New Zealand is synonymous with Maori Culture and boasts a rich and diverse landscape that was made famous by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This remote island nation is the ideal destination for avid travelers who are in search of epic road trips and themed highways. Nothing beats cruising leisurely down the coastline or exploring the countless inland treasures, especially if you know where to go. Kiwi nation has no shortage of road trips and we have complied a list of the best ones below.
The Thermal Explorer Highway
The first New Zealand road trip on our list allows you to bask in the warmth of the country’s famed hot springs and explore the North Island and its many attractions. This journey begins in Auckland and requires six hours of driving, plenty of snacks and your camera on standby. Driving south leads you straight to Hamilton where botanical gardens are aplenty. The quaint beach town of Raglan is also the place to be if you want to catch some waves or simply watch local surfers show off their advanced maneuvers. It takes around one hour and twenty-five minutes to reach Rotorua, home to steamy pools and a flurry of geothermal activity. The town is located within the Ring of Fire and is a great place to experience Maori culture firsthand and partake in the Haka dance at Tamaki Village. Whakarewarewa Forest is another sublime attraction worth visiting while you are still in this region. The journey concludes in Taupo where kayaking and visiting the Orakei Korako Cave are not to be missed.
North Island boasts yet another great region where orchards and vineyards paint the landscape in various shades of green. Hawke’s Bay is the ideal road trip for wine tasting and bird watching. This region has around 72 wineries that allow you to sample the best wine in the country. Fans of bike trails can also embark on a 124-mile journey down scenic trails where you can feast your eyes on the beauty of the countryside and its dazzling terrain. Te Mata Peak awaits hikers who are in search of the best panoramic views of the region. Cherries and apples are found in abundance here and travelers can easily sample fruits from roadside vendors or even from the local farmers’ market that sells artisan bread and other freshly made goods. The Bay is home to three cities that are worth visiting: Napier, Hastings and Havelock North. This trio offer a tempting cocktail of Art Deco architecture, wine making and Arataki honey. It takes around five hours to drive from Auckland to Hawke’s Bay via State Highways 1 and 27.
Auckland to Napier
The sixteen-hour drive from Auckland to Napier brings new meaning to the word picturesque and is one of many reasons why touring New Zealand by road is considered a rewarding yet challenging experience at times. This region has its fair share of must-see attractions including one active volcano and several secluded islands. Driving south all the way to the Coromandel Peninsula will bring you to Cathedral Cove and neighboring Hot Water Beach. The Cove is ideal for soaking up the sun and taking a break from driving and indulging in ice cream and a beach themed picnic. Next on the list is the coastal town of Whangamata where you can spend the day either cycling or diving. This summer destination also caters to golfing and fishing enthusiasts and is one hour away from The Hauraki Rail Trail that features cascading waterfalls and even a relaxing mineral spa. The trail cuts through several historic gold mining towns and branches out into four different sections.
The cosmopolitan City of Tauranga is one hour away from the trail and offers plenty of harbor and ocean safari cruises. This road trip is not complete without drinking your morning coffee and watching the sun rise from the summit of Mount Maunganui. It is also not complete without paying a visiting to the menacing active volcano located in White Island.
Queenstown to Milford Sound
The journey from Queenstown to Milford sound requires around seven hours and thirty minutes to complete and takes you through winding roads that lead to more of that dazzling Middle Earth landscape. This route takes you all the way to the town of Te Anau, home to the largest lake in South Island. The lake is surrounded by mountain glaciers and lush green foliage. Fiorland National Park is worth the trip alone due to its memorable walking trails and endangered native bird species that call this forest their home. Milford Sound is approximately two hours from Te Anau via State Highway 94 and is the ideal destination for dolphin watching and going on overnight cruises. This South Island gem turns into a spring wonderland where you will encounter waterfalls and a sea of blooming rata tree flowers. Fur seals and penguins also make frequent appearances during boat rides and so do whales and dolphins. Travelers with time to spare can book an overnight cruise to make the most out of this trip.
Waitaki Valley Way
Waitaki Valley is three hours away from Christchurch and an unforgettable South Island destination where rugged mountains give way to pristine beaches and Victorian era botanical gardens. This region features quaint coastal towns such as Oamaru and Moeraki. This road trip will take you north to Moeraki first where you can visit its ancient beach boulders and have a hearty seafood meal at its charming beachside restaurant. Fans of steampunk and delicious local cheese can satisfy their cravings in nearby Oamaru. The town is also famous for its blue penguin colonies and yellow eyed penguin sightings in addition to its public gardens where you can watch the sun sink below the ocean waves. Avid cyclists can ditch their rental in favor of a mountain bike and continue their journey via the Alps to Ocean Cycleway. This trail runs from Oamaru, a village known for its ski field and cozy lodge all the way to Mount Cook. Travelers can camp out near the lake or at the lodge before heading back to Christchurch in the morning.
