The ultimate three-week itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand!

In this blog, I share the ultimate itinerary for three weeks of road tripping on the South Island of New Zealand. In three weeks you can have a great time on this beautiful South Island with this itinerary. We travelled by campervan and camped at all kinds of beautiful campsites, but you can also follow the itinerary below if you sleep in hotels.

Three-week Itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand

Click here or on the image below to see the itinerary of three weeks on the South Island. This itinerary also shows our activities, the campsites where we slept, how much we paid for this and how many hours we drove a day.

Itinerary South Island: Christchurch and Banks Peninsula (1 day)

We start our road trip in Christchurch. However, we only spent the night on a campsite outside of Christchurch, after which we continue our way the next morning to the Banks Peninsula. Christchurch is not known as a beautiful city and a big part of the city is still destroyed after the devastating earthquake of 2016. The Banks Peninsula is a nature reserve consisting of two ancient volcanoes, only 1.5 hours drive south of Christchurch. Here you can do all kinds of short and long hikes. The road to it alone is worthwhile. After an afternoon of hiking, we drive (in 2.5 hours) to Temuka, where we will only spend the night.

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Itinerary South Island: Temuka, Moeraki, Dunedin, and Kaitangata (1 day)

Early in the morning we leave Temuka and are on our way to Moeraki, but before we get there, we decide to make a short detour towards the Elephant Rocks. This is disappointing, so better you skip this, which also saves you an hour of travel time. We drive through the village of Oamaru, a nice village to stop for a while. An hour later we arrive in the village of Moeraki where among others the Moeraki Builders are located. These are well worth a visit.

Then we drive for another 1.5 hours to Otago Peninsula (Sandfly Bay), a peninsula near the town of Dunedin. Dunedin itself seems to be a fun, somewhat alternative city to spend a day, but we want to see the marine life for which the peninsula is famous. In the evening we drive 1.5 hours to Kaitangata, where we only spend the night on our way to Te Anau.

We decided not to drive the entire Southern Scenic Route along the southern coast. Afterwards, we would have done this differently, because even though this route is a bit longer, it seems to be very beautiful.

Itinerary South Island: Te Anau, Manapouri (2 days)

From Kaitangata it is a 2.5-hour drive to Manapouri. Manapouri is close to Te Anau but is a lot less touristic. Here we hike parts of the Kepler Track and enjoy the view of the beautiful lakes Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau. We advise you to stay in Manapouri just like we did!

It is possible to walk the Milford Track in this area (in 3 days), however, you have to book well in advance, about 6 to 9 months in advance. Walking a part of the Milford Track in a day is also an option. For this, you will be brought to a starting point by boat. Costs are +/- 100 dollars per person.

Click here to find our New Zealand hotel selection!

Itinerary South Island: Milford Sounds (half day)

From Manapouri, we drive in 2.5 hours to Milford Sounds, an area full of Fjords where we will take a boat trip. We have opted for a trip of two hours, but you can also choose an overnight stay on the boat. An alternative to Milford Sounds is Doubtful Sounds. We found it difficult to choose between Milford and Doubtful. Doubtful is a lot deeper into the fjords and the boat trips take longer. That’s why we finally decided on the slightly more touristic Milford Sounds. And wow, it’s beautiful!

There are hardly any campsites in this area, and the campsites which are available, are very pricey and suffer from sandflies (little flies that bites you viciously). That is why we decide to travel to Queenstown after the boat trip. It is a long drive, first back 2.5 hours to Te Anau, and then another 2.5 hours north to Queenstown. Unfortunately, there is no direct route from Milford to Queenstown, but an alternative is to walk directly. In 2 days you can walk the Routeburn track from Milford Sounds to Glenorchy. The only problem then remains your car, although you can have it transported to Queenstown for a few hundred euros.

Itinerary South Island: Queenstown and Glenorchy (2 days)

When we arrive in Queenstown we are shocked by the crowds and how touristy this place is. Therefore we decide to drive another 45 minutes towards Glenorchy, which is a small village and also the end/beginning of the Routeburn Track. We camp here at a great campsite, Mrs Woolly’s, a huge recommendation!

The next day we walk from Glenorchy a part of the Routeburn hike. What you can also find in this area, are the shoot locations of Lord of The Rings such as the Misty Mountains and Isengard.

We can recommend you to stay in Glenorchy instead of in Queenstown. Especially if you come for nature/hiking. Queenstown is the place to go bungee jumping or other adrenaline sports, but believe me, you can do this on the way back.

Itinerary South Island: Wanaka (3 days)

From Glenorchy, we drive in two hours to Wanaka. Wanaka is a nice town situated next to Lake Wanaka. There is plenty to do in the area, including visiting vineyards, lavender farms, mountain biking, and many different hikes. But we also relax here, chilling at Lake Wanaka, reading and playing games.

A short hour from Wanaka lies the village of Makarora, from where it is possible to make helicopter flights over the glaciers. We loved this and would do it again! On your way here you will pass Lake Hawea, perhaps even nicer than Lake Wanaka.

Itinerary South Island: Mount Cook National Park and Fairlie (1 day)

After three wonderful days, we leave Wanaka and drive in 3 hours to Mount Cook National Park. During the ride, we pass the beautiful Lake Pukaki which is bright blue with the impressive summit of Mount Cook in the background. The reason we drive to this place is to walk the Mueller Hut track, a relatively steep hike towards a big red hut. Definitely worth it, but start walking in summer on time, you will have to go up 2000 steps afterwards you will have to climb a lot.

