Cover New Zealand's North and South Islands' highlights, starting in Auckland before discovering the geothermal activity of Rotorua. Next, you'll reach Napier and wine taste at Hawke Bay, followed by a Wellington city tour and meeting native kiwis. Cross the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island, see whales in Kaikōura, and hike Aoraki / Mount Cook. Then, cruise Milford Sound / Piopiotahi before ending your trip with a scenic ride aboard the TranzAlpine train to Christchurch.


  • Admire the pinprick of glowworm lights on a tour of the Waitomo Caves
  • Discover Hawke's Bay wines before learning about Wellington's history
  • Go whale watching in Kaikōura and cruise to the Haupapa / Tasman Glacier
  • Witness sea mammals, waterfalls, and mountains in Milford Sound / Piopiotahi
  • Hike along Routeburn Trail and take a helicopter ride over Franz Josef Glacier

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Explore Auckland
Day 2 Transfer to Rotorua via Waitomo, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance Rotorua
Day 3 Explore Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Boat Cruise & Polynesian Spa Day Rotorua
Day 4 Drive to Napier & Explore, Wine Tasting & Evening Walking Tour Napier
Day 5 Drive to Wellington, City Highlights & Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Tour Wellington
Day 6 Wētā Workshop, Drive to Blenheim via Picton Ferry & Wine Tasting Blenheim
Day 7 Drive to Christchurch via Kaikōura Whale Watching Tour Christchurch
Day 8 Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Cruise Tasman Lake & Stargaze Mount Cook 
Day 9 Drive to Te Anau, Visit Te Anau Glowworm Caves Te Anau
Day 10 Day Trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, Take a Nature Cruise Te Anau
Day 11 Drive to Queenstown, Jet Safari & Skyline Gondola  Queenstown
Day 12 Full-Day Routeburn Trail Hike Queenstown
Day 13 Drive to Franz Josef Glacier, Explore & Optional Heli-Hike Franz Josef / Waiau 
Day 14 Return to Christchurch via TranzAlpine Train, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 15 Depart Christchurch  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Explore

Auckland's beautiful setting between the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean
Auckland's beautiful setting between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean

Welcome to Auckland! Upon arrival at the airport, a driver will be waiting to take you to your hotel in the city. Auckland's urban paradise between the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea is a playground for city lovers and adventure-seekers. Known as the "City of Sails," Auckland boasts more than 500,000 sailboats and yachts in various sizes, anchored and moored at marinas within the city. Relax at your hotel while adjusting to the time change, or shake off the jet lag by heading to the Sky Tower. Its panoramic views make it an excellent place to explore New Zealand's metropolis.

To appreciate more of the North Island city's scenery, stroll around Waitemata Harbour. Roughly translated to "sparkling waters" in the Māori language, the harbor is a starting point for sailing, cruising, and whale watching excursions. It also connects the main port of the city and Auckland Waterfront to the Pacific Ocean. Here, keep a close lookout for the orcas and bottlenose dolphins that regularly visit the waters close to the town, or visit the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park for up-close viewings of whales, dolphins, and sea birds.

Day 2: Transfer to Rotorua via Waitomo, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance

A glowworm cave in Waitomo
Witness the glowworm cave in Waitomo

A driver will be waiting to take you south into rolling farmland to reach the limestone hills of Waitomo's countryside, home to the glowworm caves. Optional activities are a boat trip under a canopy of glowworms, taking the longest underground walking tour in Ruakuri Cave, or, for a thrilling adventure, trying black-water rafting or an underground caving trip. When you arrive, board a scenic shuttle to the Footwhistle Glowworm Cave while your guide tells Waitomo's history. Explore the cave to see glowworms and interesting cave formations.

Before leaving, you'll check out a highlight of the cave's formations, like Footwhistle's Cathedral, and then return to the car and head to Rotorua, noting the geothermal activity en route. Rotorua is known for gurgling mud pools, geysers, and hot springs and showcasing Māori culture. Once checked in at your hotel, explore this geothermal area during your free afternoon. The town also has several prominent Māori tribes, and traditional villages welcome visitors.

Tonight, you're invited as a manuhiri (guest) at Te Pā Tū (Tamaki Māori Village) for a dinner and celebration of dancing, music, and storytelling. An opening ceremony kicks off the festivities while you're served kai horotai (appetizers). Listen to stories and songs and watch dance performances in the forest amphitheater, then follow your Māori guide to your three-course hākari (feast) of hāngī, a traditional Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven, called an umu, and used on special occasions.

