If you plan to visit this beautiful country for just eight days like we did, I want to stop you right there and urge you to extend your stay. It’s impossible to get anywhere quickly when every turn of the road beckons you to pull over and send you scrambling for your camera. All said and done, we drove close to 2000 kilometers through the country’s winding roads. So, if you want to follow in our footsteps, our itinerary should help you make the most of your limited time.
Get ready to sleep little, drive a lot (watch this primer on driving tips), and fall in love over and over again with New Zealand.
Pre-trip: Packing and flying
If you plan to visit during the spring and summer seasons (November – March), flights will be expensive. Subscribe to email lists for the airline that fits your dates best—Air New Zealand in our case—so you don’t want to miss your chance at a flash sale when there is one.
Try not to pack more than a 50L backpack can hold (check out my travel companion). Pack your clothes in compression bags if you tend to overpack like I do. ONE pair of comfortable sneakers should do just fine. New Zealand is a country known for it’s great walks and adventure sports so pack clothes accordingly.
Things we wish people had told us about New Zealand
- The people (a.k.a the Kiwis) are disarmingly friendly and helpful 🙂 And that matters because..
- Gas stations close early (like 6 pm early in some parts of the south island). And even if they’re open…
- They could be farther away than your tank can carry you
- They require a chip and pin card IF there is a kiosk (this one applies to Americans because a majority of us don’t ever use pins for our credit cards!). We were bailed out by a friendly Kiwi not once, not twice, but three times because we are so used to everything being open and available 24/7 in America.
- Restaurants may advertise themselves as being open late but IT DEPENDS on the foot traffic on any given day, even in tourist towns.
Where to stay
New Zealand is a backpackers paradise but hotels are relatively cheap even without the hostel stay. Most of the hotels we stayed at were under $80 per night; holiday parks are cheaper still. The catch with holiday parks is that they are pretty basic rooms – you will need to pay extra for sheets and towels. All add-ons included, it’s still a smart choice.
If we visit again (and surely we will), we would choose an RV. On several occasions we ended up far away from our hotel following one beautiful vista after another and it was a bummer to have to drag ourselves back to where we were staying. New Zealand is a very safe country you don’t have to worry about snakes or creepy crawlies wherever you land up.
Lastly, try to do a farm stay at least for one day and allow yourself a chance to unwind. We stayed at the Kepler Mountain View Farm in Manapouri, about an hour away from Fiordland National Park, where we got to hang out with some Alpacas, chat away with the friendly owner Jessie about life in New Zealand, and buy Alpaca wool scarves, sheared and dyed by Jessie herself.
All that adventure makes for a hungry traveler
If you’re looking for a culinary experience, New Zealand probably isn’t it (at least
compared to the likes of Spain or India). But, tasty food was the least of our problems. Most restaurants shut down between 2 and 5 pm in the afternoon. And even though
restaurants advertise late hours for dinner, it depends. On two occasions, we walked into a restaurant that was supposed to be open for another two hours but they had decided to shut down because they didn’t have enough foot traffic. After a couple days of surviving on McDonald’s we learned to plan our drives to get to our destinations by at least 7 pm to have a chance at food! And that isn’t really a challenge except for the fact that you’re compelled to pull over every few minutes to take in the amazing landscapes around you.
So visit the nearest Countdown or any other supermarket to load up on snack bars and ready to eat meals.
Everything else in between
With the basics taken care of, it’s now time to get to the meaty bits – what to do when in New Zealand. In our opinion, South Island is the more scenic part of New Zealand but in all fairness, we didn’t spend too much time in the north. Whatever you decide to do though, you can’t go wrong in this country!
Bethells beach, Auckland: A place seldom frequented by tourists according to a local Kiwi we ran into with the most beautiful black sand beach I’ve seen.
Rotorua: Known for it’s Maori cultural immersion at Te Puia complete with music, dance, and a traditional Hangi meal.
Hobbiton: an absolute treat for all ages regardless of your Middle-earth IQ. Try to make it for the morning tours because the later you go, the more tourists you will have to photoshop out of your pictures.
Blue Spring (Te Waihou) trail: the clearest river we had ever seen leading to the bluest water we had ever seen. If you’re short on time, the best way is to hike the 20 minute walk to the location of the Blue Spring (entrance on Leslie road).
