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Two-Week New Zealand Itinerary: A First-Timer’s Detailed Planning Guide
This post has been sooooo long coming, and I am so excited to finally bring you a crazy detailed guide to planning an epic two-week New Zealand itinerary! This country totally blew me away with its unbelievable natural beauty, interesting and diverse things to do, and fun, welcoming locals. This roadtrip is still one of my top-five trips.
Buckle in, because this is a long one…there is so much to see and do, and infinite possibilities for your New Zealand itinerary!
How this post is laid out:
- General tips for planning a trip in New Zealand
- What to expect entering the country
- What to expect once you’re there
- Overview two-week New Zealand itinerary ideas and outline
- Where to stay
- Topline breakdown of days and sights
- Lake Tekapo and Mt. Cook/Aoraki region
- Nelson area (Abel Tasman National Park, Marlborough)
- North Island (Rotorua, Hobbiton)
- Tips for renting a car and driving in New Zealand
If you’re planning your trip to New Zealand, here are tips to help you along!
Info on entering the country
As of late 2019 there are some visas and fees to enter New Zealand, depending on where you’re coming from. Research the most up-to-date regulations and fees on the official website before coming.
There are also a number of customs and biosecurity things you should know…New Zealand is a fragile environment and they do not want non-native species being introduced.
- When you enter the country, you will have to declare all organic food (including fruits and veggies), and any equipment that has come into contact with the outdoors (like shoes that might have dirt on them). They are dead serious about this and will check closely.
- And there are very serious fines or even jail time if you lie or don’t comply (also being banned from the country). Pre-packaged food should be okay, but worth declaring and letting them tell you.
- Clean ALL dirt off shoes and equipment before your arrival to NZ to comply with their biosecurity regulations. Seriously. Mine were okay because I had, but they hassled my friend and made him clean his tennis shoes that were in his suitcase in some special machine while they watched.
Want to know all my inside trip planning tips? Download my e-book here!
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What to expect once you’re there
Remember that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are opposite vs. what the northern hemisphere is used to. So summer (and peak travel season) are in the October through March timeframe. Plan your trip itinerary accordingly. Make sure to do some detailed research on the weather for the exact places you plan to be (and use TripAdvisor for “on the ground” advice).
Currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD). You can use a credit card pretty widely and there are also lots of ATMs available.
- Always check current exchange rates, but I’ve seen it hold fairly steady at about $1.60 NZD to $1 US dollar. The smallest coin is a 10-cent piece, so all costs are rounded.
- Sales tax is already included in prices you see. Additionally, tipping is not a big part of the culture in New Zealand unless you get really exceptional service (and often there’s a service charge already added to your bill).
Getting around…New Zealand is a very looooong country, so driving distances can be crazy—particularly because you can rarely drive directly between places (mountain ranges and such get in the way).
- Renting a car (or campervan if that’s your style) is the best way to see the country. At the bottom of this post, I’ve included several detailed tips on renting a car and driving in New Zealand.
- Flying around the country if you need to reposition can make a lot of sense and is reasonably-priced. We flew from Christchurch up to Nelson, for instance, and then again up to Auckland.
The bare necessities…
- Sunscreen is critical! The sun here is very intense at all times of the year, partly because there’s a hole in the ozone layer near New Zealand and also less pollution. Make sure you wear sunscreen at all times if you’ll be outside.
- Things are expensive. Tap water is totally safe, so just keep filling up your water bottle (this will save you a few dollars!).
- Clothing: The weather is all over the place and can change frequently. I recommend packing (and wearing) layers and have good wind-resistant and water-resistant gear. This packing list I made for summer in Iceland would serve you very well in New Zealand as well.
- Connectivity and tech:
- You can often find free wifi at McDonald’s and other fast food places. I will say, the internet in New Zealand in general is…not great. Particularly on the South Island.
- To that point, you’ll often end up going off the grid even with cell signal, particularly on the South Island. I recommend planning ahead for not having signal or internet fairly frequently. Download things like offline Google Maps, directions, info, and even videos to stream ahead of time!
- There are no dangerous animals in New Zealand, which is amazing! Though they do have sandflies (also known as midges) which are the devil.
- You must show your passport to buy alcohol at liquor stores, grocery stores, etc. (foreign drivers license won’t suffice). This tripped us up a couple times (and everyone present has to show ID, not just the person buying).
