Best way to spend three weeks in New Zealand
Updated: Mar 8, 2018
We've traveled the world and New Zealand still holds a special place in our hearts. The people, the history, the country, and the sights are breathtaking and beautiful. The size of the country is also surprisingly massive. To be honest, three weeks doesn't do this country or it's people justice. I could live here for three months and I wouldn't scratch the surface.
As many will tell you, the South Island will be the place to spend a majority of your time, and we couldn't agree more. The North Island is great for a few must-dos, but don't spend all your time there; you'll regret it. Here's my recommendations that will take you to some typical faves and few off-the-grid-only-known-by-locals spots.
Start off your trip in the South Island. Fly from Auckland to Christchurch and spend a full day and night here. There is still alot of construction going on after the last few earthquakes, but it's fun to walk around the city and see what it the rebuild will look like. Plus there's fun street art throughout the city. Highly recommend a stop at the Stranges Lane (a mini indoor/outdoor food truck-hall) for some great local food and drink.
TIP | Due to construction, keep your hotel and car windows closed as a fine layer of dust will settle over everything you own and wear.
Drive straight from Christchurch to Mt. Cook and check in at the ranger station in the Visitors Center. Depending on weather you could hike up to basecamp and spend the night in one of the huts. Encounter inclement weather, like what we did, and camp at the bottom of the mountain. It was the best campsite we had the entire trip and allowed us to explore the hiking trails around the area. Beautiful views, huge campsites, and fresh water. You couldn't ask for much more.
TIP | Be sure to have your camping gear and some freezer dried meals in case you need to camp for the night.
Home to the smallest penguins in the world, be sure to stop in this little town. Go straight to the Penguin center to book reservations for the night and be sure to splurge on the reserved seating as you will be seating less than 3 feet away from the entrance to the peguin's colony, which makes a crazy experience when you see them coming ashore during sunset. Spend the day walking through town, eating pizza with a view at Scott's Brewing, and checking out cool local artists work before the penguin show!
TIP | DO NOT take photos of the penguins. They swim all day and night, coming back to shore exhausted. Flashes from your camera and lights from your phones will scare them and send straight back to sea, meaning they'll drown themselves from exhaustion. As tempting as it is, please listen to the guides who continually remind you to put your camera and phones away.
Most locals haven't been here! A few days to this remote island will leave you wanting more. Leave your car in the ferry parking lot and walk on with your overnight bag. Fair warning, you'll be crossing high seas and rough waters, like 18-20 foot waves high. Flying is no different. The suffering is worth it, I promise. Stewart and the tiny islands that dot it are famous for helping rebuild the native bird species, some are only found here in the entire world. It's quite a sight to behold. Once on Stewart Island, you can hike a few of the famous treks or hire a boat to take you to one of the smaller islands to explore.
TIP | Pack in your own food and water to these smaller islands as there is no cafes or coffee shops. There is a little grocery store right next to the ferry terminal for some of your basics that you can stock up on for these day trips.
TIP| Pack rain gear and extra clothes. Due to the location of Stewart Island you'll get all types of weather regardless of the season.
Spend the night here before heading to Milford Sound. It's a mini resort town catering specifically to tourists; thus everything here is expensive. Also the road side motels are not the same as the US. Here's it's renovated, clean and gorgeous, with views of the lake.
TIP | Reservations are a must during busy season. We lucked out and got one of the last rooms in town. Avoid the stress and book in advance.
This South Island must-do will literally take your breath away as will the road to get you here. It's a bit nail biting at times, but I promise it is well worth it as you come around the last bend. You are so giddy with excitment you can't wait to jump out and run around to explore. I highly recommend splurging on an overnight sail of the Sound with Real Journeys on their ship, the Mariner. You get to jump into sea kayaks for the afternoon or go near shore to explore wildlife with a nature guide. In the morning, the Captain will sail you into where the Sound meets the Tasman Sea. It's beautiful and nothing in the world can replicate the views, the sights, and the smells.
TIP | Get there at least two hours before your ship sails to find parking. Spend time exploring the area before you need to board the ship. There's some fun trails in the area and too-many-to-count-perfect-spots for selfies.
Not going to lie, this was the least favorite of our trip. After days on end with stunning views, wildlife, and interacting with like-minded people, coming into Queenstown was a shock to the system. There's advertising and sales and marketing EVERYWHERE, so much so I wanted to vomit. But if you love extreme sports, this is the place you want to be! Bungee jumping, parasailing, hang gliding, you name it, this is the town that will fulfill all your adreneline fueled needs.
TIP | Save money and camp at a holiday park. You can walk everywhere since it's in the middle of town. Bonus points? Use their kitchen to make your own food!
