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Itinerary for 3 weeks in New Zealand

After some very kind responses on this forum, I decided I could figure this out without a travel agent. Come on friends - help me out!! :)

My husband and I will be traveling for 6 weeks to New Zealand and Australia next spring (fall in New Zealand and Australia). We have season tickets to football so cannot travel in the US fall. Our 2 non-negotiables are the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. So, in order to avoid cyclone season, we have decided we will leave Atlanta mid-April (post Masters. LOL) visiit New Zealand first and then move to Australia. Great Barrier Reef will be the end of our trip (end of May).

We will be 66 and 70. I will be the proud owner of 2 new knees! This will be our one and only trip to Australia and New Zealand. So trying to do as much as possible on a relatively calm schedule.. We have enough Delta miles to fly Delta One both over and back. Our plan is to start in New Zealand. We have 3 weeks in each country.

We pack very lightly (one carryon and one backpack each) and rent airbnbs with washer (sometimes dryer) so we can do laundry. We have driven in Scotland and Ireland several times. We are comfortable with driving on the left and the longer travel times.

This is my first stab at New Zealand - please be kind.

Day 1 - arrive Auckland 6:30am. This will be jet lag day - hoping with lay flat beds, this will not be as brutal as other out of country trips. Trying to avoid as much of the cold as possible, we will fly to Queenstown and work our way north
Day 2 Queenstown

Day 3 - take a tour to Milford Sound, with an overnight cruise of the sound
Day 4 - tour bus back to Queenstown
Day 5 - Queenstown - we have friends who assure us that Queenstown is delightful
Day 6 - rent car, drive to Lake Tekapo. Same friends encouraged us to add this. They said sitting on the edge of the lake was the highlight of their trip.
Day 7 - day trip to Mount Cook from Lake Tekapo
Day 8 - drive to Christchurch - airbnb with laundry facilities
Day 9 - Christchurch, walking/food tour, botanic gardens, christchurch cathedral
Day 10 - tranzalpine train to Moana, eat lunch, catch the return train to Christchurch
Day 11 - Christchurch, walking/food tour, botanic gardens, christchurch cathedral
Day 12 - drive to Kaikoura
Day 13 - Kaikoura, birding/whale watching tour
Day 14 - Kaikoura, birding/whale watching tour
Day 15 - drive to Picton
Day 16 - Picton - marlborough wine tour
Day 17 - ferry to Wellington (4 hour ferry), Airbnb with laundry facilities
Day 18 - Wellington, wine tour, walking tour, cable car
Day 19 - Wellington, wine tour, walking tour, cable car
Day 20 - Fly to Auckland, Airbnb with laundry facilities
Day 21 - Auckland - walking tour, sky tower
Day 22 Auckland - day tour to Rotorua or geysers (te puia?)

Day 23 Auckland - Wiheke Island
Day 24 - fly to Australia

Posted by
6084 posts

All of New Zealand is wonderful. You really can't go wrong. Our itinerary was quite different and that's ok. I will point out that we did the Hooker Valley Track and it was one of our highlights of the trip. Another highlight was our stay in Te Anau and the excursions to Milford and Doubtful sounds. There is a lot of great hiking in the area.

I highly recommend taking a look at the NZTT (New Zealand Travel Tips) facebook page and their website. Lots of great information there and many folks ready to provide feedback and make suggestions. Also they have arrangements with many excursion companies for great discounts. They have also helped out many travelers with minor and major difficulties during their travels.

