Queenstown to Christchurch via Franz Josef: From Ice Bar to Icefield
Queenstown to Christchurch
Est Driving Time8-14 days
With so much scenery, a motorhome is the best way to drive this route. Being in control of your own home on wheels means you say where to go, when to stop and how long it will take you. Gaze upon a glacier from your bed, make a cup of tea on top of a mountain pass... a campervan hire is the way to go in New Zealand! Familiarise yourself with New Zealand's road rules and you'll be ready to explore some of the planet's most epically gorgeous and exciting scenery. #LetsGoMotorhome
Leg 1 Queenstown to Haast
Est Driving Time3 hrs
There's so much to see and always a hidden gem you didn't plan on discovering so flexibility with accommodation is a great way to start. A motorhome rental from this magical location will get you closer to your surroundings on your own schedule.
If you had to pick one location in New Zealand’s South Island to embody all that’s best about the entire region, there’s no doubt that it would have to be Queenstown. Nestled at the foot of the Remarkables mountain range, on the shore of the deep azure Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown’s surroundings are legendary but that’s not all the town has to offer.
It’s not in vain that Queenstown is called the adventure capital of New Zealand. If you’re looking to indulge your inner adrenaline junkie before you hit the road, it’s merely a matter of choosing how you want to get your heart racing. For those who are chasing that sweet feeling of freefall, there are quite a handful of bungy jump sites to select from - but why would you want to choose any other than Nevis Bungy: the highest bungy jump in country. The 134 metre drop will give you eight and a half seconds of freefall straight into a yawning canyon. Now that’s one hell of a thrill. If heights aren’t really your thing, try hitting the water for a spot of white water rafting. Or jetboating. Or even riversurfing! You really are spoiled for choice.
If you’ve got the family along for the ride, worry not: there’s plenty for the kids to see and do in this beautiful place. To get up close and personal with some of New Zealand’s most iconic wildlife, head along to the Kiwi Birdlife Park. You’re guaranteed to spot Kiwis in their specially designed nocturnal houses, and if you stick around for a bit you can even witness Kiwi feeding time! Of course, Kiwi birds aren’t the only draw - you can see a plethora of native wildlife at the Park including Tuatara, reptiles which were scuttling around Gondwanaland before the dinosaurs even existed. If the kids want to let off a bit of steam, Alpine Aqualand at the Queenstown Events Centre is a great pick. If you’re around on a Sunday, head over between 12 and 4pm to catch their lunchtime sausage sizzle and a giant inflatable obstacle course that your kids won’t be able to get enough of.
Queenstown also has a great social scene, with people from all over the world spending their evenings relaxing and celebrating after a day full of adventure and excitement. The restaurants here are exemplary, giving you a wide range of uniformly excellent cuisine choices. Even if you’re not in the mood for a fancy sit-down meal, there’s still plenty to choose from - for example, Fergburger is renowned throughout New Zealand as the one of the very best burger joints in the country, and is worth a visit even if you’re not normally a carnivore.
The nightlife is something special too, from the novelty ice bars (a must-try, if you haven’t before) to the boutique taverns serving craft beer and fine wine to the carpe diem atmosphere of Queenstown’s clubs.
Eventually though, it will be time to move on from this wonderful town - you have a whole road trip stretching out ahead of you! Make sure to book your Queenstown campervan rental well ahead of time, as this is a very popular tourist destination and RV rentals can sell out quickly.
About an hour up the road from Queenstown lies Wanaka, another picture perfect town on the shores of a beautiful lake.
Right on the doorstep of Mt. Aspiring National Park, Wanaka is a gateway to sparkling skifields, majestic peaks and lush forests. This small New Zealand town has many points of interest - if you have the time, pull over and get a taste for what Wanaka has to offer. Wanaka skiing is extremely popular - Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone are both within a 35 minute drive, and both of them have a stellar reputation among local and international skiers.
Both the young and the young-at-heart will be fascinated by Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. This realm of illusion, mazes and brain twisting conundrums will make you question your very eyes and provide no end of entertainment for the kids.
Whether or not there’s something at the flicks that you’re wanting to see, catching a movie at Cinema Paradiso is an essential cultural experience. What makes this theatre so difference to your average cinema? For a start, instead of rows of uniform seating Cinema Paradiso has an eclectic collection of couches, armchairs, lazy boys - even a car! Plus at the interval (a feature of every screening) they sell ice cream and freshly baked cookies. Now are you sold?
