Exploring New Zealand: 7-Day Road Trip Itinerary for the South Island
Note: Before traveling to New Zealand, I completed the 100% Pure New Zealand specialist course for travel agents to learn about the country's tourism. If you want more information about anything in this itinerary, or other parts of the country, send me a message or book a travel consultation. I'll help you plan the trip of a lifetime. When my parents came to visit us in Australia earlier this year, I figured they’d want to travel around Oz, but my dad heard that New Zealand’s Fjords are the most beautiful place in the world. His heart was set on seeing them.
So, we went to Fjordland. And it was spectacular.
One of the many waterfalls in Milford Sound. Our boat got close enough for us to feel the spray
This itinerary could easily be expanded with more time in certain places, or by adding somewhere like Christchurch, but if you only have a week and want a focus on the Fjords then this is the trip for you. I've broken the days down into highlights, followed by descriptions of our trip in more detail.
Day 1: - Lunch in Queenstown at Pub on Wharf - Explore Queenstown gardens - Drive to Te Anau Day 2: - Coach/cruise/walk tour of Milford Sound - Sunset dinner by Lake Te Anau at The Moose
Day 3: - Doubtful Sound tour
- Bird Sanctuary
- Movie at Fjordland Cinema
Day 4: - Drive from Te Anau to Mount Cook area - Dinner at Ministry of Works
- Rest for hiking the next day
- Breakfast at Shawty's - Mount Cook National Park
- Visitor center and hiking
- Drive to Queenstown
- Explore nightlife
-Skyline Queenstown gondola and luge
- Lunch at Stratosfare Restaurant and Bar -Flight home
Queenstown and Te Anau
We flew round-trip from Melbourne to Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure capital. We retrieved our rental car, and then experienced the biggest struggle of our trip: finding somewhere to park. After an epic search, we found a spot on the side of a massive hill and wandered into town for lunch. We went to Pub on Wharf, a cozy restaurant near the water with outdoor seating. We split some killer nachos (I eat a lot of nachos, you can trust me on this one), ribs, a burger, and tried our first New Zealand beer. I went with the Green Beret IPA.
After lunch, we walked around part of the lake through the scenic Queenstown Gardens, which was filled with gorgeous blooms and views of Queenstown. It was a great way to work off the 'chos and explore the area.
A view of Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown Gardens.
When we got back to the car, we were greeted by a parking ticket. We really enjoyed our afternoon in Queenstown, but if you don't want to deal with parking there you could just wait until the end of the trip to explore it. We cursed the parking gods and set our map for Te Anau. It's a good idea to get a New Zealand SIM card for at least one phone so you can use maps and look up other important information along the way. I got mine at the Vodafone in downtown Queenstown, but you can also get them online ahead of time, or at the airport when you land. If you’re jumping around countries, consider an international data service like Flexiroam.
The drive to Te Anau was spectacular, with forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains dotting the way.
Te Anau is the closest town to Fjordland National Park, making it the perfect home base for exploring everything the park has to offer. We opted to stay there for three nights so we would have two full days to see the fjords. I would've loved to stay even longer to take advantage of more of the hiking and other recreational activities (like kayaking) in the area.
The first night, we stayed at Kiwi Holiday Park. They have options for camping and RVs, as well as cabins for rent. There's a little playground for kids, and a common area and kitchen where you can cook if you want. It was cute, comfy, and the location was good. We ate dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Fat Duck, which was delicious, if a little overpriced.
A cool after-dinner option is a tour of Te Anau's glow worm caves, which includes a cruise across the lake to get to the bioluminescent caves.
Day Two: Tour of Milford Sound
Our first full day in Te Anau we did a coach/cruise/walk tour of Milford Sound, and it blew our minds.
We went with the company Trips and Tramps, and I can't recommend them highly enough. It was a small group (I think ten, including the four of us) and they picked us up from our hotel for an early start. As our mini-bus drove deeper into Fjordland National Park, our guide Rebecca explained what we were seeing – all of which was stunning. We stopped in a few particularly scenic spots before we made it to the main event: a cruise of Milford Sound.
