With rugged coastlines, serene lakes and panoramic towns, New Zealand begs to be explored on a road trip
Given New Zealand’s varied attributes, no wonder it was picked as the stand-in for Middle-Earth in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy. Linking some of New Zealand’s most famous attractions on an easy three-hour journey, this route is tailor-made for anyone who wants to see New Zealand’s best highlights in a short time.
Kick off your tour in Auckland, the country’s largest city, with a visit to the Auckland Museum before hopping onto the Thermal Explorer, a well-signposted highway that runs through some of the most dramatic landscapes of the Central North Island, toward Rotorua. Along the way, stop at Matamata for a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set. Don’t miss Bag End, the only Hobbit hole that visitors can enter.
Sitting squarely on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Rotorua has evidence of volcanic activity everywhere you look. Explore the geothermal parks (we like Hell’s Gate) for a look at bubbling mud pools and spewing geysers, indulge in a natural geothermal spa, and experience Maori culture with a visit to Te Puia, Mitai Village, or Tamaki Village.
Tip: Other than its volcanic features, Rotorua is also famed for its weird and wonderful adventure activities. Take your pick from zorbing, shweebing or swooping!
Given its central location, Rotorua makes for a natural base to explore the rest of New Zealand. Take the Thermal Explorer to Taupo, a lively water-town and home to Lake Taupo, the largest lake in Australasia. Stunning volcanic geography and tracts of pine forest will keep you entertained along the one-hour drive; make a pit stop at Huka Falls, New Zealand’s most photographed attraction. This 100-metre-wide river pumps water from Lake Taupo at the rate of 200,000 litres per second, or enough to fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools in under a minute! From here, take your time cruising down the 33 kilometre-across, 46-kilometre-long Lake Taupo – it makes for a real convertible, wind-in-your-hair kind of driving.
Depending on how much time you have, visit Tongariro National Park, a UNESCO-listed national park; spend the night at Ohakune, New Zealand’s capital of the carrot and home to many alpine lodges, or head south to Martinborough, the heart of a wine region famed for its pinot noir. End at the nation’s capital Wellington, where the magnificent waterfront views are as vibrant as its cultural and artistic scene.
Tip: Wellington served as the home for the crew of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Go on a tour of the filming locations, including Bree and Minas Tirith.
Bringing you the sheer beauty of the Northern coastline and the hip city vibes of Auckland, the best thing about this route is it can be done any time of the year. Even at the peak of winter in July and August, the North Island is still lovely and balmy.
Driving northward from Auckland, it’s all long country roads and rolling farm country with frequent peeks of the ocean and nearby beaches. Stop at the seaside town of Paihia, gateway to the famous Bay of Islands, a cluster of 144 bucolic isles with plenty to do – go on a dolphin swimming safari; explore Waitangi, the birthplace of New Zealand’s founding document; or take a ferry to the charming township of Russell.
Leaving Paihia, make your way to the incorrectly named 90 Mile Beach (which is actually only 55 miles long or 80 kilometres) and end at Cape Reinga, one of New Zealand’s northernmost towns and considered the separation marker between the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. This is also a sacred place for the Maoris. According to mythology, the spirits of the dead travel to Cape Reinga and leap off the headland before journeying to their afterlife.
Tip: At Cape Reinga, take a walk to the iconic Cape Reinga Lighthouse and watch the tidal race phenomenon, where the two seas clash to create unsettled waters off the coast.
If you’re seeking beauty in isolated places, an authentic slice of Kiwi culture, and the adrenalin rush of a challenging drive, the East Cape route is right up your alley.
From Rotorua, get onto State Highway 35 a.k.a the Pacific Coast Highway. Gently rolling hill country takes you through numerous seaside villages with points of interest: Whakatane is home to White Island, the only active volcano that can be visited by helicopter; Omarumutu and Torere are celebrated for their decorative Maori art; and Te Araroa is famed for its 600-year-old pohutukawa tree. Head south and spend the night at Gisborne to catch the sunrise – it’s the first place in the world to see the sunrise.
The last leg of your journey takes you to Napier, a lively city that boasts one of the world’s best collections of Art Deco architecture. It’s also the centre of Hawke’s Bay, a fertile wine-growing region that you can explore on a self-drive or a bicycle tour – the perfect opportunity to soak up the sunshine that the region is famous for.
Tip: You’ll be travelling through one of the most remote parts of the North Island, where accommodation and eating options en route are extremely limited, roads are windy and many in poor condition, so planning is required.
