A Road Tripper's Guide to New Zealand's South Island

From jaw dropping natural beauty to phenomenal food and wine – in partnership with Tourism New Zealand, here’s what to see and do, and where to eat and drink on the country’s celebrated southern isle.

Published on 11 June 2021

A place of almost otherworldly beauty, New Zealand's South Island is defined by its rich farmland, dramatic snow-capped peaks, iridescent alpine lakes, and pristine seas and fiords. There are plenty of ways to get up close and personal with nature too, whether it be on a mountain bike or snow board, or in a kayak or white-water raft.

But it’s not just about natural adventure. Some of New Zealand’s best paddock-to-plate restaurants are south of Cook Strait, and the classy wineries of Marlborough and Central Otago are celebrated around the world.

Here’s how to road trip through New Zealand’s South Island – what to see and do, and where to stay, eat and drink along the way.

Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka

DUNEDIN

Start your adventure in the South Island’s dynamic second city, a place rich in Māori and Scottish migrant culture, and enlivened for much of the year by its buzzy student scene.

Dunedin’s historic Wains Hotel with its distinctive bay-windowed facade has been reimagined as this 50-room boutique stunner. The building’s detailed, heritage-listed, high-ceilinged interior remains, but the rooms are now decked out in plush furnishings rendered in cool greys, ambers and turquoises, a tartan throw a neat nod to local Scottish history.

Accommodation comes in a variety of rooms and suites, but all feature a tablet compendium, pod coffee machine, plenty of USB ports for charging, and a 49-inch smart television with Chromecast.

It’s a beautiful spot to simply drop your bags and recover for a day or two – and the on-site restaurant and bar, The Press Club, is a moodily lit looker – but once on your feet, make time to check out the bars and restaurants of the Octagon and the nearby warehouse precinct.

A brilliant place to get to grips with local and regional history, Toitu Otaga Settlers Museum features 14 themed galleries with interactive exhibits that trace the history of the region from the earliest pre-European settlers right through to modern times.

On display are more than 100,000 artefacts, ranging from a manu tukutuku (a Māori kite) with an enormous five-metre wingspan, to post European settlement steam trains, cable cars and fashion. Throughout, clever displays bring the exhibits to life and allow you to interact with the history.

Just the handsome precinct itself, with its art deco transport wing and modern Josephine Foyer, makes this worth the visit, and includes a magnificent Chinese garden that was donated in part by Dunedin’s sister city, Shanghai, in 2008.

Housed in the beautiful old brick, concrete and steel Terminus building in Dunedin’s hip Warehouse District, Moiety typifies modern New Zealand paddock-to-plate cuisine.

Chef-patron Sam Gasson sources much of his produce from local farmers and suppliers, presenting it in a constantly evolving five-course set menu. You might eat karaage turnip served with creme fraiche, sorrel, shichimi (a seven-spice Japanese seasoning) and seaweed tendrils, or barbequed duck with beetroot, hemp, fennel and mizuna. The food is accompanied by a tight drinks list that drills down on small-producer wine and beer.

If you’re after something more casual, head instead around the corner for burgers and beers at Good Good – housed in a crisply decorated warehouse space, it’s a great spot to rub shoulders with the local students.



INVERCARGILL

An easy two-and-a-half hour drive from Dunedin, New Zealand’s southernmost city is a place of stunning natural beauty and first-class produce.

Day trip to Stewart Island

Stewart Island is a nature lover’s paradise, with plenty of opportunities to hike, fish, kayak and encounter unique wildlife.

You can easily get a taste of the island in a day via a one-hour ferry trip that leaves from Bluff, a 20-minute drive south of Invercargill. Once there, hire a scooter or car to get around and experience the island’s golden beaches, forested hills and rocky coastlines, or you can let someone else do the driving with a minibus village and bays tour

Mason Bay & The Gutter, Stewart Island

If you can, make time for a tour on the Ulva Island Explorer – a cruise on beautiful Paterson Inlet is followed by a guided walk in Ulva Island Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to weka (native woodhens), bush robins, rare saddlebacks and yellowheads, and is a protected habitat for some of New Zealand’s rarest plant species.

Perhaps no other machine gets at the heart of Kiwi backyard ingenuity and end-of-the-world engineering than the motorcycle. The country boasts a rich two-wheeled history, both in terms of the machine and the sport.

