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Initial Planning for NZ trip

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Hello, I am in the beginning stages of planning a trip to NZ for November/December. As usual, I'm feeling like I should have started planning earlier. And as usual, I think I am trying to do too much. I've identified what I'd like to see, and I think the appropriate order to see them, but not a time frame or other travel specifics. I have done quite a bit of reading already of other forum posts, guidebooks and the NZ tourism website, so I do understand about the driving and cramming too much into a holiday. Still it's hard to know realistically what to expect unless someone else has one's exact itinerary. And it's interesting that the NZ tourism website has itineraries that have one driving each day and staying in a different place each night--makes it seem so doable.

Well, any advice will be appreciated.

First the locations that I'd like to see:
Auckland (flying in from US),
Waitomo for caves,
Rotorua for Maori experience and thermal areas,
Tongariro Alpine Crossing (the one day, 12 mi hike),
Napier for wineries and resting after that hike,
?Wellington (for access to South Island),
?Blenheim for more wine because it's on the way to Kaikoura,
Kaikoura for whale watching,
?Christchurch (if there's something to see)
Arthur's Pass for short/day hikes,
Mt. Cook for short/day hikes,
Queenstown and/or Wanaka,
Milford Sound-day or overnight cruise
Return to AKL

Now the questions:
~I don't see much written about Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch. Will I be missing out if I don't spend time in the cities? Is there much to see/do?
~We were thinking about driving the majority of this route but would be open to suggestions for saving time if there are alternate ideas (e.g. If I can skip Wellington, is there a short cut for Napier to Kaikoura? Is it better to try to fly from QT to Milford Sound or drive? In the end it seems like we are still spending the same # of days/nights to do Milford Sound whether we fly or drive.)
~Is it acceptable to have different pick up/drop off locations for rental cars? If we pick up the car in AKL, would we be able to drop the car in QT and fly back to AKL? (I am aware of the usual exchange of cars when taking the ferry from Wellington to Picton.)
~And the million dollar question, how much of this can I actually do in about 2 1/2-3 weeks? If I need to cut something, what should I cut? We like to have a nice variety of activities but are really looking forward to the scenery/interesting geographical/geological features.

~And one more question that is about getting to NZ-has anyone taken advantage of the deals offered by Air Tahiti or Fiji Air for free nights on their respective islands just for flying with them? Is it worth it? Or are there too many restrictions/complications?

Thanks everyone.

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    Hi sek90 -

    Most visitors go to NZ for the incredible scenery. Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, while all have their interesting aspects, are merely cities, so many visitors concentrate on other areas. Most visitors are pressed for time, and NZ is one of those places that requires A LOT of time to see. So, folks have to make some hard decisions about what they most want to see, and my guess is the cities fall into the abyss by default.

    No, you won't be missing out if you bypass the cities, unless of course, you really enjoy cities or there's something specific in a particular city that you'd like to see, such as the Te Papa museum in Wellington.

    <Is it acceptable to have different pick up/drop off locations for rental cars?>

    Yes of course, but it may come down to cost. Some rental car agencies may charge a one way fee. APEX will allow you to take the car on the ferry, so no need to change if you book with them.

    The problem with beginning in Picton on the SI is that it's more difficult to make a leisurely driving loop and hit the highlights. So, I wonder if there's a specific reason you want to begin in Picton instead of say, fly from the North Island to Christchurch or Queenstown?

    <Is it better to try to fly from QT to Milford Sound or drive?>>

    I prefer the drive, but it's quite possible to take the bus one way and fly back, which would be the best of both worlds.

    Regarding time allotment, I suggest two weeks on the SI and one on the NI, and I think you'll still find that you can't fit everything in.

    I'll only address your SI itinerary and leave the NI for others.