If you have something a little more energetic in mind, there are myriad opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, kite surfing and more within a short trip’s distance from Wanaka. Located in the Matukituki Valley, outside of Wanaka, Aspiring Helicopters has a well established and modern fleet of helicopters, with the opportunity to see the incredible Southern Alps and its beautiful rivers and lakes from above! The experienced pilots understand the area like no other and offer memorable knowledge and insights of what is on offer. And there’s no need to rush away if you don’t want to. One of the great things about hiring a motorhome is that it gives you the flexibility to adapt your journey as you see fit - why not stay an extra day or so if Wanaka is calling out to you?
As you head north on the road out of Wanaka you’ll pass alongside both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea and journey directly through the glorious Mt. Aspiring National Park. There are plenty of incredible photo opportunities along the way - the real challenge will be restraining yourself from constantly stopping and staring so that you can finally make your way to the day’s destination, just a few kilometres out the other side of the National Park: Haast.
Leg 2 Haast to Franz Josef Glacier
Est Driving Time2 hrs
The entire area around the township, labeled The Gates of Haast, has been designated as a World Heritage area by UNESCO and for good reason - beside the abundance of outdoor pursuits available for the actively minded, this an ideal place to see some of New Zealand’s rarest and most fascinating animals. Take a guided nature tour to discover fur seals, little blue penguins, Hector’s dolphins and (if you’re lucky) the extremely rare Fiordland crested penguin among many other species.
But to really take in the grandeur of the surrounding area, there’s no better way than to jump on board a scenic flight, soaring and hovering far above this impressive landscape. Greenstone Helicopters fly over a wide range of destinations including Milford Sound, Mt. Cook and Franz Josef & Fox glaciers.
The road from Haast
Heading on from Haast, you’ll travel along State Highway 6 with mountains on your right and the gorgeous west coast just to your left. Driving along the west coast of New Zealand is a real treat - this is truly one of the most beautiful coastlines in the whole world. Keep your eye out for Knight’s Point Lookout, about 20 minutes north of Haast. This is a great spot to hop out and enjoy the sea views before the road heads inland.
Not much further up the road is Lake Moeraki, a perfect little gem of a lake. Take the nearby Monro Beach Walk for the best chance you’ll ever get to see the world’s rarest penguins, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. They’re best seen between the months of July and November, either in the late afternoon or early morning.
Only an hour from Moeraki lies the first of the glaciers that you’ll encounter during your trip. Most visitors choose to explore just one or the other of the two; while they’re certainly not identical, both offer similar experiences. One plus side for Fox Glacier is that it’s easier to walk along compared to the more challenging gradient of Franz Josef, it’s also the longest of the west coast glaciers stretching a massive twelve kilometres.
But beyond the charms of the Fox, Franz Josef awaits, ready to introduce you to its wonders...
Leg 3 Franz Josef to Hokitika
Est Driving Time1 hr, 45 mins
*If you're beginning your trip in Greymouth, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
At last you’ve arrived at one of the main highlights of your journey: Franz Josef Glacier. The village of Franz Josef is about five kilometres from the glacier itself, a quaint little settlement with just over three hundred permanent residents. Don’t worry though, as long as you plan ahead there will be no issues finding a place to stay - motorhome travellers can choose from two beautiful holiday parks in the area: Franz Josef TOP 10 Holiday Park and the slightly fancier Rainforest Holiday Park.
There are a couple different choices open to those who want experience this dynamic natural wonder. It’s possible to make the walk up the valley to Franz Josef but due to the unstable nature of the glacier face, you’re not allowed to walk up onto the glacier itself unguided. The best option is to take a helicopter ride up on to Franz Josef and join one of the guided tours. This will allow you not only to walk along the massive river of ice but also to explore the stunning blue ice caves that are created by the stress and strain of the glacier’s incremental slide toward the sea. And once you’ve had your fill of the icy wonderland that is the caves and crevasses of Franz Josef, you can warm up with a soak in the local rainforest surrounded hot pools - free of charge.
It’s also possible to opt for a longer helicopter tour which flies over Franz Josef as opposed to up on to it - this is perfect for those who are happy to pay a bit more for the ultimate scenic experience.
You’ll undoubtedly carry memories of Franz Josef, New Zealand with you forever, but eventually it will be time to leave the icefields behind and make the 1 hour 45 minute drive to the old gold rush town of Hokitika.
Leg 4 Hokitika to Christchurch
Est Driving Time2 hrs, 15 mins
*If you're beginning your trip in this area, find motorhome rental from Greymouth, or Christchurch.
Originally founded during the west coast gold rush of the 1860’s, and subsequently becoming the centre for that movement, Hokitika has changed with the times as its historical industries of gold, coal and greenstone dwindled: the town is now becoming known for ecotourism and greenstone carving. Those looking for a Hokitika campground will find that Hokitika Holiday Park is a brilliant little place to park up and stay the night.
