Enjoy some of New Zealand's most beautiful and exhilarating wilderness experiences on this 16-day tour of both the North and South Islands. Starting in Auckland, you'll head down to the Tongariro National Park for off-the-beaten-path hiking and biking adventures. Pass through Wellington on your way to the South Island, where majestic mountains await. Spot whales in Kaikoura, hike in the Southern Alps, stargaze in some of the darkest skies in the world, and much more.


  • Take a guided hike around the Ruapehu Crater Lake
  • Spend a night cruising on remote Doubtful Sound
  • Stargaze in an International Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Alps
  • Sample some of the world's finest pinot noir in Central Otago

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland, Explore Auckland
Day 2 Drive to Tongariro via Waitomo, Optional Caves Tour, Mountain Biking Tongariro National Park
Day 3 Full-Day Guided Ruapehu Crater Lake Hike Tongariro National Park
Day 4 Drive to Wellington, Visit Te Papa Museum, Zealandia by Night Tour Wellington
Day 5 Capital Tastes Walking Tour, Wētā Cave Workshop Wellington
Day 6 Ferry to Picton, Transfer to Kaikōura, Sunset Kayaking Tour Kaikōura
Day 7 Whale Watching Cruise, Drive to Christchurch, Explore Christchurch
Day 8 TranzAlpine Train to Arthur's Pass, Optional International Antarctic Centre Christchurch
Day 9 Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Stargazing Adventure Aoraki / Mount Cook
Day 10 Sir Edmund Hillary Centre, Hike from Aoraki / Mount Cook Aoraki / Mount Cook
Day 11 Drive to Queenstown via Wānaka, Free Time Queenstown
Day 12 Central Otago Wineries Tour, TSS Earnslaw Cruise & Walter Peak Farm Dinner Queenstown
Day 13 Overnight Cruise on Doubtful Sound Queenstown
Day 14 Queenstown Skyline Gondola Ride Queenstown
Day 15 Routeburn Trail Day Hike Queenstown
Day 16 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland, Explore

Auckland's skyline
Auckland's skyline: Learn why it's nicknamed the City of Sails

Welcome to Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, near the top of the North Island. Meet your driver at Auckland Airport for a transfer to your hotel. New Zealand's largest metropolis is known as the City of Sails, as its surrounded by water, and sailboats can be seen everywhere. Besides a bustling urban center with chic waterfront promenades, Auckland and its surrounding area is home to 26 regional parks featuring diverse landscapes. These include everything from tropical rainforests to rugged coastlines and golden beaches.

Depending on your arrival time, you might want to head out into the city to explore. Perhaps you'd like to head up to the viewing platform on the unmissable Sky Tower for sweeping views across the city and the Hauraki Gulf or grab dinner at a nice restaurant in the Viaduct.

Day 2: Drive to Tongariro via Waitomo, Optional Caves Tour, Mountain Biking

Views of Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park is home to three active volcanoes

Pick up your rental car this morning and drive south to the Tongariro National Park via the Waitomo Caves (about 2.5 hours). Departing Auckland, cross the Bombay Hills before descending into the fertile Waikato Plains. Pass alongside the Waikato River, New Zealand's longest. Watch for Mount Pirongia as you head farther south: it's an extinct volcano and Waikato's highest peak. Make a stop at Otorohanga, a town known for its displays of Kiwiana. It's also the gateway to the Waitomo Caves.

Here, you can opt to take a guided tour of the caves. Make your way through the ancient cave system, admiring the stalactites, stalagmites, and lime columns. Descend even farther underground to see the glowworms on a cruise on an underground river. Be amazed by the sight of thousands of glowworms illuminating the cavern above you.

Continue driving to the Tongariro National Park through King Country. Taumaranui, on the edge of the Whanganui River, is an excellent place to take a short break. The terrain becomes more volcanic in appearance as you approach National Park Village. From here, three volcanic peaks can be seen: Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu. The three peaks were gifted by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi, to the people of New Zealand in 1887. This formed the nucleus of New Zealand's first national park.

If you still have plenty of energy and daylight left, embark on an afternoon of mountain biking. Riding along the historic cobblestone Old Coach Road through a bush corridor on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu is an exciting adventure. Admire magnificent native rimu trees, native falcons and wood pigeons, the curved steel lattice of the Hapuawhenua Viaduct, and the old railway tunnel. This is a grade two cycleway appropriate for all levels of experience.

Day 3: Full-Day Guided Ruapehu Crater Lake Hike

Hike through Tongariro's volcanic landscape

Get active today on a full-day guided walk on Mount Ruapehu. At 9,176 feet (2,797 m), it is the highest of the three active volcanoes in Tongariro National Park. The walk begins at the Whakapapa Ski Area at the top of Bruce Road on Mount Ruapehu. Stop for lunch on top of the volcano, from where you can gaze down into the geothermal waters of the crater lake. Total hiking time is approximately 6-7 hours (6.2 mi / 10 km) return.

