Brimming with adventure, spectacular nature, and lively cities, this nine-day road trip dives into the best of New Zealand's North and South Islands. Visit cosmopolitan Auckland and sample Waiheke Island's best beaches and wineries, then head to Rotorua for thrill-seeking activities, Maori villages, and natural hot springs. After a breathtaking ferry ride across Marlborough Sounds, your trip ends with whale watching and a scenic drive along the Kaikoura Coast to Christchurch.

Highlights

  • Explore Waiheke Island's most famous beaches and wineries 
  • Take an evening tour of the "Lord of the Rings" set by lamplight 
  • Enjoy an authentic Maori hangi meal 
  • Relax in one of Rotorua's natural mineral hot springs
  • Whale watch on the picturesque Kaikoura Coast

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Welcome to Auckland Auckland
Day 2 Explore Auckland, Waiheke Island Tour  Auckland
Day 3 Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton Rotorua
Day 4 Explore Rotorua, Forest Canopy Tour, Te Pā Tū Māori Cultural Experience Rotorua
Day 5 Drive to Wellington, Zealandia by Night Wildlife Sanctuary Tour Wellington
Day 6 Scenic Ferry to Picton Picton
Day 7 Drive to Christchurch Christchurch
Day 8 Explore Christchurch City Christchurch
Day 9 Depart New Zealand   

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Auckland

Auckland
Sunrise over Auckland's Waitemata Harbour

Kia Ora! Welcome to Auckland, New Zealand's self-proclaimed "City of Sails." On arrival, you will be met by a private driver and transferred to your accommodation. Surrounded by native bush, rainforests, and an abundance of beaches, Auckland is a playground for both the city-savvy and those with an eye for adventure. Explore the central museums and galleries on foot, or take a drive through one of over 800 regional national parks to see deserted beaches, waterfalls, and native forests.

Day 2: Explore Auckland, Waiheke Island Tour 

Waiheke Island
Take a day trip to nearby Waiheke Island

Today is yours to explore the city at your own pace. Stroll through the buzzy Viaduct Harbour, or walk to the top of Auckland's highest volcano, Mount Eden, and take in soaring views of the gulf. Pack a picnic lunch and head to a nearby national park, or grab a book and relax on a deserted beach. Dine at the famous Sky Tower in the 360-degree revolving restaurant, or make like a local and hit Ponsonby Road for a taste of Auckland's coolest restaurants, bars, and boutiques.

Afterward, take the ferry to nearby Waiheke Island for a gourmet food and wine experience. The Waiheke Island Explorer Hop-On, Hop-Off tour offers a flexible tour of the island's best areas. The 15 iconic stops on the route include famous beaches, wineries, breweries, and more. If you prefer, there's also the option to stay on board and enjoy a 1.5-hour scenic tour of the island instead. 

Day 3: Drive to Rotorua via Hobbiton

Step into Middle-earth with a tour of Hobbiton

Pick up your rental car today and hit the road south toward Rotorua. Along the way, don't miss a detour toward Matamata, a.k.a. the real Middle-earth. Opt for an escorted tour of famous locations of the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," as well as the set of Hobbiton. True fans can sample traditional Hobbit fare with the evening banquet experience, which includes a hearty dinner and tour of the Shire by lamplight.

Stop at Tirau as you continue south to explore its many art and antique stores. Arriving in Rotorua—home to several prominent Māori tribes—a visit to one of the Māori villages should be high on your agenda. The cultural center for the Māori people is a must for rich insight into their history, while an evening at Mitai Māori Village is a popular introduction to Mãori culture. Enjoy performances and demonstrations, followed by a traditionally cooked hāngī meal. 

Day 4: Explore Rotorua, Forest Canopy Tour, Te Pā Tū Māori Cultural Experience

Rotorua
See the geothermal wonders of Rotorua Hot Springs

Peppered with natural hot springs, boiling mud pools, and steaming geysers, Rotorua sits in one of the world's most active volcanic regions. An excursion to the Polynesian Spa for an invigorating soak in its natural mineral hot springs is a must, as is a visit to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, the area's most colorful volcanic attraction. There are also plenty of opportunities for adventure and relaxation here, including fishing, 4WD tours, spa treatments, mountain biking, walking, and hiking.

