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The Ultimate New Zealand Vacation Road Trip

Air Canada’s new seasonal direct flights from Vancouver to Auckland means there’s no better time to explore the beauty of New Zealand. Here’s all you need to know for your New Zealand vacation.

Planning Your New Zealand Vacation

When planning your trip to New Zealand, you’ll want a take a little more time off than usual. Let’s face it, the long-haul flight from Canada is tiring and jet lag is a real thing. If you want to make the most of your trip, choose at least a New Zealand itinerary of three weeks or a New Zealand itinerary around two weeks. This much time allows you to see the major attractions from north to south, with some opportunity for some spontaneous (and definitely awe-inspiring!) stops along the way.

New Zealand language and culture

New Zealand’s population is about 4.8 million spanning its three main islands: the North Island, South Island, and don’t forget Stewart Island in the far south. English is the main language, but Maori, the language of the Indigenous people of the same name, is also spoken. Upon arrival at Auckland International Airport, you’ll be greeted with signs reading “Kia Ora!” meaning “Hello” or “Welcome” in the Maori language.

Common Maori words

  • Kia Ora (KYOUR-RAH): Hello
  • Aotearoa (AH-O-TAY-AH-ROW-AH): New Zealand/long white cloud
  • Whanau (FAH-NOW): Family
  • Whakapapa (FAH-KA-PA-PA): Ancestors
  • Aroha (AH-ROE-WAH): Love
  • Pounamu (POO-NAH-MOO): Greenstone
  • Kai (KYE): Food
  • Wai (WHY): Water

Insider tip: Roll your Rs!

The Maori culture is brave and loyal – they used to be warriors of this great land – and their cultural presence is evident throughout the country. The Maori people, their spiritual culture, and their language live on in Aotearoa.

Insider tip: A traditional Maori greeting, called hongi, involves touching noses. It is considered bad form (even disrespectful) to smile during the event.

Currency

New Zealand has its own currency: the New Zealand dollar (NZD). At the time of writing, $1 CAD equals approximately $1.15 NZD.

Tipping in New Zealand:

Paraglider over Queenstown
New Zealand Vacation
New Zealand Vacation Guide | Skyscanner Canada

Weather

There’s a reason New Zealand’s known as “The Land of the Long White Cloud.” The top end of the North Island will be warm year-round, and the further south you go, the colder it gets. For a trip to New Zealand, it’s best to layer up, and always bring warmer clothing – even in summer (December – March).

Renting a car in New Zealand

Renting a car in New Zealand is easy and pretty much the same system as other Western countries. General rules are: you must be 25 or older and have an international driver’s license. And remember, they drive on the left-hand side of the road in New Zealand!

New Zealand Itinerary: North Island

New Zealand’s split into two main islands: the North Island and South Island. Start your New Zealand trip in the capital city of Auckland located on the North Island, and you can make your way south along New Zealand’s Highway 1.

1. Auckland

To begin your New Zealand vacation, take advantage of Air Canada‘s direct flights from Vancouver and fly into Auckland – the largest city in NZ. Any stay in Auckland needs to include a trip up the 328 metre Sky Tower in the downtown area. If you’re brave, try the Sky Walk or Sky Jump that will take you to great heights, and over the edge.

2. Bay of Islands

For balmy weather and beach vibes, head further north to the Bay of Islands. Anything involving the open water: sailing, snorkelling, jet boat rides, kayaking, is all high on the to-do lists for this region. If you like history, you’ll also find the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Cape Reinga nearby. Both places are important to the Maori people and their culture.

3. Bay of Plenty

The city of Tauranga is surrounded by an active and beautiful harbour. The top things to do here are scenic and wildlife cruises, hiking, fly fishing, and scuba diving. Nearby (about 52 km) is the town of Matamata, where you’ll find one fo the most popular walking tours in New Zealand: the Hobbiton™ movie set! This is definitely a bucket list experience for any fans of the trilogies, and even if you’re not, it’s an amazing tour through the land of Hobbiton™. Book ahead as this tour fills up quickly.

5. Rotorua & Taupo

Rotorua is one of New Zealand’s top tourist attractions and a natural paradise complete geothermal valley with geysers, hot springs, and bubbling mud pools. You can book tours of the valley at Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Culture Institute. Tour packages offer everything from visiting their Kiwi Conservation Centre and experiences to dive into the fascinating Maori culture, including a traditional Maori feast (“hangi”).

