If you’re a little short on time but still want to get a feel for what makes New Zealand’s South Island one of the top tourist destinations on the planet, this New Zealand itinerary is perfect for you - best experienced with a campervan rental! Mountain scenery is a constant, but you'll swap lakes for the wild Tasman Sea as you make your way north. Don't forget to familiarise yourself with the fundamentals of driving in New Zealand before you head off!
Starting with the adventure capital of the world and heading up the stunning west coast (including a trip up and onto a magnificent glacier along the way) driving from Queenstown to Greymouth will give you a tantalising taste of what an itinerary in the South Island of New Zealand can offer.
There’s no hiding the natural beauty of New Zealand, no matter how you choose to travel. However, those who want to experience the true face of this country (a privilege that few have ever had) would do well to take a hint from Kiwi holidaymakers who, year after year, take to the road in campervans, setting their course for adventure or relaxation. An NZ campervan hire will allow you the freedom to see both the major New Zealand tourist attractions and also all the little special gems along the way that others might miss.
If there’s one place that embodies all the splendour and majesty of the South Island in one incredible package, it’s Queenstown. Look in one direction and you’ll be confronted by a savagely beautiful mountain range, aptly named The Remarkables. Look in another and you’ll be gazing across the blue expanse of Lake Wakatipu. Then of course there’s the huge range of adventure activities, from paragliding to bungy jumping to skydiving, not to mention the superb ski fields, like Cardrona and Coronet Peak, available during the colder months. It’s also the perfect place to begin your road trip - booking a campervan hire in Queenstown will lay the whole lower half of the South Island at your feet.
As you’ve probably already gathered, Queenstown hasn’t attained the title of Adventure Capital of the World for nothing. Whether you’re an experienced thrillseeker hunting for the next buzz or just someone who’d like to dip their toes into the realm of adventure, Queenstown has something for you. One of the most iconic adventure activities in this town is bungy jumping. There are a few bungy opportunities in the area, but two in particular stand out. The Ledge is one of the only places in New Zealand where you can experience the unique thrill of a Night Bungy. Plunge into the blackness with only a rubber cord tying you to safety - there’s no denying that this is a special kind of adrenaline buzz. If you’d rather see the stunning views as you fall earthward, then Nevis Bungy is your next best option. This is the highest bungy in the country, giving adrenaline junkies more than eight seconds of freefall. That may not sound like much, but try counting it in your head - then remember that you’ll be falling the whole time. The extra height actually allows you the leisure of taking in your surroundings as you plummet downward. This is the closest to free flight that most of us will ever come and there’s no denying that it is magnificent. Of course, if that’s not quite high enough for you, skydiving is always a popular option - the landscape around Queenstown makes the several thousand foot descent a real treat. Even for those who’d rather remain as close to sea level as possible, Queenstown has plenty in store. Whitewater rafting, jet boating, river surfing… The myriad opportunities here to get your heart racing will delight and astonish anyone with even the slightest sense of adventure.
If you’ve brought the kids along with you, you’ll be glad to know that there’s plenty of Queenstown attractions to keep them entertained and engaged for days on end. A particular highlight for the younger ones (and nature lovers of any age) is sure to be the Kiwi Birdlife Park. A trip to the park gives you the rare opportunity to see the reclusive national bird of New Zealand up close. Kiwi birds are nocturnal but there’s no need to wait till night falls to catch a glimpse of these intriguing creatures: specially built nocturnal houses will give visitors the chance to see Kiwi birds going about their lives, oblivious to the humans on the other side of the glass. Make sure to ask when feeding time is scheduled for, as this is a particular favourite among younger children. Kiwi birds aren’t the only creatures at the Park either, not by a long shot. You’ll find dozens of native bird species, as well as the Tuatara: an extremely rare reptile that has been living in New Zealand forests since before the country broke off from Gondwanaland. If you’re after something a bit more active so your kids can let off some steam, Alpine Aqualand at the Queenstown Events Centre is a great pick. Sunday in particular is a great day to drop by as you’ll find special activities and an inflatable obstacle course on offer between noon and 4:00 PM.
If all you desire from your time in Queenstown is just to let your hair down, relax and socialise in one of the most perfect towns on Earth, then you’re in luck. Thanks in part to the high volume of international visitors constantly flowing through Queenstown, the bars and restaurants here are top-notch - there’s a wide range of different styles and vibes on offer as well, so everyone can find a favourite spot. Whether you’re hunting for world-class haute cuisine or just a burger that will make you forget what the word vegetarian means, you’ll find it here in Queenstown. A few names to look out for when it comes to quality dining include Botswana Butchery, Fergburger, and Pier 19. For unparalleled views while you eat, Skyline Queenstown is a short gondola ride up Bob’s Peak - this is a must for the sake of the scenery alone.
