Well, first thing’s first – awesome decision guys! 24 days in New Zealand is a great amount of time getting to know our little Islands and to fully immerse yourself into the kiwi way of life. With just over 3 weeks to explore the North and South Island, we have put together an itinerary to try and help guide you to some of the best and some of the most quirky experiences our islands have to offer. Some we will have missed and if you come across any, be sure to hop on our Facebook page and let us know – we can add them in for future explorers. But for now, let’s get you started on your epic kiwi adventure and see where it takes us. It’s time to GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
- Auckland to Paihia
- Around the Bay of Islands
- Cape Reinga
- Paihia to Auckland via Waipoua Forest
- Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula
- Coromandel Peninsula to Paeroa
- Paeroa to Rotorua
- Rotorua and around
- Rotorua to Lake Taupo
- Lake Taupo to Napier
- Napier to Wellington
- Picton to Nelson
- Nelson to Greymouth
- Greymouth to Franz Josef
- Franz Josef
- Franz Josef to Queenstown
- Queenstown and around
- Milford Sound
- Queenstown to Lake Tekapo
- Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
- Christchurch to Kaikoura
- Kaikoura to Christchurch
Book a vehicle for this trip
Known as the City of Sails or the Big Little City, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with 1.3 million people calling it home. The renowned Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranked it the 3rd best city in the world to live and even the prestigious New York Times has named it one of the “hippest” cities in the world. Home to the largest Polynesian population in the world, 1.3 million people can’t be wrong, right?
The excitement of picking up your new rental car might tempt you to head out of the city and explore the open roads of the island. Don’t make that mistake. Auckland is not your average city and there’s plenty to see before you get on your way.
The city is the perfect mix of the natural beauty the country is famous for and a hip modern cosmopolitan urban area. Whether you’re looking to wander through luscious bush in the Waitakere Ranges or explore the wild west coast beaches such as Piha or Muriwai, there is something for everyone in the Big Little City.
It’s also a geology-lover’s paradise, with over 50 extinct or dormant volcanoes to explore. Climb to the top of the tallest of them all, Mount Eden, for the best view of the city, or take the short ferry ride across the harbour to Rangitoto, the youngest of them all. Whichever you choose to visit, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience. If you’re looking for some real adventure, our GO Play partner Auckland Seaplanes offer 5% discount on scenic flights over Rangitoto. Go on, splash out, you’re on holiday!
We have only just scratched the surface here of all the cool things to do in Auckland so make sure you check out our Auckland and around guide for more awesome hints and tips.
Once you’ve explored the Big Little City, it’s time to head North for a tour around the tropical North – make sure you pack the sun block – it can get a bit warm up in Northland!
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2Auckland to Paihia (227kms – 2 hours 54 mins)
After a day soaking up the city life in Auckland, it’s time to hit the road as our trip takes us north of Auckland up to the Bay of Islands. This is one of the great Kiwi road trips and a favourite amongst those who live in New Zealand’s busiest city. This is your first trip out in your GO Rentals hire car but as much as you love the driving, make sure you take some regular pit stops along the way as there is plenty to see and do on the drive north.
Long Bay Regional Park (23.8kms – 27 mins)
Heading out of Auckland on SH1 a great little detour awaits only half an hour into your journey. Long Bay Regional Park located close to Browns Bay is a great place to soak up some fresh coastal air and have a stroll on the cliff top walk. The bay itself is great for kayaking and paddle boarding so if that floats your boat, give it a whirl.
Puhoi (32.3kms – 30 mins)
As SH1 comes to an end in the typical sense of a highway and moves to predominantly a single lane road all the way north, you’ll come across the quaint little village of Puhoi. If cheese is your thing, the Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Store is well worth a stop off to stock up. They do a delicious blue cheese as well as more traditional cheese varieties that you’ll struggle to find in the supermarkets.
Kawakawa (170kms – 2 hours 9 mins)
The next stage of your journey north does not provide much in terms of interesting stops as you pass through commercial hubs like Warkworth and Whangarei. Kawakawa however is worth a quick stop off and for the most unusual reason – the public toilets! Designed by renowned Austrian artist Friendensreich Hundertwasser, the toilets are an artistic marvel!
Paihia (16.5km – 19 mins)
From Kawakawa it’s only a short drive to your final destination of Paihia, gateway to the Bay of Islands. Hopefully you’ll have arrived in plenty of time to get your bearings and maybe book yourself onto a trip for the following day. The best way to explore the Bay of Islands is undoubtedly on the water so check out your options and get yourself booked on an excursion.
3Around the Bay of Islands
With so many options it’s difficult to decide what to do – here’s a list of our highlights from the adventurous to the more sedate:
Bay of Islands cruise – there are many companies offering a cruise round the harbour including Fullers and the Explore Group. Trips will take you out dolphin watching and to famous landmarks like the Hole in the Rock. Great news for you guys is that Bay of Islands Cruise offer a 15% discount when you present your shiny GO Play card so make sure you take advantage and head out onto the water.