More of a culture vulture than tree hugger? Begin your journey at South Island’s primary gateway, Christchurch. Also called The Most English City outside England, gothic buildings, manicured gardens and arty galleries beckon but you’ll also find a vibrant city rebuilding post-earthquakes. A must-see is the Cardboard Cathedral, a temporary replacement for the city’s iconic 1864 Anglican cathedral, one of Christchurch’s most prized landmarks destroyed during the crippling 2011 earthquake.
From here, make your way south to the mountain-ringed basin known as the Mackenzie Country, stopping at the glacier-fed Lake Tekapo. Boasting stunning turquoise waters, it is also home to two of New Zealand’s most photographed monuments, the Church of the Good Shepherd and a bronze statue of a collie sheepdog.
Head south along the coast until you reach the historical town of Oamaru, otherwise known as the steampunk capital of the world. Stay the night to catch its famous colony of Little Blue Penguins, before continuing on to Dunedin, the University capital of New Zealand and home to Edwardian architecture, the world’s steepest street and Speights Brewery.
Queenstown-Te Anau-Milford Sound (in Fiordland National Park)
Mention the Fiordland National Park – home to the glacier-carved fiords of Doubtful and Milford Sounds – and most people think of mile-high cliffs and roaring waterfalls. However, a major highlight of a trip to the fiordlands is the drive through the Milford Sound Highway.
Hailed as one of the best road trips in the world, the highway cuts through mirror lakes, pristine rainforest, snow-capped mountains and trickling waterfalls. A particularly scenic section is just before you enter the 1.2-kilometre-long Homer Tunnel. As you sit at what must be one of the world’s most remote traffic lights, you are surrounded by glacier-carved rock cliffs.
It takes around eight hours to reach the foot of Milford from Queenstown so we recommend breaking up the driving time over three days. Mid-trip, it’s worthwhile to stop over at Te Anau – the national park’s gateway – and take the popular boat tour to a grotto filled with thousands of tiny radiating glowworms – capping a dramatic and exhilarating adventure.
Tip: Overnight and day cruises, scenic flights and kayaking trips are available to let you experience New Zealand’s world-famous fiords
Any drive out of Queenstown – dubbed New Zealand’s answer to Aspen – is bound to be scenic; it’s built around Lake Wakatipu, a long, thin Z-shaped lake formed by glacial processes and set against a spectacular range of mountains such as The Remarkables, Cecil Peak and Walter Peak. We recommend taking the route from Queenstown to Franz Josef, which follows the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Head out North East via the Crown Range road, a short but spectacular route that travels up over countless switchbacks to the summit before descending into Wanaka, another picturesque lakeside town, albeit with the added bonus of more sunlight hours in a day.
The final leg of your journey coasts past the rugged West Coast and brings you to glacier country. This part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage area is marked by ancient glaciers nestled amidst primeval forest. These frozen white rivers, tumbling down ice-carved rock valleys, are a sight to behold from anywhere, but what makes this region unique is that they can be experienced up close. Nowhere else in the world have glaciers advanced so close to the sea at this latitude. The terminal face of Fox Glacier is just five kilometres from the nearest township, while you can walk to the terminal of Franz Josef Glacier in about 10 minutes.
Tip: A popular jumping-off point to water activities and extreme adventures, Queenstown has plenty of tour and activity operators on Shotover Street, incidentally also the location of Ferg Burger, supposedly the world’s best burger. Just be prepared for 45-minute queues!
The Northern Loop from Christchurch to Nelson is a popular one – it combines a classic food and wine trail, fairy-tale sceneries and wildlife spotting in one. Dotted with seaside towns, this is a region noted for its exceptional food; Havelock is notable for mussels and Kaikoura for crayfish. At Kaikoura, you’ll find sweeping outlooks to the ocean, rocky shores, and if you have good eyes – whales. Kaikoura is the only place on earth that you can see giant sperm whales on a tour all year round. On a whale-watching expedition, there’s a high chance that you’ll see other sea life such as fur seals and dolphins, all attracted to the Kaikoura Canyon.
Carry on to Marlborough Sounds to enjoy the local Sauvignon Blanc, the signature produce of this region, before ending your epic trip in style at Nelson, a creative mecca that’s home to more than 300 working artists and craftspeople.
Tip: Note of caution for those with an inclination to motion sickness. The drive through Havelock to Picton takes you past sheer cliff drops overlooking Marlborough Sounds.