There are three big mistakes people make when they decide on New Zealand as their holiday destination. These mistakes can leave them disappointed and wishing they had put more research into their bucket-list trip. Keep reading to ensure you don’t make that same faux pas.
New Zealand is larger than the United Kingdom and about the same area as Colorado, but it is over 1,000 miles long, so it’s going to take time to drive through (and, as a native New Zealander, I recommend you have your own transport).
That’s the number one underestimation. Number two is misjudging just how many things there are to see and do along the way. And number three is not realizing how many places you will want to stay an extra day — or three.
However, if you only have 14 days to explore, you can still fall in love with all that New Zealand has to offer. From the snow-topped mountains of the south to the crystal clear lakes in central New Zealand to the white sandy beaches of Coromandel in the north. For those traveling on a tighter timeline, we have a fantastic 14-day New Zealand itinerary that’s worth your consideration.
But if you have the luxury of time, follow our journey as we jump in a car and travel around these majestic South Pacific islands for the perfect 28-day itinerary of New Zealand. We have chosen February, which is the best month for traveling as schools are back from holiday and the weather is the most settled. Other months to visit are November through December or March to April, simply because the shoulder seasons can offer an excellent value for your money.
Week 1: Auckland And Northland
Arriving in Auckland, it’s comforting to be back on home ground — something we hadn’t realized we missed after traveling full time around Europe in our motorhome for the past 30 months.
New Zealand isn’t a place that’s easily accessible with public transport simply because there are just too many out-of-the-way places to be explored. So we opted to rent a car at our favorite go-to car rental company and started driving.
We spent two days exploring Auckland including visiting the Auckland War Memorial Museum at the Domain. From its elevated position, we could see right across the stunning waters and islands of the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf. That prompted us to jump onto a ferry from the Ferry Building in downtown Auckland and head to Rangitoto Island, the youngest and largest of Auckland’s 48 volcanoes.
It took us two hours to walk to the summit and return back to the wharf, plus another 15-minute walk to explore the lava caves. You will need a flashlight or will need to use your phone, so make sure you have plenty of battery available. Good walking shoes are a must as the ground is rough and uneven over the broken lava fields. A moderate level of fitness is required for this full-day excursion. The less able (or willing) can book less-strenuous tours.
The next day we enjoyed a more leisurely walk around the viaduct basin. Located in downtown Auckland, this is the hub of activity in summer and will come alive with the America’s Cup yacht race being held in Auckland in March 2021.
I just love visiting SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s, a unique underwater marine aquarium and Antarctic center, where we were lucky to observe the feeding of the king and gentoo penguins. Opened in 1985, this attraction has become a national icon, and one of my favorite attractions in Auckland, where marine archaeologist and diver Kelly Tarlton’s dream came alive. Sadly, at the age of 47, Kelly passed away just ahead of the opening of what was to be his greatest legacy.
Allow at least two hours to visit the ten different zones in the aquarium, which include exhibits on Southern ocean discoveries, shipwrecks, a fish gallery, shark tunnels, and Scott Base (an important research facility) to name a few. You won’t want to miss any of them. There’s a convenient conveyor belt that moves visitors through the viewing areas, and this makes life easy for those with walking and/or health challenges.
That night, we headed out with friends for dinner at The Oak Barrel on the beautiful waterfront in Mission Bay. There, we enjoyed good quality New Zealand beef and succulent fish. If you’re keen on trying different wines, this place has it all, from full-bodied reds to oaky Chardonnay, crisp sauvignon blancs, and everything in between, including a trendy rose or two.
The beautiful Bay of Islands was our destination today — a leisurely four-hour drive north (141 miles) to a township called Paihia. We checked into the stunning Paihia Beach Resort and Spa for a little luxury while finalizing our far-north itinerary.
Named after a delivery route around the Bay of Islands that was used to distribute mail and grocery supplies to island residents, The Cream Trip has become the most complete historical cruise in the Bay. We needed a full day to see the dolphins and whales, visit the famous hole in the rock, and enjoy the many islands. When visiting, you can pack a picnic, buy food on board, or visit an island cafe. The summer season runs October 1 to May 15.
