Snowcapped mountains, misty fjords and enchanted forests that's what always comes back to me when I think of my time spent in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to call it my home for over a year, most of which I spent on exploring and photographing this amazing part of the world.
There is many of you who often reach out to me asking for help with planning an itinerary around New Zealand. Instead of writing back to each and every one of you with the answers, I thought I'd finally put all the information together to make it easier for all of us. Where do I start with planning? What places should I visit? Should I stick to the South Island or see both? I only have 1 or 2 weeks is it enough? Those are the questions I hear from you often and I will answer them all!
This road trip plan is completely free for your own personal use! If you find it useful, it would be awesome if you use the affiliate links provided in the text and at the end of this 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!
Who is this New Zealand travel itinerary for?
This itinerary is for someone who only has one week and wants to get a good taste of what New Zealand has got to offer. I can guarantee you that after following this plan you will want to come back for more. First and foremost don't expect to see everything. If you only have one week stick to the South Island. That's the best advice I can give you after spending one year in here. Sure there are some cool spots on the North Island, but the South is way more beautiful landscape wise, and it has a lot more to offer. If you've got more time on your hands you can check our my other itineraries!
I've taken a lot of time to design this road trip plan. It 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 road trip plan.
What is the best way to get around New Zealand
This itinerary starts in Queenstown and takes you further through Fiordland National Park, back to Wanaka, my all time favorite Mount Cook National Park, Tekapo and finishes in Christchurch. Both Queenstown and Christchurch have airport where you can fly to and out of. This is a self drive itinerary and for that you will need a car. Check for best car rental deals with rentalcars.com. It will give you drop off option at a different airport than pick up and it will compare prices for the best companies in New Zealand. Don't worry about dropping the car off at a different location. Companies in New Zealand are really well accustomed to it. Even though you might pay a bit more for the rental, you will save time and money in the long run, as you won't have to drive the car back to the original pick up location!
If a real road trip is on your mind then you should rent a camper van! The great side to travelling in a motorhome or a small camper is that it will save you a lot on accommodation and make your time more flexible. If you want to compare prices of different motorhome rental companies in New Zealand check Motorhome Republic for best deals!
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 big measures to prohibit it by introducing local laws. I know a lot of travellers which had been fined for 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.
Are you ready to hit the road?
New Zealand road trip map
Day 1-3: Queenstown & Glenorchy
Kia Ora! It means welcome in the native Maori language. Be prepared to collect your jaw off the floor a few times every day for the whole of the next week. You just found yourself in one of the most beautiful countries in the world! Your fantastic road trip kicks off in Queenstown - the adventure capital of the world! Are you wondering why is it called that? I don't think there is an outdoor activity which can't be done here. From bungy jumping, sky diving to less adrenaline filled zip lining, jet boating or paragliding. I've lived and work in Queenstown for a total of 7 months. Part of my job was working as a booking agent and I got to participate in a lot of them! Bungy jumping is certainly my all time favorite and I've done 4 jumps in one day including the highest in Oceania a whooping 134 meter Nevis bungy. In the winter the town is filled with ski and snowboard lovers. The atmosphere here is electric and after spending a total of 7 months living and working in this town I still didn't get enough.
Spend your first and second day exploring the town. I recommend that you do at least one hike. Queenstown Hill might be your safest bet as it's neither strenuous nor particularly crowded, but the views from the top are beautiful.
On the second day in the afternoon consider driving the road to Glenorchy. Stop for a photo at the Bennet's Bluff Point. This road will be an awesome introduction for you the the scenic drives of the South Island.
Where to stay in Queenstown?
Day 3-4 Fiordland: Te Anau & Milford Sound
On the third day leave Queenstown after lunch time and make your way to Te Anau - the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Though it is only 170 km, the first stretch off the road which starts 20km south of the centre of Queenstown will get very windy. Make sure to keep your eyes on the road and stop only at designated stops. This scenic drive has been named the Devil's staircase. As unappealing as it may sound, it is another amazing stretch of road. The second half is a bit more flat, but still offers some great views. Once you get to Te Anau check into your accommodation and take a leisurely stroll around the lake (photo top right). You've got a big day ahead of you tomorrow!
