New Zealand is the country that first got me addicted to travel. It has everything; spectacular mountain ranges, the bluest lakes I've ever seen, rainforest, glaciers, wild beaches and some pretty cool cities to boot. A trip here is guaranteed to be special.
If you love the outdoors you will be spoilt. We've spent over six months here and are already dreaming about making a return.
Start exploring the South Island of New Zealand, and you'll quickly realise why it was chosen as the location for the Lord of the Rings movies. The rugged landscape is straight out of a fairy tale. It's really well set up for independent adventure and road tripping is by far the best way to see this country.
Here's our two week South Island New Zealand itinerary that's perfect for outdoor lovers.
2 Week South Island New Zealand Itinerary
Day 1: Queenstown
Start in the adventure capital of New Zealand: Queenstown.
This town has become incredibly popular in recent years and it's primarily because of the hundreds of outdoor things you can do in this beautiful place.
To many it's known as a place for sky diving, bungee jumping, canyon swinging and all kinds of extreme sports.
If you're looking for something a bit more placid, you can take the Shotover Jet (a speedboat that only needs 2 cm of water to operate in), paragliding or the luge (a sled/kart that goes down a mountain).
However, we'll recommend something everyone can do: a cycle ride along a stunning river.
Gibbston River Cycling & Wineries
Head over to Gibbston, a village that is half an hour from Queenstown.
You can hire bikes from Queenstown or Arrowtown and get transferred to various parts of the track (the Queenstown Bike Trail) depending on how far you want to cycle (if you're staying at Kinross Cottages you can also get them from there).
We took our bikes from Kinross and followed the path along the beautiful Gibbston River. There is a well defined track that will take you along the river that is so bright blue it will take your breath away.
This is the first of the glacial waters you'll see in New Zealand and, whilst this is stunning, they only get better.
The track follows the river until you reach Gibbston Valley Wines - the perfect place for lunch! We had a lovely lunch and did some wine tasting before heading off again. You can carry on and even go as far as Queenstown, but if you've over indulged in the wine you can end your cycle here and head back the way you came or to the pre arranged bike pick up point.
After all that cycling it's time to relax, in the evening head over to Arthur's Point for some relaxation with another stunning view.
Onsen Hot Pools
Heading to Onsen Hot Pools is the best way to start a holiday in New Zealand.
The views from each of the Onsens are incredible, especially if you manage to snag one of the coveted sunset time slots.
If you really want to indulge you can add various packages, we chose one which included a glass of wine and chocolate (or ice cream if you prefer).
Where to stay in Queenstown
Our Pick - Kinross Cottages
Kinross is a beautiful haven of peace and tranquility in the Gibbston Valley. Set on a vineyard, your views in all directions are of mountains, vines and endless greenery. The cottages are beautifully furnished and incredibly cozy, as well as having a fully stocked kitchen. There is also a wood-fire heated hot tub on site for guests to use (it's free but you book a time slot).
We stayed here over Christmas and struggled to summon the will to get out and do anything!
St Moritz (M Gallery/Sofitel)
If you're looking for a gorgeous hotel that's in the centre of Queenstown, then check in to the St Moritz. This hotel is just a five minute walk from the centre of town and comes with all the style you expect of a Sofitel brand hotel.
The rooms have stunning views of The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu and are the perfect haven to retreat to. They also have menus created for hikers, giving you the perfect preparation for the Routeburn :-) It too has a hot tub in the garden so you really can spoil yourself!
Day 2-3: The Routeburn, finishing in Te Anau
It's time to hit the trails, so get ready for one of the greatest walks in the world.
The Routeburn starts in Glenorchy going through the heart of Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks before finishing just outside of Te Anau.
Arrange a car relocation (we used Track Hopper) so that you can jump into your car at the end of the walk and go straight to your accommodation.
This walk has it all: stunning mountains, beautiful forests, waterfalls and epic viewpoints throughout.
The hike is 32km long and climbs over 1,000 metres. It is possible to do this in a strenuous two days or a leisurely three. For this itinerary, we suggest hiking in two days (make sure you start early on day one) and staying overnight in the beautiful MacKenzie Hut, set metres away on a mountain plateau by the picturesque Lake MacKenzie (the brave can take a dip in its icy water).
If you are lucky, you may stay when Evan will be on duty and you will be treated to a very entertaining hut talk.
