12 Day New Zealand Itinerary - North & South Island
We spent twelve days in New Zealand for the first part of our honeymoon (more about the second part here). We kind of stumbled on the idea of New Zealand from a friend who had paired their honeymoon with Bora Bora and thought it was a nice mix of beaches and more ambitious sightseeing. When we found reasonable non-stop flights from Auckland to Tahiti we were sold.
Since we figured this could be our one shot at New Zealand at least for awhile, we really wanted to squeeze in both islands. Most websites and itineraries will probably advise against this but it really depends on what you want to see and the speed at which you want to see it. The reality is that even if you only spend time in one island, you will still be doing a lot of driving (New Zealand is bigger than you think!) So we just decided to cut down on the driving where possible and take flights for the longer distances. We still felt like we had enough driving in our itinerary to see plenty of green hillsides and sheep - everywhere.
We arrived in Auckland at 5:45am after a flight from New York to LA and then overnight flight from LA to Auckland. It really was a long trip (and we typically don't mind long flights) plus that first week was one of the worst jet lags we've had - this was one thing we hadn't really planned for (the first night our eyes were burning by 6pm and we were still up at 3:30am - wide awake). We are typically pretty good at getting acclimated but when you're traveling so far I think there isn't much to do but wait out the jet lag.
That first day we hit the food scene hard. When we visit cities we seem to find ourselves wandering around taking in the sights most of the time as opposed to museums and things like that and with the walking comes a lot of food. By 8am we were at Caffetteria Allpress sharing pastries and sipping on fresh coffee. Unfortunately the weather wasn't great, it's fall in New Zealand in May but we were expecting high 60s. It was warmish but foggy and misty so it didn't make for great walking weather. What was also interesting was the city itself - it wasn't what we expected at all. We felt like the architecture was newish but outdated and overall didn't think this was a particularly pretty city. So instead of walking too much more we wound up at Best Ugly Bagels to test out the Kiwi's bagel skills. The bagels were okay but the place itself had a great vibe.
Next up (I did say this way a big food day for us), after a very short time walking we found ourselves at Depot. This was our favorite restaurant in Auckland - we had both breakfast and lunch here as well as some glasses of Chardoney by 10am which we'll blame on the time change and lack of sleep the night before. We stayed here at the bar for a few hours chatting with the bartender and eating some delicious oysters, lamb ribs and grilled kumara (New Zealand sweet potatoes). The food here was amazing and we wished we had the time to come back for dinner.
Luckily the weather started to clear so we were able to get up to the top of the Sky Tower for a view of the city in the afternoon. We were crashing at this point though and took a quick nap before heading to Ima Cuisine for dinner. We probably would have skipped dinner altogether this first night if we didn't have the reservation. The middle eastern food was delicious but we were still full from our breakfast(s) and lunch and by this time so tired that we couldn't fully appreciate it.
We love wine and had read a lot about Waiheke Island while planning our trip so we knew we wanted to spend a day touring the island and sampling New Zealand wines. We booked a tour with Waiheke Island Wine Tours and took the ferry over from Auckland. The ferry was a fun experience in itself and gave us a chance to see the Auckland skyline from the water as well as all the other smaller islands in the harbor.
Our tour stopped at three wineries and let us pick where to go for lunch (we hadn't planned for having the choice so we ended up going back to one of the wineries we had tried). Probably the most famous winery in Waiheke island with the most beautiful grounds and views to the water is Mudbrick Winery. We sampled a few wines here including Syrah and Chardonnay which have become popular in the region. This area also does a lot of Bordeaux style wines which we aren't typically our favorites.
We absolutely loved Casita Miro for lunch and wine tasting. They specialize in Spanish food and do a lot of tapas which we sampled as part of the wine tasting - then when we went back for lunch we enjoyed a full meal and a few more tapas. The outdoor area of Casita Miro is really unique as well with the owner having created a beautiful patio with mosaic tiling which made me feel more like I was in Barcelona than New Zealand.
