Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island


Otago Region of the South Island

New Zealand is a small country, and although the North Island is more populated, the South Island is the larger of the two. Even still, the South Island is only 840 km/522 mi long and 180 km/111 mi wide. When we returned our rental car at the Queenstown airport, we had put roughly 3,000 kilometers on it. We didn’t drive long distances each day (in fact, during trip planning, I tried to break up the trip into days of driving and days with no driving), but because many of the roads are only two lanes (single lane each way) with an absurd number of single lane bridges* (watch out for these and don’t forget to yield!), it took us quite a while to get to each destination.

During our 18 day trip, we stayed in 11 different towns/cities. I would recommend spending even more time (at least three weeks) on the South Island, as there is so much to see and do. And, I would definitely recommend renting a car, not only for the flexibility (Alex and I refuse to travel with tour groups), but also because there is basically no public transportation in many places in New Zealand.

[Quick Trip Itinerary — Tune in for blog posts for each location]

Day 1: Arrived at Christchurch airport; called Aerodrive from complimentary airport phone for pickup and picked up rental car.

| Hotel | Airways Motel Christchurch

Day 2: Explored Christchurch by car and had lunch in downtown Christchurch. Drove to Pete’s Farm Stay — our friends highly recommended staying here. Dinner in nearby town of Rangiora.

| Bed and Breakfast | Pete’s Farm Stay

Day 3: Farm tour; sheep shearing and sheep dog demo. Drove to Kaikoura (unfortunately, the coastal road, which I hear makes the drive to Kaikoura worth it, was mostly closed due to a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the area back in November of 2016).

| Airbnb | Kaikoura Phoenix Palm


Sheep and alpaca at Pete’s Farm Stay

Day 4: Wings over Whales whale watch flight (also highly recommended! Plus, you get (slightly) less sick from a helicopter than a boat); explored (small) downtown Kaikoura (even though half the shops were still closed from the earthquake).

| Airbnb | Kaikoura Phoenix Palm


Kaikoura Wings over Whales flight & Abel Tasman National Park

Day 5: Drove through hot springs town of Hanmer Springs (known for jet boating, bungee jumping and other outdoor activities) and had lunch. Beautiful drive to Lake Rotoroa (our stopping point on way to Abel Tasman).

| Airbnb | Lake Rotoroa Holiday Home

Day 6: Made our way to the north coast of the South Island and Abel Tasman National Park. Walked along beach and settled for night in nearby town of Motueka.

| Airbnb | Motueka by the Marina – Cosy Beach Cottage

Day 7: Walked along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track — beautiful even though it was raining for most of the day. We didn’t hike for as long as we would have liked, but it’s hard carrying a 30 lb toddler! Drove along the coast towards Nelson. There are a bunch of wineries in this region — if you have time, I recommend stopping by a place for lunch and tasting.

| Airbnb | Motueka by the Marina – Cosy Beach Cottage

Day 8: Long-ish drive to the west coast. FYI: There are no signs informing you that you are about to pass the last gas station (for 100 km!!) in New Zealand… at least not on the smaller roads. We kept passing small towns with boarded-up gas stations, but could NOT find a gas station. We stopped in Punakaiki (known for its Pancake Rocks and blowholes) at the visitor center to inquire about gas stations (this, when the warning light in the car came on), but were told the closest gas station was in Greymouth (a big town, 40+ km away) AND that there were several tourists who had stopped by, looking for gas. She even called down to a nearby holiday trailer park to inquire if anyone had a spare fuel tank of gas (no dice).

We drove all the way to Greymouth, coasting as much as we could, crossing our fingers that the fuel indicator (telling us how many more kilometers until empty) was accurate. We made it to the gas station… with 20 km to spare. Phew. Spent the night in small town (not even sure I’d call it a town) of Dunollie.

| Airbnb | Dunollie Idyllic Farm Cottage & Petting Zoo


Pancake Rocks & Hokitika Gorge

Day 9: Explored town of Hokitika and drove to nearby Hokitika Gorge (the water, which is normally turquoise, was grey, perhaps because of the cloudy/rainy day). Drove to Fox Glacier, in the “Southern Alps.”

| Hotel | The Westhaven Motel Fox Glacier

Day 10: Our helicopter tour of Fox Glacier (and surrounding Franz Joseph Glacier) was canceled, rebooked twice, and canceled again, due to heavy rain and fog. Since it was our only full day in Fox Glacier, we braved the weather and hiked up to Fox Glacier’s terminal face (well, as far as we were allowed to go). Due to climate change and time, the glacier has receded quite a bit.

