Sample NZ itinerary

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OK, we get it. It’s a lot of effort to plan out an entire itinerary in minute detail and you’d rather start with something fairly concrete. So here is an outline customisable itinerary.

The basic route would take around 17 days, not including any side trips. If that’s too long, there is scope to squeeze it: you could spend fewer nights here and there if you don’t mind more travelling and fewer activities, replace certain sections with flights, or even restrict your trip to a single island.

This itinerary doesn’t rely on having a vehicle, though we’ve tried to point out where some attractions or side trips are not practical without one.

We suggest you build in some flexibility in each place you stop in order to allow time for local attractions you weren’t already aware of.

You’ll need to do your own research on accommodation as we don’t know what your budget and tastes are like. Trip Advisor and AA Travel are your friends here.

We suggest you read Assembling an Itinerary, particularly the notes about accommodation and facilities. NZ is not a 24 hour society!

Before you start

We’re assuming you’re flying into Auckland, as most people do.

Whether or not you’re hiring a car, you probably want to take a day or two to chill out, get your bearings and figure out which way is up before hitting the serious touring. If the city doesn’t appeal, simply plan to connect with onward domestic transport and go straight to the next stop. Just don’t plan a long drive immediately after long-haul travel.

If you’re staying in central Auckland or Christchurch and hiring a car for your onward travels, it may be worth arranging to pick up the car only on the day you leave town. Most hire companies have a depot downtown. In the meantime, Super Shuttle are a cheaper alternative to a taxi from the airport if you don’t mind them taking a little longer; pre-booking is a good idea in case they’re busy.

A sneaky tip

If you want to save money and don’t mind driving yourself everywhere, you may be able to save yourself a packet by doing the trip backwards. As most one-way car hires start in Auckland and head south, you can take advantage of a one-way rental deal brokered through Transfercar: they’ll give you a number of cheap (or even free) days hire and often throw in the ferry ticket.

NORTH ISLAND

NI suggested itinerary, with side trips in yellow

1. Auckland (2 nights)

There are plenty of tourist attractions in the Auckland area. You can take local tours and day trips; visit museums; check out the views from the Sky Tower; go walking around the parks and play spot-the-volcano.

Side trip A: Northland / Bay of Islands (3 nights)

Car: 3h each way (toll road)
Bus 4–5h each way
Fly to Kerikeri

The area around Paihia and Kerikeri is a popular domestic tourist destination. It’s particularly beautiful, and next to Waitangi where the Treaty between Maori chiefs and Queen Victoria was signed.

We recommend:

  • Bus tour to Cape Reinga, which includes a drive along Ninety Mile Beach, sand boarding at Te Paki, and a couple of interesting stops en route. (Various operators, various departure points)
  • Day cruise on the R Tucker Thompson sailing ship ex Paihia (in season; check schedule)
  • Helicopter ride to see the Hole in the Rock (Salt Air ex Paihia)

Once you’re done here, the only way onwards is back via Auckland.

2. Rotorua (3 nights)

Car: 3h, Bus 4h ex Auckland); or fly AKL–ROT

Rotorua is set in a geothermal area with plenty to offer by way of sights, sounds and smells.

  • Soak away all your travel stresses in the Spa
  • Enjoy the Maori cultural activities on offer
  • The Hobbiton movie set at Matamata is an hour away (by car or bus trip; you can also do it as a day trip from Auckland).
  • Day trips to White Island – NZ’s active marine volcano – leave from Whakatane (1.5 hours by car or bus from here, or make a side trip of it).
  • If you want to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing you will need a lift to/from at least one end of the trail. Various packages are available to make this straighforward for you; you might prefer to base yourself down the road in Taupo, instead of Rotorua. Tongariro is a challenging mountain trek (20km, 7–8 hours) and you must be suitably prepared and equipped for it at any time of year.

On the onwards journey, you have the option of checking out the beautiful desolation of the Tongariro/Ruapehu/Ngauruhoe area. These are active volcanoes and the area resembles Mount Doom. They’re a couple of hours south of Rotorua; you’ll probably need a car for this. The Ruapehu ski lifts operate year round for sightseeing.

