On this 21-day adventure by air, land, and sea, you don't have to pick between New Zealand's North and South Islands—see the best of both. Experience the glowworm caves of Waitomo and the country's largest glacier on Lake Tasman. Let your taste buds guide you to a Maori village feast and the wines of Martinborough. Cross the scenic Cook Straight by boat, and see behind the scenes of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" in the Weta Workshop in Wellington.


  • Marvel at Waitomo's glowworm caves
  • Feast as a dinner guest in Tamaki Maori Village
  • Sail across the Cook Straight from the North to South Island
  • See the sunrise over Mount Aspiring and Lake Wakatipu by hot air balloon

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland,  Harbor Cruise Auckland
Day 2 Explore Auckland & the Waitakere Ranges Auckland
Day 3 Drive to Rotorua via Waitomo & Glowworm Caves Rotorua
Day 4 Rotorua Geysers, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance Rotorua
Day 5 Waimangu Volcanic Valley Walk & Boat Cruise Rotorua
Day 6 Fly to Wellington Wellington
Day 7 Explore Wellington, Martinborough Wine Country & Zealandia Wellington
Day 8 North to South Island Cook Strait Cruise, Drive to Blenheim Blenheim
Day 9 Marlborough Half-Day Wine Tour Blenheim
Day 10 Drive to Kaikōura, Whale Watching Tour Kaikōura
Day 11 Drive to Christchurch via Waipara Valley Wines, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 12 Drive to Mount Cook Village, Dark Sky Stargazing Mount Cook Village
Day 13 Glacier Lake & Mackenzie Country 4WD Tour Mount Cook Village
Day 14 Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Dinner & Onsen Soak Queenstown
Day 15 Sunrise Balloon Ride, AJ Hackett Nevis Bungy, Arrowtown Queenstown
Day 16 Wine Cave Tour, TSS Earnslaw Steamship Cruise & Farm Barbecue Queenstown
Day 17 Drive to Te Anau Te Anau
Day 18 Milford Sound Hike, Cruise & Picnic Te Anau
Day 19 Fiordland National Park Jet & Flight Te Anau
Day 20 Hike Te Anau's Trails Te Anau
Day 21 Drive to Queenstown, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Harbor Cruise

Auckland's beautiful setting between the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean
Auckland's setting between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean

Welcome to Auckland! A driver will be waiting for you at the airport for a transfer to your hotel. Auckland's urban paradise between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea is a playground for city lovers and adventure-seekers alike. Known as the "City of Sails," Auckland boasts more than 500,000 sailboats and yachts in various sizes, anchored and moored at marinas within the city. Relax at your hotel while adjusting to the time change, or shake off jet lag by heading to the Sky Tower for some bungee jumping.

To appreciate more of the North Island city's scenery, take a stroll around Waitemata Harbour. Roughly translated to "sparkling waters" in the Māori language, Waitemata is a starting point for sailing, cruising, and whale watching excursions. It also connects the main port and Auckland Waterfront to the Pacific Ocean. Take a harbor cruise to sail under the Harbour Bridge, where you can sip afternoon tea as you see views of the city skyline, Rangitoto Island, North Head, and Bean Rock Lighthouse. For dinner, delve into Auckland's world-class dining scene.

Day 2: Explore Auckland & the Waitakere Ranges

Climb Mount Eden for panoramic Auckland views

Today's schedule is open for you to explore Auckland at your own pace or take an optional tour. Start by getting your bearings with sweeping views over the city from the summit of Mount Eden, one of the city's 50 volcanic cones. Stroll around the Domain Wintergardens designed in the 1900s to see rare plants, including Amorphophallus titanum (corpse flowers) and a collection of chrysanthemum, or head to Hauraki Gulf Marine Park to get up close with whales, dolphins, and seabirds. 

For lunch, go to Wynward Quarter, a former industrial hub built for the World Cup, and taste steamed mussels and fresh oysters at Auckland Fish Market. Then, hop on a 50-year-old restored tram and ride to one of the country's oldest neighborhoods, Parnell, to discover its galleries and cafés. Order a long black—a favorite coffee order in New Zealand made by pouring a double shot of espresso over hot water—and sit back for some people-watching. In the afternoon, you can leave the city behind with a visit to the rainforests and beaches of the Waitakere Ranges and the wild and rugged Piha coast.

