Epic 2 Week Itinerary for South Island New Zealand
In this epic 2-week itinerary for South Island New Zealand, you’ll find the best of what New Zealand has to offer, from the most beautiful beaches to high glaciers and everything in between. And the best part about this itinerary is that it’s honest. It’s the exact trip we did in January 2023. We did a lot of driving, mainly to get away from the rain which kept keeping up with us. So we saw a lot of different places in New Zealand’s South Island.
This 14-day itinerary for South Island New Zealand starts in Picton, where the ferry from the North Island arrives and finishes in Queenstown. You can easily adjust the starting and finishing point to your needs though.
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How many days do you need in South Island New Zealand?
New Zealand might not look that big on the map but it’s big and it can take quite some time to travel from one place to the next, especially if you’re going by van. So you need at least 3 weeks in New Zealand, more would be better.
We spend 3 weeks in New Zealand North and South Islands and it wasn’t enough time. Well, in the end, it was enough time but just because we had to skip so much on the North Island anyway because it was raining all the time. Yes, it can happen that it rains a LOT during your time in New Zealand in summer. We still managed to find the best things to do on North Island New Zealand when it rains.
If you only have two weeks’ time to explore New Zealand you should spend your time just on one island. In general, the South Island has a wider variety of things to do than the North Island. So you might want to stick to the South Island if you’re in New Zealand just for a very limited time. The only reason to pick the North Island over the South Island is if you’re a massive Lord of the Rings fan and you want to see Hobbiton and hike Mount Doom on the very popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Watch a video about the first half of this itinerary for South Island New Zealand:
Things to do before you start your NZ trip
There are a few things you should get sorted out before you leave for New Zealand or at the latest before the beginning of your camping trip.
- Get your NZeTA visa
- Download an offline map at Google Maps
- Download the CamperMate app
- Download a few different playlists or audiobooks
- Get some cash
- Buy some insect repellent for the west coast
- Get travel insurance, I recommend getting it from SafetyWing
Do not skip the downloading things part even if you get a New Zealand SIM card! Even with an NZ SIM card, you won’t have cell service everywhere. You won’t even have a radio signal everywhere, so it’s best to have some music downloaded for the drive.
It’s also important to get some cash for your camper van holiday in New Zealand. A lot of cheaper camping parks only take cash. And when we went to Wanaka the card machines didn’t work in a single restaurant or shop, so it’s best to be prepared and carry some cash.
When you’re travelling down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island it’s essential to have some insect repellent with you. Sandflies might look like tiny fruit flies but they bit and it hurts a lot.
Last but not least, do not forget about travel insurance. I know, nobody wants to hear about it but it’s important! Especially, if you travel so far from home and New Zealand is far from home for most people.
Don’t worry, it’s not gonna cost the world. You can check right here how much travel insurance is gonna cost you:
Customising the itinerary for South Island New Zealand
Depending on your starting and endpoint you might need to customise this itinerary for South Island New Zealand. We visited the North Island before we went to New Zealand’s South Island, that’s why this itinerary starts at Picton where the ferry from North Island arrives. If you only visit the South Island of New Zealand you’re gonna start either in Christchurch or Queenstown. You need to customise the itinerary accordingly.
You should also take the liberty of extending your time at places you enjoy and skip places which don’t sound that interesting to you. For example, if you love some good beach time just stay longer at the beaches and skip going hiking or the other way around.
It’s also helpful to keep an open mind towards your itinerary for South Island New Zealand and not to focus too much on having to see specific places. A lot of things to do are outdoor activities and sometimes you just can’t do them if you have bad weather. I know, I speak from experience, we had a lot of bad weather in New Zealand.
Watch a video about the second half of this itinerary for South Island New Zealand:
Itinerary for South Island New Zealand Overview
This itinerary for South Island New Zealand doesn’t just contain the best places to see in New Zealand but also great stops along the way. Some stops might not be worth going out of your way to see but if you’re driving past them you should definitely stop there. At this point, I’m gonna give a quick overview of the main stops on the 14 days itinerary for South Island New Zealand.
- Abel Tasman National Park
- Wharariki Beach
- Pancake Rocks
- Franz Josef Glacier
- Lake Matheson
- Mount Cook National Park
- Lake Pukaki
- Lake Tekapo
- The Catlins
- Fiordland National Park
Full Itinerary for South Island New Zealand
We arrived on the South Island of New Zealand by ferry from the North Island in Picton. Picton is on the northern coast of the South Island and there is nothing there to do except hit the road and begin your South Island adventure.