If you’re not taking a side trip at this point, the Desert Road to the south (State Highway 1 via Waiouru) continues the theme of desolation.

An alternative way to run the trip from here would be to return the hire car to Auckland, then take the plane (1 hour) or tourist train (10½ hours) to Wellington.

Side trip B: Napier (2 nights)

Car: 3h ex Rotorua, 2h ex Taupo
Bus: 4h ex Rotorua, 2h ex Taupo
Fly to NPE

The town of Napier was destroyed in the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake. It was rebuilt in the Art Deco style.

Wellington is 4h from here by road, 5.5h by bus, or an hour by plane.

Side trip C: Taranaki / New Plymouth (2 nights)

Car: 4h ex Rotorua/Taupo, 4.5h ex Auckland
Bus 6.5h ex Rotorua/Taupo/Auckland
Fly to NPL

Taranaki is a breathtakingly perfect conical volcano which sometimes stands in for Mt Fuji in films. Maori mythology explains why the top is often shrouded in clouds.

If you’re driving here from Taupo/Rotorua or so, you might find the Forgotten World Highway a fun drive.

Heading on from here, Wellington is 4.5h by road, 7h by bus, or an hour by plane.

3. Wellington (2 nights)

Car: 5.5–6h; bus 7.5h
Tourist train from Auckland 10.5h (or catch it en route)
Fly to WLG

Often described as the “coolest little capital”, Wellington is a hip and happening city without the hustle and bustle (or endless sprawl) of Auckland. It’s often very windy; don’t bother with an umbrella if it’s wet.

  • Sample city life and the quirky little shops and cafes of Cuba Street
  • Take the cable car, check out the views and the Botanic Garden up at the top
  • Movie enthusiasts might like to take one of the Weta Workshop studio tours

When you’re done here, it’s time to hit the South Island!

SOUTH ISLAND

SI suggested itinerary, with side trips in yellow

4. Picton/Blenheim/Marlborough Sounds (2 nights)

Ferry: 3 hours Wellington–Picton
Fly: 25 mins Wellington–Blenheim

We suggest you stay in Blenheim (15 mins from the ferry terminal) or Havelock (30 mins). Nelson is another possibility (about 2 hours by car from Picton, 2¼ by bus).

  • Spend a day touring wineries (self-drive or tour package)
  • Take a cruise and see more of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds (Pelorus Mail Boat ex Havelock; various ex Picton)

From here, drive or take the bus to the West Coast. As of late 2016 the Picton–Christchurch train is sadly off the table for the time being due to earthquake damage. The Christchurch–Greymouth train is still running.

Side trip D: Golden Bay (Motueka/Takaka/Collingwood)

Collingwood is 2 hours by car from Nelson; 3 hours by bus

It doesn’t get much better than this. Golden Bay is reputedly the sunniest part of NZ. Outdoor lovers will be interested in the Abel Tasman National Park. The Heaphy and Abel Tasman Tracks can be found here.

5. Hokitika/Greymouth (2 nights)

Car: 4 hours Blenheim–Greymouth; 3¾ hours Nelson–Greymouth; add half an hour for Hokitika
Bus: 6 hours Nelson–Greymouth; 7 hours Nelson–Hokitika

If you’re driving from the north, the Buller Gorge adventure park or Punakaiki Rocks may be worth a visit en route. (Buller Gorge requires insect repellent!)

From Christchurch: 3 hours by car, 4½ hours by bus. The tourist train (to Greymouth) takes 4½ hours. There are also 2 flights daily (to Hokitika; schedule varies)

We strongly advise you to use good insect repellent on the West Coast. The greatest insect activity is in areas of native bush; locals can advise where it’s bad.

6. Glacier country (1-2 nights)

Car 2 hours, bus 3 hours from Hokitika

We strongly advise you to use good insect repellent on the West Coast. The greatest insect activity is in areas of native bush; locals can advise where it’s bad.

The West Coast has two tourist glaciers in fairly close proximity (half an hour apart by road). While the experience is pretty similar for both of them, the glaciers are dynamic environments and no two visits to the ice are the same.

