Four of the best South Island road trips

DRIVING | August 2020

Whether you’re on four wheels or two, the South Island is a motoring paradise. You’ll discover spectacular snow-capped mountains, primal rainforests, wild coastlines, thundering waterfalls and slopes of golden tussock.

If you’ve always promised yourself a South Island road trip, get your plans in motion. There’s a world of spectacular scenery to discover, along with highly-reviewed restaurants offering food with a view. And when it comes to excitement, the South Island never fails to deliver.

Picton to Nelson

While it’s only a two-hour drive from the port town of Picton to Nelson, take your time and absorb the Marlborough Sounds scenery, historic Havelock against the backdrop of Pelorus Sound, the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve and New Zealand’s largest fishing port – Nelson.

Highlights of this upper South Island road trip:

  • Look for bursts of glassy, bottle-green Charlotte Sound views bisected by cruising pleasure craft
  • Explore the quaint colonial buildings of Havelock and enjoy a steaming bowl of green-lipped mussels at Havelock’s famous Mussel Pot Café
  • Charter a boat from Havelock to explore the magic of Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds
  • Hire a sea kayak for a guided or self-guided paddling tour around the Marlborough Sounds
  • Take a refreshing river dip at Pelorus Bridge
  • Tuck into scallops, blue cod and lobster
  • Sip one of the Nelson area’s famous wines as you watch the sun set behind the Tasman Sea

Westport to Haast

The wild west coast surf pounds pebble beaches, sea spray hangs suspended above a winding coastal road and lush native bush clings stubbornly to hillsides. The South Island’s west coast feels like the edge of the world, giving you a glimpse of the planet before mankind. This is a road trip not to be missed and never to be hurried.

Highlights of this west coast road trip:

  • Walk to the Cape Foulwind lighthouse for spectacular sea views and fur seal spotting at Tauranga Bay
  • Follow pathways around the ancient Punakaiki pancake limestone formations and witness the power of the Tasman Sea as it pounds the blowholes, sending spouts of seawater high into the sky
  • Sip a cold one at Formerly the Blackball Hilton, then wander through the time warp coal town of Blackball
  • Pan for gold at Shantytown, ride the steam train through native bush and discover life in an 1860s gold rush town
  • Head to glacier country for an up-close view of Franz Josef and Fox glaciers
  • Shop for some Hokitika pounamu (greenstone) and enjoy a gourmet sandwich at the Hokitika Sandwich Company
  • Visit tranquil Lake Kaniere to fish, cycle and walk
  • Discover wild Hokitika Beach, then make a beach artwork using driftwood and whatever else you can find

Haast Pass to Wanaka

The drive through Haast Pass from Haast village to Wanaka is one of spectacular contrasts. From rainforests and cascading waterfalls to the arid terrain of the alpine lakes, this road trip has it all. You’re now in the heart of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area! From everywhere you look, Westland rainforest tumbles across the landscape. Mountains tower either side of a road dotted with one-way bridges over small creeks – Dancing Creek, Dismal Creek, Gunboat Creek and Chink Creek to name just a few.

Highlights of this South Island alpine road trip:

  • Discover spectacular beaches, dunes, lakes and wetlands approaching Jackson Bay, one of New Zealand’s most remote villages
  • Blend down-to-earth Kiwi humour with some gut-wrenching spin outs on the Haast jet boat river safari
  • Enter Haast Pass and journey on to Makarora for a bite to eat before a short stroll through beech forest to the Blue Pools. Chill out with a swim in the beautiful crystal-clear water, then walk to Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls and Roaring Billy
  • Rent a Makarora cabin for the night, then take a helicopter up to the snow
  • As you cruise eastward, Lakes Wanaka and Hawea are watched over by the soaring peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park
  • In Wanaka, enjoy Speights Ale House, coffee from Lot 3 Café and a walk to wine tasting at Rippon Vineyard
  • Hike up Mt Iron for panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and surrounding mountains

The legendary Lewis Pass – Reefton to Christchurch

This is an alpine adventure you’ll never forget. Travel the sweeping undulating roads set amongst world-class mountain scenery and lush native forest. Take a relaxed approach to this journey and let the Lewis Pass tell its story. Gold, coal, Hoare frosts, packhorses and carts, greenstone, brilliant red karaka berries, toi toi grass, glow worms, deer and possum. Detour to Hamner Springs thermal area, across to seaside Kaikoura and then south to the wonders of Christchurch.

Highlights of this east-to-west South Island road trip:

  • Panning for gold, antique stores, and billy tea with the bearded miners in Reefton, a wonderfully-preserved historic mining town
  • Walk the Lake Daniell track beside the Alfred River, followed by coffee and a pie at the Reefton café
  • Soak in natural thermal springs amidst native forest with a romantic and luxurious stopover at Maruia Springs
  • Jet boat the Waiau River for 360-degree spins, blasting through narrow gorges and zipping over white water rapids
  • Hydro slide from 13 meters up or recharge with a pamper pack for two at the Hamner Springs Thermal Pools and Spa
  • Mountain bike the Hamner Springs trails
  • Say hello to a Tibetan yak and other Wai Ariki Farm Park animals
  • Swim with the dolphins, watch whales, photograph fur seals and dine on fresh local crayfish in Kaikoura
  • Take a half-day tour of Waipara’s famous vineyards
  • Ride in a gondola high above the Canterbury Plains to see the Southern Alps and the rugged hills of Banks Peninsula
  • Zoom down New Zealand’s longest series of ziplines from the top of the Port Hills
  • Immerse yourself in Antarctica without launching your own expedition at the Christchurch International Antarctic Centre

Car Insurance

Before setting off on your road trip make sure that you undertake the necessary car preparations. If you need to update or renew your car insurance get in touch with your insurer, or if you need some new insurance you can get an online insurance quote here.

State offers three levels of cover:

Car Comprehensive - Full cover for accidental loss or damage to your car as well as accidental damage to someone else’s car.

Car Third Party, Fire and Theft - Cover for loss or damage to your car from fire or theft, plus accidental damage to someone else’s car.

Car Third Party Only - Cover for accidental damage to someone else’s car.

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