There’s a jaw-dropping landscape around every corner in New Zealand. With its wild coastlines, mountain-ringed lakes, and cinematic Middle Earth vistas, the country is the ultimate adventure-lover’s island getaway — and a bonafide Instagram dream. For many, the journey here ventures into trip-of-a-lifetime territory, with travelers packing in as much as they can in a short amount of time. The truth is, you could spend months in New Zealand, and still leave wanting to explore more. The best time to visit New Zealand is between December and May, the country’s summer and fall seasons. Ten days allows for ample time to explore both the North and South Island, on a self-drive itinerary that lets you control the journey. Here’s how to do it.
DAY 1: Auckland
Fly into Auckland on the North Island and pick up a rental car at the airport (remember to drive on the left!) before heading to the Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour. New Zealand’s largest city is as metropolitan as this country gets, especially in the downtown CBD (Central Business District). Dig into local Orongo Bay oysters at Depot Eatery, then ride 1,000 feet up to the top of the Sky Tower for sweeping North Island views. A 20-minute walk leads to the bohemian Ponsonby neighborhood and an array of funky boutiques and buzzing cocktail bars on Ponsonby Road.
DAY 2: Auckland
Wake up early and drive an hour west to the stunning, black-sand Piha Beach. Kick back and watch surfers conquer impressive Tasman Sea breaks, or hike up the relatively-steep-but-short Tasman Lookout Track for the best coastline views. Head back to Auckland (leave your car at the hotel) and walk over to Queens Wharf to take the Fullers ferry to Waiheke Island. The 35-square-mile island is home to nearly two-dozen wineries (chalk it up to dry summers and very agreeable soil conditions), and it’s easy to book a private tour or buy a ticket to ride a hop-on, hop-off wine-tasting bus.
DAY 3: Rotorua
New Zealand takes scenic drives to new levels — there’s rarely an “Are we there yet?” moment as you cruise past lush, rolling countryside dotted with grazing cows and sheep. (There are more sheep in New Zealand than people.) From Auckland, it’s a three-hour drive to Rotorua; the route takes you through the heart of Middle Earth. Tolkien fans have to stop in the town of Matamata, home to the Hobbiton Movie Set, for a two-hour tour of some Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit filming locations. In Rotorua, check into the Treetops Lodge & Estate, before a twilight stroll at the Redwoods Treewalk Rotorua.
DAY 4: Rotorua
Rotorua is one of the North Island’s biggest tourism hubs, and there’s a lot to do here when it comes to adventure and Maori culture. Learn about the Maori — the indigenous people of New Zealand — at the Mitai Maori Village, go whitewater rafting on the Kaituna River, or soak in the area’s geothermal mud pools in Kuirau Park.
DAY 5: Queenstown
It’s easy to get between the North and South Islands — flights are frequent and inexpensive. Wake up and drive back to Auckland, return your car, and fly to Queenstown. Established during the island’s 1860s gold rush, Queenstown overlooks Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain rage. Ease into the South Island portion of your trip with an afternoon exploring this quaint, postcard-worthy city: take a gondola ride at Skyline Queenstown, linger over dinner at Rata (or grab a burger at the extremely popular Fergburger), and sip nightcaps at Little Blackwood. Queenstown is popular with backpackers, so there are plenty budget and hostel options, as well as several surrounding guesthouses. For something more upscale, the city’s grande dame is Eichardt’s Private Hotel, which holds court over the lake.
DAY 6: Queenstown
Queenstown is the gateway to Fiordland, the country’s rugged, Southern Alps-lined southwest corner. No trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit to Fiordland’s crown jewel, Milford Sound. (Rudyard Kipling once called it the eighth wonder of the world.) You can drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown, but it will be a long day, with at least eight round-trip hours in the car and lots of white-knuckle mountain passes. Other options: Book a coach tour, or spring for a helicopter or floatplane ride from Queenstown to the sound. The latter option has you back in Queenstown by early afternoon — plenty of time for a bungee jump (which was invented here) or a jet-boat ride down the Shotover River. This is the adventure capital of the world, after all.
DAY 7: Queenstown
Queenstown is also a popular gateway to even more stellar winetasting. Spend a day winery hopping in the Central Otago Wine Region, known for its bold Pinot Noirs. (Most hotels and lodges can arrange a tour.) Stop for lunch in Arrowtown, a quaint gold rush village along the Arrow River outside of Queenstown.
DAY 8: Mackenzie Region
While North Island scenery deals in rolling hills and wide-open spaces, the South Island delivers spectacular mountain ranges and gorges. Today, drive two-and-a-half hours north to the Mackenzie Region, in the center of the South Island. The region is one of the world’s International Dark Sky Reserves, which means stargazing here is incredible — especially if you check into a place like Skyscape, a small house made entirely of glass in the middle of a 6,000-acre sheep and beef farm. The remote, middle-of-nowhere accommodation is well worth the splurge.
DAY 9: Aoraki/Mount Cook & Christchurch
Start the day with a 45-minute hike on the Governors Bush Walk in nearby Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (home to New Zealand’s highest mountain), before the four-hour drive northeast to Christchurch. Don’t rush it — the joy of a South Island road trip is in taking it slow, pulling over to gape at amazing views whenever the mood strikes, which is often. (Many travelers actually rent campervans and drive around the country in those — it’s legal to pull over and sleep on the side of the road in many parts of New Zealand.) In Christchurch, check into The George, a boutique property on the Avon River.
DAY 10: Christchurch
Spend the morning exploring Christchurch, the first British Colonial settlement on the South Island. The city is still rebuilding from a devastating 2011 earthquake that caused severe structural damage, but several new attractions and public spaces will open in 2018, including a food hall and a new public library. In the afternoon, hop a one-hour flight back to Auckland to connect to your late-evening flight back home.