Mount Cook from Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Best 21 Day Road Trip in New Zealand

Kia ora koutou katoa

We want to share with you the awesome country of New Zealand. We’ve done this road trip several times. It’s definably a trip of a lifetime and we’ve been privileged to go every few years and steep ourselves in the majesty, mystery and magic that is Aoteroa [Land of the long white cloud].

Dubai, UAE - On the way destination

Since this is a dream trip, we’re looking at stopping off in Dubai on the way to New Zealand for 3 nights.

This should be enough time for a city tour, desert safari and shopping. We may also look at some of the golf courses. During Covid there were a lot of tournaments in Dubai and some of the courses are very close to the city. They also play a lot of night golf when the temperatures are cooler.

Sheraton Grand Hotel

Dubai hotel

Sydney, Australia - On the way stopover

Sydney Opera House, Australia

This will be a very short visit as we arrive in the morning and fly out early the next day. However, even a day visiting the Sydney Harbour bridge, Opera House and the bars and restaurants of Darling Harbour is worthwhile.

There’ll even be time for a ferry ride from Circular Quay over to Manly or one of the other many bays.  The ferry gives you great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

We’ll travel in from the airport to stay at the Pier One, Autograph Collection  

It’s not far to use the Airport Link from the airport, otherwise it’s between $30-$50 in a cab. The hotel is near the harbour so we can make the most of our visit. The closest train station is Circular Quay Station.

Christchurch, South Island (Day 1-2)


Christchurch is called the ‘Garden City’ and so attractions include the Botanical Gardens which is located next to the Museum and Art Gallery. You can also go on a Gondola ride on the Port Hills as well as Zip Lining. Another fun thing to do is going punting on the River Avon and floating through the Botanic Gardens. I really enjoy the challenge of taking photos of bees and have been happy with the results.

We decided to stay close to the airport in a quiet resort with it’s own golf course. The Peppers Clearwater Resort is a relaxing place with choices of Lakeside villas or Terraced apartments.

ROADS: The main highway in New Zealand is one lane each way. There are some multilane roads outside the cities, but you are mainly on a small road. Also, be aware that tourists may get confused which side of the road they should drive on! We recommend that you take the more scenic route to Mount Cook via the Rakaia Gorge and Geraldine. Stop for lunch at the Vicarage Geraldine for lovely food and atmosphere.

Punting on the Avon, Christchurch New Zealand

Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki

The 4 hour road trip to Mount Cook passes by Lake Tekapo which is a lovely quiet township to stay. Every lake has a different colour and Lake Tekapo in the South Island is a deep blue, bordering on turquoise. 

TIP: Night sky viewing is perfect in this area with the lack of light pollution. There’s the Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo, plus the iconic photos of the Church of the Good Shepherd framed by stars. We’ve enjoyed taking night photos at Mount Cook as well.

I love the views of Mount Cook lifting out of Lake Pukaki. The lake’s blue colour and is caused by glacial flour, or ground rocks from the Tasman Glacier. There are several picnic spots along the way to pull in a breathe in the clear air and take photos.

Mount Cook from Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Mount Cook (Aoraki) National Park (Day 3-4)

Mount Cook sunset, New Zealand

The Hermitage Hotel

It’s about a 4 hour drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook (Aoraki), New Zealand’s highest mountain. If you do this in one day, you should still have time for a nice walk on the travel day with a full day for the longer walks on the next day. We like to stay in the Hermitage Hotel which has stunning views from most rooms as well as a great restaurant. This photo was taken from the hotel at sunset. There are cheaper motels and backpacker places to stay as well in the village.

Make sure you go to the Department of Conservation, Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park Visitor Centre. Here you’ll find out about the history of the area, local walks and a picture window of Aoraki/Mount Cook. For my family, this area has the best memories of holidays, hiking and restaurant eating.

TIP: You’ll see lots of cheeky Keas, a mountain parrot with beautiful plumage under their wings. Beware, they steal your food and eat the rubber on your windscreen wipers!

Moth, Mount Cook, New Zealand

Hooker Valley and Tasman Valley walks

The two main walks are the Hooker Valley and the Tasman Valley. Either can be done as free-walking or as organized tours. You’ll cross raging rivers on swing bridges, potentially see some avalanches on the distant mountains of Mount Sefton (Maukatua) and Mount Tasman (Horokoau) as well as climb to the terminal lake for the Tasman Glacier.

TIP: Be prepared for not seeing the glacier. There’s a lot of moraine (gravel) churned up by the glacier moving. Hopefully you’ll see the terminal lake with chunks of ice. The climb is a bit steep but you don’t need to worry about stopping, there are fabulous views the whole way up.

