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20 April, 2020 - Updated Last updated on
10 February, 2022

Posted by Spaceships Crew

They say it's one of the legendary road trips in the world: the South Island Circuit in New Zealand. It sure is an amazing road trip. And these are the best places to visit when going for a tour of the South Island. Whether it'll be the best road trip ever is up to you, but these tips will make sure you won't miss any of the fun or action-packed stuff.

Travelling to New Zealand is one of the most exciting experiences that you can have as a traveller. There are many places to see that will allow you to experience the natural beauty and landmarks that the country has to offer. Whenever you are travelling to New Zealand, there are a number of places that you will want to check out. Each of these places offers travellers a unique site to visit and enjoy. Visiting the best places in New Zealand will be an experience that you will remember for years to come.

Christchurch: it all starts in the Garden City

When going on a road trip on the South Island of New Zealand, Christchurch is the place where it all begins. Whether arriving on an international or domestic flight it's super easy to get to the Spaceships Christchurch depot. We're only 2km from the airport and we offer a transfer service (free if you hire 21 days or more).

And you can pick up your campervan any time of the day or night as we offer free after-hours service. Just make sure to have a good night's sleep before starting your tour of the South Island.

Dunedin: driving south along the coastline (SH1)

On the way to Dunedin, you'll pass several great places to make a road trip stop.

  • Akaroa: a small town on the Banks Peninsula, a great place for spotting rare Hector dolphins.
  • Geraldine: great place for a coffee and to stock up on yummy (and discounted) chutneys, jams, dressings and sauces in the Barkers outlet shop. They are based in Geraldine and do magic with heaps of fresh New Zealand fruit and vegetables.
  • Oamaru: famous for its steampunk museum (Steampunk HQ), penguin spotting and craft beer (Craftwork Brewery). And of course, it's the gateway to Moeraki Builders, one of the 3 natural wonders that will blow your mind.

On the next stop on your tour of the South Island is Dunedin. At this location, you will want to check out a number of interesting sites and landmarks. These include the Larnach Castle and Taiaroa Head, where you'll find the Royal Albatross Centre.

The latter is on Otago Peninsula, make sure to spend a bit of time there as there is heaps of wildlife to see, penguins, albatrosses, seals and sea lions. Various walkways give you access to amazing views and sheer cliff faces like The Chasm and Lovers Leap.

Otago Pensinsula by Nathanael Coyne (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Otago Peninsula | image: Nathanael Coyne (Flickr)

Te Anau: gateway to Fiordland and Milford Sound

There are several ways to go to the next item on our list of best places to visit on the South Island: Te Anau. Either drive further down south and visit the Catlins area, which is beautiful and rugged. Heaps of walkways and hikes can be done there. And you'll spot wildlife as well. Or go for the quick route via SH1 and SH94.

At Te Anau, you will have the opportunity to visit a number of key sites as well as engage in fun activities. Fiordland National Park is definitely a must-visit. You can stay at Henry Creek Campsite, a DOC site that is also included in the DOC campsite pass. Henry Creek is a scenic campsite where you'll camp beside the beautiful Lake Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound.

You can go for an extreme sporting event by participating in the Kepler Challenge (a 60km mountain run) or for the 27km Luxmore Grunt with a long flat section plus a steep climb up to Luxmore Hut. Or go for a normal hike by doing the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

Or go for a more relaxed activity like a canoeing or kayaking adventure. It is all possible in the Te Anau area. In Milford Sound, you can take a flight over the area to check out all of the mountains. If you want to, you can also take a boat cruise as well. Then you can hike the Milford Track, the finest walk in the world.

Queenstown: action-packed and fun town

Queenstown is a popular stop and for many a must-do and an action-packed stopover. For most travellers, it's all about the adrenalin pumping action, which includes activities such as bungy jumping, jet boating and white water rafting.

Want a bit more peace and quiet? Then check out the Skyline Gondola as well as attend the Central Otago Wine tasting event. Or visit Arrowtown, which is a small suburb of the city with lots of nice cafes. 

Mt. Cook: isolated from the world

Mt Cook is another great place to visit on the South Island. Sleep at the foot of the mountains by staying at White Horse Hill Campground, another awesome DOC campsite where you can use the DOC campsite pass.

