wine from a nearby vineyard.  However, there are so many activities to choose from, depending on budget and whether you are travelling with children, young adults or older adults.  There is something for everyone. For more details on Queenstown, here is a 3 day budget itinerary for Queenstown, and a round-up of the best walks around the area.things to do in Queenstown on South Island road trip

Some must dos in Queenstown:

  • Cruise Lake Wakatipu on the iconic steamship – TSS Earnslaw.  Cruises depart regularly, you can choose to just cruise 1 ½ hours for $52 for adults. With children it’s a fabulous option to get off at Walter Peak high country farm for a guided farm tour.  Kids go free(0-18 years) on TSS Earnslaw cruises.  Embarks from Steamer Wharf, near Queenstown information centre.
  • Another more sedate way to see Lake Wakatipu is the Million Dollar cruise.  Cost only $49 for adults.  90 min trip around the lake.  There is a commentary and cash honesty bar.  You help yourself to drinks and put the cash in the cash box.  Departs at 11am, 2pm and 4pm from Million Dollar Cruise jetty in Queenstown where all cruises depart from.  This cruise takes in spectacular mountain scenery, as well as million dollar homes on the far bank of the lake.  Freephone 0508 525 327
  • Skyline Gondola – You will be carried 450 metres above Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown to Bob’s Peak.  You’ll enjoy a fantastic 220 panoramic view of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Walter Peak, Lake Wakatipu etc.($44 adults, $26 child, $126 family of 4).  There are luge rides to be enjoyed(Extra cost involved).  There is also a buffet lunch available, a bar and a restaurant for dinner.  
  • Paraglide from the Skyline area with G Force Paragliding.  This is an epic way to get awesome views over Queenstown and surrounds – and you can also get videos and photos made of the experience.
  • The shotover jet boat rides provide ½ hour of exhilaration, jet boating through the Shotover canyon.  $119 for adults  $67 for children.  The trip purely takes in the spectacular canyons – no lakes, sometimes travelling at 90kmh.  Drivers expertly negotiate the narrow channels on the river.  At wider parts you may get an unexpected 360 degree spin!
  • There are a number of scenic flights.  Depending on how far you would like to go and how much you are prepared to pay.  We did a scenic flight of Queenstown with Air Milford.  It was $75 for a 20 min flight.  Absolute jaw dropping, spectacular scenery.  The flight took in Coronet Peak, Shotover river and canyon, The Remarkables, Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.  Short flight but you don’t need to fly far to find spectacular scenery in this area.
  • A new thrill seeking ride in Queenstown is the Hydro Attack.  It is a small submersible vessel called a shark.  The pilot will take one passenger at high speeds on Lake Wakatipu, dive under the water and leap up out of the water.  $129 pp for 20-30 min trip.
  • There are so many great hikes in and near Queenstown that get you stunning views of the town’s mountainous surrounds. So get out into nature and get to know Queenstown views on foot. These walks are all free and accessible from Queesntown central.

things to do in Queenstown - TSS Earnslaw cruise

Where to eat and in Queenstown

There is a phenomenal amount of choice.  

One restaurant I recommend is Flame Bar & Grill, at a new location, right on the lake front, 1st floor Steamer Wharf, Queenstown.  Specialises in South African and N.Z. meat dishes.  On their website they say they pride themselves on their welcoming and enthusiastic service.  Have to say we didn’t experience this.  Of course everyone wants to sit by the window, but they have tables for 4 by the window and tables for 2 in the middle of the room, so one person has their back to the view.  I just insisted in sitting by the window, even though there was only 2 of us.  The main reason to go there is to look at the view in the warmth of their restaurant, enjoy a beverage and a meal.  The food was of a high standard and they gave generous portions.  Most prices for steaks, ribs, skewers $30-$40s.  Burgers – mid $20s – even a vegetarian option, also offer seafood and salads.

There are various high end restaurant options at Steamer Wharf.  For info on cheaper Queenstown eats, click here. There is also great nightlife with plenty of bars and clubs. Popular tourist bars are the ice bars, which create the experience of being inside an igloo.

Where to eat in Queenstown: Queenstown Steamer wharf
Queenstown Steamer wharf

Where to stay in Queenstown

  We stayed at the Ramada Suites by Wyndham, Queenstown.  This is near the airport and has fantastic views of the Remarkables.  For a studio apartment we paid $145 per night.  This apartment had a kitchen, laundry, bathroom, spacious bedroom, t.v., underground carpark, independent restaurant downstairs.  It was a pleasure to stay here, cheerful front desk service, views, amenities. 10 out of 10 from us.

Day 7: Dunedin (via Alexandra & Lawrence)

We then headed east to Dunedin. This part of the South Island road trip is 280km long and takes about 3 hours and 36 mins. But I wouldn’t recommend driving directly there without stopping.

