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New Zealand in 2019


I have just begun doing some research on New Zealand and there is so much amazing stuff over there, I really don't know where to start with planning my trip!

My boyfriend and I will be traveling from Seattle, WA some time in February over to New Zealand. We would like to stay for 3 weeks, and I am really torn whether we should go to both the North and South Islands, or just the South Island. This trip would be an "adventure" trip for us, so filled with hiking, biking, kayaking, all of that fun stuff!

Since I have only just begun planning, my questions are:
1. Should we stick to only the south island, or both?
2. What cities should we stick to as home base? We will most likely rent an airbnb (in numerous cities) and take day trips from there. I have also read in to holiday parks, so this would be an option for us as well.
3. Is renting a car pretty easy? Easy to get around once you have the car?
4. Recommendations for hiking tours? We are hoping to go on a guided hiking tour anywhere from 3-5 days, ideally not more than $2,000 USD per person, but open to a little more expensive as well.

Again, we just started our research, so dates are not set in stone, flights have not yet been purchased. Thank you for all your help!

Posted by
142 posts

In February 2017 we spent two weeks in the South Island and two weeks in the North Island. Go South! You can do three weeks no problem especially if you like hiking. Sometimes it is cheaper to fly into Christchurch than Auckland.

All the major car rental companies are in New Zealand. Omega is a local company that was recommended to us. The rates were lower, there is no one way drop off fee, and we had no problems with them. The roads are very good and not much traffic. More sheep than people.

Posted by
12534 posts

I have to head out to catch a ferry and will post more when I get to Vashon. For now, I just wanted to post a suggestion for your guided walk. We did the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes in 2015 and it was fantastic. They also guide the Routebourn Track, which covers more alpine territory than the Milford. They own the lodges and get everything right. The food, accommodation, and guides were all excellent.

Keep in mind the price is New Zealand dollars, which I believe are around 80 cents USD.

Edit: I just checked the currency rates. The NZD is down to 74 cents US. So the $2795 price per person in a private double room with ensuite bath translates to around $2015 US, within your budget. You can save $100 or so by booking a “standard” double room with no guaranteed view, but I would happily pay the extra for a view room at Mitre Peak lodge. (Not that we spent much time in the room).

Posted by
115 posts

South Island for sure! We did 6 weeks driving, 3+ and 2+ North Island. Much preferred South Island for scenery and outdoor sports. Rental cars and driving are easy except for learning to stay on the left side of the road which only takes a day. Outside of the cities there is little traffic (no people, no traffic). Most roads are two lane and in good shape.

We did a lot of Kayaking and hiking in Abel Tasman park. Concessions are owned by the Maori and are well run. Guides are great. We stayed several days in Marahau and booked our trips through the local travel office. We got great advice there on delaying Kayak trips due to weather so we hiked and did some other stuff first. Note that this is full sea Kayaking in open water and is vigorous and challenging. There are numerous hiking trails and options for 3 to 5 day trips. Don't remember the cost but I am sure you can find it on the web.

The other major outdoor recreation area is around Queenstown - very scenic area. But the whole west coast is really scenic with lots of parks and trails. We drove the whole length of the west coast. My wife has a waterfall obsession and we found numerous roadside trailheads with wonderful signage indicating distance and time out and back to various sights. There are glaciers too and don't forget Milford and/or Doubtful sound. We did Doubtful sound on the big boat but saw lots of kayakers there. Te Anau area (in the south) is also very scenic and a bit wetter - maybe like the Olympic Peninsula.

Lodging - we stayed mostly in motels for 2-4 days at a time. NZ motels are great, usually with cooking facilities so we had an ice chest in the car (bought a "Chilly Bin" at a Kmart in Christchurch. They had no idea what an ice chest was). Carried breakfast stuff as well as lunch stuff and usually ate dinner out. We got the local automobile association motel booklet and just called ahead for reservations either the day before or while enroute. No problems. Compare your costs re AirBnB. We find that cleaning and administrative fees make them pretty pricy for short stays. A motel with a fridge and a two burner stove may well be cheaper and just as convenient. There are also some hostels that are reportedly very nice.

There are only two "cities" on South Island - Christchurch and Dunedin. We really liked Dunedin. Very Scots with Robbie Burns statue in the town square. The rest of the island are just towns with an agricultural orientation on the east and a bit more touristy on the west side. NZ towns are invariably prosperous, neat and clean and very friendly to tourists.

