Things to do on a Self-Drive Adventure in South Island, New Zealand

DestinationA family on tour od Dunedin's coastline in New Zealand

Let’s get granular – here’s a deep dive into what’s the best and beautiful about South Island in New Zealand. This list of epic South Island self-drive adventures and things to do will enthral first timers and spring some gems on repeat travellers, too! Forget about staid pre-packaged holidays, we encourage travellers to build their own dream holiday in New Zealand’s South Island. From trundling around the scenic scapes in a campervan/slick rental drive to gastronomy to wine-tours to birdwatching and more, we’ve noted it all down and then added some more.

That being said, please do not consider the sequence of the items of any import – any and all of these activities are good enough to pin on New Zealand’s Top 10 wall of fame. Without more ado, the list begins.

Take a cruise in the Marlborough Sounds

From the picturesque bay town of… Picton (is that why they called it so? Hmm…), sign up for a cruise of the Marlborough Sounds. Spread over 1,500 kilometres of silvery white beaches, verdant forests, mountains and hills, the Sounds rise straight from the waters to form a bewitching maze of tectonic proportions. Your cruise ship will get a periodic honour-guard of several species of gambolling dolphins. The cruise will deposit travellers at the Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary, and then back again. Do remember to ‘Gram the view from Cook Strait.

A boat ready for travellers next to a jetty in Picton, Marlborough Sound. Pic credit: Miles Holden.
A boat ready for travellers next to a jetty in Picton, Marlborough Sound. Pic credit: Miles Holden.

Christchurch to Blenheim Coastal Pacific Train: Easily one of the most epic railway adventures in the world, this five-hour-and-change train ride wows passengers with views of craggy mountain-tops, jagged valleys and the picturesque bay town of Blenheim with the Pacific Ocean stretching out to infinity in the end. Simply marvellous, really.

Degustation a la mode Kiwi: Did you know that the town of Blenheim hosts some of New Zealand’s finest wineries? Check out the Saint Clair Family Estate Vineyard Kitchen, Framingham Wines and the Wither Hills Cellar Door – enjoy sunlit days of sampling fine wines, walks amongst vineyards and friendly Kiwi hospitality.

Enjoy the Lewis Pass Drive

Driving down from  Kaikoura to Canterbury. Pic credit: Graeme Murray.
A prerequisite for self-drive adventures should be great sights on demand. Here is what travellers will spy with their eye while driving down from Kaikoura to Canterbury. Pic credit: Graeme Murray.

From Kaikoura, drive down to Greymouth passing by scenic gems such as Hanmer Springs, Lewis Pass, and Reefton – with its swashbuckling gold town history. This West Coast drive has everything, from wildlife sanctuaries, adventure hotspots, long scenic stretches and natural beauty. Oh, and the six-hour Christchurch to Kaikoura drive is equally breathtaking as an option, too.

Tramp through Abel Tasman National Park

As we have mentioned in our New Zealand bucket-list blog, the 51-km Abel Tasman Coastal Track features prominently amongst New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks. The great walks are so called because they are not only unique, but they are a part of what makes New Zealand so captivating. Tramp through lush forests of beech, conifers and mangroves, soak in panoramic views from the jagged cliffs and take a breather on deserted sandy beaches… what a holiday, indeed. Pro Tip: adventure lovers looking to explore the national park on a relaxed itinerary should keep the town of Motueka as a launch-pad.

View of the Hokitika Gorge in New Zealand. Pic: Fraser Clements.
View of the Hokitika Gorge in New Zealand. Pic: Fraser Clements.

Swoon over the Southern Highland scenic drive

From Christchurch to Queenstown, drive through New Zealand’s highest main road! Pass by the beautiful lake Tekapo, pause by the Ahuriri Bridge and the Omarama Clay Cliffs for pictures, swing by Lake Wanaka, the Lindis Pass lookout and spend a night at Cardrona Hotel after walking out of a whisky-tasting tour at the nearby distillery. Oh, and there’s the Cardrona Bra Fence right next by, ranking amongst one of the world’s quirkiest, most popular hotspots; the story of the fence through the decade itself is a self-sustaining joke. Chalk it up as must-experience, we say.

Take on the swoon-y Christchurch – Arthur’s Pass – Hokitika Drive

This beautifully scenic route will carry you through quaint  towns, spell-binding landscapes, limestone rock formations at Castle Hill and a picturesque moment driving through the Otira Viaduct. Then, pack a bag and camp out at the Hokitika Gorge and enjoy a wallpaper-like sunset and starry skies.

Mount Cook Tramps and Hikes: The Mount Cook Village is a great ‘base-camp’ for launching hikes into the Aoraki National Park and around the Tasman Glacier. 

Experience Christchurch: Get to know the life in and around this beautiful city. Learn how it put itself back together after a massive earthquake ripped Christchurch apart in 2011, have a fun time riding the tram, relax at the botanical gardens, go punting on the Avon River, and sign up for a home-cooked meal of tender lamb and pavlova!

Visit a Working Sheep Farm: Drive down to the Rubicon Valley where you can visit a working sheep farm and see ace shearers at work!

A woman cycling past one of Christchurch’s many graffiti art. Pic credit: Miles Holden.

