New Zealand’s South Island absolutely stole my heart. Before our family trip to New Zealand I created a 10 day South Island itinerary taking in all of the picture perfect spots, fun tourist activities and the in between. Making the schedule was fun, but living it was incredible. Honestly, I had the best time seeing the South Island highlights.
How to Spend 10 Days on the South Island in New Zealand
In this post I share a South Island 10 day self drive itinerary, including what to see and do, where to stay and handy tips. It’s the itinerary that we followed on our family holiday to New Zealand.
If you have more time to spare definitely indulge, but if you have jobs at home and are simply on holiday, you’ll probably be limited timewise (like us).
If you’re visiting both the North and South Islands, but you’re undecided about where to spend more time, I’d definitely recommend more in the latter. In fact now that I’ve been I could have quite happily spent my full three weeks there. If, however, you only have 10 days to spare, you’re going to have the absolute best time from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave. It’s an amazing place.
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This 10 day South Island itinerary starts in the north of the South Island at Picton. It’s where the ferry arrives on the south island of New Zealand. I’ve assumed you have a whole 10 days to play with in the south and therefore, haven’t included getting to the island or days for jet lag etc.
However, if you haven’t factored that in and are travelling down from the North Island I suggest you catch the Bluebridge ferry for a 3.5 hour sail to Picton on the South Island. This is the cheaper and earlier option.
Tip: Go for the 8am Bluebridge ferry to maximise your day. Use the Bluebridge voucher code INSTANT10 to get 10% discount.
The alternative is the Interisland ferry, which is usually around $50NZD more and a 45-minute later departure.
You could, of course, choose to travel at night, but you miss out on the views. I wasn’t prepared for the ferry ride to be as beautiful as it was. I’m not keen on the water, but even I was on the deck trying to soak up all the views. Some other passengers spotted wild dolphins, but I was a few minutes too late. Definitely have your camera at the ready.
Day 1 – Picton to Upper Nelson to Abel Tasman
From the ferry port in Picton, drive just over 2 hours to Upper Nelson. This quaint village offers pretty views and is home to New Zealand’s oldest pub, The Moutere Inn, as well as many artisan food and crafts sellers.
A 15-minute drive takes you down by the waterfront to Mapua Wharf. If you love hipster brunch spots and coffee make sure you stop by here. It’s so cool, but down to earth, and importantly serves great coffee.
Tip: If you’re into drinking, the route is famed for its many vineyards and world-renowned wines so factor in a stop to get some supplies. And if you have no kids and more time, hire some bikes and cycle from vineyard to vineyard. There are so many next to each other.
We went to the family-friendly café, Jester House, where we fed the tame eels in the pond with some sort of cat food on a stick – yes really! It’s a beautiful setting, with loads of hidden play equipment for littles and cute gardens to explore.
However, they’ve taken the decision to change their set up to a venue and Friday night thing, so you won’t be able to do that (though it’s worth checking the link in case that changes).
So I’d recommend the previously mentioned Mapua Wharf. There are quite a few spots to try, but I’d recommend Rabbit Island Coffee, as well as Alberta’s for amazing vegetarian options and stylish dishes.
Drive 1-hour to park up (for free) at Marahau (the main gateway to Abel Tasman) and walk to Coquille Bay. It’s a nice 1hr track walk each way. You could do it in about 40-minutes each way if your kids are older or you don’t have any.
The track is up and down, and there are lots of birds about. Once you get to the bay have a splash about or rest on this lovely beach before heading to your base for the night.
Where to Stay
It’s only a 15-minute drive to Kaiteriteri Beach Motor Camp, a well-loved spot where you can reserve beachfront powered sites. It’s also right next to the water taxi pick-ups (which you’ll want to use tomorrow).
There’s a really nice onsite café with beach views and highchairs. They serve artisan pizza, chips, bean burgers and probably more healthy options, but I couldn’t vouch for those! I paid $50NZD per night for a beachfront powered pitch.
Bear in mind, that there are lots of petty (IMO) charges, like 50c (like 25p!) for every 6 minutes of a hot shower or $2 (c. £1) to use the washing machine. They’re super cheap, but compared to other sites we used it seemed silly. Like why not just add a few extra dollars to the pitch price? Anyway, I digress, it is a lovely, popular site that gets booked up by locals every year.
