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Our first South Island roadie was jam-packed with stunning locations from Punakaiki to Wanaka, from Aoraki to Kaikoura. Use this guide to plan your very own South Island road trip, with details about every beautiful destination and the moments that made the journey phenomenal.


In the winter of 2020, Isaac and I ventured to the South Island, Te Wai Pounamu, for the first time ever! We had been living in NZ for 3.5-4 years and hadn’t been further south than Taupo or Taranaki!! There are a number of reasons that we didn’t make it down sooner – primarily because we have family living overseas, and it was always a priority to visit them, rather than having a holiday on our own. Second, we knew there was so much to see in the South Island and wanted to spend a good chunk of time there – a minimum of 10 days.

We finally got that time, as Covid-19 cancelled our USA and UK travel plans. We immediately pivoted and started researching for our first ever South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) roadie. We drove the whole way down from Auckland (Tamaki Makaurau), taking the ferry from Wellington (Te Whanganui-a-Tara) across the Cook Strait (Te Moana-o-Raukawa), travelling anti-clockwise around the island, with 18 days from Auckland back to Auckland.


This mega-blog post details our route and destination highlights of each region in the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu). I hope that this helps you on your first (or second, or third) road trip! As we travelled and ticked so many spots off our list, we realised there is still so much more to see and do. I hope that this article will provide a good starting point, with helpful tips about each region, as I detail our experiences!

We travelled around the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) anti-clockwise, starting from Picton (Waitohi) and heading down the West Coast (Te Tai Poutini), through Haast Pass (Tioripatea) to the Queenstown-Lakes (Tahuna) district, then up through the Central South Island and Mackenzie region (Te Manahuna), and up the East Coast, through Canterbury (Waitaha) and back to Picton.

Are you a visual person like me? If you prefer to see all these destinations on a map, scroll to the end of the post, where I have “saved” each of these locations on Google Maps for you! Access the exact map we used with saved locations – it helped us get a rough idea of our overall trip and choose which spots to visit on the go. It even includes locations that we would love to go to, but didn’t get the chance to on this trip!


While we absolutely would have loved to spend more time in the Nelson-Tasman regions, bad weather postponed our ferry and we didn’t get the chance to explore! However, kayaking Abel-Tasman has been on our bucket list forever, and we would love to do that during the summer…saving all the bays for another day, and itching to explore Abel-Tasman and Kahurangi Regional Parks. We loved the scenery along Queen Charlotte Drive and would definitely recommend taking that route from Picton (Waitohi) to Nelson (Whakatu). We also loved the scenery as SH6 followed the Buller river (Kawatiri) from Nelson to Westport (Kawatiri).


Centre of New Zealand

The one stop we were able to make was to the Centre of New Zealand monument! It was a short, up-hill hike with beautiful views over Nelson (Whakatu) and the surrounding coast.

What we loved:

  • Queen Charlotte Drive

  • Centre of NZ Monument

  • Buller River

Things we want to do next:

  • Abel Tasman National Park

  • Golden Bay

  • Cable Bay

  • Towers Bay

  • Wharariki Beach


One of the best parts of our time on the West Coast was the driving – the highway takes you through the most dramatic scenery, stretching from the snowy Southern Alps (Te Tiritiri-o-te-moana) to the rugged Tasman Sea (Te Tai-o-Rehua). At times, it gave me vibes of Hawaii, with the untouched beauty of the mountains falling into the sea. Many people skip out on the West Coast, but I think it’s worth it, even just for the scenery you pass by!




Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika Gorge was worth the drive off the main road – it is such a beautiful spot. There are a few different tracks and look out points but the walk to the main swing bridge takes 30 minutes.

When we went to the gorge, it was raining quite a lot, so the water was not the pure blue that you so often see in pictures – when it rains, a lot of sediment gets stirred up in the river – hence turning it a brown-grey colour as you can see here.

However, despite the rain, it was such a beautiful experience. It was magical to be amongst taiao, nature, and to feel and hear the rain in the bush around us. The river also came alive a little more and I could see five small waterfalls from the swing bridge as they made their way through the bush and into the river. If you want to witness the power of papatuanuku, Mother Earth, and feel small amongst nature, then get out there despite the weather – chances are you’ll have it all to yourself!


Hokitika Beach

Don’t miss the iconic Hokitika beach driftwood sign! The town-centre is super cute, with cafes, restaurants and pounamu tours on offer.





The pancake rocks at Punakaiki really exceeded my expectations. I hadn’t heard much about the rocks and photos I saw online were underwhelming. But I had one friend that said we must stop there, and boy was it insane.