It’s worth digging into both Kiwi and traditional Maori culture a bit before visiting as well.
- Do some reading on the Maori people and culture before visiting. Many Maori words are incorporated in New Zealand culture, including the greeting “Kia Ora” (Maori for welcome).
- There are also lots of fun New Zealand (Kiwi) phrases you’ll hear, like “sweet as”. Research some of them ahead of time, so you’ll know what you’re hearing 🙂
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Tips for structuring a New Zealand itinerary
In my mind, two weeks is a bare minimum if you’re coming from Europe or North/South America…the trip is so long, flights so expensive, and distances so big when you get here, that less than two weeks will be very rushed.
The weather is also a big “X factor” and is unpredictable and ever-changing. I’d recommend building some flex time into your itinerary to be able to adapt if one day ends up being crazy rainy or so windy you can’t do anything, that kind of thing.
Here is how we spent our two weeks in New Zealand:
- Day 1-3: Arrival in Christchurch, drive to Lake Tekapo
- Day 2: Tasman Glacier Lake boat tour, hike the Hooker Valley Track (looking at Mt. Cook/Aoraki)
- Day 3: Mt. John Observatory, more Lake Tekapo, chill, fly to Nelson
- Day 4-11*: Nelson & Marlborough area, Abel Tasman National Park, skydiving, etc.
- Day 12-14: Rotorua, Lake Tarawera, Wai-O-Tapu, Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest
- Day 15: Hobbiton, fly home
The biggest caveat on this particular itinerary is that I had to be in Nelson for 8 days for a holy day festival, so I wouldn’t recommend you stay there that long if you only have two weeks total. Abel Tasman is definitely worth some time, plus the beer and wine regions around here. But there’s so much else to see.
Where I didn’t get to go: Soooo many places, and I would definitely have given up the North Island to do more of the South Island. I wanted to see Kaikoura when the orcas are there, Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, the Moeraki Boulders, the Dunedin area and Catlins, and Tongariro National Park. Just for starters…
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Where to stay in New Zealand
Much of New Zealand (particularly the areas you’re dying to see) is fairly rural. Within each section I’ll mention where we stayed, but rentals are definitely the way to go overall.
When we visited in 2014, Airbnb hadn’t gained a foothold there, so we used Book a Bach (which is still an option to check). It was an invaluable resource for finding houses, cabins, etc. to rent, and I think we used it for every place we stayed. A “bach” (batch) is a Kiwi term for a little rental (often a beach house), and every place we stayed had its own charm.
Below are a few examples…and I highly recommend looking at Airbnb as a great source for rentals now!
You can use this link to get $40 off your first Airbnb booking!
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A deep-dive two-week New Zealand itinerary
I can hear you saying, let’s get to it! We flew from Chicago to San Francisco, to Auckland and then down to Christchurch. While we were tired, it actually wasn’t too bad and we hit the road right away.
I had snagged some sleep on the flight, and then the long flight (13 hours from San Francisco) didn’t really feel much longer than 9 (the longest I’d previously done). Also, Air New Zealand’s planes and seats were quite roomy and comfortable, which helps a ton.
Arrival in Christchurch, drive to Lake Tekapo
The drive from Christchurch airport down to Lake Tekapo is about 3 hours, depending on traffic and stops. I did all the driving on our trip, with @sjems5 as my navigator and radio duet partner. This was the the view in the car most of the time 🙂
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Lake Tekapo as a base
Our first “home away from home” was a cute little cabin called Sawdon Station. It was kind of kitschy with some sweet ’70s decor, but had a coffee maker, wine opener, and fireplace…everything you could wish for!
It also had beautiful black velvet night skies with diamond stars. One of the big draws for the Lake Tekapo area is that it’s a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, aka no light pollution. So stargazing is serious business.
Make sure to get out and see the sunrise in the area…the pinks and oranges hitting the nearby snowy peaks is worth an early wake-up call (even with jet lag factored in)!
Lake Tekapo itself
One of the most iconic (and popular Pinterest) images of New Zealand is Lake Tekapo’s stunning turquoise water, framed by an adorable chapel and mountain dog statue, with snow-capped mountains in the background and (in season) a blanket of vibrant purple lupins below.
The lake’s intense milky turquoise color is from glacier minerals suspended in the water. We were sadly *just* a tad too early in the spring to see the lupins, but it was absolutely gorgeous nonetheless.
