Small boat Cruise on Milford Sound

New Zealand 3 Week Itinerary – North and South Islands

For many years New Zealand has been a coveted destination. More people are discovering this piece of paradise after great shout outs from publications like Lonely Planet and Conde Nast Traveler. So, it’s time you got there and had a look for yourself. In this article we’ll offer our suggestions for a three week itinerary of New Zealand, covering both the North and South Islands.

One of the most frequently asked question is how long should I visit for? Like any country it depends on how deep you want to dig, but with time being a precious commodity our suggestion is three weeks. Our article here, How long should I visit New Zealand? might answer some of your questions. If three-weeks is a stretch for you, a lot of ground can still be covered in two weeks so take a look at this itinerary, New Zealand Two-Week Itinerary.

New Zealand has spectacular scenery, a serious outdoors bent, it oozes culture, art, excellent cuisine and much more. But paramount to travel these days is safety. Without it, you wouldn’t go. The good thing is New Zealand is an extremely safe country to visit, it’s politically stable and the air so fresh you can bite it. So, whether you are thinking of visiting it on your own, or travelling in a group, here’s a great article to help clarify your thinking.

There is another alternative if time is of the essence. That is explore one island and come back at a later date and explore the other. This way you will do each island justice, without feeling rushed. Here are some single island itineraries for the North Island and South Island. You can compare what there is to see and do and decide which one appeals to you more.

Lastly, an important factor to consider is how to get around. New Zealand is a long country, 2,000 kilometres from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island with a population of 4.5 million. While we have good public transport, we don’t have the population to sustain an infrastructure like in some parts of Europe. So, whether you’re thinking of driving independently, busing or a combination, this link ‘How to travel around New Zealand?’ will set you right.

So here it is, a three week itinerary that will showcase New Zealand and make you fall in love with it.

North Island of New Zealand

The North Island is known for its volcanic activity, national parks and cosmopolitan cities. It’s home to about three-quarters of New Zealand’s population and has the country’s largest city, Auckland.

Day 1-2: Auckland

While Auckland is our biggest city, it is not the capital city. Wellington is the political hub, while many describe Auckland as the ‘engine room,’ with many small to medium businesses contributing to the economy.

The city is situated on the Hauraki Gulf so magnificent water view are a part of what makes Auckland so spectacular.

A large section of the business district is in the vicinity of the Viaduct Harbour, Wynyard Quarter and Princes Wharf. It’s a beautiful part of the city to walk with many great restaurants and cafés. From here it’s easy to take a ferry to several of the smaller islands in the gulf.

  • Devonport is a delightful seaside village just 10 minutes from downtown Auckland by ferry. Stroll around, have lunch and enjoy the ambiance of this quaint village.
  • Rangitoto Island is New Zealand’s newest volcano. It literally popped up in the harbour 600 years ago. Take a ferry to the island and enjoy the walk to the top and spectacular view over the Hauraki Gulf and back to the city.
  • Waiheke Island is a 40-minute ferry ride. On the island, you will find a number of excellent beaches and some first-class vineyards. Try Cable Bay or Mudbrick for a mouth-watering lunch. If you are into your wines spend a few hours doing a wine tour on the island.
  • Tiritiri Matangi Island is a wildlife sanctuaries and one of New Zealand’s most important and exciting conservation projects. Here you will see some of our beautiful native birds.
  • For a little culture visit Auckland’s Museum and Art Gallery. Also, go to the top of the Sky City where you will get a magnificent view of the city.

Auckland Accommodation options:

Luxury: There are some beautiful places to stay in Auckland if you are looking for a little luxury. If you’re wanting to be away from the bustle of the city Delamore Lodge on Waiheke Island is a great option. However, if you want to be more central, Hotel De Brett is a small, boutique hotel in the city.

Hotels: There are a number of excellent 5-star hotels including Hilton Auckland, Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour Hotel and Skycity Grand.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: The pick of the bunch is Takapuna Beach Holiday Park. While it is a little tired, it’s located on one of Auckland best beaches, with the Takapuna Beach Cafe next door.

Budget: As well as number of backpacker’s hostels including Auckland, there are a number of very reasonably priced apartments. Take a look at Quest Auckland.

