New Zealand was practically made for self-driving vacations, and you'll get to experience the best of the North and South Islands on this 18-day itinerary. Starting in Auckland, head to the beaches of the Coromandel and the geothermal wonders of Rotorua before flying south to Christchurch. Then it's off into the Southern Alps, where you'll see some of New Zealand's highest mountains, hike some of its finest trails, and cruise to its most spectacular viewpoints.


  • Dig your own natural spa at Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel
  • Explore the geothermal geysers and mud pools of Rotorua
  • Cruise to the face of New Zealand's longest glacier, the Tasman Glacier
  • Get active in New Zealand's adventure capital, Queenstown

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Explore Auckland
Day 2 Drive to Coromandel, Hot Water Beach & Cathedral Cove Coromandel
Day 3 Ride the Driving Creek Railway Coromandel
Day 4 Drive to Whakatāne, Moutohora Island Sanctuary Whakatāne
Day 5 Drive to Rotorua, Te Puia Tour & Māori Arts, Feast & Performance Rotorua
Day 6 Hobbiton Tour, Lake Okareka Twilight Glowworm Kayak Experience Rotorua
Day 7 Fly to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner Christchurch
Day 8 Avon Punting, Ko Tāne Māori Experience & Guided Kiwi Tour Christchurch
Day 9 TranzAlpine Train to Arthur's Pass, Free Evening in Christchurch Christchurch
Day 10 Drive to Mount Cook Village, Tasman Glacier Lake, Stargazing Mount Cook Village
Day 11 Aoraki / Mount Cook Walks & Hikes Mount Cook Village
Day 12 Drive to Wānaka, Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk Wānaka
Day 13 Hiking in Wānaka, Wine Tour Wānaka
Day 14 Drive to Te Anau, Visit Glowworm Caves, Walking Tracks Te Anau
Day 15 Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Discover Nature Cruise Te Anau
Day 16 Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Gondola, Bungee Jump & Evening Onsen Queenstown
Day 17 Routeburn Hiking Trail, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner Queenstown
Day 18 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Explore

Auckland's unmistakable skyline, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean
Auckland's unmistakable skyline, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean

Welcome to Auckland! Upon arriving at Auckland Airport, you'll collect your rental car and head into the city. After dropping off your bags, a great place to start is the Sky Tower. Rising 1,076 feet (328 m), this iconic needle is the tallest building in the country and offers breathtaking views in every direction. Purchase a ticket to ride in the glass-enclosed elevators to one of three spectacular viewing platforms, or for more excitement, choose the SkyWalk to step outside. 

You can also take a relaxing stroll around Waitematā Harbour, a starting point for sailing, cruising, and whale watching excursions. Keep an eye out for the orcas and bottlenose dolphins that regularly visit the waters close to the city. Or head over to the Wynward Quarter, a new area in a former industrial hub that is popular with Aucklanders. Wander around and visit the Auckland Fish Market, which sells seafood lunch options like steamed mussels and fresh oysters. 

Day 2: Drive to Coromandel, Hot Water Beach & Cathedral Cove

Swim and kayak at Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula

Set out from Auckland this morning for a scenic 2.5-hour drive through the Waikato countryside and across the Hauraki Plains. Soon you'll pass the Firth of Thames, a sparkling blue bay known for its wildlife. After arriving in the historic gold-rush town of Thames, cross the southern Coromandel Range and continue on to the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, strung with white sandy beaches. 

While on the peninsula, there are a few unmissable attractions that you should check out. One of these is Hot Water Beach, where volcanic underground reservoirs of superheated water have escaped to the surface, cooling on the way. There are two fissures at Hot Water Beach, issuing water as hot as 147°F (64°C) that contains large amounts of beneficial minerals. Bring your bathing suit, rent a shovel, and create your own natural spa pool. Check the daily tides online so you time your trip for low tide. 

Coromandel's other unmissable beach attraction is Cathedral Cove, named after the expansive cave located here. The area is very popular with tourists and is a good spot for swimming. There's a walking track (90 minutes return) from the northern end of Hahei Beach. Take a two-hour glass-bottomed boat tour off the coast of Cathedral Cove, giving you a better view of the underwater marine life at the marine reserve. Spot many different species of fish plus crayfish, stingrays, octopus, kina (sea urchins), and, if you're lucky, dolphins and orcas. You could also opt to take the plunge and go snorkeling!

