Road trips are the best. Especially when it’s in a place so diverse and versatile in its landscape like New Zealand. There’s stunning scenery after every turn. It’s such a treat to the eyes.
New Zealand is made up of two islands- the South and the North. The South island has dramatic landscapes, tall mountains, waterfalls and glaciers whereas the north has volcanic activity, cosmopolitan cities, beautiful bays and islands. Both are equally amazing in their own way.
Here’s the overview of our 8 day New Zealand road trip Itinerary:
How to get there:
Many airlines fly to Auckland(North Island) from the United States. American Airlines recently started direct flights from Los Angeles to Auckland (and vice versa). Air New Zealand also flies direct from Houston and San Francisco to Auckland. Most other flights transfer through Sydney. Visas are not required for US Citizens, but you do need a passport. Permanent residents however do need to apply for a visa prior to visiting the country.
Below is a map of New Zealand and our driving route. We landed at Auckland airport (North Island) but instead of starting our road trip from there, we flew to the charming town of Queenstown, in the south. One of the reasons we chose this route was because one way rentals were a lot cheaper from south to north than the other way around. We also had to make that one way flight regardless at either the beginning or the end since our departure back to the US was from Auckland.
Tip: One way car rentals are sometimes cheaper going from South to North.
New Zealand road trip
Day 1: Queenstown to Milford Sound and back
It was a long day but very doable. Milford sound is the #1 attraction in New Zealand and a must visit. It is only about 4 hours away from Queenstown with a multitude of opportunities to stop along the way. Make sure to check the weather before you go. Luckily we were blessed with great weather. Check out my detailed story on this day: Milford Sound.
This was a very relaxing day after the long drive from the day prior. Queenstown is a charming little town, with lots of restaurants, bars and many little shops. We spent some time walking around the town, along the lake. Afterwards we did the cable car and the luge ride which had incredible views of the town and the lake. It was a great experience to ride a three wheeled luge on the twists and turns and at the same time, enjoy amazing aerial views of the lake and the mountains. Read reviews and book your adventure here.
In the late afternoon we drove down to Glenorchy (45mins one way); incredible scenery and lots of stops to take pictures along the way.
In Queenstown, try lamb roast at Pedro’s Grill, you will not regret it.
Where we stayed in Queenstown:
Airbnb Megan’s place: Very modern and right on the water, amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the lake. Also has a small balcony with a table and two chairs where you can enjoy your meal looking out at the calm beautiful water of the lake.
We left early since this was going to be a long drive. Our first stop was at the highest point of the Lindis pass.
Next we stopped at the edge of Lake Pukaki which has amazing photo opportunities. Lake Pukaki is a glacier fed lake and has this amazing turquoise color to it. Mount Cook lies at the background and seeing both together is an awe inspiring sight.
A scenic 30 minute drive along Lake Pukaki towards Mt cook brought us to the Hooker Valley hiking track. It was about a 1.5 hour one way hike and we were rewarded with icebergs floating in the lake at the climax of our hike. It was an amazing experience. We even saw a small Avalance form in Mount cook.
Check out my detailed story on this hike: Hooker Valley Track
Our next stop was at Lake Tekapo, a beautiful small town with many cool restaurants. If you have time, I would suggest spending a night here just to split up the long drive that we had. There’s an area near the lake full of colorful Lupins. Great place to take pictures. Lake Tekapo to Christchurch was just a short 1.5 hour drive.
Where we stayed in Christchurch: Southwark apartments
Nice clean hotel, with many restaurants nearby.
Check Availability here
Day 4: Christchurch to Picton
Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand and is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. We saw lots of construction and traffic but nevertheless enjoyed colorful houses and streets that are full of charm. We also enjoyed great vistas, and harbor views from Port hills. After lunch, we headed towards our next destination: Picton.
Our original plan was to take the coastal road via Kaikoura but because of the recent earthquake (2016) we had to change to a longer route. Nevertheless, it was beautiful scenic road.
A 5 hour drive brought us to Picton, a tiny, charming harbor town and gateway to the South island. We had great views of the harbor from our hotel room. We walked around the harbor and drove to some lookout points that had stunning views of Marlborough Sound. The drive from Picton to Havelock via “Queen Charlotte Dr” is a must do in the area.