There is lots to see and do. Your challenge will be to narrow it down to what you really want to see and do. Enjoy your research.

P.S. we live in Puyallup

Posted by
1051 posts

We just returned from a vacation in New Zealand and Australia. I would definitely recommend visiting both islands. The South Island is definitely more scenic than the North Island, but don’t sell the North Island short. Three weeks is plenty of time to do both. I would spend 4 nights on the North Island and the rest of the time on the South Island. Hobbiton is definitely worth visiting along with Auckland and Rotorua on the North Island. There is more of a Maori experience on the North Island. Queenstown and Milford Sound are amazing on the South Island. I would spend at least a week in Queenstown. It probably has more things to do in the outdoors than any other city.

New Zealand is a long ways to go. I would hate to see you have any regrets for not visiting the North Island while you are there.

“Kiaora”. (You will learn and appreciate what that means when you visit New Zealand.)

Posted by
1863 posts

We used Down Under Answers based in Bellevue, WA. to help us with our trip. I do think with three weeks you should do both islands! New Zealand is amazing!

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you all so much for your advice! It sounds like the South Island might be where we spend the majority (if not all) of our time.

@lola Ultimate Hikes guided walks look great, thank you for this recommendation!

@Robbie we will look in to motels, sounds like this may be the more budget friendly approach. As long as we have a small kitchen and a bed, we are happy! Narrowing it down with our 3 weeks is going to be tough, but your recommendations are a huge help!

Posted by
12534 posts

Our trip was 17 days, South Island only as our focus was on hiking. We flew into Christchurch and out of Queenstown, on flights from and to Australia. We booked the trans-Pacific flights on Qantas with our Alaska miles and British airways miles. We lucked into first class tickets on the outbound flight.

If you fly direct to New Zealand from the US (LAX), you may end up in Auckland so the suggestion to spend a few days on the North Island is a good one. Maybe work your way down to Wellington, turn in the rental car, and fly to the South Island.

We did a mix of train, plane, rental car, and the 5-day Milford Track trek. Starting at Christchurch, we took the TransCoastal train up to Picton, and caught a water taxi out to Lochmara Lodge for 2 nights. We walked part of the Queen Charlotte Track from there. One can also bring bikes and cycle on this track. The lodge has kayaks for free use, and is in a lovely location.

The train is not currently running due to track damage from the most recent earthquake, but it is cheduled to be back in service in 2019.

From Picton we traveled by bus to Nelson for a visit to Abel Tasman National Park. We booked a day with bus to the park, boat trip with drop-off, and 10 mile walk back to the bus pick-up point, all with Wilson’s. They also do multi-day trips with overnight in their lodges. These are not Maori-owned; the Wilson family are descendants of European settlers who farmed the area starting in the 1850”s.

The day walking on the Abel Tasman track was our least favorite of the trip. I think it would be a great place to go sea kayaking for one or more days, but I could not recommend it for a multi-day walking trip. The scenery and flora do not come close to compare with the beauty, variety, and interest of the Milford Track. I am a botanist and can only describe the plants we saw as scruffy. And there were possum traps every 20 yards or so. Yes, d there are the famed golden sand beaches, and we stopped and swam at one. But they are no more beautiful than our own West coast beaches in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. My husband asked why we had come so far to see beaches inferior to what we have at home.

From Nelson we flew back to Christchurch and picked up our rental car, which we had for one week. We went to Lake Tekapo (beautiful turquoise water, nice hiking and mountain biking) Mt. Cook Aoraki National Park ( a fantastic hike with 2200 steps), Dunedin (university and botanical garden), Clyde (biking the Otago Rail Trail) and ended at Queenstown where we turned in the car.

Queenstown is Adventure Central. Zorbing, zip lines, burgee jumping, etc. It is the take-off point for the Ultimate Hikes guided trips on the Milford and Routeburne Tracks. We did not spend extra times there, but you could if you wish to try some of the adventure sports.

What we did not do is visit the west coast or the glaciers (Fox and Frank Josef) in the southern Alps. These are often part of an adventure trip to New Zealand,. You can do heli trips with glacier landings or other activities.

We rented our car from Hertz but there are lots of options. One-way rental, from Christchurch to Queenstown did not incur a drop fee.

Please feel free to ask questions!