Use your GO Play card here
Jet Boat Ride – if you have never experience the power of a jet boat ride, the Bay of Islands is a great way to break your duck. Traveling along at breakneck speeds, the jet boat experience will get you out into the deep waters to explore the multitude of Islands whilst giving you a thrill ride at the same time
Russell – for a more sedate day, why not catch the ferry across to Russell (20 minutes) and wander the Olde Worlde streets. There are some lovely cafes and restaurants on the sea front where you can easily spend a few hours people watching. The Duke of Marlborough is a particular favourite of the GO Rentals team.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds – New Zealand’s premier historic site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 – a partnership between Maori and the British Crown and the founding document of New Zealand. Visit the treaty house and take a look at the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe.
4Cape Reinga (212.5kms – 2 hours 41 mins)
A trip to Northland wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Northern most tip of New Zealand where you get to see the rare occurrence of 2 oceans colliding which can be spectacular on a stormy day. The Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean cross over at the tip of Cape Reinga and from the lighthouse, you get some fantastic views out over the spectacle.
The drive north will take you up alongside 90 mile beach and it’s well worth a stop off on your way up or on your way back down.
90 Mile Beach
Officially a highway, 90 mile beach is only recommended for 4WD vehicles and unfortunately our GO cars are not insured to be driven on the sand. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still have lots of fun up here. From surfing the waves to riding the sand dunes, there are plenty of activities on both the land and sea to keep you entertained.
It’s been an epic day of driving but hopefully you will have had a blast. It’s another couple of hours back to Paihia where you’ll be in need of a well-deserved feed and a glass of wine watching the sunset.
5Paihia to Auckland via Waipoua Forest (345kms – 4 hours 50 mins)
Waipoua Forest (113kms – 1 hours 44 mins)
Instead of heading back to Auckland the direct route, we highly recommend a detour on your way back to check out the Kauri forest at Waipoua. Here you will find the best preserved and largest of the remaining Kauri forests in New Zealand. Among them is the legendary Tane Mahuta, the ‘Lord of the Forest’ who at 51.5 metres is the largest (by volume) of these ancient trees.
It’s another 232kms back to Auckland which will take you just over 3 hours so it’s time for a night off and a chance to recharge those batteries.
6Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula (168km – 2 hours 30 mins)
After a couple of days up in the Bay of Islands, it’s time to start heading South on your kiwi adventure.
Pokeno Ice Cream (52.1km – 36mins from Auckland)
We know it’s only been half an hour since you left Auckland but it’s already time for the best kind of stop – an ice cream pit stop. The Pokeno store is renowned for the biggest ice creams in the country. Pokeno Takeaways, on Great South Road, will sell you a 15-scoop ice cream (yes, you read that right). Treat yourself.
Coromandel Peninsula (120km – 2 hours from Pokeno)
It’s not exactly on the way but it’s well worth the detour and you’ll get some of the most stunning coastline photos on your side trip up the Coromandel Peninsula.
Make sure your camera is well charged and stop at the Coromandel Township for a glimpse into life in small town New Zealand. The town has a laid back feel to it so take the Kiwi approach and don’t rush around – it’s time to take a more laid back approach to this road trip! Enjoy the atmosphere, as well as the numerous artisan centres spread around the place where you can take your pick at different workshops and pick up some beautifully handcrafted pottery, wood carving or painting. Before you head off, stop by the Coromandel Museum and learn a little about the town’s gold mining and Kauri history, both of which have shaped the region into what it is today.
New Chums Beach – Wainuiototo Bay (15km – 20 mins from Coromandel Township)
Now this is something truly special. This little hidden gem is considered by many one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s small and it requires a short hike to get to but what you’ll find is an example of the really pristine and unspoiled natural wonders of New Zealand.
One of the more famous and most visited beaches in these parts is at Cathedral Cove. There are a number of tour operators who will take you on a guided tour out to visit the sea caves and check out the towering cliffs of the Te-Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve.
7Coromandel Peninsula to Paeroa (87.9km – 1 hour 35 mins)
Waihi (108km – 1 hour 52 mins from Coromandel Township)
As you head out of the peninsula, make sure you stop by the impressive Martha’s Mine in Waihi. You can take a goldmine tour and find out more about this important part of New Zealand history. Take some time to learn a bit more about the gold mining history, as there won’t be many other opportunities to do so during the trip.
Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway (13.2km – 12 mins from Waihi)
Dust off the hiking boots, we’re going for a little walk. Well, sort of little – 7 kilometres.
The Karangahake Gorge Walkway features the remains of a historical railway nestled in a natural gorge setting. The walk will take you through relics of back in the day when the area was a big gold mining region. It follows the railway line through the gorge and alongside the Ohinemuri River, through the Victoria Battery Complex and ending in the Waikino Station (which includes a cafe for a much deserved post-walk beverage).
