The South Island is the larger of New Zealand's two main islands. It is renowned for its spectacular scenery, which includes lakes, rivers, forests, and mountains.
Here is an itinerary for seeing the main sights of the South Island in ten days. It starts and ends at the Cook Strait ferry in Picton. If you are arriving in Christchurch by air, start your trip on day two and end it on day one.
The best direction to travel in around the coast of the South Island is clockwise. With New Zealand vehicles driving on the left-hand side of the road, that means you will be closest to the coast, heading south along the east coast and then north along the west coast. This will give you the better views of the sea from your vehicle.
Day 1: Picton to Christchurch
Depart from the ferry at Picton. If you fancy a coffee break, call into one of the excellent cafes that face the harbor in Picton's quaint town or stretch your legs with a stroll around the marina area.
Then follow the signs to Blenheim. Blenheim is the largest town in Marlborough and dominated by the surrounding vineyards. It is the largest vineyard area in New Zealand and makes more than a third of the country's wine.
After leaving Blenheim, follow State Highway 1 to Kaikoura. The landscape becomes hillier, alternating between farmland and vineyards. Soon the road reaches the coast and follows it south. This stretch of road is spectacular, with hills on one side and the sea on the other. A good place to stop for lunch is The Store Cafe, on the seaward side of the road towards Kaikoura. As you travel along this road also keep a lookout for seals sunning on the rocks close to the road.
Kaikoura is famous for whale and dolphin watching, as well as its delicious seafood.
South of Kaikoura the road veers inland through the farmlands and hill country of North Canterbury. Soon more vineyards appear; this is the Waipara wine region, a highly regarded area for riesling and pinot noir in particular. Several of the wineries offer sampling and purchasing. If you haven't already had lunch, try the menu at the Waipara Springs restaurant.
The small towns of Amberley, Woodend, and Kaiapoi tell you that you are close to Christchurch. End your day with a meal at one of the city's many restaurants.
Distance: 340 kilometers/210 miles
Drive Time: 4 hours
Day 2: Christchurch to Queenstown
As you start driving south from Christchurch, you will notice that the land is in marked contrast to yesterday. These are the Canterbury Plains. In a word: flat.
However, turning inland at Geraldine the countryside becomes a lot more interesting as you approach the lakes and mountains of the Southern Alps in the Mackenzie District.
Distance: 495 kilometers/308 miles
Drive Time: 6 hours
Day 3: Queenstown
After the long drives of the previous two days, it's worth spending a day taking a breather and exploring all of the great things Queenstown has to offer. Go for a stroll along the shore of Lake Wakatipu, hang out in a Queenstown cafe or, if you're feeling more energetic, try jetboating, white water rafting, bungy jumping or a Lord or the Rings and The Hobbit tour.
Day 4: Queenstown to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a highlight of the South Island and it is well worth a day trip to see this amazing place. Situated in the heart of Fiordland, it is the most spectacular (and only readily accessible) of the region's seventeen fjords which give the area its name.
Although you can drive the road to Milford, one of the best ways to experience the trip in on a coach tour from Queenstown. As well as relaxing, you will enjoy an informative commentary on the stunning scenery along the way. It is a long trip, but well worth it.
While in Milford, take a cruise or kayak trip on the water to observe the unique wildlife and towering mountains that enclose the Sound. For the ultimate experience, take a helicopter flight over the water and the surrounding mountains and valleys. This is one of the most untouched parts of New Zealand and the experience is unforgettable.
There is only one road in and out of Milford Sound, and limited accommodation in the area, so return to Queenstown for the night.
Distance: 575 kilometers/357 miles
Drive Time: 7 hours
Day 5: Queenstown to Fox Glacier
This is another very long drive, but with a variety of scenery all the way that will stun even the weariest traveler. From Queenstown head first to Wanaka. Take the route across the Crown Range; the road is winding and steep in places but with outstanding alpine views.
From there the road passes along the eastern shore of Lake Wanaka and into the beech forests of the Mount Aspiring National Park.
The road through the Haast Pass (one of only three passes through the Main Divide of the Southern Alps in the South Island) is extremely dramatic. In places, there is evidence of landslides and although the road is well-formed, check with the Queenstown or Wanaka tourist information offices to ensure that the road is open.
There are few places along the way to stop for lunch (Makaroa is virtually the only settlement between Wanaka and Haast) so stock up on food for lunch before leaving Queenstown or Wanaka.
At Haast, you have arrived at the West Coast and some of the road north from here to Fox Glacier is along the coast. Spend the night at Fox Glacier or, a short distance further along, Franz Josef Glacier. Fox has better options for food and accommodation. In both places, you also have easy access to the nearby glaciers which give the towns their names.