You will have so much fun

Posted by
2897 posts

In general I think it's a pretty well-planned and well-paced itinerary.
Not to nit-pick, but a few thoughts: I'd suggest skipping the Interislander ferry and Wellington. Not to dis NZ's capital city but there are more interesting locations on the North Island that are more worthy of your time (IMHO). The Coromandel peninsula east of Auckland is one that springs to mind - very pretty area to explore by car. The town of Napier is worth a detour if you can work it in. The town was destroyed by an earthquake back in the '30's and was rebuilt in the art deco style popular at the time. It's really one of a kind. Tongariro NP is a cool place too, with some interesting hikes if you're into that sort of thing.
While in Christchurch consider a short day trip over to the French themed town of Akaroa on the Banks peninsula. It too is a pretty little place with an interesting back story of French settlement back in the 1830's.
We particularly enjoyed the village of Te Anau - lots of Lord of the Rings film locations around there and some of the best hiking in the country ... which is saying plenty.
Many of the little towns can fill up in a hurry once the tour buses start to arrive around mid-morning. Am thinking in particular of Aoraki-Mt Cook. Best to try to get there as early as you can to enjoy it before it gets too clobbered.
And for your onward journey to Oz check out JetStar - the Qantas low-cost affiliate that runs frequent (and cheap) flights from Auckland to a number of destinations in Australia.

Posted by
4471 posts

We went to New Zealand and Australia on a tour this February. 15 different airports. Based on your itinerary, you don't appear to be Lord of the Rings fans, but if you are, you will want to arrange some tours. I would want more than one day in Queenstown just to soak in the gorgeous scenery as long as possible. The museum is Auckland is very worthwhile. Since you like birds, you should plan to go to the Tirritirri Matanga Wildlife Reserve near Auckland. If you've been to Yellowstone, I would skip the geysers but the glowworm cave near Rotorua and the Maori Cultural Center were very enjoyable. Our tour had dinner at the revolving restaurant on top of Sky City and the food was surprisingly good for such a venue.

I hope those football tickets are for the appropriate team located close to Atlanta!

Posted by
959 posts

I have not been to the South Island, but I had the same thoughts as the above poster as regards Auckland offerings, Rotorua, and area (Maori culture and glow worms - unique in my experience). I don't know the restaurant noted.

If you like hiking(?), not rugged, I did this ferry to Rangitoto Island off Auckland and hiked through lava tubes and around the summit. https://www.fullers.co.nz/destinations-and-experiences/destinations/rangitoto-island/#:~:text=The%20volcanic%20Rangitoto%20Island%20is,the%20summit%20for%20epic%20views.

I also did Waiheke Island - hiking and vineyards. I found Rangitoto and Tiritiri Matangi more interesting. I'm not a birder, but really enjoyed the guided walk on Tiritiri Matangi. Waiheke is highly developed with lots of visitors. Waiheke is the obvious place if vineyards are your prime interest, but, in my opinion, the other islands were better for "nature" and something a bit more unusual.

Posted by
959 posts

Adding:

Wellington has fabulous botanic gardens and I highly recommend Zealandia Nature Reserve. https://www.visitzealandia.com

Lots of trails, easy "hiking". I spent half a day, then went back for a Zealandia by Night Tour. That's when you may see kiwi birds. The staff is great. I picked up an Uber after the tour - the staff would have facilitated a taxi if Uber didn't respond.

Posted by
6084 posts

ORDTraveler, when were you in New Zealand? We went there this past February and went to Wellington for the Botanical Gardens and were really disappointed. Unfortunately for us, the Begonia building was closed for a wedding, there was some construction and the gardens looked old and untended. It could be that we've traveled to so many botanical gardens so the Wellington one might have been less interesting, or maybe things got a little rundown during COVID. We didn't go to the nature reserve and had really wanted to. We wished that we had used our time for that. On the other hand, it was free.

We did go to Waiheke Island and would have to agree with ORD's assessment. We enjoyed it, but we like wine. But the island seemed to be pretty much focused on wine, other islands might have been more enjoyable.

We also skipped Rotorua as we've been to Yellowstone and Iceland, and with limited time we had higher priorities.

Posted by
1834 posts

You got some good tips from others. I'll just add a few more thoughts. I just got back from New Zealand two weeks ago, so I was there about the same time you are going.

New Zealand is a great country, with so much to see, so don't sweat it if you can't fit everything in. These are mostly just suggestions, but a few are strong urgings of the "don't miss" variety.

  • Milford Sound in mid-April was very cold. I also did the overnight cruise. Bring layers. Also insect repellent. The sand flies are nasty, leaving welts much worse than mosquito bites.

