Have you always wanted to go to New Zealand? Me too. There is SO much to see, so how do you narrow it down? When deciding where to go on our honeymoon, my husband, Adam, and I quickly agreed we were going to go there, but knowing we only had about 10 days, we had to be strategic about the areas we visited. After hours of research, we knew we wanted to go to the most visually impressive part of the country – the southwest region of the South Island. From snow peaked mountains, a rugged coastline with mammoth fiords, and icy blue lakes, it was everything we could have hoped for and more. You can see from our route that we took last November (late spring in NZ) that we barely scratched the surface.
I’ve put together a ten day self-drive itinerary of what Adam and I did to give you further details, as well as tips on NZ here. Let’s go:
Day 1 – Fly into Auckland
This day you’ll likely be losing entirely in the air flying into New Zealand. The long flight is bound to leave you exhausted. We ended up staying at a hotel near the airport out of convenience since we had our flight to Queenstown the next day. We ultimately didn’t make it downtown as it was about a thirty minute drive in rush hour and just didn’t seem worth our time or money. I recommend getting a lot of zzzz’s this night especially if you didn’t sleep well on the flight.
Day 2 – Fly into Queenstown and Explore
This is where the fun really begins. You’ll likely fly Air New Zealand and it is such a treat! The flight staff are so welcoming and friendly and they have a real catchy video with Katie Holmes and Cuba Gooding Jr. that they play before the flight takes off. Make sure to book a window seat for the flight – the views are absolutely spectacular and you won’t want to miss them!
When you land, you’ll realize how small the airport really is. Just a stone’s throw away from the gate is the rental car companies, where you can check in and pick up your rental car. We rented with Thrifty, which sounds a little shady if you’re not familiar with the company, but it ended up being legit (phew). Adam was the brave one to drive first on the other side of the road and little did we know how many roundabouts exist in NZ, which kept us on our toes. Another fun fact: the blinker is on the right side of the steering wheel, which took some getting used to – we were the car driving down the road with our window wipers on!
The best part of this day is you really just get to appreciate the beauty of what Queenstown has to offer. We chose to tour a few wineries and relax amongst cheese boards and wine flights (my fave).
A recommendation heading in or out of the wine country is to stop at the AJ Hackett Bungy Kawarau Bungy Centre. Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world and they sure aren’t lying about that. Here you can either decide to bungee jump yourself or watch the crazies do it for free. We just so happened to get there when two naked men were bungee jumping off the bridge! The bridge overlooks the Kawarau River which is by far the bluest river I’ve ever seen in my life.
Day 3 – Queenstown Adventure
Start your day with a hike up Queenstown Hill. It will likely take about two hours but that’s mainly because you’ll be stopping along the way for all the photo ops. Make sure you go all the way to the summit for vast views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, NZ’s longest lake.
From there, we recommend doing an adventure activity this day. You can choose to head over to Shotover River for their jet boat ride, go skydiving, or take the gondola up to Bob’s Peak. Up on the mountain, there is an array of things to do: bungee jumping, riding the luge, paragliding, and ziplining. Before you head to your activity of choice, check out the restaurant or cafe for lunch or a snack. We chose to zipline and ended up ziplining their supposedly “world’s steepest zipline.” If I had to do it again, I would have sucked up my fears and attempted skydiving.
Day 4 – Glenorchy & Queenstown
The road to Glenorchy isn’t for the faint hearted, as there are a lot of windy roads, especially along Lake Wakatipu. We decided to take a Lord of the Rings tour this day so we didn’t have to drive and because Adam is a huge LOTR fan. I was mainly along for the ride to take in the scenery (including hundreds of sheep) and it did NOT disappoint! We drove through the small town of Glenorchy and through the area of Paradise. Yes, there really is a town called Paradise there – how perfect is that? I’m pretty sure I breathed the cleanest air I ever have in my life this day. Definitely take it all in and enjoy the stunning views.
Head back to Queenstown and take a stroll through the Queenstown Gardens. After a long last few days and muscle aches, you’ll want to treat yo’self to the Onsen Hot Pools at Arthur’s Point. Make sure to book your reservation well in advance and set your appointment for sunset. Ahhh…
Day 5 – Doubtful Sound
Drive from Queenstown to Manapouri for your Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with Real Journeys. You’ll want to ensure you book this months and months in advance to secure a private room. You’ll park your car overnight and head on a boat that will take you across Lake Manapouri. From there, you board a coach bus to drive 45 minutes across Wilmot Pass to the mouth of Doubtful Sound. You can’t get here solely by car which is why it remains one of the most untouched and uncivilized places in the world. It’s then time to board the Fiordland Navigator, your home for the next 20 hours or so. The food aboard and accommodations are pretty incredible, not to mention the scenery! During the cruise, you’ll have the choice to kayak and swim in the sound, so definitely take the opportunity! (Unfortunately it was too windy the day we were there so we couldn’t swim – sad face). You will see penguins, seals and dolphins all in their natural habit and it is downright magical.
Day 6 – Doubtful Sound to Te Anau
Get up early around 6am. We had the chance to be some of the first ones up and on the deck and were able to witness dolphins jumping in front of our boat. It was utterly peaceful and quiet. Our captain took us through the Crooked Arm of Doubtful Sound and because there are virtually no boats in Doubtful Sound, the water is as still as glass water. Cruising through, we were able to capture mirror images such as the one below.
You’ll dock back at Manapouri around noon and then we recommend driving to the town of Te Anau, which is only about twenty minutes away, and sits on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake of the South Island. Take a walk around the town and stop at the grocery store to fill up on snacks for the next day’s road trip. Take the Real Journeys glow worm cave tour, where you’ll boat across Lake Te Anau to the caves (recommend going at sunset for beautiful pink skies). You’ll have the chance to see bioluminescent worms speckled all over the inside of the caves like stars in the sky. They don’t allow any type of photography, which in a sense is a Godsend so you can really just take it all in. Also pro tip: BEWARE OF THE SANDFLIES HERE.
