A 2 week road trip on New Zealand’s picturesque South Island beckons nature and adventure enthusiasts. The unending fields of rolling green hills, snow covered mountains, electric blue lakes,  sky piercing fjordlands, and beautiful coastline make this an easy addition to anyone’s bucket list destination.

Drive to Franz JosefNew Zealand Pinterest Image

New Zealand is a place to visit for a trip of a lifetime. Not only because of the picture perfect scenery at every bend in the road, but because of the distance of traveling from other countries.
One look at a map of the South Island may fool you into thinking that two weeks is more than enough time to get from one destination to another, but don’t fall for the illusion. It’s important to whittle your list to the highlights or you risk spending your entire vacation enjoying the scenery from the car rather than out in nature.
We visited New Zealand South Island on a 2 week road trip doing our best to avoid too much time in the car, however we definitely learned we fit too much in.  While we still had an amazing time, it came at the cost of very little down-time. Check out our itinerary on a Google Map!

Getting Around New Zealand

A hugely popular way to enjoy New Zealand on  a road trip is renting a camper van.  I went back and forth on if we should follow that alluring option or rent a car and stay at hotels along the route. To me, it came down to the main advantages and disadvantages of each. Ultimately we decided that the car rental would be better for us. Even including hotel, gas, a speeding ticket,  and food, it was still cheaper than the cost of the camper van rental alone. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about a shower or toilet system going out on us with a rental car.  Camper vans make more sense economically if you are spending a month or more.

Camper Van

Advantages

Highly flexible and easy to change itinerary

Disadvantages

Expensive for two weeks and  more difficult to maneuver around the island.

Car Rental

Advantages

Significantly cheaper than camper van and allowed for better maneuverability.

Disadvantages

Less flexibility in itinerary because you have to pre-book accommodations.

The CamperMate App is helpful to find camping sites and Gas Stations.

Our itinerary: A cautionary tale

I didn’t head the warnings, everywhere I looked said that the amount we wanted to cover was just too much and I let me pride get in the way.  We over packed our trip by one too many stops and spent the majority of one of our days driving to Nugget Point from Mt. Cook, when we could have skipped the add-on and enjoyed more time in Milford Sound. But, the great thing about it is that we did see some penguins and a beautiful sunrise. Added bonus, you can now learn from our mistake. And seriously, don’t let your pride get in the way of all the warnings!

Google will mislead you with their travel times.  Use this travel time and distance calculator instead.

Days 1-3: Abel Tasman National Park

As luck would have it, we landed in Auckland on the day of a massive earthquake. After a shaky night (literally) in Auckland, we flew down to Nelson to begin our two week adventure.  The rain put a damper on exploring in the afternoon, so we settled into our room as the aftershocks continued to rattle our cabin walls throughout the night. Aside from the occasional, and strong, aftershocks we were only effected by strong currents from the Tsunami that resulted from the earthquake.

On our first full day, the skies cleared and we kayaked along the coast.  We originally wanted to rent a sea kayak on our own to explore solo, but the strong currents in the area and rough waters due left us feeling more comfortable going with a small group.  And as it turns out the full day trip we booked was cancelled due to the rough waters, which resulted in going on a shorter trip. The trip lasted half the day, with a stop on a small beach for lunch before kayaking out to Adele Island to check out some sea lions before heading back to shore for the tractors to pick our group up and return to our car. That night we enjoyed dinner at Kimi Ora and ventured down to see the glow worms that reside on the lodge’s property.

On our second day we hiked part of the New Zealand Great Walk, creatively named the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. To complete the track in its entirety would take 3-5 days oh hiking and camping. We opted for an abbreviated version by taking a water taxi, the only way to get into the park, to Bark Bay and hiking back down to our car in Marahau for a total 13 miles (21km).  The hike was equally beautiful and exhausting.  It’s relatively flat with coastal views, bridge crossings, and waterfalls. We enjoyed our lunch that Kimi Ora prepared on the beach of Torrent Bay and finished the hike within 7 hours.

Where we stayed: Kimi Ora
Where we ate: Sprig & Fern, Beached Whale,  Kimi Ora

Days 4: Drive to Franz Josef

Including stops, our drive to the town of Franz Josef took about 8 hours. However, before we could leave we ended up having to get one of our tires fixed. After breakfast and loading the car, we noticed that one of the tires looked like it was losing air. Fortunately we came across Riwaka Garage where it was fixed quickly and by the nicest people. I couldn’t stop laughing after I asked what the mechanic’s favorite spot on the West Coast was and he responded simply by saying “The whole lot.”