Frank Josef Glacier
Recommend this fun, half day hike up to this famous glacier, but be forwarned there are ALOT of tourists. Also, you can't hike up the glacier unless you book heli-tickets. The hike is gorgeous and sufficient. Save your money for wine!
TIP | Try to get up this glacier earlier in the afternoon so you have time to get to Gilespie Beach, see below, for the sunset.
Head out to this remote and humble beach on the west coast for the night. Fair warning it's nothing like Mt. Cook Campsites or the Queenstown holiday parks. There is no running water or showers, and just a port-o-potty that eight campsites share. But once you start to stroll along the shore, with the sun setting and a cocktail in hand, all seems to be right in the world. Once you visit I'm sure you'll agree this little gem, tucked away in secret, is why many locals don't talk about it.
TIP | Be sure to stock up on your essentials like TP, bottled water, bug spray, easy to make/clean meals, and a few bottles of wine.
TIP| Because there is a limited number of campsites you'll most likely make friends with your neighbors. Open that extra bottle of wine while you swap your New Zealand adventures over a roaring fire pit. Singing is optional.
Abel Tasman National Park
As many places throughout this country, it is a trek to get here. Some roads remind me of the road to Hana (if you're familiar with that Maui adventure I'm sorry) and not in a good way. That said, if you've survived, it is stunning. The campsites are plentiful as is the views. Most campsites are bundled into 8-10 sites per lot, each with your own beach side views. Plan to came out here for several days, exploring a multitude of trails or just relax on the beach with cocktail in hand.
TIP| Check the weather in advance before buying your tickets online as purchases are non-refundable. This is the most expensive campsite we had encountered in the country and unfortunately it was pouring rain with storm after storm battering the Golden Bay area. That said, locals spend 3-4 weeks out here with their family, so you know it's pretty amazing.
Spend several days in this area, exploring some local hiking trails and and the wines. Highly recommend Bubbly Grape Tours for a day of wine tasting. The Driver/Tour Guide is funny and knowledgable and they will try to visit different wineries to accomodate everyone's tastes. We fell in love with all the wineries we visited and ended up buying 15 bottles to take home with us!
TIP| Spend the day on the Wither Hills Farm Park walk. Get there early as there is no shade once the sun comes up. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, water and a snack.
Regardless of if you're a Lord of the Rings fan, this is a must do while on the North Island and I highly recommend the Evening Banquet Tour. You are the last tour group for the day and will have the entire Shire to yourself and a few 40+ closest friends. You'll learn the history of how the set was created, the history of the farm, the family who still owns it, and end the evening for dinner at the Green Dragon Inn. The food is delicious, the drinks even better. Plan to spend the night in this little town and reserve lodging via AirBnB.
TIP| Must reserve tickets at least one month in advance.
TIP| Stock up on the beer sold in the gift shop and throw it in your car before the tour starts. You can thank me later. This is the only place you can get beer from their on-site brewery and by the time your tour and dinner ends, the gift shop is closed, and you'll be dreaming of their brew for weeks to come.
There are several options throughout the country to check out glowworm caves, but this is one of the most famous caves. It's a beautiful experience and one that we won't be able to experience again anytime soon.
TIP| Reserving tickets is a must, especially during peak season. Reserve tickets for the early morning as parking across the main entrance becomes more and more difficult as the day progresses.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing aka Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings
Plan for two days, one night for this adventure. You'll want to start off early in the morning for this 12 mile through-and-through hike. Be sure to pack water, sunscreen, layers, and a hat as there is no shade once you get on the trail. Trekking poles are a plus, especially when you reach the mid-way point where it's steep, shale and loose rock, on a sheer side of a cliff.
TIP| Camp here the night before so you can hit the ground running first thing in the morning.
TIP|Bring a plastic bag with you to pack out your garbage. Be kind to the mountain and pack anything else you see strewn around from the dumb tourists who treat this site like a garbage can.
Spend a few days here to learn more about the Maori culture. Plan a day trip to Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you can learn about the history of the Maori people, the culture and art form they are keeping live through student led workshops, check out the elusive kiwi bird, and of course the geyers.
TIP| Your tickets to Te Puia will last for the entire day so plan to get there early so can you maximize your time here.
Catch a 35 minute ferry to this beautiful island for the day. You can leave your car in the city and walk onto the boat. It's a gorgeous ride to the island and a quick stroll into the town. Grab a bite to eat and hangout on the beach for the afternoon. You can also schedule wine tastings, the wineries can pick you up for a fee.
TIP| Buy tickets at the ticket counter on the dock. During high season, you will want to buy your tickets a few days in advance, especially around the holidays.
Hope you have a wonderful time in one of our most favorites places in the world.