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A comprehensive 23-day self-drive itinerary exploring New Zealand’s spectacular South Island, in search of its unique wildlife.

The trip begins in Nelson, for a short overnight stop to relax, before travelling to the picturesque Abel Tasman National Park where golden beaches and scenic trails await. Two nights in this spectacular park provide ample opportunities for walking, birdwatching and venturing out by boat to look for fur seals, common dolphins and little blue penguins. Bellbird, fantail, tui and pukeko are the birding highlights here. 

Continue to Bay of Many Coves to look for cetaceans, before stopping at Queen Charlotte Sound, Blenheim and Marlborough Sound to continue birdwatching and take in the incredible scenery. Two nights then follow in Kaikoura, for outstanding whale and dolphin watching, and an array of seabirds, before continuing south to Akaroa, to see the largest Australian little penguin colony on mainland New Zealand.

A night at a charming lodge in Oamaru follows with more opportunities for penguin watching, before continuing to the incredible Otago Peninsula, where the focus will be one of the rarest species of sealion in the world - the New Zealand sealion. In the south-eastern corner of the island you will find the Catlins, known for the vivid sunsets and the quirky Mohua or yellowhead.

A short ferry across to Stewart Island provides opportunities to see the southern brown kiwi, set against unspoilt scenery. The last part of the trip incorporates exploring the beautiful Fiordland area, with plenty of walking, birdlife, and cruises through the fjords. Overnights in Doubtful Sound and Te Anau are followed by a last night in Queenstown, to relax following an exciting drive through the stunning South Island.

All accommodation has been carefully selected for comfort, and colonial style, making the most of the varied scenic locations. 

Suggested itinerary

  1. Day 1: Depart UK

    Depart the UK on an overnight flight to Singpore, and connect with an onward overnight flight to Auckland.

  2. Day 3: Arrive Auckland, onward flight to Nelson

    On arrival in Nelson, you will be met and transferred to a boutique hotel in the delightful city centre to rest after the long journey.

    Accommodation: Rutherford Hotel, 1-night

  3. Day 4: Abel Tasman National Park: boat trip & guided walk

    In the morning, following a short transfer to Kaiteriteri, board a small motor boat and cruise for one and a half hours before disembarking in Totaranui, at the northern end of the Abel Tasman National Park.

    Renowned for its golden sandy beach and scenic trails, Totaranui is the ideal base for nature walks. Here, join a guided walk for two and a half hours to the tidal inlet at Awaroa, including tidal crossing and a walk through mature beech and rata forest.

    Accommodation: Meadowbank Homestead, 1-night

  4. Day 5: Abel Tasman National Park: guided walk & kayaking

    After a delightful night surrounded by the sounds of nature, you depart on a scenic guided walk over the Tonga Saddle to Onetahuti. Along the way you will have some great birding opportunities looking out for bellbird, Canada goose, fantail, New Zealand pigeon, South Island saddleback and blue penguin, to name a few.

    After around two hours along the coast, you will arrive at the starting point of your kayaking adventure. Sea kayaking in the area is gentle and easy - seeing the peninsula from the sea is a superb experience, with possible encounters with New Zealand fur seals.

    Accommodation: Torrent Bay Lodge, 1-night

  5. Day 6: Kayaking in Abel Tasman, transfer to Nelson

    This morning, you leave Torrent Bay and gently glide south on your kayak towards Te Pukatea Bay and Adele Island. The island is home to seals, blue penguins, stunning beaches and a great diversity of birds, including the South Island saddleback. You then paddle back to Kaiteriteri with an overall kayaking distance of 12 kilometres, before driving back to Nelson for an overnight stay.

    Accommodation: Rutherford Hotel, 1-night

  6. Day 7: Bay of Many Coves

    This morning, collect your hire vehicle and drive for approximately two hours to Picton and enjoy a scenic boat cruise to the Bay of Many Coves through the Queen Charlotte Sound. Along the way you may see dusky, bottlenose, common and the rare (and smallest) Hector dolphin, and possibly even orca in the summer months.

    Accommodation: Bay of Many Coves Lodge, 1-night

  7. Day 8: Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary, transfer to Blenheim

    This morning, take a cruise in the Marlborough Sound and Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary for half a day, with about an hour on shore to explore the magical predator-free island sanctuary, a real birding haven which hosts some of New Zealand rarest and most endangered species.

    You then head back to Picton, where you collect your car and drive for about half an hour to Blenheim and the Marlborough Wine Country, before heading out to Wairau Lagoon in time for sunset, and observe up to 90 bird species including the royal spoonbill and godwit.

