This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure
We travelled around New Zealand’s South Island by campervan during winter with two kids under 7. It was without a doubt the ultimate way to travel New Zealand and really immerse ourselves in what beautiful landscape the country has to offer.
So we have put together our complete 16-day New Zealand South Island itinerary to encourage you to do the same. This South Island winter road trip is one for the bucket list!
Campervanning New Zealand is an experience that belongs on everyone’s bucket list. It has been on ours for a while, yet with some reluctance since we aren’t typically campers! Luckily this form of glamping is for everyone!
16 DAY NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND SELF DRIVE ITINERARY
Here is an abridged version of our 16-day self drive New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary in case you are in the early stages of planning, or just want the snapshot version:
This gave us the opportunity to be flexible with our kids and to adjust to life on the road in a motorhome. Thankfully the adjustment came easily and our itinerary fell into place.
16 days was a great amount of time to see a large portion of the South Island, however, if you have less time you can still see most of these things by driving an extra hour or so a couple of times.
This could easily be adjusted into a 14-day itinerary, skipping Greymouth and cutting back across to Christchurch earlier.
Alternatively, were we not travelling with kids, a 3 week New Zealand South Island itinerary would have been perfect giving us time to get all the way down south and right up to the Northern part of the South Island too!
So use this self drive itinerary to create your own perfect New Zealand road trip, adjusted to suit how long you have to explore.
Road trips are so popular in New Zealand that there are loads of planning resources to help you work out the best option for you. Of course, there are pros and cons with different trip types and it all depends on your budget too.
If you are thinking of doing a campervan holiday as we did, a comparison website can help you find the features and options to suit your budget and needs.
We booked our trip with Wilderness Motorhomes who are on the more luxurious end of the scale, yet still reasonably priced considering the level of comfort they offer. This was essential for us when campervanning New Zealand with kids!
Alternatively, there are hire car options galore if you are just wanting to do a self drive itinerary and stay at hotels or hostels each night instead, or if you are keen to pitch a tent instead.
The downside of this is you can’t make it a home-like space for the duration of your trip like you can in a larger campervan. We loved having a place to call home at the end of each day that doubled as our transport.
If you are planning to drive a standard car for your South Island driving itinerary, there is accommodation along the way in most of the cities we passed through.
The exception would be that some of the bigger cities may have more expensive options so you might want to book just outside town.
This was much like the fact we did freedom camping outside of Queenstown and Christchurchto avoid paid campsites. However, New Zealand has accommodation for all budgets.
These websites are some of our favourites for booking accommodation:
We flew from Gold Coast Coolangatta Airport to Christchurch and arrived around 10:30 PM. So this first day is essentially a write-off and really, doesn’t count.
However, as most campervan companies only do pickups during business hours, we checked into a hotel near the airport for the night.
Our accommodation was booked at Jucy Snooze Christchurch. Initially, we were planning to stay at a nearby AirBnb, however, to avoid any fuss with car seats, we went to Jucy Snooze instead as they have a free airport shuttle available.
We stayed in a family room which had a queen and a single bed, with a private bathroom, television and plenty of space. They also have cool budget sleeping pods available in case you aren’t travelling with kids.
We kicked off the day with a McDonald’s breakfast before meeting our Wilderness Motorhomes transfer at the lobby. It was around a 10-minute drive to the Wilderness Christchurch depot.
After around an hour of paperwork, induction and a tour of the campervan, we were on the road.
We headed straight to the nearby Countdown supermarket to stock up on essentials, then set off for our first destination – Akaroa.
Akaroa is around 2.5 hours from Christchurch, with some fairly steep inclines in places and incredible scenic views. But expect me to say that many times during this New Zealand South Island self drive itinerary… because there are almost always views!
We arrived in Akaroa in the early afternoon and parked up at our first freedom campsite for the trip. This campsite is located near the water, a short walk from the centre of town.
Once we were set up, we put on our warm layers and headed into town for a look around. Akaroa is a pretty small town with French influences. Even the street names are French, with many French restaurants and shops. It is a harbour town, set alongside the water.
We visited the Akaroa Museum, which is a free attraction that gives the history of Akaroa and of the Maori culture.
There was not a lot to entertain our 2, as they are only 4 and 6, however, we filled in half an hour or so exploring the museum.
If you have the time, the Akaroa Lighthouse is a popular tourist attraction. Being winter, we were running out of sunlight so we only got as far as the pier, then the playground to burn off some energy before heading back to thecampervan for dinner.
Make sure you stop by the gift shop for some homemade fudge. So yummy!
