From the cosmopolitan cities and raw geothermal activity of the North Island to the stunning landscapes and heart-pumping thrills of the South, this 15-day self-drive itinerary squeezes the best experiences out of New Zealand. Fly over Milford Sound, helicopter over an active volcano, and ride the scenic TranzAlpine train with this luxury itinerary packed with adventure.


  • Feel the geothermal power of geysers and mud pools in Rotorua
  • Cruise on and fly over beautiful Milford Sound
  • Experience Maori culture with a feast in the forest
  • Soak in hot tubs in Queenstown and springs at Lake Tekapo
  • Ride the scenic TranzAlpine train from Christchurch

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland Auckland
Day 2 Scenic flight, Wine Tasting & Harbor Dinner Cruise Auckland
Day 3 Drive to Rotorua & White Island Helicopter Flight Rotorua
Day 4 Explore Rotorua & Māori Feast Rotorua
Day 5 Drive to Taupō Taupo
Day 6 Hike Tongariro National Park Tongariro National Park
Day 7 Drive to Wellington, Visit Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Wellington
Day 8 Fly to Queenstown, Explore & Onsen Hot Pool Session Queenstown 
Day 9 Milford Sound Day Trip Queenstown
Day 10 Visit Arrowtown, Drive to Wānaka Wānaka
Day 11 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Soak in Tekapo Springs Lake Tekapo
Day 12 Braemar Station Backcountry Tour & Dark Sky Experience Lake Tekapo
Day 13 Drive to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 14 TranzAlpine Scenic Train Day Trip Christchurch
Day 15 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland


Your self-drive adventure on New Zealand's North Island begins today, so pick up your vehicle at Auckland's airport and head into the city. Auckland's urban paradise, squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, is a playground for city lovers and adventure-seekers. Relax at your hotel while adjusting to the time change, or shake off jet lag by bungee jumping off the Sky Tower. Whether you're an adrenaline junkie or not, the Sky Tower, with its panoramic views, is an excellent place to begin exploring New Zealand's metropolis. 

Known as the "City of Sails," Auckland boasts more than 500,000 sailboats and yachts in various sizes, anchored and moored at various marinas. Take a stroll around Waitemata Harbour, which roughly translates to "sparkling waters" in the Māori language. Keep a close lookout for orcas and bottlenose dolphins that regularly visit the waters close to the city or drop into the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. If you have time, this harbor is also a starting point for sailing, cruising, and whale watching excursions.

Day 2: Scenic Flight, Wine Tasting & Harbor Dinner Cruise

Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island

With its magical beaches and beautiful weather, Waiheke Island is a favorite destination for wine lovers and day trippers. Start the day with a mesmerizing flight over the beautiful islands of the Hauraki Gulf before you land on the tranquil waters of Man O' War Bay. Relax and unwind in paradise as you enjoy a lunch platter and taste Man O' War Vineyard's award-winning wines from 150 acres of planted vines spread across the beachfront property.

Back in Auckland, 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 3: Drive to Rotorua & White Island Helicopter flight

Head up the Skyline Gondola overlooking Rotorua
Geothermal area in Rotorua

Jump in the car and drive south from Auckland, past the Bombay Hills, and into the rolling farmland and dairy pastures of the Waikato. Turn inland to pass through Matamata, the town where you can take a guided tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set, before reaching Rotorua. Once you smell sulfur, you've made it! Peppered with natural hot springs, boiling mud pools, and steaming geysers, Rotorua sits within one of the world's most active volcanic regions. The region is also famous for its towering coastal redwoods, Māori villages, walking tracks, and mountain bike trails.

A helicopter will fly you over Hell's Gate Thermal Valley, along the Pacific Ocean coastline, and above the active volcano of White Island. Land at the crater's rim and take a guided walk, hearing about the volcanic island. The rest of the afternoon is yours to explore. Satisfy your adrenaline-junkie side at Velocity Valley Adventure Park, with its stomach-dropping attractions such as static sky diving or the giant swing. Slow down the pace at Polynesian Spa on the shore of Lake Rotorua, or head up the Rotorua Gondola for soaring lake views and a nighttime luge ride with extra thrills. 

