After finding a ridiculous seat sale on Air New Zealand, I knew it was time to explore this amazing country so I booked it over the Christmas season of 2017-2018, escaping the 2017 snowmageddon of Vancouver for the New Zealand summer.
Trip length: 19 days
10 days on the south island
7 days on the north island
2 days lost in travel
Go: if you love hiking, kayaking, beaches, sheep, winding roads, cute accents and craft beer.
Don’t go: if you are looking for a budget destination, stable weather, or culinary experiences.
Flight from YVR (including flying from South Island to North): $1059 CAD
Car rentals: $534 CAD
Gas (for driving the below itinerary): $380 NZ
Accommodations & Food: Variable. I stayed everywhere from a hut at a campsite to the Hilton and ate everywhere from restaurants to peanut butter and jam sandwiches I made from the grocery store.
Milford Sound cruise and coach from Queenstown: $93.50 NZ on bookme.co.nz
R & R Adventures Oarsome day kayaking trip $200 NZ
Round trip shuttle to Tongariro Crossing from Turangi $35 NZ on bookme.co.nz
The Rock overnight boat cruise: $268 NZ
Paihia day boat cruise to the hole in the rock $96 NZ
Despite being summer in New Zealand, I was grateful to have packed everything from a bikini to a rain jacket to a toque & gloves. The weather in New Zealand is fierce, varies considerably from North to South, and changes quickly. Most importantly, pack your hiking shoes or hiking boots and a waterproof jacket.
Queenstown (2 nights)
What an awesome little town to start my New Zealand adventure! The bus system from the airport was a little confusing with the different fares depending on if you purchase a GoCard. Since I was only taking one bus trip, I opted for the cash fare. Nothing else about this bus system was confusing. The #1 bus went right to the centre of town directly and I didn’t need to wait more than a few minutes. Airport bus connections like these make taking any other form of transportation just a waste!
I stayed at the Adventure Q2 hostel – super clean, private bunks with curtains, fantastic kitchen and lounge, engaged staff, and most importantly, incredible location in town.
I’m going to go as far to say the best place I ate on my entire NZ trip was Caribe Latin Kitchen in Queenstown – they know how to make a taco. For make your own food options, I found the Four Square grocery store in the centre of town to be expensive with little selection – a short 10 minute walk out of the centre of town brought me to a larger, slightly cheaper grocery store, Fresh Choice.
Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world so if you’re into skydiving, bungee jumping, parasailing, or paragliding – there are few places more beautiful to do it. I kept things a bit more low key but managed to have a great time doing the below activities:
- Laying on the grass in the middle of town on the shore of Lake Wakitipu soaking up the sun – the lack of ozone layer in New Zealand is legit. Wear sunscreen. I didn’t and had the burn the first day to prove it.
- Queenstown Hill walk to the summit of Te Tapu-nui – somewhat steep (500 metres over 1.5 km) short little hike rewarding you with amazing views of Queenstown and lake Wakitipu.
- Queenstown Gardens – beautiful, flat walk through the gardens and along the shores of Lake Wakitipu.
- Jucy Gem Milford Sound Coach and Cruise day tour ($93 on bookme). This “must do, 8th natural wonder of the world” kind of just reminded me of the ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Gibsons with the real highlight occurring on the way to Milford Sound when we pulled over to look at a Kea bird. But if you like long bus rides, boat cruises with waterfalls through beautiful mountain scenery, add it to your list. The 12 hour day from Queenstown was a bit much for me so if you have more time, you may want to break it up a little by spending the night in Te Anau.
Wanaka (1 night)
On my final day in Queenstown I picked up my rental car and drove the hour of winding mountainous roads to Wanaka. Wanaka has a very similar vibe to Queenstown, on Lake Wanaka but significantly smaller.
I had at least 3 people tell me to try the Burrito Craft food truck. They were right.
