A guide for a 17 days road-trip through New Zealands’ South Island
New Zealand is probably the most diverse country I have visited so far. You will find romantic beaches, ample desserts, steep glaciers, mystical fjords, lively cities and endless sheep filled landscapes. And the best? You do not need to drive for hours or days to see one and the other. New Zealand is a perfect road trip country. You are just about to drive along the coast and find yourself in front of a glacier only 2 hours later.
I was in New Zealand in 2011. Back then prices were pretty fair. Renting a car for a longer period was a very fair deal and you do not need to take care of insurance or breakdown services yourself. In this post I share our 17-days road trip to South Island, departing and returning from Auckland, North Island.
Sharing that experience with a good friend was the greatest gift for me but if you are a solo traveler you will meet lots and lots of people on your way and in the hostels as well.
DAY 1: Auckland – New Plymouth – Whanganui
Departure from Auckland at 9am. First stop: New Plymouth. You can either sunbath at East End Beach or black sanded Oakura Beach or hike the 2.518m high volcano, Mt. Taranaki. During summer (Dec-Mar) it can be done without climbing equipment but locals warn of changeable weather conditions, which might make the hike quite dangerous at any time. Second stop: Whanganui.
Recommended hostel in Whanganui: Tamara Backpackers Riverside Lodge: very sweet and comfortable accommodation at low price.
DAY 2: Whanganui – Wellington
After a visit at the local iSite (=the name for New Zealand’s visitor information centers) we climbed Durie Hill and got rewarded with a great view over the entire city. Afterwards you can explore the Whanganui National Park either on the water (by kayaking depending on the tide) or on land along the river.
Strengthen yourself with a coffee, snack or lunch at Virginia Lake before driving further to the next and last stop on the North Island: Wellington.
Recommended hostel in Wellington: Base Backpackers: great location close to the city centre, nice staff and basic dorms.
DAY 3: Wellington
We met a friend in Wellington and decided to stay for a whole day. Unfortunately it was pouring rain. Like in every city this can be a real pain in the ass and so we went for coffee(s), shopping, cinema and a pretty disappointing trip to the Weka Caves.
DAY 4: Wellington – Picton – Nelson
Early in the morning we took a shaky ferry (nothing for the faint heart) for 3 hours to Picton, the landing place on the South Island *yeah – we made it*. We kept driving straight to Nelson and unexpectedly met some friends in our hostel of choice and ended the day relaxed with a kiwi juice *classy* in the hostel’s open-air whirlpool.
Recommended hostel in Nelson: Paradiso Hostel: laid-back, cool atmosphere with a large kitchen and a great pool area.
DAY 5: Nelson
I can definitely recommend a Kayak & Walking tour in the Abel Tasman National Park. Kayaking on the sea turned out to be a good work-out and due to rough sea conditions we exited in a random bay, earlier as initially planned (for which you will be thankful for when you share your kayak with a poor, suffering, sea-sick person). From the bay you can take your own time and pace to wander back an 8km trail along the Abel Tasman Coast Track, with one photograph scenery being more overwhelming than the other.
DAY 6: Nelson – Westport
Nelson is definitely worth to spend one more day. We went for bike tour and cycled along the coast and had picnic on the beach. In the dawn we continued our road trip with a sleeping stop-over in Westport.
In Westport we slept at Bazil’s Hostel: nice room for two, large kitchen, perfect for one night, covers basic needs.
DAY 7: Westport – Cape Foulwind – Charleston – Pancake Rocks – Franz Josef
We did not spend any time in Westport and drove straight to Charleston with one short stop-over at Cape Foulwind to watch seals in their natural environment. Charleston once was supposed to become the capital of New Zealand.
The one attraction being left today is the Underworld Adventure Company, with which we went for a tour to the Glowworm Caves. This tour outperformed my expectations by 1,000%.
It was stunningly beautiful to spend 4 hours in the cave with all its different shapes, glowing worms on the ceiling and exits here and there to rainforesty paradises.
Only 20 minutes away we stopped over again for exploring Punakaiki, the so called Pancake Rocks. After this off we went to the next stop: Franz Josef.
In Franz Josef we slept at Montrose Backpackers Franz Josef: dorms and shared bathrooms are okay, cosy living room.
DAY 8: Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef is one of the most rainy places on New Zealand with 200 rain days / year *omg*. But we were lucky and stayed dry during our booked half-day hike on the Glacier. It was in fact a very touristy activity with many, many tourist groups crowding on the glacier. I am not sure if you can climb up the glacier without a guide at all. At least we decided for the tour as we did not have all the necessary ice climbing equipment. Besides, like all guided tours in New Zealand, the tour was entertaining and interesting with a lot of side facts and led by a very likeable guide. After the day spent in the ice we treated ourselves in the local hot pools. Any thermal water you know from Austria is not comparable to the heat of these boiling hot temperatures. No problem for me though *gg*.
