Despite having a third of the population of the North Island, the South Island is the larger of New Zealand's two main islands. It's renowned for its spectacular mountain range, mirror-clear lakes, and striking fjords. If you're driving, you can see the main sights of the South Island in about 10 days, either by starting in Picton, which is where you'll arrive if you take the ferry from Wellington, or you could also fly straight into Christchurch and skip the Marlborough Sounds.
Clockwise is the best direction to travel around the coast of the South Island. This way, you'll always be driving on the side closest to the coast, since they drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. Heading south along the east coast and then back north along the west coast will ensure you always have a better view of the ocean while you drive.
Day 1: Picton to Christchurch
On the first leg of the trip, it should only take you about five hours to drive from Picton to Christchurch, which is a distance of 210 miles (340 kilometers). Your first stop will be Blenheim, which is the largest town in the Marlborough region of the South Island and is best known for its vineyards. Producing more than a third of the country's wine, this is the best place to go wine tasting.
After leaving Blenheim, you'll follow State Highway 1 to Kaikoura, the whale watching capital of New Zealand. The landscape will become hillier, alternating between farmland and vineyards until the road reaches the coast. This stretch of road is spectacular, with hills on one side and the sea on the other. Kaikoura is also famous for its seafood, so be sure to stop for lunch at The Store Cafe on the seaward side of the road towards Kaikoura.
South of Kaikoura, the road veers inland through the farmlands and hill country of North Canterbury. More vineyards will appear as you enter the Waipara wine region, where you can taste the highly-regarded riesling and pinot noir wines that are made here. Allow some time for your wine buzz to wear off before continuing to Christchurch and finish the day with a nice dinner in town.
Day 2: Christchurch to Queenstown
For your next leg of the trip, you have a long 308 mile (495 kilometers) drive through the Canterbury plains along Highway 1 to Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of New Zealand. If you drive straight through, it should only take you about six hours to complete. Unlike the drive from Picton to Christchurch, the first half of this drive is very flat. However, once you turn inland at Geraldine, the pastoral countryside will transform into the lakes and mountains of the Southern Alps in the Mackenzie District. Drive slowly as you pass by Lake Tekapo and you might be able to get a good look at Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain.
Day 3: Queenstown
After two days of mostly driving, take a full day to enjoy all the things Queenstown has to offer. The city offers a myriad of adrenaline-rushing activities like bungee jumping, sky diving, and canyon swinging, but you could also go for a more relaxing stroll along the shore of Lake Wakatipu or hang out in a hip Queenstown cafe. For Lord of the Rings fans, sign up for a themed tour that will take you to the specific filming locations.
Day 4: Queenstown to Milford Sound
Of all the sights in the South Island, Milford Sound is the most buzzed-about for its copious waterfalls. It's best done as a day trip from Queenstown, as you will have to go there and come back on the same road and it's wise to book a tour rather than drive yourself. Situated in the heart of Fiordland, it is the most accessible of the region's 17 fjords which give the area its name.
When you get to Milford, you can 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, a helicopter flight over the water will give you an even better view of the mostly untouched mountains and valleys.
There is only one road in and out of Milford Sound and limited accommodation in the area, so getting there and back will take about seven hours and you'll cover about 357 miles (575 kilometers). It's a long trip, but the scenery along the way, in addition to the views you'll enjoy at Milford Sound, make it well worth it.
Day 5: Queenstown to Fox Glacier
After spending your last night in Queenstown, you can start heading back north up the west coast for another 242 miles (387 kilometers) until you reach Fox Glacier. It's a long drive that will take you about five hours, but there is some stunning scenery along the way. The road can be winding and steep in places, but the views are outstanding. Also, there will be few places along the way to stop for lunch, so pack the car with a picnic before you go.
The route continues along the eastern shore of Lake Wanaka and into the beech forests of Mount Aspiring National Park. If you plan to drive through the dramatic Haast Pass, be aware that landslides are common in this area, so you should stop in at a tourist information office in either Queenstown or Wanaka to make sure that the road is open before you set out.
After the pass, you'll arrive on the west coast and can follow the road north until you get to Fox Glacier. You can continue on down the road to also visit the Franz Josef Glacier, but you'll find nicer accommodation and restaurants near Fox Glacier.
Day 6: Fox Glacier to Greymouth
The next leg of the trip requires only about two hours of driving, covering the distance of 108 miles (173 kilometers) from Fox Glacier to the town Greymouth. Motivated by the search for gold, Europeans settled the western coast of the South Island and the towns of Hokitika and Greymouth became important mining centers. There's a lot of history to learn here and if you're interested, you can walk through the goldfields in the nearby town of Ross. Because the day is much shorter, you'll have more opportunities to explore other glaciers on the way and maybe even sign up for a guided tour of the region.
Day 7: Greymouth to Westport
You'll do even less driving on this day, so you may even consider combining the previous day's route with this leg of the trip. It will take you just an hour and 20 minutes to travel another 62 miles (100 kilometers) to Westport from Greymouth.
The major attraction in this part of the South Island is the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, amazing layered rock formations were created around 30 million years ago. A loop walk from the main highway takes you directly over these rocks, which should only take you a half-hour to complete. 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.
Westport is a thriving town on the banks of the Buller River that has an interesting museum and some good cafes. While here, you may also want to take a short drive to Cape Foulwind, where you can follow a clifftop trail to a seal colony.
Day 8: Westport to Karamea
You can't continue the trip from Karamea, so you will have to drive the 59 miles (95 kilometers) and back from Westport, which should only take up about three hours of your day. Not only does the steep and winding road to Karamea take you through some beautiful forests, but Karamea is also the starting point for the Heaphy Track, one of the nine official "Great Walks" of New Zealand. This 51-mile (82-kilometer) trail follows the Heaphy River and is the longest of all the great walks. It takes four days to walk the whole thing, but if you're just visiting for the day, you can walk on a short section of the trail instead. Karamea is a very small and quiet place, but you can stop for lunch or decide to stay longer at the Last Resort Hotel and Restaurant.
Day 9: Westport to Nelson
After you've seen Karamea and returned to Westport, it's time to head back east and continue onward to Nelson, which is 138 miles (222 kilometers) away. By now, you'll be used to the beauty of South Island roads and can enjoy this two and three-quarter hour drive through the Buller Gorge. The gorge follows the Buller River through this deep canyon between Westport and the small town of Murchison, which is renowned for its white water rafting and trout fishing.
From Murchison, there are even steeper and more dramatic stretches of road through forest and mountain passes. You will also notice several vineyards along the roadside, which are a part of the thriving Nelson wine district.
Nelson itself is a lively town and one of the artisan centers of New Zealand. You'll find many artists here and can see their work on Saturday morning at the market held in the center of town, which is often regarded as one of the best in all of New Zealand.
Day 10: Nelson to Picton
The trip is almost over and it's time to head back to Picton, which is about two hours and covers a distance of 67 miles (107 kilometers). You'll begin by passing through the Mount Richmond Forest Range and by the Pelorus River. Here, the road then gives the first glimpses of the waters of the Marlborough Sounds, before you arrive at the small town of Havelock, where you can have lunch on the marina.
After Havelock, you can choose between the quicker road along Highway 1 or turn left onto Queen Charlotte Drive for a leisurely scenic ride. This winding road is the coastal route and the views of the bay along the way are a truly magnificent way to end your South Island adventure.