Looking to spend two weeks in New Zealand? I’ve got a fantastic itinerary for you that will cover the North Island and the South Island – but, don’t expect to sit around doing nothing. You’ll have to work for it!
I get it – the US is very limited on their vacation time, especially compared to, well, the rest of the developed world. And if you’re flying across the world, you want to get your money’s worth. I like to jam my vacations with as much as I can, which always leaves me needing a week of sleep after, but it’s well worth it!
Planning your New Zealand itinerary
Both the North and South Islands of New Zealand are around 1000km (621 miles), give or take, from top to bottom. Driving 60mph, that means that each would take around 10 hours to drive the distance, but that doesn’t take into account smaller roads and towns with slower speed limits. And it definitely doesn’t take into account time to stop and take in all the magnificent views. And trust me, the magnificent views are non-stop. There are small towns everywhere, each with their own charm, their own sites, delicious food, wonderful wine, and incredible adventures.
For me, unfortunately I was relatively limited on time, as I am most of the time when I travel. In planning, I would have 15 full days to explore as much as possible – with a group of 10 other people, mind you. How to plan a trip that covers as much as possible for 2 very different age groups, over 2 islands, with only 15 days?
Well, here’s what we landed on. It involved a LOT of driving (pretty much every day) and a lot of checking in and out of hotels. For our group, it didn’t make sense to do camper vans because it was cheaper for us to share suites. We also had people in the group join and leave at different times, so not everyone shared exactly the same itinerary – especially when American Airlines screwed us all individually at different points in our trip – but that’s besides the point. There are certainly things we missed out on, but we had to make choices and this is where we ended up. Hopefully it’s helpful as you plan your two weeks in New Zealand!
Your Itinerary for Two Weeks in New Zealand
Land in Auckland, explore a bit locally and then drive to Waitomo for the evening (2.5 hour drive). We stayed at the Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park, and it was lovely. We had originally planned to fit 9 of us in one cabin, but 4 didn’t make their flight. It would have been quite packed in the small cabin had they made it!
Spend the morning adventuring through the black water caves with tubes and glowworms lighting the way (Black Labyrinth tour), then drive to Rotorua for the evening (2.5 hour drive). There are very reasonably priced tours from Auckland and Rotorua to the Waitomo Caves if you prefer, but the introvert in me always likes to self-guide places whenever possible.
On your drive to Rotorua, be sure to stop by Over the Moon in Putaruru for some cheese tasting! We were looking for coffee, and they had both here, and it was one of my favorite stops of our trip. Their cheese is all freshly made and delicious, and the cheese maker was incredibly knowledgeable and friendly.
In Rotorua, we stayed at the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park and absolutely loved it. The cabins are charming, and the shared bathrooms were sufficient, and it’s only a short drive or cab ride to town. We explored Lake Rotorua and enjoyed a casual dinner in town, but skipped most of the other geo-thermal stuff. Seen one, seen ’em all.
Drive from Rotorua through Lake Taupo and on to Wellington. Enjoy views of Lake Taupo, Mount Doom and other beautiful stops along the way, then spend the evening in Wellington (7 hours). Make sure to have NZ coins on hand for use of the public restrooms along the way.
We stayed at the Apollo Lodge in Wellington which was very comfortable, but sadly didn’t get to explore much of Wellington besides the delicious Thai place down the street since we got in so late.
Take the ferry from Wellington to Picton first thing in the morning (4 hours), then drive to Ruby Bay for two nights (2.5 hours). The ferry ride is comfortable, and the views of the fjords are beautiful.
Ruby Bay is right across the bay from Nelson and is an absolutely breathtaking area. Our airbnb was lovely with spectacular views, and a short drive to coffee shops and bars.
Drive North into Abel Tasman National Park (45 minutes) and spend the day kayaking on the Tasman Bay with R&R Kayaks, ask for Rohan. Drive back to Ruby Bay, make dinner with your group, and enjoy drinks at the local wine bar/restaurant. If you have time, hit up a few of the wineries in the area. There are so many to choose from nearby, but make sure you time things appropriately since most of them close between 4-6pm.
Drive south to Punakaiki for the night (4 hours). The drive is incredible as you get towards the beach. We stayed at the Punakaiki Beach Camp and it was very comfortable. Linens were available for rent, and the bathroom and cooking facilities were very nice – and, from the cabins to the beach is a very short walk. It’s a 5 minute drive to the pancake rocks which were interesting enough, but nothing super spectacular.
Drive south through Franz Josef to Fox Glacier for the evening (4 hours). If you’d like, you can hike to the glaciers (although they have been receding enough that you can’t see much from the hike) or take a helicopter tour for a better view. The Lake Matheson hike is a short stroll in the Fox Glacier area if you’re looking for something low key.
We stayed at the Sunset Motel and the views were some of the best we had. The actual facilities were very nice as well, and it’s walking distance (although a relatively long walk) to the center of town for restaurants and bars.
For those of you looking for adventure in your two weeks in New Zealand, this was one of my favorites. Wake up before sunrise to drive to Haast Pass for a morning of canyoneering in Mount Aspiring National Park (3 hours), then on to Lake Hawea and Wanaka for the evening (1 hour). It was raining when we left Fox Glacier but we were incredibly lucky with the weather and it cleared up by the time we reached Robinson Canyon.
