Americans are notorious for our two weeks’ vacation time. We work ourselves silly, then go sit on a beach somewhere to gather the energy to get back to it for another 50 weeks. New Zealand is a pipe dream— it’s SO far away. And it’s impossible to explore the North and South islands of New Zealand in two weeks. Or is it?
Recently, a friend from California came to visit me for a road trip in New Zealand, and we made it our mission to see as much of New Zealand as possible in just two weeks. Is it ambitious? Oh yeah. Is it possible? Heck yes. Is it the trip of a lifetime? You better believe it.
So rent a car, stock it with L&P, pineapple lumps, chocolate fish and turn up Six60 on your iPod and put that baby in gear, because we’re going on a two week road trip in New Zealand!
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New Zealand in two weeks: road tripping through the North and South Islands
“‘I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.’
‘I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!'”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
Day 1: Arrive in Queenstown
Order Queenstown’s best burger… at Devil Burger. And you’ll thank me later if you add a side of garlic cheese chips. Eat it lakefront for a great view.
Finish your night at one of the ice bars in town, where you can enjoy a drink in an ice tumbler and play a game of table ice hockey.
Day 2: Queenstown
Jetboats are world famous, but they were invented in Queenstown, and find themselves on our must-do list. We took a spin (ok… there were LOTS of 360s) with Skipper Canyon Jet. There are many companies to choose from, but here’s why I think they’re great: Your adrenaline rush begins on the 30-minute drive to the Shotover River, where your bus driver will share stories, history and stop for the best photo ops while cruising a one-lane gravel path. Once on board the jetboat, your expert driver careens through canyons in centimeters of water, but stops at old gold mining equipment and Lord of the Rings filming locations.
It was a rainy day in Queenstown for us, so we cozied up under blankets with a cheese platter and local wines at The Winery. For more awesome (and cheap)activities in Queenstown, check out this post on 30+ activities under $30.
On a sunny day, hike up Queenstown Hill or go for a gondola ride and check out the luge. It’s a lot of fun and provides some stellar views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. Then, finish your day with one of the best desserts in Queenstown.
Day 3: Queenstown – Franz Josef
AJ Hackett invented the bungy, so you can’t leave town without picking an adrenaline rush from the company that pioneered throwing yourself off ridiculously high ledges. Their professional nature is matched only by their adept distraction skills when faced with a nervous customer. We opted for the Nevis Swing (the world’s BIGGEST swing), so my friend and I could go together… but you better believe I’m going back for the Nevis bungy one day! (Update: I did it and it was AWESOME! Read about it here.)
This is the perfect start to the driving portion of the trip, because who needs coffee after a 229 ft freefall? The drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier is a beautiful one— from rolling hills of gold, to a forest straight out of Lord of the Rings, to mirror-like blue lakes and snow capped mountains— you see it all in less than 5 hours!
*Day 3 helpful hint* There’s a 120km stretch of road before Fox Glacier without a gas station. Fill up early and fill up often… Better safe than sorry! We cruised into town with only one bar on the fuel gauge.
Day 4: Franz Josef – Hokitika
Good morning sunshine, it’s time for a helihike on Fox Glacier! Get suited up in a waterproof jacket, big socks and leather boots (all provided by Fox Glacier Guides), and hop on a helicopter up to the glacier. Formed when snow from Mount Tasman moves down a small area (think toothpaste in a tube) and is compacted, forming valleys, caves and beautiful ice formations. You’ll get a crash course on walking in crampons before hitting the ice. Take every opportunity to crawl, shimmy, and climb across the glacier… it’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever do (pun definitely intended).
After your helicopter arrives back in town, grab a quick lunch at a cafe, and point your car towards Hokitika. It’s a 2 hour drive, so take your time and stop at waterfalls and the beach for some pictures. Just make sure you get to town by sunset… there’s a driftwood sign spelling out Hokitika on the beach that makes for some incredible sunset photos.
Fat Pipi Pizza is famous, and we’re told that people drive from as far as Christchurch for one of these pies. Split a pizza so you’ll have room for a dessert pizza. We loved the apricot and passionfruit crumble pizza with vanilla ice cream.
If you can snag a spot at Drifting Sands Beachfront Accomodation, ask Claire whether she’s doing a Magical Mystery Tour that night. If not, she’ll give you directions to the glowworm dell… they’re pretty magical all on their own!
Day 5: Hokitika – Kaikoura
Take a walk on the beach in the morning and load up the car for a little detour. Hokitika Gorge will add an hour to your travel time, but I promise it’s worth it. The milky turquoise water of the Hokitika River looks unreal, but it’s 100% natural. Bonus: there’s a fun Indiana Jones-esqe bridge that takes you to a path that leads down to the water.
