Holiday Planning Guide - 21 Days North and South Islands road tour. Experience New Zealand with a three week Drive NZ planned road tour.
You’ve got three weeks off work and its time to hit the road with a good old fashioned Kiwi road trip. But where should you go? Experience New Zealand with a 3 week Drive New Zealand rental cars planned road tour.
Day 1: Auckland at your leisure
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, and definitely worth at least a day to explore while checking out the sights, great food, shopping and nightlife.
Get Yourself Some Wheels
The first thing you are going to need for your two week road trip is a safe, reliable and budget friendly rental car. Luckily, Drive NZ comes to the rescue with Auckland car rental. Just minutes from the Airport, they will sort you out with whatever sized car you need, at the right price.
Go Sightseeing around Auckland Landmarks, Museums and Parks
Being New Zealand’s main city, Auckland is full of tourist sites, landmarks, historic museums and parks to explore. Military buffs can check out the World War II era caves and gun emplacements at North Head and Bastion Point along with the Devonport Naval Museum and MOTAT II. Auckland War Memorial Museum has a full history of New Zealand, with Maori artifacts, historical Auckland, polynesian history and more. The New Zealand Maritime Museum displays New Zealand’s long maritime museum, while The Museum of Transport and Technology (There are two sites in Western Springs) has great displays of machinery, vehicles and more.
Once you are tired of museums go for a walk in the many parks nearby including One Tree Hill, Western Springs, Auckland Domain & Winter Garden and the Parnell Rose Gardens.
Enjoy some Fun Auckland Activities
Auckland is full of fun activities, including theme parks such as Rainbows End in Manukau, craziness in a former mental hospital with Spookers and Asylum Paintball in Kingseat and loads of chances to test your fear of heights with the Auckland Harbour Bridge Climb and Bungy, Skytower Skywalk (or if that's too scary, try out the casino below) and Sky Screamer vertical bungy.
If Zoos are more you think make sure you visit Auckland Zoo in Western Springs or Kelly Tarltons Underwater World near Mission bay, and amazing underwater aquarium and antarctic exhibit.
Arty types will enjoy the Auckland Art Gallery and theatre at the Civic.
Wine and Dine in Auckland’s Cafes and Restaurants
Decades ago many immigrants from former Yugoslavia moved to Auckland, bringing with them the skills and craftsmanship of fine winemaking. You’ll find amazing wineries a short drive (or ferry) away in Kumeu, Matakana & Waiheke Island. Remember to take a sober driver with you, so you can enjoy some of the best wine in the upper North Island. Top wineries include the Kumeu River Winery along with Stoney Ridge (and home to some great parties too) and Mudbrick in Waiheke.
Auckland is also home to some pretty amazing food, with the top 50 restaurants being ranked in Metro magazine every year. Treat yourself to a great feed at Bracu, Cibo, or Clooney. For those on more of a budget, make sure you grab a feed at the fish and chips shop in Mission Bay, or grab a great burger at one of the many Burger Fuel stores, or Ponsonby Favourite - Murder Burger!
Party the Nights Away in Clubs, Pubs and Nightclubs
Auckland has an awesome music and party scene, whether its live music, DJs and nightclubs, irish bars, backpackers spots or something in between - you’ll find something in Auckland. Get underground upstairs at Rakinos, drink from teapots with the hipsters at Cassette #9, confuse yourself with the signage at Racket or hang with the Ponsonby set at Golden Dawn. Backpackers love Globe, while the waterfront area is popular every weekend if top 40 is more your scene.
Day 2 & 3: Paihia
Its a 4 hour and 15 minute journey from Auckland to Paihia in your rented car, clocking in at around 240 kilometers.
Learn about Kiwi History
Visit the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds (free entry for Kiwis with valid passport or drivers licence) and see where modern New Zealand began as well as the site of New Zealand’s first church at St Paul’s Church.
Explore the native forest at Opua Forest and walk the trails (anywhere from 1-5 hours depending on difficulty) and check out Haruru Falls (which are even better at night)
Relax at the Beach
Being the entry point to the Bay of Islands, beaches are absolutely everywhere. Te Tii is probably the most well known, with golden sand, pohutukawa trees and calm water suitable for swimming. The more adventurous can walk around the corner from Paihia Town Beach at low tide to Sullivan’s Beach, a popular “local secret”.
