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Starting in Christchurch, here’s Culture Trip’s guide to a two-week trip that should cover it all. This isn’t a fixed itinerary, more something to keep in mind when you’re on the road. It’s easy to spend more than one night in your favourite places, but remember it’s a vast and diverse country – and fitting everything into two weeks is a challenge in itself.
After landing in Christchurch pick up a rental van, or catch a bus, and head for New Zealand’s mountainous landscape in Mt Cook. Towards the end of your four-hour journey, make time to stop off at Lake Tekapo – where mesmerisingly blue waters formed by the surrounding glaciers make for stunning views. If one enormous glacial lake isn’t enough, you don’t need to travel too far along SH8 to reach Lake Pukaki, another pale blue wonder.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the top of New Zealand’s tallest mountain among the Southern Alps. Aoraki (Mount Cook) stands just over 3,658 metres (12,000 feet) tall, covered with snow and often masked by the clouds circulating the Alps. On a clear day, look up and admire the beauty of Aoraki. In the town of Aoraki Mount Cook Village, you’ll find hostels and campgrounds all within a few hundred metres of one another. With its ski resorts and wooden chalets, Mt Cook feels uniquely warm and homely when you’re so far from anywhere. We recommend heading out on one of the Mt Cook trails. If you’re on a tight schedule, opt for the five-kilometre (three-mile) Hooker Valley Track, which takes you on a winding trail with three swing bridges and roaring rivers underfoot.
Your next destination should be Oamaru, where little blue and yellow-eyed penguins go about their everyday life in a Victorian era town. One campground in Oamaru sits close to a nest for little blue penguins, so be sure to tread carefully. One scare is enough to put a penguin off for life – and to never return again. The yellow-eyed penguins are rarer – you’ll have to actively go out to find them. Don’t forget to ask for local advice when it comes to behaviour around them.
Drive or take a bus down the east coast to Dunedin, for your first city stop. It’s a cultural hub known for its street art and its strong Scottish roots. Take a walk on the Street Art Trail or if it’s adventure you’re after, hire some surfboards on St Clair Beach, just a few minutes from the city centre. For more wildlife, drive to Sandfly Bay where sleepy sea lions will be taking a nap – or a yellow-eyed penguin might battle its way into shore from a day’s fishing. Time permitting, drive out onto the Otago Peninsula where you’ll reach the Royal Albatross Centre – one of the only mainland breeding colonies for the great bird.
From Dunedin, take the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Queenstown, the place to be for all things adventure. If you see thrills, stay here until you’ve done it all. From taking a jetboat down the Shotover River to the AJ Hackett bungy jumps, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Head up Bob’s Peak for unmatchable views over Lake Wakatipu – then race against a friend on the luge course. There’s plenty of food to choose from here – but have you really been to Queenstown if you haven’t tried a Fergburger? The famous burger joint is well-known to locals and tourists for its delicious patties, but be prepared to queue in the busy periods of the year. It’ll be worth the wait.
Choose a day tour out of Queenstown for a stress-free journey to Milford Sound, New Zealand’s most beautiful natural attraction. The fiord on the west coast could very well be the eighth world wonder – there’s no doubt about it. The rain will likely pour, but that shouldn’t dampen your spirits as you take in views of steep cliffs and ancient glacial rock forms. Return to Queenstown feeling reinvigorated, if a little tired.
Wanaka is a charismatic resort town with some of the most idyllic views on the South Island. With the adventure and thrills of Queenstown just an hour’s drive through the mountains away, Wanaka is the unspoiled sibling to its populated neighbour. With the same charm as Queenstown, Wanaka is a place for spontaneous adventure and relaxation. Just a 10-minute walk from the town along Lake Wanaka is the Wanaka tree – known as a popular Instagram spot.
Lake Wanaka is ideal for an invigorating – if brisk – swim, with plenty on offer to keep the adventurous-types entertained. Book a free wine tasting and try the pinot noir from Rippon Vineyard, or set a 2.30am alarm for an arduous but rewarding hike to Roys Peak for the sunrise.
From here, head back north towards Franz Josef. It would be a tranquil and peaceful town, if it weren’t for the helicopters overhead. The single best thing to do, budget permitting, is the Heli Hike up Franz Josef Glacier. Learn how climate change devastates Franz Josef on a guided walking tour in the heart of glacier itself. But also bear in mind that the helicopters only go up around 50 percent of the time due to weather – so factor that in to your plans. Also consider the petrol situation if you have a van, as Franz Josef is remote and a good distance from your next stop.
Watch out for wekas, the small flightless birds, en route to Abel Tasman National Park, making sure to stop by at Hokitika Gorge and the Pancake Rocks, where 30 million years of erosion have created a formation that not even scientists can fully explain. Abel Tasman is your stop for all things beachy. If you came for sun, sand and a bit of a relaxation by the sea – here’s somewhere you’ll want to make the very most of. You’ll notice the sun poking through the clouds the further north you head. Choose to freedom camp, or stay in Motueka for easy access to Abel Tasman and the surrounding areas.
Then, head to the ocean for some fun. Book a kayaking tour of the Abel Tasman National Park, where you’ll learn the history of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who was the first European to reach New Zealand. Kayak on to Split Apple Rock – it’s a rock, shaped like an apple, that somehow split perfectly down the middle to create a geological phenomenon just a few metres out from shore.
Give yourself plenty of time to take in the national park, from the seals sleeping on Wharariki Beach to Farewell Spit, the South Island’s most northern point – stretching just over 30 kilometres (18.6 miles). The only way to access it is by a Department of Conservation-approved tour, so don’t try to walk along the sand spit alone, as you’ll end up disappointed.
If it’s remoteness you’re after, head on the long, windy road to Totaranui campground, where you’ll have a good chance at spotting some of New Zealand’s birdlife. Walk and sleep among pukekos, gulls, ducks and weka, but keep your food away from the latter – they’ll test your nerve with their cheekiness! From there, you have access to some of the most beautiful hikes not only in Abel Tasman, but in the whole of New Zealand.
On your way from Abel Tasman to Kaikoura on the east coast, stay a night in the Marlborough Region, and if you’re driving, plan it properly. Blenheim and Renwick, the two main towns in the region, are home to the most iconic and reputable wineries in the area. Whether you go by foot or pay to join a wine tour, one thing is for certain: the sauvignon blanc coming out of the region is unbeatable.
Continue down the east coast to Kaikoura, what looks like a sleepy coastal town is actually teeming with life, thanks to its fresh seafood and the 3,000-metre-deep (9,843-foot-deep) canyon just out to sea that attracts sperm and humpback whales, and therefore tourists. Whale-watching tours head out of Kaikoura regularly, giving you an opportunity to see the whales up close. It’s a sustainable relationship too – companies have a priority to protect the wildlife rather than entertain the tourists, which makes for a fantastic experience.
For a truly special experience, choose the Dolphin Encounter in Kaikoura. You’ll get to swim in the ocean, and curious dolphins will often come up to you.
From Kaikoura, move on to the magnificence of Christchurch. The resilience of this city shines through after it was devastated in a 2011 earthquake. Landmarks such as the Cardboard Cathedral were built to temporarily replace the city’s iconic cathedral and have instead endured. Learn how the city was rebuilt at the Quake City exhibit at the Canterbury Museum, before taking a walk through the city’s parks and gardens.
Finish things off with some Māori culture at Ko Tane, a living village where you can experience the country’s cultural heritage. Enjoy a Hāngi dinner, where the food is steamed in a pit underground, before seeing the Māori war dance, the haka.