Experience a bit of everything on this 17-day self-drive tour through New Zealand's North and South Islands. Strike out from Auckland on an epic road trip south, traveling through the North Island's agricultural, geothermal, and wine-producing heartland. Along the way, stop for wine-tasting, glowworm kayaking, and a Maori cultural experiences. From Wellington, take the ferry to the South Island, where you'll hike on glaciers, cruise on remote waterways, and enjoy the vastness of the empty landscape.


  • Learn more about Maori culture with a traditional dinner in Rotorua
  • Cycle between wineries in Hawke's Bay by e-bike
  • Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Reserve near Lake Tekapo
  • Embark on an exhilarating heli-hike to the Rob Roy Glacier
  • Join a jet boat adventure in the "Adventure Capital" of Queenstown

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland Auckland
Day 2 Day Trip to Waitakere Ranges Auckland
Day 3 Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton, Māori Cultural Experience & Dinner Rotorua
Day 4 Nature Walk & Boat Cruise, Twilight Glowworm Kayaking Rotorua
Day 5 Drive to Napier, Optional Vintage Car Tour Napier
Day 6 Full-Day Winery Tour by E-Bike Napier
Day 7 Drive to Wellington, Zealandia Evening Tour Wellington
Day 8 Capital Tastes Walking Tour Wellington
Day 9 Ferry to Picton, Coastal Pacific Train to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 10 Full-Day Akaroa Tour with Cruise Christchurch
Day 11 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Stargazing Adventure Lake Tekapo
Day 12 Free Day Around Lake Tekapo, Haupapa / Tasman Glacier Heli-Hike Lake Tekapo
Day 13 Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Gondola Ride Queenstown 
Day 14 Helicopter Tour & Rob Roy Glacier Hike Queenstown 
Day 15 Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise Queenstown 
Day 16 Full-Day Jet Boat Adventure & Funyak River Safari Queenstown 
Day 17 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Auckland's skyline
Welcome to Auckland, nicknamed the City of Sails

Welcome to Auckland! Meet your driver at Auckland Airport for a transfer to your hotel. Located on the North Island, New Zealand's largest metropolis is known as the "City of the Sails." Beyond its bustling urban center with chic waterfront promenades, the surrounding area is home to 26 regional parks featuring a diverse array of landscapes. Within easy reach, you'll find lush rainforests, rugged coastline, and black-sand beaches. Today you can take it easy after your arrival, perhaps grabbing dinner and drinks beside the water.

Day 2: Day Trip to Waitakere Ranges

Waterfall in the Waitakere Ranges
Take a day tour of the subtropical rainforest and beaches of the Waitakere Ranges

Get out into Auckland's beautiful natural hinterland today with a guided day trip. A half-hour drive from downtown Auckland brings you to the Arataki Centre, the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. This 42,000-acre (17,000 ha) fringe of hills and subtropical rainforest separates Auckland from the surf beaches of the west coast. The peaks and plateaus offer breathtaking panoramic views, from the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Embark on an eco-tour of the hills, waterfalls, and beaches of the Waitakere Ranges. Start in the lush rainforest, where you'll hear native birdsong as you walk among kauri trees and giant ferns. New Zealand existed for millions of years separate from the rest of the world, and a unique ecosystem evolved. After the rainforest, continue farther down to the rugged west coast. Feel the soft black sand beneath your feet as you stroll along these wild surf beaches.

Day 3: Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton, Māori Cultural Experience & Dinner

Fans of "The Lord of the Rings" will love Hobbiton

Pick up your rental car this morning and start your road trip with the 2.5-hour drive to Rotorua. Leaving Auckland, drive south over the Bombay Hills into the Waikato and across the Hauraki Plains. Pass through Matamata, a town famous for its thoroughbred horses and as the location of the Hobbiton Movie Set. If you're a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien or the movie adaptations of his books, you might want to stop to tour Hobbiton, where you can see where scenes of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" were filmed. 

Continue onto the Thermal Explorer Highway, where you'll start to smell sulfur as you pass areas of bubbling mud, spouting geysers, and natural geothermal mineral pools as you approach Rotorua. This central North Island city offers a raft of attractions and experiences for everyone from adventure-seekers to travelers just looking to unwind.

As well as its famous geothermal activity, Rotorua is known for its rich Māori culture. In the late afternoon, head to the outskirts of town for a very special dinner and a show at Mitai Māori Village. This family-run cultural center offers an authentic experience featuring the Te Arawa people, the original inhabitants of the Rotorua Lakes region. Kick off with a powhiri (welcome ceremony) involving warriors in traditional dress. Watch as they paddle a waka (canoe) down the Waiowhiro Stream, then sit down for a concert.

