Tailor-make the ultimate New Zealand holiday experience
Read time: 7 mins
New Zealand is often ranked among or at the top of the world’s best travel spots, a true bucket list destination offering everything from lush rainforest and soaring mountains to geothermal features, including hot springs, abundant wildlife, beautiful beaches and more. This country is also quite a bit bigger than most people think, with many visitors underestimating travel distances and times. It’s bigger than the UK, close to the same size as Germany, split into two main islands. There are only around 60 miles of multi-lane motorways, with most major routes two-way highways.
While a road trip is the best way to experience this country, you’ll need plenty of time to do so – ideally three- to four-weeks, whether you're looking for something guided or to head out independently. No matter which you choose, all can be tailored further to provide you with the ideal customised holiday through some of the very best of New Zealand.
The capital city of Auckland is the main international air hub and the ideal place to begin your tour of the North Island. One of the best ways to kick off your unforgettable adventure is to head to the Sky Tower, the country’s tallest man-made structure providing a 360-degree view that stretches for 50 miles on a clear day. Reach the top by ascending in a glass-fronted lift that lead to the viewing platforms, and if you’re especially daring, you can take the SkyJump, bungy jumping nearly 630 feet at more than 52 miles per hour or the heart-pounding SkyWalk that follows the outside ring of the building.
There are plenty of other things to do in the city, including shopping and delving into the impressive food scene. You might want to do some exploring of the surrounding region, perhaps a day trip to scenic Rangitoto Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from the city centre. There you can experience fascinating volcanic landscape, including lava caves, and more than 200 species of plants, moss and trees with a hike to the summit of the symmetrical shield volcano cone that rises more than 850 feet above the Hauraki Gulf. Another option is Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ride by ferry from Auckland city centre. It’s a haven of olive groves, vineyards and beautiful secluded beaches for swimming.
Bay of Islands
Located near the northern tip of the North Island, the Bay of Islands is ideal for cruising, made up of more than 140 islands with sandy beaches, hidden bays and lots of wildlife. Take your time as you make your way there, capturing photos and stopping to visit the bohemian settlement of Puhoi or Warkworth’s enticing cafes and art galleries. You’ll be dazzled by the natural beauty upon reaching Paihia - not only are there golden stretches of sand highlighted by vibrant greenery and turquoise waters, but opportunities to swim alongside dolphins, and watch for whales too. Just north of Pahia, visit the historic site where the Waitangi Treaty was signed – it’s the most important in New Zealand. Explore the treaty grounds, museum, a colonial mission and a Maori war canoe before catching a performance in the Maori meeting house. On the other side of the bay is the picturesque town of Russell, the first European settlement and seaport in New Zealand. Once referred to as the ‘hell hole of the Pacific,’ while its streets today are lined with charming cafes, restaurants and art galleries, this was once a rough, violent place.
Journey west and then south, travelling through the Waipoua Forest where you’ll be able to marvel at the Kauri trees, including the world’s largest. Known as the ‘King of the Forest,’ it’s around 2,000 years old.
There are a number of short, scenic walks here that are ideal for stretching your legs, including the 5-minute loop that will take you to see the biggest of all the trees. Making your way to Snells Beach, enjoy a break at the Kauri Museum in the village of Matakohe, which focuses on the area’s early pioneering days. It also hosts the world’s most collection of kauri furniture and gum. You’ll come to the Tawharnui Marine Reserve where you may want to stop to enjoy some of the region’s most secluded pristine white sandy beaches.
Coramandel Town and the Coramandel Peninsula
Traveling down the Hibiscus Coast through rolling hills and farmland, the Firth of Thames is renowned for its thousands of migratory wading birds that make it worth stopping before heading to the Coromandel on the east coast. The slightly longer drive on the Pohutukawa Coast is the most scenic way to go, named for its beautiful trees with red flowers. When you reach the Coromandel Peninsula you’ll be surrounded by gorgeous mountain and beach scenery. Explore the area’s interesting local history and geology at the School of Mines & Mineralogical Museum and the Thames Historical Museum before taking the walk to stunning Cathedral Cove, perhaps stopping to snorkel or swim in Gemstone Bay along the way.
Head to Rotorua, with a couple of fun options to choose from along the way. Hop on the Goldfields Railway to ride the heritage train through stunning scenery at the east end of Karangahake Gorge, passing through rich gold mining history. Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fans won’t want to miss making the detour to Matamata where you can visit the Hobbiton film set. Rotorua is especially famous for its unique geological features as the heart of one of the world’s most active volcanic regions. Experience the hot springs, gurgling mud pools and geysers in the Waimangu Valley, a true thermal wonderland. You can also visit a village that was buried during the massive Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886.
As you journey toward Hawke’s Bay, stop near Taupo to follow the signs to Huka Falls. One of the country’s most visited attractions, the thundering turquoise cascades plunge through a rocky canyon, creating a jaw-dropping display. Hawke’s Bay is considered one of New Zealand’s premier wine regions, with over 70 wineries for visiting and tasting, while central Napier is one of the most well-preserved Art Deco towns in the world, offering lots of fantastic photo-ops. Just across the bay you’ll see Cape Kidnappers, home to the largest mainland gannet colony on Earth – take a tractor tour and you’ll be able to enjoy close encounters with the birds.
