Stops: Auckland, Piha Beach, Rotorua, Tongariro Crossing, Waitomo Caves, Hobbiton, Wellington
Auckland to Piha Beach: 1 hour; Day Trip
Auckland to Hobbiton Set (Matamata): 2 hours 15 minutes
Hobbiton to Waitomo Glowworm Caves: 1 hour 30 minutes
Waitomo to Rotorua: 2 hours
Rotorua to Tongariro Alpine Crossing: 2 hours
Tongariro to Wellington: 4 hours 7 minutes
Auckland and Piha Beach— Auckland is a nice little city to spend some time in- if you don’t mind rain. However, we all know that you’re not traveling around New Zealand to be stuck in a cement jungle. Grab your car, and head out for Piha beach just an hour away. If you go at night, you can catch a beautiful astro photo of the milky way lighting up the night sky. Just be sure to bring a blanket and get ready for some friendly sandflies to join you if you plan on sitting down.
Hobbiton Movie Set— For $84 NZD, you can take a 2-hour tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata. On the tour, you’ll quickly see 37 hobbit holes and get to take a photo in the one below. You also get a free beer in the Green Dragon Inn with the option of dressing up in olden-day garb. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen any of Peter Jackson’s movies, the tour guide told us that the majority of people that go on the tour haven’t seen them either!
The facts that the guide shares about the insanely picky director will prove interesting enough for you to want to watch the movies after your visit. For example, for the Hobbit movie, Peter Jackson had a replica made of the real tree at Bag End that originally appeared in Lord of the Rings. This tree had 376,000 leaves, which all had to be handpainted for the movie. However, after Peter Jackson saw the tree in person, he decided the color was not what he had expected, and asked it all to be repainted before shooting. The tree only appeared in the Hobbit movie for 20 seconds. A whole lot of work for a whole lot of nothing. Besides interesting facts, the land, vegetation, and carefully-kept hobbit holes will transport you into another world.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves— How excited are you about the larvae of the fungus gnat? Not very? Well, you should be. The larvae are known as “glowworms” and they light up the caves with their bioluminescence in Waitomo, Te Anu and various other caves throughout New Zealand. They enjoy the warmer, wet environments so the best time to see them flourish is in the summer. For just $51 NZD, you’ll get a 45-minute guided boat tour through the Waitomo Cave and see thousands of shining blue glowworms, reminding us all of the glowing forest scene in Avatar.
Rotorua— Famously known for its awful stench, Rotorua has a lot more to offer than just bad gas. Of course, we all know this gas is the main attraction because it’s coming from the thermal pools bubbling all around the city. If you want to see extremely vivid pools, you’ll have to buy a $32.50 ticket to Wai-O-Tapu “Thermal Wonderland”, where you’ll spot a geyser, and orange and lime green pools of bubbling water and stanky stank.
Besides thermal pools, you’ll also find a hub of Maori culture (New Zealand’s aboriginal people) at the Tamaki Maori village. For the evening experience, you can see original Maori dances, face tattooing and ancient ceremonies. It’s both interactive and feeds you a hangi dinner (food cooked on heated rocks that are buried in a pit oven). This experience will cost you a pretty penny of $117.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing— This 12-mile hike (19.4 km) is not for the faint of heart. The hike is steep and tiring, and each year there are people that need to be rescued on their way out. It’s not a terrible idea to purchase a tracking device (they sell them at the welcome center) and come prepared for all types of weather. New Zealand is famous for it’s unpredictable, intense weather which can transform from a nice summer day to an ice-cold, winter rain in just minutes.
The hike is touted as one of the most beautiful day hikes in all of New Zealand, and rightfully so. The strenuous climb will take you through volcanic rock to a mineral-stained, bright blue lake and a red crater with visible, old lava flow.
A bus is needed for arrival because the car park does not allow you to stay more than 4 hours- a much shorter time than the hike’s duration. These shuttles are also a vital way to ensure that no one is left behind on the hike and all heads are accounted for. For shuttle services, click here.
Wellington— Famously known as the “windy city”, Wellington will blow your socks off, literally. When first deciding where to settle in New Zealand, my brother and I almost chose this city, before we were awed by Queenstown- more on that later.
