New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

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Last updated Feb 27, 2024

I always imagined when we decide to visit New Zealand, we will take months to plan this trip and make sure we don’t miss anything. It did not turn out to be that way. We decided to go to New Zealand over Christmas and New Year’s, the busiest and most expensive time to visit with less than two months to prepare. And for the most part it worked out great using this New Zealand Itinerary.

This New Zealand Itinerary is designed to spend 5 days in the North Island and 10 days in the South Island.  Most of the time in this itinerary is concentrated on spending time in nature and wine country bypassing the cities. Renting a car or campervan is crucial for this itinerary. 

We completely skipped Auckland and Wellington and only spent three days in Christchurch because it fell on New Year’s Eve. During the holidays it is hard to find shops and restaurants that are open, and we did not want to be caught again (Patagonia the previous year) in the middle of nowhere without a meal or gas. 

Besides the most beautiful parts of New Zealand are outside of the cities. 

Unfortunately, we could not find a car rental place willing to rent us a car in Auckland and return it to Queenstown. I guess the demand was too high. Instead, we rented a car for the North Island part of the trip, flew from Auckland to Christchurch, and then rented a car in Christchurch and dropped it off in Queenstown. 

The Best Way to Travel Through New Zealand: Car or Campervan? 

During our New Zealand road trip, we saw tons of campervans on the road. More than any place we have been to before. To me, this decision comes to budget and preference. 

Campervans definitively offer more flexibility. And for solo travelers or couples, they usually are more budget-friendly. 

Our preference is usually to rent a car and stay at hotels or AirBnB places and we did that for this trip as well.

New Zealand Itinerary: Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Day 1 – Rotorua 

Arriving in New Zealand for most visitors will be through Auckland airport and it will most likely be early in the morning allowing for a day of exploring if jetlag allows you to do so. In this itinerary, we did not spend any time in Auckland. From the airport, we rented the car and headed toward Rotorua. 

Since we arrived early in the morning on Christmas day, we knew that most places would be closed, but we still wanted to do some activities on our way to Rotorua. We stopped at Pirongia Forest Park and did a short Bridal Veil hike in the rain. After a long flight, it was a perfect way to stretch out the legs.  

New Zealand Itinerary
Bridal Veil Waterfall | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Other options on the way to Rotorua are stops at Waitomo Glowworm Caves and/or Hobbiton. Since both of these are tours, they were not available on Christmas Day. 

For Christmas Dinner, we were able to reserve a spot at Te Puia where they served buffet-style dinner, after dinner we enjoyed a Haka performance (traditional Māori dance) and walked to the geysers. The dinner felt a little rushed, but it was good to learn about Māori culture, the language and the tribe that lives at Te Puia.  

New Zealand Itinerary
Geysers at Te Puia | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

With it being Christmas Day, there was not much to do in town. We had an early night and prepared for the exciting next day. 

Day 2 – Drive to Turangi 

Today is filled with adventure. We started with a delicious breakfast at Third Place Café and a walk in the park by Lake Rotorua. After that, we headed to the Redwoods Forest. The Redwoods Forest has multiple trails to walk through California Redwoods planted in the early 1900s. There is also a Redwoods Treewalk with an obstacle course.  

We completed Green Trail – Quarry Track which took about an hour and a half.  

Since our goal is to make it to Turangi for the night, after Redwoods we headed south and stopped at the Rainbow Mountain Scenic Reserve for a short hike to the summit with lake views all around. Maunga Kakaramea Summit is an almost 4-mile hike, out and back, with vast views of the area at the top. 

New Zealand Itinerary
View from Maunga Kakaramea Summit | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

After the hike, you can stop at Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Park. Unfortunately, Lady Knox geyser only goes off every day at 10:15 am but you can still enjoy the park and mud pools. 

The next stop is Lake Taupo. Before getting to the lake, you can take a short detour to Huka Falls if you still have some energy left. Lake Taupo town has more restaurant options and if you are staying in Turangi I would suggest having dinner here before getting to Turangi. Which is what we did after a walk around the lake. 

The drive to Turangi is a scenic drive by the lake. 

Day 3 – Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

Today is a big hiking day. Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best day hikes in New Zealand and it is very popular. It is a 12-mile strenuous hike and should only be done when the weather is favorable. And we lucked out! We had a little bit overcast but otherwise a great hiking day. 