On one of our Hooker Valley walks we took some photos of a small waterfall. Sometimes we’re happy to walk in the rain as you can then see more waterfalls. Another time we found this little moth on a small leaf. Usually we’re traveling in February / March as there are less people around once the children are back in school after the summer holidays. This means we’re a little late for the lupins and Mount Cook lily. However, sometimes we have been lucky to spot some.

Queenstown and Tolkien scenery and tours (Day 5-7)

Mackenzie Country = Pelennor Fields

On our last trip to New Zealand we visited in the winter and there was lots of snow on the mountains as well as some wonderful hoar frost near Twizel. This was on the 3 hour trip from Mount Cook National Park to Queenstown. It took us way more time to do the drive as we would turn a corner and there would be some more amazing hoar frost images for us to take. Our stopping in this layby encouraged several other cars to stop as well.

Go to our Redbubble page to see some of the other photos in this Hoar Frost series. There’s also a  FusionByKay website and an Etsy account to find dichroic fused-glass pendants inspired by our trips to New Zealand.

The drive down will go through several small townships with cafes and souvenir shops. Just outside of Twizel is one of the salmon farms. Even if you’re not ready for lunch, it’s fascinating to see them swimming in their ponds. Some of the best souvenirs I’ve found were at Omarama which is near the Mackenzie country and Lindis Pass. Close by are the Clay Cliffs, a hard to find geological attraction.

Hoar Frost, Twizel, New Zealand

Lake Wakatipu

This itinerary has us staying in Queenstown for 4 days. Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and styles itself the Adventure Capital of the World so if you want to Bungy Jump, Zip Line or throw yourself off of something else – this is the place. Our favourite place to stay is the Hilton Queenstown Resort and Spa which is close to the airport and looks out over the Queenstown township. There are Numerous house rentals also available if the hotel costs are too high.

Read the Legend of Lake Wakatipu.

There are great restaurants and coffee shops, especially when we’re on a hunt for a flat white coffee. One café had this wonderful green chair to relax in the sun. Behind the township are the Remarkables mountains where there’s skiing in the winter at Coronet Peak. This makes Queenstown a year round resort. Because of this, there are many souvenir shops in the township, as well as a selection of places to buy adventure gear.

Green chair, Queenstown, New Zealand

Arrowtown = the Ford of Bruinen on the Arrow River

Some recommended activities include the well-known Shotover Jet, a speedboat trip down the Dart River, an all day bus and cruise tour to Milford Sound along with numerous wineries which would include the tasting menu at Wild Earth. This is a real experience on the road through the Gibbston Valley. It’s located near an old gold field accessed across a small swing bridge. The food for the tasting meal was served in paua shells and accompanied by paired tastings of wine. It was delicious.

Close by is the township of Arrowtown. This has a street of replica fronts and restored cottages from the gold-mining days, including some of the nicest places to souvenir hunt. It’s a stunning place in the autumn (April-May) when the golden, rust and red leaves on the deciduous trees are at their best.

TIP: Drive from Queenstown to Arrowtown on a clear day and see the near perfect reflection in Lake Hayes along the way.

The Lakes District Museum is small but has some great exhibits of early Maori life and the gold-rush era. We found the Willows café near the river to get a cup of hot flat white coffee, needed as we sat on the patio in coolish weather. We were glad for the late afternoon sun.

Shotover Jet, Queenstown, New Zealand

Glenorchy = Lothlorien - on the road to Paradise

You can also visit some of the shooting locations for the Lord of the Rings that can be found in the area plus some nice golf courses. We like to do the day trip to the end of Lake Wakatipu and visit the township of Glenorchy. This is where you pick up the Dart River speedboat trip. What was lovely was the heated handrails, 360′ spin and some time spent walking in the bush hearing the native bird songs. 

There are so many picturesque places to stop along the way. We’ve had the delight of skipping stones with some other tourists and communing with some friendly horses by the side of the road. We were especially awed by the winter snow on the mountains on our last trip.

TIP: The road gets rough after Glenorchy so make sure you have a vehicle that can handle deep pot holes. The water is usually muddy so you can’t really gauge the depth.

Mountain and Sheep near Queenstown, New Zealand

Wanaka (Day 8)

Single tree near Wanaka, New Zealand

The drive to Wanaka, crossing the Cadrona Pass, is just 1 hour and will pass the “famous” longest bra fence. If you just drive up a bit into the mountains you can get great views of the surrounding countryside and the never ending sheep! The road continues in steep zig zags to climb to the top of the pass with stunning views of Lake Hayes, Arrowtown and Queenstown. You could also stop at the Cadorna Hotel, one of the oldest in New Zealand. Don’t be fooled by the historic façade as there’s a great beer garden in the back. 

