The expert’s guide to seeing New Zealand the right way

David Whitley
Jun 11, 2020

New Zealand is the epitome of easy-going, but tackling it in the right order is key. Thankfully, NZ expert David Whitley has packed the best bits of both islands into one seamless, four-week itinerary

New Zealand’s triumph is to cram unparalleled amounts of one-off experiences into a single epic trip. You can’t cover the whole country in a three- to four-week self-drive adventure, but you can give it a darned good shot and pile up top-tier memories in the process. Here’s a route that fits in as much as possible, with the journey broken down into easy chunks – minus the odd tourist trap that’s simply not worth your time or money.

Days 1-3: Bay of Islands (and beyond) 

After what will have felt like an eternity in the air, it might come as a blow to know that the best place to properly start your New Zealand adventure is not in Auckland – where you’ll fly into – but another 227km north, in the Bay of Islands. But it’s worth it – for baize-green hills, stone-walled sheep farms and bountiful sunny beaches. It’s a short, $100-ish hop on an internal flight or a three-and-a-half-hour drive (you can pick up a hire car on landing). If doing the latter, you’ll want to overnight in Auckland first, picking up a hire car the following morning. Several cruises flit lazily around the Bay of Islands’ jewel-like archipelago, the novelty among them the full-day Cream Trip, which doubles as the local mail run. Dolphin-watching, lounging in the boat’s netting above the waves, and beach-lazing on lush green Urupukupuka Island are thrown in. There’s spiritual nourishment, too, at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds which cover Maori culture and the often rocky relationship with European settlers. Soul-searchers should try Cape Reinga, further north, at the country’s tip, where the Maori believe the spirits of the deceased depart. Day tours – such as with GreatSights – take in sacred kauri forests, sandboarding on Sahara-steep dunes and four-wheel driving along Ninety Mile Beach.

Days 4–5: Auckland beckons 

From the Bay of Islands, the next stop lies back the way you came – south again to Auckland. But first, divert west to the Waitakere Ranges, for walks among native rainforest, before taking the winding roads down to the brooding black-sand surf beaches at Piha and Karekare. Should the buzzy restaurants, museums and volcanoes listed in Auckland not sound sufficiently thrilling, sign up to jump from a 192-metre-high platform on the city’s Sky Tower, your descent slowed only by wires and a harness. 

An aerial view of Waiheke Island; the second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand

Days 6–8: Rotorua 

Just over a three-hour drive south of Auckland, Rotorua is adventure central. But there are two popular detours to weigh up on the drive down: the Lord of the Rings set at Hobbiton (hobbitontours.com), is, frankly, underwhelming and overpriced. But the Waitomo Caves (waitomo.com), lit by millions of tiny glow-worms, are well worth it. The 45-minute boat tours cater to the timid, while the five-hour, Black Abyss adventure – including abseiling and tubing on the underground river – will appeal to adrenaline junkies. Rotorua stinks – the sulphurous whiff comes from geothermal activity beneath the town. But there’s a massive menu of fun stuff to hold your nose for: everything from Zorbing down hills in giant hamster balls to tackling terrifyingly high waterfalls on the Kaituna River. Kaitiaki Adventures runs the hardcore white-water rafting nerve-shredder.

Day 9: Hiking in Taupo 

Your next – considerably less whiffy – base is lakeside Taupo, which is also the jumping-off point for NZ’s greatest walk, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Over the 19km day-long route, rust-coloured streams, vast lava fields, a gaping crater in the shadow of soaring Ngauruhoe (better known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies) and near-luminous-green lakes all make appearances. It’s not circular, so park at the end point – Ketehahi – and take the shuttle to the start. Some operators go the opposite way, but that leaves you either rushing to complete the hike or hanging around for a bus when you’ve finished.

Day 10: Art Deco Napier 

From destruction comes beauty. Napier, about two hours southeast of Taupo, responded to a city-wrecking 1931 earthquake by conjuring up what is claimed to be the world’s greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings. The Art Deco Trust (artdeconapier.com) runs several tours. Pick the hour-long walk at 10am and you’ve got an afternoon free to indulge in the Hawke’s Bay region’s other draw – Bay Tours runs an afternoon jaunt stopping at a few wineries for tastings.

Days 11–13: Wellington 

Trick someone else into being the designated driver on the four-hour drive from Napier to Wellington – there’s more vino to slurp, and the Martinborough region has rock-solid Pinot Noir credentials. Once in the capital create room for daytime cafe-hopping and museum stops by visiting Zealandia at dusk. This is when the resident kiwis inside the giant conservation project tend to come out, making for a far better chance of up-close sightings. 

Ride the cable car when you visit New Zealand’s capital, Wellington

Days 14–15: South Island crossing 

Change of island means a change of cars. Most hire arrangements mean dropping yours off at the Wellington ferry terminal prior to the often-choppy voyage to Picton at the top of South Island, where you rent a replacement. You’ve landed in the Marlborough wine region – world-famous for its Sauvignon Blancs. But the real star in these parts is the craggily coastlined, forest-shrouded Abel Tasman National Park. Sea caves, cormorant-nesting sites, splashing seal pups, cove beaches and dainty rock islands line up to be gently paddled around, with Kahu Kayaks running full-day tours and half-day jaunts. 