If you’re planning to pass through in March, you have to book tickets for Hokitika’s Wildfoods Festival. Majoring in delicious fresh food pulled straight from the sea nearby or the New Zealand native bush, the fest also traditionally offers bizarre foods from near and far such as locusts, scorpions and even shots of horse semen. For those more inclined to watch bugs than to eat them, Glowworm Dell is a beautifully luminescent nighttime attraction. Just a little north of town, right off State Highway 6, the dell is easy to get to but you should bring a flashlight to make the short walk a bit easier.
The Alpine Road
It’s not a long journey from Hokitika to Christchurch, but that’s just as well - this is one of the most scenic routes in the world so you’ll want to set aside plenty of time to step out of your motorhome, breathe the fresh alpine air and snap a holiday shot or two. You’ll be turning off of State Highway 6 onto SH 73 at Kumara Junction - from this point on, you’ll be making directly for the Southern Alps. A little less than an hour out of Hokitika you’ll see Jackson’s Historic Tavern. This is the perfect spot to pop in for a spot of lunch, whether that’s a whitebait sandwich, a lamb roast with veges or a gourmet pie.
From there it’s time to head up to Arthur’s Pass. This is real alpine territory now, with tussocky grass, rugged peaks and deep gorges dominating the landscape. Just before you reach the actual Arthur’s Pass settlement, you’ll come across Mount Rolleston with its signature kea birds in residence. Kea are New Zealand native parrots which love to delight tourists with clowning and shenanigans before ripping the rubber off your vehicle when your back is turned. These highly intelligent and cheeky birds are well worth seeing - just make sure you keep an eye on your motorhome rental to avoid the damage that they frequently wreak on tyres and windshield wipers.
Before you leave the highlands and descend to the Canterbury plains, there’s one more place that you have to make an effort to see: Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. A little over half an hour down the road from Arthur’s Pass, this diminutive reserve is set among spectacular limestone outcroppings, but the real attraction here is a 362 metre long cave that intrepid road trippers can explore. Those who decide to delve into the depths will need to bring a torch and wear a warm top (woollen or polypropylene) and shorts with woollen or polypropylene long-johns underneath; it can get very chilly in the cave and you’ll be walking through water for most of the way. Also, passing through the cave shouldn’t be attempted during heavy rain. Go in at the outlet end of the cave and walk upstream - this way is safer. Your subterranean journey should take about an hour, before you ascend a rung ladder back into daylight at the other end.
As you descend from the mountains you’ll pass through Springfield, home to a giant pink doughnut, a tribute to The Simpsons. The town’s original doughnut was given to the town in 2007 to promote The Simpsons Movie, but it was destroyed by arson a few years later. In 2012 a new concrete version was erected in this tiny town at the western edge of the Canterbury plains. From Springfield, an easy hour’s drive across the plains will bring you to your final destination - Christchurch.
This is a city that’s buzzing with fresh life and innovation - the earthquakes of 2011 wreaked havoc across Christchurch, destroying much of the city’s infrastructure, but far from being cowed or defeated by the natural disaster, the residents have fought back with Kiwi ingenuity and an unshakeably positive attitude. The result is a vibrant range of alternative shops and structures springing up: visitors can enjoy a drink or catch a bite to eat in Christchurch’s pop-up cafes and bars, indulge in a little retail therapy in one of the city’s container-based shopping malls or attend a service at the beautiful cardboard cathedral - this is truly an urban experience like no other.
Of course, there are some things that the quakes couldn’t change and there are still plenty of things to do and see in Christchurch. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens are a wonder to behold, and punting down the Avon River on a sunny afternoon is still one of the best ways to pass a relaxing hour or so.
If you’ve got kids along with you, the International Antarctic Centre is an absolute must. From an Antarctic blizzard simulator to little blue penguin encounters, this world-class centre has a huge array of fascinating displays and experiences on offer - perfect for explorers at heart, both young and old!
And just in case you’ve decided that you’d like to flip the trip on its head and start from here, picking up a campervan hire in Christchurch is always a good option - just make sure that you don’t leave it till the last minute, or finding a motorhome rental that’s right for you may prove a challenge.
Though your journey is now over, this small slice of South Island paradise will leave you awed, inspired and hungry for more incredible experiences all around our wondrous planet.
- Snow chains (for the road between Queenstown and Wanaka in winter)
- Ski gear
- Warm, waterproof outer layer
- Hiking boots
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