Last updated 21 November 2020
This short road trip takes you through some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand’s South Island. Think deep, blue lakes, rolling countryside, and pretty towns, all with the majestic Southern Alps in the background.
While you can do this in a day, it’s really worth slowing down and taking your time. There’s lots to see on this list and some of these spots are perfect for relaxing and just enjoying the scenery. If, like us, you travel with a young child, the short distances between stops makes this road trip completely doable.
Obviously, you can follow this route in reverse, starting from Queenstown. However, I strongly recommend starting in Christchurch, as the scenery gets more and more spectacular as you make your way down the country.
Leaving the city, you’ll find yourself driving through the Canterbury Plains, an expanse of flat farmland, interrupted only by grazing cattle or sheep.
Ashburton is just over an hour from Christchurch’s CBD - a town of 35,000 people, it has good amenities and a lovely domain. While a stop here isn’t necessary, it’s a good place for irritable children to burn off some energy (particularly if you’re concluding your trip in Christchurch or started your trip from further north).
View over green hills and trees
Less than two hours from Christchurch, Geraldine is a charming country town on the banks of the Waihi River. Stop for lunch and take a stroll through the town, browsing through the artsy, little shops. For those with tiny passengers, we went to Café Verde and it was perfect for our little one, with good food and a fully-fenced garden area with a few swings.
Just outside of town is Peel Forest, a pine forest that’s also home to a variety of native ferns and birds. There are some nice tracks in the forest if you’re spending some time in the area – the standouts are two waterfall tracks and a climb up Little Peel Mountain with panoramic views of the mountains and over the plains to the coast.
Leaving Geraldine, you’ll soon find yourself in Mackenzie Country, a golden, tussock-studded basin surrounded by snow dusted mountains.
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The famous Lake Tekapo is just over an hour’s drive from Geraldine. With smooth, turquoise water (coloured by sediment from glaciers), and the Southern Alps in the horizon, it’s an idyllic spot. White pebbles lead down to a gravel beach studded with stone cairns. In the summer, purple, pink and blue lupins wave gently on the shores of the lake, leading the way to the picture-perfect Church of the Good Shepherd.
Built in 1935 as a memorial church to commemorate early settlers, it’s used by various denominations. While no photos are allowed inside the church, everyone is welcome to attend a service. From the church, you can walk across a blue bridge towards the village. Some of the nicest photos of the church are taken from across the river, on the banks just after you’ve crossed the bridge.
In the Tekapo township, you’ll find a small supermarket, some cafes and restaurants, and the observatory. There’s also a range of tours and activities on offer, from hot springs to helicopter rides. A grassy hillside leads down to the lake, and a playground on the hill offers some of the best views in the country.
The drive to Twizel is beautiful – there are numerous viewpoints of beautiful Lake Pukaki, which is just as lovely as Tekapo but without the famous church and associated tour buses. You’ll still see the turquoise waters and mountain views.
Twizel is a good spot to stay if you’re planning to take advantage of some of the activities in the area. There’s decent accommodation, cafes and pubs and most, importantly, it’s less than an hour’s drive to Mt Cook National Park.
If you spend a couple of nights in Twizel, you’ll also have the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful night sky. The Dark Sky Reserve starts from Geraldine and spreads to Mt Cook National Park, so if you happen to be there on a clear, moonless night, the stars are spectacular. You can also do night tours at the observatory in Tekapo.
Views of Tasman Glacier Lake in Mt Cook National Park
It’s a scenic drive to Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park, with views of turquoise lakes and the mountains looming ever larger. The national park has a range of trails and the Edmund Hillary Alpine Village and this is a good opportunity to go mountaineering or hiking.
There’s also a good selection of day walks for the less energetic among us. We had a two-year-old with us, so we can only tell you about the shorter ones – the glacial lake view is short but up 300 steps and the blue lakes walk is thankfully relatively flat (but the lakes are green, not blue).
