How to see New Zealand even if you only have a week’s vacation

Tandem skydivers soar above Lake Taupo on the North Island.
Tandem skydivers soar above Lake Taupo on the North Island. Destination Lake Taupo

New Zealand is at the top of many travel lovers’ bucket lists. Scenic vistas, famous hikes and adventure sports beckon anyone who craves time outdoors and loves a good adrenaline rush. Not to mention “Lord of the Rings” obsessors like myself who dream of visiting the movie versions of the magical places J.R.R. Tolkien created.

But because of its remote location, there’s a prevailing sense that people need to carve out a good chunk of time to make the trip “worth it.” Many wait to travel to the land of the long white cloud until they can squirrel away several weeks.

For the rest of us, finding that much time simply isn’t an option. New Zealand stays on the bucket list as other, seemingly more accessible destinations are crossed off.

Weighing cost, time off and future trips, I knew I could only allocate five vacation days, flying after work Friday and returning the following Sunday. People scoffed at me for only taking a week. “What’s even the point?” they’d ask. “The flight alone will eat up most of your time.”

It’s true, the flight to New Zealand is a doozy. My itinerary took me from Tampa to Houston to Auckland. Total travel time clocked in around 20 hours. Plus there’s the whole 18-hour time change. I left America on a Friday and landed in New Zealand on a Sunday, despite being in the air fewer than 24 hours.

The flight back was worse. An overnight bus ride from one end of the island to the airport at the other coupled with flight delays meant I was traveling for nearly 40 hours.

Add it up and I can see why people would be so hesitant to plan an abbreviated trip.

But given the choice of only going for a week or not going at all, I’d choose the short trip. Every time.

In exchange for five vacation days, I lived an adventure of which so many only ever dream. Here’s how you can do the same.

Short trip benefits

There are some benefits to a shorter trip. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to rationalize spending money on a new activity every day.

Many people I met were in the middle of trips spanning anywhere from three weeks to three months. While there are plenty of ways to cut costs (think hostels and grocery shopping), many of the adventure activities are expensive. Whitewater rafting, caving and skydiving each ranged from $100 to $400.

Knowing I only had six full days allowed me to splurge. When some new Irish friends peer pressured me into skydiving — something I hadn’t even considered — I was able to say yes without having to debate what other perks I’d have to cut down the line. (It was unequivocally worth it, by the way. I’ll never forget the rush of falling through the sky and the pure joy as we broke through the clouds and my world was filled with endless mountain views and a clear blue lake the size of Singapore.)

Every day held its own promise of adventure: ocean kayaking past bays full of stingrays and gemstones; hiking at sunrise along a coastline of rock arches and volcanic islands that break through the sea; exploring massive waterfalls hidden in the native bush; visiting the intricate set of Hobbiton; skydiving; caving; and completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Instead of tiring me out, it energized me.

Itinerary discipline

There are two keys to making the most out of a weeklong trip.

One: Narrow your itinerary. Accept that you can’t do it all.

I suppose you could try to do both islands in one week, but you’d run yourself ragged. I decided to focus on the North Island, known more for volcanoes, geothermal geysers and sandy beaches. My main reason was incredibly nerdy: I wanted to see Hobbiton, which is located an hour out of Rotorua. My supporting reason was more practical: The South Island could easily take up two weeks with its famous treks and dramatic scenery.

Two: Be flexible.

With outdoor adventures, you’re on Mother Nature’s timeline.

I had two objectives for the trip: visit Hobbiton and hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s best day trek. Otherwise, I left my days unplanned.

Sure, I had an idea of things I wanted to do. Whitewater rafting was high on the list, as was hiking to waterfalls, bungee jumping and maybe learning to surf. But I didn’t book anything in advance, instead making decisions based on that day’s weather and travel schedule.

The approach came in handy when Cyclone Debbie tore through Australia a few days into my trip, unleashing heavy rains on the North Island. Because my tight schedule allowed for only one night in Rotorua, severe flooding made whitewater rafting impossible.

Those rains carried on for several days, including my visit to Hobbiton. As the gray clouds rumbled overhead, I fretted over whether they’d cancel my tour. Thankfully, the skies cleared long enough for us to explore the fictional town so dear to my heart, complete with rolling hills and more than 40 hobbit holes. The day was dreary and the views not nearly as picturesque, but I was so thankful to be there that not even a little precipitation could get me down.

The rain did have some benefits. The waves swelled with the wind and extra water, making surfing conditions better along Raglan’s jagged coast. I ended up passing on this opportunity after multiple bus breakdowns left me nauseated and frustrated. Instead, I relaxed at my hostel in the native bush, a beautiful, dense web of towering trees, ferns and moss.

Flooded caves

I woke one morning to learn that several of the famous glow worm caves had flooded, canceling many of that day’s tours. I had waffled over which cave experience I’d choose — rafting, abseiling, zip lining. Instead, the weather decided for me, as only one option was still operating: rappelling into the mammoth caves.

In this case, flooding only enhanced the experience. The cave’s rapids whipped around us and the underground waterfalls were more powerful. Our guides said it was the most water they’d ever seen down there. I was in complete awe as I scrambled over rock paths and rappelled down waterfalls 80 meters under the earth. I felt like I was on another planet as I gazed at the jagged stalactites covered in hundreds of green glowing bugs.

As I neared the end of my trip, I was anxious that the heavy rains would make my Tongariro trek impossible. Those looking to hike the crossing are encouraged to schedule several days in Taupo in order to improve chances of good weather. I knew when I booked my trip I was gambling by only having one full day in the area.

Yet when I arrived Friday afternoon, the guide at the hostel told me the weather was finally clearing. Saturday was expected to be the best day yet. Finally, my luck had turned.

The morning started at sunrise, in the shadow of Mount Doom. I pulled on several layers, including gloves and a vest, as high 40s seemed frigid to this Florida girl. I began the 12-mile hike by reflecting on everything I had done in such a short time. I was surprised by all I had experienced, and proud that I did it on my own, undeterred by warnings that one week would never be enough.

As I trudged up the volcanic crest of the emerald lakes (a bright spot of color in the otherwise gray, grim haze), I was filled with gratitude. Did I wish I had another week or two to experience more of this country? Absolutely. But I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last day in New Zealand than on this hike.

Going home

And I was ready to go home. I accomplished what I set out to do and filled my soul with memories that would bring me joy for years to come.

As I took a break to eat my sandwich and savor the views — the day had now warmed enough that I was sweating in my T-shirt and hiking pants — a fellow hiker struck up a conversation. He had completed this trek several times before, but it was his first time with his stepson, a preteen who used his hiking poles to poke at ice formations and snacked on Cadbury chocolate at each rest point.

“I’ve hiked this crossing seven times and this is by far the best weather I’ve ever had,” the man said. “You couldn’t have planned a better day.”