The Ultimate New Zealand Travel Guide
New Zealand is home to some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. From dramatic snow-capped mountains, to lush rolling hills scattered with sheep, turquoise lakes and stunning white sand beaches, it is no wonder this landscape is chosen as the backdrop for so many other-worldly, magical movies like Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Avatar. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or just here for the Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand should be at the top of every travel bucket list! This guide will mainly focus on the South Island, known for its remarkable mountains and outdoor adventures with a few North Island highlights! If you follow this guide to plan your trip to New Zealand, you’ll soon see why New Zealanders (or Kiwi’s) are some of the happiest people in the world.
Table of Contents
The Best Time of Year to Visit New Zealand
For warmer temps and less rainfall, the ideal time to visit New Zealand is during their Spring/Summer-which is our Fall/Winter if you live in the Northern hemisphere. November is the start of lupine season, which runs through mid December. The warmest temps are January through March, which will likely be the most crowded time to visit but rightfully so with long sunny days and cool nights. The North Island is subtropical so you can push it a bit further into April-May and still get warmer weather.
Getting to New Zealand
Where should you fly into to maximize your New Zealand trip? Auckland has the biggest International Airport which often has the cheapest flights from the U.S. Even if you plan to spend the majority of your time on the South Island, it still might make the most sense to fly through Auckland and book a separate flight from there to Christchurch or Queenstown. We flew direct from LAX to Auckland and spent a few days there before taking a short 2hr flight to Queenstown. If you’re planning a long trip you can rent a Campervan in Auckland and drive it all the way to the South Island via ferry. While buses are available, rental cars or Camper vans are the best way to see the most during your trip and have the freedom to do so.
The Perfect 10 Day Itinerary for New Zealand
It can seem overwhelming at first when trying to plan a trip to New Zealand, since it is one of those countries where it is impossible to see everything in one trip, so you’ve got to choose what is most important to you! For a little bit of adventure mixed in with a lot-a-bit of luxury, here’s my ideal itinerary for first timers to New Zealand:
Days 1-2: Start in Auckland to get your bearings, from there you can take a 30-minute ferry to one of my all time favorite places – Waiheke Island. Waiheke is known for its crystal clear waters, white sand beaches and plentiful WINERIES! After a day (or two) of winery hopping, hop on a short flight to Queenstown.
Days 3-4: Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world! If you’ve always wanted to try something like Bungee jumping or sky-diving, now’s your chance.There’s also fun jet boats and alpine scooters that are a BLAST! If not, opt for a full-day wine tour through the Otago Valley with Alpine Luxury Tours.
Day 5-6: Te Anu and Milford Sound
Days 7-8: Mount Cook National Park/Frans Joseph Glacier (rental car of camper van)
Days 8-9: Wanaka (Roys Peak) and Lake Tekapo
Day(s) 10+: Fly back to Auckland, optional day trips from Auckland if you have more time: Rotorua, Waitomo Glow Worms, or Hobbiton
15 Things Not To Miss in New Zealand
The Milford Sound is hands down, one of the most awe-inspiring places you’ll ever visit. Located in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Fiordland National Park, you can explore the sound by foot, air or boat. During the rainy season, waterfalls tumble from all sides into the jet black open water and you might even catch a few seals and penguins lounging on the rocks. It is somewhere straight out of a dream and is not to be missed!! In my opinion, the best way to see the sound is on a cruise, choose the budget friendly 2-hour tour or opt for the full fledged luxury overnight experience. You can book a tour that leaves from Queenstown, or if you have a vehicle you can travel there yourself, stopping over in the town of Te Anau (the scenic drive is worth it in itself).
Go Bungee Jumping
If you’re a thrill-seeker, this is an adrenaline rush like no other! Head to the AJ Hackket store in downtown Queenstown to book your tour. Choose from the Ledge Bungee (great views over Queenstown) or the Nevis (the tallest option in NZ overlooking a river).
Relax in The Onsen Hot Pools
After a long hike or a bungee jump, there’s nothing like a hot pool to soothe sore muscles. Make your reservation as Onsen Hot Pools, and a van will pick you up from downtown Queenstown and whisk you away to your own private hot pool overlooking the valley. Sip some bubbly and get that quintessential instagram shot.