To get to the start of the walkway, park your rental car at the Karangahake Domain Car Park on SH2 between Waihi and Paeroa, get your hiking boots on and off you go!
Giant L&P Bottle (7.7km – 7 mins from Karangahake)
Paeroa will be your next stop after the walk. There isn’t much to this small town but it’s known for being the birthplace of L&P, the iconic kiwi drink that is “world famous in New Zealand”. This soft drink was originally produced using lemon and mineral water from Paeroa (hence L&P). The giant L&P bottle landmark is a mandatory photo stop for any self-respecting tourist so make sure you strike a pose in front of it too – make sure you send your photo in to our GO Snap Happy collection on the GO Rentals website for your chance to win back the cost of your rental – can’t say fairer than that!
With plenty of accommodation options from B&Bs to lodges, Paeroa is a great place to stop off for the night on your route south.
8Paeroa to Rotorua (127km – 2 hours 2 mins)
Matamata (58km – 59 mins from Paeroa)
Matamata – so good they named it twice! If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, this is the place for you. If you’re not a Lord of the Rings fan (we don’t judge), you’ll still enjoy the stop in Matamata.
The town includes the set of Hobbiton from Peter Jackson’s movies and a guided tour of the movie set (starting from the Information Centre right on the main street) is a must-do for any visitor. You’ll be able to visit 44 unique hobbit holes (just like in the movies), including Bag End (Bilbo Baggins’ house), as you make your way through the Shire, passing iconic locations such as the Green Dragon Pub, the double arched bridge and the Party Tree. Another great photo op awaits so show us your best Frodo pose or maybe you’re more of a Legolas!
After that, it’s time to continue south. Our next stop: Putaruru.
Chainsaw Collection at the New Zealand Timber Museum (29.9km – 28mins from Matamata)
Not exactly the most obvious choice for a recommended touristic attraction but we’re talking about unique and quaint experiences that you will only get in New Zealand, right? So here’s one: a chainsaw collection at a Timber Museum in the small town of Putaruru, about an hour south of Hamilton. You don’t find that in many other places.
Before you head out of Putaruru, stop for a visit to the international acclaimed Blue Spring with crystal clear blue waters. Pack a picnic and head along the Te Waihou Walkway to reach the spring. The walk takes about 1.5 hours each way and passes through rolling farmland, New Zealand native bush and even some waterfalls.
Mandatory waterfall photo taken, it’s time to keep heading south. Our next stop is Rotorua and should take you about 50 minutes.
9Rotorua and around
You probably noticed it as soon as you drove into Rotorua – that sulphuric smell (no that wasn’t your fellow passengers!), the vents on the ground letting steam off, the boiling mud everywhere. You’ve arrived in New Zealand’s thermal wonderland.
Rotorua is bubbling (see what we did there?) with geothermal activity and you can see it (and smell it) wherever you look. But one of the best places to see it in all its glory is Wai-O-Tapu, a place that encompasses a range of different volcanic activity, including the world famous Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser. You’ll want to spend a good couple of hours wandering around Wai-O-Tapu and visiting all the different lakes, mud pools and geysers. And…Wai-O-Tapu is a GO Play partner so you get all this geothermal fun with a 10% discount. Result.
Use your GO Play card here
For stunning examples of Maori culture that you’ll not find anywhere, pay a visit to Te Puia (about five minutes from the centre of town).
You’ll learn about Maori culture and costumes from Maori people themselves, as well as witness a few more examples of geothermal activity (we’re still in Rotorua after all). Make sure you attend the Maori culture performance at the Marae (by the entrance) and visit the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute located inside as well. Te Puia also includes a live kiwi bird enclosure (a rare opportunity to see the New Zealand icon) and the famous Pohutu Geyser.
Right, that’s enough walking around, it’s time for some adrenaline. Head to the Zorb (149 Western Road in Rotorua), another GO Play partner, for a few minutes of adrenaline-infused adventure.
Zorbing first started in New Zealand so what better place to experience it than right in the heart of the country where it all began? Zorbing (which is basically rolling down some hills inside a giant inflatable ball) is one of those activities on many people’s bucket lists. Tick that off yours now before we continue heading south.
Our next stop is Mamaku Blue (311 Maraeroa Rd) for a more relaxed, less adrenaline-infused activity. This is where you’ll find out that, in case you didn’t know, blueberries are the solution to all your problems. At Mamaku Blue, everything is blueberry-based, from the wine to the toiletries. Did you even know you could get blueberry wine? The cafe only serves blueberry-based food and you’ll have the chance to learn all about how this fruit can heal pretty much anything.
New Zealand Caterpillar Experience
The New Zealand Caterpillar Experience will be another one of those unique places you probably don’t expect to find anywhere.
