3 Weeks in New Zealand—An Itinerary

3 Weeks in New Zealand—An Itinerary

We recently spent three completely dreamy weeks driving around New Zealand. We planned carefully so we could fit in as many highlights as possible, but because we were in a camper van (which we highly recommend as a means of travel), our plans were flexible. We did end up changing our plans at times (I’ll note where our actual travel differed from what we’d planned), but for the most part we felt like this was an excellent itinerary to experience some of New Zealand’s best bits.

A word on pace: New Zealand is an incredibly scenic, vibrant, and activity-packed destination—it’s impossible to fit it all in to a short trip, and we’d love to return one day and spend much longer! But we also realize that most visitors to this country won’t have the luxury of a slow exploration. Normally we love traveling more slowly: seeing less, but seeing it more thoroughly. Here we opted to fit in as much as we could, partly to give ourselves an overview and partly just because New Zealand has always been one of the places we were most excited to visit and we’d accumulated a long list of must-see sights for ourselves. If you’d like a calmer trip, it’s well worth thinking about spending all your time on just one island, and/or choosing a small handful of places to base yourself for several days each (we’d recommend Wanaka, the Coromandel, Northland, the Catlins, the West Coast of the South Island, or the Marlborough Sounds.)

This itinerary has you starting in Christchurch and ending in Auckland. An open-jaw flight will allow you to spend more days exploring instead of getting from place to place. Renting a campervan will allow you to see more and spend less; while rentals can get pricey, you’ll save money on accommodation and food (if you cook for yourself.) There are also plenty of deals to be had on camper rentals—check for relocation specials or off-season deals. If you want to be able to free camp (stay overnight in a spot without paying), your camper will need to be certified self-contained—it’ll have a blue sticker on the back to show authorities. Download your rental company’s app for guidance in finding campgrounds or legal free camping spots.

Day 1: Christchurch and Mackenzie Country

Arrive in Christchurch and explore this fascinating city. Take a walk around downtown to see the effects and rebuilding from the 2010-11 earthquakes. Wander through the botanic garden. And stop in at Canterbury Museum to learn a bit about Maori history and to see Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House. Stock up on some groceries on your way out of town and spend the night at Rakaia Gorge, which has a terrific grassy campground with unbeatable views.

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Days 2-3: Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park

Finish the scenic drive to Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park, passing bright-blue Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd on your way. Mt. Cook/Aoraki is full of fantastic hiking—don’t miss the Hooker Valley Track (and start it early in the day if you want a less-crowded trail.) Watch the weather! Though you can’t see it from this side, the ocean is just over the mountains and storms blow in quickly and get nasty just as fast. The visitor’s center at Mt. Cook Village, with its excellent exhibits, is a good place to pass a stormy few hours and the rangers can tell you all you need to know about tracks, weather, and other pertinent info. If the night is clear, don’t miss out on spending some time stargazing—the park is an International Dark Sky Reserve and one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. Once you’ve spent your walking energy on your second day here, start the long drive south to the Catlins.

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Days 4-5: The Catlins

The remote Catlins see far fewer visitors than other parts of the South Island, but what this area lacks in cell reception, it more than makes up for in rugged coastal scenery, gorgeous bush walks, waterfalls and wildlife. Check out Nugget Point, Pūrākaunui Falls, McLean Falls, Curio Bay, Slope Point, and Te Waewae. After your far-south wanderings, fuel up at the excellent Orapuki Beach Cafe. If you have a day to spare, take a tour to Stewart Island, the southernmost part of New Zealand, for birdwatching, bush walking and a truly remote area that even most Kiwis don’t ever experience.

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Days 6-7: Fjordland National Park

Te Anau is an ideal jumping-off spot for your explorations of the unparalleled Fjordland. Spend a day taking a cruise or a paddle around Milford or Doubtful Sound, and another day seeing whichever sound you missed or else exploring Milford Road. There are loads of excellent walking tracks along the way and the scenery is spectacular. Our favorite stop along the road was the Chasm—this waterfall through a curvy carved slot thrilled us as much as Milford Sound itself. Other worthy stops include Mirror Lakes, Lake Gunn and Hollyford Valley Lookout. If you’re up for a longer hike and it’s a clear day, check out Key Summit for sweeping views over the surrounds. 

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Day 8: Queenstown

Today, make your way to the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world. You don’t have to be an adrenaline-junkie to enjoy the energy, activities and food in this city, and while it's a busy place full of tourists, it’s got incredible scenery. Stand in line (it moves fast!) for the famous Fernburger, or skip the line at Devilburger (which some claim is even better.) Sign yourself up for a bungee jump, sky dive, parasail, or any of the other million adventures on offer in town or, if you want something calmer, take a ride on the Skyline, check out the views over the city and then ride the luge down. For a less expensive way to enjoy Queenstown, make your way just out of town to the Kawarau Bridge to watch people bungee jump in the spot where the sport was first organized as a commercial venture.

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Day 9: Wanaka

Wanaka has all the amenities and scenery of Queenstown, but with smaller crowds and a slower pace. It’s a great place to sign up for any adventures you missed in Queenstown, but we’d recommend spending your day in Wanaka hiking. There are loads of great trails here in the surrounding Mt. Aspiring National Park; the Rob Roy Glacier Track is fantastic—even the drive to get to the trailhead is a major highlight of this area—and the Blue Pools are a short and easy walk with a beautiful payoff.