It will be an experience you'll never forget and a great introduction to the beauty of the South Island landscape. At the end of the hike you will pick up your car and can drive the one hour onto Te Anau.
We've written a comprehensive guide to planning your Routeburn Great Walk, so check it out before you go by clicking this link.
Tip: The hut/s for this walk must be booked in advance, they do sell out so you cannot turn up unless you are only planning on day hiking on the trail.
Sunset in Te Anau - Marakura Yacht Club
If you have any energy left, check out the sunset at the Marakura Yacht Club (check the photo below for inspiration!).
The pier is just along the shore and is the perfect place to take in the sunset, especially if there's a little snow on the tops of the mountains like we had (in summer!).
It’s pretty easy to get to and only a short distance from the town centre.
Where to stay in Te Anau
Our Pick - The Distinction
The Distinction is a good, comfortable option for resting up after taking on a long Great Walk! The rooms are spacious with seperate living areas (villa rooms) and the hotel has a free hot tub and sauna you can book privately to soothe those aching limbs.
It's pretty central and is the only place in town that seems to have functioning wifi (even the 4G sim card didn't work in Te Anau). We baulked a little at the price but Te Anau is not a budget destination.
If you fancy an affordable dinner though head straight for the food truck in town, it was the best baos we've had outside Vietnam.
An Alternative: The Milford Track
Getting onto the Milford Track is difficult as tickets for the whole season sell on the day they go on sale. But if you get the chance go for it!
The Milford Track is called "The Finest Walk in the World" for a reason, taking you through rainforest and up to the stunning MacKinnon Pass to Milford Sound.
This 53.5km four day walk starts at Lake Te Anau, finishing at Milford Sound. This means you'll have to use Track Hopper again to relocate your car to Milford Sound to meet you at the end of the hike.
If you're thinking of doing the Milford Track, check out our guide that has everything you need to know about the walk.
Day 4: Milford Sound
Milford Sound is the star attraction of the South Island and you'll quickly see why as soon as you get onboard one of the many scenic boat rides.
This fiord is incredible, with huge towering cliffs either side and waterfalls cascading down them.
It's somewhere you actually want rain, as this creates hundreds more falls. Given it's the wettest place in New Zealand your wish is often granted.
The cruises here take you from the ferry terminal out to sea and back, taking just under two hours. You'll get a commentary of the cruise and be taken through the natural wonders of Milford Sound, including getting very close to some huge waterfalls.
You'll likely get absolutely drenched at one point as the ferry goes under one!
Milford Sound's also the home to a colony of seals, rounding off a perfect trip!
If you are looking for more active options to see the sound, then you can take a kayaking trip. We used Go Orange for our kayaking trip on nearby Doubtful Sound and would highly recommend them.
You can also take overnight trips on the sound, sadly they were fully booked on our visit so make sure you book ahead if you are interested in this option. We'll definitely be doing that next time we return.
Day 5-6: Otago Rail Trail
After the adventures in Fiordland, it's time to move inland to Central Otago.
This is the home of the Otago Rail Trail, a 150km multi-day cycling that takes the path of an old railway line that goes between Clyde and Middlemarch.
If you only have two weeks in NZ, we'd recommend doing just over half, starting at Oturehua and splitting the cycle over two days.
The drive to Oturehua is over five hours taking up the majority of the morning. Once there, pick up your bikes and start cycling!
As the trail follows the old railway line, it means it's largely flat, the only difficulty you might face is if you are cycling into a head wind. Trust us this made it feel a little challenging!
The path traverses the rolling hills of Central Otago, a beautiful area where the views are so expansive. It doesn't take long to feel like you're a million miles away from civilization.
The beauty of the rail trail is that you can do it at your own pace and stop where you like. There are plenty of towns, pubs and cafes to stop along the way, so you won't feel like you have a pressured schedule.
There's also some really cute B&Bs along the track. We chose to stay at Muddy Creek Cutting in Lauder, a B&B that was on an organic farm and the owner cooked us a delicious home cooked dinner using fresh ingredients from the land.
As no one else was staying, we had the whole place to ourselves! It was one of our favourite places to stay in New Zealand and that's saying something. It's also directly on the trail.
We'd recommend staying overnight there (you can find the link later a little lower down).
On the final day you can cycle onto Clyde. The track here heads into huge open country and whilst we loved it, we found that this area could have pretty brutal winds!
