Having been in New Zealand for 5 months (with another 6 ahead of us), we’ve understandably been taking our time experiencing the country. Traveling slowly is a great way to experience a place in depth. But when Jason’s parents confirmed they would be arriving in Christchurch within a matter of weeks we knew we’d have to speed up our pace. Insert the ultimate two-week South Island Highlights Itinerary.
I didn’t want to have an itinerary so stringent that anyone felt locked into doing everything or that left no room for ad-libbing. Instead I opted to plan out a few possible routes. I hate backtracking, so I knew I wanted to be able to follow a route in a single direction, omitting the need to drive the same road twice. Because where’s the fun in that?
I left the choice of route open so that when J’s parents arrived they could decide which path they gravitated to the most.
Beyond the route, I simply listed out all the highlights in each town or region we’d be visiting (as well as the coinciding Lonely Planet pages for more information). This made it easy to quickly decide what we wanted to accomplish over the following days as we were en route to new destinations.
The Chosen Route.
First, I will lay out the route we chose, as it was the best option, in my opinion. You can find the alternative options following this section.
DAY 1: Christchurch
If you have more time or are more interested in city travel, this could easily be stretched to 2 or 3 days. Christchurch has a lot on offer including:
- A city tour on an historic tram taking in 17 highlights of the city. This is a great first stop as its a good way to get your bearings of the city. It only takes about 20 minutes to go all the way around and the tickets are good all day. I suggest staying on for the whole circuit before hopping off at whichever stops peak your interest the most.
- Gondola ride to scenic overlook of Christchurch. There is a free shuttle service to the Gondola from the Canterbury Museum (which also happens to be a tram stop).
- Canterbury Museum: a free museum covering the culture of the Canterbury region.
- Botanic Gardens: free entry to gardens located behind the Canterbury Museum
- Street Art self-guided tour. Christchurch has a booming street art scene, and while I couldn’t find any official tours at the time of writing, this website provides a map of much of Christchurch’s street art as well as some information about the piece or artist.
DAYS 2-3: Banks Peninsula + Akaroa
Approximate drive time: 1 hr 22m
Even though I already said I hate backtracking, this area is definitely worth a little re-driving back towards Christchurch… and its the only time this happens… except maybe one other time… cough… Milford Sound.
The Banks Peninsula is just off to the east of Christchurch. The highlight of the area is a toss up between the beautiful scenery and the little French settlement of Akaroa.
Akaroa is teeming with adorable little shops and has a quaint main street to wander along. We loved the local butcher shop that smelled of freshly smoking meat and the little bakery that had delicious quiche and croissants.
Other places/experiences of note in Akaroa and along the peninsula :
- the Giant’s House sculpture garden ($20pp), this also has a quirky B&B for anyone not staying in a camper.
- Akaroa Museum (free)
- St. Peter’s Anglican Church
- Old French Cemetery
- Hinewai Reserve – free walking tracks through a native plant forest
- Akaroa Sailing Cruise ($75pp) – 2 1/2 hr hands on sailing experience
- Akaroa Dolphins ($75pp) – 2 hr wildlife watching cruise on a catamaran
DAYS 3-4: Lake Tekapo + Mount Cook
Approximate drive time: 5 hrs
Mount Cook is the tallest peak in Australasia standing at 3,724m (or 12,349 ft). It is an absolutely stunning snow-covered peak in the midst of a staggering dark sky reserve. This makes it one of the best places to see the Aurora Australis in New Zealand. Even if you don’t get the perfect circumstances to see the Southern Lights, you still get a quite an eyeful of stars. Lake Tekapo is also included in the dark sky reserve, which adds to the amount of activities you can do in this area.
- Tekapo Springs Thermal Spa ($22pp) – they also offer a range of treatments for an additional fee
- Obviously there are loads of hiking trails in this region (or tramping in the local lingo)
- the i-site (visitor’s center) had a load of valuable information as well as a few free exhibits, worth a stop
- Sir Edmond Hillary Alpine Center ($20pp), located at the Hermitage Hotel
- Glacier Explorers Boat Tour ($155pp) – this takes you out on the Tasman lake and gets you up close and personal with icebergs and the Tasman glacier
- Tasman Valley 4wd and Argo tours ($79pp) – if the boat tour is a bit too pricey, than this is your next best bet. You get a great view of the glacier without getting on the water.
