Although far away from nearly everywhere else on the planet, the country of New Zealand offers unique opportunities to see nearly every type of topography that exists elsewhere in the world. From expansive mountain vistas to small streams, green trees and thousands of kilometers of oceanfront, New Zealand offers all of this and more to visitors.
Stays of more than a few days are best serviced by a rent car or motorhome/RV. Many rental car companies have offices at the major airports and pick-up and drop-off is easy (just bring a valid driver’s license and major credit card). Americans and most Europeans will be alarmed that New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, and on the right side of the car, but rest assured that just a few minutes’ practice in a parking lot will be a step toward driving successfully in New Zealand.
Start your drive in Auckland, which is nearly at the top of the North Island. Take a few days to enjoy this cosmopolitan city before heading south.
Raglan is both reasonably close to Auckland (about a 3-hour drive) and incredibly different. With hundreds of kilometers of beachfront, this town is beautiful without being too overly touristy. Shy away from the city center and stay at a smaller bed & breakfast or hostel near the top of one of the many hills to enjoy a view that you won’t want to leave. Visit the beach to sunbathe or partake in one of the many watersports available.
For different scenery, venture inland to take in the stunning Tongariro National Park. Camping, mountain biking and hiking are plentiful here and equipment can be rented from one of the many local vendors. For those who really love outdoor activities, plan on a five day/four night hike/camping expedition that treks around several mountains in the Park. Don’t leave the Tongariro area without a visit to Lake Taupo. The largest lake in New Zealand, Taupo is hard to miss. Stop in one of the many towns that circle the lake and savor a picnic lunch with impressive scenery.
Return to the hustle and bustle of city life with a trip south to Wellington. At the tip of the North Island, Wellington also has stunning ocean views as well as fun nightlife and the colorful Cuba Street. Wellington offers a cable car ride up to Botanic Gardens that boast a beautiful view of the seaside city. Don’t miss Te Papa (Maori: “Our Place”), which has many different exhibits that span from local aquatic life and Maori history to rotating exhibits. Giant Squid enthusiasts should be sure to check out the specimen that is housed on the bottom floor, complete with a documentary on the procurement of the squid.
Several ferry services are available to transport people and vehicles from North to South Island. Check times and fares and book online and early to save a little cash (as of March 2010, fares on one ferry service for two people and one SUV were around 250NZ booked online one way). The ferries themselves are well-stocked and equipped to carry hundreds of passengers, cars, freight and even rail cars and amenities are really unlimited. Little kids will feel at home in the kids’ play area or the on-board cinema (extra charge), and adults might enjoy paying an additional fee to enjoy an exclusive “club level”. Be sure to take a camera to the top observation deck for stunning blue oceans and deep green forested islands along the way.
The ferry drops travelers off in the South Island city of Picton. Continue through Picton and spend the night in Nelson. Trafalgar Street is full of shops and during the weekend, the outdoor Nelson market is a great place to procure local crafts as well as seasonal fruit and other items. A plethora of outdoor and watersports activities are available in the nearby Abel Tasman National Park so bring a sense of adventure and open-mindedness for a good time.
A full day’s drive from Nelson is the bustling capital city Christchurch. Uniquely British, Christchurch has a style of architecture that is far more like Canterbury than New Zealand. Stay in the city center for quick and easy walks to nearby attractions including the Botanic Gardens, Christchurch Museum, and the Christchurch Cathedral.
On your way back up north to Auckland, spend some time driving the east coast and at Hawke’s Bay, the North Island’s wine country. 30+ wineries provide all different types of wines, both red and white, and will delight any palette. Visit a variety of wineries: small and large, old and new, for the best experience. The drive up the east coast is lovely; don’t be afraid to pull over to view seals and penguins along the way.
Movie fans should definitely stop in Matamata, which is where “Hobbiton”, of Lord of the Rings fame, is located. A tour will cost around $60NZ but is a full two hours and gives great insight to the movie itself. Those who aren’t fans of the movie will appreciate the area and the unique gentle rolling hills as well as the agricultural aspect of the area. Complete your tour of New Zealand by returning back to Auckland.
Other places to visit if time allows:
– Franz Josef Glacier
– Milford Sound
– Northlands (north of Auckland)