NZ 2017: From North to South Island in 18 Days – The ULTIMATE Guide!

The land of long clouds. Feasted our eyes with a lot of spectacular sights and made our hearts pumped faster than ever with many adventures we took along the road. And I already have video to show where we went, what we did and saw. (Please scroll to the end of the page for video)

The Trip

The entire trip was done in 18 days but in reality we only have full 16 days to cover both North and South Island. To me, this trip was done in pretty fast-paced, with a LOT of driving almost daily. And considering we did this tour in winter where day time is shorter, there were few occasions where we had to drive in the dark.

Transport

We opted for campervan this time around. Rented “Voyager” from Britz, our campervan is actually a modified Toyota Hiace, automatic and runs on diesel. Wouldn’t say it comfortably sleeps all the four of us but it does the job right getting us to the destination and providing the necessities required. We didn’t consider motorhome because we don’t feel like emptying the toilet waste every other day. Plus motorhome is more expensive and it kind of clumsy on the road because of its size. On the plus side, motorhome can give you luxury feeling just like an RV.

Lake Pearson
Our campervan

Places Covered

We took Air Asia X and flew to Auckland (with 1 hour layover in Gold Coast). We spent 2 days in Auckland city on foot and public transport. Thereafter, we picked up our campervan to begin our drive out of Auckland, all the way to the south. Queenstown was our final port of call before we flew back to Auckland before heading back home to KL. Places covered:

North Island: Auckland >> Waitomo >> Rotorua >> Taupo >> Wellington >> Interislander ferry to South Island >> Picton
South Island: Picton >> Nelson >> Arthur’s Pass (Otira) >> Akaroa >> Mount Cook >> Wanaka >> Te Anau >> Milford Sound >> Queenstown

Stay

We stayed at Top 10 Holiday Park most of the time. The thing about our campervan is although it is stated as “self-contained”, it is not 100% “self-contained”. A “self-contained” campervan usually has a fully-equipped bathroom with proper toilet and shower, whereas ours only contains a portable potty. Therefore, we can’t do freedom camping and have to stay at holiday parks. These holiday parks provide basic amenities like kitchen, lounge and shower/toilet. And they also provide powered sites where we can charge our campervan overnight. Mind you, some of the equipment in our campervan can only operate when the car is plugged in, so this is another reason why we have to pay to stay at holiday parks.

Top 10 is obviously our preferred choice. Their parks are all over the country. They have membership discount that gives you 10% off for every park you stay. On top of that, you also get 10% off when you book with Interislander to cross from Wellington to Picton (and vice-versa). These discounts help to save quite a lot and they do have myriads of discounts on food and attractions.

Our only complain is that some of the Top 10 parks are not up to the par in terms of facilities. But to offset this, these parks are really located at strategic locations.

We did not stay with Top 10 at some of the places as they were either fully-booked or not available or not needed.

Auckland: We were on foot, hence we stayed at City Lodge Backpackers.
Wellington: Top 10 was fully booked, hence we opted to stay at another holiday park, Kiwi Holiday Park.
Arthur’s Pass: The only available holiday park is Jackson’s Retreat.
Mount Cook: The only available holiday park is Glenntanner Holiday Park.
Milford Sound: The only available holiday park is Milford Lodge.

The Details

Day 1 and 2: Auckland

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, also our first port of call. We decided not to pick up our campervan first, because we wanted to stay closer to the city. We did most stuff by walking and staying near Queen Street actually helped a lot. There are a lot of food establishment for you to choose from. The other mode of transports we took were public bus which brought us to Parnell, and Uber to get us to Mount Eden.

Tips #1: Taking Uber is comparatively cheaper than public bus if you are traveling in a group of 3 and more.

Tips #2: Queen Street has plenty of Asian food establishments if you’re craving for one.

Tips #3: Viaduct Harbour (along Jellicoe Street) has plenty of good restaurants where you can enjoy your meal overlooking the harbour.

