The Auckland skyline at dawn
Spend day one in Auckland recovering from your arduous journey. Take a nap, see the Sky Tower and check out the viaduct and Wynyard Quarter.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

A Land of Endless Discovery: How to Spend Two Weeks in New Zealand

Exploring the Wonders of New Zealand

I hate to burst your bubble, but you can’t see all of New Zealand in two weeks; this little country has a lot to offer. However, since most of us don’t have unlimited vacation time or funds to traipse around the bottom of the world for months at a time, here are the highlights I’d recommend you hit during two weeks in New Zealand.

I’ve written this New Zealand itinerary assuming you have a vehicle and a middling budget and fitness ability, but of course you can adjust it to suit your lifestyle.

Day 1: Auckland

Many international flights arrive in Auckland in the morning and it can be tempting to jump in your rental car and start driving right away, but please, don’t. Do yourself and everyone else on the road a favor and spend a day in Auckland recovering from your arduous journey.

Take a nap, see the Sky Tower, check out the viaduct and Wynyard Quarter, and have a bite to eat at one of Auckland’s fantastic restaurants.

Cathedral Cove viewed from inside its famous caveAfter a short hike you’ll find yourself on a gorgeous beach with soft white sand and awesome rock formations.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 2: Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach

Make an early start (jet lag might make this easier!) on your New Zealand road trip and head south on State Highway 1 to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Before you leave, check the tide times at Hot Water Beach. If you arrive two hours either side of low tide you can dig yourself a hot tub right there on the beach, so plan your activities for the day accordingly. Shovels are available for rent nearby.

Be careful though — the underground water can be hot enough to burn, so you’ll probably need to fetch cold water from the ocean to add to your DIY spa. It’s a beautiful, very popular spot and it can get quite busy, but this natural phenomenon is worth braving the crowds.

Your other activity for the day is Cathedral Cove in Hahei. After a short hike (45 minutes to an hour) you’ll find yourself on a gorgeous beach with soft white sand. There you’ll see fascinating rock formations and the famous cave or hole in the rock. You can visit and enjoy Cathedral Cove any time of day, but if you want to be sure you can walk through the cave, avoid high tide.

You might recognize the cove and its distinctive cave from the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. The scene in which the children re-appeared in Narnia was filmed at Cathedral Cove. The location was also used in the music video for the Macklemore song Can’t Hold Us.

Getting to these places will give you your first experience of the country’s narrow, winding roads — but definitely not the last. Take your time, pull over at the first opportunity if a vehicle is stuck behind you, and remember to keep to the left!

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Thre hobbit holes in hillside in HobbitonBe sure to book a tour of Hobbiton and be immersed in the quaint world of Middle Earth.Photo Credit: Amanda Best

Day 3: Hobbiton and Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Both of these activities are must-do’s on a trip to New Zealand!

Before you arrive in the country, book a mid- or late-morning tour of the Hobbiton movie set for day three of your trip. Leave the Coromandel for Matamata at least two hours and 20 minutes before your tour start time.

Visiting Hobbiton is a great time even if you’re not a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan. The attention to detail and excitement in the air are enough to tickle anyone’s fancy. If you are a big fan, the experience is truly magical.

After a couple of hours exploring the Shire, have lunch in Matamata before making tracks towards Waitomo. Aim to leave no later than about 3:00 p.m. to make sure you don’t miss out on touring the famous glowworm caves.

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are also magical, although in a different way. Glowworms are possibly the most charming cave residents you’ll ever meet, and definitely the best impersonators of a starry night sky.

Pohutu geyser eruptingTe Puia is a fantastic one-stop shop for all Rotorua has to offer.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 4: Te Puia in Rotorua

In the morning, drive back across the island to Rotorua. As you approach Rotorua, don’t blame your fellow travelers for the odor — the area’s geothermal activity produces a sulfur smell that tends to hang over the town. You’ll quickly get used to it!

Te Puia is a fantastic one-stop shop for all Rotorua has to offer, with geysers and mud pools, Māori cultural performances, demonstrations and displays, and the opportunity to see New Zealand’s famous national icon, the kiwi. Allow a few hours to experience all this attraction has to offer.

Guided tours leave every hour from 9:00 a.m. This is another one to book in advance, before you get to New Zealand, to be sure you don’t miss out.

In the afternoon make your way to Taupō. Check out Huka Falls on your way into town and then enjoy dinner at one of Taupō’s great restaurants, followed by a stroll along the lakefront.

The New Napier Arch and The Dome in Napier's city centerNapier in Hawke’s Bay is famous for its Art Deco architecture.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 5: Napier

Napier in Hawke’s Bay is famous for its Art Deco architecture. An earthquake devastated the town in 1931, but the town was almost completely rebuilt in a two-year period — much of it in the Art Deco style that was popular at the time.

Leave Taupo in the morning and when you get to Napier head to the information center to buy the $10 NZD self-guided walking tour book. Following the path laid out in the guide will give you a really thorough look at town, and you’ll learn all about its fascinating story. Don’t forget to make a stop for lunch at one of the many fantastic cafes along the way.