Find Somewhere To Stay
Those on a budget can stay at backpackers like the Pickled Parrot, Saltwater Lodge and the Mousetrap, while those who want something high end can stay at the Paihia Beach Resort, Spa and Hotel (If you’ve got a spare $450 a night!), of course there are plenty of options in between if you check with the local visitor information centre.
Day 4: Whitianga
Its a 7 and a half hour, 450km journey in your rented car from Paihia to Whitianga in the Coromandel through farmland and up the coast towards sunny beaches.
Relax on the Beach
Its easy to lose count of all the great beaches nearby, some of the best include Buffalo Beach, Flaxmill Bay, Lonely Bay and Cooks Beach. If you feel like driving a little further make sure you visit Hahei, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. Remember to bring a picnic with you and don’t forget to take all your rubbish with you, keep our beaches beautiful.
Activities on the Water
There are loads of activities for those who enjoy playtime on the water including PADI Diving, Banana Boats, Seafari Windsurfing, Cave Cruisers and Glass Bottom Boats.
Food & Drink
Food is plentiful in the Coromandel, and Whitianga provides lots of options for the travelling foodie. Wild Hogs is great for fast food including burgers and pizza, Squids is perfect for seafood lovers, Cafe Nina provides the late breakfast and early lunch and Tuatua is the place to go for Tapas.
Day 5 & 6: Rotorua
Next you’ve got a 200km journey inland using your hire car that should take around 3 and a half hours at a decent speed, watch out for the motorhomes and tourists who can hold up traffic and be a little dangerous on these roads, especially as you get close to the city.
Rotorua is full of thermal areas, from boiling mud, geysers and hot pools, its the number one reason people visit the area. Te Puia is a geyser which erupts up to 20 times a day, while Wai-o-Tapu and Waimangu are must visit attractions for bubbling mud, beautiful coloured lakes and more. Swim in the hot pools at the Blue Baths & Polynesian Spa or hit the slides at the Wet’n’Wild water park. Make sure you also check out Kerosene Creek, hidden about 20 minutes down the road on the way to Taupo, its a great hidden local secret hot pool.
Museums, Maori History and Culture
Rotorua Museum is located in the heart of the city and is one of the prettiest buildings in town with its Tudor architecture, the exhibits inside aren’t half bad either. The Buried Village shows you what life was like before a volcanic eruption destroyed the village, preserving everything as it stood on the day.
Rotorua is full of fun things to do including Skyline Skyrides with its gondola up the mountain, restaurant with the best views in town and high speed luging to get back down. Nearby you can roll down the hill in a giant inflatable ball, known locally as the Zorb, the more adventurous can try it in pairs or full of water. You can tour the area in a World War II era American DUKW landing craft with Rotorua Duck Tours or if you are a 4WD nut hit the hills with Off Road NZ and the Land Rover Experience. Rock climbers can scale The Wall, while trout fans only have to check out the local fishing stores dotted all over the city for the latest news on local spots on the rivers and lakes (just remember to get your licence before hand).
Have a Drink
Strangely enough Rotorua seems to be the home of a fair few imported and craft beer places. Make sure you visit Brew, Rotorua’s very own microbrewery for some real local beer including pale ales and more. Pub food and live music is always on at the Pig and Whistle right next to the courthouse, while you can get a wide range of imported Belgian beer on tap and bottled at the creatively named Belgian Beer Bar.
Finding a Bed
Hotels, Motels and Backpackers are available everywhere on the “strip” as Fenton street is known by the locals, with rooms and beds available to suit any budget. If you are stuck pop into the local Visitor Information Centre at the start of the street near the lake.
Day 7: Napier
You’ve got a 223 km journey from Rotorua to Napier in your car rental, that should take around 4 hours through rolling hills and farmland.
Go on a winery tour
The Napier, Hastings and Hawkes Bay region are famous in New Zealand and internationally for their wines. Join an organised tour or get a designated driver and make sure you visit top wineries including Craggy Range, Mission Estate, Trinity Hill, Te Mata Estate and many more.
Napier is great for riding, whether it’s between the wineries or to explore local sights. Make sure you grab a bike from a local company such as On Yer Bike, Village Cycle Tours and Hire or Bike About and hit the road.
