With just four million people spread over two main islands, nature and dramatic scenery rules in New Zealand. From the high Southern Alps that run the length of the South Island to the volcanic peaks of the North Island, the watery passages of the Marlborough Sounds and Fiordland to the geothermal activity of the central North Island, the golden sands of Northland beaches to the black sands of the west coast of both islands – there’s a lot to see on a self-drive route through New Zealand.

Cities are few and far between in New Zealand, especially in the South Island, and some of the most beautiful spots are remote or require a bit of a detour. So, many travellers prefer to rent a car or a campervan in New Zealand rather than rely on limited public transport. A wide variety of accommodation is available throughout the country, but self-driving allows the freedom of staying at well-positioned campsites in a campervan, tent, or simple cabin.

Although New Zealand’s two main islands don’t look that big on the map, the roads can be quite slow due to mountainous terrain, rural areas, and a lack of major European or North American-style highways. But these conditions make it easier to appreciate the views and stop at places of interest along the way.

Most travellers prefer to come in the warmer months (between October and March), as this is prime beach time. There are advantages of travelling in the cooler months – such as skiing – but the road conditions can be more challenging in winter.

Great Alpine highway Arthurs Pass New Zealand

Great Alpine highway, New Zealand

7 day North Island road trip route

Auckland and Northland

Start your road trip in Auckland and travel through subtropical Northland. The conveniently self-contained peninsula is full of gorgeous beaches, ancient forests, and Maori culture.

The route

Auckland - West Coast Auckland - Whangarei - Bay of Islands - Kaitaia - Cape Reinga - Hokianga Harbour - Auckland

NZ Northland Bay of Islands

Bay of Islands, Northland

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and is naturally attractive, but it’s hardly representative of the New Zealand you’ll find elsewhere. After enjoying the boutiques, bars and restaurants, hit the road. Drive west out of Auckland city through the Waitakere Ranges to Piha, a stretch of black-sand coastline with good surfing. Muriwai is a bird-watcher’s paradise, an hour’s drive further up the coast.

From Piha and Muriwai it’s a 2.5-hour drive north-east to Northland’s largest city, Whangarei. Whangarei has underrated attractions for a day or two, although travellers with less time can push on to the Bay of Islands in one longer day’s drive.

The Bay of Islands is an hour north of Whangarei. The popular holiday spot is rich in history and natural beauty. On the way, make a toilet stop (whether you need to or not!) at the whimsical Hundertwasser Public Toilets in Kawakawa.

After a couple of days soaking in the beautiful Bay, continue north-west 1.5 hours to Kaitaia, stopping for a fish-and-chip lunch at the Mangonui Fish Shop, and for a swim at Cable Car or Coopers Beach. Kaitaia itself isn’t appealing, but it’s a convenient place to break the journey before heading up to Cape Reinga the following day.

From Kaitaia, the drive up to the very top of the country takes 1.5 hours along State Highway 1. However, many travellers prefer to travel up Ninety Mile Beach, and because some rental car companies don’t allow this, taking a tour in a suitable vehicle is a better way of experiencing this long sweep of sand and dunes.

From Cape Reinga, the small town of Rawene, on the Hokianga Harbour, is a three-hour drive south. The huge harbour on the west coast, bounded by enormous sand dunes, is much less developed than the Bay of Islands on the east. It’s surrounded by ancient kauri tree forests: the Waipoua Forest is about a 1.5-hour drive south. From there, loop back down to Auckland on different roads from your journey north, a trip of about three hours.

Northland Cape Reinga

Cape Reinga, Northland

What to see

West Coast Auckland

Black-sand Piha is separated from Auckland city by the Waitakere Ranges. The famous surf beach has large waves, so care and skill are required. In summer, lifeguards patrol the beach. Muriwai is up the same stretch of coast; between August and March, a large colony of gannets nests on the high cliffs.