Since I only had one day in Wanaka, and the weather was windy with a bit of rain, I opted to do the Roy’s Peak hike. A couple hours of boring switchbacks led to the best views of Wanaka, and a totally Instagram worthy photo spot (which you will have to line up for). The random sheep hanging out on the side of the trail break up the monotony of this climb – get used to it, New Zealand has the highest density of sheep per unit area in the world. Once back in town with a belly full of burrito, I spent the remainder of my day wandering the town in search of medication for a cold I was fighting and walked the shores of Lake Wanaka to see #thatwanakatree.
Fox Glacier (1 night)
I woke up early to take advantage of all the stops along the Haast Pass using this map as a guide: http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/otago/walks-along-haast-highway-brochure.pdf as I drove from Wanaka to Fox Glacier (3 hours without stops). Unfortunately the pouring rain made the Blue Pools more of a murky grey/blue colour – I’d love to come back and see them in the sun but it did mean waterfalls along the Haast Pass were in full effect. I met up with a friend at the trailhead to the Copland Track to begin our 18 km hike to the hot springs at the top where we would camp for the night. As we began to organize our camping gear in the pouring rain we realized no hot springs were worth a 36 km round trip hike in the pouring rain and opted to head to Fox Glacier for the night. It was New Years Eve and we were lucky enough to find a place to stay at the Fox Glacier Pod Hostel & Inn with the remainder of the town sold out. As we were soaking in our hot tub (a consolation prize for missing the hot springs) and eating our free cup of hot soup, we reflected on our luck and how the negative reviews we had seen online must have been wrong as this place seemed fantastic. The state of the shared bathrooms and kitchen as the evening progressed while the hot tub temperature went from hot to barely luke warm, would later explain the reviews. We made the best of the pouring rain and our mediocre accommodations, checking out the Fox Glacier and wandering the Minnehaha walk at 11 pm to look at glow worms before the midnight fireworks lit up the tiny town. The following day it was time to move on, but not before the inaugural new years day polar bear swim in Lake Matheson (a Canadian tradition, now shared with our Kiwi friends).
Marahau (1 night)
If I had more time, I would not have done the 7 hour drive from Fox Glacier to Marahau in one day but I had to make it up for my hut booking in Abel Tasman Park. I decided to make this drive a half hour longer by driving up the coast. I stopped a few times along the way checking out the beach in Hokitika and the view of the pancake rocks blowholes in Punakaiki. In retrospect, Punakaiki would have been my choice for an additional night, especially as a solid opportunity to spot penguins and some beach time. Unfortunately the only penguin I saw was road kill on the highway just outside of town.
I spent the night at the Adventure Inn in Marahau – a chill, hostel like setting in a home of this tiny town. If you’re looking for a few more amenities, you may want to stay in nearby Motueka but this relaxed, quiet hostel 1 minute from my morning kayak tour was exactly what I needed after a long day of driving.
Detour: Stop in Hokitika or Punakaiki for a night
Abel Tasman Park (1 night)
I managed to secure a booking for a hut in the Abel Tasman Park at Anchorage Bay by booking through the DOC website:
Since this was the only single bed available, and the only night available for the week I’d be there when I booked a couple weeks in advance, I would suggest booking as early as possible. This was one of the only things I preplanned for my trip which made it a little annoying to have to plan around (I probably would have stayed in Fox Glacier an extra night to see if the weather cleared enough to do the Copland Track hut had I not had to leave right away to get my hut booking) This DOC hut was like no other campsite hut I’ve stayed in before. Filtered drinking water, flush toilets, free wifi (I like being connected but… really?), clean and pest free, while steps from the beach made this a comfortable stay other than the children sharing my hut. That was an unwelcome surprise but I guess this place is family friendly. I had wanted to do the Oar-some kayak and walk tour through R & R Kayaks (www.rrkayaks.co.nz) however the accommodations they book on the floating backpackers boat hostel were sold out so I did the day tour and booked my hut on my own. In retrospect, this worked out better as it allowed me to explore some of the smaller hikes from Anchorage Bay to Pitt Head and Te Pukatea Bay rather than being confined to a boat. As a fairly experienced kayaker, I was unsure of booking in with a tour of inexperienced kayakers and having to follow someone else’s agenda. The guide’s knowledge of the area brought us to some great little spots with opportunities to observe marine life up close and made this tour absolutely worthwhile. Because the tour ends at Anchorage Bay at 3:30 and the hike back to Marahau is actually less than 3 hours (13.5 km) if you keep a reasonable pace, I would recommend walking back rather than taking the water taxi if you do opt for the day tour rather than staying overnight. If you have the time, don’t rush through this incredible area. Stay the night and you can do a couple hours’ worth of hiking around the area, and relax on one of the most beautiful beaches on the south island at Anchorage Bay.
