Making a New Zealand trip to explore both North and South islands? Here is the outline of our self-drive itinerary for a month:
North Island Driving Route
South Island Driving Route
We made a lot more stops in between the highlights but Google Maps only shows a maximum of 10 stops per route plan.
Trailer video here
The original plan for this 1 month winter self-drive itinerary from North to South Island of New Zealand is slightly different.
We had to make adjustments (i.e. sacrifices) according to the weather. Essentially chasing the sunshine and clear weather all the way down south.
You might be thinking that’s a lot of places to cover.
Thus, it helps to have the New Zealand working Holiday Visa or the New Zealand visitor visa (you need a bona fide letter for this one). This way, you can change your plan as you go. Travelling in New Zealand during the low season (a.k.a winter) helps too. We can usually check into a place on the same day without booking. And have the kitchen and lounge facilities to ourselves.
Note: This doesn’t apply to the ski areas like Wanaka and Queenstown though. The locals love skiing.
Here were the best (and overrated) places we managed to cover in the North Island:
Highlights in our New Zealand trip (North Island)
Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland . Most of the places we went to were free admission but not this one. It cost $32.50 per adult if you book online. Allow at least half day in order to go through all the walks without rushing.
If you want to see the geyser blow, try get to the park before 10am to get your ticket sorted first. The Lady Knox geyser is actually outside the park and you will have to drive a short distance to get there.
Tip: If you’re thinking of doing the scenic gorge drive between Mangaweka and Ashurst, the drive from Whakatane to Gisborne, and on to Napier goes through similar gorges as well. Have a full tank of gas before you go. Empty your personal tank (a.k.a bladder) too before the drive.
Rere falls is worth skipping if you’re going anytime soon. The water is a dirty brown on closer inspection. You might have read elsewhere that the Rere rockslide is a recommended activity for summer though.
As for Tolaga Bay historic wharf:
Go if you have a lot of time. And stock up at Gisborne if you need to because Tolaga Bay town is very very small.
Take note, we are not sure if logging is a seasonal thing but when we went to the wharf in August, a lot of the nearby trees had been felled which gave the shoreline an unsightly look. In other photographs online, it appears that you can walk under the wharf among the supporting pillars but we weren’t able to do that.
Napier, Hastings and Hawkes Bay
This area is more known to be a summer destination. And true enough, we only saw barren wineries under expansive grey cloud cover in winter. No tourists though.
We went to Hawkes Bay farmer’s market on a Sunday. Bought some pastry, boysenberry jam and herb and garlic cheese.
Wine tasting in this region is a must. We chose Selini estates for our wine tasting. It costs $5 per person to taste 3 white wines and 3 red wines. The tasting fee is waived if you purchase any wine from the estate.
If you’re in need of another rain-friendly activity:
We suggest paying a visit to the Arataki honey center. Free admission to check out their informative and interactive bee displays and exhibits. There’s a honey tasting station too. If you do go there, make sure to buy the Hokey Pokey flavored ice cream!
Te Mata peak was a bit muddy after a few days of rain, but still worth seeing. Make sure you have enough time to make it down if doing the Giant circuit track! Or the blue track (a.k.a. Rongokako track). Allocate at least three hours.
Napier is a picturesque town. (Bonus: so is Havelock North) Walk around and see the Napier sea wall murals and other street paintings.
We missed out on Cape Kidnappers and Kaweka Forest Park because of the stormy weather. Anyways, the ganet colony isn’t here during August.
For that one lighthouse. Tide schedule matters if you want to complete the walk to the top. We didn’t know that, we just got lucky that day.
Tip: If you think you’re gonna do the coastal walk, allocate enough time. We went in the seal breeding season (August) and there was one aggressive male blocking our path. We had to go back the way we came instead of finishing the loop track.
The city center is a mixture of old and modern buildings. Plenty of shopping here.
Stroll along the chic waterfront after finding somewhere to park. We had a surprisingly tough time finding a vacant free parking space. Ended up spending $18 for 1 and a half hours at the Wilson parking near the waterfront.
The Mt Victoria lookout has some great views of the city.
Outside the city, we ventured to Kaitoke Regional Park and the Putangirua Pinnacles. Mind the drive up to Kaitoke Regional Park. The road is quite windy and on higher ground. As usual, have a full tank before you go.
Tip: If you’re a keen Lord of the Rings enthusiast, there are quite a lot of film locations around here.
South island has arguably more to offer than the North Island. The landscape is just more dramatic, in general.
Highlights in our New Zealand trip (South Island)
The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton is lovely on a sunny day. Especially when you start to approach the South Island of New Zealand.
This was our first scenic stop in south island. The famous Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes and later, we went to see the Hokitika Gorge. Both attractions are impressive, very accessible and require little effort to explore. So, you can expect to see more tourists here.
