Day 1: Join tour in Auckland
Our journey begins in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and a thriving sporting and cultural centre that lies sprawled across a narrow isthmus between the harbours of Waitemata and Manukau. We check into our hotel and have free time to explore this city, before meeting our Explore leader in the evening.
Day 2: Guided tour of Auckland's highlights; head to the coastal community of Tairua
This morning we take in the delights of Tamaki Drive and Mission Bay, during our tour of the city of Auckland. Popularly known as the City of Sails, Auckland is surrounded by volcanic peaks and blessed with a profusion of beaches and museums. The country's most cosmopolitan city, with a rich mix or European, Maori and Pacific Island influences, Auckland is the largest Polynesian city on the planet. Departing Auckland in the afternoon we travel through rolling farmland, flat dairy plains, and the forested Coromandel Ranges, with views of the Pacific Ocean to Tairua. Tairua's Paku volcanic peak, and offshore views of the jagged Alderman Islands are the natural focal points of the area. We'll be spending this evening in the coastal community of Tairua, where you can enjoy some fish and chips and gaze out across the vistas that lie off the Coromandel's east coast.
Day 3: Explore the Coromandel Peninsula, overnight in Tairua
We spend the day in the beautiful landscapes of the Coromandel Peninsula, which separates the waters of the Hauraki Gulf from the Bay of Plenty. A staggering mix of rugged coastline, golden beaches and native bush, the peninsula's interior is littered with a fascinating collection of abandoned mining equipment and old Kauri timber machinery. We will visit the enchanting sands of Hahei Beach, fringed with pohutukawas trees and pink shells, whose offshore islands provide a perfect break-water that makes these waters ideal for swimming. The rest of the afternoon is free to enjoy some optional excursions in the area, including a chance to enjoy some guided bush walking or perhaps a kayak through the amazing sea caves of Cathedral Cove, rated as one of the best kayaking trips in the country.
Day 4: Free morning, afternoon visit Hobbiton, drive to Rotorua
Our journey today takes us into the heart of North Island and the diverse landscapes of the Waikato region, travelling via the gold mining town of Waihi to learn something of the area's rich history as one of the world's most productive gold mining regions. Today we visit the Hobbiton Movie Set at Matamata where some of the original Hobbit holes from the Lord of The Rings still sit amongst the fertile hills that lie in the shadow of the Kaimai Ranges. We will discover the real Middle Earth on the most picturesque private farmland near Matamata in a fascinating two and a half hours guided tour. The set has been completely rebuilt and can be seen as it appeared in the films. A knowledgable guide will accompany us through the ten-acre site recounting fascinating details of how the Hobbiton set was created. The Hobbit holes, the Mill and other structures created for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films can be viewed. We will then head to Rotorua.
Day 5: Visit Wai-o-Tapu, evening Maori banquet
Today we visit the geothermal wonderland Wai-O-Tapu. You can walk at your own pace and absorb the unique features including the world famous champagne pool, geysers, bubbling mud, steaming ground, expansive vistas, huge volcanic craters and sinter terrace formations. Following this you will have free time to explore the stunning Bath House building inside the Rotorua Museum and a series of computer generated films that take you through the cultural and seismic origins of this fascinating region. This afternoon has then been left free to enjoy at your leisure, with options for mountain biking or a relaxing spa treatments. This evening we attend a traditional Te Po banquet, where we are treated to a ritual Maori welcome, followed by songs, dances and a Maori hangi feast. After the dinner we then drive out to the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley to enjoy the valley's extraordinary illuminated attractions, including the Pohutu geyser.
Day 6: Drive to Napier via Lake Taupo; visit Hawke's Bay Vineyard
This morning we continue into New Zealand's fertile wine country, where we visit the vineyards of Hawke's Bay and enjoy an afternoon of fine wine, gourmet cheeses and a tour of some of the area's best wineries. Famed for its Chardonnays and its superb reds, the area is home to over 80% of the country's Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes and produces some of the richest and most exquisite wines in the country. Our final destination for the day is the engaging town of Napier, lying on the southern edge of Hawke's Bay, whose unique collection of Art Deco buildings makes it one of the most popular attractions on North Island.
Day 7: Free time in Napier; head to Wellington
In 1931 Napier was destroyed by a massive earthquake that registered 7.9 on the Richter Scale. Following the wholesale destruction of the city, its centre was rebuilt in the popular Art Deco style of the period, creating a wonderful location to explore. We then head south, towards New Zealand's capital. Wellington has been New Zealand's capital since 1865 and its engaging mix of culture and art, combined with stunning harbour views and a backdrop of steep hills and precariously sited buildings, makes it one of the country's most captivating cities. On arrival we will have some free time take a wander through Wellington's engaging city streets.
