Here is my ultimate one-month New Zealand trip itinerary. I have included a mix of the main attractions and places that will not appear on a travel agent’s New Zealand itinerary!
A few tips for planning your New Zealand trip itinerary
Overall, when planning your New Zealand vacation, aim to spend more time in the South Island than the North Island because the scenery is more spectacular, although the north also has its unique charms. Try not to spend your whole holiday driving. There is a lot more ground to cover than you expect and it is often quite tiring driving because the roads are not long and straight.
To get around you will probably need to hire a car or camper van for a New Zealand road trip. There is some public transport in New Zealand but it is not always particularly ‘joined up’ or convenient.
If you’re trying to keep the travel budget under control the hostels/backpacker lodges are of a good standard everywhere and usually have private rooms. Holiday homes are often available for rent if you want to base yourself in one place for a week e.g. Queenstown. Note that if you are there in January it’s probably necessary to book accommodation ahead because this is the peak New Zealand holidays time.
If you don’t have a whole month when you visit New Zealand have a look at my two-week New Zealand South Island itinerary, my one-week New Zealand South Island itinerary, my family-friendly New Zealand itinerary, and a 10-day New Zealand and Australia itinerary.
Do you want to do some hiking in New Zealand?
This is highly recommended because if you want to really experience New Zealand’s natural beauty you need to get out of the car! If you want to include going hiking in your New Zealand travel itinerary your starting point will probably be to consider the so-called ‘Great Walks’ of New Zealand, which are all outstanding.
Definitely do the Tongariro Crossing (one day) in the North Island, it’s dubbed the best day walk in the world after all! In the summer you often have to book your hut accommodation for the Great Walks ahead of time. If you want to do the Milford Track you have to book at least six months in advance. The Routeburn is a good option as it is shorter than the others and very spectacular.
I can also recommend a number of ‘non-great-walks’, from multi-day walks such as the Rees-Dart Track, to day walks such as the Moonlight Track and my favourite New Zealand day walk, which you don’t have to book but still offer an outstanding NZ hiking experience – drop me a note in the comments.
You’ll need equipment such as sleeping bags and good hiking gear as the huts in NZ are good but basic (definitely not catered) and the weather can be unpredictable even in summer. Doing a multi-day walk involves a bit of planning as you have to think about leaving your car etc. It also eats into your time in New Zealand.
If a multi-day walk is not your cup of tea there are so many short walks all over the country that are well marked and with good trails. Take a look at my post about preparing to hike in New Zealand.
I also recommend picking up a paddle during your time in New Zealand – either in the Abel Tasman National Park or the Whanganui River trip (also a ‘great walk’ even though it’s not a walk).
Without further ado let’s kick off the ultimate one-month New Zealand travel itinerary:
Fly into Auckland…
Spend a couple days in Auckland, dealing with the jetlag. Either stay in central Auckland or choose somewhere like Devonport, a pretty waterfront suburb from where you can get the ferry into the city.
Catch the ferry out to Waiheke Island (beaches, wineries) as a day trip from Auckland. Make sure to go somewhere high in Auckland to get a view over the city and harbours e.g. Mt Eden or the Skytower.
If you want to get off the beaten track go out to the west coast beaches, Piha and Karekare are wildly beautiful with black sand and dangerous surf.
The Bay of Islands or the Coromandel Peninsula
A lot of people go north to the Bay of Islands but if you want to spend some beach time on your holiday I recommend the Coromandel Peninsula. Hahei is a lovely spot to stay – a quiet beach community that is not touristy. Do the day walk to Cathedral Cove.
Go to Hot Water Beach and dig a hole in the sand. Further up the peninsula there is a little train and bush walks. For example the Waiau walk (off the 309 road) takes you through big Kauri trees to a gorgeous waterfall.
Searching for Hobbitses in New Zealand
On the way south stop at the Hobbiton film set near the tiny hamlet of Matamata in the Waikato region. Even if you’re not a Tolkien fanatic you’ll love the delightful hobbit holes and the way the world of the Hobbit books is brought to life.
Thrills and smells in the central North Island
Next head for Rotorua where you can view some of New Zealand’s famous geothermal activity and learn about Maori culture. Whakarewarewa is well worth a visit. Nearby Mt Tarawera is beautiful and a crater walk very interesting. Apparently you do get used to that rotten egg sulphur smell over time!
