Ace Rental Cars Blog

A South Island Winter Road Trip

On a map, it might seem as though it’s only about 80km from Milford Sound to Wānaka, but the crow would need to fly over a mountain range to get from one to the other. Instead, this is a journey that will take you south, past a couple of exceptional lakes before heading towards some of the country’s finest ski fields.

This 350km journey is the perfect opportunity to see some more of the South Island if you tend to fly in, ski or snowboard for a few days and head off home again. This way you get to take in the landscapes of northern Fiordland, the snow-capped peaks of the Remarkables and some of the smaller towns along the way. Here are a few suggestions for the places to see on a winter road trip on the South Island.

Take a Drive to Te Anau

Follow the length of Lake Te Anau to the gateway of Fiordland National Park, a rugged landscape of alpine ranges and islands formed by glaciers thousands of years ago and now surrounded by lakes and ocean. Even though this is the coldest time of year, it’s a perfect opportunity to explore Fiordland. Winter sees the region's lowest rainfall, with plenty of bright, calm days. If you get one of these bluebird days, you might want to do the first section of the Kepler Track. It’s an easy 5.6km return journey to Dock Bay and Brod Bay, and there’ll likely be few other trampers since it’s out of season.

Don’t miss the chance in Te Anau to get out of the rental car and take to the water. Cruise Te Anau offers a one-hour Bay Cruise that takes in the highlights and history of the region.

You can also cruise across the lake to the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves. Travel by boat through a 12,000-year-old underground cave system before arriving at the point where you can observe these lit-up critters.

Head Across Country

The next part of the journey travels through lush farmland in a valley between mountain ranges. Along the way are towns like Centre Hill and Garston. If you’re hungry, you might want to stop in Mossburn, the self-proclaimed venison capital of the world. The cafe at Bracken Hall serves a venison pie with plum sauce.

Photographers will be in heaven on the route from Kingston to Queenstown. The road winds its way along the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu, revealing incredible landscapes at every turn. Luckily there are plenty of places to stop along the way and grab a snap. Don’t miss the panorama from the top of Devils Staircase.

Not long after, you’ll find yourself in Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains.

Queenstown Quality

Chances are, no matter what level of skier or snowboarder you are, you’ll have been to Queenstown. The mountains and alpine resorts that surround it have terrain suitable for everyone.

Whether or not you’ve been here before, you’ll likely want to stay for a few days and there are plenty of good, well-priced options, including LyLo Queenstown and Pinewood Lodge, you can make your base.

Whether you spend time at Coronet Peak or the Remarkables, you’ll have plenty of different types of terrain from which to choose, but this is a great opportunity to see more of Queenstown. Take a cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, a century-old coal-fired steamship, ride the Skyline Gondola above the city or visit New Zealand’s favourite bird at Kiwi Park.

There’s also the chance to jump in the rental car and head to places like Arrowtown, about 20 minutes from Queenstown. Established in 1862 during the height of the Otago gold rush, much of it remains preserved just as it was then. Take in the Chinese settlement by the Arrow River or head to the Lakes District Museum, before checking out the cafes and shops.

On the Way to Wānaka

The last section of this road trip takes you to the southern edge of Lake Wānaka. You might want to stop about 10km out of Queenstown to visit the timber Shotover Bridge, built in 1871 and now part of a hiking trail. From the bridge, there are excellent views of the Shotover River and the high-speed jet boats that travel here from Queenstown.

Before arriving in Wānaka, there’s a final chance to get in a day’s skiing at Cardrona Alpine Resort. Even if you don’t want to rent skis, you can jump in a cabin on McDougall’s Express Chondola, which takes you to the top of the mountain. Here there’s the chance to take photos or stop by the Vista Bar for hot chocolate – a boozy one if you’re not the designated driver.

Before you head off on your South Island winter road trip, hire a rental car to get started.

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