Stay: City Lodge Backpackers
Places covered: Viaduct Harbour, Auckland Fish Market (Partially closed for renovation), Parnell, Mount Eden, Queen Street
Other places to go: Auckland War Memorial Museum, One Tree Hill, Auckland Tower

Viaduct Harbour
View of Auckland city from Viaduct Harbour
Mount Eden
Mount Eden overlooking Auckland city
Mount Eden
The last light of the day at Mount Eden

Day 3: Auckland – Waitomo

We picked up our campervan and began to drive out of the city to Waitomo. There are plenty of things to do in Waitomo, with the most popular activity is the glowworm cave. Initially we wanted to tour with Spellbound, but they did not operate in the entire month of June, so we ended up with Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The tour takes 45 minutes and mostly on foot. The only epic time of the tour was the boat ride to see glowworm. I wouldn’t say the entrance fee of NZ$50 is worth the trip considering the “real” action only happens at the near end of the tour, but we had the intention of seeing glowworm in the first place. Plus, if you book your campervan with Britz, driver gets to go in for free.

There wasn’t much for us to do in Waitomo as nightfall drew closer but Waitomo was the first of the rest of the nights were we would have to acclimatize ourselves to sleeping in the van.

Tips #1: Book with Spellbound, they are more personalized and tours longer.

Stay: Top 10 Waitomo
Places covered: Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Farm Life
Life on a farm
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo Lookout Point
Waitomo Lookout Point

Day 4: Waitomo to Rotorua

On the way to Rotorua, we stopped at The Hobbiton located in Matamata. This place, in my opinion is a world on its own. The views of the rolling hills and perfectly manicured lawns already worth the entrance fee. We were chartered by bus to the entrance where a guide led us the entire trip while detailing the works of the renowned director, Sir Peter Jackson. I was “lost” in my own world of photography, busy capturing photos and videos.

We did not intend to stay in Matamata, so we continued our journey to Rotorua, which takes about an hour’s drive.

Tips #1: Top 10 membership card entitles you a 10% discount when you visit The Hobbiton.

Stay: Top 10 Rotorua
Places covered: The Hobbiton

The Hobbiton
Seeing is believing
The Hobbiton
The rolling hills are captivating
The Hobbiton
The Green Dragon Inn is equally impressive too
The Hobbiton
Picturesque? It’s more than that

Day 5: Rotorua to Taupo

This was one of the days where we had nothing planned. As our final stop for this day is at Taupo, which is about an hour’s drive, we spent our time leisurely around Rotorua first by checking out the Rotorua Museum and Government Gardens. Do take note that Rotorua Museum is currently closed (as of July 2017) due to earthquake damage and the re-opening date has yet to confirm. However, the iconic building still looks majestic as ever.

There are plenty of thermal pools surrounding the area especially the ones near the edge of Lake Rotorua. Not very spectacular but good enough for those who are curious about them. We also spent quite some time having our photos taken against the picturesque Lake Rotorua on a beautiful wind-less, cloud-less day.

Stay: Top 10 Taupo
Places covered: Rotorua Museum, Government Gardens, Lake Rotorua
Other places to go: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Rotorua
Rotorua Museum
Rotorua
Careful where you are standing
Rotorua
Rotorua Lake
Rotorua
Chasing dreams… or birds?
Rotorua
A seaplane in plain sight

Day 6: Taupo (Tongariro Alpine Crossing)

We signed up with Tongariro Expeditions for winter hike at Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is dubbed as the best one day hike in NZ. Unfortunately, the weather turned warmer the past few days, which meant there’d be no snow – thus Tongariro Expeditions could only offer shuttle service.

I have a personal, lengthy write-up on the hike.

Stay: Top 10 Holiday Park Taupo
Places covered: Tongariro Alpine Crossing @ Tongariro National Park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Great memories!

Day 7: Taupo – Wellington

The day began with plenty of muscle aches. Went to check out Aratiatia Rapids but we missed the golden hour, hence the view was nothing to shout about. Plus it was drizzling so it kind of dampened our mood a bit. Also, headed to Huka Falls. The rain was getting heavier but still we just had to see it. Fortunately, there is really something to see at Huka Falls. I also had plans to bring the gang to check out Lake Taupo but the rain diverted us to nearby supermarket. The rest of the day spent on the road driving to Wellington and by the time we reached our eerily and pitch-dark holiday park, it was already closed to 7pm.

Tips #1: There is timed water release at Aratiatia Dam. Do check the schedule and time your visit.