We ended up skipping dinner this night. We were so full from our lunch and tastings and still so tired that we decided to call it quits early and try to catch up on some much needed sleep.
This was our first traveling day since arriving but getting around by plane in New Zealand is much easier than in other places so it wasn't bad at all and we'd recommend it to get from the North to the South island if you want to see both during your trip. Once we got to the airport, one of the things we were most surprised about is the security - there is practically none! There was a security check and metal detectors in Auckland but no one checked our passports or any form of ID at all! This really shocked us even for our subsequent flights in New Zealand.
The flight was quick and we arrived and were settled in Queenstown by early afternoon. We had rented a car and it was a quick and easy drive from the airport. We started by checking out the town which was smaller than I thought but really cozy. There are plenty of cute shops to keep busy in - my favorite was a homemade candy and fudge store called "The Remarkable Sweet Shop" on Beach Street in the center of town.
We loved the harbor area where the rocky sand beach meets the water and you are surrounded by beautiful mountains and nature everywhere you turn. We walked down here one morning and it was just so peaceful and serene - you really feel like you are at the edge of the world.
By this time we were ready for lunch and headed to Fergburger. We always do a lot of research on food and drink before going anywhere and had read this was famous in Queenstown and a must try. Being from New York we may be biased toward Shake Shack which I think definitely has better burgers but the Chief Wiggum (slow cooked pork belly) was really delicious. We were able to get a seat at the bar to sit and enjoy our sandwiches and a beer.
Since it was mid afternoon by now, we decided it would be a good time to head to Skyline Queenstown for a ride up to the peak via gondola. We loved the view from up here of the Remarkables and the beautiful harbor. They also offer a luge as well which we couldn't resist. Queenstown is known for it's high adrenaline sports and activities and the luge was about as adventurous as I could get into. But we loved it!
For dinner that night we had booked a table at Madam Woo for Malaysian food. The restaurant is trendy inside and we enjoyed the food here as well - it wasn't our favorite in Queenstown but that's because every other night the food was really delicious.
What we were not expecting on this trip was snow but unfortunately we got a big surprise when we woke up on our first full day in Queenstown to a chilly forecast and snow on the ground! Because of the weather, our original plans for a flight to the Milford Sound and cruise there got cancelled (when booking this tour they recommend you book for your first day because it's actually common for it to get cancelled for any type or wind or even heavy clouds in the area. The planes they fly are so small that they really need perfect flying conditions to safely get there). At the last minute we tried to rearrange our wine tour for the following day but the tour guide wasn't able to change the date forward so we had to get creative with our scheduling.
We started the day at Bespoke Kitchen which wound up being how we started every other morning in Queenstown. We loved this cute breakfast and lunch place close to our hotel - the Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel. Their breakfast board with avocado toast and a chia pot was delicious (by the way, avocados are so popular in New Zealand which I did not expect. They're actually grown in the country in the North Island). We sampled almost everything on the breakfast menu between the two of us for three breakfasts and didn't find a thing we didn't like.
Thanks to the snow, we unexpectedly found one of the highlights from our time in Queenstown - the Onsen Hot Pools. This wasn't on our original itinerary but it was perfect for the weather. It's located about 15 minutes outside of the city on the way to Arrowtown and the Central Otago wine region and it overlooks a beautiful valley and winding stream. You can book hour time slots and get a private room with your hot pool and a remote control for the garage-like door that opens up to the fresh air. For extras you can buy teas and an incense candle which was a fun and inexpensive add on.
After the hot pool we decided to explore the Central Otago wine region ourselves. We stopped at two tasting rooms and really enjoyed the wines at both Mt Rosa and Wet Jacket. Who knew that Central Otago specializes in French style pinots and they are really good! In between the wineries we stopped at Gibbston Valley Cheese for a snack and on the way back we checked out Arrowtown. It is such a cute little town - I would have loved to stay for longer but the weather was getting worse at this point and we wanted to get back to Queenstown since we were driving ourselves.
