Planning to visit New Zealand? Lucky you, you’re about to experience one of the world’s most beautiful country. In this post, I’ll be taking you through my New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary!
South Island of New Zealand had long been in my to-visit list, but New Zealand is located out of the way from most places and I never made it down there. It requires proper planning and setting aside of time, and I just kept getting distracted by other destinations to ever consider visiting New Zealand properly. So when an opportunity came up with work at TradeGecko to check out New Zealand, I jumped on it (btw, working at TradeGecko is my full-time job – we’re also hiring!)
Anyways, on to the big New Zealand trip-
New Zealand South Island Overview
The majority of beautiful New Zealand landscape and photos you see in travel magazines are located in the South Island. And I swear, there is a lot to see here – 10 days was barely enough to scratch the surface of South Island. Every point of interest is so spread apart with a lot of ground to cover because, at around 150,000km², it’s not exactly a tiny island.
Despite this, I was surprised to learn that there are actually fewer people living in the entirety of South Island than there are people living in Auckland, the biggest city in New Zealand in the North Island. So to put things into perspective for myself, I looked up the comparison of South Island to Singapore in terms of population density. And it turns out, there are nearly 6x more people in the tiny island of Singapore than in South Island, even though the size of Singapore is only 0.5% the size of the South Island.
Crazy stuff, hey? So it’s either Singapore is way too tiny or New Zealand is just that sparsely populated (It’s both).
OK, I’m done feeling small about my home country – now back to the itinerary.
10-Day New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary
We have a lot of ground to cover so we decided to open-jaw our trip for the sake of time optimization – we flew into Queenstown and flew out of Christchurch. I highly recommend doing this too if you are pressed for time! You can do this in reverse by flying to Christchurch and flying out of Queenstown, it really makes no difference aside of the order of places to visit.
The area you’d want to visit in South Island falls under Te Wahipounamu, which is Maori for “the greenstone waters”. It’s the South West New Zealand World Heritage, which in turn is internationally recognized by UNESCO World Heritage. This list encompasses Fiordland, Mount Aspiring, Mount Cook and Westland Tai Poutini.
Our itinerary, in a nutshell, went as follows (scroll down for detailed stuff and photos!):
- Day 1: Fly into Queenstown Airport, Drive to Te Anau (2 hours)
- Day 2-3: Te Anau – Fiordland National Park (3 Nights)
- Day 4-6: Queenstown – Ben Lomond, Glenorchy (3 Nights)
- Day 7-8: Wanaka – Mount Aspiring National Park (2 Nights)
- Day 9-10: Twizel – Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo (2 Nights)
- Day 11: Drive to Christchurch (3 hours) and fly out
If you are staying longer than 10 days, you can consider staying more days in any of these places or hitting up Kahurangi National Park to the northwest of Christchurch and Westland Tai Poutini. We unfortunately only had 10 days so we needed to move fast and didn’t have time for these places.
We also spent some time in Christchurch after leaving Twizel, but this is only because we are flying out of Christchurch Airport. It’s not that Christchurch is not worth visiting – it’s actually a very cool city. It’s just that if you are optimizing time to see the nature, then Christchurch is probably not going to be your first choice since it’s one of the major cities in New Zealand.
You can check this map below to visualize my itinerary. I’ve also marked up things to see and restaurants to eat at.
New Zealand Travel and Road Trip Tips
I find that New Zealand is very similar to Australia, so a lot of the tips below are going to overlap from my previous posts:
- You MUST rent a car – driving is pretty much a requirement in order to see the most of the South Island in 10 days. Arrange to pick up the car straight from the airport you’re flying into, then arrange to drop it off from the other airport you will be flying out of. Saves you tons of time! For example, we picked up our car in Queenstown Airport but will be dropping it off at Christchurch Airport.
- Make sure you have an International Driver License with at least a month validity left. And make sure the license is in English or has been translated to one.
- Like Australia, they are strict on speed limit so keep to it! We actually got pulled over for driving a little bit over the limit at Fiordland National Park…
- Fill up the fuel tank before returning your car, or it’s going to cost you later.