Located on 171 Fairy Springs Road, this is the work of Lindsay Willis, a man who has been collecting Caterpillar equipment for most of his life. We’re talking heavy machinery here, no small stuff. This is the world’s foremost collection of this sort of equipment and Willis keeps it all in excellent condition (with some of the oldest ones still in working order).
The displays are set alongside footage of some of the machinery at work, way back in the day, and you’ll get to see some trucks and bulldozers that are now the only examples left of their kind. Impressive stuff!
10Rotorua to Lake Taupo (81.3km – 1 hour 8 mins)
It’s been an exciting few days and we’re not even close to done yet. It’s time to relax. Before you head out of Rotorua, we suggest you take a few hours to visit the Polynesian Spa, voted one of the best spas in the world. Choose from a range of hot pools or book a massage and enjoy a couple of hours of what holidays really are about – doing absolutely nothing.
Rotorua really is the town that keeps on giving with lots more GO Play partners based in and around this geothermal wonderland. We have only given you a flavour of the things you can do here but you may decide you fancy something a bit different so go knock yourselves out and have some fun!
Our journey south continues through to Taupo, a town on the shore of New Zealand’s largest lake (with the same name). There’s no shortage of things to do and you can pick and choose from a range of activities.
Make sure you stop at the Huka Falls, a set of incredibly impressive waterfalls along the Waikato River, with about 220,000 litres of water flowing per second (that’s a lot of water). Next, stop at the Huka Prawn Park (Karetoto Rd) for a visit (you’ll need a couple of hours if you want to take the tour) and some seafood deliciousness.
Lake Taupo itself is pretty impressive and, not far from the township, along the Desert Road, you’ll get to see Mount Ruapehu (Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans) and its neighbouring (and equally impressive) volcanoes.
The Desert Road itself is worth the drive as the scenery is not something you’ll find anywhere else (alpine deserts such as this one are a rare sight anywhere else in the world) so take your time to soak in the views.
Although this is a guide to off-the-beaten track adventures it would seem wrong if we failed to mention the amazing skydiving to be had over Lake Taupo. The views are simply stunning as you plummet from 13,000 feet heading towards the lake. A further bonus is that Taupo Tandem Skydiving is a GO Play partner and will kindly offer you a 5% discount for the pleasure of throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aeroplane!
11Lake Taupo to Napier (143km – 2 hours 3mins)
After a full day relaxing, it’s time to get your skates on and head on over east side to Napier – the wine growing heart of the North Island and a placed where sunshine is usually the order of the day.
From Taupo take the SH5 heading east and follow the signs for Napier. It’s a lovely drive down with plenty of little villages along the way if you want a taste of kiwiana or just a stretch of the legs – the main event of the day awaits in Napier though.
With so many things to do in Napier, hopefully you’ll have arrived in good time to cram it all into one day (and the next morning – shhh!). Napier feels like a step back in time (even more so than the rest of NZ!) with its art deco facades and fountains so take your own step back, slow it all down and spend the day doing exactly what you want to do – you’ve deserved it.
Here are some of our top tips:
Wine tour – Hawkes Bay is one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions along with Marlborough so it would be rude not to sample at least a couple of the local drops. If you’re feeling energetic, why not hire a bike and cycle between the vineyards – you’ll have truly earned your vino then!
Te Mata Peak
Offering some superb panoramic views of the Ruahine, Kaweka and Maungaharuru Ranges and Cape Kidnappers, whether you bike, hike or drive to the summit of Te Mata, it’s well worth the trip. For the more adventurous, you can even choose to paraglide back down to sea level.
Coastal walks – the Hawkes Bay coastline provides some of the best walking tracks in the North Island which you can easily hop on to and spend your time admiring the spectacular views.
Arataki Honey Visitors Centre – you may or may not have heard of manuka honey – something that NZ is very famous for. Fabled for its medicinal properties, you can find out all about the bees that help to produce this delicious honey and pick up a pot to take with you on the rest of your travels.
12Napier to Wellington (315km – 4 hours)
So, this is your penultimate day in the North Island but there’s still time to fit in some morning activities before heading to Wellington to spend your last day before catching the InterIslander Ferry to the South Island to start the next stage of your epic kiwi adventure.
If you’re an early riser, try and head up to Te Mata Peak for sunrise – we managed it once and it was spectacular! After a leisurely morning in Napier, maybe exploring the Marine Parade, it’s time to hit the road to Wellington.
Mt Bruce Wildlife Sanctuary (206km – 2 hours 32 mins)
This is a great little stop off as you get ever closer to Wellington. Home to a whole host of wildlife including the world’s only white kiwi in captivity, the Manukura as well as the Turua, a North Island Brown Kiwi, this is a great place for kids and adults alike. With regular feeding sessions, talks and other activities to keep you entertained, it’s a great way to break up the journey south.