At the first wine room we stopped at, the women working there who we were chatting with recommended The Bunker for dinner in Queenstown. We got lucky with a reservation that night and loved everything about the restaurant's cozy, dark interior and delicious food. This was now the 4th day straight eating some form of lamb and we couldn't get enough. We also tried the venison tartare for an appetizer which was risky but worth it - we surprisingly enjoyed it a lot.
The weather cleared today and we got the go ahead for our trip to the Milford Sound. I had high expectations for this day and was a little disappointed with the actual cruise portion at the Sound. The Milford Sound wasn't all that I had hyped it up to be but the flight on this cute little plane was a highlight especially on the way there when I got to sit in the co-pilot seat. We really enjoyed the experience and would recommend it even if just for the flight. You feel like you're soaring above all the mountains and get such beautiful views of the surrounding area outside Queenstown.
We got back in the middle afternoon and took a drive out to Glenorchy which is a great half day activity. The drive is beautiful and Glenorchy is just this tiny little town at the edge of the world. It was the perfect way to spend a sunny the rest of the day.
After another breakfast at Bespoke Kitchen and walk to the harbor in the morning (it's the perfect time to walk through the town without the crowds), we were really looking forward to our rescheduled wine tour with New Zealand Wine Tours. They were so nice to accommodate us even though we were the only ones who had scheduled that day.
Our first stop was at Peregrine Wines, the closest of those that we visited to Queenstown. Here is where we had our first really nice Pinot Noir from New Zealand and ended up buying a bottle to take home with us. We also fell in love with the Pinot Gris which is also really popular here, a white wine variety that we hadn't drank much of. Since it was before 11am at this point we had the wine tasting room to ourselves when we first arrived so it was nice to chat with our tour guide and staff.
For lunch and a tasting before we headed to Mt Difficulty. This winery and restaurant has beautiful views of the valley and surrounding mountains and the food is delicious. We also really loved the sweet dessert wine here and the time to relax for lunch before our next stop at Misha's Vineyard and Tasting Room. What we loved about the tour was that each winery we visited was so different. Misha's is a new winery with wines made from a well known wine maker. The quality was great and the tasting room experience was nice because it was just us again!
After a long day of wine tasting we were debating what to do for dinner when our tour guide recommended a take out lamb restaurant. Tired and intrigued (and having read so many amazing reviews), we placed our delivery order at Pedro's House of Lamb. 45 minutes later arrived our slow cooked, roasted lamb shoulder for two accompanied by vegetables and bread which we enjoyed right in our hotel room. It was the perfect end to our time in Queenstown.
We left early this morning for our flight from Queenstown to Christchurch where we rented our first New Zealand car and hit the (left) side of the road. We had about 2.5 hours ahead of us to our next destination so we had planned a stop along the way at a small fishing town called Akaroa on Banks Peninsula for lunch. Our final destination was to The Annandale - our home for the next few days in a cottage on a working sheep farm. The Annandale is also on the same peninsula but in Pigeon Bay and while they look close on a map what we didn't fully appreciate was the winding roads and mountains that we would wind up and down to get from one place to the other.
We loved the harbor in Akaroa and felt like it was such a peaceful place nestled in the mountains. We were expecting a big town, so we were surprised to find only a few restaurants, a butcher and grocery store and one main street. But it was the perfect mid day stop and the views of New Zealand's countryside as we were winding down to sea level were so pretty that I insisted on stopping along the way for some pictures.
By the time we arrive at The Annandale it was mid-afternoon. We dropped off our car at the front gate and hopped in a 4-wheel drive truck for our 30 minute drive winding around dirt roads on the side of cliffs toward our new home for the next few days. This property is incredible. There are a few different choices for where to stay and each is completely secluded from the others. Our full hotel review is here. We loved the Shepherd's Cottage - it was the perfect place for two people and felt rustic enough to be on a sheep farm but luxurious enough to feel like you were really being pampered.