This charming and hipster-filled seaside town made me feel less cool every day I was there. Even better, the mouthwatering vegan pizzas and rich vegan desserts made my inner fat child cry. If you don’t mind being blown around a bit, New Zealand’s capital might just win your heart.
Stops: Abel Tasman, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass – Castle Hill, Lake Tekapo, Moeraki, Catlin’s Forest Park – Slope Point, Fjordland- Milford Sound, Queenstown, Mt Aspiring National Park – Blue Pools, Wanaka, Mt Cook – Hooker Valley Track, Franz Josef Glacier
Ferry from North Island to South Island: Wellington – Picton
Picton – Abel Tasman: 3 hours
Abel Tasman – Kaikoura: 5 hours
Kaikoura – Christchurch: 2 hours 40 minutes
Christchurch – Castle Hill: 1 hour 30 minutes
Castle Hill – Lake Tekapo: 3 hours and 14 minutes
Lake Tekapo – Hooker Valley Track, Mt Cook: 1 hour 15 minutes
Hooker Valley Track, Mt Cook – Moeraki: 4 hours 21 minutes
Moeraki – Slope Point, Catlin’s Forest Park: 4 hours
Slope Point – Milford Sound: 4 hours 30 minutes
Milford Sound – Queenstown: 3 hours 46 minutes
Queenstown – Wanaka: 1 hour 10 minutes
Wanaka – Blue Pools, Mt Aspiring National Park: 1 hour
Blue Pools – Franz Josef Glacier: 2 hours 40 minutes
Abel Tasman— This seaside park is home to lush foliage, pristine beaches and seal colonies. The best way to enjoy this area is by kayak. There are multi-day tours and day tours that take you through the sea caves and to see the famous Split Apple Rock. 1-day kayak tours generally run for $ 95.
Kaikoura— New Zealand’s South Island has very few highways. The SH1, leading directly to Kaikoura, was damaged in the 2016 earthquake and works are still underway to repair it. Because of this inconvenience, many tourists are now skipping Kaikoura on their road trip around the South Island. However, I found it to be one of the most pleasant places we visited and would recommend that you don’t make the same mistake. Kaikoura is a special town where you can feel the warmth of a summer day and ocean mist, all while staring at looming, snowy mountains in the backdrop. The sperm whales also think Kaikoura’s a gem and they can be seen here year-round. For a whale watching tour, go in the months of October-March, as the weather will be the most forgiving. Tours start around $150, with refunds available for weather cancellations or an 80% refund for whale no-shows (this doesn’t happen often; they brag a 90% success rate).
Christchurch— To be honest, Christchurch is not the most thrilling place. But it is the biggest city on the South Island and a great place to get some good food, refuel, and sleep in an uber cheap AirBnb. After the earthquake in 2016, most of the city was badly damaged, and it’s still trying to get it’s groove back. For my food recommendation, visit Portershed. We went back here so many times because it’s just that good. Also, if you’re looking for a nice stroll with pretty flowers, visit the Christchurch Botanic Garden.
Castle Hill— Castle Hill, located near Arthur’s Pass, is one of the most stunning and spiritual places we saw in New Zealand. Here you’ll find stately limestone rocks that, when close, tower over you, and when far, seem like unassuming ants dotting a hillside. The Dalai Lama visited here and felt the palpable, spiritual energy that the Maori people considered sacred. Lama described Castle Hill as the “spiritual center of the universe”. For more info, see my blog post on incredible New Zealand rock formations.
Lake Tekapo— If there’s anywhere to spend the night in New Zealand, it’s Tekapo. Home to a dark sky reserve and Mt John Observatory, you can take a night tour to view the constellations through powerful telescopes and see millions of stars with your bare eyes. The town of Tekapo has strict light regulations and is one of the darkest places in New Zealand, making it an incredible place to spot the milky way, and if you’re lucky, the faint red-green glow of the Southern Lights. Try to book your tour on a day with minimal moonlight and clear skies. Besides incredible skies, you’ll also find a strikingly blue, alpine lake, next to which the famous Church of the Good Shepherd stands. Because of the picturesque scene, you’ll see photographers and newlyweds congregated around the church for the perfect shot day and night.
