Comprehensive New Zealand Road Trip Guide – Key Tips And Stops

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This is a guest post from Danny Newman.

New Zealand has rolling hills, snow-capped mountains, turquoise glacial lakes and explosive volcanic geysers; roaring waterfalls, tropical rainforests and endless expanses of glorious golden sands. The “Land of the Long White Cloud” was the first place I ever really travelled around by myself, and I fell instantly in love with the place and the lifestyle. A road trip is one of the best ways to explore this incredible country and to get a taste of everything it has to offer.

Would you like some tips and ideas to help you make the most of your time? Check out this comprehensive guide to a New Zealand road trip.

New Zealand Road Trip Tips

Let’s start with a few quick-fire tips to help you drive around this beautiful country safely, comfortably, and happily.

Beware The New Zealand Roads – And Drive On The Left

New Zealand’s roads are notorious for accidents. You’ll even see government-sponsored billboards stating “New Zealand roads aren’t like ordinary roads”. Basically, they’re long, winding, steep, and surrounded by beautiful views to distract innocent drivers. Throw in the occasional damage from earthquakes and landfalls and you have a recipe for trouble – especially among those tourists who have limited experience of driving on the left hand side.

So be careful. Take your time, stick to the speed limit, and resist the urge to put your foot down. And don’t forget to drive on the left!

Take It Slow

My #1 piece of advice for anybody going on a New Zealand road trip is to take their time. And not just because the roads are renowned for being dangerous. Slowing down is the best way to take in your surroundings and appreciate the magnificent landscapes through which you drive.

Try to slow things down in three ways. First, in terms of speed; second, in terms of how long you spend on the road each day; and third, in terms of the time you spend at each destination along the way. In my experience, the slower you go, the more you’ll see, do, and enjoy the journey.

Try To Get A 4×4

If there’s one thing I’d do differently if I returned for another NZ road trip, it would be taking a 4×4 around the country instead of an old, rickety, beaten-up sedan!

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, rough gravel roads are ubiquitous across the country, which a 4×4 would handle far better than anything smaller and/or less robust. And many of the most stunning sights and attractions in New Zealand are only accessible via those gravel roads. It would be a massive shame if you had to miss out on them by virtue of having an inadequate set of wheels.

Secondly, having a 4×4 gives you access to off-road experiences. A good example of this is 90-mile Beach at the top of North Island. Driving down that monstrous stretch of sand is amazing. Yet countless people get stuck because they take ordinary cars/vans (without 4-wheel drive) onto it.

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Keep Your Eyes Peeled For Speed Cameras

Of course, this rule applies to most countries you’re driving through. However it’s particularly relevant to New Zealand, because the cameras are a bit hidden! In the UK, speed cameras are big, yellow, unmissable boxes. But in New Zealand they’re often plonked in the back of blacked out people carriers, parked unobtrusively at the side of the road. You can drive past them without ever realising it’s a traffic control officer in disguise. If you get caught going even 1 kmph over the limit, be prepared to get a hefty fine.

Essential Stops For Your New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

With limited time, one of the hardest parts of driving around New Zealand is simply deciding where to go and what to skip. Here are a few unmissable destinations on both the North and South Island that I highly encourage you to include on your New Zealand road trip itinerary.

1. North Island: Cape Reinga And 90-Mile Beach

Cape Reinga is worth a visit purely for the bragging rights of going to the northernmost tip of North Island. It’s an added bonus that this magical place also happens to be profoundly beautiful. Walk to the famous lighthouse, gaze out over panoramic views, see where the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean, and enjoy the general atmosphere of a NZ destination that’s hugely significant in Maori culture.

Lighthouse on a cliff with the sea behind
Lighthouse at Cape Reinga

Oh, and 90-Mile Beach is just down the road! Drive your 4×4 across the sand there and explore the enormous Te Paki sand dunes that rise up behind you.

2. North Island: Bay Of Islands

No trip to North Island is complete with a stopover at the Bay of Islands. A busy tourist destination, this bustling part of the country boasts myriad outdoor attractions alongside numerous cafes, bars, and restaurants.

You can go whale and dolphin watching; enjoy the water sports, swim, snorkel and kayak to your heart’s content; and go on a hike to experience the amazing Kiwi flora and fauna in this neck of the woods.

3. North Island: Coromandel Peninsula

One of my favourite parts of the entire country, Coromandel Peninsula sits on the east coast and has all sorts of unmissable sights on offer. The clear waters, misty forests, and winding roads make driving in and around the Coromandel a feast for the eyes and soul. You’re sure to love it.

There’s no shortage of things to see and do here, from the famous Cathedral Cove to the unique Hot Water Beach and the general laid-back vibe in the area. And don’t miss the quirky Driving Creek Railway.

