New Zealand; Middle Earth; Paradise – whatever you want to call it, the best way to explore NZ is by taking a good old-fashioned road trip. And the ultimate Kiwi road trip takes you from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south.
Note – this isn’t exactly what you’d call the most “direct” route from Cape Reinga to Bluff; there’s a lot of zig-zagging around, especially in the South Island. However, what you’ll see here is a good representation of some of the amazing scenery on offer in New Zealand.
1. Start At Cape Reinga, Northland. One of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand, Cape Reinga is where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet.
2. Explore Ninety Mile Beach. It’s confession time – New Zealand has lied to you. Ninety Mile Beach is actually only 55 miles long … but who’s really counting? With such stunning views you won’t feel shortchanged at all. This beach is actually a public highway, and is so famous it even appeared in an episode of Top Gear.
3. Recharge Your Batteries In Kaitaia. The pleasant town of Kaitaia is the gateway to the upper reaches of Northland. Warm weather and friendly locals make this a great place to stop off.
4. Be Enchanted By The Bay Of Islands. Consistently rated as one of the most stunning places in New Zealand, the Bay of Islands is a must-do on any great Kiwi road trip. Consider staying in the small town of Russell, and using this a base from which to explore the region.
5. Explore Whangarei. The largest urban area north of Auckland is the gateway to Northland. Whangarei is home to a number of great things to do, including visiting the stunning Whangarei Falls (which you can see pictured below). Other attractions include superb walking tracks, the national clock museum, and Zion Wildlife Gardens.
6. Lose Yourself In The City Of Sails. Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, is world-class in every sense of the word. With fantastic shopping, restaurants, cafes, and cultural activities on offer, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days here.
7. Visit Hamilton & Get Close To Middle Earth. The Waikato region of New Zealand is blessed with some of the best scenery and attractions in the country. Home of famous destinations such as the Waitomo Caves, as well as events such as Balloons Over Waikato and NZ Fieldays, Hamilton and the surrounding area is an essential item on the ultimate NZ road trip itinerary. You’ll even be able to visit the Hobbiton movie set (from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films) at Matamata – you can’t get any closer to Middle Earth! The photo below shows a scene from the Hamilton Gardens, which attract more than 1 million visitors a year.
8. Surf’s Up At Mount Maunganui & Tauranga. Well-known as one of the lifestyle capitals of New Zealand (and the nation’s answer to Australia’s Gold Coast) Tauranga – and Mount Maunganui in particular – is a tourists dream. Sunny beaches, great surfing, friendly locals, and a relaxed atmosphere all combine to make Tauranga and “The Mount” one of the best places to visit on your New Zealand road trip.
9. Explore Prehistoric Landscapes In Rotorua. Known lovingly by Kiwis as “Rotovegas” and famed for its unique egg smell, Rotorua features some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand owing to its violent volcanic and geothermal history. Highlights include the Waimangu Volcanic Valley and relaxing hot pools.
10. Go Fishing On Lake Taupo. Great Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand by surface area, and is home to some of the best rainbow and brown trout fishing in the world. You’ll also have the chance to enjoy adrenalin-pumping jet boating on the nearby Huka Falls and Waikato River, as well as see the impressive Maori Rock Carvings (pictured below) at Mine Bay.
11. Sightseeing In Tongariro National Park. New Zealand is blessed with a number of spectacular national parks, and one of the best is Tongariro – which was the first in the country and one of the oldest national parks in the world. Home to Mount Tongariro, one of NZ’s most active volcanoes, you can also enjoy skiing in the winter at Whakapapa and Turangi skifields. Make sure you bring a camera, because the vistas on offer here are simply unbelievable.
12. Be Astounded By The Ohakune Carrot. Here’s some pop culture for you – many New Zealand towns are famous for oversized food and drink items (such as the massive L&P bottle in Paeroa, or Rakia’s jumbo salmon). If you’re heading south from Tongariro National Park, then the quaint town of Ohakune is worth a visit – if only to see its world-famous carrot. Grab a bite to eat, refill your car, and snap a few photos with this veritable giant of Kiwiana.
13. Soak Up Some Rays In Martinborough. Nestled in the heart of the Wairarapa district, sunny Martinborough is home to some of the best vineyards and wineries in New Zealand. Hire a bike and enjoy some fresh air, fantastic scenery, and even better wine tastings as you explore this picturesque part of the country.
