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Lake Pukaki and Mt. Cook

The ultimate New Zealand road trip

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8 August 2019 by Gary Stevens

Although I’ve lived in New Zealand, there’s something that keeps me coming back – half-a-dozen times at the last count. I’ve travelled the length of it at least twice, and, after getting married, had to bring my wife to show her what all the fuss is about. For me, few other places have its combination of spectacular natural scenery, fine gastronomy and unique, easy-going culture.

The ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary

That’s why I always recommend a full trip between both the North and South islands, enjoying the quiet, ridiculously scenic roads that knit it all together. For this blog, I’ve put together the definitive route, taking in the country’s myriad highlights. Take a look at the map below and read on for all the details.

Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula

Starting in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city welcomes with a gorgeous harbour setting and a series of superb museums. It’s also well worth exploring its surroundings, with nearby islands and rainforests hiding superb vineyards and Maori carvings respectively. From here, your first drive should see you sweeping south along the coast to the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s a vision of golden sands and interior mountains, with scenic roads bringing you along cragged cliffs to bush-clad hikes and Hot Water Beach. Here, you can dig your own spa pool in the sands.

Road and golden beach on New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel Peninsula

Rotorua

Then, head inland to Rotorua, skirting through the dense Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park. However, it’s the region’s volcanic wonders that impress most, from explosive geysers and steaming hot springs to bubbling mud pools and bright-orange mineral lakes. The region is also steeped in tribal Maori mythology, showcased in traditional villages and hangi feasts.

View over the steaming, mineral-red Champagne Pool in Rotorua
Champagne Pool, Rotorua

Napier and Wellington

It all levels out on your drive onto Napier, with volcanic features swapped for rolling vineyards and the town’s Art-Deco charm. After tasting your way through a few winery favourites, you’ll finish in the North Island with Wellington. Despite its capital status, I’ve always found that this pretty little port, surrounded by lush hills, is blessed with a certain small-town harbour charm.

Hawke's Bay vineyard
Hawke's Bay Vineyard near Napier

Nelson

You’ll then discover that the inter-island ferry is so much more than a simple transfer, as it weaves through the green-dappled islands of the Cook Strait. Arriving on the South Island to yet more gorgeous scenery, the drive on to Nelson is characterised by dappled vineyards. It’s the perfect jumping off point for forays into the Abel Tasman National Park, where interior jungles are explored on short hikes and quiet cove beaches taken in with swims and kayak paddles.

Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park
Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park

Franz Josef

You’ll then be treated to one of New Zealand’s greatest drives. Heading along the South Island’s western side, the gently undulating road sees you between coastal forests and jagged bays to Franz Josef. While, for me, heli-hiking on its great expanse is a genuine highlight of world travel, simply admiring this glacier giant is a treat – as is the surrounding rainforest, dotted with hot springs.

Hiking on Franz Josef Glacier
Hiking on Franz Josef Glacier

Queenstown

The next leg is just as impressive, demonstrating just why many prefer driving in the South Island. You’ll continue down the wild coast before heading inland, with the snow-capped drama of Haast Pass seeing you on past rivers and lakeside villages to Queenstown. New Zealand’s adventure capital has a special place in my heart for its mountain hikes, skydiving fun and vineyard tastings in gold-rush towns. Of course, the world’s first bungee jump is a personal favourite. Alternatively, a scenic drive along valley floors and glittering lakes will see you to that great natural wonder – Milford Sound. Here, waterfalls tumble down gneiss cliffs into waters animated by dolphins.

Water-level view over Milford Soubnd
Milford Sound

Lake Tekapo and Christchurch

Returning north, you’ll then leave the Southern Alps behind to arrive at Lake Tekapo. Although the foothill hiking here is excellent, my top tip is to soak up the views of Mt. Cook from one of the hot springs. It’s New Zealand’s highest mountain. A winding route through farmers’ pastures will then bring you to Christchurch. As the country’s most English city, I was happy to call it home for almost two years. Its idyllic parks and neo-Gothic architecture are the perfect finale, best toasted with dinner at one of its farm-to-table restaurants.

Punting on the River Avon, Christchurch
Punting on the River Avon in Christchurch

I hope I’ve managed to give a good sense of what an islands-spanning New Zealand road trip can look like. With the country’s typically boutique accommodation, my only final piece of advice would be to book early for their summer – our winter. Get in contact today or take a look at our Highlights of New Zealand self-drive, featuring the route detailed on this page.


The ultimate New Zealand road trip itinerary

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With boutique hotel stays and car hire included throughout, this curated road trip perfectly showcases the unique cultures and natural wonders of New Zealand's North and South islands.

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From the subtropical beaches of the Bay of Islands, the geothermal pools of Rotorua and wine lands of Hawke's Bay to the majestic glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and the towering peaks of the Southern Alps, New Zealand is home to some of the world's most spectacular driving routes.

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