Day 8: Free day to explore the capital
This morning we will visit the superb Te Papa National Museum, one of the finest museums in the world, filled with a staggering collection of Maori treasures, artworks and a unique Marae (Maori meeting house). The rest of the day is left free day to explore the New Zealand capital, Wellington. There are several options for you to do. The top of the cable car, a Wellington icon running from Lambton Quay, gives a great close-up view of the city. From here, you can visit the Observatory and stroll back through the 26 ha Botanic Gardens, extending all the way down to the parliamentary complex. Wellington has been the capital city since 1865, and the Parliament's Buildings, including the 'Beehive', are well worth visiting. Apart from its importance as the political centre, the city offers a large cultural choice of museums and art galleries and an abundance of cafes, restaurants and boutique shops. You could visit Zealandia and see some of New Zealand's rarest birds, reptiles and insects living wild in their natural environment, including the hihi, tuatara, saddleback, kaka and (at night) little spotted kiwi. Or simply enjoy a leisurely stroll along the harbourside, which is paticularly beautiful on a fine day or when lit up in the evening.
Day 9: Ferry across Cook Strait to Picton; continue to Nelson
This morning we cross the Cook Strait and head for the bustling port of Picton, at the head of the picturesque Queen Charlotte Sound. On arrival we drive west, following the coastline of the South Island to the town of Nelson. A lively city on New Zealand's north-west coastline, Nelson is a haven for hikers, beachgoers and kayaking fans, and is known as the 'sunshine capital' of the country. Located next to the wine making region of Marlborough, Nelson also has its fair share of wineries as well as being a great starting point for visiting the Abel Tasman national park, full of golden sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, seals and forest birds. On arrival you can explore the city, which is a magnet for artists and craftspeople and boasts a number of excellent galleries.
Day 10: Free day; optional activities in Abel Tasman National Park
We have a free day to explore the surroundings of Nelson. Many of us may wish to head up to the Abel Tasman national park, to undertake one of the many walks, cruises, or kayaking tours that can be done in the area. The park itself boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the country and there are options for relaxing on the beach for those who are that way inclined! Alternatively you may wish to relax in town or do one of the many coastal walks around Nelson.
Day 11: Transfer to Hokitika via the scenic West Coast Road
We have an early start today as we head down the Great Coast Road towards the township of Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika River. This journey takes us on one of the greatest coastal drives in the world, passing through Punakaiki Rocks to visit the amazing coastal rock formations, as well as the seal colony at Cape Foulwind. The wild and rugged beauty of the west coast surrounds us on our journey, before finally arriving into the old gold mining town later this afternoon. Founded in 1864, Hokitika was once a thriving community of over 50,000, until the end of the gold seams saw its population drift away. Today it is home to around 4000 people and the gold has been replaced by paua (abalone) shell and greenstone (jade) jewellery. It still retains something of its old frontier spirit though and a stroll through its historic heart makes for an interesting diversion. The town was put back on the map in 2013, after it was used as the gold-rush era setting of the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.
Day 12: Visit Franz Josef Glacier en route to Fox Glacier
Crossing the Hokitika River this morning we head south, passing through native bush of Rimu (red pine) and Kahikatea (white pine). The first European to discover the west coast was Abel Tasman in December 1642. Long and thin and enclosed by the Tasman Sea to the east and the Southern Alps to the west, it is a land of glacial deposits and alluvium that flows from the rivers and glaciers of the Alps. There are some 60 glaciers in the park, but Franz Josef and Fox are the most famous. Up to 10 years ago the Franz Josef Glacier was one of the few glaciers worldwide that actually crept down below the vegetation line. Today however this glacier has receded so that one can only view it at a distance. This relic of the last Ice Age, named after the old Austrian emperor, Franz Josef Glacier had at times been moving forward at an astonishing rate of a metre a day for the last quarter of a century. Needless to say the whole landscape of this glacial region is quite fascinating and there are a number of optional excursions available today, including glacier valley walks, heli-hikes that take you up onto the glacier itself and scenic flights over both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. We overnight in Fox Glacier town.
Day 13: Explore Fox Glacier then travel via Wanaka to Queenstown
A short drive south this morning brings to the breathtaking setting of Lake Matheson, where weather permitting we are treated to a picture perfect image of Mount Cook reflected in the lake's dark, mirrored waters. Following this we will head to Fox Glacier, named after a former Prime Minister of New Zealand. The track from the car park along the glacial valley crosses a landscape of ancient moraine that testifies to the continual advance and retreat of the glacier over the centuries. Our journey then continues across the River Haast and away from the coast, passing through the beautiful scenery of the Haast River Valley as we snake our way through the Aspiring National Park and onto the town of Makaroa. After a brief stop to refuel and refresh, we head next for the lakeside setting of Wanaka, impressively situated amongst an encircling ring of mountain peaks before the still waters of a lovely lake. The final leg of our journey today then takes us on to Queenstown, New Zealand's adrenaline capital and the most popular resort town on the South Island. Surrounded by mountain peaks (including the famous Remarkables), and set on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a stunning location to break our journey for the next couple of days.