Day 1: Make your way to Kaiteriteri
On the way from Picton to Kaiteriteri you drive past numerous wineries. You can stop for a wine tasting or get some wine for your two-week South Island road trip. Personally, I don’t like wine so I skipped that stop but I’ve heard around Picton is the best wine region of New Zealand.
Nelson makes for a great stop to get some food and go for a stroll through the town. Nelson is a nice, small town with a unique church on top of a small hill. The Christ Church Cathedral is an unfinished Anglican church surrounded by flowers and trees. In Nelson, you can also visit the blacksmith, who made the ring to rule them all! Jens Hansen made the ring for the Lord of the Ring movies and you can even buy replicas of the ring there.
At Kaiteriteri you can get settled into your van life on the South Island and enjoy the first day at the beach. You can also buy your boat ticket to the Abel Tasman National Park for the next day.
Day 2: Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park but it’s a coastal paradise which can only be reached by boat, foot or helicopter. There are no roads in the national park. The best way to explore Abel Tasman National Park is to get to one beach by water taxi, hike to the next beach and take the water taxi back to Kaiteriteri from there. Unfortunately, we didn’t know about the amazing hiking opportunities when we booked the water taxi, so we got a return ticket from the same beach. I would definitely recommend hiking from one beach to the next though, we saw loads of people do it and it looked like a perfect thing to add to your itinerary for South Island New Zealand.
You can look on the webpage of the Department of Conservation to find the best section of the Abel Tasman coast for you depending on how much you want to hike and what beaches you want to see.
We only went to Awaroa Bay which was a very nice beach but not as impressive as you see in the pictures online.
Day 3: Wharariki Beach
The first possible stop on your way from Kaiteriteri to Wharariki is the Hawkes Lookout. From the car park, it’s a 10-minute walk to the lookout. During our visit, it was very cloudy so we weren’t able to see that much. On a clear day, you should have a great view of the Riwaka Valley.
A great place to stop on the way to Wharariki beach are Te Waikoropupū Springs. Te Waikoropupū Springs are the largest fresh water springs in New Zealand and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. On a clear day the springs look absolutely amazing, they are shimmering in bright blue and green and you can actually see water bubbling up from the ground. We were there on a rainy day so the colour of the spring wasn’t that impressive but it was still a nice forest walk. So I would recommend visiting the Te Waikoropupū Springs even when it rains.
You reach the final destination of the day after driving 5 kilometres on a horrible dirt road with countless pot holes. Note that the whole area around Wharariki doesn’t have a phone signal or plumbing and only a limited fresh water supply. So we truly felt cut off from the rest of society, you can decide for yourself if that’s good or bad. But Wharariki beach was the most beautiful beach in all of New Zealand! If the weather would have been better we could have easily spent an extra day there. But since it rained we headed down south on the following day. In good weather, you might want to schedule more time for Wharariki beach on your New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Day 3: Head down the West Coast
Our first stop after leaving Wharariki beach was Cape Farewell, which is just a few minute drive and a short walk through green hills. Cape Farewell is the northernmost point of the South Island and the scenery could be from a New Zealand postcard, green hills, sheep, cliffs and seals down on the rocks (and a lot of wind). To be on the northernmost point is definitely a unique thing to do on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand, when we visited we were the only people there.
While you’re driving through little towns keep an eye out for fruit and vegetable stalls next to the road. We got some delicious plums and tangelos (a mix of oranges and mandarin) from an organic stall in Riwaka. We went there twice, once on the way to Wharariki and once on the way back. During our first stop, the farmer just restocked. She was very friendly and told us about her organic farm.
Otherwise, the third day on the road was very uneventful. We stopped in Westport, a small coastal town on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island but to be honest it isn’t really worth stopping. So you do not need to add Westport to your itinerary for South Island New Zealand.
Day 4: Franz Josef
If you’re travelling down the west coast you have to add Pancake Rocks to your itinerary for South Island New Zealand. To be honest, I didn’t expect much, I thought we would just get out of the van, take a few pictures and keep driving. In the end I was positively surprised by pancake rocks. They don’t look like pancakes but they look really cool. And there is a super scenic walkway which took about 20 minutes with a lot of stops with amazing views.
Going to the hot springs was one of our favourite things to do on the North Island of New Zealand. When we saw online that there are hot springs on the South Island as well, the Amethyst Hot Springs, we had to check them out. Well… we walked around for almost one hour and didn’t find the hot springs. We think they would have been past one stream but the current was too strong to cross since it was raining. So I don’t recommend putting the Amethyst Hot Springs on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand.
