See the best of New Zealand's two islands with this 17-day self-drive itinerary. Starting in Auckland, you'll hit the road south to see geothermal wonders in Rotorua and the capital, Wellington. Skip to the South Island, where Christchurch and charming Akaroa await. Ride the TranzAlpine Train to the West Coast, where you'll heli-hike the Franz Josef Glacier, seek thrills in Queenstown, and fly over the magnificent Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. Return to Auckland and road trip out to the Bay of Islands to finish the trip.


  • Cruise on and fly over beautiful Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
  • Feel the geothermal power of geysers and mud pools in Rotorua
  • Experience Maori culture with a feast in the forest
  • Ride the scenic TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth
  • Experience the vast Franz Josef Glacier with a heli-hike experience

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton Tour, Māori Feast & Show Rotorua
Day 2 Explore Rotorua Your Way, Hell's Gate Experience Rotorua
Day 3 Drive to Wellington via Lake Taupō  Wellington
Day 4 Free Day in Wellington, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Night Tour Wellington
Day 5 Fly to Christchurch & Explore Christchurch
Day 6 Akaroa Day Tour & Harbor Cruise Christchurch
Day 7 TranzAlpine Train to Greymouth, Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau Franz Josef 
Day 8 Discover Franz Josef Glacier, Heli-Hike Franz Josef 
Day 9 Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner Queenstown
Day 10 Fly-Cruise-Fly to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Queenstown
Day 11 Jet Boat Ride, Explore Queenstown  Queenstown
Day 12 Glenorchy Safari Tour Queenstown
Day 13 Fly to Auckland & Explore Auckland
Day 14 Drive to Paihia, Hole in the Rock Cruise Paihia
Day 15 Cape Reinga Scenic Flight & Guided Tour Paihia
Day 16 Drive to Auckland Auckland
Day 17 Depart Auckland  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton Tour, Māori Feast & Show

Hobbit holes at the waterfront in Hobbiton movie set in Matamata
Hobbit holes found at the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata

Kia ora! Welcome to New Zealand's North Island! You've landed in Auckland. Pick up a rental car and hit the road as you make the 2.5-hour drive south to Rotorua. Pass rolling farmlands and rich dairy pastures of the Waikato region, then turn inland to pass by Matamata, home to the Hobbiton Movie Set. Set over a 12-acre (4.8 ha) Alexander family sheep farm, you'll take a two-hour guided walk where you'll hear stories about filming and visit intricate sets. Visit the Shire's iconic Hobbit Holes and the Mill, and stop at the Green Dragon Inn for a Southfarthing ale, cider, or ginger beer.

Continue to Rotorua, where telltale signs of steam and other geothermal activity signal your arrival at this volcanic wonderland. This evening, you'll feast on songs, traditions, and seasonal kai (cuisine) within the forest Pa (village) of Te Pā Tū. Settle into an enchanting space surrounded by towering tawa trees, blazing bonfires, and a forest-formed amphitheater for a four-hour celebration of Māori history and culture.

Day 2: Explore Rotorua Your Way, Hell's Gate Experience

Rotorua's geothermal attractions
Explore the wild wonders of Rotorua's geothermal attractions

Set within the Pacific Rim of Fire, Rotorua is a wonderland of geothermal activity, complete with boiling mud pools, steaming geysers, and natural hot springs perfect for bathing and relaxing. Today you'll have free time to explore Rotorua at your own pace. Choose to experience the natural wonders of this active volcanic region, or get active.  Rotorua is home to redwood forests that are popular with hikers and mountain bikers, or step up the adrenaline at Velocity Valley Adventure Park, where you can go static skydiving or ride a giant swing.

The otherworldly Hell's Gate geothermal spa is the perfect place to experience the natural powers of Rotorua. Join a guided or self-guided geothermal walk to explore the 50-acre (20 ha) park. Then soak in geothermal mud and acidic sulfur waters and experience the healing properties that local Māori have used for over 800 years. The warm mud will open and clear your pores before exfoliating your ski during a deeply cleansing sulfur spa treatment.

Day 3: Drive to Wellington via Lake Taupō 

Lake Taupo enters the Waikato River through the narrow Huka falls rapids
Lake Taupō enters the Waikato River through the narrow Huka Falls rapids

There's another big 5.5-hour drive ahead today as you make your way into Wellington, New Zealand's capital. Make your first stop at New Zealand's largest lake, Lake Taupō—a vast volcanic caldera formed during one of the world's largest eruptions. Just north of the town, take a short detour to Huka Falls, and if you love thrills, board the Huka Jet. Back on the road, you'll skirt Tongariro National Park, one of New Zealand's three world heritage sites, and look for the peaks of Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro, and Mount Ngauruhoe—three active volcanoes.