The drive winds through verdant green hills until you reach the coast. Along the coast you are treated to views of massive surf pounding the earth. The drive is one of the most naturally beautiful drives we’ve been on and well worth the time on the road. We decided to make a stop at Pancake Rocks because it happened to be high-tide and I am so glad we did. At low-tide the popular attraction would be disappointing, but at high tide the power of the ocean can be felt and heard before you even see it in action. We continued on to Greymouth to grab lunch before stopping at the infamous Hokatika sign on the beach.  We arrived at our motel and took a bit to relax before walking to dinner.

Where we stayed: 58 on Cron Motel
Where we ate: Monteith’s (Greymouth), The Landing (Franz Josef)

Day 5 – Hike Fox Glacier & Drive to Wanaka

Fox Glacier New Zealand Road Trip

So we may or may not have almost run out of gas on our way to Lake Matheson. After filling up with gas in Fox Glacier town, we drove out to see the mirror effect of Lake Matheson. When we got to our photo spot, we were amazed at how perfectly still the surface was, which reflected the mountains and trees perfectly. Once the wind began to pick up, the mirror image was erased so we decided to leave the crowds behind and check-out a view point of Fox Glacier framed by fields of green dotted with white lamb. After a large tour bus cramped our style at the view point, we made our way to the hiking trailhead. Our next stop was to hike the Chalet View Trail, but were met by another hiccup. The trail was closed! It had rained a great deal the days days before our trip so it was closed for repairs. I was pretty disappointed as that trail is supposed to provide a great overhead vantage point of Fox Glacier so we made the best of the situation and combined a couple trails to hike across the river to the more popular viewpoint below the receding glacier. After our hike, we continued on our way to Wanaka through breathtaking scenery and making a few pit stops along the way, including the famed Blue Pools.

Where we stayed:  Wanaka View Motel
Where we ate: Full of Beans (Franz Josef), The Federal Diner (Wanaka)

Days 6: Hike to Roys Peak & Drive to Mount Cook

Roy's Peak Hike New Zealand Road Trip

The night before was super windy, so taking a photo at the Wanaka Tree was off the table. Which meant we had an early start to the next day to get there in time for sunrise photos. After hanging out with a bunch of other photographers for the photo op, we made our way to Roy’s Peak to hike the grueling incline to a spectacular view of the area. The hike took the whole morning and afterwards we were spent, but still had our drive to Mt. Cook to knock out.

The drive into Mt. Cook took  couple of hours.  The famed view along Lake Pukaki looking at Mt. Cook was obscured by low clouds so we checked into our hotel and took a much needed nap before dinner. Our room view was amazing, looking right out to Mt. Cook, which ended up being the best part of the hotel.
Where we stayed:  The Hermitage – I would recommend looking elsewhere, while it’s conveniently located and certain rooms have jaw-dropping views, the pictures on their website are no where close to representing the quality of the room. It was run down, over priced, and over run by tour groups staying in the hotel.
Where we ate: Doughbin (Wanaka),  Soulfood Organic Store & Cafe, The Hermitage
Helpful links: Roys Peak

Day 7: Hike in Hooker Valley & Tasman Lake

Hiking Hooker Valley New Zealand Road Trip

Our legs were feeling our hike to Roys Peak from the day before and thank goodness we had planned to hike in Hooker Valley on day 7. The hike is mostly flat and well maintained, but don’t let that discourage you.  This is one of the most beautiful hikes we have ever been on. We started early to avoid the weather that was coming in later in the day and we ended up with perfect blue skies and white streaky clouds. Around every curve was jaw-dropping views of snow capped mountains, wildflowers and a rushing river (which you cross via suspension bridges). At two points during our hike we heard and saw avalanches. It was incredibly powerful to bear witness to this force of nature. The mid point of the hike takes you to the base of Mt. Cook at the shores of a glacial lake dotted with icebergs. After lunch, we pushed through to hike to the milky blue Lake Tasman overlook.  That afternoon we rested and relaxed before heading out at night to star-gaze.

Where we stayed: The Hermitage
Where we ate: Old Mountaineer’s Cafe (founded bySir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to summit Mt Everest)
Helpful links: Mt. Cook Village Hikes

Day 8: Lake Tekapo & Drive to Nugget Point & Penguin spotting

Lake Tekapo New Zealand Road Trip

On day 8 we made our way to Nugget Point, but before we made the long drive we stopped at Lake Tekapo to see the purple, pink, and white Lupine Flowers against a backdrop of the turquoise blue lake.  We spent the majority of day 8 in a car driving through some of the least scenic portions of New Zealand South Island to make it to the Catlins. After checking into our bed and breakfast we rushed to the Penguin blind in hopes of seeing some penguins coming in for the night.  We patiently waited and almost gave up. As I started packing my camera gear we a penguin come up to shore and hurriedly made their way to their nest! We ended up staying another 45 minutes to see if anymore came in, and our patience paid off because we saw a very laid back penguin come ashore to groom before heading to its nest.

