Many times when we’ve talked to people about going to New Zealand, they say they’d need 3-4 weeks to explore the country. Yes, that would be nice. Yes, there are many spots we’d like to go back and get to visit that we didn’t get to on this trip – but, isn’t that true of most countries you’ve been to?
We ended up with 12 days to explore and were able to pack A LOT of places, activities, and, of course, driving in.
Day 1 – Auckland
We arrived in Auckland around 5pm and picked up our rental car at the airport. While we weren’t overly interested in spending much time in Auckland, we decided to spend one night there instead of immediately taking off on a multi-hour drive after so much traveling. We wandered down to the harbor and ended up stumbling upon a delicious Indian restaurant called 1947 after The Depot Oyster Bar had a long wait.
Day 2 – Rotorua
We set off on a 3-hour drive to Rotorua the next morning after a quick breakfast in a nearby cafe. We decided to drive straight to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. While it is most certainly a touristy place, it was still pretty cool to walk around and check out the different geothermal pools.
After checking in to our hotel, we decided to take the gondola up to the top of the mountain and check out Volcanic Hills Winery. The views, wine, and employees make for an awesome experience if you have some time and just want to relax.
After we were done wine tasting we took the gondola back down and headed over to Eat Street Rotorua, which is exactly what it sounds like – a street full of restaurants, and naturally, moved on to beer tasting and had some dinner.
Day 3 – Lake Taupo
The next day we took the relatively short drive to Taupo after breakfast and made our way to Huka Falls. I looked up directions on the drive and it seemed like the Spa Park was the place to park. And it is. If you are prepared to hike about 5 miles round trip to get to the falls. Totally doable, but we missed the memo and did the hike in jeans – not recommended! And apparently, there IS a carpark located right near the falls if you aren’t interested in a hike. The falls were absolutely beautiful (and the hike was pretty great too).
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around and grabbing food and drinks around the lakefront.
Day 4 – Tongariro Crossing
Technically, we still stayed in Lake Taupo this night, but we just a good first chunk of our day hiking the Tongariro Crossing. In fact, a big reason we ended up spending time in the North Island was to do this hike. We had great weather – cold and windy at times but sunny and beautiful. If you like to hike and are up for a decent challenge – we ended up hiking about 14 miles (the hike claims to be 19.4km) with an elevation gain of about 2,600 feet in about 6 hours (including all of our stops to take photos and for me to keep eating and snacking), we 100% recommend it!
Day 5 – Queenstown
We drove three hours back to Auckland from Lake Taupo, dropped off our rental car, and hopped on a 90-minute flight to Queenstown. We then picked up our South Island rental car, checked into the hotel and spent the afternoon walking around town and, per usual, grabbing food and drinks. Day 5 also happened to be New Years Eve, so after a not-normal-for-this-trip afternoon siesta, we went back out for a late dinner and to catch the fireworks as we celebrated being one of the first to celebrate the new year!
Day 6 – Queenstown & Te Anau
Day 6 was a long and busy day. We started our new year off on the Nevis Swing (we opted to do the swing as we had done the Bloukrans Bridge Bungy in South Africa and thought since there was a different option to give it a shot – so. much. fun!). After the swing, we headed back into town for lunch and then decided to take the gorgeous drive up to Glenorchy. When we arrived in Glenorchy we definitely realized it was more about the drive than the destination, and with a lot of driving ahead of us, we started to make our way back to Queenstown, and then out to Te Anau, our stop on the way to Milford Sound.
Day 7 – Milford Sound
We had booked an 11:10am ferry on the Mitre Peak ferry (one of the smaller boats) which meant we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn (which is quite early in the summer in New Zealand!). On the way there we stopped a few times to take some photos – my first word of advice, leave well in advance of when you need to get to the ferry…OR plan to stop for photos on the way BACK. By the time we got to Milford Sound we were running to catch our boat (sidenote: their parking situation doesn’t help your timetable either – be prepared!). Luckily, we made it on the boat in time and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. For a place that gets 200+ days of rain a year and if you’ve read about it, you’ve read to expect cloud, fog, and rain, we were granted blue skies and sunshine.
We enjoyed our two-hour ferry ride, grabbed a bite to eat in the cafe (I’d recommend bringing your own food if you can to avoid waiting in a long line of just okay food at the cafe), and then we were off to make the long drive back to Queenstown. My second piece of advice, make sure you have enough gas, and that the person driving understands that there is NO gas, I repeat, NO gas, in Milford Sound. By another stroke of luck, we made it back to Te Anau (with the gas light on) and then onwards to Queenstown.
