Every November I celebrate my birthday in a new country as a gift to myself, and New Zealand was at the top of my list for 2017. I booked my roundtrip flight ten months out when Air New Zealand posted a sale from Los Angeles to Auckland for $800 right after New Year’s.
*Full disclosure: I’m not sponsored by any company, restaurant, or entity named in this article. If mentioned, I thought they were great and you will too! All photographs are my own.
The North Island
After a 12 hour flight and gaining two days, I landed in rainy Auckland. November is the start of spring so temperatures were cool, yet not too cold where I needed a winter coat. Walking through the airport I came across a Vodafone stand in duty free. Buy your New Zealand Travel SIM card here — they have one of the best data and cellular deals in the country. This will come in handy if you’re going to both islands. I went through only 2/3rds of my data since I used accommodation / cafe wifi and saved maps. There is another kiosk near the airport’s exit by McDonald’s if you missed the one in duty free.
I picked up my rental car with Aerodrive (one of the best rental deals you can get plus no credit card needed to reserve). It was jarring to learn how to drive on the left after major jet lag, but I made it to my Airbnb. I forced myself to power through the day and drove down to the CBD for a nice birthday dinner. I walked around Queens Wharf, Britomart, and dined with a view at Amano.
The agenda for my first full day included the Coromandel Peninsula and Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve where the famous Cathedral Cove resides. The morning started grey and wet, but as I continued North the sun peeked out and warmed temperatures. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Auckland to the Reserve. Once you park at the start of the trail (you can’t drive straight to Cathedral Cove) it’s a smooth 45 minute hike to reach this gem. You’ll encounter a flower-scattered valley of green open space halfway. Stop here for great views and pictures before reaching steep descending stairs. Once you step foot on the sand, the magic of the Cove will take your breath away.
The Chronicles of Narnia shot a scene here. If you get a chance, visit during a sunset where you can get some incredible photos like this one. On my drive back to Auckland I stopped for dinner at Mekong Baby off Ponsonby Road. This hip residential street and area boasts unique shopping, crafty cocktails, galleries, and trendy cafes. It’s a foodie’s playground!
Leaving Auckland, I left for Rotorua early in the morning. I wanted to fit in the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest and Taupo. The 3 hour drive takes you through some small wineries and dairy farms. Many tourists take this route for Matamata (to see Hobbiton from Lord of the Rings), but I skipped it for other sights. If this is on your to-do list, be aware that you have to book a tour upfront. You can’t just roll up and walk in! Here are options.
After a brief walk through the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest, I continued on to Taupo. Taupo is a quaint, lakeside town with great views. The Huka Falls is close by where you can take jet boat rides or just enjoy the view from a trail.
I still had some daylight left and looked up the Wai-O-Tapu thermal springs in Rotorua. It was a wonderful self-tour and they offered different trails. There’s another popular geothermal spring called Te Puia where you can watch a Maori ritual along with the geyser. It’s a little more expensive, but a good option if you want to see more of the Maori culture that Rotorua is known for.
Another popular tour you may want to consider is the Waitomo glowworm caves. 1) I don’t like tight spaces, and 2) I don’t like worms so I skipped this!
The dining and bar scene is pretty decent in Rotorua — I opted for dinner at an obscure Chinese restaurant off Eat Streat (not a typo!) where you can find a variety of cuisines and cafes. My favorite coffee shop I recommend is called Picnic Cafe. The breakfast sandwiches and coffee is fairly priced and yummy. I loaded up on takeaway for my road trip back the next morning.
When I strolled along the lake in Taupo I overheard a couple talk about Tauranga as their next stop. Without knowing what it was or what was there, I decided to stop by and take the route east back to Auckland. What a surprise when I arrived: turquoise waters, sail boats, and a bustling city center greeted me. Reminiscent of a small beach town, the Port of Tauranga is the largest port in New Zealand and the gateway to the Bay of Plenty.
Continuing northeast on SH 2, I stopped at any road sign that included the word beach. Omokoroa was next. It seemed like a sleepy suburb, so I moved on to Waihi Beach. I enjoyed this location more and took my time walking the stretched sands. Another 3 hours in the car later, I find Piha Beach. This is must-see for visitors on the North Island. Just look at these views!
At one point, I felt like I had the whole beach to myself. The black sand here sparkles like diamonds. I brought a piece of volcanic sand back home as a souvenir. Exhausted from the day-long drive and sun, I finished my last evening in Auckland with dinner in the CBD again— this time at popular Depot. The oysters were on point and the bone marrow was perfect. My adventures in the South Island would begin the next day.
The South Island
The first day on the South Island was uneventful after landing in Christchurch. By the way, Jetstar is a great airline carrier between the two islands — cheap and reliable! The afternoon was cold and rainy, and I had no plans to tour the city since it was a necessary stopover. I spent the evening talking with my Airbnb host and grabbed Chinese takeout. Tomorrow would require a 6 hour drive to the Franz Josef Glacier.
It was still raining at 7 am when I started the drive west. Low fog and grey clouds followed me most of the way until I reached the edge of Franz Josef.
After checking in my hotel, I ventured into town for a coffee and a hike to the beautiful Franz Josef Glacier. The ascend takes about 45 minutes and you’ll pass through lush vegetation and waterfalls. The hike is easy with a few hills towards the end of your destination. Bring a rain jacket and a hat to keep you warm — it’s colder and wet at the top! There are hourly tours that you can take with a guide, but it’s just as nice to do it without one. Plus, you can take your time. Helicopter tours are also available, but about 60% are canceled and rescheduled because of the visibility and winds! That’s an expensive risk to take if you’re pressed for time.