Day 3: Drive to Rotorua via Waitomo & Glowworm Caves

The Waitomo glowworm caves will leave you in awe

Leave Auckland for the limestone hills of Waitomo, picking up your rental car and driving south 118 miles (190 km). Looking out the window, see the serene hills and farmland of the Waikato District about halfway through the journey. This area is unique for the limestone beneath its soil which forms an intricate system of caves, some filled with illuminated glowworms. Explore Footwhistle Glowworm Cave (in Māori called Te Anaroa Cave) and see the bones of one of New Zealand's lost treasures, the ancient moa bird. Experience a moment of quiet as the Footwhistle cave stream flows in the darkness below. 

From Waitomo, continue across the lush Waikato farmland, traveling east 86 miles (139 km) inland to Rotorua. Pass through several small farming towns, such as Otorohanga and Putaruru, before the region's geothermal activity signals the beginning of the Pacific "Ring of Fire."

Day 4: Rotorua Geysers, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance

Rotorua is one of the best places to see natural hot springs in New Zealand

Peppered with natural hot springs, boiling mud pools, and steaming geysers, Rotorua is in one of the world's most active volcanic regions and home to Māori villages, coastal redwoods, and walking and mountain bike trails. Start the day with a dose of adrenaline at the Velocity Valley Adventure Park for stomach-dropping attractions like a static skydive or a giant swing ride. To see the area from above, hop on the Rotorua Gondola or take a canopy tour through Rotorua's native forest, working your way through an extensive network of trails, tree platforms, swing bridges, and zip lines.

After a day full of activities, settle in as a manuhiri (guest) at Te Pā Tū (Tamaki Māori Village) for dinner and an evening of celebration of dancing, music, and storytelling. An opening ceremony kicks off the festivities while you are served kai horotai (appetizers). Listen to stories and songs and watch performances in the forest amphitheater, then follow your Māori guide by torchlight to your three-course hākari (feast). Select from a table of hāngī dishes (meat, fish, and vegetables cooked over heated rocks in a pit) and other local specialties from Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand. 

Day 5: Waimangu Volcanic Valley Walk & Boat Cruise

Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Turquoise pools in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley 

See another side of Rotorua today on an eco-focused nature walk through Waimangu Volcanic Valley. The valley's seven craters and numerous hot springs are part of one of the world's newest geothermal ecosystems. The whole area, including 1,976-acre (800 ha) Lake Rotomahana (known as "Warm Lake"), is a designated Scenic Reserve and Wildlife Refuge. Explore one of the many trails at all levels to explore this dynamic area.

Follow your hike with a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana. See the striking resident black swans, and learn about the Pink and White Terraces that were covered by a volcano in 1886. At the end of the cruise, return to the beginning of the trail by bus. Then spend the evening experiencing Rotorua's geothermal waters at the Polynesian Spa on the shores of the lake. In the spa's four alkaline rock pools—each with different temperatures ranging from 96.8°F to 107.6°F (36°C to 42°C)— you'll relax with views of the lake, native plants, wildlife, and a nearby grotto.

Day 6: Fly to Wellington

Wellington is one of New Zealand's most cosmopolitan cities

Leave the natural wonders of Rotorua for today's destination in the capital city, Wellington. In the morning, drive from your Rotorua hotel to the airport and drop off your rental car. Then catch your approximately one-hour flight, traveling south 174 miles (453 km). Pick up another rental car and head to your Wellington hotel, where you can relax before setting off to explore in the afternoon. 

The city is known as one of New Zealand's cosmopolitan centers and is a melting pot of art, culture, food, and fashion. Take a walk to see its sidewalk bars, underground art shows, and hipster restaurants. Or, for a dose of relaxation, head for its shores and beaches outside the urban center.

Day 7: Explore Wellington, Martinborough Wine Country & Zealandia

Ride the country's only running funicular for city views and access to the botanic gardens
Ride the country's only funicular for city views and access to the botanic gardens

Discover more of Wellington today on your own or with a guided excursion. Start at the Te Papa Museum for a history lesson and a ticket to one of its many international exhibitions, or jump aboard the Wellington Cable Car—the only running funicular in the country that leads to a lookout point and extensive botanic gardens. Wander through Cuba Street to sample some of the city's best vintage stores. You can also go behind the scenes at Wētā Workshop, the Oscar Award-winning design studio for "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit," and "Avatar."

