As a very popular destination, New Zealand’s South Island is known for massive amounts of natural beauty including breath-taking mountain views, incredible lakes and a wide array of trails and walking paths.
Beginning the trip from Christchurch and heading towards Queenstown, you’ll have an ample supply of photo-worthy opportunities, chances to explore beaches, national parks, snow-capped mountains, and see mesmerizing glaciers.
So, pack your bags, make sure you have your travel insurance ready (check out state.co.nz), get comfortable in your car, camper or whatever mode of transportation you prefer, put on your seatbelts and see what’s in store for you!
Summary of Itinerary:
- Day 1 – Christchurch
- Day 2 – Christchurch to Tekapo
- Day 3 – Tekapo
- Day 4 – Tekapo to Wanaka
- Day 5 – A Day Exploring Wanaka
- Day 6 – Tour the Central Otago Vineyards and Climb Roy’s Peak
- Day 7 – Places of Interest Between Wanaka and Queenstown
- Day 8 – Milford Sound
- Day 9 – Queenstown
Day 1 – Christchurch
Christchurch has enough to keep you busy all day if you’d like! It is a city where you’ll find picturesque street art, creativity, the famous Christchurch Botanical Gardens.
Whilst the city is still going through a rebuild process after the 2011 earthquakes, there are still many local activities to do in the city.
As you head towards the coast, there is a small port named Lyttelton, which is worthy of stopping. Lyttelton, also known as the “Gateway to Canterbury” by colonial settlers, is a popular destination for cruise liners. Further along the way towards the beach, you can enjoy the little suburb of Sumner along the seaside and take in views of the volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula.
Day 2 – Christchurch to Tekapo
There are a few different routes between Christchurch and Tekapo but if you’re up for a little adventure, a detour to Akaroa will not be disappointing.
The road to Akaroa will take you on a windy road running close to the crater rim, providing spectacular views of the harbor. Akaroa has a deep French/English history and offers a variety of activities such as, biking, kayaking and a cruise around the volcanic Harbor to see dolphins and other wildlife.
Akaroa also offers some fantastic eateries and markets along the waterfront. If you want to take a break from the hot temperatures, find a shady spot and enjoy food and even pastries or coffee from a local French bakery.
As you prepare to continue towards Tekapo, be prepared for the uphill winding road. A vehicle with plenty of horsepower will serve you well! Some also like cars with a higher ride height, or plenty of luggage space for that extra comfort.
Day 3 – Tekapo
Once in Tekapo you will enjoy fantastic views of the Southern Alps along with the impressive turquoise colored Lake Tekapo, which gets its color from rocks so finely ground by glaciers, it is the consistency of flour. Lying in the heart of the picturesque alps as it does, from time to time you will see snow on the road during winter in Tekapo – when this happens a set of snow chains can be a valuable extra – or you could simply hire a 4WD Wagon for extra security / safety.
Along the lakeshore, is the gorgeous Church of the Good Shepherd, which was built in 1935 for pioneer families and to this day holds worship services and is a popular venue for weddings and other celebratory services.
A stroll along Lake Tekapo will treat you with the incredible scenery of Mt. Cook and with a wide open view of the night skies; it makes it the perfect location for stargazing.
Hungry? Tekapo will not disappoint with options of locally made on-tap ales, scrumptious pasta, steak and pizza at the Tin Plate.
If you’re in the market for a climb up Mt. John, be prepared for a steep walk in oftentimes very hot temperatures. If you do choose to hike, you can meander through the pine forest and tussock fields, with the total hike time being around 1.5 hours.
Another option would be a 15-minute drive via car, which also provides lovely views. It is important to note that if you do choose the car route, there is a fee of approximately $8. Many find it well worth it for the comforts and faster pace access to the top. At the peak of Mt. John you can enjoy 360-degree views and on a clear day, even see Mt. Cook, which at 12,218 feet in height, makes it New Zealand’s highest mountain.
As you head down the mountain back into town, don’t forget to take a quick swim in the lake, or at least get your toes wet. Depending on the time of year, the lake temperatures can be pretty chilly but in the soaring summer temperatures, it warms enough to be fairly comfortable.
With Tekapo’s laid-back atmosphere it provides a chance for you to sit back and enjoy the surroundings.
Day 4 – Tekapo to Wanaka
Be sure to get an early start to make the most of the day! A recommended stop would be checking out Twizel, a small town that is located on the edge the quaint Lake Ruataniwha.
The small town of Twizel was developed in the 1960s as a means of providing a hometown for the employees working on the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme. Now it serves as a popular destination for a variety of outdoor sports including mountain biking, mountain climbing, fishing, hiking, kayaking, skiing and horseback riding.
With access to the nearby rivers, canals and Lake Ruataniwha, you can enjoy catching salmon and trout. If you don’t enjoy the sport of fishing but enjoy eating them, then the local salmon farm can provide you with a variety of fresh or smoked salmon.
The small Lake Ruataniwha is actually a manmade creation, formed for use in the Waitaki hydroelectric project. It was named after Ruataniwha, a Maori Chief who drowned during the sinking of a canoe during the 12th century.
If you enjoy soaring the skies, then check out gliding in the neighboring town of Omarama. Located at the southern end of Mackenzie Basin it is a go-to destination for Glider Pilots. Pilots take to the clear blue skies and enjoy the accommodating updrafts in the area. The air in Omarama is enjoyed by glider pilots and both national and world gliding records are broken there.
Day 5 – A Day Exploring Wanaka
There is a very popular loop that offers excellent views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Located close to Wanaka you can take the Mt. Iron track and walk all the way up to the peak of Mount Iron, which is a rocky knoll carved by glaciers and extends above the countryside to take in the 360-degree views. The walk is suitable for all ages.
