New Zealand travel recommendations in July
March 10, 2016 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Have you traveled in New Zealand during the winter? Help us plan our 15-day trip in New Zealand this July! While we have some ideas about places we’d like to hit, we’re not sure if the tentative itinerary we’ve laid out is reasonable or too crazy (i.e. too much driving and not enough time at each destination).

I’ve been living in Auckland since January, and my boyfriend is coming to visit for a couple of weeks in the first half of July. Since this is probably the only time he’ll make it out to New Zealand (I’m returning to the US at the end of this year), we’d like to see as much as possible, but not at the expense of not being able to enjoy the journey. We’re mostly interested in fantastic scenery, unusual natural features, and day hikes; we are less interested in cities/architecture/nightlife, cultural experiences/history, or adventure sports. Also, we don’t ski or snowboard. Currently, we’re thinking something like the following (note that we plan to rent a car and drive ourselves everywhere except when otherwise noted):

July 2 – land in Auckland in the evening
July 3 – spend the day in/around Auckland
July 4 – drive to Waitomo caves and spend the morning/early afternoon there, then head on to Rotorua for the night
July 5 – Rotorua in the morning/early afternoon, then on to Napier via Taupo; spend the night in Napier
July 6 – Drive from Napier to Wellington
July 7 – spend the day and night in Wellington
July 8 – take the ferry across to Picton and drive to Nelson
July 9 – spend the day around Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park
July 10 – drive to Christchurch
July 11 – drive to Lake Tekapo in the morning, hopefully have time for a short afternoon hike? Enjoy hot springs and spend the night near Lake Tekapo.
July 12 – drive to Mt Cook – would we have time for an afternoon hike? - and spend the night there (hopefully the weather will be good for stargazing)
July 13 - drive to Queenstown, spend the night there
July 14 – take a combined coach + cruise tour of Milford Sound, starting and ending in Queenstown; night in Queenstown
July 15 – drive to Lake Wanaka
July 16 – drive to Fox Glacier
July 17 – drive to Greymouth in the morning (with an early start), drop off rental car, and take the afternoon TranzAlpine train to Christchurch
July 18 – fly back to Auckland

Any thoughts on the feasibility of this itinerary, or places to skip or spend more time at? We’d also love any recommendations for good budget-friendly accomodations or specific day hikes near our points of interest. Finally, we’re not sure about road conditions on the South Island during the winter – are we likely to run into problems driving ourselves around?
posted by st elmo's fire to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Reading your itinerary makes me think you work indoors, possibly safely underground, and have not yet experienced the weather where you live ;))
posted by jbenben at 6:40 PM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

So much driving. So very much driving. Too much driving. Do you enjoy driving?

We went to New Zealand for three weeks recently, visited fewer places than are on your itinerary (never made it south of Christchurch), and still felt like we were driving too much. Driving takes a lot of time and energy. In addition to the driving time itself, you have to pack/prepare/plan before leaving, stop for snacks/stretching/sights along the way, and unpack/unwind after arriving. A four hour drive (not atypical) eats up six to eight. In our experience, trying to do any real activity on a driving day was very difficult. That means that if you spend just one night somewhere, you won't really feel like you've done much there at all.

We spent three nights near Abel Tasman. Well worth it. We went on a great day hike with boat transportation on one day and sea kayaking with an afternoon to rest afterward on the other. We spent two nights in Lewis Pass (here), where there was no one else around, the scenery was beautiful, and great day hikes were plentiful. We spent just one night in several other places, and it basically ended up feeling like we were just passing through many times.

There are tons of things in New Zealand we didn't see. Sure. But so what. We also didn't go to Australia, any other Pacific islands, South America, or anywhere else on that trip. Don't worry about traversing the complete expanse of New Zealand, because that's a pretty arbitrary subset of what the world has to offer and you won't "get" everything anyway. Only seeing parts of New Zealand is still seeing a bunch of beautiful things. And being able to spend more time in one place gives you a better view of those things and a higher-quality experience, in my opinion.

I often underestimate travel times within the trips I plan, and it bites me later. Look carefully at driving times, and scale up like I suggest above. For example, you mention spending a day "around Nelson and Abel Tasman." That's an hour driving between them, at best. So at least two hours of driving in that day plus prep/packing/parking/etc. At least. I had thought we would stay in Nelson when we visited Abel Tasman, but we decided to stay in Kaiteriteri after looking closely and really considering the distances.