  • I didn't especially love Queenstown. It pretty much reminded me of an upscale ski resort town in the US or Canada. Lots of bougie shops. Not a lot of character. But it is a fantastic hub for great activities, so I would recommend focusing your time there on that. My favorite was a jet boat tour on the Dart River. There are also jet boats that go out on the lake, but I think the river is a much more interesting experience, and the scenery was awesome. I also did the luge, which was a lot of fun. I bought a 3-ride ticket, and it wasn't enough. After 3 rides, I was just getting good at it. You might also take a day trip to Arrowtown. It's easy to get to by bus. There's a lot of history (it was a gold rush town) and a delightful walk along the creek with beautiful views of the mountains.

  • The Christchurch Botanical Gardens were stunning. I seriously doubt you will be able to visit the cathedral, though. It was pretty much destroyed in the 2012 earthquake, and rebuilding is still ongoing. I can't imagine it will be ready for visitors by next year. In fact, according to their website (https://christchurchcathedral.org.nz/news-and-events/project-update-media-release-6-april-2024/):

If a funding pathway to reinstate Christ Church Cathedral is not secured by August this year, then the project will be indefinitely mothballed, Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Limited (CCRL) announced today.

  • Consider a visit to Hamilton Gardens if you like gardens and flowers. It's really magnificent. About an hour-and-a-half drive from Auckland.

  • The most interesting thing I saw on the North Island was the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. But that would require some modifications to your itinerary. It's 3 hours from Auckland, about a half hour from Rotorua.

  • There are a number of different glowworm caves on both islands. This is something you can't do anywhere else in the world, so I would definitely not miss that.

  • You don't seem to have any activities that will give you insight into Maori culture. That's another thing you can't encounter anywhere else in the world. Consider a visit to Murupara and Kohutapu Lodge. (https://hakatours.com/destinations/murupara and https://kohutapulodge.co.nz/). This would also require modifications to your itinerary, as it's about 45 minutes' drive from Rotorua.

Posted by
959 posts

Jules, I am sorry to hear that you were disappointed with Wellington's Botanic Gardens. I was there in early spring, everything was lush. This was several years ago - late 2019. I hope Covid hasn't changed the gardens for good, perhaps just weather and current conditions related???

I have found that botanic gardens can vary greatly depending on conditions. One week at the Chicago Botanic Gardens will be gorgeous, and the next week those blooms are gone with nothing new starting out and it's dead dull. That is a garden I'm quite familiar with - I'm sure others have had similar experiences with local botanic gardens or your own backyards!

I've had traveler's disappointment with noted gardens also. I was in Tokyo in mid- March 2023. The gardens I visited were all brown. It seems that nothing started early last year. Stupidly, it hadn't occurred to me that this could be the case. Similarly, I've visited the Botanic Gardens in Canberra, Australia multiple times. Sometimes stunning, sometimes reminiscent of the central Australia bush areas with much brown.

Good reminder that those gorgeous pictures one sees may not represent what one encounters depending on time or year and specific conditions surrounding a visit!

Posted by
134 posts

Thank you to all of you for your helpful and kind suggestions! I am taking them all into consideration as I revamp this itinerary. I think we are spending too much time in the "big cities". Robert - thank you for the suggestion to skip Wellington. I'll focus our time elsewhere.

We love botanical gardens, but we will be well into fall, so hoping to get pretty foliage instead.

We are not Lord of the Ring fans.

With my new fancy knees, I should be able to do easy hikes - up to a couple of hours. Nothing strenuous or all day. First knee is done and went great. So, I have high hopes for the second one.

Cala - the Atlanta team is the sad little Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. We aren't very good, but we go with our son-in-law and his Dad. And we always have a fun time with them!!!

Thank you again. I'll keep working on this. I'm sure you will see me out here again asking more questions!

Posted by
720 posts

I'm very jealous! We spent three weeks in New Zealand about six years ago and it definitely wasn't enough time.

I wonder about your Day 12 driving from Christchurch to Kaikōura. It's about a three hour drive, yet you are allocating one full day. Could you fit in your bird watching tour or whale watching tour that afternoon, requiring less time there and allowing you more time for all of the things you are missing on the north island? Same comment for Day 15 -- it's only two hours to drive from Kaikōura to Picton. Maybe you need only one night there.

