Ahhhh New Zealand. Every time I think about my time spent with you my face lightens up. It is by far the most beautiful country I have visited (since I am based in Canada now I would say they go hand in hand). My love affair with New Zealand is still ongoing and I am here to share the love with you.
Let me guess, you finally took the leap and decided you are going to see New Zealand to verify if all those online rankings for "the best countries in the world" are true. I know that the overload of information on the internet can be daunting and leave you frustrated. I've been there and I feel for you. To help you out I finally put together itineraries that will save you tons of time.
Whilst I would recommend to anyone who is asking for my personal opinion to just stick to the South Island if you've got 2 weeks or less, some of you might still insist on seeing both islands. Whilst ambitious it can still be done. I've taken a lot of time to design an itinerary that will maximize your experience without leaving you feeling stressed and disappointed. I have visited all those places myself and compiled my favourite spots, hikes and activities into this ultimate roadtrip plan.
This itinerary is completely free! I poured my heart into it and spent a lot of time designing it. If you find it useful, I would appreciate it if you use the affiliate links provided in the text and at the end of the post when you book hotels, rental cars, camper vans or activities. If you do, I will get paid a small commission, at no extra cost to you!
Check out my other New Zealand road trip itineraries here
How to get around New Zealand on your road trip
This itinerary starts in Auckland then takes you 6 days through the highlights of the North Island. After 6 days you will need to catch another flight from Auckland to Christchurch on the south island and pick up your second rental car. You will then spent 8 days travelling through the best spots on the South Island. The itinerary finishes in Queenstown. From here you can fly back to Auckland or if you came from Australia then book your flight out directly out of Queenstown.
Don't worry about dropping the car off at a different location. Companies in New Zealand are really well accustomed to it and it won't cost a lot more. Check for best car rental deals with rentalcars.com. It will give you drop off option at a different airport than pick up.
This is way more economical and faster than crossing over with a ferry. Not only it will save you at least a day of driving, not to mention the money spent on gas, but also it's cheaper.
One way flights from Auckland to Christchurch can be purchased for as low as 50 bucks. The ferry costs 250 dollars for a car, that's 5 times more expensive!
Another great option to road trip around New Zealand, chosen by many travellers every year is renting a motorhome. It can save you a great deal on accommodation, especially if you are travelling in a group. A great search engine that compiles many camper van rental companies in New Zealand is Motorhome Republic. It's way easier than checking each and every one separately. Companies like Britz, Mighty, Jucy, Apollo and Maui are the leaders when it comes to motorhomes and can all be found on this website.
Is freedom camping allowed in New Zealand?
There is an abundance of campgrounds all around both islands. Though technically freedom camping is allowed in New Zealand a lot of local councils have taken extreme measures to limit it by introducing local laws which prohibit it. I know a lot of travellers which had been fined hefty fines by breaking these rules. If you are looking for cheap campgrounds, the ones run by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation are your best bet. They are usually on first come first serve basis, don’t include showers and operate on honesty box plan. Download CamperMate travel app for finding campgrounds. It’s one I have used myself when road tripping New Zealand and can highly recommend it.
Let's get started shall we?
New Zealand road trip itinerary part 1: North Island
As I mentioned earlier starting your trip in Auckland not only will be the best and most economical way to do it, but Auckland is also very well connected to the places you will visit on the first part of this trip.
Day 1 Auckland
Auckland is the biggest New Zealand city, but I don't want to waste your time on cities, when there is so much amazing nature to experience! If you fly in the afternoon or evening I would recommend staying overnight and setting off on your roadtrip early the next day. In the meantime you can visit some cool photo spots in Auckland with Mount Eden being my favorite. Take it easy on your first day, you have quite a lot ahead of you in the next two weeks!
Day 2-4 Taupo
On your second day head towards Taupo, a little town nestled on the shore of New Zealand's biggest lake of the same name. You can choose the direct route from Auckland to Taupo (275 km/4 hours) or a slightly longer route past Waitomo and visit the world famous glowworm caves. Glowworms are an endemic species found only in New Zealand and as the name indicates they are worms that glow in the dark and by doing so attract their prey! I have visited few of the caves, where glowworms can be spotted and have to say they are fascinating. The best way I can describe them is by saying that they look like little stars glued onto a ceiling. My friends Jordan and Jenna have captured them perfectly in this beautiful timelapse video. There are a few companies that operate tours within these caves with Legendary Black Water rafting being the leaders.