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Day 10: Fox & Franz Josef Glacier, Hokitika Gorge, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes

The West Coast of the South Island is a wonderfully slow-paced and scenic area; if you have spare days to spend, you could do much worse than to spend them here. Otherwise, focus on the highlights: Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and Hokitika Gorge. Both glaciers have receded a great deal in recent years and require a guided trip or helicopter ride to get up close to. Still, they’re iconic and worth the walks to their viewpoints. Hokitika Gorge is a short hike with a big reward: a swinging bridge and, further on, a small boulder-strewn beach on the shore of brilliant, jewel-blue water. Punakaiki is an area of striking geology, with its layered limestone and its eroded arches, spires and blowholes. There are more sights in this area, too, including glowworm cave tours or (for the budget-conscious) nighttime glowworm walks (ask around locally for these trails and bring a flashlight); Lake Matheson, which has a beautiful reflection of Mt. Cook on a clear day; and Omarama, an area we’d love to come back and explore. 

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Day 11: Arthur’s Pass

The drive through Arthur’s Pass is incredibly scenic, even if you happen to be there on a stormy day, as we were. There are lots of worthy hikes here, too, including Devil’s Punchbowl Falls and Temple Basin.

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Day 12: Abel Tasman

Abel Tasman National Park really deserves more than one day; as the location of New Zealand’s most popular Great Walk, it’s crisscrossed with trails and lined with beautiful stretches of beach and coastline. But you can still get a feel for it in a day; rent a kayak or take a tour with one of the many guide companies in the area—you can paddle, hike, ferry, or a combination of any of these, and you’ll likely see much more than you would on your own.

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Day 13: On to the North Island

Take a morning ferry to Wellington. Windy Welly is a favorite city of many Kiwis and there’s plenty here to occupy you for a few days, including some excellent museums and the Weta Workshop for Lord of the Rings fans. Explore what you can, then hit the road early in the afternoon, both to avoid traffic and because you’ve got a long drive to Tongariro.

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Day 14: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This hike is a case of do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do, because we didn’t end up doing the crossing—it proved too ambitious for both the weather we encountered and for our kids’ moods and energy levels that day. But if you’re at all interested in doing a longer hike while you’re in New Zealand, this is a great place to do it. The scenery in this area is incredible, and if you’re a LoTR fan, you can reenact Frodo and Sam’s journey up Mt. Doom. Get an early start, be prepared for changeable weather, and send us all your pictures—this is at the top of our list for a return trip to NZ!

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Day 15: Taupo & Rotorua

This area of the North Island is renowned for its volcanic activity, and there are loads of ways to explore the evidence. While spas abound in the area, there are also plenty of free spots for a hot soak if you know where to go. Our favorite was Otumuheke Stream, which sits on the border of the Waikato River. If you get too hot, you can work your way closer to the river until you find the perfect warm mix. As for geothermal areas, you’re spoiled for choice, but we really enjoyed Orakei Korako. On a loop walk, you’ll take in springs, geysers, mud pots, and more, all in a jungly and non-busy bush setting. This is also a great area to take in a cultural dinner and show and learn a bit more about the Maori people. 

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Day 16: Waitomo Caves & Hobbiton

Another case of do-as-I-say, we didn’t make it to the glowworm caves of Waitomo, but if you can make it there for a tour, you absolutely should. We saw glowworms on a nighttime walk through the woods near Fox Glacier and it was a huge highlight for us. And even if you’re not a big LoTR fan, Hobbiton is really worth a visit—it’s an utterly charming place in a bucolic setting. The tour is two hours and includes a free drink at the Green Dragon, as well as a funny and fascinating commentary from your guide.

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Days 17-18: Coromandel Peninsula

You’ve been moving quickly so far in the North Island, so take the next few days to slow things down in the Coromandel. Don’t miss Cathedral Cove—rent a kayak to paddle around the bay, take a boat tour, or hike along the coast to get to the cove. It’s a fantastic sight. Another place not-to-be-missed: Hot Water Beach. Along a stretch of this beach, there are hot springs under the sand; for two hours either side of low tide, you can dig your own natural hot tub and have a soak on the shore. It’s every bit as fantastic as it sounds. Don’t expect to have the place to yourself—Hot Water Beach can get awfully busy, but if you embrace the crowd it can be a convivial and fun experience. Since low tide happens twice a day, you can go in the early-morning or late-night hours and there will likely be few other people. On a clear day, the sunsets here are tremendous and it’s worth it to come at night too—the stargazing is wonderful. Look up tide times before you go and rent a spade at the beach. (Check out this post for more tips about visiting Hot Water Beach!)

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Days 19-20: Northland and Bay of Islands

Northland could occupy your explorations for weeks. With only a few days, focus on one area so you have time to really take it in. Try basing yourself in Paihia to explore Whangarei, Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga, or spend your time around 90 Mile Beach and the Waipoua Forest.

Day 21: Auckland

We haven’t heard a lot of Kiwis speaking super fondly of Auckland, but we thought it was a pleasant city. It’s full of amenities, shopping and restaurants, if you need a break from your rural experiences and home cooking as you wind down your time in New Zealand.

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