New Zealand South Island Itinerary

Mt. Robert Summit Nelson Lakes National Park

Many of you know that after Christmas Jeff and I embarked on quite an adventure -a two week trip to New Zealand’s South Island. We got back in mid-January but because of the length of the trip and the number of photos I took (over 2000) I’ve been a bit paralyzed about how to blog it and share all the information we learned. Well…..I’m diving in!

This post will serve as an introduction and a guideline to our South Island Itinerary – the pretty pictures will come in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks that will take you through our journey and provide more details and specifics. Usually we are not big guidebook readers but knowing how much there was to see we for once we did a lot of research. I’m hoping that these posts can provide a great mini guidebook of sorts for those of you planning your own South Island adventure.

We absolutely loved our time there and would highly recommend it to anyone – it’s a very travel friendly country – easy to get around, nice people, and jaw dropping scenery everywhere you look. Also for people interested in an active vacation the Department of Conservation is top notch and does a great job marking trails….you could drive down any road and find trails by accident and often we would stop at one we hadn’t planned to.

After borrowing a few guidebooks from friends (Frommer’s, Eyewitness Travel, and Lonely Planet) to do research we purchased  Lonely Planet’s Guide to the South Island. It was the only guidebook that we brought with us and it didn’t disappoint! Lonely Planet has a great style of writing and provides just enough information to give you what you need without bogging you down in details.

I also bought (but then returned) Lonely Planet’s Guide to Tramping in New Zealand as it only featured information on multi day hikes which we weren’t doing. If you do plan to do any of the famous treks it would be a great resource.

After doing all this reading we had a looooong list of places we wanted to go, hikes we wanted to do, and sites we wanted to see. When we started to lay it out we had to make some tough choices as it was immediately apparent that there was no way we’d be able to fit it all in.

The result was a trip that felt packed yet relaxing – we drove over 2000 miles but with the spectacular scenery on every road we didn’t mind. Despite going at the height of their summer tourist season very few of the places we traveled to felt packed and often we wouldn’t pass a car for miles.

For the first half of our itinerary we made reservations but the second half we winged it…and it worked out just fine 🙂 One thing I would recommend is that if you don’t make reservations and are able to plan a day or two in advance to call ahead for any guided tours you want to take. We called the night before our glacier tour and they only had early morning tours available….so we got up at 6 AM to drive north and make it!

So where did we go?

Day 1: Arrived in Christ Church; Drove to Lyttleton and explored Port Hills area

Day 2: Drove to Methven via Rakaia Gorge where we did a beautiful 4 hour hike. Drove to Lake Tekapo

Day 3: Lake Tekapo: Hike to Mt. John Summit via Lakeshore Trail; Hiked Godley Peaks Road Loop Track on the way to Lake McGregor

Day 4: Mt. Cook – Hiked Hooker Valley Track, Kea Point Track, and Tasman Lake Walk

Day 5: Drive from Tekapo to Te Anau via Queenstown (where we stopped for lunch outside of town)

Day 6: Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise on Fjordland Navigator

Day 7: Drive north to west coast town of Haast

Day 8: Guided hike of Fox Glacier; Hike around Lake Matheson; Walked to terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier; Droke to Hokitika

Day 9: Walked around Hokitika; Lake Kaniere Walkway; Punakaiki – Pancake Rocks; Overnight in Westport

Day 10: Drove to Cape Foulwind to Seal Colony at Tauranga Bay; Hiked Mt. Robert (photo above) in Nelson Lakes National Park; Overnight in Motueka

Day 11: Drove to Kaiteriteri for full day cruise in ocean off of Abel Tasman; Overnight in Blenheim

Day 12: Wine Tasting in Blenheim!

Day 13: Kayaking in Marlborough Sounds

Day 14: Drove to Kaikoura for a Dolphin Encounter – Drove to Christ Church

Day 15: Back to the USA!


Overall we were very happy with our itinerary and felt it was a good mix of hiking, relaxing, and site seeing. Yes it was a lot of driving but it is a big country (even just trying to see one island!) so we really felt like we wanted to see as much as possible. We are not city people so really skipped anywhere that felt too urban (or even crowded) – Christ Church, Queenstown, Nelson

Going to Doubtful Sound was the biggest “detour” in that it meant backtracking on the return trip but it was totally spectacular and has scenery that is fairly unique to New Zealand so we thought it was worth it. If we had had an extra day we would have stayed in Fjordland longer and seen Milford Sound.

Also we stayed three nights in Lake Tekapo which was a good base to explore but in reality a night in Mt. Cook village would have probably made more sense as we would have saved the one hour drive each way.

A few things we missed but wish we had had time for:

– D’Urville Island and French Pass – seemed like a really remote and unique place

– Another night in Nelson Lakes National Park – it was spectacular

– Driving through Arthur’s Pass

– Monro Beach south of Glaciers on west coast – in the guidebook it was described as an “utter dream” and great for collecting driftwood and rocks

– Rob Roy Valley Track in Mount Aspiring National Park west of Queenstown

– Mt. Cook Sealy Tarns Track – can imagine the views would be amazing but it is an intense 4 hour uphill hike


If you are planning your own trip feel free to email me as I have a word document of notes I took when reading guidebooks that also include things we didn’t end up doing/places we didn’t end up going.

Good luck and have fun!