There are a couple of options for the afternoon to venture outside of the city. Martinborough wine country is about two hours round trip from Wellington and 50 miles (81 km) east. Take your time as you wind your way through this area known for its pinot noirs, and stop at Martinborough Wines or Ata Rangi Martinborough for tastings. In the evening, return to Wellington to learn about New Zealand's native nocturnal species at Zealandia, an eco-sanctuary that hosts night tours. Then eat dinner at a Wellington restaurant to discover why the city is known as New Zealand's foodie capital. 

Day 8: North to South Island Cook Strait Cruise, Drive to Blenheim

Blenheim is in the heart of Marlborough Hills farmland and wine country

Crossing the Cook Strait from the North to South Island by boat is one of New Zealand's most scenic journeys. Cruising west 57 miles (92 km) from Wellington to Picton, the three-hour ferry ride will take you past New Zealand's oldest lighthouse at Pencarrow Head, the seal colony at Red Rocks, and Oterangi Bay. Pass Marlborough Sounds and marvel at bush-covered mountains, small islands, crystal-clear waters, and secluded bays. Upon arrival in Picton, you'll continue for a 30-minute drive to Blenheim in the heart of the Marlborough Hills.

Get settled into your accommodations, then spend the afternoon exploring Blenheim. This compact town is built around an old-fashioned marketplace, and you'll find plenty of opportunities to soak up the country atmosphere while stopping in shops and eating dinner at a cozy restaurant. 

Day 9:  Marlborough Half-Day Wine Tour

In Marlborough, sample sauvignon blancs and other local wines

Spend the morning at a Blenheim café, take a stroll around town, or visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre to see World War I aircraft. In the afternoon, follow a guide for a half-day tour of Marlborough wine country, visiting wineries such as Wither Hills, Fromm, and Lawson's Dry Hills Winery & Cellar Door to sample sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, and other varietals. Learn about the history of the area's vineyards, including how the first vines sprouted in the 1870s from early settlers, and meet local winemakers who will explain the secrets of the region's unique terroir. 

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Day 10: Drive to Kaikōura, Whale Watching Tour

Kaikōura offers 31 miles (50 km) of scenic coastline driving

Today you'll set out on a self-drive tour across Marlborough's rolling hills to reach the Kaikōura coast. Traveling on a road that hugs the shore for around 31 miles (50 km), you'll have many chances to view native wildlife. To the east, see the South Pacific, and to the west, the towering Kaikōura Ranges. Kaikōura Township has many cafés, restaurants, and shops, but the main draw is its wildlife as one of the only places in New Zealand to see whales year-round.

After getting settled in town, look for migrating humpback, pilot, blue, and southern right whales on an afternoon whale watching cruise. You may also see passing fur seals, dusky dolphins, and albatross as well. Then go for an open ocean swim encounter with dolphins off the Kaikōura coast. Put on your snorkel and get ready to see these mammals in their natural environment, one of the only places in the world you can do so. After an exciting day, spend the night in Kaikōura.

Day 11: Drive to Christchurch via Waipara Valley Wines, Historic Tram Dinner

Riding a vintage tram is one way to see the best of Christchurch
Cross one of the South Island's most well-known wine regions on today's 111-mile (180 km) drive to Christchurch. The Waipara Valley is famous for its ideal wine-growing conditions, with abundant summer sun and dry and cool autumns producing world-class rieslings and pinot gris. Stop in at the Waipara Hills, Pegasus Bay, or Black Estate wineries for some tastings. Continue on through New Zealand's sheep territory, and at Hanmer Springs, take a dip in thermal pools before arriving in Christchurch.

For the perfect introduction to the "Garden City," hop on a historic colonial-style tram as it tours Christchurch's top attractions. See views of the Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, and the Avon River / Ōtākaro from your window-side table. Settle into your seat with a welcome drink, followed by a four-course gourmet meal of New Zealand specialties. 

