Ultimate 10-day road trip in New Zealand’s South Island
Wind through windswept fishing towns, deep into Fiordland and all the way down to Aotearoa’s southernmost island on this epic 10-day journey.
Famous for its relentlessly picturesque bays and coves, dramatic landforms, local wildlife and character-filled towns, New Zealand’s 600-kilometre Southern Scenic Route captures everything that’s magical about the country’s celebrated South Island/Te Waipounamu. We’ve mapped out a 10-day itinerary that lets you take it all in.
Days one and two: Queenstown
Otago’s biggest municipality and outdoor playground surely needs no introduction. Against a backdrop of the starkly beautiful Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range, intrepid travellers come to Queenstown to ski, tramp, bike, sail and swing.
But adventure isn’t the only thing the region is known for.
In nearby Gibbston, you’ll find one of Central Otago’s premier wine growing subregions known as ‘Valley of the Vines’. Tours at the pioneer Gibbston Valley Winery include tastings in the country’s biggest wine cave and self-guided wine tours of the Gibbston River Trail.
Stop in at Cardrona Distillery for a tour and tastes of the South Island/Te Waipounamu’s finest single-malt whisky, vodka and gin crafted using pure alpine water, local barley and New Zealand botanicals.
Back in Queenstown, take a scenic ride in the city’s iconic Skyline Gondola. Recognised as the steepest cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, the lift promises a breathtaking panorama with views of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and all of Queenstown. Ride the luge back down for even more thrills.
Ben Lomond Summit
Tramping to the top of Ben Lomond requires an advanced level of fitness, but those who make it to the summit are rewarded with magnificent lake and mountain views, including glimpses of Mt Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi and Mt Aspiring/Tititea.
For luxury in the heart of Queenstown, Eichardt’s Private Hotel on Lake Wakatipu’s doorstep is where it’s at.
Day three: Glenorchy and Paradise
The drive between Queenstown and Glenorchy invokes scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, and for good reason; parts of the fantasy epic were filmed here. Taking in the scenery is the activity as the road snakes its way past cliffside edges alongside the shimmering Lake Wakatipu and real-life Misty Mountains (the Southern Alps). The banks of the Dart River in Glenorchy were Jackson’s inspiration for Isengard, and down the road in Paradise you’ll find the mystical elven forest of Lothlórien.
Make your way to Te Anau from Glenorchy via Queenstown in the afternoon, stopping at Fergburger for what Lonely Planet once declared the best burger in the world.
Pure Glenorchy Lord of The Rings Scenic Tour
This tour departs from Queenstown and takes you deep into Middle Earth, stopping at the locations for Amon Hen, Ithilien Camp and Lookout, Isengard and the Misty Mountains. Local guides share stories and secrets about the films, and even invite you to don robes and perform scenes in the famed Lothlórien Forest.
Wake up to breathtaking views of grazing alpacas, Lake Te Anau and the densely forested Murchison Mountains at Dusky Ridges farm stay just outside of Te Anau.
Day four: Te Anau to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
The journey into Fiordland is as much a scenic experience as the fiord itself. Take it slow, looking out for the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain (an optical illusion that shrinks the approaching mountain), and stopping just outside the rough-hewn Homer Tunnel for views of the 22-kilometre fiord dominated by Mitre Peak.
On a clear day, pull off Milford Road at Mirror Lakes to see the tarn (small mountain lake) cast a perfect reflection of the adjacent Earl Mountains.
Milford Sound Lodge isn’t just the place to stay in the sound; it’s the only place to stay. Built in synergy with its surrounds, it provides a dizzying immersion into the spectacular Fiordland wilderness, and passionate staff welcome you with manaakitanga (hospitality).
Day five: Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
Cross your fingers for a clear day to see the fiord by cruise or kayak. Regardless of your mode of transport, you’re guaranteed dramatic scenes of gushing waterfalls, verdant cliffs and swirling mist. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks’ four-hour sunrise kayak tour will take you up close to Bowen Falls, with opportunities to spot sunbathing seals and paddling penguins.
Day six: Invercargill/Waihōpai
The Western Southland portion of the Southern Scenic Route from Te Anau to Invercargill is the longer route via Tuatapere, but worth it for the endless wild scenes of remote beaches and rocky enclaves. Once in Aotearoa’s southernmost city, explore the heritage buildings, wander Queens Park or visit the Southland Museum.
Wairaurahiri Eco Jet Boat Tour
Whip past one-million-year-old virgin beech forest and through grade-3 whitewater rapids on the Wairaurahiri Wilderness half-day jet boating experience starting at Lake Hauroko.
The Victoria Railway Hotel’s handsome brick facade sits proudly on Invercargill’s streetscape like a modern saloon in a Goldrush town (which is befitting, given that’s what it was). Today, the hotel offers modest accommodation options with a touch of old-world charm.
Day seven: Stewart Island
Over 85 per cent of New Zealand’s rugged southern addendum is lush native forest, and beyond that, there’s no land until Antarctica. It’s fitting that native species outnumber people on the island, who congregate at Halfmoon Bay while the weka (native woodhen), yellow-eyed penguins and kiwis freely roam. Catch the ferry from Bluff Harbour at first light to spend the day.
New Zealand’s native kiwi
See New Zealand’s shy feathered icon ambling around isolated beaches at twilight on a kiwi-spotting tour with Beaks and Feathers.
Make time for a leisurely cruise of Paterson Inlet followed by a guided walk of Ulva Island Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the island’s other rare birds, including the saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead.
Relax and recharge at Jensen Bay House – part modern eco-lodge, part time warp – complete with a collection of books and DVDs, French pyramid fireplace and sauna.
Day eight: The Catlins
Avoid the faster inland route linking Invercargill and Dunedin/Ōtepoti to cruise the more interesting Catlins Coast. This enchanted corner is home to the world’s rarest penguins, most endangered sea lions and smallest dolphins. The drive time from Bluff Harbour is a little under four hours, but you’ll need a whole day to see all it has to offer.
If you only make one stop in The Catlins, make it Curio Bay. From here, you can see the fossils of a 160-million-year-old Jurassic forest, spot dolphins at Porpoise Bay or learn to surf with Catlins Surf School.
Get to ‘The Nuggets’ between 3pm and dusk to see the sun set over the lighthouse and the wee, yellow-eyed penguins returning home for the night at neighbouring Roaring Bay.
After the rugged wonderland that is The Catlins, Cascade Creek Retreat, an off-grid log chalet 45 minutes south of Dunedin, keeps with the theme of the day. Turn off devices and turn on the 180-degree view of the valley from the candlelit outdoor bath.
Day nine: Dunedin/Ōtepoti
New Zealand’s own version of Edinburgh, Dunedin is a trove of heritage architecture and cultural experiences. Visit the ghost at Lanarch Castle or set off on the Writers’ Walk through UNESCO’s designated City of Literature.
Speight’s Brewery Tour
Wet your whistle at the iconic Speight’s Ale House, in the heart of Dunedin. The brewery tour is as much for beer aficionados as it is for history buffs.
Treat yourself to a night at Camp Estate country house on the site of Dunedin’s famous Lanarch Castle. Breakfast and entry to the castle is included and guests can choose to dine in one of the castle’s historic dining rooms.
Day 10: Otago Peninsula
Squeeze in an eco-tour of Dunedin’s penguin, albatross and fur seal colonies on a cruise up to Otago Harbour with Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours before the drive back to Queenstown and your return flight home.
Want more of New Zealand? Read all 101 Reasons To Stop Dreaming About New Zealand And Go here.