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The Best Routes for a New Zealand Road Trip

by Travelbag on 02 May 2019, 15:05PM

New Zealand

Planning a road trip around New Zealand? Whether you’re visiting for a few days or several months, a road trip is the best way to discover the diverse landscapes of this incredible country. From the thermal hot springs and deserted beaches of the volcanic North Island to the mountains and glaciers of the rugged South Island, you can’t help but fall in love with New Zealand’s natural beauty. Our road trip itineraries will help you decide where to go, so you can easily plan an unforgettable self-drive holiday around the Land of the Long White Cloud.


New Zealand Road Trips – North Island


Auckland to Cape Reinga

Highlights: Auckland, Waiheke Island, Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga

Suggested time: 5-7 days


Most flights from the UK to New Zealand arrive into Auckland, so it’s the logical place to begin your road trip. Before hitting the open road, though, it’s worth spending a couple of days exploring this harbour side city. A multicultural hub with a diverse selection of bars, cafes, restaurants and shops, Auckland boasts a thriving arts scene, dramatic black-sand beaches and almost 50 volcanic peaks, all of which provide striking panoramic views. Just offshore lies the spectacular Hauraki Gulf Marine Park and its myriad islands. Only a 35-minute ferry ride away, Waiheke Island, with its stunning bays and world-class wineries, makes for a great day trip.

After a few days in the City of Sails, it’s time to begin your short New Zealand road trip and drive three hours north to the Bay of Islands. Peaceful and pristine, the Bay of Islands is a popular year round destination famed for its sheltered waters and untouched beaches. The townships of Paihai and Russell are the best bases from which to explore all that the region has to offer. While many of the 144 islands in the bay offer walking tracks, the real attraction here is the water. Home to an abundance of wildlife, including dolphins, whales and seals, as well as an array of birdlife and fish, the marine playground is perfect for swimming, kayaking, diving and boating. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, just outside Paihai, is a must-do for all visitors – the birthplace of New Zealand, it is an excellent place to learn about Maori culture.

Leaving the Bay of Islands, continue driving northwards towards the Aupouri Peninsula, located on New Zealand’s north western tip. Once you’ve driven 100-kilometres past the nearest small town, you’ll eventually arrive at the dramatic headland of Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide. Attractions in the area include the Cape Reinga lighthouse, Toputaputu Bay, the 48-kilometres Te Paki Coastal Track, Te Paki Sand Dunes, and Ninety Mile Beach, although this is sadly off-limits to most rental vehicles.


Auckland to Wellington

Highlights: Auckland, Coromandel, Hobbiton, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro, Wellington

Suggested time: 8-12 days

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

New Zealand’s popularity as a tourist destination dramatically increased following the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This road trip takes you from the country’s most populous city to its calm and cultural capital, via Hobbiton and Mount Doom.

Heading south from Auckland, your first stop will be the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula with its charming gold rush-era towns and quaint seaside villages. The coast here is fringed with unspoilt beaches, set against a backdrop of native rainforest, while a central, mountainous spine provides ample hiking opportunities. Two of the region’s highlights are Hot Water Beach, where you can dig your own hot pool, and the hidden paradise of Cathedral Cove.

Leaving the Coromandel, journey to Matamata – home of the Hobbiton movie set. Here you can experience the real Middle Earth with a guided tour of The Shire, and enjoy some traditional fare at the Green Dragon Inn, before continuing the drive to Rotorua – the Sulphur City renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. 

An hour’s drive from Rotorua, through pine forest and interesting volcanic landscapes, you’ll reach the next stop on your road trip – the resort town of Taupo. Situated on the edge of New Zealand’s largest lake, this place has a wide range of water activities on offer, as well as year-round mountain biking and skiing in winter. A scenic walk along the country’s longest river, the Waikato, will take you to Huka Falls – an 11-metre-high waterfall over which more than 220,000 litres of water comes barrelling every second.

On one of your days in Taupo, get up early and head just a few kilometres southwest to the dual UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tongariro National Park, whose rocky slopes and barren landscapes doubled as Mordor in Peter Jackson’s film franchise. Passing through glacial valleys, alpine meadows and vivid crater lakes, the park’s famous Alpine Crossing is widely regarded as one of the best day hikes in a country renowned for its walking tracks.

On the final leg of this North Island road trip, you’ll wind your way through the Wairarapa wine region around Martinborough before arriving in Wellington, where you’ll find a flourishing cafe culture and world-class craft beer scene. After all that time spent in the car, this is a city made for walking. Those who hike to the summit of Mount Victoria are rewarded with truly fantastic views, while the picturesque City to Sea Walkway strings together green spaces, including the beautiful Botanic Gardens, historic cemeteries and the rugged shoreline of the south coast. In a prime position on Wellington’s waterfront you’ll find Te Papa, New Zealand’s innovative and interactive national museum – often described as the best free attraction in the country.


