New Zealand 16 Day Drive Through Holiday Itinerary and Recommendations

Peter Jackson says New Zealand is not a small country but a large village. I don’t know. Geographically it is two islands separated by the beautiful Cook Strait. But in reality it is so much more. Mind blowing scenery, delightful wines, delicious food, relaxing natural springs, rich and diverse culture, exciting adventures and above all, friendly and lovely people. To me it’s a lot more than just one country. My friends and I had a holiday of a lifetime this year in New Zealand and I am so happy to share our adventure with you! 

We did a 16 day holiday in this magnificent country and most of it was a drive through.

Day 1 – Auckland

As you would know, Auckland (in the North Island) is the largest city in New Zealand. We landed in Auckland, picked our car from the airport Avis, and decided to just relax and explore the city. We went out to some local bars. A few of the places we tried and really liked are the Cornerbar (an intimate and convenient watering hole in the city center that has loads of local beer and wine options) and Mr. Murdoch’s Rooftop Tavern (a casual and popular local hangout where music cranks on until the wee hours to end the night on a rocking high).

Day 2 – Day trip to Paihia and Bay of Islands

We started really early in the morning (5:30 I think) to make it in time to our Bay of Island tour that we booked online on Viator. The drive to Paihia was really nice.  We had a quick coffee and take-away breakfast from a local cafe near the sea. The cruise was a bit long. But the Bay of Islands and their highlight Hole in the Rock was really beautiful. The morning cruise finished at lunchtime which was perfect because we had an amazing lunch, wine and cocktails at with a great pier view at CBK. On our way back to Auckland, we stopped over for a quick break at the Waipu Golf Club. They have a lovely gold course with as amazing view and a cute little cafe – 100% worth a visit just for the view. Dinner on our second night in Auckland was at Orbit 360 (a revolving fine dine restaurant on the Sky Tower that offers a unique dining experience with  360-degree panoramic views of Auckland). 

Hole in the Rock
Waipu Golf Club

Day 3 – Auckland to Hobbiton to Rotorua

We started our drive south from Auckland into the rolling farmland and lush dairy pastures of the Waikato farmland and soon arrived in the little town of Matamata where we visited the fully intact Hobbiton Film Set (from Lord of The Rings and Hobbit trilogies). We had a quick lunch at the Shire’s Rest cafe and proceeded to our guided tour of Hobbiton. This absolutely mind blowing tour took us through Hobbit Holes, the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill and so many behind-the-scenes tales and inside stories into the making of these movies. After a rich learning experience and honestly just a beautiful walk with the fans, we continued on to our journey and reached the geothermal town of Rotorua in the evening and spend some time around Rotorua Lake.

Hobbit Hole
Mill House Hobbiton

Day 4 – Rotorua

This little town is one of the most unique places I have seen. With its natural hot springs, boiling mud pools and steaming geysers, Rotorua sits within one of the worlds most active volcanic regions. We spend the day visiting the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park, Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Te Puia (for an encounter with the Maori Culture). After many long walks on this day, we were really tired and decided to relax and enjoy the evening at the Polynesian Spa. With the slowly setting sun, the panned view of the Rotorua Lake felt magically beautiful. We sat in the pools for 3 relaxing hours and then went to Eat Street in the city center for a delicious Thai dinner at Wild Rice. I highly recommend visiting Eat Street for dinner or just a few drinks while you are in Rotorua. There are lots of good options to pick from.

Day 5 – Rotorua to Wellington (amazing drive via lake Taupo)

Rotorua to Wellington is one of the best drives I’ve experienced. The weather was perfect. We started around 9:00 I think. We made our way to Wellington with plenty of stops for spectacular scenery – Lake Taupo (New Zealand’s largest lake) being the most famous one. We had a really fun morning at the Gypsy Village in Taupo, drove through the Desert Road and the Kapiti Coastline. The dramatically changing topography and magnificent scenery we saw on this day is something I will never forget.

Polynesian Spa in the day
Evening view Polynesian Spa

Day 6 – Wellington

Known to be a melting pot of art, culture, food and fashion, Wellington feels a lot like Melbourne. Its got quirky cafes, lane way bars, hipster eateries, and its windy too! We particularly enjoyed our brunch at the Hangar, hanging out around the Bohemian area called Cuba Street and sampling a lot of Malaysian food in the area. In the afternoon we decided to go for a short hike at the Red Rock Reserve and even spotted some seals! In the evening we drove to the high point of Mount Victoria and just relaxed there with other tourists to watch the grand sunset of Wellington.

Day 7 – Wellington to Marlborough (my favourite day)

On this day we took the morning ferry across the Cook Strait. In New Zealand, when you travel from one island to the other (in our case North Island to South Island) you need to leave the hired car on the departure island and then pick up another car from the arrival island. I recommend going with Inter Islander Ferry as their port is located close to the car drop off and pick up points. The cruise took us through the Marlborough Sounds and this region of small islands, crystal clear waters and secluded beaches gave us spectacular photographic opportunities through our journey to Picton. From Picton, we picked our new car and drove to our accommodation Chateau Marlborough, located in the heart of Marlborough – New Zealand’s largest wine producing region. We spend the rest of the afternoon tasting delicious local cheese, sampling and buying wines and had lunch at one of the wineries. My recommendation for wineries in no particular order: Spy valley Wines – small, simple and great wines. They only do cheese platters, charcuterie boards and nibbles for food. Wairau River Wines – good wine, good food. They have a full restaurant what serves delicious food made from local produce. They recommend good wine pairings. Cloudy Bay – the most premium of the three, great wine, great atmosphere, huge property. They all have great views and friendly staff. We spend the rest of the evening at our beautiful hotel pool sipping margaritas and enjoyed a lovely steak dinner.