The hike is through the Tongariro Volcanic Plateau and is like nothing else we’ve ever seen before. You will hike by Mt. Doom (from Lord of the Rings Trilogy), see different craters and steaming mountains as well as stunning Blue and Emerald Lakes. The hike takes anywhere between 6 and 8 hours to complete. 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Emerald Lakes at Tangariro Alpine Crossing | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

If this hike is not for you, you can do a less strenuous hike to Tupapakurua Falls, go for a walk around Rotopounamu Lake, or do any of the other hikes in Tongariro National Park. If hiking is not an option, there are adventure quad rides through the mud and woods, ropes courses, rafting and many other activities you can enjoy here.  

Days 4&5 – Hawke’s Bay 

Hawke’s Bay is the oldest wine region in New Zealand with some amazing wines and wineries. Located on the east coast of the North Island. I am not going to lie, driving from Turangi to Napier (the town in Hawke’s Bays) is pretty boring. However, the delicious wine is worth it 😊 

Hawke’s Bay region is known for its Bordeaux-style red wines, and we spent the next couple of days wine tasting at Church Road, Craggy Range, Elephant Hill, Te Awanga and Crab Farm. This was a combination of big and small neighborhood wineries.  

New Zealand Itinerary
View from Elephant Hill Winery | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Napier or Hastings are bigger towns in the area and are recommended for more accommodation options. 

For those who are not into wine, there are other things to do here: 

Exploring Art Deco architecture in Napier 
Enjoy fresh and delicious food, and even go for a cheese tasting at Hohepa Cheese. 
Go Whale and Dolphin watching from Cape Kidnappers 
Hike Te Mata Peak 
If visiting in the summer go to one of the summer concerts hosted at the wineries 

There is plenty to do here with or without wine. 

Days 6-8 – Christchurch 

Most of our day 6 was spent traveling. We could not find a car rental company that allowed us to pick up the car in Auckland and drop it off in Queenstown. Keep in mind, we were traveling during the busiest time of the year – Christmas and New Year and decided on this trip at the last minute. Since we could not make that work, we drove back to Auckland, flew to Christchurch from there and then rented a car in Christchurch for the remainder of our trip. 

If you can find a car to rent for the entire trip, my suggestion would be to drive to Wellington from Hawke’s Bays and take a ferry over to the South Island. 

Upon your arrival in Christchurch, you can walk through Hagley Park, a beautiful city park, and/or hang out at Riverside Market.  

The next day is your full day in Christchurch, and I would suggest driving out to Arthur’s Pass National Park. Arthur’s Pass is the highest pass over the Southern Alps and a great place to visit for short or long walks, family picnics, scenic drives or skiing in the winter. 

We were originally planning to hike to Avalanche Peak. However, we didn’t arrive until late in the day and Avalanche Peak hike is an extremely steep hike (24% grade) over massive rocks and tree roots. The hike is estimated to take 8 hours to complete, and we just didn’t have that time. 

Instead, we decided to hike up to Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfalls and walk through the Castle Hill Conservation Area around massive limestone boulders. Arthur’s Pass Village has shops and cafes where you can rest and get some refreshments as well as an open-air museum. 

New Zealand Itinerary
Arthur’s Pass – Castle Hill | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Another way to explore Arthur’s Pass is to take the TranzAlpine train and enjoy the scenery that way. 

On our final day in Christchurch, we drove out to Lyttelton and did part of the Crater Rim Walk with amazing views of Head of the Bay, Avon Heathcote Estuary and Christchurch. It was a deceivingly hard hike especially since it was very windy. There are many hikes like this around Christchurch or you can just take the gondola up to enjoy the views. 

New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 
View Above Lyttelton | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Days 9&10 – Lake Tekapo 

The next couple of days we are spending in Aoraki/Mt. Cook. We were not able to find any accommodation at the Mt. Cook Village, so we stayed at Lake Tekapo and drove into the park every day. It is approximately one hour drive each way but the drive along Pukaki Lake is absolutely stunning.  