Posted by
1051 posts

If you are in to bicycling, it is possible to bike from one end of New Zealand to the other on a dedicated bike path. Also, there is a town (I don’t remember the name, but it overlooks Mt. Cook and is very near the Good Sheppard Church) that is famous for star gazing. Every room in every hotel has telescopes. People come from all over the world to view the Southern sky from there.

Posted by
12534 posts

“Trite mountains”, what does that mean?

I believe the dark sky area for stargazing that yosemite1 refers to is Lake Tekapo, where we spent one night, the Mt. John observatory is a nice hike up from town.

I don’t know about telescopes in every hotel room. We stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast place, with no telescopes on offer. However, the host did show us where in the sky we should look to see the Southern Cross once darkness fell.

Posted by
241 posts

Cordgula, I can't believe that no-one mentioned Chinese New Year! We went to NZ in February four years ago and were very glad that we make our lodging reservations far in advance. The actual date in 2019 is February 5, but everything was very very crowded the entire month. However, we did have great weather for most of our trip.

We found the motels to be a great deal. Small, individually owned with usually the owner on-site. The rooms we had were generally large and included a full kitchen. Some even had our own washer and dryer.

We did one week on the north island and two on the south. We barely got a taste of everything, but it was a glorious taste! Renting a car is pretty easy; make sure to rent from one of the first tier companies to get the best service. Driving on the left took a little getting used to, but we made navigating a two-person job. The passenger's duties included making sure the driver was always in the correct lane.

It's hard to chose one or two cities to use as a home base and normally people do a lot of driving from one place to the next rather than doing a loop trip. There are a ton of postings with sample itineraries on the TripAdvisor New Zealand forum.

Posted by
2009 posts

Good advice regarding the caution about Chinese New Year. We were just on the South Island this past February and were frankly amazed at how much more crowded some of the small towns (Wanaka, Twizel, Arthur's Pass, Te Anau, Queenstown) were compared to previous visits. Apparently NZ has become a popular destination for visitors from Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, most of whom (it seemed) were traveling independently rather than taking organized tours. Accommodations in several places were completely booked - would really suggest reserving well in advance to avoid disappointment. Once the holiday ended things loosened up quite a bit, so if you have the flexibility I might suggest booking your trip outside the window of the major Asian holiday period next year.
Don't mean to understate the charms of the North Island, but my advice would be to make a beeline for the South Island, especially since your interest is in outdoor pursuits. The adventure capital of NZ is Queenstown - and there are enough activities in its immediate vicinity to keep you busy for weeks if you so choose. The trail heads for several of NZ's multi-day Great Walks (Routeburn, Greenstone, Milford) are close by, and there are several outfitters based in Queenstown that can provide the guide services you seek. Look at the "things to do" drop down menu on Trip Advisor for a listing of companies and prices. Might add that the camping huts along the various tracks are really world class. Though we're strictly day hikers these days, we did take a look inside several of the huts on our recent trip and were quite impressed. Would recommend them highly if that's your thing.
Other suggested stops during your 3 week stay would be Wanaka, Aoraki Mt. Cook, and Arthur's Pass. The college town of Dunedin is beautiful, and for a real treat consider carving out a few days to visit Stewart Island across the strait from Invercargill - It's like going back in time and is other-worldly beautiful.
Driving on the left is really no big deal. We booked with Budget in Christchurch and dropped the car a month later in Queenstown for no extra charge. Do reserve an automatic - wrestling with a manual shifter is a challenge that you really don't need to mess with. Also, preview your routes by looking at the street map feature on google maps to see the sight picture of driving on the left in general as well as signage, roundabouts, etc.
Christchurch, sadly, is still trying to recover from the earthquake back in 2011 - the whole downtown area was one big construction zone. About an hour east of there, however, is one of NZ's unappreciated little gems - the Banks Peninsula and the pretty, French themed little town of Akaroa. Lots of adventure activities there too.
No matter how you organize your trip it will be great, but devoting all of your time to the South Island would be my suggestion.

Posted by
12534 posts

Good point about the automatic transmission. Fortunately they are not difficult to find in New Zealand. When I went to reserve our car with Hertz, only automatics were offered.

Posted by
12534 posts

Tom has a point but chose the wrong state for comparison. Driving from Christchurch to Mt. Cook/Aoraki NP to Dunedin to Queenstown, we remarked on how much it looked like California wine country, with rolling hills of golden brown. The far north point, on the Queen Charlotte Track, we felt looked like the South Pacific.

