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Explore the best of the South Island on a New Zealand self drive tour. Loop the island from Christchurch to Christchurch, visiting highlights such as Queenstown, Lake Tekapo, Fiordland, and Franz Josef Glacier. This New Zealand self drive tour includes activities, accommodation, and a rental car for maximum convenience.
Perfect for couples, families, groups, and solo travellers, this itinerary offers a fantastic overview of the South Island.
Read on for more details on this 21 day New Zealand self drive tour.
Arrive in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Garden City. Collect your rental car from the airport, discover the city or relax in your Christchurch accommodation.
Christchurch is a vibrant, energetic city where urban regeneration, creativity, and innovation thrive. Picture amazing street art, innovative projects, a booming hospitality scene and state-of-the-art architecture that is changing the way the city looks, feels and functions – all the while staying true to its heritage and traditional English feel.
Stay 2 nights in Christchurch.
Discover the picturesque garden city, renowned for its natural beauty, lively entertainment scene, and strong cultural heritage. With its stunning botanical gardens and tree-lined avenues, Christchurch is both a sophisticated city and beautiful place to relax.
Experience the best of Christchurch with a Triple Pass including three of the city’s must-do activities. Choose from the Christchurch Gondola, the Tramway, Punting on the Avon River, or the Botanical Gardens Tour.
Driving time Christchurch to Lake Tekapo 230 km / 143 miles, 3 hours
Depart Christchurch and travel south across the Canterbury Plains before turning inwards towards the Southern Alps. The town of Lake Tekapo, set beside an amazing turquoise lake, offers many world-class attractions, from the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd to the luxurious spa complex of Tekapo Springs and of course Mt John Observatory.
In the afternoon, enjoy a spectacular scenic flightseeing tour of Mount Cook and Westland World Heritage National Park. Explore the alpine wonderland of New Zealand’s highest mountains and mightiest alpine glaciers, and discover the lush coastal rainforest. View turquoise glacial lakes, golden tussock lands & braided rivers as you fly over the Mackenzie basin. Highlights include Mount Cook, Tasman Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier! Every passenger has a window seat, and all aircraft have wings above for optimum viewing.
Stay 2 nights in Lake Tekapo.
Relax in Lake Tekapo, with the option to soak in the Tekapo Springs thermal pools, drive or walk up to the Mount John Observatory for panoramic views over Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin (you could even stop for a coffee or lunch at the Astro Café), stroll along one of the local tracks, and visit the historic Church of the Good Shepherd and the Mackenzie Sheep Dog Statue.
From Lake Tekapo you can also take a trip to Mt Cook Village (one hour each way) to see New Zealand’s highest mountain (Aoraki Mount Cook) and largest glacier (Tasman Glacier).
In the evening, option to add on a nighttime tour at Mt John Observatory.
Driving time Lake Tekapo to Dunedin 286 km / 177 miles, 3.5 hours
Continue your journey south, following a network of braided rivers on the drive to Oamaru. The town is surrounded by stunning natural beauty, and features some of New Zealand’s best 19th century architecture. Further south, you will come across the Moeraki Boulders. These unusually large, spherical boulders are lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach on the wave-cut Otago coast between Moeraki and Hampden.
After you have discovered the boulders, carry on to Dunedin, one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. Dunedin offers a diverse range of experiences including the Otago Museum, the Speight’s Brewery, Larnach Castle and of course the stunning Otago Peninsula.
Stay 3 nights in Dunedin.
Today, join the Taieri Gorge Railway for one of the world’s great train trips, an experience not to be missed. Departing from Dunedin’s beautiful railway station, the Taieri Gorge Railway begins its scenic journey into some of New Zealand’s most rugged, ever-changing scenery.
The train travels into the Taieri Gorge, a narrow and deep canyon carved out over aeons by the ancient Taieri River. Negotiating the gorge with ease, the train travels through ten tunnels and over countless bridges and viaducts. The train will stop or slow down at various scenic points along the way. You will get the chance to take photos or disembark to look around. Stand on the open-air platforms while the train moves, or enjoy a quiet drink and food from the onboard café while the train manager tells the story of the nature and history of the area.
Explore Dunedin today and visit attractions of interest. These include the Olveston Historic Home, Dunedin Railway Station or the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. You may also like to go for a browse around the shops, stop for a coffee or a nice lunch in one of the prestigious cafés and restaurants Dunedin has to offer.
You have the option to discover the Otago Peninsula on a wildlife cruise, to see the world’s only mainland nesting place of the Northern Royal Albatross. Along the way, you will get the chance to see fur seals, up to 20 species of rare ocean birds, and—if you’re lucky—penguins and dolphins. Or you can view the local penguin colony up close on an Argo tour.
Driving time Dunedin to Te Anau 289 km / 179 miles, 4 hours
Venture inland to heartland New Zealand as you travel to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland.