Even if you’re on the hunt for pumping nightlife destinations, Queenstown doesn’t disappoint. If you’ve never been in an ice bar before (it really is what it sounds like - a bar carved from ice) this is a novelty that you won’t want to miss. Those who are just after top notch drinks and a relaxed atmosphere will find plenty of low key spots to meet up with new friends and enjoy artisanal beverages. Party animals are also well catered to here, with a range of nightclubs allowing you to dance the night away with people from all around the world.
There’s so much to see and do in and around Queenstown that it may be tempting to just stay indefinitely, but don’t forget that you’ve only just begun to discover how amazing the South Island can be. Before you know it, it’ll be time to pick up your campervan hire from Queenstown Airport and head on your way to the next startlingly beautiful location.
Just a little over an hour out of Queenstown you’ll come across another town that in many ways echoes Queenstown’s natural beauty. Wanaka is another picturesque town set on the shores of a pristine lake, and while it can’t quite rival Queenstown’s reputation as the Adventure Capital of the World, it certainly comes close. One of the most popular things to do in Wanaka is skiing, which comes as no surprise given its close proximity to both Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort. These internationally renowned ski fields are each within a 35 minute drive from Wanaka, making it easy for skiers to get there early then quickly nip back to town at the end of the day for much needed relaxation after a hard day on the slopes.
If you’re hunting for an experience that you can’t find anywhere else, try a visit to Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. Kids will love the intriguing array of bizarre visual illusions and brain bending puzzles, but it’s not just children who will appreciate this unique place. No matter how old you get, there’s still something fascinating about not being able to trust your eyes.
Even if you’re not a huge movie buff, catching a screening at the Cinema Paradiso is an essential part of any visit to Wanaka. Those who head along to this quirky little theatre will be able to settle into a lazy boy, step into an antique car or plump down on a sofa to enjoy the feature presentation. But it’s not just comfy and eclectic seating that sets this place apart. Cinema Paradiso also breaks for an intermission halfway through every movie, which gives you the chance to buy some ice cream or even freshly baked cookies to see you through the second half.
Of course, if you’re wanting to spend your time in Wanaka in a more active fashion, there’s far more than just skiing to keep you entertained. Visitors to Wanaka can jump straight into hiking, mountain biking and kite surfing to name just a few activities - this town is a gateway to a multitude of adventure opportunities, so take the time to explore your options!
As beautiful as this landscape can be up close, that’s nothing compared to its staggering grandeur when viewed from above. To get a real appreciation for this slice of New Zealand, try a scenic helicopter flight and revel in a whole new perspective. Aspiring Helicopters has a base just 20 minutes out of Wanaka on a fully functioning cattle, sheep and deer station, and boasts a fleet of modern helicopters that can have you soaring high above many magnificent locations, including Mount Aspiring, Milford sound, and Aoraki (Mount Cook).
On your way out of town you’ll be driving along the shores of two gorgeous bodies of water: first Lake Hawea, then the upper portion of Lake Wanaka. Once you leave Lake Wanaka behind, it’s only a few kilometres before you plunge into Mount Aspiring National Park, an awe-inspiring landscape of towering mountains and deep river valleys carved by ancient glaciers. Allow plenty of time to stop for a breath of fresh air and a quick photo opp. It may be tempting to keep stopping, as each new vista presents a new facet of the park’s majesty, but if you manage to restrain yourself then it won’t be too long before you emerge from Mount Aspiring National Park to find that you’ve arrived in Haast.
You may be thinking that after the scenic treasures of Queenstown and Wanaka, there’s not much more that the South Island can offer you. But you would be sadly mistaken. While the places you’ve left behind are jaw-droppingly stunning, you’re about to head toward some of the most unique wonders in the whole of New Zealand.
While Haast doesn’t major in adventure activities, its untouched natural environment is where the place really excels. Even UNESCO agrees: the Gates of Haast, the area around the township, has been classified as a World Heritage area. So what does that mean for you? It means that a visit to Haast is the perfect opportunity to see some of New Zealand’s rarest and most sought out creatures. Guided nature tours based out of Haast can get you up close to animals such as fur seals, little blue penguins and Hector’s dolphins. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the world’s rarest penguin - the Fiordland crested penguin.
The road from Haast
Once you’ve explored the Gates of Haast to your heart’s content, it’s time to begin driving up the West Coast of New Zealand, arguably the nation’s most beautiful coastline. 20 minutes up the Haast Highway you’ll discover Knights Point Lookout on your left. It’s well worth spending at least a couple of minutes here, as it will be your last glimpse of the sea for the next 50 kilometres. An inland detour is ahead of you, but don’t worry - you’ll be trading the sea views for one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets. Less than 10 minutes down the road from Knights Point Lookout you’ll pass alongside Lake Moeraki. Most tourists would head straight past Moeraki without giving it a second thought, but those people are missing out on something truly special. Aim to be at the lake by early morning or late afternoon and you’ll have a good chance of spotting the incredibly rare Fiordland crested penguin. There is nowhere else in the world where you’re more likely to see these creatures in the wild, so make sure to take at least a few minutes to experience something truly unique.