Wanaka is situated on the south end of Lake Wanaka and close to Mount Aspiring National Park.  Wanaka is one of our most favourite places to visit in New Zealand. It’s got busier over the years but we still prefer the lower energy levels here over those in Queenstown. We’ve stayed at the Oakridge Resort which is great for the different age groups in the family. Head down to the township and grab some Fish and Chips to eat on the beach.

An excellent drive is heading towards the Mount Aspiring National Park. Here you can stop with other tourists to view the most photographed tree in New Zealand.

Mitre Peak in Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound

Wanaka is a tourist town so there are plenty of other things to do including Lavender farms or a some walks/hikes, including Roy’s Peak which would take half a day. We’ve enjoyed an afternoon at Crossfire with archery and clay rifle shooting. It’s also possible to fly to Milford Sound over the Alps which is an incredible trip and we prefer that to the bus version from Queenstown.

TIP: We did this one trip and had to wait a few days for our flight as the winds were too strong for the small plane so be aware of your timetable.

You land in Milford Sound with plenty of time to take a boat ride out through the Fjords to the coast. Here you’ll probably see dolphins and seals so keep your camera handy. It’s an amazing journey as the sides of the cliffs are so straight and deep with lots of waterfalls to watch.

WEST COAST TIP: A warning about the sandfly biting insect that’s a nuisance on the West Coast. Visitors to New Zealand may want to take some additional Vitamin B for a couple of weeks before the trip to increase immunity to these itchy bites.

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, West Coast (Day 9-10)

Glaciers and Lake Matheson

Time to head over to the lush West Coast via the Haast Pass.  The route has numerous short walks and waterfalls to see on the way which will extend out the 3 hour drive.  The drive into the Franz Josef glacier viewpoint shows how far the glacier has receded with markers indicating its position over the last 100 years or so. 

You can walk to the glacier over a rocky path that would take a few hours, or fly to land on the glacier itself. We like to stay at the Franz Josef Oasis Hotel for the serenity, food and art gallery. However, we need to get up early the next morning to drive the half an hour back to Fox Glacier and walk around Lake Matheson. Lake Mattheson has a circular walk via a viewpoint that provides a mirror reflection of Mount Cook in the water.

TIP: This reflection for Lake Matheson is best early in the morning before the breeze gets up and at the viewpoint at the base of the lake.

Lake Matheson reflections, Fox Glacier

Punakaiki (Day 11-12)

White Heron, New Zealand

Kotuku, White Heron Sanctuary Tours at Whataroa

On the drive to our next destination we like to stop at the White Heron Sanctuary for a guided boat tour to New Zealand’s only Kotuku, White Heron nesting site. The boat tour and walk to the viewing hut are part of the experience. There are Kotuku in the breeding grounds from September to March and we’ve seen the fledglings on our visits in February / March.

We then continue up the coast, stopping in Hokitika at a café for lunch and maybe trying our hand at some Pounamu (Greenstone or Jade) carving. The pounamu is found in river beds and boulders and mainly on the West Coast so Hokitika is the place to buy some souvenirs.

Shantytown is next, a place every tourist needs to visit at least once! The town is off the road just south of Greymouth. Apart from the museum and historical displays in replica shops, you can experience the gold panning days and pan for your own gold (at an additional cost). I still have my little vials from the couple of times I’ve done this.

Punakaiki Rocks and Blowholes, New Zealand

Punakaiki or Pancake Rocks

We then arrive at Punakaiki – home of the pancake rock formations from centuries of erosion by the sea. This is one of our favourite places in New Zealand and we always stay at the same hotel overlooking the beach, the Punakaiki Resort.

The rocks contain blowholes which explode when the weather conditions are right so check the high tide time before you visit. It took us several trips before there was enough storm surge to create the blowholes and it meant that the weather was stormy for a few days. Worth it for the hundreds of photos we took of the blowholes. I had not seen them since I was on a school tour of the West Coast.

The area also has a number of bush walks where you’ll really get a feel for the rain forest environment and the famous New Zealand ferns. You may get a glimpse of a New Zealand Wood Pigeon (Kereru) which has shimmering iridescent colours in the light.

Nelson (Day 13)

We head for our final destination on the South Island which is Nelson, a holiday destination.  The 3 hour drive from Punakaiki is through rain forest and gorges with sights like the Pelorus Bridge, a location for the barrel scene in The Hobbit. We like staying at the Rutherford Hotel although there are numerous motels as well.

