The Best of New Zealand's South Island in 2 Weeks

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Hello wanderlusters! It’s been just over one month since we returned from a 2 week tour of New Zealand’s South Island and I’m still reminiscing about this dream trip!

We thought it’d be fun to throw a move right before leaving the country for over 2 weeks, just for kicks! We moved 6 days before this trip, so it’s taken me a little longer than normal to put this together!

Rob and I talked about visiting New Zealand long before we were even married. We both figured out pretty quickly we shared a love for travel and outdoor adventures! It was a trip that seemed out of reach for a long time because of limited vacation time and the distance from us, over 8,000 miles away! With a little bit of planning (i.e. SAVING!) and also getting a little lucky (more vacation days, yay!) we were finally able to make it happen this year!

This itinerary is great if you have limited vacation time, or maybe you have a 3 week holiday so you could spend a week on the North Island and want to do 2 weeks on the South Island! I’ve also included optional extensions for those that have more time!

When we started planning our trip to New Zealand we assumed we’d do both islands! We had 15 days (not including travel time) to spend and we were going to maximize it! Go big or go home, right? After a little more time researching we realized this might be a tad aggressive. So we decided to focus on the South Island and I’m really glad we did! It was a great highlight of the South Island and we got to take our time by trimming down our initial itinerary. Definitely more of our style! We worked our way from North to South from the Marlborough region, through Canterbury to Mt. Cook, down the Southland ( Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound) and finished in Queenstown! Most places we spent at least 3 nights except for a few places in the middle of our trip.

I will break down the locations in more detail in separate posts, but here’s a rundown of our trip:

3 Nights Blenheim

Blenheim is in the heart of the Marlborough region. This region has received a lot of recognition over the past few years for its world-class Sauvignon Blanc! This place wasn’t on my radar at all to visit, but I’m so glad we did! The scenery is filled with remarkable green hills. Marlborough is famous for Sauvignon Blanc but there are some really great Pinot Gris and Rose’s as well!

Our first day we checked into our hotel: St. Lenards Vineyard Cottages. Without a doubt, my favorite place we stayed on our trip (and there were lots of great places). Obviously there’s a lot to do in this region centered around wine. Sauvignon Blanc is famous here. We are wine lovers, but had not really tried Sauvignon Blanc before this trip, and I was pleasantly surprised! Perfect for warm spring days! There are plenty of other great wines though if you aren’t a big Sauv Blanc fan.

You can visit the cellar doors for tastings and there are plenty of guided or self-guide tours (by bike or not). We loved doing the self-guided bike tour on the Marlborough Wine Trail!

On the Marlborough Wine Trail

Blenheim is a great location because you’re also very accessible to the Marlborough Sounds! The Marlborough Sounds is a fantastic day trip! There are lots of hiking/biking trails on the Queen Charlotte Track.

Blenheim was a wonderful place to start our trip! It was so laid back and the perfect place if you like being active and tasting wine!

3 Nights Mt. Cook

Travel Time/Distance from Blenheim: Approximately 403 miles. 10.5-12 hours

We drove from Blenheim to Mt. Cook via Highway 1 along the East coast. We did the drive in one day, about 12 hours of driving. There were a few short construction delays on the coastal highway. I wouldn’t advise doing the drive in one day, but we started early, took lots of breaks and had good weather so we were able to make it happen. We were going to stay in Geraldine or another town on the way to Mt. Cook. This was our longest driving day of the trip.

I recommend 3 nights in Mt. Cook. We were originally going to do two, but I’m so glad we added one more night. There’s lots of hiking (low-key or more hard core), star gazing, and glacier tours. We stayed at the Hermitage Hotel and the views were incredible! There are plenty of other great options in Mt. Cook Village.

Mt. Cook is impressive, and you’ll be especially pleased if you get great weather. It’s a popular destination so get out early, explore late! We found plenty of quiet places away from the heards of tourists. Definitely allow some time to check out Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. You will pass both of them on your way into the Mt. Cook area if coming from Christchurch.

This region was really incredible! I felt like 3 nights was just the right amount of time to explore and soak it all in.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

Driving into Mt. Cook National Park.

Driving into Mt. Cook National Park.

1 Night Wanaka

Travel Time and Distance from Mt. Cook: 129 miles, about 2.5 hours. You will drive though the Lindis Pass which is gorgeous! When you get close to Wanaka you will want to stop a lot to take pictures so allow extra time!

Wanaka might have been one of my favorite stops on our trip! I would recommend at least 2 nights here, but we had really inclimate weather (gale winds, hail, then snow, seriously!) so it worked out well that we were only staying one night.

Wanaka felt like the stepping into a storybook. It made such an impression on me. Wanaka was initially a place we thought we might just pass though and not spend the night! When we arrived to the lakefront, seeing the snowcapped mountains across the water, we were so relieved we didn’t pass this place up!

We couldn’t do Roy’s Peak hike (bc of the rain and hail etc), but we did find some yummy restaurants. Check out Big Fig and Relishes Cafe downtown!

Definitely walk around the lake and of course you can find the famous Wanaka Tree. This is on my return list. If we come back we’re spending more time here!

Extra time?

If you have more time to spare I would recommend 2-3 nights here! I loved it, but it was quiet at night, so keep that in mind. Most of the shops were closed after dinner!

