We plan to fly into Queenstown from Auckland (i.e., no jet lag) on a Sunday morning in mid-March and plan to rent a car. We need to be be in Christchurch on Wednesday evening for an early morning Thursday departure. We will already have spent 4 nights in the Queenstown/Milford Sound area on a previous leg of our journey so there is probably no urgency to spend additional time there. The intent of this 4 night excursion is to see the highlights of the South Island other than Queenstown.
We are primarily interested in scenery/photography both from the car as well as short/easy hikes up to 2 hours in length (my wife is limited to level or gently sloping terrain on reasonably well-groomed paths.) My intial thoughts are to spend 1 or 2 nights in Wanaka, 2 or 1 night in Mount Cook Village and then the final night in Christchurch. The question that I have is: assuming that this route provides the best scenery, would it be best to spend 2 nights in Wanaka and then only 1 in Mount Cook, or do the reverse of this?
I have read that the road over the mountains from Wanaka to Haast and perhaps up the coast a bit is quite nice. Would it make sense to use Sunday to get to Wanaka and explore the immediate area for the remaining part of that day and then use Monday for a trip to the coast and return to Wanaka? Would this then leave enough time to do some of the short walks/hikes in the Mount Cook area when we get there on Tuesday?
Finally, the only thing that is set is stone at this point is a Sunday departure from Auckland and a Thursday AM departure from Christchurch airport. Is there another itinerary that makes more sense to see the best of the south island? For example, would a trip up the coast from Haast and then across Arthurs Pass afford better scenery that time of year? We are very much looking forward to our trip to New Zealand and don't want to come home and find that we missed some must-see highlight of this beautiful country.
Thanks in advance.