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The top 10 best road trips in New Zealand

With so many scenic highways, it is hard to decide on a route when planning a road trip in New Zealand. There is no shortage of beautiful routes to choose from on both the North and South Island, taking drivers through dramatically different landscapes. VroomVroomVroom has put together a list of some of our favourite New Zealand road trips.


1. Milford Road

The sublime Milford Sound.
The sublime Milford Sound.

The stunning Milford Road is frequently named among the most scenic highways in the world. The four-hour journey from Queenstown / Tāhuna to Milford Sound features snow-capped peaks, mirror lakes, waterfalls and of course, impressive fiords. Take in the sights of Queenstown / Tāhuna before you leave. One of the best places to get a birds-eye view of the town is from Queenstown Hill, the city’s most famous peak.

Break up the journey to Milford Sound with a stop in Te Anau. Not far from the town, take a tour of the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, or just enjoy the views of the lake. There are plenty of scenic stops along the way to Milford Sound. When you reach the famous fiord, you will see why this is New Zealand’s most visited attractions. Rain or shine, a cruise is the best way to enjoy this impressive natural wonder.

2. Thermal Explorer Highway with Tongariro

Look but don’t swim!
Look but don’t swim!

While the South Island gets a lot of attention for its iconic fiords and mountain ranges, the North Island features a landscape so diverse and unique that you’ll be able to experience vastly different landscapes in just a few hours. Nowhere is that more evident than the Thermal Explorer Highway. Although the route officially includes Hawke’s Bay and Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau, the best section to focus on is the stretch of road between Rotorua and Taupō. Combine the itinerary with a drive along Tongariro’s Desert Road and you'll have an unforgettable road trip.

Witness the volatile, geothermal landscape of New Zealand in Wai-o-Tapu, just a short distance south of Rotorua. With geysers, hot springs and the constant smell of sulphur in the air, this is one of the most unique places in the country. When you reach Tongariro National Park, one of the most popular ways to experience the region is to take the long Alpine Crossing hike.

3. Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau and the Bay of Islands

Auckland’s striking skyline.
The striking skyline of Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau.

Another great North Island itinerary takes in New Zealand’s largest city and some of the region's best coastal scenery. Start your road trip in the busy city of Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau. Get your bearings with a trip to the top of the Sky Tower, or head to Mount Eden for a full view of the city skyline. Across the Harbour Bridge, visit the popular suburbs of Devonport and Takapuna.

Over 100 islands make up the collective Bay of Islands. Use the town of Paihia as your base to explore the islands. Take a boat tour to explore the beautiful Cape Brett and spot marine wildlife such as dolphins. Finish off your Bay of Islands road trip with a stop at Cape Reinga / Te Rerenga Wairua. The Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea at the northern tip of the cape. You’ll get a great view from the lighthouse.

4. Mountains and lakes of Canterbury / Waitaha

Mount Cook — New Zealand’s tallest peak.
Mount Cook / Aoraki — New Zealand’s tallest peak.

Just a short drive from Christchurch / Ōtautahi, you will start seeing some of the scenery that inspired Hollywood. With glacier lakes, mountain ranges and unique side-of-the-road attractions, you'll find plenty to see and do here. Take some time to explore Christchurch / Ōtautahi before you set out on your road trip. Despite the destruction caused by the earthquake, Christchurch / Ōtautahi has not lost its colourful character, which you’ll discover along the historic tram route.

Head south toward the famous lakes of the Canterbury / Waitaha region. At Lake Takapō, you'll find one of the world’s biggest dark sky reserves, as well as the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd and fantastic views of the Southern Alps. At the bright blue Lake Pūkaki, turn off the main highway and head toward Mount Cook / Aoraki, where the real appeal is hitting the hiking trails and getting up close to the glaciers.

5. The West Coast

The unusual Pancake Rocks.
The unusual Pancake Rocks.

You’ll see the effects of the wild weather along the West Coast once you start driving along the highway. Start your road trip in the region’s largest city, Greymouth / Māwhera and continue south toward Mount Aspiring National Park. For a window into the history of the West Coast, visit Shantytown to see an old gold-mining town in action.

