New Zealand Road Trip: What to See in New Zealand in a Month
So, you have a month in New Zealand and you want to see the best of what this country has to offer? I have good and bad news. You won’t be able to see all the iconic places in New Zealand in a month, even if you have a superhuman ability to drive all day and night and not get tired. The good news is that you can see most of the highlights while still getting plenty of rest (you wouldn’t want your trip to New Zealand to cause an unnatural amount of aging after all). This one-month New Zealand road trip itinerary takes you (quickly) away from the crowded motorways of Auckland and out into some of the best nature you’re likely to see anywhere.
I’ve put how many nights you should spend in each place but this is a very rough guide. Everyone is different and you’ll likely want to spend longer (or shorter) in certain places. If you have more than a month this itinerary will obviously be a lot more relaxing (six weeks for this particular itinerary would be ideal) and you’ll be able to fit in some other places, including the Coromandel Peninsula, which just missed the cut for this itinerary.
You’ll most likely arrive in Auckland when starting your New Zealand road trip, and I’d suggest fleeing the first chance you get. It’s not that it’s terrible, it’s just not as good as other places. Want to spend some time in a city? Head to Wellington or Dunedin instead (or just don’t listen to my advice and stay in Auckland).
Northland (4 nights)
Beaches are the main reason for visiting Northland, which is basically the area north of Auckland all the way to the top of the North Island. There is so much to see up there and I’d budget for three or four days to see the highlights. Those include the Bay of Islands, where you can take a boat trip through some world-class coastal scenery and hang out in the peaceful towns of Paihia and Russel (Russel was once dubbed the hellhole of the Pacific, but a lot has changed).
From there you’ll want to head north to the Tutukaka Coast where a couple of New Zealand’s best beaches are hiding out in tiny Matapouri (there’s only one shop there, so you know it’s small). I’d rate it New Zealand’s nicest beach town (in terms of the quality of beaches that is) and you can freedom camp right by the beach if you have a self-contained ride. The beaches (Matapouri Bay / Whale Bay) are stunning and perfect for swimming. You can also visit the Instagram-famous Mermaid Pools but local Maori have encouraged people not to go in due to the state it’s now being left in. I heard it’s pretty dirty in there so we just had a look from the track above it and moved on.
If you’re into beaches, you’ll also want to visit the Karikari Peninsula. Matai Bay is constantly in contention for the “best beach in New Zealand” crown and Waikato Bay, which is right next door, is almost as good. Next it’s a longish drive up to Cape Reinga, the northern most point on the New Zealand mainland. It’s a beautiful spot, with several beaches visible from the hills near the lighthouse. There are also some big sand dunes (Te Paki dunes) and 90 Mile Beach (basically just a really long beach) to see nearby.
From there you can travel to Kai Iwi Lakes via Hokianga — it’s a gravel road in parts but it’s an interesting drive. We only passed through Hokianga quickly, but it looks like a great place — spend a night if you have the time! The Kai Iwi Lakes area is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve seen in New Zealand. These freshwater dune lakes hold some of the bluest water in the country. Lake Taharoa is the best lake to visit and there are a couple of camping grounds right by the water.
Central North Island (4 nights)
The central North Island has some of the most famous tourist sites in New Zealand, including Hobbiton, the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, the geothermal scenery of Rotorua and the Tongariro Crossing, which is known as one of New Zealand’s best day hikes.
Coming from Auckland (you’ll have to pass back through after visiting Northland), it’s probably best to head straight for Waitomo. You’ll have to do a bit of backtracking afterwards but there’s not really any way around it. Waitomo is home to a series of caves, some of which contain glowworms. The dreamy images of boats passing under a blanket of glow-worms is exactly what you’ll experience, although you can’t take photos in that spot. It’s one of the best experiences you can have as a tourist in New Zealand. There are also several other caves to explore (we also went to Ruakuri Cave which was cool too) as well as Marokopa Falls (maybe the North Island’s best waterfall) a short drive away.
Next up on my New Zealand road trip itinerary is Hobbiton (you’ll have to backtrack a little to get there), a must-see for Lord of the Rings fans. You need to book a tour — they leave from Hamilton, Rotorua and Matamata (which is the closest town).
