A 19-day trip to New Zealand, to most people back in the US, sounds like an amazing, long vacation.
For Jim and I, our recent trip was definitely amazing, but it sure didn’t feel too long. The reality is, New Zealand is really big and offers too many great things to do! Despite having nearly three whole weeks, we found that our trip still felt like a bit of a whirlwind.
New Zealand is an action sports enthusiast and adrenaline junkie’s ideal playground, as well as a nature-lovers heaven on Earth. Jim and I spent a lot of time before our trip, planning out all of the specific sights and activities that we wanted to see and do. What we eventually realized was that, in order to do it all, we would need to visit 13 different cities over the course of our 19 days, spread widely across both the North and South Islands.
Disinterested in hiring our own car or camper van (for environmental reasons more than financial ones), we looked into our mass-transit options and came across Magic Bus – a hop-on, hop-off bus service providing transit connections all throughout New Zealand.
We found that Magic Bus offered a travel itinerary that would take us to each of the 13 cities we wanted to get to, on the dates we wanted to get to them. Although one or two other companies came up who offered similar services, it seemed to us (as our experience would later validate) that Magic catered to a more diverse, less party-centric crowd, so we signed ourselves up for their North & South Travel Passes.
In retrospect, we’re extremely happy that we traveled this way because, in addition to receiving the transportation we needed, we really enjoyed the other travelers we met and found that our bus drivers also doubled as tour guides, which allowed us to learn a lot about the history and culture of New Zealand as we went along.
So, to give you a feel for our experience, with hopes that it may help you plan your next trip to New Zealand, here’s a brief re-cap of how our 19 days were spent, with a few insights into our favorite areas where we will be sure to allow more visiting time on our next trip:
Days 1-2: Auckland
Arrived in Auckland from Fiji. Our new friends, Gemma and Richard (who we met in Fiji and who happened to live in Auckland), dropped us off at Queen Street Backpackers Hostel. We headed out to walk the city and strolled along Viaduct Harbour, where we got some dinner and perused some discounted Rugby World Cup merchandise (recently held in New Zealand).
The next day was our first of many rainy days on the North Island. Following a Bikram Yoga Class, Gemma and Richard took us out to Thai food in the beautiful Mission Beach area, followed by a quick tour of the greater Auckland area, ending with a dusky sunset view from Mount Eden.
Days 3-4: Rotorua
Magic Bus drove us through Waikato region to The Shire’s Rest Home (the movie set for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy). Lots of sheep! We learned that there are approximately 40 million sheep in New Zealand, but only 4.4 million people.
Arrived at our beautiful, new hostel, YHA Treks Backpackers (highly recommended), late afternoon in Rotorua. A quick two-hour nap, then trekked across town to the local grocery store, PAK’nSAVE, for some supplies to make dinner at our Hostel.
The next day we headed to Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park and learned about Maori culture before taking a dip in the mud baths and sulphur hot pools.
Day 5: Wai-O-Tapu, Taupo
We took in some more geothermal activity and bubbling mud pots at Wai-O-tapu before watching speed-seekers on jet boats at Huka Falls Park. Swam in a natural hot spring that flows into the Waikato River.
We arrived in Taupo late, and unfortunately had to continue on with our journey very early the next morning. If we were to visit the North Island again, we would be sure to add more time to explore and participate in the activities around Taupo.
Oh, we ate at Best Kabob in Taupo, and it literally was the best kabob we’ve ever had (ask for hot chili with garlic yoghurt sauce, yum)!
Days 6-7: Waitamo, National Park
Some people on our bus chose to black water raft at Cave World in Waitomo. Jim and I chose to do the walking tour of the underground glowworm caves (glowworms are actually maggots, but they can’t call them that because ticket prices would plummet).
Drove through National Park Village and viewed dramatic volcanic mountains Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe before taking a leap of faith off of Tawhai Falls, into freezing, heart stopping water.
Checked in at YHA National Park Backpackers and got some rest before our planned 1:30 AM sunrise trek through Tongariro Alpine Crossing with Adrift Outdoor Adventures. Unfortunately, heavy rain and 65 mile per hour winds prohibited our hike. We were so disappointed, the early morning views from Red Crater are supposed to be amazing, and it has often been reviewed as the #1 day hike in the world … Bummer!
