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How To Spend 48 Hours & $480 On A Weekend Trip To New Zealand

The North Island is home to mud baths, thermal pools, plus your fave fantasy movie sets.

New Zealand has always been on my bucket list. The first Lord of the Rings movie came out in the early 2000s, when I was a tween, and I remember not really understanding much about the film, but still dreaming about the stunning backdrops, all of which were shot in the island country.

Finally, more than 20 years later — shortly after watching the LOTR Prime Video spinoff, The Rings of Power, no less — my manifesting worked. Following the announcement of its nonstop flights from NZ to New York City (and vice versa), Air New Zealand (and the New Zealand Tourism Board) invited a small group out to Auckland and its surrounding cities on the North Island for a trip that went way beyond simply exploring Middle-earth.

My main concern was traveling there. I’m no stranger to long flights: I’d previously flown direct from Hawaii to NYC (~10 hours); Dubai to NYC (~14 hours); and Los Angeles to Sydney (~15 hours). But 17+ hours felt like a whole other level.

My travel anxiety was unwarranted, though, and I actually had the best flight of my life. The food was stellar (bland plane food? Never heard of her) and, as you can see, your girl took serious advantage of the lie-flat bed in Air NZ's Business Premier cabin. If there’s ever a time to splurge, this is it.

Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily

By the time I landed in Auckland, I was refreshed (save for a quick change in the airport bathroom) and ready to explore.

Though it’s hard to pack everything there is to see and do in one of 2024’s top travel destinations into just two days, sometimes that’s all the time you have, or all your budget will allow for. If this applies to you, below you’ll find a weekend itinerary for New Zealand’s North Island that’ll appeal to cinephiles, foodies, and nature enthusiasts alike, under $500 (sans accommodations and transportation).


1:30 p.m.: Arrive at Auckland Airport

You might feel a bit discombobulated from the jet lag, so your best plan of action would be to keep things simple and streamlined: one hot spot, one big meal, then call it a night.

Since sooo many fantasy franchises were filmed on the North Island (e.g. The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.), I wanted to set-jet to at least one of the movie sets. And with LOTR being the most notable and the one I’d dreamt of since I was 12, it was onward to Hobbiton for me.

Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily

To make the most of your time, I personally would recommend renting a car versus taking a taxi, rideshare (though Uber is available), or bus so you 1) don’t have to wait on anyone not in your own party, 2) don’t have to haul your luggage everywhere you go, and 3) can make pitstops along the way for any snacks or bathroom runs.

Rentals could be as low as ~$60 for the weekend, but gas is usually far more expensive than it is in the U.S., at roughly $7/gallon. The more friends you travel with, though, the cheaper it’ll be.

Gas station snack run: ~$10

3:30 p.m.: Take a tour through Hobbiton

After about two hours, depending on your method of travel, you’ll find yourself in the hometown of the hobbits. Clocking in at 5-foot-1, I’m not exactly a tall human, but since the fictional people are considered to be less than 4 feet, I felt like a giant walking around the Shire.

Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily
Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily
Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily
Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily

Even if you don’t consider yourself a fantasy movie buff, the set is full of delicious foods, aesthetic architecture, and Instagram- and TikTok-worthy sights including tiny homes and more than 13,000 (!) sheep.

Ticket to Hobbiton: ~$74

Snack at The Shire's Rest Cafe: ~$15

5:30 p.m.: Head out to dinner

Pro tip: Try to convince a friend to drive, because this would be the perfect time for a nap.

6:30 p.m.: Dine at Gothenburg

A great eatery 45 minutes to an hour away from Hobbiton is Gothenburg, a restaurant with a tapas- (and wine-)filled menu meant for sharing — yet another reason to travel with your loved ones.


The prawn and scallop tortellini in crayfish bisque topped with crispy bacon might be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, but there was not one item I didn’t like.

Dinner at Gothenburg: ~$45

8:30 p.m.: Check in and sleep at your accommodations in Hamilton

Word to the wise: Try not to unpack everything, as you’ll most likely want to stay at a different hotel or Airbnb the following night.

DAY 1 TOTAL: $144


9:00 a.m.: Eat then walk through Hamilton Gardens

Before you stroll through possibly one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see with your own eyes, you’re going to want to fuel up.

Your easiest bet would be to eat at the Hamilton Gardens Cafe (~7-minute drive from Gothenburg, for reference), which has a selection of traditional breakfast menu items like eggs Benedict and French toast (with roasted rhubarb, strawberry mascarpone, bacon, and a meringue crumble, yummm).

Then it’s off to explore the gardens, each one with a specific theme. Think: Italian Renaissance, Ancient Egyptian, modernist. To me, some were very reminiscent of specific scenes from Romeo & Juliet and Alice in Wonderland.


Breakfast at Hamilton Gardens: ~$25

Entry to Hamilton Gardens: FREE (though, this is subject to change sometime in 2024 to ~$12.25)

12:30 p.m.: Have a leisurely lunch in the neighboring city of Rotorua

After a long, picturesque tour through the gardens, an hour-and-a-half ride to your next spot won’t seem like a bad idea at all. (That means you could get through nearly all of The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology.)

With its designed-to-share menu, Atticus Finch, which is described as a “speakeasy meets metropolitan bistro,” would be a great lunch spot with a group. Slow-cooked lamb, chicken shawarma, and stir-fried tofu are just a few of the many delicious dishes you could sample.

Lunch at Atticus Finch: ~$35

2:00 p.m.: Choose your own adventure

Here’s where the tricky part comes in: In Rotorua, there are two fun yet very different options for your midday activity.