Nelson (1 night)
After waking up in the Anchorage hut, I began the 12 km trek back to Marahau. The trek was surprisingly easy, I would recommend for almost all fitness levels. I jumped in my car and headed towards Nelson. Nelson turned out to be a welcome surprise! I had wanted to stay in Picton and do some hikes in the area but was unable to book any accommodation so settled on a night in Nelson. This charming town is known as the craft beer capital of New Zealand and has all the amenities of a city with the stillness of Tahunanui Beach which gave off an amazing sunset. This was the perfect area for me to do some relaxing, walking around, beer tasting, and catch up on the inevitable task of a long trip… laundry.
Kaikoura (1 night)
I broke up the drive from Nelson to Kaikoura by spending most of the day in Picton. I had wanted to do a day hike along the Queen Charlotte Track but wasn’t feeling great so settled for the out and back 8 km Snout Track. This easy hike gave great views of the Marlborough Sounds but sadly still no penguins or dolphins. The drive down the coast was stunned, with seals looking as though they were almost on the highway! I arrived in Kaikoura in time for a beautiful sunset walk along the beach before the massive rain storm rolled in. I was looking forward to kayaking with seals (and hopefully dolphins!) the following day and was sad to check my email that night to find out the tour for the following day had been cancelled due to weather. Despite the pouring rain, I was determined to spend some time with sea life and put on my rain jacket to walk around the Point Kean viewpoint while hoping for the weather to change. The seals did not disappoint but sadly still no penguins or dolphins.
Detour: Missing out on Ohau Point on the drive down from Picton remains one of my biggest regrets/missed opportunities of this trip.
Christchurch (2 nights)
The weather remained stormy so I gave up on Kaikoura and decided to head to Christchurch. Unfortunately the newly opened SH1 highway between Kaikoura and Christchurch was closed due to the storm and I was forced to take the longer route. I had been looking forward to the coastal drive however the hills of the interior provided a beautiful backdrop for the 3 hour drive.to Christchurch I had been fighting a chest infection the entire time I was in New Zealand with no improvement and thought it best be time to explore the medical system. Thanks to my free insurance coverage with my credit card (find out more here) I was able to access a clinic and open a claim for the possibility of flying home. I spent the remainder of the time in Christchurch healing and although I was ill, I can honestly say this is a town worth skipping. There isn’t much I can recommend for here other than to head out to Akaroa if you find it absolutely necessary to spend time in Christchurch. Unfortunately this town is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011 and hasn’t yet got its groove back. The carnage from this earthquake at the Christchurch cathedral and the 185 chairs display to commemorate the victims of the earthquake were visual reminders of what the city once was but I struggled to find any connection with this city.
Detour: A day trip to Hanmer Springs would fit nicely into this itinerary as it is located west of the highway between Kaikoura and Christchurch.
