New Zealand is an amazing place to backpack, and is renowned for its adventure sports and, of course, its landscape. While the North Island has plenty to offer with its volcanoes, farms, large cities (Auckland) and Hobbit-themed attractions, South Island is where you’ll find much of the mountainous and picturesque scenery you expect from the country. Whether you’re coming to the South Island to road trip, relax, or partake in the many adrenaline-pumping adventures that South Island has to offer, you’re in for a trip you’ll never forget.
What to expect from this itinerary: You’ll pick up a campervan on arrival in Christchurch and spend two weeks travelling all around the South Island. For the first half of the trip you’ll be camping and cooking some of your own meals, making you better able to save some money and stay right in the beautiful landscapes you’re craving. For the second half of the trip you’ll ditch the campervan and stay in hostels or huts while you explore local towns and mountainous passes. A budget-friendly trip, expect to spend much of the trip in the cramped space of your campervan and relying on the amenities provided by the campsites you visit (most of which we picked have showers, bathrooms, and shared kitchens to use). We will provide recommendations along the way, leaving the degree of adventure you want to take up to you! So read on below and get your vacation booked!
What You Need To Know
Money/Currency: 1 USD = 1.50 NZD. Credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are available in most cities.
Accommodation: Hostels starting at 25 NZD for a shared dorm or 50 NZD for a private room. Hotels for 100-150 NZD. Camping is very popular across the country for 10-15 NZD, but look first for free camping, which can get you some beautiful campsites (some of which even having drop-toilets) for no charge.
Food: Food is expensive in New Zealand. Grab a flat-white coffee for 4 NZD in the morning while you plan your day. Find lunch for 10-15 NZD, dinner for 20-30 NZD and beer for 6 NZD.
Transportation: Rental cars (Ace, Apex, Jucy) and Campervans (Jucy from 90 NZD/night or Britz) are quite popular in the country, and transfercar let’s you get free rentals between two locations (essentially you’re relocating the cars for the company and only have to pay for insurance). Bus (“Coach”) companies like InterCity, Naked Bus, or Atomic Shuttles can get you most places in the country. Domestic flights are relatively cheap via Air New Zealand or Jetstar. Rail is expensive, but can get you around the Island safely (Rail New Zealand).
Two-Week South Island Travel Itinerary
Day 1: Christchurch
As you’ll likely be flying into Christchurch’s International Airport after a potentially long day of travel, spend a night here to regain some energy and take care of some necessities. Start by picking up a rental car to help you through the first part of the trip. Since the beginning of the trip will be based on small towers, I’d recommend a modified sleeper van from Jucy (cheapest sleeper vans in the country) that comes with a fold-out double-bed and mini kitchenette. This will make it easiest to take advantage of camping sites and just play your days by ear. Stop off at the local supermarket to stock your campervan’s fridge with some necessities and get some ground coffee to cook in the mornings. As your drive through the streets, you’ll still notice evidence of the rebuilding underway to repair the city of the 2011 earthquake.
- Getting there: Fly into Christchurch International Airport.
- Where to Stay: Budget travelers can stay at The Old Countryhouse dorms for 35 NZD or privates for 45 NZD (437 Gloucester Street). If you’re looking for midrange comforts, check-out Merivale Manor for 150 NZD (122 Papanui Road).
- What to Do: Take a ride on the Christchurch Gondola or explore the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
Days 2-3: Marlborough (Blenheim or Picton)
Travel up to the northeastern tip of South Island and explore wine country, sipping on local varieties of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. You’ll find stunning views and plenty of wildlife around Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman on your stay.
- Getting there: 4.5hr drive north of Christchurch (5.5hr if by bus). Ferries make daily trips between North and South Island, Rail runs stop in Blenheim, Kaikoura, Picton, and Seddon, domestic flights can land in Blenheim and Picton, buses run from Christchurch through Picton, and from Picton to Blenheim and Nelson. Nelson Lake Shuttles provide transport around the area.
- Where to Stay: There are plenty of places you can stay, but save some money and free camp at one of the many sites that have toilets and are near town.
- What to do: Rent a bike and go wine-tasting at one of the many vineyards. Scout for wildlife in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Road-trip up to Tasman Bay and explore Abel Tasman. Explore Sawcut Gorge. Try locally-farmed greenshell mussels. Go whale-watching in Kaikoura. Soak in the hot springs of Hanmer Springs.
