Updated August 11, 2020.
I have the most incredible story to tell you. Through the magic of the Internet, I met my friend Colma. She is a North Island Kiwi, and on her own time and of her own accord, she helped this very overwhelmed professional traveler plan a Trip of a Lifetime to New Zealand’s stunning South Island. I am now sharing her itinerary with you, along with a few of our own details along the way so that you, too, can enjoy this remarkable island in the Pacific!
Day 1: Christchurch
Your time in Christchurch and New Zealand’s South Island will be more meaningful if you visit Quake City first thing. Christchurch was devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, and while they are bouncing back now, it may not seem so when you arrive. This excellent museum and its interactive exhibits will help you put all the pieces together and really appreciate who and what you see here!
More here: 10 Things to Do in Christchurch
Day 2: Christchurch to Punakaiki via Arthur’s Pass
While driving to Arthur’s Pass, take all the time you need to get there. Stop to get out and take pictures, take it all in, marvel at the incredible landscape! When you get to Arthur’s Pass, take a hike. The Devil’s Punchbowl hike is fantastic, but steep! You will definitely earn your lunch on this hike. And the Arthur’s Pass Diner is the best place for lunch!
Punakaiki for Sunset
After lunch, continue your drive and stop as often as you like. The New Zealand landscape is epic, as you will see at the end of your drive when you pull into Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks! Plan to catch the sunset here and stay the night at one of the accommodations along the beautiful coastal road.
More here: New Zealand’s Striking Scenery
Day 3: Punakaiki to Franz Josef
Wake up and get an early start on driving! Stop off for coffee (or lunch, if you didn’t get such an early start!) and walk around this adorable town. My sweet husband and I stopped into a jade shop called Heritage Jade and got me a beautiful jade necklace made by a local craftsman.
Hike to Franz Josef Glacier Viewing Area
After driving to Franz Josef, check in at your accommodation and head over to the Franz Josef Glacier Trail. It’s mostly flat, so it’s not a difficult hike, and the trail leads you to the best viewing point of this glacier from the ground. Afterward, have dinner at Alice May or one of the great restaurants in Franz Josef Village!
Day 4: Franz Josef
Spend your morning exploring a couple of hikes around the village. You will be delighted to find hikes for all levels, and ranging in return times of 30 minutes to 8 hours! One of our favorites was the Callery Gorge Hike. The whole hike goes through beautiful green forest and ends up at a bridge over the most incredibly blue glacier water you’ve ever seen! Don’t forget to take a look at Why You Need to Visit Franz Josef Village!
Aside from glaciers and gorgeous hikes, Franz Josef boasts hot pools, too! It’s the perfect way to relax after a hike or a welcome break amid all the road tripping.
Helpful info: The Ultimate List of Hiking Tips
Day 5: Franz Josef to Queenstown
Take in the Beauty
The drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown is about five hours, so start early! And enjoy the ride. Make all the stops you need, but maybe also bring a snack, just in case! The villages are few and far between, but once you get to Queenstown, you will have nearly unlimited options! And once you arrive, you should stretch your legs and explore downtown Queenstown, along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu. Check out the views:
Day 6: Queenstown
Kiwi Birdlife Park
Plan to spend at least an hour exploring the family owned and operated Kiwi Birdlife Park. There is a “night house” where you can see the kiwi birds, since they are nocturnal! It’s one of the few places where you can see them up-close. They also rescue and help breed other indigenous and endangered birds from all over New Zealand. Don’t miss the bird show!
Cable Cars to Bob’s Peak
Plan to let this take up your whole afternoon! You can take the Skyline Cable Cars up to the top, or if you’re feeling particularly energetic, you can hike it! Once you’re at the top, your first stop should be the views. Your next stop should be the Bungee jump, mountain-top luge, or even paragliding! When you’re done, head back down to Queenstown for dinner and catch the sunset on the lake!
Keep Reading: 10 Things to Do in Queenstown
Day 7: Queenstown to Dunedin
Tunnel Beach Walkway
The drive to Dunedin will be another 3.5-hour journey through farmland, sheep, mountains, and rolling hills! It’s a beautiful drive, but plan to start early. To help you stretch your legs a bit, plan to do the Tunnel Beach Walkway hike—steep but stunning!
Also just outside Dunedin you’ll find charming yet tragic Larnach Castle. You can even stay there if you want! The grounds are beautiful, the castle has been painstakingly restored, and the family story is almost stranger than fiction. It’s worth a visit to learn a little about the Europeans who came to settle here and get a little history, too!
After a gorgeous hike, a castle on a hill, and all that time in the car, you’ll be ready to walk around town and grab a bite to eat! Dunedin is very walkable, and the architecture is incredibly impressive. Take the time to look up and all around you!
Day 8: Dunedin to Christchurch
Dunedin Train Station (and Farmers’ Market!)
You may have already seen this on your walk the previous night. But whether or not you did, it’s worth walking down in the morning to see it in the early light. Believe it or not, the Dunedin Railway Station is the most photographed building in all of New Zealand, as well as the most photographed train station in the world! And if you’re there on a Saturday morning, all the better—that’s farmers’ market day!
Dinner in Christchurch
Driving will take about 5 hours, but your only goal is to be in Christchurch by dinner, so take your sweet time! There are scenic vistas to enjoy, small towns to explore, and museums along the way to break up the journey. Christchurch has no shortage of great restaurants, but if you’re having trouble deciding, just ask at the front desk of your accommodation for a recommendation.
Day 9: Christchurch
Punting the River Avon
Reward yourself for all that driving with a leisurely morning and a fun punting ride! Tours start at 10:00am, so grab a big breakfast, a cup of coffee, and mosey over to the River Avon for the punting tour. Weather not cooperating? They provide blankets and waterproof gear for you! Not a fan of water? Head over to the Royal Botanic Gardens or Canterbury Museum instead.
Guided City Walks Tour
The other primary must-do in Christchurch is the Guided City Walks Tour. Our guide was a local who knew everything about everything and pointed out things we never would have noticed otherwise–like how to tell which buildings had been renovated after the earthquakes and why so many were still shored up with scaffolding waiting their turn. It’s one of the best things we could have done, and I highly recommend it to you as well! Tour times change with the seasons, so check the schedule to choose the time that works best for you.
Royal Botanical Gardens
You will begin and end this tour at the Royal Botanical Gardens, so when you finish you can take the opportunity to enjoy the gardens! It’s beautiful in all seasons.
Keep reading: How to Spend 2 Days in Christchurch
Day 10: Christchurch
Yesterday’s tour probably included a little background at the Canterbury Museum, but here’s your chance to explore more! I highly recommend the World War I exhibit if you only have time for one, since the history of the Canterbury region is enough to keep you occupied for several hours!
International Antarctic Centre
Before you fly out of Christchurch International Airport, plan to spend at least two hours at the International Antarctic Centre. You can take a ride in an Antarctic ATV called a Haglund, experience an Antarctic blizzard, see a 4-D film, and my personal favorite: watch the little blue penguins! It’s literally just across the street from the airport, and there is a free shuttle from Christchurch to the Centre. There is even a place to store your luggage!
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