- Tasman Glacier View Track – (free) this is for all the budget backpackers, a totally free way to get out and see the Tasman glacier.
DAYS 5-7: Queenstown
Approximate drive time: 2 hrs 49m
Ah, Queenstown. What is there to say that has not already been said? Its buzzing, its awesome, its just a shitload of fun. A person could easily come to New Zealand and just spend two weeks here. They would never be bored, tire of the scenery, or run out of delicious food options. Without further ad0:
For the less adrenaline seeking there are also:
- Winery tours
- Backcountry driving tours
- a Gondola to a scenic overlook of the town (with walking trails at the top)
Day trips from Queenstown:
- Gibbston Valley (wine tours)
- Wanaka (pronounced like Monica… but, ya know, with a “w”)
DAYS 8-9: Te Anau
Approximate drive time: 2hrs 04m
This is a small town whose primary function serves as a jumping off point for Milford Sound. Self-driving the Milford road is a great way to do it. It allows you to take your own pace and stop whenever you like, as well as saving a bit of money. Boat tours are also available from $55pp and up. Te Anau also has a great glow worm cave experience ($79pp) as well as a free bird sanctuary.
DAYS 10-12: Dunedin + Otago Peninsula
Approximate drive time: 3hrs 22m
Dunedin is a cool little university town with a strong Scottish heritage. It is also situated at the beginning of the Otago Peninsula, a great place for wildlife viewing. Its another one of those places on the South Island where one would never cease to be entertained for weeks on end.
Highlights in town include:
- the Settlers Museum (free)
- the old Railway Station, which is beautiful on its own, but also offers vintage train rides to different parts of the region, returning the same day ($89pp and up)
- Speights Brewery tour ($28pp)
On the Peninsula:
- Loads of tramping tracks – the Tunnel Beach Walkway and Mt. Cargill to Bethunes Gully are short and easy walks
- Nature’s Wonders Wildlife Tours ($59pp)
- Royal Albatross Center – free to visit, but tours are from $25pp and up. They offer tours of the albatross sanctuary, the bunker + disappearing gun as well as an evening viewing of blue penguins returning to shore
- Larnach Castle – the only castle in New Zealand, a beautiful and historical building with gorgeous grounds ($30pp)
- Penguin Place – tours to see the very rare Yellow Eyed Penguins ($52pp)
DAY 13: Oamaru
Approximate drive time: 1hr 26m
Oamaru is another little dot on the map, most well known for its steampunk connection these days. Yes, steampunk… more on this to come. Aside from the awesomely eccentric subculture, it does have a Blue Penguin colony worth a visit ($28pp and up) as well as the potential to see a few Yellow Eyed Penguin pairs (free). The restored Victorian architecture is a real highlight. Spending the final night here also cuts down on driving time for the final day, although Dunedin to Christchurch is certainly doable.
DAY 14: Return to Christchurch
Approximate drive time: 3hr 15m
And fly home!
Why I love this Itinerary.
Even though two weeks is not nearly enough time to visit a country with so much to offer, it is generally what most people can get away with in the US. I feel like this itinerary hits a lot of the best parts of New Zealand – wildlife, beautiful scenery, adrenaline activities, wineries, mountains, lakes, glaciers and even a bit of history. It sounds like a lot to fit into 14 days, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed or burned out. It was a good mix of busy days with a few low-key ones as well.
From Christchurch drive through Arthur’s Pass. Spend a few days hiking around (and perhaps helicoptering around) the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers before heading south and hooking up with the original itinerary in Queenstown. However, follow the route reverse from there, bringing you through Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier before returning to Christchurch. This should also give you a few more days to hang around Queenstown to get your adrenaline pumping.
Cut out the Middle Man.
If your desperate to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers but also Blue Penguins (how could you not?) then follow the Glacier Overload directions to Queenstown. From there continue on the route as planned originally, bringing you to the East coast of the South Island and back up to Christchurch via Dunedin and Oamaru, with plenty of penguin spotting opportunities.
Please note that this was created specifically for an Autumn trip. It would still be a great starting point for different seasons, it just may need a bit of tweaking.
Have you traveled around New Zealand? Did we skip over any amazing highlights? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!