I’m just gunna throw it out there that I didn’t plan my New Zealand roadtrip out ahead of time, and that it wasn’t until the last minute that I opted for the South Island route first. Why? Well, very simple; I asked on my Instagram for New Zealand tips, and was hit with a tidal wave of hand-raises for the South Island over the North Island. Needless to say, FOMO got the best of me, and I was not mad about it at all.
In the end, I ended up roadtripping both the South Island and North Island of New Zealand in a camper van, all by myself. The scenery was beautiful in both areas, and I’ll get to the main differences in a sec, but first a small disclaimer that New Zealand is EXPENSIVE AF. Even some locals who commented on my Instagram caption-rant said it was unfortunate many of them haven’t done many things in their own country because of how expensive it is!
The good news though is that if you opt for the roadtrip route like myself and the majority of travelers in New Zealand do, it will save you a shit ton of money. Well, the more important good news is that it’s the best way to see the most amazing sites in the country! So enough of my blabbing, and on to what you’re actually here for: the most awesome New Zealand roadtrip stops on the South Island!
OH just kidding, I forgot I mentioned I was going to say the difference between the South and North islands first:
SOUTH ISLAND: Beautiful lakes surrounded by pine trees that you can just pull up next to on the side of the road. Many mountains and a shit ton of sheep — but in a good way. You’ll realize it once you see sheep souvenirs everywhere in town. Open roads with hardly anyone on them, but when you do pass a vehicle, it’ll be a local farmer or a fellow camper-vaner. If you rent from Juicy, you’ll excitedly wave at every one you pass with one too. Bungee jumping is a must, and so is Milford Sound.
NORTH ISLAND: Beautiful beaches, which I didn’t get to go to , but had enough people recommending them that I feel like crap not seeing them now. Crystal clear lakes that are equally as gorg as a Caribbean beach but twenty times less the Farenheit, but if you go to certain ones, you can dig your own jacuzzi right on the shore. AKA the geothermal area of the North Island was a highlight for me, namely the bright colored hot pools that are probably from another planet. Glow worm caves are a MUST, and if you’re into it…it’s where Hobbiton is located!
Other important things to note:
Moving right along! NOW here’s my top 10 best New Zealand roadtrip stops I found on my route from Christchurch to Queenstown!
This quaint little town is the perfect beginning to an epic roadtrip around New Zealand. The roads are simple to navigate, the scenery is adorable, and you can find everything you need to prepare for the rest of your trip. To be honest, I didn’t spend much time in Christchurch because I was eager to get going on the open road.
But I’m glad I did, because it was my first introduction to how to pick up a camper van, how campgrounds work, how to use apps and navigation to find them, and of course, how to grocery shop for camper van food. Feel free to ask locals tons of questions; they’re super sweet, helpful, and the way they say “awesome” will automatically make you smile!
Camper Van I Used: Jucy Rentals – Cabana ($115 per day), free shuttle from the airport to their location
Where I stayed: Holiday Top 10 Campground ($18 USD)
Distance from Christchurch: 3 hours
Recommended by almost everyone who commented on my Instagram post, as well as the lovely Nicola from Polka Dot Passport! I nearly drifted to the right lane of the road (and not subconsciously) when I went over the hill of the road and saw the shockingly blue waters of Lake Tekapo!
Once you see that stunning blue water, feel free to pull off onto the first parking area that you see. There’s going to be a small church which is supposed to be the “token photo point”, but it’s also where all the bus loads of tourists filter in and out of non-stop. Take a photo if you’d like (I did), but if you wander back eastwards of it, you’ll find a lot less people. Or is that an oxymoron? Anyway.
This was my second night, and I mostly stayed because I couldn’t pry myself from that damn gorgeous blue lake water. I used the CamperMate app (no, they’re not paying me to say that; yes, I wish they would) to find the closest campground again, and voila, found one right on the lake. Swoon.
Also, I did this roadtrip during “summer” (end of January), which was great weather, BUT! One thing I really wanted to see were the pretty purple lupin flowers along the lake, and they had all died by the time I got there. So if you want to see those, go in spring or early summer!
Things to do at Lake Tekapo:
Where I stayed: Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park ($18 per night for one person)
Distance from Lake Tekapo: 25 minutes
Just when I thought that Lake Tekapo was the bright blue-est damn thing I’ve ever seen in my life….BAM! Lake Pukaki hit me in the eyeballs like a splash of salt water. Not joking. I literally said, “WOAH!” outloud, and pulled over so I could Snapchat it. Because I’m a responsible driver and all.
It’s even more opaque blue than Lake Tekapo, plus, on a clear day you can even see Mount Cook in the far distance! My same recommendations go for here; pull over as soon as you see a parking area, because later down the road is the tourist attraction. The little dirt road parking area was probably the most picturesque thing I saw up until then as well due to the pine trees that lined the lake’s bank.
Down the road is the actual “Lake Pukaki Stop” that’s termed the kettle or something. But it’s mostly just a bathroom stop (high-five for that though!), and a coffee and….fresh Salmon cafe.
