12 Days to Explore New Zealand
Road Trip Travel
New Zealand is a traveler's paradise that offers an endless supply of breathtaking sights and unforgettable experiences. It's natural wonders, from the rugged mountains to the pristine beaches, will leave you in awe. Whether you seek thrilling adventures or peaceful scenic drives, New Zealand has something for everyone.
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Day 1: Arrival in Auckland
Auckland, the capital of New Zealand, serves as an ideal starting point for a 12-day trip. Start your journey by picking up a rental car and head straight to the hotel. If your room isn't ready yet, don't worry — many hotels offer luggage storage so you can explore the city without being weighed down. Rather than finding a parking spot and walking around Auckland, consider heading straight to Black Sand Piha Beach. The drive itself offers stunning views of the beautiful scenery New Zealand has to offer. Once you reach the beach, you'll be greeted by surfers catching waves and warm sand between your toes.
If you're looking for a hiking adventure, take the trail to Tasman Lookout, which offers breathtaking views of the surrounding area. After spending some time at the beach, head back to the central business district (CBD) of Auckland to check out the iconic Sky Tower.
For foodies, Ponsonby Road in the Ponsonby neighborhood is a must-visit spot. Known for its excellent food scene, there are plenty of dining options to choose from. Keep in mind that due to the ongoing labor shortage in the restaurant due to the pandemic, it's recommended to call ahead if you have a specific restaurant in mind, as the information on Google may not be up to date. Nonetheless, Ponsonby Road is a popular spot for locals to eat, so you're sure to find something delicious to enjoy.
Day 2: Hot Water Beach
To kick off the day, we recommend taking a scenic drive to Hot Water Beach, which is located to the west of Auckland. You can dig into specific areas in the sand to find hot water, which makes for a unique natural hot tub experience. If you decide to give it a try, make sure to dig your hole near the ocean to regulate the temperature and bring your own shovel or rent one from a local gift store. The activity can be physically demanding in the beginning, but it's definitely worth it.
After Hot Water Beach, we suggest heading over to Cathedral Cove, which is just a short drive away. The area has various attractions, including Te Whanganui A Her and Orua Sea Cave. Once you arrive, you'll have to park at the Cathedral parking lot and pay for the bus, which is an inexpensive and convenient option. I recommend taking the trail to Cathedral Cove, which offers stunning views. However, you could also take a boat tour to explore the island and visit another cave.
Once you're done exploring, you can either drive back to Auckland for dinner or find a small town to dine in. Keep in mind that some places may close early.
Day 3: A Visit to Hobbiton
When planning a trip from Auckland to Rotorua, it's worth considering a stop at the halfway point in Hobbiton Movie Set Tours. The famous town is a must-visit destination where you can tour the principal set of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Make sure to purchase your guided tour in advance as it often sells out. Even if you're not a fan, it's still an interesting place to visit and the guides provide an excellent experience.
Once you finish the tour, continue your trip to Rotorua, and make sure to arrive by 6 pm since many restaurants in the area close early.
Day 4: Rotorua
Be prepared to smell sulfur in the air, caused by the geothermal pools, which are a must-see attraction. We recommend visiting Hell's Gate Mud Pools, where you can enjoy a two-hour guided tour of the geothermal pools. The guide will point out which pools are safe and which ones can dissolve people in three days! The package also includes a 30-minute session in the mud pools, but you can spend unlimited time in the warm pool.
Apart from the geothermal pools, Rotorua offers many other attractions, including historic sites, the Skyline Gondola, Luge and zipline. However, we highly recommend the Glowing Worms Kayak Tour, which was one of our favorites. You'll paddle upriver before floating down the river between two ridges that glow at night from the glow worms.
Day 5: Queenstown
If you're short on time and want to explore New Zealand, consider hopping on a plane to the South Island. Queenstown is a must-visit destination, recommended by both tourists and locals. Take a trip up to the Gondola Skyline for the best view of Queenstown, and don't forget to try the Luge, a gravity downslope go-kart ride that is loved by all ages. You can purchase the Gondola and Luge tickets separately or together at the base of the mountain. I recommend getting three laps of Luge because two are not enough.