Stay: Kiwi Holiday Park Wellington
Places covered: Aratiatia Rapids, Huka Falls, Lake Taupo

Huka Falls
Huka Falls

Day 8: Wellington

We discussed the places we wanted to go beforehand because it was going to be a wet day. True enough, it was a day filled with rains and strong winds. After checking out the one and nearest wind turbine, we spent almost entire afternoon at Wellington Museum. The decision was the right one, and we had quite some fun checking out the exhibits especially The Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibit. Late lunch was nearby Pier 5 at Crab Shack and it was an absolutely delicious lunch for us – probably because we have not been having quality meals for the past few days. The rain did not show signs of stopping and the day was getting darker, so we decided to walk around in our windbreakers. We hit a few shops along Willis Street before ended up at Cuba Street, the supposedly most happening street in Wellington. Having strolled almost the entire street, we decided to settle down at El Matador for tapas. Not a bad choice but could be better and some food items were unavailable on that day due to kitchen malfunction.

Tips #1: The War Exhibition by Sir Peter Jackson is nearby Wellington Museum and offers something unique. There is a small fee charged at entrance.

Stay: Kiwi Holiday Park Wellington
Places covered: Wellington Wind Turbine, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Cuba Street

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
The Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Look at the size of the sculpture!
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
The attention to detail is mind-boggling
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Tiny details

Day 9: Wellington – Nelson

T’was the day we bade goodbye to North Island. Crossed Cook Strait on Interislander and arrived in Picton. There, we continued to drive to Nelson. It was quite an uneventful day as we had nothing really planned on that day. Lunch place was spot on though.

Tips #1: 10% discount applies if you have Top 10 membership card when you book with Interislander.

Stay: Top 10 Holiday Park Nelson
Places covered: Picton Harbour Lookout, Ngakuta Bay

Interislander
At the top deck of Interislander
Picton Harbour Lookout
We’re beginning to see a lot more lookout points.. here’s Picton Harbour Lookout Point
Ngakuta Bay
Lunch spot at Ngakuta Bay
Ngakuta Bay
Scenic lunch spot

Day 10: Nelson – Jacksons (Arthur’s Pass)

We left Nelson early as we predicted a long drive. We stopped by picturesque Lake Rotoiti before cutting through the thick, dense forest between Tasman and West Coast. Passed by Buller Gorge, sadly enough we didn’t have enough time to stop and explore around. Even our lunch in the campervan had to be done in a jiffy. But we were relieved as soon as we saw the coastline again as we knew we were getting near Punakaiki. After a long drive, we finally stopped at Punakaiki to stretch our weary legs and freshen our tired eyes.

We then continued to Greymouth, before arriving at Jacksons for another night. We were the only occupants that night and had the entire common area for ourselves that night.

Stay: Jacksons’ Retreat Campervan Holiday Park
Places covered: Lake Rotoiti, Buller Gorge, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Lake Rotoiti
Worth the detour for a very Instagram-worthy scenery
Punakaiki
Back at Punakaiki for the second time and just in time for a beautiful sunset

Day 11: Jacksons (Arthur’s Pass) to Akaroa

Another long drive ahead of us. We wasted no time in getting ourselves ready. It was a frosty morning. We drove towards Arthur’s Pass and were already in awe when the first sight of snow capped mountains appeared before our eyes. We stopped at the Otira Viaduct Lookout Point and was greeted by a bunch of naughty Keas. We then stopped at Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre for a quick break before continuing what I’d like to describe as one of the roads with the best view in South Island. We almost stopped at every available opportunity presented to us, and with such nice weather, it was just perfect.

We stopped by a supermarket to restock our supplies and it was already dark by the time we continued our journey to Akaroa. The road was dark and winding, so it took longer than expected time. It was already closed to 8pm by the time we reached yet another Top 10 holiday park. The skies were brilliant that night – perfect for astrophotography.

Stay: Top 10 Holiday Park Akaroa
Places covered: Otira Viaduct Lookout Point, Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre, Lake Pearson, Klondyke Corner, Cave Stream, Castle Hill

Arthur's Pass
Otira Viaduct Lookout Point
Arthur's Pass
Frosty morning
Arthur's Pass National Park
Our campervan with Arthur’s Pass National Park as the backdrop.. impressive!
Lake Pearson
Nothing more beautiful than a wonderful lunch by Lake Pearson
Cave Stream
A short hike at Cave Stream

Day 12: Akaroa to Mount Cook (Glenntanner)

The weather threatened us with a cloudy morning as we took a walk around Akaroa town. Walked past some beautiful or perhaps historic buildings. Akaroa has few French influences and they are intriguing as well. We even tried some French-inspired food at a local cafe. We left right before lunch time for a long drive towards Tekapo. Almost 5 hours later, we emerged with tiresome faces. We freshened ourselves with an hour’s walk and photo taking around Lake Tekapo and the infamous Church of Good Shepherd. It was already dark when we left for Glenntanner for yet another night’s stay.