Waitomo: The Black Water Rafting experience is a must if you can handle dark caves, cold water, and small spaces. We’ve crawled through many caves around the world but nothing quite like this one. The tours have varying levels of difficulty; even the classic Black Labyrinth tour was intense. But when you silently glide through the calm waters at the end while staring up at a glowing blue ceiling, the cuts and bruises are all worth it. If this is too much for you, the regular glow worm tour is just as beautiful except for the part where you have to share a boat with nearly 30 other people.
Otorohanga Kiwi house: Kiwis are hard to spot. And what a pity it would be to not see a bird that’s only found in New Zealand. The Otorohanga Kiwi house guaranteed a Kiwi spotting so we weren’t going to pass it up. This spot has many other native New Zealand birds to see but none as fascinating as the feisty Great Spotted Kiwi by the name of Atu. Get there early to make it for the Kiwis’ feeding time.
Akaroa: If you love dolphins as much as I do, you can understand why we stopped here. New Zealand is home to many endemic species, one of them being the world’s rarest and smallest Hector’s dolphins, and Black Cat Cruises gave us a chance to swim with them in the wild while allowing the dolphins to dictate how close they wanted to get to you.
Lake Tekapo: Apart from the beautiful lake, its shores carpeted by sweet-smelling lupins, Tekapo is the largest international dark sky reserve. We did not time it correctly so we ended up there a few days before a full moon. Nevertheless, the star gazing tour we did with Earth & Sky at Mount John was one of THE BEST educational and entertaining ones I’ve known.
Queenstown: Looking for an adrenaline rush? The Kawarau Bungy is the world’s first commercial Bungy spot located over the beautiful Kawarau river. You can even ask to get your head dipped in the water which is one of the reasons we chose this one in particular. My husband did the jump; I watched. And I honestly can’t tell you which experience is scarier.
Queenstown itself is a beautiful city located by the harbor. The restaurants are more upscale and diverse and the whole place was reminiscent of Vancouver for me.
Te Anau and Fiordland National Park: I have no doubt that visiting one of the Sounds will make your itinerary. We saw Milford and it was magnificent although I’ve heard that Doubtful Sound is just as beautiful with half the tourists. Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound and the drive from there to your Milford cruise is an adventure on it’s own. The Kepler, Routeburn and Milford tracks all have their trail heads in the area for your “tramping” pleasure.
Stewart Island: Since Fox Glacier was out of the question due to bad weather, we decided to check out Stewart Island instead because we heard that there was a good chance of spotting Kiwis in the wild. The ferry to Stewart Island does not run frequently so if you plan to do a day trip, you would want to catch the first one out. When we got to the parking lot at Bluff, the attendant applauded us for our adventurous spirit. We didn’t understand what she meant until 40 minutes later when we were getting tossed about in our ferry out in the open sea. The boat flew through the air and down we went like a roller coaster as the waves came crashing. The captain’s facial expression—in true, understated Kiwi fashion— showed absolutely no sign of battling any rough weather, which in hindsight was the only thing that stopped us from dying of sheer terror at the sight of the dark, angry water.
We ended up not spotting any Kiwis although we captured many other native birds in the forests of Stewart Island. It could have been the weather that kept them hidden but to increase your chances of seeing one, spend the night on Stewart island so you can check out the twilight bird tours.
The Catlins: The pièce de résistance, the cherry on top of our New Zealand trip – the best part of any adventure is the part you didn’t plan, the part that unexpectedly comes your way and makes the whole thing worthwhile. My husband discovered the Catlins by chance while leafing through some brochures at the Stewart Island ferry station. It’s one of the lesser known spots and I would go back to New Zealand solely to do the complete length of this scenic coastal drive again. Points of interest include Slope point, the southern most point on South Island, spotting Hoiho’s or yellow-eyed penguins waddling about at dusk, beautiful waterfalls, and fossilized trees. It’s too beautiful to miss. Consider yourself strongly advised 🙂
While I would highly recommend the places that made our itinerary, go beyond and find your own adventure. Find that unexpected destination that helps you tell your New Zealand story in a way that only you can. And if you do, we would love to hear from you so we can plot our return!