Wherever in the world we might be, we’re currently all in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some form of lockdown or self isolation. I’m currently holed in Australia, just waiting for the worst of the crisis to pass before I return to the USA, but also longing to travel.
I should have been part way through an epic road trip around New Zealand with my parents right now. I’m not going to lie, I am pretty disappointed that I didn’t get to travel, we all are. So, at present, I’m just dreaming of what could have been, and reworking my ‘New Zealand bucket list’.
I was thinking that some of you out there might like some inspiration for future travel, so I’ve decided to share my ultimate road trip itinerary. This itinerary is kind of long as my parents and I had plenty of time to ‘take our time’. The itinerary could easily be broken into smaller portions, and I can definitely make recommendations if required.
Our itinerary covered a lot of the must-sees in New Zealand, and provides a great an all round overview of New Zealand. If you have a few weeks to spare, then this is the itinerary for you.
So, here’s to future travels…
Our Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip
Day 1 – Arrive into Auckland
- Arrival day
- You could take a walk around downtown Auckland to orient yourself with the city if you have time.
Day 2 – Auckland City Sights & West Coast Day Tour
- See the highlights of Auckland City, Waitemata Harbour and the West Coast on a day tour.
Day 3 – Waiheke Island Day Tour
- Take the hop on hop off bus to explore the sights; or
- Take a walk on the Te Ara Hura Walkway (check out my blog post Wandering Waiheke Island)
Day 4 – Greater Auckland in a Day
- Pick up a rental car and explore the regions around Auckland.
- I recommned stops in Puhoi, Matakana, Tawharanui at the very least
Day 5 – Auckland to Rotorua
- Break up the trip by making some stops along the way at Waitomo Caves (anything from a 45 minute glowworm tour, to a 5 hour rappelling and rafting adventure); and/or
- Otorohanga Kiwi House or Sanctuary Mountain to see some native NZ birds.
Day 6 – Rotorua Sights
- Explore the lakes and geothermal regions of Rotorua. Taking a tour is a great way to make the most of the day (check out my blog post on Rotorua for some more insights on touring in Rotorua).
- Visit the Tamaki Maori Village for a cultural performance and hangi dinner for the evening.
Day 7 – Out and about around Rotorua
- For those Tolkien fans, I’d recommend a visit to Hobbiton
- Take some time to explore the geothermal features in Kuirau Park (just a short walk from most accommodations in downtown Rotorua).
- Experience the Nightlights Treewalk at Whakarewarewa Forest.
Day 8 – Rotorua to Taupo
- Drive from Rotorua to Taupo, stopping to explore a thermal park – along the way (maybe Orakei Korako).
- In Taupo, visit Huka Falls and Aratiatia Rapids.
Day 9 – Taupo to Tongariro NP (via Hairy Feet)
- Cruise or kayak on Lake Taupo in the morning before departing for Tongariro NP.
- Depart Taupo, and travel via Hairy Feet Waitomo (Hobbit Film Location on) the way to Tongariro NP.
Day 10 – Tongariro NP
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered one of the most popular day hikes in the country. If everyone in your party is hiking, you’ll need to book a shuttle to get to/from the trailheads.
- If you’re not a hiker (or just not up for the 19km hike), then you may want to take the day to explore some of the shorter walks in the park, (or skip Tongariro altogether).
Day 11 – Tongariro to Wellington
- Walk some of the short trails (Whakapapa Nature Walk, Tawhai Falls) and visit some viewpoints (Meads Wall) around Tongariro before departing for Wellington.
- Drive Tongariro to Wellington
Day 12 – Wellington in a Day
- Some of the sights I’d considered included: Te Papa Museum, Weta Workshop, Cable Car, Zealandia, Mt Victoria
- And then there was the food & drink… I’d read great things about Cuba Street, Fidel’s Cafe & the Garage Project Taproom.
Day 13 – Wellington to Picton
- InterIslander Ferry from Wellington to Picton. If you’re short on time, take the early ferry across, and you’ll have an entire afternoon free in Picton.
- If you have the time in Picton, walk on the Snout Track – walk right to the headland, as there’s some beautiful views of the Sounds out there.