And as for places to possibly skip, given your interests: Napier is a neat little city with its whole Art Deco thing, but if you don't care much about cities and architecture... And Rotorua is a major tourist hub, but its main things are cultural experiences and adventure sports. Plus it smells. Literally. Lots of geothermal features of the odoriferous variety. I would recommend stopping at a thermal area in that general region, though (there are plenty to choose from). Those are some "unusual natural features," to be sure.
posted by whatnotever at 8:52 PM on March 10, 2016

I've done four tours of New Zealand similar to what you propose, and in short, here is my feedback on your itinerary.

1. MoonOrb has a much better one with the point of concentrating so you're not spending every single day driving. Have you spent any time on the roads outside Auckland? We're talking super super narrow and winding roads. It takes intense concentration to drive through some of these places and it's a little scary. It's gorgeous, for the most part, but you're not going to want to do that all day every day!
2. Don't do that classic drive down from Auckland to Wellington via Rotorua - I think it's a classic NZ visit error. It's at least 8 hours of driving if you do it straight, and you're proposing detours to Waitomo and Napier that will add on more time. It's hours on hours of rolling hills and sheep. Very nice but there are much better ways to spend your limited time. What I'd do is go to Waitomo and Rotorua, then fly from Rotorua to Wellington. Definitely cut Napier completely - if you follow your itinerary you're only going to see it after dark and then leave first thing in the morning anyway, so it's not worth it. There are several budget domestic airlines in New Zealand, and as you know from living there, gas isn't cheap, so I doubt flying will cost you more. And flying is SO much easier and more laid back - you can stroll into one of the small airports a half hour before the flight leaves and it's not a big deal. Check the website Grabaseat.
3. Other suggestions:
- Please make sure you go to one of the conservation parks where you can view the native birds. The one most convenient for your itinerary is Karori/Zealandia in Wellington. This is one of the must see things in the country. If you do want to drive to Wellington for some reason, you can do Mount Bruce as a resting place instead.
- What about a day trip out to Piha, Karekare and the Waitakeres? Maybe it's just me but I think they are amazing. Taupo is just a lake, it's nice, but it's not so dramatic. There are not so many places you can go on North Island to see kauri trees and native forest.
- Comments on the South Island, why are you spending an entire day driving from Nelson to Christchurch? You will barely have time to even take a break to stretch your legs trying to do that drive in one day, and you're headed towards a non-exciting area. The eastern coast is flat - the western coast is the most striking part of the country. What I would do - fly from Nelson to Queenstown. That will get you easily within striking distance of the glaciers, Wanaka, and Te Anau/Milford. Skip Christchurch entirely. If you don't like cities and you love striking scenery, you won't like Christchurch. Instead, plan to end your trip in Dunedin and fly back to Auckland from there.

So here is one proposed new itinerary:
July 2 – land in Auckland in the evening
July 3 – spend the day in/around Auckland
July 4 – Piha, Karekare and the Waitakere
July 5 - drive to Waitomo caves and spend the morning/early afternoon there, then head on to Rotorua for the night
July 6 – Rotorua for the day, then fly to Wellington in the evening.
July 7 – spend the day and night in Wellington
July 8 – take the ferry across to Picton and drive to Nelson
July 9 – spend the day around Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park
July 10 – Fly in the morning from Nelson to Queenstown, spend day in Queenstown/Glenorchy
July 11 – Take a combined coach + cruise tour of Milford Sound, starting and ending in Queenstown; night in Queenstown
July 12 – drive to Lake Wanaka, go for a hike, and onwards to the Glaciers, stay in a glacier town
July 13 - Glaciers, hiking, head back south to Haast or so for the night
July 14 – Haast to Mount Cook
July 15 – Hiking around Mount Cook, stay at Mount Cook
July 16 – drive to Dunedin, say hello to Moeraki Boulders on the way
July 17 – Spend the day around Dunedin - Brighton Beach, yellow penguins, albatrosses, botanical gardens etc.
July 18 – fly back to Auckland

Your itinerary, drives that are 5 to 8 hours (more than half day drives, rough ones, even in summertime weather):
- Napier to Wellington (!)
- Nelson to Christchurch (!)
3-4 hour drives (summertime weather estimate): Auckland to Rotorua, Rotorua to Napier, Christchurch to Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook to Queenstown, Queenstown to Fiordlands, Wanaka to Fox Glacier, Fox Glacier to Greymouth, Tranzalpine Railway (3.5 hours on the train).
Days spent driving/on train: 6

My itinerary, drives that are 5 to 8 hours: zero
3-4 hour drives: Auckland to Rotorua, Queenstown to Fiordlands, Queenstown to the Glaciers, Haast to Mount Cook, Mount Cook to Dunedin.
Days spent driving+domestic flights: 3
That's 3 extra days hiking and relaxing! Think about it. I prioritized Mount Cook but if you wanted to prioritize the TranzAlpine rail and Lake Tekapo you could just play with it a bit.