On our first day, driving from Christchurch we took a lunch break in Lake Tekapo and continued to the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. In the park, we did the Hooker Valley track. Hooker Valley Track is the most popular hike in the park and on a nice day, it will be very busy. The trail is well-groomed, fairly easy to walk and offers amazing views of the glaciers, mountains and lakes, which is what makes it so popular.  

New Zealand Itinerary
Hooker’s Valley Trail | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

After the hike, head back to Lake Tekapo. I recommend stopping at the lavender field for delicious lavender-flavored ice cream. It tasted so good after the hike. 😊 

Next day, plan to spend a full day in the National Park. There are so many things to do here. We started with the hike to Sealy Tarns then went to Tasman Glacier Viewpoint and walked around Blue Lakes before we called it a day. 

New Zealand Itinerary
View from Sealy Tarns Hike | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

Other things to do here include hiking to Muller Hut (strenuous hike – approximately 8 hours out-and-back), taking a boat tour with Glacial Explorers and getting up close and personal with Tasman Glacier, or taking one of the flight tours in the park. There are things to do in the park for every activity level. 

Day 11 – Wanaka 

Since we were spending only one day in Wanaka, we started this day early. The drive from Lake Tekapo is over 2 hours long and we wanted to hike Roy’s Peak on the same day. We debated a lot over which hike to do in Wanaka between Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak. It literally came down, to which hike was closer to our accommodation because we were so tired of driving and Roy’s Peak won. They are approximately the same in difficulty and both offer lovely views.

The hike itself is manageable with amazing views of the lake and the valley as you climb to the top. Once close to the summit, there is the famous knob that comes out over the lake for great pictures! 

New Zealand Itinerary
Roy’s Peak | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

By all the accounts we read, we were expecting this hike to be really busy, but it was not even close to the crowded madness of Aoraki/Mt. Cook hikes. Most of the hike is through private land so expect to see a lot of sheep. 

After the hike, we checked into our accommodation and explored the lake and the town. 

Days 12&13 – Milford Sound 

Today’s mission is to make it to Milford Sound. It is almost a 5-hour drive from Wanaka without stopping. However, it is impossible to drive to Milford Sound and not stop at some of the many viewpoints. 

We were lucky enough to find a vacancy at Milford Sound Lodge and were able to stay in the park for two nights. I highly recommend staying here. Most visitors come in for a day cruise and leave but there is so much more to Milford Sound. 

Upon our arrival at the lodge, we had dinner at the newly renovated Pio Pio Restaurant and then went on a guided nature walk.  

New Zealand Itinerary
Milford Sound Lookout | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

The next day we drove out to the Chasm Viewing Bridge, the viewpoint of Hundred Falls, explored the waterfront, took a short hike to the lookout point, and then went for an evening kayaking adventure. Kayaking in the Milford Sound in the evening after all the cruise ships had left was surreal. Only 4 kayaks on the water with mountains and waterfalls around us. This experience was a highlight of our trip. 

The following day on the way out of Milford Sound, we divided and conquered. I went on a Key Summit hike and Kris ventured on to Marian Lake hike. Each of them took less than 3 hours to complete, one offering views of mountain peaks and valleys and a bird’s eye view of Marian Lake, the other offering amazing views of Marian Lake and the mountain peaks around it. You cannot go wrong with either hike.  

After the hikes, we took a 4-hour drive to Queenstown. We spent the evening walking around town and enjoying the sunset from the city center. 

Days 14&15 – Queenstown 

Queenstown is an adventure hub. Most people are out on an adventure during the day and come to the city for restaurants, bars and accommodation. We decided to spend our last day exploring the Central Otago wine country. And we wanted to do it without driving ourselves or worrying about which winery to go to. 

So, we booked a tour with Wine Hopper Bus. It starts around noon in Queenstown and ends around 6 pm back in Queenstown. You can pick and choose which wineries to visit around the Gibbston area. The shuttle driver was very flexible and helpful at setting up reservations as we didn’t make any ahead of time…whoops.  

New Zealand Itinerary
Queenstown Sunset | New Zealand Itinerary | Epic 15-Days in North and South Island 

The next day, we flew out to Auckland and then to the States. 

Other helpful posts…

10 Exciting Warm Weather Winter Getaways
Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand
All You Need to Know About Milford Sound
Kayaking in Milford Sound




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