Day 4-5: Greymouth
Begin your trek down the western coast of South Island and stop at Greymouth on the way to enjoy peaceful walks on the beach, and maybe a couple touristy sight-seeing spots as well.
- Getting there: 4.5hr drive southwest Marlborough
- Where to Stay: Camp at Greymouth Seaview Park and restock on groceries at the supermarket a short walk away.
- What to Do: Drive the beautiful Coastal Road and make impulsive stops. Try to find Motukiekie Beach, a beautiful hidden beach that you will not find in any brochure and will yield beautiful views if you walk a distance during low-tide. See the blue waters at the Hokitika Gorge Walk if you’re up for an out-of-the-way drive for a 15-minute walk. Walk Cape Foulwind (1hr), and travel to Punakaiki and see Pancake Rocks at high-tide. Travel Arthur’s Pass, the highest pass in South Island and enjoy the scenic windy roads as you look for impulsive places to stop for a walk (Devils Punchbowl Waterfall or a walk through Castle Hill). Ask locals about hidden cave rafting.
Days 6-7: Aoraki Valley / Mount Cook
Explore Aoraki Valley National Park and see some of the most beautiful mountain views you’ll find this trip. Plan for a couple days as bad weather can hinder the ability to even be able to see anything at all.
- Getting there: 6hr drive south of Greymouth, passing through Arthur’s Pass.
- Where to Stay: Camp at Glentanner Park Centre right in the park for several days to ensure good visibility at one of the best views on the island and hike one of the many trails.
- What to Do: Star gaze at the Mt. John Observatory ($100). Take advantage of one of the most scenic photo-ops you’ll get at Church of the Good Shepherd. Travel to Franz Josef Glacier (40min hike) to see a glacier in rapid retreat. Hike:
Day 8: Wanaka
Before the lively adventure town of Queenstown, make a stop at the peaceful and cute lakeside retreat of Wanaka to unwind for one last day.
- Getting there: 2.5hr drive south of Mount Cook National Park.
- Where to Stay: Save some money again and opt to free camp for the night.
- What to Do: Kayak in the lake. Hike Rob Roy Glacier Track (3.5 hr loop) to see active glaciers.
Days 9-13: Queenstown
We saved the best for last: enjoy a few days in the adventure capital of New Zealand on near the southern tip of the South Island. The opportunities here are endless, from amazing multi-day hiking treks, to skydiving, exploring the fjords, or just relaxing on the beaches that line the town, Queenstown is a place you’ll fall in love with instantly. So ditch the campervan or rental car on arrival and stay a while!
- Getting there: 1hr drive south of Wanaka.
- Where to Stay: Stay at Nomad Queenstown Backpacker Lodge (dorms from 30 NZD, privates from 100 NZD)
- What to Do: Skydive (NZONE for 300 NZD or Skydive Paradise for 335 NZD). Go for a jog around the lake or explore it by boat (In a rush? Take a speedboat. On island time? Take a paddleboat). Roadtrip the Southern Scenic Route (SSR) and wine-taste, explore the walking trails, and to stop at Gore for some country music, moonshine, and trout fishing. Take a full-day bus trip to Milford Sound and explore the fjords (Jucy Cruise for 50 NZD boat-ride). Take a gondola to the top of the highest mountain. Hike:
Day 14: Dunedin
Begin your trip back north to Christchurch, stopping at Dunedin on the way back to enjoy the local architecture and hear some good music.
- Getting there: 4hr drive southwest of Queenstown.
- What to Do: The Explore the historical sights and Victorian architecture. Make a trip to Gore and hear Country Music and go trout fishing
Return Home: Christchurch
- Getting there: 4.5hr drive north from Dunedin.
- What to Do: Reflect on an amazing 2-week roadtrip through New Zealand’s South Island!
Get a free car: Utilize transfercar to get what is essentially a free rental car. Simply visit their site, choose your location and planned destination and see what cars are available and for how long. The company simply needs the car transferred to a different location, so you can potentially book a car for 5-days and only pay a few bucks for insurance.
Camp for free: New Zealand has plenty of free camping sites all across the country to take advantage of, some of which are extremely scenic and have their own drop toilet.
WWOOF: Volunteer to work on a farm and enjoy free room and board.