12 Day New Zealand Travel Itinerary
NZ IN 12 DAYS
I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand for a really, really long time. Maybe it was Lord of the Rings. Maybe it was some photograph I saw when I was a kid. But it’s been on my list for awhile. When my wife and I got married and decided we wanted to travel as much as we could in our early married life, we knew we had to eventually get to New Zealand.
In the middle of the last year, we finally pulled the trigger. We talked to some friends to see if they would want to come with us. They said they had wanted to go to NZ for a long time, but the idea of planning the trip and then the pressure of taking pictures and documenting everything was too daunting, so they never ended up going.
Taking pictures and planning trips are two of my favorite things in the world. I told them I would take care of both, and got to work building this itinerary.
New Zealand is a beautiful country, but planning a trip there creates some challenges.
It’s really far away from America. There’s no way of getting around a long flight over there, and you cross the International Date Line, so you lose a day getting there and get one back coming back.
There is so much to see. A lot of the people we talked to on our trip were retirees spending 6 weeks or 2 months there. You could spend a month on the south island alone. For those of us that can’t be gone for months, you’re forced to pick and choose what you have time to see.
It’s an international trip. Long flights and foreign cultures overwhelm some people. Thankfully, other than driving on the opposite side of the road as the US, none of New Zealand’s eccentricities make traveling there very difficult for Americans.
So, with that in mind, here’s how we chose to spend our time.
If you want to jump ahead to any section, click on the link below.
One day in the modern, hilly, ocean capital of the North Island
From where we live in Kansas City, no matter what you do getting to the South Island is probably going to require you to take three flights. We went from Kansas City to LA, LA to Auckland, and then Auckland to Queenstown. We figured since we were already going through Auckland, we would make a day of it. That way it broke up our flights and gave us a night in the city to adjust to the huge time difference.
Auckland is a cool, modern city right on the ocean. In a lot of ways, it feels like San Francisco if every spoke in an accent. Very, very hilly, but with some really pretty ocean views from certain areas. The best way I can describe the vibe of Auckland is that it is a new city that just wants to be a little bit newer than it currently is. All the buildings seemed pretty new (and they were doing tons of construction when we were there), which made even buildings that were built 15 or 20 years ago seem dated. It was an interesting city, but not a place we left feeling like there was a ton more to see or do.
RECOMMENDED THING TO DO:
HIKE MT. EDEN
Just a little bit south of their main downtown area is a suburb called Mt. Eden. It’s based around an old dormant grassy volcanic crater with a great view of the Auckland skyline. To get to the top takes a short, very steep grade hike that took about 45 minutes round trip. It was a great way to get some exercise in after a long travel day.
RECOMMENDED PLACE TO EAT:
SOMEWHERE IN THE WYNWARD QUARTER
Unfortunately, we didn’t do this. We regrettably ate at a sushi restaurant that wasn’t any better than sushi in the middle of America and a decent food truck. The morning we left I went for a run and stumbled on the Wynward Quarter and immediately had regrets that we didn’t eat there. It had great views of the ocean, lots of fun restaurants that opened up with outdoor patios, and a cool area to walk around. People seemed to love it. Probably more than Sushi Train, our regrettable dinner choice. I’m always a sucker for a good outdoor patio and an ocean view.
Island Gelato Company had great ice cream and was right by the ocean.
Federal Delicatessen had a pretty good breakfast that was different than things I normally see on an American Breakfast menu.
I’m not a bagel fan, but my wife had a bagel from Best Ugly Bagels that she really liked.
Three days exploring deep blue lakes surrounded by mountains.
We flew into Queenstown from Auckland, which was about an hour and a half long flight. The flight is incredibly scenic, and I spent the time on our Jetstar flight with my legs crammed into the (very narrow) seat staring out the window and realizing that New Zealand is literally covered in mountains. Mountains in every direction. Mountains by lakes, mountains by the ocean, mountains everywhere. Seeing that from the air was so beautiful, and made the flight feel short.
Our first stop was Wanaka, a small town about an hour north of Queenstown. We stayed at an incredible AirBNB (here’s the link to the house’s website, you can book through AirBNB) that was about 20 minutes outside of Wanaka.
