On a map, it might seem as though it’s only about 80km from Milford Sound to Wānaka, but the crow would need to fly over a mountain range to get from one to the other. Instead, this is a journey that will take you south, past a couple of the South Island’s exceptional lakes before heading towards some of New Zealand’s finest ski fields.
You’ll need to rug up for this 350km journey in the colder months, but it’s the perfect way to discover the landscapes of northern Fiordland and the snow-capped peaks of the Remarkables. Here are a few suggestions for the places to see on a winter road trip on New Zealand’s South Island.
What to Do in Te Anau
Follow the length of Lake Te Anau to the gateway of Fiordland National Park, a rugged landscape of alpine ranges and islands formed by glaciers thousands of years ago and now surrounded by lakes and ocean. Don’t miss the chance in Te Anau to get out of the rental car and take to the water. Cruise Te Anau offers a one-hour Bay Cruise that explores the highlights and history of the region.
You can also cruise across the lake to Te Anau Glow Worm Caves. Travel by boat along an underground river before arriving at the point where you can observe these lit-up critters.
Head Across Country
The next part of the journey travels through lush farmland in a valley between two mountain ranges. Along the way are towns like Centre Hill and Garston. If you’re hungry, you might want to stop in Mossburn, the self-proclaimed venison capital of the world. At Bracken Hall, the cafe serves a venison pie with plum sauce.
Photographers will be in heaven on the route from Kingston to Queenstown. The road winds its way along the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu, revealing incredible landscapes at every turn. Luckily there are plenty of places to stop along the way and grab a snap. Don’t miss the panorama from the top of Devils Staircase.
Not long after, you’ll find yourself in Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains.
You’ve made it to the home of New Zealand’s finest ski fields, and it doesn’t matter what level of skier or snowboarder you are because there’s terrain for everyone. The season here lasts from June to October, with top-class snow conditions right through.
You’ll likely want to stay for a few days and there are plenty of good, well-priced options, including LyLo Queenstown and Pinewood Lodge, you can make your base.
Just 20 minutes’ drive from Queenstown, you’ll find Coronet Peak. There’s gear rental on the mountain, a wide range of terrain and night skiing for those who want to experience something a little different. There’s also the Ski Bus from central Queenstown to Coronet Peak if you want to leave the rental car in the city and enjoy some of the après ski activities.
Another option is the Remarkables, a 40-minute drive from the city. There’s a massive learners’ area here, as well as seven different parks with all types of terrain and runs. But if you’re not a skier or snowboarder, you’ll discover plenty to do here, even in winter. With a sightseeing pass, ride the chairlifts then trek along the ridgelines. You can also hire a toboggan to feel the wind in your hair, go on a snowshoe tour or have a go on a Yooner, which is a blend between a sled and skis with a seat that will have you soaring down the slopes.
Don’t forget about Queenstown though. Take a cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, a century-old coal-fired steamship, ride the Skyline Gondola above the city or visit New Zealand’s favourite bird at Kiwi Park. Plus, Queenstown has a huge winter nightlife scene, so leave the rental car at your accommodation and enjoy a great meal, cocktails and maybe even some live music.
On the Way to Wānaka
The last section of this road trip takes you to the southern edge of Lake Wānaka. You might want to stop about 10km out of Queenstown to visit the timber Shotover Bridge, built in 1871 and now part of a hiking trail. From the bridge, there are excellent views of the Shotover River and the high-speed jet boats that travel here from Queenstown.
Before arriving in Wānaka, you’ll also pass through Cardrona, the town that services Cardrona Alpine Resort. This is another great spot for snow lovers, but even if you don’t want to rent skis, you can jump in a cabin on McDougall’s Express Chondola, which takes you to the top of the mountain. From here, you can take photos or stop by the Vista Bar for a cup of comforting hot chocolate – the perfectly indulgent way to wrap up your road trip.
Before you head off on your South Island winter road trip, hire a rental car to get started.