Nelson also has a thriving art culture and craft market for any shopping desires.  I have so many memories of traveling beside the sea or a lake on our trips back to New Zealand. North of Nelson are the golden sand beaches of Kaiteriteri and there’s a boat cruise to Split Apple Rock

TIP: Don’t go on the boat ride on a windy, stormy day unless you don’t get seasick! We did this when we really wanted to visit Awaroa Lodge for lunch which you can only reach by boat or helicopter. the helicopter ride looked really tempting to get back. We did see a Tui though.

This harbour scene at sunset is taken at Mapua Wharf. One of the best places to grab Fish and Chips and eat on the wharf. We’re also keen on the food and ambience at the Apple Shed where the windows open onto the harbour. Another great memory is the Stonegrill in Nelson city itself.

Mapua Harbour at sunset, Nelson

Wellington, North Island (Day 14-15)

Cable Car, Wellington New Zealand

There are picturesque journeys along Queen Charlotte Sound and the Takaka Drive. From here there’s a choice to get to Wellington in the North island. You can drive the scenic 2 hours to Picton and take your car/van on a 3 hour interislander ferry ride through the Queen Charlotte Sound and across the Cook Strait. The other option is to fly from Nelson (or Picton) to Wellington however, you would then need to pick up a new car rental booking in Wellington.

The main sights are the cable car and the Beehive, the common name for the Parliament building. Other great things to do include the Mount Victoria lookout and a tour of the Weta workshop, Peter Jackson’s company. The Botanic Gardens are a great place for taking photos of roses and honeybees. 

I lived in Wellington for a few years and liked walking on the beach in Eastbourne, driving around the bays, and sailing in the harbour. This itinerary sees you driving over the winding Remutaka Hill road and through the wine country of the Wairarapa. There are numerous hikes (tramps) in the Tararua Ranges as well as coastal walks if you have the time.

Mount Ngaurahoe, New Zealand

Another route to take to Auckland is via the West Coast of the North Island. From Wellington you drive up the Ngauranga Gorge and continue through Waikanae, Paraparaumu and Paekakariki. These were familiar places to me on tramping trips in the Tararua Forest Park.

This is a view of Mount Ngarahoe in the Tongariro National Park from the side of the road. This is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Parks. An experience of a lifetime is to walk the challenging Tongariro Crossing. The last time we travelled here our trip took us to this side of Mount Ruapehu where we viewed the two other active volcanoes, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe

We stayed at the Chateau Tongariro Hotel. This is a great base for seeing the area and then going back to the hotel for high tea or an elegant dinner. There are several little walks along the road up to the Hotel. We went for a drive up to the ski fields on Mount Ruapehu and stayed to take amazing sunset photos of the volcanoes. Mount Ruapehu had a small eruption in 2007, however, the last big eruption was in 1996. 

Napier (Day 16-17)

Back on our original route, you could take a detour to the longest place name in the world – Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu – which is the Maori name for hill. It’s about an hour detour to see the name plate on the side of the hill.

Then it’s on to Napier, one of two cities in the World that are in the Art Deco style.  High on the list of things to do is a vintage car tour that we did with Bertie in a 1930’s car.   You can see Bertie in the doorway on the left. We stayed at the Crown Hotel which is quiet and away from the harbour if there are cruise ships docked.

TIP: Do be aware of the cruise ship schedules as tourist trips get booked up. We had to wait a day for our vintage car ride.

The Art Deco style is amazing and makes the city tours interesting to view the pre- and post-earthquake buildings. There’s also nice walks along the Marine Parade and visits to boutique shops. There’s a collection of Sea wall paintings to view on the walk around the city, a great Instagram moment. 

Napier Art Deco Building, New Zealand

There’s time to visit the Ōtātara Pā Historic Reserve which is one of the largest pā complexes in New Zealand. You can wander around the remnants of terraces and food storage pits and imagine how the Maori people once lived in Ōtātara. This can be done in a tour to hear more about some Maori culture and history.

If you haven’t seen a kiwi or penguins yet, there’s the National Aquarium of New Zealand where you can view a kiwi before visiting Penguin Cove.

Napier is also home to our favourite winery, Elephant Hill which has an excellent restaurant and wine tastings.  Napier is in the Hawkes Bay wine region so the tasting options are extensive.  For a golfing experience, Cape Kidnappers is phenomenal – for a price.

Dinner at Elephant Hill Winery, Napier

Rotorua (Day 18-19)

Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro, from Lake Taupo, New Zealand

There’s an amazing turquoise colour to the farmland so the 3 hour drive opens up new vistas at each corner. Also on the drive from Napier we’ll pass Lake Taupo with its views of Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand’s largest active volcano.  The lake itself is formed from the crater of another volcano that erupted 5,000 years ago.  Huka Falls is situated close by and shows an impressive amount of water. 