The landscape along the coastline was just so different to anything that I’d seen before. I had expected to only see 1 or 2 pancake stacks, but the 20 minute walk takes you through a number of coves and points, with beautiful views, even allowing you to get up close to the funny pancake rock formations. There is also a blowhole through the rocks – but make sure you visit at high tide or during rough weather to see the action!

I would 100% recommend stopping here – it’s right on the way, so why wouldn’t you?! You can even eat pancakes for brunch at the nearby cafe!

Glacier Country

As I mentioned previously, we didn’t have clear weather when we were travelling around the West Coast. One morning we captured a slight glimpse at the mountains, as we walked the Fox Glacier (Te Weheka) Valley Track, but the rest of the time, they were hidden in the clouds! Due to the weather, we skipped Lake Matheson (Kairaumati), which on a clear day has beautiful reflections of Mt Cook (Aoraki) and Mt Tasman (Horokoau)! We didn’t do any tours on this roadie, but the glacier region has lots to offer and we are saving those for the next trip!


Haast Pass

There are quite a few walks and stops that you can make through the pass as the road follows the Haast River (Awarua). It was raining when we drove through, so we visited Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls, which were absolutely beautiful! More rain makes pretty waterfalls!! We skipped out on the Blue Pools, because they aren’t very blue when it is raining, but it’s on our list for next time!

What we loved:

  • Hokitika Gorge

  • Hokitika Beach

  • Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

  • Fox Glacier Valley Walk

  • Fantail Falls

  • Thunder Creek Falls

  • Viewpoints along the highway

Things we want to do next:

  • Glacier Tour

  • Lake Matheson

  • Haast Blue Pools


The Queenstown-Lakes District is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the South Island (Te Wai Pounamu) and there’s no doubt why. The lakes in the region are surrounded by picturesque snow capped mountains and there are countless things to see and do in the area. Queenstown (Tahuna) has been named the Adventure Capital of the World and is the birthplace of bungy-jumping! The region has so much to offer, whether you love snowsports, watersports, hiking, skydiving and the list goes on. If you prefer a luxury to adrenaline, Queenstown is home to the insta-famous Onsen hot tubs and you can opt for a fixed-wings or helicopter flight over the mountains.

Unfortunately for us, we had quite wet and sleety weather during our time in Queenstown (Tahuna). As a winter holiday, we expected that some of our trip would be wet, so make sure you factor that into your plans! This limited us in the hikes and outdoor activities we wanted to do.

Check out this Ultimate Guide to Queenstown, compiled by my friend, Tara, over several visits. It provides a whole lot of information about where to stay, what to eat and what to do!




TSS Earnslaw

DISCLOSURE: This was a hosted experience with Real Journeys, however, all my opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.

The first activity we did in Queenstown (Tahuna) was a cruise on Lake Wakatipu (Wakatipu Waimaori), aboard the TSS Earnslaw. The TSS Earnslaw is a 108 year old steam ship, built the same year as the Titanic! It is the last remaining coal fired commercial passenger carrying steam ship in the southern hemisphere, located on Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu. It was launched in 1908, refurbished in 1984, has had a cameo in an Indiana Jones movie, and has ferried royals from the UK, Belgium and Thailand!

Even on a gloomy winter’s day, the cruise was such a unique and memorable experience for us. The cruise across Lake Wakatipu (Wakatipu Waimaori) was beautiful and includes a stop at Walter Peak High Country Farm with an optional guided tour.

Aboard the steamship, there is a gallery showcasing historical photographs and the engine room is open for viewing. I was intrigued watching the gears turn in the engine room and enjoyed warming up by sitting beside the giant chimney!

The return trip takes about 2 1/2 hours. Refreshments are available on board from a cafe, and you can choose to book a high tea aboard the ship!


Drive to Glenorchy

The road to Glenorchy (Tahuna) is beautiful, as it follows the edge of Lake Wakatipu (Wakatipu Waimaori). There are a number of walkways and coves along the way that would be ideal for a quick summer dip! When in Glenorchy, don’t miss the insta-famous wharf and boatshed. It’s a no-brainer why these cute spots are so popular. My #1 tip for taking photos at the boatshed is to not wear black clothes. Instead opt for lighter colours to ensure you stand out against the dark background.




Isthmus Peak Track

The Isthmus Peak hike is an alternative to Roy’s Peak, which is another instagrammer hotspot. We chose to hike Isthmus Peak to avoid the crowds and hiked up for sunset. Both tracks are a similar length and altitude gain. The Isthmus Peak track starts from the road alongside Lake Hawea. The track then zig-zags up the hillside with stunning views across Lake Hawea and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. As we visited in winter, there were patches of snow along the track, with the summit covered in snow. At the top, you can see Lake Wanaka to the South and Lake Hawea to the North, with incredible panoramic views of the mountains all around.