If we were to do the trip again, I would remove the stop at Nugget Point or at at least 3 more days to spend more time there.

Where we stayed: Nugget Point Lodge (Highly recommended. The location can’t be beat, and they owners make the most wonderful breakfast.  I really wish we had more than one night here).
Where we ate:  Portside Restaurant (Oamaru), The Point Cafe (Kaka Point)

Days 9: Drive to Te Anau

Nugget Point Lighthouse New Zealand Road Trip
 After waking early to catch sunrise at the Nugget Point Lighthouse, we drove to Te Anau. The first critical stop was to find a gas station because we were dangerously low on gas.  After a failed attempt at using our Credit Card (chip no pin) at an unmanned gas station, we pulled in on fumes to a small gas station that was literally just one large tank of gas, we crossed our fingers they had gas and that our card worked! After successfully filling up, we continued on our way stopping at Curio Bay to explore and ate lunch in Invercargill, and unfortunately totally forgot to drive on the beach there! When we arrived at Te Anau we were happy to take a few hours to relax before our big day of kayaking.

 

Where we stayed: Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motel
Where we ate: Nugget Point Lodge, The Batch Cafe (Invercargill), Red Cliff Cafe & Car (Te Anau)
Helpful links: Curio Bay

Days 10: Kayaking Milford Sound

Kayaking Milford Sound New Zealand Road Trip

The beautiful weather from the day before did not hold out and we woke up to gloomy low lying clouds and chilly drizzle. Typical Milford Sound weather. One of the great things about visiting Milford Sound during the rain is that you get to see thousands of small waterfalls cascading down the sides of the steep mountains. While the kayak trip was chilly and the currents were strong, it was a great way to explore the area. An added bonus is that the rain kept the sand flies at bay! If you want to see more of Milford Sound I recommend taking an early morning kayak trip that drops you off at the entrance to paddle back or take a boat tour.  We made a slight detour to The Chasm on the way back to our motel and we were met by a very curious Kea bird in the parking lot. He ran to our car when we pulled in then proceeded to perch on our mirror and roof waiting to see what we were going to do. They are known to many as the world’s cheekiest parrot.

Where we stayed: Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motel
Where we ate: We self-catered in our motel and on the kayak trip

Day 11: Drive to Queenstown

Queenstown New Zealand Road Trip
The drive into Queenstown was much like the day before, gloomy with low laying clouds so much of the scenery was obscured. Once arriving into Queenstown, the weather improved which allowed us to walk through the picturesque downtown and eating delicious food. Due to the very last minute bookings I made, our hotel room ended up being much more swanky than we normally book. Which, I won’t complain too much about because we ended up having an amazing view of the lake and a beautiful balcony to enjoy the views.
Where we stayed: Peppers – Queenstown
Where we ate: Fergburger (Queenstown), Public (Queenstown)
Helpful Links: Queenstown

12: Canyoning the Routeburn Track

Canyoning Queenstown New Zealand Road trip

Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world so, naturally, we wanted to do an adventurous activity. We waffled on bungee jumping and decided that canyoning would be our adventure activity during our limited stay in town. The canyoning trip was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.  It rained for days before so water levels in the canyon were just below the point where they would have cancelled the trip. The water was nearly as cold as ice and surging at an incredible rate. This trip isn’t for the faint of heart or out of shape.  It kicked my ass and I have a scar on my thumb to prove it.

Where we stayed: Peppers – Queenstown
Where we ate: Pedro’s House of Lamb (delivered to our hotel)
 Helpful Links: Canyoning Queenstown

Day 13: Queenstown

AJ Hackett Bungee Jump New Zealand Road Trip

Our flight home wasn’t until later in the afternoon so we drove out to AJ Hackett’s bungy bridge.  It was an exhilarating morning, even if we were just observing. Something about watching brave soul after brave soul plummet to the river below, some even taking a slight dip, inspired us enough to see if they had any openings, but (un)fortunately there wasn’t an open spot until later in the afternoon which conflicted with our plans to fly home. With that, our New Zealand adventure came to a close as we made our way to the airport for our flight.

Where we ate: The Boat Shed
Helpful Links: AJ Hackett Bungy

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