Classic Motorcycle Mecca will get you up to speed on Burt Munro (made famous by the 2006 Anthony Hopkins film The World’s Fastest Indian) and Ivan Mauger, arguably the greatest speedway racer of all time. But there are also engaging exhibits on various motorcycles, including four machines from John Britten, the celebrated Kiwi designer who in the 1990s helped change the course of modern motorcycle design.

Go Large on Bluff Oysters

New Zealand is famous for the quality of its seafood, and down this way it’s the iconic Bluff oyster that reigns supreme.

Pulled from the sea south of Invercargill between March and August, the easiest way to experience this national treasure is with a visit to Kings Fish Market. Grab a dozen along with some battered cod and chips, and take your haul a few blocks north to the beautiful lawns in Queens Park. Or if you need to skip town, stop by Barnes Wild Bluff Oysters for a tub to takeaway.



MILFORD SOUND

Made internationally famous by Lord of the Rings, the vertiginous peaks and pristine waters of Milford Sound need to be witnessed to be believed. And bedding down for a night in the region is a great way to make the best of it.

Milford Sound
Given you’ll be exploring a remote location in New Zealand it pays to be prepared, thankfully Milford Sound Lodge pretty much covers all the bases, from campervan spots to premium two-bedroom chalets.

The riverside chalets are the pick, with front-row views looking over the bubbling Cleddau River, which flows down into the head of the sound. Each chalet features a superking bed (and a sofa bed suitable for the junior burgers), underfloor heating, an en suite with bath and shower, a kitchenette, and free satellite wi-fi.

It’s the perfect place to unwind and reflect after a day spent amid the drama of the surrounding scenery.

Yes, you can see Milford Sound from the water on a boat tour or from above by plane, but what about under the water?

Descend Scuba Diving offers a day-long scuba tour that takes in two dive sites and includes lunch, a bunch of scenic stops up and down the sound, and a short bush walk (if there’s time).

Either way, once under water you’ll enter another world, the sheer fiord walls helping create a unique environment known for its distinct black coral trees and populated by dolphins, seals, sharks, eels, stingrays, crayfish and more than 150 species of fish.

All you’ll need is your PADI certification – Descend provides basic equipment as standard, and will hire you a dry suit (and provide training, if necessary) for an extra fee.



QUEENSTOWN

Yes, you can go to New Zealand’s adventure capital scale mountains or throw yourself off a bridge, but Queenstown is just as well suited for slowing down as it is speeding up.

The historic Eichardt’s became a Queenstown accommodation game changer when it reopened almost two decades ago as Eichardt’s Private Hotel offering an international standard of luxury not seen before in the town.

That reputation remains intact, Eichardt’s defined by a unique style of boutique hospitality. The Virginia Fisher fit-out is sumptuous but never ostentatious, the rooms and public areas defined by exposed stone walls, dark tiling and timber, and luscious fabrics. All 13 suites are beautifully appointed but the Lake View Suites are the prize, with their outlook straight down the barrel of Lake Wakatipu.

On site there’s the fabulous Grille restaurant and Eichardt’s Bar, as much a favourite with well-heeled locals as it is the hotel guests. Still, much of the Eichardt’s Private Hotel’s appeal is its location right in the guts of town, which puts you on the doorstep of Queenstown’s buzzy bar and restaurant scene.



The Central Otago region that surrounds Queenstown is celebrated for its exceptional pinot noir, and Rippon was one of its earliest pioneers.

The winery’s pinot planted on its north-facing escarpment – particularly its celebrated Emma’s Block limited release – has established a reputation as one of the best new-world examples of the variety. But Rippon also produces fabulous rieslings, gewurztraminers and gamays.

The best way to sample them is at Rippon’s own cellar door with its jaw dropping views across Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps – it’s a very different environment to the popular wineries in and around Gibbston Valley and the Cromwell Basin, closer to Queenstown.

Take away a few bottles and on your way back to town stop off at the Wanaka Beerworks taproom to sample some exceptional South Island craft beer.

MACKENZIE REGION

Drive three hours north of Queenstown and you’ll discover the Mackenzie Region, a place of dramatic mountain ranges, awe-inspiring glaciers and vivid alpine lakes.

The Mackenzie Region is where some of the world’s best mountaineers challenge themselves on New Zealand’s most dramatic peaks (150 are higher than 2300 metres).

