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Enjoy an unforgettable self-drive holiday with this 21 Day South Island Itinerary. Our all-inclusive holiday packages are fully customisable for ultimate convenience.
This South Island itinerary encompasses highlights from the top to the bottom of the island. Visit Fiordland, Franz Josef Glacier, Queenstown, Abel Tasman National Park, and the Marlborough wine region. Three weeks in Zealand offers the perfect chance to explore the diversity and natural wonders of the South Island.
Read on for more details on the 21 Day South Island Paradise Itinerary.
Arrive in Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure capital. Collect your rental car from the airport and make your way to your Queenstown accommodation.
Relax and explore Queenstown. You have the option to visit the Kiwi Birdlife Park, the Underwater Observatory, or the Ivan Clarke Gallery; ride the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak for panoramic views over the Wakatipu Basin; or simply enjoy a lakefront stroll or a bit of boutique shopping.
Stay 3 nights in Queenstown.
Today, get ready for the world’s most exciting jet boat ride! Shotover Jet is the only company permitted to operate in the spectacular Shotover River Canyons. It’s a thrilling ride – skimming past rocky outcrops at close range in your Shotover Jet ‘Big Red,’ you will twist and turn through the narrow canyons at breathtaking speeds. And a major highlight – hold tight for the world-famous Shotover Jet full 360º spins!
In the evening, relive the elegance of turn-of-the-century travel with a cruise aboard the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw. This 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 four course meal. 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.
Today you 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.
You also have the option to add-on a must do Queenstown activity to really make the most of it. Ask us for recommendations or choose from the top Queenstown activities.
Driving time Queenstown to Te Anau 171 km / 106 miles, 2.5 hours
While you relax in Te Anau, you may wish to visit Fiordland Cinema and watch Ata Whenua – Shadowland, which was filmed by helicopters flying over the remote reaches of Fiordland National Park. You could also visit the Department of Conservation visitor centre for displays on the natural wonders of the region. Or take a stroll along the lakefront to the Wildlife Park, where you can view endangered native birds.
In the afternoon, join Southern Lakes Helicopters for a spectacular 30 minute scenic helicopter flight and sample the grandeur of the Fiordland scenery. Venture into the untamed Kepler Mountains and see what lies beyond the Te Anau horizon! Views of the Kepler Track (one of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks) and the Hidden Lakes spread out before you. Land at a mountain tarn to enjoy the vista and ruggedness of the Main Divide.
Stay 2 nights in Te Anau.
Driving time Te Anau to Manapouri 23 km / 14 miles, 30 minutes
Today, go on an amazing Doubtful Sound day excursion! Located deep in the heart of a World Heritage Area, Doubtful Sound is an overwhelming place. You can feel the power of nature here – the remoteness, the wilderness and the peace. In Manapouri, board your luxury catamaran and cruise across picturesque Lake Manapouri. After this, enjoy a coach trip across New Zealand’s most expensive road (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.
Relax and explore Te Anau in the evening.
Driving time Te Anau to Dunedin 291 km / 180 miles, 4 hours
Travel to Dunedin, one of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. Dunedin offers a diverse range of experiences. These include the Otago Museum, the Speight’s Brewery, Larnach Castle and of course the stunning Otago Peninsula.
Explore Dunedin and visit attractions of interest such as 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.
Stay 2 nights in Dunedin.
Today, venture to Larnach Castle which is situated on the spectacular Otago Peninsula. This castle was built by William Larnach in 1871 offering scandalous and tragic stories, incredible tower views and a exquisite Victorian interiors complete this magical castle.
The gardens at Larnach Castle have been rated by the New Zealand Gardens Trust as a Garden of International Significance. This garden makes up 7 acres of the grounds and with that in mind is well worth exploring! Enjoy the sheer beauty that has been put into this magical venue!
In the afternoon, 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 Lake Tekapo 286 km / 177 miles, 4 hours
The drive to Lake Tekapo is stunning. On the way you will first come across the Moeraki Boulders, between Moeraki and Hampden. These unusually large and spherical boulders sit along a stretch of Koekohe Beach on the wave-cut Otago coast. Next you will pass through Oamaru, which is surrounded by stunning natural beauty and also features some of New Zealand’s best 19th century architecture. From there, follow braided rivers and glacial lakes to reach Lake Tekapo.
Lake Tekapo presents many world-class attractions such as the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd, the luxurious spa complex Tekapo Springs and of course the world-famous Mt John Observatory.
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
If the sky is clear at night, be sure to venture outside to see the Milky Way! Lake Tekapo is situated in the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, one of the best places in the world to view the night sky.
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).
You also have the option to add on a scenic flight around Mount Cook and the glaciers.
Driving time Lake Tekapo to Akaroa 280 km / 173 miles, 4 hours
This far reaching road adventure takes you from the mountains to sea level. Climb through the tussocky wilds of the Mackenzie Country before reaching the flat green tranquillity of the Canterbury Plains on your way to Akaroa. Akaroa is a historic French and British settlement nestled in the heart of the Banks Peninsula. This area is noted for its beauty and unique wildlife. Rolling volcanic peaks give way to sandy beaches and two magnificent harbours.
Stay 2 nights in Akaroa.