Whangarei

Northland’s only city, Whangarei, offers fine dining at the Town Basin marina area, quick hikes to volcanic outcrops overlooking the city (Mt. Parihaka and Mt. Manaia), and white-sand beaches at Ocean Beach and along the Tutukaka Coast.

Bay of Islands

With a subtropical climate, idyllic beaches, forests, islands, waterfalls, sites associated with New Zealand’s early colonial history (Russell and Waitangi), and dolphin-watching cruises, there’s nothing overrated about the popular Bay of Islands. The two-day Cape Brett Walkway offers a moderate trek, ending at a point overlooking the Hole in the Rock. Outside Paihia and Russell, it’s relatively easy to find secluded places to camp. Drive the Old Russell Road all the way to the Rawhiti or Waikare Inlets for peaceful bays and island-studded views.

Cape Reinga

At the top of the Aupori Peninsula — the narrow tombola that extends from Northland—Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand. Maori believe the spirits of the deceased leave the land here, bound for their spiritual homeland, Hawaiki. There’s a lighthouse overlooking the crashing Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and well-marked hiking trails lead down steep cliffs to otherwise cut-off bays and beaches.

Hokianga Harbour and Kauri Forests

With slower road access from Auckland than the Bay of Islands, the Hokianga Harbour is relatively undeveloped and provides a real insight into Northland Maori life. Sandboarding down the huge sand dunes at the mouth of the harbour is fun—but put away any ideas of surfing or swimming in the treacherous waters here. The kauri forests around the Hokianga were once logged extensively, but are now protected: in the Waipoua Forest, don’t miss Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, believed to be between 1000 and 2000 years old. Trounson Kauri Park is just south of Waipoua.

Art in Northland

As well as the toilets in Kawakawa, Northland’s connection to Austrian-born artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser runs deep. From late 2020/early 2021, visitors to Whangarei can visit the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery at the Town Basin, modelled according to designs the Kawakawa resident drew up before he died in 2000.

10 day North Island road trip route

Down the line from Auckland to Wellington

At opposite ends of the North Island, New Zealand’s two largest cities are separated by gorgeous beaches, geothermal features, volcanic plateaus, and wildlife reserves. This route between Auckland and Wellington covers some North Island highlights.

The route

Auckland - Coromandel Peninsula - Rotorua - Taupo - Tongariro National Park - Kapiti Coast - Wellington

NZ Whitewater rafting Kaituna Falls Rotorua

Kaituna Falls, Rotorua

Starting in Auckland, loop southeast and up to the Coromandel Peninsula. Thames, at the southern end of the peninsula, is 1.5 hours’ drive from Auckland, but there are other towns further up. The Coromandel Ranges run through the centre of the peninsula, and around the coastline are bays, beaches, and marine reserves.

En route to Rotorua, you may want to stop for a day or two in Tauranga, a dolphin-watching hot spot. Otherwise, continue on to Rotorua, a journey of three hours from Coromandel town. This hub of Maori culture set on a large lake is dotted with steaming vents, spurting geysers, and bubbling mud pools. An even larger lake, Taupo, is an hour’s drive south-west. There are geothermal parks throughout the area, and although the drive between Rotorua and Taupo isn’t long, it can be broken up with stops at these parks. In Taupo, spend time boating or kayaking on the lake.

The Tongariro National Park—one of only three national parks in the North Island — is on the other side of Lake Taupo from Taupo town, about an hour’s drive away. Turangi, on the northern side of the park, and National Park, on the west, are good bases for hikes in the high-altitude, volcano-studded national park.

After two or three days of outdoor activities, continue south towards Wellington, stopping for a day on the Kapiti Coast and Kapiti Island. Paraparaumu is 3.5 hours’ drive from Turangi.

Wellington is an easy and scenic hour-long drive from the Kapiti Coast. Spend a couple of days in the proudly artsy capital before getting a connecting domestic flight to an international airport, or catching the ferry to the South Island.