Through songs, drums, and haka war dances, the performers tell the great migration story of the Māori from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand. Enjoy an authentic hangi dinner, a process in which food is cooked in baskets over hot stones in a ground pit. After dinner, take a guided bush walk and learn about the medicinal uses of the flora native to the region. Eventually, you'll arrive at Te Puna a Tuhoe, an ancient sacred puna (spring) whose fresh waters you can drink. Here, enjoy the electric blue pinpricks of light from glowworms that live on the banks.

Day 4: Nature Walk & Boat Cruise, Twilight Glowworm Kayaking

Volcanic crater lake at Waimangu Valley
A volcanic crater lake at Waimangu Valley

Today you'll visit the Waimangu Valley for a nature walk. This valley was formed in 1886 by the violent eruption of Mount Tarawera, which cut a 10-mile (17 km) rift in the earth, splitting the mountain in two and forming the seven craters that now comprise the valley. It's an easy stroll that follows the Waimangu Crater walkways, which are mostly downhill and flat, and showcases local flora and fauna as well as dramatic geothermal activity. Next, transfer to the dock at Lake Rotomahana, where you'll hop on a boat and embark on a scenic 45-minute cruise that passes geothermal wonders like steaming lakeshore cliffs.

Take it easy in the afternoon, then head out again in the evening. Arrive on the shorelines of Lake Okareka as the sun sets and meet your kayaking guides. Explore the shoreline and embrace the weather conditions of the evening as you follow your guide around the lake edge as night sets in. Once it's dark, discover your adventurous side as your guide leads you inside incredible hidden caves that are home to galaxies of glowworms. Enjoy the sights inside the caves before returning along your course in the dark. If the sky is clear, watch as the stars come out and the cloud-like Milky Way fills the sky.

Day 5: Drive to Napier, Optional Vintage Car Tour

A view of the Art Deco town of Napier, in the Hawkes Bay

Depart Rotorua today as you make your way three hours southeast to Napier. Along the way, you can take a side road to the geothermal park of Wai-o-Tapu, where you'll discover geysers, silica terraces, and craters of boiling mud, or make a short stop at the roaring Huka Falls, used for hydropower generation. About halfway through the drive, you'll crest the hill into Taupō, where you'll be met with an amazing view of Lake Taupō, New Zealand's largest lake.

Continue your drive to the coastal city of Napier, where you can get settled into your accommodations. Napier and its neighbor Hastings support vast orchards, vineyards, and sheep farming, and the region is quickly gaining an international reputation for winemaking. After a violent earthquake in 1931, most of Napier's commercial heart was destroyed, and the town was rebuilt in an Art Deco style that lends its downtown area a unique and elegant atmosphere,

You can spend the rest of the day at leisure, or perhaps take an optional private tour by vintage car, a popular activity among visitors to Napier. Take a tour of the town's Art Deco landmarks, including one of New Zealand's most photographed buildings, the Louis Hay-designed National Tobacco Building. As part of the tour, you'll get the chance to watch an informative documentary titled "The Day that Changed the Bay."

Day 6: Full-Day Winery Tour by E-Bike

Full Day Cape Winery Tour - Self Guided E-Bike Tour
Cycle between vineyards in the North Island's largest wine-producing region

Hawke's Bay is the North Island's largest wine-producing region, and you'll explore this side of Napier today on a self-guided e-bike tour. This easy ride takes you past seven of the bay's most popular wineries. Start with a shuttle to the winery cluster of Black Barn, Te Mata Estate, and Craggy Range near the town of Havelock North, where your driver will get you started with a tour briefing and trail maps.

Indulge with some early wine tastings, then join the Tukituki River Trail to cycle through orchard country to the Pacific Ocean and the Cape Kidnappers coast. On reaching Te Awanga, your cycling efforts are rewarded at more acclaimed wineries, including Elephant Hill, Te Awanga Estate, and Clearview Estate. A shuttle will pick you up in the late afternoon. This ride is graded easy and flat, with a cycling distance of approximately 10–12.5 miles (16–20 km).

Day 7: Drive to Wellington, Zealandia Evening Tour

Wellington, New Zealand's capital, is on the shores of a pretty harbor

Head south today on today's four-hour drive, climbing out of Hawke's Bay and into the rolling sheep and cattle farmland that will characterize much of your journey. Just south of Eketahuna is Pukaha National Wildlife Centre at Mount Bruce, a worthwhile stop. The road eventually converges on the rugged Rimutaka Ranges before joining the motorway system into Wellington, New Zealand's capital, an energetic, cosmopolitan city set around the shores of a pretty harbor.