Tip: Pick up some stamps and postcards from the onsite shop. There’s a postbox right outside so you can send them there. And grab a hipster coffee with coconut milk from the onsite snack shack.
Two good alternative bases are one, Motueka Top 10. This campsite is a little more expensive and a 20-minute drive away, but it has a heated pool, two playgrounds, bike hire and is near more restaurants and shops. I was quoted $80NZD per night.
The second option is Abel Tasman Lodge, which is a very popular, stylish lodge located a bit closer to all the fun of Abel Tasman. You can park up and stay in a room. I was quoted $285 per night, which is a lot, but it does look dreamy.
Day 2 – Abel Tasman
It’s time to explore Abel Tasman and since cars aren’t allowed in this gorgeous national park you’ll need to walk or get a water taxi. There are loads of options depending on how adventurous you’re feeling.
It’s basically a big park that you can walk around over the course of a few days. There are huts and camp spots (that get booked up in advance), and each day is filled with self-guided walks/hikes, some of which you need to time with the tide depending on which route you take.
Alternatively you can catch a water taxi to different spots and from there then walk or kayak to the next point or return home.
If like me, you’re travelling with young children, I recommend catching a 45-minute water taxi from Kaiteriteri (where you stayed if you’re following this South Island itinerary) to Anchorage.
Tip: Go for the 9am pick up so you can spend all day here. And remember to bring snacks and lunch with you as there are no cafés/shops.
Most of the water taxis are much of the same, with Aqua Taxis being one of the more popular. It’s also handy that it has a little office at the Kaiteriteri Beach Motor Camp. Book head and in March expect to pay around $150NZD for two adults and two under 5s on a same-day return trip.
During our trip out to Anchorage we shared the taxi with about 15 others and were all given life jackets. We simply stood on the beach (opposite our motorhome pitch) and then waited for the Aqua Taxi to appear. There were a few other firms using the same space/set-up.
En route the guy took us to Split Apple Rock – a super famous rock that’s split in two – and then past an area where there are loads of seals. After that he cranked up the speed again and dropped us at Anchorage. My 4 year old said it was the best day ever and didn’t stop smiling!!
Tip: You’ll be expected to paddle up to the boat to get in/out, so wear shorts or trousers you can easily roll up. The flip out step moves with the water so watch out for it slamming on to your foot – take it from me, it hurts!
From Anchorage do the Pitt Head walk. It’s the one of the easiest and shortest walks (perfect for little people) in Abel Tasman to what’s said to be the best beach in the park – Te Pukatea. The water views en route are gorgeous too.
We all loved it so much and barely saw anyone else on this walk. It took us 2 hours for the full loop and that was a slow walk, stopping at the top to take pictures. It’s mostly uphill, but I managed it fine with an injured foot and my 4 year old walked up well. The 2 year old went in the carrier for most of it.
Lunch and Afternoon
Enjoy a picnic on the beach and enjoy this stunning horseshoe bay. At the side there are big boulders and caverns to explore, and are perfect for crabbing.
Kayakers regularly use the bay, so you can kick back and watch them roll in. There are also lots of weka birds about. They have no fear, so keep your bag closed and be wary of a cheeky nip (one went for my bandaged toe when I dosed off!).
Opt for the last water taxi back to Kaiteriteri – around 4pm.
Another option would be to get a water taxi all the way up to Tōtaranui (c.$200NZD return for two adults and two under 5s in March). Bear in mind you’ll be on the boat for longer, so if you have wriggly kids or are not a fan of the water (like me) this might not work for you.
Tōtaranui is a 1km long beach offering golden sands. There are also a great selection of short, easy walks from here making it a popular spot with families. Boat timings are similar to Anchorage (above) and both beaches are dreamy, so it just depends on what takes your fancy.
Where to Stay
Same as day one – Kaiteriteri Beach Motor Camp
Day 3 – Abel Tasman to Westport to Punakaiki
Drive around 2 hours from Kaiteriteri to Buller Gorge Swingbridge. It was the epicenter of a 7.2 earthquake in 1929 and at this spot you can see the 4.5 metre ridge it made.