Distance from Lake Pukaki: 3 hours
As advised by my homies on Instagram; I took the route from Christchurch to Queenstown, that stops in Wanaka. In short, I absolutely LOVED Wanaka! It’s this adorable little lakefront town that has one main “Town Centre” road that’s lined with yum restaurants, shops, and bars!
It’s definitely a fun little town to get your dose of social interactions on, and the food was freaking fantabulous. You can park your camper pretty easily by the lake, and then retreat later to a campground nearby. Wanaka is known for a couple different things, so I’m going to break them up into different stops.
For Wanaka Town, I’d recommend:
Where I stayed: Wanaka TOP 10 Holiday Park ($18 per night for 1 person)
Distance from Wanaka town: 5 minutes
Total time to hike it: 6 hours
Roy’s Peak is the most popular hike in Wanaka, and also one of the longest. To be completely honest with you, I wasn’t a fan of it, but that’s because I hate physical exercise unless the result is me seeing an epic waterfall or something. Roy’s Peak offers an epic view, but that view can pretty much be seen half way up. Or with a drone.
The hike up to the very top and back takes a total of 6 hours, so you’ll basically need an entire day for it. The hike itself is only moderately difficult, mostly because of how freaking long it is and its semi-steep inclines on the switchbacks, which there are a lot of.
To get there you simply follow the main road northeast until you see a bunch of cars parked on the left of the road, and the sign for Rob’s Peak trailhead. You can also just put it in your GPS, BUT! If it takes you to a ranch looking thing on the right side of the road like it did to me, that’s not it, keep going a little further and it’ll be on the left.
If you have limited time and don’t want to spend and entire day climbing a mountain, but still want some epic views, I’d suggest doing the next hike below.
Distance from Wanaka town: 45 mins – 1 hour
Time it takes to hike: 3 hours
Difficulty: Easy and magical
Ahhh, Rob Roy Glacier hike, how I love thee. In case you can’t tell by my drastic change in tone, I liked this hike WAY better than the Rob’s Peak hike. It’s a bit further up the road, but the drive there is absolutely enchanting. Locals that run the Wanaka Lavender Farm actually recommended this hike to me, so I knew it had to be good.
From Wanaka town, it takes about 45 mintues-1 hour to get to the trailhead, or more depending on if you make the next stops or not. You literally can’t get lost because it’s just one main road, which is lined by massive farmlands filled with animals, and beautiful mountains, trees, and even waterfalls! At the very end of the road, you will find the parking area for Rob Roy Glacier.
Note: the road is a dirt road most of the time, so if you don’t have a camper van or bigger vehicle…be super careful. Also because you have to cross about 6 mini-rivers in the road…
Anyway, once you park, follow the signs for the two trails until you get to the glorious rope bridge that appears to be going into a forest-island over raging blue waters. Cross the bridge after you’re done taking selfies on it (careful though, only 10 people at a time on the bridge), and you’ll start your enchanting hike to Rob Roy Glacier.
The hike takes 3 hours to get to the upper view point and back, and takes you through this fairytale-like forest along the mountainside. At the end you’ll be treated to a view that almost looks fake, or like it should be a screensaver or something; Rob Roy glacier, which still was frozen even in summer. You’ll also get to see all of the waterfalls that pour down from it!
Location: in between Wanaka and Rob Roy Glacier hike
One of the awesome things about doing a roadtrip in New Zealand, is if you see something cool on the side of the road, you can stop and go exploring! In New Zealand it’s especially awesome because they mark natural sites to see with signs, and have built steps that go over farmland fences so you can go see them! I thought it was especially awesome that the farmland owners just go ahead and allow travelers to hop their fence, walk through their cows and sheep, and go see something awesome that happens to be on their property!
Anyway! On your way to Rob Roy Glacier, there are two cool waterfalls you can stop at! The first one didn’t have a name (so I named it Secret Cow Waterfall), but you’ll definitely see it, and then you’ll see a little dirt parking area and a rope bridge over the river. There was no one there when I went, and it was a little terrifying (but exhilarating) just walking past massive cows, but eventually I passed two other hikers, and the occasional speedboat that sped by.
There’s not really an actual trail…it’s more like a semi-beaten path that probably only a couple hundred people and a bunch of sheep have ever walked on. That’s why I liked it so much; you really feel like you’re exploring and not just at another tourist site! Anyway, I think the path is meant to continue along the river, but thanks to a sheep and her baby that I was following, I found an even lesser-beaten path that brought me up to the waterfall that was cascading down the mountain, and into a small creek surrounded by bushes.
Since I was alone, I was a little scared to go into the bushes to try to find a waterfall, especially since my guide was a sheep, but after half-turning back, I decided I would be really sad if I didn’t just go. So I carefully went up the semi-sheep path to the left, which ended up being a lot easier than I expected, and found a freaking magical little pool of crystal clear (freezing) water that the misty waterfall was pouring into. It would have been the perfect spot to make out with someone, but SHOCKER, I was alone, so I just played in the water for a bit, made some Instagram stories, and left.