Wellington's compact size makes it an easy place to walk around, yet its cosmopolitan flavor gives it the sophistication of a big city. If you've made good time today and reach Wellington in the early afternoon, take a ride up the cable car to the Wellington Botanic Gardens and the Carter Observatory for views of the city and harbor. 

In the evening, check out a very special wildlife sanctuary right beside the central city: Zealandia. Walk through the gates of the predator-proof fence and hear the evening birdsong that has been absent on mainland New Zealand for more than a century. Explore the valley by torchlight as your guide leads you in search of some of the more distinctive sights and sounds of New Zealand's native forest. Hear (and maybe see) some of the rare and endangered species, including those that only come out at night. Your group may even see some of the 130 little spotted kiwi birds who call Zealandia home. 

Day 8: Capital Tastes Walking Tour

Browsing the food markets of Wellington
Wellington is famous for its café culture and fine food, which you'll discover today on a personal sightseeing tour that revolves around food. Discover fresh flavors as your guide introduces you to the city, its local tastes, produce, and people. Stroll behind the scenes at some favorite Wellington gastronomic meccas, taste hidden culinary treasures, and meet some of the people behind a selection of the city's best food. If you enjoy fine wine or good craft beer, you'll have plenty of local choices to accompany your food.

Day 9: Ferry to Picton, Coastal Pacific Train to Christchurch

Sail through the Marlborough Sounds on the ferry to Picton

Say goodbye to the North Island today as you drop off your rental car and cross the Cook Strait on the ferry to Picton, a spectacular journey of around 3.5 hours. Travel through the Marlborough Sounds to the head of Queen Charlotte Sound to arrive at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island. There you'll board the Coastal Pacific, a scenic train that will take you on an epic six-hour journey to Christchurch.

This tip is a scenic feast of New Zealand, passing through Marlborough, the largest wine-producing region in the country, before reaching the east coast where the Kaikōura Range rises on one side of your train and the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline stretches out on the other. Pass through the seaside town of Kaikōura, where you can often see dolphins, seals, and penguins from the comfort of your train carriage. The train then turns inland again to travel through the farmlands of North Canterbury, before arriving in Christchurch in the evening, where you'll pick up your rental car for your South Island self-driving adventure.

Day 10: Full-Day Akaroa Tour with Cruise

Take a day tour out to Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula

East of Christchurch emerges the Banks Peninsula, a volcanic area with many harbors, bays, and coves. Today, take a tour to the small town of Akaroa on the peninsula, the only French colonial settlement in New Zealand. Travel along a high summit route to Akaroa, enjoying glorious views of farmlands, the Canterbury Plains, and the distant Southern Alps. You'll have an opportunity to wander around the charming 175-year-old French harborside village, checking out its museum of settler history, art and craft shops, and studios, before enjoying lunch at an award-winning café.

From the wharf at Akaroa, you'll then depart on a nature cruise. Look out for Hector's dolphins, little blue penguins, New Zealand fur seals, and local birdlife before returning to land and heading back to Christchurch for the afternoon.

Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 11: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Stargazing Adventure

Stargazing over the Church of the Good Shepherd in Lake Tekapo
Stargazing over the Church of the Good Shepherd in Lake Tekapo

Depart Christchurch and strike out across the Canterbury Plains today on the three-hour drive west to Lake Tekapo. Along the way, you'll cross the longest bridge in New Zealand over the Rakaia River, a typical South Island braided river. The Southern Alps can be seen to the west as you continue over the flat land through Ashburton, the center of this large sheep and wheat-farming area. Shortly after crossing the Rangitata River, turn inland to Geraldine, the gateway to the lakes in the central Mackenzie Basin. Travel onward over undulating sheep country to Fairlie to ascend to the settlement of Lake Tekapo.

Rest in the afternoon after this scenic drive, then head out again in the evening, weather permitting. Take a mesmerizing journey through the cosmos as you explore the wonders of the night sky. An astronomy guide will take you on an hourlong tour of the heavens through high-powered telescopes. The area around here is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the darkest areas in the country, and among the best stargazing spots in the world.

Day 12: Free Day Around Lake Tekapo, Haupapa / Tasman Glacier Heli-Hike

Day at Leisure
Choose your own adventure on a free day around Lake Tekapo

You can choose to rest today and enjoy some leisurely walks around Lake Tekapo. Or, if you prefer to get active and explore deeper into the landscape, embark on a three-hour heli-hike on the Haupapa / Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's longest glacier.

If you opt for the heli-hike, you'll embark on a thrilling helicopter flight into the mountains from the small Mount Cook Airport. Land at 3,937 feet (1,200 m) above sea level and spend up to two hours on a guided interpretive ice trek, crossing an undulating terrain of fluted ice and winding melt streams. The helicopter will return you to Mount Cook Airport, flying close by the massive 3,200-foot (1,000 m) high Hochstetter Icefall below Aoraki / Mount Cook to finish this amazing adventure.