In the afternoon, start to make your way down to Wellington, being sure to drive through the charming town of Hastings, just south of Napier. It will take you about four hours to get to Wellington, making this your biggest driving day so far. Make sure you have good music and enjoy the drive! Palmerston North is a good place to stretch your legs, find a bathroom and have a snack.

Stay the night in the city so you’re well placed to start exploring in the morning.

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A bright red Wellington cable car moves down its track with the city in the backgroundThere's a lot to do in New Zealand's capital city, including riding the historic cable car to the Wellington Botanic Garden.Photo Credit: Amanda Best

Day 6: Wellington

Spend the day enjoying New Zealand’s capital city. There are any number of things to see and do in Wellington, which will appeal more or less to you depending on your interests. Choose from:

  • Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand): I’m not a big museum person, but this one I really enjoyed. Entry is free though donations are encouraged, and there is usually a special exhibit running that charges an entry fee. Te Papa has a huge number of collections available to see — there’s definitely something for everyone.
  • The Beehive: If you’re interested in politics, take a free tour of New Zealand’s parliament buildings. (The Executive Wing is affectionately known as The Beehive because, well, it looks like a beehive.) Depending on your timing, you may even get to see members of parliament doing their thing in the Chamber of the House of Representatives.
  • Weta Workshop: If you’re a movie fan, you absolutely have to take a tour of Weta Workshop. Most people know the Weta Digital studio worked on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but they’ve done so much more than that, including Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road, the Avengers franchise, The BFG, The Jungle Book, and so many more blockbuster movies. The tour gives you a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at how visual effects are created.
  • Mt Victoria lookout: The best view in town! Drive up to the Mt Victoria lookout for 360-degree views of the city. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset.
  • Miramar Peninsula: Take a drive around the coast of Miramar Peninsula, stopping to swim, enjoy the view or lounge on a beach.
  • Indulge and imbibe: Eat and drink your way around the city. Wellington has a great selection of cafes, restaurants and bars and several companies offer food and/or beer tours.
  • Ride the cable car: Catch the historic cable car from downtown all the way up to the Wellington Botanic Garden, then explore the extensive gardens.

However you decide to spend your day, wrap things up mid-afternoon and catch the 5:00 p.m. Interislander ferry over to Picton at the top of the South Island, enjoying the view over the water as the sun goes down. (Be sure to book the ferry in advance to save money and ensure you get the crossing time you want.) Spend the night in either Picton or Blenheim at the top of the South Island.

Rows of grapevines at a vinyardThe Marlborough region at the top of the South Island is home to many of New Zealand’s finest wineries.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 7: Marlborough, Motueka, the Pancake Rocks

The Marlborough region at the top of the South Island is home to many of New Zealand’s finest wineries. On your way to Nelson, stop in at a cellar door or two and do some tasting and buying, or simply enjoy the sight of row upon row of grapevines. Neighboring region Motueka is a big beer brewing area, so if beer is more your thing, take a detour to one of the breweries there and enjoy the sight of sheep grazing beneath hop plants.

Nelson is a lovely town and a good place to stop as you head toward the West Coast. From Nelson it will take you about four hours to get to your next destination: the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. The Pancake Rock walk is just over a kilometer and gives you fantastic views of dozens and dozens of coastal rock formations that resemble stacks of pancakes. Just another natural wonder of New Zealand!

Franz Josef GlacierThe Franz Josef Glacier walk will take you about 90 minutes and give you a good view of the glacier.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 8: Franz Josef Glacier

Continue to make your way down the West Coast through Greymouth and then Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier. Stop for lunch in the town of Franz Josef before setting off on the Franz Josef Glacier walk, which will take you about 90 minutes plus photo stops and give you a good view of the 12-kilometer-long mass of ice. And if one glacier just isn’t enough, you can check out the nearby Fox Glacier, too.

If you have some cash to spare, you might want to consider a helicopter tour of the area, which will give you an aerial view of the glaciers and a better appreciation for their scale. There are several companies that offer these tours and though they will set you back several hundred dollars, rumor has it they’re worth it.

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A gondola above Lake Wakatipu in QueenstownKnown as the adrenaline capital of the world, the area’s signature activities include bungee jumping, skydiving and jet boating.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 9: Wanaka, Queenstown

Make your way to Wanaka, where you can stop for lunch and see the famous lone tree standing in Lake Wanaka. Then, on to Queenstown!

Your wallet will likely determine what you’re able to do while in Queenstown. Known as the adrenaline capital of the world, the area’s signature activities include bungee jumping, skydiving and jet boating.

However, if you’re on a budget or just not looking for an adrenaline rush, Queenstown still has a lot to offer, including great restaurants, stunning crystal-clear lakes and fabulous hiking trails. Drive along the breathtaking Lake Wakatipu out to Glenorchy, explore the historical Arrowtown, or climb Queenstown Hill to watch the sunset.

There’s no shortage of things to do — your problem will be choosing what to do in the time you have.

