A Guide to the Best Road Trips in New Zealand
A Guide to the Best Road Trips in New Zealand
New Zealand, the land of giant glaciers and snow-capped mountains, endless grassy plains and subtropical forest, miles of rugged coastline and dreamy beaches, peaceful lakes with the most striking reflections and relaxing hot springs for every traveller to wind down in. This is Mother Nature’s greatest piece of work, with a contrasting landscape that ticks all the boxes on your bucket list.
And we don’t think there’s a better way of taking it all in than by campervan or car. This isn’t the sort of place where you have to rough it just to get off the beaten track, or the sort of place where you have to hire a 4x4 to go off road. New Zealand is one of the most well-connected places on the planet and the road network is impressively convenient. And defying all laws of nature, public transport even runs on time here. So this isn’t the sort of place that will ever leave you feeling lost, scared or stranded. It’s going to be a pretty easy ride if you’re planning a driving holiday here, which means that you can focus all your energy on having a great time.
Here’s a guide to some of the best road trips routes in New Zealand…
1. North Island: Auckland and Bay of Islands Loop
The Loop of the Bay Islands is a great trip for anyone who doesn’t have much time but still wants to see the best highlights that New Zealand has to offer. Bringing you the sheer beauty of the Northern coastline, the hip city vibes of Auckland plus some delicious wine tasting on Waiheke Island (4 hour ferry from Auckland), this is the perfect family or couple’s road trip encompassing city, beach and even some dolphin spotting along the way! This trip is suitable for any time of year even in their peak of winter (July and August) when the South Island is covered in snow, North Island is still lovely and balmy. And the short distance drives means that you can really explore each destination.
2. North Island: Auckland to Wellington
This is the North Island route which takes the “Thermal Highway” southbound so you can explore some of the nation’s most intriguing volcanic sites including the Lake Taupo volcanic crater, the geysers or Rotorua any many other geothermal sights along the way. Have your camera at the ready and don’t forget to pack a nose peg because you’ll quite often find yourself next to the bubbling mud pools and thermal lakes that give off a pungent sulphur smell. If you’re in the market for a good NZ tipple, this route will also take you through the wine regions of Martinborough before arriving in the coastal capital of Wellington so you’ll have plenty of chances to enjoy a drink or two. This trip can be completed in 12 days but we would recommend giving yourself a few extra days to relax by the lake and explore each pit stop at your own leisure.
3. South Island: Christchurch to Queenstown
Begin your journey in Greymouth, a quaint seaside town that can be reached by the TranzAlpine train going from east to west. From the seaside, take this short but sweet journey down south and explore the beautifully rugged coastline before finishing your journey through the dramatic Southern Alps and ending up in Queenstown. This is a quick and easy drive that will take you around 7 days in total and covers some of South Island’s best highlights. Not to be missed along the way are the famous Fox and Franz Josef glaciers which can be explored on foot if you’ve brought the right gear with you – alternatively, you can book a guided tour where clothing and equipment are usually included. If you’re still in need of some more action at the end of your road trip, don’t forget Queenstown is the place to be for skydiving and bungee jumping!
4. The Great Coast Road (Westport to Greymouth)
If you love coastal scenery, this West Coast drive will take you on an endless journey of stunning seaside sunsets, glorious beaches and rugged rock formations carved by the ocean. The SH6, otherwise known as the Great Coast Road, takes you from Westport to Greymouth and this is the route that will really take you off the beaten path. Forget everything we said in the intro about being well connected because although the roads here are good nick, there’s no fuel for a 56 mile stretch and you probably won’t see another ATM until you reach your final destination. This is the one to really get away from it all, with the Tasman Sea on your right and the snowy Southern Alps on your left. Make sure you stop off in Punakaiki to check out the famous “Pancake Rocks” and continue down the SH6 after Greymouth if you want to hike the Franz Josef Glacier.
5. Te Anau to Milford Sound Highway
Milford Sound Highway is one of the most famous highways in the world, and it’s certainly one of the most dramatic. The two hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound will take you through some of New Zealand’s most intense and vivid landscapes and you’ll be completely spellbound by the contrasting sights of pristine rainforest, moss-covered mountains, mirror lakes, trickling waterfalls and the presence of striking cliff faces meandering along your route. There’s theatre from start to finish so you might find it hard to keep focused on the wheel and you’ll want to stop several stops to really soak in the views. Bring your SLR camera and a packed lunch so you can enjoy your favourite sandwich al fresco in the open air – we’re sure you’ll find an awesome picnic spot or two.
6. Auckland to Taupo
Follow State Highway 1 and drive south through the heart of North Island and then take Highway 1B to Cambridge, follow Highway 5 through Rotorua and then continue onto Taupo via the Thermal Explorer Highway. This delightful route gives you a little bit of everything, making it ideal for families with children or large groups with lots of people to please. Taking you from the city vibes of Auckland to the rural views of the Bombay Hills, a quirky little town and perhaps lunch spot in Tirau, the chic coffee culture and walking trails in Cambridge, to the geysers and volcanic craters of along the Thermal Explorer. If you’re looking for an afternoon of relaxation, don’t forget to visit one of the natural geothermal spas.