We love to fish, so what better place to indulge our passion than the Bay of Islands? Renowned as one of the world’s top fishing spots, we have spent many happy summers pulling a meal of kai moana — Maori for food from the sea. Without our own boat this time, we jumped onboard with SpotX Fishing Charters, who took us hunting for tasty snapper and the mighty kingfish. If time allows, you can even go after big game fish like marlin and swordfish.
If fishing isn’t your thing, then take a 15-minute ferry ride across to Russell.
Russell was New Zealand’s first permanent settlement and was once known as the Hellhole of the Pacific due to its popularity with local whalers and sailors in the early 1800s. A popular myth is that this was the first capital of New Zealand, however, the true first capital was about four miles south in Okiato, also known as Old Russell. Off the ferry, you can step back in time and wander around the historic town, take a swim at the best beach in the area (Oneroa Bay Beach), and have lunch at one of the many cafes.
On Day 5, we opted for a bus tour headed to the very top of the island, Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach. It was a full-day outing for a reasonable price. Here we visited the lighthouse at Cape Reinga where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea collide, then sand-boarded down the giant sand dunes at Te Paki stream before driving along the famous 90 Mile Beach. On the way “home,” we stopped off at the Puketi Kauri Forest and glimpsed the majestic kauri — New Zealand’s largest native trees, which are among the longest-living trees in the world.
Returning south, we took the longer scenic route, 143 miles down the more rugged West Coast of Northland to spend the night at Matakana, a laid-back country town that has reinvented itself as a foodies’ paradise. We slept well at the Matakana Motel. An early start onto State Highway 12 took us to Hokianga Harbour and the popular seaside town of Opononi. This town was made world famous by Opo, a bottlenose dolphin who, for 10 months in 1955 and 1956, played daily with the locals before tragically dying in suspicious circumstances.
Back on State Highway 12, we wind through the Waipoua Forest, one of the last remnants of the mighty kauri forests that once cloaked much of Northland. Tane Mahuta — the largest kauri tree — is just a short walk from the road. This 2,000-year-old national treasure may be the biggest tree you will ever see!
The Kauri Museum at Matakohe recounts the story of this magnificent tree and the people who flocked here to harvest timber and gum.
The next day we chose to snorkel off Goat Island, which is surrounded by abundant marine life and situated in New Zealand’s first marine reserve.
In Matakana, visit the famous Morris and James pottery and try the delicious pumpkin soup in their cafe. Shopping here is a real treat; you can purchase a special piece of handcrafted pottery to take home (or ask for it to be mailed back ahead of you).
If you are lucky enough to be in Matakana on a Saturday, there’s a reason to be up and out by 8 a.m. Discover the delights of the Matakana Village Farmers Market for local foods, gifts, jewelry, art, homewares, and fashion.
Week 2: Hahei Beach, Waikato, Rotorua, Waitomo Caves, Mount Ruapehu, And Wellington
Heading into our second week already, Day 8 has us driving from Matakana, through Auckland, and on to Hahei Beach on the picturesque Coromandel Peninsula.
We stayed at the Hahei Holiday Resort where they have comfortable cabins right on the beach.
For one of the most photographed and beautiful spots in New Zealand, visit Cathedral Cove, another marine reserve. You can access this by foot, overland, if you are up for a two-hour return walk. Alternatively, hitch a ride on the local water taxi, the cheapest option. My recommendation is to take a tour with Hahei Explorer, during which you’ll get to explore the offshore islands and coastline.
If Hahei is booked out, as it often is, then stay at the Hot Water Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park instead. From here, go for a walk to Hot Water Beach and dig a hole between the high and tide marks. The hot thermal waters fill the hole, and you can sit here and watch the dolphins frolic nearby or cool off in the surf.
Day 9 is a good time for a day off to sit, relax, and reflect on the previous week while planning for the week ahead.
It’s up early today to head into Rotorua via Matamata. Most people have heard of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and if you are a movie buff, you might want to visit Hobbiton in the Waikato town of Matamata.
You’ll be spoiled for choice here. There are numerous tours to choose from, and they are the only way you can see the movie sets and displays. Allow two hours for the standard tour, which runs daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Moving along, we arrived at Rotorua, also known as RotoVegas, which is the tourism capital of the North Island.
My favorite place to stay here is the Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel, mainly because I just adore the indoor hot pools.