Sheer cliffs jutting out of blue-green water, luscious green peaks with countless waterfalls cascading, and an impressive diversity of wildlife – I definitely understand why some people refer to this as the most beautiful place on earth. The two-hour cruise took us through all the nooks and crannies of Milford Sound. We ate lunch on-board while watching the incredible scenery. We saw seals, dolphins, penguins, and several other types of birds. We got close enough to the waterfalls to feel the spray and hear the power of the water. We sailed until the towering mountains gave way to the open sea. Note: If you have the chance to add a scenic flight, definitely take it. Rebecca met us back where we started the cruise and we hopped in the mini-bus. We were given the choice between hiking on our own up to a popular viewpoint, or taking a couple of shorter, guided hikes with her. Everyone else in the group opted to hike on their own, so our family got a private hiking tour with Rebecca. We followed the trail through a mossy forest and she told us about the flora and fauna. We were all blown away by her knowledge and passion for her work, and enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her on a more personal level.
The secluded trail opened up to a beautiful lake, and we took the opportunity to spread some of my grandfather's ashes. He traveled to New Zealand with my grandmother in 2000 and they loved it. He always said he wanted to go back, but his health wasn't strong enough to make such a long journey anymore, so my dad brought him on the trip to complete his wish and honor his life. We asked Rebecca if it would be okay for us to have a small ceremony and she gave us some privacy. My mom and I sang "The Rose", which I played at grandpa's funeral, while my dad said a few words and spread his ashes next to the lake. It was sad but incredibly meaningful and I'm so grateful we had the chance to say goodbye to him like that.
We dried our eyes and found Rebecca again. She spent her time weaving leaves into flowers for us (she was really the best). As we made our way out of the forest, a sparrow followed along, and it felt like grandpa was looking out for us. Before we picked up the rest of the group, we stopped at another trail where we crossed a suspension bridge over crystal blue water and hiked a short way to a waterfall. My dad has a pretty serious fear of heights, so I was proud of him for making it across the bridge, but it was also hard not to laugh (see video below).
After we all safely returned across the bridge, we reunited with the rest of the group and drove back to Te Anau, where Rebecca dropped us off at our hotel. We checked into our Airbnb, which we booked for the remainder of our time in Fjordland, and freshened up a bit. We went to dinner at the Moose Bar and Restaurant because they have outdoor seating across from the lake. We sipped our beers while watching the most incredible sunset. It got a little cold after that, so we went inside to eat, and all of the food was excellent and reasonably priced.
Day 3: Doubtful Sound and Fjordland Cinema
For day three of our trip, we went seperate ways for a while. My partner Austin and I drove my parents to the meeting point for a tour of Doubtful Sound, the second-largest fjord in Fjordland after Milford sound.
After a little downtime at the house (I made sure to test out the luxurious bathtub), we went out for lunch at another lakeside gem called Takahe Cafe, which unfortunately closed permanently this summer. We drove around the lake a bit, exploring the dirt roads and sweeping views, and then headed to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. A peaceful walk around the lake introduces you to an impressive array of birds, including the rare, flightless takahē and kākā.
A pair of takahē at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary.
It was cool learning more about New Zealand's wildlife and each bird's story of how it arrived at the sanctuary. By then, my parents were done with their cruise, so we met them for happy hour at Takahe Cafe (RIP) before going to see Ata Whenua - Shadowland at Fjordland Cinema. From the website:
Ata Whenua – Shadowland (pronounced ‘ata-fenua’, and also known as ‘Fiordland on Film’) brings you the Fiordland World Heritage Status wilderness you would otherwise never see. Mysterious, evocative, exhilarating and utterly spectacular, filmed mostly from a helicopter across extremes of season, climate and terrain, it will take you on an unforgettable journey through one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on earth.