Day 12: Drive to Mount Cook Village, Dark Sky Stargazing

Mount Cook Village is a base for trekking, hiking, and watersports

Mount Cook Village, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain, is today's destination. This is New Zealand's highest peak, measuring 12,315 feet (3,754 m), and it's known by the Māori title Aoraki, which means "Cloud Piercer." The mountain is one of 20 peaks in Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the four-hour drive west from Christchurch, you'll wind through the heart of South Island and the pastoral Canterbury Plains. Stop off in Geraldine and Fairlie as you make your way to Burkes Pass and the lakeside town of Tekapo. Finally, you'll arrive in Mount Cook Village.

By night, see Aoraki / Mount Cook from a different perspective. The area is designated an International Dark Sky Reserve for its minimal light pollution and clear, star-studded skies. During tonight's star-gazing tour, follow a guide to an outdoor viewing platform with state-of-the-art astronomy telescopes and binoculars to help you spot constellations, planets, the Milky Way, and distant galaxies. There's also an indoor digital planetarium where video images are suspended on the enormous domed ceiling. At end of the tour, rest after a long day at your Aoraki / Mount Cook hotel.

Day 13: Glacier Lake & Mackenzie Country 4WD Tour

Tasman Glacier Lake is home to New Zealand's largest glacier

To see Aoraki / Mount Cook's 500-year-old icebergs up close, take a cruise around Tasman Glacier Lake. See what is also the country's largest glacier in a specially-designed boat that makes it easy to glide across the water, surrounded by towering ice cliffs. After this serene morning, get ready for an off-road adventure in the afternoon. 

The Mackenzie Country, or the Mackenzie Basin, is known for its sheep farming. One of the best ways to experience it is in a 4WD vehicle as your driver takes you on a tour with private access to Braemar Station, a working farm for sheep, beef, cattle, and deer. During the tour, see views of Aoraki / Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, Lake Pukaki, and the Ben Ohau mountain range. Travel on remote 4WD trails across the High Country and see Lake Tekapo's backcountry landscapes. At night, rest in Aoraki / Mount Cook after a day spent in the fresh air of the backcountry.

Day 14: Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Dinner & Onsen Soak

See panoramic views at the Stratosfare Restaurant above Queenstown 

It's time to head south from Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park toward Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. The three-hour drive takes you through the charming lakeside towns of Twizel and Ōmarama, then ascends the Lindis Pass into the Otago region. Pass Cromwell, a town at the top of the Kawarau Gorge, and the Gibbson Valley wine-growing region. Take a break for wine tasting in Gibbson and at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, where you can watch other people take the leap on a bungee jump or go for it yourself. 

For dinner in Queenstown, take a seat at the Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar at the top of the Queenstown Gondola. Gaze out floor-to-ceiling windows for panoramic views of the city and Lake Wakatipu while eating locally-sourced meats and seasonal vegetables. Follow dinner with a relaxing evening in a hot tub under the stars. Based on the Japanese bathing tradition, take a dip in Onsen's cedar-lined steaming pools on a cliffside overlooking the Shotover River. Soak for an hour in 101.3°F (38.5°C) water with alpine scenery views, or opt for a cold pool for an icy plunge to wake up. 

Day 15: Sunrise Balloon Ride, AJ Hackett Nevis Bungy, Arrowtown

An early-morning hot air balloon ride reveals the beauty above Lake Wakatipu

Today's an early wake-up call for a one-hour hot air balloon ride above Queenstown. Float up as the sun rises over the surrounding lakes and mountains to see Mount Aspiring, Coronet Peak, glittering Lake Wakatipu, and "The Lord of the Rings" filming locations such as Kawarau Gorge. Toast the end of the flight with champagne and breakfast. Follow the balloon ride with an adrenaline boost at the Nevis Bungy Jump (one of the highest in New Zealand), falling 439 feet (134m) or more than 40 stories for approximately 8.5 seconds.

Get your feet back on the ground in the afternoon at Arrowtown, which sits alongside the Arrow River. Established in 1862 during the height of the Otago gold rush, the settlement grew quickly as pioneers built cottages, shops, hotels, and churches—more than 60 of which can still be seen today. At the Chinese settlement at the edge of the river, explore restored shelters and buildings and discover former gold mining sites. Return to your Queenstown hotel to rest after a full day of exploring. 