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Located in the heart of Wanaka, lake country, is one of the most picturesque hikes in New Zealand. This hike is not for the faint of heart and it will take a good portion of the day so get started early, but the views will exceed your wildest dreams. You’ll meander past wandering sheep as the lakes open up beneath you until you reach the pinnacle at the top, where you’ll have to watch your step to get the epic photo overlooking the snow capped peaks and stretches of blue water. Afterwards, treat yourself to tacos and margaritas at Amigos in town.
Go Wine Tasting
If you’re having trouble deciding where to go wine tasting, choose “all the above”. With the infamous Marlborough Sav, the Central Otago Pinot and the Waiheke Syrah, you’re soon to be in wine lover’s heaven. The Central Otago valley is an easy day tour from Queenstown with Alpine Luxury Tours, Waiheke is a 30-40 minute ferry ride from Auckland and Marlborough is a bit further out there on the northern tip of the Southern Island (but well worth the hassle).
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
You might recognize these little worms from their feature in Planet Earth. These creatures are unique to New Zealand and are only accessible with a tour (from Auckland or Rotorua). Take a boat ride through these ancient caves and watch in wonder as these little worms glow like stars in the night sky, lighting up the passage. A once in a life-time experience.
Live The #VanLife
You guys know I don’t judge if you want to spend your whole trip in luxury resorts, but it is almost a New Zealand right of passage to spend a few nights exploring in a campervan. Not only does it allow you the freedom to explore at your leisure and stop to take photos galore, but it saves money on your accommodation! There are campsites all over the country, some free and some luxury (with the price tag to boot) set up for explorers like yourself, that make the experience easy even if it’s your first time “camping”. Drive from spot to spot without having to worry about packing up your luggage and moving hotel rooms. This allows you to get to some of the off-the-beaten path destinations like Lake Takepo and Wanaka.
See the Lupines at Lake Tekapo
Just WOW, right? Every year the famous wild lupines bring color back to the countryside in the Springtime (November-December) and one of the best places to see them is around the milky blue Lake Tekapo. An area close to Wanaka that is known as one of the world’s “dark sky reserves”, so if stargazing is your jam this will be your kryptonite. There is plenty of hiking in this area as well as jet boat tours!
Visit Mount Cook
This iconic peak reminds you just how small you really are, in the best way. There is something so glorious about this mountain, especially on a sunny day where the sun is reflecting off the Turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki. Give yourself extra time on the drive into the National Park, because you’ll want to pull over every hundred feet to take photos. Hike the Hooker Valley track for a doable day trek to the Tasman Glacier or maybe an overnight jaunt to the Mueller Hut for my more adventurous souls. Once you’re good and worn out, splurge on a buffet dinner at the Hermitage Hotel at the base of the mountain.
Have a Traditional Meat Pie In Arrowtown
Arrowtown is a lovely stop on your way from Queenstown to Wanaka. Just about 20 minutes outside Queenstown, this historic and quirky town has tons of local boutiques, cafes and coffee shops that are worth a wander. If you’re looking for a local meat pie head to the famous bakery on the corner of Buckingham and Berkshire street, or sit down to a nice meal at The Dishery.
Frans Joseph Glacier or Fox Glacier
It’s not very often you get the opportunity to hike on a glacier! It is totally worth the splurge to do a heli hike tour, where you will land on the top of the glacier and proceed to explore with your pick-axe before relaxing in the Glacial Hot Pools.
If you’re a ride-or-die Lord of The Rings fan, schedule this day trip from Auckland into your itinerary. Just a 2 hour drive and you’ll be entering the Shire, another two hours and you’ll be ready for “second breakfast” and a cup of tea.