During winter, Akaroa is a little quiet with much less activity and a few places closed for the off-season, however, during the warmer months, there are loads of water activities that sound like a lot of fun!
Day 3 – Akaroa to Christchurch
We headed back to Christchurch in the morning. Our first stop was to catch the Christchurch Tram from stop 1 in front of the Christchurch Attractions office.
We did a full loop of the city on the tram, which was a wonderful way to hear about the history of Christchurch, including some of the sadder updates with how significantly the city was impacted by earthquakes almost a decade ago.
After the tram, we walked a short way to Cathedral Square (this is a tram stop) and grabbed lunch at one of the food trucks. For us it was an easy choice ofPolish pierogi and kielbasa from the European truck. There are sometimes markets in the square too.
Afterwards head to the Christchurch Gondola, which is around a 15 minute drive from the centre of Christchurch.
Watch our Gondola experience:
The Gondola offers great views of the Southern Alps, and the Kaikoura Mountains, taking around 10 minutes each way on the cable car.
At the top, you can explore outdoors, enjoy a meal at the cafe and go on the motion ride. It’s a slow-moving ride suitable for all ages, providing a fun way to learn the unique history of the Canterbury area. The ride is included with your Gondola ticket.
Afterwards, we headed to our second night accommodation, an outer Christchurchfreedom camping spot about 40 minutes from town, in Leeston.
From Leeston we headed to the amazing Lake Tekapo. This is a few hours drive and a must see South Island attraction!
We arrived at lunchtime and had lunch in the campervan, although there are several cafes and restaurants around. Afterwards, we took a stroll down by the lake, over the bridge and to see the Church of the Good Shepherd by the water. Simon and the kids skimmed rocks on the lake and mostly we enjoyed the tranquillity.
For something special, we booked our Lake Tekapo campsite via Campable on a private sheep station right next to the lake. There was nothing else around but us, which was really incredible to feel like the only people in the world.
Day 5 – Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki
After breakfast, we headed back to the main lake area and spent an hour at the playground with the kids. There is a really cool flying fox, a big slide and some other play equipment.
Then it was up to Mt John Observatory, which is a short drive from Lake Tekapo.
The road to Mount John costs $8NZD but it’s worth it. Alternatively, you can hike up Mount John. Up the top you have some of the most incredible water views from every angle, with stunning turquoise lakes on each side.
If you have time during your visit, make sure you go stargazing at Mt John. We didn’t on this occasion but would love to if we were doing a South Island road trip outside of winter.
Enjoy lunch at the Astro Cafebefore setting off for Lake Pukaki.
Check out our video driving from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki:
We heard that the most scenic route to Lake Pukaki from Lake Tekapo is via Braemers Road, which was a little tricky to find on the GPS so we used Google Maps instead. It was worth the near argument we had about taking the campervan on an unsealed road.
And the road is fine. It’s really smooth and suitable for any vehicle type, even a 7.4M motorhome! And oh my… what an incredible road it is. For around an hour, we saw 1 other vehicle. And the most incredible views.
This was possibly my favourite part of the whole trip. Snow-capped mountains, grassy fields, and at times perfect water views. Wow!
We made it to Lake Pukaki reserve which is a massive freedom camping site right on the lake and we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine in camp chairs by the van after a stroll by the lake.
Day 6 – Lake Pukaki to Moeraki
We left Lake Pukaki and made our way toward Moeraki. Unfortunately, our weather wasn’t great on this day with showers on and off. It was a bigger drive day, as we kept most of our days to no more than 2-3 hours.
We headed to the Moeraki Boulders to see what all the fuss was about. Make sure you check tide times before you visit the Moeraki Boulders.
There is no beach access during high tide and the boulders are submerged. To get down to the beach, there is an honesty box asking for $2 if you take the walkway from the restaurant so carry some change with you.
Afterwards, head to Katiki Point Reserve, another hot tip must-do NZ experience. Enter Katiki Point Lighthouse in your GPS to make it easier. We missed the turnoff. The road is narrow and winding but it is worth it and the campervan was fine to do the route.
The lighthouse and reserve are on private property, set up to support the breeding of the yellow-eyed penguins, and now also a massive colony of fur seals too. It is around a 10-minute walk down and absolutely worth it, even on a cold and wet day!
We spotted 3 penguins and a seal and thought ourselves pretty lucky, then we walked a few more minutes along the cliff edge and whoa… fur seals everywhere. Easily 50 of them just lazing about. Incredible! And so close. We were just metres from them. Ideally stay at least 5M away so you don’t get them cranky.