Stay: Glenntanner Park Centre
Places covered: Akaroa town, Lake Tekapo, Church of Good Shepherd

Akaroa
Quaint French village for the win!
Lake Tekapo
Just in time for sunset

Day 13: Mount Cook (Glentanner) to Wanaka

The cloudy day continued on this day. After our breakfast at Glenntanner Cafe, we drove straight to Mount Cook National Park and stopped at Tasman Glacier to take a closer look at the glacier lake. It took a bit of hike to get to the viewpoint but the disappointing weather meant the gorgeous Mount Cook was again hidden among thick clouds. We then headed to Mount Cook Visitors Centre to kill some time with some hopes the rain clouds would be cleared. The clouds went away anyway but for a brief time, so we went to Hooker Valley track to check out Mueller Lake. We were able to see Mount Sefton but the clouds were too stubborn to steer clear from Mount Cook. One observation we took notice was the constant sound of avalanches happening nearby but they were nowhere to be seen. That’s the true power of nature.

We left the place to continue our drive to Wanaka. Driving along Lindis Pass offered us yet a very different view of rolling mountains while basking in golden sunshine.

We arrived in Wanaka around 5pm and headed straight to Cinema Paradiso, a unique boutique cinema not found elsewhere. We loved the concept though and lamented that this type of cinema would not be able to survive back in our home country. We called it a day by checking in to yet another Top 10 holiday park.

Stay: Top 10 Holiday Park Wanaka
Places covered: Tasman Glacier, Mount Cook Visitors Centre, Hooker Valley Track, Peter’s Lookout, Lake Pukaki Visitor’s Centre

Tasman Glacier
Tasman Glacier
Mount Cook National Park
Mount Sefton perching magnificently
Lindis Pass
Hard to miss those rolling hills basking in golden sun

Day 14: Wanaka to Te Anau

The dreaded cloudy day continued to haunt us. Reluctantly, we drove up to Lake Wanaka for a glimpse of “That Wanaka Tree”. With that kind of gloomy weather, it was a really uninspiring day for photography. After spending some time by the lakeside, we continued to visit Rippon Vineyard, which was supposed to offer a breathtaking view of Lake Wanaka but failed miserably. Our consolation was a bottle of white wine we purchased from the winery.

As the day stretched further, we left Wanaka “unimpressed” towards Queenstown via Crown Range Road. This is highest main road in New Zealand and offers breathtaking alpine views of Queenstown. Our lunch stop was at Lake Hayes, before continuing to Te Anau for a night’s stay.

Stay: Top 10 Holiday Park Te Anau
Places covered: Lake Wanaka, Rippon Vineyard, Crown Range Lookout Point, Lake Hayes, Lake Wakatipu (various lookout points along the way to Kingston)

That Wanaka Tree
“That Wanaka Tree” on a gloomy day
Crown Range Road
At the highest point of The Crown Range Road
Lake Hayes
Lunch spot at Lake Hayes
Queenstown
One of many lookout points along Kingston Road

Day 15: Te Anau to Milford Sound

The rain continued to pour and the temperature continued to drop. We plied along Milford Road carefully and given all the time we could afford, safety always comes first. It was a rather uneventful drive, as the fog enveloped and visibility continued to drop. But the drama slowly unfolded as temperature finally hit freezing point and the rain droplets started to turn to snow! As we inched towards The Divide, more snow piled up on both sides of the road and suddenly, it’s winter wonderland!

We came to an abrupt stop as the snowing continued to get heavier. We then found out that the road has been closed temporarily to traffic. While still waiting, some of us got out and played with the snow.

As the snowing continued, we were informed that the road would remain closed to traffic. So, we made a u-turn and waited for the next traffic update. We started to look for alternatives but it was hard – there was no phone signal in the thick, dense forest. It was decided that we would head to Queenstown should the road remained closed. But luck was on our side, as the road re-opened but were told to drive carefully. As we got nearer to Homer tunnel, the surrounding was a beauty to behold. To me, it was the moment – the most beautiful one.

