The Highlights Of The South Island – One Week Road Trip Itinerary in New Zealand

Snowcapped mountains, misty fjords and enchanted forests that’s what always comes back to me when I think of my time spent in New Zealand.

I was lucky enough to call it my home for over a year, most of which I spent on exploring and photographing this amazing part of the world. 

There is many of you who often reach out to me asking for help with planning an itinerary around New Zealand.

Instead of writing back to each and every one of you with the answers, I thought I’d finally put all the information together to make it easier for all of us. 

Where do I start with planning? What places should I visit? Should I stick to the South Island or see both? I only have 1 or 2 weeks is it enough?  Those are the questions I hear from you often and I answer them all in my New Zealand Travel Guide. 

This road trip plan is completely free for your own personal use! If you find it helpful, it would be awesome if you used the affiliate links provided in the text and at the end of this post when you book hotels, rental cars, campervans or activities. If you do, I will get paid a small commission, at no extra cost to you! It’s a win for everyone! 

Who is this New Zealand travel itinerary for?

Mount Earnslaw as seen from the Bennet's Bluff Point in New Zealand

This itinerary is for someone who only has one week and wants to get a good taste of what New Zealand has got to offer. I can guarantee you that after following this plan you will want to come back for more!

The route starts in Queenstown and takes you further through Fiordland National Park, back to Wanaka then my all time favorite Mount Cook National Park, Tekapo and finishes in Christchurch.

Both Queenstown and Christchurch have airports, where you can fly to and out of.

First and foremost though, don’t expect to see everything. If you only have one week stick to the South Island. That’s the best advice I can give you after spending over a year in this country.

Sure there are spots on the North Island every photographer should visit, but the South Island is way more beautiful landscape wise, and it has a lot more to offer!

What is the best way to get around New Zealand

Lake Wanaka from Mount Burke

You can bike of course! Many people do, but let’s face it. If you are coming on a one week holiday, this isn’t necessarily the best idea! 

This is a self drive itinerary and for that you will need a car.  Check for best car rental deals with Discover Cars. It will give you drop off option at a different airport than pick up and it will compare prices for the best companies in New Zealand.

Don’t worry about dropping the car off at a different location. Companies in New Zealand are really well accustomed to it.

Even though you might pay a bit more for the rental, you will save time and money in the long run, as you won’t have to drive the car back to the original pick up location!

If a real road trip is on your mind then you should rent a campervan! The great side to travelling in a motorhome or a small camper is that it will save you a lot on accommodation and make your time more flexible. 

If you want to compare prices of different motorhome rental companies in New Zealand check Motorhome Republic for best deals!

I have also put together a guideline to travelling in a motorhome in New Zealand touching on such topics as freedom camping, how to find campsites etc. 

Got more than a week? Consider these New Zealand road trip plans!

  1. A four to eight week route on both of New Zealand’s Islands 
  2. A 10 day route through South Island’s diverse landscapes 
  3. A two week route on the South Island designed for mountain lovers 
  4. A two week route on the North and the South Island 

New Zealand one week itinerary around the South Island – Road Trip Map

The map below will guide you around the South Island! Click on the button in the top left corner to discover the different layers on the map showcasing points of interest around the South Island. Switch them on and off to adjust the map view to your liking.

Day 1-3: Queenstown & Glenorchy

Enroute to the top of Queenstown Hill
Bob's Cove in Queenstown
Bennet's Bluff Point on the way to Glenorchy
View from the top of Queenstown Hill in Queenstown

Kia Ora! It means welcome in the native Maori language. Be prepared to collect your jaw off the floor a few times every day for the whole of the next week. You just found yourself in one of the most beautiful countries in the world!

Your fantastic road trip kicks off in Queenstown – the adventure capital of the world! Are you wondering why is it called that? I don’t think there is an outdoor activity which can’t be done here.

From bungy jumping, sky diving through jet boating or paragliding ending with boat cruises. Queenstown will please every adventurous soul. 

I’ve lived and work in Queenstown for a total of 7 months. Part of my job was working as a booking agent and I got to participate in a lot of the activities! Bungy jumping is certainly my all time favorite and I’ve done 4 jumps in one day including the whooping 134 meter Nevis bungy! 

Kawarau Bridge Bungy Jump a must do on a New Zealand road trip
Me doing my third bungy jump of the day from the top of Kawarau Bridge.

There is a lot to cover on Queenstown. I have written 3 separate posts on what are the must do activitiesbest photography spots and a whole post dedicated to hiking in Queenstown!