We stayed the night at the Lake Hawea hotel which is about a 15/20 minute drive from Wanaka, but we got a great rate with a lake view. You’re not technically on the lake – it’s across the street – but you’re pretty darn close! We enjoyed a filling and delicious lunch at our hotel, and went into Wanaka for dinner and drinks.
Enjoy breakfast in Wanaka, and then drive on to Queenstown to prepare for the Milford Sound Trek (1 hour). There are plenty of wineries all along the way if you’re thirsty! We stayed at the Pinewood Lodge which was probably the only disappointing accommodation on our trip, but it was sufficient. Close to town, close to grocery stores, and comfortable enough accommodations.
If you’re going to spend two weeks in New Zealand, one of the Great Walks should definitely be on your list!
Wake up early for the 6am bus to Te Anau and Te Anau Downs, catch the boat to Glade Wharf, and hike the Milford track for 3 miles to Clinton Hut (9 hours total). Have your bug spray ready once you get off the boat.
Important note: If you have hopes of doing one of the Great Walks, you’ll need to plan well ahead because they book out pretty early on. We booked the day the reservations opened and had no issues. There is also the option to do a guided trek with nicer accommodations and meals cooked for you, for a substantial price difference, but they tend to have more availability.
Also, the first day of the hike is misleading. It’s short, it’s flat, it’s easy. The rest of the trek leaves you with ~10 miles a day, climbing up and down. It’s not terrible, but it’s not a stroll in the park! Clinton Hut has 2 buildings that accommodate 20 people in each, and one main room for cooking and socializing.
Hike day 2 of the Milford Sound Trek on to Mintaro Hut (6 hours). Most of day 2 is flat or a gradual incline – until about the last few miles which, by the end of the day, felt pretty brutal. There is a stream near the hut if you want to go for a dip, but bring your bug spray because the sandflies are brutal.
Mintaro Hut has two small rooms downstairs with about 8 beds in each, and then one large room upstairs for everyone else. Groups of 4 beds (bunks) have wooden separators for privacy which is nice. The main room is on the first floor with the small rooms.
Hike day 3 of the Milford Sound Trek on to Dumpling Hut (6-7 hours without Sutherland Falls). You’d think starting day 3 straight uphill on the switchbacks would be the brutal part, but that’s nothing compared to all the downhill that follows. The downhill portion is rocky, and with big steps, so by the time we made it to the fork with Sutherland Falls, our legs were shaking with exhaustion. After that, it flattens out nicely and there’s a lovely stream near the hut for a quick, cold bath! But, don’t forget that bug spray…
You have the option to drop your pack and enjoy some tea by Quintin Lodge, a lodge specifically for those doing the guided trek. Don’t go into Quintin Lodge for tea – they won’t be very friendly, but there is a separate building for self-guiders. From there, it’s about a 45 minute trek to Sutherland Falls where you can jump in the water and get some beautiful shots. Once back at Quintin Lodge, it’s about another hour to Dumpling Hut.
Hike day 4 of the Milford Sound Trek on to Sandfly Point. Catch the boat to Milford Sound, and the bus back to Queenstown (10 hours).
Day 4 of the Milford Sound Trek is pretty flat the whole way so we moved pretty quickly and made it to the dock for the 1:00 boat. There are often day-hikers who come in from the sound, and they get first priority on the 1:00 boat but as the first of the through-hikers to get to Sandfly Point (we were really motivated to get to Milford Sound and drink a beer), all 5 of us were lucky to make it on the first boat. Don’t worry, there’s also a 1:30 and a 2:00.
The bus ride back to Queenstown is long, and you’ll be pretty tired when you get to your hotel. We stayed at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park which was fine, but from the photos I thought we’d have a better view than that of the parking lot. Grab dinner at Fergburger to make up for the last 4 days of backpacking meals, and enjoy sleeping back in bed with no snoroundsound (so many snorers!).
Chill the eff out in Queenstown. Attempt to go skydiving, but weather can be tricky in Queenstown so you might get turned down. We tried to go twice, and the weather cancelled our plans both times. So, instead, we hung around in Cardrona and Queenstown and partied – you can walk around with open containers in Queenstown until 10pm, which is perfect for sitting on the beach for a beautiful evening. The bars are pretty cool, too, and it’s not hard to find yummy food!
Go horseback riding in Glenorchy by the Misty Mountains and marvel at all things Lord of the Rings. Head back to Queenstown for some souvenir shopping, grab takeout, and head to the hotel. We splurged on day 15 and spent our last night at the Oaks Club Resort. Beautiful resort right on the lake, and they upgraded us to a marvelous suite!
After two weeks in New Zealand, fly back to Auckland, attempt to fly back to Los Angeles / San Diego but get shut down at the check-in counter by a very rude American Airlines agent. End up spending the night in nowhere-Auckland before flying out on day 17. Make a mental note to never fly with American Airlines again.
Note: There are certainly things that we missed with only two weeks in New Zealand that I would have loved to see given more time – Mount Cook, Arthur’s Pass, and pretty much everything on the East Coast. That being said, I was incredibly happy with the decisions I made because everything we saw was spectacular and nothing I would have wanted to give up! So, go book your ticket, and start planning – happy travels!