Exploring New Zealand’s South Island in 8 Days

New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most picturesque places I have ever been. There is so much to see and do, you could spend weeks on end road-tripping around the island. From snowcapped mountains, to the bluest lakes you’ve ever laid eyes on – 8 days is not enough to scratch the surface, but it is a great place to start.

Mount Cook over Lake Pukaki at sunset the epitome of New Zealand's South Island

There are probably 10 different itineraries that you could put together for a 8-day road trip around New Zealand’s South Island. We chose this itinerary because we are huge lovers of the alpine environment and want to be constantly surrounded by snowcapped mountains (the dream!). I was also absolutely hanging out to see the infamous blue lakes of NZ. So, do yourself a favour and read on if you want to know all about one of the most beautiful road trips I’ve ever been on.

Hiring a Car

First things first. You’re going to need a car πŸš—. I would highly recommend that you aim for a 4WD when looking for a hire car in New Zealand. So many of the routes are winding highways with plenty of ups and downs. Having a comfortable and relatively powerful 4WD will help you to feel more confident navigating some of these routes. You’ll also find plenty of dirt or rocky roads – especially up to ski resorts, so having added traction should help you to stay confident on these types of surfaces.

Another benefit to hiring a 4WD during the winter or early spring, is that you can get away without needing chains in snowy conditions. You should always check the most recent advice with the local authorities before driving in wintery conditions.

I booked our car using Webjet, and hired through Aerodrive NZ. I found the rate to be cheaper through Webjet than direct with the supplier and it was a really good rate. The Aerodrive office is not located within the Queenstown Airport terminal, which also helps to keep the rate down and avoid ‘On Airport Tax’. You simply call them when your flight lands and they pick you up within 5 minutes. I almost didn’t book through these guys, as they had a few poor reviews on Google. But I’m so glad I listened to the more positive reviews, as they really were great!

The Cost of Petrol & Having Adequate Insurance

If you’re not planning on doing too much alpine driving, a smaller car might just suffice for your trip. The reason I say this is that petrol in NZ is ridiculously expensive. Having a small car which is more fuel efficient could really do you well.

In September of 2019, petrol was pricing at around $2.37 NZD per litre 😱. To give you an idea, we hired a Toyota Rav 4 4WD. It cost us around $220 AUD for 8 days hire. We travelled about 750 km and spent just over $250 NZD on petrol.

Our car hire included an excess of about $3,500 NZD in the event of an accident. All car hire companies will try and scare you into purchasing their extra insurance, but any good travel insurer will have car hire excess coverage within your policy. Make sure you read up on this and know what your coverage is. I will say that Aerodrive just pointed out the excess, and asked if we had our insurance under control – no sales pressuring at all πŸ™ŒπŸΌ.

Right! Now that the logistics are taken care of, let’s talk about the fun part – adventuring! πŸŽ‰

Day 1 – Arrive in Queenstown

Depending on what time your flight arrives, you could have as much as half a day up your sleeve on your first day. We didn’t arrive until 3:30pm, so it was at least 4:30pm before we were completely organised with our car, and headed into Queenstown. The drive from the airport is about 15-20 minutes depending on traffic.

It was a drizzly afternoon, and I had run in Sydney Marathon the day prior πŸ™ˆ, so I was ready for a little rest, and lots of food.

For awesome pizza, you should head to Fat Badgers Pizza Bar Queenstown πŸ˜πŸ•. They do massive, New York style pizzas, delicious starters or sides, and their very own beer on tap. I can personally recommend the “Scratching Badger” pizza. They don’t take bookings and do get busy, but turnaround seems pretty quick, so be patient and don’t go anywhere!

Day 2 – Drive to Glenorchy & Paradise

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is renowned for being one of the most beautiful and scenic drives in the area. For this reason, it’s also super popular! Coincidentally, the last time we were in Queenstown (in 2015), we somewhat accidentally stumbled across this road. Now, it is very well known and apart of pretty much any Queenstown ‘to-do’ list.

The road itself is about 45km’s long, and is conveniently named Glenorchy-Queenstown Road. The drive weaves through forests and along the cliffs’ edge, surrounded by mountains, all alongside of Lake Wakatipu. Incredible 😍

To get there, head west out of Queenstown along Lake Esplanade road, and you’ll see the turn off on the left. The drive will most likely take around an hour with plenty of stops for photo opportunities and exploring. If you have more time, and are an avid hiker, there are lots of little trails along the route too.

Once you get to Glenorchy, you can spend some time checking out the jetty and the popularly photographed boat shed, grab some lunch and just generally wander. There is not a whole lot to do here, but the views are certainly worth the trip, and the excursion will only take you half a day.

If you have more time, a 4WD (very important) and want to explore a bit further – head on out to Paradise.

If you want to read more about our adventurous day in Glenorchy, check out my post ‘Queenstown to Glenorchy: The Road to Paradise’.

