New Zealand: North and South Islands in 2 weeks

Back in college, I used to think people who studied abroad in New Zealand were silly. Why spend time in a place where the spoken language was English? I was much much better off learning French language and customs living with my 9-person host family in Rennes or picking up on Greek through its rich music during my homestay in Larissa. New Zealand was a waste of time. Or so I thought. Little did I know it would turn out to be perhaps the most beautiful country I would visit, and it would hit me so hard I would fantasize about finding excuses to go back, spend more time there, and perhaps even live there. Turns out I was the silly one for dismissing it so quickly.

New Zealand is by far one the most ambitious trips I’ve planned—two weeks through both the North and South Islands, covering 11 of the country’s 16 provinces (roughly 3000 km in total), is likely crazy to most, but it was all the time I had. I am already plotting my next trip back.

I flew from NYC to Auckland roundtrip via LA on American Airlines (at a cost of $0, thanks to my Chase Sapphire Reserve miles!). I stayed only at Airbnbs throughout the trip – in this case a cheaper option, and it gave me the opportunity to meet so many people along the way.

Day 1: Auckland

I landed in the morning in Auckland and rented a one-way car (return in to Christchurch) from Apex rentals, which included the one-way ferry from Wellington to Picton and hence had the best price by far. The day’s plan originally included an ambitious idea of going to Waiheke island to check out its famed beaches, vineyards and olive oil, but I ended up taking it easy in Auckland instead, saving Waiheke for next time. I first explored the Mission Bay waterfront area, getting brunch and enjoying ice cream while walking along the beach. It’s got a friendly, local neighbourhood vibe. After parking in South-central Auckland, I walked up along Queen St and stopped at the Auckland Art Museum, checking out Yayoi Kusama’s obliteration room—a fun, interactive experience. The museum is really well done, with art ranging from Maori to modern, and an easy place to while away a few hours. I made my way to the Downtown Ferry terminal and took the ferry over to Devonport, from where I walked east along the seaside taking photos and enjoying the ocean breeze. I stopped in for a drink at the bar at Devon on the Wharf before hopping a ferry back, enjoying views of downtown Auckland, where I indulged in some wine and oysters and chatted with the French servers at Shucker Brothers. Dinner was at Soul Bar + Bistro, one of the few downtown restaurants open at the end of December, as most of the city clears out on holiday. Exhausted, I made my way to my Airbnb and collapsed.

Day 2: Waitomo & Rotorua

Around 7am I hit the road and headed to Glowing Adventures for their Waitomo cave photography tour. They supply clothes as you get both wet and dirty during the tour, and it’s more involved and feels less touristy than other tours, as there are no pre-built pathways, handrails, installed lights, etc.—the caves have been left unmodified. Other tours include boat rides, which this one did not, but you do walk through some water and see some eels. The experience of seeing the light blue glow of the worms in the otherwise dark cave was otherworldly and unforgettable, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Afterwards, you can shower, change, and enjoy a cup of tea and some cookies before moving on. In the afternoon, a fun and windy road took me to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, which truly lives up to the name. The champagne pool, with its smoking hues of bright orange and green, is a must-see on any New Zealand itinerary. The whole walk is spectacular, worth a good couple of hours. And the gift shop is a fun place to get a mud mask (or kiwi or manuka honey, if you prefer) for later in the evening. Finally, I checked out the Rotorua Thursday night market, a crowded but fun affair, before heading to my Airbnb by Lake Taupo.

Day 3: Lake Taupo & surrounds

While I was scheduled to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the North Island’s highlights, a one-way 20km hike through alpine terrain, very high winds prevented this from happening. Instead, I hiked between Kinloch Beach and Kawakawa Bay, checked out the Huka Honey Farm, and did a thrilling and wet jet boat ride by Huka Falls (apparently the most visited attraction in the country, though I wouldn’t necessarily include it in my highlights). I stopped in to The Merchant of Lake Taupo to purchase some local products, including wine and car snacks.  In the evening, I headed to a fantastic Airbnb in Taihape, bringing me a bit closer to Wellington for the next day’s crossing to the South Island. Fiona was an exceptionally kind host, and her homemade breakfast will warm any weary traveller’s stomach and heart.

