Travel New Zealand from top to tail on this 15-day self-drive adventure. Start in the North Island, where you'll explore Maori culture and geothermal landscapes and tour the Hobbiton film set from "The Lord of the Rings." Next, take the Interislander ferry to the South Island for whale watching and glacier tours, followed by a trip to the country's adventure capital, Queenstown. The journey ends with a cruise of the famous, UNESCO-listed Milford Sound.


  • Explore Waiheke Island's wineries and beaches
  • Visit the Hobbiton film set from The Lord of the Rings
  • Cruise the famous Milford Sound
  • Discover geothermal landscapes and Maori culture in Rotorua 
  • Take a whale watching tour in Kaikoura

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland Auckland
Day 2 Waiheke Island Explorer Auckland
Day 3 Hobbiton Tour & Drive to Rotorua  Rotorua
Day 4 Te Puia & Māori Arts Tour & Cultural Experience  Rotorua
Day 5 Free Day in Wellington Wellington
Day 6 Wellington & Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Night Tour Wellington
Day 7 Interislander Ferry to Picton Picton
Day 8 Free Day in Kaikōura Kaikōura
Day 9 Kaikōura Whale Watching Tour  Christchurch
Day 10 Explore Christchurch Christchurch
Day 11 Free Day in Mount Cook Village Mount Cook Village
Day 12 Skyline Queenstown Gondola & Luge Queenstown
Day 13 Free Day in Queenstown & TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner Queenstown
Day 14 Milford Sound Tour  Queenstown 
Day 15 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Take in views of Auckland from Mount Eden

Welcome to New Zealand! Your driver will be waiting at Auckland Airport to transfer you to your hotel. Take some time to relax before heading out to explore New Zealand's largest city, which sits on a narrow strip of land surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With two bustling harbors, it's not hard to see why Auckland is nicknamed the "City of Sails." 

For supreme views of Auckland, scale the 1,075-foot-tall (328 m) Sky Tower with its dizzying observation deck, or make your way to the top of Mount Eden, one of the city's 48 volcanic cones. Stroll around the flower-filled Wintergardens and learn about the city's Polynesian and European roots at the Auckland Museum. For dinner, delve into Auckland's world-class dining scene.

Day 2: Waiheke Island Explorer

Waiheke Island
Explore Waiheke Island

This morning, take a ferry ride over to Waiheke Island. Set on the Hauraki Gulf, the island is a lush haven of walking trails, wineries, and white-sand beaches. Take the ExplorerHop-on-Hop-off bus, which stops at 15 of Waiheke's most famous landmarks, running a 90-minute route around the island. The bus departs from each stop approximately every hour throughout the day. 

Waiheke is known for its top-notch wineries, and there are over 30 on the island; visit favorites like Cable Bay and Mudbrick Vineyard for tours and tastings. Browse art galleries and craft boutiques, then spend some time on one of the island's beaches; Onetangi and Palm Beach are two of the best. Beforeturningack to the mainland, try some delicious Pacific Rim cuisine at one of Waiheke's renowned eateries.

Day 3: Hobbiton Tour & Drive to Rotorua 

Tour the famous Hobbiton movie set 

This morning, pick up your rental car to begin your New Zealand self-drive adventure, heading south to the Hobbiton movie set. The Lord of the Rings fans will love touring the set, which lies on the 12-acre Alexander family sheep farm in the hilly Waikato region. Start with a short bus ride from The Shire's Rest to the filming location, followed by a walking tour. Your guide will show you all the intricate sets and tell stories about filming the movies.  

Soak up the atmosphere of Middle-earth on this two-hour tour, visiting the Shire's iconic Hobbit holes and the Mill, with plenty of photo opportunities along the way. You'll stop at the Green Dragon Inn for a complimentary Southfarthing ale, cider, or ginger beer before taking the bus back to The Shire's Rest, where the tour ends. Continue your drive to nearby Rotorua.  

Day 4: Te Puia & Māori Arts Tour & Cultural Experience 

Visit Mitai Māori Village

Discover New Zealand's geothermal landscapes today in Rotorua. The area is famed for its otherworldly green and orange sulfur pools, bubbling mud baths, and spurting geysers. You'll see all of this at the Te Puia Springs, home to Pohutu Geyser, which erupts up to 20 times a day, shooting a plume of scalding water up to 100 feet (30 m) into the sky. There's also a chance to take an optional three-hour canopy tour in Rotorua's native forest.

