Our family completed our 15 day self-guided road trip tour of New Zealand last month and left feeling amazed at all the country has to offer. I never would have guessed that there could be so much to see and do, and that I would leave feeling like we just barely scratched the surface.
Our fast-paced and somewhat chaotic itinerary looked like this:
- Day 1: Arrive Auckland in the early morning
- Spent morning and lunch in Devonport
- Afternoon in Auckland
- Evening jet-lag recovery at hotel
- Day 2: Drive from Auckland to Rotorua
- Driving tour of Tamaki Drive
- Drove by One Tree Hill and Cornwall Park
- 3+ hour driving time to Rotorua
- Took detour to stop in Morrinsville for lunch
- Visited Kuirua Park
- Enjoyed hotel pool and spa
- Day 3: Drive from Rotorua to Taupo
- Wandered Government Gardens
- Skipped Te Puia, Whakarewarewa Village, and Wai-O-Tapu due to rain
- 1+ hour drive
- Lunch in Taupo
- Drove to Huka Falls and hiked on Huka Falls Walkway
- Evening wander by Lake Taupo and through town
- Day 4: Drive from Taupo to Wellington
- 2 hour drive from Taupo to Napier
- Town was cold and windy, so we kept driving
- 4 hour drive from Napier to Wellington
- Stopped in Waipukurau for lunch
- Day 5: Full day in Wellington
- Took 1-way cable car from town to Botanic Gardens
- Visited Cable Car Museum
- Took “Downhill Walk to City” route through the Botanic Gardens
- Stopped at playground, herb garden, and rose garden
- Wandered through parliament buildings area
- Wandered by water
- Visited New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Museum
- Day 6: Morning flight from Wellington to Christchurch
- Drove to Christchurch Cathedral and parked car
- Walked by Christchurch Cathedral
- Visited the Christchurch Art Gallery, but wished we had skipped it
- Visited the Canterbury Museum, which was amazing and we would have stayed longer if we weren’t so hungry.
- Ate lunch at the food trucks
- Wandered the Botanic Gardens
- Visited the amazing Margaret Mahy Family Playground
- Ate dinner in our apartment
- Day 7: Drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo to Twizel
- 3+ hour drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
- Picnic at Lake Tekapo
- Hike at Mt. John
- We chose the 1.5 hour loop rather than the 3 hour loop.
- Drive 30 minute to Lake Pukaki
- Quick walk, wishing we had more time
- Drive 10 minutes to Twizel
- Check in and walk around Lake Ruataniwha
- Should have stayed in Mount Cook Village instead
- Day 8: Day trip to Mount Cook
- Checked out of Twizel cabin a day early
- Drove 45 minutes to Mount Cook Village
- Beautiful 3 hour round trip hike with picnic lunch on Hooker Valley Trail
- Drove 70 minutes to Omarama
- Day 9: Drive from Omarama to Oamaru to Dunedin
- 3-4 hours driving time, plus stops
- Drive to Benmore Dam Station
- Continued driving on paved back side of Lake Aviamore until we reached the next bridge, then got back on the main highway
- Drove until turnoff for Ngapara, then went to see the Elephant Rocks
- Continued to Oamaru, but discovered penguins were out playing in the water, so skipped the Blue Penguin Colony and settled for lunch and a super fun playground
- Drove to Yellow Penguin Colony, but again, penguins were out playing
- Drove to Moeraki Boulders. Fun, but too close to high tide and our shoes got wet while seeing them
- Around Waikouati, took cutoff for the scenic coastal route and stayed on until around Warrington
- Finished drive at farmstay near Dunedin
- Day 10: Full day in Dunedin
- Morning farm activities
- Spent an hour or two on Ocean View Beach with picnic lunch
- Afternoon in Dunedin
- Day 11: Drive from Dunedin to Te Anau
- 3.5+ hour drive
- Lunch in Te Anau
- Glowworm tour in Te Anau
- Day 12: Day trip to Milford Sound
- 2 hours to Milford Sound, plus time for stops
- 2 hour lunch cruise around Milford Sound
- 2 hour return drive to Te Anau
- Day 13: Drive from Te Anau to Queenstown
- Walk to Bird Sanctuary in Te Anau
- 2 hour drive to Queenstown
- Lunch in Queenstown
- Afternoon in Queenstown Gardens
- Day 14: Full day in Queenstown
- A few runs on the Luge
- Coffee shop
- Wander gift shops
- Lunch in Queenstown
- Walk along lake
- Dinner at FergBurger
- Fun, but wished we would have spent this day somewhere else.