Day 4: Wellington

I drove to Wellington in the morning, checking out the views of the city from the Mt Victoria viewpoint. After parking downtown, I enjoyed some local seafood at Shed5, from which I spotted a sailboat with a beautiful dalmation and a sign advertising sails in the harbor to see local penguins. I couldn’t resist, and soon found myself on a fantastic afternoon catamaran trip with Megisti Sailing Charters and a dozen or so other guests. While we weren’t lucky enough to spot penguins, dangling my feet over the side of the catamaran while sipping wine and enjoying the views of Wellington and surrounds was a pretty decadent experience. Before leaving town, I feasted on crab and more seafood at the Crab Shack, tried some local wines at the great little Noble Rot wine bar, picked up some Kapiti cheeses from a market nearby, and wandered around the surrounding area, which had a bit of a Haight-Ashbury feel to it. I took the 18:30 car ferry from Wellington to Picton on the South Island, arriving a few hours later, and leaving me to drive to my Airbnb in Cable Bay at night (not something I would recommend if you can spare an extra day in the Picton area). On the plus side, my Airbnb in Cable Bay was stunning, with views over the bay and free kayaks available to take out for a ride (highly recommended).

Day 5: Cable Bay and start of the South Island

This was one of my most relaxing days, largely spent kayaking around Cable Bay, getting brunch outside at Cable Bay Cafe up the road from the Airbnb, and tasting wines at the numerous local vineyards near Nelson, including Fossil Ridge and the sparkling at Seifried Estate (my favourite). In the afternoon, I made my way to the best Airbnb of the trip, on a farm run by a family, in a detached house with its own hot tub. Richard, Sue and Cass and their 2 Leonbergers, Chewy and Toffee, were so welcoming that they invited me to have the pizza they were cooking in their outdoor oven and sit with them over some wine. They call their Airbnb a Sanctuary for the Soul, and it truly felt that way—I was right at home. The location is a beautiful rural setting, with sheep and chickens, featuring farm fresh eggs daily. I honestly did not want to leave, and I can’t wait to go back next time I am in the country. I rung in the New Year’s with the locals at the Moutere Inn, New Zealand’s oldest pub, still housed in its original building from 1850. The countdown was off by a bit, but the music was good, and everyone had a great time.

Day 6: Abel Tasman National Park

I started off 2018 with a one-way hike along the Abel Tasman coast track, leaving Kaiteriteri at 9am and getting dropped off by the water taxi to Torrent Bay and picked up later that afternoon from Bark Bay (about an 8km walk). There are plenty of day walks available, or you can also opt to camp (and have your gear transported for you by the taxi company if desired). Hiking through Abel Tasman was one of the highlights of my trip, winding through a temperate rainforest with occasional stunning views over beaches and coastline, including a very fun and bouncy suspension bridge. It does get quite hot, and while the trail is relatively easy, it’s important to wear proper footwear (flip flops won’t do).

Day 7: West Coast of the South Island

After another breakfast of farm fresh eggs from the chickens next door to my studio, I left Motueka and headed south, stopping en route at Paparoa National Park to check out the unusual pancake rock formations. There’s a dizzying array of other places to visit along the way to Franz Jozef, including the Nile River glow worm experience, cave rafting, and the Hokitika Glowworm Dell. I sped along to make it to Lake Matheson in the late afternoon, going for a walk around the lake to admire the mirror-like reflection of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman mountains in its waters. The cafe off from the parking area served surprisingly good food. At night, I opted for the Minnehaha Glowworm Walk (free, self-guided) near Fox Glacier, which was absolutely spectacular. Wait for full darkness before starting the walk for the full experience.

