If you are talking about thrill seeking and adventure, you’re probably thinking about New Zealand. It’s one of those lovable and enchanting places that gets just the right amount of hype. Somewhere among the Middle-earth landscapes, cool and hip cities, beaches, mountains, internationally renowned wines, and crazy numbers of sheep, there are a lot of adventures and good times to be had. Three weeks might seem like a very small amount of time, but New Zealand is one of those places where you can certainly pack a lot in. You might not see everything, but you can see a whole lot.
Money spent: $60-$70 per day
Spots visited: Auckland, Waiheke Island, Rotorua, Matamata, Taupo, Wellington, Picton, Marlborough, Christchurch, Wanaka, Queenstown
Form of transportation: Bus (Naked Bus Pass)
Tips for traveling with a bus pass:
- Always arrive early to board and stay near the bus during bathroom and meal breaks. Budget bus lines have been known to leave travelers behind.
- You have to book your spot in advance online. Certain routes fill up quickly, especially on weekends. Don’t waste money by failing to book your spot and ending up having to grab a ticket with another company.
- Honestly, if I went back to New Zealand, I would rent a car. Splitting the costs with other travelers can cut costs and the convenience seems completely worth it. This way you can travel on your own schedule and make interesting stops along the way.
New Zealand North-to-South: A 3-Week Itinerary
Auckland, Day 1, 2
I somewhat regret not going a bit further north from Auckland, but I had an amazing time in the city. Wandering the streets, the university grounds, and heading up Mount Eden for panoramic views of the city are all worthwhile ways to spend your time. It’s an easy city for walking and getting around by bus. There are plenty of cultural experiences to enjoy and the nightlife is pretty active. Read more about what to do in Auckland here.
Waiheke Island, Day 3
If you are spending time in Auckland, you should spend a day on Waiheke. It’s a beautiful island that’s just a short ferry ride away and is loaded with rolling hills, vineyards beside olive trees, and wine. Lots of wine. Get a day pass for the bus and ride from the ferry terminal to an area with several wineries nearby (make sure you grab a map!). Most will charge a small fee for tasting, but you get a lot for your money. I got the equivalent of 2 large glasses for $10 NZ at Stonyridge Vineyard, which I highly recommend for the wine and the setting.
Rotorua, Day 4, 5
You know you’re in Rotorua when the scent of sulfur hits you. This city is a place of thermal activity and adventure. There’s so much to do here that you could spend much longer than a couple of days. The Polynesian Spa can be a bit pricey, at $27 NZ per person for the adult pools, but it’s a pretty worthwhile experience after a day of hiking in the nearby Redwoods Forest. Remember to bring your own towel! Renting a bicycle is a great way to see the city and ride around Rotorua Lake, formed in the crater of a large volcano. Sections are steaming and bubbling with thermal activity and the smell is pretty intense, but you get used to it.
Matamata/Rotorua, Day 6
From Rotorua it’s a good idea to take a half-day trip to Matamata. OK, this is another pricey activity at $110 per person with Hobbiton Movie Set Tours. But, you kind of have to if you’re an LOTR fan or have any interest in Middle-earth. Read about my experience in Hobbiton, following the tour from the pickup in Rotorua to drinks at the Green Dragon Pub.
Taupo, Day 7, 8
Sadly, my opportunity to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing got rained out. I’d suggest to book a couple days in Taupo if you plan to do the crossing. It goes through areas of active volcanoes, pristine lakes, and stunning mountain views all around. The weather can be unpredictable, and wind and rain can make it dangerous. So, you’ll want that extra day just in case. Several companies offer shuttles that will drop you off and pick you up when you finish 6-8 hours later. It’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Rotorua, and can be a difficult hike. Make sure you know your stuff and prepare well before going. Read more about it here. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do the hike, but I’m planning to head back someday to make it happen.
Wellington, Day 8, 9, 10
I didn’t spend enough time in Wellington, which is why I am suggesting a few days there. It is such a cool city. That’s the best way to put it. Street markets with international foods, quirky and artsy boutique shops along Cuba Street , the very cool Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, hip craft beer places with awesome pizza, and hiking up Mount Victoria for some amazing city views, while walking in hobbit footsteps.
Picton, Day 11
Take the ferry from Wellington through the Marlborough Sounds and on to Picton on New Zealand’s South Island. People say that the South Island is a completely different world from the North, and with good reason. Rolling hills of green are replaced with dramatic, tall mountains and rugged forest. Picton is a sleepy town, but one with charm. There are several easy hikes that you can do in a couple of hours. I did the Tirohanga Track up to the hilltop viewpoint for the photo that you see below. Read about more walks you can do here.
Marlborough/Picton, Day 12
From Picton (or Blenheim) do a tour in Marlborough. I did a tour, which you can read about here, and would recommend it. However, you can get a car and drive yourself around. The tour makes things a whole lot easier and puts you with a guide that can answer your questions about the region.
Christchurch, Day 13, 14, 15, 16
You’ll probably be a bit shocked upon arrival in Christchurch. The bus terminal (when I went) is in the middle of nowhere and the city still has a lot of recovery to do before being the place it was before earthquakes hit several years ago. There are still some great experiences to be had: The Re:START Mall, The Christchurch Botanic Gardens, riding the Gondola, visiting the International Antarctic Centre, and taking the time to learn about how the earthquakes have affected the city. Read about my time in Christchurch here.
Wanaka, Day 17
Two things you must do in Wanaka: visit Mount Aspiring National Park (read Tim’s synopsis of our hike on the Rob Roy Track here) and go to Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. Very different experiences, but unique and memorable in their own special ways. I feel the need to mention that I did end up cheating at the Puzzling World maze. I was so close to finishing but I couldn’t figure out how to get out of there. The shame will follow me always.
Queenstown, Day 18, 19, 20, 21
I could live in Queenstown. It was my favourite place in New Zealand and is a beautiful, small–albeit touristy–town. Plenty to do here: hikes like the Ben Lomond Track pictured below, jetboating, opportunities for bungee, the chance to eat some Ferg Burger, enjoy the nightlife, get in some more LOTR tours, enjoy the wines of the Otago, and so much more. This is the place to check off the last items on your New Zealand to-do list.
Thanks for reading! This itinerary follows my path through New Zealand, though I’ve adjusted the length of time in a few places to what I would have liked it to be. New Zealand is a place to get outdoors and appreciate the views no matter where you are. If you are interested in learning a bit more about my time in the country, see some of my clips below:
There are many places I haven’t been and I know I’ll return to see them someday. Do you have any tips and extra suggestions for visiting New Zealand?