12 Days New Zealand's South Island Highlights

The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most diverse and spectacularly beautiful places on Earth!  If you're time-short, consider this 12-day itinerary. Fly with a helicopter onto a glacier, go caving with helmet and neo suit or explore the Abel Tasman National Park by kayak. Add some of the most exiting walks or hikes into your visit. The options are endless but don't try to do it all. The more quality time you spend in New Zealand, the better! View more sample travel itineraries on Guest New Zealand.


Included in this Travel Package:

  • 12 days Compact Rental car, full insurance + GPS with Hertz or Thrifty New Zealand
  • 11 nights accommodation in B&B’s, lodges and motels (all with breakfast included)
  • Glacier Explorer Mt. Cook
  • Flight + Cruise Milford Sound
  • Fox Glacier helicopter flight (30 min) with landing
  • Caving Tour Charleston
  • Abel Tasman Kayaking
  • Whalewatch Kaikoura
  • Cost: NZ$3575 per Person (twin share - two people travelling)
  • Any part of this itinerary can be amended to your travel requirements.

Notes on New Zealand climate & seasons:

  • Spring = September until November
  • Summer = December until February
  • Autumn = March until May
  • Winter = June until August
  • See Weather Overview
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Itinerary Overview for Self-drive 12 Days South Island Highlights

Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch

Arrive in Christchurch - visit the botanical gardens and enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the many suburban cafes. Although the central business district of Christchurch is undergoing exciting renovations, the city still lives up to it's name as a 'Garden City'. Travellers will be surprised and delighted with innovative eating options both in central Christchurch and on the outskirts. Outdoor markets with fresh local produce still abound and Christchurch's best shopping boutiques continue to thrive.

Day 2: Christchurch - Lake Tekapo

Drive to Lake Tekapo (190 km, 3 hours) Take a Grand Traverse Scenic Flight over Mt Cook and the glaciers. Walk some of the easy tracks around Lake Tekapo and enjoy the high country views and tussock lands. A stargazing tour at the Mt. John Observatory can be enjoyed if weather conditions are favourable.


Day 3: Lake Tekapo - Wanaka or Queenstown

Drive to Wanaka (196 km, 2.5 hours). For a closer closer look at Mt Cook, take a 40-minute side trip up to the village along the western side of Lake Pukaki. On a fine day the views are stunning and there are many easy short walks in the National Park area. The Glacier Explorer tour on Lake Tasman is an excellent way to discover this special scenic spot.

Day 4: Flight to Milford Sound with Nature Cruise

Stay in Wanaka  (a gorgeous tourist town on the edge of the 4th largest lake in New Zealand) or Queenstown (the action capital of New Zealand!). Plenty to do here. Great walks around the lake and mountains, fishing and boating available. There are also scenic flights up to the Mt Aspiring National Park, wine, eco-tours and good restaurants and cafes to enjoy the views.


Day 5: Queenstown or Wanaka to Fox Glacier

Travel to Fox Glacier (260 km, 5.5 hours from Queenstown) via Lake Hawea and the spectacular Haast Pass. A scenic flight by helicopter or helihike (both optional) is definitely a must-do for the best views of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and Mt Cook. Stay in Fox Glacier tonight.

Day 6: Stay and explore the Fox Glacier area

Walk the Fox Glacier in the morning, visit Gillespies Beach in the afternoon, take one of the many rainforest walks and walk around Lake Mathieson in the evening. Stay in Fox Glacier again tonight.


Day 7: Fox Glacier - Punakaiki

Drive to Punakaiki (250 km, 3 hours) with a stop off in Hokitika, where you can see Jade Carvers at work. Take a walk down Trumans Track just north of Punakaiki at low tide and see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes at Dolomite Point at high tide. There are many good bush walks around the Paparoa National Park and the Fox River. Stay in Punakaiki.

Day 8: Punakaiki - Nelson/ Abel Tasman

Travel to Motueka (340 km, 4.5 hours) Driving North from Punakaiki towards Motueka today, take a Cave tour at Charleston up the beautiful Nile River or the short open top train trip through the native bush and limestone valley. Just South of Westport, take a short detour out to Cape Foulwind to enjoy stunning views. From here, drive on up the Buller River to Motueka. Total driving time today is around 5 hours so do leave early in the morning for the caving trip.


Day 9: Stay and explore the Abel Tasman/ Nelson region

Stay in the Nelson/ Abel Tasman region.Use today to visit the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park. Drive to Marahau via Kaiteriteri to the Southern entrance to the park and the base for sea kayaking, boat trips and walks. (NB. the Park is the most visited in New Zealand and bookings are recommended particularly during the summer months). Time permitting, take a detour to the Pupu Walkway and Te Waikoropupu Springs, the clearest freshwater springs in the Southern Hemisphere.


Day 10: Nelson/ Abel Tasman - Hanmer Springs

Travel from Motueka to Hanmer Springs (360 km, 5 hours) via Murchison and the Maruia Springs with fine mountain scenery and upland beech forest. In Hanmer, relax in the Thermal Hot Pools after your long drive or take a walk up Conical Hill. Stay in Hanmer Springs tonight.

Day 11: Hanmer Springs - Kaikoura Whalewatch

Travel to Kaikoura (180km, 2 hours). Join Whalewatch for an early afternoon trip. You may also like to swim with the dolphins in the waters off this peninsula. A complex marine system provides a rich habitat for marine mammals and seabirds, making it an ideal place for getting 'close to nature'. Stay in Kaikoura tonight.


Day 12: Depart from Christchurch

Return to Christchurch (180 km, 1.5 hours). Depart back home or continue with your North Island or Australia travel itinerary.


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