North & South Island Itinerary

What people always tell us they are most amazed at in New Zealand is the unbelievable variety of landscapes you see in such short travel times. Someone once said to me New Zealand it a ‘poor man’s trip around the world’, which took me a while to process, but she explained that visiting New Zealand is like travelling around the world all the same country (it was the poor man’s bit that I was struggling with).

It’s true, a travel itinerary taking in both New Zealand’s North and South Islands will take it all in – from the pristine beaches of ‘the winterless north’ and the volcanoes, boiling mud and Maori culture of the north to the Himalayan like peaks and lush rainforest of the south. You could be in Hawaii, Switzerland, Costa Rica, but no, it’s all down here on ‘Godzone’ as we call it. 

And if you’re coming from overseas you’re luckier than most Kiwis, you’ll be able to see both islands on your trip, most of us tend to stick to just one when we take our holidays. It’s always good to know you’re getting one up on the locals.

Say you’ve got around two weeks and want to see both islands, here’s our pick for the best of both worlds:

Day 1 – Auckland – Karangahake Gorge, Te Puke, Lake Rotoiti, Rotorua

We live in Auckland, so it’d be pretty sad if we couldn’t come up with a fantastic day from our home to Rotorua now wouldn’t it! First stop is the excellent short walk and mining relics at the Karangahake Gorge, on State Highway 2. When overseas mates come to visit, they always tell us they want to learn about Kiwifruit, and as it happens this area is the Kiwifruit capital. Drop in and see our friends Ronnie and Donnie at Kiwi 360, they’ll even give you a taste of the fruit right off the vine, funny how it tastes so much better this way! Grab some lunch around here then head on down toward the Rotorua Lakes, here’s our tip for the perfect trip out on the lake – give our mate Matt at Pure Cruise a ring and he’ll take you out on his yacht over to the hot pools on the other side of Lake Rotoiti, they’ll have you back in time to get to Rotorua for dinner. Most other travellers just rush down from Auckland to Rotorua, but follow our little tips here to make your day one you’ll never forget.

Group outside Ohinemutu Maori meeting house Rotorua - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 2 – Full Day in Rotorua

When you’re on the good old Kiwi Road trip, it’s good to break it up with a couple of nights in the same bed every now and then, Rotorua’s a good spot for that. We love staying right down on the Lakeside where everything’s in close walking distance including the museum, government gardens and Ohinemutu Maori village . Stroll down the Lakeside to the marae and their church, look out for the stained glass panel showing Jesus in a Maori cloak. There’s plenty to fill the rest of your day in Rotorua, we like the Kiwi Encounter at Rainbow Springs, Te Wairoa buried village, the Maori Arts & Craft Institute at Te Puia and for a bit of fun, the gondola and Luge. There are plenty of hot pools in and around Rotorua, here’s a tip – some hotels have their own private spas which we love for a hot soak at the end of the day without having to go out!

Day 3 – Rotorua, Wai-o-Tapu, Taupo, Tongariro National Park

Kiwis call this part of the country the central volcanic plateau, there’s bubbling mud and geysers everywhere around here. First stop on the road out of Rotorua is the Wai-o-Tapu (which means sacred waters), the easiest way is to jump on a guided tour to see and learn all about the most colourful of all the Geothermal areas, the largest mud pool in the world plus the Lady Knox geyser. This is the perfect interlude before heading down to Taupo for lunch, a cool little lakeside town right on the largest lake in NZ. On a good day you can see all the way to Mt Ruapehu, under an hour from Taupo but a totally different world of volcanic rock and mountain views. Whakapapa Village is where we love to stay, right at the foot of Mt Ruapehu and on the doorstep of great short walks like the Taranaki Falls and Silica Rapids. You can drive up to the Skifield base and the chairlift runs all year, so go and grab a coffee at the highest cafe in New Zealand. The hot pools in the basement of the Chateau Tongariro for a great finish to your day.

Volcanic Landscape in Tongariro National Park - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 4 – Tongariro National Park – Napier

Now this is where we take a little turn off the beaten track, most people head on down to Wellington from Tongariro but we’ve got so many fantastic holiday memories from Hawke’s Bay that we reckon it’s a must for any Kiwi holiday. Head back around ‘Great Lake’ Taupo and over the to ‘the Bay’, you’ll know you’re getting close when you see the first fruit stall on the side of the road, and even closer when you pass your first vineyard – no prizes for guessing this is one of the sunniest parts of New Zealand. Marine Parade’s the place to be in Napier, it’s a really cool little city designed in the Art Deco style of the 1930s, something all Kiwis know and love and all the locals have taken this to heart! The best way to take it all in is to walk along the waterfront and around Napier’s icons like the Sound Shell, Pania of the Reef and the T&G Building. All the local restautants have just the right food matches for the best Hawke’s Bay wines, you’ve got excellent choices for dinner right around the waterfront and just over the hill in Ahuriri.

