01 September, 2023
Last updated on 01 September, 2023
Posted by Marty | Spaceships Crew
They say it's one of the legendary road trips in the world: the South Island Circuit in New Zealand. It sure is an amazing road trip. And these are the best places to visit when going for a tour of the South Island. Whether it'll be the best road trip ever is up to you, but these tips will make sure you won't miss any of the fun or action-packed stuff.
Travelling to New Zealand is one of the most exciting experiences that you can have as a traveller. There are many places to see that will allow you to experience the natural beauty and landmarks that the country has to offer. Whenever you are travelling to New Zealand, there are a number of places that you will want to check out. Each of these places offers travellers a unique site to visit and enjoy. Visiting the best places in New Zealand will be an experience that you will remember for years to come.
How to plan the best South Island road trip
To see as much as possible of the South Island of New Zealand, a minimum of 2-3 weeks is recommended when going on a self-drive holiday aka road trip. However, even with that amount of time, you will still need to be selective about the places you visit and the activities you want to do, as there is so much to do and see. The South Island rocks.
Check out our South Island itinerary below, to get an idea of how to plan your South Island road trip. It all starts and end in Christchurch, which is the perfect place for picking up a campervan or car.
Christchurch: it all starts in the Garden City
When going on a road trip on the South Island of New Zealand, Christchurch is the place where it all begins. Whether arriving on an international or domestic flight it's super easy to get to the Spaceships Christchurch depot. We're only 2km from the airport and we offer a transfer service (free if you hire 21 days or more).
You can pick up your campervan any time of the day or night as we offer free after-hours service. Just make sure to have a good night's sleep before starting your tour of the South Island.
As Christchurch has so much to offer, it makes perfect sense to stay a day or two in the Garden City. And these amazing activities are everyone's favourite for a reason.
Christchurch Tram: The heritage tramway is not just a mode of transportation but an experience in itself. It weaves its way through key parts of the city, including Cathedral Junction, Canterbury Museum, and New Regent Street, among others. Riding the tram provides a comfortable and charming way to see the city's major landmarks, all the while offering a nostalgic step back in time.
Take a Punt on the Avon River: This is an iconic Christchurch experience that allows you to see the city from a different perspective. As you glide gently down the river, guided by a punter in traditional Edwardian attire, you'll pass by beautiful scenery including some of Christchurch’s key landmarks. It's romantic, and relaxing, and offers a unique view of the city’s architecture and public parks.
Christchurch Gondola: If you're looking for stunning panoramic views, taking a ride on the Christchurch Gondola is an absolute must. It ascends to the top of the Port Hills, providing breathtaking vistas of Christchurch City, Lyttelton Harbour, and beyond. The ride offers an exhilarating sense of elevation and vastness, and once you reach the summit, there are numerous walking trails and the Time Tunnel exhibit, which delves into the geological and human history of the region.
And the best part, you can see & do all these amazing activities with the Christchurch Combo Pass. Now you can do 3 Christchurch essentials for one low price.
Dunedin: driving south along the coastline (SH1)
On the way to Dunedin, you'll pass several great places to make a road trip stop.
Geraldine:great place for a coffee and to stock up on yummy (and discounted) chutneys, jams, dressings and sauces in the Barkers outlet shop. They are based in Geraldine and do magic with heaps of fresh New Zealand fruit and vegetables.
The latter is on the Otago Peninsula. Make sure to spend a bit of time there as there is heaps of wildlife to see, penguins, albatrosses, seals and sea lions. Various walkways give you access to amazing views and sheer cliff faces like The Chasm and Lovers Leap.
There are several ways to go to the next item on our list of best places to visit on the South Island: Te Anau. Either drive further down south and visit the Catlins area, which is beautiful and rugged. Heaps of walkways and hikes can be done there. And you'll spot wildlife as well. Or go for the quick route via SH1 and SH94.
At Te Anau, you will have the opportunity to visit a number of key sites as well as engage in fun activities. Fiordland National Park is definitely a must-visit. You can stay at Henry Creek Campsite, a DOC site that is also included in the DOC campsite pass. Henry Creek is a scenic campsite where you'll camp beside the beautiful Lake Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound.
You can go for an extreme sporting event by participating in the Kepler Challenge (a 60km mountain run) or for the 27km Luxmore Grunt with a long flat section plus a steep climb up to Luxmore Hut. Or go for a normal hike by doing the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks.
Or go for more relaxed activities like canoeing or kayaking. It is all possible in the Te Anau area. In Milford Sound, you can take a flight over the area to check out all of the mountains. If you want to, you can also take a boat cruise as well. Then you can hike the Milford Track, the finest walk in the world.
Queenstown: action-packed and fun town
Queenstown is a popular stop and for many a must-do and an action-packed stopover. For most travellers, it's all about the adrenalin-pumping action, which includes activities such as bungy jumping, jet boating and white water rafting. But there are more reasons to add Queenstown to your South Island road trip.
Natural Beauty: Queenstown is situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by the Southern Alps, which provides a stunning backdrop for the town. Visitors can take a scenic walk around the lake or take a gondola ride to the top of Bob's Peak to enjoy panoramic views of the town and surrounding mountains.
Adventure Sports: Queenstown is also called the Adrenaline Capital of New Zealand, a logical name once you realise how many activities you can do there: skiing, snowboarding, bungee jumping, skydiving, and jet boating. Queenstown's beautiful natural surroundings make it the perfect location for these adventurous and sporty activities.
