What’s the best way to discover the real New Zealand? A road trip, of course! This is a destination that will help you fall back in love with the Great Outdoors, from rugged mountains and freezing glaciers to thermal hotspots, active volcanoes and deserted beaches.
Whether you decide to travel by car and stay in hotels or live the campervan life, New Zealand offers fantastic road trip possibilities and, in a country so sparsely populated for its size, the unspoilt views will never, ever disappoint!
Here are our top 5 New Zealand road trip itineraries to help you decide where to explore. Pick a favourite, or daisy-chain them together to see as much as possible…
If you only have a little time to spend in New Zealand, this short road trip encompasses the beauty of the northern coast as well as the country’s largest city, Auckland. Spot dolphins dotted among the Bay of Islands and bask on the endless beaches of Omapere before turning south towards the vineyards of the Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Auckland.
Driving is by far the easiest way to see New Zealand. City hopping by public transport is excellent in some countries (and New Zealand does have plenty of buses) but driving allows you to truly get off the beaten track and explore at your own pace. You'll find it easier to reach lesser known regions and uncover hidden delights often overlooked by the main tourist trails.
Highlights: Bay of Islands, Waiheke Island.
Whether you want to catch your dinner or catch a sunset, the islands of the north make for a year-round destination - dolphins, whales and blue penguins are among the wildlife you can encounter.
When to go? The far North is pleasant year-round including July/August when the South Island is covered in snow.
How long? You should allow for a week. Short driving distances mean you won't get tired and can explore to the max!
This is a great route to discover the beauty of North Island. Explore Peter Jackson's Hobbiton movie set from Lord of the Rings, before following the "Thermal Highway" south to discover a host of geothermal delights, from the bubbling geysers of Rotorua to the volcanic crater of Lake Taupo. This route winds its way through the wine regions of Martinborough, capturing the very best of the scenic North Island before arriving in Wellington to soak up the lively atmosphere of the southernmost capital city in the world.
It's easy to fly between these two cities but you'll be missing out on a chunk of what New Zealand has to offer: larger-than-life national parks, natural spas and the rugged mountains that make this country famous. In a car or campervan, you can make the most of the outdoorsy Kiwi way of life and meet the friendly locals. What are you waiting for?
Highlights: Lake Taupo, Tongariro National Park, Martinborough.
The Tongariro Lakes Crossing is seriously spectacular – the best one day walk in New Zealand. Tolkien fans will also love exploring Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe in real life).
When to go? November – December tends to be the best time. You'll find pleasant temperatures and quiet sights before the Christmas peak season
How long? You can do it in 12 days but 16 days gives you time to linger at beautiful Lake Taupo and explore the wine region of Martinborough.
If you don't have much time to explore the South Island, choose this short route. Hop aboard the TranzAlpine train and follow the Waimakariri River which crosses from east coast to west. Begin your road trip in the seaside town of Greymouth. Head south along the rugged coastline and visit the majestic Fox and Franz Josef glaciers before descending through the mountains to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Skydiving, bungee jumping, white-water rafting - whatever you fancy, you'll be sure to finish your trip with a rush of adrenaline!
The question here should really be "why not drive?"! The lush rainforest and pristine mountain lakes that make up the west coast of New Zealand are incredible. The chance to wind your way through this World Heritage region where glaciers and mountains meet the ocean turns driving into a privilege rather than just a mode of transport.
Highlights: Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers, Haast Pass.
A day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a ‘must do’ - and be sure to try the whitebait in the Haast Pass, it's a local delicacy. If you love adrenaline activities, Queenstown is for you. At the end of the day, grab a bite to eat at the famous Ferg Burger to end round-off the perfect day here.
When to go: Autumn (March-May). It's slightly warmer than spring and you'll avoid the busy summer period/cold winter.
How long: Allow 7 nights but the raw beauty of the western coast may surprise you, so allow some leeway!
This route begins with the TranzAlpine rail journey across the width of New Zealand before making your way south past the windswept beaches and impressive glaciers of the west coast. After the excitement of fun-filled Queenstown, sweep south. Stop off at the stunning Milford Sound and the wild beauty of the Southlands. You'll encounter the rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin in the Caitlins and the historical centre of Dunedin before ending your adventure under the starry skies of Lake Tekapo. Finishing back in Christchurch, this route takes you on an unforgettable journey through the unspoilt landscape of New Zealand.
Driving is the perfect way to see the scenic South Island, with great roads through the Southern Alps before swinging back north up the Otago coast. Having a car or campervan to get around means you can structure this route as you want with the added bonus of being able to arrive in places earlier than the tour buses!
Highlights: Milford Sound, Lake Tekapo
Don't miss Lake Tekapo at night. Wrapped up in warm coats and sipping hot chocolate, you'll be able to see the Milky Way, Saturn and a whole host of southern hemisphere constellations.
When to go? November to March is the best time for the South Island, with warmer temperatures and long days
How long? After the TranzAlpine, allow 2 weeks to drive or perhaps 17 days at a leisurely pace.
This route is a great way of exploring New Zealand's wine, wildlife and winding roads. Heading north from Christchurch will take you to the seaside town of Kaikoura where you can try the local delicacy of crayfish and go whale watching before reaching the far north of the South Island - the Marlborough Sounds. With outdoor activities galore, there's time to try them all before driving to the nearby Nelson Lakes. Nelson is the perfect spot to base yourself to visit Abel Tasman National Park before you head south to Hokitika and the drive through the Arthur Pass that will return you to Christchurch.
The delightful north region of the South Island is home to vineyards, lakes and areas of stunning natural beauty. Having a car or campervan to hop between them means you can stay as long as you like as you're not bound by the timetables of public transport - so it's no problem if you find that perfect Sauvignon Blanc and feel a few more days in Marlborough might be necessary!
Highlights: Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park.
The Queen Charlotte Track is the most beautiful 3 day walk in the Marlborough Sounds. If you're in a rush it is still worth walking a section of it. You can get taxi boats to different points in Picton.
When to go: Summer (November to March). The short ferry ride to the North Island means you can easily combine with Wellington
How long: allow 14 days but 18 days is more leisurely - you'll become accustomed to the slower pace.
If you’re planning a holiday, we can help you plan the most amazing self-drive around New Zealand. Whether you’d like a tailor-made holiday with flights, accommodation and touring, or you’re just planning a road trip as part of a multi-stop flight itinerary that includes New Zealand – we’ll make it work. We’ll help you choose the best car or campervan to suit your style and budget, and advise on all the nitty gritty – including our top tips for campervan hire in New Zealand.
Call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to start planning!