New Zealand Road Trips – South Island

North Loop

Highlights: Christchurch, Kaikoura, Marlborough, Abel Tasman, Punakaki, Arthur’s Pass

Suggested time: 8-12 days

Abel Tasman National Park

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second-largest city, and the gateway to the South Island. It was devastated by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 but it is gradually rebuilding and re-emerging as a tourist friendly destination. As you wander through the city you’ll find an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars, and no shortage of street art. Take a stroll through the Botanic Gardens, or a punt on the Avon, and you’ll soon understand how Christchurch earned the moniker “the Garden City.”

A two-hour drive north of Christchurch you’ll find the pretty coastal town of Kaikoura. Internationally known as a whale watching destination, it is also the perfect place to get up close and personal with dolphins and fur seals. In the Maori language, 'kai' means food and 'koura' means crayfish so, after a day of marine encounters, be sure to treat yourself to a seafood feast.

New Zealand’s largest wine region is the next stop on this road trip. Located on the South Island’s north-easterly tip, Marlborough produces some of the best Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in the world. Spend two days here – one on land, touring the region’s vineyards, and another on the water, exploring the secluded bays of the surrounding Sounds – before heading west towards Abel Tasman.

It may be New Zealand’s smallest national park, but Abel Tasman still packs quite a punch. Accessible only via water taxi, it is renowned for its golden beaches and hidden coves, as well as its imposing cliffs cloaked in rich vegetation.

Almost 300-kilometres south of Abel Tasman, on NZ’s wild west coast, lies the small settlement of Punakaiki. The drive there takes you along the Buller River, through spectacular scenery, to the edge of Paparoa National Park. Punakaiki is famed for its pancake rocks and blowholes – unusual limestone formations through which the Tasman Sea shoots skywards with incredible force. Formed 30 million years ago, these geological oddities are well worth the journey, and most impressive at high tide.

Leaving Punakakai it’s time to complete your road trip and make your way back to Christchurch. Heading south to Greymouth, you’ll then turn inland and wind your way over the spectacular Southern Alps towards Arthur’s Pass. A feat of civil engineering, this scenic highway is one of the most striking routes in the entire country. In the middle of the immense alpine wilderness lies Arthur’s Pass Village – NZ’s highest altitude settlement. If you have a few extra days to spare, this is a great base from which to explore the area’s many waterfalls, walking trails, mountain bike tracks and ski fields.


Christchurch to Glacier Country

Highlights: Christchurch, Mount Cook, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Wanaka, Glacier Country

Suggested time: 10-15 days

Milford Sound

This route showcases the very best that New Zealand has to offer, taking in giant glaciers, dramatic fjords and the country’s highest mountain peak. Kicking off in Christchurch, you’ll head west towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, past the brilliant blue waters of Lake Pukaki. Named after Captain James Cook – the first European to set foot in New Zealand – Aoraki/Mount Cook is the main attraction in an area of true alpine beauty. Although small, the surrounding village is the starting point for a plethora of walking tracks leading to lookout points and glacier lakes. Situated in the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, this is also a fantastic spot for stargazing.

The next leg of your trip will take you 3.5 hours away to Queenstown. Situated on the shore of beautiful Lake Wakatipu, and surrounded by The Remarkables mountain range, this is New Zealand’s adventure capital. The birthplace of the bungee jump, there are many adrenaline-inducing activities on offer here – from skydiving and zip lining to white water rafting and jet boating.

After a few days spent thrill-seeking, you’ll journey south to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. A 120-kilometre drive along a road lined with lakes, waterfalls and temperate rainforest will bring you to the spectacular Milford Sound – arguably the most scenic destination in the entire country. Despite the hoards of people who visit Milford Sound every day, a cruise on the water is an incredibly tranquil experience. Whether you visit in the sun or the rain, the views here will leave you awe-struck.

Having made your way back to Te Anau, the next stop on your road trip will be the resort town of Wanaka – sometimes described as Queenstown’s less exciting younger sibling. But despite sharing a picture-perfect mountain and lakeside setting, and being similarly famed for its outdoor activities, Wanaka asserts its own sense of identity. Less touristy and exuding more of a laid-back charm, it still has a great selection of cool cafes, outstanding restaurants and stylish shops, as well as craft breweries, wonderful wineries, and an artisan distillery.

For the final adventure on this road trip, you’ll head north to Glacier Country – at the heart of which you’ll find Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. A valley walk will take you to the foot of the glaciers, where you can stand and marvel at the sheer scale. Or, you can choose to get a better look at the blue-hued caves and crevasses via a scenic helicopter flight or heli-hike tour. Nearby Lake Matheson, which stretches out in front of Fox Glacier, shouldn’t be missed. Its mirrored reflection of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman make it one of the most photographed spots in New Zealand.


Ready to discover New Zealand? Check out our great holiday offers, or read about some of the best walks you can do in both the North Island and South Island.

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