Wanaka feels like a small mountain town. It’s got some nice parks, a decent number of restaurants, and that crazy tree in the water the asian tourists (and me) swarm around to take selfies in front of. We mostly ate in while we were here (thanks to a stocked kitchen in our house and the distance we stayed in front town), but there seemed like a decent variety of restaurants available in the city.
Recommended Restaurant: Charlie Brown. It’s a little french crepery food truck on the edge of downtown Wanaka. We got breakfast savory crepes from there on the day we left town that were both delicious and affordable.
BLUE POOLS WALK
One of the best parts about New Zealand is the hike effort-sights ratio. So many of the hikes we did were incredibly beautiful AND incredibly scenic the entire time. The Blue Pools Track was about an hour away from Wanaka and the hike itself took about an hour.
The drive there, as is all New Zealand driving, was so beautiful. You drive past both the deep blue Lake Hawea and the massive Lake Wanaka on your way past the Makarora river to the trailhead. There’s plenty of places to stop and admire these beautiful lakes which breaks up the drive and slows down the pace of the day.
The hike itself is through thick forest on a well marked trail. 30 minutes walk will get you to destination: the blue pools. These (deeper than you think) waters were perfectly clear and turquoise blue. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can get in the cold water and swim. I am a pansy when it comes to thrill-seeking activity, but there were a lot of people that were taking the dive off the bridge into the water. The more adventurous of our group had major regrets that they didn’t come prepared to make the jump.
Bring a towel and a swimsuit just in case you get the urge to jump off the bridge!
ROB ROY GLACIER TRACK
As we talked to people in Wanaka, we found that this was the most popular hike from this area. I convinced our traveling partners to join us on this hike by telling them that it was “the best day hike on the South Island of New Zealand”. It’s hard to say if it ended up being the best (mainly because Mt. Cook is so incredible), but it lived up to the billing and was worth the trip.
Here’s the catch about this hike: your standard rental car probably won’t cut it. The drive there takes about an hour and a half, and 45 minutes of that drive is on unsealed gravel roads and you have to cross some small streams to get to the trailhead. Prepare for an extended trip on a bumpy road, but I promise that the destination is worth the journey. We rented an old SUV from Wanaka Adventure Car Rentals for $60/day to get there. Totally worth the money.
This hike takes about 3 hours and requires a decent amount of physical fitness. The distance covered on the journey there and back is about 10km, but it can be a decently steep grade from time to time. This was the most strenuous hike we did in New Zealand (mainly because we didn’t end up doing Roy’s Peak here in Wanaka), but the hike is scenic the whole way.
You work your way from the car park along another vibrantly blue river at the base of a tree covered mountain. As you walk through a rainforest, you get occasional peaks of the Rob Roy Glacier through the trees. There’s nothing quite like the combination of nature elements you get on this hike. Suspension bridges, rainforest, waterfalls, glaciers: it has it all.
PLACES IN WANAKA WE DIDN’T MAKE IT TO BUT WISH WE DID:
Roy’s Peak: It’s probably the most iconic hike in Wanaka, but it also is the most taxing. The peak is a picture that is made for Instagram, but the hike itself sounded pretty exposed the whole time. High effort to high view ratio.
2 days under the star filled skies exploring Mt. Cook
What makes Tekapo special, as with most cities in New Zealand, is it’s scenery. Tekapo is designated a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, which makes it the perfect place to see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s situated by an incredibly blue lake ringed with mountains and trees. It only has about 4 restaurants, but you aren’t in New Zealand to eat. You’re in New Zealand to experience nature, and Tekapo is the perfect gateway to experience one of the most beautiful things New Zealand has to offer: Mt. Cook.
Mt. Cook is spectacular. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a snow covered peak with the electric blue Lake Pukaki at it’s base. The drive there has to be one of the most scenic drives the world has to offer.
