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Road Trip New Zealand: Lower South Island highlights

You’ve been inspired by highlights from Aotearoa New Zealand’s activity-laden North Island, and the spoils from the top of the South Island, so there’s only one thing left to do: share the lower South Island’s best bits. With Queenstown, Milford Sound, and Aoraki/Mt Cook included, you know this will impress. Plus, we’ve got the deets on how you can experience New Zealand for yourself on the ultimate self-famil! 

You’ve been inspired by highlights from Aotearoa New Zealand’s activity-laden North Island, and the spoils from the top of the South Island, so there’s only one thing left to do: share the lower South Island’s best bits. With Queenstown, Milford Sound, and Aoraki/Mt Cook included, you know this will impress. Plus, we’ve got the deets on how you can experience New Zealand for yourself on the ultimate self-famil! 

From wildlife to wineries, glacial valleys to star-filled skies, Te Waipounamu South Island offers adventures galore. Whether exploring one region or road-tripping from Picton in the north to Bluff in the south, memories are waiting to be made. 

There are two convenient gateways your clients can consider flying into for lower South Island travels; both Queenstown and Õtautahi Christchurch international airports offer direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane in under 3.5 hours.

Queenstown 

Queenstown Harbour: Serene waters cradled by stunning peaks, a tranquil escape in the heart of South Island’s beauty.

The allure of the Adventure Capital of the World appeals to Australian travellers from all walks of life. With its spectacular alpine landscapes and broad range of activities, Queenstown offers a place to slow down or rev up. It commands presence and awe in equal measure. 

For an awe-inspiring outdoor adventure, a guided Aspiring Wilderness Experience with NZ Walks affords an exciting full-day excursion. The trip offers a guided walk through the ancient beech forest at Mount Aspiring National Park before a thrilling Dart River jet boat ride.  

Queenstown is a natural work of art, accompanied by a fabulous creative scene, too. With Black ZQN, a tour of Whakatipu’s art galleries allows passionate guides to match interest to local artists and galleries. Be it abstract sculptures, fashion creations, traditional and modern Māori masterpieces, or similar. 

Add yum to Queenstown’s wow by booking them a meal at Sherwood Restaurant and Eco Hotel. In their fabulous eco-chic hotel, Sherwood Restaurant is Otago’s only Two Hat restaurant. Patrons love their delicious garden-to-table meals and commitment to working with local producers and foragers.  

  • Fun fact: The Remarkables mountain range runs directly north to south. Only two ranges in the world have this orientation! 

Central Otago 

Step into the inviting embrace of Cloudy Bay Shed in Central Otago, where visitors enjoy exquisite wines and breathtaking vineyard views.

Central Otago’s impressive sites are only an 80-minute drive from Queenstown, making it an easy add-on. There’s so much to explore, including wide-open plains, rugged outcrops, and iconic flat-top mountains. All complemented by a glass of world-class wine! 

A journey along the Otago Central Rail Trail is fun for the whole family. Suitable for little ones to gramps (there are e-bikes and trailers on offer), this heritage trail follows a former rail line. Big Sky Adventures take care of everything, including bespoke off-trail experiences from star gazing to curling to distillery tours.  

Oenophiles will rejoice about the offerings from the Cloudy Bay Shed Wine Experiences. Their elegant tasting room has exceptional Epicurean food and wine experiences, plus stunning views. Add a private vineyard tour for more exclusive access. 

For a secluded high country stay, book your clients in one of PurePods’ two Central Otago properties. Nestled in Bannockburn wine country, these gorgeous pod stays offer floor-to-ceiling glass for unfiltered country vistas and dazzling night sky displays. PurePods are close to the Lake Dunstan Cycling/Walking Trail, the Arts and Winery Trails, and Cromwell Heritage Precinct.  

  • Fun fact: Opened in 2000, the Otago Central Rail Trail was New Zealand’s first Great Ride. While serious cyclists race it, most treat it like a leisurely pub crawl (Lycra optional). 

Fiordland 

Indulging in a lakeside feast at Bao Now in Te Anau.

Part of Te Waipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fiordland National Park is a pristine paradise where dramatic fjords, towering mountains, lush valleys, and crystal-clear lakes await. Nature enthusiasts and outdoors lovers relish discovering Fiordland’s unique flora and fauna. It’s only two hours from Queenstown. 

For an immersive small group hiking adventure, family-owned Trips & Tramps has conservation-focused, community-minded tours. From guided walks to Milford Sound tours to multi-day adventures, knowledgeable guides reveal the best of Fiordland. 

For clients who love thrills on their vacay, a Pure Wilderness adventure with Fiordland Jet is not to be missed. The tour perfectly blends an exhilarating jet boat ride with attractions like Lake Manapouri, New Zealand’s most beautiful lake, the region’s ancient beech forest, and Lord of the Ring film location spotting. 

For a modern, sustainable, self-contained stay, book your clients at Fiordland Eco Retreat. With three bedrooms, a hot tub, and uninterrupted 260° panoramic views, this is an epic place for a family stay, friend getaway or comfortable escape-from-the-world retreat.  