The next day we ascended in a gondola to the highest vantage point above Rotorua, followed by an exhilarating luge ride down the hill. The Skyline and Luge ticket includes the gondola and one luge ride downhill — the cheapest thrill ride around. The less adventurous can take the gondola back down.
Our visit to Rotorua would not be complete without taking in the spectacle of boiling muds, thermal pools, and spouting steam at Hell’s Gate. A relaxing soak in a therapeutic hot pool relieved our weary muscles.
If you have time, see if you can also fit in a visit to the Buried Village. Otherwise you can do this on your way out tomorrow.
While traveling in New Zealand, you must take in a cultural show, and Rotorua offers the best in the country. We opted for the reasonably priced Mitai Maori Village Cultural Show and Rainbow Springs Night Tour combo, which includes dinner.
We headed due west for 90 miles to visit another iconic New Zealand tourist attraction, the Waitomo Caves. Since the late 1880s, the Waitomo Caves have been astounding visitors with spectacular rock formations and hidden grottos festooned with countless glowworms.
We have seen the caves numerous times and opted for the area’s more adventurous Black Water Rafting. Picture being dressed up in a wetsuit, floating down inky black and icey cold waters on a rubber inner tube in pitch darkness under a sky of glowworms. Add in some rappelling, zip-lining in the dark, and jumping off waterfalls, and you will appreciate that this isn’t for the fainthearted. The Black Abyss is a five-hour experience, whereas The Black Labyrinth, the one we chose, was a three-hour trip, which is less intimidating and suitable for most people who are willing to step out of their comfort zones.
Bring your swimwear, shampoo, towel, and some warm clothing to change into. There is wheelchair access to the Ruakuri Cave but not to the other caves.
After your Waitomo Cave-area adventure, check into a stay at the Waitomo Lodge Motel.
En route to Mount Ruapehu, a 150-mile trip, we stopped off at Lake Taupo, the remains of a supervolcano. One of its eruptions 26,500 years ago was the biggest the world has known in the last 70,000 years.
Taupo is a great place to break up the journey and is famous for trout fishing, boating, thermal attractions, and scenery. Today, we continued down Highway 47 and past the imposing volcanic cone of Mount Ruapehu, which is also the main ski resort for the North Island.
We turned left toward the stately Chateau Tongariro, built at the base of the mountain.
In the summer, you can get a room here easily, but during ski season, you will need to book well ahead of time. The Chateau was built in the 1920s and could do with some updating but still offers a great experience at a reasonable price.
The Mount Ruapehu gondola, called the Sky Waka, operates for most of the year, providing spectacular views over the rugged lava flows and snow drifts. If you are a keen hiker, you might want to explore this area further.
Super fans of The Lord of the Rings movies you may want to spend time exploring the Land of Mordor and Mount Doom, which were filmed close by in Tongariro National Park.
Our next destination, 211 miles south, was Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and our goal was to visit the top sights, indulge in shopping, and devour the local food. Wellington is also known as the Windy City. It can get chilly, even in summer (December to March), so keep an eye on the weather forecast and dress accordingly.
A visit to The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a must as it’s probably the best-known and best-loved museum in New Zealand. Get in as early as you can; it’s a popular destination, and you want to allow at least four hours. Entry is free!
By this time, we were ready for some relaxation, and staying in the center of Wellington put us close to the vibrant cafe culture, nightlife, and the best shopping. Our preference was to stay a couple of nights somewhere smaller, more interesting, and cheaper. The Cambridge Hotel fit the bill. It’s a cross between a youth hostel and a hotel, so if you opt to stay here, you’ll certainly have a colorful experience!
Week 3: Wellington, South Island, Nelson, Mararua, Murchison, Hokitika, And Franz Joseph Glacier
The next day we shopped along the Golden Mile, which starts at Courtney Place (one block from the Cambridge Hotel), and runs along Manners Street, Willis Street, and Lambton Quay.
Wellington is known for its steep hills, and the best way to explore the city views is on the Wellington Cable Car. Tickets are great value for a few bucks.
Lastly, we toured the Weta Workshop, the birthplace of the modern New Zealand film industry. The combination of our stunning natural environment, creative talents, and technical expertise have brought New Zealand its international success and acclaim.
