11 Scenic Road Trips to Take in New Zealand

Arthur's Pass, Otira Highway
Arthur's Pass, Otira Highway | © Westend61 / Getty Images
Photo of Thalita Alves
17 July 2020

Time to hit the road, New Zealand style. It doesn’t matter which island you’re exploring, or which region: You’ll always be surrounded by beautiful landscapes and scenic wonders. To help you map out your journey, here are 11 of the best routes to take.

Thermal Explorer Highway

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Whangapoua Road, Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato Region, North Island
Whangapoua Road, Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato Region, North Island | © Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy Stock Photo

Want to immerse yourself in some of New Zealand’s most incredible forces of nature? First, make your departure point Auckland. Then, navigate through to the geothermal wonders that are Rotorua, before getting to the Waikato region. From there, you’ll come into Taupo, where you’ll be able to marvel at New Zealand’s largest lake and the remarkable Huka Falls. To make your journey even more memorable, do it all in a retro camper van.

Hawke's Bay

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Ruahine Ranges, Manawatu, North Island
Ruahine Ranges, Manawatu, North Island | © David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo

The Hawke’s Bay region is brimming with cool attractions — food and wine tours, pristine beaches, and plenty of unspoiled natural sights. Napier and Hastings are the main cities in the area, and the gorgeous Wairoa River floodplains and Ruahine Ranges are right in your doorstep. Here’s a fun fact to go with your sightseeing: Hawke’s Bay is where you’ll find the hill with the longest name in the world – Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu (known by locals simply as the Taumata).

North Island

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On The Road to Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, North Island of New Zealand
On The Road to Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, North Island of New Zealand | © Hanna Tor / Alamy Stock Photo

The best way to tackle the North Island would be to drive from Auckland to Wellington. Your route might differ depending on how much time you’d like to dedicate to this trip. If you’re not in a rush, go all out: start in Auckland, head across to the Coromandel, then down to Lake Taupo, Tongariro, Martinborough and Wellington. The entire route could well take a week to complete, so you’ll need a proper bed to sleep in to make sure you’re feeling fresh in the morning. One of these high-spec RVs should do the trick.

Wellington to Kaitoke Regional Park

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Wellington coastal road, New Zealand
Wellington coastal road, New Zealand | © Carpe Diem - New Zealand / Alamy Stock Photo

Now for something shorter. Kaitoke Regional Park is approximately an hour and a half’s drive from Wellington. Tolkien fans might know this epic park as Rivendell from The Hobbit films. Along with the lush regional park, the route passes along the stunning Pukerua Bay, so you’ll be soaking up plenty of coastlines along with those exquisite forested vistas.

The Forgotten World Highway

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The Forgotten World Highway through farmland in Taranaki
The Forgotten World Highway through farmland in Taranaki | © Tristan Brynildsen / Alamy Stock Photo

With a trove of rugged countrysides, hilly routes, and meandering roads, the Forgotten World Highway is bound to make you feel like you’re exploring new horizons. This compelling stretch of road was built in the late 19th century, and is home to the historic Whangamomona settlement. Highlights along this 150-kilomtetre (93-mile) trip includes four distinct mountain saddles, a sinuous gorge, and a one-lane tunnel.

Picton to Christchurch via Marlborough Sounds

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Marlborough sounds in the north of south island
© Laetitia Fernandez / Getty Images

Picton and Marlborough are very much the gateway to the South Island. The former is where Wellington-based day trippers and inteprid South Island explorers will arrive through the Interisland Ferry. This route is filled with unique gems to tap into. The Marlborough Sounds are a worthy stopover, as are the area’s surrounding vineyards, ports and bays. Make your experience of the South Island extra special and see it all from behind the wheel of a modern RV.

Queenstown to Glenorchy

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Road from Queenstown on Lake Wakatip
Road from Queenstown on Lake Wakatip | © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

From bustling tourist town to peaceful Tolkien-esque location. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is embellished with rolling hills, icy mountains, and the glistening blue waters of Lake Wakatipu. By the end of the trip, you will arrive in one of the South Island’s best showcases of untapped beauty.

The Lindis Pass

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Lindis Pass, Otago, South Island
Lindis Pass, Otago, South Island | © Robin Weaver / Alamy Stock Photo

New Zealand is renowned for its long stretches of winding roads, and the Lindis Pass is very much a part of this equation. The pass lies between the Lindis and Ahuriri Rivers, traversing through Cromwell and Omarama in Central Otago, and the Mackenzie Basin in the Canterbury region. In the winter months, this scenic marvel will blanket you with stunning snowy vistas. If you’re travelling during the summer season, you’ll absolutely love the lush greenery that will accompany you from end to end.

Haast Pass

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Mount Aspiring National Park on State Highway 6, the Haast Pass
© Theo Moye / Alamy Stock Photo

You’ll drive through these gorgeous roads when you’re heading to see New Zealand’s astonishing glaciers. The trip starts at Wanaka and traverses the West Coast. Key places you’ll see on your scenic drive include the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park, the Hawea glacier, and the remarkable Haast Gorge. The latter is definitely worth stopping over if you’re keen to see the full force of those mighty New Zealand waterfalls. Just park up somewhere nearby in your rented camper van and call the place home for a few days.

Christchurch to Akaroa via Aurthur's Pass

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Road through the grasslands and hills of Akaroa, South Island
Road through the grasslands and hills of Akaroa, South Island | © kevin hellon / Alamy Stock Photo

Akaroa is located an hour’s drive from Christchurch, and is home to New Zealand’s one and only French settlement. This is a shorter drive than most, but worth it for the architectural treasures you’ll pass through – all street signs and buildings will make you feel like you’re stepping into an alternative Francophone land. If you want to elongate the trip, head over to Arthur’s Pass, where you will, once again, be able to tap into the South Island’s best showcases of nature.

The Great Alpine Highway

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Mountain road in the Arthur's Pass across the Southern Alps, South Island of New Zealand
Mountain road in the Arthur's Pass across the Southern Alps, South Island of New Zealand | © Fyletto / Getty Images

Spend three days exploring New Zealand’s alpine beauty. This coast-to-coast drive departs from Christchurch, traversing through the Southern Alps, Porters Pass and Arthur’s Pass. Other scenic highlights to look out for include the majestic Otira River Gorge and the Cave Stream Reserve. You’ll finally reach Greymouth on the West Coast, where you’ll have the option of venturing north to the famed Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. No matter where you visit along the way, you can always save money on accommodation by staying in your own motor home instead.

These recommendations were updated on July 17, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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