Day 3: Ride the Driving Creek Railway

Driving Creek Railway & Potteries - EyeFull Tower Tour
Ride the scenic Driving Creek Railway through the lush Coromandel bush

Head into the Coromandel bush today to the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, which has become a Coromandel icon. The dream of founder Barry Brickell was to establish a pottery workshop on his land, and this narrow-gauge railway was designed to access the landscape's natural clay. He developed the railway over many years until it was licensed to carry passengers in 1990.

The scenic one-hour return train trip takes you through replanted native kauri forest and includes spirals, short tunnels, reversing points, and large viaducts as it climbs up to the mountaintop terminus. Pottery is still being produced here, and you can watch the artists at work, as well as purchase some items before catching the train back to the start.

Day 4: Drive to Whakatāne, Moutohora Island Sanctuary

Explore Whakatane
Explore Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty

Today's drive takes you south along the coast and into the Bay of Plenty. To start the journey from Coromandel to Whakatāne, head south on State Highway 25. Follow this road for approximately 77 miles (125 km), passing through the pretty beach towns of Whangamatā and Waihi Beach along the way. You'll enjoy stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the hills of the Coromandel Peninsula as you drive. After about three hours of driving, you'll reach Whakatāne.

Whakatāne is renowned for its sunny climate, and its golden-sand beaches are a haven for beachgoers and surfers. It also claims to have one of the oldest sites (Māori fortifications) in the country, from around 1150, making this area significant in New Zealand's history.

After settling into your accommodation, make a trip out to Moutohorā / Whale Island, a pest-free oasis that is home to a number of New Zealand's rare and endangered plants, birds, and reptiles. On the fully guided tour of the island, you'll learn about the flora and fauna and the conservation efforts on Moutohorā over the past 50 years. Bird enthusiasts will especially love the place, with the opportunity to see tieke (saddlebacks), kakariki (red-crowned parakeets), little brown kiwi, bellbirds, tui, grey warblers, and many species of sea birds.

Day 5: Drive to Rotorua, Te Puia Tour & Māori Arts, Feast & Performance

Check out Rotorua's geothermal attractions

Travel inland today to Rotorua, a central North Island heartland of Māori culture and volcanic geothermal activity. Head west on State Highway 30, traveling through stunning forests and countryside. After about an hour, you'll reach the outskirts of Rotorua. 

After dropping your bags at your hotel, discover the local geothermal landscapes, famed for their 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 the 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.  Next, you'll visit the Kiwi Conservation Centre, a refuge for native birds, including New Zealand's national bird, the flightless kiwi. Continue to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you'll learn about carving and weaving techniques from the artists themselves.

In the evening, you're invited to Te Pā Tū Tamaki Māori Village for a three-course feast and four-hour 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 by torchlight to a three-course hākari (feast). Select from a table of hāngī dishes (meat, fish, and vegetables), a traditional Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven.

Day 6: Hobbiton Tour, Lake Okareka Twilight Glowworm Kayak Experience

Tolkien fans won't want to miss a visit to Hobbiton Movie Set

Fans of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" won't want to miss making a detour to the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, about an hour's drive from Rotorua. It lies on the 12-acre (4.8 ha) Alexander family sheep farm in the hilly Waikato region. Take a short bus ride to the filming location, followed by a two-hour walking tour. Your guide will show you the intricate sets and tell you stories from the filming of the movies. You'll visit the Shire's iconic Hobbit Holes and the Mill, with plenty of photo opportunities. Stop at the Green Dragon Inn for a complimentary Southfarthing ale, cider, or ginger beer. 

Head back to Rotorua in the afternoon and take a rest, perhaps indulging in a naturally-heated spa, before getting active on an evening kayaking tour on Lake Okareka. Explore the shoreline as night sets in. Once it's dark, your guide will lead you inside incredible hidden caves that are home to galaxies of glowworms. If it's a clear night, the magic continues outside as the stars come out. No previous kayaking experience is required, just an adventurous spirit.