- 4G connection is widely available in all of the areas I went to (I connected to Sparks, supposedly a major telco in New Zealand). Sometimes you lose connection when you’re out in the national parks, but the cities are well connected.
- In smaller towns, most things are closed by 6 pm. Yes, like Australia. And yes, even grocery stores, so plan ahead if you need to replenish resources. But in bigger cities like Auckland, Christchurch, and Queenstown you’ll be fine.
New Zealand Hiking Tips
- As with Australia, the sun was super strong in NZ! – always wear sunscreen and layer up with extra clothing and a hat to shield yourself, even when you plan to be in the car all day.
- I downloaded offline maps on my Google Maps app just in case we go off grid. I experienced low connectivity only when deep inside the National Parks.
- If you are visiting during Winter or beginning of Spring, make sure you check road conditions. A change of weather might render certain routes impassable – for example, a few days after we left, the South Island was hit with a huge snowstorm, which knocked over some trees and the road to Glenorchy was cut off from Queenstown for a period of time.
- Take the DOC’s grading of the track with a grain of salt. Even if it says “easy” it’s might not be a walk in the park either (see my Ben Lomond summit blog for example). I feel like the DOC – the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the Nature Park Service here – are catering to a very fit audience?
Packing List for Hiking
- As with any trip, bring a Portable Charger. My favorite charger is the Xiaomi 10,000 mAh. This stuff is super powerful. It can charge an iPhone 7/8+ twice.
- Bring a good yet light windbreaker. It gets very windy and cold on some days. I used Uniqlo Blocktech Parka which was sufficient.
- Sunscreen – can’t stress this enough.
- Sunglasses – for the same reason as above. Also, if you plan to go somewhere with snow on a sunny day, it will protect you against snow blindness. Something I only learned during the hike to Ben Lomond.
- Snow gloves – if you are visiting at the tail end of Winter or beginning of Spring, there might still be some snow in the area. So you’ll want something waterproof and insulated so you can crawl on snow if you need to. Yet another thing I learned during the hike to Ben Lomond.
- Hiking boots – yes you need this! my hiking boots are Columbia Newton Ridge Plus II in Mud/Sanguine. Also, I wanted a pop of color so I changed the laces to the 3M Rope Laces in Red from Slickies.
Weather in New Zealand in September
I was in New Zealand in the first two weeks of September (September 1 to 17) and the weather gets very cold once you hit South Island. On average, the daily temperatures were 9-12C but some nights would hit below 0C. There was even a snowstorm that hit Queenstown and Wanaka (thankfully a few days after we left) which was already mid-September.
The temperature day-to-day varies greatly. One day it would be sunny and warm with blue skies, the next day it would be rainy and cold. Definitely make sure to plan ahead if you’re planning to do a long hike! Only do it on sunny days if you can.
Where to stay in South Island
We booked all of our accommodations through Airbnb and I was very happy with all of them. Since we were a group of 5 people, we mostly booked 3 bedroom houses with full kitchen and amenities, and they ended up costing us about $30-40 / night. My tip on choosing an Airbnb? Make sure to book only from a super host or accommodation with good past reviews.
Here is the list of Airbnb’s we booked and a brief review of them:
- Te Anau – Brand new 3 bedroom house with very modern amenities. Very close (1-2 minute walk) to the lake.
- Queenstown – An average 3 bedroom apartment, but that view was the best out of all the accommodations we had.
- Wanaka – A huge 3 bedroom house with a backyard and large living room.
- Twizel – Cozy little 3 bedroom house. Very convenient as a base to Aoraki and Lake Tekapo.
- Christchurch – A cute 3 bedroom townhouse close to the park and botanical garden.
Alright, now let’s cover what you can expect to see on each stop:
Fiordland National Park (from Te Anau)
This national park is located in the southwest of the South Island and houses some of the most famous sights of New Zealand. It’s only a 2-hour drive from Queenstown – totally worth stopping by if you’re in the area. Fiordland National Park is part of Te Wahipounamu and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to do at Fiordland National Park:
- Lake Marian Hike – My favorite hike in the Fiordland. It was a sufficiently challenging yet short hike, and the reward at the end of it was a beautiful alpine lake. What more could you ask for?