7. New Zealand Wine Trail
This is the one for winos! If you’re interested in learning for more about NZ wine production, or you just fancy enjoying a good tipple with the beautiful New Zealand scenery, this classic wine trail driving route will tick all of your boxes and will give you the opportunity to explore both islands. The tour will last around 10 days in total and will touch on three of the country’s most popular wine making regions; Martinborough, Blenheim and Marlborough. Begin your trip in Napier and head south on State Highway 50 to Martinborough where you will get to sample the world famous Pinot Noir across a number of different wineries. Spend a couple of nights here if you want to check out the local restaurants. Drive onto Wellington and spend a day in the capital soaking up the city culture before taking the ferry over the South Island and continuing your drive to the Blenheim wine region. Stop here to enjoy the local Sauvignon Blanc before taking your trip to the Marlborough region, which is home to 75% of New Zealand’s wine production.
8. Wanaka to Queenstown via the Cardrona Pass
For an active holiday, this South Island Drive covers it all and turns New Zealand into your personal playground. This route covers some amazing locations including the picturesque resort of Cardrona (home to the most photographed pub in New Zealand), the stunning area of Queenstown which is set at the foothills of the Alps and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables Mountain Range as a backdrop. Throughout your journey, you’ll have the opportunity to get involved in so many different sports and activities such as skiing at Cardrona Alpine Resort, white water rafting in Queenstown or even a spot of bungee jumping if you’re looking for your next adrenaline fix!
9. Thames to Coromandel Road
Here’s a North Island drive that can’t be missed if you love the simple things in life. There’s no wine tasting or skydiving here; it’s all about relaxing in this laidback region and simply enjoying the views. We think this road trip is suitable for couples who are looking to get away from the cities or for families who just want to kick back on a pretty beach and let the kids burn off some energy. The Coromandel Region of New Zealand has a sort of low-key vibe and everyone is very chilled out. There’s not much to do in terms of activities (as such anyway) but the endless nature allows for you to create your own fun and you’ll not struggling to find a decent hiking trail. Take the drive from the small town of Thames and enjoy nothing but sandy beaches, rolling hillsides and pretty coastlines along the way. Visit in December and you’ll get to witness the gorgeous red hues of the Pohutukawas tree in full bloom. This is the ultimate motorhome road trip if you want to explore North Island.
10. South Island: Christchurch South Loop
Giant glaciers, dramatic fjords, and dreamy lakes – this journey takes you on the best that South Island has to offer and is the perfect loop to fill a 2 week break in beautiful New Zealand. If you’re hiring a motorhome, you’ll have the flexibility to take this at your own pace and you can start and end in cool and quirky Queenstown where there are so many fun things to do. Take your journey to Milford Sound where the world’s most beautiful lake awaits, The Caitlins Forest Park where you will get to spot the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, Dunedin where you can discover New Zealand’s Scottish and Maori heritage and enjoy the beautiful Edwardian architecture, finished off with an overnight stay at Lake Tekapo where you can camp under the stars. If you want to do this route with warm weather and long daylight hours, we would recommend visiting between the months of November to March for the great summer climate.
11. South Island: Christchurch North Loop
If you don’t mind a winding road or two, the Christchurch North Loop could make a fantastic trip alternative to the above. This route is filled with wildlife and wine so you can get the best of both worlds – a great trip for adults who want relaxing nature as well as few tipples to end each night with. Head northwards from Christchurch and go to the seaside town of Kaikoura. Crayfish the local dish here so make sure you stop for lunch after a morning of whale watching. The head up to the tip of South Islands and stop at Marlborough Sounds, where you can enjoy everything from water sports to wine tasting. 75% of the country’s wine production happens in this region and Sauvignon Blanc is the signature wine that you have to try. Take your journey onto Nelson Lakes, spend a day at Abel Tasman National Park before lopping back south to Hokitika and through the Arthur Pass to come back to Christchurch.
12. Forgotten World Highway
Whilst this route is only 93 miles long and takes just 3 days to complete, it’s still a very iconic drive. One that hasn’t been designed for the faint-hearted. Built on colonial bridle paths formed centuries ago, the Forgotten World Highway is kind of…..well, forgotten. It’s rather remote and there are some tricky turns along the way so if you don’t mind a bit of a rollercoaster ride, this road trip might be right up your street. You can take the Forgotten Highway from Stratford or Taumarunui and will meander you through the rugged mountains, a scary one-lane tunnel and a winding river gorge that will require full concentration. Much of the road consists of loose gravel and the only place to stop off for a pint or a bed for the night is a pokey little town called whangamomona.