Road-trips are a quintessential element of traveling New Zealand. Particularly on the South Island, beautiful sights are tucked far away from airports but easily accessible by car. It appears, from the sheer amount of camper vans you can see on any given road in New Zealand, travelers have caught on. But don’t let the prevalence of caravanning New Zealand turn you away—there’s a reason everybody’s raving about it. After a week of caravanning the South Island on my mid-semester break, I can’t recommend it enough.
Camper vans have exploded in New Zealand. The concept is a large van that’s fully outfitted with a mattress in the back or on top of the car if you have more than two people. If your van is self-contained, meaning your sleeping quarters are inside the van, you have innumerable options for where to set up camp for the night and most are free. If your van is not self-contained, for example, you have tents on top of the car that you assemble to sleep in, you have less free options but campsites are relatively inexpensive and easy to come by throughout New Zealand. Our tent was not self-contained and we had no problem finding camps. The difference was only slightly more planning ahead and $10-20 NZD a night per person.
Before embarking on your route, there are a few things to remember that will help further down the road. First, remember to bring a pillow, sheets, blanket, and a towel. I forgot all four. It’s also probably a good idea to pick up a SIM card at the airport so you have data to get directions. Often times you’ll be in the middle of nowhere without service, so make sure you download the map of the South Island offline using google maps before you leave.
The next step is to plan your route! Below, I outline our path with some suggestions as to what I would have done differently. The biggest change I would suggest is planning your route closer together. Our drives were 6-8 hours a day which left little time to explore the area.
Day 1: Queenstown
On our first day, we landed in Queenstown and picked up the van. We spent the day exploring the restaurants and shops around the town, watched the sunset by the lake and treated ourselves to cookie-dough sandwiches from The Cookie Bar (yes that’s a scoop of cookie dough sandwiched between two baked cookies). The best food we had in Queenstown was Hawker and Roll, Malaysian food located on the main strip across from Starbucks. Fergburger is also delicious and very famous!
Day 2: Milford Sound
On day two, we drove five hours from Queenstown to Milford Sound. We did the Real Journey Nature Cruise and loved every second. We were initially disappointed with the rain but quickly changed our mind when we realized that thousands of temporary waterfalls appear in the rocks whenever it rains. We camped at Gunn’s Camp, which was my favorite of all of our campsites. The facilities were great, the people were friendly, and it was downright cute. The only downside was that it cost $20 NZD per person.
Day 3: Mount Cook
After a six-and-a-half hour drive from Milford Sound, we finally arrived at Mount Cook. We did the Hooker Valley Trail, although it was partially closed for restoration. Still, the views were incredible. We spent time exploring the milky blue waters of Lake Pukaki, which are formed by glacial water, before making our way to Lake Tekapo. We went to the Lake Tekapo hot springs, which were a nice break from the cold and one of my favorite activities.
Day 4: Hokitika Gorge
After another six hours of driving, we made it to Hokitika Gorge. Although the town itself was adorable, the gorge was underwhelming. We read about the beautiful blue water in Lonely Planet but it turned out the water was gray and Lake Pukaki was much better. It was not a total waste though, as we were able to see the New Zealand coastline. The drive back to Queenstown along the coast was our most beautiful drive.
Day 5: Queenstown
It took us about eight hours to get back to Queenstown from Hokitika but the drive was worthwhile. We were able to see the coast, the mountains, and the forest in between.
Day 6: Central Otago Vineyards
On our last day, we did the Hop On, Hop Off Wine Tour. The bus picks you up from Queenstown and takes you to Central Otago. You can get off at any stop and simply hop on the next bus when you are finished with your tasting. Our favorite stop was Akarua Winery. Book ahead to eat at their restaurant—we were lured in by the delicious smelling food but they were fully booked.
All in all, I would recommend skipping Hokitika Gorge and spending more time in the towns around Queenstown. Whatever route you chose, you will love your time caravanning the South Island!