Next you’ll want to have a quick look around Rotorua. I’d suggest walking around town and checking out some of the low-key geothermal sights and then heading to Waiotapu for the surreal stuff. Rotorua is also a great place to get to know Maori culture. There are plenty of shows and cultural experiences on offer in Rotorua and other places nearby.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing should be part of your New Zealand road trip if you’re into hiking. You’ll pass by a red volcano (which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) as well as colourful lakes and other volcanic scenery. It’ll take you most of the day but it’s well worth it.
Taranaki (2 nights)
Towering over fertile farm land below, Mount Taranaki is an extinct volcano you’ll want to get acquainted with. You could climb to the top (it looks hard and dangerous though) or you could do one of the hikes near the base of the mountain. We chose to Pouakai Tarns as it seems to have some of the best views of the mountain, and it didn’t disappoint. We also did a couple of other tracks (the best being the short walk to Dawson Falls). New Plymouth, the closest city to the mountain, is quite nice but there aren’t too many reasons to stick around.
Wellington (1 night)
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, is a nice place to spend a couple of days, especially if you’re burnt out from some long travel days. There are heaps of nice cafes, bars and restaurants and the waterfront area / Oriental Bay are fun places to hangout on a nice day. You should also go to the top of Mount Victoria for awesome views of the city.
Wellington to Picton
In case you hadn’t already noticed, New Zealand is split into two main islands. Unless you have a futuristic boat-car hybrid you’ll need to catch a ferry between the two islands. You could also fly, but if you have your own car (or a longer-term rental for the duration of your trip) the ferry is your only real option. There are two companies — Interislander and Bluebridge. We chose the Interislander — it must have been all those adds on TV subconsciously telling me to (and the fact they threw in some complimentary tickets!). The ride takes around 3.5 hours and is scenic on a nice day. Towards the end of the trip you’ll pass through the Marlborough Sounds and then eventually disembark in Picton, the gateway to the South Island. It’s a relaxing ride and getting your car on and off the ferry is easy enough.
Marlborough Sounds (2-3 nights)
There are some nice walks in Picton, but you’ll also want to hit the road and explore the rest of the Marlborough Sounds. The drives out to Titirangi Bay and Bulwer are two of the most scenic coastal drives in the country and there are heaps of bays, beaches and viewpoints to stop at along the way. There are lots of places to camp in the Marlborough Sounds and there are a few towns with hotels and guesthouses.
Abel Tasman National Park (2 nights)
Hopefully you’re not beached-out yet, as there are some beautiful ones to see in Abel Tasman National Park. You can do the entire 3-4 day coastal track or just do some shorter hikes. I’d recommend driving over to Takaka and then out to Totaranui Beach where you can walk the coastal track to Goat Bay / Anapai Bay. Also check out Te Waikoropupū Springs which features some of the clearest water in New Zealand. Nelson is the biggest city in these parts — it’s nice enough but the beaches of Abel Tasman are definitely the highlight of this area.
The West Coast (3 nights)
From Abel Tasman it’s a longish drive to the West Coast, where you’ll see glaciers, beaches, mountains and waterfalls. The logical place to start is Punakaiki and its Pancake Rocks, but make sure to hike the Pororari River Track too. From there you can keep going north towards Westport and Karamea (visit the Oporara Arches if you go up that far) or go south towards Hokitika.
Hokitika Gorge, with its milky blue water, is a must-see. Nearby you can visit some waterfalls (Dorothy Falls and Elephant Falls). From there it’s down to Fox / Franz Josef glaciers. There are short walks to viewing platforms below the glaciers and I’d highly recommend doing them. Also visit Lake Matheson where (on a nice calm day) you’ll see reflections of Mount Cook and other Southern Alps mountains.
Wanaka (2-3 nights)
The drive from the West Coast (Haast) to Wanaka is stunning and there are several waterfalls to stop at. Also check out the Blue Pools near Makarora.
Once in Wanaka you’ll want to head straight for the hills. It’s one of the best day hiking destinations in New Zealand — take your pick from stunning Wanaka hikes including Roys Peak, Isthmus Peak, Rocky Mountain and Rob Roy Glacier.
