How to Backpack the Best Two Months in New Zealand

It's impossible to see the best of any country in just two months, but here's a breakdown of how we did it:


Car Camping

There are lots of ways to get around New Zealand, but we decided a rental car would be the best way for us to see some of the more remote attractions. Simply put: it's the easiest way to do it. We each had a 70L backpack to fill with out essentials. Check out their contents here!

Bringing trustworthy camping gear will take your trip to the next level. New Zealand is decked out with TONS of campgrounds in the most stunning landscapes you'll come across. It's well worth the extra few pounds to be able to pitch a tent at the base of Mount Cook.



Best Things We Brought

Camping gear to sleep under the stars.

Small luggage locks to secure our belongings in hostel lockers - they provide the safes, but you'll have to rent a lock if you don't bring your own!

Tarp/sitting blanket for a quick picnic. Doubles as a groundcloth for your tent!

Rain jacket because rain.

Hiking boots so you can climb those peaks.

External battery pack for your electronics, especially while camping.

Solar lanterns for easy lighting anywhere!

Fixed wide angle lens for landscape photography - MJ's personal favorite.

Mini bluetooth speaker to broadcast your tunes in the hostel kitchens.

Navigation app ( to get around the country. You'll thank us later.

Camping app (CamperMate) to find the best campgrounds that fit your budget.



Best Things to Do for Free

Hiking Nelson Lakes

Stargazing in the Makenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Swimming in the Blue Pools

Drive up to the Remarkables Ski Area

Coromandel's Hot Water Beach + Cathedral Cove



Best Experiences to Splurge On

*Renting a car!!!!!!! (JUCY)

Marlborough Wine Tour

Banquet Tour at Hobbiton (for all those hungry hobbits out there)

Marine mammal tours in Kaikoura

Cruise in the Fiordland National Park



Best Instagram-Worthy Spots

Ocean murals of Napier

East Coast Highway of the North Island

Castle Hill (a.k.a. Weathertop)

The Mermaid Pools in Matapouri

Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area

Key Summit Alpine Loops in the Fiordlands


Paradise Road

Farmlands of Southern Waikato



Best Cities to Hit








Best Restaurants & Bars

Kaiaua Fisheries in Kaiaua

Emporium Bar & Eatery in Napier

Rata in Queenstown

Capital Nomads Bar in Wellington

Fitzpatrick’s Irish Pub in Wanaka

Lakefront pub place in Wanaka 

Cowboy’s in Queenstown

Surreal in Queenstown



Best Hostels

Crash Palace in Rotorua

Bad Jelly Backpackers in Kaikoura

Tailor-Made Backpackers in Tekapo

BASE Hostels in Wanaka and Queenstown

On the Beach Backpackers in Hahei



Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Lake Wharakemoana

West Coast of the South Island

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

Routeburn Track (Key Summit Trail was a great substitute though!)

Another night in Wellington

Skydiving above the Remarkables



Things to Remember in New Zealand

Drive on the left side of the road!!!!!

It’s not customary to tip, but 10% is appreciated for exceptional service.

Leave No Trace. Our wild lands are worth protecting.

You probably won't see a kiwi, but give it a shot!

Always ask DOC officers for recommendations, but take it with a grain of salt. KNOW YOUR OWN CAPABILITIES!!!!!!
Book huts and campsites way in advance during peak season - everyone else knows how beautiful it is too!!!!

Be prepared for weather that’s worse than you anticipate. Always.



Wanaka's Blue Pools

Long before we arrived in Wanaka, the South Island, or even New Zealand in general, we knew we wanted to take a day trip to visit the blue pools. These pools are off shoots of the larger river around them and get their icy blue color and temperature from their source: glacial melt from the mountains towering above them.

The Blue Pools carpark is off the Haast Highway, and the drive from Wanaka is unbelievable even if you don’t stop at the pools. The road cuts its way across lakes, mountains, open valleys and forrest. By the time you’ve arrived, between 45 minutes to an hour or so, you’ve already seen enough to make the dent in your gas tank worth while. 



BUT, when you DO stop at the blue pools (because why on earth wouldn’t you), you’ll be treated to a stunning and mercifully short walk through the woods, two bridges crossing over the river and, of course, the pools. 