    If you travel to Arthur's Pass and then on to Mt Cook, you'll have to backtrack to Christchurch, which is a colossal waste of time and petrol IMO. The only other option from Arthur's Pass is to continue down the West Coast to Wanaka and then work your way back up to Mt Cook. This is a lot of driving and only useful if you want to see the West Coast, but Mt Cook and the West Coast are separated by a mountain range, so your options are limited.

    If you arrived in Christchurch however, you could easily get to Mt Cook in a day, then drive to Wanaka, Te Anau (base for Milford Sound, and then end in QT, where you could fly back to Auckland. Or you could work your way back to Christchurch via the West Coast and Arthur's Pass, and end your journey in Christchurch, thereby making a driving loop and avoiding any backtracking. This can be accomplished in two weeks.

    Milford Sound is a four hour drive from Queenstown, one way, so you'd need to return to QT before flying out to Auckland.

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    Nothing exciting to see in the cities, I'd focus more on the a South Island. Kaikoura seals are amazing. Hamner springs is stunning as well. I'd focus on areas like Queenstown and Wanaka. Have fun.

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    I've been to NZ a number of times and I would recommend you allow at least 3 weeks for this trip, spending 1 week on the North Island and 2 weeks on the South Island.

    I agree that you could easily forego Auckland and Wellington, but I found Christchurch a lovely town with some interesting sites to visit, particularly the International Antarctic Centre and the Canterbury Museum. That's one town in NZ I probably would add to my itinerary.

    If you have not already done so, you might want to check out the Christchurch Tourism website: http://www.christchurchnz.com/

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    Ok, I'm feeling a little relieved to know I don't have to make time for the cities, given the time constraints. One hates to travel all that way and then get home to realize something amazing was missed.

    Melnq8, you ask about Picton, and the only reason I even mentioned it is because I assumed we would be driving all the way from AKL to QT. But it sounds like we can maybe drop the car in Napier, fly to CHC and get another car for traveling south, and save quite a bit of driving time. The only stop not mentioned in your loop is Kaikoura. Do you think it is too out of the way for this trip?

    I wasn't thinking about driving the entire Arthur's Pass Road to Greymouth or seeing the West Coast, just going to the Arthur's Pass village, hiking around and then going back to CHC or south to Mt. Cook. I can see now that either way, it's a lot of driving. Any thoughts on taking the train from CHC to Arthur's Pass Village and back in a day?

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    sek90 -

    Kaikoura is about a 2.5 hour drive north of Christchurch. It's a nice enough place, but definitely not what I'd consider a highlight. It can be difficult to work Kaikoura into a driving loop, but you can certainly backtrack to Christchurch if it's a must see for you. I personally find backtracking a waste of time, particularly on a short visit (two weeks or less).

    It's almost impossible to fit the far north (Picton and beyond)and the far south (Queenstown/Te Anau and beyond south) into a reasonably paced two week driving loop. This is where the tough decisions come in.

    Yes, I've taken the TranzAlpine to Greymouth and back, and I'd never do it again. One way was plenty for me. However, it might be a perfect solution for you.

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    I wouldn't bother with Napier, its way out of the way, not a very scenic drive and there's not a lot there that you couldn't see elsewhere. For vineyards there are plenty in the south island and you could find some in between your other stops in the north island. If you don't want to go wellington specifically then you could fly out of taupo (which is a nice spot to stop and relax for the night) but flights will be much cheaper from wellington.

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    Ok, we've figured out our North Island plan, and now need some help with figuring out our South Island itinerary.
    We are arriving in Christchurch on Dec 1 by plane and will spend first night there.

    Here's the rest:
    Dec. 2 Drive to Arthur's Pass, stay 2 nights

    Dec. 4 Drive to Mt. Cook, stay 3 nights

    Dec. 7 drive to QT, stay 3 nights, including a day trip to Milford Sound.

    We seem to have one extra night before we leave QT on Dec 11. I haven't booked any hotels yet, so we can adjust the dates of when we go to any of these places. Does anyone have any suggestions for another place to visit, either Kaikoura or Akaroa (after Christchurch, before Arthur's Pass) or somewhere else along the way? I've thought about Wanaka, but I'm not sure. Or should we spend more time in one of the above places?