Day 8: Franz Josef to Wanaka

I had booked a heli ice climbing tour of Franz Josef Glacier, but upon showing up at their offices in the morning, I learned my tour was cancelled due to the weather. This happens frequently, so if you’re really set on the experience, give yourself a few days in the area to be able to try a few days in a row. Be aware that the tours can book out far in advance in the high season. The tour also includes entry to the Glacier Hot Pools, which don’t open until later in the day, so rather than wait around, I opted to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre, a great place to see the rare kiwi and other New Zealand birds, then made my way south, stopping en route for a short hike (90 min roundtrip) to Monro beach. In the winter and spring months, it’s possible to see Fiordland crested penguins on this beach. I wasn’t there at the right time of year, but even so, the walk was well worth it, and the beach is wild and beautiful. I also stopped en route at Wilkin River Jets for a fantastic and thrilling jet boat trip up the Wilkin and Makarora rivers, complete with 360 degree spins. Another great spot to stop for some photos is in between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea to admire the spectacular deep shades of blue in both lakes. I drove onward to Wanaka, arriving at my stunning Airbnb overlooking the lake in the late afternoon. My hosts’ red border collie, Sam, greeted me as I came in, and followed me down to the lake for a quick swim, where he insisted I throw him a ball that he would never quite bring back to me all the way to throw again. I located the famous Wanaka Tree and took the obligatory photos (it really is stunning in person), enjoyed a cocktail at the Gin and Raspberry bar, with its open air terrace full before sunset, and bought local, whimsically designed socks with messages like “Salad makes me sad” at Alice in Wanaka before wandering around the town in the evening.

Day 9: Wanaka to Queenstown

I had initially planned to hike Roy’s Peak, one of the South Island’s better known attractions, but a wildfire the day before closed access to the hike. Instead, I allowed myself to be a bit lazy and visited a few wineries en route to Queenstown: Chard Farm, Amisfield and Akarua. New Zealand’s climate is particularly good for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir grapes, though being a sparkling wine aficionado, I sought out those wherever I could. The wineries in New Zealand generally felt very unpretentious, and many of the wines were quite good. The Queenstown trail walk is also most definitely worth a detour, with peaceful views over both city and lake and The Remarkables in the distance. In Queenstown, I eventually checked into my Airbnb, run by Philip, who welcomes people from around the world. His hot tub is a big draw and a great place to soak with views of the town and the lake. That evening in the living room, over a glass of local wine, I chatted with Sabine from France, who told me about some of the fascinating work she does with the Red Cross in Asia. One of the best things about travel is learning about the lives of people along the way and realising that in the end, we are not so different from each other regardless of the place.

Day 10: Milford Sound

I woke up early for the curvy and spectacular drive to Milford Sound, stopping en route at various waterfalls for some short hikes. I had been warned by my Airbnb host (and a number of others) that driving to Milford Sound was dangerous. They cited the recent example of two young German tourists who were incinerated after driving on the wrong side of the road and slamming into a Korean tour bus. While I can see that if you’re not paying attention to the road, things like that can happen, the drive was so beautiful and fun that I wouldn’t do it any other way. I was booked on a 4:15pm boat trip through Milford Sound (which is technically a fiord) out to the Tasman Sea and back—another of the many highlights of this trip. Dinner was local fare at Redcliff Cafe in Te Anau, which was so delicious I returned the following night, too. I stayed at an Airbnb in a rural area outside of Te Anau, featuring a very kind host who stocked my room daily with farm fresh eggs. One morning, while driving to Te Anau, I came across a local sheep herder using the road to move his sheep from one enclosure to another. I stopped the car and got out to take photos—it was fascinating watching the border collies at work, nudging the mindless sheep into submission.

Day 11: Milford Track

This was one of my favourite days of the trip, one that I’ve revisited in my thoughts time and time again back in New York. I caught the 10:30am ferry from Te Anau Downs to the start of the Milford Track, one of the most spectacular hiking paths in the country. The entire track runs 53.5km one way to Milford Sound (and must be done over 3 days); I hiked about 13km roundtrip, retracing my steps to take the ferry back in the afternoon. Don’t miss the ferry back, as there isn’t another way to get back to Te Anau Downs! Over several hours during peak season, I barely saw a total of 10 other people in what is one of the nicest hiking trails I’ve been on. The trail is wild and varied, passing through beech forest, the glacier-fed Clinton River, wetlands, and alpine terrain. I sat down at an overlook next to the river to enjoy 15 min of silence, and a small South Island robin came to investigate, coming right up next to me. The boat ride back was beautiful as well, with golden hour colours illuminating Lake Te Anau.