Many people choose to observe the pools from above while some, like us, ventured down to see if the water really is as cold as it looks. It is. After getting up to my waist in the water I was shaking all over and tapping out. If you want a taste of what I’m saying, just look at the pictures; my shoulders do not normally reach my ears. 



Now, there is a third option for the brave and foolish: you can jump from the 40-50ft bridge into a deeper part of the pools. After sincerely deciding we didn’t want to do it and then jealously watching a group of 10 brave the jump, we decided we were definitely brave and foolish enough to jump ourselves.

It was high up, something we thought about but didn’t really think about until we had a crowd of about 20 people waiting for us to climb over the bridge barrier and take the polar plunge. We handed off our cameras and counted down from three. 

I told myself that I wouldn’t scream on the way down, but I did.


If you’re anywhere near Wanaka, seriously consider taking this drive, especially on a perfect day like the one we had. For the brave and foolish, we definitely recommend the plunge, if only for the story.

Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.


Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 


Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.


Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 


Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.




Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!


Arthur’s Pass


Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!


Road to Wanaka


Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.


Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)


Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!


Road into Mount Cook National Park


There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.


Paradise Road


The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise


Queenstown to Fiordlands


The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 


Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables


On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 


Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

A Day in Paradise

Literally, Paradise Road in Glenorchy.


I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I just didn’t understand what he meant by, “want to go to Paradise today?” Turns out, there’s actually a place on the South Island called Paradise - given, it’s actually Paradise Road, but it’s aptly named for it’s idyllic views. I made a new friend in Queenstown, and he suggested spending Sunday exploring an area just 45 minutes away from Queenstown - a place called Glenorchy on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu.


The town of Glenorchy is slow and sweet, at least in the off-season. There are plenty of coffee shops, all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But if you continue past Glenorchy, you’ll find Paradise.


The road winds through the valley and across a few rivers, showcasing the best landscapes around Lake Wakatipu. 


On our way out of Paradise, we stopped at a secret spot upon Henry’s guidance. The sweet little homestead, home of the Paradise Trust, had charming pink buildings and a treehouse out front.


There’s a small walking look called the Paradise Loop Track, marked by a tree with a pretty straightforward sign. Make sure to check out the welcome board for info about the Paradise Trust and an opportunity to make a donation!


The path wanders through the forest for a bit, and eventually spits you out in rolling fields smack in between the surrounding mountains. 


Everywhere direction you look could be a postcard. There’s even a wedding set-up for an even more enchanting vibe.


Our little adventure was quite unplanned, but a great secret to uncover - thank you Henry for the perfect Sunday in Paradise.

Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.


Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 


We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.


The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.


So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.


The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.


Mount Cook

and the winds of Aoraki.


Aotearoa, or New Zealand as many people know it, was created by a fisherman named Māui (yes, sort of like The Rock in Moana). The North Island was pulled out of the sea by Maui’s hook when he was out on a fishing trip with a few of his brothers. Unfortunately, they were caught in a relentless storm that flipped their waka, or war canoe. Luckily, Maui and his brothers climbed atop the overturned boat for safety. Unluckily, the chilly winds of the Pacific froze them to ice, eternalizing the brothers and their canoe into the mountains of the South Island. This is how the land of the long white cloud came to be.

Aoraki, the oldest and biggest brother, is what we know to be the tallest mountain of New Zealand: Mount Cook. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park lays just 2 hours north of Wanaka, and is easily accessible via one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It may seem like I say this about every road in the country, but seriously this road is beautiful.


We decided to backtrack to Mount Cook after having been rained out in Tekapo a few days before. Both destinations are located within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an area nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional views of the night sky. But being that our night in Tekapo was unexpectedly cloudy, we saw it fit to come back to the region for a proper night under the stars.

As per usual, we headed straight for the DOC Visitor Centre to plan our short itinerary for 24 hours in the park. The DOC officer let us in on a little secret, “the best spots are past the third block of toilets,” he said. “Go as far as you can, and then all the way out into the field,” he said.

We plopped our party on the farthest patch of grass we could find, with a view of the mountain completely unobstructed by any of the nearby hills or vegetation. The perfect spot. 


After relaxing in the sunshine for a bit, we headed down the Hooker Valley track, which begins right at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few hundred feet from where we parked. Only 5 minutes after the trailhead, there’s a beautiful memorial for all the alpine explorers who lost their lives among the peaks of the park.