Day 7 – The Road to Milford Sound
Dubbed one of the “most beautiful roads in the world,” it sure did not disappoint. Make sure to wake up extra early this day (we did at about 5:30am and left by 6:30) so you can beat the crowds and the tour busses. It’s about a two and a half hour drive from Te Anau but can be more depending on how many times you decide to pull on the side of the road and see the sights (which will be a lot). There are easily over over fifteen stops you can make, but I’d recommend stopping at the major five: Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Monkey Creek, The Chasm, and Homer Tunnel. The scenic beauty and lack of civilization is just absolutely incredible in each of these areas. You are truly able to be just one with nature. This all definitely made up for the fact that the drive to Milford Sound can be a bit terrifying. There were times where we were on a one-lane road going around corners of mountains, praying that there wasn’t a car coming around the same exact time as us. It definitely keeps you on your toes, but I promise it’s worth it, especially to be on your own time instead of on a tour’s schedule.
If I could describe Milford Sound in one word, it would be enchanting. You walk outside of your car and turn the corner and see these majestic fiords protruding out of the sound. Doubtful Sound was gorgeous in its own way, but Milford is an entirely different ballgame. (PS – the sandflies are real here. I ended up getting bites on my legs two days later and they were itchiest things EVER. Wear tons of bug spray here and make sure not to wear any black or white!!) I recommend booking your day cruise in advance too, so all that you have to do upon arrival is check-in and receive your tickets. There are a number of cruises to choose from, but after doing a lot of research, we felt confident in our pick with Mitre Peak Cruises. A minute after leaving the dock, we were greeted by the biggest waterfall flowing into a sea of turquoise water.
On a rainy/moody day, there are literally dozens of waterfalls everywhere you look. You’re basically guaranteed to see dolphins, penguins, and seals which was definitely the highlight of the cruise! The dolphins were an arm’s length away from me at one point and right then and there, I could have died from pure happiness.
After the cruise, we decided to drive all the way back to Queenstown, which was about four hours. It honestly didn’t feel that long though because there’s always something to be gazing at.
Day 8 – Wanaka
It’s a new day and it’s time to head to another city! Take the Crown Range road to get to Wanaka – it’s a bit more strenuous of a drive, but definitely more scenic. Wanaka was quite the surprise for us. We didn’t really know what to expect, but it just felt like home (only way more breathtaking). The town was super cute with shops and a ton of restaurants to choose from and it too, like Queenstown and Te Anau, sits on a lake – Lake Wanaka. We decided the best way to really get to know Wanaka was to bike around the lake. We recommend renting bikes from Racer’s Edge, which is on the main strip of Wanaka. We then decided we were thirsty, so we biked to Rippon Valley Winery, the most photographed winery in the world. We personally weren’t a fan of the wine as it was a bit dry for our taste, but still was worth going to just for the views.
Day 9 – Mackenzie Region
Before you head out of Wanaka for a small day trip to the Mackenzie region, check out That Wanaka Tree, one of the most photographed trees in the world, in the early morning. How pretty is that?!
We really wanted a day to explore the beautiful glacier lakes of New Zealand. We didn’t have anything planned, aside from just relaxing by the lakes. Even though it is a lot of driving, it’s so worth it, especially to see the Mt. Cook National Park! You’ll take Route 8 first to the icy blue Lake Pukaki, which sits right next to Mt. Cook, the largest mountain peak in New Zealand. There’s a visitor center, but really nothing else besides mountain and lake views. Get out of your car and breathe in that fresh, fresh air. I truly have never seen a lake so blue in my life.
You’ll continue following Route 8 to Tekapo, which so happens to be a town which sits on Lake Tekapo! We spent nearly two hours on the edge of the water, just taking in the views and taking snaps of all the stunning lupin flowers that lined the lake.
The town seemed to offer quite a bit of places to stop and eat lunch, but we decided to instead go up to Mt. John (which there was an unexpected fee to get up to – I believe $10 NZD) to the observatory. There’s a cute little cafe up there where we grabbed a savory pie to eat and some iced coffee for a pick-me-up. Once again, just miraculous views to be seen of Tekapo! We then headed back to Wanaka for the night.
Day 10 – Saying Goodbye to Wanaka – Back to Queenstown
Leaving Wanaka left me feeling some type of way. It was that feeling of sadness about leaving, but also that feeling of hope that I’d be back. Watching the town get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror was emotional as it truly captured my heart. On the way back to Queenstown, we definitely recommend stopping in Arrowtown, which is a historic Chinese and European gold-mining town that was built up in the 1860s. Walking down the streets of Arrowtown, you’re transported to what feels like an old western movie set. Everything is intact like it was a hundred plus years ago. There were so many cute stores to occupy our time. From Arrowtown, we headed through wine country once again where we decided, might as well stop at one more! It was at Amisfield Winery where we loved the wine so much, we bought a whole case of it. Now I get to sip NZ wine for the next few months and pretend I’m still there! After the winery, we enjoyed our last dinner in downtown Queenstown and then said goodbye to yet another city we’d come to love.
For more New Zealand road trip itineraries, check out New Zealand Guided Tours!
Kelly Nash is a Chicago-based writer, career coach, speaker and founder of Lipstick & Ink®. She also works full-time in technology as a Role Strategy and Employee Engagement Manager at Salesforce and has over 12 years of digital marketing experience. Kelly has been featured in Thrive Global, Chicago Tribune, International Association of Women, General Assembly, Salesforce, and SheFactor. She’s fueled by black coffee, sunshine, a good ink pen, and a bold lip.