Now, it’s time for the longest drive of your journey. Make sure your snacks and water are fully stocked and take a drive from the east coast of the South Island to the west coast. Taking Arthur’s Pass will add about 30 minutes to your trip, but the views are incredible.
Arrive in Kaikoura and take a walk along the beach or go into town for dinner. Kaikoura literally means “eating crayfish” in Māori… so what better place to try some fresh New Zealand crayfish. That’s lobster for you Americans… so don’t be surprised when the price tag is $60+.
Day 6: Kaikoura
It looks like a great day to go swimming with seals! Seal Swim Kaikoura was established in 1987 and they’re doing their part to ensure that the seals will be around for years to come. They never entice, feed, or train the seals, so the tour is completely based on the seals’ temperament and executed at their leading. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see moms and pups, adolescents, and if you’re lucky… a male seal standing his ground with a harem of females around him.
Squeeze into a wetsuit, hood, booties, fins, a mask and snorkel and jump into the chilly water, where you’ll wait for the seals to overheat. With their thick layer of fur, you shouldn’t have to wait too long! And once they’re in, they’ll spin, dive and jump as they try to work the cold water down to skin level. Your job? Try to keep up! We loved watching the babies and the babies loved watching us! One pup looked at us straight on, turned around and looked at us upside down, then stuck his head underwater to check us out from an underwater perspective… I’m sure he was thinking that we were a weird looking bunch of seals!
Haven’t seen enough seals yet? Cruise on down to the peninsula for a walk along the oceanfront. Out on rocks that look like stacks of pancakes, you’ll find a colony of seals, snoozing and playing in the shallow waters. Take the 4.5 hour loop or shorten your walk and go back to the car park.
The best spot for sunset is the Kaikoura lookout. Get there early and watch the sky change colors as the sun sets behind the mountains.
*Day 6 (and 7) helpful hint* The Kaikoura pharmacy stocks a special anti-seasickness blend called the Kaikoura Cracker. If you’re prone to sea sickness… stop by the pharmacy and have a chat with the pharmacist about whether this is a good fit for you!
Day 7: Kaikoura – Wellington
Wakey, wakey! The dolphins are up, are you? A 5:30 am check in time with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura seems unattainably early, but when you’re on a boat witnessing the day’s first sunrise as a pod of dusky dolphins follow the wake, you’ll catch the magic.
Practice your best dolphin-talk and swimming in circles, because these guys like to play!
The tour ends with plenty of time to shower, change and pack up for a 10 am check out. And we’re on the road again!
As you drive north, stop for one last seal encounter at Ohau Waterfall, nature’s daycare. At the right time of year, these shallow waters are teeming with seal pups socializing as mom goes hunting. They’re just like puppies— playful, cute and curious!
Say goodbye to New Zealand’s South Island as you board the Interisland Ferry in Picton and land in Wellington. We found that the hostel scene in Wellington left something to be desired… so be sure to check into affordable AirBnb or hotel options!
*Day 7 helpful hint* Protect your camera from the dolphins, because it will get wet!
Day 8: Wellington – Turangi
Time for a quick tour of Wellington! The Te Papa museum is a great place to start… and the Māori exhibit will expand your appreciation for this rich culture. Take off your shoes as you walk into the marae and sit under among the Māori carvings in their special meeting place.
Take in the beautiful sights of the whole city from the Mount Victoria Lookout, and hold onto your hats as you pose for a photo under the Windy Wellington sign. Dodge runners as you walk along the Oriental Parade and grab lunch at a cafe along the shores.
Now, it’s time to say goodbye to the capital and head to Turangi. It’s a good night to break out your cooking skills, because the restaurant choices are limited.
*Day 8 helpful hint* While shopping, buy lunch supplies and large bottles of water for tomorrow’s hike.
Day 9: Turagni – Waitomo
It’s another early morning, but THIS is why you’ve stayed in Turangi. Most of the others hiking the Tongariro Crossing stayed in Taupo, but you my friend, have made the wise choice to stay in Turangi, which means you get to sleep in just a little. If you’re prone to extra exploration or taking LOTS of photos, catch the 6:15 bus, otherwise, the 7:15 allows plenty of time for the basic hike with stops for rest and lunch before the last bus departs at 4:30.
Pack layers, lots of water, lunch and (of course) snacks. “One does not simply walk into Mordor”… but you will! Take in the Lord of the Rings sights— Mount Doom and Mordor— but don’t let them intimidate you. It’s a 12.1 mile hike through active volcanic terrain with steep climbs (they don’t call it the Devil’s Staircase for nothing!) and slippery descents (volcanic ash doesn’t provide much support), but this walk is worth it.
The feeling you get when you summit at the Red Crater and look down into the Emerald Lakes will carry you the next 6 miles on a cloud of achievement and hiker’s high.