Abel Tasman NP offers scenic blue-green water for kayaking, but we felt the walk on the track was far from scenic. The vegetation was scruffy, not at all lush as it appears in the photos posted. The beaches looked unremarkable to one accustomed to the Oregon and N. California beaches (spare from that lovely blue-green water). Every 150-200 meters we saw a possum trap; 110 in all over our ten-mile walk (they were numbered and we counted down from 110 to 0). There were areas with some kind of black mold growing on the trees; a ranger we encounter told us about it and the problems it is causing.

Driving into Mt. Cook/Aoraki NP, I felt like I was returning to Alaska, not Washington State.

And there is nothing I know of in the US that resembles the Milford Track, with its tree-fern rainforest, myriad waterfalls, and beautiful fjord at the end. Maybe in Norway.

Only the part over McKinnon Pass looks a bit like the Cascades, but we couldn’t really see much as we were hiking in a blizzard. Two days later we had a glorious sunny day for the fjord cruise, complete with jumping dolphins.

Posted by
855 posts

We spent 18 nights and split between both islands.... we wanted to do things that were a little different so we went north to the Tutu kaka Coast which was awesome and I liken it to Kauai. On the South Island we kayaked and hike the Queen Charlotte Track which was brilliant. We spent 3 nights at a great eco lodge "near" Nelson. We went to the Tasman Sea and hiked and we boated in the National Park. We did not get to Queenstown or Milford Sound. Auckland reminded me of Seattle and Elliot Bay (on steroids) a boaters heaven. I thought Nelson was the cutest town. We spent too many days in Wellington - it's cute but small but the National Museum is worth a day.

Posted by
5 posts

@Lola, you have been extremely helpful! Thank you so much for all of your advice! It sounds like we will skip any walking/hiking in Abel Tasman park, but definitely look in to kayaking there. Regarding the Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes, did you find this one of the highlights of your trip? Was it challenging?
For the Otago Rail Trail, did you bike on your own, or go through one of the several day tours?

Does anyone know when the crowds die off after the Chinese New Year? We could wait until after the 5th, just not sure how long the crowds hang around after the holiday.

Just from some of the pictures I have seen, it doesn't look all that similar to WA state. We want to be in the mountains/ on the water and with nature for this trip, so getting out to the bigger cities isn't a huge priority for us. If we have time, it would be great to see more! However, I am still trying to put our itinerary together, so I do not know what our days will look like yet.

Thank you again for your help everyone!

Posted by
12534 posts

The Milford Track with Ultimate Hikes was THE highlight of our trip. I already mentioned the quality of the accommodation, food, and guides; but the best parts were the scenery and the camaraderie. Our group had 16 Aussies who were fri nds and often traveled and hiked together; they adopted us as part of their group for before-dinner social hour conversation, as well as during hikes. There were also some Kiwis we got to know a bit while hiking. And a sub-group of 16 Japanese who brought their own guide and interpreter. I bonded with one of the women by inviting her and her husband to sit at our table the first night (the tables sat 8 and since the rest of the Japanese group plus their two guides filled two tables, these two were left out. We could not speak each other's language, but from then on we greeted one another each time we met, and looked out for one another at the end of each day's hike. The last evening, which is a sort of celebration, she asked to have a photo of the four of us (two couples) together.

As for the scenery, we chose the Milford over the Routebourne Track because it looked more exotic. Lots of good healthy vegetation, including tree ferns and other unfamiliar flora, many waterfalls, and a stunning fjord at the end ( with a cruise on the Milford Sound included). Even though the weather was not the best ( lots of rain, but not heavy rain) we loved every minute. Thank goodness for our Cascade-certified rain gear!

As for difficulty, the 33 miles of walking are spread over three days. There is one ascent and descent of 2400 feet to McKinnon Pass, but most of the time you are close to sea level and walking undulating terrain. The New Zealanders have perfected the art of making wooden bridges and walkways non-slippery with plastic netting on the surface whichnwas in great shape, so there were no worries about slipping on wet wood. The trail was well-built and not particularly rugged, at least in comparison to other trails I have hiked. The third day includes a number of steps as you pass alongside a raging stream ( glad for the good footing and railing) and visit a large waterfall. Then it flattens out and the last 3-4 miles are pretty much like walking a road.