On Lake Wanaka you can see the Lone Tree of Wanaka. This is a solitary tree that grows just off the lakeshore. This Wanaka Tree is a picturesque view, complete with background scenery of the Southern Alps, a great place for a view of the sunrise, sunset or a picnic.
Why not rent some bicycles and head to Dublin Bay through the pathways around the lake. It is an easy ride and gives lake views that can’t be enjoyed by motorized vehicles.
Another place offering outdoor beauty is Lake Hawea. An easy, drive from Wanaka, you can reach it within 15 minutes. Lake Hawea not only has legendary fishing spots but is also a destination for kite surfing, paragliding and wind surfing.
At the end of your day of sightseeing, you can enjoy delicious food and a variety of atmospheres in the select restaurants, with the Big Fig being a very popular place.
Day 6 – Tour the Central Otago Vineyards and Climb Roy’s Peak
Tour the Central Otago Vineyards with your Fuel Efficient rental car, and enjoy wine tasting along the way. With hundreds of different southern wineries to choose from, you’re sure to find some that sits just right with you!
The climb up Roy’s Peak will reward you with brilliant views of Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park. However, with its 6.8-mile stretch of a strenuous uphill climb, it is more appealing for those who are in shape.
The uphill path has steep to very steep parts and not much in between. If you decide to tackle it, equip yourself with good sturdy shoes and a walking stick. A good rule of thumb is to plan on the hike taking five hours for the round trip.
Day 7 – Places of Interest Between Wanaka and Queenstown
A quick drive from Wanaka to Queenstown will treat you to more scenery and adventure options ranging from bungee jumping, shopping, hiking, scenic flight tours and boat cruises on Lake Wakatipu. A cruise to Bob’s Cove, along Glenorchy road is a trip chockfull of stunning scenery. The cruise provides a different perspective of Queenstown that can’t be seen by foot.
Glenorchy can also be found along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Enjoyed by outdoor adventurers, Glenorchy is a rustic town with mountain ranges and a beech tree forest. It is full of farmland and beautiful landscapes. With so many eye-catching views it is a go-to spot for photographers and was featured in various scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Glenorchy was not the only place that has scene time in well-known movies. Whilst Lake Wakatipu is enjoyed by many for its variety of water sports options, it was also used as a filming location for movies including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.
Lake Wakatipu is shaped very uniquely which forms a tide that rises and fall every twenty-five minutes. It is one of Queenstown’s most popular attractions with its crystal clear water. Tours can be booked providing opportunities of seeing Queenstown from the water. Whether you prefer a cruise aboard a vintage steamship or prefer to take a catamaran cruise, you will enjoy viewing the mountain range called The Remarkables.
The Remarkables are a famous mountain range where skiers flock to enjoy riding the slopes in the winter. During the warmer months, you can enjoy hiking trails and beautiful views.
With so many sights to see between Wanaka and Queenstown, it’s worth taking your time to enjoy and explore as much as possible, so a slight detour to Milford Sound will prove worthy. Milford Sound is just over an hour away from Wanaka and roughly three hours from Queenstown.
Day 8 – Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a very popular tourist destination and is named the “8th wonder of the world”. Known for its ink-dark waters, steep fiord cliffs covered in foliage and a collection of eye-soothing mountain peaks complete with cascading waterfalls, Milford sound is the place to be.
Boat cruises are worth putting on your itinerary, choosing from a few hours or overnight bookings. If you’re more adventurous at heart, plan on a diving or kayaking trip.
Do you enjoy learning about marine life? Milford Sound has an underwater observatory where you can enjoy viewing black coral, sea anemones and starfish just to name a few.
The Fiordland National Park was established in 1952 and is over 1.2 million hectares large. It has a variety of plants and animals and a diverse landscape including mountain ranges, lake and even rainforest environments.
From Queenstown, plan on a 4.5-hour commute. You’ll enjoy a beautiful drive and plenty of photo-worthy stops along the way. The views get better with each passing mile from Queenstown to Milford Sound. The trip will offer other highlights to include the Chasm and Mirror Pools. Be sure to take your time to savor all the visually satisfying sites. After all sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination.
After a day in Milford Sound, why not head back to Queenstown to enjoy eating at one of their food venues?
Day 9 – Queenstown
With so much to choose from in Queenstown, be sure to plan specifics during your trip. A popular choice is the Skyline Gondola, which will take you a good distance over Queenstown to the Skyline Complex. If you’re searching for a thrill, take a ride in their Luge carts, which provides an exciting downhill ride fueled by gravity.
Queenstown also offers bungee jumping. If you like adrenaline rushes this may be just for you! From the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, you will be harnessed to a bungee only to plunge 141 feet down to the Kawarau River. Queenstown is known as the bungee jumping capital of the world. Advanced bookings are recommended.
Another popular spot in Queenstown is Skipper’s Canyon. This will take you on a scenic drive on a narrow, curvy road through the canyon. Once home to gold prospectors, Skipper’s Canyon is an awe-inspiring trip.
While in Queenstown, you’ll have ample choices for refreshments and meals, including the ‘world famous’ Fergburger, home of the best burger in New Zealand.
And naturally – after enjoying your wonderful holiday from Christchurch to Queenstown – we are more than happy to give you a ride back to the airport as full airport transfers are simply part of the service that we are happy to provide!
This road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown provides adventure and scenery taking you from sea level to the very highest mounting in New Zealand. Filled with memorable stops along the way, with great food and activities for every age and skill level, this is journey worth experiencing.