Farther south, if you're interested in military memorabilia, you could stop at the military town of Waiouru. Continue past rich farmland, pause in Taihape for a photo with the large gumboot statue, and stop to take in the view from the Mangaweka Gorge lookout. Take in the coastal seaside towns of Paraparaumu, Paekakariki, and Plimmerton before arriving at the capital city. Wellington is set on a beautiful natural harbor and surrounded by bushland. Get checked in at your hotel and find somewhere to watch the sunset or enjoy dinner.

Day 4: Free Day in Wellington, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Night Tour

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

Wellington's compact village-like size makes the city easy to explore on foot, yet it has the sophistication of a big city. Ride the cable car to the Wellington Botanic Garden and the Carter Observatory for a vantage point with excellent views of the city and harbor. Or stroll the streets for lunch at one of the many inner-city cafés and soak up the capital's café culture. Te Papa, the national museum, is worth a visit, as is the fascinating Wētā Workshop, home to props and costumes from movies. Whatever you choose, today is yours to explore New Zealand's characterful capital.

Later in the evening, venture to Zealandia, a wildlife eco-sanctuary and forest just 10 minutes from Wellington. Kiwi birds, Tuatara reptiles, and Maud Island frogs come alive at night. With a guide and a flashlight, come eye-to-eye with more than 100 nocturnal species exploring the more than 500-acre (225 ha) area.

Day 5: Fly to Christchurch & Explore

Christchurch Botanical Gardens
The unique architecture and fountain found at Christchurch Botanical Gardens

Drop off your rental car this morning and board a flight for Christchurch on the South Island. Here a private driver will collect you and transfer you to your hotel. Drop your bags, refresh, and spend the rest of the day exploring the country's second-largest metropolis, nicknamed the "Garden City" due to its beautiful green spaces. Start with a step back in time along the Avon River / Ōtākaro, where guides dressed in Edwardian costumes lead punting boat trips past landmarks like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens.

Ride one of Christchurch's heritage trams, stopping at 17 key places such as Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum. Or, for a quirky dinner option, book a table in the colonial-style dining tram and circle the city, passing New Regent Street and Victoria Square, while enjoying a multicourse feast.

Day 6: Akaroa Day Tour & Harbor Cruise

Beautiful Akaroa is set on the water
Beautiful and charming Akaroa is set on the water between mountains
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Today you'll visit New Zealand's only French settlement, Akaroa. On this full-day trip, you'll be taken on a spectacular 90-minute journey passing Governors Bay, Gebbies Pass, Lake Forsyth, and Little River, where you'll experience glorious views of farmlands, the Canterbury Plains, and remote bays indenting the coastline. Stop to soak up brilliant views over Akaroa Harbour, then set sail on a two-hour cruise where you'll witness the beauty of this region from the sea and might even spot playful dolphins, penguins, and seals.

Wander around the charming 175-year-old French harborside village of Akaroa with its museum of settlers' history, art and craft shops, and studios before enjoying lunch at an award-winning waterfront restaurant. If there's time, you'll explore Barry's Bay Cheese Factory, the Little River Art Gallery, and Birdling's Flat on the return journey to Christchurch.

Day 7: TranzAlpine Train to Greymouth, Drive to Franz Josef / Waiau

Cross New Zealand's South Island from east to west on the TranzAlpine train
Cross New Zealand's South Island from east to west on the TranzAlpine train

Today the TranzAlpine Scenic Train will take you on what's considered one of the world's greatest train journeys. This morning a private driver will collect you from your hotel for a transfer to the train station ahead of this epic journey. Destined for the opposite coast of New Zealand, you'll see the fields of the Canterbury Plains and farmland, followed by the spectacular gorges and river valleys of the Waimakariri River. Your train then climbs into the Southern Alps before descending through the lush beech rainforest to the West Coast town of Greymouth.

Collect a rental car and make the two-hour drive south to Franz Josef / Waiau. Stop in Hokitika, a great place to buy jade or greenstone, to visit the spectacular Hokitika Gorge, where turquoise waters flow through a narrow gorge. You could pan for gold in Ross, an old gold mining town, or keep going to the glacier region. Finally, you'll catch your first glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier on your way into town.