- Day 15: Morning flight from Queenstown to Sydney
The two weeks I spent in New Zealand are some of the best weeks I have ever had. If I were to do it over again, the main thing I would change would be to make my stay longer and book further ahead of time. When we planned our crazy five week mini-sabatical, we were sure that two weeks would be more than enough time and we booked plane tickets into Auckland and out of Queenstown. Once we started to do some detailed travel planning for our adventure around the world, we found that we were sadly mistaken and had to make a lot of compromises to see everything we wanted to see.
After talking to a friend, the 3 priorities for our trip were Millford Sound, Mount Cook, and a farm stay in Dunedin. After taking the trip, these are still the 3 places that I would recommend to others. If you have extra time, I would add Devonport, Rotorua, and Te Anau to the list.
With a tight schedule, we only spent 1 or 2 nights in each place and were bound to have mistakes. When thinking about where to go, there are a few changes we should have made:
- We could have easily spent more time total in New Zealand, or concentrated the 2 weeks we had on the South Island (but it’s hard to really tell this in advance). That said, with the constraint of 2 weeks total across both islands we should have:
- Made it a higher priority to stay in Mount Cook Village rather than day-tripping in. Lesson is to book much earlier than we did!
- Stayed in Te Anau for 3 nights rather than 2, reducing Queenstown from 2 nights to 1 (the main reason to stay in Queenstown is to do adventure sports like bungee jumping, which makes less sense with when traveling with kids). We could have also spent more time in Rotorua, to see more geothermal sites.
- Changed the order of activities that we did in Christchurch, as our guide book was very wrong on this town.
Our biggest surprises were how much we enjoyed Rotorua and Dunedin, and how little we liked Oamaru.
Devonport, which is a 12 minute ferry ride from Auckland, was quite amazing and I would have loved to spend a full day there, rather than a half day. On our way to Rotorua, we did a quick drive to One Tree Hill and Cornwall Park, but again I would have loved to spend at least half a day there. If I were to do it over, I probably would have picked either a full day in Devonport, or a stroll through Cornwall Park as our afternoon activity, and would have skipped downtown Auckland sightseeing.
The drive between Auckland and Rotorua was beautiful and a complete surprise how pleasant it was. The rain was a bit of a disappointment, so on arrival we decided not to go to the geothermal sites with steep admission fees. Instead, we went to Kuirua Park, which was free. It was amazing! Probably not as amazing as the sites that you pay for, but well worth at least half a day. The following day, we thought about spending the morning in either Te Puia or Whakeawarewa Village, but with really poor weather, we weren’t sure if we wanted to pay the entrance fees for the big name sites, particularly since we have seen Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park in perfectly good weather. When driving by Wai-O-Tapo, we saw enough to see that we probably made a mistake, but we were happy with Kuirua Park. We briefly thought about going ahead and seeing Wai-O-Tapo, but the kids had low interest in getting out of the car to explore, so we skipped it.
This is an amazing area, and should be a priority on a New Zealand itinerary. We really enjoyed the 3 hour hike on Hooker Valley Trail and would have loved to spend more time in the area. Realistically, the only way we could have done this would have been to spend the first night there, rather than Twizel. At that point, we should have considered either a second night in Mount Cook Village, or a repositioning in Omarama to save time driving the next day.
The Glowworm tour was a big hit, although not necessarily for the glowworms themselves. They are interesting, but the whole experience is what it is really about. We really enjoyed the cruise to the caves. Once we were there, the educational video was fascinating. The forest nature walk was quite peaceful. You are only in the caves for about 30 minutes, but they are definitely worth seeing.
The town and surrounding area is also really fun. On our way out of town towards Queenstown, we took 20 minute walk along the lake to the bird sanctuary. The trail continued on, but in the interest of getting to Queenstown, we skipped it. If I were to redo things I would have spent one more night here and one fewer night in Queenstown.
Milford Sound is well worth a day trip cruise (one day is sufficient, it’s very remote), and should be a priority on your itinerary. If you aren’t planning to either camp or stay in a hostel, it works best bookending it with at least 2 nights in Te Anau. The 2-3 hours each way from Te Anau is much better than the 4-5 hours each way from Queenstown. We had poor weather, but still found it to be worth going to. If we would have stayed in Te Anau for 3 nights and Queenstown for 1 night, rather than 2 and 2, we would have been able to adjust our schedule and pick the better of 2 days to go to Milford Sound, then spend the other exploring the lake around Te Anau.
My friend who suggested a farm stay in Dunedin was spot on. It was probably the highlight of the trip for our boys. They got a lesson in how sheep dogs operate. They got to watch sheep sheering. They got to participate in the non-sheering aspects of sheep-sheering. They got to feed the chickens. All of us felt like it was well worth a splurge to stay there for 2 nights.