Day 7: Fly to Christchurch, Historic Tram Dinner

Enjoy a four-course meal on the Christchurch Dinner Tram
Enjoy a four-course meal on the Christchurch Dinner Tram

Say farewell to the North Island today as you drive to Rotorua Airport and drop off your rental car. Fly to Christchurch, where you'll pick up your rental car and drive to your hotel. Take it easy after settling in, perhaps taking a walk to a park or garden. New Zealand's second-largest city is known for its green spaces like Hagley Park and the Botanical Gardens, so a stroll through one is always a good idea. 

In the evening, enjoy an elegant dinner in a historic tram that makes the rounds of central Christchurch's top attractions. 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. Professional waitstaff will serve you a welcome drink upon arrival, followed by a gourmet four-course meal. 

Day 8: Avon Punting, Ko Tāne Māori Experience & Guided Kiwi Tour

Go punting on the Avon River / Ōtākaro through the city center

Get to know Christchurch better today, starting with a punt ride along the Avon River / Ōtākaro, a favorite Christchurch activity. A punter dressed in Edwardian costume will guide you peacefully past weeping willows, woodlands, and the leafy banks of the Botanic Gardens or through the city center onboard a classic punt.

Later on, get a glimpse into the local Māori culture when you visit Ko Tāne Living Māori Village and Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Begin with a guided tour of the kiwi reserve with one of Willowbank's experienced guides, then enjoy a Māori cultural performance, during which you'll be entertained with a kapa haka performance—including poi dances (soft balls twirled on the end of string), a haka (war dance), stick games, and weapons displays. You'll get the chance to learn a couple of dances yourself, then sit down to a four-course hāngī dinner.

Day 9: TranzAlpine Train to Arthur's Pass, Free Evening in Christchurch

Admire the views from the TranzAlpine train

Today you'll get your first glimpse of the spectacular Southern Alps that run down the center of the South Island like a spine. Board the TranzAlpine train early in the morning and travel across the Canterbury Plains into high country to reach the spectacular Arthur's Pass National Park.

Disembark at Arthur's Pass and have lunch at a historic high country hotel. Continue the road by car with a driver, following the old stagecoach route to view the Otira Gorge. Visit Cave Stream, where it burrows underground in an area of limestone cliffs, gorges, and craggy outcrops, or see the incredible limestone outcrops of Castle Hill. Return to Christchurch via the subalpine Porter's Pass and the Canterbury Plains.

Enjoy a free evening in Christchurch after your return. You can have a quiet dinner or consider checking out the local nightlife. Christchurch's vibrant nightlife scene offers something for everyone, no matter what kind of music or atmosphere you're looking for. You could explore the Arts Centre or catch a show at the Isaac Theatre Royal, a historic theater in the heart of the city. It hosts a variety of shows, from musicals to plays.

Day 10: Drive to Mount Cook Village, Tasman Glacier Lake, Stargazing

Travel along scenic roads to Aoraki / Mount Cook

Head deeper into the mountains today as you leave Christchurch and drive four hours west to Aoraki / Mount Cook, 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 mountain is one of over 20 peaks in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The drive winds through the heart of the South Island, through the pastoral Canterbury Plains. Stop off in Geraldine and Fairlie as you make your way to Burkes Pass and the lakeside town of Tekapo. Finally, you'll arrive in Aoraki / Mount Cook, your base for exploring the glacial wonders of the park. To see Aoraki's 500-year-old icebergs up close, you could spend the afternoon on a cruise around Tasman Glacier Lake. You'll see the country's largest glacier, the Tasman, as you weave around floating icebergs in a specially-designed boat.

Spend your evening at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve that spans the national park and the nearby Mackenzie Basin. Renowned for its clear, star-studded skies, here you'll enjoy an astronomical night to remember. On a guided tour, you'll be taken to a designated viewing platform with state-of-the-art telescopes and binoculars. Your guide will help you spot constellations, planets, the Milky Way, and faraway galaxies. All is not lost if the weather is cloudy at night, as daytime tours of an indoor digital planetarium are also available.

Day 11: Aoraki / Mount Cook Walks & Hikes

Hike through mountain valleys toward Aoraki / Mount Cook

There are many short walks you can do from Aoraki / Mount Cook today, so choose an option to suit your interests, fitness, activity level, and timing. For great views of the lower Tasman Glacier and mountains at the valley head, take a 40-minute return walk from the Blue Lakes Shelter past the lakes to a viewpoint on the moraine wall. Another short option is the 30-minute Glencoe Stream walk. Starting from behind The Hermitage Hotel, the route zigzags through totara trees and fern undergrowth to emerge at a lookout, where walkers are rewarded with views beyond the village to Hooker Glacier and Aoraki. 