Martinborough (65.5km – 48 mins)
Although it’s a slight detour off the main route into Wellington, Martinborough is well worth a look if you have the time to spare. Martinborough has become the gourmet capital of the lower south island with 25 boutique vineyards and several fantastic restaurants serving delicious local produce. With the whole day to spend in Wellington tomorrow, this is a good shout for dinner as it is only a short drive to your resting place for the night.
It’s been quite the journey but here we are – New Zealand’s capital. Wellington is small but has no shortage of things to see. Head for the CBD, park your rental car and wander around the small streets.
Grab a coffee (Wellington claims to have the best coffee in New Zealand so check for yourself), visit the cool one-of-a-kind stores along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. When you’re on that street, notice the cool Bucket Fountain that doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to (take a close look at it and you’ll see the water doesn’t actually obey the easy bucket system and sometimes misses the buckets altogether).
A visit to Archives New Zealand, on 10 Mulgrave Street, allows you to see the Treaty of Waitangi (the document that is considered the foundation of the country). You can also take a tour of the Beehive, the country’s parliament, if you’re feeling politically-inclined, before taking a stroll along the waterfront, decorated with interesting sculptures and populated by numerous bars (including some decent craft beer spots).
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Before you head off to catch your ferry to the South Island, we suggest you park on Wexford Road, on the north-eastern side of the airport. On a typical windy Wellington day, you’ll have the chance to see what you escaped from, making the very wise decision to drive down from Auckland. Planes taking off and landing in Wellington often sway a little more than they should – a little scary for passengers on the plane, a bit of fun for you safely watching from the comfort of your rental car on safe ground.
14Picton to Nelson (134km – 1 hour 52 mins)
The Snout Track
The Interislander ferry will leave you in Picton, the starting point for your South Island adventure. That’s where you’ll be able to dust off the hiking boots and have a true Kiwi experience by venturing into the great outdoors with a 3.5 hour return hike to awesome views of Queen Charlotte Sound – a good introduction to what the South Island has to offer. From the Snout Track car park, walk along the gravel road to reach the track, then follow the signs to the Snout Head.
The Boulder Bank
The Boulder Bank is another spectacular example of the South Island’s natural wonders. The 13km long bank is one of the very few of its type in the world so you’re in the presence of something very unique. It has been formed from large granodiorite boulders that have been moved by wind, water and tide to form the spectacular line in front of you.
The lighthouse was made in Bath (England) and shipped in parts to New Zealand, then assembled in 1861.
You can access the bank by turning off SH6 and driving along Boulder Bank Drive, 7km north of Nelson.
The Wainui Falls are located inside the Abel Tasman National Park and are 20 metre waterfalls, a welcome reward at the end of an easy bush walk. The hike takes about one hour (return).
15Nelson to Greymouth (287km – 4 hours 9 mins)
World of Wearable Art Museum
The World of Wearable Art (WoW) is a New Zealand institution in its own right. The first ever show was held in Nelson in 1987 and has since grown (and moved to Wellington where it is currently held). The museum displays some of the supreme winners of the shows. Whether you’re interested in clothes and fashion or not, this is an important slice of New Zealand’s culture – one that you should not miss.
Mapua (32km – 34 mins)
After a day exploring in the Able Tasman National Park, it’s time to hit the road. The first stop of the day is not too far away however as you head out on SH6 towards the west coast.
Mapua is a very picturesque village situated on a wharf on the Abel Tasman coastline. With a huge range of shops, galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes, this makes the perfect stop off for breakfast and a bit of retail therapy before you hit the road proper. From the Jellyfish Café and Bar to Forest Fusion Functional Art, there is lots to see and do in Mapua as well as taking in the lovely surroundings.
Buller Gorge Swing Bridge (165km – 2 hours 23 mins from Mapua)
Heading out of Mapua keep following SH6 heading towards the west coast. After a relatively short drive there’s another chance to stretch the legs and get the adrenaline pumping at the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge. From big thrills to big spills to serene walks, Buller Gorge offers some of the best adventure activities this side of Queenstown. From the comet line, a 160m flying fox zip line to jet boating on the Upper Buller Gorge with GO Play partner Ultimate Descents, there’s plenty to keep the most adventurous happy. If you’re of a less adventurous disposition the Buller Gorge is also a great place to explore on foot with some lovely trails and falls to discover.
Bev’s Dolls (46.2km – 41 mins from Buller Gorge)
In a converted garage at 35 Main Street in Reefton, you’ll find Bev’s Dolls – a collection of over 2000 dolls, including a 180-year-old German stone doll and popular contemporary dolls such as the Harry Potter doll collection. Check that Bev is home and, for a fee, she’ll show you her impressive collection.
Formerly the Blackball Hilton Hotel (56.9km – 1 hour from Reefton)
At first glance, it might look like you’re just in a quiet small town in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand but, in fact, you’re standing in front of a hotel that was subject to global controversy. Well, sort of.