    Accommodation: Vintners Retreat, 1-night

  8. Days 9-10 : Kaikoura: whale watching & birding

    In the morning, you head to Kaikoura, stopping en route to see the fur seal pups at Ohau Waterfall. Check-in to your hotel in the late morning and grab an early packed lunch before joining a boat excursion to search for some of the 12 different albatross species, along with other pelagic birds such as the shearwater, petrel, gannet, skua, penguin and tern (alternatively, this tour can be done the next morning).

    The following day is dedicated to whale watching. Kaikoura is one of the only places in the world where sperm whales can be seen all year around due to the nutrient-rich underwater canyons which dominate the currents.

    Accommodation: Manakau Lodge, 2-nights

  9. Day 11: Akaroa: penguin tour

    In the morning, you have time to go on a birding walk along the coast, looking for the endangered and endemic Hutton’s shearwater in the Puhi Peak Nature reserve, before driving to Christchurch and on to Akaroa. The drive is 265 kilometres and takes about three and a half hours. You may aim to arrive in time to join the sunset tour to see the blue penguin in Pohatu. Pohatu is home to the largest Australasian little penguin breeding colony on mainland New Zealand. These white-flippered penguins are protected and the area is predator-free. The best time to see them is from August to January. 

    Accommodation: Banks House Akaroa, 1-night 

  10. Day 12: Wildlife sailing cruise, drive to Oamaru

    This morning you can join a wildlife sailing cruise in Akaroa to look for Hector’s dolphin, white flippered blue penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, and New Zealand fur seal. 

    After lunch, drive 300 kilometres (approximately four hours) to the lovely coastal town of Oamaru, where you spend the night to break the journey. Oamaru is particularly known for its breeding colony of little blue penguin that has been protected since 1992.

    Accommodation: Pen-y-bryn Lodge, 1-night 

  11. Days 13-14 : Otago Peninsula

    You embark on a scenic drive for approximately two hours to the incredible Otago Peninula. The historical and heritage Larnach Castle is the only property located within Otago Peninsula, providing you with fantastic view with its garden of significance showcasing native plants and great wildlife opportunities.

    Accommodation: Larnach Castle Lodge, 2-nights

  12. Day 15: The Catlins

    Today you drive along the stunning Catlins, on the south-eastern corner of the South Island of New Zealand, travelling through rural heartland and podocarp forests, past rugged coastlines, hidden lakes and stunning waterfalls. You should aim to get to the Mohua Park by lunchtime, so that you can enjoy an afternoon excursion, tracking the rare Mohua bird and yellow-eyed penguin.

    Accommodation: Mohua Park, 1-night

  13. Day 16: Drive to Bluff, ferry to Stewart Island

    This morning you drive south to Bluff and board a ferry to Stewart Island. After disembarking, transfer to your hotel where you can have lunch and relax before an evening birding walk.

    Accommodation: Stewart Island Lodge, 2-nights

  14. Day 17: Ulva Island excursion & evening kiwi spotting tour

    Today join a guided excursion to Ulva Island in Rakiura National Park. The focus is on New Zealand’s endemics and native birds and plants, its pristine forest, remote beaches and coves.

  15. Day 18: Lake Te Anau, Fiordland

    Today you transfer back to the mainland and take a scenic drive north-west to Manapouri and Lake Te Anau, located in the Fiordland region. Your lodge offers breathtaking views over the lake and mountains. The rest of the day is at leisure. 

    Accommodation: Te Anau Lodge, 1-night

  16. Day 19: Cruising Doubtful Sound

    Join a two-day cruise across the remote Doubtful Sound. The crew includes highly experienced naturalist guides who will provide lectures and presentations about the rich marine life surrounding you. Dolphins, fur seals and penguins will be the main focus for the next two days, and there will be opportunities to enjoy guided kayak and skiff excursions.

    Fiordland Navigator vessel, 1-night

  17. Day 20: Doubtful Sound to Lake Te Anau, glowing worm cave

    This morning you disembark in Deep Cove and return to Manapouri. Collect your car and return to Te Anau for one more night. In the late afternoon, enjoy a glow worm cave tour.

    Accommodation: Te Anau Lodge, 1-night

  18. Day 21: Milford Sound

    Today is a full day exploration of the legendary known Milford Sound on a nature cruise. Milford Sound is probably one of the most popular excursions in southern New Zealand and it gets busy with coaches from Queenstown, however we selected the best option to get a more up close and personal experience in a smaller boat with some of the finest naturalist guides, while accessing to more remote parts of the fiord.

    Your two-and-a-half-hour cruise takes you to Harrison Cove where you have the opportunity to go kayaking, visit the famous seal rock, the Stirling Falls, Mitre Peak and the underwater observatory. Return to Queenstown for your last night.

    Accommodation: Brown’s Boutique Hotel, 1-night

  19. Day 22: Transfer to Queenstown & depart

    In the morning, drive to the airport and drop your car off before boarding your flight home, via Auckland and Singapore.