For a longer challenge, you could hike the four-hour return Hooker Valley Track. Starting at The Hermitage, the walk passes the camping ground, the site of the original Hermitage, an alpine memorial, and two swing bridges until you reach the final destination, the terminal lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier. The walk can be reduced by approximately 1.5 hours starting at the camping ground.

Day 12: Drive to Wānaka, Lake Wānaka Cruise & Island Nature Walk

Moh Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
Moh Waho Island on Lake Wānaka
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Continue driving south through the Southern Alps today, heading for Wānaka, a pretty mountain town on the shores of Lake Wānaka. The full drive takes about 2.5 hours, but you'll be stopping along the way—first at Twizel, the filming location of many scenes in "The Lord of the Rings," and Ōmarama, the gliding capital of New Zealand. Stop at Wrinkly Rams, a local café that also offers a sheep shearing demonstration, then traverse the Lindis Pass, one of New Zealand's highest roads, at 3,185 feet (971 m). The first settlement you reach in the Central Otago region is Tarras, which has several boutique stores and a lovely café.

Upon arrival in Wānaka, you'll find a wide variety of activities. In winter, it's one of New Zealand's premier ski destinations, being very close to the Treble Cone and Cardrona ski fields. Mount Aspiring National Park sits to the west of the lake and offers wonderful walking tracks for all abilities. Fishing, sailing, and waterskiing are popular pastimes on the lake, and the many beach access points provide great spots for picnicking and relaxing.

A must-see spot in Wānaka is Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve. The island is one of five in Lake Wānaka, accessed via a 35-minute boat ride. Besides being a scientific reserve and home to native New Zealand wildlife, the island also once hosted early shipbuilders, steamers, and log rafts. Its most famous feature is probably Arethusa Pool. This small lake on the island has its own island inside—you can catch the best views of this island-on-a-lake-inside-an-island-on-a-lake from the top of Tyrwhitt Peak on Mou Waho. You'll also get beautiful panoramic views of Lake Wānaka and the surrounding glacial mountains and valleys.

Day 13: Hiking in Wānaka, Wine Tour

Pick between a range of hiking trails in the area
Pick between a range of hiking trails in the area

Today you'll have time to explore the walking and hiking trails around Wānaka, with options for all levels. First, head to the Department of Conservation information center to get updates on track conditions and weather, as well as trail options for your level and timeframe. For an easy option, follow the two-hour Outlet Track, which begins at Wānaka town center and goes around Lake Wānaka and to Clutha River and Albert Town. Another easy route is the Mount Iron Track, a popular loop from town that's suitable for all ages and features summit views. It takes about 1.5 hours.

For something longer and more challenging, try Roy's Peak Track. One of the most famous walks in Wānaka, this steep trail climbs to 4,921 feet (1,500 m), with views of Lake Wānaka, its islands, bays, and the snowcapped Southern Alps, including Mount Aspiring. It's a 5.5-hour round trip. Another great challenge is the Isthmus Peak Track. This long, steady climb offers spectacular panoramic views of Lake Wānaka, Lake Hawea, and the Southern Alps. It's also a 5.5-hour round trip.

If you opted for a shorter walk, you'll have time in the afternoon for a wine tour of Wānaka. Learn about the award-winning wines of the Central Otago region on a small-group wine tour. Visit and taste wines paired with local cheese and other specialties at four different wineries. After the wine tasting, you might want to travel to nearby Cromwell to visit the Heritage Precinct, a Gold Rush-era town restored with boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. 

Day 14: Drive to Te Anau, Visit Glowworm Caves, Walking Tracks

Lake Te Anau
Visit Lake Te Anau in Fiordland National Park

Head to the Fiordland National Park today, New Zealand's largest national park, which covers the southwestern section of the South Island. The drive takes about three hours, crossing the Crown Range via the highest sealed road in the country. As the road descends toward Queenstown, enjoy spectacular views of the Wakatipu Basin and the Remarkables mountains. Lake Wakatipu guides you south toward Te Anau and Fiordland National Park before turning west toward Mossburn, the deer capital of New Zealand. Arrive in Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park.