Entering South Island

Day 8 – Marlborough to Kaikoura

The drive from Marlborough to Kaikoura is particularly beautiful because the road hugs the shore for around 50 kilometres of the drive between the South Pacific Ocean and Kaikoura Ranges. Kaikoura is one of the only places in New Zealand you can see whales year round. We took a scenic flight in a tiny plane with Air Kaikoura to look for whales and got lucky indeed. Along with enjoying many scenic lookouts, we also had an experience of a lifetime swimming with the Dolphins in Kaikoura with Dolphin Encounter.

Air Kaikoura

Day 9 – Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs to Christchurch.

We started off from Kaikoura after a great breakfast at Chiwis Cafe. I recommend eating here for a great breakfast and coffee. On our drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch we took a little detour to enjoy a massage and a relaxing dip in the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs. After a lovely day at the spa, we arrived at Christchurch in the evening.

Day 10 – Christchurch

We spend this day just exploring and chilling in Christ Church. My preferences are Sumner beach and the cave rock, Taylor’s mistake (great for hiking if you have some time) a gondola ride and walk through the botanical garden, Cashmere (high point to see all of Christchurch). I highly recommend a visiting The Riverside Market for lunch and some shopping.

Day 11 –  Christchurch to Mount Cook to Queenstown

After starting from Christchurch at about 8:00 in the morning, we traveled through the the Canterbury Plains and the ever-changing scenery of the Southern Alps to reach the  stunning glacial fed Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd on its foreshore. After a quick photo stop, we traveled up to the beautiful Lake Pukaki for a few more photos and then arrived at the mesmerizing Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain and stopped here for a nice long lunch before making our way to Queenstown. On our first evening in Queenstown we decided to just enjoy the evening bar hopping and tasking wines by the lakeside. One of our favorite places was Ivy and Lola’s. We had late night dinner at this really basic Chinese restaurant Lakeside Palace (classic China Town style) in the same area. The food was so divine we couldn’t believe it!

Mount Cook

Day 12 – Day trip to Milford Sound

This was a beautiful day. The weather was perfect. We traveled along the edge of Lake Wakatipu to reach Fiordland National Park where we took a short walk to see some stunning waterfalls and the charming Mirror Lakes. On reaching Milford Sound, (we took the most unforgettable and magical cruise for the next few hours and enjoyed stunning views and spotted a few more seals and penguins. We took a lot of photos at the Mitre Peak (one of the most photographed peaks)  located on the shore of Milford Sound. There are many cruises that take tourists around the Milford. You can pick what you like on their website or on Viator. Lunch can be pre-ordered. After coming back to Queenstown we enjoyed a flavorful Vietnamese dinner and cocktails at Saigon Kingdom

Day 13 – Queenstown

We were meant to go sky diving this day with NZone. However, due to bad weather, our dives got canceled. Thankfully we got a full refund. We decided to spend the day just exploring Queenstown. So we walked a lot, shopped a lot and ate at many places. The pralines and the Belgian hot chocolate at Patagonia are a big highlight. In the evening we took a the Skyline gongola to the highest point in Queenstown an enjoyed a 360 degree panoramic view of Queenstown and went nuts on the Queenstown Luge. This was followed by what I can call one of the best dinners of my life! We went to a Brazilian BBQ place called Fogo and had their Churrasco experience. I think R and I are willing to go all the way back to Queenstown just to have another meal at Fogo – the food is heavenly, the wines and the staff are just so good. This place was heaven for meat lovers.

Day 14 – Queenstown to Franz Joseph Glacier

We started the day traveling along the shores of Lake Wanaka, followed by Haast Pass where we stopped for some lovely photos with the amazing Thunder Creek Falls. As we kept traveling through the World Heritage Westland National Park we got closer to the native forests and lakes of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. After checking into our super lavish hotel Te Waonui we went for a hike to see the Franz Josef Glacier. As the weather wasn’t very good and it started to rain, we enjoyed the walk and a few waterfalls we saw on the way, but had to cut short our hike with limited view and photos of Franz Joseph. We spend the rest of the evening relaxing at the Franz Joseph Glacier Hot Pools. And then enjoyed dinner and drinks at the lovely King Tiger Restaurant just across the street.

Mirror Lake

Day 15 – Franz Joseph to Greymouth to Christchurch

On this day we continued to travel along the rugged West Coast to Shantytown (reconstruction of a Westland Gold Rush town) and shopped for some souvenirs. We then proceeded to Greymouth to start our journey on the famous TranzAlpine Express through Arthur’s Pass and onto Christchurch. This train journey is renowned as one of the top ten train journeys in the world. The last wagon of the train is an open one (designed for photography) where most tourists and photographers spend time clicking stunning photographs. We arrived at Christchurch in the evening and just relaxed for the rest of the evening.

View from TranzAlpine

Day 16 – Day trip to Akaroa

On this day our friends took a flight back home, but R and I spend some more time with our friends in Christchurch. So we took a day trip to the French Fishing Village of Akaroa. We absolutely loved this harbor town and enjoyed a relaxing day by the water enjoying some delicious wine followed by some yummy lunch at the ‘world famous’ fish and chip shop.

That was our last day in New Zealand. We took a flight back to Melbourne with fresh and fond memories the following day.

Special note: New Zealand has some amazing Sunday markets, Farmers markets and even Asian food markets across cities and towns. If you can visit one, you must for a little dip in the contemporary local culture and food. I haven’t mentioned them in my blog to avoid disappoint as they are not permanent. Just keep an eye out when you visit.

If you want to see more photos and videos from my trip, please visit my Instagram profile here. There are loads of stories from New Zealand.


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