Although New Zealand is small it has a lot to offer. From big, sprawling cities on the waterfront to the wild and beautiful mountains and lakes of the South Island. It can feel overwhelming to plan a trip to New Zealand because there are so many different things to see and do, but there is a way to see as much of what New Zealand has to offer in just a week and on a relatively low budget.
First stop: Christchurch
I knew before leaving for New Zealand that Christchurch was in a state of disarray and destruction, but I wasn’t prepared for the almost post-apocalyptic feel to it. Walking down the streets in the center, shops are boarded up and buildings sit vacant with curtains flapping in the wind.
The sound of construction follows you everywhere, a constant reminder of the hardships the city faces. However, in stark contrast the city is still beautiful, with its quaint little river running through the center of the city surrounded by blooming magnolias and green grass.
I will admit there isn’t a ton to necessarily do in Christchurch because so much of it is still in the process of being rebuilt, but the two places we enjoyed most of our time was the botanic gardens and the Air Force Museum. The botanic gardens, which is also alongside Hagley Park, is huge and you can rent kayaks and canoes to float down the river in.
The Air Force Museum is a bit further out of the city and kind of a pain to get to, but it has awesome planes and an interesting exhibit on prisoners of war, plus lots of interactive activities as well.
Some other things that should be seen are the Big Green Chair, the wheat sculpture and ReSTART, the new outdoor mall made out of shipping containers.
En Route to Wellington
The most popular train is the Tranzalpine which goes through the mountains and has beautiful views, but it’s quite expensive and wasn’t necessarily in our budget, so we chose to take the KiwiRail scenic journey which has stunning views of the mountains and the ocean while serving a double purpose of getting you closer to the next destination, Wellington.
The train takes you along the coast and past the Kaikoura Ranges, which are probably some of the most impressive and beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The train is really cool too because the back car is a viewing deck, so it has no windows and you get an unobstructed view of the gorgeous scenery. Although I’m sure the Tranzalpine train is lovely, it’s hard to imagine more spectacular views than what I saw on KiwiRail.
The train is about 5 hours and arrives into Picton, a coastal town on the tip of the South Island. From there you make an incredibly easy connection to the ferry which will go across the channel to Wellington. Two ferries go across, but the Interislander is the better one because it’s more modern and it has a bar so you can enjoy a couple of drinks during the 3 hour voyage across to the North Island.
The views from the ferry are breathtaking. We sat in an enclosed area full of windows facing the rear of the ferry, which was best because we got to see Picton, nestled among the mountains, disappear into the distance and enjoy the amazing view of the mountain islands in the channel. I’ll be honest, because of an incredibly early start that day I slept for about half of the journey, but I was still able to capture some photos of the incredible view and our first glimpse of Wellington.
My one big regret from this New Zealand trip was that we didn’t build more time into Wellington because it’s a really cool city with a great vibe and some super yummy food. There are so many places to eat and have a drink along the roads. It’s said Wellington has more restaurants and cafes per capita than New York, and after walking down just a couple streets it’s obvious that is the case. We ate dinner at a southern style restaurant called Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, and oh man was it ever delicious. I think I ate my jambalaya in about 2 minutes.
The first thing we did the next morning was take a tour of Parliament (the Beehive). You’re not allowed to take anything with you on the tour so I haven’t got any photos for you of the inside, but the tour lasts an hour and is really informative and you see everything from the chambers, to the library and to various conference and function rooms.
Following the tour of Parliament we wanted to take the cable car up to the viewing area, but the line was so long we figured we’d be there at least an hour and a half. Since we didn’t have much time we instead decided to walk. Now, it’s not far, but if you think San Francisco has hills wait until you see these. I felt like I was dying. The walk is worth it though because on the way to the viewing area, in the botanic gardens, you pass an observatory, which I found fascinating, and some beautiful areas to sit and have a much-needed rest.
Walking up was even better because there was zero line for the cable car at that end, so we still got to go on it and didn’t waste any time waiting below. The view was amazing and there’s also a cafe and a free cable car museum, so there’s plenty to do. The botanic gardens themselves are beautiful, and they even have a whole section dedicated to my favorite flower– the tulip. They had them in white, yellow, orange, red, multicolored and even frilly. It was certainly a sight to see.