Day 3: Explore Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Boat Cruise & Polynesian Spa Day

Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Venture through Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Enjoy a self-guided morning today as you embark on an eco-focused nature walk or hike through the Waimangu Volcanic Valley thermal park, followed by a relaxing boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana, exploring its geothermal system. This combined walk and boat cruise is a beautiful journey through the world's youngest geothermal area—formed in 1886—and is excellent for all ages, with plenty of walking path options for all skill levels. Sit back and enjoy your boat cruise while your skipper highlights points of interest and the history of this iconic geothermal attraction. After the cruise, you'll be transported back to the beginning of the walk by bus.

Later today, you'll have the chance to experience Rotorua's geothermal features uniquely as you relax at the Polynesian Spa on the shore of Lake Rotorua. The spa's main attraction is its four alkaline rock pools, each with temperatures ranging from 96.8°F to 107.6°F (36°C to 42°C). While soaking in the warm waters, you can view the lake, native plants, wildlife, and a nearby grotto.

Day 4: Drive to Napier & Explore, Wine Tasting & Evening Walking Tour

Stunning scenery on today's drive
Soak up the stunning scenery at Huka Falls en route to Napier

Pick up your rental car this morning to begin the road trip portion of the itinerary, heading south to Napier on Hawke Bay. Stop at Wai-O-Tapu for pics of its picturesque pools and an impressive geyser that erupts daily. Continue to Taupō and marvel at the lake, a giant crater formed by a volcanic eruption in 180 CE. Along the way, stop at Huka Falls for the spectacular sight of massive water pouring down a narrow 36-foot (11 m) drop. For an extra thrill, ride a jet boat to the base of the falls if there's time, then leave Taupō and follow the road as it climbs the rugged Ahimanawa Range before descending to the Pacific coast into Napier.

Once you arrive, take some time to explore your surroundings. One option is to see prominent Art Deco landmarks in Napier on a 1930s vintage car tour. Learn about the history of Napier's architecture, including the Napier Municipal Theatre, one of the finest Art Deco buildings in the world. If you're after some fresh air, rent a bike and explore one of the many cycling trails. Or spend a few hours at the beach. Ocean Beach or Waimarama Beach are good choices, and lifeguards patrol both during the summer.

Later, discover local wine by taking a guided tour of a few wineries and tasting award-winning wines. Rich soils and a Mediterranean climate produce ideal grape-growing conditions. Hone in on Mission Estate Winery, touted as the birthplace of New Zealand wine. Afterward, join your guide for an evening walking tour and learn about Napier's fascinating history. 1931, Napier was leveled by an earthquake and rebuilt in just two years during the Great Depression. You'll see a concentration of buildings in the architectural styles of the 1930s, including Art Deco and Spanish Mission.

Day 5: Drive to Wellington, City Highlights & Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary

Wellington waterfront
Soak up Wellington's small-town vibe

Today's drive brings you through the rolling countryside and some of the richest farmland in the Manawatu region before ushering you into the Wairarapa as you venture south to Wellington (about four hours). Stop at Martinborough, home to dozens of boutique wineries, for lunch, then carry on to Wellington over the Rimutaka Ranges and along the beautiful natural harbor.

Enjoy a tour of New Zealand's capital once you've checked in at your hotel. A great place to start is to visit Mount Victoria for panoramas of the city and harbor. Then, drive along the rugged coastline, now a marine reserve, stopping to taste Wellington's coffee. Return to the city and continue through the quirky Cuba Street district along Lambton Quay, the main shopping street, and if you have the time, ride the popular and iconic Wellington Cable Car.

Tonight, visit one of New Zealand's top conservation attractions, Zealandia. Located just outside Wellington, the 555-acre (225 ha) reserve is a haven for some of the country's rarest animals. These include native birds, reptiles, and insects re-released into the park. Your tour begins with an interactive exhibition and a guided, torch-lit walk through the bush. You may spot tuatara hunting for food, Maud Island frogs, parrots, and glowworms lighting the night. Zealandia is also one of the best places to see kiwis in a wild environment. With over 100 living here, look out for these adorable, flightless birds.

Day 6: Wētā Workshop, Drive to Blenheim via Picton Ferry & Wine Tasting

90 Minute Weta Workshop Experience
The views you'll see from the ferry crossing from Wellington to Picton

This morning, enter the cinematic world of the Wētā Workshop. Visit the workshop's museum and see the characters, props, and sets from films such as "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogies, "Furious 7," and "Master and Commander." Observe artists at work on costumes and sets and see how fantasy comes to life. Marvel at the bigatures and miniatures for which the workshop is famous.

Then, in Wellington's harbor, you'll board a three-hour ferry with your car to the South Island's Picton, which has been described as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world. You'll pass exciting points like Pencarrow Head, New Zealand's oldest lighthouse. See Red Rocks, home to a seal colony, and Oterangi Bay. From the Cook Strait, witness spectacular views of the Kaikōura Ranges on the South Island and keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and sea birds. Keep your camera handy as you travel through Marlborough Sounds, with its mighty mountains, small islands, crystal-clear waters, and secluded bays.

