New Zealand Family Road Trip Itinerary: South Island Holiday with Kids
The very best New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary for families with kids
updated September 2023
If you are planning a road trip around New Zealand’s South Island, then you have come to the right place! Just think of us as your own personal New Zealand road trip planner (haha) This New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary is the perfect road map for families with kids. There are a ton of things to do in New Zealand with kids and this road trip itinerary is full of family friendly walks, rest days or afternoons (because everyone needs a catch up nap) as well as your New Zealand highlights.
This highlights tour covers everything you need to see on your South Island trip
- Incredible landscapes
- Golden Beaches
- Glacial lakes with icebergs
- Adventure activities including the very best South Island attractions such as bungy
- A pile of fun activities for kids
- Great swimming spots
- Walks with epic views
- Milford Sound – the 8th Wonder of the World
- All of the best South Island Points of Interest
- Options to see wildlife like kiwi, dolphins, whales etc.
How to get around New Zealand
This New Zealand itinerary is a self drive tour of New Zealand. The best way to get around New Zealand is by hiring a car or campervan, and it’s certainly the easiest way to travel with kids. There are some incredibly picturesque South Island camping spots, so we highly recommend getting out in nature and camping on your South Island road trips. If you would like more information about choosing a family campervan in New Zealand, click here
You could take a South Island tour, but with kids in tow, I think it is far easier to do your own self drive road trip. You will find a South Island map will help with your planning.
Weather in New Zealand
I have assumed this is a summer holiday, as this is the most popular time for tourists to travel in New Zealand. But besides the days of visiting some of the beaches, you could do this itinerary at any time of the year. Being the South Island, you would just have a add a few layers and could even sub in some ski days (if it was winter) There are some awesome South Island ski fields, such as Mt Hutt in Canterbury, who let kids under 11 ski for free. For more info on this, click here
Do be aware, in the southern South Island, the water is still quite cool, compared to the likes of Australia or Indonesia and Thailand. Our kids often swim in wetsuits. The Nelson/Golden Bay area probably has the warmest beach waters, but if you are really keen on that warm beach holiday, then you can’t miss the Northland, Auckland and Bay of Plenty. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Road Tripping in the North island here
New Zealand is a country where you have four seasons in one day. Seriously, even in the summer, kiwis won’t leave home without a sweatshirt or a jacket. South Island Weather is often cooler, especially in the evenings so don’t expect those humid warm evenings too often in this part of New Zealand. To find out more information about weather in New Zealand click here
Overview of New Zealand South Island Self Drive Itinerary
Day 0-1 Welcome To Christchurch
Wow! You made it all the way to New Zealand. Its highly likely you are exhausted and jetlagged, so lets spend a few days exploring here in Christchurch before getting a car or campervan and starting your road trip.
If you are picking up a campervan today, this can take a few hours. An option is to tag team parent, and send one to pick up the camper and the other with the kids to check out the International Antarctic Centre. It is just across the road from the airport. Also a great option if you drop off your rental car/camper early and have some time to kill before you take off home again.
If you need accommodation in Christchurch we highly recommend
- Heritage Hotel Christchurch: Right in the City Centre, large heritage suites with full kitchens and separate bedrooms. We love this spot and often stay at Heritage Properties. Click here for the latest prices
- Distinction Hotel Christchurch: A new modern property for a little bit of luxury, with spacious rooms and huge bathrooms (in their family room) I really liked this place too. Check out the room rates here
- Campers could try the North South Holiday Park: It has great facilities including a pool and jumping pillow for the kids and is close to the airport. Check out prices and availability here
Christchurch City Day
Visit the Largest Playground in the Southern Hemisphere, Margaret Mahy Playground.
If you can drag yourself away from there, take a city tour on the tram, visit Cathedral Square and witness the sad effects of the Christchurch Earthquake (visit Quake City attraction for more info on this) or if the weather is rainy, try the Canterbury museum (free) or the free LEGO at the Imagination Station in the new Christchurch library.
Or get rid of your jetlag by getting some exercise:
Day 2: Christchurch
If you aren’t too tired and are up for a bit of an adventure. Check out one of these day trips from Christchurch
Day trip from Christchurch to:
- Walk to Washpen Falls and visit the beautiful blue/green waters at the Rakaia Gorge
- Scenic drive with all the views to Akaroa for a dolphin cruise or even swimming with dolphins, our very own French settlement and beautiful bays and beaches for swimming. There are so many things to do in Akaroa – check out our linked article for the best 15 activities and attractions
- Road Trip to Arthurs Pass for Castle Hill Walk (Rock formations/Narnia) and Devils Punchbowl Falls
Day 3: Kaikoura
Drive two hours north from Christchurch to Kaikoura.