Day 8 – Queenstown & Wanaka
Waking up in Queenstown meant it was time for another adventure. While there are shotover jetboats all over the country, the boats right outside of Queenstown take you through a canyon which looked absolutely beautiful. And, it was. It was also really, really fun.
After the shotover jet we decided to take the Crown Range road to Wanaka. A beautiful drive that takes you right past the Cardrona Hotel where you can stop for a bite to eat and a drink. We, however, decided to continue on to Wanaka.
As we neared Wanaka, we could see a lot of smoke over the mountains — and it turned out the mountainside right above Wanaka had caught on fire just that afternoon. In true New Zealand fashion, no one seemed all that worried about it. I suppose when the fire is right next to a giant lake and you have an abundance of helicopters to grab water from the lake to pour on the fire, it’s really not so bad.
Per usual, we went to town and wandered around to a few places grabbing bites to eat and glasses of wine, and then made our way down to That Wanaka Tree as the sun began to set. I’m not sure if there is ever a time when no one is taking a photo of that tree, but a crowd was definitely growing around sunset!
Day 9 – Wanaka
The next morning we decided to wake around sunrise to catch another glimpse of the tree (I know, who are we?!). While less of a crowd around 6am, there were still a handful of dedicated photographers hanging around.
After a few photos we went back to our Airbnb to catch a little more sleep before we hopefully hiked Roy’s Peak. The mountainside that had been smoldering the night before as we made our way home had growing flames again so we weren’t sure if the nearby trail would be open.
And then, unfortunately, it was closed for the day. Our runner-up choice, however, did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a shorter hike than Roy’s Peak (or another hike in addition), we definitely recommend the Diamond Lake / Rocky Mountain Summit track.
After the hike we decided to check out some of the local wineries, Rippon Vineyard and Maude Wines. We’ll go into more detail in our Wanaka post, but the experiences at both could not have been more different. What Rippon offered in breathtaking views, Maude offered in a relaxing atmosphere and wonderful service.
After a bit of wine (and plenty of cheese) we were on the road again to spend the night in Omarama. Like Te Anau, Omarama served the purpose of a place to stay that was relatively close to Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park.
Day 10 – Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park
We had been so incredibly lucky with our weather so far. And then, the day we were scheduled to take a ski plane flight over Mount Cook, the Tasman Glacier, land on a snowfield, and then take a helicopter back down, the weather turned. While bummed our excursion was canceled, there was really nothing to do besides make the best of it.
So, we drove to Aoraki National Park, past the beautiful blue Lake Pukaki, and took a short hike to the Tasman glacial lake. Then we hiked about 7 miles roundtrip on the Hooker Valley Track, stopping at that glacial lake to pop our New Zealand bubbles from Maude Wines that had been reserved for our helicopter adventure. We had a blast on the hike, even in the rain, so I highly recommend it, especially if you have sunny weather!
Day 11 – Lake Tekapo & Christchurch
We spent the previous night in Lake Tekapo. Originally, our plan was to wake up in the morning, check out the lake and The Church of the Good Sheppard, and start the 3-hour drive to Christchurch. But, on our way into Lake Tekapo the night before we passed Air Safaris and learned that we could do a helicopter ride or scenic flight from there. The weather was not so bad but also not so great when we woke up that morning, so we ended up hanging around the lake longer than expected seeing if we could make our last adventure of the trip happen. Well, the weather never got great enough for a helicopter ride and landing, but we were able to take an amazing 60-minute flight over amazing scenery – we flew past the Mount Cook summit, and even flew over Franz and Fox Glaciers!
That meant that we didn’t arrive in Christchurch until about 8pm – leaving us time for dinner and officially packing our bags to go home. While we didn’t get to see much of Christchurch, we did stay in the Merivale neighborhood which put us in walking distance of any type of restaurant you could imagine.
Day 12 – Waiheke Island
We woke up the next morning, dropped off our rental car, and took a quick one-hour flight to Auckland. From there, we hopped on a 40-minute ferry to Waiheke Island and took a Hop On, Hop Off bus around the island, stopping at a couple of wineries for lunch and…well, wine of course. It was a gorgeous summer day and the perfect relaxing way to end our trip. I’m pretty sure if I lived in Auckland I would be a regular visitor of Waiheke!
So there you go. Our trip in a nutshell. There were plenty of areas of New Zealand we didn’t get to explore and things we didn’t have time to do and we plan to make it back there one day (hopefully soon!). Stay tuned for more in-depth blog posts of different places we visited and things we did!