Feel free to MeMail me for any questions. The last time I was there was a few weeks ago, I did Nelson to Greymouth to Punakaiki to the Glaciers, to Haast, to Hokitika, to Arthur's Pass to Christchurch. It was glorious!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:01 PM on March 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

For affordable accommodations just use BBH Online. I would always stay at the ones that have private bedrooms available.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:04 PM on March 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not just that you'll spend a lot of time driving. New Zealand is a sparsely populated country, and our roads, including our most important main highways, can be narrow, wiggly, poorly surfaced, with no shoulder, nothing between you and a precipitous slope, and a bonus dose of really terrible New Zealand drivers. It can be taxing on your attention in a way you are probably not used to.

At that time of year there are non-zero odds that roads around the central plateau of the North Island will be closed for a day or two because of snow (we don't do snow on roads well either), hindering your driving plans via Taupo (SH1 and SH5). Also bear in mind the daylight hours will be relatively short, so you will be driving unfamiliar roads in the dark, or wasting a lot of good scenery time in the car. In Christchurch (mid-latitude South Island) the sun will rise about 8 am and set around 5 pm -- 9 hours of daylight at best. Auckland, 7:30 am/5:20 pm.

Not sure what you mean by hiking around Mt Cook, but again, snow. You don't want to be in the NZ high country mid-winter as an inexperienced tourist. Dying of exposure will ruin your holiday. Seek advice on the ground about conditions, and make sure you are properly equipped for getting lost before you go anywhere on your own. We lose a tourist or two every year this way.

I echo the suggestions to drive less and don't stress about fitting in everything.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:53 AM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I asked a couple of questions about planning a trip to NZ (1,2) and I hope you will look at them, especially the notes I wrote up after my trip was over.

A couple of points from those notes:
  • Roads are windy and narrow, as noted above. They are two lane roads and it takes longer than you think to drive between the towns.
  • People eat early and most restaurants in the towns (even in the cities) stop serving before 9:00 PM. You might find a couple of options after that time, but not much.
  • Motel offices have operating hours, like 8am-8pm. It's possible you could arrive late, as most motels are locally owned with operators living onsite, but you will be waking them up if you arrive late.
  • Between the towns, there is not much in the way of services on the roads. No late-night diners. Few if any gas stations. No motels. And these towns are very small.
For these reasons, I recommend a schedule where you plan no more than 3-4 hours of driving between destinations per day, and give yourself 6-8 hours to accomplish that driving per day so that you have plenty of time for stops, and plan to arrive at your destination no later than 4pm so you can leisurely look around this place.
You could spend a week in almost every place you name, and have a wonderful time, and still not see everything there is to see. Take your time and enjoy New Zealand- do not rush through it!

Here is the itinerary we chose after I asked similar questions.
posted by aabbbiee at 7:09 AM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

As others have said, too much driving. Way too much. Unless you really, really like driving, you will likely get very tired of it. Also, unless you are someone that likes to just collect places you've visited rather than actually spending time there, you're very likely to be disappointed by not being able to experience the places you visit.

I suggest that, for the bulk of the trip, you select a much smaller area (or a couple of areas) than 'all the places' and concentrate on soaking in all that it offers. Given you are using hire cars, you are free to dump one at an airport and grab another when you arrive, so you're not bound to contiguous spaces.

Given your stated likes, I'm surprised that you've left off anything north of Auckland. The Northland area ticks all the boxes of natural scenery, unusual features and hiking and you won't need to be concerned about snow or other weather impeding your travel. Start here for ideas.

If you are determined to visit all the places, consider a motorhome instead of a hire car. At least you'd have more flexibility about where you sleep rather than being stuck having to keep driving to a specific location.
posted by dg at 2:40 PM on March 11, 2016

Yeah I like the Northland idea too. The nicest weather you'll find in NZ at that time of year, except maybe Nelson-Marlborough region. Go up to Cape Reinga.