The famous red Glenorchy boat shed

With the rest of your day, why not check out the Queenstown Hill Hike. It’s a 4km round trip hike starting basically in town! We didn’t get to do this one, but I have heard and read that this hike is stunning for either sunrise or sunset. It offers stunning views of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown.

Day 3 – Go Skiing β›·

Whether you’re an expert skier, or just learning – Queenstown has a ski area for everyone! The Remarkables and Coronet Peak are both within easy striking distance of Queenstown. You can also reach Cardrona (my personal favourite) within about 1 hour.

All three are best accessed with a car, however I do believe you can get a bus from town too. It’s best to arrange this with one of the tour sales offices, alongside of your lift ticket and even gear hire, for a package deal bargain!

Stunning overview of Arrowtown and beyond from Coronet Peak

If you want to learn more about Queenstown as a winter specific destination, head over to my post, ‘A Guide to your Winter Holiday in Queenstown, New Zealand’.

Hot Tip: If you’re only planning on skiing one day of your trip, I’d highly recommend hiring gear in town. For $40 bucks you can get a (very old rental) set up for a day. I know that it’s probably not as cool as your own personal gear, but it saves a lot of luggage lugging for just one day of ski happiness!

Day 4 (Part 1) – Skyline Gondola – Activity City

Small disclaimer right here – this was a biggggg day! It just turned out that we jam packed this day full of adventure. If you’ve got the time, I would reserve a full day for the Skyline Gondola and all of its activities.

Queenstown from above, New Zealand's South Island

The Skyline Gondola is like a whole other world of itself up there. You’ve got paragliding, luge racing, mountain biking, hiking and buffet eating all in one place 😱! The Gondola only ticket is $44 per adult return (ouch), which is why I recommend planning at least a half-day around your adventure up there.

Our first time in Queenstown, we bought the ticket which includes the Gondola, 5 luge laps and the buffet lunch. The luge is awesome fun and definitely good if you’ve got a group of competitive spirits 😝. This time, we had Paragliding booked in, which was also amazing! We decided to do the buffet lunch again, just to make sure it was as good as we remembered.. it was!

Hot Tip: If you think you might want to combine activities, it’s definitely cheaper to buy the ticket that covers all of them, rather than paying each activity separately. In peak periods, you 100% should pre-book to avoid disappointment.

In between Paragliding and buffet lunch eating, we started on the Ben Lommond track. This is another popular hike in Queenstown, which is a bit more challenging than the Queenstown Hill hike. It gives you more incredible views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, and you have the option to only walk to the Saddle, rather than the full summit. The photos below were taken about 40 minutes walk from the top of the Gondola.

If it’s your first time to New Zealand, and you’d like to stick to Queenstown only, I have two blog posts that could be just for you!

Day 4 (Part 2) – Drive to Lake Tekapo

After a morning full of activities and eating, we left beautiful Queenstown for equally as stunning, Lake Tekapo. The journey is about 256km and can take around 3 hours. Realistically, I’d say it takes more like 4 to 4.5 hours – let me explain…

Side Stop # 1 – You must stop for a “Cromnut”…

About 1 hour down the road from Queenstown, you’ll find Cromwell. Make sure you keep an eye out for the turn, because it is technically off the main highway. Just off Barry Avenue, you will find a small set of shops and one of these is Cromwell Bakery. These guys make an amazing cronut, with a local touch – light, fluffy and custardy deliciousness 🀀🀀.

Side Stop # 2 – You’ll likely arrive at Lake Pukaki around Sunset…

If you didn’t leave Queenstown until around 3pm, it’s most likely that you will arrive in Lake Pukaki right around sunset. The sky will be beautiful hues of pink, Mount Cook will be looming impressively in the background, and Lake Pukaki will (hopefully) be glassy and still. We stopped for around 40 minutes here, watching the sunset and taking photo’s of course. Why are sunsets always so incredible in mountainous areas (seriously though, why!)?!

Hot Tip: While you’re having an amazing adventurous and wondrous afternoon, it’s important to keep track of time in the sense that you really don’t want to arrive into Lake Tekapo any later than 7:30pm. Most accommodations offices close at 8pm, and restaurants will take last orders by 8:30pm.

Day 5 – Mount Cook National Park

From Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook National Park / Aoraki is about a 90 minute drive. You’ll head back past Lake Pukaki and then chuck a right, so that you’re driving alongside the lake. The drive to the centre of the park is absolutely stunning so the 90 minutes will go by quickly.

You could 100% spend more than just one day in Mount Cook National Park / Aoraki. But if one day is all you’ve got – it will do! We spent our day in Mount Cook on the Hooker Valley Track – this is about a 10km return, relatively easy hike out to Hooker Lake.

New Zealand's South Island itinerary incomplete without a trip to Mount Cook

Hot Tip: For an extra kick, get engaged to your dream guy at the base of Mount Cook πŸ™ˆπŸ’. 11/10 guaranteed to make your day even more unforgettable!