The second magical side-of-road waterfall does have an actual name; Wishbone Falls. It’s only a little bit further than Secret Cow Waterfall, and much more impressive looking at the first glance. It’s much wider, and spills into a pool that’s out in the open in the middle of a sheep farm.
You have to climb over two fences using the wooden steps that are there for you, and ignore the judgmental stares from the sheep who are probably assuming you want to eat them. To be fair, I did see a dead sheep in the bushes…and I’m pretty sure there are no predatory animals in New Zealand…besides humans.
Anywhoooo, just keep walking, you can’t miss it! Hopefully you’ll have a warm sunny day so you can dip your feet in the clear icy waters!
Distance from Wanaka: 3 hours
Queenstown seems to be everyone’s favorite town in New Zealand, and I personally loved it too, BESIDES how damn expensive everything is! There are no hotels for under $100, and the campground was fully booked. BTW “freedom camping” (AKA parking anywhere to sleep in your van) isn’t allowed in New Zealand, and you can get a fine if you get caught doing it! I actually had to give back my camper in Queenstown anyway, but still had an SUV ($50/day plus an additional $13/day for insurance, ugh) to finish up the rest of the roadtrip.
There are a couple backpackers/hostels if you’re into that, but at the end of the day, I ended up opting for one night at an actual bed and breakfast, two nights at an AirBnB (which are only slightly less expensive as hotels and in shared houses), and one night in the backseat of my SUV…long story. If you have your camper van or tent, use the CamperMate app or Rankers website to search a little further outside of the main town center to find other campgrounds!
Once you’ve sorted where you’re staying, you can start looking into what activities you want to do! The main city center consists of about 5 blocks of cute shops, restaurants, and bars, and is situated right on the lake front. It’s lovely to walk around, but as I’ve already mentioned a million times, everything there is expensive. It’s basically like LA except somehow, except in LA you can at least find a lot of awesome free things to do.
Anyway, below are the best things I found to do in Queenstown, and there’s also some more in-depth posts about the area listed below as well:
Best Things to Do in Queenstown:
Read the full details on all of the above activities, plus a list of other cool things, free things, and things to avoid in Queenstown here: 20 Best Things to do in Queenstown!
ALSO! WHERE TO PARK: There’s limited free street parking, and the main parking garage is pretty pricey, but you can park at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park (near the base of the gondola) for about $4 for half the day, or FOR FREE if you buy an adventure from them, even if it’s just a luge ride! There’s also a parking area a couple blocks away on Memorial Street and Camp Street (Entrance on Memorial St.) that has parking for only $0.50 an hour, and FREE OVERNIGHT
….that being said, the story about me sleeping in the back of my SUV came about when I attempted to stay at the backpackers hostel in town (it was only like $28!) but I got too intimidated by the looks everyone gave me with my skinny jeans, blazer, and roller carry-on suitcase, so opted for my backseat instead. True story. This is how I discovered that parking in that lot over night was free.
Distance from Queenstown: 3 hours
Duration of tour: 1-3 hours depending on which tour you choose
If you go to New Zealand, you obviously must go see the Milford Sound. Not going to lie, it’s fairly out of the way if you’re driving, but the drive isn’t bad, and it’s 100% worth it. To see it you need to either take a boat tour, a kayak tour, or a helicopter tour, and the price increases in the order that I listed those in.
The camper van company I used has a Milford Sound tour called Jucy Cruise that’s only about $33, plus you get 50% off if you rented one of their vans! You can also have a look at the bookme.co.nz site for other discounts, but in general, you shouldn’t expect to pay more than $35 for a cruise!
If you don’t want to do the drive, you can pay more to do the bus-cruise-bus, or fly-cruise-fly options…but it’s A LOT more expensive.
Distance from Queenstown/Milford Sound: 1.5 hours
Te Anau is a cute little town in “Fiordland” which is in between Queenstown and Milford Sound. In my opinion, it deserves a lot more attention than it gets, and I wish I could have stayed there longer, but my New Zealand trip was ending soon! My initial reason for staying there was because I was beyond tired after doing Milford Sound, and because I was dreading having to pay for another expensive AirBnB or Hotel in Queenstown.
I pulled over and used my Skyroam portable wifi hotspot to look up hotels in Te Anau, and was shocked to find a 1 bedroom for only about $40 at the Te Anau Holiday Park! It’s a brand new facility and has everything from tent sites to multi-bedroom cabins.
The town center of Te Anau is very charming, and has several good restaurants, like the pizzeria I ate at near the grocery store. Still expensive, but good nonetheless. There were also a lot of adventure activities to do there, like glow worm caves, boat tours of the fiords, and sea-plane rides!
Did this post help you at all? I’d love to hear your comments! Also, my travels and blog stay alive when you share my posts! 😉
Collapsable Water-Resistant Backpack Scrubba washbag/drybag
Go-strap (so you don’t drop it) LifeProof Case
Natural Sunscreen Natural Bug Spray
Travel Towl (Quick drying) Self-filtering Water Bottles
GoPro Hero 4 Black (waterproof) GoPro Hero 4 Session (waterproof)
Tri-pod selfie stick pole Memory card for GoPros