| Hotel | The Westhaven Motel Fox Glacier


Fox Glacier Terminal Face & Drive to Wanaka

Day 11: Our helicopter ride this morning was also canceled. We weren’t surprised, since it was so rainy and cloudy. As we drove towards Mt. Cook National Park (only 20 miles away, but since it was across a mountain range, we ended up driving 500 miles to get there), the sky cleared up and we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny drive. We drove through Wanaka, a beautiful resort town. It was bizarre to us because we associate April with spring but in fact, it was fall, and the leaves were a beautiful, deep, red.

| Hotel | Mount Cook Lodge and Motel

Day 12: Hooker Valley Hiking Track at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Our friends Tricia and Tyler highly recommended this trail (and they also did it with a baby). At night, Alex and I drove down to Lake Tekapo for Earth and Sky Experience: Mt. John Observatory Tour. This was one of the highlights of our trip (especially since we’re such nerds) — we learned so much about the Southern sky. The Lake Tekapo region is one of the world’s only ‘dark sky reserves,’ meaning that light pollution is restricted making the sky incredibly dark, with the most stars you’ll ever see in your life (seriously!!). I’ve never seen the Milky Way so clearly before! Breathtaking even if you don’t go on the tour! Just go outside at night, and look up!!

| Hotel | Mount Cook Lodge and Motel


Scenic stops along our drive & Hooker Valley Track

Day 13: Tasman Glacial Lake hike in the morning. In the afternoon, Alex and I finally got to go on a helicopter tour (my first!). We were so glad we did this particular tour, because we got to see Fox Glacier, Franz Joseph Glacier, AND we had a snow landing on Tasman Glacier. It was an incredible experience, and we LOVED every minute of it!! In the late afternoon, we drove back to Mt. John Observatory for the great view, even during the day (since it’s located so high up).

| Hotel | Glentanner Park Motel


Helicopter Tour of Glaciers

Day 14: Drove to Queenstown (beautiful drive) and a nice, relaxing evening.

| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge

Day 15: Our Milford Sound flight/cruise/flight (Milford Sound Scenic Flights) was canceled due to bad weather at the Sound. [The weather in New Zealand is unpredictable, so always schedule in an extra day or two if you have a must-do activity…] We drove along the windy road to Glenorchy at the very tip of Lake Wakatipu (yet another beautiful drive). Then we explored Queenstown (honestly one of the most beautiful — I feel like I’m using the word ‘beautiful’ a lot here — place Alex and I have ever been to) downtown.

| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge


Mt. John Observatory, Dalefield, & Queenstown

Day 16: My mom had to leave NZ, so she unfortunately missed our Milford Sound tour. This was yet another highlight of our trip. Sure, we thought our tiny plane was going to crash into the mountains or ocean, but the views were out of this world (it seriously felt like we were flying into a scene of “Lord of the Rings” when we flew into the Sound!!).

| Airbnb | Dalefield Mountain View Lodge


Milford Sound Scenic Flight

Day 17: The Otago region (where Queenstown is) is known for its wine, especially pinot noir. We splurged for an incredible lunch at Amisfield Winery and Bistro (reservations required), then drove around other wineries. (Highly recommend going on a tour so you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving!!)

| Self-contained Cottage | Burn Cottage Retreat

Day 18: More wineries and a cheesery (yes, this is a thing!!). Alex and I could have spent a week in this region!

| Self-contained Cottage | Burn Cottage Retreat

Day 19: Had lunch in nearby Arrowtown, a quaint, gold rush town, before heading to Queenstown Airport.

* You really should be careful with these single lane bridges. Sometimes you’re driving at a pretty good speed and then have to brake quite suddenly to yield to traffic in the opposite direction. (It’s a good idea to slow down on these bridges anyway.) When we returned our rental car, we were told that a couple (non Kiwis) had just totaled their car because they didn’t know to yield on a single lane bridge and drove head-on into another car… Yikes!


[Car rental]

I did extensive research on car rentals in New Zealand, mostly combing through TripAdvisor forums. Hertz and Avis are top tier rental companies, and their prices reflect that. A lot of people rent from Apex, a second tier company. We ended up going with Aerodrive, a relatively new, no-frills company with great rates (they were hungry for business). We had a great experience with them (we rented a car seat for Baby M, along with a portable wifi through them too) — would highly recommend!


We tried to stay in AirBnbs as much as possible, because we wanted the larger space (three adults and one toddler). New Zealand has plenty of decent, budget motels (with mini kitchenettes), which we opted for in places without AirBnb accommodation.

Stay tuned for more on our trip to New Zealand! 😀

To read about our recent trip to Sydney: Sydney: Our New Favo(u)rite City



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8 responses to “Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island”

  1. Shawna says :

    Olivia, I enjoyed your notes about New Zealand. Jaret had travelled there but I haven’t. I would love to go and he would go back willingly. Take care. Shawna

  2. manhong liu says :

    I cannot believe you write so well.. I am proud of you and love you so much Mom


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