Best things to do around Taupo
Tongariro Crossing day hike
When you find yourself touring around New Zealand’s North Island there is one place you absolutely can’t miss and that’s The Tongariro Crossing. It’s the most famous day hike in New Zealand which takes you through spectacular scenery amongst 3 active volcanoes: Ngauruhoe (also known as Mount Doom from Lord Of The Rings), Tongariro and Ruapehu. Tongariro crossing can also be done as a whole circuit, called Tongariro Northern Circuit, but that will take 3-4 days to complete and will require staying in alpine huts or camping. Most of the people settle for 19.4 km long, day journey.
Doing the hike will require some planning ahead. Tongariro National Park is a very remote area and the day hike itself is a one way journey. A lot of visitors organize transport from Taupo to the start of the hike, which then picks you up at the finish line and brings you back to Taupo. The journey will take around 1 hour and if your time is limited that’s your best option. I’ve heard of some people teaming up on online forums and starting the hike on the same day at opposite ends of the track, exchanging their car keys midway and driving each others cars to an agreed point at the end. Whilst it may be a brilliant and money saving idea, it’s a bit risky in my opinion and can leave you stranded at the end of the track if something goes wrong.
You should also bear in mind that between October and April there is a 4-hour time restriction for private vehicles at the Mangatepopo Road-end - starting point for the crossing. People wanting to do the entire hike, which takes an average of 7-8 hours, will need to use shuttle transport. You will have to book a shuttle through a local i-site (information centre) network.
After you complete the hike go back to Taupo to rest and stay another night. The next morning on day 4th head over to Rotorua - the geothermal centre of the North Island. On your way there you can stop at Wai-O-Tapu thermal Wonderland and see Lady Knox geyser erupt, volcanic mud bubbling and experience the intense smell of sulphur. Trust me it's not that bad, once you get used to it.
Distance: from Auckland to Taupo: 270 km
Duration: 3,5 hours
Day 4-5 Rotorua
Renowned for its geothermal activity and intense egg-like sulphur smell Rotorua is a must see for any visitor to the North island. This place is also known to be the best spot for learning about the native Maori culture.
Distance: from Taupo to Rotorua: 82 km
Duration: 1 hour without stopping
Best things to do in Rotorua
Take a stroll through the Whakarewarewa Redwood forest.
I hope your tongue is still ok after pronouncing it. Though the giant Californian Redwoods are not native to New Zealand and the forest was planted here in 1901, since then it became a big part of the natural landscape of Rotorua and a walk through this beautiful forest definitely won’t disappoint. The hikes are only few minutes away from the town centre and easy accessible by car.
Rotorua was the first place where I tried rafting and I was hooked. I could hardly contain my excitement when we were about to raft down the world-renowned 7 metre Tutea Falls, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the World! I am not going to lie, it was a bit scary, but my team all managed to stay in the boat.
Best places to stay in Rotorua
Day 5-6 Hobbiton, Coromandel, Auckland
It's time to escape the smell of the Sulphur and experience the New Zealand's coast for the first time. From Rotorua drive towards Hahei - a little town on the Coromandel Peninsula. Take the route through Matamata and stop at the most famous movie set in the world - Hobbiton. I still think, that at 80 dollars it is the most overpriced tourist attraction in whole New Zealand, but I don't regret spending it. I found the tour very interesting and as a big Lord Of The Rings fan I am glad I didn't miss out.
Distance from Rotorua to Hahei: 215 km
Duration: 3 hours
Best things to do around Coromandel
If you are not interested in visiting Hobbiton just drive straight to Hahei, the gateway for discovering Coromandel Peninsula. There are a fair few things you can do around here without breaking your wallet.