Milford SoundThere are so many ways to take in the beauty of Milford Sound. Book the tour that fits your tastes!Photo Credit: Amanda Best

Day 10: Milford Sound

Hit the road early and head toward Milford Sound, about a four-hour drive from Queenstown. Before your trip, book a tour in Milford Sound for the afternoon.

Unfortunately, you really do need to book a tour of some kind in order to properly see this area. There are many companies offering tours, all with slightly different packages available. You can explore the Sound on a kayak, see its inhabitants at the Underwater Observatory or just sit back and relax on a boat tour.

Whatever you decide on, you’ll get to see one of New Zealand’s most beautiful places up close.

The yellow signpost at Stirling Point, BluffStirling Point isn’t quite the southernmost point of the South Island, but it is the very end of State Highway 1 and the location of this famous signpost.Photo Credit: Amanda Best

Day 11: Bluff

Say goodbye to Milford Sound and set off for Bluff, at the very bottom of the South Island. This will be another four-hour trip, but there’s no rush — take the time to make stops along the road out of Milford Sound and do some exploring. The Mirror Lakes and The Chasm are both worth seeing.

And if you’re lucky, you might see a kea (a parrot native to New Zealand) in your travels! (Though if you do see one, resist the urge to feed it.) Stop off in Te Anau for lunch and then carry on to Bluff’s Stirling Point.

Stirling Point isn’t quite the southernmost point of the South Island, but it is the very end of State Highway 1 and the location of the famous signpost indicating the direction and distances to various big cities all over the world. (A matching signpost sits at the very top of the North Island at the Cape Reinga lighthouse.)

Snap a photo with the sign, walk down to the lighthouse and enjoy the view! On a clear day you can see across to Stewart Island, the smallest of New Zealand’s three main islands. Then take a drive up nearby Bluff Hill and enjoy the view from up there, too.

Lastly, a trip to this area wouldn’t be complete without trying some of Bluff’s famous oysters. Have dinner in Bluff or neighboring Invercargill and, even if you’re not sure if you like them, try an oyster!

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Old building in Dunedin.The city of Dunedin is full of beautiful old buildings.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 12: Dunedin, Otago Peninsula

On to Dunedin! About three hours from Bluff is the city of Dunedin, which is full of beautiful old buildings. Have lunch in the city and take some time to explore, making sure to check out the railway station.

Next, head to the Otago Peninsula to the east of Dunedin, which has several attractions worth checking out. You won’t have time for all of them, but choose from:

Royal Albatross Centre: The center offers you the rare opportunity to see a royal albatross breeding colony. These enormous birds’ breeding colonies are typically found on small islands out in the ocean.
Penguin Place: Visit the conservation reserve for yellow-eyed penguins and help support their efforts with the cost of your admission.
Larnarch Castle: Explore the gardens and grounds of New Zealand’s only castle, or for a higher admission fee, take a tour of the castle itself.
Nature’s WondersAnother wildlife tour, promising a close look at seals and penguins.

Spherical rocks in waterThese almost perfectly spherical boulders were formed completely naturally and are thought to be millions of years old.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 13: Moeraki Boulders, Christchurch

Just north of Dunedin are the Moeraki boulders. These almost perfectly spherical boulders were formed completely naturally and are thought to be millions of years old. Your GPS may navigate you to the Moeraki Boulders restaurant, which asks for a fee to use their walkway down to the beach. However, if you continue down the road a bit further you’ll find free parking and beach access.

Continue up the coast towards Christchurch, stopping in Oamaru and Timaru as you go. These places are great for seal-spotting, so get out, stretch your legs and keep an eye out for furry friends. Finish the day with dinner in Christchurch.

River in Auckland.A laid back end to your trip.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Day 14: Fly from Christchurch to Auckland

If you have some time before your flight back up to Auckland, have a look around the city center. The city continues to rebuild after 2011’s devastating earthquake, and you’ll find a number of empty lots and scaffolding covering many buildings. But you’ll also find the new “Cardboard Cathedral,” the simple but striking 185 empty chairs memorial, as well as a number of new bars and restaurants.

Wander through Hagley Park, stroll along Avon River, and enjoy your last moments in this unique country before catching your flight to Auckland and then back to wherever you call home!

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Aoraki/Mt Cook reflected in Lake PukakiThere are many wonderful places in New Zealand I would highly recommend you see if you have more than two weeks. Photo Credit: Amanda Best

If You Have More Time

There are many wonderful places in New Zealand I’ve skipped over in this itinerary, but that I would highly recommend you see if you have more time. They include:

North Island

  • Cape Reinga lighthouse (very top of the country)
  • Giant Te Paki sand dunes
  • Waipoua Kauri Forest
  • Paihia and the Waitangi Treaty grounds
  • Waiheke Island
  • In Rotorua: Agrodome, the Zorb
  • In Taupo: Craters of the Moon
  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing

South Island

  • Abel Tasman National Park
  • Hanmer Springs
  • Akaroa
  • Tekapo
  • Lake Pukaki
  • Aoraki/Mt Cook
  • The Catlins
  • Stewart Island

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