The hotel was built in 1910 and named The Dominion at the time. In the 1970s, the name was changed to The Blackball Hilton. Threats of legal action by you-know-who who owns a big hotel chain with the same name in the US forced the Blackball Hilton to add “Formerly” to the name in order to continue to operate.
The hotel is located on 26 Hart Street and offers both food and accommodation, if you feel like a break.
16Greymouth to Franz Josef (via Punakaiki) (262.1km – 3 hours 31 mins)
Pancake Rocks (45.1km – 37 mins from Greymouth)
Although your journey is taking you south along the West Coast, a slight detour north is well worth it to check out the pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki and let’s face it, you love driving your GO Rentals car that much by now that this is a great excuse to get some more miles under your belt! Get your camera ready because this is one of those places you’ll want to tell everyone about. The pancake rocks are heavily eroded limestone, layered like pancakes. Who doesn’t love pancakes? Exactly. These particular ones were formed 30 million years ago out of dead marine creatures and plants.
Ross (110km – 1 hour 31 mins from Punakaiki)
It’s about a 3 hour drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef and the perfect stop off point on the way is the small gold-mining town of Ross. In 1909, Ross became famous across New Zealand when the largest gold nugget in the country was found weighing in at an impressive 99 ounces. There is some conjecture over the origin of the nugget however with some claiming it was in fact mined in Australia and smuggled over to Ross to inflate the gold prices. Either way, it was purchased by the New Zealand government and presented to King George V as a coronation gift.
From Ross it’s a short hop down to your final destination of Franz Josef (107km – 1 hour 23 mins)
After the longish drive down the West Coast the previous day, you’ll be glad to be out of the car (the car will surely have a name by now) and stretching the legs and what a site to wake up to – the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier. The Glacier was first explored in 1865 by Austrian Julius Haast and it has been advancing and retreating ever since.
Exploring the glacier
There are several ways to explore the glacier from independent walks to heli-hikes but however you choose to take in the sights and sounds of the stunning glacier, make sure you pack your bag for all weathers as things can change quickly up at the glacier.
There are a number of independent walks you can make which provide great viewpoints of the glacier. The best is probably Sentinel Rock which is 10 minutes from the car park or the Ka Roimate o Hine Hukatere walk which is a more energetic 40 minute walk that leads to the terminal of the glacier.
Without doubt the best way to experience the glacier is to walk on them. Small group walks with experienced guides and equipment provided (amazing socks!) can be booked in the town of Franz and offer half or full day trips up onto the glacier. We cannot recommend highly enough taking the full day hike as this will allow you to get further up the glacier with the chance to find new routes or even undiscovered ice caves. With your crampons on and your ice picks at the ready, this is another great snap for Facebook to show you as the true ‘explorer’ so don’t miss out on this one. Franz Josef Glacier Guides are also a partner of GO Play, offering a 10% discount for guided tours on the ice – cool!
Use your GO Play card here
For those with a few more dollars to spare, a heli-hike offers two fantastic opportunities; see the sheer scales of the glacier from the skies but also get onto the glacier much higher up where the ice is much purer. Here you will get the chance to discover blue-ice caves, seracs and pristine ice formations and let’s face it, a trip in a helicopter is pretty cool.
Taking things one step further, Mount Cook is within reach of Franz by helicopter with a number of companies running tours to see the highest peak in NZ. These tours can often be combined with a heli-hike on either Franz Josef of Fox glacier and is the ultimate Southern Alps experience. If you do head out on one of these amazing trips, be sure to let us know so we can all be super jealous in the office!
Glacier Hot Pools
Once you’re finished, how about a dip in the glacier hot pools, right in the middle of the rainforest? It sounds just as stunning as it is. The pools are located in the Franz Josef township on Cron Street and open between 1pm to 9pm all year round and if all this sounds too perfect, it’s about to get better! Glacier Hot Pools are a GO Play partner so you can sit back and relax with a few extra bucks in your pocket.
18Franz Josef to Queenstown (350km – 6 hours 2 mins)
The drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown is one of the most spectacular as you cut through the Haast Pass towards Wanaka. Your GO Rentals hire car will be purring as you wind through the valley, heading inland from the rugged west coast and making your way towards the lakes and mountains of the lower south island.
Lake Matheson (27.8km – 37 mins from Franz Josef)
As you head out of Franz Josef, one stop that cannot be missed is a detour to Lake Matheson. If you’re looking for the photo to put on Facebook to make all your friends jealous, then this is it. Take the road west at the popular Fox Glacier township and you’ll be rewarded with views that take your breath away and make you question why you ever want to go back to whatever it is you do when you are not touring round NZ’s south island.