Franz Josef and Fox glacier
We didn’t get to do the heli hike on Franz Josef due to bad weather but we did do the walk to see Fox Glacier (not worth it in our opinion). The glacier has receded too far back to the mountains, even in winter. The photo below was taken without zoom at the end of the rather steep hike.
We saw Lake Matheson on a windy day which wasn’t so impressive. Lake Matheson isn’t the only lake with a beautiful reflection in New Zealand so fear not if you don’t catch it on a perfectly windless and sunny day. 😉
Lesson learnt – follow the sunshine and not the schedule!
Need a rain and windproof jacket to serve your time in New Zealand, regardless of the weather? We recommend the Uniqlo Blocktech Parka.
There are a few waterfalls to explore and also the Blue pools before heading on to Wanaka. All were less than 30 minutes each. Keep your exposed skin covered though as the infamous West Coast sandflies are prevalent in this area.
If you’re pressed on time in Wanaka, at least see Glendhu Bay, Mount Iron and the Wanaka Tree.
Note: We missed out on Roy’s Peak due to some unforseen car trouble. There’s a farmers market on Thursdays too but we decided to skip it to do other things.
Twizel to Mount Cook
To get to Twizel from Wanaka, you have to go through Lindis Pass. Here’s what it looks like at the end of winter (August, 2018).
The High Country Salmon farm and cafe in Twizel is really popular with mainland Chinese tourists. It sounded like a Chinese market during lunchtime. Go early if you want to try the salmon pie cause it was sold out by lunchtime when we were there. Kids will like feeding the salmon (no charge) at the farm too.
You can see New Zealand native diving ducks called scaup too.
Lake Pukaki is close to Twizel town and larger than we anticipated.
When a full sunny day appeared, we did the Hooker Valley track followed by the Tasman glacier lake viewpoint walk.
Although it was a quite a detour from Twizel, we managed to squeeze Lake Tekapo in before sunset. For stargazing too. There are many other people trying to get a good night photo too so mind the vibrations and car headlights.
Note: Somebody walked into our photo when the photo was still being taken. Not a ghost.
The town itself is small and touristy but quaint.
Then, there’s the Queenstown hill hike and Coroner Peak for skiing. Arrowtown is nearby. Cute town with a lot of gold mining history. Accommodation is slightly cheaper here and there’s plenty of highly rated restaurants and cafes in the town.
We went skiing in Coronet Peak, New Zealand (for the first time), actually.
The drive here from Queenstown is pretty enough to make a stop at the lookout. But there’s also the old wharf and lagoon walk (don’t skip that if you love nature walks)
There is no other way to get to Milford Sound than through Te Anau. But that’s okay because the drive to Milford Sound is worth the journey (e.g. Eglinton valley viewpoint and Mirror lakes).
If you have time in Te Anau, there is the bird park (free entry with expected donation) where you can see New Zealand native birds. They have no kiwis but they do have Takahe.
Close by, there’s a cafe opposite a field with alpaca too. We saw other tourists feeding them (presumably with feed purchased from the cafe).
After we left Te Anau, we did the Lake Gunn walk too as well as the Lake Marian hike. But you should just consider the latter as it’s more worth your time (energy and lots of it!). Warning: Lots of mud involved for both walks especially on a rainy day.
Here’s our dedicated post on how to do the Lake Marian Track in Fiordland, New Zealand.
Just for the cruise. And don’t skip out on the Chasm after you go through the Homer tunnel on the way to Milford Sound. It’s a short walk (less than 20 minutes if you don’t gape too long).
This post is a good base for you to plan your own itinerary for New Zealand. Here, we have listed most of the must-see places in South Island, New Zealand. Our priorities were Queenstown, Wanaka and Aoraki (Mt Cook) National Park. Basically, we wanted to see the snow-capped mountains of New Zealand. Thus, we spent more time in the South Island rather than the North. Try to be flexible with your own schedule and have back up plans ready. Bad weather or road closures can easily affect the mood of your trip.
Which places are on your New Zealand South Island bucket list (that aren’t listed here)? Leave a comment below.
Seriously, consider getting an extended working holiday visa for New Zealand or a the New Zealand visitor visa (you’ll need a bona fide letter for this) if you can. There are too many places to see here in New Zealand.
Here are some places we’ve already covered back in April to July, 2018:
You’re probably also wondering how we can afford to travel for so long. Three words – working holiday visa. Mind you, out of two of us, only one of us successfully obtained the precious working holiday visa.
Here’s our financial breakdown post (i.e. cost of living in New Zealand). Oh, and being minimalist (what is minimalism?) and zero waste-active helps too.
Lastly, pin this post!