Drive to ‘National Park’ for the Tongariro Crossing. Stop just before Lake Taupo to stretch your legs with a walk to Huka Falls and a taking stroll on the shores of Lake Taupo is also very pleasant. If you want to see more geothermal activity or decided to skip Rotorua there are a number of other options here, including the easily accessible Craters of the Moon with steam vents and mud pools.
Café culture in Wellington
Then drive to Wellington. If you want to break the journey with a meal/coffee the best place to stop is the little town of Taihape, which has some decent cafes (Brown Sugar, Le Café Telephonique).
Wellington has great cafes/eateries and the Te Papa Wellington is the must see on the waterfront. Drive up Mt Victoria for the view over the harbour or take the cable car up to the university.
From Wellington catch the ferry to Picton. There are two options – the Interislander and the Bluebridge ferries and you will probably have to book your crossing ahead of time if you are taking your car.
Wines and Whales in New Zealand’s South Island
Head to the Marlborough region and spend a day pottering around the vineyards. My favourite wineries include HighField Estate Winery (book lunch here), Cloudy Bay, Hunters, and Grove Mill.
Drive south to Kaikoura for whale watching and there are nice walks along the coast where you can see fur seals basking in the sun on the rocks.
New Zealand’s highest peak: Mt Aoraki
Drive to Mt Cook village. This is a long driving day (6 hrs) but there are a few stops on the way for photo opportunities – at Lake Tekapo by the Church of the Good Shepherd and then another stop at the foot of Lake Pukaki.
From Mt Cook you can go on a glacier lake tour and there are a number of short walks. There are only two accommodation options here, an expensive hotel here (the Hermitage) and a backpackers’ lodge…
Drive from Mt Cook to Queenstown stopping at Kelling Ponds for photos.
New Zealand’s star: Queenstown
For many visitors, Queenstown is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand and it is easy to see why. As well as the mind-blowing scenery there are lots of fun activities to do around Queenstown including walking, wineries, horse riding etc. The Shotover Jetboat, the lake trip on the TSS Earnslaw paddle steamer up Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station, and taking the Skyline Gondola up the hill for views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.
There is a lovely day walk here called the Moonlight Track – you take the gondola up and then walk. You can take a side path up the summit of (the other) Ben Lomond on the way.
The Kiwi Bird Sanctuary is near the gondola station and a great opportunity to see the national symbol (in artificial darkness as they are nocturnal), as well as other fascinating creatures like the Tuatara. They run excellent conservation-focused shows.
Drive up the lake to Glenorchy. There are more lovely wineries around Queenstown (mostly pinot noir), often serving delicious lunches and very family friendly.
When you are considering where to go in New Zealand do try to fit in a trip to Milford Sound. It is a beautiful drive with lots of stops/little walks on the way then you can do a boat cruise on the fjord. If you want to do a Great Walk, the Routeburn Track is a good option from Te Anau because it is a bit shorter than the other great walks and absolutely spectacular. The Milford Track is New Zealand’s most famous.
Next drive through to Wanaka via the Cardrona Valley (have lunch at the historic Cardrona Hotel on the way). Wanaka is a smaller/quieter lakeside town with more lovely day walks. and nice cafes.
New Zealand’s West Coast
Drive from Wanaka to Fox village via the Haast Pass, stopping at the Knights’ Point lookout on the way.
On the West Coast the glaciers are the big attraction. I recommend a heli-hike on the glacier if you can afford the cost or the glacier walk.
Go early in the morning to take photos of Lake Mathieson with its backdrop of mountains. There is an awesome overnight walk here up to Welcome Flats (there are hot pools at the hut).
Drive on up the coast. There are a few wonderfully quirky little places to stay, such as tiny Okarito (there is a very pretty half-day walk here) and Blackball. This ex-mining community inland from Greymouth has an old hotel that is full of character (and characters).
From Greymouth one route is to take the Trans Alpine train to Christchurch, although that may not be an option if you have a hire car. Or you can carry on north to the Abel Tasman National Park.
Kayaking and walking in Abel Tasman National Park
This area has beautiful golden-sand beaches and you can either go sea kayaking (from half to three day trips) or the coastal hike. I have stayed at The Barn a couple of times and it has good budget accommodation in a lovely setting. The kayak hire place is just down the road from here. If you have time you could go across into Golden Bay.
Finally drive back to Christchurch with a stop at Maruia Springs, a gorgeous place to stay the night in the forest enjoying the hot pools.
Fly out from Christchurch …
I hope you found my ultimate one-month New Zealand trip itinerary useful. Happy travel planning!