NZ Tongariro mount doom near

Mount Ngauruhoe, near Tongariro

What to see

Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel Peninsula has some of the most famous beaches in the country (Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach), and great kayaking offshore. The centre of the peninsula is covered in forested hills. The Pinnacles Walk in the Coromandel Forest Park is a highlight, and can be done as a one-day or overnight hike. The summit of the Pinnacles is at 758m and has great views of the forest and peninsula. Some parts are very steep.

Rotorua and Taupo

The central North Island is synonymous with bubbling mud pools, geysers, and colourful geothermal terraces. These natural features can be seen at various parks and open areas throughout Rotorua, but for a quieter experience, visit one outside the city. Orakei Korako, between Rotorua and Taupo, is a bit of a detour and requires a short boat ride to get across to the thermal terraces. If you’re driving a self-contained camper van, you’re allowed to park here overnight.

Tongariro National Park

New Zealand’s oldest national park is also a UNESCO World Heritage area, noted for both its cultural and natural significance. With three active volcanoes — Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu — the high plateau of the Tongariro National Park offers challenging hikes. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike is very popular, but the longer (3-4 day) Tongariro Northern Circuit is an alternative for experienced trekkers. It’s best to go with a guide, as conditions can change rapidly in the alpine landscape.

Kapiti Coast and Kapiti Island

Off the coast of the Kapiti Coast is Kapiti Island, a wildlife reserve. Guided tours ferry visitors over to the island from Paraparaumu Beach, where many varieties of native coastal and forest birds live, such as shags, gulls, tuis, kaka, and kereru. The view from the top of the 518m peak is worth the hike up.

14 days + South Island road trip route

Top of the south where mountains meet the sea

The top of the South is a microcosm of the country, with diverse mountains, beaches, forests, lakes, and wildlife. Arrive in the Marlborough Sounds and complete a loop along the northern and western coastline, and through the mountains.

The route

Picton - Abel Tasman National Park - Golden Bay - Nelson Lakes National Park - Punakaiki - Hokitika - Hanmer Springs - Christchurch - Kaikoura - Blenheim - Picton

NZ Kaikoura humpback whale

Humpback whale at Kaikoura

The ferry from Wellington takes about three hours, and passes through the dramatic Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken valleys and isolated bays. Picton is the largest town in the sounds, and offers wildlife-watching cruises with chances of seeing penguins and dusky dolphins. Hiking trails snake through the sounds, much of which has no road access.

From Picton, follow the Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock (rather than the less scenic State Highways via Blenheim). The drive from Picton to Havelock takes an hour. Located on Pelorus Sound, Havelock is a handy lunch stop on the way to Nelson, another hour’s drive from Havelock.

Spend a day or two in pleasant Nelson, the largest city at the top of the South Island, or continue directly to the Abel Tasman National Park. From Nelson, the small gateway villages of Marahau and Kaiteriteri to the east of the park are about a 90-minute drive. With more time, plan to camp in the park and/or do a multi-day hike.

Continue on to Golden Bay, over the slow and winding Takaka Hill, the only access road there. From the start of the Takaka Hill road (around Riwaka), the drive to Takaka town takes an hour, and to Collingwood 80 minutes. Take your time on this journey as the Takaka Hill reaches almost 800 metres, and is twisty. Takaka is a preferable base for exploring the western side of Abel Tasman, while Farewell Spit is closer to Collingwood.

Return the way you came, over the Takaka Hill, to leave Golden Bay. The small village of St. Arnaud, on Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is 2.5 hours from Takaka. The alpine environment here is a huge contrast to the sea-level natural beauty of Tasman and Golden Bays. How long you spend at the Nelson Lakes depends on how much hiking you want to do.

Hokitika swingbridge

Swing bridge at Hokitika

From St. Arnaud, continue in the direction of Murchison (45 minutes), where there’s great white-water rafting on the Buller River, and then on to Greymouth (2 hours) on the West Coast. Stop at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks on the way. Hokitika is about 30 minutes from Greymouth.