If you want to cross New Zealand’s longest swingbridge you’ll need to pay $10 per adult and that includes the return cross. Under 5s are free.
I’m not a fan of heights, so gripped on very tightly. My 4 year old isn’t either, but he coached me across and said he would try being brave (which he was!). Once you cross over it’s an easy 15-minute loop walk. There’s the option to pan for gold, but that’s an extra charge and we were tight on time so we skipped it. The kids were happy enough with the bridge and walk.
Continue driving for another hour to get to Westport. Head straight to Tauranga Bay. It’s just a 15-minute drive south of Westport and you can park for free.
Oh wow, is this spot lovely. The beach is insanely beautiful and so, so dreamy. It seemed to go on forever and there wasn’t a soul on it.
From the car park walk up the signed pathway to the viewing point. It snakes round as it climbs, offering great views of the beach.
Tip: You could take the buggy if you really wanted to, but a carrier would be better if you need one. It’s such a short walk (abut 10 minutes) that we just carried our 2 year old when she needed it.
At the top you can see loads of wild seals on the rocks. If you’re really lucky you can see orca and dolphins too. Back down the track if your luck continues the ice cream van will be there. I recommend the hokey pokey flavour and the goldminers one.
Drive around 50-minutes from Westport to Punakaiki Beach Camp. This is probably the best drive of them all. It’s so, so dreamy and I felt so deliriously happy as we hugged the coastline to the beach. It’s a real pinch me moment.
Grab a few beers and walk the few steps from your pitch to the beach. It’s one of those ones that seems to go on forever with barely anyone in sight.
Skim stones and chase the water until the sun goes down. The sunsets here are legendary.
Once the kids are asleep, sit outside if you can as the stargazing opportunities are great.
Tip: Depending on what time you arrive and the tide times (published here), walk the short distance to the Pancake Rocks. Time your visit with high tide to see the blow holes blowing.
Where to Stay
Punakaiki Beach Camp offers beachfront camping. What more could you want?!
This was probably the most family-friendly spot we stayed at. The kids were instantly running about with other kids and we shared parenting lows and highs with other family travellers.
The showers were super hot and nice, the kitchen was great. It was a lovely base and one I would have happily stayed at longer. I paid $54 for a powered site.
Day 4 – Punakaiki to Hokita to Franz Josef
Drive one hour from Punakaki to Hokita. This is the best place for fuel and snacks. If you don’t need either of those and the kids are happy there’s no need to stop – just keep going.
An alternative stop is at Greymouth, which is half-way between the two. However, it looked very ‘normal’ to me – McDonalds, KFC etc.
Continue the drive from Hokita to Franz Josef car park. This should take around 1-hour 40-minutes.
Eat lunch in the motorhome – that’s the joy of it, after all!
You have two options; either walk as close as you can get to the glacier or hop in a helicopter for a ride over it (or even a heli-hike if you don’t have kids). Actually a third option is to do the walk and the helicopter ride tomorrow at Fox Glacier (that’s what we did).
Tip: Pre-book the helicopter ride if you’re tight on time. Understandably they fill up quickly.
The self-guided walk starts at Franz Josef glacier car park (free). Simply follow the signs and easy track. The closest view of the glacier should take around 45-minutes (one way). Once you’ve seen it, turn around and walk back.
However, the closest viewing point was closed during our visit due to flooding. We walked for about 30 minutes on the ‘Forest Walk’ before we had to turn back, but we still got a good view in my opinion. There are loads of little kid-friendly walks here and they’re all sign posted.
From here drive 30 minutes to your base for the night.
Where to Stay
Fox Glacier Top 10 has a big kids play area, gleaming clean kitchen facilities and hot showers. It also has a big, family-friendly shower room, which is handy. The slight downside is the sound of helicopters passing quite often, but you soon get used to it. I paid $88NZD for a powered site, which included 1GB of internet per day per device.
Day 5 – Fox Glacier to Haast Pass to Wanaka
You have two choices – or both if you like.