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    Hi sek -

    I assume you plan to backtrack to Christchurch from Arthur's Pass, then head to Mount Cook? Just an FYI that it's well over six hours of driving, more with stops.

    I'd suggest Akaroa over Arthur's Pass for several reasons - closer, less driving, much more to see and do, no backtracking - not much to Arthur's Pass other than hiking, which is great if you enjoy hiking, but not a thing to do on a bad weather day other than pop into the visitors center and sit in one of three cafes.

    As you're arriving from the NI and won't be jetlagged or particularly tired, have you considered picking up a rental car at the Christchurch Airport and heading directly to Akaroa for a few nights? That's what I'd do. It's only a ~90 minute drive.

    It frees up that night in Christchurch (unless you're visiting Christchurch for some particular reason) and then you still have that extra night, which I'd tack on to Queenstown/vicinity. So much to see and do down that way, your two full days will fly by, particularly as one is already completely filled with Milford Sound.

    Or, if you're willing to forgo Christchurch, you could pick up your car, head directly to Arthur's Pass for two nights, then head down the West Coast as you'll have two extra nights to work with.

    Are you flying out of Queenstown?

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    Hi Melnq8,

    I knew I could count on you to respond :)

    We are flying out of QT back to AKL, so ideally we would spend that last night in QT. After I posted this last night, I started thinking about spending more time in Milford Sound. For such a beautiful place (or so I've heard), I'm thinking maybe I don't want to just rush in and rush out all in one day. Do you know anything about either the overnight cruise in the Sound or if it might be better to stay at the Lodge? Ideally, we would like to be able to both take a cruise and kayak the sound. Looks like the Discovery Center is worth a stop too. What I can't figure out is if we do spend a night there, how we would work the timing of the drive. If we leave Mt. Cook on 12/7, it seems we would want to stay in QT that night to break up the drive. Then maybe drive to Sound on 12/8, do some stuff, stay over night 12/8. Do the rest of the stuff morning of 12/9, then drive back to QT. Stay QT 12/9, 10. Does this make sense? I guess it also depends on the times of the boat tours. And there seem to be quite a few different companies which makes it all that much more confusing.

    As far as arriving in SI, our flight to Christchurch gets in at 3:40p. I figured by time we deplane, get luggage, get a rental car, it would be too late to get on the road for 2 hrs to Arthur's Pass or Akaroa (although honestly I don't know what time sunset is and if driving would be ok late). Hence, the night in Christchurch. We do enjoy hiking, although maybe not in terrible weather. I wouldn't mind playing by ear as far as letting weather determine our route (Arthur's Pass vs Akaroa), but I am worried about the limited accommodations in the mountain areas and feeling a little bit pressured to book so we are not stuck sleeping in the car ;)

    We don't plan to go back to Christchurch from Arthur's Pass, rather we will drive directly to Mt. Cook. I do see on the map that there is a little bit of backtracking, but not all the way to Christchurch.

    Thanks again for your advice!

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    Hi sek -

    Aren't South Island itineraries fun?:)

    About Milford...there's nothing at Milford Sound other than the boat terminal, a café, one or two places to stay and a 20 walk along the foreshore. The jewels of the area are along the Milford Road, the two hour drive which connects Milford and Te Anau.

    There are loads of walks in this area, including the walk to Key Summit, which is the start of the Routeburn Track. It's fantastic on a nice day. There are also some nice hikes along Hollyford Road, and numerous others.

    The problem with visiting Milford from QT is the time it takes to get there and back - four hours EACH way. The bulk of the day trip to Milford is spent in a car or bus - it's a 13 hour day on the bus. The bus does make a few stops en route, but there's absolutely no time to take in the hikes along the way.

