Road Trip Itinerary for Two Weeks: South Island & North Island
How we came up with this New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary
When I started traveling, I prioritized my trips by what seemed accessible: geographically, culturally, and financially. I’d squeeze trips in for any amount of time I had: weeklong vacations, three-day weekends, it didn’t matter. For me, any free time at all was enough time for a trip. While that early love of travel was imprinting, I began to accumulate a wishlist of trips that seemed just beyond the horizon: trips that seemed too far, too grand/complicated, or required just too much time.
It is those beyond-the-horizon trips that I’ve been pursuing this past year – and plan to pursue well into 2019 and beyond. And for years, a New Zealand road trip had sat atop that list.
We (brother, boyfriend, and I) carved out two weeks in early December (NZ spring/summer). Armed with a dozen+ itineraries from friends and others, we attempted to prioritize experiences for a trip that could’ve easily been 4-6 weeks. We spent ~5 days on the North Island and 1.5 weeks on the South Island. Unanimously, we would prioritize the South Island for a trip of any length. The New Zealand road trip itinerary below is a suggestion of how we’d do it – if we could do it again.
South Island Itinerary
Abel Tasman National Park
We started our road trip at the top of the South Island, flying into the Nelson Airport (about 1.5h flight from Auckland). First thing first, we picked up our rental car just outside the one-room terminal of this local airport. We wanted to prioritize the pristinely preserved rugged coastline of Abel Tasman National Park and its inhabitants (fur seals!).
Where to stay:
We had two options: stay in the town of Nelson (our 20 minute drive through this town confirmed that it was the correct choice not to stay here) or drive the hour north to the Kimi Ora Eco Lodge. Originally, we chose it for convenience – right outside the National Park (NP), we had an early morning kayaking trip and didn’t want to do big back-and-forth drives early. Kimi Ora exceeded our expectations. Not only is it conveniently located at the park’s entrance, but it has gorgeous lodge apartments, set above the bay, with magnificent views of the ocean (and decks to sit out on). Its restaurant is also the best in the area (see below).
What to do:
The National Park is the star of the show – be SURE to book your activities in advance. We did a full-day kayaking trip with lunch on a secluded beach through Wilsons, one of the most reputable companies. I quickly learned that I and my motion-sickness do NOT love kayaking, but the views in the National Park were jaw-droppingly beautiful and kayaking through the water with fur seals was awesome. Kayaking not your thing? Check out 10 activities to do in Abel Tasman.
If you’re kayaking: the sun is no joke – you will need more sunscreen than you think. Be prepared to get wet – wear water shoes. And bring lots of layers – the temps and winds change rapidly.
Where to eat:
If you’re staying in Nelson, or driving through Nelson (to or from), we loved our lunch at Boatshed on the pier. We did the “trust the chef” menu, which was an inventive, fresh, local assortment of dishes – thoroughly enjoyed.
The Views restaurant at Kimi Ora Eco lodge is the best around the NP (of 5 total options). It’s a vegetarian restaurant with spectacular ocean views. We loved the mushroom and gorgonzola pizza and it had good local wine selections. Fun fact: it was also the strongest wifi we had the entire trip.
In Kaiteriteri, just below Kimi Ora, and where all of the NP day trips meet: check out the grocery store – great wines and snacks and was a good place to stock up on road-trip noshes. Lastly, Gone Burger had very good fish and chips, despite horribly rude staff.
If we had extra time: We would’ve loved to explore nearby Marlborough – the largest wine area in New Zealand and known for the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs. However, with an entire island to explore, we headed to the Wild West Coast.
Road Trip Down the Wild West Coast
The South Island’s west coast is marketed as a whole ‘nother world, and it certainly is – with rugged landscapes filled with Jurassic-Park-esque flora that slide right into the ocean. Untamed beauty. The drive from Abel Tasman to stop #1 Punakaiki is just under 4 hours. On the way, a must-stop is Foul Winds. The water walk is a 15-minute ocean vista promenade that rewards you at the end with a fur seal colony. That’s right people – fur seals! Total highlight. It also is a good rest stop and sells coffee and ice cream.