Walking on the beach at Russell, Bay of Islands

Day 3-5: Auckland – Bay of Islands

Three hours north from Auckland is an area known as the Bay of Islands. There are two towns well worth a visit, Russell and Paihia

  • Russell is historic and quaint and was the first place the Europeans settled in New Zealand. Paihia is known as the gateway to the Bay of Island with ferries available to take you to a myriad of fabulous beaches, dive sites and wildlife. You can swim with the dolphins, fish, kayak or enjoy the famous ‘hole in the rock’ cruise.
  • Nearby is Waitangi, a place of great significance for New Zealand. It was here the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement between the British Crown and Maori Chiefs was signed in 1840.
  • You can also visit the Waipoua Kauri Forest where you can see the giant old Kauri tree, Tane Mahuta. It is estimated to be between 1,250 and 2,500 years old.
  • From the Bay of Islands, take a bus trip to the very tip of the North Island, Cape Reinga traveling along 90-miles beach.

Bay of Islands Accommodation options:

Luxury: There are two luxury lodges north of Auckland. Eagles Nest Lodge in Russell and The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs is just out of Kerikeri. Both are stunning but for golf enthusiasts, Kauri Cliffs has a magnificent golf course.

Hotels: There are many 4 and 5 star hotels in the Bay of Islands. It really depends on where you want to base yourselves. These two are in Paihia Tarlton’s Lodge and The Waterfront Suites Paihia. The Duke of Malborough is in Russell.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Again, there are plenty of options if you are looking for a holiday park. Take a look at this one. Bay of Islands Holiday Apartments and Campervan Park.

Budget: Saltwater Lodge Backpackers is Paihia’s only purpose built, 5 star Qualmark-rated backpackers lodge. It’s great.

Auckland to Northland Itinerary Map:

Distance 232 km (144 miles) from Bay of Islands to Auckland one way.

Drive time 3 h 30min 

Total distance 575 km (357 miles) Auckland to the Bay of Islands and returning via Waipoua Kauri Forest.

Drive time 8 hours, you would do this over several days.

Day 6: Auckland – Matamata (Hobbiton)

After returning to Auckland from your Bay of Islands, head south for approximately two hours to Matamata. Matamata is a town in the shadow of the Kaimai Range Mountains in the Waikato region. It was put on the map after the Hobbiton Movie Set was created for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films. If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit you must go to Hobbiton.

  • A menu of tours run daily. Get to experience the real Middle-earth at the Hobbiton Movie Set, where, in the heart of the Waikato region you can step into the lush pastures of the Shire, as seen in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

Matamata Accommodation options:

Luxury: There is no luxury accommodation in Matamata.

Hotels /Motels: Matamata Central Motel is fully serviced, self-contained accommodation. There is also the Horse and Jockey Inn right in the heart of Matamata.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Opal Hot Springs and Holiday Park

Budget: Matamata Backpackers Hostel

How to get there:

Distance 160 km (99 miles) from Auckland to Matamata. 

Drive time 1 h 58 min

Gandalf the Wizard at Hobbiton

Days 7 – 8: Matamata – Rotorua and Taupo 

Rotorua is just an hour from Matamata and is famous on two counts. It is the hub of ‘Maoridom’, Maori culture and is a significant geothermal area.

  • Have an authentic Maori experience and visit Tamaki Maori Village. Here you will see Maori dancing and enjoy a traditional Maori dinner called hangi. The food is slow-cooked underground from the heat from hot rocks.
  • As well as being culturally significant, Rotorua is one of New Zealand’s largest geothermal areas. Visit the Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Village and see bubbling mud and a 30-metre tall Geyser that erupts many times a day.
  • If you want to enjoy the therapeutic benefits for the geothermal areas and the hot mineral water that flows from the earth, go to Polynesia Spa and enjoy.
  • Lake Taupo is one hour drive from Rotorua and is one of the world’s largest carter lakes. It was created 2,000 years ago when a volcanic eruption threw ash so high, the skies of China darkened. The lake is famous for its recreational activities including trout fishing. Charter a boat and try you luck at trout fishing.

Rotorua / Taupo Accommodation options:

Luxury: There are two superb lodges in the area. Huka Lodge is on the banks of the Waikato River in Taupo. From Solitare Lodge in Rotorua you will enjoy breathtaking views over Lake Tarawera.

Hotels: There are many great hotels in the Rotorua / Taupo areas. Try The Hilton Lake Taupo or the Regent of Rotorua.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Enjoy the hot mineral spa at the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park.

Budget: Base backpackers Rotorua

How to get there:

Distance 67 km (41 miles) from Matamata to Rotorua.

Drive time 50 min 

Distance 81 km (50 miles) from Rotorua to Taupo

Drive time 60 min

Days 9-10: Taupo –Tongariro National Park

In the centre of the North Island 1.5 hours from Lake Taupo is the Central Plateau and the Tongariro National Park. The region is rugged and barren with three active volcanos, Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro dominating the landscape.