If you want to do the Otago Rail Trail, we'd recommend contacting SheBikesHeBikes. They helped devise an itinerary, rented the bikes, and ensured all the logistics (like being dropped back to our car) were taken care of.
They charge $40 NZD per person, per day for a bike with bags to carry your things. Added stuff like a transfer will cost a little extra.
Places to stay on the Otago Rail Trail
Oturehua - Marchburn Country Lodge
The Marchburn Lodge is essentially a large, modern house that is yards away from the rail trail! The rooms here are stylish, incredibly comfortable and have en-suite bathrooms. The other benefits are that you have access to the laundry facilities and a living room. They also serve up a great breakfast. We really liked the owner and enjoyed reading a few of his fascinating book collection!
Lauder - Muddy Creek Cutting
A B&B that's full of character, the Muddy Creek Cutting is a great place to stay on the rail trail just outside of Lauder. The B&B is a short hop away from the rail trail and is a really restful place to stay in a rural setting.
The owner offers the option of having a delicious home cooked meal, paired with a local wine, making for a delicious end to the day. It has a cozy and relaxing living area to chill in as well. It was at this B&B that we began dreaming of spending more time hiking in New Zealand that eventually led to our 9 Great Walks of New Zealand in nine weeks challenge.
Clyde - Picnic Creek B&B
Another modern B&B, Picnic Creek is a great place to stay once you've finished the rail trail. Set a few minutes outside of Clyde, it is a peaceful place by the Clutha River. The rooms are stylishly furnished and comfortable.
Day 7: Wanaka
After the rail trail, it's time to move to one of our favourite places in the whole of New Zealand: Wanaka.
The drive from Clyde is only an hour and you'll be surrounded by mountains and beautiful lakes along the way.
Once you've settled in, hop in the car to take on our favourite day walk in Wanaka.
Rob Roy Glacier Track
The Rob Roy Glacier Walk is stunning.
As soon as you arrive at the car park, you'll see these epic mountains ahead and have a glimpse of the amazing scenery you'll encounter further into the walk.
The trail goes over a river and uphill to a beautiful plateau where you feel like you are in another world.
The walk is about 13km long and should take about 3-5 hours (depending on how often you stop to take in the views).
The track goes up 500m in elevation and whilst there wasn't an incredibly steep section, the track did seem to be relentless uphill with few flat sections.
The track is well worth the effort and we loved every second of it. It was one of those walks that make you feel blessed to have the opportunity to see this for yourself. Even the roads to the walk were beautiful.
If you want more information about the walk, check out our article on the Rob Roy Glacier Track.
In the evening, head out for the iconic view of the Wanaka Tree.
Right in the middle of the lake lives an iconic tree that sits perfectly framed by this beautiful mountain range.
It is one of the most instagrammable spots in New Zealand and as soon as you get there, you'll see why.
It can get pretty popular, but there's normally enough space for everyone. There was a pianist playing atmospheric music when we were there :-) Strange but true.
If you have any spare days and fancy more hiking then check out the 16km Roy's Peak.
Where to stay in Wanaka
We stayed in an Airbnb called Sara's Studio which was cute and had the most beautiful views. If you prefer a hotel we've heard good things about the Edgewater resort.
Day 8 - 9: Franz Josef Glacier via the Haast Pass
The Haast Pass
After Wanaka, you'll start exploring the West Coast, a particularly beautiful region of the country.
When heading north of Wanaka you'll pass the stunning Lake Hawea with a striking light blue water that will make you look twice or you know ten times!
Then the road moves onto the Haast Pass, a very scenic stretch that takes you through mountain valleys and will make you want to keep pulling over to check out the views.
One of the best stops to make is Thunder Creek Falls.
It is only a three minute walk from the road and you'll soon appear at a bright blue river and huge waterfall surrounded by a lush green surroundings!
In many countries, this would be advertised as a major highlight of the whole country; in New Zealand it's a stop on the road!
Haast Blue Pools
It's a short and leisurely walk from the car park to the bridge for the Blue Pools.
Unlike many of the other lakes in New Zealand, the Haast Blue Pools are a deep and dark blue, that's incredibly striking.
The water here is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom.
It's a place that makes for great photos as well!
Franz Josef Glacier
Heli-Hike a Glacier
Further up the coast is the stunning Franz Josef Glacier. The best way to see this amazing landscape is by helicopter from the town.
