2 days. After a long international flight, stretch your legs and invigorate your circulation with a walk around the city center, with perhaps stops at Auckland Museum and Auckland Domain or Albert Park. Head to the harbor (or "harbour") and take a ferry ride round-trip between Auckland and Devonport for a great view of the city from the water. Have an early dinner and turn in to get over the worst of the jet lag.
On your second day, you'll have more wind in your sails to explore the City of Sails. Depending on your interests, head to Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, the New Zealand National Maritime Museum, the Auckland Art Gallery, or the Parnell neighborhood for window-shopping. If you're feeling energetic, you can even do a bit of kayaking (or just sunbathing) at Mission Bay or Karekare Beach.
1 or 2 days. Waitomo is known for what's beneath the surface—intricate limestone caves filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and galaxies of glowworms. If this is up your alley, get an early start from Auckland to arrive here before 11 am and sign up for a cave tour. Afterward, continue on to Rotorua, which seethes with geothermal activity. In the late afternoon you should have time for a walk around the town center, strolling through the Government Gardens, and perhaps also Kuirau Park. If you decide to skip the Waitomo worms, you can zip straight down from Auckland to Rotorua. In addition to the town proper, visit some of the eye-popping thermal areas nearby, such as Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. At night, be a guest at a hāngi, a Māori feast accompanied by a cultural performance. On the next day, you can either see some of the outlying thermal areas or continue south to Taupo.
1 day. Midway between Auckland and Wellington, the resort town of Taupo, on its giant namesake lake, is the perfect base for a day full of aquatic activities. If you're at all interested in trout fishing, this is the place to do it. You can also bathe in the volcanic springs in the park that is open to the public night and day.
1 day. This small town is an art deco period piece; after a devastating Richter 7.9 earthquake in 1931, the center of town was rebuilt in the distinctive style, and it's been carefully preserved ever since. Take a guided or self-guided walk around the heritage (historically significant) neighborhood. If you have a car, drive out of town and visit one of the 30-odd wineries around Hawke's Bay. In the afternoon, take a drive to the top of Te Mata Peak, or visit nearby towns Hastings or Havelock North. Otherwise, hang out at the waterfront or visit the aquarium.
2 days. New Zealand's capital, Wellington, is a terrific walking city, and there's even a cable car to help you with the hills. The big cultural draw is Te Papa Tongarewa—the Museum of New Zealand, which, with five floors and great interactive activities for kids, can take a full day to explore. You may wish to spend the rest of your first day here along the waterfront, winding up with dinner in the area. Be sure to check out the entertainment listings, too; you could be in town during one of the many festivals or catch a cool local band. On your second day, explore more of the urban highlights, like the City Gallery and the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, followed by a bit of browsing on the main shopping drags or a trip up into the hills to the Botanic Garden. If you'd prefer more time out in the country and have a car, drive up the Kapiti Coast and book to visit Kapiti Island Nature Reserve, or sip acclaimed Pinot Noir in the wine center of Martinborough.
1 or 2 days. With at least one more day at your disposal, you could squeeze in one of the following destinations. The Tongariro Crossing, a challenging but spectacular daylong hike, could be added to your Taupo stay. You'll "tramp" up close to three volcanoes: Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu. If you have two days and are keen on swimming with dolphins or doing some diving, loop up to Paihia, a small seaside town and gateway to the Bay of Islands, after your initial two days in Auckland. You can dip into the mellow, rural Coromandel Peninsula, perhaps the gateway town of Thames, before going south to Rotorua. Most places on the Coromandel are within 1 to 1½ hours' drive from the Thames township.
2 days. Hop or drive onto the ferry from Wellington to Picton. This small seaside township is the Marlborough region's main commercial port, and the gateway to the gorgeously scalloped coastline of Marlborough Sounds. Hop on a mail boat, which makes stops at coves and islands along the Sounds; take a day walk along the famous Queen Charlotte Track for spectacular water views; or join a kayak tour (you might just see some seals and dolphins as you paddle around). Have dinner along the foreshore and turn in early.
The next morning, head out of town to the Blenheim region, where the rolling hills are covered with grapevines and filled with scores of wineries. Stop in for tastings at esteemed spots like the Seresin Estate, Cloudy Bay, and Allan Scott Wines; if you've prebooked, you might also be able to dine at Herzog or Hunter's Garden Cafe. Be sure to pick up a few bottles of wine and olive oil to take with you.