In the afternoon we drive in one and a half hours to Fairlie, a small village where we spend the rest of the day relaxing and watching the milky way in the evening. Normally you can see the stars very well here, unfortunately, we just have a full moon and so there is too much light to see the galaxy.

On the other side of the Mount Cook National Park are the Fox Glacier and Frans Jozef Glacier. We skipped these because we have already seen beautiful glaciers in other places. If you want to visit them, you will have to do this by helicopter. That is the only way to see them up close.

Itinerary South Island: Kaikoura (1 day)

The next morning we get up early. We have a long drive of 5 hours ahead of us. Along the way, we pass some small villages such as Geraldine, Ashburton and drive again alongside Christchurch. The road to Kaikoura is unfortunately still bad after the earthquake in 2016. At the time of writing, June 2018, my friend R. writes to me that the direct route has even been closed again.

Kaikoura is known for the great opportunity to spot whales and dolphins and that is also the intention of our trip here. The next morning we board a small plane and spot a beautiful sperm whale! It is also possible to do this by boat, where you have a much better view of the animals. Unfortunately, the sea can be quite wild, so be prepared for seasickness. Something that surprised us very much in Kaikoura was the beaches! Completely abandoned, and kilometres long. Very nice!

Itinerary South Island: Marlborough (2 days)

After the great helicopter flight, we get back in the car. A Two and a half hours drive further and we are in Blenheim, a village in the middle of the Marlborough region. Does that name sound familiar to you? That is a good thing because this is one of the most important wine regions in New Zealand. Here we visit several wineries in one and a half days (by bike), we enjoy their wines and the delicious food.

Is a trip to New Zealand too expensive? Read all about New Zealand budget while travelling!

Itinerary South Island: Golden Bay and the Abel Tasman Park (4 days)

Abel Tasman Park is one of the most beautiful nature parks in New Zealand. It lies in the north of the south island. Above it lies the Golden Bay: turquoise sea and golden sand. We start our time here in the most northern tip of the South Island, at Cape Farewell (3 hours from Marlborough). Because we have bad weather (there is a cyclone coming over) this was a little disappointing, but with good weather, it seems to be beautiful here!

The next day we visit Takaka, a very nice hippie village. Then we drive to Totaranui, the only campground in the Abel Tasman Park. The Abel Tasman Park also has beautiful beaches, with impressive forests, mountains and hills behind the beaches. These are largely inaccessible, only on foot or by kayak from the coast you can enter. Here we do a beautiful hike so we already see a part of the park. The next day we drive to Marahau, a village south of the Abel Tasman Park. From here we explore a part of the park per kayak. We stay here for two days and enjoy the nice campsite. You can also do multi-day hikes from here and camp in the nature of the Abel Tasman Park. Expect at least 3 days for this.

Itinerary South Island: Picton (1 day)

Our last day on the South island we spend in the neighbourhood of Picton (2.5 hours drive from Marahau). From here we leave by ferry to Wellington on the north island. The area where we are now is called the Marlborough Sounds, there are beautiful nature and beautiful riverbeds that run to the sea. Do you have more time here, then consider hiking (part of) the Queen Charlotte track.

Mega budget tip for Early Birds: Currently campervan rental company Spaceships has a great deal where you get a 15% discount, valid for travel in 2022 and 2023! Click here for more information and to book your campervan.

What is not included in this three-week itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand?

Above I mention some highlights that we have not visited. Other things that we did not see due to time constraints are:

  • We have unfortunately skipped the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These are large rocks on the coast that resemble meters high piles of pancakes.
  • Stewart Island is a tiny island south of the South Island. There are only 400 people and a lot of birds. It has not yet been discovered by mass tourism, and you can enjoy great hikes here. To get here you take a not so enjoyable boat ride or a very expensive flight … something that did not fit in our itinerary.
  • The Arthurs Pass is a connecting road between the east and the west coast. This route runs through the beautiful Arthurs Pass National Park where you can see a huge number of high mountain peaks.
  • The Catlins is a village south of Dunedin. You have the biggest chance to encounter the rare yellow-eyed penguin in this place. In addition, you seem to have great surfing waves here.

What are the places you simply cannot miss from the South Island of New Zealand?

Well, this is a difficult question. I liked almost everything on the South Island, but if I really have to choose then I hope you won’t miss the following places:

  1. Te Anau (Manapouri), to hike parts of the beautiful Kepler track.
  2. Milford Sounds, because it is beautiful to boat through the fjords.
  3. Glenorchy, because everything seems to have a bit of magic here.
  4. Wanaka, because this is the nicest town in New Zealand.
  5. Marlborough, to taste the very best wine of New Zealand.

After reading this, are you curious about the itinerary for the North Island?

Three itineraries for the North island of New Zealand

In this blog, I describe our itinerary for the North Island of New Zealand. I also give you two alternative itineraries if you have two weeks for the North Island of New Zealand! Are you curious about our itinerary for the South Island, click here. Our five-day itinerary on New Zealand's North Island! After 20 days on the South Island, we have 5 days[...]

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  1. by Social Traveler on 7 May 2020  19:10 Reply

    Great article. New Zealand is a must see destination. Lots of good times.

  2. by River Rafting Rotorua on 23 September 2020  12:41 Reply

    It’s a great source of knowledge; I think it will be helpful for lot of people who are looking for learning more about the itinerary south island. Thank you very much for sharing this article.

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