The track is an easy, meandering walk through the Hooker Valley, crossing swing bridges over lively rivers, winding through lush grassland flora, and ending at the Tasman glacier. Most of the trail is either gravel or boardwalk, making it extremely accessible to most visitors, so expect crowds.


At the end, after about one and a half to maybe two hours, you finally reach the Tasman glacier. Sadly, the glacier was just a couple of icy islands amidst a cloudy blue lake. Still, the scene is pretty legendary. 


We made it back to our campsite just in time for sunset. We ate our dinner listening to the rumbling of avalanches as the snow-melting sun beat down on the far side of the mountain. We even decided to leave the rain fly off our tent for the night so we could watch the mountain beneath the stars.


We spent some time satisfying our stargazing needs, but quickly snuggled into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I tried to sleep, laying facedown with my eyes closed for maybe two hours. Come midnight, I decided to drag myself out of the tent and put the fly back on for a bit of extra warmth, as the wind was starting to pick up. Soon enough, the wind was shaking the sides of the tent so hard that it was impossible to sleep - if not for the loudness of it, the sides and ceiling of the tent were literally slapping us in the face. Neither of us slept, for our concern of our tent ripping open kept us awake all night. While we picked a good spot for views, we realized a little too late that we picked a place smack in the middle of a wind tunnel beneath the biggest mountain in New Zealand. Nice job Einsteins. Needless to say, we accepted complete and utter defeat once the rain came for the last few hours before sunrise. That morning was pretty wet and pretty miserable. 

Worth it though.


Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Wai-O-Tapu: New Zealand's "Sacred Waters"

Maori for “sacred waters,” this beautiful tourist hotspot is a geothermal area at the southern end of the Okataina Volcanic Centre. The area has a number of hot springs that are known for their dramatic colors (and seriously disgusting smell…mmmm sulphur). 

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Hiking Mount Maunganui

Before we set out on this trip, we agreed that we would leave room in our schedule to take on adventures that others recommended to us and that we may not have already heard of. Hiking Mt. Maunganui was one of our first such adventures. 

We met Alex at Matamata Backpackers the night before we were leaving. He told us about Tauranga and showed us pictures from the top of the mountain. We were easily convinced. 


It’s an hour long hike to get to the top of the mountain that sits at the end of the Tauranga peninsula. We got lucky and managed to get up to the top while the sky was (almost) cloudless and the breeze was cool. 

The view is spectacular. The city stretches out before you and the beaches there are beautiful. If you’re ever looking to surf in Northern New Zealand, we were told that this is definitely the spot. (We almost let ourselves get talked into a surfing lesson but the water was a bit too cold for us).


On our way back down the mountain, we ran into the second person to talk us into something we hadn’t planned to do. While we never learned his name, he was an older New Zealander with a fondness for beautiful road trips and he told us about the East Coast Road. 

When we found ourselves on this road a few days later, we wished we had a way to thank him for the suggestion. 

Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel, New Zealand

Upon the suggestion of my dear friend and director of EcoQuest, Kim and I decided to take the long way back from Whatianga. Instead of coming back the way we came, we looped around the peninsula to the town of its namesake, Coromandel. 


Driving Creek Railway is a bit north of the town of Coromandel, but well worth the drive. DCR is not only a scenic railway, but also an art gallery and creativity garden. Barry Brickell, DCR’s founder, originally purchased the land for its reserves of yellow plastic clay. Once he got his workshop and kiln up and running, Barry began to draw sculptors from all over the country to come to his co-op - being that it was the only pottery workshop in New Zealand. Soon, Barry was hosting artists from all over the world to come be a part of his homegrown pottery haven.


While Barry was first and foremost an artist, he quickly became an engineer and builder when the next available clay reserves were moving up and up the mountain. Again, being an artist, Barry didn’t have much money to dedicate to building a railway. So, he reused old tracks and carts from abandoned gold mines (reduce, reuse, recycle)!


As if Barry’s bohemian heaven wasn’t already amazing, it turns out that he was also a naturalist and conservationist. Before his ownership, most of the land was poor quality farmland and cleared pastures. So instead, Barry used this opportunity to revegetate his land with native bush species such as Kauri, Totara, and Rimu trees. He even built a fenced in, predator proof sanctuary on the grounds for native wildlife.