If you have good enough weather, you can fly up and land on the glacier and explore.
At the top you'll feel like you've been transported into a completely different world!
Suddenly the greenery has been replaced with endless snow, it would be hard not to feel completely awed by this outstanding landscape.
Walking around the top of Franz Josef Glacier is an unbelievable experience. You're above the clouds, in a white landscape on top of some of the highest mountains in New Zealand.
It was a once in a lifetime experience and one we'd highly recommend. Whilst it isn't cheap, it is one of those experiences worth paying for.
If you want to know more, check out our blog on heli-hiking Franz Josef Glacier.
Chill in a hot spring
After the heli-hike, chill in the natural hot springs in Franz Josef. You can choose private or public pools.
The public pools have three different temperatures to soak in and are set in a green, leafy area.
It's particularly blissful if it's a cold day outside!
The pools are largely under cover so are great for a rainy afternoon too.
Where to stay in Franz Josef
We stayed in the YHA here due to cost, but in all honesty whilst it was a good hostel we can't recommend it for the price we paid. It cost $150 a night and is really just your average hostel experience. We tried to book very late and most options had sold out.
Try looking at somewhere like Aspen Court which has great reviews.
Day 9, 10 & 11: Abel Tasman
After mountains and snow, it's time for sunshine and sea.
The coastline of Abel Tasman National Park will quickly make you feel like you've arrived at a tropical island, yet it's just a six hour drive away.
The highlight here is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the Great Walks of New Zealand.
The walk is 60 km long and relatively flat, making it one of the easier Great Walks.
It also has infrastructure such as water taxis which allow you to hike sections of the walk.
We've outlined our favourite day hike-able sections in this blog post.
The trail follows the coast from stunning beach to stunning beach..
At the end of each day's hike you can take a dip in the sea or even hire a kayak to explore.
If you fancy the Abel Tasman Track, then check out this guide.
Day 12: Hokitika
After the Abel Tasman Coastal walk, head south to Hokitika, your penultimate stop in New Zealand.
You will have driven through Hokitika to reach Abel Tasman but we wanted to break up your journey on the way to Mount Cook.
The drive will take over four hours, meaning you'll have the afternoon to explore the main attraction: the gorge.
Hokitika Gorge is a short drive from the town centre and is another place for a leisurely short walk.
The track will take you to an incredibly picturesque gorge with a milky blue river.
It is one of the most spectacular places in New Zealand, and such a great reward for so little effort!
Sunset Point is exactly what you'd expect, offering views of the ocean as the sunsets on the horizon.
You can drive your car right up to the shore.
There's a random boat that's been beached to make the landscape a little more interesting too.
Day 13 - 14: Mount Cook
The road trip around the South Island continues to Mount Cook, one of our favourite places in the world (yes, that's no small statement!).
This is the land where Edmund Hillary trained before being the first to summit Everest and you can't help but feel the history when you visit Mount Cook. Even the drive there is magical.
The stunning Lake Pukaki
Before you even set eyes on Mount Cook, you'll see the incredible blue water of Lake Pukaki.
The road to Mount Cook runs alongside this stunning stretch of water before turning to see Mount Cook in the distance.
Take the time to pull over and take in the view at Peter's Lookout. On a clear day there is nowhere else like it.
Hooker Valley Track
Once in Mount Cook, park up and head towards the Hooker Valley Track.
This is one of the best day walks in New Zealand and is just 10km long and fairly flat, making it an easy win.
The views are exquisite throughout and you may find yourself taking longer than expected as you stop to take it all in.
It felt like every turn presented a new mountain view as you walk towards Mount Cook in the distance.
You'll pass rivers, crossover swing bridges and finish at Mueller Lake which has a glacier at the far side and icebergs in the lake.
As it's a return walk you can choose to go as far as you feel like.
We'd recommend doing the whole walk though as the lake at the furthest end is worth seeing!
Blue Lakes Walk
If you haven't had your fill of mountain walks yet, then take the Tasman Valley Road to the other side of Mount Cook for something spectacular.
Yep, you can get to this view with a short walk from the car park.
We love this view so much that it became the cover image for our website!
You get the stunning blue glacial water of Lake Pukaki with a few icebergs and the Tasman Glacier in the distance.