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The Church of the Good Shepherd is an iconic building in New Zealand, not because it’s crazy old (built in 1935, the first church in the Mackenzie Basin), but I think more because of the views.
Outside the chapel stands the famous bronze sheepdog statue, a memorial to the role of the sheepdog in the lives of New Zealand settlers. He’s totally adorable and such a good doggo.
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The drive to Mt. Cook/Aoraki and Lake Pukaki
Our first full day in the country had us tackling possibly one of the best “one-two punches” in travel (and definitely in New Zealand)—a half-day glacier lake boat tour followed by a half day hiking the Hooker Valley Track. This day gave me the best photos of my entire trip!
The drive from Lake Tekapo over to the Aoraki/Mt. Cook area took about an hour and a half. But we made sure to get an early start since the drive itself was so beautiful. There was gorgeous scenery the whole time, but we couldn’t resist stopping at Lake Pukaki along the way (both there and back).
Tasman Glacier Lake boat tour
We checked in at the Hermitage Hotel for our boat tour with Glacier Explorers, and I realized I was stupid and didn’t bring good enough outerwear…so stocked up on some expensive merino wool gloves and hat.
Then we took an easy 20-30 minute walk out to the boat docks. The walk itself was really beautiful, and the scenery almost a bit alien landscape-y.
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I dubbed the boat trip itself #icebergporn…it was a clear day and not too windy, and the reflections on the water were stunning. The mixture of sunny blue skies, snow-capped mountains in the distance, massive icebergs, and the iconic milky turquoise glacier water is unbeatable.
At 27 km long, the Tasman Glacier is the longest in New Zealand. We got to see lots of little baby icebergs that had calved off the mama glacier, and then got up close and personal with the glacier too (though not *too* close). One thing that drew me to this tour is that it was small and intimate…only one other tour boat out at the same time, and we barely crossed paths.
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Hike the Hooker Valley Track
Then we grabbed lunch at the Hermitage Hotel before heading over to hike Hooker Valley. This is still one of my all-time favorite experiences. Not just in New Zealand, but EVER. To me, this is an absolute must-do on any New Zealand itinerary.
The Hooker Valley Track is straight out of Lord of the Rings…suspension bridges, wooden walkways, milky aquamarine rivers and lakes, craggy snow-capped mountains, view for days, and (maybe best of all) a glacier lake with floating icebergs.
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Even better?? It’s completely doable for people of almost any fitness levels, and can be done in a few hours.
There are proglacial lakes, hiker memorials, sweeping views, and you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself (at least when we went in October, slightly off-season). We felt like hobbits heading off on a great adventure.
Then at the halfway point (where you turn around and go back), you clear a hill and are greeted with THIS VIEW of Hooker Valley Lake with Mt. Cook/Aoraki in the background.
The views are unparalleled, and yes, we brought our own whiskey and cups for a dram with ancient clear glacier ice 🙂
Mt. John Observatory
Before heading back to Christchurch on our last day, we had about four hours to spend exploring.
Our first stop was the Lake Tekapo hot springs pools for some relaxation. Not necessarily a must-do, but a good way to chill for a couple hours and kill some time. We soaked for a bit with a lovely view, then headed up to Mt. John Observatory for a spot of lunch and some crazy views.
It was insanely windy at the top, but as you can see, the clear mountain view is worth it. This is part of the dark zone, and they do actual stargazing tours—I would have loved to experience that! We had a lovely lunch and coffee at the Astro Cafe (which is kitschy and cute, with alien-themed decor), then had to hit the road for Christchurch.
From there we flew to Nelson and got settled in our lovely house rental for the next several days.
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Explore Nelson & Marlborough areas
As I mentioned at the outset, we were staying 8 days in the Nelson area due to a church convention, so this is a bit unusual. But if you’re planning your own New Zealand itinerary just for fun, I wouldn’t recommend quite that long…probably 3-5 days would do it (and spend the other time around the Fox Glacier, or even further south). But I *do* think the area is worth a stop on your itinerary.
Because we were staying so long, we rented a cool house in Nelson City that helped us keep food costs down by cooking a lot (including awesome grill-outs on the back deck). It was thoroughly charming. And because it’s how we roll, @sjems5 and I would be up very early every morning and drink our coffee on the deck while FREEZING and watching the sun rise.