Day 8: Discover Franz Josef Glacier, Heli-Hike

View of the glacier from a helicopter
You'll view the Franz Josef Glacier from a helicopter before you land at the top

Today you'll visit the famous Franz Josef Glacier, a majestic 7.5-mile (12 km) long glacier in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. This steep glacier is known for its sparkling ice and picturesque views, and the glacier's end is just 3 miles (5 km) from town. Start with a trek around the national park. Popular trails include the Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk and Sentinel Rock Walk, which provide views of the glacier. Then there's the Lake Wombat Track and Terrace Walk, which take you through the forest and past former gold mining operations.

Just make sure you're done in time for this afternoon's half-day heli-hike up Aoraki / Mount Cook. Take an exhilarating helicopter ride to the mighty Haupapa / Tasman Glacier. Witness the amazing icebergs of Tasman Lake, and fly past the famous Hochstetter Ice Fall and the east face of the peak before landing on the glacier. You'll explore this world of ice equipped with crampons, an ice ax, or walking poles. As your guide cuts steps in the ice, they'll share fascinating tales and facts, such as how it flows and what makes the crevasses and sinkholes appear. 

Day 9: Drive to Queenstown, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner

The steamship TSS Earnslaw cruises across Lake Wakatipu
The steamship TSS Earnslaw cruises across Lake Wakatipu

From Frans Josef / Waiau, it's a 5.5-hour drive to Queenstown, New Zealand's adventure capital. Travel through a former sawmilling area to Fox Glacier, then pass forests of red and white pine to Bruce Bay. See tranquil lakes Paringa and Moeraki, then pass Wānaka, Lake Hawea Dam, and Lake Hayes on the descent to Queenstown. Set on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the Southern Alps, this ruggedly beautiful region offers hair-raising thrills, vineyards, and historic gold-mining towns.

Then get ready for a leisurely cruise across the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Wakatipu. At the appointed time, the historic TSS Earnslaw Steamship will take you to the lakeside gardens of Walter Peak High Country Farm for a gourmet dinner by the water. Soak up the alpine scenery at the homestead and watch as chefs prepare a seasonal bounty of succulent meats cooked on the outdoor rotisserie and a selection of delicious vegetables and salads. Enjoy desserts and New Zealand cheese before the return cruise, complete with a singalong from the ship's pianist.

Day 10: Fly-Cruise-Fly to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Majestic Milford Sound
Marvel at the beauty of the Milford Sound / Piopiotahi landscape

Any trip to New Zealand should include a visit to the world-famous Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. If you're short on time but ready for the adventure, the Fly-Cruise-Fly option from Queenstown takes you to the heart of the Fiordland region and back in no time. Your 35-minute scenic flight from Queenstown will soar over the rugged backcountry of Central Otago, alpine lakes, lush rainforest, rugged snowcapped mountains, and glacially carved valleys of Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park.

Once at the sound, board an intimate and immersive two-hour cruise and simply relax while taking in Mitre Peak, cascading waterfalls, towering cliffs, and native animals. Passengers often spot seals basking in the sun, dolphins leaping, and sometimes the rare Fiordland crested penguins. After, return to Queenstown in the same plane.

Day 11: Jet Boat Ride, Explore Queenstown 

Shotover Jet
Get your thrills with the high-speed Shotover Jet in Queenstown

Lean into the thrills of Queenstown and kick off your day with an exhilarating ride through the Shotover River Canyon in a high-speed jet boat that seems to defy gravity. Take a ride on "Big Red" through the spectacular canyon walls of the upper Shotover River. You'll gasp in amazement as your jet navigates 46 miles (75 km) of rapids and narrow twists and turns.

The rest of the day is yours to experience the adventure capital of the world on your own. Seek out more thrills while lugeing, bungee jumping, or swinging over a canyon. Bring down the pace with a round of golf, or pull on your hiking boots. Take to the skies with a hot-air balloon ride or scenic flight, or ride the Skyline Gondola to see Queenstown from above. Jump in the car and cruise to nearby Arrowtown or Wānaka, or go wine tasting with a self-guided excursion through the picturesque cool-climate vineyards of Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Cromwell.

Day 12: Glenorchy Safari Day Tour

Glenorchy Wharf Lake Wakatipu New Zealand
Pass by Glenorchy Wharf set on Lake Wakatipu
Today you'll traverse the countryside searching for Tolkien's Middle-earth on a Glenorchy 4WD Safari. Glenorchy is a small settlement known as a filming location for "The Lord of the Rings," and today's off-road adventure will give you the chance to experience the unreal panoramic landscapes as you follow one of the South Island's most scenic drives. Look outside your window for brilliant views of the Southern Alps, and enjoy the ride as you explore Isengard, Ithilien Camp, Lothlórien, Fangorn Forest, and the Battle of Amon Hen while on tour.

