April 16, 2016

New Zealand: how to visit the South Island in 2 weeks

I love it when people email me about where they should visit when they come to New Zealand. Sometimes I reckon I should be a part-time travel agent and sell packages on the side! But I digress…

Two weeks is usually the amount of time people allow to see all of New Zealand. Not many have the luxury of two weeks just in the South Island, but for the sake of this post I’m going to assume you have time (or could come back), or that you’re not trying to see a country the size of Great Britain in five minutes! Mind you, while this post is geared to show you how to whip around the South Island in two weeks, it’s still fast with only a couple of days in most places.

If you’re also interested in seeing the North Island, you’ll like this post I wrote on How to See the North Island in 2 Weeks listing my favourite places to visit and my estimation on how many days you should plan to spend there to have a good look around.

Of course, if you’re a slow travel kind of person, then just use this post as a guide, book yourself an Air BnB or better yet, grab a house sit (I like Trusted Housesitters) and nestle in for weeks.

So, here we go – the South Island in two weeks!

Most people will fly into Christchurch, so I’m going to start here…

South Island road trip
Christchurch – 1 to 2 days

As you will recall, Christchurch had a massive earthquake in 2011 and five years on the city is still slowly coming together. The CBD was pretty much wiped out and any buildings that didn’t fall down were cleared out for structural checking and strengthening. BUT we Kiwis are a resilient lot and out of the ashes rose some new businesses, a pop up shopping mall in brightly painted shipping containers that can be moved as development occurs, and most excitingly the Avon river is being highlighted in a whole new way for dining, drinking and feeding the ducks! Spend a night here and spend some cash in locally owned restaurants, bars and shops, then jump in your car and tootle north, south or cut across the middle to the West Coast.

New Regent St Chch

New Regent Street tram

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Canterbury – 2 to 3 days

Christchurch is the hub of the Canterbury region and a day trip to Akaroa (about 1.5 hours drive) should probably be listed in the days you might spend in Christchurch (above). It’s a windy road out to this historic British and French settlement on a stunning harbour, but the views are worth it. Swim with the tiny Hectors dolphins, eat locally made cheese, browse the shops, stay the night or just go for the day.

Hanmer Springs is worth at least a night. It’s just under 2 hours drive north of Christchurch surrounded by lovely wineries where I have picked up stunning pinot noir on my visits to said cellar doors! I just drank my 2010 this year. Velvet! But as the name suggests, the hot springs are why people want to stay a night. The most central hotel is the Heritage Hanmer Springs, across the road from the gorgeous hot springs which is great in the snowy depths of winter or the sunny days of summer. It also has a spa if you need a wee massage.

South Island road trip

Hanmer Springs has rock pools and regular pools

Kaikoura is another 1 hour 45 mins further north and is Maori for “eating crayfish” (spiny lobster) and there are two reasons why you’ll want to spend a night (or two) here. One is the aforementioned crayfish which you can buy from various joints in town, but for a real kiwi experience, drive out to Nin’s Bin, a little caravan on the side of the road, where crays are brought in fresh each day to be cooked the way you like it. Bring a bottle of sauvignon blanc and some plastic cups to complete the experience! I stayed at Hapuku Lodge, a luxury treetop hotel which I loved, especially if it’s chilly enough to put your own wood burning fire on!

The other reason to allow a couple of days here is the amazing, gigantic sperm whales. Book a whale watching tour and chances are good that you’ll see their giant flukes as they dive up to a kilometre to the undersea shelf that they feed from. They may look like huge graceful mammals floating and fluking on the ocean, but these guys dine on great white sharks! A very cool experience. Oh and not to mention the dolphins and seals you’ll also see, but which honestly pale into insignificance!

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Marlborough – 2 to 3 days

North of Kaikoura and you’re now in the famous Marlborough sauvignon blanc region which stretches up to Blenheim and Picton at the top of the South Island. A night or two at a lodge in the Sounds is an incredible place to relax and melt into nature. Loads of hiking trails, kayaking, fishing… But Blenheim has some deliciously gorgeous wineries. Try Hanz Herzog for a Michelin star lunch (except we don’t have the Michelin system in NZ, but the owner is a Michelin chef from Europe). I loved Auntsfield for their history and their quest to grow the original muscat grapes again. Their pinot was one of those 2010’s I opened and was amazed by too!

If you’re a war buff you’ll want to visit Omaka, film maker Sir Peter Jackson’s WWI and II memorabilia museum that he has set up as recreated war scenes thanks to his mates at Weta Workshop. It’s an incredible collection of real artifacts and antiques which seems to come alive.

Omaka aviation centre

One of Sir Peter Jackson’s war scenes

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Nelson/Tasman – 2 nights to a week!

Nelson officially has the most sunshine days in NZ each year. It’s actually on my Bucket List as I haven’t been for years and years. It was originally known for its artists and out of Nelson came the now internationally famous World of Wearable Art annual fashion show which Wellington is lucky enough to host now. My ambition is to kayak on the crystal waters of Abel Tasman National Park, but maybe do it glamping style, which sounds more me than schlepping my stuff around in a waterproof pod for a few days!