In Franz Josef we parked at the Rainforest Holiday Park which was the nicest camping ground during our whole New Zealand holiday. For a reasonable price, you have access to a hot pool and sauna. And nothing beats going to hot pools after a hike. The only bad thing is that the pool and sauna are only open till 8 pm, so we didn’t have time to use them on our first night.
Day 5: Hiking at Franz Josef
One of the easiest hiking trails to get an amazing view of Franz Josef Glacier is the Alex Knob Track till the first viewpoint. Note that the whole track is very time-consuming. We only walked to the first lookout, the Rata Lookout. It takes about 3 hours to get to the lookout and back. You walk through a rainforest until you have a clear view of the glacier.
For any mountain enthusiast hiking near Franz Josef is gonna be one of the highlights of the itinerary for South Island New Zealand, so they might want to do more hiking trails and spend some extra time there. We had enough with this short hike and continued south to Lake Matheson.
While we had beautiful weather for our hike, we heard on the news the next day that all the roads to Franz Josef were closed because of floods and the whole town was without electricity. So always watch out for the weather forecast because the weather can change very quickly in New Zealand.
Lake Matheson is pictured on a lot of postcard pictures of New Zealand. It’s known for spectacular views of the Fox Glacier reflecting in the lake. That’s why people add Lake Matheson to their itinerary for South Island New Zealand. You should be able to see the best reflection of the surrounding mountains at dusk and dawn when the weather is clear. During our visit it was bad weather, it was cloudy and windy, so we didn’t see a reflection in the lake. It was still a nice walk around the lake, however.
You are not allowed to bring your dog to the walk around Lake Matheson since kiwis live there. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any kiwis during our time in New Zealand. If seeing a kiwi is a must on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand you can try your luck at Lake Matheson during night time, since kiwis are night active.
Day 6: Wānaka
We mainly went to Wānaka because it was a town almost on our route to the Mount Cook National Park and the weather forecast said rain for the day. So, we thought it would be better to spend a rainy day in a town instead of in the countryside in the van.
Turns out Wanaka is a very nice although super touristy small town with a nice promenade and one super famous tree. That Wanaka Tree is a tree in Lake Wanaka which has its own hashtag. In the right season and lighting the tree is a great place for a photo shoot, it just looks amazing. When we went there it rained so the view wasn’t that spectacular. It’s still a nice tree if you’re already in the area. Wanaka itself and the tree are not must-see places on this itinerary for South Island New Zealand so you can skip them and spend some more time somewhere else.
After spending a nice rainy day in Wanaka we headed north towards Mount Cook National Park. The first view of Lake Pukaki was breathtaking. The lake has an incredible turquoise colour, especially in the sunshine. And to us, it probably looked even more amazing because we had seen so much rain before.
In the late afternoon, we headed to the Mount Cook Camp Site so we could get an early start the next day.
Day 7: Lake Pukaki and Tekapo instead of Mount Cook
Our plan was to do the Hooker Valley Track, a very scenic 3-hour return hike. Well, the weather was so bad that we couldn’t do any hikes at all. In good weather, Mount Cook village and campsite are great starting points for many great walks and beautiful hikes. But if you have bad weather the best thing is to leave Mount Cook behind you and just admire the highest peak of the Southern Alps from afar.
As soon as we left the Mount Cook valley behind us the sky cleared up and we managed to spend some beautiful hours at Lake Pukaki. There’s a free overnight camping park with a small beach.
While continuing on the road to Lake Tekapo we heard that the road to Mount Cook Village was already closed because of floods. So sometimes it’s just best to throw your itinerary for South Island New Zealand out the window and go where the weather is nice.
You have the best view of Lake Tekapo from the observatory and the adjacent Astro Cafe. There’s a toll road leading up to the Cafe. When we went there we couldn’t use the toll road with our van because it was too windy, but we managed to catch a ride in someone’s car. The view from the top is absolutely worth it.
Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo are two of the most beautiful places on this 2-week itinerary for South Island New Zealand. The colours of these lakes are just out of this world.
The most photographed church in New Zealand is in Tekapo, The Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s a small brick-building church on the shore of Lake Tekapo. It’s known as a good place for stargazing. Because of that, I was quite surprised that the church is so close to the town center. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to park overnight anywhere near the church so we headed back to Lake Pukaki in the night.
Day 8: Time to relax
We spent a sunny half-day relaxing at Lake Pukaki. It’s important to schedule some time to relax during your itinerary for South Island New Zealand. The lake has an incredible turquoise colour and you can go for a swim in it. The water is quite cold but really refreshing.