Christchurch to Dunedin drive

Had enough of Christchurch? Let’s trundle down to Dunedin, then! Drive past picturesque rocky beaches, the town of Oamaru – which often gives the appearance of being stuck in a Victorian architecture time-loop – and past the Koekohe Beach, which has the famous Moeraki Boulders. Weirdly circular and symmetrical, they are a perennial sight for travellers who want ‘out of the ordinary’. At Dunedin, the historically inclined travellers will revel with visits to the Otago Museum, the Larnach Castle, the Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum and the Olveston Historic Home; it is a grand old Edwardian era mansion. Avian enthusiasts, head over to the Royal Albatross Centre; the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the huge Royal Northern Albatross. Besides these magnificent birds, travellers can also lay their eyes on the kororā – Blue Penguins, also known as the world’s smallest (and cutest!) penguins!

The Catlins Scenic Drive: Enjoy wallpaper-quality landscapes on this 8-hour drive from Dunedin to Invercargill. While driving past Balclutha, remember to drop a pin at the Nugget Point Lighthouse – the views of the breaking surf, the craggy cliffs, the smell of spray and sea-salt … is there something about lighthouses making a good-looking place great or something about putting up lighthouses in places that are already awesome – that would be a great debate. The answer would be too practical and dry to appeal to the romantics in us, but … just remember to take a picture. The drive passes by gems of waterfalls like the Purakanui Falls, McLean Falls and Koropuku Falls. We would recommend hiking enthusiasts to tramp through the Catlins, which is why the drive gets its name. It is a wonderful trek past waterfalls, caves, and remains of a petrified wood forest!

Soak in Queenstown

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy has some pretty fantastic views and ‘Grammable points. Pic credit: Miles Holden.

Accepted as the ‘adventure capital’ of the Southern Hemisphere, the lovely Queenstown lies next to the Lake Wakatipu, overlooking the Remarkables mountain range. To not put too fine a point, this town is replete with activities that are guaranteed to set your heart racing… or bring it down to a nice canter, whichever you prefer. For the former, take your pick from jetboating on the Dart River, bungee-jumping, (did you know both the mentioned activities were invented in this country?), white water rafting, paragliding, soaring, rock climbing, skiing and mountain biking. For a more relaxed set of activities, check out taking the gondola up the mountains, going for a lake cruise on a historic steamboat, plunk for wine-tours in Cromwell next to Lake Dunstan, go for a short drive to Glenorchy along the lake, often called as the ‘gateway to paradise’, and so on. Did you know we’ve another blog completely dedicated to our top 10 list of things to do in Queenstown? What a coincidence, indeed – you can check it out here!

Skydiving over Lake Wakatipu. Pic credit: NZ One Skydive
Skydiving over Lake Wakatipu. Pic credit: NZ One Skydive
Explore Lake Dunstan’s beauty at your own pace. Pic credit: Miles Holden.

Then, onto Arrowtown: A must-experience for first timers and repeat visitors, Arrowtown is great because of its history, its proximity to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and other great tramps(!), adventure activities and so on. Also, because it was New Zealand’s California during the country’s gold rush. A historic gold-mining town, it has retained its old-timey charm and ‘settled in’, becoming a part of the surrounding nature. Launch your own adventures with a backpack, pan and trowel and marvel at the beauty of the forests, bubbling brooks and valleys on a hike. For a little excitement, we’d recommend jumping off the bridge at Kawarau – we’re kidding only slightly, they have an epic bungee-jumping point there.

Milford Sound & the Doubtful Sound: Our South Pacific Specialists would rank the Milford Sound as one of top 10 natural wonders of the world any day. A part of the Fiordland National Park, hikes and cruises on the lake are simply bucket-list moments for a traveller. Waterfalls, craggy peaks, flipping dolphins and lush rainforests around the peaks are some of the reasons Peter Jackson selected this country as the living set for LOTR. There is also the Milford Track, which also counts amongst one of the country’s Great Walks. Kayaking in the Milford Sound and the Doubtful Sound is an ethereal experience – check out some GoPro videos of them on YouTube!

Visit Te Anau and its jetboat tour: With the Mount Luxmore (no relation to the Mount Rushmore) at the back, Te Anau is the starting point of the Kepler Track walk.  We’d also recommend checking out the jet-boat run on the Upper Waiau River, which takes spray-soaked guests all the way down to the pretty Lake Manapouri.

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers: A part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are some of the most accessible (and photogenic) glaciers in the world. Check out a wide variety of tours, from guided hikes to ice caves and hot pools dotting the base of the glaciers to aerial chopper tours of the frozen, snow-covered peaks.

New Zealand’s West Coast Drive

The sheer beauty of Lake Wanaka - simultaneously serene and energising.
The sheer beauty of Lake Wanaka – simultaneously serene and energising. Pic Credit: Miles Holden

From Punakaiki all the way to Lake Wanaka, this comparatively stretched-out 510-kilometre self-drive adventure treats travellers to sights such as the Shantytown Heritage Park, the Haast Pass, the two glaciers mentioned above, the mining town of Greymouth, Lake Matheson and the Blue Pools near Makarora. From the Pancake Rocks, this leisurely drive deposits adventurers right at the base of the Thunder Creek Falls near Lake Wanaka.

Well, this was our list. Not exhaustive, but certainly comprehensive in view of any short or long-term holiday in New Zealand. We hope this helps when charting out your dream holiday in New Zealand, we did have a blast making this. And before you ask, of course we will have a similar blog on North Island! Check out more blogs and tips on New Zealand or talk to our South Pacific Specialists for hashing out the ultimate tailor-made Kiwi holiday. Just call us at 1300 991 751 or drop a line via the chatbot.

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