NEW ZEALAND 3 WEEK ITINERARY: North & South Island

New Zealand has been at the top of my bucket list for years and I actually planned a trip there in 2019 which was sadly cancelled due to a last-minute health issue. So it’s safe to say I was ridiculously excited to finally get my feet on New Zealand soil in 2020, after years of planning it felt surreal to actually visit this incredible country.

If you don’t know, New Zealand is one of the least populated countries in the world, with only around 4.5 million inhabitants for its 268,000 square kilometre landmass. It is renowned for its rugby team, Maori culture and picturesque landscapes. It is the perfect destination if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle and really immerse yourself in nature.

New Zealand Travel Guide Itinerary

The Basics:

How do I get there? New Zealand is the opposite side of the world to the UK and takes over 24 hours to travel to. For the smoothest journey I recommend flying with Air New Zealand . They have plush planes, great customer service and they serve vegan crosstown doughnuts (in business class) … the dream!

When should I go? If you’re aiming for the summer months then December to February. I personally prefer shoulder season i.e. November or March as there are less crowds. New Zealand is a country you could visit any time of year though, just make sure you pack appropriately.

How long should I go for? In all honesty, the longer the better. There is SO much to see and do in New Zealand that you could explore for months! But if you’re going on a holiday, then I recommend at least 2 weeks.

Is it expensive? Well, it isn’t cheap. Due to New Zealand being an island country it has to import a lot of products which raises prices. However that being said, it can be done on a budget and many backpackers go to New Zealand on their travels. 

How should I split my time between the islands? If you’re not aware New Zealand is made up of two main islands, the North island and the South island (as well as around 600 other small islands). In general, the North island is warmer and has subtropical regions and the South island is cooler and more mountainous. How you split your time is totally up to you, we did a 50:50 split and it worked perfectly.

Don’t forget the Tiaki promise. Tiaki means to care for people and place. New Zealand is precious and everyone who lives and travels there has a responsibility to look after it. The Tiaki promise is a commitment to care for New Zealand, for now and for future generations. Click here to learn more

3 Week Itinerary Overview:

  • Day 1: Auckland City
  • Day 2: Auckland Coast
  • Day 3: Auckland Islands
  • Day 4: Tutukaka & Poor Knights Islands
  • Day 5: Bay of Islands
  • Day 6: Hobbiton
  • Day 7: Waitomo Caves
  • Day 8: Tongariro & Tama Lakes
  • Day 9: Tongariro Crossing
  • Day 10: Taupo
  • Day 11: Queenstown
  • Day 12: Milford Sound
  • Day 13: Queenstown Region
  • Day 14: Glenorchy
  • Day 15: Glenorchy & Paradise
  • Day 16: Wanaka
  • Day 17: Wanaka
  • Day 18: Wanaka & Mount Cook
  • Day 19: Tasman Glacier
  • Day 20: Mount Cook
  • Day 21: Travel Home!

The North Island

Personally I think the North island of New Zealand is underrated, often living in the shadow of the South Island’s mountains. We absolutely fell in love with its stunning beaches, subtropical regions and expansive landscapes. Ten days is a good amount of time to see the islands highlights, but also to leave enough undiscovered for you to justify a return trip!

Day 1-3 Auckland

Auckland is one of the few cities in the world where urban style, wild beaches and spectacular landscapes go hand in hand. It has world class restaurants as well as native rainforests, marine parks and volcanoes all within the city limits.

Overview:

Day 1: Explore The City.

Day 2: Explore The Coastline.

Day 3: Explore The Islands.

Where To Stay: Pullman Auckland. One of Aucklands largest 5 star hotels, it’s perfectly located in the centre of the city, has an epic rooftop gym and implements a series of eco-conscious initiatives. 

Where To Eat: Auckland is vegan heaven. Some of our favourite spots included Lord of the Fries (for junk food), Giapo (for ice cream), Little Bird Cafe (for brunch), Cafe Viet (for dinner), Monday Wholefoods (for lunch), and The Butchers Son (for any meal!).

What To Do:

Day 1:

  • Explore the city. The city itself has so much to offer. Check out Auckland Domain, the oldest park in Auckland which is home to a gorgeous winter garden. Get the best view of the city from Mount Eden or One Tree Hill. Absorb the atmosphere at the lively Viaduct harbour and grab a drink in the hipster Snickel Lane. And if you want to get a taste of Auckland’s beaches, take an evening run along Tamaki drive.