Don’t forget the camera for this one! And drop some cash in the donation box since the reserve runs on donations.
Then it was off to Warrington Reserve freedom camping site for the night.
Day 7 – Dunedin
We headed off early to Dunedin since our campsite was only a short drive away. We parked over the bridge from the train station at a car park that offered all day parking for $6 and a reasonable walk from the town centre.
During our day in Dunedin, Simon did the Emerson’s Brewery tour as he is a big craft beer fanatic. He said it was fantastic and well worth doing!
Us girls explored Dunedin on foot, admiring the architecture, part of the Dunedin street art walk and a bit of aimless wandering. There is a museum in town that is supposed to be great, however we weren’t sure how far away it was at the time so we missed out.
We all went to Ratbags for lunch then did a spot of shopping at the Dunedin mall. Then it was back on the road for our next campsite!
We stayed at a cheap caravan park in a small town – Kaitangata Motor Park. This was the first night we powered up on our trip.
Day 8 – Gore & Lumsden
We started to head across rather than further south, as we didn’t feel we had time to fit in Invercargill on this trip. We stopped for a walk around Gore, which is New Zealand’s country music capital and famous for trout.
Lunch was at Howl At The Moon in Gore, then we drove on towards Lumsden to park up for the night.
It was a wet day so we expected a quiet afternoon in the campervan, however the campsite was amazing and when the rain finally stopped, the kids spent 2 hours having a blast at the massive playground. They were saturated by the end of it but worth it.
Dinner was in the campervan although there were plenty of options across the road since the campsite is right in the town centre of Lumsden.
Day 9 – Te Anau
We left Lumsden for Te Anau and arrived before lunch.
Take a visit to the Te Anau bird park if you have time as it is a good way to learn about local birdlife.
After this, we parked by the lake and had lunch in the campervan, before letting the kids run wild at another playground. Hubby supervised while I spent an hour walking around town. By this time we were able to check into Te Anau Top 10 Holiday Park.
Unfortunately, we got bogged in our designated parking spot the moment we pulled in, so there was a bit of excitement with the manager towing us back out.
We parked on the gravel instead after that and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon using the holiday park facilities – jumping pillow and playground, lounge and kids club area and of course the hot showers.
We were up before daylight to park the campervan over the road at the community hall car park and catch our Jucy Cruise bus for Milford Sound. This was the main reason for our stay in Te Anau, however it is a beautiful town even without heading on to Milford.
We decided to do a guided day trip to Milford Sound instead of self-drive, simply due to it being winter and unsure of weather conditions, but it would have been fine to take the campervan.
Our bus tour stopped in many places along the way so we could experience some of the scenery and landmarks there and back. Then once we arrived at Milford Sound Visitor Centre, we were given our pre-packed lunch boxes and sat down to eat with just enough time before our cruise boat arrived.
The cruise was fantastic, taking us beneath waterfalls and past seals. The staff were really engaging and fun, and the boat itself was modern and comfortable with couches and cushions, and plenty of table and chairs.
We are so glad we did the cruise with Jucy, who were also a lot cheaper than most other Milford Sound cruises.
We arrived back in Te Anau around 4PM and headed back to Lumsden town centre freedom camping site again, since it was a convenient gateway between Te Anau and Queenstown.
We spent some time exploring Queenstown, before Simon and the kids ended up at the playground for the afternoon.
It’s a massive playground by the water, and really popular. I explored Queenstown solo for a bit.
On our way to our camping ground, we made a quick visit to Arrowtown, which is a cute historic inspired town that will have you feeling like you stepped back in time. They have some nice places to eat, an amazing bottle shop and delicious ice cream.
Tonight was freedom camping at Kawarau Bridge Historic Reserve, which is a famous bungee jumping bridge near Queenstown. It was really windy at night so the campervan was shaking a bit, but there is no free camping in Queenstown itself so it was a great location.
Being a New Zealand South Island winter itinerary, snow was a huge factor for why we did our trip when we did.
Our girls had not seen snow before so day 13 was their first proper chance for snow, other than a little here and there along the way. We headed to the Snow Farm NZ near Wanaka.
We actually got really lost and wasted about an hour backtracking however the drive itself was quite stunning from Queenstown to the Snow Farm, with a lot of steep mountain roads and slow winding corners.
At the Snow Farm, we got 2 tubes and spent over an hour on the tubing hill with the kids. At first they wanted us to go down with them but it didn’t take them long to get their courage up. They loved it!