Hot Water Beach
In the afternoon head over to hot water beach. This natural phenomenon was only discovered recently, but it is certainly very popular spot amongst tourists and can get ridiculously busy. What’s the big deal you may wonder? Because of New Zealand’s geothermal activity hot water beach is one of the few places in New Zealand, where you can dig out your own hot spring and sit in it enjoying the views of the sea. Make sure to check out the tides first. It’s only possible to dig at low tide. Once the tide comes in it washes everything away. You can rent shovels at nearby cafes for just few bucks. Few bucks well spent if you ask me.
Number one and most photogenic spot in this part of the country is the Cathedral Cove - a marine reserve located on the peninsula. The place is named after the cave accessible by a short hike or kayak. The start of the trail is only minutes away from Hahei. This place gets really busy so to maximize your experience hike to the Cove early in the morning. It takes around 1 hour to complete the whole walk not including the time you will spend on exploring.
From Hahei it's about 2 hour drive back to Auckland. Drop off your rental car and catch a domestic flight to the South Island.
Best Places to stay around Hahei in Coromandel
New Zealand road trip part 2: South Island
I hope you've liked what you've seen thus far. It's time for the South Island now, and let me tell you, if you liked the North you will absolutely love the South. From Auckland you can catch a flight to Christchurch and from here follow my favourite route through Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook NP, Wanaka, Queenstown and Fiordland NP. If you need to catch an international flight out of New Zealand at the end of your road trip, then consider doing this route by starting in Queenstown and finishing in Christchurch. Christchurch does have an International Airport, whereas Queenstown has only connecting flights within New Zealand and Australia.
Day 6-7 Christchurch and Tekapo
I hope your flight was relatively early in the day. Pick up your second rental in Christchurch and head straight over to Tekapo. I personally don't recommend staying in Christchurch longer than necessary. The effects of the terrible earthquake that destroyed it in 2010 can still be seen to this date. Besides I always tell people, who ask for my advice, that they didn't come to New Zealand to visit cities, but see its spectacular nature and this itinerary is designed just for that.
Tekapo is a small town located on the shore of a beautiful turquoise lake of the same name. Due to its isolation from light pollution of big cities, in 2012 it was named the World's largest Dark Sky Reserve.
What to do in Tekapo?
Star gazing is generally incredible in all of New Zealand as long as you are in a dark spot away from city lights, but due to Lake Tekapo being the first international Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere, the place offers unparalleled views of the stars and planets. The Milky Way is easily viewable with your bare eyes!! You can also book stargazing tour operated from the top of St Johns Observatory near Tekapo village.
Places of interest
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Within walking distance of the town centre, The Church of the Good Shepherd is a very photogenic beautiful little chapel situated close to the shore of the lake. Be warned though, it’s very popular. If you want to get a good spot arrive early and be prepared to wait for your perfect shot..
Mount John Observatory (Both Day and Night)
A 15 minutes up hill drive further along State Highway 8 out of town leads you toward Mount John Observatory (on the right hand side). Complete with night sky tours, an awesome astro cafe and the opportunity to look through really really big telescopes at night. The views of Lake Tekapo from up there are breathtaking, but the windy road that leads to the top is not for the fainthearted.
Unfortunately this isn’t a year round phenomenon, they are only in bloom for around 6 weeks during mid November until the start of the new year. Technically Lupin flowers are just weeds that had spread around the island like a disease creating danger to native species of plants. With that said no one can deny that Lupin flowers in bloom create fantastic scenery where everything goes into a beautiful shade of pink and purple. They can be found all over the place from the shoreline of Lake Tekapo, along the roadside to Mount Cook and all around the surrounding meadows.
Distance from Christchurch to Tekapo: 220 km
Duration: 3 hours
Where to stay in Tekapo?
Day 7-8 Mount Cook National Park
The next stop on your epic journey will be my favourite place in New Zealand - Mount Cook National Park. The home to country's highest mountain, it's a hikers and photographers paradise. Stay the night at the Mount Cook village or White Horse Hill campground located around 5 minutes from the town. There are no supermarkets in this area, so make sure to buy whatever you may need before you leave Tekapo.
What to do in Mount Cook National Park?
