Get onto Google Maps and set your destination. When it comes to scenic drives the South Island of New Zealand delivers. Winding roads hug the coastline or rise through mountain ranges, revealing views that will have you wanting to pull over immediately in your rental car.
Ready for your South Island adventure? Here are four road trip itineraries you won’t forget in a hurry.
Famous Fiordland to Magical Milford Sound
The town of Te Anau in Fiordland is the starting point on this journey to one of the most famous destinations in the country, Milford Sound. The 118km drive is one of the most stunning you’ll ever encounter, and you’ll want to stop continually to take photos and enjoy the dramatic scenery. It will likely take you about three hours, not factoring in any hikes that you may do along the way.
The road runs through the Fiordland National Park and over the mountains. You don’t often hope for rain on holiday, but as you drive through the incredible glacier-formed Eglinton Valley, any rain forms waterfalls down the cliffs.
There are several lakes along the way, including the Mirror Lakes and Lake Gunn, but if you want to go for a hike, do the three-hour walk to the stunning Lake Marian.
Just before arriving in Milford Sound – hopefully just in time to join one of the cruises – stop at The Chasm, a powerful waterfall that has carved the rocks around it into some astonishing shapes.
Christchurch to West Coast via Arthur’s Pass
The 250km drive from Christchurch on the east coast to Hokitika on the west takes you through the most famous mountain pass on the South Island. At the highest point of Arthur’s Pass, you’ll be 739m above sea level, which, as you can imagine, makes for some impressive vistas.
You first travel across the Canterbury Plains before gradually climbing the foothills of the Southern Alps. Make your first stop Castle Hill Rocks, a formation of grey boulders in a karst landscape. It looks like, you guessed it, the ruins of a castle.
On crossing into Arthur’s Pass National Park, do the 1km walk through native beech forest to Devil’s Punchbowl. The trail will take you to the base of 130m waterfalls, where you can climb the steps to a viewing platform.
Stopping at various lookouts is almost unavoidable before you arrive in the town of Arthur’s Pass. Enjoy lunch here, maybe do the Historic Village Walk, then continue your journey down the alps and over the spectacular 440m Otira Viaduct, which replaced the original hazardous road, to the west coast.
West Coast Wonders Itinerary
Get away from the crowds on the long drive in your rental car from Punakaiki to Lake Wanaka. At just over 500km, you’ll need a couple of days to explore it all – stay overnight somewhere like the towns of Fox Glacier or Franz Josef or at coastal towns to enjoy even more of the countryside – but it’s really the only way to see the west coast of the South Island.
Be sure to stop at Oparara to take in the arches and explore the gold-mining heritage of Reefton. Once you’ve passed Hokitika, you’re in Glacier Country, where you can walk to the base of Franz Josef Glacier, visit the kiwis at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, or capture a photograph of the reflection of Aoraki/Mount Cook at Lake Matheson.
Another wonderful pit stop is Haast, in the heart of the Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area. It’s surrounded by dunes, incredible beaches, lakes and wetlands. From here you can join river safaris and visit fur seal and penguin colonies, before heading inland to Lake Wanaka.
Cruise Through the Catlins
Located on the south coast of the South Island, the Catlins may be out of the way, but they form some of the most unique and spectacular landscapes in the country.
The road here is part of the Southern Scenic Route that travels 610km from Dunedin to Invercargill. The Catlins are the southernmost point of the mainland and it’s here you’ll see rare wildlife, lush rainforests and dramatic sea caves.
Head to Curio Bay, where the outgoing tide reveals a 180-million-year-old petrified forest. During summer, look out over the water to see if you can spot the rare Hector’s dolphins. It’s also home to hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins), which can only be found in this part of the world. Sit in the hide and see if you can spot any.
Low tide is also the time to visit Cathedral Caves, one of the largest systems of its kind in the world. On the walls, you’ll see shellfish, like green-lipped mussels, clinging to the rocks, waiting for the tide to come back in.
They were almost hunted to extinction 200 years ago, but you can now see New Zealand sea lions on the beach at Surat Bay.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore because there’s so much more to discover in the Catlins.
When you’ve decided on your South Island road trip itinerary, hire a rental car to make it happen.