Drive five minutes from Fox Glacier Top 10 to Lake Matheson, otherwise known as Mirror Lake. Go early, before the crowds. From the car park it’s a 1.5-hour loop on gravel track. If you just want to see the reflections its about 20-minutes each way. Follow the signs to the jetty.
Jay took our 2 year old on this walk (in the carrier) and they loved it, spying blue mushrooms, as well as those pretty reflections. There’s also a really, really nice café here.
Tip: Leave the buggy as there are lots of steps to contend with.
Meanwhile, I took my 4 year old on a helicopter ride over Fox Glacier. And I’m sure you can imagine, it was amazing! We opted for a 20-minute ride, landing on snow for 5 minutes for pictures and a play, before heading back down. We were buzzing!
He said he couldn’t decide if he liked the speed boat or the helicopter ride better – what a dilemma to have at 4 years old!
After all that fun, drive for just over an hour from Lake Matheson to Knights Point Look Out. Enjoy a motorhome lunch with the ocean views.
Alternatively, drive further along to Ship’s Creek Walk, where you’ll find sand dunes and nice coastal walks.
Drive for one hour from Knights Point to Haast Pass. From here and up until your last point of the day (Wanaka) you’ll be in and out of the motorhome.
You could see Fantail Falls and/or Thunder Creek Falls – both are short walks, well sign posted and only a few minutes walk from car park. During our visit the Fantail Falls car park was too full, so we skipped it. Neither looked too impressive in my opinion, so don’t feel too much pressure.
A bit further on you’ll find the Blue Pools and they are worth a visit. It’s a 30-45-minute easy walk (with kids in tow) down a hill pathway to reach them. My 4 year old managed the walk with a bit of distraction and my 2 year old went in the carrier. It’s a buggy friendly path, so you could take one if you’d rather.
We spent about an hour watching people jump from the bridge into the icy water, skimming stones and chatting about the colour of the water.
From the Blue Pools its a one hour drive to Wanaka.
As its been a busy day, eat dinner at the well-loved Big Fig. It’s slow food, served fast. The menu is ever changing and includes things like sweet spicy tangy meatballs, free-range rotisserie chickens, vegetarian and vegan tagines, gratins and more. We loved it.
They offer different sized plates, where you pick and choose small portions of the menu. It’s kind of like a tapas on one plate, though I guess you could choose just one dish if you really wanted to. Dinner is offered from 5.30pm–9pm. You can’t book a table and you won’t find high chairs, but it is worth a visit.
Where to Stay
Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park is the closest site to the town (10-minute walk). It has a couple of playgrounds for little ones, one of which has a big bouncy pillow that my two loved. This spot is another that has a family friendly shower room.
Day 6 – Wanaka to Te Anua to Milford Sound
Enjoy Wanaka, making sure to get a photo with ‘that Wanaka Tree’. And if you have children let them burn some energy at the huge Main Street playground, complete with dinosaur slide. There’s a big parking lot right by it.
Wanaka is a lot more commercialised than I thought it would be, with lots of cafés, restaurants and shops. It’s not huge, but definitely don’t go expecting a quaint town. You’ll probably notice the dress style straight away too – quirky, edgy, cool.
Drive three hours from Wanaka to Te Anua. It’s a pretty drive, especially from about half way onwards.
N.B. We had to scrap Te Anau and Milford Sound at the last minute because of the Milford floods. However, I’d planned and booked it all so I’ve included it in the itinerary. Instead we added an extra night in Wanaka and Queenstown, but I’d still recommend the Te Anau and Milford Sound option.
Stretch your legs at the lake in Te Anua and grab one of the famous pies at Miles Better Pies.
And then blast the last bit of your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound (1-hour 40minutes).
Tip: This is a pretty drive and can also get quite busy, so if you have more time to play with than 10-days add an extra day in around here. Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park is a lovely campsite option.
Where to Stay
Stay at the luxury motorhome site at Milford Sound Lodge. It’s the only campsite in Milford Sound and comes with good reviews and views. It also offers high end cabins in the rainforest.
Day 7 – Milford Sound to Queenstown
Enjoy a Milford Sound Cruise. There are many tour operators offering much of the same. Some are longer or provide more information about wildlife, but most are around 90-minutes long. We went with this one.
