You only have one week on New Zealand’s majestic South Island? Whilst it’s not quite long enough to see every last corner of the island (to do this you’d need 3+ weeks), you can certainly tick some of the highlights off the list without feeling too terribly rushed.
We have put together this itinerary with the assumption you have a hired car or campervan and are up for a fair bit of driving. Driving distances in New Zealand inevitably take longer than you expect – be that because the roads are narrow and winding, a farmers’ sheep have blocked the way, or you stop every 50 kms for a photo shoot, it’s bound to take you a little bit longer than you anticipate; especially here on the the South Island where every corner you pass takes you to more jaw-dropping scenery.
Let’s assume you have one week – give or take – flying in and out of Christchurch.
Christchurch was once one of New Zealand’s favorite cities – a lively nightlife scene, lovely architecture, terrific cafes and restaurants and no shortages of things to do meant you’d happily spend a couple nights in the Cathedral City. Sadly, the devastating earthquake of February 22nd, 2011, has changed this. Whilst the city is slowly being rebuilt, with only 7 days on the South Island we suggest you head straight out of town after flying into the Christchurch airport.
Leaving Christchurch you’ll want to drive north on the SH1. After leaving the city you’ll drive for a couple hours across the arid Canterbury plains. To your east just out of view will be the Pacific Ocean and to your west the foothills of the Southern Alps. The plains soon give way to rolling hills which will land you on a lovely seaside drive. The road hugs the coast with sweeping views out to sea. Pull over alongside the road, feel the sea breeze in your hair and you stand a good chance of seeing seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
Spend your first night in the seaside town of Kaikoura. Kai meaning ‘food’ in and Koura meaning ‘crayfish’ in Maori. Kaikoura was once a sleepy village where fishermen took to the seas to catch crayfish (lobsters). The following day you’ll want to go for a whale-watching cruise. Whale Watch Kaikoura takes you on a half day trip where you’re -almost- guaranteed to see sperm whales. A terrific commentary on board will leave you with a greater understanding of the sealife off New Zealand’s east coast. With any luck, you’ll not only see whales but the rare dusky dolphin.
If a whale watching cruise isn’t your thing, you also have the opportunity to go on a whale watching flight in a helicopter or airplane. A couple operators in town give you the chance to go swimming with dolphins or seals.
After spending night two in Kaikoura as well, you’ll want to rise early for a drive across the South Island to the West Coast. You’ll head back slightly south on the Inland Kiakoura Route before heading across the Southern Alps on the Lewis Pass. This is a beautiful route, but it is the least dramatic of the three passes across the Alps – the other two being the Haast and Arthurs Pass. Once you come to Reefton, you’ll want to make sure you head north so you arrive at the coast just south of Westport.
The drive from Westport to Greymouth is righty billed as one of the Top 10 drives in the World. It hugs the mighty Tasman Sea, passes dense rainforest and offers views south towards the majestic Southern Alps. This is one of New Zealand’s wettest areas, so don’t be terribly surprised if you encounter a rain storm (or two) during your drive. Spend your third night on the South Island in a wee seaside settlement of Punakaiki. If you drove straight through from Kaikoura, it would take about 4 hours – again, expect this to take significantly longer with stops along the way.
There isn’t much in Punakaiki other than a quaint pub, a cafe and a couple accommodation options. The Punakaiki Beach Hostel sits literally directly on the roaring Tasman Sea and is a pretty epic place to spend the night. Punakaiki is home to the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. Thanks to a layering-weathering process called ‘stylobedding’ the limestone rocks have turned into a sensational sight: rocks that appear to be stacked as pancakes. When the tide is right the sea surges into the caverns and rushes up through a series of holes.
The next day will have you driving further down the West Coast of the South Island. This is a pretty special area of New Zealand – it’s one of New Zealand’s largest regions by land area and has the fewest amount of people. In less than a hundred kms you have deserted beaches, turning into farmed plains, turning into dense rainforest turning into the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps.
It’s a terrific drive on a clear day from Punakaiki, through the service town of Greymouth, and on past Hokitika. Stock up on essentials in Greymouth (food, Monteith’s beer, brewed in town, and petrol) as once you pass Hokitika there isn’t much until you arrive in Wanaka 300 kms or so later.
You’ll spend your fourth night in Franz Josef Village – about three hours away from Punakaiki. Franz Josef Village is a busy little place thanks to the Franz Josef Glacier found just outside of town. The Franz Josef Glacier starts high in the Southern Alps and makes its way all the way to the temperate rainforest. It’s a stunning sight and walking on it is an absolute must. Chances are you’re in need of a relax after the big days you’ve already had, so spend the night soaking away sore muscles and preparing for the next days glacier hike with a soak at the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools.
Depending on how much time you want to commit to big Franz, you have a couple different options for checking out the glacier the next day. Franz Josef Glacier Guides offers half day or full day guided walks – each of these include all of your gear and an experienced guide who takes you up on the constantly changing glacier. Expect more ice time with the full day walk. If you’re short on time, don’t feel up for a big hike or have some cash to blow, you can check out the glacier from the seat of a helicopter or an airplane – you’ll also get some great views of Mt Cook. Lastly, if you’re on a budget – you can walk as far as the glacier face on your own for free.
After your Franz Josef Glacier experience, it’s time to head further down the West Coast, over the Haast Pass and on to Wanaka. This is another fantastic drive, one that shouldn’t be rushed, yet as you’re slightly short on time with plenty of the South Island still to see, we suggest you power on through. Spend the fifth night in Wanaka and wake up to a cozy little mountain town that sits directly on the stunning Lake Wanaka. Have breakfast in one of the lakeside cafes while you finalize your plans for the remainder of your stay in New Zealand.
You could simply relax in Wanaka for the remainder of your stay before catching a flight from Queenstown back to Christchurch. We suggest you head over the Crown Range after your lakeside breakfast and check out Wanaka’s hyperactive cousin, Queenstown. This is the Adventure Capital of the World, so take your pick – jump out of an airplane, throw yourself off a bridge with a bungy cord tacked on to your waist or simply take in the views of Walter and Cecil Peak from Queenstown’s waterfront. If you’re up for stretching your legs, consider walking up Queenstown Hill or to the top of the Skyline Gondola for big views across Lake Wakatipu.
You’ll spend your sixth night in Queenstown before having one final day to explore the South Island. There are plenty of walks in the area and activities to choose from. If you’d like to get out of town for the day, but aren’t up for a full days traveling, consider driving down to Glenorchy where there are terrific walks – the drive along the lake is fantastic.
Otherwise, spend your final day taking in the majestic Milford Sound. You could book everything through a tour company (bus and then cruise, bus and then kayak) or you could make the drive to Milford yourself. The Milford Road is another one of NZ’s ‘Best Drives’ and is our reccommendation of how to spend your final day in paradise.
You’ll be in Queenstown for your final night before catching your flight back to Christchurch the following day.