This hike was absolutely stunning and a highlight of the trip, but it was a full-day hike, taking us about 8.5 hours return (with an hour at the summit). My post-lockdown body definitely struggled on this hike as it is pretty much uphill the whole way! Watch this space for a full and detailed blog post about hiking Isthmus Peak in winter.


What we loved:

  • TSS Earnslaw Cruise

  • Glenorchy Wharf

  • Glenorchy Boatshed

  • Isthmus Peak Track

  • Driving the Crown Range

Things we want to do next:

  • Scenic Flight to Milford Sound

  • Hike Mt Iron Trail

  • Hike Roys Peak

  • Hike Diamond Lake

  • Ben Lomond Summit

  • Queenstown Hill Walk


If I had to pick a favourite, the Mackenzie District (Te Manahuna) would take the prize. Home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki, and out-of-this-world glacial lakes. Over every hill and around every corner, I was pinching myself to make sure it was real. A thousand pictures don’t do it justice, you must see it with your own eyes!!



Omarama Hot Tubs

Some friends gifted us a visit to the Omarama Hot Tubs, an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We got 2 hours in an outdoor, private hot tub & sauna, overlooking a lake, with the Southern Alps (Te Tiritiri-o-te-moana) as a backdrop. It was the most magical way to watch the sun go down and the stars come out.


Clay Cliffs

Just outside Omarama, are the Clay Cliffs, a stunning natural landscape. The natural rock formations tower over you and look like something out of a movie – or from Mars! Entry is $5 per vehicle, as it is on private land. Remember to bring some spare change, for the donation box on site. The Clay Cliffs are a photographer’s paradise, so wander through the narrow canyons and marvel at the landscape.



Lake Pukaki

I wish you were there to hear my surprise as we drove over the hill and saw Lake Pukaki out before us. The vibrant blue of those glacial lakes honestly compares to no other. One of our most magical nights was spent camping under the stars with our friends on the shores of Lake Pukaki. It was a dream to fall asleep that way and breathtaking to wake up to the view. There are a number of beautiful freedom camping spots around Lake Pukaki, and it also serves as the gateway to Mt Cook.




Hooker Valley Track

We were lucky to have the most incredible weather and clear skies while we were headed to Aoraki, Mt Cook. The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most accessible tracks in the area, and it’s views are incomparable. The track meanders up the valley, crossing suspension bridges and glacial streams, before ending at Hooker Lake, with reflections of Aoraki, Mt Cook. In winter, the lake may be icy or have icebergs floating on the still water. It was the most beautiful winter scene. The track is 3 hours return, and suitable for any fitness level, but remember to give yourself some extra time to stop and take a thousand photos on the way!


Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes Track

The Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walk in Aoraki National Park, follows another valley towards the Tasman Glacier and takes 1 hour return. A brief side-trip takes you to the Blue Lakes (which are green). During our winter visit, these lakes were absolutely beautiful as they were fully iced over. Unfortunately, we didn’t take our camera on this hike, so you will have to take my word for it. The track ends at a viewpoint, where you can view the Tasman Glacier and the Tasman Lake below. Information boards detail the retreat of the glacier over the last few decades.


Lake Tekapo

A short 30-minute drive from Lake Pukaki takes you to the small town of Tekapo (Takapo), located on the edge of another stunning blue glacial lake. This area is a mecca for instagrammers in the summer months due to the lupins that bloom on the shores of the lake. In winter, Tekapo is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the longer, darker evenings are ideal for stargazing. Tekapo is renowned worldwide as one of the best spots to stargaze with its Dark Sky Reserve. On the shores of the lake sits the famous Church of the Good Shepherd and it was bustling with visitors!



Mt John Observatory Hill Track

The Mt John Observatory Hill (Otehiwai) provides panoramic views of Tekapo (Takapo) and the surrounding region, including the snow-capped mountains. The hike is 30-45 mins return and well worth your time.



Lake Alexandrina

Near Tekapo is Lake Alexandrina (Takamana) and we couldn’t resist taking our van on the 4WD tracks around the lake. It’s a beautiful photo spot and was calm and quiet, despite the crowds in Tekapo.


What we loved:

  • Lindis Pass Viewpoint

  • Omarama Hot Tubs

  • Clay Cliffs

  • Lake Pukaki

  • Hooker Valley Track

  • Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes

  • Tasman lake

  • Camping under the stars

  • Lake Tekapo

  • Church of the Good Shepherd

  • Mt John Observatory Hill Track

  • Lake Alexandrina

Things we want to do next:

  • Mullers Hut

  • Lake Ohau

  • Lake Ruataniwha

  • Hooker Valley x100 times

  • Stargazing Tour in Tekapo

  • Lupins in Summer at Tekapo

  • Macaulay Hut


After our time in the Central South Island, we were headed up the East Coast and through the Canterbury (Waitaha) region, back towards Picton (Waitohi). There is more that we would have loved to see and do, but it will have to be for another time.