Day 2:

  • Explore the coastline. Auckland is home to a seriously wild and rugged West coast encompassed in an area called the Waitakere Ranges. A great way to explore this region is through a Bush & Beach tour. This takes you through the highlights of the area including bush walks, beautiful beaches, stunning waterfalls and epic coastal views. Plus the guide is extremely knowledge on the local flora, fauna and wildlife which adds an educational dimension to the trip. Some popular spots in the area include Piha beach, Kitekite falls, The Mercer Loop Hike, Bethells beach and Lake Wainamu.

Day 3:

  • Explore the islands. Auckland has incredible islands on its doorstep such as Waiheke which is a 40 minute ferry ride from the mainland and is home to vineyards and beautiful walks. However my favourite island experience was exploring Rangitoto Island with Auckland Sea Kayaks. You kayak across the Waitemata harbour to the island (you might see penguins en route!), then hike one hour to the summit of Rangitoto volcano while learning about the history of the region. At the top you get rewarded with an incredible 360 degree view of the area. After you’ve taken it all in you hike down to the waters edge and have a BBQ on the beach, before kayaking back to the mainland as the sun sets, overlooking the Auckland skyline. It is truly stunning.

Day 4-5 Northland

Northland is a subtropical region of New Zealand which is rich in vibrant Maori culture and home to countless golden beaches, secluded islands and lush native forest.

Note: You will need a car as you start to explore more of New Zealand, so please rent one from your preferred provider.

Overview:

Day 4: Drive North, Tutukaka & Poor Knights Islands

Day 5: Dukes Nose Lookout, Rainbow Falls & Russell

Where To Stay: Blue Pacific Quality Apartments. Located in the Bay of Islands, these apartments have breathtaking views of Paihia, Russell and Waitangi. Plus they are self-catering meaning you can cook your own meals to save cash, which is what we did.

What To Do:

Day 4:

  • Drive North: On the drive north from Auckland I recommend stopping off at the stunning beaches along the way, a personal favourite was Langs Cove which has a cute rope swing and silky soft sand.
  • Tutukaka & Poor Knights Islands. I recommend boarding the Perfect Day boat trip from Tutukaka (pre-booking required) to the Poor Knights Islands. You’ll learn all about the history of the islands and have the opportunity to snorkel, kayak, paddle board and relax. Then you’ll explore the largest sea cave in the world and witness stunning rock formations such as the largest rock arch in the southern hemisphere. Its dreamy. 
  • Drive to Paihia. Once you’re back on the mainland you can drive to Paihia and check in for the evening. If you have time then I recommend stopping off en route at Manipouri bay for a swim and to watch sunset. 

Day 5:

  • Dukes Nose Lookout. Wake up early and drive to Totara North to take on the Dukes Nose Lookout hike, one of our favourite hikes in the whole of New Zealand. It is around a 4-5 hour round trip which isn’t for the faint hearted due to steep inclines and a near vertical rock face you climb up with the help of metal bars. You’re rewarded for your hard work with outstanding views of the remarkable coastline and crystal blue waters. And the best bit? You will likely have the trail to yourself, as its a relatively unknown hike!
  • Rainbow Falls. Drive back down towards Paihia, stopping off at Rainbow Falls. The most stunning waterfall we saw in New Zealand. It is a peaceful spot where you can actually climb behind the falls themselves for a unique perspective. It is also the perfect place for a post-hike swim refresh yourself.
  • Russell. Once you’re back in Paihia, catch the Fullers Great Sights boat to Russell and explore this quaint town. Browse its unique boutiques, visit Long Beach or hike up Flagstaff Hill. Then grab dinner on the waterfront and hop on the ferry back to Paihia – the boats run until late.

Day 6-7 Waikato

Well known for its nature-based tourism, underground adventure and Middle-earth movie magic, the Waikato region offers something for every traveller.

Overview:

Day 6: Drive South & Hobbiton

Day 7: Waitomo Caves

Where to Stay: Novotel Hamilton. Hamilton is the perfect city from which to explore the Waitomo region and it has an abundance of epic restaurants to try out.