Spend your first and second day exploring the town. I recommend that you do at least one hike. Queenstown Hill might be your safest bet as it’s neither strenuous nor particularly crowded, but the views from the top are beautiful.  

On the second day in the afternoon consider driving the road to Glenorchy. Stop for a photo at the Bennet’s Bluff Point. This road will be an awesome introduction for you to the scenic drives of the South Island. 

Where to stay in Queenstown?

Day 3-4 Fiordland: Te Anau & Milford Sound

sunrise over Lake Te Anau as seen from the Kepler Track
Sunset over Mitre Peak in Milford Sound
Early morning and calm waters in Milford Sound
Hollyford valley enroute to Milford Sound

After lunch time on the third day leave Queenstown and make your way to Te Anau – the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Though it is only 170 km, the first stretch of the road which starts 20km south of the centre of Queenstown will get very windy.

Make sure to keep your eyes on the road and stop only at designated stops. This scenic drive has been aptly named the Devil’s staircase. As unappealing as it may sound, it is amazing!

Once you get to Te Anau check into your accommodation and take a leisurely stroll around the lake. You’ve got a big day ahead of you tomorrow!

Distance between Queenstown & Te Anau: 170 km / 105 miles

Duration: 2-3 hours

It’s an early start on 4th day. Leave Te Anau as early as 7 AM to beat the crowds on the road to Milford Sound.  The whole journey will take around 2 hours (118km/73 miles) depending how often you will want to stop (probably a lot).

I recommend checking out Eglinton Valley, Mirror lake and a mandatory stop at Hollyford valley. These are all roadside stops.

As soon as you leave Te Anau you will loose phone and radio reception, but you will have an awesome chance to connect with nature.

Best things to do in Milford Sound

early morning light over Milford Sound in New Zealand. One week road trip itinerary around the South Island

Scenic cruise around the Fjords

A must do whilst you’re here is a cruise around the Fjords. There are a few companies running the cruises with two main ones Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries offering similar service at a similar price.

Remember to take a rain coat with you, even if it’s perfectly sunny outside. All of the boat drivers like to get up close and personal with the waterfalls! With that said don’t expect it to be sunny. Fiordland National Park is the rainiest part of New Zealand!

Scenic flight

There are a couple of different options for flights. Whether you want to go over the coast line or around the mountains or do a bit of both which I really recommend. Milford Sound is undeniably one of the best places for a scenic flight in New Zealand. You can book one right from the visitor centre in Milford Sound. 

Coach tour

Milford Sound can also be visited on a day coach trip from either Queenstown or Te Anau. It’s a perfect option if you want to limit the time spent behind wheel or don’t feel comfortable driving along the windy New Zealand roads. Visit my post dedicated to Milford Sound, where I cover all the options on the best way to see the Fjords. 

Where to stay in Te Anau?

IMPORTANT: The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound does close some days during the winter due to snowfall. Always check the weather conditions with DOC first before you set off. Sometimes snow chains are also required. Make sure your rental vehicle is equipped with them before you hit the road!

Day 4-6 Wanaka & Hawea

Coromandel Peak in Wanaka
View from the top of Isthmus Peak in Wanaka
A friend of mine kayaking on the Wanaka lake
Strolling along Lake Hawea

After your leisurely cruise around Milford Sound you’ve got quite a long way to your next destination. But don’t worry you will get to drive the same road back again and as you will know by now, it is absolutely spectacular.

Your next stop is Wanaka, another small town tucked away amongst New Zealand’s Southern Alps. 

Distance from Milford Sound to Wanaka: 340 km / 211 miles

Duration: 5 hours

Best things to do in Wanaka

Go hiking

Being in the heart of the Southern Alps Wanaka has some of the best backcountry trails on the South Island. On your 5th day I highly recommend completing one of these fantastic day hikes around Wanaka. 

Get creative and photograph the lone willow tree of Wanaka

Though a bit infamous amongst some of the locals due to crowds that it attracts, this lone willow tree standing on the shore of the lake has become the most famous tree in the world and it’s definitely photographer’s favourite.

Thousands of heavily armed in gear professional photographers flock to this tree at any time of the year for a chance to capture this unique scene. I must have photographed this tree dozens of times but each time I managed to see something different.

If you love taking photos just as I do you should add few of these photography locations in Wanaka to your must-see-list! 

Where to stay in Wanaka?

Day 6-7 Mount Cook National Park, Christchurch

Me, Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook in the distance
Hiking along the Hooker valley in Mount Cook National Park
Lake Pukaki along the road to Mount Cook village
Mount Cook from the hike to Mount Oliver.