Next, you'll visit the Kiwi Conservation Centre, a refuge for native birds, including New Zealand's national emblem, the flightless kiwi. Move on to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you'll learn about carving and weaving techniques from the artists themselves. Rotorua is a revered Māori region and the ideal place to explore this ancient culture.

This evening you'll enjoy an authentic cultural experience at the Mitai Māori Village. Through a dance display, you'll learn how Tamatekapua of the Te Arawa people migrated to the area. Watch warriors in traditional dress paddle a waka (canoe) down the Wai-o-Whiro stream and visit the Fairy Spring, where you might spot glowworms. The tour includes a Polynesian hāngī meal, with meat and taro slow-cooked in an earth oven set in the ground on hot stones. 

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Day 5: Free Day in Wellington

Explore New Zealand's capital, Wellington

Drive five-and-a-half hours south today to New Zealand's capital, Wellington. Nicknamed "Windy Wellington" for the fierce gusts that come off the Cook Strait, the city sits at the southern tip of the North Island. Settle into your hotel and then head out to wander Wellington's compact city center with its museums, galleries, craft-beer joints, and striking Beehive parliament building. Down at the teeming waterfront, you'll get views of the hillsides with their brightly-colored wooden houses.

Day 6: Wellington & Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Night Tour

Spot the iconic kiwi at Zealandia

Explore Wellington independently today before your evening trip to Zealandia. Located just outside of Wellington, the 555-acre (225 ha) reserve has been restored to its natural state with no mammalian predators, so it's a haven for some of the country's rarest animals. These include native birds, reptiles, and insects rereleased into the park.

Your tour begins with an interactive exhibition, followed by a guided, torch-lit walk through the New Zealand bush. You may spot tuatara hunting for food, Maud Island frogs, parrots, and glowworms lighting up the night. Zealandia is one of the best places to see kiwis in a wild environment; over 100 live here freely inside the protected valley. Look out for these flightless birds foraging on the forest floor.

While you're in Wellington, make an extra visit to the Wētā Cave. This award-winning creative design and effects company displays film props and memorabilia featured in films like The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Avatar. Take a guided tour through Wētā Workshop and browse the mini-museum's film artifacts. You'll watch behind-the-scenes interviews from Wētā co-founders Sir Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger, and Jamie Selkirk. 

Day 7: Interislander Ferry to Picton

Take the Interislander ferry to the South Island

Say goodbye to the North Island this morning and make the three-hour ferry journey to Picton, described as one of the world's most beautiful ferry rides. Along the way, you'll see New Zealand's oldest lighthouse on Pencarrow Head and the seal colony at Red Rocks. Look out for dolphins and sea birds when you pass the Cook Strait, with the South Island's Kaikōura Ranges looming in the distance.

Enjoy an optional Seafood Odyssea Cruise upon arrival in Picton. You'll sail out into the paper-flat waters of Queen Charlotte Sound, exploring its isolated bays and tiny coves. Spot birds and marine life as you cruise while a guide teaches you about the area and the local seafood. Enjoy a seafood tasting on board, paired with Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Day 8: Free Day in Kaikōura

Soak up ocean views in Kaikōura

This morning, drive down the east coast to Kaikōura. The small town is known for its incredible marine life, which thrives thanks to a 2-mile (3 km) ocean-floor canyon named the Haikorangi Trench. Currents hitting the canyon stir up nutrients that animals such as sperm whales and dolphins feed on. Wander along the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway for ocean and fur seal views and try the crayfish—the town was named by a Māori explorer after its excellent crayfish (kai means food, koura means crayfish). 

Day 9: Kaikōura Whale Watching Tour

Spot whales on a boat trip in Kaikōura

Today you'll sail the South Pacific Ocean with Whale Watch Kaikōura on a catamaran designed for whale watching. During the tour, you'll look for giant sperm whales, but you're also likely to see fur seals and dolphins leaping through the waves while albatross swoop overhead. Seasonal sightings may include southern right, pilot, or blue whales and, if you're lucky, migrating humpbacks. After your whale watching trip, continue driving south to Christchurch.

Day 10: Explore Christchurch

Ride a historic tram in Christchurch

Spend today exploring Christchurch, the country's second-largest metropolis, known as the "Garden City" for its green spaces. Christchurch's English heritage is evident along the Avon River / Ōtākaro, where guides dressed in Edwardian costume will take you on punting trips past landmarks like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens. Ride one of Christchurch's heritage-era trams, which date back to 1882, and stop at 17 key places, such as Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum.

