Road tripping through NZ’s South Island

If road tripping heaven exists it’s probably on New Zealand’s South Island. Home to almost 20 peaks which rise more than 3000 metres, the island’s mountainous spine is rimmed by coastal roads and mountain passes, making the South Island a splendid choice for a drive holiday.

Though I can’t help but wonder if the gods are a tad cranky with New Zealand as the small island nation has its fair share of Rim of Fire trouble. Evidence of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Christchurch remains, with the city still in recovery mode. City fathers however are keen for the city to move into the rebuild stage in 2017 with big plans afoot for rejuvenating Christchurch.

Christchurch has always been a popular jumping off point for the South Island treasures that await beyond the city itself and nothing has changed in that regard. The New York Times rates the city no.2 on their 52.

Places to Go list for good reason. Modern architecture sits alongside heritage buildings capturing a buzzing cultural heart alive with street food and art. An historic tram line, pop up bars and cafes, a shipping container shopping mall and the transitional cardboard cathedral ensure Christchurch’s heart pumps loud and strong during post-earthquake rebuilding.

South Island road trippers have a number of routes to choose from – here’s our pick of the best. 

Nature and Heritage Journey

Leaving Christchurch behind, head south into dramatic glacial lakes and mountainous landscapes the South Island is famous for. Over 60 glaciers make up the MacKenzie region with opportunities to view these monumental monoliths by air, foot, boat or by ski if you’re the adventurous kind. Tasman Glacier is easily accessible by foot. Don’t miss HOT Tubs Omarama for a chance to soak in a private outdoor hot tub filled with pure mountain water piped from the Waitaki mountain country that dominates the view. Stop at brilliant turquoise lakes on the way to Dunedin where you’ll find one of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the Southern Hemisphere.

Central Otago is New Zealand’s premier wine region with over 70 vineyards producing world-class Pinot Noir and Riesling. Not that we condone drinking and driving, but it’s definitely worth picking up some cellar door drops for later on. Tired of driving? Hire a bike and take on Central Otago’s Rail Trail, an epic trail that follows the former railway line when Clyde and Middlemarch were at important links in New Zealand’s gold rush chain.

Route: Christchurch to Dunedin via Omarama then to Queenstown via Central Otago

Highlights: Christchurch street art trail & historic tram, glacial lakes, hot tubs, heritage architecture

Southern Scenic Route

This route takes in classic New Zealand high country in the southern reaches of the South Island. Rugged seascapes meld with equally dramatic landscapes to create draw-dropping scenic vistas at every twist and turn of the highway. Make sure your camera is fully charged for the Milford Rd section between Te Anau and Milford Sound. Taste the famous Bluff Oysters and blue cod before taking a cruise through scenic fjords of Milford Sound.

It’s worth setting the alarm for an early start to enjoy the mirror-like reflections of Mirror Lake in Fiordland National Park. ‘A cherished corner of the world where mountains and valleys compete with each other for room, where scale is almost beyond comprehension, rainfall is measured in metres and scenery encompasses the broadest width of emotions,’ is how a contributor to the book Mountains of Water describes Fiordland

Route: Queenstown to Dunedin via Te Anua, Bluff and The Catlins, Invercargill and Milford Sound

Highlights: Milford Sound, Fiordland, famous walking trails

TranzAlpine Explorer

This is an epic road trip that has it all: mountains, glaciers and one of the planet’s best rail journeys between Christchurch and Greymouth. Traverse the Southern Alps via Arthurs Pass where the road itself is an extraordinary example of engineering. Snow-capped mountains, gorges carved by melted-ice rivers, glaciers, sub-tropical rainforests and wild, rugged beaches pummelled by Southern Ocean waves are just some of the delights likely to appear around every corner. Hike to Rob Roy Glacier before finishing up at Queenstown, the southern HQ for adventure New Zealand-style.

Route: Christchurch to Queenstown via Greymouth

Highlights: Southern Alps, Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers

Top of the South Island

Stock up on your energy levels at Christchurch where lively popup bars and restaurants are adding the fun factor before heading northwards. Hike and kayak in Abel Tasman National Park or cycle the easy cycle route of the Great Taste Trail. Vineyards, rolling farmlands, coastal cafes and cosy B&B’s combine just enough exercise excuses to justify tucking into divine food, wine, cider and beer Nelson and Marlborough are famous for. Stop for a photo at impressive beech forest-lined Lewis Pass which links Canterbury with the west coast. Rejuvenate travel-weary bodies in the natural pools and thermal springs at Hanmer Springs

Route: Christchurch to Hanmer Springs via Kaikoura, Marlborough Sounds and Nelson

Highlights: Abel Tasman National Park, vineyards, Marlborough Sound, beaches and whale watching