In the afternoon, embark on a three-hour adventure through the beautiful forest canopy via an incredible network of trails, tree platforms, zip lines, and swing bridges. In the evening, experience New Zealand's most awarded cultural attraction, Te Pā Tū, which invites guests to a knowledge-sharing event centered around a three-course feast. Experience Māori history and traditions through performance, stories, and food—like wagyu steak and kumara ice cream.

Day 5: Drive to Wellington, Zealandia by Night Wildlife Sanctuary Tour

Wellington Cable Car
Explore Wellington by cable car

Today, take the scenic route to Wellington via New Zealand's largest lake, Lake Taupo. The nearby Huka Falls are worth a short detour—take the walking track or experience the thrilling Hula Jet boat ride—as are the Rangipo Desert and Tongariro National Park. Descending from the mountain region, you'll pass through rich farmland and charming rural towns before reaching Kapiti Coast, with its beautiful seaside towns of Paraparaumu, Paekākāriki, and Plimmerton.

After arriving in Wellington, it's time to explore the city on foot. Easily stroll to the cafés and restaurants around Courtenay Place or the national museum, Te Papa. For an unforgettable experience, take a night tour of Zealandia Wildlife Eco-Sanctuary. A safe haven for the country's rarest native animals, Zealandia is home to many remarkable species, including the famous kiwi bird. Your tour includes a torch-lit walk through the bush and the expert wisdom of the guide. 

Day 6: Scenic Ferry to Picton

Take the Interislander Ferry to the South Island

The short journey between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island takes around three hours and has been described as "one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world." Leaving Wellington Harbour, you'll pass many interesting sights like Pencarrow Head, where New Zealand's oldest lighthouse sits, and Red Rocks, home to a seal colony.

From the Cook Strait, enjoy spectacular views of the Kaikoura Ranges on the South Island, where dolphins and sea birds are often spied. Part of the cruise takes you through the Marlborough Sounds, an awe-inspiring region of bush-covered mountains, small islands, crystal-clear waters, and secluded bays. At the end of Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui, the ferry ride comes to an end in the picturesque town of Picton.

Day 7: Drive to Christchurch

Make your way along the Kaikoura Coast

From Picton, cross the rolling hills of the Marlborough Ranges as you head toward one of the most spectacular coastlines of the South Island, the Kaikoura Coast. To the east are the turquoise waters of the South Pacific, and to the west, the towering Kaikoura Ranges. Kaikoura town is a bustling place with many cafés, restaurants, and shops, yet the main reason for visiting here is the wildlife.

Stop for a whale watching expedition with Whale Watch Kaikoura, a marine-based company offering an exciting up-close encounter with giant sperm whales all year round. Based on the time of year, you may also see migrating humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales, and southern right whales. The drive to Christchurch continues along the coast before heading inland and through North Canterbury's major wine region, the Waipara Valley, and arriving in Christchurch City.

Day 8: Explore Christchurch City

Christchurch city center
A sunny day on Christchurch's New Regent Street

Referred to as New Zealand's "Garden City," Christchurch is a vibrant metropolitan area. Encompassing a large green belt, it's known for its wide, tree-lined avenues and lush gardens. Take the double-decker hop-on, hop-off bus as an easy way to see the sights today, or ride a historic tram across town to the beautiful, free-to-enter Christchurch Botanic Gardens and the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral.

Cool off with a visit to the International Antarctic Centre, where you can hang out with little blue penguins and take a virtual trip into an Antarctic storm, or opt for a harbor cruise to beautiful Akaroa and spot dolphins and seals on your way to New Zealand's first French settlement.

After a day of exploring, it's time to sample Christchurch's thriving food scene. Head to the hip suburb of Merivale for some of the city's best cafés, restaurants, and bars, or hop on the Christchurch Restaurant Tram to enjoy an unforgettable four-course meal on the go.

Day 9: Depart New Zealand 

Sunset over Christchurch

After a leisurely morning in the city, it's time to say goodbye to New Zealand as you drop your car at the airport and catch your departing flight. 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 nine days in New Zealand, or discover the best time to visit New Zealand.

Map

Map of New Zealand Ultimate North to South Island Road Trip - 9 Days
Map of New Zealand Ultimate North to South Island Road Trip - 9 Days