There is also Aoraki Mt Cook Village which will allow you to experience some of the natural beauty of the South Island as well. A great starting point for awesome day hikes or hikes that will take several days.

Dream Sleeper Mini at  White Horse Hill Campground, Mt Cook

Sleep at the foot of the mountain: White Horse Hill Campground, Mt Cook

Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers

One of the top locations in New Zealand is the Franz Josef Glaciers. The first thing that you can do is visit the glaciers, either by foot or by helicopter. You can get relatively close to both glaciers by foot, but the best way to experience this natural phenomenon is by going for a guided glacier walk.

While you are in the area, make sure to visit Lake Matheson aka Mirror Lake as well. Here you can take amazing photos early in the morning or in the afternoon, at sunset. Lake Matheson is one of the most photographed areas in New Zealand (besides the famous Wanaka tree of course).

Stay at Gillespies Beach Campsite for great views, either over the ocean of the mountains in the back. There are some nice walks that you can do in the area. These lead to historic suction and bucket dredges.

Lake Matheson New Zealand by Geee Kay (CC BY NC ND)

Lake Matheson, one of the best places to visit in New Zealand | photo: Geee Kay (Flickr)

Greymouth: feeling thirsty or hungry?

Did anyone say pancakes? Yes, Greymouth is the perfect stop if you want to go to Pancake Rocks and Blowholes in Punakaiki. But first, make sure to stop at Hokitika Gorge (Kokatahi) to enjoy the turquoise water before going to Greymouth.

Enjoy the colours of Hokitika Gorge

Enjoy the colours of Hokitika Gorge

Greymouth is also home of the Monteith's Brewing Company. You can visit the brewery and go for a brewery tour, but the highlight will be the cafe where you can taste the various Monteith's beers and pair it with yummy snacks. The  Sticky Sweet Baby Back Ribs are to die for. Just make sure you stay at a hostel close to the brewery or take an Uber ride back to your campsite. Or have a designated driver.

Nelson: gateway to Abel Tasman National Park

At Nelson, there will be plenty of activities available for you to do. This includes visiting the Boulder Bank tower as well as seeing the World of Wearable Art museum and the Nelson Classic Cars collection. See for more info.

You will also be able to hike the Grampians, The most prominent hill in the middle of Nelson with several tracks up each side. Or check out the Nelson Provincial Museum. But for most travellers, Nelson is on the list of best places to visit on the South Island as it's the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. A place where you can spend days kayaking, hiking or camping. Or go for a quick one-day visit. Have a look at this DOC page to see all the activities you can do there.

Kaikoura: whale watching paradise

Drive along SH1 to Blenheim in the Marlborough region (perfect place to enjoy the famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) to Kaikoura. This location offers a wide range of enjoyable activities to participate in. You can go on the whale watch and attend the dolphin encounter.

It is probably the best place in New Zealand to go whale watching, either by boat or helicopter, as there is some sort of "whale highway" in the ocean. It's a migration corridor that whales use to migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters in the Kaikoura area.

Back to Christchurch

When looking to wind down your trip, you will want to go back to Christchurch, of course. It's the place where you'll drop off your campervan (24 hours a day). And as Christchurch has so much to offer, it's a great place to relax and do some sightseeing before heading home. 

You will have the opportunity to check out Cathedral Square, the Botanic gardens, Canterbury Museum and all the changes that are taking place in Christchurch. It's an ever-changing city. The city will look different each time you'll visit it. After one last visit to Christchurch, you will then be finished with a complete tour of the South Island of New Zealand.

South Island Circuit route map

The map below has all the best places to visit listed and covers the complete route of the South Island Circuit road trip. Now it's even easier to do this epic New Zealand road trip. Simply send the map to your phone and start the engine of your Spaceships campervan. All systems are go.

Want to see even more of New Zealand?

This epic South Island loop road trip is an epic one. It is the easiest and most exciting way to see it all! It is also an important trip on our list of the best New Zealand road trips, but there's more. You don't want to miss out on what the North Island has to offer. By using our free tips and suggested itineraries you will be able to create your own ultimate NZ road trip. Never stop exploring!

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