1 day. Get an early start and continue down the South Island's eastern coast to the seaside settlement of Kaikoura, where you can go whale-watching, reef diving, swimming with dolphins or seals, or stay on land and indulge in a big crayfish lunch ("Kaikoura" actually means "meal of crayfish" in the Māori language).
1 or 2 days. 2010 and 2011 brought three significant earthquakes that rocked Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city. The city center and some outlying suburbs were significantly damaged and at this writing are in the process of being rebuilt. Although this will take some time, "The Garden City" still lives up to its name: after you arrive from Kaikoura, spend the afternoon strolling around 395-acre Hagley Park and the neighboring Botanic Gardens, a sprawling wonderland with more than 10,000 exotic and indigenous plants. Or take a punt on the meandering Avon River, followed by a coffee at a local café. For a two-day stay, fit in a couple of hours at the International Antarctic Centre, or spend the day in Akaroa, swimming with the endangered Hector’s dolphins or enjoying the French-influenced atmosphere. The next morning, get an early start to make the push to Queenstown.
2 or 3 days. Depending on your appetite for adventure, Queenstown may be the focus of your South Island trip. Take the plunge with AJ Hackett Bungy, free-fall on the Shotover Canyon Swing, try a jet-boat ride, or go rafting. As the town is set on Lake Wakatipu with the jagged peaks of the Remarkables mountains around it, you won't lack for scenic distractions. If you're interested in the area's gold-mining history, detour to nearby Arrowtown and see the Lake District Museum & Gallery. If the area looks familiar, you're not dreaming: many scenes from the Lord of the Rings film trilogy were shot here.
2 days. Follow your extreme sports adventure with some extremely splendid landscapes. At Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland National Park, deep green slopes fall steeply down to crystalline waters. Rare species live in the unique underwater environment here, so try to visit the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory. Drink in the views by catamaran, by kayak, or by flightseeing. Whatever you do, don't forget your rain gear and bug repellent! If pressed, you could make a trip to Milford Sound a long day's trip from Queenstown.
2 or 3 days. With more time in your schedule, build in a couple of low-key days to offset the thrills-and-chills outdoor activities. After you arrive at Picton, you can drive or take a bus to Nelson, a relaxed waterfront town that's a good base for arts and crafts shopping and wine tasting. One fun stop is the World of WearableArt & Classic Cars Museum. If ice is on your mind and you're willing to brave rainy conditions, push on down the rugged West Coast, stopping at the Pancake Rocks—columns of limestone resembling stacks of pancakes—on your way to the Fox or Franz Josef Glacier in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Their flow rates are up to 10 times the speed of most valley glaciers. (To do this, plan on three days, as it's a long drive and you'll want at least one full day at the glaciers.)
New Zealand may be small, but it is one of the most geographically diverse places on the planet. This ever-changing landscape is ideal to experience from the road. Although we suggest taking your time to see both islands, if you've only got two or three weeks to do it all, here's a quick-hit itinerary for both islands:
1 day. Auckland. Stop at the city's museums and galleries, but save some time to shop in the Parnell neighborhood.
1 day. Taupo. Try trout fishing, or tramp the best one-day walk in the world: the Tongariro Crossing.
1 day. Wellington. Take in Te Papa Tongarewa—the Museum of New Zealand, and then have dinner along the waterfront.
2 days. Christchurch (with a side trip to Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura, or the Banks Peninsula). Visit the Botanic Gardens, Hagley Park, or the International Antarctic Centre.
1 day. Aoraki/Mt. Cook. Experience the nearby glacier lakes. En route from Christchurch, stop for a picnic by Caribbean-colored Lake Tekapo or Lake Pukaki.
2 days. Queenstown. Bungy jump, take a jet-boat ride, or go rafting. Or, just take in stunning Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables.
1 day. Milford Sound. Spend the morning driving through Fiordland, and then take an overnight cruise.
2 days. Wanaka. Go fishing, canyoning, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking, museum-visiting, or shopping.
1 day. Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. See cascading waterfalls, forests, and icy blue rivers and pools before taking a glacier tour (book in advance).
1 day. Hokitika. Stroll the town shops, carve your own piece of greenstone, and have coffee on the beach. At dusk, walk to the glowworm grotto.
1 day. Arthur's Pass. Take in remote terrain before heading back to Christchurch.
2 days. Return to Christchurch and then homeward from Auckland the next day.