Option No. 1: Redwoods Treewalk (~1 hour)

If you can’t get enough of the great outdoors and are a bit of a fitness girlie, then you have to take Option No. 1. This award-winning locale — which happens to be New Zealand’s longest-living treewalk — has more than 28 suspension bridges that give you a bird’s eye POV of the forest, full of 120-year-old giant redwood trees.


Seriously, they are *huge*.

Entry to Redwoods Treewalk: ~$24.50

Option No. 2: Hell's Gate Geothermal Reserve and Mud Spa (~1.5 hours)

If you’d rather relax after your morning activity, then Option No. 2 is the way to go. By stepping through Hell’s Gate, you can give yourself a much-needed reprieve after your travels in the space’s warm geothermal mud and sulphur mineral waters.

According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, “Thermal water bath therapies are beneficial for the alleviation of chronic pain.” The various minerals in the waters also provide their own benefits. Local Māori have reportedly been taking advantage of these healing properties for over 800 years.

Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily

Beauty girlies will be happy to know that the unique mud can open and clean your skin, while the sulphur spa can exfoliate and cleanse. I applied the mud allll over my body (everywhere below the eyes) and can tell you that my skin has never felt more smooth. Note to self: Invest in more mud masks.

Entry to Hell’s Gate’s mud bath and spas: ~$52

3:30 p.m.: Check in and refresh at your new accommodations

After all the walking and potentially mud-bathing, you’re going to want to wash the day away with a nice bath or shower, and possibly fit in a nap before the nighttime festivities begin.

5:30 p.m.: Immerse yourself in the indigenous culture

Spend the next two hours and 45 minutes eating local cuisine — like Mānuka (NZ shrub) smoked ham, wild venison, and horopito (NZ pepper tree) seasoned vegetable kimchi salad — from the buffet at Pātaka Kai Restaurant & Bar, and learning about the history of the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand, next to Pōhutu Geyser, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.


The haka, Māori performance art, was equal parts educational and magical, especially from the front row.

Admission to Te Pō (dinner + haka) at Te Puia: $114

8:30 p.m.: Pack and sleep

By this time, you’ll probably be eager to hit the sack. And with the next morning kickstarting early to make the most of your remaining time, having a restful Saturday night where you pack while you watch TV is definitely the move.

DAY 2 TOTAL: $226


6:30 a.m.: Rise and shine

Since you went to bed at a decent hour and didn’t doom-scroll on TikTok at all (right??), you’ll be ready to check out and tackle the day around the time the sun rises.

Auckland Airport is about two and a half hours away from Rotorua, so my advice is to travel to the area early to avoid Sunday morning traffic, and explore the large metropolitan city a bit before you head out. The views along the way will make it worth it.

9:00 a.m.: Have your pick of breakfast faves at The Brunchery

The Brunchery has all you could want in a morning pick-me-up: eggs, waffles, avocado toast, you name it.

If you didn’t heed my advice and happened to go hard the night before, the I’m Hungover Breakfast — comprised of eggs (any style), bacon, butchers sausage, mushrooms, grilled tomato, potato hash, baked beans, and toast — might be the way to go.

Breakfast at The Brunchery: ~$20

10:00 a.m.: Choose your own adventure — again

There’s something for everyone in Auckland, so what’s next comes down to what you enjoy most.

Option No. 1: Grey Lynn Farmers Market (~2 hours)

The area surrounding The Brunchery is home to so many boutique stores where you can pick up cute souvenirs and unique clothes along the way to Grey Lynn Farmers Market, which is conveniently open only on Sundays.


Peruse all the stands of local food and drink, taking care to taste along the way, if you so choose. Since savory pies are a weakness of mine, and we really don’t have a lot of great options for ‘em in the U.S., I highly recommend stopping by Pioneer Pies. The brand always creates new and innovative hand-sized treats. (For example, the new pie of the week right now is chicken and bacon in a creamy garlic sauce).

Souvenirs + treats: ~$50

Option No. 2: All Blacks Experience (~1 hour)

If you appreciate sports more than shopping, then Option No. 2 might be more your speed. In a less than 10-minute car ride from The Brunchery, you can learn what it takes to be a part of New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks.

After a 45-minute guided tour, you can test your rugby skills in a hands-on interactive zone. As someone with exercise-induced asthma and no inhaler on hand, I unsurprisingly wasn’t cut out for this particular sport. Still fun, though.

Kaitlin Cubria/Elite Daily

FYI, this is the view when you step outside of the All Blacks Experience. That’s Sky Tower, New Zealand’s highest bar at 1,076 feet (about 30 feet taller than the Chrysler Building in NYC).

Entry to All Blacks Experience: ~$36

12:00 p.m.: Walk to Gochu

A 12-minute drive from Grey Lynn or a 10-minute walk from All Blacks will bring you to Commercial Bay’s One Queen Dining, home of all the things you could want to eat.

At the Korean modern fusion restaurant Gochu, there was nothing I didn’t want to order. I’d go back just for the gochujang charred octopus.


Lunch at Gochu: ~$40

1:30 p.m.: Head toward your next destination

In less than 30 minutes, you can find yourself back to where it all began, at Auckland Airport.

DAY 3 TOTAL: $110

Total Cost: $480

And just like that, your 48 hours on New Zealand’s North Island are O-V-E-R — and that’s only scratching the surface of all it has to offer.

Study cited:

Vaidya, Binit, and Shweta Nakarmi. “A Qualitative Study of Patients’ Beliefs and Perception on Medicinal Properties of Natural Hot Spring Bath for Musculoskeletal Problems.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health, vol. 2020, 9 July 2020, pp. 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1155/2020/3694627.