New Zealand is one of those countries where you’re in for the trip of a lifetime. And that isn’t only because the country looks like it was painted and sculpted to perfection so much that you actually have to remind yourself you’re not dreaming when you’re hiking on a gorgeous coastal trail or looking across at an icy glacier. New Zealand is also quite far away for travelers coming from the US, South America, Asia, Europe and Africa, so it’s understandable that if you only have limited vacation time you’d want to see as much of this beautiful country as possible. But, it’s good to remember that you cannot possibly see the whole country in even as long as a month unless you want to spend all of your time trying to get somewhere and not really enjoy the incredible things you’re seeing.
We visited New Zealand only for a little over two weeks and we did a combination of self-driving, domestic flights and intercity buses so we could see the places we really wanted to on the North and South Islands and not get extremely tired in the process. All the while we were in NZ, I had this growing feeling that I’d have to come back another time to explore more of it- once is just not enough if you like natural landscapes and hiking as much as I do, so I wasn’t stressed out about the things I’d missed. I’ve put together this detailed post on our two weeks in New Zealand and hope that it can help you plan your trip if you’re going for two-three weeks and would like an itinerary that’s not too rushed and has enough rest and slow travel days- I spent a lot of time (weeks) planning it and it worked out really well traveling in April- May.
Where To Go
We arrived in Auckland seriously jetlagged and spent an entire first day in bed, trying to get our bodies to cooperate. While we did the usual city exploration (Sky Tower, Botanic Gardens, Harbour etc), most of it was a blur, probably due to the exhaustion and lack of sleep. Our favorite memory from Auckland was a day trip to the wineries on Waiheke Island- surrounded by a lush vineyard, we enjoyed a beautiful pink sunset over wine and later rushed to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere to catch the last bus to the port for the ferry back to the mainland. So if you’d ask me what to do in Auckland, I’d say-go on a wine-tasting tour to Waiheke Island.
We drove from Auckland to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
Driving time: 3hrs 15mins.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The Glowworm Caves are an easy stop on the way from driving from Auckland to Rotorua and honestly, they’re one of the most incredible things you’ll witness on your travels in New Zealand. Imagine gliding on an underground river in complete silence and looking up at the roof of a dark cavern that’s lit up by millions of twinkling glowworms forming strange, weird and fantastic shapes. If you’re having a hard time imagining that, I can’t even tell you what the real scene feels like, but I can tell you this- goose bumps are guaranteed!
We drove from the Waitomo Glowworm Caves to Rotorua.
Driving time: 2.5 hrs
It was in Rotorua that we got a taste of Maori culture and we also spent an amazing afternoon relaxing in the geothermal pools at the Polynesian Spa. Our friend was generous enough to gift us a voucher for the spa as a wedding present and we went all out with our own private mineral pool with a view over Lake Rotorua. Afterwards, we spent the day at the Te Puia cultural center learning about Maori traditions, watching geysers erupt in the village, dancing along at the cultural show and listening to stories under the stars over hot chocolate. Know more about what to do in Rotorua.
We took a flight from Rotorua to Nelson with Air New Zealand.
Flight time: 2 hrs 20 mins.
To be honest, the real reason we chose to stay in Nelson for a couple of days was because it made for a comfortable base to explore the Abel Tasman National Park- something I knew I had to do. Camping in the park wasn’t an option because of low temperatures and rainfall so we had to do a day trip. It’s a nice little town with a great vibe that art-lovers will appreciate, plenty of lovely B&Bs, some interesting sites and a decent nightlife with many restaurants, bars and pubs. Our B&B here was especially comfortable (with a Jacuzzi bathtub!) and the rainy days meant that it was a perfect time to slow down, sleep in, try the local breweries and just explore the town without rushing off to the next activity. My favorite memory from Nelson is dancing the night away to live country music at one of the local breweries with the rain pouring furiously outside.
Abel Tasman National Park
This was another highlight of our New Zealand trip and once we got here, we realized it was totally worth spending more time in Nelson to be able to make it here. The Abel Tasman National Park is home to a coastal track that is one of nine ‘Great Walks’ in NZ, i.e. trails that are considered some of the most beautiful and challenging in the country. With only a day trip, we were able to tackle a part of the coastal track and kayak to hidden coves that are home to seal colonies. The whole experience was pretty incredible and considering the weather, there weren’t many people around so we had a lot of time and places to ourselves. Read more about hiking and kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park.
We took a flight from Nelson to Christchurch with Air New Zealand.
Flight time: 50 mins.
The name Christchurch brings to mind thoughts of the earthquake in 2010 and 2011 that severely damaged the city and as much as I don’t like to think of cities in terms of their tragedies, the truth is that these realities become a huge part of their identity, at least for a few years. Despite this, the rebuilding efforts in Christchurch are everywhere and as such you cannot help but feel a deep admiration for the warm and positive attitudes of the locals, who’re only too willing to share stories of the city. We met some of the nicest and friendliest people in the city and though we spent just a day there, we were glad we went. It was interesting to see how the city had made the best of its situation by a building an entire shopping district using shipping containers. Red, blue and yellow, these boxes housed cafés, boutiques and trendy restaurants. We also loved punting on the Avon and spending time in the beautiful Botanic Gardens. Read more about what to do in Christchurch.