The beaches near our farm stay were super fun, if a bit cold, and we spent several hours there, getting completely soaked when those gray clouds in the pictures blew in and down-poured on us.
The city of Dunedin also surprised us and we could have turned our half day exploration into a full day. To get this extra day, it would require time away from either Dunedin beach time, Wellington, or Christchurch. Given that Wellington and Christchurch had some of the best museums, I’m undecided whether giving those up would have been a good idea.
Driving on the Left
This wasn’t as tough as we expected, with some concentration, especially the first day. One of the trickier aspects was aligning the car within a lane – normally, it’s natural to align the car based on the driver’s side (i.e. align based on the left side of the car in the US). But this reverses in NZ to aligning on the right side, which took a bit of getting used to. Another odd aspect was the blinkers and wipers being reversed – which actually makes sense in retrospect, but took some getting used to.
One thing that also helped was a trip we previously took to India, where we spent 2 weeks driving around Rajasthan with a hired driver (which was, interestingly, less expensive per day than simply renting a car in many parts of the United States). Since Jeremy was in the front passenger seat, he got a really good feeling for how it would be to drive on the left. This experience really helped his transition. The first couple of hours behind the driver’s wheel were a bit tense, but by the end of the trip, he was quite comfortable with being on the wrong side of the road. I had a similar experience where at the end of our 2 week New Zealand trip, I felt that I would be reasonably comfortable driving on the left.
After the lush green-ness of North Island, we were severely disappointed by the brown landscape around Lake Tekapo. The water itself was nice, but the landscape, not so much. We should have only spent a couple of hours here, rather than most of a day. Lake Pukaki was much prettier, and Mount Cook even more so.
As it turns out, the blue penguins only come out from 5:00PM to dawn, with best viewing after 9pm. We were there at lunchtime and were told that there was only 1 penguin, sitting on a nest in a dark box. Definitely not worth the entrance fees, so we skipped what we thought was going to be a highlight of the day. The yellow-eyed penguin colony was free, but the penguins don’t arrive until after 3pm, so again we were disappointed. The cliffside walk was nice, but not what we were expecting.
On the other hand, we found a nice cafe near the water with a nice children’s playground next to it, so that improved the kids mood. Also, the motel owner in Omarama gave us some great tips on how to improve our route. Without those travel tips, I think we all would have been quite cranky about the day.
Queenstown is a big tourist trap. If you really want to do expensive adventure activities like bungee jumping, it is great. Otherwise the kids just see all these fun looking things that they would really like to do and don’t understand why they can’t do them all. If you can get past all the booking advertisements, the lake, town, and gardens are really quite nice and well worth at least a full day or two.
Driving on the Left
Driving on the left is driving on the left. It is a bit scary, but there is little alternative if you really want to see New Zealand. The big bus tours are an option, but you are on someone else’s schedule, there are often shopping expeditions that you have little interest in, and you are always in a crowd.
We booked a car rental where we picked up a car at the Auckland airport and dropped it off at the Wellington airport. In retrospect, we should have taken a taxi from the Auckland airport to the city and picked up the rental car the following day in Auckland. Similarly, we should have dropped the car off on arrival in Wellington and taken a taxi to the airport the next day.
When we first planned our trip, we booked a ticket into Auckland and out of Queenstown and said that we would figure out the details later. The original plan was to take the ferry between Wellington and Picton to get from the north island to the south island. Once we started detailed planning, we knew we needed to cut a few places out of the itinerary. Skipping down to Christchurch from Wellington via a flight was an easy choice since it is about the same cost and transport time as the ferry, and it cut out at least 5-10 hours of driving time, depending on the route we would have taken. We had already booked a flight out of Queenstown, but since Christchurch has a bigger airport, if we had more flexibility it may have made financial sense to fly from Wellington to Queenstown, then work our way north to Christchurch, then fly from there to our next destination.
Early booking of the main mountain regions is essential. When visiting Mt. Cook, all of the family rooms in Mt. Cook Village were either gone, or so ridiculously expensive that we dismissed them. Once we saw Mt. Cook Village, we really wished things would have worked out differently. Staying in a tiny cabin in a Twizel campground was our biggest mistake. When planning, we decided that we would go inexpensive for these nights and selected a (less than 100 sq. ft.) cabin in a campground, which in theory should have been fine, but a bunch of unexpected factors collided and made it less than ideal. Luckily the manager was very gracious and let us check out a day early, refunding everything except the booking fee for the missed night.
If I were to do it over again, I would have searched other websites to try and find something in Mount Cook Village. At a minimum, we should have splurged for a slightly bigger room, which was not available when we booked, or stayed further south, in Omarama and day-tripped from there.
Even with the bad parts, this was still one of my favorite trips I have ever made, and is well worth the journey.