An hour later driving along the coast on Highway 6, we reached Punakaiki to see the famed pancake rocks. And while the curious limestone formations were pretty cool, we had missed high tide – and thus the “blow holes” that the area is famous for. With the territory we needed to cover, there was no way to make the timing work – but for something more impressive than mysterious rock formations, we’d recommend timing to coincide with high tide.
Where to stay and eat: Punakaiki Resort, set right on the beach, which had gorgeous views of the water.
Notes for road trippers:
Stock up on gas here (we’re talking full tank) as there are stretches along Highway 6 as long as 90+ kilometers without gas stations. The roads are twisty and full of narrow (read: one lane) bridges. This is the day for your most capable left-side driver.
If we had an extra day: We would’ve done some shopping in Greymouth the next town after Punakaiki, which is known as the best place to get New Zealand greenstone jewelry. Note: we did stop to gemstone shop, but stores are only open between 10am-5pm here. What was open was the Nimmo Gallery, which had incredible photography and curated local gifts – it was one of our most successful places to buy NZ presents! We also would have spent time exploring the funky town of Hokitika, which was a little too far out of the way for the distance we needed to travel.
Our next day, we continued the down the west coast towards Glacier Country. A must stop is the Hokitika Gorge, well worth the 1.5-2 hour detour. It’s about 25 minutes off of State Highway 6. The gorge itself is a 20-30 minute round trip walk from the car park (which also has a little food stand) and the scenery is….gorgeous. (C’mon, you knew that pun was coming.) Word to the wise: wear all the bug spray: the sand flies are vicious.
From the Gorge, we drove the straight 2 hours to the Glaciers: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier (30 minutes drive one from the other). Visiting here is a rare opportunity to access a glacier; we hoped to experience it via heli-hike (a helicopter ride to the top of the FJ Glacier + a 2-hour hike). We quickly learned that visibility in glacier country is temperamental – with the helicopters able to fly only 25-50% of the time. Sadly, we were not in luck that first afternoon – all helicopters to the glacier had been canceled because of cloud coverage.
With dozens of adventure tour outfitters based on the main street of Franz Josef village, we found ourselves on a quad bike tour. FJ is one of the only glaciers in the world that ends in a rainforest, and so we explored the valley, river, grasslands, and rainforest via quad bike. While it wasn’t a must – it was incredibly fun, and a great activity in the wake of a canceled heli-hike.
The next morning, we tried again for the heli-hike. Since the visibility wasn’t clear for the whole 3 hours (to drop us off, hike, and pick us up), they canceled the hike part, but kept the helicopter to the top. Five of us climbed aboard the helicopter for a 30-minute round trip tour of the glaciers with a snow-landing on the top of Franz Josef. Breathtaking. An absolute must – and unanimously a trip highlight for all 3 of us. If you have the interest and time (and are in shape), definitely try for the hike – but we were so grateful for the incredible experience of the helicopter snow-landing on the top of the glacier.
Where to stay & eat: we stayed in the Te Wanoui Forest Retreat, which was a beautiful hotel. We ate at the hotel’s restaurant for its five-course degustation menu. One of the better dining options in town, but not noteworthy otherwise.
Drive to Wanaka
The next day, we drove to Wanaka. There are dozens of potential stops along the way, including the Fox Glacier area – and plenty of well-known hikes and vistas. However, the weather wasn’t behaving – and with no visibility for views – and some crunched timing – we waved from the car instead of making all the stops. We stopped for lunch along the way at “The Salmon Farm,” which is well marked on the route; it’s over-priced, yet delicious, and clearly one of the only pitstops along the route as all the tour buses and groups were there as well. After the Salmon Farm, the remainder of the drive was through Mount Aspiring National Park. A world heritage site, there were, again, dozens of little walking trails and hikes throughout. When the sun finally cleared, we stopped at the Blue Pools, for a 30-minute nature trail. And then finally, we reached Wanaka.
