New Zealand self drive itineraries
Although New Zealand may be relatively small, especially compared to Australia, the time required to travel around should not be underestimated, as many fellow travelers have found out, and ended up disappointed simply that they didn't allow enough time to visit New Zealand. There is a lot to see and do in New Zealand, and even picking a number of highlights from the North and South Islands will require about a month (unless you fly).
The itineraries described here are ideal for when you are on a self drive tour with rental vehicle and if you want to fit in as much as possible. An independent coach tour will add more time, so a guided coach tour might also be a suitable alternative.
One Week North Island
If you only have one week to spend in New Zealand, spend a day in Auckland and then head up to the Bay of Islands for a cruise and a visit to the historic Waitangi. Return to Auckland via the Waipoua Kauri Forest on Northland's West Coast and visit the Matakohe Kauri museum en route.
Alternatively, the east coast route along the splendid Tutukaka Coast offers stunning views and beaches to explore.
After you return to Auckland, a visit to Rotorua should not be missed with its geothermal wonderlands and thriving Maori culture. Indulge in an authentic polynesian spa, experience an authentic Maori cultural experience and try the Hangi food.
If you want to push it a little, keep driving until Taupo and the Tongariro National Park, a dual World Heritage Area with surreal landscapes leaving you in awe.
En route back to Auckland, travel slightly west to Waitomo and visit its magnificant glowworm caves.
Two Weeks North Island
Two weeks in the North Island is a good time to explore at a relaxed pace. Start off by spending a few days in Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf, including a trip out to Rangitoto or Waiheke Island. Travel up to the Bay of Islands and continue to Cape Reinga in the Far North. Return to Auckland via either east or west coast. Then head down to the Waitomo caves and take a detour out to Raglan, renowned for its world class left hand surf breaks, and a great place to relax and enjoy the town's vibe.
On your itinerary should be the Tongariro National Park and the Tongariro Crossing, labelled one of the best day walks in the world. Continue down to Wellington via the 'Desert Road' and find out yourself why Wellington was named best liveable city in the world in 2017. Explore this cool little capital and its famous museum Te Papa, stroll down Cuba Street, try one of the local craft beers or take a ride up the cable car for awesome views across the city.
Drive north again through the wine region of Martinborough to the Art Deco city of Napier, and wine region of Hawke's Bay. Keep hugging the east coast at Mt Maunganui on the way back to Auckland, but not before visiting the exquisite beaches and rainforests of the Coromandel Peninsula.
One week South Island
Spend a day in Christchurch and then travel to the West Coast, either by the superb road crossing Arthur's Pass National Park, or on the TranzAlpine train, one of the most spectacular train rides in the world.
Travel south to Glacier Country, with Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. From there it is a full day trip to Queenstown via the Haast Pass and Wanaka, a drive through some of the country's wildest wilderness areas. Spend a day or two in and around Wanaka and/or Queenstown to enjoy the plethora of adventure activities on offer. Work your way back up north to Mt Cook and be in awe of New Zealand's tallest mountain in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Your loop closes by driving back to Christchurch across the vast Canterbury plains.
Two weeks South Island
A two week journey across the South Island allows you the time to visit the entire island. From Christchurch, travel north to Kaikoura, a marine wildlife playground and where you may go whale watching, swim with dolphins and the country's best crayfish. Continue heading north through the wine region of Maroborough, world famous for its Sauvignon Blanc wines, and then work your way west to Nelson, the sunniest place in New Zealand, and Abel Tasman National Park with its magnificent golden beaches, and a great place to go camping, hiking, seakayaking.
Head south towards the West Coast via the Buller Gorge and stop at the impressive Pancake Rocks in Paparoa National Park. Continue your journey to the Glaciers via the jade town of Hokitika and the Hokitika Gorge. From the Glaciers, you may follow the same route to Queenstown via Haast and Wanaka, and once in Queenstown, continue further south to Te Anau and the famous Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. A cruise in either of these fiords is a must-see in New Zealand, and will be one of the highlights of your self drive tour.
Then drive back to the east coast via the Catlins to Dunedin. Explore the Otago Peninsula. a good place for marine wildlife spotting, before returning to Christchurch.
One month is a relatively reasonable amount of time to visit both North and South Islands, and if you combine the two week options for both, you will have covered most of New Zealand. Many travelers choose to spend a little bit more time in the South Island as it offers more scenery, but the North Island offers great diversity.
Two months is a great amount of time to experience all of New Zealand in depth and at a more relaxed pace.
In the North Island, you could add Taranaki with the perfectly shaped volcanic cone of Mt Egmont/Taranaki, and surf highway 45. Or explore the ancient forests more in Te Urewera and Whanganui National Park. To get completely off the beaten track, drive around the East Cape and see the first sunrise of the world. Take more time to explore the best beaches of the North Island in the Coromandel and the Bay of Islands, or visit Great Barrier island.
In the South Island, take in the Golden Bay and Farewell Spit and include the lesser visited Kahurangi National Park and Nelson Lakes National Park, offering great hiking opportunities a little more off the beaten track. Soak in a natural hot pool at Hanmer Springs, and visit the Akaroa Harbour near Christchurch. Further southwest it is really worth spending some more time on the West Coast and Haast World Heritage Area, and near Queenstown you have the gateway to "Paradise Valley" around Glenorchy, and where the famous Routeburn Track Great Walk starts. And if you have spare time at the end of all that, take the ferry across to Stewart Island for some kiwi spotting.
More articles to help you plan your New Zealand self driving vacation