Hit the road and discover the highlights of Australia and New Zealand on this two-week self-drive itinerary. Start on New Zealand's North Island to explore Auckland and geothermically active Rotorua, then hit up the South Island for hiking and sightseeing across Otago and Canterbury. In Australia, visit the Far North of Queensland, home to rainforests and reefs, before heading south toward Sydney via the iconic Uluru-Taka Tjuta National Park.


  • Admire geothermal phenomena in Rotorua's Hell's Gate
  • Ride the steepest cable car in the world in Queenstown
  • Peer into some of the world's most pristine night skies in Lake Tekapo
  • Snorkel among the fish in the Great Barrier Reef
  • Watch the sunrise over Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Explore & Have Dinner Atop the Sky Tower Auckland
Day 2 Drive to Rotorua via Tauranga, Visit Hell's Gate Rotorua
Day 3 Tour Mount Tarawera, Relax in the Polynesian Spa & Te Pā Tū Māori Feast  Rotorua
Day 4 Fly to Queenstown, Explore Queenstown (NZ)
Day 5 Skyline Queenstown Gondola & Luge Queenstown (NZ)
Day 6 Drive to Wānaka, Hike Wānaka
Day 7 Drive to Lake Tekapo, Visit the Dark Sky Project Observatory  Lake Tekapo
Day 8 Drive to Christchurch, Explore & Have Dinner Aboard a Historic Tram Christchurch
Day 9 Fly to Cairns Cairns
Day 10 Quicksilver Outer Barrier Reef Cruise Cairns
Day 11 Cairns to Cape Tribulation Cape Tribulation
Day 12 Fly to Uluru via Cairns & Field of Light Dinner Uluru
Day 13 Desert Awakenings Tour with Voyages Uluru
Day 14 Fly to Sydney, Explore Sydney
Day 15 Depart Sydney  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Explore & Have Dinner Atop the Sky Tower

Skyline of Auckland seen from the water
Arrive in Auckland with time to explore and enjoy dinner atop Orbit 360° Dining

Welcome to Auckland! After your flight to New Zealand's North Island, you'll have the rest of the day to spend how you'd like. Take time to relax at your hotel or head out into the most populous city in the country. There is much to do and see in the "Big Little City." For instance, get a bird's-eye view from the top of the 1,076-foot (328 m) Sky Tower. And when you know the lay of the land, consider visiting Britomart for a bite to eat at one of its many bars and restaurants, or check out Wynyard Quarter, a newly built neighborhood along the waterfront created in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

If you have the time to go farther afield, take the 35-minute ferry ride to visit Waiheke Island, home to vineyards, beaches, and beautiful views of Auckland. Then tonight, for the ultimate dinner with a view, reserve a table at Orbit 360° Dining at the top of Sky Tower, which rotates once every hour for panoramic views of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf. The restaurant focuses on local and seasonal produce, with meat and seafood dishes highlighting New Zealand's cuisine in a three-course set menu.

Day 2: Drive to Rotorua via Tauranga, Visit Hell's Gate

Aerial view of Mount Maunganui
Consider crossing the bridge to walk to Mount Maunganui volcano summit

Kick off the self-drive portion of your trip today with a 139-mile (225 km) drive southeast to Tauranga, a coastal city in the Bay of Plenty. Just across Tauranga Harbour sits Mount Maunganui, a chill beach town in the shadow of the dormant volcano Mauao. You can access Mount Maunganui via a bridge and spend the morning walking along scenic paths to the volcano's summit or through McLaren Falls Park, home to a waterfall of the same name and many paths to explore.

Wave goodbye in the afternoon to Tauranga and drive about an hour south to Rotorua, a city known for its geothermal activity and Māori culture. Head to Tikitere, a suburb of the city better known as Hell's Gate due to the high concentration of fumaroles, mud pools, and steaming acidic water. Walk alone or with a guide through this otherworldly landscape, and then take a chance to unwind after a long travel day in the area's therapeutic mud and sulfur spas.

Day 3: Tour Mount Tarawera, Relax in the Polynesian Spa & Te Pā Tū Māori Feast 

Mount Tarawera at sunset
Mount Tarawera on Lake Tarawera

Today, take a walking tour of Mount Tarawera, a volcano just southeast of Rotorua. The volcano erupted in the late 19th century, creating several lakes and obscuring other natural wonders like the Pink and White Terraces. Your guide will explain this history (and theories of the Terraces' rediscovery) as you make your way to the volcano's summit.

Later, take some time for yourself and relax at another spa featuring alkaline waters. Located on the shore of Lake Rotorua, the Polynesian Spa's main attraction is its 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 waters, you'll be able to take in views of the lake, native plants, wildlife, and a nearby grotto.