Day 14 – Exploring the Marlborough Sounds
- Take a day hike on the Queen Charlotte Track – check out my blog post from my last walk on the track.
- If you’re not a hiker, then take a cruise on the Sounds, as it’s beautiful out there, and if you’re in the area, you MUST get out on the water.
- Drive down to Blenheim to go wine tasting, or to visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center,
Day 15 – Picton to Abel Tasman National Park
- If it’s a pleasant day, then definitely take the Queen Charlotte Drive from Picton to Havelock – It’s narrow and winding, but the views are worth it. If the weather’s not so great, you might just as well drive inland via Blenheim.
- From Havelock onwards, it’s an easier drive. Stop at the Pelorus Bridge, and in Nelson if you’re interested in the World of Wearable Art or the Classic Car Museum.
- Stop for a late lunch in the quaint wharf side village of Mapua before heading onwards through Motueka.
- Choose some accommodation around Kaiteriteri or Marahau so that you’re close to the National Park for an early morning boat departure the next day.
Day 16 – Abel Tasman National Park
- Aim to spend a full day in the National Park. I’d recommend either a full day self guided walk, or a kayak and walk combo. There are several operators who offer these services, you can search for whichever suits you best. Check out my blog post which features my full day in the Abel Tasman National Park.
Day 17 – Abel Tasman NP to Punakaiki
- Drive Abel Tasman NP to Punakaiki – There are a couple of options for this drive:
- Drive via Nelson Lakes National Park for a walk and some lunch
- Drive directly to the west coast, admiring the beauty of Buller Gorge en route to the Cape Foulwind walkway to view the seal colonies (Nov – Feb is the best time) and the lighthouse.
- From either Nelson Lakes, or Cape Foulwind, you’ll head to Punakaiki.
- For a great adventure, visit the glowworm caves in Charleston.
- Stop for the night in Punakaiki, so that you’re close by to explore the Pancake Rocks in the morning.
Day 18 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef
- Explore the trails around the Pancake Rocks – check the tide times to see if you’ll be lucky to see the blowholes in action.
- Don’t miss the Truman Track, it’s just north of the Pancake Rocks, but has some lovely views of the coastline.
- From Punakaiki, head south through Greymouth, and make a stop in Hokitika. If you’re interested in purchasing some Pounamu, this is a great place to look.
- Take a detour out to explore Hokitika Gorge before hitting the road again for Franz Josef. Check into your accommodation, and save the exploring for tomorrow.
Day 19 – Franz Josef
- Set out on foot to view the glacier on the Glacier Valley Walk
- A Heli Hike would be well worth the splurge here in Franz Josef.
- Drive to Okarito and hike the Trig Walk. This trail heads across boardwalk over the lagoon, before a gentle climb to the trig, with spectacular views of a multitude of ecosystems.
- Kick back and relax in the Glacier hot pools before a quick dinner and an early night, ready for an epic day tomorrow.
Day 20 – Franz Josef to Wanaka
- This is my favorite day drive in New Zealand. IT’S.TOTALLY.EPIC!! Get up early (whatever time you think is early enough, get up earlier), and head right out to Lake Matheson to catch the reflections in the lake just after sunrise.
- Then start driving south – make time for stops at Monro Beach, Ship Cove, Thunder Creek Falls and the Blue Pools along the way. This drive took me ALL DAY.
- In Wanaka, take a walk out to see the Wanaka Tree as sunset before resting up for a great hike in the morning.
Day 21 – Wanaka to Queenstown
- For the hikers among us, I’d recommend getting up early to go and hike Roy’s Peak.
- If you’re looking for a less strenuous outing, then the hike to Mt Iron Summit , which offers great views over Lake Wanaka and the surrounding area, with much less time (and energy) committment.
- Take your time enjoying Wanaka before hitting the road, and taking the Cardrona Road to Queenstown. Allow time for stops along the way, as there are some great viewpoints on the side of the road.
Day 22 – Queenstown
- Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, and there’s so much to do here, you might even want to extend your stay longer than two nights.
- If you have the budget, I’d definitely recommend a helicopter flight over Fiordland National Park – the scenery is out of this world.