Wine, Craft Beer and Food: Queenstown is also home to several wineries, vineyards and craft beer breweries. Visitors can sample some of the region's best wines & craft beers while taking in the stunning scenery.
Festivals and Events: Queenstown hosts several festivals and events throughout the year, including the Queenstown Winter Festival, the Queenstown Bike Festival, and the Arrowtown Autumn Festival. These events provide an opportunity for visitors to experience the local culture and community.
Friendly People: Queenstown is known for its friendly and welcoming people, it's the friendly Kiwi nature, it's in our DNA. The town has a real small-town feel. Perfection.
Want a bit more peace and quiet? Then check out the Skyline Gondola as well as attend the Central Otago Wine tasting event. Or visit Arrowtown, which is a small suburb of the city with lots of nice cafes.
The amount of time you should spend in Queenstown depends on what you want to see and do while you're there. If you're looking to participate in outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, or bungee jumping, you may want to spend several days in Queenstown to make the most of your time. On the other hand, if you're just looking to explore the town and enjoy its scenic beauty, a couple of days may be sufficient.
Mt. Cook: isolated from the world
Mt Cook is another great place to visit on the South Island. Sleep at the foot of the mountains by staying at White Horse Hill Campground, an awesome & scenic DOC campsite. It's the perfect base to start exploring Mt Cook.
Sleep at the foot of the mountain: White Horse Hill Campground, Mt Cook
Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers
One of the top locations in New Zealand is the Franz Josef Glaciers. The first thing that you can do is visit the glaciers, either by foot or by helicopter. You can get relatively close to both glaciers by foot, but the best way to experience this natural phenomenon is by going for a guided glacier walk.
While you are in the area, make sure to visit Lake Matheson aka Mirror Lake as well. Here you can take amazing photos early in the morning or in the afternoon, at sunset. Lake Matheson is one of the most photographed areas in New Zealand (besides the famous Wanaka tree of course).
Stay at Gillespies Beach Campsite for great views, either over the ocean or the mountains in the back. There are some nice walks that you can do in the area. These lead to historic suction and bucket dredges.
Get up early to snap the best shots of Lake Matheson aka Mirror Lake on your South Island road trip
Greymouth: feeling thirsty or hungry?
Did anyone say pancakes? Yes, Greymouth is the perfect stop if you want to go to Pancake Rocks and Blowholes in Punakaiki. But first, make sure to stop at Hokitika Gorge (Kokatahi) to enjoy the turquoise water before going to Greymouth.
Hokitika Gorge is known for its stunning turquoise blue-green-ish water caused by the reflection of light off the glacial silt in the water. The gorge is surrounded by beautiful native bush and towering rock formations, providing visitors with scenic views. A suspension bridge allows visitors to cross the gorge and offers an up-close view of the water and surrounding scenery. There are several hiking trails in the area, including a short walk to a viewpoint overlooking the gorge and a longer hike to a nearby waterfall. Additionally, visitors can enjoy birdwatching as the area is home to a variety of native bird species.
Enjoy the colours of Hokitika Gorge
Greymouth is also home to Monteith's Brewing Company. You can visit the brewery and go for a brewery tour, but the highlight will be the cafe where you can taste the various Monteith's beers and pair it with yummy snacks. The Sticky Sweet Baby Back Ribs are to die for. Just make sure you stay at a hostel close to the brewery or take an Uber ride back to your campsite. Or have a designated driver.
You will also be able to hike the Grampians, The most prominent hill in the middle of Nelson with several tracks up each side. Or check out the Nelson Provincial Museum. But for most travellers, Nelson is on the list of best places to visit on the South Island as it's the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. A place where you can spend days kayaking, hiking or camping. Or go for a quick one-day visit. Have a look at this DOC page to see all the activities you can do there.
Kaikoura: whale watching paradise
Drive along SH1 to Blenheim in the Marlborough region - the perfect place to enjoy the famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - to Kaikoura. This location offers a wide range of enjoyable activities to participate in. You can go on a whale watch tour or go for a dolphin encounter.
It is probably the best place in New Zealand to go whale watching, either by boat or helicopter, as there is some sort of "whale highway" in the ocean. It's a migration corridor that whales use to migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters in the Kaikoura area.
Back to Christchurch
When looking to wind down your trip, you will want to go back to Christchurch, of course. It's the place where you'll drop off your campervan (24 hours a day). And as Christchurch has so much to offer, it's a great place to relax and do some sightseeing before heading home.
You will have the opportunity to check out Cathedral Square, the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum and all the changes that are taking place in Christchurch. It's an ever-changing city. The city will look different each time you visit it. You might want to stick around for a few days to enjoy everything that Christchurch has to offer. Then you can really say that you have checked off all the boxes on your tour of the South Island of New Zealand.
South Island Circuit route map to see it all!
The map below has all the best places to visit listed and covers the complete route of the South Island Circuit road trip. Now it's even easier to do this epic New Zealand road trip. Simply send the map to your phone and start the engine of your Spaceships campervan. All systems are go.
Want to see even more of New Zealand?
This epic South Island loop road trip is an epic one. It is the easiest and most exciting way to see it all! It is also an important trip on our list of the best New Zealand road trips, but there's more. You don't want to miss out on what the North Island has to offer. By using our free tips and suggested itineraries you will be able to create your own ultimate NZ road trip. Never stop exploring!