  20. Day 23: Arrive UK

You should note: All water-based tours are subject to suitable sea conditions on the day and minimum passenger numbers.

Key info

Our trip ideas are offered to inspire you and can be tailored to suit your requirements.
  • Duration and price including flights from/to UK: 23 days from £6,495 pp
  • Duration and price excluding international flights: 20 days from £5,295 pp
  • When to go: Sep-May
  • Activities available:
    • Birdwatching
    • Boat trip
    • Nature drive
    • Panga ride
    • Sea kayaking
    • Swimming
    • Walking
Featured locations:

Abel Tasman National Park

Located at the north end of the South Island is Abel Tasman National Park. Despite being New Zealand’s smallest national park, Abel Tasman offers turquoise seas, golden beaches framed by rocky headlands where fur seals can be found, and rich green native forests filled with native birdlife.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: New Zealand fur seal, common dolphin, little blue penguin, tūī, purple swamphen
  • Excellent for: Walking with wildlife, Penguin watching

Blenheim & Marlborough

Situated in the heart of the wine-growing region of Marlborough, in the north east of South Island, Blenheim is one of the sunniest towns in New Zealand. The region is rich in birdlife, particularly at Wairau Lagoon, where more than 90 species, including the elegant royal spoonbill, can be seen.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: Hector’s dolphin, New Zealand falcon, long-tailed wattled bat, royal spoonbill, New Zealand fur seal

Akaroa & Banks Peninsula

Nestled in the heart of the South Island’s most prominent volcanic feature, Banks Peninsula, Akaroa is located around 82 kilometres from Christchurch. New Zealand’s only French settlement, Akaroa offers fascinating coastal excursions to see white-flippered (blue) penguin and the rare Hector’s dolphin.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: Hector’s dolphin, New Zealand fur seal, yellow-eyed penguin, Buller’s albatross, white-flippered penguin

Kaikoura

Picturesque Kaikoura is the ideal base for wildlife encounters - especially of the marine variety – with permanently resident sperm whales, several species of dolphin and New Zealand fur seals. It is also a fantastic place to enjoy crayfish: in Maori 'kai' means food and 'koura' means crayfish.

  • Ideal for viewing: sperm whale, dusky dolphin, Gibson’s albatross, Cape petrel, New Zealand fur seal
  • Excellent for: Whale watching

Oamaru

Historic Oamaru contains some of New Zealand’s best-preserved Victorian streets and buildings. Along with galleries, shops and museums, including steampunk exhibits, there are fabulous rock formations to see, beautiful public gardens to stroll through and the fabled blue penguin colony to visit.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: little blue penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, New Zealand fur seal, royal albatross, New Zealand sealion

Otago Peninsula

With a 20-kilometre long harbour situated on the east coast of the South Island, the Otago Peninsula is a spectacular spot for marine wildlife. The New Zealand sealion – one of the rarest sealion species – as well as the royal albatross, yellow-eyed penguin and blue penguin can be seen here.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: yellow-eyed penguin, royal albatross, New Zealand sealion, little blue penguin, New Zealand fur seal
  • Excellent for: Penguin watching, Birdwatching

The Catlins

The Catlins is a sparsely populated area of rugged beauty with wide deserted beaches, podocarp forests, rolling hills, scenic landscapes and a host of marine wildlife, including New Zealand fur seal and Hooker’s sealions, and endangered birds such as the yellowhead and the rare yellow-eyed penguin.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: yellow-eyed penguin, New Zealand fur seal, New Zealand sealion, New Zealand pigeon, yellowhead

Stewart & Ulva Islands

Stewart Island/Rakiura is New Zealand’s third largest island. Largely untouched by humans, the island provides a haven for native and endangered birds, particularly the southern brown kiwi. Ulva Island is part of Stewart Island and its predator free status makes it an important sanctuary for birds.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: southern brown kiwi, yellow-eyed penguin, saddleback, bottlenose dolphin, red-fronted parakeet

Doubtful Sound

The deepest of New Zealand’s fjords, Doubtful Sound is rich in flora and fauna, where New Zealand fur seals and Fiordland crested penguins bask on many of the small islets at the fjord’s entrance. A place of power and tranquility the fjord also has a number of magnificent waterfalls.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: New Zealand fur seal, Fiordland crested penguin, bottlenose dolphin, southern right whale, minke whale

Milford Sound

Situated on the west coast of the South Island is breathtaking Milford Sound, celebrated as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. Here lush rainforests cling to cliffs, providing a haven for many endangered bird and insect species, including the charming blue duck, takehe, mohua and kea.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: Hector’s dolphin, Fiordland crested penguin, little blue penguin, New Zealand fur seal, blue duck

Te Anau & Manapouri

The small, Southland towns of Te Anau and Manapouri are situated on the shores of beautiful lakes. Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound, whilst Manapouri is the departure point for Doubtful Sound.