Where To Eat: Our favourite spots in Hamilton were Banh Mi Caphe (a Vietnamese restaurant with a separate vegan menu) and Mexico (a Mexican spot with numerous plant based options and lovely balcony seating).

What To Do:

Day 6:

  • Drive South. From Paihia to Hobbiton. This is the longest drive of the trip, so be sure to take breaks along the way and grab lunch in Auckland.
  • Hobbiton. Release your inner Lord of the Rings nerd and explore the Shire. Guided tours run every 10 minutes in peak season, but be sure to book on in advance (we did a 4pm tour). You’ll get to spend two hours and exploring the set. It is extensive, detailed and beautifully put together and the guides are full of insider knowledge. It’s basically a LOTR nerds dream, plus even if you aren’t into LOTR you get a drink in the pub at the end!

Day 7:

  • Waitomo Caves. It’s time for an epic day exploring Ruakuri Cave with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. It’s basically a huge underground adventure (you go 60m deep!) including climbing up waterfalls, floating through tunnels, jumping off platforms and meeting the local cave eel, Cecil. The personal highlight though? Sitting back and looking at the luminous glowworms on the cave roof, I have never seen anything like it! This is such a unique experience and I highly recommend following it up by having a walking tour through the dry section of the save cave system. You will see incredible fossils, stalagmites, stalagmites, rock formations, rock curtains and so much more; plus learn about the fascinating history of the caves.

Day 8-9 Ruapehu

Mt Ruapehu, at 2797 metres, is the highest mountain in the North Island and home to two National Parks – Tongariro and Whanganui. The landscape is incredibly diverse from pristine rivers and desert like plains to glaciers and active volcanos.

Overview:

Day 8: Sky Waka, High Tea & Tama Lakes

Day 9: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Where To Stay: The Powderhorn Chateau. This cosy alpine style chateau has a warm timbered interior and is perfectly located, being a short drive from all the local hikes and attractions.

Where To Eat: The hotel has good plant based options (even vegan cheese!) so we ate there for all our breakfast & dinners.

What To Do:

Day 8:

  • Drive South. Get up early and drive from Hamilton to Tongariro National Park.
  • Sky Waka. Catch the longest gondola in New Zealand, Sky Waka, up Mount Ruapehu and take on the best short hikes in the national park: The Skyline Hike. This brings you to an incredible view point over “Mount Doom”, stunning column like rock formations and the wild volcanic landscape of the region.
  • Chateau Tongariro. Post-hike head to Chateau Tongariro for a fully vegan high tea with stunning views of the area. Their plant based scones are the bomb! Note: booking required and please state you want a vegan high tea in advance.
  • Tama Lakes. You can start this afternoon hike straight from the Chateau Tongariro car park. It is a lesser known trail which takes around 4-5 hours and is mostly flat. At the end there is an uphill climb which gives incredible views over Mount Ruapeho, Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) and multiple stunning blue lakes.

Day 9:

  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Quite possibly the most famous day hike in the whole of New Zealand, this 19.4km trail takes around 6-8 hours and I recommend going with a guide such as Adrift if you don’t feel confident doing it solo. The trail takes in some of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen. You will experience lava flows, craters, steaming vents and active volcanos – including views of three volcanic peaks (Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu). Not to mention emerald lakes and glacial valleys. It is absolutely incredible but be sure to pack for all eventualities as the weather can change dramatically in minutes.

Day 10 Taupo:

Described as the “jewel in the crown” of the North Island, the central plateau region of the Great Lake Taupo boasts the largest fresh water lake in the southern hemisphere as well as numerous hiking and biking tracks.

Overview:

Day 10: Lake Taupo & Skydive

Where To Stay: Millennium Hotel Taupo. Situated right on the edge of Lake Taupo, this hotel has magnificent sunset views.

Where To Eat: We were only in Taupo for one day but we loved the food at Cosy Corner for lunch and Master of India for dinner, both of which has plenty of plant based options.