Crossing the Cook Strait on an Interislander Ferry is one of the world’s most scenic ferry rides. On landing after an early sailing, we set our GPS to Nelson, a drive of less than two hours but decided to avoid Highway 1, opting instead for the twisty and incomparably beautiful Queen Charlotte Drive. Be warned that you will want to stop often to photograph this most scenic of drives. Having ridden my motorbike along this road many years ago, I named this my favorite of all drives in New Zealand.
After stopping off at Tahunanui Beach for a quick swim, we checked into The Grand Mercure, Nelson Monaco Apartments, which is conveniently located and reasonably priced — and most rooms have well-equipped kitchens.
Before leaving Nelson, we spent a few hours browsing the art and craft galleries clustered around Trafalgar Street and visiting the quirky World of Wearable Arts and Classic Cars Museum.
Our sights were next set on Abel Tasman National Park, named after the Dutch explorer who discovered New Zealand. The Abel Tasman Track is one of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks. The full trek takes three or four days to complete and trekkers must register in advance. We only had time for a day hike, so we spent the night at the basic but comfortable Abel Tasman Haven at Marahau and made an early start the next day. After our walk we drove on to Murchison, an 87-mile drive.
Murchison is one of those places that somehow captures your heart and makes you want to stay on. The site of a massive 1929 earthquake, Murchison is now a local adventure tourism capital that sits astride two gorgeous national parks bristling with scenery and walks. Convenient and well-priced accommodation can be found at the Murchison Motel.
For an exhilarating ride, you can hop on the Buller Canyon Jet boat and speed through the wonderful Buller Gorge for a very reasonable cost. If jet boating isn’t your thing, take a walk across New Zealand’s longest swing bridge or try your hand at gold panning or zip lining.
From Murchison, we followed the deep ravine of the Buller Gorge toward the West Coast. Along the way you can find white water rafting, awesome scenery, and some slightly hair-raising single-lane bridges, like the old Iron Bridge 33 miles from Murchison.
Arriving out on the wild West Coast, the weather can be a real lottery. These areas typically get between 80 and 120 inches of rain annually, and even in the summer it can rain for days on end, causing hundreds of cascading waterfalls. We followed the Great Coast Road south until we came to a real gem: the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. Thousands of years of weathering layered sandstone has created a wonderland of weird rock structures that look like stacks of pancakes. There is an easy walk around the area and if you time it right, with a high tide and on-shore swell, you will see and feel some spectacular blowholes.
South of Punakaiki some 35 miles, we turned off to Shantytown, a recreated gold mining town. This part of the West Coast was the site of a significant gold rush from 1864 to 1867, and for the last 50 years Shantytown has faithfully conveyed the events and lifestyle of this era to enthralled visitors. Rent a gold pan and try your luck — you never know, you might strike gold!
The sleepy West Coast town of Hokitika, 21 miles further south, is known for greenstone carving, hiking, and the unique milky blue waters of Hokitika Gorge. For a cozy bed and breakfast experience, try the Woodland Glen Lodge.
Before leaving Hokitika we visited some of the local greenstone (jade) carving workshops. Greenstone, called pounamu (pronounced poe-naa-moo) by the Maori, was traditionally used for ornaments, tools, and weapons. All naturally occurring pounamu is owned by the Ngai Tahu people, the South Island Maori, but they are happy to sell some to you.
Before you leave, make sure you visit the Hokitika Gorge, which is best viewed from the Hokitika Gorge Swing Bridge. A 20 mile-drive inland takes you to the parking lot. From here, a short walk leads you to the bridge and the view. We were mobbed by swarms of sandflies, so take insect repellent unless you want to be lunch for these tiny biting creatures.
Nine miles south of Hokitika, just past Ruatapu, is the West Coast Tree Top Walk. There are extensive forests on the West Coast, and there’s no better way of appreciating the forest than from this award-winning walkway. Mobility scooters are available for the less agile, and all walkways can be accessed by electric wheelchairs.
Next, we entered Glacier Country, the home of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, which are unusual due to their close proximity to sea level.