Whitianga (1 night)
After a couple nights resting up in Christchurch I flew up to Auckland airport, rented a car and headed straight for the Coromandel Coast. The best part of not having anything planned, is that I was able to check the weather as my flight landed, and make a plan from there. After the storms and cold of the south island, I was ready for some sunny beach time! The beach at Whitianga and the town are nothing too special, however it is a great launching point to get to Cathedral Rock and the Hot Water Beach in nearby Hahei. Arriving in Hahei there were massive signs suggesting I park and take a shuttle bus to the top of the hike to Cathedral Rock. I opted to take my chances and lucked out with a parking spot right at the top. The walk down to Cathedral Rock was stunning but do take care as proper footwear and a basic level of fitness are required to get there. After Cathedral Rock I timed my arrival at the Hot Water Beach perfectly to coincide with low tide and the opportunity to dig myself my own little hot springs pool from the bubbling water heated by volcanic activity under the sand. This is a must do, I had never experienced anything like this before! The next morning I headed up to New Chums Beach. It was easy to see why this was voted one of the top 10 beaches in the world. A couple tips if you head here: head to the beach at low tide as the crossing can be treacherous and wet at high tide, and do take the opportunity to veer off the path a little to climb some elevation to get a beautiful photo. Also, as there are no bathrooms here. I do not recommend eating an entire bag of cherries before heading out to this bathroom-less beach. Once I was satisfied I had spent enough time in the ozone layerless sun, I packed up to head south. I stopped to climb the (very) short peak at Paku Summit, mostly to stretch my legs after a long drive but the views of the surrounding area were stunning. I decided I would continue down the coast towards Rotorua until I was too tired to continue driving (again, the freedom of not planning in advance).
Detour: the Coromandel Coast is somewhere one could easily spend a few more days, particularly checking out some of the hikes and areas north of Whitianga.
Mount Maunganui (1 night)
Without having done much research, Tauranga seemed like a good place to stop for the night. Thankfully I lucked out by booking a place to stay in Mount Maunganui – the nicer beach town suburb of Tauranga. I headed into downtown Tauranga for dinner and was surprised at how dodgy this town felt after dark, grateful to return back to Mount Maunganui to sleep. I spent the morning climbing Mount Maunganui and hanging out at the beach and little shops throughout the town before heading out to Rotorua for the day. I’m not sure how one decides the best geothermal springs to visit but I opted for the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland geothermal hot springs. It kind of felt like I was going through the motions to look at all 20+ sections of this area, and the bubbling pools just outside of the park were probably the highlight for me (and free to visit!) The thermal pools were cool to look at but I am still not sure the places justifies the $32.50 admission price. The real highlight came when I stopped at Huka Falls. The beautiful blue colour and incredible force of these beautiful falls was something I could watch all day.
Detour: On my way to Turangi, I stopped in Taupo for dinner and instantly regretted not spending more time here. The vibe of this town on the lake is exactly the kind of place you could spend a couple of days.
Turangi (1 night)
I spent very little time in Turangi and I imagine most others do the same as it doesn’t seem to have much to it. It is essentially a launching point for the popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike. I woke up early to jump in my shuttle to the park (you cannot bring your own car there to park) and began the 19.4 km hike through a wind and rain storm. I imagine this hike has some beautiful scenery resulting in the rating of top day hike in New Zealand but I hiked the majority of it with my head down to minimize the impact of the wind blowing the rain into my face with heavy force. This hike is rated as rather difficult and perhaps it is my experience hiking around British Columbia, but I did not find this to be challenging. Long, yes, but not challenging. I’d say anyone would be able to do it with a basic level of fitness. There are a couple steep climbs but they don’t last too long and you can go slow. Unfortunately I completed this hike in under 5 hours leaving me 2 hours to sit at the end to wait for the shuttle to pick me up. I recommend booking with a shuttle company with flexible or frequent pick up times to avoid this wait at the end, although since most people are in the same position, you won’t be alone.
Auckland (1 night)
I knew I wanted to spend my last few days in New Zealand in the Bay of Islands but also knew that after hiking nearly 20 km in the pouring rain, I wouldn’t be doing the 7 hour drive to Paihia. Stopping in Auckland for the night gave me the rest I needed. I ended up booking into the Haka Hotel in Newmarket which was a brand new hostel style hotel. If you have a car rental, I recommend staying in a suburb of Auckland like Newmarket (an 8 minute drive to the centre of the city) as parking and driving downtown Auckland is a bit of a nightmare. I spent the evening wandering around Auckland and appreciating the similarities to Vancouver at night. It is a clean, vibrant city with no shortage of restaurants, bars, and nightlife.
