The Botanical Gardens in Christchurch

New Zealand’s South Island is known for its incredible natural features. Dominated by glaciers, mountains, breathtaking fjords and crystal clear rivers, the South Island sights are best viewed over a ten day period, preferably with a car to travel to and from each incredible destination. Naturally, your trip should begin in the gateway to the South Island, Christchurch, before travelling across the Island to Greymouth, and then heading south to the Fiordland National Park via the famous Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Here’s my recommended route…  

Day 1 – Christchurch

The Christchurch Gondola

New Zealand’s second largest city is lovingly referred to as the gateway to the South Island, and was recently named 2nd on the New York Times’ list of places to visit in 2014. Despite suffering a series of terrible earthquakes between 2010 and 2011, out of the ongoing rebuilding process a vibrant and resilient Christchurch is beginning to blossom. Not only can you witness the revival of a city, there are also a number of sights to visit, including the stunning Cardboard Cathedral and the famous Christchurch Gondola.

Day 2 – Follow the TranzAlpine train route to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass

The slopes of Arthur's Pass

From Christchurch, a leisurely four hour drive will take you across the Island to Greymouth. Shared by the TranzAlpine train, the route from Christchurch is generally regarded as one of the most picturesque journeys in the world. From the green, peaceful Canterbury Plains, the road gains altitude and runs past Cragieburn, before reaching the stunning, albeit slightly intimidating, sight of Arthur’s Pass.   

The Pass was first used by Maori over 1,000 years ago, and has since been developed to the point where it’s now a superb feat of human engineering, as well as a magnificent spectacle. Once you’ve successfully navigated through the pass, the mountains eventually descend into views of the crystal clear rivers and forested valleys of the west coast.  

The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, north of Greymouth

Once in Greymouth, the largest town on the west coast, there are a number of possible activities, including a tour of the local brewery or a trip to the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks in the north. Other Greymouth pleasantries include a potential fishing session, a lovely stroll along the quayside, or walking the Elizabeth Track. 

Day 3 - Greymouth to Fox Glacier

A terminal lake at Fox Glacier

As you begin the drive south down the coast from Greymouth you will come to Hokitika, a small but exciting town which came to prominence after the discovery of gold on the west coast. Around a two hour drive further south will see you reach The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Both are the mighty remnants of the previous ice age, and a truly magnificent sight to behold. A hike out on to the ice will take you a little closer to nature at its awe inspiring best. For an equally impressive natural spectacle, check out the glow worm caves within walking distance of Fox town centre. One final thing! Be sure to visit the nearby Lake Matheson, where you can witness the highest peak in New Zealand; Mount Cook, reflecting of the pristine water.

Fox Glacier

Day 4 – Fox Glacier – Wanaka

Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring

Your next destination, having trekked the ice on the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, is the Aspiring National Park. As you continue driving south, and slightly inland, a short climb into the Haast Pass will see you heading toward the National Park. After continuing for around three hours, the final part of your journey will become marvellously picturesque as you reach Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. 

Enjoy the rest of the day in the Lake Wanaka region, amongst some of the finest things nature has to offer. Take on some of New Zealand’s finest walks in the Mount Aspiring National Park, visit one of the many vineyards, fish or get out on the water! If you are passing through during the winter, then don’t forget your gear in order to take part in the fantastic skiing and snowboarding opportunities nearby.

Days 5&6 - Wanaka – Queenstown, with a day to enjoy the Southern Hemisphere’s most popular Alpine Resort

Lake Wakatipu and the Southern Alps, near Queenstown

A one hour drive from Wanaka will take you over the Crown Range Road to Queenstown. The famous Alpine Resort is at the centre of New Zealand’s adventure tourism. The city entices adrenaline junkies from all over the world, not least because its Kawarau Bridge is the official home of bungee jumping. However, there are plenty of things to do aside from leaping of a bridge from a height of over 50m. These include skiing, snowboarding, skydiving and fishing; all which are all available on the several nearby mountains and Lake Wakatipu respectively. Queenstown isn’t all about adrenaline though, and there are other options if you want to keep your blood pressure at a reasonable level. Why not make the most of the area’s famous wine heritage by taking a tour and tasting session at a nearby vineyard, or have a wander through one of the city’s many art galleries and museums.

Day 7 – Queenstown to Milford Sound

Mlford Sound

A three hour drive will take you into the famous Fiordland National Park. To see the finest that the park has to offer, it’s advisable to reach Milford Sound in time to make the afternoon boat cruise. The beginning of the journey hugs the edge of the spectacular Lake Wakatipu, before taking the Milford Road for one of the most scenic experiences you can have on four wheels. You will constantly want to stop for pictures and walks, with highlights including Eglinton Valley, the magically named Mirror Lakes and the mysterious Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain. You will soon reach the grand Homer Tunnel, which signals the descent into Milford Sound, a wondrous, 22km long fiord.

Day 8 – Milford Sound back to Queenstown

Queenstown, a view from above

Make the most of your remaining time in the Fiordland National Park today, before setting back on the trip back to Queenstown. One of New Zealand’s nine great walks, The Milford Track, is nearby, and highly recommended. You can also visit the Department of Conservation wildlife centre, as well as the Te Anau Caves; famous for their luminescent worms. Once you get back to Queenstown, take the chance to enjoy some of the sights that you missed the first time round! 

Day 9 – Queenstown to Mount Cook Village

A three hour drive from Queenstown will take you to Mount Cooke Village, the site of New Zealand’s highest mountain. Your first stop will potentially be Gibbston Valley, where a wine enthusiast can indulge in some of the finest vineyards on the South Island. After stopping for a quick tipple, you will come to the striking Lindis Pass, which is a sight to behold no matter what the season. The following road, which eventually leads to Mt Cook, skirts along the edge of Lake Pukaki. A ten minute drive north will see you reach your destination in The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The area is popular among adventure seekers, mountain climbers, and, unsurprisingly, photographers. Take advantage of the many hiking routes, which start in or nearby to Mount Cook Village. There are also a number of cruises which offer tours of the nearby Tasman, the country’s largest glacier. Dominating the skyline is Mt Cook, which stands proudly at 3,754 metres tall.

Day 10 – Mount Cook Village – Lake Tekapo – Christchurch

The view of Lake Tekapo from the observatory

In total, the drive back from Mount Cook village to Christchurch takes around four hours. Make the most of driving back past Lake Pukaki, perhaps with a morning hike or kayak out on the water, before setting off east toward another beautiful body of water, Lake Tekapo.  

The route back to Christchurch is a charming one, albeit slightly less awe-inspiring than the views back in Mount Cook village. The drive past Mount Hutt, along the Rakaia River is great for stopping and taking a few photographs, whilst there are also a few small towns on the way which you can explore, including Geraldine and Ashburton. It won’t be too long before you are back on the Canterbury Plains, heading back toward Christchurch. Now you can sleep.