New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

Let’s be clear from the start: you cannot explore the whole New Zealand South Island in seven days. This New Zealand South Island itinerary focuses on a small part of New Zealand South Island that nature lovers and adventurers will never forget – from Christchurch to Queenstown (including Milford Sound). And these seven days are full on!

If you try to fit too much in your short time in New Zealand, you’ll miss the best part of it. While creating your own itinerary, allow time to walk, stop, and admire the views. If you have never visited New Zealand, you have to keep this driving rule in mind. Driving always takes longer than what the GPS indicates. The roads are winding and you may end up driving under the speed limit. But it’s mostly because you’ll want to stop a lot to check out the views.

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Driving to Mount Cook
Warning! This itinerary includes a few adventurous activities. Double check that they are covered by your travel insurance to avoid bad surprises if an incident happens. If you don’t have a travel insurance yet, read this!

Why I chose these places for my 7-day itinerary on New Zealand South Island

This itinerary includes various spots in the 26,000 square kilometres UNESCO World Listed Heritage Site, Te Wahipounamu.

From the coast to the highest peak of New Zealand, from the glaciers to the forest and the fjords, this 7-day itinerary on the South Island will take you through diverse landscapes, activities and wildlife encounters. The drive is stunning. And you spend most of your time on the East of the mountain chain, which means fewer risks of rainy days.

The things you can do during this New Zealand 7-day itinerary will change a lot according to the season when you are visiting. I’ve always been to New Zealand during the warmer seasons. If you are planning a trip during winter, I highly recommend looking for more advice elsewhere.

My 7-day itinerary around New Zealand South Island

Day 1: Christchurch – Akaroa

Drive: 2hrs

As often in my itineraries, I chose to skip the city to go straight to the closest natural destination. Akaroa is less than 1.5hrs from Christchurch, but the stunning views start earlier than that. Make sure you take the scenic detour to enjoy the best views from the top of the volcanic hills.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

There are many things to do in Akaroa. We opted to join a sunset tour to visit Pohatu Penguin Habitat* and, hopefully, see some blue penguins going back to shore at the end of their day. It was perfect to hear more about conservation being done in the region and the environmental challenges that New Zealand faces. It ended up also being a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the history of Akaroa.

Nesting box with little penguin at Pohatu - Akaroa - New Zealand South Island
Watching the water with binoculars hoping to see little penguins coming back to shore at Pohatu
Responsible Travel Tip: When you join a responsible wildlife tour, there’s no guarantee that you will see wild animals. There are many rules to respect as animal welfare is more important than customers’ entertainment. It’s important to keep this in mind and have the right expectations when you join a tour with animals.

During the day, you can walk around the hills and the harbour to discover this unique Maori, French and English settlement. If you like audio tours, you can purchase a self-guided audio tour* (to download on your phone before arriving at Akaroa).

But the best for nature lovers is to join a sailing cruise* (or a normal cruise* if sailing isn’t your thing, but I find sailing is always a lot more fun!) or jump onto a sea kayak* to enjoy the views of the harbour and get a peek at the wildlife that lives there. You may encounter seals, penguins or dolphins! And if you aren’t too afraid of the water temperature, you may want to consider swimming with dolphins*. Unfortunately, we arrived too late even for the afternoon cruise so I cannot share a personal review.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
View of Akaroa Harbour

Where to sleep for the 1st night of this itinerary

If you are travelling with a self-contained vehicle, there’s a small free camping area at Akaroa. I recommend downloading an app on your phone to find the places when camping is allowed. The rules have become stricter in the past few years.

You’ll also find many types of accommodations in and around Akaroa. Those on a budget should check the backpacker* or the holiday park*. Or you may upgrade to one of the hotels with stunning sea views. Not too far, there’s also the most expensive farm escape* I’ve ever found.

Booking.com

Day 2: Akaroa – Lake Tekapo

Drive: 4 hrs

It’s one of the longest drives of this New Zealand South Island itinerary. Unfortunately, the countryside between Christchurch and Tekapo isn’t as scenic as the other drives on this South Island itinerary. It’s a good idea to top up the car tank at a petrol station on the way. You won’t get many other opportunities for the next couple of days.

You’ll quickly forget about the hours you spent in the car. Once you arrive at Lake Tekapo, it can only be love at first sight.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

You can stop first at the Church of the Good Shepherd, arguably the most famous photo spot in Tekapo. But for the best views, you’ll want to go to Mount John. It will cost you $7 to drive up there, so if you’re on a budget or feel like you drove enough for the day, you may prefer to walk.

Lake Tekapo is in the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world. They have installed an observatory at the top of Mount John, for scientific research but also for tourists. So it can be a great opportunity to take a star gazing tour at the Observatory* to learn more about the sky, the telescopes, and enjoy the beautiful stars.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

Where to sleep for the 2nd night of this itinerary

There aren’t any free area to park a campervan in Tekapo. If you want a free camp, you’ll have to drive to Lake Pukaki (see the 4th night of the itinerary for details).