Accommodation in Kaikoura
Day 4: Drive from Kaikoura to Nelson/Kaiteriteri
The 3.5 hour drive from Kaikoura to Nelson is particularly scenic. Head up the Kaikoura Coastline, making sure to stop to visit the Seal Colony at Ohau Point, just north of Kaikoura. Drive through vineyard country in Blenheim and stop for lunch at a winery, or have a picnic lunch at Pelorus Bridge. This is a great swimming spot and there are a few short walks you could take advantage of here.
Arrive in Nelson for an overnight or head straight to Kaiteriteri, an hour further down the road.
Alternate Route: If you wish to explore the Marlborough Sounds which are beautiful and often much less busy than the Abel Tasman/Nelson area, then check out these awesome things to do in Picton (a great place to base yourself to explore)
Day 5: Kaiteriteri
Kaiteriteri has the most beautiful golden sand that twinkles in the sunlight. Enjoy a beach day here today. You can hire kayaks or stand up paddleboards, take a water taxi to another beach or just laze about.
You could also explore some New Zealand hidden gems such as Anapai Bay, a lesser known but beautiful spot near here.
Accommodation at Kaiteriteri
- Campers will love the beachside location of the Kaiteriteri Beach campsite. It gets extremely busy in summer, even with locals, so book early over peak times.
- If you’re looking for something a little quieter and relaxing, try the Abel Tasman Lodge. You can find out more about this beautiful spot and other unique accommodation options here
Day 6: Kaiteriteri
If you are pressed for time, take a Half Day Walk in the Abel Tasman National Park. You can grab a water taxi out to wherever you would like to start and get picked up down the track later on. Or if you prefer the scenic option, just take a day cruise with a beach stop. Click here for discounted deals on this cruise
Walking the whole track? Allow 3-4 days. The Abel Tasman Track is one of the easiest multi-day South Island hikes, and one of New Zealands “great walks.” If you do consider walking the whole track, there are lots of things such as luggage transfer and huts along the way, to make this much easier with kids.
Find out more about taking a day trip on the Abel Tasman Track and who we recommend, in this “Things to do in Nelson article“
Day 7: Day trip from Kaiteriteri
Head over the Takaka Hill to Golden Bay, which lives up to its name so take your togs. Wander through the hippy town of Takaka, see the clearest freshwater in the world (2nd to Antarctica) at Blue Springs (Waikoropupu Springs, colloquially known as Pupu Springs), venture to Farewell Spit (the longest natural sandbar in the world) and Wharariki Beach for panoramic coastlines, islands and arches
Or head to Totaranui Beach, another remote golden beach at the top of the Abel Tasman National Park. If you did an Abel Tasman Cruise, you may have seen this from the shore or stopped here, but you can actually drive around and make a whole day of it.
(photo credit Cape Farewell Horse Tours)
Day 8: Murchison
Drive to Murchison (2 hours) via St Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti (for lake swimming and short walks)
We loved the Mt Robert Summit Track. It takes about 5 hours round trip, but its beautiful, and if you wish to stay longer in the area, you can stay overnight in Bushline Hut on the trail too. Read more about the Mt Robert Circuit
Day 9: Murchison
Visit Buller Swing Bridge, New Zealands longest swing bridge. Try the Comet Line, a zipline where parents and kids can ride together.
Maruia Springs Waterfall and Hot Pools or Rafting in Buller River
You can actually stay at Maruia Springs. They have several types of couples and family accommodation, and if you have a self contained camper, they have a great package that includes an overnight stay, and 24 hours of bathing at the hot pools, essentially two days entry! Click here to find out more
Day 10: Hokitika
Drive to Hokitika via Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks and Blowhole) 2 hours, 40 min drive. Stop for a rest stop and one of these short walks below.
If you’re looking for some awesome accommodation, check out Ross Beach Top 10 Holiday Park. Great beachfront campsites, but also, wait for it, brand new refurbished shipping containers for a bit of luxury. Check out our Ross Beach Top 10 Holiday Park review here
Some great things to do in the Punakaiki and Greymouth Area
- Visit Pancake Rocks: a short 20 minute return walk, wheelchair/stroller accessible to see the incredible Pancake Rock formations
- Truman Track: A little track to a secret beach and waterfall, 15 mins each way
- Punakaiki Cavern: Check out this cavern hidden on the side of the main road
- Coal Creek Falls: 10 mins north of Greymouth, a lovely cascade waterfall. Easy walk for families
- Woods Creek Walk: 1 hour return, easy even for toddlers. A fairy wonderland, sheltered by trees from the rain, coal mining tunnels and bridges. A Kids dream. It’s only a 1km walk, but there is plenty to keep the kids entertained. They even wanted to do it again as soon as they were done!
- Brunner Mine: A free thing to do on the West Coast. Explore the old mining centre
Day 11: Hokitika
Local town activities: The famous stick sign at Hokitika Beach, Glass Blowing Studio and Jade Carving (both free), find eels or visit National Kiwi Centre
Visit the famous Hokitika Gorge and Swing Bridge: (15 minute walk) Emerald Green and blue waters! This is one of my favourite viewpoints in the South Island, New Zealand. Definitely worth the drive. Then head to Lake Kaniere for Dorothy Falls (1 minute walk) The wetland area is definitely a completely type of scenery.
Take in sunset at Sunset Point and visit the Glow Worm Dell after dark (free) just on the north side of town (signposted) It is one of the best places in New Zealand to see glow worms, is stroller accessible and very easy and quick to access.
If you want to head south a little earlier, pop down to Okarito and stay at this fabulous AirBnB from $135 per night with mountain and sea views. An airy property right near the wonderful wildlife and rare white herons of the Okarito Lagoon. (Photo above)
Day 12: Franz Josef
Drive to Franz Josef (1 hour 50 mins)
Walk the Franz Josef Glacier Walk to view the incredible ice glacier, which is sadly retreating rapidly (90 mins return, 5km) This South Island walking track is suitable for kids. (our 4 and 6 year old walked this with ease)
Accommodation options are Franz Josef
- A bit of luxe: You can’t go past the Rainforest Deluxe and their incredible treehouses. See photos and prices here
- Family Accommodation: We stayed at Franz Alpine Retreat and they had the cutest little houses with 2 bedrooms and big kitchen, living area that was perfect for a family of 5 (3 single beds for the kids not to share which was fab) Take a look at Franz Alpine Retreat here
- Camping: We have camped at the DOC campground – Otto/McDonalds. It is fantastic, right on the lakeside, just beware of the bugs (as with anywhere on the West Coast) There is also a Franz Josef Top 10 campsite if you need access to kitchens, power or cabins. See options at Franz Josef Top 10 here
- If you are looking for something a little unique, try the Kahere Retreat. They are the cutest little log cabins, modern and lovely. Find out more here
Day 14: Wanaka
Drive to Wanaka (4 hours) Don’t underestimate this drive, with stops along the way, this will take the good part of a day.
Great stops along the way
- Blue Pools Track -below (45 mins return)
- Thunder Creek Falls (10 min return)
- Fantail Falls
- Glendhu Bay Holiday Park: We prefer this campsite as it is right on the lake, which you don’t get in the campsites in the township. Its only a 7-8 minute drive and it is perfect. Can be super busy in summer so book ahead then.
- The Bella Vista Wanaka motel is super central. Their family rooms have a separate kids bedroom and the main bed in the lounge. Big spacious bathrooms and kitchen with oven and hobs. Was ideal. Click here for prices
- A great AirB&B option is this Wanaka home with 3 bedrooms. A great spacious offering if you are looking at stopping for a while, and its only a few minutes from town. Click here for photos and up to date prices
Day 15: Wanaka
Today, enjoy all that Wanaka has to offer. Visit the iconic Wanaka Tree, kids will enjoy the lakefront playground, active families can enjoy kayaking, cycling on the lakefront, SUP hire on the lake, or even a swim!
But word of warning, this glacial lake is freezing! If the weather isn’t great, take in a film at Cinema Paradiso, sitting on a comfy couch or Morris Minor, or try Basecamp Rock Climbing.
If you love great views, then try the Diamond Lake Track (40-60 minutes) or the Rocky Mountain track (3 hours return) The latter being an epic tramping track with 360 degree views. If you want great views but aren’t game for a whole day hike, then this is the one for you
For more info on the best things to do in Wanaka, check out the Lake Wanaka Tourism site
Day 16: Wanaka
Today, take on the Instagram worthy Roys Peak (4-6 hours return) or if you’re looking for something more family friendly, try Mt Iron Walk (2 hours return) or the Rocky Mountain Track (3 hours return) with panorama views over Wanaka and a trip to Puzzling World. The Rob Roy Glacier Track is another 3-4 hour return walk and the drive here is just beautiful.
Some lessor known but amazingly beautiful walks are
Day 17: Queenstown
Head up Queenstown’s Skyline Gondola. This is a must do, or walk up for free (1.5 hours) Take the luge down. Grab a good deal on a gondola/luge pass here. (If you are a keen photographer, we do recommend heading up here in the morning, as the hill causes big afternoon shadows.)
Then stroll and explore Queenstowns Waterfront. Try out Patagonia Chocolates for the silkiest hot chocolate or gelato, the famous Cookie Time shop or relax at a Waterfront Restaurant.
Take a Boat Tour on Lake Wakitpu or take the kids to the Queenstown Gardens for a walk with free frisbee golf and playground close by. If you want more of a challenge, take on one of these Queenstown Walks. Bobs Cove is one of my favourite, with incredible blue green waters, and only an epic view point in less than an hour (see photo below)
Dinner at the famous Fergburger
Local tip: phone in your order to avoid the crazy lines around the block. The menu is online. Beware, the burgers are huge!
Where to stay in Queenstown
Queenstown can be notoriously expensive, but we have tried to travel at off peak times or nab a good deal when they are on offer. Here are the places we have stayed before which we all enjoyed
- Platinum Apartments Queenstown: A few minutes drive up on Fernhill, we had a 3 bedroom apartment on a split level. I loved the full kitchen and the space and it was a great stay when we planned on relaxing as well as exploring. Click here for prices at the Platinum
- Garden Court Suites and Apartments: We stayed here on our first trip away with baby #1. It is great if you are looking for a place in a walkable distance to town. I loved being able to just pop the baby in the stroller. We had our own parking space (Queenstown parking can be a pain) and a full kitchen. It wasn’t a super large one bedroom suite, but it was absolutely fine for us. Click here for photos and room rates
- Millbrook Resort: We got a great deal for a couple of nights of luxury and just loved Millbrook. It is a golf resort in Arrowtown (a 20 min drive) and was quiet, peaceful and spacious. We had access to pool and fitness facilities too. A real treat. You can see the latest prices here and deals here
- Driftaway Queenstown: A high end holiday park with beautiful villas with lake views, awesome games room and playground and as well as lakeview campsites. It really has something for everyone and the family friendliness of this place is the best we’ve seen. Check out the prices and range of accommodation here
Read More: Our full guide to the best Queenstown Family Accommodation: For all budgets
Day 18: Queenstown
Explore the historic and quaint gold mining town of Arrowtown. Pan for gold, dress up in olden day clothing or check out the weekend farmers market. The Arrowtown Bakery also has some mouthwatering treats.
Hire at bike in Arrowtown (grab some kids seats if required) and follow the river trail to Gibbston Winery. It is one of the loveliest South Island cycle trails and you can even organise a pick up from the vineyard.
Or head to Cromwell, just 40 minutes from Queenstown and take a short ride, or a day trip on the Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail, New Zealand’s newest and prettiest track.
Day 19: Queenstown
Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, one of the New Zealand’s most scenic drives and Lord of the Rings film location. (1 hour) Stop at Bobs Cove for picnic lunch. Its a short walk to Bobs Cove for your own little secluded piece of paradise.
Or if you are visiting Queenstown in Winter, why not try skiing? Queenstown has a great variety of ski fields. We loved the Remarkables ski field, which had a great range of beginner and intermediate trails for ourselves, as well as amazing views from the expert runs
Day 20: Te Anau
Drive to Te Anau (2 hours) and explore the lakefront of this small town. Rest before your big drive to Milford tomorrow.
If you have a little time, why not take a Fiordland Seaplane Flight. Its the best way to see so much of the untouched world of Fiordland. Check out our Te Anau Seaplane review here. Or take a look at this great list of things to do in Te Anau (in fact you may even want to stay a little longer)
Te Anau Accommodation
We stayed at the Lakeside Motels and Apartments which was ideal for a family. The motel is a little older and unassuming from the outside, but the 1 bedroom apartment sleeping 5 was great. Good kitchenette, big bathroom with spa bath and you couldn’t beat the location. Only $150 for our room so great value (July 2020). Click here for photos and up to date prices
If you are looking for something a little more modern, try the Marakura Motels We loved having 2 separate bedrooms, and the kids room had 3 single beds. Such a perfect spot and the lake views were beautiful.
If you are camping, our friends recommend the Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park. Click here for more info.
Day 21 Te Anau
One of the highlights of many New Zealand road trips: Milford Sound.
The busiest time of day for boat tours is in the middle of the day when tours buses arrive from Queenstown, so avoid this if possible. Don’t worry if its raining when you visit. 1. It rains here a lot! 2. All the water unveils hundreds of beautiful waterfalls in the region so count yourself very lucky.
Click here to nab the best discounted Milford Cruise or here if you want to do the day trip from Queenstown (including transport) This is the most popular of South Island attractions, a real must do on your South Island itinerary.
Side Adventure on the Milford Track
If your family is interested in multi-day adventures, you may like to consider the Milford Track. It is one of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks, requiring 4 days to walk the 53.5km track. It is a one way walk, so make sure you book your Milford Track transport with the team at Fiordland Outdoors well before you go.
Day 22 Drive to Twizel
Drive to Twizel (4 hours, 15 minutes)
Stop along the way at the Omarama Clay Cliffs or wine taste at one of Cromwell’s best vineyards. If you wanted a further side trip, why not try to picturesque but unknown Deep Stream Track, or the Narnia film location of Anatini and Elephant Rocks
Accommodation Recommendation: Twizel is a great place to base yourself to explore the Mackenzie Region. We highly recommend Highland Farm Stay Twizel if you are looking for accommodation. Cute couples cabins as well as their family Merino cottage are both great options. Plus you get free food to feed the alpacas, sheep and chickens. A great kiwi experience with such lovely hosts. You can see our review of Highland Farm Stay here
Day 23: Twizel
One of the highlights of your trip to New Zealand, will be viewing Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Twizel is a great place to base yourself, for visiting Mt Cook National Park.
Walk the Hooker Valley Track (3 hours return) which is a manageable track for families, as its flat and has 3 great swing bridges. In summer, start early to miss the crowds. Or try the Kea Point Track, a shorter 1 hour return track for a shorter walk. Both these tracks start at the same point at White Horse Hill Campground.
The Tasman Glacier Track has great views of all the icebergs (30 mins) or if you have older, fit children, take on the tough Sealy Tarns Track (3-4 hours) and its 2200 stairs. Straight up, but up to amazing scenery. The Red Tarns track is similar, but half the height.
If you have time and are a good hiker, consider an overnight hike to Mueller Hut. It is my favourite walk in New Zealand. To find out more about how to book and see some incredible photos, click here: Mueller Hut Mt Cook
Day 24: Tekapo
Day of Tekapo Highlights. Leave Twizel and drive past Lake Pukaki (my absolute favourite South Island lake) on the way to Tekapo (40 minute drive)
- Mt John Observatory Walk (3 hours)
- Bike part of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail
- Visit a Salmon Farm
- Visit the historic Church of the Good Shepherd
- Tekapo Springs Hot Pools (My favourite South Island hot pools: also has ice skating and tubing in winter and waterslides, jumpernaut inflatable play area in summer)
- Dark Sky Experience (Stars and Observatory tours: a very unique South Island tourist attraction)
Tekapo Accommodation Recommendations
- The best budget accommodation in Tekapo would have to be the Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park. This Tekapo campground is right on the lakefront has motels rooms, cabins and campsites Check out the latest prices
- If you are looking for luxury accommodation in Tekapo, you couldn’t go past a house at Lakeview Tekapo
Day 25: Drive from Tekapo to Christchurch
Road Trip stops from Tekapo to Christchurch
- Stop at the Fairlie Bakehouse for the flakiest tastiest pies (Trust us!) and there’s a good playground in Fairlie too while you stop at this snack stop
- Take the scenic route back to Christchurch (instead of the main highway) via the Rakaia Gorge historic bridge and beautiful blue/green water
- Take a detour to the Ashburton Lakes area and the Lord of the Rings film location of Mt Sunday