One of the most visited sights on the West Coast is the Pancake Rocks. The unique rock formations were created by the force of the water and the blowholes that have shaped the landscape. Continue south, stopping at the beautiful Hokitika Gorge, Franz-Josef and Fox Glaciers, Bruce Bay and Haast before continuing into the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park. The road will take you past waterfalls, lakes, pools all the way to Wānaka.

6. The Coromandel Peninsula / Te Tara o Te Ika a Māui

The Coromandel Peninsula offers plenty of beautiful scenery.
The Coromandel Peninsula offers plenty of beautiful scenery.

Start and finish your journey in Tauranga. Not only is the city a great base for exploring the pristine Coromandel Peninsula / Te Tara o Te Ika a Māui, it has its own attractions to keep you busy. Take a walk to the top of Mount Maunganui for a great view of the coastline.

On the eastern side of the peninsula, you’ll find the famous Cathedral Cove and the unique Hot Water Beach. To the west, the rocky coastline gives way to forests and historic towns. In the Coromandel Range, visitors can see a 1,200-year-old Kauri tree, while staying in a number of forest lodges and retreats. In Thames, learn more about the gold-mining history of the peninsula and visit the local town museum.

7. Cities of the East Coast

Dunedin’s train station is a memorable sight.
The train station at Dunedin / Ōtepoti is a memorable sight.

Visit the cities of the South Island’s East Coast on this road trip itinerary from Dunedin / Ōtepoti to Christchurch / Ōtautahi. Along the way, you can visit magnificent beaches and spot penguins and sea lions. In Dunedin, spend some time exploring the unique architecture of the city. Follow the city’s Street Art Trail to see the artistic side of Dunedin / Ōtepoti, and visit the famous train station.

Just outside of Dunedin / Ōtepoti, make Tunnel Beach the first stop on your coastal itinerary. You can walk through a tunnel carved into the rock to get a view from the bottom of the cliffs. The Otago / Ōtākou Peninsula is also well-worth exploring. Any photography-enthusiasts will want to add the Moeraki Boulders to their itinerary, and those after a wildlife experience should stop and see the penguins in Oamaru.

8. Hawke’s Bay

Beaches at Cape Kidnappers.
Beaches at Cape Kidnappers.

Beyond the wineries and unique art-deco towns for which Hawke’s Bay has become known, there are a number of off-the-beaten-path natural wonders to discover. By taking a few back roads and exploring the towns in more depth, you’ll discover some amazing places. The best place to start your Hawke’s Bay road trip is Napier / Ahuriri, a town with a distinct architecture of its own and some great surrounding attractions.

Nearby, Cape Kidnappers boasts a picturesque coastline with a remote feel. Just outside Hastings, get a fantastic view from the peak of Te Mata. You can travel by sealed road all the way to the summit. Once you’ve explored the Hawke’s Bay region, continue into the Bay of Plenty and spend some time exploring the unique sights of Whakatane.

9. The Catlins

The famous Nugget Point Lighthouse.
The famous Nugget Point Lighthouse.

The isolated Catlins region is a favourite among travellers who make the trip there. Here you can see postcard-worthy waterfalls, remote bays home to penguins, and a unique, rocky coastline. Once you leave Invercargill, you won’t find any cities in the region until you arrive at Dunedin / Ōtepoti in the east. However, the area’s remoteness is part of its charm.

Get a taste for the south coast just outside of Invercargill / Waihōpai at the viewpoints in Bluff. Nearby, the road through the Catlins will take you to the south coast where you’ll discover shipwrecks and petrified forests of stone. Curio Bay is a highlight, home to penguin colonies and a unique geological landscape.

10. Nelson / Whakatū and Marlborough / Te Tauihu o Te Waka

The region is home to magnificent wines.
The region is home to magnificent wines.

The Marlborough / Te Tauihu o Te Waka region is famous for its vineyards, which produce world-class wine. When combined with the impressive natural landscape of neighbouring Nelson, you have an impressive road trip itinerary. A good way to take in all the region has to offer is to drive north from Christchurch / Ōtautahi and visit Nelson Lakes National Park before continuing north to the coast.

Nelson / Whakatū has more than one impressive national park. Abel Tasman on the North Coast has plenty of impressive coastal scenery, as does the picturesque Golden Bay. Pay a visit to Picton / Waitohi, the southern boarding point of the InterIslander Ferry, and a gateway to some impressive hiking trails through the Sounds.

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