In the evening, you'll have a chance to experience the rich Māori culture that defines this region of New Zealand. Te Pā Tū (formerly Tamaki Māori Village), New Zealand's most awarded cultural attraction, invites manuhiri (guests) to a knowledge-sharing event centered around a three-course feast. During the four-hour celebration, you'll learn about Māori history, traditions, and culture through food, performance, and stories.  

Day 4: Fly to Queenstown, Explore

Aerial view of Queenstown with hang glider in the sky
Fly to the South Island's Queenston and check out nearby gold-mining towns

Today, you're headed to the South Island. Drop your rental car off at the airport and catch a flight to Queenstown, a city on the shores of Lake Wakatipu known for its adventure sports like paragliding and jet boating. Pick up your new rental car and spend the rest of the day exploring at your own pace.

Besides adrenaline-pumping adventures, Queenstown is an excellent base for exploring the region's vineyards and historic gold-mining towns. Consider taking a drive to Gibbson Valley for a wine tasting or braving the steep, winding trail to Macetown to learn more about New Zealand's 19th-century gold rush.

Day 5: Skyline Queenstown Gondola & Luge

Skyline Gondola over Queenstown
Board the steep Skyline Gondola for city views
Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Get a bird's-eye view of Queenstown today! 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 mountain range, Lake Wakatipu, and Cecil and Walter Peaks beyond. While up there, visit the Skyline Complex and take an exhilarating ride down the 5,250 feet (1,600 m) luge track past banked corners and tunnels. 

Day 6: Drive to Wānaka, Hike

Wanaka Tree in Lake Wanaka
The Wānaka Willow
Wānaka, your final destination today, sits on the shores of one of the largest lakes in the Queenstown Lakes District. Known as the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, Wānaka's remote wilderness, high mountains, and beautiful river valleys are also popular with hikers, making this the perfect place to stop for a trek on your trip across the country. If you're visiting in the wintertime, consider hitting the slopes at Treble Cone or Cardrona, two wildly popular ski resorts in the area.

Day 7: Drive to Lake Tekapo, Visit the Dark Sky Project Observatory 

The Church of the Good Shepard in Lake Tekapo at night with stars
A clear view of stars over the Church of the Good Shepard in Lake Tekapo

Drive north for just over two hours to reach Lake Tekapo, a small town on the edge of the Mackenzie Basin. Tonight, visit the Dark Sky Project Observatory on the shore of the lake to learn about the southern sky using telescopes and even the naked eye. Lake Tekapo sits within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, an area that restricts light pollution, so the views are unparalleled. Your guide will point out highlights like the Milky Way Galaxy, Southern Cross, Magellanic Clouds, and Orion.

Day 8: Drive to Christchurch, Explore & Have Dinner Aboard a Historic Tram

Fountain by Christchurch Botanical Gardens
A fountain near the Christchurch Botanical Gardens

Drive just under three hours east of Lake Tekapo to reach Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. Along the way, you'll descend out of the high elevation of the Makenzie Basin, watching the Canterbury Plains and small towns like Geraldine and Fairlie flash by outside your window.

Once you arrive, explore Christchurch at your own pace. The city is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens—it's nicknamed the Garden City, after all—so a stroll through one is always a good idea. For something more imbued with history, take a tour down the Avon River / Ōtākaro led by guides in Edwardian costume, or ride one of the city's 19th-century trams past Cathedral Square and the Canterbury Museum.

This evening, dine in one of Christchurch's heritage-era trams, which date back to 1882. You'll feast on a multicourse dinner while driving a loop around the city, passing famous sights like Cathedral Square and New Regent Street in your historic tram car.

Day 9: Fly to Cairns

Aerial view of Cairns
Fly to Cairns, Australia—where the rainforest meets the reef

Return your rental car at the airport again because today, you're flying over to Cairns for the Australia leg of your adventure!

Located on the northeastern coast of Far North Queensland, Cairns serves as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, The Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the Atherton Tableland. This area, known as "where the rainforest meets the reef," is the traditional homeland of the Yidinji people and was colonized by gold-seeking Europeans in the 19th century. Nowadays, it's a major tourist hub for its access to multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites and its bustling Esplanade fit with a swimming lagoon.

Day 10: Quicksilver Outer Barrier Reef Cruise

Person snorkeling near a colorful coral reef
Consider snorkeling the out reefs of the Great Barrier Reef

It wouldn't be a trip to Cairns without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef, so spend today on a guided adventure along one of the out reefs. One tour option, Quicksilver, offers multiple ways to enjoy the reef. Ride a catamaran, go snorkeling among fish, sea turtles, and rays, observe the underwater landscape from a semi-submersible craft, or even get a birds-eye view of the reef from a helicopter. Whichever option you go with, you're sure to better understand one of the world's seven natural wonders.