  • If you enjoy hiking there are a number of short walks starting at Whakapapa Village, including Taranaki Falls and Silica Rapids.
  • At Whakapapa Village is an excellent information centre. Call in and learn about the region.
  • If you are into more serious hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best day walks in the world.
  • On Mount Ruapehu is the Whakapapa Ski Field. During both the summer and winter months catch a chairlift up the mountains to the Knoll Ridge Café, the highest café in New Zealand at 2020 metres above sea level and enjoy the alpine vista.

Tongariro National Park Accommodation options:

Hotels: On the other side of Mt Ruapehu is Turoa ski field, near the town of Ohakune. The Powderhorn Chateau is the place to stay.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Ohakune Top 10 Holiday Park.

Budget: Tongariro National Park Backpackers and Hostel

How to get there:

Distance 103 km (64 miles) from Taupo to the Tongariro National Park. 

Drive time 1 h 25 min

Couple enjoying volcanic landscape at Tongariro National Park

Days 11-12: Tongariro National Park – Wellington 

Wellington is a four-hour drive from the Central Plateau. It’s the capital of New Zealand with a population of approximately 300,000 residents. As well as the capital, it is also known as the ‘cultural centre’ of New Zealand.

  • Don’t miss a visit to New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa. It’ll give you an in-depth informative experience of what Aotearoa/New Zealand is all about, from its geological origin to its native species, as well as its human history. It’s interactive and it’s fun.
  • To get a good view of the city take a ride up the Cable Car from Lambton Quay in the business district to Kelburn, alongside Victoria University.
  • Weta Studios is well worth a visit if you are a Lord of the Rings fan. Here you’ll find props from Lord of the Rings and other films.
  • If you are interested in politics takes a guided tour of Parliament and learn about our parliamentary process.

Wellington Accommodation options:

Luxury: Wellesley Boutique Hotel is a good option located in the heart of the city.

Hotels: There are many good choices. Take a look at these options. Sofitel, The Bolton, and Ohtel. However, if you are looking for a fabulous, quirky, arty hotel stay at The Museum Hotel.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Wellington Top 10 Holiday Park

Budget: Hotel Waterloo and Backpackers

How to get there:

Distance 343 km (213 miles) from Tongariro National Park to Wellington. 

Drive time 4 h 20 min

South Island of New Zealand

While you can fly from the North to the South Island the most scenic way to make the journey is on one of the Interisland Ferries. Enjoy the 3.5-hour journey as you cruise out of Wellington Harbour. Once though the strait, you will come into Queen Charlotte Sound. Make sure you are outside on the ferry so you can enjoy the natural beauty.

Day 13-14: Wellington – Nelson

The Interisland ferries berths in Picton at the top of the South Island. From here it is approximately 1.5 hours to Nelson by car.

  • Picton is a delightful seaside town and the gateway to the South Island.
  • Marlborough Wine Region– driving south from Picton it’s well worth exploring the Marlborough wine region and stopping for lunch at one of the many wineries. Try Twelve Trees at Allan Scott Family Winemakers and don’t forget to try the world-famous Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Nelson is known for its local arts and crafts stores and art galleries. It’s also a popular base for exploring the Abel Tasman National Park. The coastal paradise can be walked or explored by boat, sailing catamaran, sea kayak or water taxi depending on your desired level of physical exertion.

Nelson Accommodation options:

Luxury: The Waters is a luxurious boutique bed and breakfast.

Hotels: Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco is on the water about 15 minutes from Nelson Airport, whereas the The Hotel Rutherford is right in the centre of town.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Marahau Beach Camp is located steps away from Marahau Beach and is next to the departure point for sea kayaking and water taxi trips into the Abel Tasman National Park.

Budget: Tasman Bay Backpackers

How to get there:

Ferry from Wellington to Picton 3h 30 min. 

Distance 133 km (82 miles) from Picton to Nelson.

Drive time 1 h 50 min

Split Apple Rock in the beautiful sea at Abel Tasman Park

Day 15: Nelson – Kaikoura 

Leaving Nelson allow 3.5 hours’ drive time to get to Kaikoura. This small coastal town has one of the most interesting and accessible coastlines, abundant with wildlife and whales.