What to see in your South Island road trip between Queenstown and Dunedin:

There are many beautiful scenic stops along the way. 

  • Cromwell – the original town was established in the gold rush days.  However a hydro electric dam – the Clyde dam was built and in 1992, the valley was flooded and the historic town now lies under water!  The new Cromwell now has lovely views of Lake Dunstan – the lake created by the human made flood of 1992.
  • Further along the road we came to the top of the Clyde dam, with magnificent views of the Clutha River.
  • Alexandra – this is the stone fruit capital of N.Z.  Visit in spring and summer to see orchards,  with a multitude of fruits, ripening on vines and trees.  We stopped at the Courthouse cafe for lunch – 8 Centennial ave.  Alexandra’s original courthouse of 1876 was refurbished to make this cafe. Indoor and outdoor seating.  Only open for breakfasts and lunch.  Excellent espresso coffees, great selection of food and a licensed bar.
  • We then continued on SH8 to Lawrence.  This is a small town with a lot to offer.  From here you can cycle the Clutha gold cycle trail, you can go golfing or fishing.   The largest historic Chinese camp in NZ is 1km north of the township.  Shopping in town includes hand made crafts, chocolates, vintage goods and treasures.

We arrived in Dunedin in the mid afternoon.  Dunedin is New Zealand’s 6th biggest city, 2nd in the South Island.  It is famous for being a university town.  When the students are in residence, the population of Dunedin doubles. Otago University was officially established in 1869, so it is the oldest university in New Zealand and 3rd oldest in Oceania.  The grandeur of the buildings has led it to be ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful university campuses.

Things to do in Dunedin - Otago University
Otago University, Dunedin at my daughter’s graduation

Things to do in Dunedin

  • If you are visiting Dunedin for a few days you must take a drive to the Otago peninsula.  It is about 20km long and 9 kms wide, at its widest point.  It has several wildlife reserves, including the Royal Albatross colony, the only mainland albatross colony in the world.  There are various species of penguins that make their homes here.  Also, there are colonies of sealions that come ashore to sun themselves.  Please do not approach if you see them, they can attack people if disturbed.

Things to do in Dunedin

  • Also there are  places of historic interest on the Otago Peninsula including Lanarch Castle.  It was built in 1874 and is New Zealand’s only genuine castle.  The gardens as well as the interior are a dazzling sight.
  • Dunedin has a lot of beautiful architecture and awesome cafes and shops, so it can be a good plan just to spend a day exploring the town itself. Highlights include Otago University and the Dunedin Train Station, as well as the central town square.
Things to do in Dunedin on a South Island Road Trip
Dunedin Train Station

Where to eat in Dunedin

Due to the students Dunedin has a lively night life.  However, if you are wanting a quieter evening experience, avoid the Octagon and North Dunedin bars on Friday and Saturday nights. 

For dinner we decided to cross the harbour and go to Futomaki in Port Chalmers.  It has Filipino-Japanese style dishes.  They have a restaurant in the city, as well as at Port Chalmers.  There are options of sushi, sashimi, udon noodles, poke bowls, donburi, tempura, curries, Filipino meals.  There are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options.  Prices are reasonable, high teens to low $20s.  BYO wine.

Many accommodation options in Dunedin, I stayed with family, so can not recommend anywhere in particular. But for past visits there have been plenty of AirBnb units as well as motels and hotels.

Day 8: Moeraki & Oamaru, Riverstone Castle

Our South Island road trip journey continued, this time heading back northwards.  The first stop was Moeraki boulders, 76.3km north of Dunedin on the coast.  These are huge sphere shaped boulders, on the beach.  Awesome photo opportunity and also a good sized cafe there, so you can make a coffee or lunch stop.

We continued on to Oamaru for 39.8km.

Things to do in Oamaru

  • Explore the Victorian precinct with some of the Southern Hemisphere’s most complete Victorian streetscapes and 19th century architecture.  Whitestone city is a new interactive heritage experience.
  • There is also a penguin colony and reserve in Oamaru.
  • We travelled on to Riverstone castle to have lunch at the nearby cafe.  The castle is the home of Dot Smith, who has always dreamt of living in a castle. She had this castle built in recent years on her family farm. At the age of 70 she has finally attained her dream.  Not open to the public at the time of my visit but check on tourist information sites to find out if you can tour it, before visiting.
things to do in oamaru on a south island road trip
Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct

After this we drove directly to Christchurch to pick up our flight to Auckland.

Written by Judith Webb. Photography mostly by Graham Webb.

What did you guys think about my Mum’s first guest post on my blog? Should I employ her on a regular basis?

In all seriousness, if you have your own tips for a road trip in the South Island – or indeed any questions – feel free to leave a comment below!

South Island New Zealand

South Island New Zealand


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