Day 14: In Queenstown; optional rafting or jet boat trip
Queenstown's spectacular lakeside location, with mountain peaks rising on all sides, makes for an impressive list of possible optional activities. This town is well known for its adrenaline-based activities such as jet boating or you may wish to tackle the Grade 3-5 rapids of the Shotover River. Another possible excursion is a half-day tour which combines a 90-minute jet-boat journey along the Dart River with a short hike into the rainforests of Mount Aspiring National Park and then heads back by 4-wheel drive to Queenstown, via Paradise (location of Lothlorien, Isengard and Amon Hen in the Lord of the Rings films). Bordering the Fiordland National Park, this trip takes you into some of the most beautiful wilderness areas in New Zealand. Alternatively, less active but equally rewarding options may be to sample some of the local Queenstown wines, or take a scenic boat trip on Lake Wakatipu on board the handsomely restored steamship the TSS Earnslaw.
Day 15: Journey to Milford Sound; cruise to Te Anau
This morning we drive to the UNESCO World Heritage setting of Fjordland National Park and the stunning beauty of Milford Sound. Once described by Rudyard Kipling as the 8th wonder of the world, Milford Sound is a breathtaking setting of peaks and inlets that run some 15km inland from the Tasman Sea. Boarding a custom built boat, built along the lines of the old trading scows that used to ply these waters, we spend some time exploring the fjords and waterways of this incredible landscape this morning, looking out for dolphins, seals and penguins as we thread our way past towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls. Afterwards we then continue to the lovely setting of Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island and second only to Lake Taupo in size. If time allows on arrival it may be possible to undertake a tour of the Te Anau Caves (optional), a two and a half hour excursion that takes you across the lake then on a short boat trip into the depths of the region's famous glow worm caves.
Day 16: Continue to Dunedin wildlife spotting on the peninsula en route
Our journey today takes us across the spectacular Peninsula high road and on to the city they call the Edinburgh of the South. Dunedin was settled by Scottish settlers in the middle years of the 19th century and today presents a gracious setting of towers and spires that still retains something of its Gaelic heritage. Our route takes us via the town of Gore and, as we drive across country that was once home to Maori tribes and the great (but now sadly extinct) Moa, we take in the fabulous views out across the Pacific Ocean and Otago Harbour. Besides its Scottish ancestry, Dunedin is also famed for its wildlife, especially its albatross and penguin colonies, and this afternoon we will pay a visit to the Albatross Centre on the outskirts of the city. After a chance to wander around its exhibits and hopefully see a few of the famed birds in flight, we then hop onto our vehicle for a journey down onto Penguin Beach. Here we enter a world inhabited by yellow-eyed and blue penguins, fur seals and colonies of cliff-dwelling cormorants, all living together in complete harmony. A number of hides located along the beach-front allow us to view these remarkable animals in the wild, watching them go about their daily business free from the disturbance of human interlopers. At the end of our tour we return to Dunedin for the evening.
Day 17: Morning free, afternoon drive to Mount Cook via Moeraki Boulders
A morning of leisure allows a chance to see a little more of a city that can lay claim to a remarkable number of achievements. It was home to New Zealand's first university, as well as its first daily newspaper, first public art gallery and first public cable car system. It can also boast the country's first use of kerosene street lighting and its first chocolate factory! Indeed, in its heyday Dunedin was a progressive and vibrant centre of commerce, culture and education, an impressive claim for a city that lay at the ends of the empire. We depart the city and head north, stopping off to view the incredible boulders that lie strewn across Moeraki Beach, before continuing via the coastal town of Oamaru to the rural community of Omarama. Situated near the southern end of the Mackenzie Basin this is traditionally sheep country, but of late the region has also benefited from a growing reputation as one of the world's best gliding locations. For us though, it is our gateway into the dramatic vistas of the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (if anyone taking the optional helicopter flight).
Day 18: Return to Christchurch
Today we head towards Christchurch, stopping en route at the glacial Lake Pukaki, where we have the opportunity to admire the magnificent glaciers of Mount Cook (weather permitting). The Maori name for the highest peak in New Zealand is Aoraki, which translates as the 'Cloud Piercer'. We also stop at Lake Tekapo and visit the 'Church of the Good Shepherd', the oldest church in New Zealand, the view from the church window over the Lake and up to the snow-covered mountains of the Southern Alps is particularly beautiful. We arrive to our final destination in the late afternoon.
Day 19: Trip ends in Christchurch
The trip ends in Christchurch this morning after breakfast.