The stars in Tekapo are spectacular as well. You get a view into what it must’ve looked like before we killed our view of the stars with lights and cities. More stars than you have ever seen visibly in your life. You even get to see the Milky Way galaxy cluster with the naked eye, which is incredible. This is the perfect place if you are a photographer and have ever wanted to try long exposure astrophotography. I came way underprepared to do this (I chose to pack in a carry on for this trip, which kept me from being a tripod), but thanks to a chair from our AirBNB, the 10 second delay function on my camera, and some steady hands, I was able to get some cool shots.
Other than getting to see yet another incredibly blue lake, Lake Tekapo, the city of Tekapo is nothing to write home about. In our two days there, we tried basically every restaurant the city had to offer and none of them were really very good. If you have the ability, this is a great city to cook in at your AirBNB.
RECOMMENDED HIKES IN MT. COOK NATIONAL PARK
There are so many incredible hikes in Mt. Cook National Park. Every single one of them is scenic, and you could probably spend a week just exploring this area. We only had the time to do one, and that hike was my favorite hike I’ve ever done. Here’s a list of the hikes we considered in Mt. Cook, and if you have the time I think they would all have been worth doing:
HOOKER VALLEY TRACK
This hike was too great to limit to just a paragraph or two and four pictures, so I’m going to just going to give a short description and link to a longer write up.
It’s a flat hike through the most beautiful valley you’ve ever seen, with view of Mt. Cook the entire time.
It ends at a lake with a brilliant view of Mt. Cook that has glacier ice in it all year round.
Go later in the day if you can. Getting to hike to the lake as the sun goes behind the mountains and then hike back at sunset makes the entire hike a thrill.
Drive back at sunset. If you get a nice day, you’ll get to see Lake Pukaki in a totally different light and the hills and mountains get lit up with beautiful colors.
4 days in the adventure capital of New Zealand
After spending time in Wanaka and Tekapo, Queenstown felt like a metropolis. We had more than 5 restaurants to choose from, and we had a real city to explore. We chose to spend more days in Queenstown than any other place on the South Island because the city offered more to do than any other place. You could go to any place on the South Island and fill your days with more beautiful hikes than you know what to do with, but it was fun to have options of other things to do as well. You could spend two weeks in Queenstown finding a different adventure to go on every day.
Queenstown is situated on Lake Wakatipu and across the water from the beautiful mountain range The Remarkables. You don’t realize until you fly into Queenstown airport just how much of New Zealand is covered in mountains, and you can drive in any direction from Queenstown and still found yourself in the mountains. Honestly, you could make a whole trip out of just picking a different direction each day and making a scenic drive. The drive up to Glenorchy is beautiful and the drive east towards Wanaka is really unique. Exploring the South Island by car is half the fun of traveling there.
The downtown area is full of activity and great restaurants. Once you get downtown and get parked, everything you would want to do is within an easily walkable distance. The city has all sorts of fun alleyways that connect the different restaurants together. A walk along the lake at sunset is recommended, and in the evenings the lakefront is full of music as different street performers play.
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO EAT
I wouldn’t exactly describe New Zealand as a culinary paradise, but we for sure ate the best food in Queenstown. Here are some short reviews of places we ate in town.
Public Kitchen & Bar: This was by far our favorite restaurant we ate at our whole time in New Zealand. The restaurant is made to order a bunch of food and share, which made for a really fun experience with our friends. Every dish that we ordered tasted great and was worth the money spent. We went to NZ in search of a specialty dessert called Pavlova, which culinary expert Wikipedia describes as “a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside, usually topped with fruit and whipped cream”. It was really, really good. I was unsure when we ordered it, but I ended up a huge fan. We ended up going back later in our time in Queenstown just for an encore of that pavlova. We ordered two. We had no regrets.
Fergburger: This is Queenstown’s most popular restaurant. They serve really tender hamburgers to a long line of people at literally all times of the day. Every time we drove by, the line was way out the door. I’m not sure it 100% lived up to the hype of the line, but they serve a very large, very great hamburger.
The World Bar & Restaurant: Fun atmosphere, good food. We walked by this place a bunch of times before ending up inside. Everybody liked what they ordered a lot and there was a varied menu with plenty of choices.