Explore Akaroa village, where you can visit
In the evening you may like to visit one of the local restaurants with their focus on French cuisine and head along to Barrys Bay Cheese, where they’ve persevered with original methods for over a century.
Driving time Akaroa to Christchurch 81 km / 50 miles, 1.5 hours
Journey to New Zealand’s Garden City, Christchurch. Discover the vibrant and 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.
In the afternoon, experience Christchurch’s Famous Tram: Tramway Tour.
Tramway: Enjoy a journey in style through the changing face of Christchurch’s city centre on board the beautifully restored heritage Trams. Your day-long ticket allows you to hop on and off the Tram as much as you please.
Stay 1 night in Christchurch.
Driving time Christchurch to Kaikoura 180 km / 111 miles, 3 hours
Travel along the South Island’s stunning East Coast to reach Kaikoura, a picturesque town famous for its delicious seafood delicacies and whale watching! As an important fishing port, Kaikoura is a mecca for seafood lovers. Local specialties include blue cod, paua (abalone) and of course crayfish (lobster).
In the afternoon, experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a Whale Watch Scenic Flight to view the majestic Sperm Whales off the Kaikoura Coast.
Stay 1 night in Kaikoura.
Driving time Kaikoura to Blenheim 129 km / 80 miles, 2.5 hours
Relax in Kaikoura in the morning and discover this coastal paradise. In the afternoon, meander around the coast to reach the Marlborough wine country. Recognised internationally for its distinctive, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest winemaking region, home to about 65 wineries, 290 grape growers, and over 4,000 hectares planted in grapes—mainly Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.
In and around Blenheim you’ll find an array of cafés, restaurants, wineries, bars, shops, artisan food outlets and golf courses along with popular walkways along the Taylor River Reserve.
Stay 2 nights in Blenheim.
Experience the famous wines of the region on a gourmet wine tour. As you enjoy plenty of tastings you will quickly fall in love with this fantastic wine region. Learn more about the winemaking process, and taste the subtle differences between different vintages and different soils. This tour is a must-do for any wine aficionados.
In the evening, enjoy a meal in Blenheim with a glass of the local wine, or relax in your accommodation.
Driving time Blenheim to Abel Tasman 161 km / 100 miles, 3 hours
Drive through native bush to reach the Abel Tasman area, renowned for its golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, rich unmodified estuaries, long sunshine hours and the world-famous Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Today make the most of Golden Bay, boasting golden beaches, alpine valleys and tranquil fishing rivers that share a close proximity with the sea. Soak up the breathtaking scenery, arts and crafts, and walking tracks.
You might like to add a must-do kayaking adventure to your package or experiencing the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. This track is the perfect way to explore the beauty of Nelson’s Abel Tasman National Park.
Stay 2 nights in Abel Tasman.
Take a boat cruise into Abel Tasman National Park today, where you can relax on the hot golden sand, enjoy a day walk, or simply remain aboard for a return boat cruise. Soak 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.
Driving time Abel Tasman to Hokitika 377 km / 243 miles, 5 hours
Discover the rugged West Coast as you travel to Hokitika, famous for its arts and crafts. Watch a masterpiece being crafted from gold, silver, molten glass, bone, silk or greywacke 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 Franz Josef 136 km / 85 miles, 2.5 hours
Continue south through dense rainforest towards New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. Stay at Franz Josef Glacier township.
While in Franz Josef you may wish to soak in the Glacier Hot Pools, nestled in lush rainforest in a haven of natural tranquility. You can walk to the terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier to take a look at the ice, or enjoy one of the local walks. In Franz Josef township you have the chance to see New Zealand’s rarest kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, a unique and interactive experience that brings together nature, conservation, and wildlife all under one roof.
In the afternoon, take a 20 minute scenic helicopter flight sweeping above Westland National Park as you explore Franz Josef Glacier before landing in the snow to enjoy exceptional views of the majestic Southern Alps.
Stay 1 night in Franz Josef.
Driving time Franz Josef to Wanaka 285 km / 177 miles, 4 hours
The change in landscape will amaze you as you travel down the West Coast, with glimpses of the Tasman Sea showing beneath rugged cliffs. Take the Haast Pass Highway inland and admire waterfalls and many viewing points and short walks along the way before reaching Wanaka, an alpine paradise with views so good it’s hard to put down your camera.
Wanaka has the buzz of a genuine alpine town. 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 Queenstown 68 km / 42 miles, 1 hour
Drive over the Crown Range, one of New Zealand’s highest alpine roads, and admire the fantastic views along the way before arriving back in the stunning alpine resort of Queenstown.
Drop your rental car off at Queenstown Airport and depart Queenstown.
Our holiday packages are fully customisable. This South Island itinerary is a good example of what is possible with a three-week holiday. In other words, we recommend using this package as a starting point as you begin planning your South Island itinerary.
Your personal travel consultant will work with you to tailor the package to match your preferences. From special interests to luxury travel, we specialise in designing fully customised holiday packages.
Planning a 21-day South Island itinerary involves countless details, from accommodation arrangements to activity scheduling. We take care of every step of the process, from designing your itinerary through to booking every piece of your holiday package.
Contact New Zealand Travel Organiser today to begin planning your South Island itinerary.