If we had only one place where we could add more time, it would’ve been in Wanaka (yes, I know, we wanted a full additional week in the South Island, but work with me on this). Unlike the majority of towns we visited in NZ, which were somewhat rundown former mining communities, Wanaka is breathtaking. The town itself is on the shores of Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains that drop straight into the water. Wanaka is known for outdoor activities and has dozens of great gift shops and home goods stores. Sadly for us, we arrived late Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind that on most days, things in NZ close at 5pm…on Sunday, they close even earlier. We walked around the town a little as the shops were closing, which left us wanting more.
Where to eat:
Our favorite meal in New Zealand Kika. If we could’ve, we would’ve eaten every meal here for our entire two weeks. It’s the number one restaurant in NZ for a reason. Don’t miss. For a casual lunch or breakfast, check out the Big Fig (also in Queenstown).
Where to stay:
The Wanaka Homestead – beautiful bed and breakfast on the lake; a 10-minute walk from downtown and only minutes from #thatwanakatree, also known as the lonely tree (but let’s be clear the tree is never lonely…there are always a million tourists photographing it).
Only a 50-minute drive from Wanaka is Queenstown: New Zealand’s adventure capital. Sadly for us, the adventure started the moment we got in the car. Despite clocking in at just under an hour, the drive was one of the most treacherous stretches of roads we encountered (and we thought the bar was low to begin with). Think: terribly narrow, twisting roads with stretches that are only one-lane, and the side is a sheer cliff. Oh, we also had dense fog, making the visibility quite poor. If you are planning on road tripping make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights. This drive is not, I repeat NOT, for the faint of heart.
Queenstown is worth it: a properly beautiful small city, nestled into hills and mountainsides sloping into the lake. Because of the access to incredible outdoor adventures, it’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise. It’s also hell looking for parking.
We packed our one full day in Queenstown full of adventure, starting with the Dart River jet boating (be prepared, you’ll get wet), which included a forest walk. The scenery was beautiful and we learned quite a bit about NZ flora and fauna and also loved the racing jet boats through the Dart River.
Next up: bungee jumping. The Karawau Bridge is the OG site where bungee jumping was invented. Christian went for it, while we just grabbed drinks at the bar (aptly named Liquid Courage) and watched him plunge headfirst into the gorge. Tip: Make sure to leave yourselves lots of time for those who are hesitant and might need more time before they jump.
We did a little shopping around Queenstown (great for souvenirs) and then had our favorite Queenstown experience: relaxing in the private Onsen hot-pools overlooking Shotover River Canyon. Ten out of ten.
Where to stay:
The Dairy Private Hotel. Gorgeous boutique hotel with funky rooms, a great location in town, onsite parking, and an extremely knowledgeable proprietor who helped us with everything from reservations to shopping recommendations.
Where to eat:
Everyone is going to tell you that you must eat at Fergburger. And you’re going to. And the burger is going to be very good, great even. Will it be the World’s Best Burger, as CNN claimed? Definitely not. But you’re going to eat there anyway. We also ate at Blue Canoe, which was New Zealand-Polynesian-Asian fusion food– yum and definitely different than anything we’ve had before.
Any way you slice it, traveling to/from Milford Sound (or the smaller Doubtful Sound) is an ordeal. If you drive (but actually, take a tour bus and leave the car in Queenstown!), it takes forever. If you fly, there’s a good chance you’ll have to get on a bus instead due to weather. But this Fiordland landscape is aptly known as the 8th Wonder of the World. And it’s a New Zealand Must. Must. Must. There’s an option to do it as a day trip, which sounds like a nightmare to me because of all the traveling. Ours was one of two cruises able to stay overnight on the sound – which also guarantees more access to wildlife, especially since the seals are known to hop on the boats late at night, attracted to the light.