After a day at the Hokitika Gorge, head inland again, 2.5 hours east to Hanmer Springs. The journey traverses the 740-metre Arthur’s Pass, through the mountains of the Arthur’s Pass National Park. Hanmer is a mountain spa town with chilled-out activities for adults and fun for kids.

Christchurch—the South Island’s largest city—is about a two-hour drive east of Hanmer Springs. Defined by a devastating earthquake in 2011, visitors to Christchurch should check out the memorial on the banks of the Avon River. In Christchurch, connect to an international flight or continue road tripping for a few more days, up the east coast, to make a full loop back to Picton.

Leaving Christchurch, make a pit stop in the Waipara wine country (1 hour), en route to Kaikoura (2.5 hours from Christchurch). Kaikoura is famous for its whales, and a cruise practically guarantees a sighting.

Blenheim is two hours north of Kaikoura. It’s the largest town in New Zealand’s premier wine-producing region, the Marlborough. Blenheim is a half-hour drive from Picton.

NZ Marlboroughsound boat

Boat on Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

What to see

Marlborough Sounds

For many overland travellers, the Marlborough Sounds are their first glimpse of the South Island. The jagged area of islands, inlets, and sunken valleys offer scenic road trips, remote hikes, secluded beaches, gentle sea kayaking, and different views at every turn. Although not a national park, there are more than 50 reserves here. Some can be driven to — like the refreshing Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve — while others require a boat transfer, like Motuara Island.

Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman’s compact size makes it an easy place for trips to beautiful beaches, day hikes, longer treks, boat rides along the coast, and kayaking excursions. While the five-day Coast Track is the most famous walk, shorter sections can be done with the help of water taxi transfers, and the Inland Track sees far fewer trekkers.

Golden Bay

Remote Golden Bay has a frontier vibe and very few inhabitants. With the Abel Tasman National Park to the east and the Kahurangi National Park to the south-west, there are many hiking options, including the 4/5-day Heaphy Track. The long, skinny sweep of Farewell Spit is an important bird sanctuary; the sacred, dazzling-blue Waikoropupu Springs are the largest cold-water springs in the country; and dramatic Wharariki Beach is a place for windswept walks, horse treks, and seal spotting.

Nelson Lakes National Park

The mountains of the Nelson Lakes National Park mark the start of the Southern Alps mountains that run through the centre of the South Island. Multi-day hiking is the only way to reach some of the 16 lakes in the park, including Blue Lake, thought to be the clearest lake in the world. But, Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa are easy to drive to. There are short (and longer) walks around these lakes, and water taxi services in season.

Paparoa National Park: Punakaiki

The unusual and aptly named Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, in the Paparoa National Park, are a worthwhile stop en route between Westport and Greymouth/Hokitika. From the rocks, you can admire classic West Coast views of dense native forest, limestone cliffs, and endless uninhabited, undeveloped coastline.

Hokitika

An old gold-rush town, Hokitika is one of the West Coast’s few settlements. On a clear day there are views of Aoraki Mt. Cook from the blustery beach, and pieces of pounamu (jade) can sometimes be found there. The turquoise waters of the Hokitika Gorge, east of town, are a scenic setting for kayaking and short walks.

Aoraki Mt Cook national park Mount Tasman Valleys

Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand

Hanmer Springs

The South Island’s answer to the geothermal springs of the central North Island, this mountain resort town is a place to chill out in the warm waters of open-air baths. Jet-boating and white-water rafting through the Waiau Gorge can also be enjoyed.

Kaikoura

The ocean currents and deep trench offshore mean the seas around Kaikoura are home to a huge variety of marine life year-round. Sperm whales, humpback whales, blue whales, orca, dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, seals, albatross, and penguins can be seen on sightseeing cruises or flights (note a minimum age of three for cruises, but not flights).

Blenheim and Marlborough Wine Country

The Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region, and vineyards stretch in every direction beneath the hills. Sauvignon Blanc produced here is considered some of the finest in the world, so try some in Blenheim town.

