The South Island was made for road trips. It has glaciers, fjords, volcanoes, vineyards, Lord of the Ring forests, impeccable roads, and very few people sharing it. With only one million inhabitants in a landmass the size of New York State, the South Island feels largely untouched and the ultimate place to connect with nature and your adventurous side. The entire island could keep you captivated for a month or more, though this 700-mile journey down the western half of the island gets right to the heart of magical New Zealand.
Start in the charming northern city of Nelson and cruise west toward Abel Tasman National Park. After a few days of top-notch kayaking and hiking, continue down the West Coast to discover the geological wonders of Pancake Rocks and glaciers of Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Cut inland towards Otago, passing jaw-dropping lake after lake, until you hit the “Adventure Capital of the World” (aka Queenstown). Get your adrenaline fix and dose of fine dining, then discover the country’s wildest national park in Fiordland. Then, if the still want to put the pedal to the metal, see our tips on extending your road trip.
The top of the South Island is the country’s sunniest and most historic region. From the first European explorer landing in 1642 to the British settlers that made it their home two centuries later, the Tasman District is teeming with culture—not to mention some of the country’s finest national parks, coastline, and vineyards.
Get Artsy in Nelson
Nelson is known for its arts scene, hosting dozens of cultural events throughout the year (be sure to check their calendar). Head to South Street, the historic heart of town with its original 19th-century cottages, pop into the galleries and studios of the 300 working artists in the area, and catch the local market every Saturday at Montgomery Square.
Tasman Great Taste Trio
Indulge in all the region’s delights with a two-day bike ride along Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, through wineries, orchards, artsy enclaves, and plenty of coastline. Say farewell to the Gentle Cycling Company and meet the Wilson’s Abel Tasman crew for a 3-5 day journey through Abel Tasman National Park’s granite headlands and azure waters, combining hiking and kayaking to their luxury in-park lodges.
Dune Buggy Farewell Spit
A skinny sandspit, jutting 22-miles into the sea, has long been a magnet for shipwrecks, beached whales, and bird colonies. Take a mega 4WD dune buggy from Collingwood to the 19th-century lighthouse, slide down massive sand dunes, observe 90 species of birds, and learn about this wetland’s unusual history.
Where to Stay in Tasman
The Sails: Convenient and contemporary lodging between downtown Nelson, the harbor, and the airport—a perfect starting point for your road trip.Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge: At the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, this is a surprisingly modern and well-priced upscale B&B.
From Abel Tasman, hop on the ultra-scenic Highway 6. The road snakes through the mountains out to the northwest coast’s national parks, filled with natural wonders, from glaciers to rainforests to seal colonies to otherworldly beaches.
Coastal Walk Paparoa National Park
A quick jaunt through the subtropical forest on the Truman Track brings you to a sweeping limestone cove, with a waterfall pouring out to the beach. Down the road, Punakaiki’s 30 million years of erosion has carved towers of “pancake rocks,” lagoons, and blowholes.
Helicopter the Westland Glaciers
Call in the chopper to reach the heart of New Zealand’s biggest mountains and glaciers. Flying over the impenetrable Fox, Franz, and Tasman glaciers, circling the 12,280-foot Mount Cook, and touching down for a frolic on the ice, you’ll experience the purest terrain of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bike the West Coast Wilderness Trail
Cycle any slice of this stunning 100-mile swath of the Southern Alps. Follow in the path of New Zealand’s early miners along their old logging tramways, through dense rainforest, past glacial rivers and lakes with views to both the Tasman Sea and the snow-capped mountains in one wild ride–be it for a few hours or days.
Where to Stay on the West Coast
The Rocks Homestay B&B: Tucked in the rainforest overlooking the Tasman Sea in Punakaiki, this is a quaint launch pad to explore the north end of the West Coast.Te Waonui Forest Retreat: Modern, eco-conscious, and the most luxurious resort at the foot of Franz Josef’s glacier and rainforest.
Take the dramatic Haast Pass into the dynamic Otago region, home to impressive wine country, breathtaking lakes, world-class ski resorts, and the Adrenaline Capital of the World.