There are many accommodations just in front of the lake. The best options we found for budget travellers were the Lakefront Lodge* and Tailor Made* backpackers. They have both dormitories and private rooms.

Booking.com

Day 3: Lake Tekapo – Mount Cook

Drive: 1hr

In the morning, you can enjoy Lake Tekapo a little bit longer by joining a horse riding trek on Mount John or to Alexandria Lake. If horse riding isn’t your thing, you may prefer joining a scenic jet boat tour on the lake*.

Lake Tekapo horse riding - New Zealand South Island

The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is the contrary than the day before: it’s short and stunning. So it will probably take you longer than one hour as you’ll want to stop for photos.

Once you arrive at Mount Cook, you should have time to do at least one of the best Mount Cook hikes:

  • Hooker Valley: a 3-hour easy walk for all levels
  • Sealy Tarns: a 2-hour hard walk with 2,000 steps
  • Tasman Glacier: a couple of short 1-hour easy walks
Mt Cook Hikes New Zealand - Sealy Tarns
Sealy Tarns hike in Mount Cook National Park

Where to stay for the 3rd night of this itinerary

The White Horse Hill campground only costs $7/person, and it’s ideally located to hike near Mount Cook. We loved it. If you’re setting up a tent, make sure you are protected by a bush, for example. The wind can pick up so you’ll be more comfortable.

If you’re not camping, there are a few accommodations at Mount Cook Village* with a great location and views too. If you’re on a budget, the YHA* offers the best deal with their dormitories. And Aoraki Court Motel* seemed the most comfortable option for those with a higher budget.

Mt Cook White Horse Hill Campground
White Horse Hill campground with Mt Sefton in the background

Day 4: Mount Cook – Lake Pukaki

Drive: 0.5hr

Use that day to do the hikes you didn’t do the day before. Or you may be interested in flying over the region* or do a go for a heli-hike*.

At the end of the afternoon, drive to Lake Pukaki for the night. It’s the same road that you took on your way to Mount Cook.

We only drove around Lake Pukaki and stopped when we found a beautiful spot. But you may be interested in joining a short cruise to experience Lake Pukaki from a different point of view. They organise three cruises daily with different departure time:

Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook in the background - New Zealand South Island

Where to stay for the 4th night of this itinerary

There are many free camping spots for self-contained vehicles on the banks of Lake Pukaki. It’s incredible to be able to stay at such a beautiful place overnight. One campground is for all vehicle types and tents.

Responsible Travel Tip: When camping near a lake (or a river), you must be extra careful to avoid damaging the natural environment. There are many rules about freedom camping in the MacKenzie region that you should read before organising your camping trip. You may also be interested in this information about responsible camping.

If you aren’t camping, it’s complicated to sleep near Lake Pukaki. You will probably have to stay a bit further south in Twizel*. Accommodations on the shore of Lake Pukaki are very expensive. Lakestone Lodge* is one of the rare ones that you can book for one night only.

Booking.com

Day 5: Lake Pukaki – Wanaka – Queenstown

Drive: 2.5hrs + 1hr

You’ll want to start the day early as it will be a long – yet exciting – one. The drive from Lake Pukaki to Wanaka takes about 2.5hrs if you don’t stop. Of course, you’ll take longer as the drive is very scenic.

If you managed to leave Lake Pukaki very early, you can consider making a detour to Omarama Clay Cliffs and wander around this surprising landscape.

Wanaka is famous for the photo of the tree in the lake. But there are many exciting activities in Wanaka*.

You can have fun on the lake with a happy hour cruise*, a jet boat ride*, a jet ski tour* or a more relaxed SUP hire*.

But the best views of Lake Wanaka are from above. You may opt for a paragliding experience* or skydiving*. Or you can hike Roy’s Peak, a 1,578-meter summit that provides one of the most stunning views in New Zealand. It’s an 11-kilometre steep track that regular hikers usually complete in five to six hours.

If you have the budget, you can visit Milford Sound from Wanaka* in just half a day. It will make the rest of your 7-day itinerary a lot more relaxed. If you choose this option, spend your 5th night in Wanaka, fly to Milford Sound* on day 6 and drive from Wanaka to Queenstown at the end of day 6. You can visit Queenstown and Te Anau on day 7.

Otherwise, drive for about one hour to Queenstown at the end of day 5.

Lake Wanaka

Where to stay for the 5th night of this itinerary

If you choose to stay in Wanaka:

If you want to camp for free, the Red Bridge campsite (or carpark may be a more accurate description) is the only option nearby. It’s suitable only for self-contained vehicles. For those who don’t have a self-contained vehicle, the Albert Town Campsite is $10/pp.