While the food at the top of the mountain may not be amazing due to the high volume of visitors, there are plenty of options to choose from in town. Make sure to try the famous Fergburger, but be prepared for a long wait as the line is often long.
Day 6: Milford Sound Mountains
The Milford Sound Mountains are a must-see attraction that's worth the all-day trip. To make the most of your experience, start your day early and purchase tickets in advance. Although you can take a Seaplane ride, the unpredictable weather in Milford Sound area can make it difficult to keep the flight schedule. Instead, prepare for the four-hour drive or take a tour bus that includes a ferry trip, which offers beautiful views of the waterfalls.
Day 7: Bungee Jumping
In Queenstown, you can experience the thrill of bungee jumping, which was invented here. With several spots available for jumping, it's a must-try activity that can take up half a day. Even if it's your first time, you need not worry as locals regularly jump. Some of the jumps are from a moving platform, so you might need to pay a fee to watch your friends jump.
If you're looking for a more scenic adventure, consider doing a 3-hour ATV tour. This tour will take you through hills and up a mountain, giving you some of the most stunning views of Queenstown. You'll be given a quick lesson and tested before heading out. Depending on the group's size and skill, you might be divided into two, allowing you to see places that the other group cannot. All the necessary equipment and clothing will be provided. However, note that a $2,500 NZD deposit per person may be required for accidents.
Day 8: Arrowtown & Glenorchy
After a packed day of adventure, it’s best to take it easy and visit Arrowtown and Glenorchy near Queenstown. Both of these towns are small and quaint, perfect for a leisurely walk and to learn a bit about the history of the town. It’s also a perfect time to add famous stops where scenes from the Lord of the Rings were shot. I suggest using Google Maps to plot out your drive as it will take you all over the Queenstown Region.
Day 9: Lake Tekapo
When driving towards Lake Tekapo, take some time to stop and explore along the way. One must-stop location is Lake Pukaki, which boasts a stunning turquoise color that's hard to capture on camera. However, remember to bring food for the journey or make time for a café visit. But like anything else, it closes early or closed on the weekends.
Upon reaching Lake Tekapo, consider heading to the popular restaurant for a meal if you are hungry before taking a leisurely stroll around the lake. The church surrounded by lavender is a picturesque spot for taking sunset photos.
For stargazing, Lake Pukaki Overnight Campervan Parking is a great location to consider. The area is secluded, pitch-black and offers stunning views. If you're traveling with a significant other, staying nearby in lodges can be a romantic experience. Alternatively, consider doing the whole trip in a campervan for added flexibility.
Day 10: Christchurch or Stay in Queensland
If you're planning a trip to Christchurch, locals suggest skipping it as there aren't many notable sights to see other than the cardboard church building and the Downtown area. Instead, consider spending more time in Queenstown, although keep in mind that you'll miss out on the supposedly best scenic drive of the South Island from Queenstown to Christchurch. This is where you need to decide what you like best. As you will need two days to do a Christchurch round trip visit.
While in Queenstown, try out jetboat over shallow water for a thrilling experience. The guides' habits of getting close to objects or doing 360 spins with the boat will get you soaked. There are different companies offering different paths and lengths for rides, so choose wisely based on your time and preferences. Finally, don't miss out on ziplines and paragliding. Again, plenty of options for each activity.
Day 11: Enjoy the Last of Queensland
Last day to enjoy one last walk around the central area of Queenstown and do any activity or shopping before heading out to Auckland. If you decide to go to Christchurch the day before, either you drive back to Queenstown to return the car and fly out or fly out of Christchurch to Auckland International airport. It all depends if you want to save time or save money on the hefty fee to return a car at a different location than pick up.
Day 12: Depart from Auckland
Depending on where you are coming from, flights can be early or late in the day. Returning rental cars is easy in New Zealand, but make sure to clear everything out before heading back to the counter to return the keys. Easily flying back home could've been done the day before but I recommend to give yourself a buffer to get your bags and rest properly as long flights can be stressful and tiring for some. Plus, with all the excitement there can be another chance to eat or see a little bit of Auckland before your flight.
Need to Know
For more travel tips, check out Fora Advisor Lizz Callaway’s guide, The Best Places to Visit While on Vacation in New Zealand.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Oceania.