Not a mountaineer? Not to worry. You can still witness the glory of the New Zealand high country with a scenic plane or helicopter flight. There’s a bunch of different options, from helicopter hikes and air safaris that provide front-row views of Aoraki-Mount Cook, to biplane and skydiving experiences.

Perhaps the ultimate, though, is a ski-plane or helicopter trip that will land you on the glaciers of Aoraki-Mount Cook itself – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.



CHRISTCHURCH

Discover the South Island’s largest city, a dynamic centre for art, culture, music and food, surrounded by spectacular natural scenery.

If you eat out just once in Christchurch, make it at this celebrated restaurant right in the centre of town. Occupying the first floor of four conjoined heritage-listed shopfronts, a table at one of the arched windows with its views of the fairy-lit street below is prized on the weekend.

Chef and co-owner Paul Howell’s paddock-to-plate menu changes frequently, but you might eat smoked mackerel and kingfish pate, free-range pork belly served with Akaroa black pudding, or porcini and juniper marinated Tai Tapu venison tenderloin. The food comes washed down by a 150-bottle wine list that leans towards North Canterbury drops.

You’ll recognise Banks Peninsula on a map as the enormous coastal protrusion south-east of Christchurch. Formed by two volcanic cones, these days it’s a place of steeply sloped farmland and quaint coastal inlets.

At its southern tip is Akaroa. An easy 80-minute drive from Christchurch, this exquisite little village is unlike any other town in New Zealand. Originally established by French whalers, that influence remains in its street names and charming architecture.

Akaroa is known for its buzzy restaurant and cafe scene (try Ma Maison, Rona’s or The Little Bistro) but make time to get out on the water with an Akaroa Guided Kayak Safaris tour – it’s arguably the best place from which to admire the spectacular scenery.

New Zealand doesn’t lack for a good train trip and maybe that’s why the Coastal Pacific flies a little under the radar.

But this journey up the South Island’s east coast makes for a spectacular exit from Christchurch. You’ll travel past the long beaches of Kaikoura, on through the wineries surrounding Blenheim, and finally on to Picton in Queen Charlotte Sound, where travellers depart on the ferry for the North Island.

You’ll get first-class views all the way, including from the train’s nifty open-air viewing carriage. There’s also a cafe onboard serving everything from all-day breakfast and sandwiches to beer and wine.

Yes, you can drive this remarkable stretch of coast, but the Coastal Pacific is a much more relaxed way to tackle an iconic New Zealand journey.

NELSON

A two-hour drive from Picton at the northern end of the South Island, Nelson is renowned for its beautiful landscapes, diverse geography that ranges from beautiful beaches to rugged mountains, and one of the best regional arts scenes in the country.

Rafting is a quintessentially New Zealand activity as you climb aboard with life vest and paddle, and follow the country’s alpine rivers as they rush towards the sea.

The mighty Buller River is one of the South Island’s best-known waterways for rafting. A great way to tackle it is with a half-day tour with Buller Gorge Rafting. The trip will give you two hours on the water rafting a Class 3–4 white-water section of the river. You’ll experience the famous Ariki Falls and a fabulous pink granite canyon, before carving through rapids such as O’Sullivan’s, Jet Boat and Whale Creek.

Trips depart twice a day during summer and onece a day during winter (depending on demand). The $160 price includes photos.

A longstanding star of Nelson’s food scene, husband and wife team Kevin and Jane Hopgood’s Hopgood’s & Co opened in 2005 in the heritage-listed Dalgety and Company Ltd building in the centre of town, and quickly established a reputation for its exceptional paddock-to-plate cuisine.

The old merchant’s building is as beautiful as ever, converted into a rustic high-ceiling space of timber, glossy black walls and moody lighting.

But really, you’re here for the grub. The menu changes often, with head chef Aaron Ballantyne tapping local farmers to showcase the best seasonal produce. You might eat house-made potato crumpet with crab and salmon roe, or sauteed paua (abalone) with shiitake mushrooms, leek and umami butter.

For drinks, it’s a lengthy wine list that features plenty of local Nelson drops alongside a bunch of Kiwi superstars and international interlopers.

In terms of travelling around New Zealand’s South Island, the most important question is: how much time have you got?

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This story was produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism New Zealand.