What To Do:

Day 10: 

  • Tawhai Falls. Before you leave Ruapehu, make one last stop at these impressive falls. The perfect spot for a morning swim if you’re feeling up for it!
  • Lake Taupo. Drive over to Lake Taupo and explore! The lake is so large that is practically resembles a crystal blue ocean, with clear waters and sandy beaches. Stop off and dip your toes in the water while soaking up the sun.
  • Taupo Tandem Skydive. New Zealands top rated skydive, there’s no better place to jump out a plane than over the biggest lake in the southern hemisphere! I recommend doing the 15,000ft jump for an epic 60 second free fall, and signing up for the “legend” photo and video package so you can remember it all! Besides the adrenaline rush, you also get incredible views of both coastlines of New Zealand and over nearby volcanos and landscapes.
  • Huka Falls. If you have time, visit this powerful spot where 220,000 litres of water barrels over an 11 metre waterfall every single second!

Got more time on the North Island? 

There’s two key regions I wish I had visited:

  1. Coromandel. A stunning peninsula home to Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach.
  2. Raglan. A surfer town known for black sand beaches and a relaxed vibe.

The South Island

The South Island of New Zealand is best known for its many mountains, fjords and glaciers. If you’re a fan of the great outdoors, hiking and spending time in nature then the South island is going to be right up your street. We spent ten days there and got a good taste of the island’s diversity of beautiful landscapes, but we could have easily spent a month or more exploring even further!

Day 11-13 Queenstown:

The adventure capital of the world, Queenstown is a beautiful city with nature on its doorstep. It is nestled in between majestic mountains and located on the shores of a crystal clear lake, heaven!

Overview:

Day 11: Explore Queenstown

Day 12: Milford Sound & Queenstown Hill

Day 13: Nevis Swing & Local Hikes

Where To Stay: Sherwood Queenstown. Set on three acres of alpine hills overlooking lake Wakatipu, this eco-conscious hotel focuses on connecting its guests with themselves and nature.

Where To Eat: Our hotel had an epic plant-based menu, but we also enjoyed Taco Medic and Yonder for dinner in town. For brekkie and lunch we loved Bespoke Kitchen, which has been voted the best cafe in New Zealand and has tonnes of plant-based options. 

What To Do:

Day 11:

  • Fly South. Catch a flight from Taupo to Queenstown, moving from the North island to the South island, picking up a rental car on arrival.
  • Explore Queenstown. I recommend heading up the Skyline gondola to get an amazing view over the city, lake and surrounding mountains. Up here there are hiking trails and restaurants, but my personal favourite activity is the luge. It is basically little carts you can drive down the mountain which is SO much fun, plus they’re suitable for kids and adults alike!
  • Watch sunset. The sunsets in Queenstown are stunning, I recommend being beside the water for it at a spot like Queenstown Gardens.

Day 12:

  • Milford Sound. Milford Sound is a fjord near Queenstown known for the towering Mitre Peak, waterfalls like Stirling and Bowen falls and being home to fur seal colonies, penguins and dolphins. It is absolutely sensational. If you feel like splashing out then I highly recommend catching a Milford Sound Scenic flight, you get incredible views flying over New Zealand’s mountains and then board a boat cruise in the fjord. It’s an ideal combination!
  • Queenstown Hill. If you fancy a workout in the late afternoon then I recommend hiking up Queenstown Hill. It is a short and sweaty two hour round trip that rewards you with stunning 360-degree mountain views at the top.

Day 13:

  • Nevis Canyon Swing. Queenstown is the home of adventure so it would only be right to take on at least one adrenaline challenge! I chose the Nevis Canyon Swing, one of the biggest swings in the world which is 300m long with a 70m freefall – it was epic! If you’re feeling up to it, Nevis also offer famous bungee jumps (they literally invented them!) including the highest in the world!
  • Moke Lake Hike. This stunning lake isn’t known by many tourists and has a secret short, steep and challenging hike to an awesome viewpoint overlooking it. Just search “secret Moke lake lookout” on AllTrails for a map!
  • Bobs Cove Hike. This is another short hike you can squeeze into the afternoon. Simply park up, walk the viewpoint over the cove and then head back down towards the beach. It is covered in smooth stones, perfect for skimming, and water is turquoise blue, ideal for a dip. Just be warned that it’s freezing cold!
  • Note: There are tonnes of other hikes in the area, check out the local government guide here.

Day 14-15 Glenorchy:

Located just 45 minutes from Queenstown, Glenorchy is nestled between two mountain ranges on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu and is the gateway to hiking trails and Middle-earth magic.