  • Take a cruise with Kaikoura Whale Watch and see these magnificent creatures up close, as well as dolphins and seas.
  • Kaikoura Albatross Encounter – Expert guided boats will get you close to over 14 species of pelagic birds including albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, shags, terns and more.
  • Nins Bin – Crayfish (lobster) are a delicacy in New Zealand, but not a particularly cheap one. They are plentiful on Kaikoura’s rock coastline so head to Nins Bin, by a cooked crayfish and enjoy it in the beach with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

Kaikoura Accommodation options:

Hotels / Motels: Kaikoura Boutique Hotel is an enchanting boutique hotel on Kaikoura’s waterfront esplanade. As an alternative try White Morph Motor Lodge

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Alpine Holiday Park Kaikoura

Budget: Dusky Lodge and Backpackers

How to get there:

Distance 243 km (150 miles) from Nelson to Kaikoura.

Drive time 3 h 30 min 

Day 16: Kaikoura – Christchurch

Allow 2.5 hours to reach Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island. It’s known for its English heritage and is one of the world’s most unique destinations, combining urban regeneration and innovation with heritage and culture.

  • The city’s award-winning Botanic Gardens are well worth a look if you are interested in gardening.
  • Enjoy the tranquillity of the Avon River and allow a punter in traditional Edwardian attire, propel you slowly along the water.

Day 17-18: Christchurch to Mount Cook

Aoraki Mount Cook lies in the Southern Alps, the mountain range which runs the length of the South Island. The mountain is part of the very mountainous Mount Cook National Park, with 19 peaks over 3000 metres including New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook. As the crow flies Franz Joseph and Mount Cook are only 23 km (14 miles) apart, but to get from one to the other you need to circumnavigate the Mount Cook National Park.

  • Explore the Tasman Valley on foot.
  • Kayak on the glacier lakes.
  • Discover the Sir Edmond Hillary Alpine Centre – it’s a tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the world’s greatest explorers. The centre showcases the Aoraki/Mount Cook region, its people and its place in the universe.
  • Take a helicopter ride up and over the glacier landing on the ice. The Tasman Glacier is 27km long and up to 4km wide. It’s the largest of New Zealand’s glaciers, but it’s melting fast, losing hundreds of metres of length each year.
  • Enjoy the Old Mountaineer’s Café. Relax with the memorabilia and enjoy the mountain views. It is the village’s best eatery with a delicious all-day menu.
Walkers in Mt Cook National Park

Mt Cook Accommodation options: 

Hotels / Motels: The Hermitage Hotel, Aoraki Court Motel.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: White Horse Hill Campsite

Budget: YHA Aoraki

How to get there:

Distance 181 km (112 miles) from Kaikoura to Christchurch. Drive time 6 h 30 min. 

Distance 333 km (207 miles) from Christchurch to Aoraki Mt Cook. Drive time 4 h 15 min.

Day 19-20: Mount Cook to Queenstown, via Wanaka

On route to Queenstown, you will pass through the resort town of Wanaka.

Set on the southern end of lake Wanaka with views of the snow-capped mountains. In winter, the town is alive as skier’s flock to enjoy Treble Cone and Cardrona ski resorts.

It’s also the gateway to the Southern Alps’ Mount Aspiring National Park, a wilderness of glaciers, beech forests and alpine lakes. An hour on from Wanaka over the Crown Range is one of new Zealand’s most acclaimed gems, Queenstown. It’s surrounded by mountains and sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. With so many outdoor and extreme activities to do it’s known as the ‘adventure capital of the world.’

  • Shotover Canyon is a ride not to be missed. Enjoy the spectacular scenery in a jet boat
  • Amisfield Bistro is an iconic institution just out of Queenstown in Arrowtown. They pride themselves with fresh, local produce and create theatre with the food as they feed from you from the ‘Trust the Chef Menu.’
  • If you want to eat the best burger ever created try Fergburger. This busy joint in the heart of Queenstown is famous for their high-end, inventive burgers. They queues are long, but don’t be put off, it’s a slick operation.
  • Bungy Jumping. While it might not be your thing, New Zealander adventurer A.J. Hackett started the very first commercial bungee site in Queenstown.
  • Skiing – Queenstown has four ski resorts, Coronet Peak, the Remarkables, Cardrona and Treble Cone making it a winter wonderland for skier.
  • Arrowtown – Just 15 minutes from Queenstown is an old gold mining town, Arrowtown. Inhabited by the Chinese in the 1860’s during the gold rush visit the old gold mining village.
  • TSS Earnslaw -is a 1912 Edwardian vintage steamer and is one of the best ways to see Queenstown’s surrounding landscape.
  • Dart River – The Dart River is at the Glenorchy end of Lake Wakatipu, about 45 minutes from Queenstown. The drive has been rated as one of the top ten scenic drives in the world. Enjoy the wilderness of the river on horseback, in a Jet Boat or in a kayak.
Jetboats on the Dart River near Queenstown

Queenstown Accommodation options 

Luxury: This stunning, luxury lodge, Blanket Bay is located on the way to Glenorchy at the northern most tip pf Lake Wakatipu. Equally as good, is Matakauri. Also located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Matakauri looks out to the mountains, The Remarkables, Cecil and Walter Peak.