Our first full day on the farm was meant to be a mix of hiking ourselves and the farm tour offered as an extra by the hotel. But since the weather had been a little rainy the tour was cancelled and we were left on our own. We spent the day hiking - basically all day. But it felt like no time! It's amazing how small you feel in such a big place. But we loved the up close views of all the cattle and sheep and the beautiful views of the cliffs looking over the sea.
We ended the day with a home cooked meal and tunes on the vintage record player in the cottage (read more on our review of The Annandale - they have a really unique meal package where they bring you prepared meals each day that you just cook - and they are all so delicious).
Unfortunately we only stayed at The Annandale for two nights and while we had all morning on the day we were leaving we were definitely sad to go. We spent the morning cooking breakfast, watching the sheep graze in the fields in front of our cottage, and doing another morning hike. By noon we were on the way back to Christchurch for our flight to Napier to explore the Hawke's Bay wine region in the North Island. We knew going into the trip that we would have a few travel days and this was one of them. We couldn't find a direct flight so we had a quick layover in Wellington and by the time we made it to Napier it was around 7pm and time for dinner. We always love trying new cuisines and enjoyed our dinner at Restaurant Indonesia.
We spent the full day wine tasting in Hawke's Bay which we were referring to as Little Napa by the time we left. The climate and culture reminded us so much of California and the wines here were bolder than those we tried in the Central Otago region. They specialize in Syrah's which we really enjoyed. One of our favorite spots was Mission Estate Winery which is one of the oldest wineries in New Zealand. We had lunch outside here overlooking the vineyards and found it to be so peaceful and beautiful. Another highlight from the day was going to the top of Te Mata Peak which we did first thing in the morning. The drive up to the top is unnerving (it's a one way winding road) so going first thing in the morning when there are less cars is best. Luckily we were with a tour guide because I can't imagine driving up to the peak on our own. We loved the views of the whole area from the top. We also loved our quick stop in between wineries at Arataki Honey. There is a shop where you can sample their wide variety of honeys and of course take some home with you. We loved the sampling and bought a few jars to take with us. Our absolute favorite place in this region though was Ash Ridge Winery. We stopped here mid afternoon for a tasting and snack which was the most delicious cheese platter that we enjoyed in their screened in porch. We loved all of the wines here, especially the Syrah's and their late harvest dessert wine and ended up buying a case to be shipped back to us in the US.
Back on the road, after a relaxing morning in our temporary home, Millar Road, we were on the way to Rotorua for some history and culture. Rotorua is one of the main centers for the Maori people in New Zealand and is steeped in history. The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian population of New Zealand and have a very distinct culture and way of life on the island. We knew we wanted to experience this part of the country which made Rotorua a good stop on the way back to Auckland from Hawke's Bay - it's about half way between both. On the way, we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, a geothermal park famous for the Champagne Pool, naturally colored hot and cold springs, and volcanic craters. We really enjoyed wandering around here and taking in all the colors (and smells). The thermal activity around Rotorua also makes it a popular attraction in addition to all of the Maori related tours you can do. We decided on the Mitai Maori Village experience for dinner. There are a few options of different companies to choose from but from everything I had read, they all seem to be very similar. Overall, we had mixed feeling on the experience. We liked learning more about the culture but the whole night felt a little more like being in Epcot than in New Zealand.
Our last day in New Zealand! We packed up our things and headed for Auckland International Airport. The drive was a few hours and while we had originally planned to stop along the way at Hobbiton and then stay in Auckland overnight for an early morning flight the following day, our flight got pushed forward so we scratched those plans and headed right to the airport.
Overall, we can't say enough good things about New Zealand - the people, food, scenery, culture were all incredible and we really hope to visit again some day!