While we didn’t get to do everything, here are some of the draws in the area:
- The beer and wine scenes (Nelson and Marlborough are well-known for these, respectively)
- Gorgeous scenery and road trip potential
- Adventure (such as skydiving)
- Tons of hiking (including nearby Nelson Lakes National Park)
- Exploring Abel Tasman National Park
- Easy day trips (or overnight trips) to places like Kaikoura, Punakaiki (pancake rocks), Chetwood Forest and Takaka Hill (Lord of the Rings scenery)
Abel Tasman National Park
Named after the European explorer who sighted it in the 1600s, Abel Tasman National Park was founded in 1942 and covers only 92 square miles (the smallest of the country’s national parks). It’s famous for its unbelievable coastal trek views, as well as great wildlife, and is a MUST in the Nelson area.
We barely scratched the surface here, just spending a few hours on a little boat charter trip. You can do everything from a bit of boating or sea kayaking, to camping, to a multi-day hike (one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”).
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You know I love a boat trip, so getting out on the water was a blast. It was a gorgeous day, and the green-blue waters, bleached-white rocks, fur seals, hidden coves, and more were perfect.
Skydiving over Abel Tasman National Park
This was my 30th birthday present to myself, and an all-time favorite memory! The Queenstown area is really known for adrenaline sports like skydiving, but the Abel Tasman area is another great option because you get to see views of the stunning Abel Tasman National Park from a couple miles up! If you’re wanting to try something crazy, a New Zealand itinerary is the time to do it!
I chose the 16,500 foot jump, and loved every minute…though strangely did not get a giant adrenaline rush like I’d expected!
Winery & brewery tours
This area is a mecca for both wonderful wine and delicious beer. The Nelson region produces all of New Zealand’s commercial hops, and there’s a thriving craft brewery scene (quite young/new when we visited in 2014, but has grown a lot since then).
We sampled whenever we could, and loved the quality and diverse types (though a lot of hoppier beers than I tend toward). The three main places we got to try were Golden Bear Brewing in Mapua Wharf, tiny Hop Federation Brewery, and The Vic (actually a tavern and restaurant where they serve Mac’s beers).
Rather like boat trips, it’s no secret that touring wineries is one of my great loves. New Zealand’s wines are fairly well-known internationally, but the U.S. really only gets to see a couple of these. So exploring some of the region’s wineries was a must-do on our itinerary!
We ended up sticking near Nelson rather than going over to Marlborough (home to the famous Kim Crawford, among others), but if you have time you should definitely do both. Our afternoon started at Kina Cliffs, but they were sadly closed…we enjoyed a moment with the stunning views though! We also visited Kahurangi Estate (get the pizza as well!), Moutere Hills, and Waimea Winery. You can see more details about our visits here.
Scenic driving routes
Like so much of New Zealand, this area has tons of different options for just driving and enjoying beautiful scenery and lovely things to do. One scenic route we did was from Mapua to Ruby Bay to Moteuka. It was a really full day, and we still couldn’t see everything so went back on other days to cover things we’d missed.
The route isn’t so much about specific major sights, but rather sections of coastline full of little surprises…impromptu turn-offs, hidden-gem breweries and wineries, beautiful deserted stretches of beach, and cute little towns.
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One must-visit place is The Jester House, which is an odd, whimsical cafe with an Alice in Wonderland-type vibe. Mapua is another must, with both the best fish and chips we had on our trip as well as Golden Bear Brewery. You can see more about all the places we loved on this route here.
Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park
We’d planned a day trip to Kaikoura, but realized it just was a little too far for what we wanted to do (and the wrong time of year for the killer whales). So instead we looked for some good hiking options in the area, and settled on an afternoon at Nelson Lakes National Park.
Once there, the rangers suggested we try out Pinchgut Track, a few-hour hike on the Mt. Robert Track. This was my hip’s first real test post-surgery so it was a little more challenging for me, but overall a lovely (steep) hike with gorgeous views.
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We loved the beautiful Lake Roitoiti as well, and spent a bit of time on the jetty cooling off after our hike.
Rotorua area on North Island
We actually supposed to go to Hamilton for a night and do a hot air balloon ride, but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we headed to Rotorua a day early.
Why Rotorua? Well, first and foremost because Enoc really wanted to go to Hobbiton, and we all got to choose one thing. So in looking at the best way to structure the itinerary, Rotorua made a lot of sense.