Hotels: There is no shortage of great accommodation in Queenstown, but because of its popularity, book early to avoid disappointment. These two hotels are located within walking distance of the town. Millennium Hotel Queenstown and Novotel Queenstown.

Motorhome/Holiday Parks: Queenstown Top Holiday Park.

Budget: Nomad’s Queenstown.

How to get there:

Distance 276 km (171 miles) from Mount Cook to Queenstown via Wanaka. 

Drive time 3h 45 min

Day 21: Queenstown – Milford Sound – Queenstown

You can’t visit Queenstown without going to the Milford Sound. It’s a fiord, not far from Queenstown known for its towering Mitre Peak, rainforests and waterfalls like which plummet down its sheer sides. The fiord is home to fur seal colonies, penguins and dolphins.

The quickest way to get there is by helicopter or fixed wing plane. The alternate is by bus and while the scenery is spectacular it does take longer.

  • Once in the sound task a cruise in the fiord, out to the Tasman ocean and enjoy the wildlife and unsurpassed scenery.
  • Alternatively, spend a night on the fiord and enjoy the Milford Sound Mariner Overnight Cruise.

How to get there:

Queenstown to Milford Sound Itinerary Route Map

Distance 287 km (178 miles) from Queenstown to Milford. 

Time 3 h 45 min. If you’re driving allow more time than this so you can stop and enjoy all the sights along the way.

Flight time 30 min Milford Sound to Queenstown.

West Coast add on (2 – 3 days)

For anyone who would like to spend a few more days on the road and see another spectacular part of the country, we recommend a couple of days travelling from the Southern Lakes (Queenstown & Wanaka) via Glacier Country and Punakaiki back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass.

The drive from Queenstown or Wanaka in the Southern Lakes to Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast will take around five hours through the stunning Mt Aspiring National Park, over the Haast Pass and into Glacier Country. The journey itself is memorable and well worth it to see the 12-kilometre-long (7.5 miles) glacier. It is the steepest glacier in New Zealand, descending from its 11 origins high in the Southern Alps deep into the lush native rainforest of Westland National Park.

Travellers enjoying the views at Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast
  • Experience the ultimate glacier adventure and choose from a range of spectacular glacier tours and experiences from Heli hikes, Heli ice climbs and glacial valley walks.It is moving faster than your average glacier at around 50cm per day. This is creating some truly incredible features, including ice caves, tunnels, seracs and crevasses, all of which are constantly changing and evolving. 
  • Spend some time in the stunning limestone environment of Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks. From just a few hours to enjoy short walks like the Truman Track or Pororari River, to a little longer for exploring the underworld a little deeper on a guided caving tour.
  • Traversing the Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass is a great way to finish your journey, with plenty of scenic spots and short walks like the Punchbowl Falls, Arthur’s Pass Walkway, Castle Hill and Cave Stream all well worth the stop. Keep an eye out for our native cheeky Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, in and around the high country of Arthur’s Pass village.

How to get there:

Distance 350 km (220 miles) from Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier. Drive time 4h 40 min.

Distance 217 km (135 miles) from Franz Josef Glacier to Punakaiki. Drive time 2h 55 min.

Distance 288 km (179 miles) from Punakaiki to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. Drive time 4h 00 min.

When you visit a country for the first time we know it can be overwhelming trying to figure out exactly where to go and what to see. This itinerary is based on our Kakapo three week tour, a “best of New Zealand” highlights package over three weeks. Guests tell us they love the depth this itinerary covers New Zealand at the same time as allowing time to stop and smell the roses along the way. Find out more about our Kakapo tour here.

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Kakapo 21 Day Tour

The ultimate New Zealand small group itinerary, this is the very best of our country. Milford Sound, Queenstown, Mt Cook, Abel Tasman, Tongariro, Rotorua, the Bay of Islands and a few more surprises. Small friendly groups led by our expert Kiwi Guides.
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