If you aren’t camping and travelling on a budget, you’ll find a few hostels in Wanaka. The YHA* is ideal for solo travellers and Lake Hawea Hostel* often offers a great deal for couples.

There are so many accommodation options near Wanaka* that you should have a look at the deals available for your dates.

Booking.com

If you choose to drive to Queenstown

If you want to camp for free, note that most free camps near Queenstown have been closed down. A bit before reaching the town, you’ll find the Crown Range Road Summit Carpark or Kawarau Bridge Historic Reserve were fully contained vehicles could still stay overnight when I wrote this article.

Otherwise, you’ll find a myriad of accommodation options in Queenstown*, from cheap hostels (I chose Base Queenstown* once and Pinewood Lodge* another time) to luxury apartments.

Booking.com

Day 6: Queenstown – Milford Sound – Te Anau

Drive: 4hrs + 1hr45

It’s a long drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, but it’s very scenic. And it’s worth it. Milford Sound is a stunning fjord with great opportunities to view wildlife (seals, dolphins, penguins). They even have whales there.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

Be prepared: it’s known to be one of the wettest places on the planet. It rains more than half of the time. But as a consolation for the weather, the rain creates waterfalls a bit everywhere on the cliffs, and it looks fantastic. Even in the rain, I enjoyed visiting Milford Sound.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

Book a cruise for this afternoon*, so you’ll have plenty of time to drive there.

If you’re keen to leave Queenstown very early, you can squeeze in hiking a part of the famous Routeburn Track up to Key summit. It’s a 7-kilometre hike that should take you around three hours return at a fast paced if you’re a fit hiker (it goes up!).

If you’re visiting when the weather isn’t too bad, I recommend opting for an overnight cruise* (or check out this luxurious version with a hot tub* if you have the budget!). You’ll get to enjoy the beauty of Milford Sound a bit longer and in a more intimate way. Plus, you’ll have more time for hiking!

After your cruise, you can drive back to Te Anau and – if you didn’t stay overnight – join an evening cruise to see glow worms in a cave*.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
On the road between Milford Sound and Te Anau

Where to stay for the 6th night of this itinerary

There are no free camps in the area, but you’ll find many low-cost campgrounds along the road suitable for any vehicle types.

There are many different types of accommodations in Te Anau* to suit all budgets. I chose the YHA* again which was very good value.

Booking.com

Day 7: Te Anau – Queenstown

Drive: 2hrs

If you’re on a budget or want to hike one more time before finishing your New Zealand 7-day itinerary, you’ll want to spend the day near Te Anau.

The famous Kepler Track starts and finishes about five kilometres away from Te Anau. So you’ll have the opportunity to hike one leg of the four legs of this Great Walk.

I chose to go all the way up to Luxmore Hut at 1,085 above the sea level. The 28-kilometre hike took the full day. By taking a water taxi to Brod Bay*, you can shorten the walk – or save time, so you can try to go further and reach the top of Mount Luxmore (about 200 metres higher). Another option is to book a heli-hike* – but that will surely bomb your budget (and your environmental footprint).

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
Luxmore Hut

There are many other options if you don’t want to walk all day or to climb steep hills. Another day, I walked from Rainbow Reach to Moturau Hut and Shallow Bay in about four hours. I loved how green the forest looked. It seriously reminded me of a fairy tale.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

But if you are an adrenaline seeker, you may want to reach Queenstown early to enjoy the crazy activities the town offers.

Despite my fear of heights, I tried bungy jumping* there (click here if you wondered how it went!). But the list of crazy activities does not spot there. Check out the swing*, rafting*, high-speed jet boat ride*, canyoning*, zipline*, via ferrata*, shark machine ride*, hang gliding* or skydiving* for example.

And if you want to do some of this without leaving a safe seat, or if the weather isn’t good enough, they even have an indoor theatre with thrilled experiences*.

Overcoming Fear Of Heights - bungy jumping new zealand

Evening in Queenstown

There’s a lot to do in the evening in Queenstown.

You may want to finish your 7-day itinerary in New Zealand with a memorable restaurant? Check out the Skyline Gondola and Restaurant*.

You’ll also find in town Fergburger* that has the reputation to serve the best burger in New Zealand and maybe the world. And it’s not a secret, so the place is super busy – be prepared to queue. The burgers are delicious indeed. But I still think I’ve found my favourite burger place in Brisbane (Da Burger).

If you’ve never been to an ice bar before, Queenstown could be the place to try it. It’s fun to see the ice sculptures and drink from a glass made of ice. Don’t worry about being cold as they provide warm clothes.

New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
Queenstown

Have I missed something you loved on your New Zealand South Island 7-day itinerary? Share your experience in the comments below!

Map of this New Zealand South Island 7-day itinerary

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New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers
New Zealand South Island Itinerary: 7 days for Nature Lovers

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