You’ll be tired, but turn that Six60 up extra loud and head to the place where glowworms shine brightest… Waitomo!
Day 10: Waitomo – Rotorua
The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company has been running its world-famous tours for 27 years and they’ve aged to perfection. They’ve hosted several actors from Lord of the Rings, and the sound of their cave drippings even found a feature as background noise in Gollum’s lair. They’ve also hosted the insanely talented Stoked for Saturday bloggers who created this time-lapse of glowworms in the cave.
The Black Abyss tour is a rollercoaster of fun— you’ll abseil, zip line, climb waterfalls and tube under glowworm covered cave walls. Spoiler alert: You’ll also learn that glow worms are cannabalistic, carnivorous maggots with shiny poop. (Sorry to ruin the magic, y’all.) They’re still pretty incredible.
Finish up with some hot soup and toasty bagels and head for Rotorua. You hardly need the GPS for this one. You’ll smell it once you’ve arrived.
Day 11: Rotorua
After hiking the Tongariro Crossing and crawling through caves, you deserve a spa day. Lucky you… Rotorua is home to the Polynesian Spa, named one of the top 10 day spas in the WORLD. Book their signature Polynesian Spa Mud Polish & Aix Massage (locally sourced thermal mud exfoliation followed by an organic coconut oil massage under a warm mineral water shower) and show up an hour early to soak in the private pools.
Choose from temperatures between 96 and 107 and decide which pool offers the healing properties you seek. Arthritis? Hop into the Priest Spa to ease joint inflammation. Want to look younger? The Rachel Spring boasts an ability to bless those who soak with ageless beauty. Is it true? All I have to say is this: after soaking in water from the Rachel Spring, my AirBnb host’s 3-year-old daughter told me I look like one of her classmates. 3 years old is a new low for me.
Practice your “kia ora” (welcome) and “pakipaki” (clap) because tonight, you’ll learn about Māori culture straight from the source at Mitai Māori Village. Witness the beautiful poi dance and try not to be intimidated by the haka. Learn about weapons and instruments and eat a delicious hangi meal accompanied by water from the sacred fairy spring. After dinner, get one more chance to see glowworms and learn about how the Māori people used local plants for medicinal purposes and warfare.
Day 12: Rotorua
The Lady Knox Geyser erupts daily at 10:15 sharp at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, so don’t be late! The story about its first eruption is almost as great as the eruption itself. Walk around the park and be amazed at bubbling mud whose stench will make your hair curl, an artist’s palette of epic proportions and the Devil’s Bath, whose electric green would make a highlighter embarrassed. You probably won’t see these colors in nature ever again… so take it all in (and make sure you have room on your camera’s memory card).
You’ve made it a full day without an adrenaline rush… how about a roll down a hill in an inflatable hamster ball, better known as a Zorb?! Invented in 1994 by brothers David and Andrew Akers, Rotorua’s Zorb park was the first in the world, opening in 1997. Giggle, scream (and maybe curse) your way down the hill as you spin and slosh through the plastic ball. My favorite was The Drop, but be sure to try all three paths.
This is a perfect activity on a day when the weather’s not so great since you’ll be getting soaked anyways. The water in the ball is warm, and you’ll end your rolls with a soak in a hot tub!
Head to Eat Streat for dinner, Rotorua’s million dollar outdoor dining facility. Choose one restaurant, or create your own progressive dinner. Whatever path you choose, make sure you save room for CBK’s cookie skillet with tiramisu ice cream. A sweet ending to an amazing (albeit stinky) day.
Day 13: Rotorua – Auckland
It’s your last full day, so take your hairy Hobbit feet down to The Shire. At the Hobbiton Movie Set, you will learn the secret of the plum trees, glimpse the loud-mouth frogs that almost made a cameo, and the sheep that weren’t “middle earth” enough for the Peter Jackson among other things.
Your ticket includes a free drink at The Green Dragon, all of which are Hobbiton exclusives… so enjoy it! We made sampling ciders one of our road trip missions and Hobbiton’s cider was voted the best in our very scientific study.
After the tour is over, relax, take in the scenery, and grab a meal at The Shire’s Rest Cafe. If you’re after the best sandwich of your life, try the creamy mushrooms.
And now… on to Auckland for one last night. Go to Giapo or Cereal Killah for one of the best desserts in Auckland.
Day 14: Depart Auckland
You did it… New Zealand in two weeks! Fill your carry on with as many chocolate fish and pineapple lumps as TSA will allow and say goodbye to Middle Earth. You can use that insanely long plane ride to plan your next trip to this beautiful country.
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Disclaimer: Some of the activities mentioned in this post were received free of charge or at a discounted rate. All opinions are my own, though, and I wouldn’t recommend anything to you that’s not awesome!