Rotorua is full of interesting and somewhat contradicting natural sights…vividly-colored hot springs, neon yellow ponds, towering redwoods, quiet lush off-the-grid lakes, and nearby movie magic. Side note: Capers Epicurean was our go-to breakfast spot, absolutely delish!
We based ourselves at this adorable cabin on Lake Tarawera, about a 20-minute drive on winding roads from Rotorua. It was completely off-the-grid, so (at the time) no cell signal or wifi…which, while inconvenient, made it amazingly peaceful and beautiful. When we needed wifi, we drove 20 minutes into town and stopped at the Burger King to use their wifi. Going off the grid is part of the charm in any New Zealand itinerary, in my opinion!
Every morning @sjems5 and I got up and drank coffee on the deck, soaked in the view, and then walked down to the little lake jetty with our coffees. We loved the deck view, and the gardens even had a handful of the awesome blue glow worms that the area is famous for!
One of the biggest draws in this area is the colorful thermal springs of Wai-O-Tapu. It’s an active geothermal area in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone, and has a lot of the same look and feel as Yellowstone National Park in the United States (from a hot spring standpoint).
But beyond the more iconic rainbow hot springs, I was completely obsessed with a couple of the little lakes/ponds that were each a super unique, vivid color. The neon hi-liter yellow one is a particular fave!
Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest
Even if you’ve spent time with California’s mind-blowing redwoods, New Zealand’s are worth a visit. The forest is so peaceful and beautiful, and it’s a special experience to wander meditatively through towering trees and enjoying the earthy scents and hushed silence.
Also, it wins the Redwood Wars in the “Name” category…
We’ve said this is our first album cover 🙂
This is actually about an hour from Rotorua, on the way back toward Auckland, but is also an easy day trip from Rotorua if you’re based there. Yes, it’s super touristy and overpriced. But (despite my best efforts), I was thoroughly charmed by Hobbiton and it was pretty chill, all things considered.
We headed straight from Hobbiton back to Auckland, grabbed a bite to eat, and then headed to the airport.
More of this 🙂
Tips for renting a car & driving in New Zealand
- Insurance is always included in the price but you can buy extra coverage to reduce the deductible. If you purchase your own insurance, glass coverage (for rocks and breakins) is usually extra…and that type of damage is unfortunately fairly common. Also read your credit card’s policies if depending on coverage through them. You usually have to reject additional coverage and some limit the length of rental.
- To that point, New Zealand is often on the list of countries excluded from even really good credit card’s protection of rental cars. If you’re planning to use your credit card’s rental car insurance and declining the rental car company’s, make sure you call them ahead of time and I’d recommend getting a letter of coverage that specifically states that you’re covered in New Zealand.
- Driving distances: New Zealand is about the size of the U.S. state of Colorado in overall area, but MUCH narrower and longer. Don’t be deceived by apparent distances—they will take longer than you think! As you’re planning your trip, I recommend using this AA Roadtrip tool (rather than Google Maps) and add about 25% extra time as well. You can use Google Maps or Waze once you’re there, but for purposes of estimating the time needed this is much more accurate. Not to mention you’ll want to stop frequently for photos!
- If you haven’t driven on the left, this isn’t a bad place to start out, particularly in more remote areas. The one exception (I’ve heard) is that driving in Queenstown isn’t worth it. But everywhere we went it was super easy.
- Road safety and etiquette: Sometimes the middle line on the road disappears, so be very careful when driving. Most of the South Island are two-lane highways (one lane each way) so you’ll also get stuck behind slow vehicles frequently—not to mention one-lane bridges. Also, they take speed limits very seriously here so stick to the limit or risk major fines (also it’s not uncommon to have animals in the road, so it’s also a safety concern). If someone wants to pass you but you don’t want to go faster, just pull over when it’s safe and let them by (this is very common in NZ).
- Also, make sure to get gas frequently! And food, for that matter, if you’re not traveling in peak season. Neither is a sure bet out in remote areas, so take it where you can get it. Gas is very expensive, as are many things in New Zealand.
WHEW….that was a lot. But it’s a mind-blowing place and it takes some time to really do your trip planning justice and put together the most amazing New Zealand itinerary. I hope this helps your own planning process a little!
Other epic roadtrip itineraries you’ll love:
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- Epic Road Trip Itinerary: A Guide to the Oregon Coast
- What to See on Iceland’s Golden Circle
- Drinking in the Beauty and History of Slovenia’s Julian Alps
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