New Zealand's most scenic drive

While the South Island isn’t short of scenic drives, the remote drive to the French Pass, in the western Marlborough Sounds, is said to be number one. From the Rai Valley on State Highway 6, follow paved and unsealed roads through forests, farmland, and corkscrew turns to the very end of the arm, overlooking Admiralty Bay, D’Urville Island, and the swift waters of the French Pass.

12 day South Island road trip route

New Zealand's deep south of mountains and glaciers

This itinerary encompasses some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes in New Zealand, in the lower South Island. Starting on the flat Canterbury Plains, the mountains rise as you drive inland.

The route

Christchurch - Moeraki Boulders - Dunedin - Queenstown - Milford Sound - Wanaka - Aoraki Mount Cook - Tekapo - Christchurch

NZ Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand

Starting in Christchurch, head due south to Dunedin (4.5 hours’ drive), stopping en route at the unusual Moeraki Boulders, about two-thirds of the way to Dunedin.

Dunedin offers a wealth of bird and wildlife-watching activities within very easy reach of the city: penguins, fur seals, sea lions, and albatross all hang out on the Otago Peninsula.

From Dunedin, drive inland towards the mountains, stopping first in Queenstown, 3.5 hours away. The small city on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is surrounded by the Remarkables mountains, and offers adventure sports based on land, in the water, air, or at the end of a bungee cord.

A number of day trips or overnighters can be taken from Queenstown, especially in the Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound and Te Anau, in particular, are must-visits and are accessed along the same road, State Highway 94.

Moving on from Queenstown, spend a couple of days in nearby Wanaka or continue to Mt. Cook Village. The drive takes four hours but is worth stretching out over a whole day. New Zealand’s highest mountain is a scenic backdrop for hiking, horse riding, or mountain biking.

While Mt. Cook Village isn’t very far from Tekapo as the crow flies, the mountainous terrain and location of Lakes Punakaiki and Tekapo means it’s about a 90-minute drive. Spend at least one night in Tekapo to stargaze in the world’s largest dark-sky reserve.

Returning to Christchurch (three hours’ drive), the first part of the journey provides more mountain scenery; after Geraldine, the road flattens out and speeds up, along the Canterbury Plains.

NZ Lake Tekapo lupins

Lupins at Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

What to see

Moeraki Boulders

The large spheres of rock dotting Koekohe Beach (also called Moeraki Beach) are believed to have formed 60 million years ago, from ocean floor sediment. It’s highly worth breaking the Christchurch-to-Dunedin journey with a walk here.

Dunedin

As well as being one of New Zealand’s most attractive cities, with its neo-gothic architecture, Dunedin offers a wealth of natural and wildlife-related activities. The Otago Peninsula — within the city limits — is home to little blue penguins, albatross, and seal colonies, which can be seen independently or from cruises on the harbour.

Queenstown

New Zealand’s adventure sports capital is a surprisingly small town but it’d be possible to spend days here hiking, biking, rafting, canyoning, bungee jumping, riding the luge, touring nearby wineries, and enjoying the views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. It’s not a “typical” South Island town, but don’t let that get in the way of enjoying this pretty place.

Milford Sound and Fiordland

Milford Sound is one of the South Island’s most popular attractions, but the large Fiordland National Park it sits within contains huge expanses of wilderness. Long-distance hikes through some of the 14 fiords reveal waterfalls, fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and watery mountain vistas—but don’t forget the wet-weather gear.

NZ Wanaka biking

Biking trails at Wanaka, New Zealand

Wanaka

Another little town on a lake (Lake Wanaka) and presided over by mountains, Wanaka is smaller than Queenstown. As well as great day hikes in the nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park — such as to the Rob Roy Glacier, the Blue Pools and Mt. Brewster — travellers with more limited time can take a tour out to Mou Waho, an island in the middle of Lake Wanaka. This little island in a lake has it’s own lake at its summit, a 20-minute hike from the landing jetty.