Day 4: Drive to Wellington, Visit Te Papa Museum, Zealandia by Night Tour

Board the Interislander Ferry from Wellington Harbour
Aerial view of Wellington, set on a harbor

Drive farther south today to Wellington, a non-stop journey of around five hours. Enjoy amazing views of the national park's volcanoes on the long, straight Desert Road. As you drive south toward Taihape, stop for a photo by the giant gumboot statue. From there, the landscape becomes dominated by rivers and valleys. The Mangaweka Gorge is a scenic masterpiece. Browse the antique shops of Bulls, or spot wading birds in the estuary near Foxton

After you've dropped your bags off at your hotel in Wellington, head to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (known as Te Papa for short). The name means "container of treasures" in Te Reo Māori. This six-floor modern space offers art, history, and natural wonders of New Zealand's origins from 100 million years ago. You can also check out Māori artifacts, 17th-century English furniture, and a colossal squid exhibit.

In the evening, get into the wilderness without leaving the city. Walk through the gates of Zealandia's predator-proof fence and hear the evening birdsong that has been absent on mainland New Zealand for over a century. Explore the valley by torchlight, experience many rare and endangered species, and see those that only come out at night. You may even see some of the 130 little spotted kiwi that call Zealandia home. 

Day 5: Capital Tastes Walking Tour, Wētā Cave Workshop

Wander the eateries of Wellington's Newtown area

Wellington is famous for its culinary scene, and you'll experience this for yourself this morning. Discover Wellington's fresh tastes and innovations as your guide introduces you to the city, its local tastes, products, and people. Stroll behind the scenes at some favorite Wellington food places, taste hidden culinary treasures, and meet some of the people behind a selection of the city's best food.

In the afternoon, enter the cinematic world of the Wētā Workshop on a 90-minute tour. Visit the workshop's museum and see the characters, props, and sets from films like "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings," "Furious 7," "The Legend of Zorro," and "Master and Commander." Watch 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.

Day 6: Ferry to Picton, Transfer to Kaikōura, Sunset Kayaking Tour

Kayaks lined up by the ocean in Kaikōura at dusk

Say goodbye to the North Island today as you take the ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton, at the top of the South Island. Enjoy the views of the tranquil Marlborough Sounds as you approach Picton at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. From Picton, drive south to Kaikōura, on the coast of North Canterbury. The attractive town is famous for its whales and other marine life and is flanked by the tall, snowcapped Kaikōura Range, which almost seems to plunge into the ocean.

In the evening, enjoy an active kayaking adventure. Watch seals frolicking on the rocks and swimming around your kayak as the sun sets. Paddle with them as they swim around on the hunt for octopus; you may even get lucky and see them battling with their dinner. Watch for blue penguins, albatross, and chance encounters with dusky dolphins. This sunset kayaking trip suits all abilities; no previous kayaking experience is required.
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Day 7: Whale Watching Cruise, Drive to Christchurch, Explore

A humpback whale breaching off the coast of Kaikōura 

Kaikōura is famous for its whales, which live offshore throughout the year thanks to the deep water and fertile, food-laden seas. This morning, take a whale watching cruise out into the open ocean. Every whale watching tour is a unique experience, and the sightings vary. Giant sperm whales are the stars of the show and year-round residents. You may also see New Zealand fur seals, pods of dusky dolphins, and the endangered wandering albatross. Depending on the season, you may also see migrating humpback, pilot, blue, and southern right whales. 

After your marine adventure, drive farther south to Christchurch, a journey of around three hours. The road passes a significant seal colony just south of Kaikōura. Turn inland to the lush farmland of North Canterbury and cross the mighty Waimakariri River as you approach Christchurch.

Often referred to as the Garden City, Christchurch features many majestic trees and extensive parks and gardens, the most notable of which is the expansive Hagley Park in the city's heart. Bordering the park are the Botanical Gardens and the Gothic revival building that houses the Canterbury Museum. The Avon River / Ōtākaro gently winds around these inner city landmarks and through suburbs to empty into the Pacific Ocean.

Day 8: TranzAlpine Train to Arthur's Pass, Optional International Antarctic Centre

Travel through the Waimakariri Gorge on the TranzAlpine Train

Travel across the Canterbury Plains into the high country aboard the TranzAlpine train. The train journey through the Waimakariri Gorge is particularly spectacular. Disembark at the Arthur's Pass National Park station, where you can take short walks. Follow the old stagecoach route and view the Otira Gorge. Visit Cave Stream, which burrows underground in an area of limestone cliffs, gorges, and craggy outcrops, and the Castle Hill rocks, weatherworn outcrops of limestone regarded sacred by the Māori. Return to Christchurch by car.

