Whether you’re outdoorsy, a wine lover, or a fan of farms and quaint country towns, New Zealand’s South Island is the ultimate place to explore. With its ever-changing landscapes – everything from rain forest to Alpine peaks – and friendly drivers, it might also be the best place in the world to take a road trip.
Worried about undertaking such an epic adventure so far from home? Don’t be – we’ve done all the planning for you. And if you’re worried about the different road rules – yes, they drive on the other side of the road there – don’t fret about that either; Air New Zealand’s inflight entertainment system has you covered, with videos explaining everything you need to know about driving around the country.
Drive: Pick up your rental car from Christchurch Airport and head for the hills (the Southern Alps, that is). The 128-km drive will take you along the banks of the Waimakariri River, past spectacular gorges and across dramatic switchbacks.
Do: A much-loved stop among locals, The Famous Sheffield Pie Shop is a tasty stop en route, offering up traditional savoury pies and fresh-baked treats using flour milled from local wheat. Get yours to go and stop for a picnic lunch. After eating, you can walk around the Castle Hill Limestone Reserve, a collection of climbable, oddly-shaped limestone boulders that resemble everything from cupcakes to Dumbo, depending on your imagination.
Stay: Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge, a cozy inn situated on a 4,000-acre nature reserve and sheep farm.
Drive: Leave the car in park and take advantage of the lodge’s extensive wilderness tours.
Do: From early morning bird-watching and guided tours of the onsite Merino sheep farm (that’ll have you coveting all the woollies) to offsite glacier, caving and kayaking tours, there are numerous opportunities to explore. Make sure you bring your hiking boots – there are 30 km of terrain, ranging from easy to challenging, on the property (pro tip: in this part of the world, when they say a hike is steep, expect a nearly vertical incline).
Working up an appetite here shouldn’t be a challenge and you’ll be thankful for it. From fresh-baked muffins in the morning to a rack of lamb at dinner, the cuisine is locally-driven and top-notch. Spring for the New Zealand-made wines – you’ve earned it.
Stay: Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge
Drive: Head southeast — back through the mountains — to central Christchurch, 153 km.
Do: Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, may be most immediately associated with the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that flattened parts of the city and killed 186 people. Evidence of those devastating quakes is visible everywhere, mostly in the form of seemingly never-ending roadwork. But from its cool café culture to the Container Mall on Riverside, a downtown shopping mall housed inside shipping containers that was built in the aftermath of the quake, a spirit of creative reinvention pervades.
Start your visit with a tour through Quake City, a powerful museum that depicts the quake and its aftermath through personal testimonies, salvaged artifacts and Maori legend. From there, set out on foot to enjoy the city’s eclectic culture, from the Christchurch Art Gallery, one of the country’s most important public collections, to quirky cafés such as C1 Espresso, an award-winning coffee shop set inside the city’s historic post office where, at dinner, a menu of various types of sliders is delivered to your table via pneumatic tube.
Stay: Hotel Montreal, a spacious and chic boutique hotel within walking distance from the central business district.
Drive: Northbound to Waipara Valley, 55 km. Return to Christchurch.
Do: Relatively under the radar compared to wine regions such as Marlborough and Central Otago, the Waipara Valley is a not-so-secret gem for wine lovers, cramming 74 vineyards and 31 wineries into about 1,200 planted hectares. The soil here is full of gravel and limestone clay, and the climate is suitable for the same cool grapes you’ll find in Ontario – resulting in elegant Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, Pinot Gris and cool climate-style Chardonnays. Two must-stops for your tasting tour: the Greystone Wines‘ cellar door and Pegasus Bay, a perennial award-winner for its onsite winery restaurant.
Stay: Hotel Montreal
Drive: Westbound to the Rangitata Gorge in Peel Forest, 158 km. Continue on to Lake Tekapo, 124 km.
Do: If you’ve dreamed of whitewater rafting amid vistas from Lord of the Rings – or even if you never knew it was a thing you could dream about – now’s your chance. Rangitata Rafts doesn’t offer a ride for the faint of heart: the two-hour tour quickly progresses from grade one to five rapids (there’s a walking option to get you past the most challenging parts, should you wimp out), capped with a barbecue lunch.
Catch your breath with a stroll through Geraldine, a quaint country town along the route to Tekapo, with a surprising assortment of artisanal shops and food producers. A word of caution: whether it’s the carefully curated housewares at Tievoli Trading or endless sampling at Talbot Forest Cheese, willpower is guaranteed to be challenged. But make sure you tear yourself away with enough time to cruise into Tekapo during daylight hours – the first glimpse of the lake’s teal blue waters as you round the bend into town along Highway 8 is something you’ll remember far longer than the shopping you left behind.
Drive: Give your lead foot a rest and explore Tekapo on foot.
Do: It would be easy to wile away the day staring at the surreal waters of Lake Tekapo – they get their astonishing blue hue from glacial sediment – and frankly, we wouldn’t blame you; you’ve certainly earned the relaxation time. Take it up a notch with a visit to Tekapo Springs, an outdoor pool and hot tub complex carved into Mt. John, which is a godsend for car-sore muscles.
In the evening, enjoy Tekapo’s other natural marvel: its dark southern skies. With minimal light pollution, the Aoraki Mackenzie or Tekapo region is one of just 11 certified Dark Sky Reserves in the world, making it one of the best places on the planet for stargazing. A tour up to the Mt. John Observatory with Earth and Sky allows you to spot the Southern Cross and dwarf galaxies that can’t be seen in northern skies with your naked eye — you can also see the rings of Saturn through super-powerful telescopes.
Stay: Peppers Blue Water Resort, where the décor echoes the stunning, natural surrounding.
Drive: Tekapo to Queenstown, 256 km.
Do: Today is more about the journey than the destination. Starting with views of the white-faced Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand, just outside of Tekapo. It connects the Mackenzie Basin with Central Otago, and the route is jaw-dropping and constantly changing.
You’ll likely be hungry (and thirsty) by the time you hit Cromwell, an old gold-mining town about an hour outside of Queenstown. The Gibbston Valley Cheese and the numerous wineries in the area (you’re in Pinot Noir country now) are a just few reasons why you need to savour your time spent in the Central Otago.
Stay: Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel – quiet, sophisticated and steps from the action (with complimentary, daily wine tastings to boot).
Drive: N/A. Everywhere you’ll need to go in Queenstown is within walking distance of the hotel.
Do: As the adventure capital of New Zealand – and possibly the world – Queenstown offers no shortage of heart-pumping fun. From bungee jumping (invented here) and the world’s highest canyon swing to zip-lining and jet boating, this resort town runs on adrenaline.
Stay: Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel
Drive: Queenstown Airport, 8 km.
Do: Fly up to Auckland? Head to the North Island? Drive east and retrace your journey all over again in the opposite direction (it’s tempting)? The next decision is all yours.