Our New Zealand road trip itinerary

New Zealand road trip itinerary

A New Zealand road trip was our #1 bucket list item for years, so to put it lightly, we were extremely excited to get there. And our one month there was everything we could have hoped for, and more. New Zealand surpassed every expectation with breathtakingly beautiful scenery, interesting wildlife, and extremely nice people. We found others’ blogs extremely helpful in our research and planning, so wanted to share our experience as well. So in this post, we’re sharing our complete New Zealand road trip itinerary. We spent a whole (amazing, glorious, unforgettable) month there, but you can easily break this up into a two week New Zealand itinerary and only do the North Island or the South Island. We’ve also included links to more detailed information about the individual destinations to help make the most of your time in this most incredible country.

A few notes about our New Zealand trip

Before we delve into the details of our New Zealand itinerary, we just wanted to share some notes for context. Everyone travels differently, so these are the things that were important to us for our visit.

  • We wanted to see both the North Island and the South Island of New Zealand.
  • We wanted to book all our sleeping accommodations in advance.
  • We rented a car, not a campervan.
  • Sarah doesn’t drive, so since Justin would be doing all the driving, we tried to build in some days with little to no driving.
  • This trip was part of our 13-month trip around the world, so we were working with a different budget than if this was just an ordinary vacation.
  • Since Sarah has a lung disease, major hiking (longer than one or two hours or on ice/glaciers) wasn’t on our agenda and we weren’t going to be participating in any adventure sports (e.g., bungee jumping, skydiving, etc.).

New Zealand North Island itinerary

Auckland (Days 1-3)

View of Auckland on the ferry to Waiheke Island, New Zealand

We flew into Auckland direct from Adelaide, Australia on Air New Zealand. We spent three nights in Auckland, in the Ponsonby neighborhood. We spent one day on Waiheke Island, and think it should be included on any trip to Auckland!

Read more about our time in Auckland here!

Rotorua (Day 4)

Rotorua, New Zealand

The drive from Auckland to Rotorua took about three and a half hours. It was pouring (or bucketing as they say in New Zealand), so we didn’t get to explore the surrounding area much during our one-night stay. We had planned to stop at Hobbiton on our way to Rotorua, but due to the rain scrapped that plan.

Read more about our time in Rotorua here!

Taupo (Days 5-6)

Orakei Korako Geothermal Park & Cave, North Island, New Zealand

The drive from Rotorua to Taupo is only about an hour, but there are some cool stops in between. We visited Orakei Korako Geothermal Park and would highly recommend it. It’s in the middle of the two towns and the drive there is through some lovely rolling green hills.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand

In Taupo, we booked two nights at the Gables Lakefront Motel so we could enjoy staring out onto Lake Taupo and we definitely did. Our own personal thermal hot pot was also a big plus.

Read more about our time in Taupo here!

Hawke’s Bay (Days 7-8)

Redcliffe Homestead, Taradale, New Zealand

When we read about a home stay in the Hawke’s Bay area on a farm with two golden retrievers, we knew we had to stay there. Our two-night stay at Redcliffe Homestead in Taradale was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Drive from Taupo to Hawke's Bay, New Zealand

The drive to the area from Taupo was also really great. It was two hours to get to popular Napier through lovely rolling green hills, pine tree farms, and clouds. And Taradale was about twenty minutes from there.

Read more about our time in Hawke’s Bay here!

Martinborough (Day 9)

Driving from Taradale to Martinborough, New Zealand

We stopped in Martinborough for one night to break up the long (and again beautiful) drive to Wellington.

Martinborough Brewery, New Zealand

There are plenty of stops along the way including Tui Brewery and Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre where you can see many native New Zealand birds including kiwis. We had a great day, but messed up our timing a bit and didn’t have a chance to explore Martinborough’s great wineries. We did, however, hit their brewery!

Read more about our time in Martinborough here!