Dip into Hawea & Wanaka Lakes
Massive twin lakes, ringed with mountains, offer plenty of natural appeal. Wanaka spills over with activities (kayaking, via feratta, cycling trips, and more) while Hawea excels at utter serenity that’s easily enjoyed with a shoreline stroll.
Bike the Gibbston River Wine Ride
Pedal along the electric blue Kawarau river, through bucolic orchards, gold-rush relics, and world-class vineyards. Pack a picnic and be sure to stop at Peregrine Winery and the Gibbston Valley Wine Caves.
Get Your Adrenaline Fix in Queenstown
Nestled between the glacial-blue Lake Wakatipu and the saw-tooth Remarkable Mountains, Queenstown brings out everyone’s wild side. Take the easygoing Skyline gondola for the best views, then work up to Shotover Jet-boating and AJ Hackett bungy jumping in the Adventure Capital.
Day Trip to Paradise
Hug the curves of Lake Waikatpu from Queenstown to Glenorchy for arguably the most scenic drive in the world. Stroll the Glenorchy Wetland Walkway then press on to Paradise for its Lord-of-the-Rings-style forests.
Where to Stay in Queenstown
Matakauri: A Relais & Châteaux lodge with unparalleled style, service, and Lake Waikatpu vistas—pricey but worth it.Queenstown Park Hotel: Downtown with an urban-meets-alpine vibe.
Venture to the southwest corner of New Zealand and reach its largest and wildest national park–famous for Milford Sound, but home to so much more. Drive between the 5,000-foot peaks on Milford Road and try to count the waterfalls. Take hikes, paddle the fjords, cruise the sounds, and find natural beauty in its purest form.
Kayak Milford Sound
Embark on a multi-hour paddle through the fjord or what Rudyard Kipling called, “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Sheer mountains shoot out of the sea, topped with hanging glaciers and spilling with falls, like the dazzling Lady Bowman.
Hike Near and Far
For the gung-ho hiker try the Routeburn Track. This Great Walk of New Zealand winds through two of the country’s greatest national parks, Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring, climbing from the valley floor to beech to alpine forest and cresting above Milford Sound. This three-day, 20-mile hike is worth every step, though if such a heart-pumping endeavor isn’t for you, try the easy and dazzling Chasm Walk. This mere ten-minute tramp to a powerful waterfall, churning from pool to pool, is one of the shortest but finest.
Cruise Doubtful Sound
This lesser-known fjord has the dramatic mountain scenery and rich wildlife of its cousin Milford–without the crowds. Hop the overnight cruise for sunset and wake up to kayak the coves and search for Fiordland penguins. Short on time? Take the day trip.
Where to Stay in Fiordland
Deer Flat Campground: A peaceful and basic riverside site among the towering mountains in Fiordland National Park. Even if you aren’t normally into camping, you’ll be happy to be sleeping within the pristine UNESCO site.
Fiordland Lodge: In the park’s gateway town of Te Anau with sweeping views of the lake by the same name, this lodge is a luxurious and convenient option.
Have an extra week or two to explore? Keep driving to the Catlin’s podocarp forests, spot wildlife on the Otago Peninsula, marvel at the Moraki Boulders, kayak the iceberg filled lakes of Mount Cook National Park, whale watch Kaikora, ferry across the Marlborough Sound, hike Tongariro Crossing, tube the Waitomo Caves, and wine taste on Waiheke Island, and ask friendly Kiwis for their favorite recommendations along your route.
Watch Out for Cheeky Keas
This seemingly cute green bird has a penchant for chewing the rubber seal around car windows, breaking in, and eating the upholstery. We thought this sounded ridiculous…then we saw it happen.
Go in Spring or Fall
Come March-April for dazzling fall foliage or October-November to see the island blanketed in wildflowers. Both seasons bring enough warmth without the summer hordes.
Download New Zealand’s Tourism Radio app
As you drive around the country, this GPS app will give you facts, tips, and insights on the places right outside your car window. (It told us about a hot spring trail we would’ve driven right past!)