Wildlife, rugged clifftops, and wonders of nature dominate the coastal drive from Dunedin to Christchurch in New Zealand. While this South Island road trip could be completed in half a day, you would miss so much.
From a historical perspective, you will travel from the Scottish influence of Dunedin, through the Victorian era in Oamaru, before arriving at the redeveloped and modern city of Christchurch.
New Zealand South Island driving itinerary from Dunedin to Christchurch
Dunedin has it all. It is a peninsula teeming with wildlife complemented by a town centre of Scottish-influenced architecture. The peninsula is home to the world's rarest penguin (yellow-eyed penguin). You will also find little blue penguins, giant albatross, seals, sea lions, and countless bird species.
Head to town for scrumptious food, intricate architectural design, the world's steepest street, both a Chinese and a botanical garden, several interesting museums, and much more.
Catlins Rainforest (optional side trip)
If you have an extra two days, consider a side trip through the Catlins rainforest along New Zealand's southern coast. You can do it in just a few hours without stopping, but there is plenty of interesting nature to see along the way.
Here, we discovered a rugged coastline through a temperate rainforest with striking waterfalls, petrified wood, and several endangered species including Hector’s dolphins and yellow-eyed penguins.
(Mysterious) Moeraki Boulders
The Moeraki Boulders are huge spherical rocks on Koekohe beach, along the east coast about 75 km north of Dunedin (a 1-hour drive). Beautiful in their own right, it is the legends and mystery surrounding them that make them so popular.
If you can time your day to visit at low tide, you will see more of the boulders. Although, even as high tide rapidly approaches (in the photo above), the views are lovely.
Katiki Point Lighthouse
More than a lighthouse, this is an area to see wildlife. It's a protected breeding ground for the critically endangered yellow-eyed penguins. Sea lions and fur seals also call these shores home.
From the Moeraki boulders, it's a fifteen-minute drive followed by a 10 - 30-minute walk, depending on how far you want to go. The lighthouse itself first shone in 1878.
Oamaru: New Zealand’s Steampunk Capital
New Zealand's steampunk capital is a trip back to the Victorian era. Restored to their original lustre, the 19th-century architecture lining the streets are only the beginning. Costumed employees, penny-farthings, and steampunk genre are all part of the fun.
Oamaru is much more than just the Victorian Precinct. At 112 km from Dunedin and another 40 minutes of driving past Moeraki boulders, it is the ideal place to spend the night after a slow day taking in the boulders and the wildlife along the coast.
Lake Tekapo (optional side trip)
Lake Tekapo is possibly the most beautiful spot in New Zealand, which is probably why it is included on so many multi-day South Island road trips and tours. A side trip here adds less than two hours to the total drive time.
Aside from the stunning lake reflecting the snow-capped mountains, there is hiking, horseback riding, and a new Māori astronomy center in the world's largest dark sky reserve.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. The city is taking advantage of the rare opportunity to reinvent itself as a modern metropolis in New Zealand. After being devastated by two massive earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, it has revitalized stronger and better than ever.
Visitors enjoy punting on the Avon River, exploring the Antarctic Centre, walking the British-influenced streets and discovering street art, or visiting the museums or animal parks.
Renting a car in New Zealand
We love Dunedin and can spend several days in town without a vehicle. However, self-driving is the easiest way to get out to the peninsula and see the penguins, albatross, seals, sea lions, or New Zealand’s only castle.
Therefore, if you flew into Dunedin, we recommend enjoying the first few days on foot. Then, rent a car at least one day before you are ready to venture out on this South Island road trip and drive to the peninsula.
The road trip we are recommending is all easy driving. A normal (two-wheel drive) car will be fine, although the smaller the vehicle, the less petrol you will use. And in New Zealand petrol is very expensive, typically running between 150% – 200% of the prices in the USA.
When we don’t take our own vehicle, we hire (rent) from RentalCars.com. We simply put in our dates and requirements and they present us with a list of available cars from various companies. Importantly, they also provide dealership ratings to help us make the best choice. To date, we have been thrilled with their customer assistance (we had a few local issues in South America).
⇒ Click here to compare rental car prices at RentalCars.com
Driving tips for your New Zealand South Island road trip
- In New Zealand, we drive on the left side of the road.
- Relax and enjoy the journey, don’t be in a hurry.
- New Zealand speed limits on the open road are up to 100 kph (62 mph). However, they are slower as you pass through towns, or on windy or rural roads.
- Know New Zealand’s driving rules. Be sure to understand how to cross the one-way bridges.
Where to stay on your Dunedin to Christchurch road trip
Exploring the South Island, we let this under five-hour drive take us three days, plus four days on each end, totalling eleven days. It could be done in less time, or more.
Dunedin accommodation recommendations
Distinction Dunedin: We spent three nights at the Distinction Dunedin. Spacious and comfortable, it was a perfect choice. Not only did we get an outstanding night’s sleep, enjoy delicious breakfast, and have secure car parking, it is also in walking distance to the Octagon (the centre of town and restaurant nightlife), the museums, and Chinese gardens.
⇒ Check price and availability: Distinction Dunedin
Larnach Castle: If you have a car for the entire stay, another interesting option is to stay at New Zealand’s only castle. Note that most of the accommodations are in the converted stables, but dinner is served in the castle itself.
⇒ Check price and availability: Larnach Lodge
Oamaru accommodation recommendations
We spent two nights in Oamaru, arriving late on the first day. This gave us nearly two days to explore this fascinating town, before heading to Christchurch late on the second day. We opted to stay in one of the motels along the highway. Our next visit we will aim to stay at the Oasis on Orwell.
Oasis on Orwell Bed and Breakfast: Attracted by the “exceptional” rating on the booking site, we had to read more. With both double and family room options, it caters to everyone, offering a touch of luxury with slippers and bathrobes in the rooms. Plus, they can cater to vegetarian or gluten-free diets. Note: payment is by cash only. ⇒ Check price and availability: Oasis on Orwell Bed and Breakfast
Tekapo accommodation recommendations
The Mackenzie Suites are a five-star option with lake and mountain views. This luxurious option offers one-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and pick-up service from Tekapo Village if you arrive via bus, or free parking.
⇒ Check price and availability: The Mackenzie Suites
Christchurch accommodation recommendations
Crowne Plaza: We stayed three nights in Christchurch at the plush and elegant Crowne Plaza, a hotel living up to its international reputation. Comfortable beds, modern bathroom, and everything we needed. While an easy walk to most tourist sites, be aware that it is in an area still being redeveloped following the quakes.
⇒ Check price and availability: Crowne Plaza Christchurch
Other options to travel from Christchurch to Dunedin or reverse
- Flights: Dunedin to Christchurch are available on Air New Zealand or Jet Star. Check Cheapflight for the latest deals.
- Dunedin to Christchurch train: The Dunedin Railway travels between the two cities as well as offering scenic train rides like the Taieri Gorge.
- Bus: Intercity bus travels between the two cities daily.
We don’t leave our country without travel insurance. It’s a personal choice that has paid off well for us as we have ended up in hospitals on four continents and had a wallet stolen in the USA, resulting in a missed flight. We always start with World Nomads.
⇒ Click here to get a quote from World Nomads
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Disclaimer: We worked with Enterprise Dunedin and ChristchurchNZ, the local tourism boards. We were also provided with many complimentary entrances, tours, sample items, or media rates to assist in the writing of this document. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.