Where we stayed in Picton: Harbour View Motel
Amazing views of the harbor. Full kitchen and utensils if you want to cook your own food. Walking distance to the harbor and restaurants near by. Very good value. Check Availability here
The next morning, we took an inter-island car ferry from Picton to Wellington (about 3 hours). The ferry was very comfortable, had a nice restaurant and bar, and a small store to buy pre packed sandwiches and other snacks. It runs about 5 times a day and we paid about $250 for 2 adults and a car. Make sure you buy the tickets few days prior to departure.
Wellington is considered “the coolest little capital in the world”. The view from Victoria lookout covering the harbor, skyline and the ocean was incredible. We were told that Wellington has 5 fault lines crossing underneath it from different directions. That was pretty interesting and scary at the same time. I wonder how many earthquakes Wellington gets every year.
From Wellington, we headed towards Lake Taupo, which is about a 4 hour drive and has great, wide roads all the way. We saw Tongarino National Park from our car. Since the weather wasn’t good enough to hike the National park, we waved at it from a distance and promised to come back and hike it in the future. If you want to hike Tongarino National Park, I suggest getting this tour. They will pick you up from your hotel, check the weather/park conditions for you and most importantly drop you off at one end and pick you up from the other end of the park. For more information, go to their website. This is a one way hike and takes about 6-7 hours total.
Lake Taupo is the biggest Crater Lake in New Zealand. It is so big that nobody can miss it if driving in the North island. We did an evening walk by the lake. For dinner we were so delighted to find a Nepalese restaurant. It was so good to eat Nepalese food after almost a week without it.
Where we stayed in Taupo: Quest Taupo Serviced Apartments
Quest Taupo Serviced Apartments allowed us to check in late, with a code that they provided via an on-site phone. Very clean and comfortable rooms. Check Availability here
Day 6: Rotorua
Lake Taupo to Rotorua is an hour drive. We could smell the sulfur (like rotten eggs) as we were approaching Rotorua. I could not help but wonder how people live there every day with the smell. I guess you get used to it after some time.
On the way, we noticed many areas with streams of white clouds coming out from the ground. This is a town where the earth is alive- amazing geothermal activity, boiling mud, shooting geysers. This is also an area where New Zealand’s native Maori people live. We spent the day exploring ‘“The Living Village of Whakekeraa” where the people live amongst and utilize the geothermal activity. We had an amazing time, learning about the culture and history of the Maoris. Read reviews and book your tour here.
Where we stayed in Rotorua: Holiday Inn Rotorua
This hotel is right next to the Whakekeraa village. Depending on the room you get, you can view the Pohutu geysir. Check Availability here
Day 7: Hobbiton and Cathedral’s cove
We had to change our plans yet again. We had originally planned to go hiking in mount Maunganui in Tauranga but since it was raining, we ended up going to Hobbiton. Even though it was a bit expensive for what we thought the tour might be worth, we had a great time. Read reviews and book your Hobbiton visit here.
Our hotel for the night was in the town of Hanei, which is about 2 hrs and 30 mins from Hobbiton. We checked in to the hotel at around 3pm and after resting for a while, went on to hike to Cathedrals Cove. From the parking lot, Cathedral’s cove is about 45 mins hike down to the water. The hike was mostly on flat land with great views of the ocean throughout.
Auckland is the biggest and most populated, cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. Unfortunately since time was running out we just drove around in Auckland and enjoyed it from the window of our car. There was a good parking garage near the ferry harbor in downtown Auckland from where we took a ferry to Waiheke island. The tickets can be bought onsite.
Waiheke Island is one of the most popular places amongst kiwis that want to escape the hustle and bustle of Auckland for the weekend. It is a quick 45 minute ferry ride away and has awesome beaches, stunning bays and lots of wineries. While sailing away from Auckland to Waiheke, we enjoyed great views of Auckland’s skyline.
We had no idea that Weiheke Island was so big. Our original intent was to explore it by foot but after walking for about 30 minutes and not getting anywhere, we decided to rent a bike. We quickly googled bike rental places, and were lucky enough to find one close to the ferry port. We rented an electric bike and I was so glad we did because Waiheke island was so hilly that it would have been impossible to ride with a regular bike. We rode by many bays, beaches, wineries, and lookout points. It was an awesome last day in New Zealand.
You can also get a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket which will allow you to explore the Island at your own pace.
Where we stayed in Auckland: Jet park Hotel and Conference Center
Great hotel, very close to the airport.
8 day New Zealand road trip
New Zealand road trip