There are many ways to experience the lush, ridiculous beauty of New Zealand, but we’d argue that the best way is on the road. In a country so sparsely populated for its size, you can expect to have unspoiled views of epic landscapes. Whether you’re traveling by car or living the campervan life, driving allows you to get off the beaten track and explore at your own pace. From rugged mountains, freezing glaciers, thermal hotspots to deserted beaches and active volcanoes, New Zealand will awaken your love for the great outdoors.
There are many routes you can take to explore New Zealand and the choice is endless. Here are our top-five picks for an unforgettable road trip.
Exploring North Island
The North Island of New Zealand is known for its volcanic activity, national parks and cosmopolitan cities. Home to the largest of New Zealand’s population, it’s surrounded by bays and islands, hence, it is also known as the “City of Sails”. This is where the country’s largest city, Auckland and its capital, Wellington are located.
Auckland and Bay of Islands Loop
Want to see the highlights of New Zealand but don’t have much time? Fret not. The Loop of Bay Islands is a great trip that showcases the sheer beauty of the northern coastline. Spot dolphins among the Bay of Islands, sunbathe on the endless beaches of Omapere and enjoy wine tasting on Waiheke Island (a 30-minute ferry ride from Auckland).
When to go: July and August
How long: At least one week.
Auckland to Wellington
It’s easy to fly between these two cities, but that’s not what we’re here for, right? If you’re a fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, be sure to make a pit stop to explore Hobbiton before following the “Thermal Highway”. There’s a reason why it’s named as such, as on this route you’ll discover a host of geothermal delights, from the bubbling geysers of Rotorua to the volcanic crater of Lake Taupo. Pro tip: Make sure to have a face mask as the bubbling mud pools and thermal lakes give off a pungent sulfur smell! The route winds through the wine regions of Martinborough, capturing the very best of the scenic North Island before arriving in Wellington, the southernmost capital city in the world.
When to go: November – December
How long: At least 12 days but we’d recommend spending an extra few days so you can relax at the beautiful Lake Taupo.
While North Island is known for its endless geothermal wonders and a greater deal of Māori culture, the South Island is renowned for its breathtaking mountains, lakes and glaciers. If you’re looking for rugged wilderness and thrilling adventures, then South Island is perfect for you! The Abel Tasman National Park is known for its trails and ocean kayaking, while Queenstown is famed for adventure sports like bungee jumping and skiing. It truly has the best of both worlds!
Christchurch to Queenstown
For those who are strapped for time, the Christchurch to Queenstown route is your best bet. Begin your road trip in the seaside town of Greymouth, which you can reach by taking the TranzAlpine train. From here, take the short but sweet journey down south and visit the majestic Fox and Franz Josef glaciers before ending your trip in Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Finish your trip with a rush of adrenaline by going skydiving, bungee jumping or white water rafting!
When to go: March – May
How long: The seven-day journey will cover some of South Island’s best highlights, but allow some leeway so you can enjoy the raw beauty of the western coast.
Christchurch South Loop (Catlins)
Giant glaciers, dramatic fjords and dreamy lakes, this journey takes you on the best that South Island has to offer. Take the same route as the Christchurch-Queenstown trip and drive further south. Stop by the stunning Milford Sound and if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the rare yellow-eyed penguin in the Catlins. End your adventure under the starry skies of Lake Tekapo. Finishing your journey back in Christchurch, this route takes you on an unforgettable journey through the unspoiled landscape of New Zealand.
When to go: November – March
How long: It’s the perfect journey to spend a two-week break on, but allow a couple more days for a leisurely pace.
The Dos and Don’ts of a New Zealand road trip
While the idea of a road trip is exciting, there are a couple of rules when embarking on a four-wheel journey in New Zealand. If you’re planning to drive in New Zealand, here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind for a safe journey:
Do: Consider if you need a campervan or just a car. Choose a car if you’re planning to stay the night in hotels, and a campervan if you’re into “freedom camp” for a real adventure!
Don’t: Abuse freedom camp regulations in New Zealand. Do remember that you can only sleep in your campervan if you have a portable toilet on board. Otherwise, it’s a no-no.
Do: Be cautious of the roads. The roads in New Zealand can be windy and narrow, so obey the road signs and drive according to the speed limits.
Don’t: Choose the wrong kind of car over mountain passes. If you’re driving over mountain passes in the fall, winter or early spring, be sure to choose the right kind of car and make sure to request for snow chains.
Do: Get off the tourist trail. If you’re creating an itinerary for your New Zealand road trip, make sure it’s a loose one. You’ll definitely want to allow time to deviate from the planned path here.
Don’t: Stop on the side of the road to take photos, no matter how pretty the view is. If there is no large shoulder for you to stop on, just keep driving.
Feel like visiting New Zealand yet? Check out Traveloka to inspire your trip.