The best tips for your New Zealand south island road trip!

New Zealand South Island Travel Guide

New Zealand Travel / March 13, 2020

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You only have one week on New Zealand's majestic South Island? Whilst it's not quite long enough to see every last corner of the island (to do this you'd need 3+ weeks), you can certainly tick some of the highlights off the list without feeling too terribly rushed.

We have put together this itinerary with the assumption you have a hired car or campervan and are up for a fair bit of driving. Driving distances in New Zealand inevitably take longer than you expect - be that because the roads are narrow and winding, a farmers' sheep have blocked the way, or you stop every 50 kms for a photo shoot, it's bound to take you a little bit longer than you anticipate; especially here on the the South Island where every corner you pass takes you to more jaw-dropping scenery.

Day One - Christchurch to Kaikoura

Let's assume you have one week - give or take - flying in and out of Christchurch.

Christchurch was once one of New Zealand's favorite cities - a lively nightlife scene, lovely architecture, terrific cafes and restaurants and no shortages of things to do meant you'd happily spend a couple nights in the Cathedral City. Sadly, the devastating earthquake of February 22nd, 2011, has changed this. Whilst the city is slowly being rebuilt, with only 7 days on the South Island we suggest you head straight out of town after flying into the Christchurch airport.

Leaving Christchurch you'll want to drive north on the SH1. After leaving the city you'll drive for a couple hours across the arid Canterbury plains. To your east just out of view will be the Pacific Ocean and to your west the foothills of the Southern Alps. The plains soon give way to rolling hills which will land you on a lovely seaside drive. The road hugs the coast with sweeping views out to sea. Pull over alongside the road, feel the sea breeze in your hair and you stand a good chance of seeing seals sunning themselves on the rocks.

Spend your first night in the seaside town of Kaikoura. Kai meaning 'food' in and Koura meaning 'crayfish' in Maori. Kaikoura was once a sleepy village where fishermen took to the seas to catch crayfish (lobsters).

Day Two

Today, you'll want to go for a whale-watching cruise. Whale Watch Kaikoura takes you on a half day trip where you're -almost- guaranteed to see sperm whales. A terrific commentary on board will leave you with a greater understanding of the sea life off New Zealand's east coast. With any luck, you'll not only see whales but the rare dusky dolphin.

If a whale watching cruise isn't your thing, you also have the opportunity to go on a whale watching flight in a helicopter or airplane. A couple operators in town give you the chance to go swimming with dolphins or seals.

Day Three - Kaikoura to West Coast

After spending night two in Kaikoura as well, you'll want to rise early for a drive across the South Island to the West Coast. You'll head back slightly south on the Inland Kiakoura Route before heading across the Southern Alps on the Lewis Pass. This is a beautiful route, but it is the least dramatic of the three passes across the Alps - the other two being the Haast and Arthurs Pass. Once you come to Reefton, you'll want to make sure you head north so you arrive at the coast just south of Westport.