- There’s plenty of adventure options in Queenstown – hiking, biking, rafting, jetboating, horse riding, bungy jumping, and more. You name the adventure, you can probably find it in Queenstown.
Day 23 – Queenstown – Te Anau
- Spend the morning in Queenstown enjoying another fun activity, or maybe take my favorite walk up Queenstown Hill.
- Drive Queenstown to Te Anau. There’s a few scenic pullouts along Lake Wakatipu before you head away from the lake, and towards Te Anau.
- If you arrive in Te Anau with daylight to spare, why not take a short afternoon hike on the Kepler Track.
Day 24 – Fiordland National Park
- Take a day trip to either Milford or Doubtful Sound Whichever you choose, I don’t think you can go wrong.
- If you choose Milford Sound, and the road is open to self drivers, then head out there early. It’s possible to kayak on the sound, but also you can get on the earlier boat before all the tourists arrive from Queenstown, and then take your time driving back and making all the scenic stops and short walks along the way.
Day 25 – Te Anau to Dunedin
- Drive from Te Anau to Dunedin via The Catlins.
- Stops might include Curio Bay, Purakaunui Falls, Nugget Point, or Kaka Point
Day 26 – Dunedin
- Spend the day on the Otago Peninsula, enjoying some walks, and checking out the unique wildlife of the region (Yellow Eyed Penguins. Little Blue Penguins, Albatross, Seal Colonies).
- If you’re less inclined to see the wildlife, then maybe take a scenic trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway.
Day 27 – Dunedin to Aoraki/Mt. Cook
- Drive to Aoraki/Mt Cook, with stops at the Moeraki Boulders, Oamaru, Elephant Rocks, and maybe even a detour to the Clay Cliffs near Omarama along the way.
- If it’s available and in budget, find accommodation in Mt. Cook Village so you’ll be close to some hiking trailheads for a sunrise hike.
Day 28 – Aoraki/Mt. Cook
- Allow a full day to enjoy some of the great hikes in the region. I was thinking – Hooker Valley Track, Tasman Glacier View Track, and maybe Sealy Tarns.
- If it wasn’t too cold, I would have considered overnighting at the Mueller Hut if there was space.
- If you’re less inclined to hike, there’s other options, like a boat ride on the lake, or perhaps a heli trip over the glaciers.
- Aoraki/Mt. Cook. Mt. Cook is also a Dark Sky Park, so consider a stargazing experiece come night time!
Day 29 – Aoraki/Mt. Cook to Christchurch
- Drive towards Christchurch, stopping for some photos ops around Lake Tekapo.
- You could possibly detour via the Banks Peninsula (visit Akaroa & drive the Summit Road for some great views) on the way into Christchurch.
Day 30 – Christchurch
- Spend the morning in town, maybe do a walking tour to explore, and then wander the streets to check out some of the street art that popped up around town especially after the earthquakes.
- If you were more interested in getting out of town, then a day trip to either Arthur’s Pass National Park or Kaikoura would be possible.
Day 31 – Depart Christchurch
- Departure Day.
Here’s a little map of our proposed itinerary and some of the stops we would have made along the way.
First, we just wait it out and see what the new normal is post COVID. One thing is for certain, there will be a huge change in tourism for quite some time. We might all be spending a bit more time on virtual tours instead of being out on the road ourselves. In my wildest dreams, I’d love to be back out on the road, travelling and exploring New Zealand, having unlimited time to explore. In that case, I would definitely spend more time exploring the national parks, going on a lot more day hikes, and maybe even finding the courage to tackle some of the Great Walks….
In wrapping up, this is just an outline of what we wanted to do, and there’s plenty of room for flexibility. I haven’t made any specific accommodation or tour recommendations here, as the whole landscape of tourism is going to change after COVID-19. What will be important is that people travel. It looks like domestic travel will come first, and then maybe the borders with Australia will open. All of those small operators who have made it through this crisis will desperately need tourists to return. So, if you’re thinking of travelling post-COVID and want some specific recommendations, then let me know. I’d be happy to keep talking about New Zealand, make some recommendations, or help you with suggestions for a great itinerary!!
Here’s hoping we’re all back on the road and travelling in some capacity sooner than later,