This tour links the South Island's largest city, Christchurch, with the country's leading international tourist destination, Queenstown. It is a long drive yet has many wonderful sights along the way.
Planning Your Trip
Most international visitors to Queenstown will pass through Christchurch. There are several options for arriving in the city. A number of airlines fly from international departure points directly into Christchurch.
This trip is a fairly long drive. With a total distance of just over 375 miles (600 kilometers) you should allow seven hours driving for the entire journey. With all the things to see en route, it would be best to spread it out over at least a couple of days. Lake Tekapo (140 miles/3 hours driving time) and Lake Wanaka (263 miles/ 5 ½ hours) are both good choices for overnight stops.
Fuel stops are relatively common along the way, especially in the first half of the trip. Just to make sure, fill up before you leave Christchurch or soon after.
The roads here are amongst the best in New Zealand; they are all sealed and in very good condition. Nevertheless, be aware that in winter ice and snow can be present on some stretches, particularly the mountain passes and around Tekapo.
Extra care should be taken at these times.
Here are the highlights of the trip going south. Distances noted are those from Christchurch.
The terrain for the first part of the trip as you leave Christchurch heading south can be summed up in one word - flat! These are the Canterbury Plains, a vast tract of flat land created by the movement of glaciers more than three million years ago.
Today the plains are largely given over to farming. The mountains of the Southern Alps are visible in the distance to your right-hand side.
Geraldine (84 miles/135 km)
This pretty town of approximately 3,500 residents services the local farming community and also has a reputation as a center for many Canterbury artists. The Peel Forest and Rangitata River are both nearby and offer outdoor recreation.
After Geraldine, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic, with the flat plains giving way to rolling hills. The Southern Alps also become much closer. It starts to get very interesting!
Fairlie (114 miles/183 km)
At Fairlie you enter the Mackenzie district, a sub-region of the Canterbury region. Fairlie is a small but delightful village; a number of historic buildings give it a quaint atmosphere. There are a number of ski fields nearby so this is a popular place to stay in the winter. The rest of the year its function is largely as a service town for the surrounding farms.
Lake Tekapo (140 miles/226 km)
Passing through the dramatic Burke's Pass, the next stop is Tekapo. The view of Lake Tekapo from the township on the southern end of the lake with the mountains in the distance is surely one of the most memorable in New Zealand.
On its shores is also probably the most photographed church in the country. This small stone chapel is in a gorgeous location; inside, a glass window behind the altar gives a picture-postcard view of the lake and mountains.
There are two ski areas nearby and throughout the year this is a popular destination for tourists. Although small, the Tekapo township carries a good range of accommodations and eating places.
Lake Pukaki (170 miles/275 km)
This is another beautiful lake. A good place to stop for photographs is at the Visitor Center. In the distance is New Zealand's highest mountain peak, Mt Cook. Just past this lake is the turnoff to Mt Cook National Park and the mountain itself.
Twizel (180 miles/290 km)
Twizel is a small town and a great place to base yourself for winter and summer sports, including skiing, fishing, tramping and walking.
It is in close proximity to lakes, rivers and ski fields.
Omarama (194 miles/313 km)
Another small town, Omarama's main claim to fame is gliding. It was host to the World Gliding Championships in 1995 and attracts pilots from around the world for its ideal soaring conditions (flights of 1000 kilometers along the Southern Alps are not uncommon here).
The Lindis Pass is a breathtaking stretch of road, taking you through the highest point of the state highway in the South Island. The road is winding and steep in places but affords dramatic views of the mountains on either side.
After the Lindis Pass, the main highway continues through to Queenstown via Cromwell. This in itself is a lovely drive. However, there is the option to turn off and take the road to Lake Wanaka.
Lake Wanaka (263 miles/424 km)
Lake Wanaka is New Zealand's fourth largest lake and is a wonderful area to explore. The town on the lakeshore boasts some world class restaurants and accommodation in a magical setting. Although not far from Queenstown, Wanaka has its own huge range of activities including hiking, boating, fishing, mountain biking and, in the winter, skiing and snowboarding.
Cardrona (279 miles/450 km)
The old pub at Cardrona is instantly recognizable. It sits at the base of the Cardrona ski field, one of the most popular in the country.
This is a memorable drive along the highest point of sealed road in New Zealand. There are a couple of viewing points which give you your first glimpses of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
As you leave the Crown Range you rejoin the main highway to Queenstown, deservedly New Zealand's most popular tourist destination.
This is truly one of the country's finest driving routes and one which, no matter how many times you travel along it, never ceases to delight.