After passing Homer tunnel, it was back to business as usual. The rain would continue, all the makeshift waterfalls rained down from the mountains just like what I saw on my last trip.

We arrived at Milford Sound just in time for the last cruise of the day. If it wasn’t good enough, the sun came out at last during the cruise.

We stayed at Milford Sound Lodge nearby and spent the night reminiscing one of the best moments in life while looking forward the next day when we returned to the same place.

Stay: Milford Sound Lodge
Places covered: Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre, Milford Sound

Milford Road
Fun time!
Milford Sound
Rain, snow and sunshine! All in a day!
Milford Sound
Sunset in Milford Sound

Day 16: Milford Sound to Queenstown

Our day started with a short drive to see The Chasm. Thereafter we drove out to Queenstown. On our way back, we stopped near The Divide again, only this time we took some time to take some photos of the stunning backdrop.

We also stopped at Mirror Lakes but the gloomy weather cut short of the visit. Our lunch was at Te Anau before continuing our drive to Queenstown, the most happening place in southern part of South Island. Of course, we wouldn’t bear to miss the famous Fergburger and it was still good.

Our evening spent walking around and fixed ourselves with some drinks at a local pub before calling it a day.

Stay: Top 10 Queenstown Holiday Park (Arthur’s Point)
Places covered: The Chasm, Mirror Lakes, Queenstown area

Homer Tunnel
This is what Homer Tunnel looks like from Milford Sound
Milford Road
We gained some elevation at the other side of the tunnel and it’s winter wonderland again!
Mirror Lakes
Mirror Lakes is all about the super reflective lake that looks like a mirror on a calm day

Day 17: Queenstown

The gloomy day continued on this day. We drove out to Glenorchy with the mission to see some magical scenery but nature had its final say. Feeling dejected, we headed to Mrs Woolly’s nearby and spent some time relaxing at this quaint cafe. There isn’t much to see in Glenorchy unless you continue your journey to Kinloch or Paradise but these roads aren’t sealed, so please drive with care. There are plenty of activities in Glenorchy like horse riding or even tours to see filming locations for LOTR films.

We did not stay long and headed back to Queenstown for lunch. We were practically -DONE- with everything we wanted to see, except for something exquisite, a savoury cheese platter at a cheesery. No problem locating that as I recalled there was one at Gibbston. So, we were off again on the road and on the way, we even stopped by Kawarau Bridge Bungy Jump. This place has transformed into a modern complex and added few other stuffs as well.

Gibbston is just few minutes further away and we arrived at Gibbston Valley Cheese Company for a platter of savoury cheese.

We headed back to town for last minute shopping and more food and drinks before calling it a wrap.

Stay: Top 10 Queenstown Holiday Park (Arthur’s Point)
Places covered: Glenorchy, Kawarau Bridge, Gibbston (Gibbston Valley Cheese Company)
Other places to go: Arrowtown

Glenorchy
There should be a row of snow-capped mountains as backdrop but the clouds had another idea
Glenorchy
Ducks having their field day
Cheese Platter
A cheese platter to end the trip

Day 18: Queenstown to Auckland to KL

We caught an early flight back to Auckland before boarding Air Asia X flight back to KL. We also had a little incident during our layover in Gold Coast where our plane caught fire and had to detour to Brisbane. We spent an afternoon in Brisbane CBD before our journey back to KL the following day.

Goodbye
It will be a long time before I return

The End

This post is quite lengthy and hope it doesn’t overwhelm you. At the same time, I hope the contents are useful if you are planning for a similar trip. The rule of thumb is, don’t rush. If you have limited time, don’t try to cover all the spots. Instead, pick the ones you deem will interest you more. It is always quality over quantity. This is my second trip and yet at times, I still feel like I’m trying to rush from one end to another. There will be a lot of driving and if you’re planning a winter trip, please take into the account the shorter day time so that you drive lesser and have more time to enjoy. Always adhere to the speed limit even though it may look like the cops are nowhere to be seen. Trust me, I have a summon delivered to me for speeding.

On my first trip, I did a round island trip in South Island. Do check it out as well.

Here’s the video I did for this trip.

chleong

View posts by chleong
A travel addict and food junkie. When he is not traveling, he loves penning his thoughts on his latest adventures, whether food, places or anything that fascinates him. His travelogues often include intriguing photos that capture the moments as he believes a photo speaks thousand words.

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