The ride to Milford was very long, with many stops. One of the highlights was seeing the Kia birds, the world’s only alpine parrot – they are giant, mischievous parrots (keep your keys and other valuables in your pockets!). Super cheeky creatures, they love to ride on cars back and forth through the tunnels.
As mentioned, there are only two cruises that stay overnight on the Sound. So once the day-trippers offboarded, we settled in and went out on the water. There were two options for exploring the Sound from the main cruise ship: a kayak or a “small boat.” See my love of kayaking in the “Abel Tasman” section if you want to know why we chose the small boat. It was an exceptional experience. While there were no whales that day in the Sound, we got up close and personal with dolphins, otters, and the overwhelmingly giant cliffs that make up the Sound and seem to be a vertical wall with no end into the sky. The nature guides on board were fantastic – and overall, it was one of our favorite experiences in New Zealand.
We arose the next morning, docked, and began the long journey back to Queenstown, where we picked up the car and then drove up to Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is one of 13 International Dark Sky Observatories in the world. We tried to do the Late Night Earth and Sky viewing at 11:45pm that night, but there was 100% cloud coverage …so it was canceled :(. Needless to say, we were bummed. From there, we drove the next day to Christchurch (3-hour drive), where we caught our flight back to the US. We all would’ve skipped Christchurch, but if you do find yourself there, the Quake City exhibit was very informative about the 2010/2011 Canterbury Earthquakes and the underlying tectonic plates in NZ and the ring of fire generally.
As we mentioned, if you only have 2 weeks, prioritize the South Island for your New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary. But if you have more time, it’s well worth exploring New Zealand’s North Island, which has some incredible highlights.
Wine Tasting at Waiheke Island.
This island of vineyards is a 30-minute ferry from Auckland and swells in population from 8k to 40k+ on weekends in the summer months. Our favorite wine was at Peacock Sky (do the degustation tasting menu and make sure to try the brownies) and the most beautiful property was Mudbrick.
Geothermal Super Volcanos & Maori culture
While the South Island is known for its epic landscapes, the North Island is the best place to experience Maori culture and NZ’s geothermal activity, both of which can be found in Rotorua.
There are three options for the drive to Rotorua, including one through “cute” towns. Skip. I repeat…skip. Drive the 2.6 hours directly there from Auckland, unless you’re going to the Coromandel Peninsula. (Note to LOTR Nerds: this is where you can stop for Hobbit Town).
What to do:
Hells Gate Geothermal Reserve & Mud Spa. The mud spa itself was fine, but what made the whole thing worth it was the 2 hours guided walk learning about supervolcano geothermal activity, tectonic plate, and all sorts of other cool stuff. The guide had a science background and was incredibly knowledgeable. Pack your swimsuit, your own towel, a change of clothing, a raincoat, and good walking shoes and enjoy the access to this otherworldly landscape. For more Ring of Fire vacations, check out our trip to Bali & the Gili Islands in Indonesia.
Maori cultural experience at Tamaki village. We are generally skeptical of any cultural experiences made explicitly for tourists. However, this was incredibly informative and well done. Young Maori New Zealanders from the surrounding community share their customs and traditions (and food for a dinner feast!). Given that Europeans only arrived in NZ ~160 years ago, the country is 15-20% Maori – and the Rotorua experience was a good grounding in many of the modern symbols and cultural aspects of New Zealand that we encountered later in the trip.
Kiwi encounter. We did the behind the scenes kiwi encounter and hatchery to learn how NZ conservationists have begun to release this endangered species back into the wild with a 65% survival rate (up from 5%). Great for kids, or (if you’re like me) obsessed with kiwis. Otherwise, skip.
Zorbing at OGO. I had no idea what “zorbing” was. And once I learned, I had no idea why it would be fun to bounce down a hillside in a giant rubber ball filled with water. But it was stupidly fun. Bring a swimsuit and towel. Oddly awesome.