When it got too windy we headed back to our van and drove to the East Coast to set up camp for tonight.
Day 9: Head down the East Coast
At Kātiki Point Lighthouse you can’t just admire a lighthouse from the outside and the surrounding cliffs, you might also catch a glimpse of yellow-eyed penguins. We didn’t see any penguins but we managed to see a lot of seals sleeping behind the lighthouse. If seeing seals in nature is on your to-do list I recommend adding Kātiki Point Lighthouse to your itinerary for South Island New Zealand, that’s where we saw the most seals on our trip. The best time to see wildlife is early in the morning.
Moeraki Boulders Beach is just a short walk from the car park. It’s known for its very round boulders. You can get some impressive pictures there. It’s not worth going out of your way to get there but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth stopping by.
Dunedin is the second-largest city in New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a nice stop to have some lunch and to walk through the city. The main thing to see in Dunedin is the Railway Station. It’s an impressive architectural piece from the outside and the inside, so don’t skip having a look inside. It would have been really cool to catch a train from there. The other main thing to see in Dunedin is the main square, called The Octagon.
Day 10: Catlins National Park
Nugget Point Lighthouse is a lighthouse out of a storybook, on a peninsula with steep cliffs on every side. As a matter of fact we added the lighthouse to our itinerary for South Island New Zealand because we saw a picture of it in a book. The lighthouse looks incredible during sunset. We went a bit before sunset but it was so cloudy and windy that it wasn’t worth waiting for sunset. So even though, once again, our reality didn’t look as impressive as the pictures we saw online it was still worth visiting.
We had to skip the famous Cathedral Cave on the Coromandel Peninsula because it rained too much, so we added the Cathedral Cave at Waipati Beach to our itinerary for South Island New Zealand instead. You can only visit the Cathedral Cave during low tide. At the parking lot, where you have to pay. a small entrance fee they tell you the tide times. It’s a short walk to the beach through a forest and then another short walk along the beach to the cave. They tell you to wear good shoes and bring a torch light. But you don’t really need any of that, flip flops and your phone light are good enough. You enter the cave, go around one bend and leave through another cave exit. Altogether you’re about 2 min in the cave when even that, but you can of course spend more time there, if you want.
After visiting the Nugget Point Lighthouse and the Cathedral Cave at Waipati Beach we made our way to Te Anau for the night.
Day 11: Fiordland – Te Anau
Fiordland and especially its most famous fiord, Milford Sound, can’t be missing from any itinerary for South Island New Zealand. The gateway to the Fiordland National Park is Te Anau. This small town next to a lake is the starting point for everyone who wants to see Milford Sound.
Since we had to skip the Glowworm Caves on the North Island we decided to add the Te Anau Glowworm Caves to our itinerary for South Island New Zealand. We managed to get two last-minute tickets for the Glowworm Caves, usually, they’re sold out a few days ahead, so make sure to book your ticket online beforehand if you want to visit the Glowworm Caves.
Before getting to the caves you do a boat ride on the second largest lake in New Zealand. The caves themselves were pretty impressive, there’s even a crystal clear waterfall inside. You then go by boat through a completely dark tunnel. The only light you see is from the glow worms. I expected to see more luminous strings hanging down but it just looked like someone stuck LEDs to the cave roof. So it wasn’t quite what I expected, but it still looked cool,. It looked like a lot of stars you would be able to touch if you reach out your hand.
Day 12 & 13: Fiordland – Milford Sound
Milford Sound Road is supposed to be the most scenic drive in New Zealand. It’s the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Because it is such a scenic, remote road we were worried about the road conditions but it turned out to be very similar to other roads in New Zealand. The most unique thing you’re gonna encounter while driving is a one-way tunnel which looks very adventurous to say the least.
There are numerous lookouts on the way, my favourite one was the Mirror Lake. In this tiny tiny lake, almost a bigger pond, we saw the beautiful reflections we were expecting at Lake Matheson.
I expected Milford Sound to be a small village, turns out it’s just a few houses, one cafe, a petrol station, a toilet and an information centre. You have to park the van at one of the big parking lots and then make your way on foot.
The thing to do in Milford Sound, besides hiking, is to take a Milford Sound Cruise. There are multiple tour providers offering boat tours, we picked one of the cheapest ones which still had tickets for the same day. All the tours go about the same route. The boat stoped at a few waterfalls and seal hang outs you you could get a closer look. Outside it gets super windy and cold but the view is much better from the outside, so it’s best to bring a lot of clothes, maybe even a woollen hat if you have one.