Day 11: Drive to Cape Tribulation

Aerial view of the coast of Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation protrudes into the sea

Today, follow Captain Cook Highway north to Cape Tribulation, a coastal headland within Daintree National Park. Drive north through Palm Cove to Port Douglas, where you can stretch your legs on Four Mile Beach or pop over to Rex Lookout for stunning views of the Coral Sea. Then, drive past Mossman Gorge and ferry across the Daintree River before driving through the rainforest along Cape Tribulation Road to reach your destination, where you can relax on the beach or hike in the nearby forest.

Day 12: Fly to Uluru via Cairns, Field of Light Dinner

Sign on Lasseter Highway describing distances to Ayers Rock Resort, Yulara, Uluru (Ayers Rock), and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)
Signpost on the road to Uluru

Head south on the Captain Cook Highway from Cape Tribulation to get back to Cairns. The highway follows the Coral Sea to Palm Cove, where you might stop for a swim on Palm Cove Beach or stroll on the jetty. If you have the time, there's no shortage of other beaches for you to visit, like Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, and Clifton Beach.

Then, drive to the airport, drop off your rental car, and fly to Uluru for the next part of your trip. Here you'll find Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, home to its namesake red sandstone monolith, standing 1,142 feet (348 m) over the desert landscape. You can explore and learn about Uluru, one of the most sacred sites in Australia for the Aṉangu people, particularly the Pitjantjatjara. But the area is also home to art galleries of Aṉangu art, world-class restaurants, and natural springs and rock caves.

Later tonight, experience a once-in-a-lifetime dinner when you dine outside in sight of the Field of Light art installation with Uluru as a backdrop. As the sun sets over the desert, enjoy canapés and a selection of wine and beer. Once darkness falls, the LEDs powering 527,431 square feet (49,000 sq m) of flowerlike glass spheres light up in a multicolor display. Enjoy a three-course meal, learn about the constellations shining in the sky above, and walk among the glimmering light exhibit.

Day 13: Desert Awakenings Tour with Voyages

Uluru at dawn
Take in the rising sun over Uluru in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Get up before dawn to experience a desert sunrise this morning. Watch the light break over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, another grandiose monolith nearby, over breakfast and gain a new appreciation for the natural beauty of the desert. 

Take a guided tour around the park to hear how Uluru and its surrounding Red Centre deserts are intertwined with local Aṉangu stories and history. This guided walk will take you past the endemic flora and fauna, ancient rock art, and the sandstone monolith. Follow a trail to the Mutijulu Waterhole, a sacred freshwater spring and the site of an important Aṉangu origin story about Kunya and Liru.

Day 14: Fly to Sydney, Explore

View of Sydney skyline from Sydney Harbour
Sydney Harbour with the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge

This morning you'll board another quick flight, this time to Sydney, the capital of New South Wales on Australia's southeastern coast. You'll have the rest of the day to explore the city at your own pace. Consider making your way down to the BridgeClimb to reach the summit of the Sydney Harbour Bridge—440 feet (134 m) above sea level—for an uninterrupted panorama of the city and its surroundings. In the afternoon, take the bus or ferry to Bondi Beach or Manly Beach for a little sunbathing and a surf lesson, or head to the Nicholson Museum, home to the most extensive collection of antiquities in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere.

For something with a bit more structure, take a half-day tour of the best of Sydney's iconic landmarks. Step inside the Sydney Opera House for a guided tour of the behind-the-scenes areas the general audience doesn't get to see. Spot the sprawling landscape of Hyde Park, the twin spires of Saint Mary's Cathedral, the Georgian facade of New South Wales's Parliament House, and the columns of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ending the tour at Bondi Beach in the east.

End your last night of the trip in style with an evening out, like on a sunset dinner cruise on Sydney Harbour or on a hunt for the city's best speakeasies. 

Day 15: Depart Sydney

Silhouette of the Sydney Opera House against a pink and orange sunset
A view of Sydney Harbour at sunset

It's time to say goodbye to New Zealand and Australia. Drop your rental car off at the airport depot before catching your flight back home. Safe travels!

More Great Australia Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Australia? Check out these other Australia itineraries, explore different ways to spend 15 days in Australia, or discover the best time to visit Australia.


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Map of Self-Drive New Zealand & Australia - 15 Days
Map of Self-Drive New Zealand & Australia - 15 Days