In the afternoon, explore a mysterious underground world of rushing water before drifting in silent darkness beneath the luminous shimmer of thousands of glowworms. Your Te Anau Glowworm Cave adventure begins with a cruise across beautiful Lake Te Anau on board the catamaran Luminosa to the western side of the lake. On arrival, there is time to view the interesting displays at Cavern House before your friendly guides accompany you underground in small groups. As you explore by path and small boat, your senses will be overwhelmed. In this mysterious underground world, discover fossils and rock formations and view rushing waterfalls and whirlpools. Learn how the caves are still being carved out by the incredible and relentless power of nature before gliding through silent darkness to the glowworm grotto. The delicate incandescence of thousands of tiny glowworms is a magical sight!
Stay 2 nights in Te Anau.
Driving time Te Anau to Manapouri 21 km / 13 miles, 20 minutes
Doubtful Sound and the Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise is the next step up from Milford Sound! In Manapouri, board your luxury catamaran and cruise across picturesque Lake Manapouri. After that, enjoy the coach trip across Wilmot Pass. Pause along the way to experience the dense Fiordland rainforest and view Doubtful Sound glistening far below.
In Doubtful Sound, you will board another catamaran for a three-hour cruise through this pristine fiord. During the cruise, your knowledgeable and friendly nature guides will share with you their passion for the region through their commentary. They will answer questions, point out landmarks and provide you with information about the varied wildlife you may encounter, including dolphins, fur seals and the rare Fiordland crested penguin.
Driving time Te Anau to Queenstown 174 km / 108 miles, 3 hours
Venture past Lake Wakatipu, a picturesque glacial lake framed by rugged mountains. Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure capital, awaits you halfway up the lake.
In the evening, relive the elegance of turn-of-the-century travel with a cruise aboard a vintage steamship. The TSS Earnslaw is the only coal-fired passenger vessel still operating in the southern hemisphere. Step aboard – watch the stokers fueling the fireboxes and hear the hiss of the steam engines working as the TSS Earnslaw takes you on a nostalgic cruise over beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Disembark at Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you will enjoy a stunning gourmet BBQ dinner. An entertaining after-dinner farm show provides a glimpse into high country farming life. On your return cruise, relax with a drink from the bar or join a fun sing-along with the ship’s pianist.
Stay 3 nights in Queenstown.
Today, join Nomad Safaris for their half-day heritage Skippers Canyon adventure that follows the rugged and once-treacherous Skippers Road. The Skippers Canyon 4WD tour departs from Queenstown, heading out towards Coronet Peak.
Follow in the footsteps of many adventurers and discoverers as this winding road brings you to the historic Skippers Bridge, which provides a stunning photo opportunity. After carefully negotiating the bridge, you will continue into the historical township of Skippers. Though the settlement was long since abandoned, many original buildings still remain for you to explore. Indulge in morning tea at the Skippers Schoolhouse, and immerse yourself in the history of this stunning place through photos and artefacts from the early days of this settlement. On the return journey you will stop at Deep Creek, where you can immerse yourself in the heritage of the local area by turning your hand to a spot of gold panning. Some may also recognise spots along the Skippers Road from their appearance in The Lord of The Rings.
You also have the option to make a trip to Arrowtown. You’ll be enchanted by historic Arrowtown, a New Zealand treasure located 20 minutes from Queenstown. Arrowtown is charming and quirky – a delightful gold rush village nestled below the beautiful peaks that surround the sparkling Arrow River. The heart of its history is Buckingham Street, a procession of heritage buildings that stretches into a tree-lined avenue of tiny miner’s cottages. The buildings in this lovely precinct house shops, galleries, bars, and restaurants – many classy, most individual, and not one from an international chain.
Driving time Queenstown to Wanaka 70 km / 43 miles, 1 hour
Drive over the beautiful Crown Range, one of New Zealand’s highest alpine roads, and admire the fantastic views along the way. Be sure to stop at the historic Cardrona Hotel for a refreshment before your arrival into Wanaka, an alpine town boasting panoramic views, a relaxed atmosphere and myriad walking tracks.
Wanaka has the buzz of a genuine alpine town and is the ultimate hub for outdoor adventures. With Mount Aspiring National Park located close by, it’s the perfect destination for exploring the Southern Alps.
Stay 2 nights in Wanaka.
Relax and explore Wanaka – you may want to visit Puzzling World, Wanaka’s illusional attraction, or the National Toy and Transport Museum. Other options include strolling along one of Wanaka’s stunning walking tracks, relaxing on the lake’s edge or browsing through Wanaka’s boutique shops.
You could also visit Rippon Vineyard and Tasting Room to sample local wines, or catch a film at Cinema Paradiso, Wanaka’s quirky local theatre.
Driving time Wanaka to Franz Josef 285 km / 177 miles, 3.5 hours
Enjoy the journey up the West Coast to reach Franz Josef. There are many short walks and viewing points to take in along the Haast Pass Highway, which will help break up the journey—a scenic walk to the Blue Pools is highly recommended. Other points of interest along the way are Ship Cove and Bruce Bay. Continuing along the West Coast, you may like to visit to Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, where you can take a 20-minute walk (one-way) to the jetty to admire the reflected views of the Southern Alps on the surface of the lake.