If you have the time and inclination, do one of the longer walks – the views are spectacular and you can see the snow-covered peak of Mt Cook looming in the distance. In case you were wondering, it is possible to ski or snowboard at Mt Cook, but it’s an expensive exercise with the slopes only accessible by helicopter.
From Twizel, head towards Wanaka. It’s less than two hours away, but if you aren’t tired of lakes yet, there’s a couple on the way.
Ōhau Lake isn’t far from Twizel and makes a great place to have a picnic. The New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage gives a translation of "place of Hau" for Ōhau, but an alternative meaning could be "windy place" – which would certainly describe it on the day we were there!
The lake offers the same picturesque setting you’ll have come to expect from Mackenzie Country – gravel, mountains, lupins… and your last chance to see that turquoise water before you leave.
Then, just outside of Wanaka, you’ll find Lake Hawea. Here you’ve officially left the turquoise waters far behind - Lake Hawea is deep blue although still ringed by mountains.
If you still have energy after visiting Mt Cook National Park, consider doing the Isthmus Peak track. With scenery to rival the famous Roy’s Peak trek (but without the crowds), it’s a long, steady climb with panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea as well as the mountains of the Southern Alps.
That Wanaka tree on a moody day
Wanaka is a stunning spot. It’s a small town with artisan shops, good coffee and delicious food, set on the shores of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. There’s large variety of restaurants to pick from or you can have a picnic on the grassy banks of the lake. If you have a smaller person with you, the playground at the lake has amazing views… and a dinosaur slide! Just a short walk west of the town, you’ll find the famous Wanaka tree.
Stop here for lunch, or stay for as long as you like… Wanaka is perfect for both. Personally, I prefer to base myself in Queenstown during the winter, as fog tends to gather over Wanaka, even when it’s sunny on the other side of the Crown Range.
If it’s a nice day, you may decide to save Cromwell for a day trip and take the stunning 69km drive over the Crown Range.
At 1076m, New Zealand’s highest main road winds through the historic mining town of Cardrona. The old hotel is still there, complete with a good restaurant and beer garden. It’s a beautiful drive with wonderful views from the summit – there are a number of designated viewpoints too, looking out over the Remarkables Mountain Range, Arrowtown and the Wakatipu Basin.
Otherwise, take the route around the mountain, stopping at Cromwell and the beautiful Lake Dunstan along the way. It’s a still and beautiful lake, with a mirror-like surface, one of my favourite spots in the country.
Lake Dunstan was made when they dammed the Clyde River, covering the old main street of Cromwell. Some of the historic buildings dating back to the gold rush of the 1860s were saved or rebuilt on higher ground. Take your time wandering through the old buildings and enjoy the beautiful lake views.
There’s also a number of great restaurants and vineyards, just out of town. We enjoyed The Stoaker Room, where they cook food in old pinot noir barrels. Mt Difficulty up on the hill has delicious food and wine with glorious views and there are many others. Once you leave Cromwell, keep an eye out for the Roaring Meg Dam lookout point and see the rough waters that power some of the nearby settlements.
The route to Queenstown takes you through Gibbston Valley where you have a number of wineries to choose from – rather than stop now, you may save this for a day trip from Queenstown and leave your car behind. Central Otago pinot noir is the local (and my) favourite, but there’s a growing number of breweries in the area, many with open space and activities for children. And if you want to attempt New Zealand’s highest bungy, the 134m jump is in this valley.
Either way, just before you get to Queenstown, stop at the Kawarau Bridge, the iconic home of bungy jumping in New Zealand. Even if you don’t want to jump yourself (or already have at Nevis), take a moment to watch the others as you marvel at the breathtaking views.
Looking down at Queenstown from the top of the gondola
Even after all the beauty you’ve just seen, Queenstown is breathtaking. On the shores of the magnificent Lake Wakatipu, the town boasts a wide range of shops, restaurants, bars and all the activities you can think of. It’s bustling in summer and positively festive during the ski season.
Queenstown can be busy, so we suggest staying just out of town. There’s good food and wine everywhere, and a lot to do. So, stop, take a breath and enjoy your time in this beautiful place.