Another possible idea: day trip from Christchurch, one day return on the Tranzalpine express. Stop at Arthur's Pass, with luck you'll see some kea. Don't get stuck in Greymouth ;-)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:03 PM on March 11, 2016

I agree with everyone suggesting a shorter itinerary. Focus on a few areas and spend some time seeing them. Possibly limit yourself to one island - sticking to the north of the North Island would mean things were a bit warmer.

One thing I've learned through travelling is that it's impossible to see everything, and you shouldn't try (and I'm talking about trips where I've spent 3 months travelling - still didn't see everything). Don't rush from place to place just to say you've been there - go to a few places and enjoy those. If you really like NZ, you've got plenty of time to come back, it will still be here.

[And if you come to Wellington, call a meetup! If you want...]
posted by Pink Frost at 12:56 PM on March 12, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the feedback and suggestions! We'll definitely consider substituting 5-7 days in the Northland area for some of the places we wanted to visit on the South Island, although we've been quite keen on seeing the glacier country and Lake Tekapo. In the meantime I've come up with a revised possible itinerary. At the very least I think we'll skip Queenstown and Milford Sound, as the weather may be too much of a gamble for the latter and it sounds like Queenstown is probably not so much our scene during ski season. The new itinerary is still probably rather ambitious but I think reduces the amount of driving by a fair amount compared to our original itinerary:

July 3 - Auckland
July 4 - Auckland → Waitomo → Rotorua
July 5 - Rotorua
July 6 - Rotorua → Wellington (morning flight)
July 7 - Wellington → Nelson (morning flight)
July 8 - Nelson → Abel Tasman; night in Kaiteriteri
July 9 - Abel Tasman; night in Kaiteriteri
July 10 - Kaiteriteri → Nelson Lakes → St Arnaud
July 11 - St Arnaud → Westport
July 12 - Westport → Fox Glacier (plan for all-day drive, detours/stops at scenic places on the way)
July 13 - Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson
July 14 - Fox Glacier → Greymouth (maybe do this drive the previous afternoon?) → Christchurch via TranzAlpine
July 15 - Christchurch → Lake Tekapo
July 16 - Lake Tekapo
July 17 - Lake Tekapo → Christchurch
July 18 - Christchurch → Auckland (flight)

This way we'd get at least a full day each in Rotorua, glacier country, and Lake Tekapo plus a few days in the Nelson area, all of which are probably the areas we were most interested in. I think the only single-day drive that would be more than about 3 hrs minimum without stops would be Westport to Fox Glacier (although also Christchurch to Lake Tekapo if there is snow/ice), and most of the other drives seem to be on the order of 2-2.5 hrs minimum. I'm reasonably comfortable driving in wintery conditions, as I've lived most of my life in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeastern US, although I understand that NZ roads can be more treacherous. It sounds like snow/ice is a fairly high possibility for the route from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo. On the other hand, some websites seem to indicate that the winter weather tends to be mild along the west coast of the South Island, so hopefully the driving wouldn't be too bad from Nelson down to glacier country?

If anyone is still checking this thread, we are still very open to more feedback on this revised itinerary. Thanks again!
posted by st elmo's fire at 12:17 AM on March 13, 2016

On the other hand, some websites seem to indicate that the winter weather tends to be mild along the west coast of the South Island, so hopefully the driving wouldn't be too bad from Nelson down to glacier country?

It would be quite unusual to encounter snow on this route, though you may experience some icy spots in the morning if it's been a cold night.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:28 PM on March 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Still looks to me like more driving than relaxing, but much less so than the original itinerary. The only parts you can't change are the flights (if you're pre-booking them) so, if you do find yourself feeling a bit car-bound, there's nothing stopping you changing things anyway. Really, all that matters is that it works for you. Hope you have a great time!
posted by dg at 4:43 AM on March 14, 2016

Your new itinerary looks much improved.

This may be a matter of personal preference, but I'd choose Queenstown and Fiordlands over the glaciers any day. Like, by a mile. There is a reason why the Fiordlands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, the glaciers are in retreat right now and disappearing. So on one hand that might spark you to see them while you still can, but they're simply not nearly as grand or awe inspiring as the mountains and fjords of the Milford Sound (not to mention the Remarkables!). But as I say, I am a mountain and sea lover.

If you are going to substitute Northland for something, make it Christchurch and Lake Tekapo. You're going to see several other beautiful lakes very similar to Lake Tekapo, and as I said, I don't think Christchurch will be your scene. I'd shake it up with something different.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:51 PM on March 23, 2016

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