We took our rental car on the ferry between north and south island, and then had four days that we used to drive between Wellington and Aukland. Plenty to see along the way!

Posted by
6084 posts

@ORD, there certainly is a lot of seasonal variation in botanical gardens. The Wellington Gardens were fine, just not everything we hoped for. There are lots of botanical gardens in New Zealand. You could google a list. We went to Rapaura on the Cormomandel Peninsula. It was small, but lovely. I hear about Hamilton Gardens, frequently.

I don't like the Hobbit or LOTR, but my husband does so we went to Hobbiton. Have to say that I really enjoyed it. That said, there is more than enough to do in New Zealand.

Posted by
5686 posts

I spent 3.5 weeks in NZ in February and could have easily spent more. A couple of comments/suggestions:

Laundry - Many hotels have self-service laundry facilities so it may not be necessary to book an airbnb just for laundry. For example, the hotel I stayed in in Wellington had a kitchenette and a washer and dryer in the bathroom. Other hotels had a laundry room with coin-operated machines.

Christchurch - There really isn’t much to see at the cathedral, but the cardboard cathedral is worth a visit. I also thought Quake City was very worthwhile. There are also walking tours led by volunteers at the Botanic Garden and it can help to focus your visit.

Kaikoura - I spent 3 nights in Kaikoura. If you are ok with snorkeling in wetsuits, I’d highly recommend the dolphin swim. This was really fun. They take you out close to the dolphins and tell you to make sound (underwater) to attract the dolphins. The dolphins decide if they want to come closer. Dolphins were swimming all around us and underneath. It was really amazing. Even if you don’t swim, the dusky dolphins were very fun to watch. I also enjoyed the albatross watch. I took both of these tours with Encounter Kaikoura and they were a very professional organization. The sea can be a bit rough and I was also happy that I took some dramamine as on both excursions there were people who got seasick.

https://www.dolphinencounter.co.nz/
https://www.albatrossencounter.co.nz/
When I was leaving Kaikoura on the train, I sat next to someone who had gone on a whale watch and only seen one whale; I was really glad I’d done the dolphin swim instead. He had also gone on a seal kayak and he said he enjoyed that; they used pedal kayaks.

Wellington - I spent 5 nights in Wellington. The highlight for me was the night tour at Zealandia which I learned about from Ordtraveler (Thank you Ordtraveler). You need to book this in advance. I thought this was fantastic. We saw glowworms, tuatara, and a kiwi! I enjoyed this ecosanctuary so much that I spent 4 hours the next day walking the various trails in perfect weather and seeing a variety of native birds. You need to book the night tours in advance as they only take 12. https://www.visitzealandia.com/zealandiabynight

I also enjoyed the walking tour that left from the i-site. I took this the morning after I arrived and it was a great orientation to the city. https://www.walkwellington.org.nz/

I also enjoyed a tour of Parliament and learning about the NZ parliamentary system. I took their intro tour. I booked this online a couple of days in advance.
https://www.parliament.nz/en/visit-and-learn/visit/guided-tours/

I took an introductory tour at the Te Papa Museum which was also excellent. I booked it online a few days in advance. https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/visit/guided-tours.

Regardless of what you choose, it will be a great trip.

Posted by
5686 posts

p.s. I preferred Wellington to Auckland. I wouldn’t skip it, but travel is all about priorities so YMMV.

Posted by
4628 posts

Well I preferred both Wellington and Auckland to Christchurch so whatever.

I didn't especially love Queenstown. It pretty much reminded me of an upscale ski resort town in the US or Canada. Lots of bougie shops. Not a lot of character.

As someone who remembers the 1990 Queenstown when it was a hamlet, the current version is a little hard to take. So very much traffic, and traffic jams, and bypasses. Pretty setting but soon to become an awful place.

You don’t have to go underground to see glow worms, if going to Tongoriro there are above ground places.

As Jules said there is so much good stuff that the less frequented places are just as satisfying. Frankly I would skip the train, drive Arthur’s Pass, drive up the West Coast a bit stop at Pancake Rocks, fit in Nelson and get your vineyard fix here, the Pinots are wonderful. This means you’d miss the whales and bird tour so probably out. On a nice day the interisland ferry is quite enjoyable.