Day 5 – Napier – Wairarapa – Wellington

Start the day with a jaunt around the idyllic Hawke’s Bay countryside, be warned, you’ll probably want to move here! Our favourite view of the Bay is from Te Mata Peak and take your pick from one of the many wineries for a tasting. If you’re staying a little longer, grab a bike to wheel through the vineyards! When you eventually drag yourself away, you’ve got some great stops on your way down to the capital, like Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre, one of the very few places you can see Takahe close up. As you get closer to Wellington you’ll come through another wine region, the Wairarapa, our favourite little spots are Carterton and Greytown (Schoc Chocolates in the main street, yum!). What makes Wellington ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ is that everything’s so close and it’s super easy to walk everywhere. We love the walk along the waterfront past the boat sheds around to Te Papa National Museum. And for the best views in town, the cable car up Mt Victoria, right from the centre of town is a Kiwi ‘must-do’. We also love Zelandia – the world’s first urban eco sanctuary, head there at night to see the Kiwis and their nocturnal habits, go to Courtney Place at night to see another type of Kiwi and their nocturnal habits! Want something quirky, Kiwi and totally irreverent, check out the Backbencher bar just across the road from parliament, complete with big stuffed puppets that look just like all our politicians!

The lights of Wellington at night - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 6 – Cook Strait Ferry to Picton – Marlborough Wineries – Nelson Lakes National Park – Nelson

We reckon there’s no better way to cross over to ’the mainland’ than coming in by ferry, that last hour through the Queen Charlotte Sound is magic, make sure you’re outside with your camera! You’ve probably heard of Marlborough Sauvignon blanc and you’re probably keen to give it a try, well lucky you, the heart of the Marlborough wine region is just half an hour from the ferry! There are so many wineries to choose from, our favourite is Forrest Estate, (tip – try ‘the Doctors’ sav, yes, John and Brigid are doctors turned winemakers!) After lunch and tasting (enjoyed all the more if you’ve got someone else to do the driving) we love to take the scenic route to Nelson, a little taster of the Southern Alps via St Arnaud in Nelson Lakes National Park, our favourite short track here is the Bellbird Walk, right on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. From the National Park head through to the city itself, Nelson’s great for walking and we love staying central, within easy distance of everything in town.

Day 7 – Abel Tasman National Park for the Day from Nelson

The first ‘crown jewel’ of your South Island trip, Abel Tasman National Park. Nelson’s really close to the park, making it super easy to head in for the day and be back in time for dinner. Look at a photograph of Abel Tasman and you’ll know right away you have to get out on the water, take your pick from kayaking or cruising the coastline, keep your eye to for dolphins, seals and the odd penguin too. Try this for a great combination of sea and land – jump on a morning cruise from Kaiteriteri to Awaroa, then walk on the Abel Tasman Coastal track to either Tonga Quarry or Medlands Beach, then pick up a return cruise back to Kaiteriteri. This make for a perfect day out in Abel Tasman from Nelson, they’ll even pick you up at your accommodation and drop you back at the end of the day too!

Sea shuttle landing on the beach in Abel Tasman National Park - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 8 – Nelson – Pelorus River – Kaikoura

Once you visit the South Island for yourself you’ll come to realise that getting around is half the fun, and today’s little journey sums that up perfectly. Grab a cafe breakfast either right in the shadow of Nelson cathedral or out on the waterfront by the yacht club before heading on your way. First stop is the Pelorus River, your first chance to step into Middle Earth, this is where the ‘Barrell Run’ scene from the Hobbit was filmed. On a nice summers day you’ll be tempted to join the kids jumping off the rocks, go on, you’re on holiday! After a dip, or one of the short walks from reserve, sit down for morning tea before heading off for Kaikoura. The best part of the trip is when you hit the coast south of Seddon and Ward with the Pacific ocean on your left and the snowy Kaikouras ahead on your right. Our favourite stops along the way are Waipapa Bay, Okiwi and the Ohau Point Seal Colony. This is a pretty easy day that will have you into Kaikoura by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to jump on a Whale Watch tour or stretch your legs on the short but stunning Kaikoura Peninsula Track. For dinner tonight, you’ve got to try some of the local seafood, it’s all super fresh and the local speciality of course is the Crayfish (Rock Lobster). Maori Lesson #1: Kai = Eat, Koura = Crayfish, so do as you’re told and get stuck in!

Day 9 – Kaikoura – Mt Cook

There are a couple of different ways to make your way south from Kaikoura, what we like to do is take it all in from the amazing Kaikoura Coast, through to the alps and glaciers of Mt Cook National Park, dropping in on friends for lunch at Akaunui Homestead, just out of Ashburton. Nothing like a really tasty home cooked meal and the Southern hospitality of Ian and Di to pass a couple of hours, country living South Island style looks pretty idyllic! Our favourite stops through the Mackenzie country are Geraldine (local market on Saturdays), Mount Michael lookout and of course Lake Tekapo and Pukaki (Peter’s Lookout about 25 minutes after the Mt Cook turnoff offers the best views over the lake all the way to Mt Cook and the Tasman glacier). The best way to see Mt Cook is to stay right in the National Park village itself, you’ve got a couple of different accommodation options but we love the Hermitage – a real NZ icon. Once the sun sets it’s not over, you’re in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve now, those amazing night skies are just out your door or for the full experience jump on a guided tour from the hotel.