Overview:

Day 14: Onsen Pools & Glenorchy Town

Day 15: Mt Judah Track & Nomad Safari

Where To Stay: Camp Glenorchy. The first net positive accommodation in New Zealand which is listed in Time Magazine worlds 100 greatest places, this eco-hotel is my ideal place to stay! It has everything from a campsite and backpacker bunks though to luxurious eco-cabins.

Where To Eat: Camp Glenorchy has its own kitchen, so we cooked our own meals while staying there. You can pick up supplies from the General Store next door (which is also a great spot for unique gifts!).

What To Do:

Day 14:

  • Onsen Hot Pools. Head to this “instagram famous” spa for a morning of indulgence. Dip into a hot tub with a view over the neighbouring mountains, valley and river. Then book in for a massage to release your muscles after all the hiking. (Note: this is a very popular spot so be sure to book in advance).
  • Scenic Drive. Recently named one of the most scenic drives in the world, the short 40 minute journey from Queenstown to Glenorchy is absolutely stunning. En route you can always add in a hike like Mount Crichton Loop if you have time!
  • Sunset Run. Explore Glenorchy on foot. I recommend starting by running around the Glenorchy lagoon walkway which will give you awesome mountain views. Then jog into town to see the famous Red Shed, explore the pier and wander through the sleepy streets.

Day 15:

  • Mt Judah Hike. Glenorchy has an abundance of trails but we chose to take on the Mt Judah hike. It is a 15km out and back trail with 800m elevation gain which takes roughly 4 hours. The reason we loved this hike is because it follows an old mining track and features sheds, tunnels and spades along the route – it is fascinating. Plus for an added bonus, if you go early in the morning you will literally see hundreds of goats!
  • Nomad Safaris. This one is for my fellow LOTR nerds, Nomad Safari’s do specific LOTR themed tours through a region called Paradise which is right next to Glenorchy. They show you where certain scenes were filmed and you can even dress up for a laugh! However, if this isn’t your cup of tea then there are tonnes of other activities in the area such as jet boats, scenic flights and funyaking (which I am desperate to do if I go back!).
  • Drive To Wanaka. After your tour, drive back through Queenstown and on to Wanaka, picking up food and supplies as you go.

Day 16-18 Wanaka:

Located in the stunning Southern Alps, Wanaka is known for its outstanding natural beauty, mountains, lakes and proximity to Mt Aspiring National Park. It’s the perfect base for outdoor activities.

Overview:

Day 16: Roy’s Peak & Blue Pools

Day 17: Hiking, Biking & Jet Boating

Day 18: Rocky Mountain Hike & Hooker Valley Trail

Where To Stay: We found a cute little Airbnb which we highly recommend, plus the owner has the most lovely dog called Paddy. 

What To Eat: Wanaka has a whole host of vegan friendly options. Our favourites were Dripping Bowl for smoothies and juices, Burrito Craft for smokey jackfruit burritos, The Coffee Shack for coffee, Big Fig for healthy eats and Bombay Palace for Indian food.

What To Do:

Day 16:

  • Sunrise Roy’s Peak Hike. Wake up super early and drive to the base of Roy’s Peak hike, taking a $2 coin for the trail payment box. This is a challenging 5-7 hour hike taking in over 1,300m of elevation gain. It isn’t technical but it is relentless uphill for a couple of hours so please don’t underestimate it and ensure you wear appropriate shoes and bring enough water. However, the views at the top are definitely worth the climb, they by far the best in the area with blue lakes and endless mountains in all directions.
  • Blue Pools. In the afternoon hop in the car and drive to the Blue Pools. The drive itself is absolutely phenomenal, probably our favourite one we did in New Zealand. Once you get there it is an easy short walk to a swing bridge over crystal blue glacial waters with views right up the river gorge. From here you’re able jump off the bridge and swim, but beware – it is freezing cold!