Bear in mind that it’s recommended that you allow one hour to park and transfer to the terminal. There are lots of free and paid parking options.
Tip: Go for an early cruise to avoid the crowds. Most tour buses arrive for the 1pm slots.
Drive from Milford Sound to Queenstown (3-hour 40-minutes). Yes, this is a beast of a drive.
As it’s a looong day grab dinner from the world-famous Fergburger. There’s nearly always a queue for their burgers, so if you’re starving head to Vudu Café and Larder for good veggie options, cakes and lakeside eating.
We tried both and as a veggie, I preferred Vudu. For Fergburger I sat with the kids on a nearby green whilst Jay queued for around 45-minutes and then brought it over. Once he’d paid they announced they’d run out of the veggie option, so I essentially just had a bun and toppings with fries, but it was still good!
Where to Stay
Queenstown Holiday Park Creeksyde is the world’s first environmentally certified EarthCheck Holiday Park. It doesn’t have a playground, but it does have a family shower room and a big lounge area. I paid $83NZD for a powered site.
Day 8 – Queenstown to Dunedin
Head to the playground at the bottom of Queenstown Gardens so they can burn some energy.
From here then start at Frankton Walkway at Queenstown Gardens, follow the Frankton arm of Lake Wakatipu, hugging the lakeside and enjoy views of the Remarkables.
Head as far as you can and then turn around and walk back to the playground. We walked for about 90-minutes in one direction and still didn’t get as far as we hoped!
By now though it’ll be late enough for you to enjoy a glass of bubbles next to the playground. Talk about dream set up!
Tip: If you have older ones consider playing frisbee golf by the Gardens – look out for the signs telling you how.
Alternatively, you could use your morning to go on the Queenstown Luge (think Mario Kart racing down the side of the mountain!). As we had more time in Queenstown (because of the unexpected cancellation of our Milford part) we also went on the luge.
In comparison to the one on the North Island, it offers better views, but in terms of track I’d say the North is better.
Drive about 3.5-hours from Queenstown to Dunedin. Yep, it’s another beast of a drive and to be honest the main reason for this part of our journey was to make our 4 year old’s dreams come true by seeing wild penguins!
Anyway, stop off in Alexandra at Industry Lane Eatery. It’s about a 1hr 20m drive. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but wow it’s incredible. Try the salted caramel waffles and the bagels. SO good!
Time your drive so that you go straight to Penguin Place, a working conservation reserve. The best time to see wild penguins is at dusk when they return to nest, so your ideal tour will be in the evening.
I’d recommend this tour as not only is it focused on protecting the penguins, but they also have a rehab centre for them. Obviously it’s not guaranteed that they will have any in there, but when we went in March there were quite a lot. One had scars from shark bites and a few were poorly.
It’s set up to minimise interactions from humans, so there are a few rules to follow, about keeping quiet, no hands through the fence etc. Seeing them up close was a dream come true for our 4 year old.
Next a guide takes you in a small group (there was only us and two others) through the ‘trenches’. They’re essentially tunnels through the sand dunes, camouflaged to hide them from the wild penguins who visit the protected beach.
There are little peep holes so you can see out and at some points you have to crouch down. The kids loved this aspect as much as the penguins, if not more on this part of the tour, as most of the time the penguins were far away.
Where to Stay
Leith Valley Touring Park is a 10-minute drive from the centre. I paid $54NZD for a powered site. The playground is small and a bit shabby, but there won’t be much time to use it anyway. The plus, is good, unlimited internet. Use it to download any new movies/shows for the next few days!
Day 9 – Dunedin to Lake Pukaki
Drive one hour from Dunedin to the Moeraki Boulders. They’re big boulders on the beach, so the kids can clamber on them and run about on the beach. In the (free) car park there are also llamas (or alpacas – can never remember the difference) that you can feed – buy the feed in the gift shop. A half hour stop would be plenty.
If you’re late leaving or fancy a lie in, then you could skip this bit. Personally, I think they’re a bit hyped up, but they are en route.