If you want to read about this awesome day in depth, check out my post ‘One Perfect Day in Mount Cook National Park’

Day 6 – Tekapo Springs & Drive to Wanaka

After a 10km round-trip hike, and a busy holiday so far 😴, spend the morning having a soak at Tekapo Springs. Tekapo Springs is basically a thermal hot pool style establishment overlooking beautiful Lake Tekapo. There is other activities to do there such as ice skating, snow tubing, day spa-ing and star gazing. While the water is not geothermal, they claim it is exceptionally pure – filled from a local underground source. In any case, it’s a relaxing way to start your morning that’s for sure.

Hot Tip: If you’re in Lake Tekapo for a few days, entry to Tekapo Springs is valid multiple entries over the full day! They’re open from 10am to 9pm daily. Did someone say twice a day soak?

Before leaving Lake Tekapo, make sure you check out the Church of Good Shepherd. Then, grab a coffee and some lunch for your lunch break at Lake Pukaki for just one more look 🀩, and head on out to Wanaka.

The drive from Lake Tekapo to Wanaka is just over two hours. We arrived late afternoon and headed straight for the ‘Wanaka Tree’ – don’t do this. The lighting is terrible, and there will be 1 million other people there. The best time to visit the Wanaka Tree is in early morning for sunrise or just after.

This evening, we had a lovely night out with a long-time friend of mine that I met in Japan. Start off at the lovely Gin and Raspberry Bar overlooking Lake Wanaka at sunset. Even if you don’t have an Engagement to celebrate πŸ™ˆ, they have an awesome drinks list and bar nibbles to start your night right. Then, head to the quirky and cool ‘Post Office Lane’ where you’ll find Rove Bar and The Cow restaurant for more drinks, and a delicious Italian feast to follow.

Don’t drink too much through – tomorrow is going to be a big hiking day! 😬

Day 7 – Mt. Isthmus Peak

So it’s your last full day in New Zealand, and you’re feeling a mix of emotions – so were we! Post-travel blues coming in hot… 😭

We knew we wanted to do a hike in Wanaka, whether it was Roys Peak or Mt. Isthmus Peak – both approximately 16km return hikes with incredible mountain views. After much debate, and recommendation from my local friend, we decided on Mt. Isthmus Peak.

Well, the reality is no matter which hike you choose, prepare to die either way. πŸ’€πŸ’€

The views at the summit of Mt. Isthmus Peak were 10/10 worth it.. but the hike up was incredibly challenging (and we are pretty fit people). I feel like I would’ve handled the hike a bit better if someone gave me the hard honest truth about how tough it would be. Don’t let this discourage you. As you can see from the pictures below, it is stunning scenery. I just want you to be prepared for the pain.

Check out a more detailed and dramatic account of our hike by reading my post Hiking Isthmus Peak… I guarantee you, you’ll giggle.

We finished off our day with celebratory drinks and cheese board at Gin and Raspberry (celebrating that we survived the day, and of course, had an incredible holiday). If you are as knackered as we were, take yourself down to Water Bar for $5 taco night (if it’s also a Sunday) and head on home to relax.

Day 8 – It’s Time to Say Goodbye 😭

By this stage, we were completely and utterly exhausted. The 16km hike, the 8-day road trip and jam packed adventure holiday got us good – real good… but we couldn’t be more stoked with ourselves.

If you’re flying back to Sydney, you’re most likely flying towards the afternoon, so take it easy this morning. Grab some coffee and mosey on back to Queenstown. It’s a quick one hour drive via the Crown Range. If you have some time, you could swing by Arrowtown if it interests you.

To place a momentary pause on the home-time blues, I highly recommend a last wander around Queenstown, an awesome lunch at Devil Burger and dessert at Balls and Bangles. Man, what a way to end the holiday of a lifetime! πŸ‘ŒπŸΌ

I hope you guys enjoyed this post, and got some ideas for your very own South Island Road Trip! If you want to read more about any of the destinations listed here, check out my other NZ blogs for more detailed lowdowns!

Have you done a road trip like this? If so, what was your favourite stop along the way? I’d love to hear your thoughts or suggestions in the comments below ☺️

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8 Comments

  1. New Zealand is one of my favourite places to ski. Thanks for showing there are other things to do.

    1. It’s such a great destination for both skiing and adventuring!

  2. Gorgeous. Even if a traveller didn’t part-take in activities, the South Island would make for a nice driving holiday given the fabulous scenery. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You’re absolutely right. The perfect place for a driving holiday… something for everyone!

  3. I love the South Island! I did so many road trips when I lived in Christchurch. Love your recommendations.

    1. New Zealand is my favourite country, I love it there so much! I’ve only been to the north island, I NEED to get to the South Island!

      1. Ooh, I would love to visit the North Island now that I’ve explored the South Island a fair bit. There is still so much to see though!

    2. Thanks Bliss! I can imagine. I think I’d be exploring every weekend if I had the pleasure of living in New Zealand ❀️

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