Hike along the Hooker Valley
This relatively flat 5 km hike has some of the most scenic views in the whole park. From White Horse Hill carpark the route travels all the way through the Hooker Valley eventually ending up at the Hooker Valley Glacial Lake. Here iceberg’s can be seen carving off the glacier and floating all the way down to near the shoreline. I've done this hike at least 3 times, once in the summer and twice in the winter. Try and hike there in the late afternoon and stay for the sunset. On a clear day you will see the top of Mount Cook lighting up and turning red (see photo above).
Visit Tasman Lake and Glacier
Take the road back toward civilization, 2km away from Mount Cook Village and turn left onto Tasman Valley Road (Highway 80). After a short drive to the carpark, the 1 hour return route can be started. Similar to Hooker Valley Glacial Lake icebergs can be seen here in the summer and it does freeze over in the winter. On a calm day the reflections of the surrounding mountains are jaw-dropping.
Book a scenic flight
Mount Cook National Park is one of the best places to do a scenic flight. With many glaciers overhanging the steep mountain cliffs and the insanely blue glacial lakes it is scenery that you won’t be able to forget. The best companies around Mount Cook based on many reviews is Helicopter Line. It's not the cheapest of activities, but it’s an investment in memories that’ll you’ll never forget.
Distance from Tekapo to Mount Cook: 96 km
Duration: 1 hour
Where to stay in Mount Cook National Park?
White Horse Hill Campsite operated by DOC
Author's note: Accommodation in Mount Cook village is scarce and tends to be booked out in the high season (December-February). Make sure you make a reservation as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointments. If you can't find anything in Mount Cook, Twizel will be your next best option.
Day 8-10 Wanaka
On the way south from Mount Cook and after 2.5 hours of some of the best roads in the country, including the famous Lindis Pass, you’ll eventually arrive in Wanaka. The little sister of Queenstown is slowly becoming more popular but for different reasons. Although it has some of the best ski fields in southern hemisphere, it’s not really that famous for adventure sports, it’s far more mellow than Queenstown. It still has some of the most incredible scenery though as its located in the heart of the southern alps near Mount Aspiring National Park.
Best things to do in Wanaka
Hike to the top of Roys Peak
The hike up to Roys Peak is a special one and it’s probably one of the most recognizable views in the whole of NZ. The 16 km track starts from a small car park 6km away from Wanaka down the Mount Aspiring Road. Make sure you take water because this hike is 100% exposed (no shade) so on a sunny day it gets sweaty. At an average pace it should take you around 5-6 hours return.
Did you know that there’s actually two very similar view points on the mountain? The one on the Roys Peak Track and one taken on Coromandel Peak (photo above) on the same mountain. It's worth noting that the second one is only accessible by helicopter. I flew here by helicopter for sunrise with the Aspiring Helicopters which were reasonably priced and very professional.
Catch sunrise on the top of Rocky Mountain
The Rocky Mountain Track offers spectacular views over Lake Wanaka, completely unlike the views from the summit of Roys Peak. The track also encircles Diamond Lake and it is only a 7km (2-3hour) return. The surrounding bluffs are very popular with rock climbers too. Rocky Mountain is an awesome spot if you want to catch a sunrise from the top of a mountain but don’t want to hike for too long.
Watch sunset from Mount Iron
This short walk has great views over the township of Wanaka and out towards the flats of Albertown and the Upper Clutha River. Sunrise caught from the top during the winter months can be very special, as the fog raises above the little town but hangs below the summit.
Capture the beauty of That Wanaka Tree
Though a bit infamous amongst some the locals due to crowds that it attracts, this lone willow tree standing on the shore of the lake is definitely photographer's favourite. Thousands of heavily armed in gear professional photographers flock to this tree at any time of the year for a chance to capture this unique scene. I must have photographed this tree dozens of times but each time I managed to see something different. If you love taking photos just as I do you should add this spot to your list.
Take a drive along the Mount Aspiring Road
If you are not so much into hiking, there is loads of other spots that are easily accessible by car and don't require much effort. Glendhu Bay and Bremner Bay are just two examples. You can also take a scenic drive towards Mount Aspiring National Park. Bare in mind though, that half way in, there will be few fords to cross, therefore it's only recommended doing if you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle!