You can also kayak or take a boat trip on this lake as well if you want to get up close to the icebergs.
Sealy Tarns and other day walks in Mount Cook
There are plenty of other great day walks around Mount Cook, including the Sealy Tarns Track which takes you half way to Mueller Hut.
This trail takes 3-4 hours and offers panoramic views of the Hooker Valley below.
If you want more information about this walk and others in the area, then check out our blog on the best day walks at Mount Cook.
Heli-Hiking the Tasman Glacier
If Franz Josef gave you an appetite for glacier hikes, then don't miss the heli-hiking at Mount Cook.
Like Franz Josef, you'll have a picturesque helicopter ride before landing on the glacier, having aerial views of Mount Cook all the way.
The main difference is that you'll be able to strap on the crampons and walk a lot more at the Tasman Glacier.
After being dropped off you'll go for an hour or so hike, exploring the glacier and peering into crevasses.
It felt like a good amount of time to be on the ice and take in the scenery.
As you're so far away from the village and any other civilisation, you'll hear the rumbling of the glaciers on the top of the mountains crumbling and falling down the mountain side. We spent a good amount of time looking out for the next small avalanche happening on top of one of the mountains around us.
If you want to do this heli-hike, get in touch with Alpine Guides who operate the trips. They're not cheap, but it's another truly memorable experience.
Read more: Heli-hiking in New Zealand
Where to stay in Mount Cook
There is only one place you should consider when staying in Mount Cook...
It had been a dream of mine for so many year, as a huge Edmund Hillary fan to stay in the Hermitage Mount Cook for so many years, and I finally got to do it on this trip. We couldn't resist booking a mountain view room and woke to watch the sunrise over Mount Cook herself. Definitely one to remember. It isn't cheap but it is very memorable.
Some other places you may want to consider if you have more time
The third island of New Zealand is often overlooked by travellers, but offers up some really unique experiences.
Stewart Island is one of the best places to see wild kiwis as well as several other native New Zealand Birds.
As the majority of the island is still National Park, it has a wild, frontier feel to the place and is home to the Rakiura Track (one of the Great Walks) as well as the epic North West Circuit (a track where the amount and depth of the mud has become legendary).
Read more: Why everyone should visit Stewart Island
The coastal village of Akaroa with its French influence and setting in a ancient volcano is a peaceful retreat.
But the main reason we love this is the Banks Peninsula Track that takes you through forests, open plains and over cliffs around this beautiful area.
It's a lot quieter than the Great Walks as only 20 people can start the track each day.
It also has a few more luxuries such as little food shops at every accommodation for the night (meaning you don't have to haul your food along the track).
You can combine this with a trip to Christchurch.
The Hump Ridge Track
A Fiorldand multi-day hike without the crowds and a few more ammenities than a Great Walk?
Yep, the Hump Ridge Track has a lot going for it! We did this over Christmas two years ago and loved it.
Not just for the scenery, but the challenging first day climb, the epic ridges and the diversity of this track.
It's a short drive from Tuatapere and can be combined with Invercargill, Stewart Island or even Milford Sound.
Read more: The Hump Ridge Track
Essential Information for your South Island Road Trip
Getting to the South Island
The majority of international flights to New Zealand land in Wellington or Auckland in the North Island. You can fly directly to Queenstown from both of these cities to start this itinerary, or take an epic road trip all the way, getting the ferry to Picton like we did!
Read more: New Zealand Road Trip
Alternatively, those in a select few countries (such as Australia) can fly directly to Queenstown or Christchurch.
Best time to go to the South Island
The Northern Hemisphere winter (November - March) is when the South Island is at its warmest and most stable weather. However, weather can still be unpredictable, so be prepared for cold, rainy and snowy conditions at any time of year (we experienced a blizzard in Mount Count in the middle of the summer).
However, these months are also the most expensive as prices for hotels and car rentals rocket up. The shoulder seasons of April/May and September/October are a good balance of value and decent conditions.
A lot of outdoor activities will be closed in the winter (June - August). The Great Walks have very minimal facilities with no gas cookers or rangers on site. However, you can also get incredibly cheap deals if you travel at this time.
Car rental and campers can be pretty good value in New Zealand, but they are in high demand in the summer. We recommend booking one well in advance, so why not get a quote below?
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Are you planning a trip to the South Island? Have you been and think we missed a must-do? Let us know in the comments below!