Distance between Queenstown & Te Anau: 170 km
Duration: 2 hours
It's an early start on 4th day. Leave Te Anau as early as 7 AM to beat the crowds on the road to Milford Sound. The whole journey will take around 2 hours depending how often you will want to stop (probably a lot). I recommend checking out Eglinton Valley, Mirror lake and a mandatory stop at Hollyford valley. They are all roadside stops. As soon as you leave Te Anau you will loose phone and radio reception, but you will have an awesome chance to connect with nature.
Best things to do in Milford Sound
Did you know that it is actually not a Sound but a Fjord? It was wrongly named by the first explorers and the name just stuck. You can find out more interesting facts in my post dedicated to 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 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. Milford Sound is undeniably one of the best places for a scenic flight in New Zealand. You can book one right from the visitor centre in Milford Sound.
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!
Where to stay in Te Anau?
Day 4-6 Wanaka & Hawea
After your leisurely cruise around Milford Sound you've got quite a long way to your next destination. But don't worry you will get to drive the same road back again and as you probably know by now, it is absolutely spectacular. If you didn't have good weather on your way to Milford Sound, hopefully the way back will be better. Your next stop is Wanaka, another small town tucked away amongst New Zealand's Southern Alps.
Distance from Milford Sound to Wanaka: 340 km
Duration: 4,5 hours
Best things to do in Wanaka
Being in the heart of the Southern Alps Wanaka offers some of the most spectacular hiking trails on the South Island. On your 5th day I highly recommend completing one of these fantastic hikes around Wanaka.
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 (see photo above). 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.
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.
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.
Get creative and photograph the lone willow tree of Wanaka
Though a bit infamous amongst some of the locals due to crowds that it attracts, this lone willow tree standing on the shore of the lake has become the most famous tree in the world and it's 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.
Where to stay in Wanaka?
Day 6-7 Mount Cook National Park, Christchurch
Leave Wanaka early on your penultimate day and drive towards Mount Cook National Park. On your way there you will want to stop at Lindis Pass and along lake Pukaki. I don't like to repeat myself, but Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park is my favourite destination in the whole of New Zealand. The scenery in Mount Cook is second to none. It's the home of the highest mountain in the land of the long white cloud and it's the place where Sir Edmund Hillary practiced for his ascent of Mount Everest!
Distance between Wanaka & Mount Cook Village: 200 km
Duration: 2 hours 15 min
Best things to do in Mount Cook NP
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 are Air Safaris and Helicopter Line. It's not the cheapest of attractions, but it's an investment in memories that you’ll never forget.
Where to stay in Mount Cook Village?
White Horse Hill
basic campsite operated by DOC
TIP: Accommodation in Mount Cook is really scarce so book as far ahead as you can! Campsite is operated on first come first serve basis. If you can't find accommodation in Mount Cook Village, your other option is to drive 90 km back the Mount Cook road and then left on state highway nr 8 to Tekapo and stay a night there. Don't worry it's on your way to Christchurch anyway.
Tekapo is another scenic little mountain village. If you have an extra day it's worth stopping at, as there is a fair bit to do around here. If you did manage to book your stay in Mount Cook all the better. Stay a night there and head out the next day towards Christchurch to catch your flight. If you still don't have enough of the beautiful views, around 10 km before Tekapo you can drive up Mount John for a coffee stop. The top of the mountain overlooks the turquoise/blue Lake Tekapo. During Mid November - late December the stop at the shore of Lake Tekapo is something you can't miss. Within this time frame thousands of Lupin flowers are blooming turning the scenery into shades of pink, purple, blue and green. It's also worth mentioning that Tekapo is New Zealand's Dark Sky Reserve, which means it's an awesome spot for any astronomy and astrophotography enthusiast.
Where to stay in Tekapo?
Distance from Mount Cook to Christchurch: 330 km
Duration: 4 h
Distance from Tekapo to Christchurch: 240 km
Duration: 3 h
Your total kilometer count on this road trip: ca 1200 km
Regardless where you've spent your last night in New Zealand I do hope you've had heaps of fun on this short road trip and will be coming back at some point to see more of this beautiful country.
Important tips and resources for your New Zealand road trip
If you are travelling 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!
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.
To check roads and hiking trails conditions especially in winter months, go to the New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
Use Camper mate travel app for finding the cheapest campsites on the island
For bookings i highly recommend
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.