Paihia (2 nights)
The Bay of Islands seemed like the perfect place to end my New Zealand adventure, and Paihia the perfect base. On the drive up from Auckland, I stopped at Whangarei. This is one of those places that looks kind of cool on Tripadvisor but really isn’t worth the stop other than to fuel up and stretch your legs. I tried to get excited about checking out the Town Basin and the Whangarei Falls and although both were nice, if you are strapped for time, this is an area you can skip. I hadn’t booked any accommodation yet for the night so had a peek on booking.com when I was in Whangarei. I noticed there was an overnight boat cruise on The Rock Adventure Cruise. It seemed rather pricey but I figured it would be a fun way to combine my overnight stay with some activities. This was like summer camp on a boat! We shot a paintball gun as an ice breaker, fished, kayaked at night with the bioluminescence admiring a shooting star and jumping fish, sat around the campfire until we were exhausted and turned into our bunk beds on the second story of the boat, catching a few hours of sleep before another day of activities including snorkelling, more kayaking, and hiking around a beautiful island stop. The crew were fantastic and made sure we were well taken care of and fed the entire time. Definitely a great way to see the Bay of Islands. I returned to Paihia still without seeing any penguins or dolphins so decided I’d spend my final day in Paihia back out on a boat. Thankfully I finally got a chance to see wild dolphins (but still no penguins!) before heading back to Auckland. The time I wasn’t out on the water was primarily spent on the tiny strip of beach or lounging in the grassy area by the pier. Relaxation was in full effect while I was here.
Detour: With a few more days, a trip up to Cape Reinga would be essential. I heard fantastic reviews from everyone I met who did a day tour up to this area and should I return to New Zealand, it will be one of my first stops.
Auckland (1 night)
My flight home wasn’t until the evening so I had a full day to enjoy Auckland. I started the day with a missed attempt at hitting a free yoga class at the Lululemon downtown Auckland location (travel tip: every Lululemon store offers weekly free yoga classes, including the mats) Parking really is a challenge in this city so I settled for my acai bowl from Tank (this became a “thing” for me on the north island) before heading to Takapuna for the farmers market and to relax on the beach to soak up as much sun as possible before returning home to Canada.
General New Zealand Tips:
- I opted to buy a $49 SIM card from Spark when I arrived which included 3 GB of data, local minutes and texts, 200 international minutes, and 100 international texts. Had I purchased this from the duty free shop when I landed, it would have cost $43. I opted for Spark due to their greater coverage area, similar price to competitors, but also the Spark mobile booths giving me an extra 1 GB/day of data – perfect for uploading those travel photos or pulling over to download another podcast for those long drives. This was my first time purchasing an international SIM while travelling as I usually rely on free Wifi spots but while I was literally driving around Marahau in circles I sure was grateful to have the ability to Google maps my way out of that mess.
- www.bookme.co.nz – this site is an absolute must if you’re planning to do any tours or activities. I paid less than half price for my Milford Sound cruise and got a great deal on my Tongariro crossing shuttle. If I had decided to go ahead with the Queen Charlotte Track day hike, there were some fantastic deals on bookme.
- Rent a car! The best parts of my trip were pulling off the highway to check out random viewpoints, waterfalls, and hikes. I can’t even imagine doing half the cool things I did without a rental car. Also, the bus service in New Zealand is expensive, and the schedules are terrible. Even as a solo traveller, I don’t think I paid much more for car rental than if I had taken the bus, and I had full freedom to go wherever I chose, whenever I wanted. To save money on car rentals, check out relocation deals with the various car rental agencies. They will let you rent a car for free (and often throw in a tank of gas) if you are planning a one way adventure (ie. Queenstown to Greymouth)
- Don’t try the Acai bowl at Tank. It is too delicious and addictive, and at $13 a bowl, it can add up to be quite the expense.