Get your summer travel plans underway with these six road trips around the spectacular South Island. From coastal cruises to mountain vistas, inland highways, charming small towns, waterfalls and wildlife – it's all there to be discovered!
1. Great Coast Road
The longest single highway in Aotearoa carves a track from the northeast of the South Island down the West Coast, across the Alps and then all the way to the bottom. That’s a big road in a small land.
But the best part about this long, lean laneway is that there really are no dull parts. It’s so varied.
The wild winding of the Buller River squeezed out onto the coast away from those imposing mountains, then the spray of the Tasman Sea as you keep close to it for over 100km.
Swing inland, across that seemingly endless bridge at Haast, then a change of scene as you hit the heights into tussock country, then alpine country and make your way towards Wānaka and the scenic beauty of the Southern Lakes District.
Then on through Southland, the land flattening out, the atmosphere new again, until you trundle into Invercargill.
But down the West Coast it’s at its magnificent best, always the Alps watching over you, and that stretch of ocean with its surf spray and endless sweeps of driftwood-dotted beaches. Let’s not beat around the (endless swathes of) bush, chances are it’ll rain a fair bit, even in summer. But that’s the context, the atmos, the eerie uniqueness: that’s the West Coast.
2. Alpine Pacific Triangle
The drive northward from Christchurch is a delight, a variety of vistas taking in gently undulating farmland, sweeps of colossal coastline, the horizon receding gently, the promise of the ever-present mountains glimpsed in the distance.
Soon you'll reach Kaikōura where you can spend the day on the sea, and the night eating from it. Spot a whale or a seal, eat a cray, then work it all off the next day on the amazing Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway. Seabirds wheel and cry, the views of the coastline and Kaikōura Mountains explaining what all the fuss is about.
Then it’s on the road again, negotiating the bends of the amazing Inland Road, heading for the sanctuary spa town of Hanmer where people have been visiting for 150 years to 'take the waters.’ You can certainly show up and soak, lying back, spa-bound, gazing up at the mountains, an astounding experience.
But you can also get a little active by jet boating, bungy jumping, or having a round of golf. Perhaps a spot of mountain biking or a horse trek is a bit more you? But save some energy for the spectacular drive back to Christchurch through the wondrous Waipara wineries as you wend back to town, where big-name producers snuggle vine to vine with some equally impressive boutique vineyards in this, yet another sub-region on the great Kiwi wine map.
3. Great Alpine Highway
This staggering highway includes the amazing Ōtira Viaduct and Waimakariri bridge, feats of local engineering that will take you through the most remarkable scenery.
First, the Canterbury Plains. They go on for miles and miles. Flat but never dull, they are a calming environment before heading for the foothills.
It’s beautiful whatever the season – rugged, eerie and arresting in the winter months; beautiful, majestic yet strangely isolated in summer. Braided, clear cool rivers, the ever-present mountains, the air getting colder. Arthur's Pass is the peak, in altitude terms, of the journey. But the thrills don’t stop there. The Ōtira Viaduct winds down out of alpine territory into a sudden rush of lushness to The Other Side.
The road hugs the Ōtira River before you dog-leg to shadow the beautiful Tamarakau River the rest of the way. Then the Ōtira Highway drops you out at Kūmara Junction where the hush of the bush and the imposing mountains give way to flatland and the wild, windy coast.
You’ve traversed the South Island and crossed more microclimates and vegetation states than you would consider even possible in such a relatively short drive.
Breathe in the salty air, then head northwards to the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakāiki, or turn the around and do the traverse in reverse.
4. Inland Scenic Route 72
In a country where we celebrate our wonderful coastlines so much, and with good reason, on Highway 72 you head inland. Into the heart of, in this case, the Canterbury region.
Straight roads and big skies make this a spectacular, and sedate, trip through the hinterland. The towns along the way, especially with names like Oxford, echo the Englishness of Christchurch, but be assured, this is great Kiwi farming country, too.
The road parallels braided rivers, stunning rock formations and, as you head further inland, the foothills of the majestic Southern Alps. And, in between, the little towns.
After you’ve passed through the romantically rural environs of Glentunnel and Windwhistle, you’ll cross the Rākaia River, which is a hot spot for white water rafting or jet boating.
More river crossings and you’re in Geraldine, where you can stock up on local produce, take in some local art, and relax after all that adventuring. Ashburton is a fly fisher’s paradise for both salmon and trout, and then to Akaroa, famous for salmon, at the end of the run. Settled by the French, Akaroa maintains a Gallic charm with a history well worth investigating. Then, a meander back along the coast road – a welcome change from all that inland green – to the ever-changing environs of Christchurch.
5. Queenstown to Glenorchy
A short 45-minute drive takes in emerald lake water and bush-clad hills, against a backdrop of snow-touched mountains. It’ll probably take a lot longer than 45, actually, because you’ll be wanting to stop every five minutes, have a look around and pinch yourself that it’s real.
Even if it’s your first visit, it may look strangely familiar. This is major Lord of the Rings territory, with scenes from all three movies shot in and around Glenorchy. Around 20km on from the tiny town with the big activity options, there is actually a bucolic utopia called Paradise.
Glenorchy is a gateway – you’re en route to the Routeburn Track here, and there are other less well-known but equally satisfying trails around the region. The Dart River offers great hiking and primo jet boating, as does Lake Wakatipu itself, of course.
6. Southern Scenic Route
This is a drive of unparalleled beauty, an almost contradictory mix of dense woodlands, cool and canopied, and wild southern coast, battered with spray.
The Catlins – an area in the southeast corner of the country that includes a conservation park of quiet beauty – is a fine way to weave out of the deep south.
State Highway 92, which makes loops of spaghetti look positively ramrod, will twist and turn you inside and out and bewilder you with beauty of the beach and beech kind for as long as you care to drive it.
Wildlife abounds – here be penguins, Hooker’s sea lions, kekeno fur seals and, further out in the cold depths, Hector’s dolphins and even whales can occasionally be spotted.
At Papatōwai you can find evidence of moa hunting, which will help give you some perspective if the wild landscape hasn’t already. There’s evidence of the whaling communities and timber millers who thrived here, too.