Stop at the International Antarctic Centre to learn about life in this remote region. The center has a range of interactive experiences; see if you can survive an Atlantic storm, get up close to huskies and blue penguins, and enjoy a 4D cinema. End the day with a ride on a colonial-style dining tram around Christchurch's city center. You'll feast on a multicourse dinner while driving a city loop, passing famous sights such as New Regent Street and Victoria Square.

Day 11: Free Day in Mount Cook Village

Sail the icy waters of Tasman Glacier Lake

Drive four hours west this morning to Mount Cook Village, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain. New Zealand's highest peak measures 12,315 feet (3,754 m) and is known by the Māori title Aoraki, which means "Cloud Piercer." The mountain is one of over 20 peaks in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The village will be your base for exploring the park's glacial wonders through trekking, lake trips, or heli-hikes.

To see Aoraki / Mount Cook's 500-year-old icebergs up close, take a cruise around Tasman Glacier Lake. As you weave around floating icebergs in a specially-designed boat, you'll see the country's largest glacier, Haupapa / Tasman Glacier. A guide will point out key landmarks as you glide across the water, surrounded by towering ice cliffs.

End the day with a stargazing tour. Mount Cook has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve for its clear, star-studded skies. On this tour, a guide will take you 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.

Day 12: Skyline Queenstown Gondola & Luge 

Ride the gondola to Bob's Peak for views over Queenstown

Travel three hours south today to New Zealand's adventure capital, Queenstown. The town is the birthplace of AJ Hackett Bungy, the world's first commercial bungy-jumping company. Other adrenaline-pumping activities in Queenstown include sky diving, jet boating, and white-water rafting, but if you prefer something tamer, there are plenty of hiking and cycling paths. Set on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown boasts a backdrop of The Remarkables.

Take a scenic ride on the Skyline Gondola, one of the steepest cable car lifts in the Southern Hemisphere. You'll climb over 1,400 feet (450 m) to Bob's Peak for panoramic views of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, and sparkling Lake Wakatipu. After admiring the views, ride the peak's two hilltop luge tracks. The gondola will take you back down the mountain, or you can opt to hike or even mountain bike. 

Day 13: Free Day in Queenstown & TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner

Cycle lakeside paths in Queenstown

Today is yours to explore Queenstown at your own pace. Cruise Lake Wakatipu or head out for a dose of adrenaline on a jet boat ride or bungee jump. If you want to venture farther afield, check out nearby Arrowtown or brave the steep, winding trip to Macetown to learn more about New Zealand's 19th-century gold rush. The nearby resort town of Wānaka makes for a popular day trip, or you can relive scenes from The Lord of The Rings by 4WD. 

If you love wine, take a tasting tour of the region's best boutique vineyards. The excursion crosses through Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Cromwell—three subregions known for their cool-climate wines, which are generally more acidic and lighter than other varieties. Pick your favorite wine to pair with lunch at a fourth vineyard, and take a walk through historic Old Cromwell to end your journey among some of the most picturesque vineyards in New Zealand.

This evening, step aboard the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a ride on Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm, where you'll have a barbecue dinner of New Zealand's signature dishes. Sit down to dinner featuring rotisserie-cooked meats, seasonal vegetables, and salads. Finish with dessert, New Zealand cheeses, and demonstrations about high country life on the farm. After the meal, join a singalong with the ship's pianist and watch the lights of Queenstown come into focus.

Day 14: Milford Sound Tour

Cruise the famous Milford Sound

Board a coach for the 12-hour return trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, this 10-mile-long (16 km) sound lies in UNESCO-listed Fiordland National Park. The bus stops at the harbor, where you'll get on a boat to sail across the sound, surrounded by rainforest-covered mountains. You'll pass crashing waterfalls and spot seals, Fiordland crested penguins, and dolphins. A picnic lunch is included in the tour.

Day 15: Depart Queenstown

Say goodbye to Queenstown

Today your New Zealand adventure comes to a close. Drop your rental car off at Queenstown Airport in time for your homeward flight. Safe travels!

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Map of New Zealand North & South Island Road Trip Highlights: Auckland to Queenstown - 15 Days
Map of New Zealand North & South Island Road Trip Highlights: Auckland to Queenstown - 15 Days