Queenstown to Kaikoura via Tekapo: Stargazing and Whale Watching
Queenstown to Kaikoura
Est Driving Time8-15 days
Although this is not a long route, it takes in a lot of amazing places and sights - so set aside plenty of time to complete it! #LetsGoMotorhome
Leg 1 Queenstown to Tekapo
Est Driving Time3 hrs, 15 mins
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that a place like Queenstown actually exists. Its setting is right out of some Shangri-la legend, hemmed between the sharp peaks of the Remarkables and the mirror-like aquamarine waters of Lake Wakatipu. This is a town that takes everything that’s best about New Zealand’s South Island and distills it into one unbelievably picturesque locale. And Queenstown’s not just pretty to look at. There are a host of amazing experiences to be had in this southern town.
‘Adventure Capital of the World’ is a pretty lofty title, but it’s one that Queenstown is more than worthy of. This is a mecca for thrillseekers of all varieties; even if you don’t consider yourself an adrenaline junkie, this is a town that may just entice you into discovering your more adventurous side. What exactly does Queenstown have in store for the avid adventurer? Skydiving is the go to option for many and it’s not hard to see why. Although the basic experience of jumping out of a plane several thousand feet above sea level is pretty much the same worldwide, it’s the breathtaking views here that make it really special. Queenstown is even more well known for its bungy jumping sites. Although there are a few options available, few can rival the Nevis Bungy: at 134 metres, this is the highest bungy jump in New Zealand and gives eight and a half seconds of freefall to the daring souls that leap out over the Nevis River. But it’s not just those with a head for heights who’ll find thrills here. Jetboating, whitewater rafting, offroad motorcycling… the list of Queenstown adventure attractions goes on and on.
For families visiting Queenstown, there’s more than enough to keep the kids happy during your stay here. To give them a fascinating insight into the lives of New Zealand’s reclusive kiwi bird, head to the Kiwi Birdlife Park. Their specially constructed houses allow visitors to see these shy nocturnal creatures up close - there’s even a special ‘feeding time’ demonstration that’s sure to be a hit with kids of all ages. It’s not just the kiwi bird that lives here though - the park is home to a host of native animals including the Tuatara. These ancient reptiles were around before the dinosaurs and are firm visitor favourites.
But if you’re after something a little more active to allow your kids to expend their excess energy, Alpine Aqualand at the Queenstown Events Centre is a great choice. It’s particularly good if you can make it there on a Sunday, as the kids are treated to a giant inflatable obstacle course and parents can enjoy a traditional Kiwi ‘sausage sizzle’ - a BBQ centred community event.
Views and adventure are all very well, but you can’t enjoy any of that on an empty belly. Fortunately, Queenstown provides ample opportunity for you to indulge in delicious dishes. This is a town that’s full of world-class restaurants - the standard has to be high, given the amount of wealthy international tourists that flock here every year. And it’s not just in top notch restaurants that Queenstown displays its aptitude for providing great food - there are many places where you can find fare that fills your stomach and delights your tastebuds without costing the earth. For a fantastic casual dining option, try Fergburger. This is no ordinary burger joint - in fact it’s known nationwide as one of the best places to buy a burger in the whole country. Even if burgers aren’t normally your favourite, you have to trust me when I say you’ll want to try Fergburger.
And for those in town to party, you’ve certainly come to the right place. Dance the night away with people from all around the world at one of Queenstown’s nightclubs or discover a new meaning for “cool” at one of the town’s two ice bars. There are also many places that cater for those looking for a quiet craft beer or a fine wine in a low-key, comfortable setting.
Queenstown has enough hidden treasures to keep you intrigued and excited for years, but don’t forget: you have a whole road trip of breathtaking experiences ahead of you.
About an hour along State Highway 6 to the east of Queenstown you’ll discover the town of Cromwell, a place that was founded to take advantage of rich goldfields, but these days finds wealth in its sumptuous stone fruit harvest. There are still relics of the old gold mining days though and those with an eye for history can take a tour to explore a Chinese mining village from New Zealand’s gold rush period, and even pan for gold in the river. There are also quite a number of wineries in the area, though if you’re planning to continue the drive north to Tekapo, perhaps these are best left for another time.
A little over an hour and a half after you leave Cromwell behind, you’ll come across the quaint little town of Twizel. Some may remember the town as the location for the epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Peter Jackson’s final Lord of the Rings film - and if you’re a film buff or Lord of the Rings aficionado, then taking a OneRing tour out to the sheep station where the battle was shot would be well worth your time. To be honest, the adults-only twilight tour would suit most people, regardless of your level of geekiness, as you enjoy beer, wine and nibbles while the sun sets over a beautiful landscape.
You can also take your pick from a range of alpine helicopter flights from nearby Pukaki Airport - with all but the shortest guaranteeing snow landings!
After you leave Twizel behind, you’ll have less than an hour’s drive ahead of you to your final destination for the day: Tekapo.
Leg 2 Tekapo to Christchurch
Est Driving Time3 hrs
*If you're beginning your trip in Christchurch, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
Seeing as you’re staying overnight in Tekapo, why not head to the Church of the Good Shepherd early in the morning before tour buses start disgorging their loads of eager visitors. You don’t have to be the least bit religious to appreciate the rustic beauty of this stonework church - but even more than the church itself, it’s the setting that really steals the scene. Specially constructed so that those who look out the picture window behind the altar will have a divine view of lake and mountain majesty, this is certainly one of the visual highlights of your itinerary.
