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Dunedin to Queenstown: The Southern Scenic Route

You might have done some scenic drives in your time, but the chances are they won’t have offered as much in the way of sites and attractions as the journey along New Zealand’s Southern Scenic route from Dunedin to Queenstown.

dunedin to queenstown

Taking you from Dunedin, near the mouth of Otago’s Harbour to Queenstown on the glistening shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu, this epic, Southern Island, road trip showcases some of the world’s most breathtaking natural landscapes. Moreover, at many of them, you’ll have them pretty much to yourselves!

If you don’t live on the South Island, you will need to arrange a Dunedin car hire to complete this journey. Once you have done this though, here is a good itinerary to follow for your trip from Dunedin to Queenstown.

Dunedin to Queenstown ~ Southern Scenic Route Itinerary

We’ve covered this itinerary over an 8-day period, although in truth, you could spend twice as long touring the Southern Scenic Route and still not see the half of it!

However, what we have outlined below should provide you with an excellent appreciation of the area and what makes it such a special place to explore.

Day 1

Despite only being about an hour’s drive from Dunedin, set aside a whole day to get there. Along the way there are plenty of places you can stop in including Brighton, which is named after the popular English seaside town. Unlike in Blighty, the beach is nice and sandy and the water is calm. So, if it happens to be a nice summer’s day, you should take the opportunity to swim and catch some rays. 

Further up from Brighton, it is worth checking out the scenery around Taieri Mouth, which is where the sea merges with the Waipouri River. The best vantage points to view this fusion is along the Picnic Gully Track which should take you around 45-minutes to an hour to complete. 

From here, it’s not that far to Balclutha which resides around the banks of the powerful Clutha River. You’ll get great views of the water if you stroll along the Blair Athol Walkway.  

The South Otago Museum is also worth checking out. It tells the story of the region’s history, with a particular focus on the Gold Mining Era, which is a must visit if you are travelling with children.

Day 2

After staying the night in Balclutha, the second day of your road trip will take you to the wonderfully named Papatowai.

This small settlement is centred around the picturesque Tahakopa River and is backed by a largely untouched wilderness that comprises verdant podocarp forest. This gives it a rather remote and stoic feel that should inspire you to take plenty of photographs as you explore it.

To get a feel for the area, you should tackle the Old Coach Road Walk, which will lead you from the Tahakopa River carpark to the beach in about 45-minutes.

The Papatowai Scenic Reserve also has several short walks along a coastline that is inhabited by a vibrant community of seabirds.

Before arriving at Papatowai, you should stop off at Tunnel Hill, an incredible railway tunnel spanning 250 metres that was excavated in the 1890s entirely by hand. We also suggest making a brief pitstop at the gorgeous Matai Falls which can be seen in all its glory from various lookout points.

Day 3

You’ll want to get up early on day three because – despite only being separated by 106 km – there is so much to see between Papatowai and Invercargill that it could turn out to be a very long day!

One of the first places to stop is at the Florence Hill Lookout which is just a five minute drive out of town. From there you can take in superb views of the bay and peninsula. Pro Tip: Bring a coffee with you. It’s a fabulous way to start the day.

A short distance up the road is the Cathedral Caves, which is a must see for any tourist in the area. You will need to fork out a nominal fee to Maori landowners to visit them and walk for around 50 minutes to the beach through stunning native bushland. But once there you will be able to marvel at formations of the two linked limestone sea caves, one of which has a 30-metre roof.

Continuing on, Niagara Falls on the Waikawa River is worth visiting. It is nowhere near as big as the Canadian version. But it does have a quaint cafe called the Niagara Falls Cafe which is a nice place to stop for lunch.

Depending on how much you ate, you might want to walk some of the calories off at the Caitlins Conservation Park, which is blessed with gorgeous flora and impressive waterfalls.

From there you should make your way to Invercargill which is proud to be the world’s southernmost city. Apparently, Mick Jagger loved it there and while you’ll probably get back too late to explore much of it at night, there are plenty of nice bars and restaurants you can frequent.

Day 4

Don’t worry if you did get in late to Invercargill the previous night. Day 4 is all about exploring the charming city. In fact, your destination for this day is the town of Bluff, which is less than half an hour away. So, you will have plenty of time to head there by mid-afternoon.

Before heading off, spend your morning checking out the beautiful Queens Park, which has a lovely rose cafe and an excellent cafe to enjoy breakfast or brunch. If you are into trucks, vintage cars and tractors, then pencil in a stop at Bill Richardson’s Transport World. It boasts one of New Zealand’s largest collections of them and is sure to fascinate any motor enthusiast. Likewise, if you enjoyed the film, The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins, you might want to visit the E Hayes and Sons shop, which has the original motorcycle used in the film on display.