  • Fun fact: With New Zealand’s biggest volume of fresh water, Lake Te Anau holds an equivalent amount of water to 83,891,519,966 pints of beer!  

Ōtepoti Dunedin 

Exploring the wildlife-rich coast of Dunedin.

Ōtepoti Dunedin is renowned for its unique wildlife, Edwardian and Victorian heritage buildings, and quirky character. Dunedin’s rare yellow-eye penguins and the world’s only mainland breeding colony of northern royal albatross draw wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world. Dunedin is a 3.5-hour drive from Queenstown and 4.5 from Christchurch. 

For an enriching excursion for mind, body, and soul, book your clients on a Māori Pā experience with Karitāne Māori Tours. Guests learn about customs and history on a walking tour with the whānau of Kāti Huirapa to the protected Huriawa reserve.  

With eight free galleries and over 1.5 million objects, the Tūhura Otago Museum is an eye-opener. It’s home to the largest southern Māori collection, one of the world’s best Pasifika collections, and incredible natural history displays. Tūhura also has New Zealand’s largest science centre and Australasia’s only 3D planetarium.  

Celebrate the creative spirit of Dunedin – the fine artisan spirits – at No8 Distillery. On an insightful tour, visitors discover how foraging in nature connects to this award-winning gin, rum and liqueur distillery, alongside tastings and cocktail-making classes. 

  • Fun fact: Did you know Dunedin is the birthplace of Hokey Pokey ice cream? Plus, Rob Roy Dairy has been New Zealand’s biggest Tip Top Scooped Ice Cream seller since 2013. 

Timaru District 

Experience the wild side of Timaru at the Raptor Experience.

The Timaru District has a plethora of sights and attractions, with coastal walks, boutique shops, and tasty food appealing to curious travellers. Timaru city is Canterbury’s second largest and is centrally located between Christchurch and Dunedin.  

For a hands-on, educational wildlife encounter, a visit to the Raptor Experience impresses. Learn about – and hold – the resident New Zealand raptors, knowing every visit supports their future, too. Proceeds go to the Raptor Trust who help sick, injured, and orphaned raptors rehabilitate. 

For a hands-on countryside experience, the Geraldine Farm Tour reveals another side to life in the Timaru Region. Discover this working farm’s history, as you taste, touch, see, and feel what life is like there. Walking the working dogs and petting a lamb or sheep are highlights.  

Overlooking Geraldine, the award-winning luxury accommodation retreat Ngā Whare Mānatu offers boutique stays. The sounds of melodious birds and rustling native plants set the tone. The private hot tub is perfect for sunrise and star-studded night sky viewings.  

  • Fun fact: Timaru’s natural harbour, wetlands and coastline were shaped by a 2-million-year-old volcanic eruption. 

Mackenzie Region 

Exploring an ice cave at Tasman Glacier, a frozen marvel in the Mackenzie Region.

In the heart of the South Island, the Mackenzie Region has New Zealand’s highest peak, largest glacier, purest night skies, and bluest lakes. It’s magical beyond belief! Reach it from Timaru in 75 minutes, and Central Otago in two hours 20 minutes. 

Dark Sky Project offer a range of stargazing and observatory experiences to connect manuhiri (visitors) to the region’s glorious night skies. Dark Sky Project’s interactive journeys reveal insights into the world of tātai aroraki (Māori astronomy) and its pivotal role in the Māori understanding of the universe. 

Discovering Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park with expert Southern Alps guides is the ticket to adventures like no other. From Tasman Glacier heli-hiking to glacier sea kayaking to skiing New Zealand’s longest ski run on the Tasman Glacier, the thrills and fun never stop.  

Moraine Lodge at Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat offers the perfect post-adventure place to unwind and refuel. Their thoughtfully curated menu blends fine dining principles with whole foods from their vegetable garden and local suppliers. 

  • Fun fact: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park’s Haupapa/Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s largest and best explored on scenic flights, hikes, skis, and by boat. 

Explore New Zealand on a self-famil 

Follow the Otago Central Rail Trail for a journey through the scenic wonders of New Zealand’s sourthern heartland.

Did you know Tourism New Zealand’s Explore Self-Famil Programme offers you 200+ discounts across flights, accommodation, and experiences?

For travel between March and November 2024, you’re invited to check out Aotearoa New Zealand’s incredible attractions and landmarks on the ultimate self-famil! 

Find out how to qualify and apply here

Seek more 

Gaze upon ancient, glittering stars at the Dark Sky Project.

All mentioned lower South Island tours and products are trade-ready and commissionable. Discover more Aotearoa New Zealand content at Tourism New Zealand’s dedicated trade website

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Before they set off, give your clients this helpful New Zealand Touring Map and handy guide to road closures

Did you miss the other instalments in this epic New Zealand road trip series? Get inspired by the Top of the North Island, Lower North Island, and Top of the South Island travels pronto!  

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