Once you reach Queen Charlotte Sound, the cruise stops at the picturesque town of Picton. From there, it's only a 30-minute drive to Blenheim, located in the heart of Marlborough, New Zealand's largest wine-producing region. After settling in at your accommodations, immerse yourself in wine country with a wine tour. You'll be collected from your hotel and taken to three or four hand-picked wineries. Learn about Marlborough's wine production history and the unique winemaking process. 

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

Day 7: Drive to Christchurch via Kaikōura Whale Watching Tour

Be on the lookout for sea mammals as you cruise the South Pacific

Leaving Blenheim today, you'll set sail on the South Pacific Ocean on a catamaran designed for whale watching. Drive to the dock in Kaikōura for a 3.5-hour tour and look for giant sperm whales, fur seals, and friendly dolphins leaping through the waves while albatross swoop overhead. Seasonal sightings may include southern right, pilot, or blue whales and if lucky, migrating humpbacks. After your whale watching trip, get back in the car and continue driving south for 2.5 hours to Christchurch, where you'll stay for the night.

Day 8: Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Cruise Tasman Lake & Stargaze

Mount Cook
It would be hard to miss the superb views of Aoraki / Mount Cook

You'll drive four hours west to Aoraki / Mount Cook village today, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain. New Zealand's highest peak measures 12,315 feet (3,754 m) and is also known by its Māori name, Aoraki, which means "Cloud Piercer." The drive will take you through the heart of the South Island, through the pastoral Canterbury Plains. Make sure to stop in the town, Geraldine, as you make your way to Burkes Pass and the lakeside town of Tekapo. Finally, arrive at Aoraki / Mount Cook, your base for exploring the park's glaciers.

Once checked in at your hotel, set out to see Aoraki / Mount Cook's 500-year-old icebergs up close by boarding a cruise to sail around Tasman Lake. You'll see the country's largest glacier, the Haupapa / Tasman Glacier, as you weave around floating icebergs in a specially designed boat. A guide will point out key landmarks as you glide across the water, surrounded by towering ice cliffs.

Once night falls, you'll spend your evening at an International Dark Sky Reserve. Renowned for their clear, star-studded skies, the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and nearby Mackenzie Basin are an excellent backdrop for seeing sights like the Milky Way and faraway galaxies with the aid of a guide and state-of-the-art telescopes and binoculars. 

Day 9: Drive to Te Anau, Visit Te Anau Glowworm Caves

The scenic drive around the shores of Lake Wakatipu
Take the scenic drive around the shores of Lake Te Anau

Get an early start this morning as you hop in the car for a five-hour drive southwest to Te Anau. Along the way, there are various stops that you might like to consider. You'll take Lindis Pass, one of New Zealand's highest roads, with the summit reaching 3,200 feet (971 m). The tussock-covered hills offer a unique contrast as you leave the Mackenzie Basin into Central Otago. You'll find Tarras Village, which has several boutique stores and a lovely café. A short drive farther is the historic and scenic Bendigo Reserve, one of Otago's original gold mining settlements worth checking out.

Stop at Kawarau Gorge to visit the historic old town, then continue through the cliffs of the gorge as they lead you into the Gibbston Valley, one of New Zealand's premier wine-growing regions. If you're up for an adventure, stop at the famous historic Kawarau Bridge for a bungee jump, or sit back and enjoy the drama as visitors hurtle off the bridge. As you approach Queenstown, you'll see The Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu; following the lake will bring you to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park.

Check into your hotel and then discover the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. This tour starts with a cruise across Lake Te Anau on a catamaran to the western side, where you'll disembark and enter the caves through Cavern House. Take time to learn the story of this 12,000-year-old underground cave network. Next, your guide will take you along a limestone pathway, pointing out whirlpools, intricate rock formations, and a staggering underground waterfall. Board a small boat to glide through the darkness, surrounded by the blue-white pinpricks of thousands of glowworms on the cave walls and ceiling. 

Day 10: Day Trip to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi & Cruise

Milford Sound
See stunning waterfalls as you cruise along Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Make the two-hour drive to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi today, an area abundant with postcard-perfect scenes, from crystal clear lakes and towering mountains to lush glacier-formed meadows. Stretch your legs on the Chasm Walk by taking a short stroll through the beech forest to see several beautiful waterfalls. In Fiordland National Park, Milford is the only fjord accessible by road. As you reach this small village, you'll be greeted with an excellent view of Mitre Peak, then once at Milford Wharf, board a cruise ship to explore the length of the fjord.

