New Zealand South Island

Exploring New Zealand’s South Island: An 8-Day Car Adventure


An 8-day car trip around New Zealand? Yes, thanks. Waterfalls, glaciers, fjords, lakes with crazy blue water, mountains topped with snow, and coasts with clear water… You can’t ask for much more from one island. And there’s no better way to see all of this than by driving around the island. We made a plan that will take us to most of the best places on the island and cover almost the whole thing. Along the way, there are some tips and suggestions that might give you some ideas. So, here’s how to see New Zealand’s south island by car in 8 days.


Start: Christchurch

End: Christchurch

Duration: 8 Days

Transportation: Rental Car

Highlights: Queenstown, Catlin’s Forest Park, Milford Sound, Lake Wanaka (Wanaka Tree), Lake Pukaki, Mt. Cook National Park, Arthur’s Pass National Park, Bay of Many Coves/Queen Charlotte Sound

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Why the South Island?

New Zealand is made up of the North Island and the South Island. The country’s capital, Wellington, is on the North Island. The country’s biggest city, Auckland, with 1.5 million people, is also on the North Island. Only 1,1 million people live on the South Island as a whole. But Milford Sound and the beautiful scenery brought us to the South Island. There are steep rocks, deep valleys, and rolling hills. If you love the outdoors, you should put this at the top of your list of places to visit. So let’s get into it.


People drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. The driver’s seat is on the right side of the car, and speed limits are written in kilometers per hour (km/h). If you’re renting a car and you’ve never driven on the right or left side of the road, you might want to give yourself some time at the rental place to get used to this change, as it can feel very strange at first. You don’t want to find yourself going down the wrong parts of the streets. The good news is that it gets much easier to drive after a day.

Day 1: Christchurch to Queenstown

Total Driving Time: 6 Hours

If you fly to the South Island, you will probably land in Christchurch, which has the island’s biggest airport. You could say that Christchurch is on the island’s northeastern coast. From here, there are really only two ways to go: north or south. Most of the places we’ll visit are in the middle and north of the island, so we chose to start in Queenstown, which is in the south.


Depending on which of the two roads you take, it takes about 6 hours to drive from Christchurch to Queenstown. So, based on what time you land, you might want to spend the night in Christchurch before getting on the road. We arrived late in the morning, so after a quick bite at The Grater Goods plant-based cafe in Christchurch (try the KFT Burger! ), we hit the road.

We took the road that was more in the middle, which started on Highway 1, and went past Lake Tekapo and Pukaki on the way up. We had heard and seen so much about these lakes that we felt we had to see them on Day 1. We got to the Hilton Queenstown just in time for dinner and to set up our room. The next 7 days will be very busy, so it’s important to get a good night’s sleep.

Day 2: Catlins Forest Park

Total Driving Time: 6 Hours

Catlins Forest Park

From Queenstown, it takes just under 3 hours to drive to Catlins Forest Park. Our trip and schedule are mostly focused on the middle and northern parts of the island, but we also wanted to make sure we saw some of the southern coasts. Even though it is not a well-known place in New Zealand, there is a lot to see and do there. There are lighthouses, waterfalls, church caves, and penguins. We only stayed here for a few hours because we knew we had a big day in Milford Sound ahead of us, but we loved the few hours we were there!

Day 3: Milford Sound

Total Driving Time: 8 Hours

Milford Sound

Milford Sound was the one thing we were looking forward to the most. We had planned a cruise through Southern Discoveries to go through the sounds and a kayak ride, which sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. From Queenstown, it takes a little more than 3 hours to drive to the mouth of Milford Sound. From there, it takes another 45 minutes to an hour to get to where the cruise ships are. So you’ll need to make sure you have a plan. And that’s when the weather is perfect, which is something you should never expect.

We were very worried when we found out the night before that snow and a slide had closed the only road in and out of Milford. We couldn’t go on a different day because of our plans, so we started to worry right away as we tried to figure out what to do. We decided, in the end, to still get up early and check the reports to see if anything had changed.

So, we got up at 5 a.m., but the reports still said they were closed. If the road opened, we’d have to leave at 6:30 a.m. to get to the port in time for our trip. So we took showers and got ready, even though we thought we would have to do something completely different that day. We checked the reports one more time at exactly 6:30 am, and OPEN! So we quickly got our stuff together and hit the road. We got there JUST in time for our cruise, which turned out to be the best part of our trip. If you only do one thing on this island, you should take a cruise through Milford Sound. There is NO picture or film that can do it justice. We promise.