Happy couple at Lake Pukaki with Mt Cook in the distance - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 10 – Mt Cook – Queenstown

It’s a relaxed half day through to Queenstown from Mt Cook, so take the time to explore Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, it’s right on your doorstep! If you asked us for something in Mt Cook you’d never forget, then we’d say you should go up the Tasman Glacier. Google a picture of the Tasman Glacier and tell me you don’t want to put yourself right there! You can jump on a helicopter and go hiking with our mate Charlie, buzz around the massive terminal lake in a little inflatable boat on the ‘Glacier Explorers’ tour, or how about a SkiPlane, a canny Kiwi invention from right here in Mt Cook, planes with retractable skids that can take off on a normal runway and land on the ice high up on the glacier!

The best short walks are right out your door too – Kea Point and the Hooker Valley are excellent easy tacks and offer stunning views of the Mueller and Hooker Glacier Lakes and Mt Cook itself. There are also a couple of great little visitor centres and a mini museum in the village – the Department of Conservation National Park Visitor Centre, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Hermitage Hotel and the little alpine gallery in the Old Mountaineer’s Cafe, run by long time Mt Cook guide Charlie and his writer / photographer wife Mary, stop in for a coffee and tell them we said hi!

Grab some lunch out on the deck of the Hermtage looking right up the Hooker Valley and Mt Cook, before heading on your way south to Queenstown. It’s an easy half day’s trip down to Queenstown through the beautiful South Island high country, our favourite photo stops are the Lindis Pass lookout, Lake Dunstan, Mrs Jones’ just pass Cromwell for fresh fruit or ice-cream, Roaring Megs in the Kawarau Gorge and the Bungy Bridge just past the Gibbston Valley before arriving in Queenstown.

Day 11 – Milford Sound for the day from Queenstown

Everyone loves Queenstown so much, you’ll want at least 3 nights here, that’s what we always do. Milford Sound is a must see and here’s how we like to do it – travel one way on the famous Milford Road, cruise out on the sound, then fly back to Queenstown right over the top of it all, for a day you’ll never forget! The road is an engineering marvel, especially that Homer Tunnel, rated as one of the world’s great scenic drives and you won’t want to miss it. When we’re showing friends around they always tell us they love the views of Lake Te Anau and Wakatipu, the our favourite stops at the Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Monkey Creek, the Homer Tunnel and the Chasm. Once you get there, getting out on the water at Milford is a must, there is a bit of choice but we prefer the small boats and super friendly staff on Cruise Milford, they’ll come and chat with everyone and make you feel right at home as well as sharing all their fascinating knowledge and the odd local legend (ask them about the Moose!). Sheer mountainsides rising right out of the ocean, beech trees clinging for dear life to the rock faces, the birth of a waterfall right in front of your eyes, dolphins, seals, even whales have been seen in the Sound. If there’s one New Zealand image that comes to mind for millions of people around the world, it’s right here, Milford Sound Piopiotahi. Once you’ve been out the water, now see it all from above on a scenic flight back to Queenstown, all those stops you made on the way in look tiny from above, as does Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown. You might even fly back over the world famous Milford Track. You’ll love getting back to your Queenstown accommodation by mid afternoon, with plenty of time to head into town, go up the gondola or walk around the gardens before dinner at the Steamer Wharf!

Taking photos on Milford Sound Cruise - NZ North and South Island Itinerary

Day 12 – Glenorchy – Paradise – The Dart River for the day from Queenstown

The northern end of Lake Wakatipu is amazing, so much so that we reckon it should be illegal to come all the way to New Zealand and not make the trip to the ‘Head of the Lake’. The scenery up here has been marvelled at by millions of people round the world now after featuring in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, it’s also the scene of the UK TV series ‘Top of the Lake’. The road itself is spectacular, the best views of Mt Earnslaw, the Dart Valley and Humbolt mountains unfold just around the corner at Bennetts Bluff, about 35 minutes out of Queenstown. Stop for a coffee at the Glenorchy cafe and check out the own possum fur goods at the trading post, you’re supporting our native birdlife if you buy something! What we love doing most of all up here is heading up the Dart River by jet boat, this amazing Kiwi invention was were designed for exactly this purpose, getting you into remote backcountry rivers where there are no roads. Google a picture of ‘Dart River JetBoat’ and see for yourself why we rate this as the best activity in Queenstown. Also in the neighbourhood is one of our ‘Great Walks’ the Routeburn Track, there’s a fantastic little nature walk of around half an hour at the at the track head, through some of the best Red Beech forest in the country, or for a full day’s hiking, head out on the track for the whole day, up to Routeburn Flats for Falls, the best day walk in New Zealand.

We’ve done this trip ourselves plenty of times and everyone loves the variety of scenery and destinations on this itinerary. If you’ve got more time you could do a little more, say visit north of Auckland for a few days before going to Rotorua, or continuing on from Queenstown to Wanaka and the West Coast. This itinerary is the basis of our 14 Day New Zealand Tour, the Kiwi, a great way to see the best of both islands and leave all the bookings and driving to us. See all our tours here or request a brochure now.

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