See marine mammals such as dolphins and seals and get soaked under waterfalls. After lunch onboard, stop to visit the Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Underwater Observatory. Here, you'll learn about the marine reserve's natural history, geology, and conservation efforts. Then, descend 32 feet (10 m) beneath the water into a spacious viewing chamber with uninterrupted 360-degree views of the undersea world to see rare black coral and colorful sea creatures. After your visit, you'll return to Milford Wharf and drive back to Te Anau.

Day 11: Drive to Queenstown, Jet Safari & Skyline Gondola 

Te Anau
Drive down into Queenstown with breathtaking views of The Remarkables mountain range

Leave Te Anau this morning and return in the direction you came for a two-hour drive to Queenstown. Hug Lake Wakatipu's edge as The Remarkables mountain range comes in full view. Then, get checked in at your hotel and meet your guide for an adrenaline-pumping jet boat ride in Mount Aspiring National Park. Whiz along glacier-fed rivers while your guide shares Māori legends and historical information. The tour includes stopping and walking in beech tree forests used as filming locations in "The Lord of the Rings."

Later, back in Queenston, hop aboard the Skyline Gondola, the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere. As you rise over 1,400 feet (450 m) above Queenstown, enjoy panoramic views of The Remarkables and its jagged peaks, as well as Lake Wakatipu. Take in the awesome views as you enjoy a drink or a meal from the summit's restaurant and bar before heading back down.

After a long day of exploring, you can relax in a hot pool under the stars this evening. Based on the Japanese bathing tradition, this onsen offers cedar-lined steaming pools on a cliffside overlooking the Shotover River. Enjoy an hourlong soak accompanied by a drink and snack while enjoying the alpine scenery. The water temperature averages 101.3°F (38.5°C), but one of the summer pools is kept cold for those who relish the thought of an icy plunge.

Day 12: Full-Day Routeburn Trail Hike

Full Day Famous Routeburn Trail
You'll love hiking along Routeburn Trail

Lace up your hiking boots and be sure to have a copious breakfast as a full day of hiking awaits you. Rated one of the world's "Top Ten Classic Hikes," the Routeburn Trail offers stunning scenery. On this 9.5-hour tour, explore the valley and be rewarded with spectacular views and a picnic lunch, surrounded by the sounds of rivers, waterfalls, and native birds.

Day 13: Drive to Franz Josef Glacier, Explore & Optional Heli-Hike

Blue Pools
Marvel at all the shades of blue at the Blue Pools near Makarora

Leave Queenstown and cross the Crown Range, following the highest sealed road in New Zealand, to arrive in the alpine town of Wānaka. Skirt the shores of Lake Wānaka and Lake Hāwea to reach the small village of Makarora. Stop at the Blue Pools for a one-hour roundtrip walk through beech forests to a glacier-fed swimming hole. Afterward, get back on the road, and once you see the seaside settlement of Haast, you'll follow along the west coast, visiting Fox Glacier first before arriving at Franz Josef / Waiau.

This small town settled on the Waiho River among rainforests and the mountains of the Southern Alps, is known for the 7-mile-long (12 km) Franz Josef Glacier / Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere walk. Once settled at your hotel, get back in your car and head to the glacier's edge, just 3 miles (5 km) from the town, making it an easy visit.

The best way to discover Franz Josef Glacier is to take a heli-hike. You'll fly over all three of the glacier's icefalls, landing for a two-hour guided trek through this icy landscape. A guide will take you through ice caves, where you'll spot frozen pinnacles and learn the geology and history of the glacier. You'll receive a waterproof jacket, rain pants, glacier boots, ice crampons, and wool socks for the trip.

Day 14: Return to Christchurch via TranzAlpine Train, Historic Tram Dinner

Witness spectacular views from the comfort of your train car

Say goodbye to Franz Josef / Waiau as you return to Christchurch today. But first, you'll drive through old gold mining towns near the west coast before reaching Arthur's Pass Township, a base for activities centered around Arthur's Pass National Park. You'll drop off your rental car, and a driver will take you to the train station to board the TranzAlpine Train. From Arthur's Pass, the train slowly descends through the Waimakariri River's spectacular gorges and river valleys. It then crosses the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch, the South Island's largest city.

Upon arrival in Christchurch, a driver will meet you at the train station and take you to your hotel. Tonight, you can enjoy an elegant dinner in a historic colonial-style tram that makes the rounds of central Christchurch's top attractions. Known as the Garden City, sit back and relax as you take in the views of the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum, and the Avon River / Ōtākaro from your window-side table. Enjoy a gourmet meal on the final night of your trip. 

Day 15: Depart Christchurch

Lake Wanaka
Goodbye, Christchurch!

It's time to say goodbye to New Zealand! A driver will transfer you to the airport for your flight home at the appointed time.

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore more ways to spend 15 days in New Zealand, 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 Road Trip New Zealand's North & South Islands - 15 Days
Map of Road Trip New Zealand's North & South Islands - 15 Days