Thanks to its isolated nature, Tekapo is also one of the best spots in the nation for stargazing. The entire area has been designated as a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve thanks to the nearby Mount John University Observatory at the northern end of the Mackenzie Basin. Those who crave a closer look at the shining celestial bodies than the naked eye permits can take a tour of the observatory for staggering views of the heavens in all their glory.
If you’re feeling a little sore after driving the first leg of your journey, you can soak the miles away at Tekapo Springs, the perfect place to relax and refresh yourself for the next stage of the journey. But there’s more to Tekapo Springs than just R&R - during the summer months visitors can sluice down the world’s largest inflatable waterslide, while at cooler times of the year they offer a skating rink, with ice skating lessons for newcomers and even opportunities for curling enthusiasts to test their mettle.
To really get a taste of how wild the South Island can be, try a horseback trek through Mackenzie Country. From short trips of less than an hour to epic multi-day journeys that will have you feeling like an intrepid pioneer of yesteryear, this is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in the raw wonder of this primeval landscape.
About halfway between Tekapo and Christchurch lies the large farming town of Ashburton. When the weather’s nice, Lake Hood nearby becomes a hub for all kinds of watersports, from boating and yachting to swimming and waterskiing, so remember to bring your bathing suit and pop down to the idyllic lake shore and join in the fun. To gain a real appreciation for the grandeur of the South Island, there’s nothing quite like taking to the air and soaring above rugged mountains and deep sounds. Air Rangitata (located just outside of Ashburton) offers a wide range of scenic flights, from the steep sides of Mount Cook to the tranquil surroundings of Milford Sound. If you’re feeling like it’s been too long since the adventures of Queenstown, you can get your fix in Ashburton with Skydiving Kiwis - it only takes a few minutes of instruction before you’re ready for a tandem skydive, feeling the rush of terminal velocity as you plunge toward (and then float above) the Canterbury plains.
For those after a more relaxing option, head over to the Ashburton Aviation Museum. Whether you’re an aviation aficionado or not, this fascinating collection gives visitors a unique historical insight.
Once you’re ready to hit the road again, it’s just an easy hour and a half drive along State Highway 1 to the South Island’s largest city and your last destination for the day: Christchurch.
Leg 3 Christchurch to Kaikoura
Est Driving Time2 hrs, 30 mins
*If you're beginning your trip in Christchurch, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
This city has been through a lot in the last few years - the Christchurch earthquake of 2011 and its subsequent aftershocks devastated the city, destroying infrastructure and claiming lives, but far from breaking the spirit of this beautiful place and its inhabitants, the disaster has brought the community closer together and fostered an air of creativity and innovation. You can see evidence of this indomitable positivity in the pop-up bars and cafes, the shipping container based shopping malls and the humble beauty of Christchurch’s cardboard cathedral.
And in spite of the quakes, there are so many things to see and do in Christchurch. Some things never change: punting down the Avon River is still hugely popular with those wishing to unwind on a sunny afternoon, and a stroll through the exquisite Christchurch Botanic Gardens still refreshes the soul and allows one time to reflect on the beauty of life.
When it comes to family friendly Christchurch attractions, you can’t do better than the International Antarctic Centre. Experience what it’s like to be caught in a blizzard, get up close to adorable Little Blue Penguins, and learn about the adventurers who were the first to brave this icy continent through fun, interactive displays. This is a place that welcomes all explorers at heart, no matter what their age.
Once you feel you’ve explored as much of the city as you can fit into your schedule, it’s time to take a Christchurch to Kaikoura day trip. The driving distance between Christchurch and Kaikoura isn’t prohibitive, less than 3 hours all up, and it’s certainly worth making the journey in view of the unique attractions that Kaikoura has to offer…
It’s easy to take a straight shot through from Christchurch to Kaikoura but if you have the time, a little detour through the vineyards of the Waipara region may prove to be a special highlight of your trip. Situated just to the north of Christchurch, Waipara is a classic example of Canterbury wine country and is home to more than a few world-class vintages. There are a number of wine tours available in the area, and if you enjoy a nice tipple now and again, you’d be mad not to take advantage of this oenophile’s paradise right on Christchurch’s doorstep.
From Waipara it’s just over an hour and a half up to the small seaside settlement of Kaikoura. So why have you made the trip up from Christchurch to this tiny town? While it may seem like there’s not a lot here, whale watching in Kaikoura has become a massively popular activity for visitors from all around the world. No matter what the time of year, Whale Watch in Kaikoura can ensure that sightseers lay their eyes on these magnificent creatures 95% of the time - and if you’re one of the unlucky 5% who don’t see them, Whale Watch will refund 80% of what you’ve paid. At worst, that makes for a pretty cheap way to cruise the clear waters off Canterbury’s coast.
And whales aren’t the only sea creatures you can get up close to here. Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura offers you not only the chance to see wild dolphins but the opportunity to swim with them as well! Kaikoura’s dusky dolphins are a friendly and acrobatic bunch which makes the experience that much more special.
You can even snorkel with New Zealand fur seals thanks to Seal Swim Kaikoura - so if you’ve ever wanted to get close to some of the most fascinating and social sea creatures on earth, Kaikoura certainly has you covered.
Of course, travelling from Queenstown up to Kaikoura is only one way to see all this. You may want to turn the whole trip on its head, pick up a campervan rental in Christchurch and launch out from there. And don’t forget, if you have more than 3 to 5 days on your hands, it’s very easy to spend far more time along this incredible route. But however you choose to tackle this itinerary, there’s no doubt that you’ll emerge at the end of it with a wealth of memories that you’ll treasure forever and stories that you’ll be telling for years to come.
- Snow chains (for the road between Queenstown and Wanaka in winter)
- Ski gear
- Bathing suit
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