Yes, New Zealand deserves months to fully explore. But since most of us only get a few weeks of vacation time, here's how to maximize your stay while making it a trip to remember. Follow this sample itinerary for a true taste of the kiwi life. (Fair warning: It will probably leave you planning a return trip!)
Days 1-2: Auckland
The cheapest international flights usually arrive in Auckland, so it makes sense to start your trip there. Pick-up your rental car at the airport. You'll need one to cover the most ground in New Zealand. Go for an automatic if you're not comfortable with driving on the left—it's one less opposite side thing to worry about. If you want to save money, you can probably skip the GPS. New Zealand is really easy to navigate, and most journeys will take you along the main State Highway 1, anyway.
You'll probably arrive early in the morning from an international flight. Beat jet lag by staying awake and doing something active. The best way to really shake off that time change and check out the city is by getting up close and personal with the Auckland Harbour Bridge—from the top to the bottom. Sign up for a Bridge Climb and a tour guide will take you under, through, and above the city on the bridge. You'll get to climb to the very top, but you'll be tethered with plenty of safety gear to keep you on the path. Along the way, you'll learn fun facts about the city and the bridge (including why there's a human body buried within the bridge and why you have to wear a fetching jumpsuit to do the climb). At the top you'll get amazing 360-degree views of Auckland.
Use the rest of the day to come down from your adrenaline high by wandering along the Viaduct Harbour, which is full of great restaurants and nightlife.
Where to Stay: Quay West Suites (two nights). These self-contained apartments are located right in the heart of Auckland within easy walking distance to everything. Plus, they offer plenty of space for families, as well as conveniences like a washer and dryer and kitchen that are perfect for longer-term travelers.
Auckland makes a great base for checking out Waiheke Island, world-famous for its many boutique vineyards. Take a 40-minute ferry ride from the city to the island. You'll definitely want to leave the rental car behind if you plan on doing any tastings, so sign up to be escorted around with Waiheke Island Wine Tours. The experienced local guides will chauffer you to three vineyards while regaling you with history and facts about the island's history and modern life. If the tastings of at least 12 wines didn't whet your thirst, the guides can take you to lunch at a vineyard (I liked Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant for the views, food, and service) as well. Be sure to make time to visit Peacock Skye Vineyard on your visit—their tasting room features delicious food and wine pairings run by the friendly owners.
Grab the ferry back to Auckland for your last night in New Zealand's largest city.
Days 3-4: Paihia
Hop in the car for a road trip north to Paihia, a good starting point for the Bay of Islands. Once you arrive, get an overview of the aquatic scenery (and get acquainted with some of the local residents) with a dolphin cruise with Fullers GreatSights. On your boat ride, you'll get to see dolphins—and if conditions are right, even swim with them. Even if you don't get to go for a dip, you'll get a good sense of the history of the many islands in the aptly named Bay of Islands from the crew's informed commentary.
Relax at the casual waterfront restaurants and bars dotted around the island in the evening.
Where to Stay: Paihia Beach Resort—Spa Hotel, a beautiful oceanfront resort where you can take in beach views from the gorgeous infinity pools.
Take a beach day to relax! Lounge on the beaches of Paihia or get active in the water with a snorkel or scuba diving trip. If you've never tried scuba diving before, this is the place to do it. Sign up for an intro to diving course with Craig at Paihia Dive, the Bay of Islands' only PADI 5 Star Dive Center. He'll tailor your day to your experience level, interests, and the weather conditions, and new divers will be heading under in no time. Experienced divers will love the two shipwrecks that attract tons of beautiful marine life, and Craig will document it all on an underwater camera (and give you the photos for free).
After you've had your fill of the beach, head South to Matakana.
Where to Stay (two nights): Matakana Country Lodge. Just a five-minute drive from Matakana Village and Warkworth (as well as numerous vineyards), this beautifully decorated lodge is run by owners Susan and Garth who host nightly drinks and appetizers, recommend the best spots to visit in Matakana, and will even drive guests into town. This highly recommended spot only has three guest rooms (but is set on a huge property, with a great pool and hot tub), so book early.