My favorite memory of my South Island road trip was the drive to Wanaka. Haast Pass has a special place in my heart. I encountered perfect weather and the best scenic drive along the Southern New Zealand terrain. Whatever you do, don’t rush this part! One moment you’re passing stretches of green with grazing sheep, and as you make a turn, you’re suddenly in awe of snow-capped black mountains. Later in the same route, you’ll be treated with lush forests, sparkling cerulean waters, and postcard-worthy stops. I pulled over to take pictures at least 10 times.
Right before reaching Wanaka, I stretched my legs at the Blue Pools track. There’s a car park on the left of State Highway 6 near Makarora and the walk is easy and quick. You’ll cross over a swing-bridge overlooking the blue pools at the mouth of Blue River. The water was clear where you could see fish and rocks below. There are longer trails around the pools if you have leisure time.
As I neared Lake Wanaka, the scenery changed once more and it felt like I was on a tropical island. Hawaii came to mind. In fact, the lake in “The Neck” is similarly spelled: Lake Hāwea. Another 15 mins by car and I reached Wanaka.
I found my quaint Airbnb, settled in, and sought out a nice restaurant for dinner. The culinary experience in Wanaka was better than I expected, especially at Kika. Think farm-to-table type of food. So fresh and unique!
After dinner, I did one of the most touristy things you can do in Wanaka: I took photos of #thatwanakatree. My shot is not a masterpiece, but I’m glad I went to see it. There’s a trail to the spot from the center of town, and I highly recommend it. You will have one of the most beautiful walks in Wanaka.
The hour drive through the Crown Mountain range to Queenstown from Wanaka is winding, but smooth and picturesque. The mountain tops were snow capped and the fields below were still green in November. Queenstown is a favorite base for travelers in the South Island. It’s situated by Lake Wakatipu and hosts many outdoor activities like kayaking, bungee jumping, hiking, skiing, and boating. The Milford Sound is nearby as well as the region’s wineries. If you prefer to spend most of your time on the South Island of New Zealand, Queenstown is the best place to fly in to.
The following day, I visited the lake town of Te Anau. Many people base themselves here to visit Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park because of proximity. Travelers recommend to book accommodation ahead in the busy months of January, February and March. At the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre you can make plans to walk the Milford, Routeburn or Kepler Tracks. The Te Anau glowworm caves is a popular destination as well and there’s a bird sanctuary that houses some of New Zealand’s endangered bird species.
I found a hidden path opening up to a beach in Manapouri, about a 19 minute southern drive from Te Anau, just in time for lunch and a view.
After spending the night in Te Anau, I made my way to the famous Milford Sound. Two hours later, I pull up to the Homer Tunnel to be greeted by native Keas perched on my car! They must have acclimated to humans feeding them over the past years for them to be so brave and tame. Their wings are bright red and yellow underneath, and they have an inquisitive personality. These birds are only found in the Southern Alps of the Sound Island so consider yourself lucky if you encounter them in the wild.
I booked a half day Milford Sound cruise tour with Jucy Cruise for $59 NZD. They have a couple of cruises per day (11:00am and 1:45pm), and give a pleasant voiceover throughout your tour. Their catamarans are modern and clean, and there’s plenty of room to take in the sun and photos of the breathtaking scenery. One additional Jucy tip I’ll share is they also offer car / camper van rentals in New Zealand and coach transportation to Milford Sound. So it’s very easy to book a combo package for all of your travel needs!
The final days of my South Island visit would revolve around relaxing in Queenstown. I became fond of Rehab’s organic mango chia bowls and salads and would drive to have breakfast or lunch there daily. The food in New Zealand is some of the freshest and brightest you’ll ever try. I can’t recall having a bad meal anywhere. I took a short excursion to Moke Lake which is about a 25 minute drive, and on my way I passed by a pair of Red Deer.
Glenorchy is a small town at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu and about a 45 minute drive from Queenstown. This area is the gateway to several world-famous multi-day hikes like the popular Routeburn Track which is one of “New Zealand’s Great Walks” and takes 2–3 days to hike. The lake waters here were calm and ocean blue. I saw several jet boats, bikers, and kayakers.
Back in Queenstown, I had energy leftover to hike Bob’s Peak for sunset and my last panoramic view of the city. To get to Bob’s Peak, there is the Skyline Gondola that will cost about $39 and save you the 45 minute free hike to the top along Tiki Trail. I chose the trail because I wanted to challenge myself physically and take pictures off the beaten path. Steep in just a few areas, I recommend taking it because of the quiet and peaceful moments you’ll see.
Many people fly back home or to another destination from Queenstown, but I had purchased my round trip ticket from Auckland and flew back in the afternoon on Jetstar after returning my rental car. My last day in New Zealand was uneventful and rainy — I only had a few hours left in the evening and I would be flying back home early the next day. I reviewed my photos throughout my entire trip and enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep.
I said goodbye to the kiwis and flew back home to Dallas, gaining two days back. In total, I averaged 2,950 kilometers (1,833 miles) and 45 hours of driving for 14 days straight! That doesn’t account for the regional flights, multiple photo stops, and detours from my original itinerary. Although it was relaxing and magnificent, New Zealand is a huge country to cover if you’re short on time. However, this is my travel style and I would have done it exactly the same way all over again! If you have the luxury, I recommend devoting at least three weeks, and if you have to pick between the North or South Island, I recommend the latter because there is more rugged and wild terrain to explore. The country is perfect for leisure travelers and sporty adventurers — there is something for everybody. I feel fortunate to have covered both islands, and I plan to be back soon as New Zealand is now one of my favorite places to visit!