The small town of Te Anau is on the shore of the lake of the same name. Start your time in the town with a tour of the Te Anau Caves. Your tour starts with a cruise across Lake Te Anau. Disembark at the western side of the lake and enter the caves through Cavern House, where you can peruse the displays that tell the story of this 12,000-year-old underground cave network. 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.

If you're making good time, you might want to take a walk into the national park. A good short option is to walk the first part of the Kepler Track, a multi-day trek that you won't have time to complete on this visit! From the Kepler Track car park, the three-hour route follows the lakeshore through beech forest and continues all the way to Dock Bay or Brod Bay.

Day 15: Milford Sound / Piopiotahi Discover Nature Cruise

Take a spectacular nature cruise on Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Visit one of New Zealand's most iconic places today: the incredible Milford Sound / Piopiotahi. The drive from Te Anau takes about two hours, and upon arrival at the sound, you'll board a boat for a cruise along the full-length of the fjord. Get an up-close look at the wildlife and crashing waterfalls—be prepared to get wet!

After the cruise and picnic lunch, visit the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory, which will take you on a journey through the natural history, geology, and conservation of this unique marine reserve. Then, descend 64 steps until you're beneath the water in a spacious viewing chamber with 360-degree views of the undersea world. You'll see rare black coral and colorful sea creatures.

Day 16: Drive to Queenstown, Skyline Gondola, Bungee Jump & Evening Onsen

Admire the views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables Range

Today you'll cross vast tussock lands on the two-hour drive to Queenstown. The road will begin to hug the lake's edge, and the Remarkables will come back into view as you approach the adventure capital of New Zealand. A great introduction to the city is to ride the Skyline Gondola. At the top is a restaurant offering panoramic views of Queenstown and out to Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. There are also hiking trails, mountain-biking routes, and a downhill luge track. 

If you're feeling really adventurous, why not try bungee jumping at one of the first places in the world the sport was practiced, Kawarau Bridge? If you're ready to take a leap, then this is the place to do it, as the views through the gorge are spectacular. There's the option to jump alone or in tandem.

In the evening, relax in a hot pool under the stars at the Onsen Hot Pools. Based on the Japanese bathing tradition, Onsen offers cedar-lined hot pools on a cliffside overlooking the Shotover River. Enjoy an hourlong soak accompanied by a drink and snack as you take in 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 17: Routeburn Hiking Trail, TSS Earnslaw Farm Tour & Dinner

Cruise on the steamship TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu

Get active today with a full day of hiking on part of the multi-day Routeburn Track, often rated one of the world's best hikes. Along the 9.5-hour, easy-to-moderate route, you'll explore the valley and be rewarded with spectacular views and a picnic lunch while surrounded by the sounds of rivers, waterfalls, and native birds. 

If you'd prefer a shorter hiking experience, the three-hour-return trip up Queenstown Hill / Te Tapu-nui climbs through pine forest to the summit overlooking Queenstown, the lake, and the mountains. Another option is the two-hour-return Ben Lomond hike. Take the Skyline Gondola to the terminal, and the track is signposted from here. The effort is rewarded with spectacular views, and on clear days you can see Mount Earnslaw and Mount Aspiring, two of New Zealand's tallest mountains. This is quite a steep climb and not recommended for children, and take note of weather forecasts as the summit is high.

In the evening, step aboard the TSS Earnslaw steamship for a ride on Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm. Here, enjoy a barbecue dinner featuring rotisserie-cooked meats, seasonal vegetables, and salads, followed by dessert and New Zealand cheeses. You can also watch demonstrations about high country life on the farm. After the meal, step back on board the steamship and join a sing-along with the ship's pianist. Watch the lights of Queenstown come back into focus as you sail back to town.

Day 18: Depart Queenstown

Admire the views as you leave Queenstown

It's time to say goodbye to Queenstown and to New Zealand today. Depending on your time of departure, you might have time for one last stroll along the lakefront or to do some last-minute souvenir shopping. Drop your rental car off at the airport before departure. Queenstown has one last treat in store for you, though: the lake and mountain views from the airplane are spectacular. Safe travels!

More Great New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for a trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, explore different ways to spend 18 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 Self-Driving Tour of New Zealand's Nature & Culture:  Auckland to Queenstown - 18 Days
Map of Self-Driving Tour of New Zealand's Nature & Culture: Auckland to Queenstown - 18 Days