- Gertrude Saddle – This track is a highly technical track, described as an expert and unmarked track, but I’ve heard the reward at the end is massive – you get to overlook Milford Sound from the top of the saddle.
- Key Summit – This is another popular track, though we did not have a chance to visit. I think the Key Summit track would be an excellent choice for a day hike – it’s a 3 hours return journey.
- Milford Sound Cruise – probably the most famous attraction in the park. I thought it was just okay in relative to the rest of the park though.
Queenstown is definitely the most beautiful town I’ve ever flown into. On my flight to Queenstown from Auckland, I purchased a window seat and I was lucky enough to have picked the side of the plane that’s facing West, which is where all the scenic Southern Alps is.
I highly, highly recommend this if you ever fly in and out of Queenstown. The last hour of the flight before descending to Queenstown was just pure scenic – totally worth the measly $5 I paid to sit window!
What to do at Queenstown and area around it:
- Hiking to the summit of Ben Lomond – my most memorable moment in Queenstown is hiking to the summit of Ben Lomond. The track is NOT an easy hike despite being graded as “Easy” by the DOC, but it’s worth it. More info on the blog post!
- Take a drive to Glenorchy, a cute little town just north of Queenstown. There are a few cool tracks you can do (Lake Sylvan track for example) near Glenorchy. Otherwise, the drive up from Queenstown to Glenorchy was just beautiful.
- Do some water sports, boating, bungee jumping, etc.
Mount Aspiring National Park (from Wanaka)
Mount Aspiring National Park is part of the Southern Alps that I saw on my flight down to Queenstown. Like Fiordland, Mount Aspiring National Park is also part of Te Wahipounamu and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to do at Mount Aspiring / Wanaka:
- Rob Roy Glacier Track – A beautiful but easy hike just an hour away from Wanaka. Part of the road leading to the start of the track is actually a private farmland, so if you’re a city girl like me this would be a very amusing drive. Hint: so many cows. so many sheep. so many everything.
- Roys Peak – Probably the most Instagrammed hike in New Zealand. It’s very popular so you’d be hiking with a lot of people. The hike is also very dull since it just zigzags up the hill, but I heard the view above is worth it! We chose not to do this since we had just done Ben Lomond a few days prior.
- Isthmus Peak – similar to Roy’s Peak, but lesser known.
- Lake Wanaka / That Wanaka Tree – This lake is right in the town so you have no excuse not to check it out. There is also a pretty cool tree that is partly inside the lake and is a popular subject for photography.
Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park (from Twizel)
This area had been long known to Maori as Aoraki, which means “Cloud Piercer”. It was then renamed to Mount Cook after James Cook in 1851, but the name Aoraki was reincorporated back in 1998 out of respect for Maori history. And yep, you guessed it. Like the other two national parks I’ve mentioned above, Aoraki is also part of Te Wahipounamu and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to do at Aoraki / Mount Cook:
- Hooker Valley Track – This is a very easy yet scenic10km return route. The track is mostly flat and can be done by children and adults alike. The trail ends at Hooker Lake, with a great view of the famous Mount Cook. (I’ll have a blog post on this soon!)
- Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier – another easy track, shorter than Hooker Valley that ends up with a glacier view.
- Lake Pukaki – the lesser-known twin of Lake Tekapo. Personally, I preferred Lake Pukaki better than Tekapo because it’s quieter!
- Lake Tekapo – probably the most famous Alpine lake in New Zealand.
Annnnnd that’s all from me for New Zealand! I can safely say New Zealand was truly the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited, in terms of nature and scenic routes. It could be because I haven’t really traveled to the mountains during winter, so seeing snow almost every day was a brand new experience for me.
Could you blame me though, when the snow-capped mountains can be seen right from the windows of our Airbnb?
And of course, what’s a road trip without friends? I did this trip with my teammates from TradeGecko. This was actually a remote-work trip for us. We would go hike in the morning and work in the afternoon to sync up with Singapore. Thanks, Lucas and Shekhar for driving (a LOT) and Ezra and Nishant for being great travel buddies!