Road Trip New Zealand: How To Explore The South Island

New Zealand   /  
How to explore the South Island: Mt Cook

Mt Cook | © Danny Postma / Unsplash


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the South Island of New Zealand is more beautiful than the North Island.

Oooh, rocking the boat, Juliette.

But hear me out.

The North Island is stunning. There are beautiful beaches. Warmer temperatures. Beautiful lakes and mountains (hello Mt Ruapehu), lush greenery and more dairy farms than you can shake a stick at.

But the South Island? Oh, you take my breath away every time. The crisp alpine environment, the remote and rugged coasts, the fjords and sounds, the golden bays and inlets – what’s not to love?

New Zealand drive holidays: Fiordland

Fiordland National Park | © Samuel Ferrara / Unsplash


Oh, I should probably mention, I’m from the South Island. Cantabrian born and bred.  Although I’ve lived in the North Island for over a decade now. I feel that qualifies me to make statements comparing the two islands.

John and I are fortunate to have explored every part of the country from Cape Reinga to Bluff and even down to Stewart Island.

And the best way to explore the South Island? By car, of course. New Zealand drive holidays are the best and easily the most flexible way to travel Aotearoa.

We’ve been fortunate to have spent this summer road-tripping around the South Island once more, discovering new places and re-visiting old favourites.

Here’s how to explore the South Island of New Zealand.




Main cities:

  • Christchurch
  • Dunedin
  • Nelson
  • Invercargill

International Airports:

  • Christchurch International Airport
  • Queenstown Airport
  • Dunedin International Airport


Regional Breakdown:




Home of the spectacular Abel Tasman National Park. This area at the top of the South Island is a popular destination for sun-seekers, outdoor enthusiasts and hippies. The beaches of Golden Bay are…well, golden. Golden sands and beautifully clear, calm waters make this region a holiday hot spot for locals and foreigners every summer.


Don’t miss:

  • Hike and kayak the Abel Tasman National Park
  • Walk over Farewell Spit
  • Swim at Kaiteriteri Beach
  • Catch your own salmon at Anatoki Salmon Farm
  • See the largest freshwater springs in the southern hemisphere, Pupu Springs


How to explore the South Island: Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman National Park | © imagea.org / Flickr



Award-winning wineries lie in this region, thanks to the enviable climate. The beautiful sounds are home to sheltered and secluded bays, some accessible only by boat, as well as historic sites and island sanctuaries. Expect fresh fish to be on the menu most nights.

Don’t forget the gorgeous coastal town of Kaikoura, working to get back on its feet after a destructive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in late 2016.


Don’t miss:

  • Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
  • Stroll through Pollard Park
  • Visit the Lochmara Lodge Marlborough Sounds Wildlife Recovery Centre
  • Take a winery tour
  • Go whale watching in Kaikoura
  • Bird-watch at the Motuara Island Sanctuary
  • Swim with the bottlenose dolphins


New Zealand drive holidays: Dolphin watching in Kaikoura

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura | © Pablo Heimplatz / Unsplash



Home, sweet home. The biggest city in the South Island is Christchurch, a city that breaks up the vastness of the Canterbury Plains. There are beautiful harbours in Banks Peninsula and an expansive rural and uncrowded setting outside of the main city. Then, further south into the heart of the island, you’ll discover the spine of New Zealand – the magnificent Southern Alps.


Don’t miss:

  • Dine in the French town of Akaroa
  • Gaze into the unpolluted night sky at Tekapo
  • Eat fish and chips on the beach at New Brighton or Sumner
  • Visit Quake City to learn about the tragic earthquake of 2011
  • Take a surfing lesson at Scarborough Beach
  • Ski and snowboard at Mt Hutt


New Zealand drive holidays: The night sky in Tekapo

Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo | © Martin Holverda / Unsplash



Otago has some of the best adventures in the country in Queenstown and Wanaka, while also offering a history experience of early colonial life in New Zealand. The landscape is diverse, from towering mountains and mirror lakes, to sun-drenched vineyards and rugged coastlines.


Don’t miss:

  • Ski and snowboard around Queenstown and Wanaka
  • Watch the sunrise at Nugget Point
  • Visit #ThatWanakaTree
  • Cycle, horse ride or walk the Otago Central Rail Trail
  • Go panning for gold in Arrowtown
  • Visit New Zealand’s only castle, Lanarch Castle in Dunedin
  • Go white water rafting down the Shotover River


New Zealand drive holidays: Queenstown

Queenstown Lakes District | © Samuel Ferrara / Unsplash



The most southern part of the South Island is home to some of the most beautiful scenes in the entire country. Just ask anyone who’s been there! The Fiordland area of Southland is not dissimilar to the western fjords of Norway. It encompasses the bottom of the snow-capped Southern Alps, with dramatic glacier-carved valleys. Every angle is breathtaking – this region is the showstopper of New Zealand.


Don’t miss:

  • Visit the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves
  • Cruise or kayak the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound
  • Hike the world-renowned Milford, Kepler or Routeburn Tracks
  • Taste Bluff oysters in Bluff
  • Drive through the Catlins
  • Explore Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri


New Zealand drive holidays: Milford Sound

Milford Sound | Photo by Jasper van der Meij / Unsplash



The West Coast of the South Island is the untamed part of New Zealand. It’s wild, it’s rugged, it’s raw, it’s dramatic. In its early days, the West Coast was a thriving gold mining region. These days life on the coast has a slower pace and cellphone reception is limited, so be prepared to take your time to unplug and explore this unspoilt coastal region of New Zealand.