Days 5-6: Matakana and Waitomo
Matakana is a retreat for Auckland urbanites who want to explore local vineyards, fill up at the farmer's markets, and just relax in the town center. Follow their lead and go wine tasting and shopping in the great locally owned boutiques.
Continue south to Waitomo, where the main attraction is the Waitomo Caves, famous for their glowworms. Book an adventure tour with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, whose tour guides bring brave visitors deep into the caves to float along subterranean streams in an inner-tube (and wetsuit—it's cold) admiring all the glowworms above. Choose a level of tour that matches up with your fearlessness—you can do everything from jump off waterfalls to abseil down cave walls.
Dry off and head to Rotorua so you'll be ready to go for tomorrow's activities.
Where to Stay: Koura Lodge (two nights), which offers hearty breakfasts and breathtaking views of Lake Rotorua. If you have extra time, launch one of the lodge's kayaks from the private beach.
Day 7: Rotorua
Ever seen an active volcano? Now's your chance to get up close and personal with one by taking a scenic helicopter ride from Volcanic Air. You'll fly over Hell's Gate Thermal Valley and the Pacific Ocean coastline before landing on White Island. Walk around the crater of the active volcano and learn about the old sulphur mines that used to operate here.
In the evening, learn about New Zealand's Maori culture at Te Po. This historical center introduces visitors to the Maori customs like the welcome ceremony, warrior's challenge, and the haka (a dance made famous by the New Zealand's rugby team). After the show, feast on traditional Maori foods that have been cooked in the ground using thermal energy. Dinner is topped off with a nighttime visit to the Pohutu geyser.
Day 8: Auckland
Head back to Auckland, drop off your rental car, and catch a flight to Queenstown on the South Island. You could drive between the two (there's a car ferry) but if you want to see as much as possible in two weeks, it's worth the flight. You can usually find round-trip flights between the North and South Island for around $150 to $250 round-trip on Air New Zealand.
Pick up a second rental car when you land in Queenstown—you could do without if you're only staying in the city, but if you want to explore the surrounding area, it's a must.
Where to Stay: Hotel St. Moritz (two nights). Within easy walking distance to town, this classy hotel offers a buffet breakfast every morning and amazing mountain and lake views.
Days 9-10: Queenstown
Ease your way into Queenstown by starting off with a luxury wine tour of the surrounding wine region. Book with Black and you'll be escorted around vineyards in a Bentley or Range Rover by an experienced guide. (Request Malcolm, a local who can take you through the nearby former gold mining settlement Arrowtown and tell you the area's history.)
Continue the wine theme with a Trust the Chef lunch at Amisfield Winery Bistro. Tell the chef any dietary restrictions and leave the rest up to the kitchen—they'll bring out food and wine pairings that will make you glad you left the decision making up to them.
Time to get active! Lace up the hiking boots and go with an experienced guide for a trek on the Routeburn Track. Although the whole track takes three days to do, you can do a single day hike as well. If you (or the fickle weather in the area) are not up for the Routeburn, there are plenty of smaller hikes in the area as well, like the Sam Summers' Hut Track, which offers mountain vistas and a stop at a gold prospector's former hut.
At the end of the day, treat your muscles to a soak at the Onsen Hot Pools.
Day 11: Milford Sound
Milford Sound, a fiord, is one of New Zealand's most beautiful sites. Take the scenic (but long) drive out there from Queenstown, and explore on a boat tour. Or maximize your time by taking a flight or helitour from Queenstown to get there even faster.
Where to Stay: Break up the drive back with a stay at the Anchorage Motel in Te Anau.
Day 12: Queenstown
Head back to Queenstown to return your rental and begin the long journey back home. If you're connecting in Auckland before heading on to an international destination, be advised that the Queenstown flight will land in the Auckland domestic airport, although the international terminal is a short bus ride (or walk) away.
Note: Travel time to New Zealand from the U.S. involves close to a full day's travel, plus crossing the international date line means losing a day on the way there. This sample itinerary allows two days' travel time included, which is why it ends on day 12.
(Photo: Queenstown at Night via Shutterstock)