One week is barely enough to scratch the surface of what New Zealand has to offer, but if this is your one and only dream trip and you want to hit as many of the major highlights as you can, then this is the itinerary for you! That said, this itinerary is not for travel amateurs, or those who wish for a leisurely tour through the country. What you will find here is an action-packed tour that will keep you moving almost every day, with full day trips on those rare occasions when you actually stay in one place for two nights. But if you’re up for the challenge, follow this guide and you will get to experience some of the most amazing sites in all of New Zealand (and you can sleep when you get back home, right?). Even in just one week there is so much to see and do in New Zealand that it wouldn’t all fit in one post, so I’ve split it into three parts. This post will focus on some of the highlights of the North Island. Stay tuned for part 2 which will continue your tour of the North Island, and part 3 which will focus on the highlights of the South Island.
Travel Tip: If you’re flying from the U.S. you will likely lose an entire day in transit due to the time change, so in order to have a full seven days in New Zealand you need to set aside at least nine days for your trip.
Day 1: Auckland
Day 2: Waitomo Caves & Marokopa Falls
Day 3: Hobbiton & Lake Taupo
Day 4: Rotorua
Day 5: Travel to South Island
Day 6: Milford Sound
Day 7: Dunedin & the Otago Peninsula
Day 8: Final exploration and departure
This post will focus on days 1 and 2.
Day 1: Arrive in Auckland and Explore
Your first day in New Zealand will be spent exploring Auckland before heading south to Waitomo. When you arrive, pick up your rental car and head straight into downtown. I recommend heading to Queen Street, Auckland’s main commercial thoroughfare, in the center of the city. There are multiple parking garages in the area with reasonable fees where you can leave your car for the day to explore the city on foot. We chose the 500 Queen Street garage (the entrance is on a side street just off Queen). From there you can easily start your walking tour.
Since you will likely arrive in the early morning, head up the hill to nearby Columbus Coffee for a pick me up and a snack (if you arrive in the evening you can stay overnight and begin this tour the next day). Then head around the corner to St. Kevin’s Arcade for a taste of Auckland’s counter-culture. Browse used book and vintage stores, and then head down the stairs out the opposite side of the building. On the other side of the arcade you will find Myers Park. This is an amazing park filled with towering palm trees and flowers, and surrounded by some impressive buildings.
Once you make your way through the park, head to Aotea Square. If you’re in the mood for lunch at this time there is an awesome Korean restaurant called Kang Nam Station just outside the park on the corner of Queen Street and Mayoral Drive. The food is delicious, the service is quick and casual, and they even have a little bit of the park inside (there is a tree running right through the middle of the back room). On the brief stretch of Queen Street between Myers Park and Aotea Square you will find a couple theatres and the Auckland Town Hall. Aotea Square is a large public area surrounded by Aotea Centre, a large performing arts and events hall, and the Sky World Entertainment Center, a large indoor mall with a nice food court which makes another great lunch option (I, however, would save this for later since takeout is easy and you might want to picnic for your final Auckland destination).
Continue down Queen Street and take a right onto Wellesley Street for a brief visit to the Auckland Art Gallery. Admission was free when I visited, but in 2018 international visitors now have to pay a hefty $20 for entry. It was a great museum, but if the price is too high for you or you are short on time you can skip this and head straight to Albert Park, which surrounds the gallery. On the far side of the park you will come to Princes Street where you will find the Princes Street Merchants’ Houses. View the Victorian-era facades, and then continue on through the park and exit onto O’Connell Street. From here you will happen upon Chancery Square, a nice little shopping and restaurant area where you can window shop and people watch. Then continue down O’Connell Street until you reach Vulcan Lane (why not, right?). Vulcan Lane empties back onto Queen Street where you can visit the shops or the wharf. Once you get your fill here, head back up Queen Street toward the Sky Tower. Head up to the top of the tower for panoramic views of the city.
Your city tour has now ended and you can head back up Queen Street to your car. As I hinted at earlier, I recommend stopping by the Sky World Entertainment Center food court and picking up some takeout before driving a few minutes to Mount Eden, a dormant volcano that is the highest natural point in Auckland. Take your food and make the easy walk to top where you can have a picnic in this peaceful environment while taking in great views of the city.
Once you are ready, get back in your car and drive the 2.5 hours to Waitomo, your overnight destination. When deciding what time to leave, keep in mind that while Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, Auckland is by far its largest city, and rush hour can be brutal.
Day 2: Explore Waitomo Caves and Marokopa Falls
A trip to New Zealand’s North Island would not be complete without a stop in Waitomo. Deep underground, in the dark of the caves, you might wonder whether somehow you have entered an alternate plane and are now outside at night looking up at the starry sky.
Inside these amazing caves a star-like canvass of blue lights shimmer on the ceilings and walls. This amazing phenomenon is created by one of the most unique creatures of the natural world: glowworms. Glowworms are typically found and best seen in Australia and New Zealand, although they do exist in a few other spots around the world. The term glowworm is a bit of a misnomer, for these creatures are actually the larval form of gnats. They also have more in common with spiders than worms, as evidenced by the silky webs they create, and their Latin name: arachnocampa luminosa, which translates to “glowing spider-worm.” Scientists are not sure how these creatures produce their bioluminescent light, but researchers have found that they are quite similar to a more commonly known bioluminescent creature: the firefly.
The Waitomo Cave complex is home to three separate caves, which can be visited individually or in combination at a discounted price. Entrance to the caves is steep, but absolutely worth it in my opinion. We chose to visit both Waitomo and Ruakuri Caves. Both caves have glowworms, but they have some differences that makes visiting both worth it. The Waitomo Cave tour is a 45-minute guided tour that includes a boat ride along the Waitomo River during which you can gaze up at the glowworms above you. This aspect of the tour made it a must for me. The Ruakuri Cave tour, on the other hand, is around a 2-hour guided tour through a much larger cave complex. The tour is completely dry, and features more than just glowworms, including impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations. Aranui is the third cave in the area, and is the smallest of the three. We did not visit this cave so I cannot speak to its attributes.
Travel Tip: Another key difference between Waitomo and Ruakuri is that photography is strictly prohibited inside Waitomo Cave. If you want to take photos of the glowworms, you must visit Ruakuri Cave.
I recommend doing the cave tours in the morning so that in the afternoon you can head off on your own for a driving tour to Marokopa Falls. Marokopa Falls is a beautiful 30-minute drive from Waitomo Caves. In addition to the scenic drive, there are several attractions at which you may want to stop along the way. We chose to stop at the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and Piripiri Cave. If you only have time to stop at one, definitely choose Mangapohue Natural Bridge. It is a lovely walk through the forest, and the natural limestone bridge is truly impressive. Piripiri Cave is basically an extremely dark hole in the ground with stairs descending a short way into the abyss; it is so dark there is really not much to see.
When you finish your tour of the area, hop back in your car and drive about 2 hours to Matamata, an adorable little town that is home to New Zealand’s most famous cinematic tourist destination: Hobbiton.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will step into New Zealand’s most famous (cinematic) town and explore the North Island’s most active geothermal are!
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