Famous for reflecting a near-perfect image of Aoraki/Mount Cook in its waters, Lake Matheson was formed around 14,000 years ago when the Fox Glacier retreated from its last major advance towards the sea. If we had to guess, we reckon you will end up with 39 photos give or take on your camera – the best view is always just around the corner!
As you carry on down the Haast Pass, there’s loads of forest and lakeside walks you can take along the way depending on how you’re doing for time. Lake Paringa offers a great pit stop location for lunch with some stunning scenery in all directions. The highway makes its way back out to the coast at Bruce’s Bay and a stunning drive awaits.
Monro Beach (125km – 2 hours 8 mins from Lake Matheson)
Enjoy the views along the rugged coastline as this is your last chance to take in the splendour of New Zealand’s West Coast – it’s soon time to turn east and head inland towards the lakes and mountains. Be sure to stop off for the walk down to Monro Beach just before you hit the Haast Pass going east where between July and December it’s possible to see the Tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin). Make sure you cover up though as the venomous sand flies can be brutal at most times of the year. From here, your GO Rentals beast should be singing along as the road takes a meandering route through the Mt Aspiring National Park and on to Queenstown.
Blue Pools (78km – 1 hour 30 mins from Monro Beach)
Just north of the Makaroa Tourist Information Centre is a hidden gem (not so hidden since it made it into the top 10 things to do in NZ list!) for Kiwis and tourists alike. The Blue Pools walk can be accessed directly from the Haast Pass and is well signposted along the route. Follow the track into the forest where you’ll find a series of crystal clear pools that have been carved out of the rocks by centuries of erosion. The glacier-fed water in these deep pools is the colour of deep azure blue, and so clear that you can see right to the bottom. Jumping in looks tempting but it is not advised as it will be a particularly cold shock to the system as well as upsetting the resident brown trout and you don’t want to mess with a brown trout unless you like a wet face slap.
The Luge, Queenstown (207km – 3 hours 32 mins from the Blue Pools)
Queenstown is known as the capital adventure of the world and it won’t take you long to figure out why. If you can, ensure you spend at least a couple of days exploring the city and all its attractions. One of the coolest ones is the Luge, which combine some of the most stunning views you can get from Queenstown and its surroundings, with an injection of adrenaline.
The Skyline Queenstown Luge is open from 10am daily, all year round.
19Queenstown and around
There’s so much to see and do around Queenstown that it’s worth staying the extra day and exploring either on foot or taking the car for a run out.
Bendigo goldfields (80.3km – 1 hour 10 mins)
There’s something about old abandoned ghost towns that makes you reflect on the life that once was there. The Bendigo goldfields include a number of deserted towns from back in the days of the gold rush, surrounded by some of the most spectacular Central Otago scenery. From the town of Bendigo, you can drive up to the deserted towns of Logantown and Welshtown, with crumbling stone cottages to let your mind wander and imagine the days of digging for gold. Take SH8 out of Cromwell and follow this for about 20km until you hit Bendigo where you will find lots more info at the tourist information station.
Arrowtown/Cromwell (20.1km – 22 mins)
Unlike Bendigo, small Arrowtown is far from abandoned. The small historic village, a short 20-minute drive from Queenstown, is bursting with activity and includes a collection of beautiful old heritage buildings and miners’ cottages. The beauty of Arrowtown is that the heritage buildings are more than mere monuments of a time gone past – they’re still used for commerce and you get to experience life before the modern days.
A number of hiking tracks start and end at Arrowtown so, if you feel like a walk, head to the Information Centre to find out more about these tracks.
20Milford Sound (303kms – 4 hours 25 mins)
Described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, Milford Sound is THE MUST DO for anyone visiting the South Island. A great chance to give the GO Rentals hire car another run out, the 4+ hour drive from Queenstown is well worth the early start to check out the magnificence of this most spectacular fjord carved out by glaciers during the ice age (that’s a long time ago by the way!).
Hop out of your GO Rentals hire car and straight onto a boat as this is a must once you get down there. With a number of companies offering day or night cruises, you’ll not be short of options for exploring the water when you arrive. Find yourself ‘ooooing’ and ‘ahhhing’ at the spectacular waterfalls, some of which are over 1000 metres high so be sure to pack the camera but also make sure you pack your wet weather gear as inevitably it rains down at Milford Sound. Some say this makes the waterfalls even more spectacular but we’re not too sure about that one!
For those wanting a more hands on experience of Milford Sound, why not give kayaking a go. There’s nothing quite like taking to the open water and paddling yourself out into one of the most inspiring places on planet earth. Real Journeys offer a 4-5 hour trip out on to the water taking in the serene Harrisons Cove and the magnificent Mitre Peak offering some spectacular views up to the Pembroke Glaciers.
Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory
Due to its unique underwater environment, Milford Sound is home to species of black coral usually found at depths of 500m or more, including magnificent 300 year old ‘trees’ and the best way to check these old timers out is at the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory.