Your next stop is at Lake Taupo, where you can spend a few days relaxing at De Bretts Hot Springs, gazing at Huka Falls, and walking the Craters of the Moon geothermal park.

Insider tip: If you’re up for some adrenaline, tandem skydiving is cheaper here.

6. Wellington

Snuggled at the southern end of the North Island is the nation’s capital city of Wellington. Also known as the “World’s Coolest Capital City”, the windy city of Wellington is home to Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum and a must-see when visiting the capital. There’s a lot (six floors) to do, so plan several hours and take a tour to make the most of it.

For a good look at Wellington’s cool and creative social scene, head to Cuba Street for some of the trendiest cafés, restaurants, bars, and shopping. The New Zealand capital is an extremely walkable city, so just park your car at your accommodation and head out for a day of exploring.

If your New Zealand vacation and road trip includes travelling down the South Island, you’ll take the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton.

South Island New Zealand Itinerary

1. Marlborough Sounds

Driving off the ferry from Wellington brings you to straight into the Marlborough Sounds – a region best known for its delicious wine, epic scenery, and hiking trails. If you’re a hiking buff (“tramping” as the Kiwis call it) consider the multi-day Queen Charlotte Track, which is an amazing place to take a break from driving to walk along some of the most beautiful coastlines in the country.

Tip: Pre-book as NZ hiking trails book up far in advance.

2. Abel Tasman National Park

More outdoor adventure awaits you in the gorgeous Abel Tasman National Park – named after the first European to step foot on this land. One of the most popular things to do here is a sea kayaking tour. Choose a day trip or multi-day excursions that are equally challenging and rewarding.

3. Franz Josef

Getting from the top of the South Island to glacier country on the west coast will take a full day of driving (about eight to ten hours, depending on stops, route, and weather). You can beat the views here Franz Josef, a little town surrounded by towering snow-peaked mountains. The drawcard here is a guided tour of the glacier. To soothe your post-hike body, you can soak your cares away at the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools.

4. Wanaka and Queenstown

From the west coast (often called the “wet coast”), make your way to Queenstown with a pit stop in Wanaka. For a coffee and lunch break with some great views, head to Kai Whakapai on Ardmore Street overlooking the town’s namesake lake. For a longer break, Puzzling World is a fun and playful spot for all ages.

Every New Zealand vacation to the South Island has got to include a few days in Queenstown. Often referred to as the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is a natural playground for all you thrill-seekers. From skydiving to white water rafting, this mountain town will get you pumped. If you’re a devoted Lord of the Rings fan, plan a New Zealand Lord of the Rings tour. You can book tours that include a trip to Glenorchy, where much of the movie trilogy was filmed.

5. Te Anau & Milford Sound

The small lakeside town of Te Anau is a leisurely two-hour drive from Queenstown and the gateway to Milford Sound. In Te Anau, be sure to go to Fiordland Cinema to watch Ata Whenua, a short film highlighting the immense beauty of the Fiordland National Park. A scenic drive to Milford Sound will further your appreciation for the area and once there, get yourself out on the water. There are several cruises, but the best way is by kayak. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks offer guided tours of the sound that will create long-lasting memories.

6. Mount Cook

From Queenstown, drive up the middle of the South Island, via the town of Twizel for about three hours to reach Mount Cook. On a clear day, you can see the massive mountain (3700 metres) from a fair distance away, but being close on a clear day is magical. The road to Mount Cook Village is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, so take your time and stop often.

7. Christchurch

Known as The Garden City and nicknamed Chch (the sound) by the locals, Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island. A fault line runs under the city, which makes it susceptible to earthquakes. You can learn more about how earthquakes have shaped Christchurch at Quake City, an exhibition of history and education. Other highlights in Christchurch include the Botanic Gardens, paragliding at Sumner Beach, and feeding the penguins at the International Antarctic Centre.

If you’re driving back to Auckland, make plans to stop at Kaikoura, about 2.5 hours’ drive north of Christchurch. Here you’ll find whale-watching tours and delicious crayfish food trucks along the winding, coast-hugging highways.

Hotels in New Zealand

As a popular tourist destination, New Zealand offers a wide range of travellers accommodation for all budgets. Choose from camping to backpacker hostels to 5-star resorts from the Bay of Islands in the top north all the way to Stewart Island at the very bottom.

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