Don’t miss:

  • Take a scenic flight over the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
  • Drive through Mt Aspiring National Park
  • Discover the old gold mining towns of New Zealand
  • Visit Pancake Rocks and the blowholes at Punakaiki
  • Explore the World Heritage area of Haast
  • Cross the swing bridge over the turquoise waters in the Hokitika Gorge


New Zealand drive holidays: West Coast

Punakaiki | © Doran Erickson / Unsplash


Have you explored the South Island of New Zealand? What are your favourite New Zealand drive holidays? Or if you are yet to visit, where would you choose? 


Everything you need to know about a South Island road trip, New Zealand


This post was brought to you in collaboration with NZ Travel Organiser.

All opinions are my own. 


 likes / 16 Comments
Share this post:
  • Himanshu Barsainya

    Self drive road trips are my way of exploring places and when i saw this article i found another bucket list worthy journey. South is so gorgeous and your pics are so mesmerizing. Thanks for this wonderful guide, would love to explore this part some day.

  • I agree. The South Island is definitely better (sorry everyone from the north). Whilst there are plenty of things to see on both islands, I literally ran out of words to describe how incredible the South Island was. I didn’t get to Abel Tasman though and it looks amazing. Next time maybe

  • Emma | The Gap Life Diaries

    I also always prefer more ‘rugged’ places rather than the ones that all the tourists prefer, so definitely agree with you on this one! Would love to try some of the hikes on South Island.

  • Natalie Tanner

    My husband is a geologist so we always add some outdoor time on vacations to appreciate the landscape. I’ve heard New Zealand is a true heavenly paradise. Great tips to explore it. Your photos are stunning! Hard to believe such beauty is real!!!

  • Jamie

    Your photos are simply stunning! The waterfalls, beaches, sea life…. I want to be there right now to photograph it all! New Zealand is on my bucket list!

  • Okay, booking a trip to New Zealand now! Seriously, the photos are beyond amazing and something tells me that they are even more impressive in person. New Zealand is truly a haven for natural beauty and South Island sounds like a must-visit!

  • Edith Carolina Rodriguez

    New Zealand is one of my dream countries to visit. We’re traveling Asia now, but we’re going to have to wait to visit this country in the future. There’s never a post I read that does not include dreamy pictures. Your outline of what to visit is perfect, very organized. For sure I’d tour the country by car since it seems the way to do it .

  • Rashmi & Chalukya

    New Zealand is on our bucket list for the abundant of Nature it has in store but we had no clear idea of where to start. The picture of Abel Tasman National Park is breathtaking and we would love to go
    swimming with those adorable bottlenose dolphins. Stargazing in Tekapo and the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves is something we wouldn’t want to miss too.

  • My boyfriend recently moved from India to New Zealand, and I have a small trip booked to visit him this April/May! He’s based in Hamilton in the North island, and when he told me this I was absolutely gutted as I’d been so excited to go and explore the South! It looks absolutely gorgeous, like something from a dream, and Milford Sound in particular is somewhere I’ve wanted to see for years, ever since first spotting it on the front cover of some random magazine. We’ve made an agreement that when I come this April, we’ll explore the north, and when I come back hopefully on a working holiday visa in July, we’ll roadtrip the south for a few weeks to a month. Your post has opened my eyes to so many places I hadn’t seen/researches before, and I’m definitely going to be coming back closer to the time! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Rachel

    The South Island of New Zealnad is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I adored the Hooker Valley Track to see Mt Cook, and also Lake Tekapo was beautiful (though I hear it gets really busy in high season.)

  • Jennifer Riley

    I didn’t have a lot of time in New Zealand, but I would say the South Island was my favourite too. Abel Tasman was my first multi-day hike and I finally got to see penguins, so it holds a special place in my heart. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the beauty of New Zealand in general. I can’t wait to go back someday.

  • Julie

    As a nature lover, the South Island has everything for me. I cannot live without wine and going on a road trip in Marlborough and take a wine tour there is a dream come true for me Juliette!

  • Oh man! I don’t know if I will ever be able to get there and do it all. I love all these places that you have described. It is so pristine and beautiful and completely untouched. Love that shade of water there, perfect for scuba diving with the dolphins. I hope there is some miracle that happends and gets me to South Island.

  • Luke and Meagan, Two Restless

    MAN, if places like this don’t just run away with the imagination, I don’t know what does 🙂 I’ve been fantasizing about visiting the South Island for awhile now, and this is just giving me MAJOR inspo. Flight deals, where are you?!

  • Samah

    New Zealand is simply stunning and I’m longing to visit! I can’t this year, but hopefully next year. I think I would love Marlborough – swimming with dolphins and whale-watching and hiking all sound like my type of things! I cant wait to visit!

  • Zac

    It always blows my mind that the South Island has beautiful snow-capped mountains and pristine white beaches in such close proximity. It’s not hard to see what it’s such a great destination for a road trip!


> <
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec