Most people start their South Island holiday In Christchurch. I’d like to suggest an alternative. How about flying into Wellington. That may sound crazy, but it allows you to catch the Interislander ferry across to Picton, which is a great way to start your holiday. As you approach Picton you travel through the Marlborough Sounds, and you will get a much better look at them from the ferry than you would by road. You then collect your hire car from Picton and commence your journey at the top of the South Island, which means you won’t need to backtrack over the same ground.
My suggestion for a 15 day trip is:
Day 1 fly to Wellington. Stay in the city or the Oriental Bay area so that you have a short trip to the ferry the next morning.
2. Wellington to Picton on a morning ferry (about 4 hours). Then collect your hire car at Picton and drive to Kaikoura (about 2 hours). You travel along the coast for most of the journey. The Kaikoura Range comes down to the sea and depending on the time of year there may be plenty of snow still.
3. Go whale watching in the morning in Kaikoura before the winds start, then drive to Hanmer Springs (about 2 hours). Visit the thermal pools in Hanmer. A lovely clean, alpine resort.
4. Hanmer to Christchurch (about 2 hours)
6. Drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo (about 3 hours) and stay the night (try for a lake view room. The scenery is amazing).
7. Drive from Tekapo to Queenstown (3.5 hours). Spend four nights in Queenstown. There is plenty to do and see, and four days is my recommended minimum time here. Try and book a lake view room if you can.
8 to 10 Stay in Queenstown. This will give you a chance to relax for a few days, although you should plan a bus trip to Milford Sound on one of these days (and a bungy if you are game). The trip to Milford Sound is a big day, but at least someone else is doing the driving. A trip on the old steamship TSS Earnslaw is also recommended as is a trip up to Bob’s Peak on the gondola.
11. Drive from Queenstown to Wanaka. Make sure you travel over the Crown Range rather than through Cromwell, as it’s shorter and has better scenery (about 1 hour). About 20 kilometres before Wanaka stop of at the old Cardrona Hotel for morning tea or lunch. Stay the night in Wanaka. The scenery is similar to Queenstown, but the town is less hurried. A beautiful spot on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Visit Puzzling World while in Wanaka.
12. Drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef Glacier (about 4 hours). Spectacular scenery past endless lakes and then to the West Coast which is wild and rugged. Better to stay at Franz Josef rather than Fox Glacier as FJ has more variety in accommodation and places to eat. And you can see the glacier from the centre of the village. New Zealand weather can change quickly, but if the weather and funds allow, take a helicopter flight on to the glacier. Unbelievable!
13. Drive from Franz Josef to Punakaiki to visit Pancake Rocks and the blowhole. Not much else there other than a small village, but there is a motel called the Rocks Resort which is beachfront. We have stayed there a few times. The rooms look over the ocean and the restaurant has floor to ceiling windows so you can watch the sun setting over the ocean. Beautiful.
14. Drive from Punakaiki to Greymouth (about 30 minutes). Drop your car off then catch the Tranz Alpine train to Christchurch. Along with Milford Sound, this is one of the “must do” things in NZ. The train takes about 4 hours to go from Greymouth on the West Coast to Christchurch on the East Coast, and travels through the alps. Have your camera ready, sit back and enjoy a wine, and watch the world go by. A taste of New Zealand rail travel is a wonderful way to finish your holiday.