Traveling toward Wellington, you’ll pass through tranquil farmland before coming to Greytown, home to the country’s highest concentration of Victorian colonial architecture. Stop for the night in Martinborough, enjoying its picturesque scenery and boutique wineries. Once in New Zealand’s second largest city, you’ll be able to hop on the cable car for a hide to the hills of Kelburn, taking in some of the most spectacular views around. It ends at the botanical gardens, providing the perfect pace for a stroll. You may want to enjoy your evening on Cuba Street with diverse street performers and eateries offering delicious Cuban-inspired cuisine.
Catch the ferry for the three-hour ride to the South Island, taking in the dazzling scenery that includes Marlborough Sound with its brilliant crystal-clear blue waters, island gems and mountains. Once on shore you’ll be just east of Abel Tasman National Park, famous for its mountainous terrain for hiking, as well as boasting some of the most magnificent stretches of golden sands and waters that are ideal for sea kayaking. Keep an eye out for the many birds in the park, including oyster catchers, wekas and blue penguins.
Traveling the east coast of the South Island toward Kaikoura, keep an eye out for the myriad of wildlife. Sperm whales can be seen year-round with the more than mile-deep Kaikoura canyon that runs right along the shoreline creating a rare system of sea currents that contain an extraordinarily rich marine food chain. If you visit between December and March, watch for killer whales too, and in June or July, humpbacks. There are numerous dolphin species in the area spotted on almost a daily basis as well. Once in Kaikoura, join a boat excursion for a closer look at the marine creatures or hop on a flight tour to marvel at them from above.
Soak in the soothing thermal pools at Hamner Springs before continuing onto Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. Two of the highlights here are the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and the International Antarctic Centre. Riding the heritage tram is a good way to experience many of the city’s top landmarks and attractions, like Cathedral Junction, Canterbury Museum, Avon River and trendy New Regent Street. Just outside Christchurch in Lyttelton you can take a wildlife cruise to view rare hectors dolphins. Save your evening for a unique Maori cultural experience at the Tamaki Heritage Village, complete with an authentic feast and performances.
Mount Cook National Park
While your next destination is Mount Cook National Park, in the town of Lake Tekapo you might want to stick around to explore on horseback, take a boat trip or a scenic flight. Once at Lake Pukaki with its incredibly intense milky-turquoise hue, the more than 10,000-foot-high Mount Cook comes into view. There are miles and miles of trails for treks with views of many imposing mountain peaks, glaciers and permanent snow fields.
Just south of Mount Cook before continuing to Dunedin, Lord of the Rings fans should stop in Twizel where many scenes were shot as the location for the Pelennor Fields. The Moeraki Boulders are worth a stop as well. These geologic mysteries look as if they’re part of an alien landscapes with their near perfect shapes and massive size. The town of Dunedin makes a great base for exploring the Otago Peninsula, renowned for its rare wildlife watching opportunities which includes yellow-eyed penguins and the world’s only mainland royal albatross breeding colony. As you make your way along the coast to Te Anau you’ll have the opportunity for an overnight cruise to Doubtful Sound. Te Anau is the gateway to Milford Sound, your next destination.
The scenic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, a place Rudyard Kipling called the “eighth wonder of the world,” is one you’re unlikely to ever forget, travelling through the heart of Fiordland National Park. Plan for the wealth of photo-ops, including Mirror Lakes with its still water providing a perfect reflection of the mountains that overlook it.
A cruise of the Sound is one of the top experiences in the country, bringing close encounters with New Zealand fur seals that can be seen basking in the sun, dramatic rock faces rising from the sea, and waterfalls that spill from the rainforest.
The views seem to just get better and better as you head north along the shores of Lake Wakatpu toward Queenstown, overlooked by the jaw-dropping Remarkables Mountain Range. Here you’ll have a wide range of adventures at your doorstep, from thrilling activities like rafting, skydiving and bungy jumping to more gentle pursuits. Wine tours, cruises, and one of New Zealand’s top jet boating experiences are just a few of the options here.
Franz Josef Glacier
You’ll travel the country’s highest sealed road on your way to Makarora, the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park, as you head to Franz Josef Glacier, passing Fox Glacier along the way. The main attraction in the town of Franz Josef is one of the planet’s most accessible glaciers. It’s possible to walk right up to the foot of the vast Franz Josef glacier – or, you can join a helicopter sightseeing tour to marvel at the frozen rivers of ice flowing down the mountain peaks.
Don’t worry if a four-week excursion isn’t in the cards. A three-week option, the Grand New Zealand Self-Drive, may be the ideal way to experience the highlights of New Zealand’s North and South islands for those with a shorter time frame.
If you’d prefer a guided holiday, join an expert travel director for The Long White Cloud - Christchurch to Auckland tour. It includes many of the country’s top destinations and unique excursions along with in-depth insight about what you’re seeing, as well as the history and culture of New Zealand.
Discover New Zealand in-depth with these recommended longer duration escorted & self-drive tours
Length and Breadth of New Zealand Self-Drive (29 nights)
Classic New Zealand Self-Drive (20 nights)
Auckland to Christchurch Boutique Self-Drive (19 nights)
All New Zealand Kakapo Small Group Escorted Tour (20 nights)
Spirit of New Zealand Escorted Tour (19 nights)
Ultimate Rail, Cruise & Coach Experience Escorted Tour (18 nights)