A Foodies Dream
Napier isn’t all great wine and pretty buildings, it's also a foodies dream. Leave the belt at home and try food out at restaurants and cafes including Cappadona, Take Five (great if you love a bit of Jazz) and don’t miss out on the traditional Maori bread found at Cafe Ujazi. The bars are home to sophisticated cocktails at Med Bar, club nights at Harston and numerous Irish bars dotted around town.
Art Deco Accommodation
Budget travellers have some of the nicest accommodation options in Napier with Criterion Art Deco Backpackers and the Stables, converted from actual stables. Mid ranged accommodation is available with loads of motels and motor inns dotted around the city, while those with more of a budget can splash out on a night The Crown, The Art Deco Masonic Hotel or The Country, where you’ll find style and quality at the right price.
Day 8 & 9: Wellington
Its 323 km from Napier to New Zealand’s windy city and capital, Wellington, the trip should take no more than 5 hours in a rented car, though you may get held up as you reach the outskirts of the city. There’s so much to see and do here two days will barely seem like enough. Remember your GPS when driving through Wellington as it is full of one way streets!
Wellington’s has the best coffee and cafe scene in New Zealand, and a trip isn’t complete without checking out Cuba Street. Grab a short white or black, kick back and watch the world go by as you enjoy the creations of New Zealand’s best baristas. Later on at night Wellington comes alive with pubs, clubs and bars on Cuba Street and Courtenay Place.
Film buffs and Lord of the Rings fans will love Wellywood, home of Weta Workshop and Weta Studios, The Embassy Theatre and loads of film sets, locations and props dotted around the city. There are plenty of guided tours available as well.
History and Culture
A trip to Wellington isn’t complete without visiting Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. Walk through the city streets until you find the Wellington Cable Car and Cable Car Museum. Film buffs will love the New Zealand Film Archive. While culture fans will enjoy the Wellington Art Gallery and National Library of New Zealand.
Nature buffs will love the bird sanctuary, tuataras and kiwis at Zealandia a few kilometers drive out of town.
Wellington is full of hotels for visiting politicians, but a personal favourite has to be the Museum Hotel, with its massive art collection and tastefully decorated rooms, you’ll be amazed who you will run into in its hallways, from All Blacks to movie stars. Those on more of a budget should check out Wellywood Backpackers, The Cambridge Hotel & Backpackers or Worldwide Backpackers.
Day 10 & 11: Picton, Blenheim & Nelson
Next up is the Interislander Ferry or Bluebridge Ferry to cross the Cook Strait in your hired car. Make sure you book your tickets a day or two in advance as these can sometimes sell out. Expect the crossing to last about 3 and a half hours, with a reasonable wait before boarding as well. There isn’t a lot to do in Picton as its more of a stopping off point before exploring the South Island or Marlborough Sounds. If you have time check out the Eco World Aquarium, Edwin Fox Maritime Museum or Picton Museum.
Wine Tasting in Marlborough
Next you’ll head off to Blenheim a short 30km, half an hour drive which will have barely any traffic compared to the busy roads in the North Island. Blenhiem is fairly quiet itself, but close enough to the wineries of the Marlborough Region to keep it interesting. Spend they day touring some of New Zealand’s top wineries including Brancott Estate, Cloudy Bay, Drylands Winery, Wither Hills and far more that the region is famous for.
There is a wide range of motels and hotels dotted around the region, while budget accommodation can be found at Peppertree Lodge.
Drive to Nelson
Nelson is only a short 116 km drive from Blenheim taking you past Kaikoura, home of some of the best Whale Watching experiences in New Zealand. Non stop, the journey should take no more than two hours.
Nelson is home to some great adventure activities including Happy Valley Adventures, Cable Bay Kayaks and Simply Wild, ideal for anyone who likes some rough rivers, flying foxes, mountain biking or wilderness adventures.
Accommodation in Nelson
Nelson is described as one of the most livable cities in New Zealand, and is home to great accommodation for travellers of all budgets. Great hostels include Paradiso Backpackers, Nelson Beach Hostel and Tasman Bay Backpackers.
Day 12: Drive to Greymouth
It will take you just under 5 hours for the 300 km journey using your hire car from Nelson to Greymouth - the biggest city on the sparsely populated West Coast of the South Island. With a history of coal and gold mining, you’ll find attractions like the Shantytown and the History House Museum.
West Coast Food and Drink
The West Coast is known for its “Wild Foods” and even hosts a wild food festival once a year. Look for where the locals hang out and grab a West Coast beer and meal at Frank’s Late Night Lounge, Jones Cafe & Bar or Ali’s Eating & Drinking.