Day 4: Queenstown to Lake Wanaka, Lake Pukaki, Mt. Cook, and Arthur’s Pass

Total Driving Time: 9 Hours

Lake Wanaka

There is a lot of driving on this day. And you’ll need to get up very early, based on how much you want to see at each stop. But one of the many great things about this country and island is that the whole island is very beautiful. The views and landscapes are always fresh and new. Since you’ll be staying in Arthur’s Pass National Park, you should do most of your packing the night before. But we will spend most of the day stopping at beautiful places along the way.

  • Lake Wanaka
  • Fork in the Road
  • Lake Pukaki
  • Mt. Cook
  • Arthur’s Pass

Day 5: Arthur’s Pass to Bay of Many Coves (Queen Charlotte Sound)

Total Driving Time: 6 Hours

The Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall is a 60-minute walk from Arthur’s Pass Lodge, where we stayed. Most of the first part of the walk is on flat gravel ground, but as you get closer to the waterfall, it gets much steeper. Here, it was much colder and possibly the windiest place we’d been on the island. The temperature was around 18oF/-8oC, and it was pretty cold. So make the right plans. But as you can see, it was worth every penny.

Bay of Many Coves

From Arthur’s Pass, it will take you another 5–6 hours to drive to Picton, which is where the boat to the Bay of Many Coves leaves from. The ferry plan is pretty set, and you need to book ahead of time. Since most of the way from Arthur’s Pass to Picton is a one-lane road, you’ll need to plan ahead and give yourself some extra time. And if you’re stuck behind a semi-truck or a careful driver, it could take a little longer than 6 hours. So give yourself a little room to move.

Picton & Bay of Many Coves

You did it! Are you tired yet? Most likely, you should be. The good news is that from here on out, you can mostly just chill out. From Picton to the Bay of Many Coves, you can take a ferry. The trip takes about 45 minutes, but it depends on how many stops the ship makes before it gets to the Bay of Many Coves.

Days 6 & 7: Bay of Many Coves

Total Driving Time: None. Relax.

Bay of Many Coves New Zealand

Bay of Many Coves is a great resort that is part of the Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) line. It is right on the Bay of Many Coves, which is a real place. Here, there are a few private houses high up on a hill with a view of this beautiful bay. This place has everything you could want. You can watch birds, dolphins, and orcas, hike to see glow worms, kayak in the bay, or just rest and enjoy the views with some great wine and food. We chose to stay here for two nights but to be honest, we could have spent 8 days or more here by ourselves. The pair who runs the resort, Graeme and Kim, were amazing, and it was clear that they took a lot of pride in making sure their guests had a luxurious stay.

Day 8: Bay of Many Coves to Christchurch

Total Driving Time: 5 Hours

Christchurch New Zealand

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Picton to Christchurch, so based on your flight time and when you leave Bay of Many Coves, you may want to spend the night in Christchurch before your flight. But if you book a flight in the evening, it shouldn’t be hard to get back to Christchurch in time to drop off your car and leave. We stopped in Marlborough and went to a couple of wineries there. If you’ve ever had Sauvignon Blanc wine, chances are it came from Marlborough. We would strongly suggest going to Villa Maria. We especially liked their Pinot Gris, but all of their wines were great.

From Marlborough, you’ll take Highway 1 again down the coast to Christchurch. We were very surprised to see some of the most beautiful blue water along this coast. Even now, we are still surprised by how different the land on this island is. When we got back to Christchurch, we stayed at The George, which is part of the same SLH brand as Bay of Many Coves. We couldn’t have ended our trip in a better way.


In conclusion, taking a car trip around New Zealand’s South Island for 8 days is an amazing way to see some of the country’s most beautiful natural areas. Starting and finishing in Christchurch, the trip takes you to places like Queenstown, Catlins Forest Park, Milford Sound, Lake Wanaka, Lake Pukaki, Mt. Cook National Park, Arthur’s Pass National Park, and the Bay of Many Coves/Queen Charlotte Sound. Getting used to driving on the left side of the road may take some time, but the beautiful scenery and fun outdoor activities make it worth it. The tour of Milford Sound, the beautiful Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, and the peaceful Bay of Many Coves are all highlights of the trip. Overall, this plan offers a once-in-a-lifetime trip with waterfalls, glaciers, fjords, lakes, mountains, and clear water along the coast.

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