After that we wandered the city a bit and then picked up our rental car and made our way up to Auckland via Taupo and Rotorua.
Taupo is a really awesome area of New Zealand because it’s a very volcanic region and is also where they filmed some parts of Lord of the Rings, so if you’re like me you can geek out. We spent a day driving the volcano scenic route, where you get amazing views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, which was Mount Doom in LOTR. The drive is really pretty and crazy impressive and you also pass by the waterfall where Gollum went fishing and alternated between good and evil in LOTR, so I won’t lie I was pretty excited.
There’s also the gorgeous, huge Lake Taupo surrounded by mountains. I’m sure in warmer weather it’s filled with people, but since it was still a bit chilly when I was there it was pretty much deserted. From the lake you get incredible views of the volcanos as well.
Another must-see in Taupo is Huka Falls. These impressive whitewater rapids go for miles and drop off the edge with incredible force (the falls) and flow out into a beautiful clearing. I was shocked with how blue the water was and the speed of the rapids. There is a walk where you get lots of views of the rapids (further down called Aratiatia Rapids) but it takes a couple of hours and we didn’t particularly want to, but I’m sure it’s amazing.
From Taupo, Rotorua is just a couple of hours drive away, but it quickly turns from a volcanic landscape to geothermal hot springs and geysers.
Rotorua, the mid point of New Zealand’s North Island, is an awesome place and probably one of my favorites. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn, had an awesome geothermal outdoor pool and we enjoyed a night swim in the chilly weather in the steaming pool. Couldn’t recommend that more. One thing about Rotorua is a lot of the attractions cost money, but very few are worth paying for. What we found is it’s better to shell out a bit more for one impressive one than small amounts for a bunch of mediocre ones. The first place to visit is Kuirau Park, since this is a public park it’s free and it has lots of hot springs to admire, including a steaming lake, which was my favorite.
Another free area that’s so worthy of a visit is Okere Falls. The falls and river here are beautiful, with many easy and enjoyable walks, plus a really cool cave. The best part about Okere Falls is there are quite a lot of glow worms at night. This isn’t something that’s advertised anywhere, but we read it somewhere and went to check it out and were blown away by how many there were and how amazing it was. We were the only people there and since there are no lights for miles there are also incredible views of the stars.
Hamurana Springs is another free attraction that I absolutely loved. The water is the clearest I have ever seen, there’s a redwood forest, and the spring that fuels the river pumps out 1 million gallons of water each hour. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.
The paid attraction we loved was Orakei Korako— an island filled with mud pools, hot springs and more. The boat ride over takes about a minute and the walk through the geysers and hot springs is more than impressive. An adult ticket is $36, but you get a discount if you book online ahead of time. The walk is about 2km and includes an impressive cave and gorgeous views. Although the price is a bit on the steep side, it’s well worth the money and you see everything you could possibly want, so there’s no need to go to any other attractions.
From Orakei Korako we made our way the few hours up to Auckland.
By the time we reached Auckland we were a little worn out and didn’t do as much exploring as we normally do. The city is nice though, although I’ll be honest I preferred Wellington, with the highlights being the waterfront, the Sky Tower and Aotea Square.
The black sand beaches in Piha are only about an hour from Auckland and well-worth a visit because it’s even more impressive in person. The volcanic rock basalt causes the sand to be black and there aren’t that many in the world, so seeing it is a real treat. The road there is very steep and windy, but seeing the beaches makes it worth it.
I absolutely loved New Zealand and I feel like we saw everything it had to offer from the breathtaking mountains and volcanos, to rolling hills, to the ocean, black sand and amazing cities. It’s a wonderful country full of natural beauty and with just these few stops I was able to witness far more than I ever thought possible in my one week. You don’t need to spend 3 weeks backpacking and spending all of the money in the bank to see what New Zealand has to offer and experience the beauty of the country in its entirety.
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