In my nearly four months I’ve spent in New Zealand, I’ve covered the majority of the North and South Island both. I have tons of recommended places that I would suggest to anyone who wants to make a trip here, and I think the best way to see the country is road trip style with your own vehicle. (Getting my own when I came here is something I wish I would have done). I’ve put together the perfect road trip route based on where all I went and would recommend as the best places to see on both islands.
So I know that anyone can look up directions on how to get to a destination when they decide on where they’re going, so when I say “routes” I’ll be giving more information on the actual destinations and the order that’s easiest to see them in based on their locations.
The North Island
Most people coming into New Zealand fly into Auckland first, as its NZ’s largest city. I recommend flying into Auckland if you come to NZ since it’s in the northern region, then you could start your road trip in the far northern part of the country and work your way south. I didn’t find Auckland all that exciting and didn’t spend a lot of time here, so I don’t have loads of recommended places to see in this city. If you are wanting to spend a couple days here, I would suggest going to either Waiheke Island -near Auckland- or one of the many beaches around the city like Mission Bay. I actually really regret not going to Waiheke Island. I’ve heard it’s beautiful and is actually home to wildlife only found on that island. So, if you have the time to spend in the area, I’d definitely recommend seeing it!
From Auckland, heading farther up into the northern peninsula is a great place for beachgoers. After I left Auckland I stayed up in Paihia for a few days, which is a really great beach town with a lot of activities such as skydiving, helicopter rides, kayaking, etc. I’ve also heard great things about Whangarei, which is a bit south of Paihia closer to Auckland. I haven’t been here personally but it seems to be similar to Paihia and everyone I know who’s gone here loved it. Both of these towns are along Highway 1 heading north from Auckland.
Paihia, Bay of Islands
While in the far north, it’s definitely a must to drive up to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach. The only major highway going up this far is Highway 1, so it’s easy to find your way. Cape Reinga is centered around a lighthouse at the very northern tip of New Zealand where the Atlantic Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. Try to go on a clear day and it’s even more amazing. Ninety Mile Beach is another great place to visit on your road trip. You can actually drive vehicles up and down the beach – I was here on a bus tour and the driver drove the bus out on the beach for several miles.
Ninety Mile Beach
To continue the road trip, head back down south towards Auckland, and then to the east to the Coromandel Peninsula. The best town to stay in in the area is Whitianga, where I stayed while I was here. It’s close to Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and the Shakespeare Cliff Reserve. I didn’t go to Hot Water Beach, but Cathedral Cove and the Shakespeare Cliffs were both great places to visit. Both provided some very excellent views and the Shakespeare Cliff Reserve was also a good hike. Hot Water Beach is also popular because you can dig your own hot tub in the sand here, but it is very packed in the high season.
Shakespeare Cliffs Lookout
Next, if you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you have to go to the Hobbiton Movie Set. It’s located in Matamata, about two hours south of Auckland and also a few hours south of Coromandel.You’ve probably seen pictures of it, but walking through The Shire was just magical in person…
Hobbiton Movie Set
Tickets cost around $80 and you can also do an evening tour where you eat dinner in the Green Dragon pub, but the evening tours are more expensive. They are also very popular so you’d have to book in advance for this.
Ever seen a cave that glowed in the dark? Well, the next stop on the road trip is the perfect opportunity! In Waitomo, about an hour southwest of Matamata, the famous glow worm caves are one of my favorite places on the North Island. The cave tour I went on was about $75 and the tour guide takes the group out on a raft through pitch black caves where you can see thousands of glow in the dark “worms” on the ceilings and walls. They aren’t technically worms, but flies in the larva stage -close enough right? Either way, it was pretty amazing to see.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves (not my own picture, it’s impossible to get one with a normal camera)
One of the last places I’d suggest for a North Island road trip would be the Lake Taupo area, just a couple hours southeast of Waitomo and Matamata. I only stopped here for an afternoon while I was road tripping around with my cousins, so I don’t know of many activities in the area. It’s still a great place to visit or camp out at. Near Lake Taupo, The Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park is also a hike you should try to make time to do. I was unable to do this because of poor weather, but I’ve heard amazing things about it and seem some great pictures. It’s one of the most popular hikes on the North Island.
After leaving Lake Taupo, you can continue on Highway 1 which will take you around the lake -the drive is beautiful!- and eventually all the way down to Wellington. On the way, you’ll pass Mount Ngauruhoe -Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans- which is another good spot for anyone wanting to see LOTR sites.
A great thing about New Zealand is how small and compact it is, and none of these destinations are farther than a few hours’ drive from eachother. You can also take the same highway for the majority of the destinations listed above (highway 1).
Once you arrive in Wellington on Highway 1, you can take either the Interislander or Blue Bridge ferry to the south island. The Interislander is much bigger, but I believe the Blue Bridge may be cheaper. Easy to research real fast if need be. I paid $50 for my ferry ticket on the Interislander, but that was without a vehicle (with a car it is more expensive).