Once in Bluff, foodies and seafood lovers should indulge in its local delicacy – oysters. This place is famous around the world for this culinary delight where it is readily available. If you are not a seafood fan, you may find the Bluff Maritime Museum a more compelling attraction instead.

Day 5

Bluff represents the halfway point of the trip and you would have seen a lot already. But there is still plenty more to see!

En route to Tautapere, about a 90 minute drive away, you should stop at Riverton, which is affectionately known as the ‘Riviera of the South’. One of the South Island’s most popular seaside towns, the beach here is great for swimming in the summer. There is also a stunning wetland area which you can explore on foot.

If you fancy stretching your legs over a longer distance, the aptly named Long Hilly Walking Track, about a 15 minute drive from Riverton is a good option. It was once used by Chinese Settlers who migrated to New Zealand during the Gold Rush years. During the course of a two hour loop you will be able to see plenty of examples of tramways and earth dams that point to their existence here. (It’s worth noting, the walk is quite hilly, hence its name).

Should that sound like too much effort, Gemstone Beach, about 15 mins further up from Long Hilly Walking Track is a marvellous place to visit. This beach is unique in that it changes from sand to stone depending on factors like the tide and conditions. It also accommodates plenty of quartz, nephrite and jasper which you can keep if you find any!

Day 6

After some overnight R&R in Tautapere, day six will see you make your way to Manapouri, which is only about an hour’s drive.

Before heading there, make sure you check out the Clifden Suspension Bridge and the Clifden Caves. Both of which – it may surprise you to learn – are based in Clifden!

The Clifden Suspension Bridge was finished in 1898, primarily to move sheep. While the caves main attraction is the glowworms that reside in them (just be mindful of weather conditions as heavy rain can result in the cave flooding).

Should you happen to have packed your bicycles, the Rakatu Wetlands has a good network of separate tracks specifically for this purpose, as well as ones designed for walking. It is a terrific place for wildlife watching, due to its population of paradise shellduck and scaup.

The town of Manapouri is the westernmost municipality in the country. It resides on the banks of Lake Manapouri and also has a wonderful beach, called Frasers Beach. Both of which are lovely places to spend the remainder of your afternoon.

Day 7

It is only a 20 minute drive from Manapouri to Te Anau. But that is a good thing because it will give you plenty of time to explore a region that is championed as the gateway to Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. 

Some of the things you should do here include visiting the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary and seeing the Te Anau Glowworms Caves (if you didn’t get to the ones at Clifden).

You should also spend some time at Ivon Wilson Park, where you can enjoy splendid  views of the Fiordland Mountains and walk around Lake Henry, which is contained within it.

Day 8

It will take you two hours to get to Queenstown from Te Anau and you’ll want to wake early to give yourself every chance of seeing as much as you can.

On your way to Queenstown, you should stop in at the Wilderness Scientific Reserve which has a wonderful viewing platform that provides 360-degree views of the surrounding farmland and bog pine forest which will make the hairs stand up on your arm. It is also a nice idea to visit Kingston for brunch and explore the walking trails that lead you around Lake Wakatipu.

Other places to see before arriving in Queenstown is The Devil’s Staircase, just a 10 minute drive up the road from Kingston. It has an impressive lookout, the views from which are sure to hold your attention. If you have at least four hours at your disposal the fantastic Wye Creek Track, another 10 minutes up the road takes you to a rocky bluff on a journey that reveals as diverse landmarks as a beach forest and a hydro dam.

Once you arrive in Queenstown, you’ll obviously need to set aside some extra time to see the sites there. Two to three days is a good minimum amount to schedule. Although the more time you can devote to it the better.

We hope you have found this itinerary for a trip from Dunedin to Queenstown both useful and insightful. Be sure to share your favourtie part of your trip with us!

this is a contributed article

Picture of Shelley Whittaker

Shelley Whittaker

Shelley is the Founder of Wander & Luxe. She is an award nominated blogger and has worked in the travel, motherhood and lifestyle space since 2016. Her mission is to inspire family wanderlust by showing her adventures and sharing her knowledge and know how when travelling with kids. All whilst she tries to conquer motherhood and indulge in life’s little luxuries.

Picture of Shelley Whittaker

Shelley Whittaker

Shelley is the Founder of Wander & Luxe. She is an award nominated blogger and has worked in the travel, motherhood and lifestyle space since 2016. Her mission is to inspire family wanderlust by showing her adventures and sharing her knowledge and know how when travelling with kids. All whilst she tries to conquer motherhood and indulge in life’s little luxuries.

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Inspiring and Informing Your Family Wanderlust
Aussie Wife | Yorkshire Mama
Lover of Coffee, Champagne and A Little Luxe
Perth, Western Australia

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