Day 13: Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Gondola Ride

Welcome to Queenstown!
Enjoy the views of Queenstown from the Skyline Gondola

Get back on the road today and travel three hours south, driving through the scenic Lindis Pass as you descend into the Upper Clutha Valley. Turn off near Cromwell and enter the rugged but beautiful Kawarau Gorge, following the river to the popular resort town and adventure sports hub of Queenstown, situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu.

After settling into your hotel, a great way to get your bearings in Queenstown is to take a ride in the Southern Hemisphere's highest cable car. Head to the edge of Queenstown and board the Skyline Gondola, which will whisk you smoothly up 1,476 feet (450 m) to the viewpoint at Bob's Peak. On the ascent, watch as the city drops away below you and then enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree views from the top. Here, you can see all the way to Coronet Peak, around the Remarkables Range, and out to Cecil and Walter Peaks on the other side of Lake Wakatipu.

Day 14: Helicopter Tour & Rob Roy Glacier Hike

Views of Lake Wānaka from Mount Aspiring National Park

Begin today with a scenic drive to Wānaka, skirting Lake Wānaka and entering the Matukituki Valley, where you'll meet your helicopter pilot and board your helicopter. Fly into the soaring Southern Alps and land on the Isobel Glacier, from where there are stunning views of Mount Aspiring and the UNESCO-listed Mount Aspiring National Park. Your helicopter will then whisk you away to Raspberry Hut, where a guide will be waiting to take you on a hike up the Rob Roy Track to view the stunning Rob Roy Glacier.

The four-hour guided walk covers about 6 miles (10 km) and requires a moderate level of fitness. Follow your guide through farmland dotted with sheep and cattle, then across a swing bridge into the alpine rainforest. Emerge above the treeline to be met with views of four glacier faces. Here you can stop for lunch, and spend some time exploring the surrounding valley. Your return walk is completely downhill, and at the end your driver will be waiting to take you back to Queenstown. 

Day 15: Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise

Take a wilderness cruise on remote Doubtful Sound

Take it easier today on a beautiful wilderness cruise on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland. Board a bus in Queenstown and travel along the shores of Lake Wakatipu and through the rolling countryside to the village of Manapouri. Cruise across the crystal-clear waters of Lake Manapouri to West Arm before boarding another vehicle to cross Wilmot Pass, traveling through some of Fiordland's most dense rainforest.

On reaching Deep Cove, board a modern catamaran for a cruise exploring the waterways of this serene and isolated fjord. There will be plenty of time to admire waterfalls, rainforest, and mountains all the way out to the Tasman Sea. Your guide will inform you about the region's history, flora, and fauna, and provide detailed commentary. On the return cruise, the vessel's engines will be turned off for a while so you can enjoy the "sound of silence" before returning to Queenstown.

Day 16: Full-Day Jet Boat Adventure & Funyak River Safari

Ride a jet boat along the Dart River outside Queenstown

Get ready for an outdoor adventure only available in New Zealand, and a great way to end your epic tour of the country. This full-day tour begins with a transfer north into the wilds of Mount Aspiring National Park. Hop in a jet boat for an adrenaline-pumping ride down the glacier-fed Dart River. Feel the excitement as you zip along this shallow waterway at high speeds while your daredevil captain performs exhilarating spins. After the thrills, stop on the riverbanks for a stroll and to appreciate the surroundings. The unspoiled wilderness is incredible, featuring snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and alpine lakes. 

Return to the water and continue at a more leisurely pace in an inflatable canoe or "funyak." Paddle along a beautiful downstream route as your guide tells you about the geology and history of the Dart River's sparkling channels. You'll break again at an ancient beech forest for a delicious picnic lunch. After, venture into the wilderness and hike to hidden streams, rock pools, and granite river gorges like the dramatic Rockburn Chasm.

Continue downstream to the settlement of Paradise. This whole region is so attractive that it has served as a shooting location for many films, including "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," among others. From Paradise, board a bus for a transfer back to Queenstown via scenic backroads.

Day 17: Depart Queenstown

Admire the lake and mountain views as you leave Queenstown

It's time to say goodbye to Queenstown and New Zealand. Drop off your rental car at the airport before catching your departing flight. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


A note on diacritical and retroflex markings: In order to support the best technical experience and search functions, diacritical markings have been omitted from this article.


Map of New Zealand Cities, Mountains & Lakes Road Trip - 17 Days
Map of New Zealand Cities, Mountains & Lakes Road Trip - 17 Days