New Zealand: a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time! I only had two weeks at the end of December to work with, which is the time usually recommended to visit just one of the two main islands. I was determined to visit both the North and South Islands, since they offer different scenery and experiences. After much research and planning, here’s what I came up with:
Day 1: Queenstown to Te Anau
Day 2: Te Anau to Milford Sound
Day 3: Milford Sound to Queenstown
Day 4: Queenstown to Christchurch via Mt. Cook
Day 5: Christchurch to Kaikoura
Day 6: Kaikoura to Wellington via Cook Strait
Day 7: Wellington
Day 8: Wellington to Taupo
Day 9: Taupo
Day 10: Taupo to Rotorua
Day 11: Rotorua to Waitomo
Day 12: Waitomo to Whitianga
Day 13: Whitianga to Auckland
About the Itinerary
We traveled independently for the first part of the trip (Days 1-4). We mostly stuck to the plan, but definitely had time to do some spontaneous things or to just relax. Given the few days I had to visit the South Island before joining up with a tour group, we made the most of our time without feeling too rushed or overwhelmed.
During the second part of our trip, we joined up with a group from Haka Tours to explore the South Island for a few more days before touring the North Island. The North Island Adventure Tour included a lot of fun activities. We did some sightseeing, cooked meals together, made “surprise” stops on our road trips, and went on lots of crazy adventures. I usually don’t travel on group tours, but this was the BEST of both worlds. It’s great for any budget, since they have an “a la carte” option for activities. But even if you don’t book any extra add-ons, you’ll do a lot and have a great time. Accommodations are in hostels, but they are clean and safe. Our group was a mix of friends and solo travelers from all over the world, and we got along great. Our tour guide was fabulous. She was organized, yet flexible, and gave us lots of options of things to do and plenty of free time. It was nice to be able to kick back and let someone else do the planning and driving for a change. I include our amazing itinerary put together by Haka Tours below starting from Day 5.
DAY 1: QUEENSTOWN TO TE ANAU
We arrived in Queenstown in the morning and hit the ground running. We picked up our rental car from Go Rentals and drove into town (on the left!) to get some food before we set off on our mini road trip. We also grabbed some cookies at the famous Cookie Time store because they are that good.
Road to Glenorchy
Go on one of the most scenic drives of the country: The Road to Glenorchy. It takes about 45 minutes from Queenstown to the town of Glenorchy. Photo stop at Bennet’s Bluff at the 25km marker for great views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountains. You can’t miss it. It’s a curved shoulder where you’ll likely see other cars pulled over to capture the beautiful scenery.
Lord of the Rings Horseback Riding & 4×4 Tour
While you are in Glenorchy, don’t miss the opportunity to see some of the filming locations from movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wolverine, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Even better, go on the afternoon horseback riding tour with Dart Stables which also includes a 4×4 tour to the town of Paradise. Read about my experience on the Ride of the Rings tour here.
Video: LOTR Horseback Riding Tour: Glenorchy, NZ with Dart Stables
Drive to Te Anau for an overnight stay.
Hotel: Aden Motel
DAY 2: TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND
Road to Milford SoundDrive along the Road to Milford Sound from Te Anau. There are several suggested scenic stops and hikes along the way. Allow enough time to make any stops you want. This drive can take anywhere from 2 hours to a whole day. Check out this brochure from the NZ Dept. of Conservation’s website for more suggested stops and travel tips.
Suggested Stop #1: Mirror Lakes
This is a short stop right off the highway, perfect to stretch your legs for 10 minutes. There’s a small path that leads to several viewing points of small lakes that provide amazing reflective views of the Earl mountains. Your best chance to see a perfect “mirror” reflection is on an overcast day (with no rain) and the earlier in the day, the better.
Suggested Stop #2: Hike to Key Summit
Enjoy this 3-hr return hike along the famous Routeburn track to Key Summit with its mossy trees and silver ferns – a temperate rain forest. After about an hour from the start of the hike at the car park, the path branches off on a 20-25 min (rather steep) climb to the Key Summit for views of Fiordland National Park. There’s also a self-guided looped nature walk at the summit. It’s a beautiful hike even on the foggiest of days!