You may want to take it easy after your return to Christchurch in the afternoon, but if you want to do some more exploring, check out the International Antarctic Centre with a penguin backstage pass. On this tour, you'll get the chance to see the fascinating work done "backstage" in the penguin habitat and penguin welfare center. Other attractions within the center include an Antarctic snow and ice experience and an Arctic Storm survival experience. It's quite possibly the closest you'll get to Antarctica without mounting your own expedition.

Day 9: Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, Stargazing Adventure

The road to Aoraki / Mount Cook, in the Southern Alps

Depart Christchurch and travel across the Canterbury Plains through fields and farms. The longest bridge in New Zealand takes you across the Rakaia River, a typical New Zealand braided river, where numerous water channels flow across a broad gravel bed. The river originates in the Southern Alps, which can be seen to the west as you continue over the flat land through Ashburton, the center of this large sheep and wheat farming area.

Shortly after crossing the Rangitata River, turn inland to Geraldine, the gateway to the lakes of the central Mackenzie Basin. Travel over undulating sheep country to Fairlie and ascend to the settlement of Lake Tekapo, where the picturesque Church of the Good Shepherd perches on the lakeside. Continue through a landscape of scrub and tussock to Lake Pukaki and drive up the western shore, following the Tasman River to Aoraki / Mount Cook village. The Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is home to New Zealand's highest mountains and longest glaciers.

In the evening, weather permitting, you'll take a mesmerizing journey through the cosmos to explore the night sky. Look through high-powered telescopes and learn about the southern skies from your knowledgeable astronomer guide. From the Hermitage Hotel, you'll be transported to the base and treated to homemade hot chocolate and snacks before stepping outside to witness the darkness as it comes alive with the stars. In the case of bad weather, an alternative indoor planetarium experience will be offered.

Day 10: Sir Edmund Hillary Centre, Hike from Aoraki / Mount Cook

Hike the trails around Aoraki / Mount Cook

Aoraki / Mount Cook contains a lot of New Zealand mountaineering history, which you can learn about this morning at the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre. Housed within the 19th-century Hermitage Hotel, the center pays homage to the legendary Kiwi explorer with a cinema, planetarium, and memorabilia. The 126-seat theater showcases documentaries about Hillary and the Aoraki / Mount Cook region, while the planetarium's digital dome displays simulations of the night sky and far reaches of the universe.

After your trip to the center, head off on one of the many short, scenic walks beginning in and around the village. Before your hike, visit the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park Visitor Centre, run by the Department of Conservation, for valuable updates on track conditions and information on the area's history and wildlife. 

The hikes in this area range from just 10 minutes to four hours long. The quickest option is the Bowen Bush Walk, an easy forest hike that will take you toward Glencoe Lodge through tōtara and celery pine forests. For a more challenging option, try the two-hour Red Tarns Track. Starting at the Public Shelter, follow the path to Black Birch Stream. Then, cross the bridge and climb steeply to the Red Tarns, where a viewpoint offers a spectacular panorama of the valley and Aoraki / Mount Cook.

You may even prefer to take an optional Haupapa / Tasman Glacier heli-hike. Fly high onto the white ice of New Zealand's longest glacier, the Haupapa / Tasman Glacier. You'll land at around 3,900 feet (1,200 m) and spend up to two hours on a guided interpretive ice trek. The gently undulating terrain is a fantastic landscape of fluted ice, runnels, moulins, and sinuous winding streamlets. On the return helicopter ride, fly close by the massive 3,200-foot (1,000 m) Hochstetter Icefall below Aoraki / Mount Cook.

Day 11: Drive to Queenstown via Wānaka, Explore

The scenic drive to Queenstown
The scenic drive to Queenstown

Depart Mount Cook this morning, following the Tasman River and the shores of Lake Pukaki into the Mackenzie Country. Travel through Twizel, which came into existence for the construction of the Waitaki Power Scheme. After many miles of rolling tussock country, you'll travel through Lindis Pass and follow the Lindis River to Tarras, where you'll turn off State Highway 8 and travel the short remaining distance to Lake Wānaka. Stop in Wānaka town for lunch and to admire the views across the pretty lake. 

After lunch, continue for about another 1.5 hours to Queenstown. Travel along the shores of artificial Lake Dunstan to Cromwell, known for its stonefruit and wine. Continue through the beautiful Kawarau Gorge, home to the world's first commercial bungee jump. Stop at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge to watch the bungee jumpers from the observation deck or even to jump yourself.

