New Zealand Road Trip: Canterbury & Otago, South Island

Who doesn’t love a good road trip? Fortunately, we live in a country with heaps of road trip options! Check this page out to see where else we have covered.

The South Island, especially, is a fantastic place to get away for the weekend (or longer if you can, of course!). A few years ago, I surprised Shaun for his birthday with a four-day break down south, covering some places he hadn’t visited (and where I hadn’t been in yonks). It was a roadie that required quite a lot of driving, but roads in the South Island are pretty good and we saw heaps of amazing and varied landscapes.

South Island Road trip

Central Otago landscape

This road trip itinerary covers the following destinations in the Canterbury and Otago regions of the South Island:

Christchurch – Akaroa – Mt Cook – Danseys Pass – Moeraki – Dunedin

Check out the end of the post for a map showing the route we took and some of the stops along the way.


Poor old Christchurch. Before the devastating February 2011 earthquake that claimed 183 lives, Christchurch was New Zealand’s second-most populous city. Known for its beautiful English-style parks and lovely old buildings, the city was pretty much destroyed with a few nasty shakes from Mother Nature. The impacts are still being felt today with schools still closed, insurance claims still not settled, and thousands of residents being forced to move to other cities.

We visited Christchurch over two years after the major earthquake, and much of the destruction was still very evident. Half fallen down buildings, many empty lots where buildings had been removed, and a whole lot of cranes and construction. It was a seriously sad sight, especially looking through the fence at Christchurch’s iconic Cathedral that was being pulled down – the earthquake caused irreparable damage and it had to go.

However, in spite of all this misery, Christchurch is moving forward. You’ve got to give it to them – they’re making the most of an awful situation! There are temporary cafes and shops popping up here and there, mini golf and art installations in the empty lots, and heaps of other fun things utilising the scars the earthquake made.

Unfortunately, we only had a few hours in Christchurch before heading out of the city towards Banks Peninsula and the charming seaside town of Akaroa. We’ll be back, Christchurch!


1 hr 15 mins, 81 km from Christchurch

The drive from Christchurch to Akaroa is gorgeous. Winding up and over the hills you head through Lyttelton, Christchurch’s port town, and then around and up and over and around the little inlets and headlands of Banks Peninsula, that funny nobble that sticks out the eastern side of the South Island. Banks Peninsula is an ancient volcano, hence its different geography to the rest of Canterbury!

south Island road trip

Akaroa Harbour

Finally, after about two hours, we reached Akaroa. This is one seriously cute town! Akaroa is where French colonists landed, and it was actually a pretty close call whether New Zealand became a French or English colony. Akaroa has taken and run with the French historical influence, with lots of French place names, street names, and shops. It’s very quaint and a fun place to visit, even if it isn’t completely authentic!

South Island road trip

Akaroa Harbour

We stayed in a lovely serviced apartment overlooking the harbour. While there, we ate at The Little Bistro – a truly fantastic meal in an old cottage. We didn’t have enough time for much else apart from wandering around the town, but Akaroa is the one of the only places in New Zealand where you can go on trips to see the endangered Hector’s dolphin, tiny dolphins which grow no bigger than 1.5 m long. So cute! It’s definitely on the list for next time we go to Akaroa.

Early the next morning, we drove across the Canterbury Plains into the mountainous interior of the South Island, towards Mt Cook – New Zealand’s highest peak.

Mt Cook National Park

4 hr 45 mins, 385 km from Akaroa

The drive from Akaroa to Mt Cook is pretty darn amazing. After leaving the rugged Banks Peninsula you traverse the flat Canterbury Plains, all the while with the Southern Alps dead ahead. With the mountains getting closer, you pass through the cute farming town of Geraldine and then Tekapo with its gorgeous stone church on the lakeshore, and Lake Pukaki with the view up the lake to Mt Cook itself. Driving along Lake Pukaki, with its azure water, is pretty unforgettable.

South Island road trip

Lake Pukaki

Mt Cook Village isn’t anything to write home about, but it does a good job as a base for exploring the national park. We stayed at the historic Hermitage Hotel with a gorgeous view of the Hooker Valley and Mt Cook from our balcony that we observed as the sun set. It’s well worth doing the hour-long walk to the Kea Point Lookout – love those alpine landscapes! Embrace the clean air and stunning starscape – the area has some of the clearest night skies in the world.

Mt Cook at sunset

Aoraki/Mt Cook at sunset

South Island road trip

View of Aoraki/Mt Cook from Kea Point Lookout

While we were at Aoraki/Mt Cook we did a scenic flight in a little plane – something we fully recommend!

Danseys Pass

4 hours, 336 km from Mt Cook National Park

Driving south from Mt Cook National Park, you head into Central Otago. This region is well-known for its dry, tussock-strewn landscapes, adrenaline-filled activities in Queenstown, and loads of great wine. Lindis Pass offers a fantastic introduction to the area with tussocky mountains and snow, if you’re lucky!

South Island road trip

Lindis Pass

We took the long way to Danseys Pass via Cromwell and some yummy wineries (Northburn Station and Mt Difficulty are always worth a stop). The drive from Cromwell through Central Otago is gorgeous, and you pass by cute little towns that have been left in the past like Naseby and Ranfurly.

south island road trip

Danseys Pass

Danseys Pass is a bit out of the way from anywhere but has a gorgeous old roadside inn that dates from the gold mining era (1862). I had stayed there years ago with my family and loved it, but unfortunately we were a bit disappointed this time around. The inn itself is very quaint and has loads of character, but the food was just awful (and there are no other options for miles around!). We were there in the low season so we were the only guests, which totally didn’t help. It was expensive too, with our room costing $140 and food at city prices. A bit gutting really.


1 hr 54 mins, 100 km from Danseys Pass

From Danseys Pass we headed east towards the coast at Moeraki, where we wanted to see the famed Moeraki Boulders. These spherical boulders that look like giant dinosaur eggs are strewn along a pretty beach – it’s quite a strange sight! They’re also quite fun to jump off. We loved Young Adventuress’ post about Moeraki – it certainly is a special place. And we will have to return another time to visit Fleur’s Place – one of New Zealand’s famed restaurants that happens to be in the tiny town of Moeraki. Unfortunately it was closed when we passed through on a Monday!


1 hour, 76 km from Moeraki

It’s a short drive south of Moeraki to Dunedin, the South Island’s second-largest city. Dunedin is a student town with Otago University at its heart, so the city is full of young people and cool businesses. It’s definitely a fun place to hang out, but we couldn’t see ourselves studying or living there – it’s just too cold for us Aucklanders! We only had a couple of hours in Dunedin before we flew back to Auckland but we enjoyed wandering through the city and out to St Clair Beach, about 10 minutes drive from the CBD. That surf looked mighty chilly!

south island road trip

St Clair Beach, Dunedin

We drove almost 1000 km in four days – woah! It was a heck of a lot of driving, and for those of you who have driven on New Zealand roads know that they’re no American Interstates. But the landscapes are amazing and the little towns along the way are lovely to stop at and have a break. We always love discovering new parts of our country and we hope you will take parts of this itinerary on your next South Island road trip!

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