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New Zealand is a natural study in contrasts, from shockingly green, sprawling pastureland to soaring mountain ranges encrusted with ice and snow. It's ideal for an epic post-wedding road trip thanks to a mix of heart-thumping thrills and moments of quiet wonder. Just ask writer Rachel Tepper Paley and her new husband, Jon, who traveled around New Zealand as part of an extended honeymoon last year. Here, she takes us on a 1,289-mile journey across the country's two islands—from Auckland in the north to Dunedin in the south—with each stop along the way more memorable than the last.
Mile 0: Auckland
We have only one day in New Zealand's largest metropolis, which means no time to experience its standout restaurant scene, Victorian architecture, or buzzing harbor. While many visitors make the short yet steep trek to the summit of Mt. Eden—at 643 feet, the city's highest natural point—my husband, Jon, and I pile into our rented Mitsubishi Outlander—Budget Bardot, as we fondly call her—and wind up the road, passing gaggles of panting hikers en route. The dormant volcano erupted 15,000 years ago, creating a molten landscape of lava and ash; today, the majestic 160-foot-deep crater at the top is blanketed with a lush green carpet. The indigenous Maori people believed it housed a deity that guards secrets hidden deep within the earth.
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Mile 119: Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Two-plus hours of zigzagging through lush, undulating fields dotted with sheep brings us to this complex warren of limestone caves that's inhabited by thousands of tiny glowworms. After squeezing into wet suits, we plunge into the icy, murky depths, armed only with inner tubes and headlamp-fitted hard hats, along with guides from the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. In almost complete darkness, the rocky ceiling flickers with a breathtaking number of spectral blue-green pinpricks. We spend the night at the 33-room Waitomo Caves Hotel, a striking building dating to 1908. When booking, Jon failed to pick up on one of its key features: It's allegedly incredibly haunted. The place plays the part, with long, dimly lit hallways lined with fading wallpaper and an eerie quiet. Before bed, we join other guests in front of the barside fireplace and trade ghost stories between sips of red wine. Later, cozying up in our room, I swear something is hovering by the bed. There isn't. (Or is there?)
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Mile 180: Matamata
The rural township is best known as the home of Hobbiton Movie Set, the meticulously maintained set where Peter Jackson filmed portions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. (The land is part of a family-owned farm.) Even casual fans will be starstruck by this blindingly green, magical place, with its grassy Hobbit Holes and manicured vegetable patches. Guided tours take place daily, sometimes led by extras or assistants from the movies. During our afternoon there, I peer around Bilbo Baggins's door—but the home is an empty shell, and I'm jolted back to reality, if only for a moment.
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Mile 222: Rotorua
One minute in this small resort area and we understand why it's nicknamed "Sulphur City." The pungent smell comes from tons of thermal activity, including Po¯hutu, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. Up to twice an hour, you can watch it powerfully spew steam and water as high as 100 feet in the air. While in the neighborhood, we take in a performance of Maori dances at the Te Puia cultural center. It's hard not to be moved by the powerful movements and chanting.
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Mile 503: Wellington
This compact city at the North Island's southwestern tip is our first major urban center since Auckland, but it hardly lacks for natural splendor. We spend the morning hiking the forested path up to Mount Victoria Lookout, which reveals a dazzling 360-degree view of Wellington and its yacht-lined harbor. Back in town, we duck into secondhand shops on hip Cuba Street and visit the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where the exhibit about World War I is a must-see. We've eaten our share of local oysters, but none are quite like those at award-winning restaurant Logan Brown: Wonderfully briny and served with lime, mirin, and orange globes of salmon roe.
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Mile 660: Kaikoura
A rocky three-hour ferry passage across the roiling Cook Strait brings us to the South Island. Our first stop is Kaikoura, a tiny village renowned for shellfish. Lunch is at Nins Bin (+011 64 3 319 6454), an iconic no-frills seafood shack known for its hot crayfish (less meaty than Maine lobster but just as sweet). For dinner, we sample immense mussels steamed with cilantro, lime, ginger, and coconut cream at Green Dolphin Restaurant and Bar. But swimming with dolphins is our main objective here. Early the following morning, we find ourselves once again in wet suits, jumping flippers-first into the icy Pacific on an excursion booked through Encounter Kaikoura. The guides instruct us to sing (I appropriately choose The Little Mermaid tunes), and we're immediately swarmed by a pod of wild dusky dolphins. They're moving too fast to touch, but are seemingly just as curious about us as we are about them.
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Mile 772: Christchurch
The two-plus-hour drive to New Zealand's oldest city—where we spend two days—cuts through grassy plains and rows of twisted grapevines. On the gentle Avon River, which meanders through the city, couples glide downstream in pole-propelled boats captained by men in Edwardian-era straw hats. After some sightseeing, we opt for more adventurous pursuits at the International Antarctic Centre, an interactive attraction (the city is a gateway to the frigid continent). After a mere 10 seconds in the indoor polar room—which simulates a storm, blustery winds, frigid temps, and all—I'm pretty sure I could never hack it as an Antarctic explorer.
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Mile 965: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Fortified with classic Squiggles Hokey Pokey cookies, we drive four hours through fields and towns to the snow-tipped peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Upon arrival, we tread on foot along the wooden paths and swing bridges of Hooker Valley Track, an easy four-hour hike through the glacier-kissed foothills of the Southern Alps. Before calling it a night at our Airbnb, we take a stargazing tour at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. It's one of the darkest places on Earth, and I'm rendered speechless by the luminous Milky Way. I see the Southern Cross constellation, the hemisphere's navigational equivalent to the North Star.
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Mile 1,114: Queenstown
While Jon is off on a skydiving adventure, I luxuriate in our peaceful room at the splurge-worthy Matakauri Lodge, which comes complete with a working gas fireplace, gratis mini bar, and sprawling views of Lake Wakatipu and the jagged Remarkables mountain range. The gleaming bathroom's deep tub affords the same vista and a private setting that makes curtains unnecessary. Add a chilled glass of floral Waimea Estates Spinyback Pinot Gris, and I am perfectly content to be on solid ground.
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Mile 1,289: Dunedin
Our final destination is a fascinating mix of nature and city living, historic sites and of-the-minute culture. You can climb the regal stairways of the imposing 19th-century Larnach Castle & Gardens and Baldwin Street, the world's steepest residential road, or peruse modern and old masterpieces at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. There are also airplane hangar–like caves to explore at Long Beach, where we scan the sea for native albatrosses with 10-foot wingspans. But the highlight is undoubtedly a raucous All Blacks rugby match at Forsyth Barr Stadium. I'm not the sporting type, but the team's fierce haka (a Maori war dance that kicks off the match) whips me into a frenzy alongside the screaming fans. It's just one more thing about New Zealand that is larger than life—from the geysers to the outstretched mountain peaks to the infinite map of constellations—and the sheer scale is what stays with me on our flight back to Auckland.
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