TranzAlpine Scenic Journey from Christchurch to Greymouth
If you know about my love for train travel, you’ll understand why I totally had to do this train journey that is often called one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. Honestly, the TranzAlpine Scenic Journey with KiwiRail was one of the reasons we went to Christchurch, just so we could ride through dramatic landscapes and enjoy spectacular views on the way to Glacier Country. During the ride, we saw frozen glacial rivers, snow-capped peaks and emerald beech forests, all right outside the viewing gallery of the train. The coaches were luxurious with super comfortable seats, an onboard café, and onboard commentary via headphones. Would we recommend it? Without a doubt.
The transfer from Greymouth to Fox Glacier Village was via a comfortable InterCity coach that dropped us off right to our B&B a little further away from the central bus stop.
Christchurch to Greymouth Rail Journey Time: 4.5 hrs.
Greymouth to Fox Glacier Village via InterCity coach: 4 hrs 15 mins
A first trip to NZ almost always has to include a trip to glorious Glacier Country and when the weather is right for glacier hiking, why not give it a try, right? We knew we wanted to avoid the tourist crowds at Franz Josef Glacier and chose the small village vibe of Fox Glacier Village instead. As we realized over the next three days, it was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone and a group quickly came together to solemnly discuss the destruction of a tree by a particularly nasty storm. Our B&B was right next to a sheep farm, a few minutes’ drive from the center of the village and our B&B owner was super nice to lend us his car for free to drive around the area.
Ultimately, the weather did play spoilsport and our glacier hike was cancelled twice, but we did hike up to the terminal face of Fox Glacier and enjoy a lovely hike around Lake Matheson. As for the glacier hike, I’m sure there is next time! Read more about what to do around Fox Glacier.
We took a Nakedbus (low-cost long-distance bus) from Fox Glacier Village to Queenstown.
Journey Time: 6 hrs 30 mins
We decided to embrace our inner adventurers in Queenstown, the city that is often called the ‘Adventure Capital of the world’. The title is no exaggeration- with a massive choice of activities like hiking, ziplining, paragliding, skiing, bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, horse-riding, and snowboarding, chances are that if you’ve never heard of an adventure activity before in your life, you can most likely do it in Queenstown. After a lifetime of a fear of heights, I jumped off a cliff to paraglide over Queenstown and the incredible view over Lake Wakatipu meant zero fear and zero regrets.
By day, the town is picture-perfect with the lake on one side bordered by the Mt. Remarkables and you can choose to hike around the town, explore by Segway, spend your day at Skyline Gondola or join a day trip to Milford Sound like we did.
At night, the adventure addicts come out to play and pubs, breweries and bars in the city center come alive with live music and happy hours. Add to that tons of cool restaurants and a winery right in the town and you have a place that is always fun and full of energy. Read more about what to do in Queenstown.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a long one and we figured we wanted to take the easy way out by joining a group tour. Now now, I know some people think they’re allergic to these tours, but sometimes they just end up being more practical and convenient, and every once in a while, we won’t shy away from joining these rather than exhausting ourselves to the point where we don’t enjoy the trip. Plus we liked the idea of exploring Milford Sound onboard a cruise, so we took a tour with InterCity that combined a glass-roofed coach (to be able to enjoy the scenery) and a scenic cruise. We were picked up and dropped off in Queenstown, and the tour was great except for the food. We got to tour the majestic fiords from the comfort of our cruise and though the skies were a bit grey, the landscape still looked amazing. We also explored a few places on the way to Milford Sound and stretched our legs on a half-hour long hike. Read more about our trip to Milford Sound.
Tour Duration: 12.5 hrs
There you have it- our two weeks in New Zealand. I know some people cover a much bigger area geographically in the same time, but as I mentioned, we weren’t in a rush and had plenty of time to just do nothing, enjoy an extra glass (or two) of wine at lunch and simply sit and stare at a beautiful lake for hours.
General Tips on New Zealand Travel
- Renting your own car or campervan to explore the country is by far the best way to see New Zealand and car rental companies are very flexible about where you can pick up and drop off rental cars if you want to travel using a combination of car, domestic flights and long-distance coach. Shop around a little and find something that suits your budget.
- Pick up Jason’s Guides available for different cities and regions at most tourist information centers and rental companies or check it out online– the guide has excellent offers and deals on various attractions, restaurants and bars, and you can save a lot on entrance fees and other costs. We used these guides everywhere and can’t recommend them enough.
- Book all your activities directly instead of going through a hotel or tour company. Check ticket prices and deals on the official websites and book in advance to skip long queues.
- Pack sensibly for the weather with plenty of layers in winter. Carry a majority of active wear as you will be outdoors a lot and you’ll need comfortable clothes and hiking shoes. In smaller towns, you won’t feel the need to dress up too much, smart casuals will do.
- Do not ignore road signs while driving and hiking- if a sign prohibits going ahead, it’s likely that there has been a rock fall or landslide, just turn around and use your common sense.
- While calculating driving times, account for the times when you might take a wrong turn and set off in some unknown direction and your GPS stops working (happened to us while driving to Rotorua).
For more posts about New Zealand, check out my New Zealand Travel Blog.
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Have you been to New Zealand? What did you think of it?