Fjordland Cinema was built for the purpose of showing this film, and I can confirm it was "awe-inspiring." They even sell local beer and wine at the box office to round out your movie experience.
Day 4: Drive from Te Anau to Mount Cook
On our fourth day in New Zealand, we drove about 4.5 hours north to the small town of Twizel. The weather was a little rainy, so we didn't mind being in the car as we watched the beautiful country go by. We chose Twizel because we found a good place to stay, but our goal was to be close to Mount Cook. There are also good lodging options in Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook Village, though Twizel is generally cheaper. We got a great dinner at Ministry of Works and played a few hands of cards before turning in for an early night.
Day 5: Explore Mount Cook National Park
If you stay in Twizel, I recommend Shawty's Cafe for breakfast. After eating, we drove along Lake Pukaki until we reached the Mount Cook Visitor's Center. The free center has information about the history and ecology of Mount Cook National Park. Its rustic architecture highlights the stunning peaks and valleys in the distance.
This large window perfectly frames the beauty of Mount Cook.
After the visitor center, we hiked to the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier, which is a short trail with some impressive views.
Another great hike for all levels is the Hooker Valley track. We wanted to do it after the Tasman Glacier, but the weather was a little threatening so we played it safe (despite my protests).
There are a ton of activities you can do in the area. There are longer hikes, scenic flights, scenic flights that drop you off at hikes, stargazing, and everything in between. We took our time on the drive back to Twizel, stopping to admire the mirror-like reflection on Lake Pukaki.
Day 6: Back to Queenstown
Our only real objective for the day was to make it to Queenstown (about a three-hour drive) before dark. This would be a good time to see anything in Mount Cook National Park or Lake Tekapo that you missed. The drive to Queenstown was beautiful (are you sensing a theme?) and we stopped a few times to enjoy the vistas. We arrived back in Queenstown in the late afternoon and checked into Southern Laughter Backpacker's hostel. The location was great, there was free parking/popcorn/soup, and there's a jacuzzi with a pretty cool view. Note: Queenstown is New Zealand's adventure capital. If you're an adrenaline junkie, take advantage of the opportunities in the area.
Queenstown is full of good restaurants, so we just wandered around until something spoke to us; that "something" was a sign that said "$5 pizzas, and it was glorious. It was a Friday night, so there was a lot going on. We heard live music coming out of a few places, and there's even a floating bar on the lake.
Day 7: Skyline Queenstown and flight home
We didn't have to go to the airport until 5 pm, so we used the time to take the gondola up to Skyline Queenstown. Skyline is a recreation center where you can mountain bike, luge, bungee jump, shop, and dine. Our ticket included a roundtrip gondola ride, a few luge rides, and lunch at the buffet. Now, this all sounds pretty great anyways, but it really exceeded our expectations. We got to the top of the mountain and were in awe of the view.
We also found the bar, which added to our happiness.
After a drink, we luged and it was an absolute blast.
The first ride is to practice so you can get the hang of turning (you can wipe out if you're not careful). The second ride we got going pretty good, and by the third ride we were flying around the corners and giggling like children. It was hard to keep our eyes on the track because the view was so amazing.
After we got our adrenaline fix, we went back inside for lunch at Stratosfare Restaurant and Bar. We all agreed that Stratosfare was one of the best – if not the best – buffet we had ever been to. The entire restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, so they could get away with serving sub-par food and still keep it pretty packed. Luckily for us, the food was top-notch and there was a huge amount of variety. I'd love to eat there again even if it wasn't at the top of a mountain. It started sprinkling as we were finishing up on the luge course, and by the time we were eating it was coming down pretty hard. By the end of our meal, the rain cleared up, and a vibrant rainbow formed at eye-level. It was such a perfect ending to our trip, I nearly cried. As cheesy as it sounds, I felt like that rainbow was my grandpa smiling down, enjoying New Zealand with us.