Wellington (Days 10-12)

Driving from Martinborough to Wellington, New Zealand

No one warned us about the drive from Martinborough to Wellington (which we thought odd because people warned us about every other drive on this journey!). The drive only took about an hour and a half, but a large part of it was through twisty-turny roads in the mountains, and we were driving at rush hour with a whole bunch of logging trucks.

Wellington Cable Car, New Zealand

Wellington itself is a really cool city and we could have spent much more than the three nights we did.

Read more about our time in Wellington here!

New Zealand South Island itinerary

Oamaru (Day 13)

View from above of the North Island, New Zealand

We flew from Wellington to Christchurch (a quick flight) on Jetstar. The views were as great as one would think.

Steampunk HQ, Oamaru, New Zealand

We picked up our car and drove approximately four hours south to Oamaru. The drive was the most boring yet, but we were prepared for it. And come on, how boring can driving in New Zealand really be! We stayed one night about a half hour south of the center, but would recommend staying in town since there’s a bunch of things to see and do.

Read more about our time in Oamaru here!

Otago Peninsula (Days 14-15)

Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Friends had told us one of the highlights of their New Zealand trip was a stay on the Otago Peninsula. It’s known for its diverse wildlife and we were excited to check it out.

Moeraki Boulders, New Zealand

The drive to Dunedin from Oamaru took about an hour and a half. An awesome sight along the way are the Moeraki Boulders, large 60-million-year-old rock formations on a beach.

Portobello Road, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

The drive to our B&B about halfway along the peninsula’s infamous Portobello Road was about 30 minutes. We had been warned about this one – it’s a super narrow, twisty-turny road with rock wall on one side and a drop to the water on the other.

Read more about our time on the Otago Peninsula here!

Te Anau (Day 16; Days 18-19)

Gore, New Zealand

The drive from the Otago Peninsula to Te Anau was a long one and we didn’t even take the longest Southern Scenic Route. Instead, we kept further inland, passing through the town of Gore.

Balclutha, New Zealand

The drive was still quite scenic – and we passed through the most southern point we’ve ever been in the world (Balclutha at 46.2390° S)!

Driving from Dunedin to Te Anau, New Zealand

In all it took us about five hours. We stayed a total of three nights in Te Anau but it was split up by one night at Milford Sound. We spent one full day on the Doubtful Sound cruise.

Read more about our time in Te Anau here!

Milford Sound (Day 17)

Milford Sound, New Zealand

We (seriously) splurged on one night at the Milford Sound Lodge. This allowed us to take our time on our drives between Te Anau and Milford Sound and not feel rushed when we wanted to stop for a hike or pictures. The drive between the two is incredible but harrowing at points. You can do it in about two hours without stopping, but you wouldn’t want to. We spent the most time on our drive there with three major stops for hiking and sightseeing. The next day, we woke up for an early-morning Milford Sound cruise.

Milford Sound Highway, New Zealand

Read more about our time in Milford Sound here!

Arrowtown (Days 20-22)

Devil's Staircase, New Zealand

Friends recommended that we stay in Arrowtown instead of Queenstown since it is more relaxed and we’re not the “Adventure City” types. We were very happy with our three days there, which included several walks around the area. We also thoroughly enjoyed the three hour drive from Te Anau, even though it includes a portion called the Devil’s Staircase.

Arrowtown, New Zealand

Read more about our time in Arrowtown here!

Twizel (Day 23)

That Wanaka Tree, New Zealand

We did a one-night stop in Twizel so we could wake up early and drive to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to do a hike (we didn’t want to stay at Mount Cook Village). The drive from Arrowtown took about four hours, which included a long stop for lunch and a walk in Wanaka.

Driving to Twizel, New Zealand

The drive from Wanaka to Twizel included an especially scenic part through yellowish green hills.

Read more about our time in Twizel here!

Lake Tekapo (Days 24-25)

Mt. Cook Village, New Zealand

Per the above, we drove from Twizel to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to Lake Tekapo (which involved retracing the drive along the side of Lake Pukaki). Including our hike, it took about five hours. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is unbelievably stunning, but it depends on the weather. In the morning, driving into the area, it was covered in a blanket of cloud. Driving out a couple hours later, the clouds had started to part to reveal that we were surrounded by gorgeous mountains.