The Discovery Centre will send you on a journey back through the history, geology and wildlife of the Sound where you will also learn about the culture and heritage of this awe-inspiring place from local guides.
If you don’t fancy the drive down to Milford (it can be a very long day), GO Play partner Real Journeys offer a bus and fiord cruise trip which will take you from Queenstown to Milford and includes a boat cruise. Oh yeah, they will also give you a 10% discount. Awesome.
Use your GO Play card here
Make sure you leave enough time for the journey to and from Milford Sound – there are a lot of tour buses leaving Queenstown each day making the road extremely busy so drive carefully.
21Queenstown to Lake Tekapo (256km – 3 hours 26 mins)
Although it’s a relatively short drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo, we recommend booking yourself in for a stopover so you can truly make the most of the unspoilt views at night time.
Mt John Observatory/Lake Tekapo
Stargazers all over the world know Mt John and Lake Tekapo, in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region, as one of the absolute best places to look at the stars (and even catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights – Aurora Australis).
Lake Tekapo is also famous for its unique turquoise colour, as well as its beautiful starry nights – if you can park here for the night, you will not regret it. Mt John, just above the Tekapo township, is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world, home to 6 telescopes, including New Zealand’s biggest telescope, which can observe 50 million stars each clear night (yes, you read that right).
Lake Tekapo and Mt John are located about 3.5 hours’ drive north of Queenstown.
22Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
As your South Island adventure winds to an end, there are still plenty of things to be excited about as you head towards the South Island’s largest city.
Akaroa (280km – 4 hours 10 mins)
Located 75km from Christchurch and known by locals as the ‘Riviera of Canterbury’, Akaroa is a great stop off as you head towards the big city. This village is located on Banks Peninsula within a harbour of the same name and is considered “the most French town” in New Zealand, as it was the only French settlement in the country. Spend some time exploring the small town and then head to the harbour for the best fish and chips meal of your life (at least that’s Akaroa’s claim so you be the judge and let us know). Black Cat Cruises, a GO Play partner offer an awesome opportunity to swim with the rare Hector’s dolphins which are only found in these waters – a must if you have never done this type of thing before.
Christchurch (81.3km – 1 hour 29 mins from Akaroa)
Although you have arrived in Christchurch, your end stop off for this journey around the South Island, don’t be too hasty to drop your GO Rentals hire car back off just yet – you must have become quite attached by now! Take the time on your first day to explore the ‘Garden City’ but there is another short trip to make on Day 23 which is well worth the extra road trip.
Christchurch has unfortunately made headlines in recent times for a string of earthquakes that caused serious damage to the city – but its charm remains untouched and the city is rebuilding.
The tree-lined Avon River and Christchurch’s many parks and gardens give the city its reputation as the Garden City so make sure you check out the botanical gardens and the beautiful parks. Check out the several Gap Filler projects that volunteers have created to temporarily “activate” sites left empty by the earthquakes – you’ll be able to see some unique and really creative work that is proof of Christchurch’s charm and resilience.
23Christchurch to Kaikoura (180km – 2 hours 35 mins)
After an afternoon and evening spent in Christchurch, it’s time to take the car out for one last trip as you head north up SH1 to Kaikoura. Although this is a 2.5 hour trip up north, we reckon it’s well worth the extra miles for an amazing opportunity to swim with dolphins or maybe sample some of the delights of the South Island’s world famous wines.
Cellar View Café and Restaurant
As you head down from the magnificent wine tasting region of Marlborough you will hit Kaikoura. This is one of New Zealand’s best locations for seeing marine life including whales and dolphins. It is also the home to the Cellar View Cafe and Restaurant. This place serves up some pretty amazing dishes matched only by the stunning views out to the pacific. It’s easy to let an afternoon drift by, enjoying the delicious food and admiring the endless view. Nice.
Swimming with dolphins
If you didn’t get chance in Akaroa, Kaikoura is also a top place to go for swimming with dolphins so, if that’s always been on your bucket list, it’s time to tick it off. GO Play partner Encounter Kaikoura offers a brilliant opportunity to get in the water in the south Pacific and swim with these amazing animals. Tours operate three times a day and hopefully your 12 day itinerary will allow you to stay over for the night so you can enjoy the wine without having to worry about a drive back to Christchurch.
It’s not just dolphins that pass through the waters around Kaikoura though and if you time things right, there is also the chance to see various species of whale as well as seals and birds.
24Kaikoura to Christchurch (180km – 2 hours 35 mins)
After a great night in Kaikoura (and hopefully some delicious seafood – the crayfish are a GO Rentals favourite), it’s time to hit the road for the last time and head back down to Christchurch to drop off the car and head to the airport. Depending on how early you are up and out, there’s a lot of things still to do in and around Christchurch so be sure to check out our City guide and get involved before you have to head off to the airport.