Trying to come up with my perfect trip to New Zealand caused me some considerable dilemmas with my itinerary changing on a daily basis, but I eventually settled on a route which takes in some of the most stunning rainforests, sandy beaches, mountain passes and gorgeous scenery in the country.
I first visited New Zealand in 2003 when I trekked around one of the National Parks in the North Island followed by a month traveling around the South Island. I was smitten by the larger-than-life mountain ranges and the ever-changing scenery of this beautiful and diverse country. This sense of wonder and awe never seems to go away and on each return visit I’m amazed all over again by the translucent glacial lakes, the immensity of the ice covered Southern Alps, the stark and remote scenery of central North Island and the towns nestled into mountain ranges.
Wherever possible, my itinerary incorporates two night stays in each region as this gives the best chance to see the varied and beautiful landscapes as well as allowing for a break from driving. Of course, if I had more time this trip could easily be stretched. Although there are a range of properties available in New Zealand from motels to deluxe lodges, I have chosen mid range hotel in order to keep the cost down.
Days 1 to 2: Getting there
With limited time for my trip I would maximize my days in New Zealand by heading straight there without a stopover. Although it’s a long journey, the airlines we work with offer generous legroom and the best entertainment systems.
Day 3: Auckland
On arrival in Auckland (1), I would head to the Sky City Hotel — it is brilliantly located in the center of the city close to the Viaduct area and very good value for money. I’d try and stay awake for the rest of the day and at least part of the evening as, after years of experience, I think this is the best way to adjust to the new time zone. In the afternoon I’d take a boat trip around the harbor to see the fantastic views of the city skyline and follow it with dinner at Orbit, a revolving restaurant located at the top of 328 meter high Sky Tower.
Days 4 to 5: Coromandel Peninsula
In the morning, I’d collect my hire car and take a leisurely drive out to the Coromandel Peninsula (2). This area is the perfect place to relax after a long flight and, although only two hours from Auckland, feels like a world away from the busy city. Home to lush rainforests, white sand beaches and magnificent coastal scenery.
Days 6 to 7: Rotorua & Taupo
Next, I would head to the geothermal center of the country, Rotorua (3). There are some fascinating geysers there and the opportunity to learn a little more about Maori culture. I’d take a gondola up Mount Ngongotaha and head for the mountain-top restaurant which affords superb views of the city and Lake Rotorua. After a soak in the Polynesian Springs it is just a 40-minute drive to nearby Taupo (4) where I would stay for a couple of nights. A full day in Taupo would give me the chance to take a cruise out onto the immense Lake Taupo as well as the opportunity to see the Maori rock carvings. On a clear day there are fantastic views of Mount Ruapehu and Tongariro National Park.
Days 8 to 9: Nelson & Abel Tasman
From Taupo, I would take a flight down to Nelson (5) which is one of my favorite parts of the country. Nelson itself is a bohemian town and I love wandering around the many artists’ studios, galleries, antique shops and boutiques. The town is surrounded by three diverse and very beautiful national parks and a visit to nearby Kahurangi National Park and a walk up Mount Arthur gives spectacular views over the sandy coves of Golden Bay and Farewell Spit. Then, on to the Abel Tasman National Park which I would explore either on foot or from the comfort of a sea kayak — depending on my mood! I’d finish off with a trip out to the colony of resident seals who call the park home.
Days 10 to 12: Kaikoura & Christchurch
Next I would cruise along the beautiful Queen Charlotte Drive, via the dramatic scenery of the Marlborough Sounds, to Kaikoura (6). En route I’d stop at Blenheim, in the heart of the Sauvignon producing area, for a lunch at one of the many wineries. On reaching Kaikoura I’d go for a walk along the striking peninsula which has some stunning views of the surrounding Kaikoura Ranges. One of my favorite experiences in New Zealand is the chance to swim with dolphins in their natural habitat. Dusky dolphins, the most playful of the species, come to feed year-round in the shallow waters around Kaikoura and getting dressed up in a wetsuit with a snorkel is a truly thrilling way to spend the morning among these most beautiful of animals. After the chance for a freshly caught crayfish lunch at one of the roadside shacks, I would continue down the east coast road into Christchurch (7) and spend two nights here to give myself ample time to explore the city and the many activities it has to offer.
Day 13: Franz Josef/Fox Glacier
The best way to journey across the width of the South Island is on the TranzAlpine train over to the West Coast. This is a fantastic trip over Arthur’s Pass and is a great introduction to the dramatic mountain scenery that awaits as I continue my journey through the island. I’d then drive from Greymouth (8) down the wild West Coast into one of the two glacier townships — Franz Josef and Fox Glacier (9). I’d try and allow some time to visit nearby Lake Matheson, New Zealand’s most photographed lake, for stunning views of the Southern Alps.
Days 14 to 15: Wanaka
If the skies are clear, I would want to take a short helicopter trip over nearby Franz Josef Glacier, which ends with a landing on the glacier, giving me the opportunity to see the icy landscape up close. Next, I would tackle the long but spectacular drive through Haast Pass. Passing rainforest, wetlands and white water rivers, it is an incredible mountain drive. Although there are plenty of places to stop along the way I’d opt for a break at the Blue Pools, a series of crystal-clear, glacier-fed pools hidden in the forest. After all the adventure, I’d welcome a much needed day of leisure in and around stunning Wanaka (10). This is one of the most beautiful spots in the country and the town is situated beside the picturesque lake which is a focal point for visitors. There are some excellent walking opportunities here and the chance to explore Mount Aspiring National Park.
Days 16 to 19: Queenstown & Doubtful Sound
If the weather is clear then the Crown Range Road makes a great drive from Wanaka to Queenstown (11). I would stay in this area for a few nights as there is so much to see and do. Queenstown is the jewel in New Zealand’s crown and is flanked by three mountain ranges. Although sometimes viewed as simply the adrenaline capital of the country, this is only a small part of its appeal. A gondola trip up to Bob’s Peak to see the stunning views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu makes for an excellent introduction to the region. I would follow this with a scenic drive to Glenorchy through the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park or a cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the historic paddle steamer TSS Earnslaw. Finally, an absolute must whilst in the area is a day trip to the Fiordland National Park (12). I’d take the boat across Lake Manapouri and then hop on a bus up over Wilmott Pass into Doubtful Sound where I’d board a three-hour cruise. If I was really lucky, I might even get to see some dolphins, seals and penguins.
When to go to New Zealand
High summer in New Zealand is December, January and February but be aware that these are also the busiest months to visit. Our favorite months to travel are November and March when the weather is still mild but the crowds are nowhere to be seen. Read our full guide about when to go to New Zealand.
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