Madam Woo: There was a lot of Asian influenced food in New Zealand, and this was my first time trying Malaysian food. I tried a specialty drink called a Crouching Tiger which I could drink every day and not get sick of. We also totally randomly ran into a person we knew from Kansas City at this restaurant, so it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Patagonia Chocolates: Not lying, we went to this place every single day we were in Queenstown. They serve ice cream, coffee, and all sorts of different chocolates and pastries, but the main event is the popsicles. You get to customize your own popsicle that gets covered in one of three different kinds of chocolates and then covered in a topping. I had 4 of these popsicles. If we had one of these at home, I probably would gain 10 pounds going there all the time.
RECOMMENDED THING TO DO IN QUEENSTOWN
Walk by any store and you’ll see shoulder height boards with experiences you could take on. Jet boating, shark boating, giant swinging, bungee jumping, paragliding, luging, hiking; you name it, someone will take your money to go do it. You can feel pretty overwhelmed by your choices, so I would recommend to do some research on the front end and figure out what you are up for. Our group (minus me, because again, I’m a pansy) had considered bungee jumping when we got to New Zealand, but didn’t decide to pull the trigger until we got to Queenstown.
BUNGEE JUMP WITH AJ HACKETT
We didn’t learn this until we got there, but bungee jumping was invented in Queenstown. You can jump off the bridge where commercial bungee jumping was first started commercially (for a price). There are all sorts of bungee jumping locales you can choose in Queenstown, but my friends chose Kawarau Bridge. You couldn’t pick a more beautiful place to jump off a perfectly good bridge.
All three of my friends that did it absolutely loved it. They said it was a thrill, they never felt unsafe, and that they would’ve regretted it if they hadn’t done it. This place was a well-oiled machine. We set up our reservation, paid online, showed up, and had an awesome experience.
None of my friends felt any sort of whiplash or any of the other things you are afraid of when your body is being yanked back against the force of gravity by a tiny cord. You can choose whether or not your head gets dunked into the river (depending on your weight).
It was a little expensive, but I think the experience was worth it. Said confidently by the person who sat on the sidelines and took pictures.
BOB’S COVE TRACK
The beauty of this hike is that you can either go for the view or the adventure. The track goes up to have a view of Bob’s Cove and Lake Wakatipu, or you can hike down to a scenic jetty overlooking the lake. We opted for the route down, which took about 20 minutes.
I didn’t bungee jump in New Zealand, but I did jump into the coldest water I’ve ever felt in the presence of a few native New Zealanders. I may have obeyed my mom and not jumped off a bridge just because my friends did it, but I guess I did jump off a jetty, so that counts for something, right?
How could a discussion of a trip to the South Island of New Zealand be complete without talking about Milford Sound?
The eighth wonder of the world
We experienced Milford Sound from Queenstown in a day trip with Milford Sound Scenic Flights. Again, there’s too much to describe in a short paragraph, so I’m going to leave some bullet points and pictures and go in more detail in another post.
Whatever you do, make sure you experience Milford Sound some way. There are a ton of different options for how to get there, and you can pick whichever works best for you time in New Zealand. For us, we didn’t want to drive ourselves all the way there (it’s about a 3 hour drive from Queenstown) so we booked a full day excursion there that took care of all the details.
Milford Sound connects to the ocean and has mountains literally growing straight of the water.
Every one of those mountains is covered in trees, which makes for a crazy combination of scenery.
However you get to the Sound, it’s worth it to take a boat trip through it. Getting to see some of those waterfalls up close was a crazy experience.
There’s really no way to adequately describe Milford Sound until you’ve been there, so just go there. It’s worth the trip.
To read more about our full day experience in Milford Sound, click the button below.
We left the South Island of New Zealand knowing that there were so many other things we could’ve done, but totally satisfied in the things we had seen. This trip ended up being my favorite trip I have ever taken, and I would absolutely recommend New Zealand to anyone from first time international traveler to experience veteran. It’s going to be different than any other country that you’ve been to in all the best ways, and you should just figure out a way to get there. If you have any questions for me, feel free to leave a comment and I can explain more about our experience!