Art? Trees? Conservation? This place is the most wholesome endeavor you will find anywhere, ever. Barry Brickell didn’t even set out to build a tourist attraction - it only opened recently to the public. Now, it’s protected under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant - all 23ha. 


I sat on the creaky rail car as it carried us all the way up the mountain, through 5 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 2 bridges. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the craftsmanship of this railway. Each tunnel was lined with beautifully crafted bricks and glass accents. Little clay creatures hid amongst the ferns. Expressive faces peacefully waited for you around every turn. The entire track was adorned with sculptures, making it one big creative, engineering masterpiece.


At the very top awaits the Eyeful Tower (ha ha, very nice Barry). If not for the sculptures along the way, the railway is worth the ride even just for the view at the top. We climbed up the pagoda-esque structure and out onto its balcony for an awe-inspiring view of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Hauraki Gulf. Again, we were blessed with another blue sky day.


On the way back down, the ride is both comforting and inspiring. Being surrounded by so many pieces of creative beauty right alongside such expansive natural beauty is really quite magical. Driving Creek Railway is, through and through, the definition of a hidden gem.

Exploring Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

- Bilbo Baggins


Everyone who knows me, even a little, knows that I have a geeky side that’s been alive and kicking since I was little. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the whole shebang - I love it.

I’ve watched, and read, every movie and book of the LOTR trilogy, as well as the Hobbit, and nursed a serious fangirl crush on Viggo Mortensen since I was in middle school. I can recite the entirety of the Two Towers and Return of the King by heart (extended editions, thank you very much).

To say that Hobbiton was high on my New Zealand to-do list would be an understatement - it was at the freaking top.

SO, as we made our way down the scenic North Island, we stopped for two nights at a hostel called Matamata Backpackers (awesome place, if you’re headed that way), which is situated just 15 minutes away from the Hobbiton Movie Set.

We soon found out that many of the people staying there were the tour guides, chefs, and set designers that work over at Hobbiton. While we were there, we got to hang out with them and watched someone spend a whole day braiding Hobbit doormats for the set. It was awesome.

And that first night, we finally got to see what all the hype was about. We got the Hobbiton Evening Banquet Tour funded through one of our gofundme’s (THANK YOU humans who contributed) and headed down at around 4:15 p.m. to the Shire’s Rest, the pick-up spot for the tour.


We had a perfect day, which is luckier than you might think, as we strolled through Hobbiton’s 44 permanent hobbit holes. Hobbiton is situated on 14 of the 1,200 acres of the picturesque Alexander Family Farm. Peter Jackson first approached the Alexander family in 1998 to ask if he could build and film the famous Hobbiton set on their land.

After the younger son talked his father into saying ‘yes,’ the rest is history. While the set was built to be temporary, the resounding success of the films encouraged the Alexanders and Peter Jackson to create a permanent tourist attraction out of the location.

We walked through Bag End and along the path past the Party Tree as the sun was setting and it was magical. The brilliant colors of the door, the details on the little tables and in the windows, are all testament to Peter Jackson’s incredible OCD when it came to getting this set right.

He went so far as to bring in an apple tree, strip it of all it’s fruit and glue the fruits and leaves of a plum tree back on, just so he could have a 3 second scene of children playing under an old plum tree. This scene eventually got cut, but even still, you get the point.


After strolling through the hobbit holes, we ended at the Green Dragon, the pub in the Shire that actually brews its own beer and ginger beer. After a beer on the house, we sat down to an amazing feast that left us both in the two cushy armchairs by the fire, unable to move.


Following the feast, the night concluded with yet another tour back through the Shire, this time with the stars out. We all got old-fashioned lanterns to light our way and got to experience all of the hobbit holes illuminated at night. It was tricky to photograph and magical to behold.


As for souvenirs, well, we were tempted by giant hobbit feet slippers in the gift store for a mere $100 (what?!) but opted for sneaking out two of our ale mugs from the Green Dragon instead. Tricksy, huh?

If you’re a geek like me and are super into this kind of thing AND find yourself in Northern New Zealand - the tour we took is offered every day during the summer and only Wednesday and Friday during the winter. You can read more about it here.