Noting mostly for others: Delta One will be fantastic and I’m jealous. It’s from LAX only so just a bit of a detour from Atlanta. Air NZ has shorter options for the eastern half on the US, from Houston and other cities. Also United flies San Francisco nonstop to Christchurch which can be a timesaver for some. Those flying Star Alliance to Auckland can connect to Queenstown the same morning on the same ticket, I don’t think that’s possible arriving on Delta.

Posted by
6084 posts

We didn't go to New Zealand for the cities. We spent two nights in Auckland, one night in Wellington, and none in Dunedin, Queenstown or Christchurch. We focused on smaller towns and rural areas. We drove near/around Queenstown twice, it looked nice, the lake was pretty, traffic heavy and that was enough. We choose Te Anau and Wanaka over staying in Queenstown. We liked Auckland a bit more than we expected, but two nights was enough. Heck, the parking and traffic in Wanaka (very nice area and surrounds) was enough for us.

I really enjoy wildlife, especially birds and ocean creatures. We saw kea and penguins and seals. We would have liked to have seen kiwi and more penguins, but hopefully, next time. As an environmental (my kids say fanatic) I am concerned and avoided encounters with whales and dolphins, but I didn't do any research in terms of how the encounters were handled--so no judgement.

When we go back, there are a few places we'll pick up on the North Island, but we'll focus on Invercargill, the Catlins, and the west side of the south island.

EDITED TO ADD: Looking at Tom's comment, above, we really enjoyed Arthur's Pass and did a lot of hiking there. That's where we saw the Kea. We saw Pancake rocks on our way from Nelson, and would recommend the stop. We also love pinots and would recommend Wanaka for some really awesome pinot. We also enjoy sauv blanc and did some tastings in Nelson and Marlborough. We also bought many a bottle of sauv blanc at the grocery stores and never did get a bad bottle. We started to think in terms of "how low can we go" (in price)

Posted by
2897 posts

Several posters have commented on the crowded conditions in the country. We've been to NZ quite a lot over the years and can confirm much of what has been said - the country in some respects has been loved to death and has become a victim of its own popularity. Something we observed during our most recent visit a few years ago is that it's become a popular destination for Asian tourists - particularly Chinese visitors from the mainland, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand who come during the Chinese New Year period (or the Spring Festival as it's also referred to), the dates of which can vary from year to year but generally can cover the period from mid-January into the middle of March. Our last visit happened to overlap those dates. In February and early March many towns - particularly the smaller ones - were booked solid. We were fortunate to have locked in our accommodations and our rental car months in advance. That year the holiday period ended around March 15th, after which we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of visitors in the cities, much better availability, etc.
The OP should be fine with an April visit - it'll be what amounts to shoulder season in NZ - but my point is that anyone visiting the country these days would be well advised to plan ahead and lock down your accommodations and rental cars as early as you can in order to avoid possible disappointment.

Posted by
4471 posts

Since you're using miles, those other airlines aren't really an option for you-business class on those airlines would likely be $9000 each. If you can fly through San Francisco instead of LAX, I would make that change. We spent a night each way in LA and LAX was a nightmare for both arrival and departure.-it was necessary to walk to another terminal with luggage to access ground transportation.

Posted by
2744 posts

I agree with everything Lane said about Queenstown.

I was not impressed with Christchurch, although the botanic gardens were nice. I would skip it. .

Posted by
6084 posts

Wasn't sure I wanted to say anything about Lake Tekapo since many love it. If you are into star gazing definitely do it. It is a small town, with few restaurants, expensive lodging, and LOTS of tourists. The little church is rarely open and there were crowds of people around it. It's known for lupin flowers but those are pretty much during end of November to beginning of January. In February we saw very few. Further, lupin is considered an invasive species and they are taking steps to get rid of it in many areas. (Arthur's Pass for one) After my itinerary was set, I learned that people were much more excited about staying in Twizzel which is closer to magnificent Mt. Cook and Lake Pukaki.