I was in Wellington twice and only spent a few days here, but it had some good restaurants, bars, and nightlife and the city itself had a lot of character. If only the weather weren’t so shitty here :/. I guess places can’t be perfect, can they?
The South Island
So the South Island of NZ is seriously a road trippers paradise. I loved the North Island too, but the South is even better. If you have two weeks or less to spend in NZ, I’d recommend just spending it on the South Island. Where the North is green and beachy, the South is bold and mountainous, with such an immense variety in scenery that few other places in the world can match. Okay I’m done rambling, now to continue our road trip.
On the ferry you’ll arrive in Picton. This town was just a stop off place coming off the ferry for me, but if you wanted to spend some time here, I’ve heard great things about the Marlborough Sounds region and the Queen Charlotte track, both in this area. I haven’t done these myself though, so they are recommendations based on word of mouth.
After leaving Picton, Nelson is a great city to head to next, about an hour or two drive from Picton. Nelson is known for its warm and sunny weather, and this is definitely accurate based on my experience living in this area. Nelson is located near some great attractions such as Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay. I’ve been to both of the these and I’d definitely recommend them to anyone who loves beaches and ocean views.
Abel Tasman National Park (the coast track)
But anyways, as I said before beaches are not what the South Island is about. To continue the road trip -after enjoying the Nelson region of course- it’s a must for any road tripper in NZ to head down the west coast. Once again, easy to find your way -just stay on highway 6 the whole way- and you’ll pass some great towns and scenery. Stop in Punakaiki on the way down and see the pancake rocks, and then go to the cafe across the road and eat some of the best pancakes ever! Haha, yes it seems so corny, but they really are delicious.
If you’re interested in seeing glaciers, both Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier are along the west coast route. I’ve been to Fox but not Franz so I don’t know how they compare, but see both if you have time!
Mount Cook and Fox Glacier viewing point (the glacier is on the far left)
Keep heading down the coast on highway 6 and eventually this highway turns away from the coast and heads inland towards Wanaka. This is one of the most beautiful towns in NZ in my opinion, and the drive in past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea is even more scenic. While you’re in Wanaka, you can see the famous Wanaka tree or hike Roys Peak, which has an incredible view at the top. I never got around to hiking the peak but if you have the time I’d recommend it based on the pictures I’ve seen. The hike is approximately 5 hours.
About an hour south of Wanaka sits the lively Queenstown, the mother of all tourist towns in New Zealand. If you’re into adventure sports and adrenaline inducing activities like bungee jumping, Q-town is the place to be! I only stopped through here for a day with family so I didn’t see a whole lot, but the town was very charming with all it’s shopping streets and activities. The lake front was also beautiful.
After Queenstown, the absolute best place to head is towards Milford Sound. Milford was probably one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been to, and an NZ road trip just isn’t complete without seeing it. From Queenstown, only one road goes to it (highway 6 to 94). Along the way, there’s a few good places to stop at. We stopped at Mirror Lakes and hiked Key Summit while we were headed that way. The drive had some of the most impressive mountains I’ve ever seen.
At Milford, you can go on cruises that take you through the fiord -highly recommended! The one we went on was $90 I believe, and totally worth it.
After you’ve seen Milford, you’ll have to backtrack along the same route to get to my next recommended spot. If you go back past Queenstown and get onto highway 8 going north, you’ll come across Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook Road, which leads to the national park.
Aside from Milford, Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook National Park was my favorite spot on the South Island. I could ramble on about how beautiful the lake was for days, but instead I’ll just put some of my pictures up and show you all. The color of the water was surreal!
The National Park also has a good hike. I only did the first 20 minutes of it but I got to see Mount Cook up close.
Mount Cook National Park
On the same route a little ways after Pukaki, there’s also Lake Tekapo. I swear New Zealand has a never ending amount of beautiful lakes *sigh*. Tekapo has a few motels and campgrounds to stay at and is famous for being one of the best places in the world to go stargazing. Tekapo has a shuttle service and observatory that you can book to go out and see the stars on a clear night.
To end the road trip, Christchurch -only a couple hours from Tekapo- is a good spot to fly out of. The city doesn’t have a whole lot to see that I know of. Ever since the major earth quakes, most of it has been under construction. However, it’s still a convenient location to fly out of. If you’re wanting to stay somewhere close to the airport, I absolutely love the Jucy Snooze hostel right across the road. It’s very unique and instead of sleeping in normal beds, you get your own pod to sleep in. It allows for more privacy and each one has its own lights USB ports and outlets. I’m currently staying here until I fly to Melbourne on Tuesday!
I think I’ve covered all of my favorite places, and this is the best possible route I can think of around NZ. It covers a huge variety, from mountains, to beaches, lakes and fiords -oh yea, and hobbit holes. If anyone has done a similar route, let me know! I hope this helps anyone who plans on visiting this great country.
Here’s a map so you can see the routes I’ve talked about:
The only two areas this map does not include are the far northern route above Auckland (Paihia, Cape Reinga, etc.) and the route to Milford Sound. But both of these areas are easy to look up directions to from Auckland and Queenstown. I hope this helps!