Caroline Bay Beach

We stopped by in Timaru (Te Tihi-o-Maru) to visit friends, and they took us along the beautiful waterfront walk at Caroline Bay Beach. Follow the boardwalk along the bay towards Blackett’s lighthouse, then make your way back through Caroline Bay Park. It was the perfect excuse to stop and stretch our legs before heading further north.

Godley Head

In Christchurch (Otautahi), we drove to the Port Hills, following the ridge towards Godley Head (Awaroa). The windy drive had views over Christchurch city from Sign of the Kiwi and views over the Lyttelton Harbour (Te Whakaraupo). At the end of the road, you can walk to the 1939 Godley Head WWII coastal defence battery, sitting atop 120 metre-high cliffs and looking out across the Pacific Ocean (Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa). There are a number of other walks you can do in the area, with beautiful panoramic views.



Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools

DISCLOSURE: This was a hosted experience with Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa, however, all my opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.

I am always a fan of hot pools, even more so in the winter months. Booking a visit to the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools was the perfect way to finish our two-week South Island road trip. The large complex has a huge variety of different pools, with various temperatures and minerals, all heated by Mother Earth. My favourites were the sulphur pools and aqua therapy pools, to relax my tired muscles.

Hanmer Springs is also home to a choice of fun water slides! If you can brave the cold (as you run up the stairs) during winter, it is 100% worth the thrill! We had a run on both the Conical Thrill and SuperBowl slides and absolutely loved them.

This is the perfect detour between Christchurch (Otautahi) and Kaikoura and an ideal opportunity to relax and refresh before the end of your road trip!




Kaikoura Seal Colony

Our time in Kaikoura was brief, but we had the chance to visit the Kaikoura Seal Colony and it was so, so cool! From the carpark, there is a rugged, mostly unmarked track along the rocky coast towards the colony. The brown seals are so well camouflaged with the rocks that it takes a while to spot the first one – and then you realise there are so many more! The coastal track eventually joins up with the Kaikoura peninsula walkway, for elevated views of the sea. We cut across to the peninsula walkway from the seal colony and walked back to the carpack, arriving just in time to make it to Picton (Waitohi) before our ferry was due to leave!

The drive from Kaikoura to Picton (Waitohi) was beautiful through the Marlborough region. Next time, we’ll be sure to allocate extra time to stop along the way!

What we loved:

Things we want to do next:

  • Akaroa Peninsula

  • Diamond Harbour

  • Hanmer Forest Park

  • Whale Watch Kaikoura


And there you have it! Every beautiful location that we stopped at and activity we did on our first ever South Island, Te Wai Pounamu roadie in winter!! I would recommend this to anyone. Travelling in a van, we absolutely loved the flexibility and the ability to park up and sleep wherever we wanted.

If you are interested in seeing more raw video and photo content from our roadie, click here to watch my Instagram highlights!

Although there is a long list of places we went on our trip, we also realised there is so much more to still see! The deep south may need a trip of its own – to visit Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Te Anau, Fiordland and the Catlins to mention a few. The Nelson-Tasman is also looking extremely tempting for a summer holiday with their endless beaches and extra sunshine hours!

While our first roadie was a winter trip, I know that many of these locations are beautiful, whatever the season. Click here for access to all 44 mentioned locations pinned on Google Maps, just for you!


I can’t wait to hear all about your South Island roadies, the region is phenomenal and I’m honestly so eager to get back down there! Send me a DM on Instagram, comment down below, pin with me on Pinterest or tag me in your photos, because I just can’t get enough and I would love to hear what your roadie highlights were!

Comments +

  1. Lucy's Compass says:

    Wow what an amazing guide Abigail!! So, so detailed and thorough, I’m definitely bookmarking this for when I finally get to explore the South Island more one day! Seeing the lupins, taking a scenic flight to Milford Sound and walking on a glacier are also high on my to-do list! Thank you so much for putting so much effort into making this! 🙂

    • Abigail says:

      Yay! I am so glad that you’re loving this! It took us forever to get to the South Island, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t get down there right away 🙂 We were booked to do a scenic flight to Milford Sound, but the weather was not in our favour, so it was cancelled 🙁 We were so gutted!! Always love following along on your adventures and so grateful for the support xoxo

  2. ash says:

    These photos are amazing! thanks for adding some more spots to my road trip map 🙂

  3. Viktoria says:

    So many amazing photos and spots! And so many I still need to see 🙂

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South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

South Island

The Best Moments Of Our First South Island Roadie

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