03 August, 2020
Last updated on 10 February, 2022
Posted by Spaceships Crew
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.
To make your life easier and to help you to decide where to go and what to do, we have created a guide to the best road trips routes on the North Island and South Island of New Zealand. A road trip guide created by the friendly Spaceships Crew and our travelling community. Feedback and tips from Space Travellers have been added as well. These New Zealand road trips are real favourites, therefore we dare to say "these are the best road trips in New Zealand". Check 'em out and see which one you would like to add to your road trip itinerary. This is the easiest way to create the ultimate New Zealand road trip to see it all in NZ.
North Island road trips
Big parts of the North Island are skipped or rushed through by the majority of travellers. For some reason, lots of travellers think that New Zealand's South Island has more to offer. Just add a few of these North Island routes to your itinerary and you'll see how much awesomeness the North Island has to offer.
1. From Auckland to Bay of Islands
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 (a short ferry ride 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. Have a look at the amazing things to do year-round in the Bay of Islands area.
2. 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 interesting volcanic sites including the Lake Taupo volcanic crater, the geysers of 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 leisure.
Must-do activity in Wellington: ride the cable car and enjoy the view
3. 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.
4. Auckland to Napier via Pacific Coast Highway (Coromandel included)
Here’s a North Island drive that can’t be missed if you love the simple things in life. It’s all about relaxing in this laidback region and enjoying the views or the awesome hikes. The drive from Auckland to Napier will bring you to your destination via the Coromandel Peninsula, Tauranga/Mt Manganui and Gisborne. The Pacific Coast Highway is a fantastic road trip on the North Island that won't disappoint you.
Of course, we won't skip the Coromandel on this trip, a classic New Zealand road trip destination and easy to reach from Auckland. 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 regarding activities (as such anyway), but the endless nature allows for you to create your own fun and you’ll not struggle 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 campervan road trip if you want to explore North Island.
The East Cape route from Opotiki to Gisborne along the coast, or the other way around, is an amazing trip through the Eastland region. This is the easternmost point of New Zealand's North Island and often skipped by travellers. This road trip will take you to amazing beaches, will let you see and experience Maori culture and will be a great way to relax & unplug. This East Cape road trip will also include one of the famous Great Walks of New Zealand: Lake Waikaremoana, an amazing multi-day hike.
While this route is only 93 miles long but 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.
South Island road trips
The next part of our list of the best road trips in New Zealand is the South Island. For most travellers, the South Island of New Zealand has more to offer than the North Island. After reading this list, especially the previous amazing road trip itineraries on this list you'll know that both islands are equally special. The South Island is just special in a different way. Let's bring on the mountains, the lakes, the awesome hikes and the amazing scenery of this part of New Zealand.
7. Christchurch to Queenstown
The New Zealand’s South Island is characterised by its dramatic mountains, its giant lakes and its never-ending maze of hiking trails and nature walks. Out of this world, beautiful is the only expression that does it any justice. This Christchurch to Queenstown drive takes you to amazing places and best photo opportunities you'll ever come across.
Explore the South Island - Be inspired by the best road trips in New Zealand
8. The Great Coast Road (Westport to Greymouth)
If you love the 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 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 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.
Pancake Rocks on the West Coast, also one of the best road trips in New Zealand (photo: West Coast Tourism)
9. From Queenstown to Te Anau and onward to Milford Sound
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 different 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 soak in the views really. Bring your camera and ingredients to create a yummy lunch as your Spaceships campervan comes with cooking gear included. You can enjoy your favourite meal in the open air, as we’re sure you’ll find an awesome picnic spot or two on this road trip.
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 beautiful 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, white water rafting in Queenstown or even a spot of bungee jumping if you’re looking for your next adrenaline fix!
11. Deep South of the South Island (Catlins)
Giant glaciers, dramatic fjords, and dreamy lakes, this journey takes you on the best that South Island has to offer. It is the perfect route to fill a 2-week break in beautiful New Zealand. By hiring a campervan, you’ll have the flexibility to take this at your own pace, and you can start and end in Christchurch. This road trip will take you to:
The Catlins where you will get to spot the Yellow-Eyed Penguin.
Milford Sound where the world’s most beautiful lake awaits.
Dunedin where you can discover New Zealand’s Scottish and Maori heritage and enjoy the beautiful Edwardian architecture
This definitely the best route to experience the magic of the lower South Island. Use our road trip tips and these free itineraries to see it all in New Zealand. You don't want to miss out on the lower part of the South Island, which is so often skipped by travellers as they're in a hurry. Don't make that same mistake. Take it easy and see more of New Zealand.
12. Christchurch: going 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 to Nelson Lakes, spend a day at Abel Tasman National Park before looping back south to Hokitika and through the Arthur Pass to come back to Christchurch.
Bonus tip: South Island Circuit (epic loop)
By combining parts of the above-mentioned South Island road trips, you will create one epic loop around the South Island. This is the ultimate road trip to see it all on the South Island. This route will take you to:
Whale Watching central in Kaikoura
Marlborough aka wine country, the place where the majority of New Zealand's famous Sauvignon Blanc wine is created (wine tour anyone?)
Abel Tasman National Park, a great place for kayaking or hiking
The West Coast of the South Island with sights like Pancake Rocks, Hokitika Gorge, amazing cliffs, rugged coastlines and much more
Both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, perfect for a few walks or helicopter flight with a landing on the glacier
Wanaka (famous tree) and adventure capital of the world Queenstown (make sure to spend more than a few days there)
Fiordland and Milford Sound: enjoy this amazing place from the water
The southern part of the South Island and Dunedin
Oamaru, Timaru, world-famous Moeraki Boulders and more