In the afternoon, you have the option to add on a highly recommended scenic helicopter flight to view and land on Franz Josef Glacier.
Stay 1 night in Franz Josef.
Driving time Franz Josef to Hokitika 136 km / 85 miles, 1.5 hours
Enjoy your journey along the West Coast to Hokitika, famous for its arts and crafts. Watch a masterpiece being crafted from gold, molten glass, paua or bone, or carve your own creation from wood or jade (“pounamu”). Take in Hokitika’s natural beauty, enjoy its expansive beach, or venture down one of the many walking and mountain biking tracks.
While in Hokitika, you may wish to make the scenic drive to Hokitika Gorge, where an impressive turquoise river flows through a narrow canyon, or Lake Kaniere, a beautiful lake nestled beneath the mountains.
You could also visit the National Kiwi Centre, where you will be able to see a rare kiwi; view New Zealand’s living dinosaur, the Tuatara; and participate in feeding the giant eels. Or make a drive north to Shantytown, where you can explore the heritage village, ride the steam train, try your hand at panning for gold, and take old-time styled photos.
Stay 1 night in Hokitika.
Driving time Hokitika to Nelson 325 km / 202 miles, 4.5 hours
Journey towards Nelson, which enjoys New Zealand’s highest sunshine hours. Set within the world-famous Marlborough wine region, Nelson is a food-lover’s paradise. It’s known for local arts and crafts stores, and art galleries. It’s also a popular base for nearby caving sites, vineyards and Abel Tasman National Park. Established by English settlers in 1841, the city’s history is showcased at Founders Heritage Park, a living museum with a vintage railway.
Stay 3 nights in Nelson.
Driving time Nelson to Abel Tasman 65 km / 40 miles, 1 hour (each way)
Discover the Abel Tasman, an area renowned for its golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, unmodified estuaries, long sunshine hours and the world-famous Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Enjoy a boat cruise into Abel Tasman National Park. Relax on the hot golden sand, enjoy a day walk, or simply remain aboard for a return boat cruise. Take in the natural beauty and enjoy! This trip allows you to explore sections of the Abel Tasman Coast Track; the boat will stop at scenic points along the way where you can get off and walk a section of the track. The boat will then collect you later in the day. You could also just pack a picnic lunch and beach towels and laze on the beach for the day.
Explore Nelson today. You can walk the sun-drenched sands or take a sea kayaking tour around the coast and see a seal colony and little blue penguins bobbing in the water. Taste your way around the region by bicycle on Tasman’s Great Taste Trail or get your daily dose of adrenaline with a visit to one of the region’s world-class mountain bike parks.
The attractive walking mall at the heart of town is filled with galleries, gourmet cafés, and local shops. Visit the art studios, explore the craft markets, taste the delicious locally made artisan products and find something extraordinary to take home with you.
You also have the opportunity to try out one of the adventure activities in the area. These include quad bike adventures, horse treks, and the world’s longest flying fox adventure. Or you could pay a visit the Nelson Provincial Museum, New Zealand’s oldest museum. Learn about the region, its people, history, and environments; it includes a temporary gallery which features changing exhibitions. At the end of your visit browse the gift shop for a curated collection of Kiwi-made products, arty objects, exhibition inspired merchandise, books, and stationery.
Driving time Nelson to Hanmer Springs 308 km / 191 miles, 3.5 hours
Travel on to Hanmer Springs, a year-round holiday destination offering a variety of outdoor activities, great cafés and of course the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. Visitors have been travelling to bathe in the rejuvenating hot mineral pools for over 120 years! Relax in open-air thermal public and private pools and de-stress with spa therapies.
In the afternoon experience the adrenaline rush of going 80 km per hour, skimming the river below, with Thrillseekers Jet! Cut corners as turquoise snowmelt churns out behind you, and experience 360° spins while you travel up the stunning Waiau Gorge. An amazing adventure with a great mix of adrenalin, sightseeing and local history.
Stay 1 night in Hanmer Springs.
Driving time Hanmer Springs to Christchurch 134 km / 83 miles, 2 hours
Return to Christchurch and celebrate your final day in New Zealand.
Visit the Canterbury Museum, or make a day trip to the historic French settlement of Akaroa (1 hour’s drive), where you can swim with dolphins, visit a local winery, or tour the Barrys Bay Cheesery.
Enjoy your last evening in Christchurch and raise a glass to a fantastic New Zealand holiday!
Stay 1 night in Christchurch.
Drop off your rental car at Christchurch Airport and depart Christchurch.
This New Zealand self drive tour package is fully customisable. In other words, you have the option to change the inclusions, schedule, or accommodation level to suit your preferences. Your personal travel consultant will work with you to ensure your package matches exactly what you are looking for.
As you plan your New Zealand self drive tour, you may wish to browse our other 21 Day New Zealand Holiday Packages for inspiration.
Contact New Zealand Travel Organiser today to begin planning your unforgettable self drive tour.
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