You’ll definitely need a raincoat on the boat tour, especially if you want to see the Hanging Valley waterfall from up really close. You will get soaking wet if you look at it from the front of the boat! So be prepared or head inside before. The front outside is the best spot for views but it’s also the coldest place on the boat.
If you want to spend the night at the Milford sound lodge you need to book way in advance. We forgot to do that and had to head back towards Te Anau to find a camping space for the night.
Hiking in Fiordland
You should have at least one hike in Fiordland on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand. We did two hikes, one super easy and one a little bit more advanced.
It took us about 3 hours to walk the Key Summit Trail from the carpark to the summit and to the lake which is a short detour and back to the carpark again. The walk starts through a forest and then you end up on a scenic circular route on a plateau with a view of the surrounding mountains. Don’t miss out on the nature trail on top, it’s a short super cool walk. The detour to the lake felt a bit long but its worth it. You can dip your feet into the refreshing water or have a nice picnic.
The second hike we did was a bit more advanced, the Gertrude Saddle Route. You can only do this track in good weather. At the beginning of the track, there is already a really clear small lake, in which you can refresh your feet after the hike. During your hike, you’re surrounded by high mountains and clear waterfalls. On top, you get to an ice-cold mountain lake and you have a great view of the Fiordland.
Day 14: Arrowtown & Queenstown
Arrowtown is a small town which preserved the atmosphere of the Gold Rush Era. It is one of those super touristy towns where they have a few massive parking lots just outside the city and everyone walks to the city centre. There’s mainly one road with all the old school looking houses but unfortunately, it’s also a busy road. It would be so much better if they made that street a pedestrian zone.
In general, Arrowtown is a pretty town with nice little cafes where you can sit outside but it’s just so overcrowded. A good way to escape the crowds is to go for a cycling tour in Arrowtown.
Queenstown is known for the many adventurous activities you can do there, rafting and bungee jumping are just two examples. We just had time to stroll through the city and go for some food. It’s a lovely town next to a lake with a nice small beach and a big park next to it. You can definitely find things to do in Queenstown if you have time on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand.
The only thing Queenstown doesn’t have is all-vegan restaurants, so I was longingly thinking back to all the vegan restaurants in Auckland while I had some food at vegan option places.
Map of all the stops on the itinerary for South Island New Zealand
Okay, before you look at the map, don’t get overwhelmed. I know I mapped a lot of places but I added every short stop. So it looks way more than it actually is. And don’t forget you can always customise the itinerary for South Island New Zealand, skip some places and stay longer at others.
Why we skipped Christchurch
Christchurch is the biggest city on the South Island of New Zealand, so you might ask why we skipped it in this itinerary for South Island New Zealand. To tell you the truth it just didn’t seem worth going out of our way to visit Christchurch. Even though New Zealand has some great cities, the cities are not what makes New Zealand worth visiting. It’s the amazing nature that makes New Zealand extraordinary.
But if you have time on your itinerary for South Island New Zealand I’m sure Christchurch is worth a short stop. Especially, if you start your South Island road trip in Christchurch you should schedule in a few days to see the city. You’ll find plenty of things to do in the city and there are accommodations in every price class in Christchurch.
What to pack for New Zealand
Travelling through New Zealand you have to be prepared for any weather. You can have sunny beach weather and wintery cold mountain weather on the same day. But being prepared for any weather doesn’t mean you should pack a lot of things. The storage space in a camper van is very limited, so it’s best to travel with just one small backpack. Yes, you heard me right: I only brought one small carry-on backpack with me for my time in New Zealand. Actually, I travelled with my one small backpack for 2 months to Malaysia, New Zealand, Fiji and Australia. And you can watch exactly what I packed in my YouTube video about it.
Wow! Tons of great information in here, I even bookmarked the page for when I finally make my visit to NZ. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂
I’m so glad you found it helpful. Hope you have an amazing time in NZ 🙂
Great New Zealand travel post for anybody, and also keeping true to the vegan niche. Enjoyable and very useful website.
Thank you! I’m glad you liked my New Zealand itinerary 🙂
New Zealand is definitely on my bucket list! It looks beautiful and full of adventures to be had. This post is INCREDIBLY helpful and I will be returning to it when I have New Zealand officially on the books.
Thank you! I hope you get to go soon 🙂
This itinerary is amazing. I hope to visit NZ one day 🙂
I’m glad you liked the itinerary 🙂