The town itself is cool too and it’s a slightly quieter alternative to nearby Queenstown. The beach in front of the main strip is nice and there’s also a partially submerged tree which you should seek out if you’re a fan of Instagram-famous trees (which a lot of people seem to be).
Queenstown (2-3 nights)
The first thing you’ll notice about Queenstown is how beautiful the surrounding scenery is. The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s really busy. I guess those two things are related. You’ll want to do some hiking in Queenstown and luckily there are some nice easy walks in all directions. Some of the top hikes include Queenstown Hill, Bob’s Cove, Moke Lake and the short walks in Glenorchy and Paradise.
Milford Sound (1-2 nights)
You can see Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown if you’re in a rush, but it’s a far better idea to spend a day or two in the area. You’ll see the sound itself (technically a fjord) where you can take a cruise or kayak tour or just admire it from the foreshore area. The highlight of this area though is the number of awesome hikes scattered around the road to Milford Sound. Lake Marian, Key Summit and Gertrude Saddle are my favourites. The first two are easy enough but Gertrude Saddle is tough and a bit dodgy in parts (check out my post about it on my other blog).
If you’re not into hiking long distances you’ll still see some cool things as there are lots of short trails close to the road. Highlights include the Mirror Lakes, Humboldt Falls and the Chasm.
The Catlins (1 night)
The stretch of coastline roughly between Invercargill and Dunedin is known as the Catlins and it’s full of deserted beaches and relaxing waterfalls. There are also some of the best coastal viewpoints in New Zealand, including Florence Hill Lookout and Nugget Point. If you’re lucky you might see yellow-eyed penguins and dolphins (we’ve had the most luck at Curio Bay) and you’ll almost definitely see sea lions at some of the beaches. You can also visit Slope Point, the true southern-most point of the South Island.
Dunedin (2 nights)
I’ve been to most cities in New Zealand now and I think Dunedin is by far the nicest of the lot. There are countless beaches and hiking trails to explore and the Otago Peninsula is full of wildlife and coastal views. There are also waterfalls, surreal street art and some of New Zealand’s most impressive historic architecture.
Oamaru (1 night or just pass through)
There are lots of places to stop on the short drive between Dunedin and Oamaru, including the Moeraki Boulders and various other beaches.
The main appeal of Oamaru is its history, which has been far better preserved than in most New Zealand towns. There are heaps of interesting old buildings to explore and it has the feel of a proper old town, the likes of which you’d see in Europe or Latin America. There’s also a strong steampunk vibe coursing through the veins of Oamaru.
Mount Cook and the Mackenzie Basin (3-4 nights)
From Oamaru head back inland towards Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. You can get nice views of the mountain from the road, but you’ll want to do one of the hikes close to the mountain for the best experience. I’d go for the Hooker Valley, Red Tarns and Tasman Glacier tracks — you could do them all in one day if you had to.
Lake Tekapo is a good place to spend the night as there are heaps of hotels, a good camping ground and one special night time activity. The stargazing at Mount John Observatory is a lot of fun — it’s a dark sky reserve meaning there is little in the way of light pollution. Further towards Christchurch sits the Rakaia Gorge — it’ll take you a couple of hours to hike to the further viewpoints or you can just walk to the first one if you’re short on time.
Other options in the Canterbury High Country include the Hakatere Conservation Park (where you’ll find Mount Sunday) and the area around Arthur’s Pass (Castle Hill, Devil’s Punchbowl Falls).
Christchurch (1 night or just pass through)
Christchurch is a nice enough city but there isn’t too much to set it apart from other towns and cities in New Zealand. The centre of the Christchurch is alright and there are some good beaches nearby, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. You’ll most likely end your trip in Christchurch, where you can jump on a flight back to Auckland.
So, that’s the end of my one month in New Zealand trip itinerary. If you follow it (to the letter or even loosely) you’ll see most of the country’s best waterfalls, mountain views, coastal scenery, beaches and geothermal areas. You obviously won’t see everything though, and the weather will probably cause to to miss something you originally wanted to see. It does rain quite a lot in New Zealand and occasional bad weather is unavoidable.
Are you planning a New Zealand road trip? What do you think of my itinerary? Let me know in the comments below
I was hosted by Great Journeys of NZ on the Interislander ferry. All thoughts and opinions are my own.