Aoraki Mount Cook

New Zealand’s highest mountain — Aoraki Mt. Cook (3724m) — sits within a national park of the same name, where there are 19 more peaks over 3000m, and around 180 glaciers. As well as being a training ground for mountaineers, various treks can be enjoyed here, such as the three-hour Mueller Glacier walk in the Hooker Valley. Butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and moths are abundant here.

Tekapo

Overlapping with the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve and the largest such reserve in the world, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. With almost no light pollution here whatsoever (settlements are few and far between), it’s a spectacular place to stargaze. Stargazing from open-air hot springs is also offered.

South Islands hidden hills

If your time isn’t limited, take a detour south from Dunedin (before travelling west to Queenstown) to spend a couple of days in the Catlins. This hilly and coastal region spanning southern Otago and Southland is rarely visited by foreign travellers, but the penguin spotting and dramatic cliffs of the coastline are on a par with natural sights anywhere in New Zealand. Don’t miss the Cathedral Caves.

When to go to New Zealand

When to go to New Zealand
By Nicole Canning

Seasons and climate

Thanks to its stunning scenery, pristine coastline, vast mountain ranges and no shortage of adventure activities, New Zealand has something to offer all year round.

To catch New Zealand's warmest weather, aim to visit during the summer months (December, January, February). Temperatures in the North Island average 25˚C and it’s the perfect time to explore some of the Northland’s untouched beaches like Matauri Bay, Wainui Bay, and Ninety Mile Beach.

If you want to beat the summer crowds and experience a more laid back, quiet New Zealand experience, consider visiting in shoulder seasons — spring (September to November) and autumn (March to May). The weather in these months is still mild enough for plenty of outdoor adventures, but you can expect to find quieter, cheaper (and cleaner) campsites across the country as you dodge school holidays.

Autumn in particular in the South Island is stunning as snow-capped mountains hug the horizon and New Zealand’s roads are lined with golden hues as the trees turn to shades of amber and rust.

If you’re not turned off by colder climates (it can get as low at -10˚C in the South) and feel ready to hit the slopes, there’s no better time to visit the South Island than June, July, August — New Zealand’s winter.

Whether you’re looking for a mellow coastal road trip under the summer sun, snow-packed alpine adventures or a hike through golden autumnal forests, each New Zealand season offers something uniquely special to visitors.

NZ Mount Roy South Island

Winter hike to the summit of Mount Roy, South Island

Festivals and holidays

Expect a plethora of festivals and events if you visit during New Zealand’s surprisingly warm summer, including the ever-popular New Zealand Sevens rugby tournament and music events like the World Buskers’ Festival in Christchurch and Auckland’s Laneway Festival.

Waitangi Day (which is New Zealand’s national day) falls on 6th February and is the perfect time to get immersed in Kiwi culture. Head to Waitangi on the North Island or one of the capital cities to experience traditional Māori cultural performances and day-long celebrations.

The little (but bustling!) city of Queenstown kicks off the winter season with an annual festival in June/July. With a jam-packed 10-day line up of music, snow sports, and entertainment, it’s the best place to be to start off your winter adventure. From there, you can take on the popular ski resorts in the South like Wanaka, Otago, and Canterbury.

Matariki (the Maori New Year) is also celebrated country-wide in June, as well as plenty of foodie festivals like Dunedin’s Chocolate Carnival, Auckland Restaurant Month and Visa Wellington on a Plate for those looking to experience the best of New Zealand’s food scene.

NZ Arrowtown Autumn Festival on Buckingham Street

People gathered on Buckingham Street for the Arrowtown Autumn Festival parade, South Island

New Zealand's best road trips

Elen Turner

Elen is a Nelson, New Zealand-based travel writer who has lived on both the North and South Islands, from Northland to Otago. Her writing on New Zealand has appeared in Lonely Planet, The New Zealand Herald, Ozy, TripSavvy, Culture Trip, The Points Guy and elsewhere.

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