Leave Wanaka early on your penultimate day and drive towards Mount Cook National Park. On your way there you will want to stop at Lindis Pass and along lake Pukaki. I don’t like to repeat myself, but Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park is my favourite destination in the whole of New Zealand.

The scenery in Mount Cook is second to none. It’s the home of the highest mountain in the land of the long white cloud and it’s the place where Sir Edmund Hillary practiced for his ascent of Mount Everest! 

Distance between Wanaka & Mount Cook Village: 200 km / 124 miles

Duration: 2 hours 15 min

Best things to do in Mount Cook NP

Mount Cook reflecting in the Hooker Glacier Lake. One week road trip itinerary around New Zealand

Hike along the Hooker Valley 

This relatively flat 5 km hike has some of the most scenic views in the whole park. From White Horse Hill carpark the route travels all the way through the Hooker Valley eventually ending up at the Hooker Valley Glacial Lake, where iceberg’s can be seen carving off the glacier and floating all the way down to the shoreline.

I’ve done this hike at least 3 times, once in the summer and twice in the winter. Try and hike there in the late afternoon and stay for the sunset. On a clear day you will see the top of Mount Cook lighting up and turning red!

Visit Tasman Lake and Glacier

Take the road back toward civilisation, 2km away from Mount Cook Village and turn left onto Tasman Valley Road (Highway 80). After a short drive to the carpark, the 1 hour return route can be started.

Similar to Hooker Valley Glacial Lake icebergs can be seen here in the summer and it does freeze over in the winter. On a calm day the reflections of the surrounding mountains are jaw-dropping.    

Book a scenic flight

Mount Cook National Park is one of the best places to do a scenic flight. With many glaciers overhanging the steep mountain cliffs and the insanely blue glacial lakes it is scenery that you won’t be able to forget.  It’s not the cheapest of attractions, but it’s an investment in memories that you’ll never forget. 

I go into more detail about Mount Cook National Park in a separate post. 

Where to stay in Mount Cook Village?


YHA Hostel 


Aoraki Court Motel

TIP: Accommodation in Mount Cook is really scarce so book as far ahead as you can! Campsite is operated on first come first serve basis.

If you can’t find accommodation in Mount Cook Village, your other option is to stay in Tekapo. Don’t worry it’s on your way to Christchurch anyway.

Tekapo is another scenic little mountain village. If you have an extra day it’s worth stopping at, as there is a fair bit to do around here.

If you did manage to book your stay in Mount Cook all the better. Stay a night there and head out the next day towards Christchurch to catch your flight.

Lupin flowers at Lake Tekapo

If you still don’t have enough of the beautiful views, around 10 km before reaching Tekapo you can drive up Mount John for a coffee stop. The top of the mountain overlooks the turquoise/blue Lake Tekapo.

During Mid November – late December the stop at the shore of Lake Tekapo is something you can’t miss. Within this time frame millions of Lupin flowers are blooming turning the scenery into shades of pink, purple, blue and green (see photo below). 

It’s also worth mentioning that Tekapo is New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserve, which means it’s an awesome spot for any astronomy and astrophotography enthusiast. 

Lupin flowers along the shoreline of Lake Tekapo in New Zealand

Where to stay in Tekapo?

Distance from Mount Cook to Christchurch: 330 km / 205 miles

Duration: 4 h

Distance from Tekapo to Christchurch: 240 km / 149 miles

Duration: 3 h

Your total kilometer count on this road trip: ca 1200 km or 745 miles. 

Regardless where you’ve spent your last night in New Zealand I do hope you’ve had heaps of fun on this short road trip and will be coming back soon to see more of this beautiful country. 

Important tips for your New Zealand road trip

  • If you are travelling within the peak season December through until March I highly recommend booking your accommodation and car/camper as far in advance as you can. New Zealand receives a lot of visitors in the peak season and the last thing you want to do is stress about where you are going to sleep on your holidays of a lifetime!
  • If you are travelling in the winter months end of June – September make sure your accommodation in Queenstown and Wanaka is booked in advance. Those are ski season months and both of those places are famous and busy ski towns.
  • Use Camper mate travel app for finding campsites.

My recommended travel resources for your New Zealand road trip

(please use the affiliate links below) 

  • for hotels and hostels
  • Discover Cars for finding best deals on car rentals 
  • Motorhome Republic for best deals on camper vans and motorhomes rentals
  • Get Your Guide – excellent booking engine for tours and activities
  • World Nomads – travel insurance is a must! Make sure it also covers adventure activities! World Nomads are the leaders in the industry.
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Marta Kulesza

I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.

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