Where to stay & eat:
We loved the Black Swan Hotel on Lake Rotorua, and not just for the free minibar snacks. The balcony overlooking the lake was the perfect place to sit with a glass of wine, the grounds and gardens of this boutique were beautiful, and it was the best breakfast we had our entire trip. We also ate dinner one night at Urban Bistro, which was quite good.
Waitomo Glowworm caves
So, this is the real reason we went to the North Island at all: the Waitomo Glowworm caves: a labyrinth of underground caves alight with hundreds of thousands of glowworms. Book in advance. Massive trip highlight for us. If you’re doing the caves, definitely grab lunch at Huhu café down the road.
Generally skippable as a tourist destination. However, if you’re going to be there before/after flights, the Viaduct is a great place to grab a happy hour drink or a bite to eat. We loved the HH and oysters at Oyster and Chop (expensive) and the boys enjoyed the steak at Botswana Butchery.
General New Zealand Travel Advice:
- For any New Zealand road trip itinerary: Print all your reservations to have with you at all times. On a near daily basis, we had to pull out and show printed reservations, confirmations and details (computer systems down, things not matching etc,). It was a huge help.
- Restaurants in New Zealand are expensive, even for ones that are just decent. And while we had a few great meals (noted above), in general, the food was just OK. You go to New Zealand for the landscapes, definitely not for the food.
- If you’re doing it as a road trip:
- you’ll love the summer for extra hours of driving – it didn’t get dark until 9:30-9:45pm on the South Island. As the roads are not lit, you’ll definitely want those extra daylight hours.
- Leave EXTRA time. The roads are twisty, turny, one lane, and not what you might be used to. Safe driving = leave plenty of extra time.
- Bring a USB cable and a playlist of downloaded (offline) music – you’ll hit long stretches with no radio reception.
- Always stop for gas when there’s a station – we went more than 90 kilometers at one stretch without any gas stations
- Make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights if you plan to drive on the South Island (which you should)
- Almost every place in NZ takes credit card. We barely had to change any currency – and usually, it was just coins for parking meters.
- A few of my favorite travel things (I never leave home without!)
- SUNSCREEN. The Ozone layer is particularly thin over New Zealand. Add in the fact that there’s no pollution and it’s a recipe for a bad sunburn. Apply often.
- Bug repellent. Particularly on the South Island, most hikes/nature will have nasty little buggers called sand flies that will bite you and suck your blood. And if that’s not enough, the bites are extremely itchy for multiple days. Bring the highest DEET bug spray you can find.
- Bring a raincoat. The weather in the on both islands is unpredictable; we often encountered “all four seasons” in one day. Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on earth and you’re almost guaranteed to get weather there – but truly everywhere in NZ the weather comes in and out. Raincoat with a hood is extremely helpful.
- Covered shoes for the water. Or at a minimum, covered shoes that can get wet (see above). I am OBSESSED with these water shoes that look like cute espadrilles.
- Quick dry pants, aka something other than jeans, for at least one pair of your pants.
- Really warm layer packable later to keep in a daypack (like a packable down or fleece) for when it gets cold especially if you’re doing outdoor activities (activities on the water can get extremely windy and cold)
- Bring a small backpack that you can bring with you on day trips
- Water bottle – I have this adorable fold-up water bottle for traveling, extremely lightweight and space-conscious. Best water bottle for traveling.
- No need for high heels or fancy shoes. Even the nicest restaurants in NZ were rather casual. Bring shoes that are comfortable and that you can do a lot of walking/driving in.
- Sunglasses that you don’t mind getting wet (for boats, kayaking, etc.) – not your most expensive pair.
- Waterproof phone cases (so you can bring your phone/take photos during water activities such as kayaking/on boats without worry of it getting sprayed or wet)
- Do not bring!! Selfie sticks and drones are banned lots of places
No matter what you choose to do for your own New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, we are sure you’re going to love NZ’s larger-than-life landscapes and the adventures that await. Questions about creating a New Zealand road trip itinerary for yourself? Just ask below!