We’ve stayed in the quiet township of Lake Taupo for a restful weekend. There are cozy coffee shops and geothermal walks to experience. 

For this trip we’re driving right through to Rotorua, the centre for the geothermal springs and also a significant Maori cultural presence.

Champagne Pool, Rotorua, New Zealand

It’s worth waiting to arrive at Rotorua for the geothermal experience.  The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is the best we’ve seen and the Whakarewarewa Maori village is also a great activity. You can decide on whether to base yourselves at Lake Taupo or Rotorua.    It’s an hour between the locations.

TIP: A warning that the sulphur smell in Rotorua is pervasive.

The Waikite Valley Thermal Pools are a great place to relax in some hot pools in a natural setting. For something different visit the Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre where injured birds are rehabilitated into the wild. You’ll be able to see the birds close-up in flight and there’s always the shop afterwards for some unique gifts.

Auckland (Day 20-21)

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and known as the City of Sails.  It’s a 3 hour drive from Rotorua and stops along the way could include Hobbiton at Matamata. This route showcases the rural North Island and will bypass driving through the city of Hamilton. There’s also a couple of great waterfalls to see on the way – Hunua Falls and the Wairere Waterfall.

It would be a bit of a detour for the Glow Worm caves at Waitomo. This is a popular tourist destination. You could stop at the cafe in Te Kuiti and see the statue of Colin Meads, one of New Zealand’s greatest rugby players. You could also stop at the Putaruru Blue Springs.

Just before getting to Auckland you could stop at the IceBreaker shop for some last minute shopping for merino wool products.

Auckland, New Zealand

Once in Auckland, there is plenty to do and see.   A visit to Goat Island for snorkelling, watching the fish through a glass bottomed boat or a visit to the top of Mount Eden.  Numerous waterside bars and restaurants will allow you to relax after a busy few weeks going through New Zealand.

Auckland is the best departure point as most international flights originate from here meaning no internal flights are required. There’s just time to get a final flat white before leaving this wonderful country. We’re taking some more amazing memories to keep us going back home.

TIP: Bear in mind you will cross the international date line if you fly across the Pacific so you can leave on Sunday and arrive the same day in North America.

Flat white coffee with fern design

Other things to do in New Zealand

Waiheke Island – beaches, vineyards and bush walks
Tiritiri Matangi Island – native birds on a predator-free island
Hot water beach – Coromandel Peninsula
Cape Palliser – rocky beach and climb to the lighthouse
Bay of Islands – sailing, hiking and marine life
Muriwai Beach – scenic views and gannets
90-mile Beach – sand dunes and surfing
Rangitoto Island – volcanic walks and native birdlife
Able Tasman National Park – golden sand beaches and bush walks
Hokitika Gorge – turquoise river and bush walks
Stewart Island – hike and see the kiwi in nature
Kaikoura – seafood, whale watching and coastal hikes
Moeraki Boulders
Royal Albatross Centre – plus Little Blue Penguins
Lanarch Castle – one of the oldest buildings
Catlins – and maybe see the Southern Lights
Doubtful Sound – cruise through the fjord and see dolphins
Milford Track – 4 day hike


Best New Zealand Photo Spots

Inspirations for your New Zealand drive

When to visit New Zealand

Summer – warm temperatures and long daylight hours. If you visit from February to March, the school holidays will be over meaning less people and lower prices.
Autumn – The temperatures are warm and the winter storms are still a few months away. From March to April there are less people. There are also stunning views of the colours in the deciduous trees introduced to New Zealand by early settlers.
Winter – early winter from May to June are magical months. You may experience some stormy weather that will close some roads. However, there are crisp blue skies and snowy mountains. We’ve also experienced some awesome hoar frost.
Spring – some say this is the best season with the spring flowers and blossoms.

Events of Note:

January – World Buskers Festival – Christchurch
February – HSBC Sevens World Series (Rugby) – Hamilton
February – Marlborough Wine and Food Festival
February – Art Deco Weekend – Napier
March – Wildfoods Festival – Hokitika – including classic whitebait patties
March – Auckland City Limits – indie-rock festival
May – International Comedy Festival
June – LUMA Southern Light Project – Queenstown
July – International Film Festival
August – Bay of Islands Jazz & Blues Festival
September – World of Wearable Art – entries then displayed at the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum in Nelson – an awesome place to visit
October – Kaikoura Seafest
November – Toast Martinborough
December – Rhythm & Vines – Gisborne on New Year’s Eve

Bixby Bridge at sunset

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