Day 16: Wine Cave Tour, TSS Earnslaw Steamship Cruise & Farm Barbecue

Step aboard a historic steamship tonight

Central Otago is one of New Zealand's most well-known wine-growing regions, with more than 100 wineries to sample its pinot noirs. Take a tour of a Wine Cave and see Central Otago's first vines—originally planted by wine pioneer Alan Brady in 1983—then sample a few different wines for a relaxing afternoon.

By night, step aboard the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a cruise on Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak High Country Farm, where a barbecue dinner featuring New Zealand's signature dishes awaits. Feast on rotisserie-cooked meats, seasonal vegetables, and salads, followed by dessert, New Zealand cheeses, and demonstrations about high country life on the farm. After the meal, join a sing-along with the ship's pianist and breathe in the fresh night air as you watch the lights of Queenstown come into focus.

Day 17: Drive to Te Anau

The scenic drive to Queenstown
The scenic drive to Te Anau

Fiordland National Park in New Zealand's Southland region is known for its fjords, waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks. Te Anau is the gateway to the park, and to get there, you'll take a drive south from Queenstown, traveling 106 miles (171 km). Follow Lake Wakatipu's shores as the Remarkables mountain range towers above, approaching Kingston Township. Then, cross the rolling tussock lands of Mossburn (the deer capital of New Zealand), finally reaching Te Anau.

Relax in the small town of Te Anau for the night and maybe take a tour of its caves and Glowworm Grotto. On this optional tour, start with a cruise across Lake Te Anau before entering the caves and learning the story of this 12,000-year-old underground network. Following a limestone pathway, see whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and a staggering underground waterfall. Then board a small boat to glide through the darkness, surrounded by the blue-white pinpricks of thousands of glowworms on the cave walls and ceiling. 

Day 18: Milford Sound Hike, Cruise & Picnic

The world-famous Milford Sound
Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park is ready to explore

Today's full-day excursion takes you to the jewel of Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound. The journey there has some of the most beautiful and iconic scenery in New Zealand, with crystal-clear lakes, towering mountains, and lush, glacier-formed meadows. Along the way, you can stretch your legs on the Chasm Walk, passing through native beech forest to see several powerful waterfalls. Continue through the engineering marvel of Homer Tunnel and spot views of Mitre Peak as cliffs rise from below the water's surface—a dramatic and awe-inspiring sight.

After discovering Milford Sound on foot, see it from another perspective on a leisurely boat cruise. Feel a waterfall spray as you approach sheer rock faces and enjoy a relaxing afternoon picnic before returning to Te Anau. 

Day 19: Fiordland National Park Jet & Flight

Step aboard a boat for a full view of the Waiau River
Today feel the full rush of Fiordland with a jet boat ride on the Waiau River. The river is the largest in the Southland region, and with a name that means "swirling currents," you're in for an exciting ride. The upper part of the river flows between Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau and is the fictional River Anduin from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Ask your guide about the endangered birds that live around the shores of Lake Te Anau and the upper Waiau River. After the boat ride, return to Te Ana in style with a spectacularly scenic 15-minute flight over Fiordland National Park. 

Day 20: Hike Te Anau's Trails

Kepler Track
At Lake Te Anau, there are hiking trails for all hiking levels

Lake Te Anau is your playground today for hiking, walking, biking, or even fishing. There are many trails to choose from—from easy to all-day—so take your pick to set off for a day in the great outdoors.

Try Rainbow Reach from the Kepler Track parking lot, following Waiau River terraces through red and mountain beech forests. The total distance is 6 miles (9.5 km) returning via the same trail, and it takes about five hours round-trip. For an easier trail, start at the visitor center heading for the Upukerora River Track. This walk will take you to the Te Anau lakefront, where the Upukerora River flows into the lake, for a total round trip of three hours. Ask at the visitor center for other hikes depending on your preferences. 

Day 21: Drive to Queenstown, Depart 

Take in the last moments in Queenstown before saying goodbye to New Zealand
Savor your last day in New Zealand and soak up the magnificent scenery as you make the drive north to Queenstown. Depending on your flight time, you can explore Queenstown on your own before heading to the airport to drop off your rental car and catch your flight home. Safe travels!

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Map of Epic New Zealand Road Trip: Auckland to Queenstown - 21 Days
Map of Epic New Zealand Road Trip: Auckland to Queenstown - 21 Days