Explore Waiheke Island
Just a 30-minute ferry ride from Auckland lies a wine oasis. If you’ve ever dreamed of a beach front tasting room, look no further than Man O’War Winery. For organic natural wines head to Jurassic Ridge Vineyards, or for panoramic ocean vines and top of the line dining, try Mudbrick Winery or Cable Bay. The hop-on-hop-off bus allows you to stop off at all the best vineyards without having to worry about a DD. My kind of island life to say the least. Waiheke is doable in a day trip, but with at least two days, you’ll have more time to take in the beaches as well as the vineyards.
Geothermal Activity and Maori Culture in Rotorua
Famous for its native Maori culture and active geysers, Rotorua is just a three-hour drive outside of Auckland! It makes a great day trip if you have some time on the front or back end of your trip!
Hike To A Mountain Hut
The tax dollars in New Zealand are put to good work. There are hundreds of breathtaking alpine huts scattered across the mountain ranges that offer warmth and shelter after a long day’s hike. One of the most iconic huts has to be Mueller hut in Mount Cook National park. It’s a 3-4 hour hike per direction so it’s best to stay overnight in one of it’s 20 reservation based bunk beds. There’s nothing quite like waking up on top of a mountain. Other honorable mentions include: Luxemore Hut on the Kepler Track with views of Lake Te Anau and Brewster Hut in Mount Aspiring National Park.
Where To Eat in New Zealand
Bespoke Kitchen (Queenstown)
For delicious and healthy gram-worthy brunch/lunch
A splurge that is 100% worth it, think natural wines and farm-to-table fare.
Have you even been to NZ if you didn’t eat at Fergbruger??
Vudu Cafe (Queenstown)
Everything you’ve ever wanted in casual but cute breakfast spot
A hip spot for coffee and any meal of the day. Raspberry and pistachio french toast by morning, fresh poke or vegan buddha bowls by evening!
It is well known that Rata should be at the top of any New Zealand restaurant bucket list. They showcase the best of New Zealand ingredients, all organically grown and locally sourced. Start with the cloudy bay storm clams and then go for the 55-day dry aged and grass fed beef fillet paired with a Central Otago red wine.
For the best fresh salmon sashimi you’ll ever have in your entire life. A MUST!
Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard (Waiheke Island)
A must when on Waiheke Island. Watch the sunset over the water as you sip their best vintages and enjoy fresh seafood. Go for the afagado for dessert.
A strip of chic global restaurants and eclectic boutique shops for all of your foodie needs.
Where to Stay In Queenstown
For those not interested in living the van life, there is an amazing array of luxury accommodation to be had in New Zealand. Whether it’s a hotel or private Airbnb/VRBO, you’ll find incredible views, stylish taste and access to tours.
With a more “high heels” and less “hiking boots” type vibe (so you know it’s a Jetset kinda place), this incredible lodge lies in New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown. With only 12 suites all overlooking the Remarkables Mountains, it never feels crowded, and you can spend days soaking in your private jacuzzi tub as you take in the panoramic views. This place is definitely New Zealand honeymoon or romantic vacation goals!
Set in a historic 19th Century Victoria building in the heart of Queenstown, Eichardts sets the bar high when it comes to luxury accommodation. With lake views and complimentary cocktail hour, this is the perfect home base for exploring all Queenstown has to offer.
This boutique hotel is ranked one of the most sustainable in the world. With it’s own private biodynamic garden where they source the majority of their restaurant ingredients from, it’s the epitome of farm-to-table. With a focus on community, their goal is to make it feel like you’re not just a tourist, but a part of their extended family. Their daily movement offerings are a great way to kickstart your day, along with their locally roasted coffee. Yum!
The Best Private Villas to Rent:
Where To Stay In Wanaka
This hotel is where contemporary mountain lodge dreams come true. This stunning lodge has uninterrupted views of Lake Wanaka, 5-star dining and access to some of the most remote outdoor “luxury” adventures the South Island has to offer. Think heli hiking followed by wine and canapes – YES PLEASE.
For ultimate luxury seclusion, stay in this hotel for insane views of the starry skies. Activities range from fly fishing and horseback riding, to glacier tours and heli-wine excursions.
Where To Stay On Waiheke
The Oyster Inn is laid back luxury with a hipster flair. You will be perfectly on-trend at their Waiheke classic.