Day 12: Omarama gliding & hot tubs

The following morning, after a leisurely breakfast of farm fresh eggs and local cheese in the garden of my Airbnb overlooking rolling farmland hills, I began the drive towards Lake Pukaki. En route, I saw signs for the Sunday farmers market in Cromwell and stopped by, sampling local cheeses, honey, olive oil, and even cotton candy. I was particularly enamoured of the Ardgour olive oil, a rich green colour with strong notes of pepper, and purchased a travel size to take back with me, as well as some goat milk soap from simplenakedsoap for my Mom back home. There was live music, and the restored Gold rush-era historic part of town was lovely to walk around. That afternoon, I was booked at 3pm for a 60 minute glide with Glide Omarama, a both slightly terrifying and spectacular experience. I got into the narrow glider, in front of my instructor Gavin. The glider is attached via a cord to an airplane, which pulls the glider up to an appropriately fear-inducing height, at which point Gavin detached us, and we were under our own power—and that of the wind. For about an hour, we soared above the cliffs of the nearby mountains, with Lake Pukaki glinting in the distance. Upon request, we did some barrel rolls and sharp turns before lightly touching down. Afterwards, I checked out the Clay Cliffs and enjoyed the smoked salmon chowder at Shawty’s Cafe in Twizel, followed by a glass of wine on the terrace of my Airbnb as the sun set over the surrounding farmland. The area around Lake Pukaki is one of the few designated Reserves by the International Dark Sky Association, making for some spectacular stargazing. And while I didn’t make it, I was sorry to have missed the hot tub experience at Hot Tubs Omarama—they have great reviews. Will just have to go back!

Day 13: Hiking near Lake Pukaki

The area around Lake Pukaki and nearby Lake Tekapo is one of New Zealad’s most spectacular and varied, featuring great views of Mt Cook and the surrounding range. After a delicious breakfast feast of freshwater King Salmon sashimi and cold smoked salmon from Mount Cook Alpine Salmon overlooking the otherworldly blue waters of Lake Pukaki, I drove about 40 minutes to the trailhead for the Hooker Valley track (10 km return). I was initially concerned due to the large number of people both in the parking area and on the track, but the track itself along the Hooker River was beautiful, with multiple bouncing suspension bridges, purple bell-shaped mountain flowers, and a glacier lake with small icebergs (!) at the end. Afterwards, I relaxed in the multiple hot springs at Tekapo Springs, splurging to ride New Zealand’s tallest inflatable waterslide and bring out my inner 8 year old. Dinner was at Kohan, a surprisingly good Japanese restaurant overlooking Lake Tekapo. Next door is an outpost of Aotea gifts, where I sampled various types of manuka honey (one of New Zealand’s more expensive—and delicious and healthy—exports) and learned the differences from a very well-informed attendant.

Day 14: Akaroa peninsula penguins

I had originally planned to relax and make my way through a few wineries en route to my Airbnb in Christchurch, but I learned about the Pohatu penguins in Akaroa and could not resist a detour. On a 2-hour nature tour around Flea Bay following a beautiful drive along Route 75, I met rescue penguins and a variety of other farm animals. Pohatu also offers overnight stays and kayaking trips, which I vowed to return for. And Akaroa is a very cute town, ideal for walking and lingering. It was the perfect ending to a full, spectacular and varied trip. One final thing: due to the time change between New Zealand and LA, it’s possible to take a photo at 8am on, say, January 10 in both Christchurch, NZ as well as Manhattan Beach, CA—highly recommended for the fun factor.

What to bring

  • Hiking gear
  • Bathing suit
  • Headlamp
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Mosquito repellent
  • A very long playlist with good music for the many hours in the car
  • Allergy medicine – depending on where you stay, many Airbnbs have dogs, cats or other animals

Where to stay: Airbnb all the way!

Where to eat & drink

Devon on the Wharf, Auckland (North Island)

Shucker Brothers, Auckland (North Island)

Soul Bar + Bistro, Auckland (North Island)

The Merchant of Lake Taupo, Lake Taupo (North Island)

Shed5, Wellington (North Island)

Crab Shack, Wellington (North Island)

Noble Rot wine bar, Wellington (North Island)

Cable Bay Cafe, Cable Bay (South Island)

Moutere Inn, Upper Moutere (South Island)

Matheson Cafe, Lake Matheson (South Island)

Gin and Raspberry bar, Wanaka (South Island)

Chard Farm, near Queenstown (South Island)

Akarua winery, near Queenstown (South Island)

Amisfield, near Queenstown (South Island)

Redcliff Cafe, Te Anau (South Island)

Shawty’s Cafe, Twizel (South Island)

Kohan, Lake Tekapo (South Island)

Read more on Vanessa’s blog here!

Happy #wildbumming!

Vanessa Janowski

Vanessa Janowski