New Zealand Road Trip: Itinerary for Exploring New Zealand By Car

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New Zealand is one of the most picturesque countries on the planet. It’s also one of the most stunning destinations for a road trip. If emerald lakes, snow-capped peaks and luscious green landscapes sound like your jam, the best way to do so is by road.

Car hire in New Zealand is simple to arrange and allows the traveller to plot their own journeys to ensure they can enjoy both the North and South Islands in all their glory. Plus, it’s popular and easy to rent sleeper vans and camp throughout the country. This is an awesome way to be really free on the road! 

Here are some itinerary ideas for a New Zealand road trip: 

New Zealand Road Trip: North Island Itinerary

  • Auckland
  • Bay of Islands
  • Hamilton
  • Rotorua
  • Waitomo
  • Wellington

To explore the North Island, start in Auckland. Spend a few days enjoying the country’s largest city, named one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities in 2014, and take a boat ride to Waiheke Island, the home to vineyards and tremendously good restaurants.

When you’re ready to get back on the road, head north. 

new zealand road trips

Bay of Islands

For the determined sightseer, take the three-and-a-half-hour journey north to the Bay of Islands, this picturesque paradise is a must for sailing, fishing and diving enthusiasts. You can also do great skydiving here, and there are lots of beautiful beaches where you can spend your time. 

It’s not far to get to, which means the Bay of Islands should definitely make it onto your itinerary, even if you only go for one night. 

road trip in new zealand

Hamilton

After your time up north, head past Auckland and keep driving south. If Lord of the Rings is your thing, head to Hamilton and Cambridge to visit the Hobbiton movie set and see for yourself exactly why New Zealand was chosen to film the Lord of the Rings.

This journey takes around two hours and, even if you’re not a fan of the Oscar-winning trilogy, the weird and wonderful set is well worth a visit.

Less than an hour north it’s back to reality to the action-packed paradise of Tauranga. This harbour-side city is a great place to thrill seek or take things easy.

rotorua new zealand road trip

Rotorua

Continue your journey south to the Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley (Rotorua) where you will discover Te Puia.The Maori Arts and Crafts Institute is the place to try the authentic steam box meal, prepared using ancient geothermal cooking skills.

As well as soaking up Maori traditions, be sure to check out Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. But hold your breath! Rotorua and its active geysers have a sulphur smell. 

When you’ve had your fill of Rotorua, head south along the West coast, where you’ll find some of most insane views and attractions. 

new zealand road trip

Waitomo

Head on to the west of the island you will arrive at the majestic Waitomo Gloworm Caves.

Don’t miss the chance to go tubing through the caves, illuminated by the thousands of creatures who live there. There is no other experience like it on the planet. 

There’s not a whole lot else in Waitomo aside from the caves (totally worth the stop!) so continue your journey south after a night here. The next drive is a big one! 

road trip new zealand

Wellington

Now comes the fun part of the journey for any petrol head, the six-hour southerly drive to Wellington, to enjoy the wonder of the capital city.

There are a ton of things to do in Wellington, New Zealand. Visit Te Papa, the museum of New Zealand, for fascinating history into Maori culture and New Zealand’s history, as well as the flora and fauna found on the island nation. Visit the Botanical Gardens, go shopping on Cuba Street for funky vintage or in Greytown for a more upscale vibe — there is enough to entertain you in Wellington for a few days or more. 

When you’re ready to head to the South Island, prepare for your jaw to hit the floor. The views you’re about to see are straight from a postcard. 

To get to the South Island, you’ll take a ferry across the Cook Straight (with your car). The journey will take about three hours from Wellington to Picton, and is sometimes rough. Bring Dramamine if you’re prone to sea sickness! 

South Island Itinerary

  • Franz Josef Glacier
  • Wanaka
  • Queenstown
  • Milford Sound
  • The Catlins
  • Dunedin
  • Christchurch

Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier

From there the six-hour drive to the Franz Josef Glacier may seem to take an age, but it will be worth it when you cast your eyes upon this awe-inspiring phenomenon. Make sure you take the time to join a group hike or view by helicopter.

Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier during winter was one of the coolest experiences we had while there, and we got some funky ice photos from the experience! You should be relatively fit and able to move with crampons on your feet. 

 

 

wanaka new zealand

Wanaka

Though often overshadowed by nearby Queenstown, Wanaka’s lovely location by the lake makes it a wonderful town to chill out in. The community here is artistic and strong — you’ll find more locals than you will in Queenstown, for sure– and there are tons of small businesses to check and support. There’s a mountain nearby if you’re here for winter action, but in the summer, take a stroll around the lake and stop by a local ice cream shop. It’s the perfect summer day. 

new zealand road trip itinerary

Queenstown

Take the short inland journey to Queenstown and enjoy the adventure capital of New Zealand.

Renowned for its skiing between June and October, you can thrill seek all year round with a wide variety of activities including bungee jumping, sky diving, river rafting and jet boating.

Walk down Shotover Street, try the famous Shotover Canyon Swing, or, if it’s winter, park yourself here for access to the two mountains within a half hour of Queenstown: Coronet Peak and the Remarkables. 

People come from all over the world to experience a winter in Queenstown. If skiing and snowboarding are your thing, you’ll love it. While you’re here (spend at least 3 nights in Queenstown), make it a priority to explore nearby Glenorchy and the lakeside town of Wanaka.

road trips in new zealand

Milford Sound

When you’re ready, continue to head south until you reach Milford Sound. This is a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime destination, where cliffs rise from fjords and are complimented by beautiful waterfalls. THIS is where the magic happens, folks. You absolutely cannot miss it. 

There are a ton of ways to experience Milford Sound. You could hike in, there are tons of trails, but some of them are longer and harder than others. You could also take a helicopter, or take a boat, or schedule a tour from an adventure center in our next stop: Queenstown.

penguins in new zealand

The Catlins

Then take the three-hour journey south to enjoy the Catlins Coast, a hiker’s paradise packed with rugged landscapes, scenic coastlines and a wide variety of wildlife. You’ll probably want to pull over throughout your drive. Make sure you have your camera and tripod handy! 

There aren’t many places to stay along this stretch of road, unless you intend to camp. But the views are PHENOM. It’s also here that you’ll see a variety of New Zealand wildlife. There are even penguins at Curio Bay! Please remember to read and respect the signs while enjoying wildlife. 

Christchurch

The final leg of your journey on your New Zealand road trip is the six-hour drive north to enjoy a few days in Christchurch, renowned for its English heritage. Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island, and it’s still not that big. Chances are, you’ve had so much nature that the city won’t be what you’re looking for. But to fly out of the South Island, the largest airport is in Christchurch. Spend a night or two here to do some last-minute exploring! 

Have you taken a road trip through New Zealand? What were some of the highlights?

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About Author

Kelly Lewis is the founder of Go! Girl Guides, the Women's Travel Fest and Damesly. She's an optimist, an adventurer, an author and works to help women travel the world.

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