Ultimate has not only the three inns where you spend the night; they have huts along the way for a mid-day stop ( including toilets). The guide in front would go ahead and make tea for everyone. I should mention at this point that everyone walks at their own pace and you spread out considerably. Generally we were walking with one other couple or family, not in a big parade. My husband and I are moderately fast hikers smstayed near the front. Upon arrival at the inn, it was sometimes an hour or two before everyone else arrived. So no pressure to keep up, and lots of time to stopmfor photography.

For the Otago Rail Trail, we just booked a night at the town of Clyde, right on the trail with a bike shop for rentals. We arrived by noon and rented bikes for the afternoon ( I reserved them in advance). It is a nice section of the trail as it is more treed and shady than other sections, and right along a river. I think we rode about thirty miles as an out-and-back.

We stayed at a BandB named Olivers and I highly recommend it. It is a converted stable built around a central garden; the owners have done a great job of fixing it up. They are very hospitable, and cook an excellent breakfast. When we were there they were planning on opening a brewpub as well. I do not know if that has happened; I should go and look.

Posted by
2009 posts

Regarding Chinese New Year (or the Spring festival as it's also called): This year the holiday was Feb. 16th, and the 11 day celebration ran from the 16th - 26th, though it seemed to extend until March 2nd or thereabouts. The smaller towns we traveled thru (Twizel, Wanaka, Queenstown) were all booked solid during that time. We were in Queenstown the first part of March and noted the difference once the holiday period ended. Though the towns were crowded the foot traffic on the trails was as we remembered it ... really not crowded at all. Am guessing that the organized attractions and adventure concessions were probably crowded too but we didn't opt for any of those this trip. As is usually the case, we found that getting an early start got us out well ahead of the throngs, particularly at Mt. Cook which is so compact an area that it can seem crowded even when it really isn't. Had the road and the trails to ourselves on the way out but met scores of people as we returned later in the day.

Next year the holiday is Feb. 5th as you're already aware. Given that the celebration lasts for about 11 to 14 days, you'd be smart to delay arrival until the middle of the month, though for all that the crowds were never especially difficult to deal with - a few minor traffic backups getting into and out of town was about the worst of it. Traffic on the roads once outside the towns was never an issue.

We think New Zealand is most beautiful country on earth, and South Island is the centerpiece for some of the most gorgeous scenery you'll ever see. It's basically "Lord of the Rings" around every bend of the road.

Posted by
278 posts

Have been to both Islands and they both have great things to offer for outdoor things. We sea kayaked in the bay of islands way north and it was great protected kayaking with islands with beautiful beaches which we were the only ones on, the Tongariro Crossing was an amazing hike up and over a volcano, the Coramandel Penninsula was beautiful.

On the South Island we did the Milford Track as free hikers and it was beautiful and unique, kayaking in Abel Tasman, hiking the Banks Peninsula was like being in Ireland except with lots of seals with the quaint formerly French town of Akaroa as your base, the glaciers and Mt. Cook region on the west coast, and all the adventures around Queenstown.

Renting a car is easy, a campervan can be a good choice, the islands are sizeable so using one place as a base is difficult you need to move around. Driving is british style on the other side of the road, on the south island lots of one lane bridges and faster more aggressive than you Kiwi drivers.

Posted by
61 posts

We're going in August, planning 10-days based in Queenstown (where a daughter works for NZ Ski) and a few days each in Auckland, Rotorua, and Paihia. Are the outdoor activities (besides skiing in Queenstown) seriously curtailed in winter? We enjoy kayaking and hiking. I know the weather up north of Auckland will be more moderate, but not sure if kayaking Bay of Islands is feasible, etc.

I welcome any input:)

Posted by
278 posts

We Kayaked in late October in the Bay of Islands and we were our guides 1st group out for the season. We hired a private guide and he actually took us before his season started and charged us less as we were going on a shakedown tour with his new guides he just hired and was training. I think August will be too early even up there. There will be a lot of snow on the higher hikes around queenstown in August it is still winter there. I imagine weather could make river activities limited also.

Posted by
2970 posts

We spent 2 weeks in the North Island. We have friends in Auckland and Whangarei. We rented a car and toured the beautiful Coromandel, Paihia, Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga, etc. Instead of going to the South Island we went to Australia for another two weeks. We were in NZ in the month of February. The weather was warm and comfortable. Memorable experience. Wonderful people.