Continuing up State Highway 6 for about an hour will bring you to Fox Glacier, the twin to Franz Josef. Most people will only visit one of the two giant iceflows but Fox certainly has a lot to offer if you’re interested. Fox Glacier tends to be a little less crowded than Franz Josef and is actually the larger of the two glaciers - visitors often remark on the relaxed, laid back atmosphere that Fox fosters. It’s also less steep than Franz Josef, making a walk up the glacier less physically demanding, and it is the only West Coast NZ glacier with views of both Aoraki (Mount Cook) and Mount Tasman. But don’t get too attached to Fox, because just half an hour up the road is one of the undisputed highlights of this route: Franz Josef Glacier.
The journey from Queenstown to Greymouth has many moments of scenic spectacle but a visit to Franz Josef Glacier will undoubtedly rank high among them. Your amazing experiences won’t end with the glacier however. The final stage of your trip will take you along one of the most beautiful coastal routes on earth: the upper West Coast section of State Highway 6.
You’ve reached the end of your travels, but your adventure isn’t over quite yet. Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the West Coast, attracting around 250,000 people every year, and for good reason. It may be a little steeper, but there’s no denying that the Franz Josef glacier experience really is one of a kind.
Although it’s possible to walk right up to the glacier, you can’t climb up onto the glacier itself as the unstable ice at the face of Franz Josef is too hazardous. If you’re wanting to actually walk along Franz Josef you’ll need to take a short helicopter ride up and onto the ice. A guided tour isn’t compulsory but it’s certainly recommended - the tour will not only take you on a trek along the glacier but into the convoluted blue ice caverns that have been created by years of glacial shifts. Also, those who take the tour can warm up at the end of their icy adventure with a soak in the local hot pools, set in the midst of native rainforest - at no extra charge!
If that short helicopter ride up on to the surface of Franz Josef has you hungry for more of the same, there’s actually a longer heliflight that soars over both the glaciers instead of just popping up onto one of them. This is the perfect opportunity for those who are willing to pay a bit extra for a stunning scenic treat.
The road to Hokitika
The trip from Franz Josef to Hokitika will usually take less than two hours if you drive straight through but there are a couple of spots along the way that might tempt you to pull over. Whataroa serves as the starting point for a tour to New Zealand’s only White Heron nesting site. The site itself is tucked away deep in within the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, only accessible by boat. Laying eyes on nesting White Herons is extremely rare and would certainly make for a memorable stop on your journey. Further up the road in Ross there’s the opportunity to stretch your legs on a walkway where you’ll pass by the relics of New Zealand’s gold rush.
Brought into existence by the discovery of gold on the west coast in the 1860’s, Hokitika has transformed itself from a gold rush hub into a centre for greenstone carving and ecotourism. If you’re heading through Hokitika in March, there’s an even better reason to stop and stay here for a little while.
Hokitika’s Wildfoods Festival is an annual event that celebrates tasty cuisine that’s been sourced right here in God’s Own Country. Seafood hauled from the sea nearby, venison and pork hunted in the New Zealand bush, huhu grubs dug out of fallen trees - this is the perfect place to try something new or sample a new twist on one of your favourite foods. It’s not just NZ food on offer - there are intriguing and bizarre foods on offer from all over the world on offer each year at the Hokitika’s Wildfoods Festival. Past offerings have included scorpions, locusts but there are new exotic cuisines to savour every year.
If you’d rather admire bugs than munch on them, Glowworm Dell is well worth a visit. Head just north of town once the sun sets, and right off of the main road you’ll find the path to the dell. It’s pretty easy to get to, but you will want to bring a flashlight to guide you on your way - just make sure to turn it off when you arrive at your destination! This is the perfect little adventure for young kids: they get to stay up a bit later than normal and feel adventurous while witnessing the luminescent beauty of Glowworm Dell.
Just a little over half an hour north of Hokitika, you’ll come across your final destination. Greymouth is the largest town in the West Coast region and if you’re looking to wind down at the end of your journey, this isn’t a bad place to do it. Strolling along Mawhera Quay and down to the breakwater and Blaketown Beach is great way to take in the refreshing sea breeze and get up close and personal with the South Island’s gorgeous western coastline.
But if enjoying a cool beverage or two sounds more like your idea of winding down, you’ll want to pay a visit to the original home of Monteith’s Brewing Company, one of New Zealand’s most loved breweries. Although most of Monteith’s beer is now produced elsewhere in the country, you can still take a tour of the refurbished original brewery - accompanied of course by generous samplings of Monteith’s beer. Don’t forget to designate a sober driver!
This itinerary ends in Greymouth, but that doesn’t mean that your journey has to stop here. Many will choose to continue up State Highway 6 to the sunshine and vineyards of Nelson, while others may opt to head across Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch and the east coast. Whatever you choose to do, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever forget about your taste of South Island paradise.