Day 4: Explore Rotorua & Māori Feast

Tamaki Maori Village
Te Pā Tū Māori Village

Today you'll discover New Zealand's geothermal landscapes in Rotorua, an area 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. Afterward, visit the Kiwi Conservation Centre, a refuge for native birds, including New Zealand's national emblem, the flightless Kiwi. Next, learn about carving and weaving with artists at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute before heading home to refresh.

Tonight you are invited as a manuhiri (guest) to Te Pā Tū (Tamaki Māori Village) for a celebration and feast. Enjoy kai horotai (appetizers) as you listen to stories and songs and watch dance 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 underground in a pit) and other local specialties from "Aotearoa," the Māori name for New Zealand.

Day 5: Drive to Taupō

Rotorua to Taupō
A summer afternoon at Lake Taupō

This morning drive through the heart of the Central North Island volcanic plateau, passing through the thermal region's Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and Waimangu Volcanic Valley, before arriving in the town of Taupō. The town sits at the edge of Lake Taupō, New Zealand's largest lake and a volcanic caldera formed by a massive eruption 25,600 years ago. Taupō is the North Island's capital of outdoor activities—here, you can go bungee jumping, jet boating, take helicopter flights, or skydive.

Just north of Taupō lies the Huka Falls. Get close to the spray with a jet boat ride, or see the nearby Craters of the Moon geothermal reserve with its excellent walking tracks around boiling pools and steaming vents. Step back in time at the Waikare Terraces, a geothermal wonderland and traditional Māori village that combines mud pools, geysers, and a sacred healing spa with Māori legends. Or set sail on Lake Taupō—the size of Singapore—and soak in the area's beauty.
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Day 6: Hike Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park
Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park

Spend the day exploring New Zealand's oldest national park (and fourth oldest in the world), the UNESCO-protected Tongariro National Park. Tongariro is home to three sleeping volcanoes—Ruapehu, 9,176 feet (2,797 m), Tongariro 6,490 feet (1,967 m), and Ngauruhoe, 7,503 feet (2,287 m)—and it is the best place to hike on the North Island. New Zealand's most famous one-day hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, takes you between the latter two.

If you don't want to take on the six- to eight-hour hike, there are other less challenging walks, from 15-minute to two-hour treks. Marvel at the impressive Taranaki Falls, birdwatch beside the crystal waters of Lake Rotopounamu, discover the golden Silica Rapids or take a leisurely walk along the ridge from Whakapapa Village for panoramic alpine views. Drop into the local information office to find out about track conditions before you head out.

Day 7: Drive to Wellington, Visit Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary


A scenic 3.5-hour drive will take you from Tongariro National Park to Wellington, the North Island's southern city and capital of New Zealand. 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.

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 8: Fly to Queenstown, Explore & Onsen Hot Pool Session

Welcome to Queenstown!
Welcome to Queenstown!

Drop your car at the airport and board a flight to Queenstown—the South island awaits! Sitting on Lake Wakatipu at the base of New Zealand's Southern Alps, Queenstown is considered the adventure-sports capital of the world and the place to chase hair-raising thrills, from sky diving and extreme bungee jumping to jet-boating and zip lining. Start by riding the Skyline Gondola to gain panoramic views over Queenstown and Coronet Peak and The Remarkables mountain range. From here, you can embark on hiking trails and mountain biking routes or take the downhill luge track.

The day is yours to explore. Take an exhilarating ride on the Shotover River Canyon Jetboat as it navigates 46 miles (75 km) of rapids and narrow twists and turns, or take it slow, exploring the region's vineyards and historic gold-mining towns. Leap from the Kawarau Bridge, one of the world's first bungee jumping spots, or traverse the countryside on the Glenorchy 4WD Safari searching for Tolkien's Middle-earth. Spend a memorable Queenstown evening soaking up starry skies and spectacular scenes while immersed in your private onsen hot pool set high on a cliff.

Day 9: Milford Sound Day Trip

Milford Sound
Milford Sound

Today you'll experience the world-famous Milford Sound from the air and the water. Your journey to Fiordland National Park starts with a private transfer from Queenstown, stopping at scenic locations that buses can't reach. Once at Milford Sound, board a private and immersive boat to enjoy views of 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.

The return journey to Queenstown is even more rewarding. Board a short scenic flight and soar over the glacially carved valleys of Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. Closer to Queenstown, enjoy a bird's-eye view of the rugged Central Otago region with its alpine lakes and snow-capped mountains.

Day 10: Visit Arrowtown, Drive to Wānaka

Arrowtown, a town neighboring Queenstown
Arrowtown, a historic gold-rush town neighboring Queenstown

Travel back in time when you visit Arrowtown, a historic gold-rush town 20 minutes from Queenstown. The Gold Rush of the 1800s enticed miners from Europe and China to the Otago region, who built cottages, shops, hotels, and churches. Here you can walk along the Arrow River, through the town center, and visit the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and the Lakes District Museum to learn more about the area's history.

Continue to Wānaka, the gateway to Mt. Aspiring National Park. Kids (and kids at heart) will love Puzzling World with its multilevel outdoor maze and optical illusion rooms. If you prefer to spend the afternoon in the same dimension, choose to walk the Wānaka Trails. Pop by the Department of Conservation information center to get updates on track conditions and pick a short-and-easy or half-day trail to tackle.

Day 11: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Tekapo Springs Hot Pools

Lake Tepako
Lake Tepako
The 2.5-hour drive from Wānaka follows winding alpine roads to Lake Tekapo, at the base of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park. Spend the afternoon relaxing at the Tekapo Springs Hot Pools. With views of Mount John and Lake Tekapo, you can lose hours relaxing under massage jets and fountains in the thermal pools, which range in temperature from 96°F (36°C) to 104°F (40°C).

Day 12: Braemar Station Backcountry Tour & Dark Sky Experience

Braemar Station Backcountry Tour
Merino sheep during winter in Tekapo's backcountry

Explore New Zealand's remote high country with a scenic 4WD tour around Braemar Station. Get to know beautiful Mackenzie Country and a working sheep, cattle, and deer outpost as you explore off-road tracks while soaking in the rugged landscape with views of Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman, Lake Pukaki, and the Ben Ohau mountain range. From tussock grasslands to lake vistas, this is the heart of Tekapo's backcountry, and you'll get to explore its raw wilderness alone.

In the evening, travel to Mt. John Observatory for the Dark Sky Project Summit Experience. Here you'll learn about the southern sky using telescopes and even your unhindered eyes. Your guide will point out the Milky Way galaxy, Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri, and Sirius—one of the brightest visible stars. Learn about neighboring galaxies, such as the Magellanic Clouds, and constellations, like Orion the Hunter, and Scorpius. See star clusters like the Jewel Box, awe-inspiring planets, nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies.

Day 13: Drive to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner


Wave goodbye to Mackenzie Country, journey through beautiful Burkes Pass, past farmland, through the Canterbury Plains, and arrive in New Zealand's "Garden City" three hours later. Christchurch is the country's second-largest metropolis and is filled with beautiful parks. Explore the city's English heritage at 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 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 14: TranzAlpine Scenic Train Day Trip

TranzAlpine Scenic Train: Daytrip Christchurch to Moana and return
TranzAlpine Scenic Train
Considered one of the world's great train journeys, the TranzAlpine Scenic Train travels 139 miles (223 km) between Christchurch and Greymouth, from one coast of New Zealand to the other, passing through the South Island's divide of mountains. Soak in Southern Alpine scenes, pass the patchwork fields of the Canterbury Plains, and witness the spectacular gorges and river valleys of the Waimakariri River. You can choose to disembark at Moana and spend three hours relaxing in the small lakeside fishing village before making the five-hour return to Christchurch.

Day 15: Depart Christchurch

Heritage Trams in Christchurch
Punt on the Avon River / Ōtākaro in Christchurch
Explore more of Christchurch before dropping your rental car at the airport and continuing your onward journey. Don't forget to refuel!

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Map of New Zealand North & South Island Road Trip - 15 Days
Map of New Zealand North & South Island Road Trip - 15 Days