    For this reason, staying in Te Anau makes more sense for those of us who want to explore the Milford Road. By staying in Te Anau, you can self-drive to Milford - if you plan well and leave early, you can easily fit in the hike to Key Summit (or otherwise) AND the cruise, and still be back in Te Anau for dinner.

    To do this you'd need two nights in Te Anau. Accommodation options between Te Anau and Milford are limited (I can think of two), whereas Te Anau is a thriving little town with plenty of accommodation options and some decent cafes and restaurants.

    The overnight cruise in Milford is yet another option, but you'd still miss the walks along Milford Road, unless you allow time before or after the cruise to explore. I'm not familiar with the overnight cruise times, so can't say how well this would work.

    <<What I can't figure out is if we do spend a night there, how we would work the timing of the drive. If we leave Mt. Cook on 12/7, it seems we would want to stay in QT that night to break up the drive. Then maybe drive to Sound on 12/8, do some stuff, stay over night 12/8. Do the rest of the stuff morning of 12/9, then drive back to QT. Stay QT 12/9, 10. Does this make sense?>>

    Well...it's certainly possible, but it breaks up your QT stay which might be a pain. It's a four hour drive from QT to Milford. If you get an early start, you could certainly reach Milford in time to take an afternoon cruise and probably kayak. Then the next day, you'd have another four hour drive back to QT, so it doesn't leave much time for exploring, but yes, it's possible.

    An alternate plan might be to drive from Mount Cook to Te Anau - just plan on a full drive day of ~six hours - then spend the night in Te Anau, drive to Milford the following morning, taking the entire day to explore the Milford Road/cruise/kayak, return to Te Anau for a second night, and then head to QT the next day. Your drive from Te Anau to QT is about two hours, so you'd still have the better part of a day in QT, but you'd lose nights.

    The sun sets around 9 pm in December, so it's possible to make the drive to Akaroa or Arthur's Pass. Only you can decide if it's a good option though.

    Regarding the backtracking - I assume you mean that you'd take 73 to Sheffield, then pick up 77. You're right, it's not backtracking all the way to Christchurch, just partway. I suggest you continue on the 'backroads' taking, 77/79 to Geraldine and Fairlie, then pick up SH 8 to Lake Tekapo. This is a really pretty drive - stop along Rakaia Gorge if you have time - beautiful.

    Your concern about booking accommodation in Arthur's Pass is well founded - accommodation is very limited there.

    I guess you just need to ask yourself which you'd rather see - mountains (which you'll also see at Mount Cook) or a French settlement alongside a harbor in an extinct volcano.

    Another thought - Mount Cook is all about hiking, once you've see the visitor's center and glacier - could you cut a night there perhaps?

    It's difficult I know - so much to see and never enough time.

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    Melnq8-
    Yes, so many decisions! The more questions I ask, the more decisions I have to make :) But planning is part of the fun too.

    Now that you mention it, I remember reading that there is nothing at Milford Sound. I do appreciate the reminder and the tip about the hikes along the road. We may opt to stay in Te Anau as you suggested since we had that extra night anyway, and now may even have another if we skip Christchurch.

    I am planning to take the route you suggested from AP to Mt. Cook, but I was unaware of the Rakaia Gorge. Is it marked with signs and close to the main highway? If so, we will definitely stop!

    Since we live in Chicago, a very flat city where the only tall things are skyscrapers, we are quite fine spending a lot of time in the mountains/nature-it is actually one of the main reasons for our trip. Let's just keep our fingers crossed for good weather!

    Thanks again for your expertise!

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    Yes, Rakaia Gorge is right off 77/72 between Windwhistle and Mount Hutt - you can't miss it. There's an excellent hike there, but it takes several hours to complete. There's also a jet boat operator.

    On a pretty day, the views of the river and gorge are a photographer's dream - easy to see by pulling over off the road for a glimpse. If memory serves, there are nice views from the Rakaia Gorge Walkway car park.

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