  • Where: South Island
  • Excellent for: Hiking, Wildlife

Nelson

One of the New Zealand's sunniest cities, and the gateway to three of its stunning national parks, Nelson offers the chance to indulge in the Kiwi lifestyle with a mix of art galleries, wineries and outdoor activities.

  • Where: South Island
  • Excellent for: Activity & adventure, City stopover, History & culture

Fiordland National Park

The World Heritage area of Fiordland offers some of the most dramatic and iconic scenery of New Zealand’s South Island. The west coast is indented with 14 fjords and over 215 kilometres of rugged coastline including Milford and Doubtful Sounds, both of which are rich in flora and fauna.

  • Where: South Island
  • Ideal for viewing: Fiordland crested penguin, New Zealand fur seal, bottlenose dolphin, kea, yellow-crowned parakeet
  • Excellent for: Self-drive

Queenstown

With four distinctive seasons, dramatic mountains, a crystal-clear lake and a host of activities on offer, from the adventurous to the more leisurely, Queenstown is a popular year-round destination.

  • Where: South Island
  • Excellent for: Activity & adventure, City stopover, Hiking
Suggested accommodation options are shown below. Please contact us for further recommendations.

Banks House Akaroa

Built in 1877 and listed as a notable historic house, Banks House Akaroa is a charming, boutique guesthouse with four uniquely appointed rooms. Beyond the beautiful garden lies the harbour, where boat cruises depart in search of New Zealand’s smallest cetacean, the Hector’s dolphin.

Bay of Many Coves Resort

Nestled in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds against a backdrop of untouched native bush and overlooking a tranquil bay, the natural setting of the Bay of Many Coves offers a unique stay in one of the South Island’s most breathtaking locations accessible only by water or air.

Brown’s Boutique Hotel

Enjoying a quiet position in central Queenstown, yet only a short walk to the centre of this small alpine city, you will find the delightful ten bedroom Brown’s Boutique Hotel offering the feel of a European boutique property combined with the warmth of New Zealand hospitality.

Mohua Park Cottages

Located within the beautiful bush of south-east New Zealand, Mohua Park offers four cottages each positioned to offer complete seclusion whilst providing uninterrupted views over the surrounding rolling pasture, making it the ideal base for exploring the wildlife and scenery of The Catlins.

Lanarch Castle Lodge

Situated on the picturesque Otago Peninsula on the South Island, you will find New Zealand’s only castle and, within its grounds, the luxurious Larnach Lodge. The lodge is the ideal place for exploring the many wildlife opportunities which can be experienced on the peninsula.

Manakau Lodge

This small and intimate boutique lodge is set amidst picturesque mountain scenery, just a short distance from the marine hotspot of Kaikoura. With only four rooms, the luxury Manakau Lodge is the perfect base from which to explore the nearby beaches and coastal reserves on wilderness walks.

Meadowbank Homestead

Originally built in the 19th century, the Meadowbank Homestead has 13 tastefully furnished guest rooms with panoramic views of Abel Tasman National Park. With no road access, this rural accommodation is the perfect base for exploring the bird-rich surrounds to look for tui, little penguin and weka.

Pen-y-bryn Lodge

Built in 1889, Pen-y-bryn Lodge is reputed to be the largest single-storey timber building in Australasia. The unique property, ideally located for visiting Oamaru’s remarkable little blue penguin colony, has five distinct guestrooms decorated with period antiques reflecting its Victorian heritage.

Stewart Island Lodge

New Zealand’s southernmost lodge provides sweeping views of Halfmoon Bay and beyond to the Foveaux Strait. Stewart Island Lodge offers six superior guestrooms and extensive gardens in a native bush hillside setting yet situated just a five minute walk from the village of Oban.

Te Anau Lodge

Te Anau Lodge offers the opportunity to experience traditional New Zealand hospitality in hosted accommodation, combined with its unique heritage as a restored former Sisters of Mercy Convent from the 1930’s. Each of the nine guestrooms offers modern facilities whilst retaining historic charm.

Torrent Bay Lodge

Surrounded by a stunning coastline, Torrent Bay is one of only two beachfront lodges within Abel Tasman National Park, offering 13 comfortable en suite guestrooms. With no road access, the idyllic lodge can be reached by boat, by kayak or on foot, where panoramic sea views await.

Vintners Retreat

Located at the top of what is know locally as Marlborough’s Golden Mile of vineyards, the boutique Vintners Retreat offers luxury self-contained accommodation in the heart of one of the world’s most famous and beautiful wine growing regions. The nearby Wairau River bank provides excellent walking opportunities.