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Lake Tekapo was one of our favorite places of the trip. We would recommend booking accommodations there well in advance because it’s extremely popular (for good reason… it’s stunning as well).

Read more about our time in Lake Tekapo here!

Christchurch (Days 26-27)

Rakaia Gorge, New Zealand

Our final stop was back in Christchurch. We took the more scenic route from Lake Tekapo, which took about four hours including a quick stop at the Rakaia Gorge.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch is undergoing major construction as they are rebuilding everything destroyed by the 2011 earthquake, which was pretty much everything in the city center. We enjoyed our time there, but could have kept it to one night instead of two.

Read more about our time in Christchurch here!

New Zealand road trip tips

  • Add quite a bit of time to whatever Google Maps says a drive will take to account for: photo stops, road work requiring one to thread the car through hundreds of traffic cones, twisty-turny roads up mountains or along water, slow tourists not used to driving on the left, and being a slow tourist yourself!
  • Drive carefully and let faster cars (typically locals) pass.
  • Stop for gas when you see it – there aren’t a lot of gas stations, especially on the South Island – and we even ran into one that took neither foreign credit cards or cash.
  • When you leave your car in a carpark of a tourist attraction, bring all of your valuables and try not to let your belongings show in the car – they are frequently broken into. We didn’t have any problems, but heard many horror stories.
  • New Zealand was a budget-buster for us, from the rental car and gas, to the sights and attractions, to more expensive accommodations and food overall. But it was worth every penny… and probably more. We had the most incredible time and will never forget it.

Te Mata Peak, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand

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13 Replies to “Our New Zealand road trip itinerary”

  1. Your pictures of here are just so amazing!! It’s a pity you didn’t make it to hobbiton but at least now you have a reason to go back!

  2. I would love to spend a month in New Zealand. What a great experience!

  3. what a great wrap up! I want to live in NZ for at least 6 months. This post gave me a lot of excitement for my future. thanks, love!!

  4. Seems wonderful and I hope I can make it there myself to see those amazing landscapes from your pictures 🙂

  5. Amazing that you two spent a month there, what a great way to fully experience it! You said that it’s a budget buster, have you guys been to Australia? How would you compare it in terms of cost?

    1. Sarah and Justin says: Reply

      Yes, we were in Australia too. In general, NZ is a little less expensive than Australia, BUT, for us, there was more to spend our money on in NZ, e.g. fjord cruises and wildlife tours! We also spent a ton on 1 night at Milford Sound and 2 nights in Lake Tekapo. If we had planned everything a little earlier, we definitely could have found better deals.

  6. This looks like my dream trip! I’ve been dying to go to New Zealand for ages. It seems to have so much stunning scenery everywhere you look. That homestay with golden retrievers has also now officially been added to my list of must-dos. Now I just need to figure out how to get a month of vacation time.

    1. Sarah and Justin says: Reply

      New Zealand was our dream trip! But instead of taking a month off to do it, we quit our jobs to travel for a whole year 🙂

  7. This looks like a beautiful trip. You guys go to see and do so much! kudos!

  8. How beautiful are your images?! I’m going to have a hunt for you on Insta because I’d love to see this pop up on my feed!

    Shame about Hobbiton, thats one of my must-visits some day, but hey, maybe we can go together!

    1. Sarah and Justin says: Reply

      Thanks so much! I’m spoitras9 on Instagram. Hope to connect with you!

  9. New Zealand is beautiful and so are you pictures you took, they are breathtaking. I love how many scenic places it has and how you got to experience everything. My favorite. by far on your post has to be the drive from Te Anau, that includes a portion called the Devil’s Staircase, breathtakingly beautiful!

  10. This is really helpful while I plan my Kiwi trip! Thank you so much!!

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