Days 16–18: Wild west coast 

Even by Kiwi standards, the west coast of South Island feels remote, detached, weather-beaten and enigmatically doughty. But many highlights can be combined in a mini road trip. Kick off 90 minutes southwest of Nelson with a stroll in the Nelson Lakes National Park. The 90-minute Braeburn Walk at Lake Rotoroa passes shimmery waterfalls and the world’s largest fuchsia trees. Bird life is diverse. Now, swing west for a pit stop at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks, where the sea mashes away at the weird, pancake stack-like formations and explodes up through blowholes. Forty minutes south, Greymouth counts as a big town in these parts and has an arty streak – check out the Left Bank Art Gallery for greenstone carvings and ceramics. The seemingly supernatural turquoise waters of Hokitika Gorge make a good stop on the way, two hours further south, to glacier country. Then, at the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, the experiences are similar – a short helicopter flight on to the ice, followed by a few hours’ fully kitted-out hiking through eerie blue crevasses and ice caves. But Franz Josef has more to do around it –  horse-riding, rafting –  so makes a better base. 

Days 19–20: Queenstown thrills 

Queenstown bounces like a student on energy drinks, but its setting –  on a splintered lake surrounded by ski fields –  is so impressive that the resort town’s enthusiasm becomes endearingly infectious. It’s a four-hour 45-minute drive down from Franz Josef – stop at Monro Beach and check out roadside waterfalls along the Haast Pass highway en route. And, once there, decide how you want to scare yourself. Commercial bungee-jumping was born in Queenstown, but white-water rafting, skydives and lurching 300-metre swings into a canyon feature on a lengthy white-knuckle menu. These work out cheaper when packaged up, which Queenstown Combos specialises in. Daintier options include taking the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a cruise on Lake Wakatipu, and 4WD tours to Lord of the Rings filming locations.  

Days 21-22: Milford Sound and Te Anau 

Whatever you do, don’t use Queenstown as a base for visiting the fiord that launched a million photos: Milford Sound. Rather than enduring the almost eight-hour round-trip, drive two hours the day before to Te Anau, where you’ll have time to cram in a cruise across Lake Te Anau into Fiordland National Park to explore glow worm-covered caves. Start early the next day north towards Milford Sound and you’ll have the chance to stop at the numerous waterfalls on the precipitous road down, then get on the water when it’s relatively quiet before all the tour buses from Queenstown arrive. Cruises are fairly interchangeable –  most allow for plentiful gawping at seals, dolphins and seemingly vertical rock walls. But Mitre Peak’s small boat jaunt is less crowded and permits a stop at the Underwater Observatory to wonder at the aquatic life and coral.

the front of dunedin railway station in new zealand
Dunedin’s railway station is a perfect picture opportunity

Days 23–24: Destination Dunedin 

The Scottish streak is strong and the student population decidedly lively in Dunedin, a three-hour 20-minute drive through bucolic sleepiness from Te Anau. The look is distinctive, too, with a rich line-up of Victorian and Edwardian buildings made from the local bluestone. The railway station is the standout photo-op in this regard, but you’ve come here to explore by boat, not train –  that’s the best way to spot the teeming variety of wildlife. Monarch Wildlife Cruises chugs down the coast of the Otago Peninsula, taking in feeding sea birds and galumphing seals. Various combos are available, but the full-day Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour stops at the two most magical sites. The Royal Albatross Centre is where the giants with three-metre wingspans nest –  it’s the only place in the world to see them, as otherwise, they hang out on tiny mid-ocean rock islands. And the Penguin Place Conservation Reserve provides a refuge for the comical, waddling yellow-eyed penguins. 

Days 25–26: Alpine adventure 

The drive inland to New Zealand’s highest point, the 4,000-metre Aoraki/Mount Cook, is a startlingly beautiful journey (three hours 45 minutes) past tussock-grass foothills and milky-blue-white lakes. You’ll not get to the summit without mountaineering in your blood, but you can learn about those who have –  who went on to top Everest –  at the engrossing Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. The half-day hike to Hooker Lake –  through alpine meadows, over dainty wooden bridges crossing frigid streams –  isn’t in quite the same league, but it’s a fine way to get lungfuls of mountain air. For something more spectacular, there’s kayaking on Tasman Lake around eerie blue icebergs, watching ice calve off the glacier; mtcook.com runs tours. Lake Tekapo, a 90-minute drive away on the road to Christchurch, twinkles with near-fluorescence, but there’s plenty of twinkling overhead, too. It’s part of a dark sky reserve, and the Dark Sky Project lays on stargazing sessions at the Mount John Observatory that show just how different the heavens look in the southern hemisphere.

Days 27–28: Christchurch and home 

Your journey’s end –  Christchurch airport –  is just under three hours’ away. But there’s a choice to be made for the last two days: city or chilled? Christchurch will show you post-earthquake transformation hipness, but the town of Akaroa, on the neighbouring Banks Peninsula, has craters, coastline and more than a little Gallic flair –  imbued by its original French settlers. And snorkelling with the rare, adorable Hector’s dolphin –  Black Cat Cruises will take you to swim with them –  feels like a mighty fine farewell to the country.

Looking for further inspiration? Check out the local’s guide to exploring Auckland here.

Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing.