One of the best ways to experience New Zealand's diverse geography and wildlife is to get on the road and see it for yourself. This 11-day itinerary forges a path from the rolling hills, limestone caves, and Hobbit holes of the North Island to the whale-friendly coasts, fjords, and gorges of the South Island. Along the way you'll visit with native birds, fly over a glacier in a helicopter, and unwind at a geothermal spa.


  • Walk among the branches of 120-year-old trees at Redwoods Nightlights
  • Be a Hobbit for a day on a tour of the 12-acre Hobbiton set
  • Spot giant sperm whales on a whale watch in Kaikoura
  • See Mount Cook National Park from the air on a helicopter ride

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Explore Auckland
Day 2 Drive to Rotorua via Waitomo, Visit Redwoods Nightlights Rotorua
Day 3 Day Trip to Matamata, Hobbiton Tour, Visit Te Puia & the Polynesian Spa Rotorua
Day 4 Drive to Wellington, Night Wildlife Tour at Zealandia Wellington
Day 5 Ferry to Picton, Drive to Kaikoura Kaikoura
Day 6 Whale Watching Excursion, Drive to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 7 Drive to Mount Cook Village, Helicopter Over Mount Cook Mount Cook 
Day 8 Drive to Queenstown, Gondola & Luge Ride at Skyline Queenstown Queenstown 
Day 9 Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Boat & Plane Tour Queenstown 
Day 10 Explore Queenstown & Mount Aspiring Jet Boat Tour Queenstown 
Day 11 Depart New Zealand  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland & Explore

view of Auckland across the harbor with a sailboat in the foreground
The Auckland waterfront

Welcome to New Zealand! Upon arrival at Auckland Airport, you will be met by your driver who will take you to your hotel. Take some time to relax and unwind before exploring the city.

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, Auckland's urban paradise is a playground for both city lovers and adventure-seekers. You may just want to kick back and relax back at the hotel while adjusting to the time change. Or, shake off your jet lag by heading to the Sky Tower and opt for a bungee jump! If acquiring sea legs is more your thing, a sunny stroll around Waitemata Harbour will do the trick. Whatever you decide to do, it's time to kick off your New Zealand adventure!

Day 2: Drive to Rotorua via Waitomo, Visit Redwoods Nightlights

Two people walk along a cave in Waitomo holding flashlights, while glowworms cover the cave ceiling
A glowworm cave in Waitomo

Today, pick up your rental car and kick off your self-drive tour of New Zealand by heading south toward Waitomo. The limestone beneath Waitomo has formed an intricate system of caves, and you can't visit this area without heading underground. Enter the 30-million-year-old Waitomo Cave network and learn about the history and geology behind the stalactites, stalagmites, and other natural features of the caves. Then, take to the water on a boat ride through the glow worm grotto, where the insect shine like tiny stars. 

Once you're back above ground, cross the lush farmland of the Waikato region as you make your way inland to Rotorua. Pass through several small farming towns, such as Otorohanga and Putaruru, before the increase in geothermal activity (and the unmistakable smell of sulfur) signals your arrival in the city.

Feel a little magic tonight by visiting Redwoods Nightlights, an eco-tourism walk in the middle of Rotorua's redwood forest. Planted in the early 1900s, some of the California redwoods in this area are up to 120 years old. Admire the height of the trees and the glow from 30 lanterns created by New Zealand-based designer David Trubridge dispersed throughout a system of 28 suspension bridges hanging 29.5-65.6 feet (9-20 m) above the forest floor.

Day 3: Day Trip to Matamata, Hobbiton Tour, Visit Te Puia & the Polynesian Spa


Head out from the geysers of Rotorua and drive past the rolling hills of the Waikato region on your way to Matamata. This small town, nestled in the emerald hills made famous by "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," hosts the fully intact Hobbiton set. A guide will show you around the 12-acre (4.8 ha) set, including the Hobbit Holes, the Mill, and the Green Dragon Inn, where you can try a drink from the Southfarthing range of beer, cider, and gingerbeer surrounded by the sights and sounds of Middle-earth.

Later on, return to Rotorua and stop at Te Puia. Here you can observe mud pools and geysers—the indisputable star of the show is Pōhutu Geyser, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. Beyond these geothermal features, Te Puia is also home to the Kiwi Conservation Centre, a refuge for native birds, and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, an educational institution dedicated to passing on traditional Māori carving and weaving techniques. 
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Then, experience Rotorua's geothermal features in a new way as you relax at the Polynesian Spa on the shore of Lake Rotorua. The spa's main attraction is four alkaline rock pools, each with different temperatures ranging from 96.8˚F to 107.6˚F (36˚C to 42˚C). While soaking in the warm water, you'll be able to take in views of the lake, native plants and wildlife, and a nearby grotto. 

Day 4: Drive to Wellington, Night Wildlife Tour at Zealandia

Wellington Cable Car
Wellington Cable Car

The drive from Rotorua to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is long but rewarding. One of the many beautiful landscapes you'll pass by is Lake Taupo, a lake formed by a huge volcanic eruption. The volcanic geography continues as you drive around Tongariro National Park, home to the active volcanoes Mount Ruapehu and Mount Tongariro. Descend the mountains and drive along the Kapiti Coast until you reach your final destination.

Tonight, head 10 minutes outside of Wellington center to visit the 500-acre (225 ha) wildlife eco-sanctuary Zealandia, home to native New Zealand wildlife. Surrounded by a predator-exclusion fence, the sanctuary protects animals like kiwi, tuatara, and tiny Madu Island frogs. The best time to visit on a guided tour is at night. Led by a guide and a flashlight, you can come face-to-face with one—or more!—of the over 100 nocturnal bird species that live in Zealandia.

Day 5: Ferry to Picton, Drive to Kaikoura

Aerial view of Picton in Queen Charlotte Sound
An aerial view of Picton
The three-hour, 57-mile (92 km) journey between Wellington and Picton on New Zealand's South Island has been described as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world. Along the way, admire Pencarrow Head, where New Zealand's oldest lighthouse sits. Continuing on, you might spot dolphins and sea birds as you pass the Cook Strait and the Kaikoura Ranges on the South Island. Enjoy the clear waters and small islands in the Marlborough Sounds before heading into Queen Charlotte Sound and arriving at Picton.

From here, it's time to hop back in the car, this time headed south to Kaikoura, a coastal town known for its plentiful sperm whales. Drive through Marlborough, the famous wine-producing region, and consider a pit stop at a vineyard. Then, drive 31 miles (49.8 km) along the Kaikoura Coast with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Kaikoura ranges on the other until you reach the town. Keep an eye out for native wildlife like seabirds and New Zealand fur seals as you go, but you'll see even more animals tomorrow.

Day 6: Whale Watching Excursion, Drive to Christchurch

A sperm whale tail breeching in the water with the Kaikoura ranges in the background
A sperm whale waving its tail with the Kaikoura ranges in the background

Today, head out into the Pacific with New Zealand's only marine-based whale watching company. While your main target is the giant sperm whale, you might also spot fur seals, dusky dolphins, and albatross. If the season is right, you could see pilot, blue, and southern right whales, or migrating humpbacks. Orcas and Hector's dolphins, the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world, sometimes swim by as well.

After your excursion, you'll head toward one of the area's most well-known wine regions, North Canterbury, and the Waipara Valley within. The route takes you through New Zealand sheep territory, and, if you have time, stop by Hanmer Springs to check out the thermal pools. At the end of the drive, arrive in Christchurch, the largest city on the island.

Day 7: Drive to Mount Cook Village, Helicopter Over Mount Cook

Mount Cook Road looking towards Aoraki Mount Cook in the Southern Alps at sunset
The road to Aoraki Mount Cook
Your route to Mount Cook Village takes you through the heart of the South Island. Head through the pastoral Canterbury Plains, stopping by the towns Geraldine and Fairlie on your way to Burkes Pass and the lakeside town of Tekapo. As you continue on, Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain, will come into view, standing over the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki. Skirt along the lake to reach Mount Cook Village—remember there aren't any grocery stores in the village, so plan accordingly.

Later in the day, see New Zealand's tallest mountain from a whole new angle on a 55-minute helicopter flight over Aoraki Mount Cook. From the air, you'll see glaciers, icebergs, rivers, and forests surrounding the mountain. Keep an eye out for Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake, a gorgeous lake created by the retreating Tasman Glacier. Before the end of the tour, the helicopter will land on the glacier itself for a truly memorable experience.

Day 8: Drive to Queenstown, Gondola & Luge Ride at Skyline Queenstown

A landscape view of a road through the Lindis Pass with golden brown, snow-dusted hills in the distance
The road through Lindis Pass

It's time to head south toward Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Pass through lakeside Twizel and Ōmarama, a popular spot to go gliding, and then ascend the Lindis Pass into the Otago Region. The route will take you past the Gibbson Valley wine-growing region and Kawarau Gorge. When you reach the Kawarau Suspension Bridge, consider going bungee jumping, or simply watch other people take the leap. The Remarkables mountain range heralds your approach to Queenstown.

Now that you're here, hop aboard the Skyline Gondola, the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere, to climb over 1,400 feet (450 m) above Queenstown and reach panoramic views of Coronet Peak, the Remarkables, and Lake Wakatipu and Cecil and Walter Peaks beyond. While you're up there, visit the Skyline Complex and take an exhilarating ride down the 5,250 ft (1,600 m) luge track past banked corners and tunnels. 

Day 9: Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Boat & Plane Tour

A boat crosses by the Stirling Falls in Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
A boat crosses by the Stirling Falls in Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Today, take a tour of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, a fjord in Fiordland National Park, located in the southwest corner of the South Island. Take a boat tour across the fjord and enjoy views of rainforests, the 495-foot (151 m) Stirling Falls, and the steep Mitre Peak. If you're lucky, you'll spot some of the area's wildlife, including seals, dolphins, and penguins. At the end of the day, fly 45 minutes back to Queenstown in a fixed-wing aircraft and get a birds-eye view of the fjord and the surrounding peaks. 

Day 10: Explore Queenstown & Mount Aspiring Jet Boat Tour

Aerial view of Queenstown at sunset with a paraglider in the sky
A paraglider flies over Queenstown

Although celebrated as New Zealand's "adventure capital," Queenstown offers activities to match any pace. Relax on the Gibbston Valley wine trail and end with a meal at Michelin-Star chef Josh Emett's restaurant, Rata. Or, for an adrenaline boost, head out on the Shotover Jet Boat, dive off the Nevis Bungy, or free fall on the canyon swing. 

Later in the day, journey into Mount Aspiring National Park in the Otago region and take in the breathtaking scenery along its glacier-fed rivers on a jet boat. Guides will share the history of the area, including Māori legends. During the trip, they'll tie up the boat so you can walk in the beech tree forests featured in the "Lord of the Rings" films.

Day 11: Depart New Zealand

An aerial view of Queenstown, New Zealand
An aerial view of Queenstown

Enjoy your last morning in New Zealand before getting picked up for your transfer to the airport. Safe travels home or to your next destination!

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 11 days in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.


Map of New Zealand Scenic Self-Drive Tour: Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington, Canterbury & Otago - 11 Days
Map of New Zealand Scenic Self-Drive Tour: Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington, Canterbury & Otago - 11 Days