Mile for mile, New Zealand has to be one of the most surprising places on the planet – especially if you’re driving your own car and exploring in your own time.
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Fly to Auckland – Collect your hire car from the airport and head off along the Pacific Coast Highway.
The Coromandel Peninsular gives you an early taster of the diversity of New Zealand. This extremely pretty region is a complete mixture of tropical richness, towering hills, deep valleys and sweeping natural parklands. Plus amazing beaches; especially the surfing coast of Whangamata and Hot Water Beach where you only have to dig a hole in the sand to create your own thermally-heated hot tub.
Stay: Two nights in 970 Lonely Bay Lodge.
Rotorua is the ideal place to learn about Maori culture. But it’s also famous for its spouting geysers and bubbling mud cauldrons – a drive through Wai-O-Tapu will take you past the Lady Knox Geyser and through the awesome, 10-mile Wairmangu Volcanic Valley with its seven massive craters, thermal pools, hot springs and geysers. Park up and take a cruise across Lake Rotomahana for even more stunning geothermal sites. You can even take a helicopter flight and land inside the active volcano’s crater, or visit White Island and the Bay of Plenty’s sea volcano.
Stay: Two nights in Koura Lodge.
Tongariro National Park
Drive along the Volcanic Loop Highway and you’ll enter Middle Earth – a must for Lord of the Rings fans – and encounter a trio of volcanoes. Another scenic flight will fly you over the steaming crater lake of Mount Ruapehu, complete with a glacier. Or you could simply play golf or hike through the world’s second oldest national park.
Stay: Two nights in Ruapehu Country Lodge.
Arriving in Wellington you’ll be struck by the city’s picturesque setting in a horseshoe of sandstone hills. As capital cities go, Wellington is charming and you’ll be able to explore it with a choice of tours including Maori Arts, Crafts and Customs; Wild Wellington or Kapiti Island – home to some of the world’s rarest birds.
Stay: Two nights in the Bolton Hotel.
Take a ferry across the famous Cook Strait and you can explore the Abel Tasman National Park – a symphony of golden sand beaches and calm lagoons protected by granite highlands and headlands. Enjoy guided walking tours, kayaking, catamaran sailing and water taxi trips.
Stay: Two nights in the adults-only Resurgence Hotel.
Set off in the morning for Kaikoura, but don’t miss lunch in one of Marlborough’s boutique wineries along the way. Kaikoura itself is an old whaling town that now specialises in whale watching tours to see sperm whales feeding both offshore and close to the coast. You can also swim with dolphins and seals, and take Maori tours that include guided bush walks, insights into the medicinal properties of the indigenous flora and a cultural visit to a Maori home.
Stay: Two nights at Hapuka Lodge.
A high point (literally) of your tour is your next stop. The heights of Arthur’s Pass offer superb walking, hiking and climbing, as well as guided walking tours, canoeing, trout fishing and picnic in the gorgeous scenery. Not to mention a choice of places to stay.
Stay: Two nights at Wilderness Lodge Arthur’s Pass or Grasmere Lodge.
Steer westwards and drive through awe-inspiring coastal and alpine scenery on your way to Franz Josef. On your right will be the roaring Pacific coastline with wild beaches, pounding surf and hidden inlets. On your left will be soaring, snow-capped mountains. It’s a panorama only rivalled by taking a flight over Mount Cook. Or visiting the Tasman Glacier, glacial lakes and rainforests, or heli-hiking amongst the spectacular ice formations.
Stay: One night at Westwood Lodge.
Stop, as you drive south, along the shoreline of Lake Matheson to take unbelievable photographs of Mount Cook mirrored in the perfectly still waters of the lake. Moeraki offers you even more splendid opportunities; you’ll be surrounded by 1000 year old forest where you can go bird watching or hiking, or exploring the lake and river by canoe.
Stay: Two nights at Wilderness Lodge.
Now Wanaka draws you. But take time out on the way there to appreciate Haast Pass and take the Siberian Experience – a scenic flight past Mount Aspiring to Siberian Valley with its meadows, beech forest and Wilkin River Valley. A jet boat whizzes you back to your starting point. At Wanaka itself you can go canyoning, canoeing, hiking, mountain biking, sailing, skydiving or walk on the Rob Roy Glacier in Mount Aspiring National Park with its amphitheatre of hanging glaciers. Optional flights over the Mount Aspiring World Heritage Site and along Milford Sound – complete with boat cruise out into the Tasman Sea – provide an unforgettable end to your Wildlife and Wilderness tour of New Zealand.
Stay: Three nights at Wanaka Haven.