Abel Tasman National Park

How gorgeous is this? Pic Flickr/Christiaan Biggs

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West Coast – 2 to 3 nights

I remember driving the west coast as a teenager on a family holiday (dad was actually driving) and I found it to be utterly boring! Bear that in mind if you have kids with you, but if not, then plan to spend a night in Hokitika or Greymouth. The former hosts the crazy and innovative Hokitika Wild Food Festival in March where you can gulp down a shot glass of horse semen or chew on a fried huhu grub.

Most visitors to this rugged part of NZ come to see Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, further down the line. Driving down the coast from Nelson on Hwy 6, you must stop at Punakaiki, also known as the Pancake Rocks (where my sister nearly fell in! Note: you can’t get that close these days 🙂 Or if you drive on Hwy 7 a stop at NZ’s quirkiest pub, the Blackball Hilton, is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Grab lunch and head south to the coast staying at either Hokitika or Greymouth.

To get to the glaciers you have a long drive ahead of you and while it’s amazing scenery, it is rather same same! (Sorry, I’m being 17). After seeing them you’ll continue to Haast and cut towards the east through Mt Aspiring National Park and I’d recommend staying in Wanaka for at least 2 days.

Pancake rocks NZ

Incredible Punakaiki’s pancake rocks with the mighty blowhole. Pic Flickr/macronix

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Queenstown/Wanaka – 2 to 3 nights (unless it’s winter and you’ve come here to ski!)

Queenstown is the winter party capital of New Zealand! The annual winter festival sees the city and the ski fields heaving with visitors and events, but in summer it’s just as magical. Some people fly into Queenstown and spend a week just here. That would be a great way to get a slice of NZ too. The lake is stunning and several restaurants and bars are located around it in the city. Here’s a blog post I wrote with more detail about exploring Queenstown to Wanaka in 5 days >>

It’s here you’ll get to try screaming around in the rippingly fast Shotover jet boats, you could head out to Kawerau to do the longest bungy jump in the world. Amisfield winery is well worth stopping at for lunch if you’re heading through to quaint Arrowtown, which is stunning in Autumn by the way.

If you do go on to Wanaka (or you’re coming back from there) have lunch at the Cardrona pub. And of course, you are surrounded by NZ’s best ski fields.

Queenstown lake

Queenstown’s beautiful lake front

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Fiordland – 2 to 5 days (depending if you’re hiking!)

To be honest I’ve only ever been to Te Anau and Lake Manapouri and taken (the very impressive) tour underground to the power station. But the reason Fiordland is on many people’s Bucket Lists is for Milford Sound. Breathtaking waterfalls, hiking trails, snow-capped peaks, lakes, bush, big skies. It doesn’t get much better than this. You can also take cruises on the lakes and around the fiords.

Milford Track kea

You’ve got to watch out for cheeky keas! Pic Flickr/Gavin Yeats

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Dunedin/Otago – 2 to 3 days

Dunedin is influenced by the early Scottish settlers and the town has many old stone buildings as well as an accent that you’ll notice if you have your ears on. It’s known as a university town, but don’t let that put you off! Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland all have universities too! The Octagon is a great place to start for dining and shopping and as you would expect, it’s octagonally shaped and streets lead from it.

If you’re a rugby fan, Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr stadium is the only one in New Zealand that has a roof. Not that that means it’s a warmer experience, thanks to the open ends creating a wind tunnel effect – but at least it’s dry! In July the city turns to chocolate with the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival and the crazy giant Jaffa rolling race down Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world! See my video of that here >>

Otago is the wider region and the peninsular is a great drive, especially if you want ogle the huge albatross that nest on the mainland. And one of the best things to do with family or friends, and which is on my Great NZ Bucket List, is to cycle the Otago Rail Trail staying at BnBs along the way over a few days.

Dunedin Cadbury jaffa roll

If you look carefully you can see a sea of orange Jaffas rolling down the street!

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Mackenzie Country – 2 to 3 days

We’re now almost back to Christchurch where we started, but this time south west of the Garden City. I spent 4 days here last winter, but you could do it justice in 3. Tekapo is stunning in any season. The cute stone Church of the Good Shepherd is where you can expect to find marriage proposals and photographers – sometimes together, as I happened to be the unofficial and very surprised photog! Tekapo Springs is a series of hot pools shaped to look like the surrounding lakes and positioned lake front for amazing views while you soak. They also have an ice skating rink in winter and an inflatable water slide in summer.

If you’re a fan of galaxies far far away, Mackenzie Country boasts the largest black sky reserve in the world where enormous scientific telescopes are set up and you can take a night tour up Mt John to star gaze and planet spot.

Then spend a night out at Mt Cook. I stayed at the Hermitage Hotel out here surrounded by sheers mountains and great for hiking, helicopter flight seeing and the Sir Edmund Hillary experience. Here’s my post on how to spend 5 days in the Mackenzie Country in much more detail! >>

Tekapo road trip

A quick big sky snap on my Mackenzie Country road trip.

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If you’re now planning on hitting the North Island, read my: Tips for seeing the North Island in two weeks >>

If you’re an international visitor, have a look at DriveSafe to make sure you’re cool with driving on NZ roads and know the rules!

Or have a go at doing a driving theory test at Driving Tests here>>

About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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