It had been a really slow snow season before our trip so they did not really have a lot of snow cover around, and therefore skiing was not an option on the day at the Snow Farm itself. There are many snowfields around Queenstown though.
After the snow farm it was a big drive back to Queenstown. We decided we wanted to spend a bit more time in Queenstown so we splurged on a night at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park in the centre of town for the night.
Knowing we didn’t have to rush off to a campsite for the night, we were able to enjoy ourselves in town a bit more and certainly spent a lot in that one day.
High on our list was a visit to The Winery in the centre of Queenstown. It is a massive wine cellar with automated tasting machines set up.
You get a charge card on arrival, insert your card into a machine, choose your wine and the size of your taster – sample, half glass or full glass, and pay at the end. It could be very dangerous but it was so good!
We lasted barely 20 minutes in the Ice Bar because the kids were so cold, even with the jackets and ugg boots they provided. Very disappointing and it’s really tiny too. Not worth it at all in our opinion, however if you aren’t with kids you may enjoy the novelty more.
After that we needed to warm up fast so we headed to Speight’s Ale Housefor dinner and it was an amazing meal. One of the stand out meals of the trip.
The next day we headed to Puzzling World in Wanaka. It was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and after walking through the illusions room and trying our best at the maze (we found 2 of the 4 corners), we sat down for lunch in their cafe.
Each table had different puzzle sets to play with while you ate, which was a great way to keep kids occupied.
Our afternoon was spent in the centre of Wanaka by the water. Big surprise we found a great playground for the girls to play in, and it was a nice area to walk by the water too.
For dinner, we grabbed takeaway from Erik’s Fish and Chips food van and headed to Red Bridge campsite for the night where we enjoyed our fish and chips in the campervan.
It was time to head up the west coast of New Zealand although by this point we had several days of bad weather predicted. This was really unfortunate because it meant our West Coast road trip was not as enjoyable as it could have been.
We weren’t able to stop often for walking tracks as the rain was too heavy and it also meant the scenery was not as breathtaking as it can be as the sky was grey, and therefore so was the water.
For lunch we found a nice rest stop during a break in the rain to have a cheese platter and stretch our legs, then we drove on until we reached Fox Glacier.
Our accommodation for the night was Fox Glacier Lodge as there are not many freedom camping sites available in winter. Many close due to bad weather and unsafe road conditions so paying was the easier option.
There is plenty of tours from Fox Glacier, including some incredible helicopter tours and glow worm cave walks. We didn’t get to experience any of it. Instead we had a drink at one of the bars and then cooked a BBQ at the lodge for dinner.
Today we made our way further up the west coast, with a quick stop in Hokitika where we attempted to find some glow worms in an open cave area. It was too bright so no luck, but it was nice to stretch our legs between showers.
We reached Greymouth in the afternoon and had a late lunch at Monteiths Brewery where the kids discovered fluffys – essentially baby chinos.
And chocolate fish – chocolate-coated marshmallow fish that are a popular treat in New Zealand.
We camped for the night at the freedom camping spot Shipwreck Point in Cobden, which was a great spot right on the water. We spent some time walking along the beach and around the paths by the river before watching the sunset from the van.
We took the scenic drive through Arthur’s Pass on our way back to Christchurch from Greymouth. Again, the not-so-great weather made it less spectacular than it could have been and we did not really stop anywhere along the way. However, it’s a great drive and fine to do in a campervan.
Back in Christchurch we headed to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve for a wonderful afternoon of animal encounters. This was better than expected with the opportunity to feed many of the animals during our visit – mostly farm animals and birds.
They have some really unique animals at Willowbank and of course, the chance to see kiwi birds in their enclosure.
It’s dark for their comfort so you need to stay really still and quiet, but we managed to spot two of them which was a highlight for the girls who were so excited to see kiwis all holiday.
Afterwards, we headed to the recently opened Eagle Brewing for dinner before driving to our final freedom camping site – Cust Domain in Cust.
Day 17 – Fly Home
So technically our trip was 17 days long but with how late we arrived on day 1, it didn’t really count. On our final day we did the boring essential stuff – refuelled the campervan and did the dump station stuff, then we dropped it back off at Wilderness Motorhomes.
They drove us to the airport in their transfer vehicle and we spent just over 2 hours at Christchurch airport eating, buying last-minute souvenirs and chocolate, and keeping the kids entertained before flying home with Jetstar Australia to Brisbane.
We hope you find our New Zealand campervan itinerary helpful for planning your own dream adventure around the land of the long white cloud because it truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world. We loved our New Zealand South Island winter itinerary so much!