4. North Island: Rotorua

There’s no two ways about it: Rotorua is a smelly place! Literally. Sulphur rises up out of this volcanic land, filling your nostrils with that unmistakable eggy odour. It isn’t particularly pleasant, but you definitely get used to it. More to the point, it’s worth putting up with to see this unique and otherworldly landscape. Get ready for geysers, natural hot pools, and all sorts of exciting outdoor opportunities.

Thermal landscape with water and steam escaping from a geyser
Hot springs of Rotorua

5. North Island: Lake Taupo And Tongariro National Park

Lake Taupo is located slap bang in the centre of North Island and is another popular stop on the tourist trail around New Zealand. But don’t let that put you off. The popularity is well-founded, with more natural beauty, walking opportunities, hot springs, and water-sports to indulge in. The lively night-life and bar/café scene is an added bonus.

When you’re ready to leave town, be sure to drive around the lake and over to Tongariro National Park. Another barren, otherworldly place, it’s also home to Mount Doom (from Lord of the Rings) and the Tongariro Crossing – an incredible 18 km day hike that people travel from across the world to complete.

6. South Island: Abel Tasman National Park

Words simply don’t do justice to the stunning Abel Tasman National Park. Expect verdant rainforest on the shores of golden beaches and crystal clear waters that are ideal for swimming, snorkelling, paddle-boarding, and kayaking.

Open landscape with mountains, trees and scrubland
The vast expanses of Abel Tasman Park

Fancy getting out of the car for a while? Try the 3 to 5-day Abel Tasman Great Walk (or any other hike in the area!). Other noteworthy stops include:

  • Takaka (a cool, bohemian town with lots of climbing spots)
  • PuPu Springs (some of the clearest waters in the entire world)
  • Fairwell Spit (the northernmost tip of South Island)
  • Wharariki Beach (a wild, windswept white sand beach with seals)

7. South Island: The West Coast

The west coast of South Island makes up one of the most famous routes in the entire country. Wild, untouched, and great fun to drive down (or up), the road is dotted with distinctive towns and tourist attractions along the way.

The main hotspots are Punakaiki (and the Pancake Rocks), Hokitika (and the Hokitika Gorge), and Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Take your time along the west coast and drop in at each of these destinations to enjoy their unique flavours, vibes, and activities.

8. South Island: Wanaka And Queenstown

Wanaka and Queenstown are both super busy (especially Queenstown) but, once again, that’s for good reason. Not only are they situated in sumblime landscapes (think mountains, rivers, glaciers, and glacial lakes), but the towns themselves are also bursting with life and fun-filled activities.

Go to Queenstown for extreme sports, epic burgers, and a thriving party scene; visit Wanaka for chilled-out vibes and spectacular outdoor opportunities. Or try nearby Arrowtown for history, hiking and gold-panning.

Deep blue water of Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains
The beautiful Lake Wanaka (photo copyright Danny Newman)

9. South Island: Milford Sound

Rainy, stupendous, and beautiful: those are the three words I’d use to describe Milford Sound. Located in the Fiordland in the southwestern part of South Island, it’s another place you have to see to believe, a landscape fit for Jurassic Park.

Towering cliffs drop dramatically into still, pristine, icy waters. Hiking trails are everywhere. And there’s a single hostel from which to explore it all. Book up early to avoid the disappointment of missing out.

10. South Island: Mount Cook And Lake Tekapo

Last but not least, we have Mount Cook. The highest mountain in New Zealand (not to mention its deadliest peak), it cuts a breath-taking sight. Picture-perfect and capped with snow, Mount Cook is surrounded by outlandishly blue glacial lakes. It is a fantastic place for hiking, and you can enjoy some of the clearest night skies in the southern hemisphere.

Tall mountains with ice and people hiking along a boardwalk
Hiking track at Mount Cook (photo copyright Danny Newman)

Drive further east to hit Lake Tekapo to enjoy more turquoise waters and staggering starry skies. Whether you stop here for lunch on the way to Christchurch or stay here for a day or two, Tekapo is well worth your time.

Enjoy Your Road Trip In New Zealand

So, there you have it: a comprehensive New Zealand road trip guide to help you plan your route and itinerary here. As you can tell, this stunning country on the other side of the world boasts a massive array of unmissable things to see and do. Although this can make it hard to decide how to spend your time (you don’t want to miss anything out), the silver lining is that anywhere you decide to go will both blow your mind and provide unforgettable memories.

Do you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns about your trip? Drop a comment below and we’ll do our best to help.

Bio: Danny Newman is currently writing and travelling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life. He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing.

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Karen Warren

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I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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