New Zealand in 3 weeksHighlights: Bay of Islands, Abel Tasman, Mt Cook, Milford Sound
Discovering New Zealand in 3 weeks is certainly a challenge, even for the most experienced travelers. Covering thoroughly both North and South islands can prove to be difficult but this itinerary should reveal a great help to visit New Zealand in 3 weeks.
This adventure-oriented introduction to New Zealand will take you through Auckland, Bay of Islands, Rotorua, Wellington, Abel Tasman (Golden Bay), Aoraki / Mt Cook, Queenstown and Milford Sound (Fiordland).
This itinerary is quite intense but you can of course adapt it depending on your preferences. It will especially appeal to all the trekkers out there with a total of 9 days of hiking. If that’s not your thing, don’t worry you can easily take less days to visit the trekking destinations of this trip and spend more time elsewhere or even add an extra destination like Napier.
Step by step
Days 1-2: Auckland (North Island)
Days 3-4: Bay of Islands (North Island)
On the second day, reach the Bay of Islands. It is located 260 km (160 mi) from Auckland (4-5 hours by bus / 40 minutes by plane). You can reach Russell by ferry from Opua if you have a car or from Paihia if you are on foot. From then on, you will enjoy a beautiful area of 144 islands with the most amazing variety of wildlife (penguins, whales, gannets, dolphins..etc.) and stunning beaches all around.
There are many things to do in the Bay of Islands like fishing and hiking. For accommodation, depending on your budget you could rent a nice little 'Bach' (cottage) or camp (it's possible on the Urupukapuka Island).
Days 5-6: Rotorua (North Island)
On the 5th day, go back to Auckland and then continue to Rotorua. You can either have a night stop in Auckland or proceed directly depending on your energy level but we would advise the latter in order to spend at least one night in Rotorua.
It may also be a good idea to catch the midday show at the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. And of course, enjoy what Rotorua is famous for: its amazing geothermal geysers and boiling mud pools.
Day 7: Wellington (North Island)
On the 7th or 8th day of this trip, take a plane from Rotorua to Wellington, the capital of Australia. Wellington is quite an interesting city where you can enjoy a variety of museums like the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa) or the Museum of Wellington City & Sea.
The large natural harbour (70 km² / 27 mi²) of Wellington is also a must-see. If you are a fan of the Lord of the Rings, you may want to take a tour around the city to explore the filming locations that were used for the famous Peter Jackson's film trilogy.
Days 8-11: Nelson, Golden Bay & Abel Tasman National Park (South Island)
Fly from Wellington to Nelson, explore briefly the city famous for its hippy markets and then take a bus to reach Abel Tasman National Park, certainly one of the most beautiful destinations of this trip to New Zealand in 3 weeks. Located on the Golden Bay, Abel Tasman National Park is the perfect combination of beaches, wildlife (watch out for flying kiwis!) and hiking trails.
If you are into hiking, you can follow the 54.4 km (33.8 mi) Abel Tasman Coast Track that takes between 3 and 5 days to complete. This trip itinerary plans 3 nights for this whole Nelson - Golden Bay - Abel Tasman part but you can of course spend more or less time depending on your preference (beware though that this may impact the rest of your trip).
Days 12-14: Aoraki / Mount Cook (South Island)
After this slice of paradise that is Abel Tasman, prepare for another one: Aoraki / Mt cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand (3,724 m /12,218 ft) with its breathtaking snowy peaks and glaciers. You can go there either by renting a car or by bus but the latter option will take longer and you will have to go through Christchurch.
Mt Cook is the ideal place for advanced mountain climbing but it also offers beautiful hiking trails that can easily be completed in just one day or even less (check ou this great link for a list of short walks that take under 4 hours).
Day 15: Queenstown (South Island)
Due to time constraints we wouldn't advise to spend more than one day in Queenstown but you can of course do so if you are not opting for a long trek in Fiordland.
Days 16-20: Milford Sound
You will notice that we haven't advocated renting a car so much until now but if there's one place to do so it would be between Queenstown and Milford Sound, a fjord located in Fiordland National Park. The scenery along this 4-hour drive is just breathtaking and will make you forgive New Zealand for its left-handed driving habit (provided you're not already used to it).
There are many treks available in Fiordland but we wholeheartedly recommend Milford Sound and especially the 53.5 km (33.2 mi) Milford Track and its 5 days (4 nights) of bliss in the purest and wildest nature New Zealand has to offer.
Day 21: Back Auckland (flight home)
After completing this amazing New Zealand 3-week classic itinerary and filling your head with memories that will live with you forever, it's now time to go back to Auckland for a last peek at the capital of New Zealand. And yes, now would be a good time to visit the places you hadn't time to see when you first arrived.