Day 13: Fly to Auckland & Explore

The view of Auckland from Mount Eden

Swap the South Island for the North Island today when you drop off your rental car in Queenstown and board a flight back to Auckland, an urban paradise squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. On arrival, a private driver will transfer you to your accommodation in the city. New Zealand's largest metropolis is known as the "City of the Sails," as it's surrounded by water, and sailboats can be seen everywhere.

Use the rest of today to explore the vibrant and diverse city as you wish. You could take a stroll around Waitemata Harbour and admire more than 500,000 sailboats and yachts. For supreme views of Auckland, scale the 1,075-foot (328 m) Sky Tower with its dizzying observation deck, or make your way to Mount Eden, one of the city's 48 volcanic cones. Besides the bustling urban center and chic waterfront promenades, Auckland and its surrounding area are home to 26 regional parks with landscapes from tropical rainforests to rugged coastlines and golden beaches.

Day 14: Drive to Paihia, Hole in the Rock Cruise

Bay of Islands
The beauty of the Bay of Islands region from above

Pick up your rental car, grab a takeaway coffee, and head for the Bay of Islands. Plan for plenty of sightseeing along the 3.5-hour journey, including a stop at the historical township of Puhoi, or "Slow Water'" in Māori. Its vibrant, bohemian atmosphere is a remnant of former Czech immigrants. Subtropical Whangārei, New Zealand's most northern city, is a short drive away and is known as "the city with 100 beaches." Hike to the summit of Mount Parihaka, or take your time to explore the remains of the largest fortified village in New Zealand, Māori Pā.

This afternoon join a scenic cruise along the Rakaumangamanga Peninsula to Cape Brett. Spot the historic lighthouse that keeps watch over the dual-named Motukōkako Island (Piercy Island), more popularly known as Hole in the Rock. This dramatic natural rock structure was named for its soaring 60-foot (18 m) arch formed by the erosion of the waves. According to Māori legend, local warriors paddled through the Hole in the Rock in canoes before departing for battle. Drops of water from the cave roof above were considered a good omen. 

Day 15: Cape Reinga Scenic Flight & Guided Tour

Cape Reinga Lighthouse at Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of the North Island of New Zealand.
Cape Reinga Lighthouse at the northernmost point of the North Island

Today experience the beauty of the North from both air and land. Take a spectacular scenic flight to Cape Reinga, passing over Whangaroa Harbour and Rangaunu Harbour, as well as Coopers Beach, Doubtless Bay, and Ninety Mile Beach. You'll land at the local airfield just 12 miles (20 km) from the Cape Reinga Lighthouse. Embark on a 2.5-hour tour of the very top of New Zealand, a region rich in Māori tradition. Learn about local myths and legends, then visit the beautiful Tapotupotu Bay.

Stop at the Te Paki quicksand stream, where you'll have the chance to slide down giant sand dunes on sleds, then return to the Bay of Islands by plane. You'll soar high above incredible North Island scenery once more, including Parengarenga Harbour, Great Exhibition Bay, Houhora Harbour, and the Cavalli Islands.

Day 16: Drive to Auckland

Panoramic view of Auckland
Witness your last sunset in New Zealand on a harbor cruise

Wave goodbye to the Bay of Islands and return on State Highway 1, heading toward Auckland. This route takes you through Kawakawa, affectionately known as the "steam train town," and the farming regions of Wellsford and Warkworth. Eventually, you'll cross the harbor bridge back into the heart of Auckland.

If you have time, consider joining a harbor cruise to make lasting memories on your final night in New Zealand. You'll set off from Waitemata Harbour as the sun begins to dip into the water. The first port of call is Auckland Harbour to see the skyline views. Next, you'll sail toward Westhaven Marina, enjoying appetizers and drinks as you cruise about. Finally, sit down to dinner with a view of Auckland Harbour, and finish the evening with dessert while leisurely sailing to Viaduct Harbour. 

Day 17: Depart Auckland

Auckland's skyline is easy to identify with its distinctive Sky Tower

It's your final morning in New Zealand. When the time is right, drive to the airport with enough time to drop off your rental car and catch your flight home or onward. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore different ways to spend 17 days in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


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Map of Epic Self-Drive Adventure in New Zealand - 17 Days
Map of Epic Self-Drive Adventure in New Zealand - 17 Days