As of the time of writing, if you want to set foot on either glacier you have to take a helicopter tour from one of the guiding companies. A lower-cost option is to take a walk to view the terminal face, which is impressive in of itself. Take it from us, getting up close and personal knocks the spots off viewing from a distance – the cost of the helicopter is worthwhile.

Helicopter tours depart from the guiding company buildings in the villages.

You can drive yourself to car parks convenient for the glacier terminal faces (near to their namesake villages) or take transport from the guiding company which includes a walk to view the terminal face.

7. Wanaka/Queenstown (0–3 nights)

Car: 3½ hours, bus 6 hours from the glacier towns

Queenstown is a veritable Mecca for adventure activities. We won’t attempt to list them. Bungy jumping was first commercialised here. There are also more sedate touristy activities including mini golf, a wildlife park and lots of walking opportunities.

Puzzling World (by Wanaka) is a fun way to spend half a day.

We think Queenstown is a bit over-commercialised. Don’t get us wrong, it’s a nice enough place but everything is expensive. We won’t blame you if you don’t stop here; you could just as easily go from the glaciers to Te Anau in a single day (even by bus).

8. Te Anau and Fiordland (3 nights)

Te Anau is 2 hours by car from Queenstown; bus 2¾ hours

Te Anau is the service town for Fiordland. We strongly advise you to use good insect repellent everywhere in Fiordland.

  • Take a Milford Sound day trip cruise with Real Journeys. (While you can drive there, and even stay in Milford Sound itself, we recommend the package day trips as the road is quite hard driving.)
  • For a less busy Fiordland experience, take an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys.
  • Glow-worm caves are found here, with a well-run tour departing by boat from Te Anau with Real Journeys.
  • This is the jumping-off point for the Kepler, Routeburn and Milford Tracks. You need to book the huts well in advance if considering these, or be lucky with cancellations. You will also need to arrange transport at one or both ends of the tracks; as ever, there are plenty of packages available.

Side trip E: Stewart Island (3 nights?)

Access by ferry from Bluff, which has easy transport connections from Invercargill (2 hours by car from Te Anau, 3 hours by bus, or fly).

Stewart Island is for the birdwatchers. Most of NZ’s native birds enjoy a sanctuary here.

From here your options for onward travel involve going back by Queenstown or onwards to Dunedin. Towards Dunedin, the Catlins Forest Park is a scenic alternative to the main road.

Side trip F: Dunedin (2–3 nights)

3½ hours from Te Anau by car; 4½ hours by bus

During the gold rush, Dunedin was the largest city in NZ. Now a much smaller player, it retains a significant amount of culture and Scottish heritage. Wildlife lovers will find a number of opportunities on the Otago peninsula (some of these have transport ex Dunedin; some require a car).

If you’re driving on to Christchurch (4½ hours), be sure to check out the boulders on the beach at Moeraki, about an hour north of town.

Side trip G: Twizel/Mackenzie Country (1–2 nights)

En route between Te Anau/Queenstown and Christchurch; about 4 hours drive from Te Anau, 2½ from Queenstown
By bus, the GreatSights Queenstown–Christchurch service makes various stops around Twizel and Mount Cook

It’s a long way from Te Anau to Christchurch. You could break your journey by spending a night or two in the Twizel area and check out the beautiful Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the wider Mackenzie Region. There are a few activities available and it’s also a Dark Sky reserve.

It’s about 3½ hours drive on to Christchurch from here, a little more by bus.

9. Christchurch (1–3 nights)

Car 7½ hours from Te Anau, 6 hours from Queenstown
Bus 11 hours from Te Anau, 9 hours from Queenstown
Fly from Dunedin, Queenstown or Invercargill (all around 1 hour)

The end of the road (or the start, if you’re doing the trip in reverse). Christchurch is a city in flux since the 2011 earthquakes; the rebuild is ongoing. It has its own set of attractions (botanic gardens, gondola, tram ride, punting, Ferrymead Heritage Park) – with the added extra of quake tourism if that floats your boat. Or you could just head over to the beach in Sumner or New Brighton and chill out.

For most people, it’s a short domestic hop (1 hour) from here to Auckland, then change terminals for the long flight home. If you don’t want to stop in Christchurch, you can fly direct to Auckland from Queenstown or Dunedin.