We would definitely allow a few extra days in this area next time, to make sure to catch some good weather for hiking.
Day 8: Wellington
Despite our disappointment in missing the Tongariro Crossing hike, we had to keep moving. After a few hour drive, we finally found some sunshine (and wind) in Wellington.
We took in a quick tour of the Beehive (New Zealand’s Parliament House) and a panoramic view of the coastal city from a blustery Mount Victoria.
Rachel found a hot yoga class just down the street from our hostel, YHA Wellington, and we went out for more kabob (not as good as Best Kabob in Taupo).
We loved our room at YHA Wellington! Easily the nicest hostel either of us have ever stayed at. Ultra-comfy beds, very new and clean, complimentary ground coffee beans and coffee press, chocolates, and earplugs.
Day 9: Picton, Nelson
Crossed Cook Straight via a 3-hour cruise on the Interislander Ferry (equipped with café, cinema, WiFi, a magic show for the kids, and reclining lounge chairs). Caught up with Magic Bus at the Picton terminal on the South Island.
Played with our camera in rows of vineyards before arriving in the artsy town of Nelson. Sweated in the infrared sauna at YHA Nelson before calling it a night.
Day 10: Cape Foulwind, Greymouth
Walked Cape Foulwind coastal trail to Tauranga Bay, and visited the Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes before stopping in Greymouth for the night. Jim was bummed that he didn’t get his tour and beer tasting at Monteith’s Brewery because it was closed for renovation.
A real highlight of our trip from Nelson to Greymouth was Stew, our chummy and highly entertaining bus driver. We liked Stew right away, and over the course of the next 4 days traveling with him as our driver, we would enjoy swapping travel stories and hearing about his environmental work in Switzerland.
Day 11: Franz Josef
Dropped off our packs at Rainforest Backpackers and took a soak in the Jacuzzi hot tub before heading out to hike Franz Josef Glacier.
Hopped the “reserved for guided tours only “ barrier ropes, and climbed up a slippery gravel trail, which dropped off into icy glacier caves below. Waterfalls plummeted from vegetated canyon slopes on each side of us, funneling glacier run-off down into valley. The town often floods because of the glacier water and rainfall.
Franz Josef Glacier was definitely a highlight of our trip, and if we had to do it again, we would have allowed more time to explore, and taken the guided helicopter hike!
Day 12: Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson, Wanaka
Drove past the towering Fox Glacier and hiked to Lake Matheson in the morning for views of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Slept at YHA Wanaka, overlooking the impressive Lake Wanaka.
Days 13-16: Arrowtown, Queenstown
Visited the birthplace of bungy, The AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungy—home to the original 43 meter jump.
After a quick stop in the charismatic, little village of Arrowtown, we arrived at Pinewood Lodge, our oasis on the hill overlooking the bustle of bar-goers and adventure sport enthusiasts in the village of Queenstown, below. It was the perfect accommodation to relax and catch up in, being our 12th new city in only 15 nights.
We hiked up the Tiki Trail (under the Gondola on Bob’s Peak) and took a Ziptrek Eco Tour. Rachel practiced with a local yoga studio while Jim visited Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, taking a cruise through the fiords where he saw glacier valleys and thunderous waterfalls.
Day 17: Dunedin
We arrived in Dunedin and almost immediately went back out for our 7-hour tour with Elm Wildlife Tours. Our guides, John and Sean, took us to the Otago Peninsula where we viewed Royal Albatross, sea lions, New Zealand Fur Seals and Yellow-Eyed Penguins (found only in New Zealand).
Spent the night at YHA Dunedin (a charming, historic, and supposedly haunted converted hospital nursing home).
Day 18: Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo
Another early morning departure and long day of driving before stopping at Lake Pukaki for a photo of the turquoise water. Took a dip in Lake Tekapo when we arrived, before heading to bed at YHA Lake Tekapo.
Day 19: Christchurch
Our stop in Christchurch was short, but sweet. We saw the Botanic Gardens and celebrated my birthday, enjoying a yoga class together before getting to bed early.
Woke up the next day and took the bus to the airport for our next round of adventures, in Southeast Asia and Indonesia!