Distance between Mount Cook village and Wanaka: 200 km
Duration: 2 hours 15 min
Where to stay in Wanaka
Day 10-12 Fiordland: Te Anau/Milford Sound
Next on the itinerary is the journey to Milford Sound via Te Anau. Don’t worry we aren’t missing out Queenstown, which you will pass on the way to Te Anau, we’re just breaking up the journey. It makes more sense to visit Milford Sound first and then come back to Queenstown. This roadtrip is well designed, so don't worry I am not wasting your time. If you have less than 2 weeks to see New Zealand you can shorten your journey and just stay in Queenstown. From here you can book yourself onto a flight or a day long bus journey to Milford Sound and let someone else take you there! I covered this option in a separate post dedicated to Milford Sound.
Now from Wanaka to Te Anau (known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park) via Queenstown, go over the more scenic Crown Range Road. If you are travelling in the winter season, check the weather conditions first. You might also have to carry snow chains, so make sure your rental is equipped with them! Once you go pass Queenstown you will drive towards Te Anau through a beautiful stretch of road called the Devil’s staircase along the Remarkables Mountain Range. Make sure to keep your eyes on the road though! This is a very bendy part of the journey.
When you get to Te Anau check into your accommodation and take a break. You can go on a stroll around the lake in the evening and recharge batteries before the big day tomorrow!
Distance between Wanaka and Te Anau: 230km
Duration: 3 hours
Best things to do in Milford Sound
Scenic cruise around the Fjords
A must do whilst you’re here is a cruise around the Fjords. There are few companies running the cruises with two main ones Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries offering a similar service at a similar price. Remember to take a rain coat with you even if its perfectly sunny outside as all of the drivers like to get up close and personal with the waterfalls! With that said don’t expect it to be sunny. Fiordland National Park is the rainiest part of New Zealand.
There are a couple of different options for flights. Whether you want to go over the coast line or around the mountains or do a bit of both which I really recommend. You can also skip the whole journey and fly to Milford Sound from Queenstown, do a cruise and fly back. Milford Sound is undeniably one of the best places for a scenic flight in New Zealand. I will cover all those option in a separate posts I am currently working on.
IMPORTANT: The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound does close some days during the winter due to snowfall. Always check the weather conditions with DOC first before you set off. Sometimes snow chains are also required. Make sure your rental vehicle is equipped with them before you hit the road!
Distance between Te Anau and Milford Sound: 120km
Duration: 1,5 hour - 3 hours
Day 12-14 Queenstown
Now where do I start with Queenstown. I hope you planned enough money for your budget, because whether its Bungy Jumping, skydiving, a leisurely cruise on Lake Wakatipu on board of TSS Earnslaw, you are going to be doing stuff here. And stuff costs money. But remember that hiking is always free and Queenstown has some of the best hikes in the whole of NZ.
I spent a total of 7 months living and working in Queenstown and wrote separate posts on best photography spots, must do activities and awesome hiking in Queenstown, that should help you plan your stay in this beautiful mountain village.
Distance from Milford Sound to Queenstown: 290 km
Duration: 4 hours
Where to stay in Queenstown
Important tips and resources for your New Zealand road trip
1. Within the peak season December through until March I highly recommend booking your accommodation and car/camper as far in advance as you can. New Zealand receives a lot of visitors in the peak season and the last thing you want to do is stress about where you are going to sleep on your holidays of a lifetime!
2. If you are travelling in the winter months end of June – September make sure your accommodation in Queenstown and Wanaka is booked in advance. Those are ski season months and both of those places are famous and busy ski towns.
3. To check roads and hiking trails conditions especially in winter months, go to the New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
4. Every town on this itinerary has a place I-site - tourist information centre, where you can pick up maps and information about the areas and hikes
5. Download camper mate travel app for finding the cheapest campsites on the island
6. For bookings i highly recommend
If you're interested in improving your photography and seeing some of the best sight on the South Island of New Zealand, go to my photography workshop website
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since
I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.