Mt Cook, Hooker Valley Track— Mt Cook has the tallest peak in New Zealand, standing at a robust 3,724 meters (12,217 feet). One of the best ways to see it is by taking the Hooker Valley Track, a 10km long hike (~6 miles) that takes roughly 3 hours to complete. You’ll pass over famous swinging bridges and end up at a glacier lake where you’ll have views of melting icebergs and the grand Mt Cook. The walk isn’t strenuous and the views are ever-changing. Enjoy!
Moeraki— Home to the rare yellow-eyed penguin and absurdly symmetrical boulders, Moeraki is definitely worth a stop. Visit the beach to see the Moeraki boulders and take a short drive to the Katiki Point lighthouse in order to spot the penguins and seals. I suggest going between 3pm-sunset when they come in after feeding! For more info on the boulders, check out my other blog post.
Catlin’s Forest Park— The Catlins lies at the tip of the South Island and is one of the least visited places in New Zealand. There’s barely any cell service or even people, but there’s tons of wildlife. Hidden within Catlins’s wild forests, you’ll find a number of waterfalls you can hike to like Matai Falls, Mclean Falls, and Purakaunui Falls, just to name a few. If you’re visiting between late October and May, you can check out the incredible Cathedral Caves, a beachside cave on private property that costs $5 to visit. If that’s closed, don’t fret. You can still get incredible seaside views at Nugget Point. This lighthouse attracts photographers galore for its photogenic islets and sunrises. For more on Nugget Point, see my other blog post.
If you’re someone who’s more enthralled by large, beastly animals than a few rocks, then you should visit Waipapa Point instead. This lighthouse is home to large sea lions. If you watched my video above, you can see they were fighting each other for hours! Don’t get too close- they attack- and despite their massive amount of blubber, they can definitely outrun you. For more docile animals, like the endangered Hector’s dolphins and yellow-eyed penguins, visit Curio Bay. If you visit during low tide, you can also see ancient fossilized trees that date back to the Jurassic period, 180 million years ago. For more info on these incredible tree rocks, read this blog post.
Milford Sound— The number one spot for tourists on the South Island is Milford Sound. There’s only one road in and out of this fjord paradise. It’s so secluded that it only has 1 hotel and no one besides park staff are allowed to live there. I wrote an article just on Milford Sound which you can check out here.
Queenstown— This is the majestic little town that Tyler and I decided to reside in for the length of our stay in New Zealand. If you’ve ever been to Canada, people compare it to Whistler. Both towns are charmingly small and surrounded by enormous mountains. They also attract hoards of tourists, and most importantly, are the adventure sports capitals of their prospective countries. You can go speedboating, snowboarding, paragliding, or ride the largest canyon swing in the world. There are beautiful hikes, and I would argue, some of the best sunsets in the world. There’s enough here to stay for a lifetime or at least a few days. (Food recommendation: For an amazing vegan burrito, check out Caribe Latin Kitchen).
Wanaka— Wanaka is like a smaller version of Queenstown with an absurdly famous tree. Seriously guys, why is this crack willow so famous? I was expecting something a bit more impressive. It’s living in Lake Wanaka and looks like your gangly teenage nephew who hasn’t quite filled out yet. This article seems to think the tree became famous as some sort of joke. Who knows. The important thing is that the scenery surrounding the tree is gorgeous year-round. After you get your perfect photo, I suggest hiking Roy’s Peak to get an even better view.
Mt Aspiring National Park, Blue Pools— Right off of Haast highway, you’ll find a short, 20-minute hike that takes you to a turquoise oasis aptly named the Blue Pools. The water is freezing but feel free to jump off the swinging bridge and go for a cold swim. If your fun is over too soon, you can continue on the hike past the pools for a few more hours.
Franz Josef Glacier— There are two different ways to enjoy the rockhard snow of the Franz Josef Glacier. You can either do a 1.5-hour hike out to its face or you can walk on top of the glacier through the expensive heli hike experience. For just under $500, a helicopter will drop you and your guide off on the glacier, and you will hike with sharp ice-pick booties for a few hours. Don’t forget to bring snacks!
After your fun with the glacier, drive 30 minutes to nearby Lake Matheson. It’s famous for its reflective surface, and when the lake is calm, you’ll be seeing double of the imposing Mt Cook.