Stayed: Wanaka Springs Lodge Really nice little B&B!

1 Night Te Anau

Travel Time/Distance: Approximately 3.5 hours. Very important: Know the weather before you go! Our maps was directing us over a mountain pass (it was snowing on the ground in Wanaka) and it would could have been very dicey if we kept going! We turned around and took highway 6, which adds time and distance, but it was safer! The temperature was hovering right around 32 degrees so we were nervous about the roads getting icy. We had 4 wheel drive (which I recommend) but still didn’t want to be on snowy/icy roads if we could avoid it!

Te Anau is on the way to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. When we were there it was extremely cold and rainy so we couldn’t see much of the lake and mountains. We tried to do a little hike around the lake but we were both freezing and couldn’t see much of the mountains so we turned around. It was probably good we were only here for one night!

1 Night Milford Sound

Travel Time/Distance: 73 miles, 1h 45 minutes- 2 hours

Milford Sound is tiny bit out of the way (and by tiny I mean it’s 4 hours from Queenstown, so actually a little more like way out of the way), but well worth the visit if you can spare the time. Most people day trip from Queenstown (that’s 8 hours travel time plus a cruise trip so you’re looking at a very LONG day trip). I am so glad we stayed there, it is pretty remarkable to enjoy this place overnight. If time is limited however you can easily cut a night here.

Stay: Milford Sound Lodge. Wifi is weak, and that’s a good thing! The Pio Pio cafe was amazing! You can enjoy walking along the river with the view of the fiords! Be sure to stock up on your Sand Fly repellent though! That’s what this place is known for!

I thought 1 night was actually perfect, there’s not a lot to do other than some big hikes (several day treks) cruises or scenic flights. If we had been camping I would probably stay a little longer. The scenery was so gorgeous I couldn’t even take a nap because I didn’t want to close my eyes!

6 Nights Queenstown

Travel time and Distance: 179 miles, approximately 4 hours

You’ve probably heard that Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world! So there’s a lot to do in and around Queenstown! I’m really glad we had six nights here, but you could get by with 4 nights if you’re short on time. Queenstown is the biggest city we stayed in, but I loved it as a launching point for several day trips (Arrowtown, Glenorchy, Paradise)! In the evenings we had our pick of fantastic restaurants!

After dinner take a walk through the Queenstown Gardens and around Lake Wakatipu. It’s easy to escape the crowds, you just have to walk a little ways.

Stayed: QT Queenstown. This was definitely the most chic (and fanciest) place we stayed. It was truly excellent! Splurge for the Lake View.

For you adventurous folks, it’s good to have extra time in case you are planning adventures or excursions to allow for inclement weather. I was supposed to go Paragliding and the wind was too strong our last 3 days so I didn’t get to go. Schedule those types of events first thing so you have plenty of time in case it has to be rescheduled!

Have Extra Time?

Consider staying in Arrowtown or Glenorchy for a few nights! We loved Arrowtown and talked about staying in there if we return because it’s got a cool vibe and there are seriously great biking trails! This was one of favorite days of our whole trip! It’s only about a 20 minute drive from Queenstown, but has a totally different feel!

Glenorchy is about an hours drive from Queenstown, a little smaller than Arrowtown, but you are close to Kinloch and Paradise which are beautiful drives!

Getting Around:

After we landed in Auckland, we flew straight to Blenheim. It’s about a 1.5 hour flight and coming over the Marlborough sounds was incredible! Try to snag a window seat if you can! A few days into the trip we got our rental car and drove everywhere listed in this itinerary. I think this was one of the most incredible and memorable ways to experience the stunning beauty of this country. We loved stopping on the side of the road and gawking at the views!

You will see signs everywhere that read: “New Zealand roads are different. Allow extra time.” It’s true! Be smart, be safe. If you are going slow, make sure to use the pullout to allow other cars to pass.

We rented a car on our 3rd day which gave us a few days to get used to being on the left side of the road (before actually having to drive). All the drive times are subject to how fast you drive and how much you stop! We stopped a lot, but Rob drove at a reasonable speed so those time frames were pretty accurate for

BEST TIme to Visit?

Great question!! I can’t say with 100% certainty! However in mid-November (late Spring) we enjoyed pretty good weather most of our trip! New Zealand can be unpredictable any time of year so it’s best to pack layers and merino wool is going to be your best friend. I brought lots of hiking clothes, comfy leggings and casual clothes (jeans and long sleeves) for dinners at night!

Trip of a lifetime?

Without a doubt! This was one of the my favorite trips we’ve ever done! It felt as if New Zealand was showing off, and I was so happy to enjoy every bit of its diverse landscape!

I think it’s always a challenge to find the right balance between seeing enough, but not overdoing it! Honestly, our trip felt long in a good way! We didn’t feel rushed (except maybe a little in the middle) but those were places that were really great (IMO) to pass through. I think going straight to Blenheim (no overnight in Auckland) helped, and we limited ourselves to six stops. If we attempted anymore it might have been too much (for us). If you are looking for an itinerary that’s got some great highlights of New Zealand’s epic landscape, I think this one is excellent!

For the next several posts I will go into more depth on the specific locations. Have you been to New Zealand? What was your experience?! Questions about our trip? Leave a comment below and I’ll answer!

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