Continue to drive on to Oamaru. This quirky town is famed for the penguins and also has a Victorian precinct. There are loads of cute arty, vintage shops to explore.
Stop at Scotts Brewing Co for an early lunch. Although it’s a brewery they were great with the kids, bringing fun colouring sheets and crayons over. Have a taster of the top drinks, alongside wings, loaded wedges and amazing pizzas. This spot is 10/10. We loved it and were sad we had to rush it.
Next drive 30 minutes to EnkleVeryDoo Korna to see the rescued wallabies. They are so cute and there are so many of them that you can feed and pet.
The lovely owner, Gwen, will lend you some Crocs (or wellies for the kids) to wear (so make sure you have socks on – I didn’t have any and it was a bit gross). She’ll then run through the rules and tips to help you get the best of your visit. You can stay as long as you like (don’t miss the baby ones), but bear in mind it’s a bit of a drive to the next spot. Adult entry costs $15 (£7.20) and kids under 2 are free.
When you’re ready drive 2 hours to Lake Pukaki.
Where to Stay
Freedom camping is camping for free – don’t expect any facilities – just an approved area to stay overnight.
Head to Hayman Road 1 – Google should pick it up – for the best freedom camping spot ever. Go past the signs saying no freedom camping and then turn up the track. You can park right on the lake front, enjoying mountain views. It’s incredible.
We were lucky and enjoyed it all to ourselves until about 8pm and then one small campervan joined us, though still not too near.
We had a disco on the waterfront, dipped toes into the icy water and genuinely had a blast. The absolute highlight was when the kids went to bed and we popped outside the motorhome at around 10pm. The sky was filled with stars and beautiful constellations. It was like someone had draped a pretty blanket over our camper. They were so clear and felt close enough to touch. It was magical. A definite highlight of this 10 day self drive.
Day 10 – Lake Pukaki to Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
Drive 1-hour to the Hooker Valley Track, one of the most famous and beautiful hikes in New Zealand. You’ll drive alongside Lake Pukaki. A vision of turquoise and milky blue waters.
The shortest walk to Mount Cook is by parking at Hooker Valley car park. Then follow the signs and clear track, crossing three swingbridges to get to the icy lake, and then walk back again.
It’s a flat trail and although it’s long, it’s doable with young kids. Our 2 year old went in the carrier or on our shoulders and our 4 year old walked the majority. The terrain changes from gravel to boardwalks to bridges and stones, so there are plenty of distractions. Plus, the views are unreal.
It took us about 3.5 hours, including a half stop for food. Take a picnic to enjoy on a big rock. Lunch with a view? Yes, please!
Oh and bear in mind, there’s only a toilet at the car park.
Tip: Got more time to play with? Try the buggy-friendly walk to Tasman Glacier or try a glacier lake boat tour, where you’ll get to see real icebergs and of course, the longest glacier in New Zealand, Tasman Glacier.
Drive three hours from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch. Stop at Geraldine’s Farmyard and Cafe for a play/snack.
Hand your motorhome back in, ideally at your hotel so you don’t have to lug your bags about. The airport is about a 20-minute taxi journey from the city centre.
Tip: Stay at the newly built (Nov 2019) and stylish Novotel Christchurch Airport hotel. It’s only a minute walk to the airport building. I paid £107 for a family suite.
If you have time in Christchurch and you’re travelling with kids, they’ll love the free Margaret Mahy Family Playground, complete with splash pads.
Grab a snack/coffee at ‘Cafe of the Year’, c1 Espresso Christchurch where the mini-sliders and fries arrive in tubes from ceiling!
And so concludes one epic, fast-paced amazing 10 day South Island itinerary!
Read More About Our Family Trip to New Zealand
- The Lowdown on our Epic Family Holiday to New Zealand
- The Cost of Our Trip to New Zealand
- Everything you Want to Know About Family Motorhome Hire in New Zealand
- Our North Island Itinerary
- Family Packing List for New Zealand in March
- Flying to New Zealand With Kids via Economy, Skycouch and Business Class
- Flying NZ-UK in Business Class With Kids
- How We Got Stuck in New Zealand
Flying NZ-UK in the Coronavirus Pandemic