Driving a Car through the South Island of New Zealand

✅ Last Update: Apr 22, 2024 @ 11:08 am

New Zealand is divided into 28 regions, each offering something unique. Below, we briefly summarize the areas on South Island and what you might see on your travels.

1. Nelson

Nelson is high in sunshine hours and next to a beautiful coastline, which you will see a lot of, especially if you are walking or kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park.

The Golden Bay Area is worth a drive over Takaka Hill. The little towns of Collingwood, Pohara, and Takaka are great for exploring.


2. Marlborough

The charming town of Picton serves as the welcoming gateway for the Interislander Ferry.

While it may be tempting to swiftly embark on your journey by car, consider indulging in a delightful stopover for lunch or even a night.

Picton’s picturesque surroundings make it a perfect respite before you venture to your next destination.

Additionally, this quaint town serves as the embarkation point for various water taxis, offering access to stunning lodges nestled in the serene inlets of the Marlborough Sounds.


3. West Coast

The rugged West Coast is low in population and high in spectacular coastal and glacier scenery.

The Pancake Rocks is a popular road trip stop, as is the seal colony at Cape Foulwind near Westport.

As you head further South down the coast, there are the two glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox.

Franz Josef is a bustling little town that offers warm meals and beds and some hot pools to warm up in after a day of hiking on the glaciers.

The beautiful little settlement of Okarito is worth a detour to. Hire a kayak and meander your way through the lagoon.

west coast

4. Christchurch

Lonely Planet recently listed Christchurch as one of the top ten cities lists.

Since the earthquakes of 2010/2011, the city has been going through a major rebuild, and new buildings are completed each month. 

There are innovative places to visit, like The Tannery. You can also check out Sumner and Lyttleton and view the city from the Port Hills.


5. Kaiokura

Kaikoura is a small town based on the East Coast, in North Canterbury. This is home to one of the most popular whale-watching places in the country. 

Slightly inland is the resort town of Hanmer Springs. The popular hot springs are perfect for relaxing after skiing, mountain biking, or hiking.

South Canterbury is a famous dairy farming region, and Ashburton is typical of a town that supplies the local farming community. Geraldine is well worth a stop. 

This small town has several gourmet food shops for fruit syrups and jams, including the ever-popular Barkers.


6. Mt Cook

Aoraki, Mount Cook, is the highest mountain in New Zealand. Located in the Mackenzie Region, there are the small towns of Lake Tekapo and Twizel nearby.

Depending on the season, Tekapo Springs offers hot pools, ice skating, and tubing. 

This region offers day hikes into the Aoraki National Park.

mt cook

7. Wanaka

Wanaka is located under an hour’s drive from Queenstown and is sometimes called Queenstown’s laid-back cousin.

The region is located next to a lake and offers walks, cycling, and winter ski activities.


8. Queenstown

Known as the world’s adventure capital, Queenstown is located next to a lake, surrounded by mountains, and offers an endless array of activities.

Think skydiving, bungy jumping, lugging, canyon swinging, mountain biking, jet boating, and, of course, skiing and snowboarding in the winter months. 

A popular short drive from Queenstown is up to Glenorchy, home to Paradise Valley and a starting/finishing point of the famous Route Burn track.


9. Otago

The Central Otago region of the South Island includes the very popular Central Otago Rail Trail. This three-day bike ride takes you through 150 km of the region.

The scenery is varied, including farmland, viaducts, rocky landscapes, preserved gold mining settlements, and even tunnels.


10. Dunedin

Dunedin is the second-largest city in the South Island.

Its history is steeped in Scottish culture, and the rough layout of parts of the town is based on Edinburgh. Many street names are similar.

Dunedin is home to the top-rated Otago University, and you can not avoid the student culture in the city during the semester. 

Driving out of the city, you can meander up the Otago Peninsula. It is known as an ecotourism destination.


11. Fiordland

Some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world can be found in Fiordland. This is home to the Milford Track, the Kepler Track, Te Anau and the Doubtful, and Milford Sounds.

There are self-drive options that will take you right into the Milford Sound area, as well as boat cruises, kayak trips, and scenic flights.

You must book accommodation and transport via the Department of Conservation Website to arrange to walk off the tracks.


12. Southland

The rugged coastline of the Catlins offers the opportunity to park up for lunch near penguins, seals, and sea lions.

The small town of Bluff is the access point to the rough and wild Fouveaux Straight, which leads to Stewart Island. Invercargill is the main city of this region.


👉 Additional articles you may consider to check

🔗 How Driving in New Zealand Can Be a Challenge

🔗 12 Essential Rules for Driving in New Zealand

🔗 Where to Park your Campervan in Auckland

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