You will have a hard time finding scenic driving routes better than New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route (SSR). The U-shaped drive takes you across a wildly diverse terrain that recalls an abundance of scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because, well, it was actually filmed there.
Springtime is the perfect time for driving across New Zealand, as the days are clear and the weather is still below unbearably hot. The total length of the route is a bit over 600 km and you can cover it in a single day, but we will presume that you will want to take your time and enjoy some of the attractions along the way, so we will split the drive into several daily stages.
Depending on your starting point, you can go from Queenstown to Dunedin, or the other way around. Both places have international airports, but since the Queenstown airport is the busier, we will start off from there.
Once you arrive to Queenstown, all you need for your road trip is a car. There are many rental companies operating in the area, but if you’re working on a budget you may consider the alternatives and rent a free transfer car. Then all you need to do is press the gas pedal and soak up the scenery.
Stage 1: Queenstown to Te Anau
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is a nice introduction to the diversity of landscapes awaiting you throughout the length of the SSR. It does not deliver the highlights, but provides a gorgeous appetizer as it takes you through dramatic mountain roads down to more tranquil inland routes.
The town of Te Anau provides its share of side activities to enjoy, particularly a boat ride taking you to the popular glowworm caves. However, its greatest significance lies in its position as the base for the exploration of the Milford Sound. It is one of few spectacular New Zealand fiords, and the only one that can be accessed by car.
Just the drive to Milford Sound is worth it, as it takes you through a seemingly endless array of diverse microclimates, from rainforests to farmland to snowy mountains and beyond. Once there, you will want a boat ride to enjoy Milford Sound first hand. Boat rides depart every fifteen minutes. If you don’t like big crowds, consider departing later in the afternoon when the tourists are fever (also, the fares are lower at this time of the day). If possible, schedule your trip during warm and dry days, because the Milford Sound shines the brightest in sunny weather.
Stage 2: Te Anau to Invercargill
This section of the SSR captures the drama and the glory of one of the most breathtaking coastal roads anywhere in the world. If time is not an issue, consider venturing slightly off the route and exploring the lovely “hidden” lakes of Southland scattered across the southern tip of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site.
The impressive coastline is dotted with charming little settlements like Riverton and Tuatapere, perfect for a rest stop and a quaint walk along the beach. Aside from being Southland’s capital, the city of Invercargill is a nice little city that gets a bad rep simply for being remote to pretty much anything, filled with charming architecture and some phenomenal parks and other outdoor places. Make sure you visit the Hayes Hardware store to see one of the motorcycles driven by the city’s proudest son Burt Munro as he set a cast of world speed records in the 1960’s.
Stage 3: Invercargill to Dunedin
The final stage of our proposed 3-day itinerary first takes us from Invercargill to the Catlins, through a broad, lush farmland terrain made for a relaxed drive. The Catlins area represents the meeting point between the coastline and thick rainforests, filled with magical waterfalls, jagged coastal bays and peaceful river valleys. The area is also rich with wildlife and represents a premium spot for seal and penguin watching.
Along the way you should also grab the chance to visit Lake Waihola or stop in one of the charming coastal villages to enjoy some light hiking along the sandy beaches. Dunedin, the final destination of our itinerary, is a lively university city with rich culture and architecture. It is a great place to sit down for a cup of coffee and process all the impressions gathered along the drive.
The Southern Scenic Route is one of the most striking New Zealand experiences that will delight anyone with a passion for the open road. You will have a hard time keeping your eyes locked on the road with so much beauty around it. To fully immerse yourself in one of the planet’s most gorgeous regions, carve out some extra time and search for a free campervan to make your journey both comfortable and affordable.