Distance: 387 kilometers/242 miles
Drive Time: 5 hours
Day 6: Fox Glacier to Greymouth
Today is a much shorter day so use the time to see what the area has to offer. The highlight is sure to be the two glaciers themselves. Both are reachable from the parking lots by the entrance. There are also guided tours and helicopter flights.
Settlement of the West Coast by Europeans was largely the result of the search for gold. The coastal towns of both Hokitika and Greymouth were important gold mining centers and there are many reminders of the historical past. There is also a goldfield walkway at the small settlement of Ross that is well worth visiting.
From Hokitika to Greymouth the road is virtually all along the coast. This is a wild and lonely stretch of the South Island.
Spend the night at Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast.
Distance: 173 kilometers/108 miles
Drive Time: 2 1/4 hours
Day 7: Greymouth to Westport
This is another easy day for driving, and a chance to take in the atmosphere of the West Coast. The major attraction on this part of the tour is the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. These amazing rock formations were created around 30 million years ago. A loop walk from the main highway takes you directly over these rocks (allow 30 minutes to complete). There are also some good cafes nearby.
All along this road, there are breathtaking views, above the sea on your left and to the mountains of the Paparoa National Park on your right. It's worth allowing plenty of time to stop and admire the views along the way.
Westport is a thriving town on the banks of the Buller River that has an interesting museum and some good cafes. While here it is also worth taking the short drive to Cape Foulwind where there is an excellent coastal cliff top walk to a seal colony.
Distance: 100 kilometers/62 miles
Drive Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Day 8: Westport to Karamea
This is a return trip to and from Westport. The historical interest and sheer beauty of the area make it a very worthwhile detour.
The road from Westport to Karamea takes you through some of the most beautiful forests in the South Island, the Karamea Ecological Reserve. The road is steep and winding, taking you to the top of the forest range and down the other side.
This is a very historic mining area. Originally prospected for gold, in later years this was one of the most important coal mining regions in New Zealand. At Waimangaroa, 16 kilometers north of Westport, take a side trip 8 kilometers inland to the Denniston plateau. Here are the remains of what was once a thriving town and the largest coal mine in the country. Tours of the old mines are available.
Karamea is the last town north on the West Coast of the South Island. It is also the starting point for the Heaphy Track, one of the Nine Great Walks of New Zealand. Karamea is a very small and quiet place. Stop for lunch or refreshments at the Last Resort Hotel and Restaurant.
Return to Westport for another night.
Distance: 180 kilometers/118 miles return
Drive Time: 2 hours 40 minutes return
Day 9: Westport to Nelson
It's time to leave the West Coast and head east once more. And what a way to depart, along one of the finest scenic roads in New Zealand, through the Buller Gorge. This road follows the Buller River through a deep canyon between Westport and the small town of Murchison.
Murchison is renowned for its white water rafting and trout fishing, due to the many rivers in the area. It's a good place for a lunch stop.
From Murchison there are more steep and dramatic stretches of road through forest and mountain passes. Approaching Nelson, there are the small towns of Wakefield, Brightwater and Richmond. You will also notice several vineyards along the roadside, part of the thriving Nelson wine district.
Nelson itself is a lively town, regarded as one of the artisan centers of New Zealand. There are many artists and craftsmen here. To see some of their work — and also to sample some of the local food products — be in Nelson on Saturday morning. The market, held in the parking lot in the center of town, is one of the best markets in New Zealand.
Distance: 222 kilometers/138 miles
Drive Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Day 10: Nelson to Picton
There are two routes between Nelson and Picton. By far the more scenic is along Queen Charlotte Drive (follow the signs to Picton, not Blenheim).
The day starts by passing through the Mount Richmond Forest Range and by the Pelorus River, regarded as one of the most beautiful in New Zealand. The road then gives the first glimpses of the waters of the Marlborough Sounds, before you arrive at the small town of Havelock. This has some good lunchtime eateries and the largest marina in the Marlborough Sounds.
Soon after Havelock, turn off to the left onto Queen Charlotte Drive. This winding road is the coastal route along the Sounds. There are several delightful bays en route and the views of the Sounds are magnificent everywhere.
Just before arriving in Picton, notice the large shipping port. Not visible from Picton town itself, this is a large port for the export of logs from the forests of Marlborough.
Arrive in Picton and make arrangements for the night or for the ferry sailing to Wellington in the North Island
Distance: 107 kilometers/67 miles
Drive Time: 1 hours 35 minutes