The final leg of your drive takes you past Lake Hayes to the popular resort town of Queenstown, situated on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. This ruggedly beautiful region is known as the adventure sports capital of New Zealand. Here you can enjoy hair-raising thrills, including skydiving, bungee jumping, jet-boating, and ziplining.

Day 12: Central Otago Wineries Tour, TSS Earnslaw Cruise & Walter Peak Farm Dinner

Vineyards in Cromwell
Vineyards in Cromwell, Central Otago

Experience a wine-tasting journey in Central Otago's incredibly scenic and diverse wine subregions: Gibbston, Bannockburn, and Cromwell. You'll enjoy tastings at three boutique vineyards and a platter-style lunch at a restaurant. Savor the finest and freshest produce with a glass of premium wine. Stroll through the charming historical settlement of Old Cromwell and learn about this wine region's early pioneering history and development. The pinot noir produced here is widely considered to be among the world's best.

Later in the afternoon, step aboard Queenstown's TSS Earnslaw and enjoy a 40-minute cruise across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station. Onboard, the captain will provide interesting commentary as you admire the spectacular views of Cecil and Walter Peaks. See the original steam engines in operation from the open viewing area and visit the Fo'c'sle Gallery to view the historical displays.

Disembark the ship at Walter Peak, where you'll be escorted through the lakeside gardens to the refurbished Colonel's Homestead and seated for dinner. Relax before a roaring open fire and soak in the views from this stunning lakeside setting while the chefs prepare a gourmet barbecue on the grill. Delectable seasonal salads, tasty dessert treats, and local cheeses will accompany a selection of succulent New Zealand meat and seafood. All meat and seafood are cooked on the barbecue and rotisserie in front of guests.

After the meal, participate in an entertaining farm experience, giving insight into life in the New Zealand high country, including a sheep shearing demonstration. On the night cruise back to Queenstown, join the ship's pianist in a fun sing-along.

Day 13: Overnight Cruise on Doubtful Sound

Take an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound

Today you'll visit one of New Zealand's most genuinely wild places on an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound. Travel by coach from Queenstown to Pearl Harbour, Manapouri, from where you'll hop on board a boat for a cruise across Lake Manapouri. Disembark at West Arm and travel by coach over Wilmot Pass, through dense rainforest, to Deep Cove. Board your overnight vessel here. From Deep Cove, explore Doubtful Sound's beautiful wilderness scenery and wildlife. You may be lucky enough to see fur seals, dolphins, and rare penguins.

Your vessel will anchor overnight in one of Doubtful Sound's sheltered, hidden arms. You'll have opportunities to go kayaking or explore the shoreline on the tender craft. Enjoy a delicious three-course buffet meal this evening before retreating to your cabin or sitting out on the deck and taking in the quiet.

Day 14: Queenstown Skyline Gondola Ride

Day at Leisure
Ride Queenstown's Skyline Gondola high above the city

Enjoy a hearty-cooked breakfast the following morning before returning to Deep Cove, from where you'll return to Queenstown, arriving midafternoon.

After your arrival, head to one of Queenstown's most popular attractions, the unmissable Skyline Gondola. It's the Southern Hemisphere's highest cable car and will smoothly whisk you 1,476 feet (450 m) up to the viewpoint at Bob's Peak. On the ascent, watch as the city drops away below you and then enjoy the breathtaking 360-degree views from the top. Here, you can see all the way to Coronet Peak around the Remarkables Mountains and out to Cecil and Walter Peaks on the other side of Lake Wakatipu. Adventure seekers might want to ride the luge track perched on the side of the hill.

Day 15: Routeburn Trail Day Hike

Hike a one-day portion of the longer Routeburn Trail

Get active today on a daylong version of one of the world's top hikes, a New Zealand Great Walk, the Routeburn Track. While the entire trek takes several days, you'll get a one-day taster today, so wear some comfortable shoes. Explore the valley and be rewarded with spectacular views and a picnic lunch. Surrounded by the sounds of rivers, waterfalls, and native birds, you'll feel like you've left civilization far behind. Average fitness is required as this is an easy-to-moderate trail with up to seven hours of walking. 

Day 16: Depart Queenstown

Hang out in Queenstown's mall until it's time to depart

Your wild New Zealand adventure has come to an end. Depending on your departure time, there may be time to enjoy a last breakfast or lunch at one of Queenstown's many lakeside restaurants or to go souvenir shopping at the outdoor mall. When it's time to head to the airport, you'll be transported in good time for your flight. Safe travels!

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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 Wild New Zealand: Auckland, Tongariro, Wellington, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Mount Cook & Queenstown - 16 Days
Map of Wild New Zealand: Auckland, Tongariro, Wellington, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Mount Cook & Queenstown - 16 Days
Written by Liz Neal, updated Aug 5, 2023