Day 17:

  • Breast Hill Hike. We planned on doing this hike, a challenging trail which has very little traffic and amazing views of the area, but low clouds meant we it wouldn’t be worth it! If that is the case when you’re in town then I recommend heading to the visitor information centre as they can explain all the awesome activities on offer in the area. We settled on…
  • Mountain Biking & Jet Boating. We did a combined tour where you cycle alongside a beautiful river before jumping on a high speed jet boat. The ride is stunning and the boat is a real thrill, I highly recommend it!
  • What If It Rains? Head to Cinema Paradiso which has comfy sofas and warm vegan cookies. The dream! 

Day 18:

  • Diamond Lake & Rocky Mountain Hike. Take a morning hike around Diamond Lake and up Rocky Mountain, the full hike takes around 3 hours with breaks and I recommend you follow the East route up for the best views over Like Wanaka. It is a moderate uphill trail and you get rewarded for your efforts with panoramic views.
  • Drive To Mount Cook Village. This is a scenic 2.5 hour drive through diverse landscapes and alongside glacial lakes, take it all in!
  • Hooker Valley Trail. Once you get inside Mount Cook National Park I recommend heading straight to the Hooker Valley Trail, the most famous trail in the park, for a sunset stroll. It is an easy walk with minimal elevation gain and should take 2-3 hours to complete. It features three iconic swing bridges, fast flowing rivers, hanging glaciers, waterfalls and amazing views of Mount Cook itself. 

Day 19-21 Mount Cook:

Mount Cook National Park is home to some of the highest mountains and longest glaciers in New Zealand, including Mount Cook itself – the tallest peak in the country. It is an alpine landscape in its purest sense and set under the most incredible star-studded sky.

Overview:

Day 19: Tasman Glacier

Day 20: Sealy Tarns & Mueller Hut

Day 21: Home Time!

Where To Stay: The Hermitage. The main hotel in the village with incredible views over Mount Cook. Make sure you sit on your balcony at sunset!

Where To Eat: Mount Cook Village is a tiny place, so we just ate at our hotel for all meals since it had a huge buffet with good vegan options.

What To Do:

Day 19:

  • Tasman Glacier. Drive over to the tiny Mount Cook airport, 5 minutes drive from the village, and check into your heli hike experience (I recommend Mount Cook Guides and booking in advance). You will fly over, land on the ice, pop on crampons (big spikey ice shoes) and hike across the glacier. An experienced guide carrying a badass ice axe will carve a path out for you if one isn’t formed, which is pretty epic! Throughout the hike you will see formations, ice caves, waterfalls and awesome scenery; and get to have the unique experience of hiking, climbing and exploring on a glacier. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!
  • A Short Hike. If you’re feeling up to it in the afternoon there are a handful of short hikes in the area surrounding Mount Cook village. I recommend checking out Kea Point hike for a flat easy trail and Red Tarns hike for a short but steep climb; both of which give you sensational views.

Day 20:

  • Sealy Tarns & Mueller Hut. It’s the last full day of the trip so what better way to spend it than with one of the hardest hikes in the area!? I recommend getting up early to take on the 5-7 hour hike up to Mueller Hut via Sealy Tarns at sunrise for the best experience. It is only a 5 mile long trail but the reason it takes so long is because its pretty much straight up the side of a mountain with over 1000m of elevation gain and areas of challenging terrain. That being said, I personally found this trail much easier than Roy’s Peak and would say it was one of my favourites in the whole of New Zealand! Mainly because you are rewarded with magnificent views of the valley, mountains and hanging glaciers. You can literally sit and watch avalanches happen, it’s awe-inspiring!

Day 21: 

  • Home Time! Pack your bags, check out and drive back to Queenstown. From here you can catch a connecting flight to Auckland and then an international flight home. Safe travels!

Got more time on the South Island? 

There are a few key regions I wish I had more time to visit:

The West Coast, Te Anau, Abel Tasman National Park, Franz Josef Glacier, The Caitlins, Arthurs Pass, Kaikoura, Marlborough, Christchurch and Banks Peninsula, (plus SO many more!!). 

I guess I will have to come back then?!

That’s it! My comprehensive three-week road trip itinerary for New Zealand.  I quite literally fell in love with this breathtaking country and made some of the best memories of my life during my time there. It truly is one of the most remarkable places in the world and is somewhere I can imagine myself returning to again and again. I urge you to put it at the top of your bucket list, I promise you won’t regret it.

Zanna xx

[Disclaimer: This was a gifted press trip with Tourism New Zealand]