Accommodation on the Coast
There isn’t a lot of options for accommodation in Greymouth compared to other larger cities, but you’ll easily find beds at places like Duke Hostel or Noahs Ark Backpackers.
Day 13, 14 & 15 Queenstown & Wanaka
Queenstown and its smaller partner in crime Wanaka are two of New Zealand’s adveture and winter sports playgrounds. It will take you a 9 hour, 470 km drive via Franz Josef Glacier and Twizel to get to Wanaka. Then you’ve got a two hour, 120 km drive from Wanaka to Queenstown.
The area is full of picturesque movie locations that need to be seen to be believed. Make sure you try the Skyline Gondola for an aerial view of Queenstown. Drive further out into Arrowtown to check out the old Chinese Settlement from the gold rush days. Military buffs will love the Warbirds & Wheels museum, and if you are there in time Warbirds Over Wanaka.
The mountain ranges such as the Remarkables deserve their namesake and along with Cardrona are great places for skiing and snowboarding. Snow Farm New Zealand provides cross country skiing and Coronet Peak is the oldest ski field in the region.
Food & Drink
Beer lovers have to check out the local brewery at Wanaka Beerworks for locally brewed lager, black beer and pilsner. Gibbston Valley Wines are a must visit for wine lovers wanting locally grown wine.
There is plenty of accommodation in the area, with thousands of tourists in the area, but in peak season book ahead. Make sure you check out Bumbles Backpackers in Queenstown and Base in Wanaka.
Day 16 & 17: Te Anau & Milford Sound
Drive to Te Anau your entrance to (a 2 hour drive) Milford Sound, which should take you around 2 and a half hours. Find somewhere to stay a wide variety of motels offering accommodation to trekkers.
Trekking Milford Sound.
Milford Sounds is one of the most beautiful places in all of New Zealand. There are many ways to explore the glaciers, waters, hills and native forest including glass roofed coaches, kayaks, plane and helicopter trips, cruises - whatever your budget allows. Just make sure you get some photos of the stunning Mitre Peak.
With half a million visitors each year - accommodation can book out in peak season so make sure you book it early if you are travelling between December and February. We recommend staying in Te Anau at one of the many Motels which aren’t too expensive.
Day 19 & 20: Christchurch
Christchurch was New Zealand’s second largest city (now its Wellington) until it was struck by an earthquake that levelled most of the central city. You should get there in just over 7 hours for the 490 km journey.
Right now its in the process of being rebuilt, stronger than ever (There's even a mall made out of shipping containers - Re:Start). Its one of the older cities in New Zealand so expect to see some very British style buildings and gardens as you drive around, you’ll also find it great to cycle and walk if you get the chance.
Make sure you check out New Zealand’s only official Wizard at Cathedral Square. Art & history lovers are best to check out the Art Gallery. Movie buffs can venture out into the Canterbury plains and see Lord of the Rings film sets used for Edoras.
Christchurch is the international launchpad for many countries into Antarctica, and you can check out the goings on at the International Antarctic Centre. Wildlife lovers check out Orana Park Wildlife Sanctuary
Food & Drink
Food lovers are best to check out the top food market in New Zealand at the Christchurch Farmers Market. Craft beer can be found at Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn and Cassels & Sons Brewery. Bodhi Tree is getting a strong reputation for, strangely enough Burmese Food. Winnie Bagoes is of course the best place to get a Pizza in town.
Theres plenty of great accommodation in Christchurch, but in this case theres one place that you absolutely must stay - Jailhouse Accommodation, an 1870s era prison that closed down in the late 90s. Where else can you stay you spent the night in jail without getting arrested!
Heading Back North
The drive from Christchurch to Picton should take you around five hours for the 330 km journey. Try and cross back into Wellington for the night, as the nightlife is much better!
Day 21: Wellington to Auckland
Its a long all day 700 km journey back to Auckland via State Highway One so make sure you pack some snacks for the trip in your rental car. Stop off along the way at the Waiouru Army Museum and check out a piece of NZ history including our Victoria Cross medals on display, or jump on top of a tank for some great holiday photos!
Once you are back in Auckland, catch up on any sights that you missed on day one or two, before dropping your car back off at Drive NZ Rental Cars - your Auckland Car rental agency.