Video: Hiking to Key Summit
Nature Cruise on Milford Sound
Take an afternoon nature cruise on Milford Sound to spot penguins, whales, dolphins, seals, and more. I recommend booking with Southern Discoveries for a small boat experience.
Video: Milford Sound Encounter Nature Cruise
Overnight stay in Milford Sound.
Hotel: Milford Sound Lodge
DAY 3: MILFORD SOUND TO QUEENSTOWN
Kayak Tour of Milford Sound
Sea kayaking is the best way to see Milford Sound. I recommend booking with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks on an early morning tour of Milford Sound and Lady Bowen Falls, the highest waterfall.
Video: Kayaking Milford Sound
Road to Milford Sound
You’ll take the same road back to Queenstown. I suggest stopping at the following places:
Suggested Stop #3: The Chasm
Stop at The Chasm for a 20 minute return loop walk through the forest and past some seriously powerful waterfalls. On your way back to the parking lot, keep your eye out for a small green electric box on the left that marks a secret path down the hill to the secret pools!
Suggested Stop #4: Lake Gunn Nature Walk
This walk is accessed from the Cascade Creek stop and takes you through a forest of tall red beech trees to the banks of Lake Gunn. There’s lots of birdlife and small side trips off the main path to sheltered lake beaches for a picnic. The walk is an easy, looped path and takes about 45-min round-trip.
Video: The Road to Milford Sound
Shotover Jet Ride
If you’re like me and you love thrilling adventures, you must go on “The World’s Most Exciting Jet Boat Ride” with Shotover Jet. It was so much fun! The boat ride is unique in that it spins 360 degrees, goes extremely fast, and gets really close to the canyon walls–making you think you’re going to hit. But it never does! You’ll scream, laugh, get splashed, and get your breathe taken away on the most exhilarating boat ride you’ll ever take. I highly recommend it!
Video: Shotover Jet Boat Ride
Skyline Gondola & Luge Ride
Ride the Gondola up the hill for great views of the city and surrounding mountains. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a ride or two on the Skyline Luge located at the top; if you’re feeling cray, sign up for a bungy jump or two.
Video: Queenstown Skyline Gondola & Luge
When you’re feeling hungry, don’t miss the best burgers in New Zealand at Fergburger. Order the “Tropical Swine” and you will not be disappointed! There will most likely be a long line (because it’s super popular), but it’s totally worth it. Or, you can do what the locals do and order ahead over the phone and bypass the line to pickup your food.
Overnight in Queenstown.
Hotel: Haka Lodge Queenstown
DAY 4: QUEENSTOWN TO CHRISTCHURCH VIA MT.COOK
The drive from Queenstown to Christchurch takes about 6 hours direct, however you can break up the drive with several stops along the way. It’s very scenic. We were in awe at all the different landscapes we saw and the amazing views around every corner. You’ll want to stop every 10 minutes to take selfies with sheep, jumping photos in front of mountains, and pictures of all the colorful lupins and turquoise lakes.
Hike Hooker Valley Track
I’d say the Hooker Valley Track is one of the best half-day hikes in New Zealand, taking only about 3-4 hours round-trip. It’s mostly flat, crosses a few fun bouncy suspension bridges (great for photo ops), has varying landscape, and best of all, has epic mountain views! If you’re lucky to be hiking on a clear day– you’ll enjoy views of the peak of Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. The hike ends at a glacial lake with icebergs!! A perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
Video: Hiking the Hooker Valley Track to Mt. Cook
Explore the shores of beautiful turquoise-colored Lake Tekapo. If you visit during the end of the Spring/beginning of the Summer season, you’ll be able to enjoy the colorful lupins that surround the lake. Nearby, check out The Church of the Good Shepherd and the Sheepdog statue. If time allows, drive or hike up to the top of Mount John to check out the observatory and the amazing views. I wish we could have stayed the night at Lake Tekapo, because I’ve heard it’s been ranked as one of the best spots in the world for stargazing. I’m putting that on my list of things to do when I go back!
Continue on to Christchurch to return rental car. Overnight in Christchurch.
Hotel: YHA Christchurch