Many people say Franz Joseph Glacier is the better of the two, however my favorite is Fox Glacier as it’s less touristy. Although, why choose one when they are located 25 minutes apart and you are in the area? Visit both and tell me which your favorite is. If you want to actually walk on the glaciers, you must take a guided helicopter tour. There are several tour operators offering this experience.
Week 4: Fox Glacier, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Lake Tekapo, Christchurch, Akaroa, And Hanmer Springs
Our next stop is Fox Glacier, where we visited our second glacier in two days. After that, we made our way to Lake Matheson and took one of the walks around the Mirror Lakes. The lake mirrors the majestic Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, and it’s no wonder this is the most photographed lake in the country. The easy, flat walk will take you just one and a half hours and is well worth the time it takes. Otherwise, stop 20 minutes in at the lookout, where you will still enjoy excellent photo opportunities.
Mt. Cook View Motel provides a comfortable resting place.
The next leg of our journey was just 163 miles but took longer than expected due to numerous photo stops along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea.
A tree said to be the most photographed in New Zealand grows by the lake in Wanaka (#thatwanakatree). Have a look on Instagram and you’ll get ideas for the perfect photo. Arrive as the sun sets or before the sun rises. There are many great accommodation options in Wanaka to suit every budget.
The New Zealand high country has its own special beauty — best seen from above on a 4WD tour such as those run by Ridgeline Adventures.
Queenstown is an easy one-hour drive from Wanaka. Also known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, Queenstown has something for everyone: wineries, nearby gold mining towns, bungee jumping, jet boating, lake cruises, gondola rides, and excellent shopping.
From Queenstown, for a day off from driving ourselves, we hopped onto a full-day tour to Milford Sound — my all-time favorite destination in New Zealand. Described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, Milford Sound is jaw-droppingly beautiful, picturesque, and awe inspiring. Mountains rising from the sea, majestic waterfalls, jagged snowy peaks, fjords plunging hundreds of meters deep, lush rainforest: This is scenic New Zealand at its best. If you want to experience this without spending the entire day, consider a half-day helicopter tour.
For a fun, relaxed evening, we visited The Cow Pizza restaurant established in 1977. This pizzeria is my go-to place for a cheap and cheerful meal. Or check out these favorite places to eat in Queenstown.
We’d reached Day 24 of 28, and we had a 160-mile journey ahead of us. The weather wasn’t so kind and we skipped the short detour to view Mount Cook. By the time we reached Tekapo, the clouds started to lift and the lake looked magnificent. I’ve been here many times before, however I couldn’t help but visit The Church Of The Good Shepherd once more. For a small town, there are lots of activities and places to eat here.
For a relaxing evening, check into Peppers Bluewater Resort.
The largest city on the South Island, Christchurch, is 140 miles away, and we made an early start for our three-hour journey so we could arrive before lunchtime. We were too early to check into our accommodation, Novotel Christchurch Cathedral Square Hotel, and decided to relax at North Hagley Park and the beautiful Botanic Gardens.
The following day we took the windy but scenic route out to the charming seaside village of Akaroa. This small French settlement, the only one in New Zealand, is home to some fun activities, or you can just sit beside the ocean and look out for the small Hector’s dolphins.
While here, we visited the internationally acclaimed gardens at the Giant’s House. These are open all year.
It’s Day 28, and time has flown by. On an attempt to cram in as much as possible, we take one last day trip up to Hanmer Springs, about 80 miles north of Christchurch. They’re open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., so there was no need for an early start. Here, I just love the hot pools and could soak in the mineral water all day if it wasn’t for turning into a prune! When we were prunish enough, it was time to sit beside the pools and read our books — something we haven’t had much time to do. When you are hungry, give the Tea Kiosk Cafe and Grill a try — I’m sure their menu will have your mouth watering.
Reflecting on our visit, we are pleasantly exhausted and full-to-brimming with photos, memories, and even some shopping that we couldn’t wait to share with our family and friends. We spent the night packing our bags and playing a game we like to do when a holiday ends: Name your three favorite things. Here’s mine: Milford Sound, Lake Matheson, and Hahei Beach. Alan, my husband’s: The Rangitoto walk, Weta Workshop in Wellington, and the Glacier walks, both Fox and Franz Joseph.
We look forward to welcoming the readers of TravelAwaits to New Zealand and trust you will enjoy your stay.