DAY 9: Franz Josef – Wanaka – Queenstown – Milford Sounds
A loooong driving day straight form Franz Josef to Milford Sounds, including one lunch break in Wanaka and a stop-over in Queenstown to pick up a friend. The drive to Milford Sounds after dawn and in pouring rain was one of the scariest ones in my life. The streets were narrow and curvy as hell and we were surrounded by steep and rocky hillsides. Added with dense fog you can imagine the sight quality. A real horror film scenery. But we arrived safely in our hostel, which was literally in the middle of nowhere.
In Milford Sounds we slept at Milford Sounds Lodge: closest to the cruises departure port, not the friendliest staff, small dorms.
DAY 10: Milford Sounds – Queenstown
The vibe at Milford Sounds was mystical with all the rain, fog and moist. We took a cruise through the fjords between steep cliffs and beautiful waterfalls. This was again not for the faint or seasick heart. The scenery was very impressive, just like you may know it from the Lord of Rings. After the cruise we headed back to Queenstown – what a contrast. We met some friends there, had the hugest burger at famous Fergburger, found ourselves in the midst of a pub crawl and danced until the bars closing hours.
Where to sleep in Queenstown? I honestly cannot remember our hostel back then, which prooves that there must be better options. There are tons of cool hostels in Queenstown. I am sure will find something in your budget on booking.com or hostelworld.com.
DAY 11: Queenstown
“You have to throw yourself off something when you are in Queenstown”
And so I decided for Ziptrek – a series of flying foxes within a forest and great view over Queenstown. I would still recommend the Canyon Swing though, which is supposed to be much more exciting and unique. But at that time this extra fun was not in my budget^^. Anyway we spent a relaxed day in the city, got T-Shirts designed and indulged ourselves with ice cream and pancakes. It was Easter Sunday, the end of the fasting period 😉
DAY 12: Queenstown – Dunedin
When driving from Queenstown to Dunedin you should stop-over at the Moeraki Boulders, which are impressive and fun to look at. In Dunedin we wandered around the city, got fancy Sushi for dinner, watched a comedy at the movies and had one or two cocktails downtown with some army guys who were celebrating Anzac day.
Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.
DAY 13: Dunedin – Lake Tekapo
Another long driving day straight from Dunedin to Lake Tekapo where we met our friends a again in the most coy hostel with a romantic chimney in the comfortable and spacious living room and an awesome lake view.
Recommended hostel at Lake Tekapo: Lakefront packbackers lodgte: one of my top 3 hostels on the entire roadtrip. You feel like home from the first second and do not want to leave this place with its comfortable atmoshpere, great location and lake view.
DAY 14: Lake Tekapo – Christchurch – Kaikoura – Picton
Early in the morning we headed towards Christchurch. Unfortunately the majority of the city got severe damage from a very bad earthquake a couple of months earlier in February 2011. The city made an extinct expression with no people on the street and most of the streets being closed. It was a very daunting feeling and we decided to keep going straight to our next stop: Kaikoura. The place is famous for whale watching trips with speed boats. Again you should not feel seasick easily because the open sea water goes pretty wild. The whales are obviously not waiting for us tourists but the guides attract them with horns and after all we saw two spirns (Pottwale). After this impressive spectacle we kept driving to Picton for the night.
Recommended hostel in Picton: YHA Villa Picton: very sweet light blue villa with a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
DAY 15: Picton – Marlborough Sounds – Picton – Wellington
To get the most out of our waiting time for the 1pm ferry to Wellington we decided to visit Marlborough Sounds. This was a little disappointing as the look-outs were located randomly without any nice views. As the ferry was delayed due to bad sea conditions we arrived quite late in Wellington. Bu time was sufficient for visiting the Mt. Victoria Look Out with a beautiful view over Wellington at night.
DAY 16: Wellington – Napier – Taupo
Wellington without rain has proven to be a very charming and livable city with a decent skyline, green spots for picnic and an overall friendly atmosphere. Our roadtrip continued with a drive to spend the night in Taupo with a short stop-over in Napier, which also left a very sweet and beautiful impression.
DAY 17: Taupo – Rotorua – Tauranga – Auckland
From Taupo we drove to Rotorua to smell the ubiquitous smell of sulfur and take a walking tour in the Te Puia attraction park, including the world-famous Pohutu Geyser, which frequently erupts 30m high. Rotorua is full of parks and footpaths surrounded by thermal activity, mud pools and thermal springs. After a last stop-over in Tauranga we returned to Auckland packed with beautiful impressions and life-time memories.
You can surely cover a lot of New Zealand’s South Island attractions within 17 days, but the more time you have the better your experience will be.