Forgotten World Highway
This journey begins in Taumarunui and ends in Shakespeare inspired Stratford. Drive time is around two hours and fifteen minutes via State Highway 43. The winding road is definitely challenging due to its many twists and turns, but the drive itself is far from dull. On the contrary, the highway is one of a kind and covers an area of around 93 miles. You will encounter many sharp curves while driving down four mountain saddles and miles upon miles of untouched rain forests. Taumarunui is trout fishing central and a small town where wildlife enthusiasts can go on fun canoe escapades and discover the wonders of Whanganui National Park. You will encounter many signposts that explain the historical value of this heritage trail where coal mining was once at its peak. You can drive your own rail cart and explore the area even further before driving south to Stratford. The town is heavily influenced by Shakespeare and many of its streets are named after his characters and plays.
Wanaka to West Coast
South Island has no shortage of scenic routes and Haast Pass happens to be one of them. This route was once used by the Maori who traveled west in search of jade gemstones. Nowadays, Haast Pass offers its visitors a feast for the eyes thanks to its sparkling blue pools and alpine glaciers. The trip begins in the resort town of Wanaka and takes around six hours to complete via State Highway 6. You will encounter several memorable attractions along the way including Thunder Creek Falls and Mount Aspiring National Park. There are several hiking trails in the area and some of them are incredibly easy to explore. The highway also passes through Karangarua and Fox Glacier where you can take a break from driving and explore the local glow worm caves. State Highway 6 offers great views of the Tasman Sea and its rugged and tranquil coastline where crayfish and blue cod are sold by local fishermen. The West Coast region itself harbors plenty of attractions as well such as the Old Ghost Road track and more secluded beaches where you can unwind after your long trip.
Christchurch to Greymouth
This three-hour road trip is your gateway to more ancient coastal towns where you can get a feel of old New Zealand and enjoy the local breweries in Greymouth. State Highway 73 cuts through diverse and stunning landscapes like the Canterbury Plains. This region boasts snowcapped mountains, winding rivers and harbors the largest collection of Maori rock art in all New Zealand. As you drive west, you will also encounter Arthur’s Pass and its national park, home to alpine parrots and endangered kiwi birds. The leisurely drive towards the West Coast allows you to witness the dramatic change in terrain. This region was once known for its precious minerals such as gold and jade. Nowadays, Greymouth pays tribute to this gold mining era via Shantytown Heritage Park where visitors can travel back in time and ride the steam train and practice the art of panning. There are plenty of off-road adventures for those interested in exploring the native forest while riding their very own quad bike. Greymouth is also a place where you can sample locally made beer and cider at one of New Zealand’s oldest breweries.
Queenstown to Glenorchy
Avid Lord of the Rings fans will have a blast on this short yet sweet road trip. The journey from Queenstown to Glenorchy takes around 45 minutes to complete but there are several tours that cater to passionate movie buffs who want to further explore the filming locations of both the Hobbit and the famous Tolkien trilogy. Travelers will encounter a perfect collage of mountains and emerald green hills overlooking Lake Wakatipu. This inland lake and its surroundings were known as the ancient forest of Lothlorien where the elves lived in the award-winning trilogy. The Twelve Mile Delta Reserve is close to the lake and features a campground where travelers can spend the night in addition to an easy hiking trail that offers spectacular views of The Remarkables mountain range. The adventure continues as you venture north of Queenstown where another settlement awaits you. Glenorchy is nestled between Lake Wakatipu and a sea of lush green beech trees. This sparsely populated town is a lovely hiking and walking destination and another coveted filming location that movie buffs can finally cross off their bucket list.
Auckland to Bay of Islands
The ten-hour drive from Auckland to Bay of Islands is laced with North Island charm and features several must-see attractions including the fishing village of Rawene and Shipwreck Bay. Head north towards Opononi and make sure to stop by the rural town of Maungaturoto and grab a hot slice of local pie and sample some handpicked citrus and passion fruit from the community orchard. You can also drive through Waipoua Forest in order to visit the largest Kauri tree in the world before resuming your trip. You will meet more historic sites along the way such as the famous Hokianga Harbor. The harbor is called the nest of the northern tribes in Maori, and the place where the Maori and their famed explorer Kupe first set foot in New Zealand. This region was once a magnet for European settlers, and this is clearly evident in Rawene where you will find a number of well-preserved 19th century buildings. Travelers are encouraged to board the car ferry in order to visit the seaside village of Kohukohu followed by a visit to Shipwreck Bay. Seasoned surfers from all over the world flock over to the bay in order to catch its three popular waves. This journey will also take you to Kerikeri where you can park your rental and enjoy what the town has to offer in terms of vineyards and art galleries. Your final destination is 22 minutes away and its is none other than the lovely resort town of Paihia. This small slice of New Zealand paradise overlooks the Bay of Islands where you can catch a passenger ferry to Russel or go on a leisurely boat cruise to discover the outer islands.
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- Here’s New Zealand’s most epic drive – National Geographic
- The Ultimate Road Trip through New Zealand’s Underrated North Island – CN Traveler