New Zealand is the perfect country to pack it up and hit the road! With so many unique places to see and explore, it's easy to spend a month or more driving around soaking up all of the beautiful nature this country has to offer. Since the islands are relatively small you can get a good taste of it in 1-2 weeks, and even with that amount of time you'll definitely want to come back. I've driven through both the north and south islands twice and I still haven't covered everything. From Auckland to Queenstown, here's a few of my favorite highlights on each island to help you plan the perfect road trip!
Auckland: 1-2 Days
Auckland is New Zealand's largest city which makes it the perfect first stop. With direct flights from many major cities, you can rent a car with ease right from the airport, and get going. This city has beautiful weather and a ton to do for all walks of life. With beaches, volcanoes, adventure tours, wine, and plenty of yummy restaurants, there's nothing not to like. A few popular areas of interest are:
Hobbiton: 1 Day
Whether you like Lord of the Rings or not, this is definitely worth a visit upon leaving Auckland. It's a fun tour of the Hobbit movie set, completely dressed and decorated with all the little details of The Shire in the film. A real hobbit village! There's even a working tavern where you'll get a glass of ale at the end of the tour. Just a little over 2 hours from Auckland, you can plan this stop as you make your way south. Buy tickets in advance as they tend to sell out. For my full experience visiting this attraction, check out my writeup with everything you need to know and more, here.
Rotorua: 1 -2 Days
One of the more popular destinations on the north island of New Zealand is Rotorua. Made famous for its geothermal mud pools including spouting geysers, hot pools, thermal pools, foot pools, and colorful sinter terraces, you'll definitely feel like you're visiting the Yellowstone National Park of New Zealand! Aside from all that geothermal activity, there is plenty more to do for the outdoor adventurer. Kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, and backpacking are just a few of the many ways to explore Rotorua!
(photo credit @personofleisure)
Waitomo Glowworm Caves: 1 Day
The Waitomo Glow Worm caves is something you have to see just once while visiting New Zealand. It's known as one of the north island's main attractions and is definitely unique to the country. From black water rafting to a simple family-friendly cave boat ride, there are plenty of different activities for all fitness levels to get you inside the caves. I opted for the more aggressive Lost World Adventure tour, which involved abseiling down into the cave and then climbing a 50m ladder out. Head on over to my other post here. for all the information on my experience doing that- it was tough! Whichever you choose, this is a north island must-see and definitely worth it for any first-time visitor to New Zealand!
Welliington: 1-2 Days
I like to call Wellington, the windy little city with big heart! The country's capital, this coastal city has much charm and serves as the gateway to the south island by ferry. Filled with cute shops, cafes and great restaurants, Wellington is the perfect city to spend a couple days to wander around and explore. It's very windy though so be sure to pack layers! Some fun things to check out are:
Ride the Cable Car: A quick ride in this historic car offers spectacular views of the city
Mt Victoria (pictured above): A popular area for hiking and a picnic
Harbourside Market: Wellington's oldest "farmers market" with a wide variety of stalls selling all kinds of food
Cuba Street: visit here for quirky shops, cafes and vintage clothing
Lake Tekapo: 2-3 Days
Probably my most favorite lake town in the south island, I LOVE Lake Tekapo! If you want a nice place to settle in for a few days, and enjoy some peace and tranquility then this is your spot. The turquoise lake is absolutely gorgeous and the town vibe is super chill. Even if you just end up sitting by the lake for two days, you won't be disappointed! But aside from that, there are plenty of activities to do here both on the lake and off. The beautiful Mt John Walkway hike takes you up to an observatory with an amazing view, and also a great place to stargaze. Lake Tekapo is part of a dark sky community so night skies are a big thing to do there. And don't forget to make a stop at the famous Church of the Good Shepard.
Aoraki Mt Cook National Park: 1 -2 Days, or 1/2 Day from Lake Tekapo
If you are interested in seeing the highest mountain in New Zealand, then be sure to make a stop at Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. If you are short on time, no worries- this park can be done in a couple of days, or it's an easy day trip from Lake Tekapo. The beauty here is incredible! From the moment you drive up you can see the mountain, and there are several easy hikes right near the village and campgrounds that will immerse you in some of the most epic landscapes. The most popular hike here is the Hooker Valley Track, which crosses three swing bridges and has several stunning viewpoints!
Lake Wanaka: 2-3 Days
Another lake town you don't want to miss as you travel through the south island, is this beautiful spot, Lake Wanaka. Set against the dramatic backdrop of Mt Aspiring National Park, Lake Wanaka brings the forests, mountains, and lakes together for your adventuring pleasure! The famous Lone Tree of Wanaka (pictured above) is iconic to the lake and sits at the southwest end in Roys Bay not far from the main city center. Rent a bike, or take a walk on the lake path to catch a glimpse of it, then head back to town for a coffee or lunch at one of the many cafes and cute shops. This is a great place to pass through if you are short on time, or extend for a few days to get the most out of it.
Queenstown: 2-3 Days
If I could move to Queenstown, I would! The problem is, for me it's just too cold, and I don't ski or snowboard. But, I'd happily live a summer there because it's one of the coolest mountain towns I've ever visited. If you are a fan of towns like Mammoth CA, or Lake Tahoe, then you'll fall in love with Queenstown even more. Known as New Zealand's adventure capital, there is literally every activity you can imagine to do here. This city will be your most fun and action packed destination, so plan to spend at least 2 days here. Here's a few popular excursions:
Milford Sound: 2 Days
My final stop, and one that I think is a little over rated, but I'm adding it here as a must-see for a first time visitor to New Zealand. I've visited the sound twice, and the second time I booked a kayaking excursion through the fiords. I highly recommend seeing the sound this way, versus just booking a boat to take you through it. It's much more epic, whereas on the boat ride things just seem to look and feel the same. Keep in mind when you do visit here, it is a protected land so you have to book some sort of tour. Head over to this post for my full kayaking experience, and you will see why it's one of the best ways to see Milford Sound!
QUICK TRAVEL TIPS
When to visit? New Zealand is beautiful all year round, but the warmer climate is in their summer months, November- March. I am not a winter person so I visited in January.
Is a VISA needed? A Visa is not needed, but New Zealand requires most countries to get an ETA (Electronic Travel Authority)
WiFi: Is harder to come by outside of the major cities and hotel accommodations. I recommend getting a good data roaming plan before going
Budgeting: New Zealand is not cheap even with currency conversions. Plan your budget ahead of time so you can use it wisely for your preferred excursions and adventures!
Hope you enjoyed my picks for New Zealand! One thing on my list for my next trip back will be the glaciers. Each time I just wasn't able to get there due to weather or time. If you are able to fit that in, go for it! Fox Glacier Guide
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