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The best road trips to take in New Zealand’s South Island

Most travellers to New Zealand get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the country. After all, Middle Earth is made up of three islands: mainly the North Island, South Island, and Stewart Island. For those looking for an adventure, head to the biggest of the three islands, the South Island.

While the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, is a gem of its own, the island boasts a variety of landscapes such as grass fields, plains, rocky alps, and majestic fiords. It is home to famed landscapes such as Mt. Cook National Park, Te Anau, Wanaka, Franz Josek, Fox Glacier, Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.

There’s no better way to experience all these stunning destinations than taking a road trip. In fact, Tourism New Zealand has just launched a new regional campaign focusing on the country’s hidden gems, encouraging travellers to explore lesser-known destinations on the island such as Marlborough, Canterbury, and Nelson.

It is true that few regions in the world can rival the South Island’s diversity. Here, the best road trips to take is in New Zealand’s South Island.

1 /4

Queenstown to Milford Sound

Once described by Rudyard Kipling as the “eighth wonder of the world”, Milford Sound is an essential in your itinerary. The road to Milford Sound is as stunning as the fiord itself, making it the perfect drive. Starting from Queenstown, follow the road to Te Anau as it winds around the gentle curves of Lake Wakatipu.

Drive through lakeside vistas framed by the rugged face of a magnificent mountain range before the rolling countryside leads you to the shores of Lake Te Anau, the biggest lake on South Island. This makes the perfect stopover on the way to Milford Sound.

Total driving time: 7 h 30 min


2 /4

The Great Alpine Highway

This route will carry you through charming historic towns and dramatic changing landscapes from one side of the South Island to the other. Start driving from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass National Park to Wild West Coast.

Start by spending a day exploring the vibrant Christchurch before travelling west across the expansive Canterbury Plains to Arthur’s Pass. From there, you will come to the extraordinary Otira Viaduct that spans a long stretch of unstable terrain. Descend toward the coast, towards the West Coast, where the landscape becomes greener with lush rainforests replacing the barren eastern side of the divide.

Total driving time: 3 hours 30 minutes

(Image credit: Tourism New Zealand) 

3 /4

The Southern Scenic Route

A popular road trip for those working and living in Queenstown is the Southern Scenic Route. Travel south from Queenstown on the State Highway 6 to Invercargill, the southernmost city in New Zealand. After which, make your way to Catlins National Park.

Travel down the coast from Dunedin and explore the beautiful Catlins landscape, where you can wander down to Nugget Point lighthouse and marvel at the steep headland and rocky islets. Embark on a picturesque drive that skirts the rugged south coast and eastern boundary of Fiordland National Park. Here, you’ll find glowworm caves, the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary and the Fiordland Cinema.

End your drive in the exciting alpine resort of Queenstown, nestled on the shores of the stunning Lake Wakatipu.

Total driving time: 10 hours 41 minutes

(Image credit: Tourism New Zealand) 


4 /4

Alpine Pacific Triangle

Embark on the Alpine Pacific Triangle and discover an excellent balance of eco-adventure and indulgence. The four-day journey travels from Christchurch to Kaikoura, home to New Zealand’s marine mammals.

Drive north from Christchurch, which will take you past surf beaches, wineries, and farmland. You’ll then reach Kaikoura, the best place to enjoy a Maori cultural tour. Here, you’ll learn the storytelling and spiritual traditions of Ngai Tahu, the South Island’s largest Maori tribe. After which, head to the alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs and spend a day or two here before heading back to Christchurch.

Total driving time: 6 hours 45 minutes

The best road trips to take in New Zealand’s South Island

Dewi Nurjuwita

Senior Writer

Dewi Nurjuwita is a travel and design writer who can be found exploring the streets of foreign cities with passport in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.


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