14. Explore The Coolest Little Capital City In The World. Wellington is a fantastic final destination on the North Island leg of your great New Zealand road trip. Styled as the “coolest” capital city in the world (and with plenty of street cred to back up that reputation) there is an undeniable melange of culture, architecture, and entertainment to keep even the most discerning traveler occupied. Highlights of any trip to Wellington include visiting the national museum at Te Papa, shopping on Cuba Street and Manners Mall, and soaking up the cafe culture of the city.
15. Traverse The Cook Strait. If you’re road tripping the length of New Zealand, then you’ll need to take a ferry across the Cook Strait to get to the South Island (or vice versa if you’re doing the journey in reverse). Conditions on the Cook Strait can get a little rough, and it is considered to be one of the most unpredictable waters in the world, so make sure you’re prepared with some seasickness medication if you suffer from such a problem.
16. Relax In Picton. Once you disembark the ferry, you’ll find yourself in the quaint seaside town of Picton. Full of nautically-themed curios, quality cafes and restaurants, as well as art galleries and an excellent museum, Picton is a great place to spend a day or two and recharge your batteries before exploring the top of the South Island.
17. Get Lost (Not Literally!) In The Marlborough Sounds. One of the most popular destinations in the South Island for Kiwis and overseas visitors alike is the Marlborough Sounds. This magnificent series of sea-drowned valleys covers almost 4000 square kilometres, and features some of the most pristine waters and lush bush in the country. The Marlborough Sounds are a great place to enjoy sea kayaking, whale watching, and nature walks.
18. Visit Sunny Nelson. Home to one of the best artisan arts and crafts culture, as well as the sunniest climate in the country, Nelson is an essential destination on your great Kiwi road trip. Located in close proximity to Golden Bay, Abel Tasman National Park and the Nelson Lakes National Park, the city is the ideal base from which to explore some of the most lauded scenery in NZ. Other Nelson highlights include the World of WearableArt gallery, Founders Heritage Park, and the recently-restored Theatre Royal.
19. Remark At Te Waikoropupu Springs. Located in Golden Bay (which is a fantastic place to visit in its own right) Te Waikoropupu Springs are of high cultural significance to Maori. The springs are famed internationally for their exceptionally clear water, as well as the immense volume of water that is discharged from them; approximately 14,000 liters per second.
20. Enjoy West Coast Hospitality In Greymouth. The West Coast of the South Island is renowned for its rugged beauty, unpredictable weather, and friendly locals. Greymouth has a rich history based largely on mining in the region (as does much of the West Coast) and is home to some interesting attractions including the Monteiths Brewery, pictured below, where you can enjoy some of New Zealand’s best beer and excellent food in a friendly environment.
21. Stop Off At The World-Famous Pancake Rocks. No you can’t eat them … but the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki do provide for some of the best sightseeing and photo opportunities in the South Island. Famous because of their unique shape (which closely resembles giant stacks of pancakes) these rocks represent the pinnacle of the natural beauty of the West Coast.
22. Marvel At The Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers. Two of the most accessible, stunning glaciers in the world are located right in New Zealand’s back yard. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are immensely popular with visitors, and provide some of the best opportunities for getting up close and personal with guided and unguided walks available, as well as scenic helicopter and plane flights. Pictured below is the Franz Josef Glacier.
23. Traverse Arthur’s Pass. The most widely-used route for driving from the West Coast to East Coast or vice versa, State Highway 73 (commonly referred to as Arthur’s Pass, which is actually the name of a small township and national park in the area) will reward you with some stunning scenery and photo opportunities as you cross the Southern Alps. Especially impressive is the Otira Viaduct, which is a remarkable feat of civil engineering and has also made driving from coast to coast much easier. If you’ve come to New Zealand to explore the great outdoors, then you’ll want to stop off in Arthur’s Pass township and enjoy some of the popular walks and hikes on offer.
24. Go Whale Watching In Kaikoura. Located on the East Coast of the South Island, Kaikoura is a popular tourist destination that is especially popular for its whale watching ventures. You’ll also get to see a diverse array of other marine life in the area, including seals and dolphins.
25. See A City Reborn In Christchurch. The city of Christchurch, which is one of the largest urban areas in New Zealand, was the scene of a series of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Rebuilding the city is an ongoing process, and one that is likely to take many more years to complete. Some of the best highlights when visiting Christchurch include the Re:Start Container Mall (a boutique shopping center constructed from shopping containers) the Canterbury Museum, and the Quake City experience.
26. Head Across To Akaroa. Located on the picturesque Banks Peninsula, Akaroa is popular as a day trip destination from Christchurch at just over one hour’s drive away. With a proud French heritage – many of the street names, buildings, and shops reflecting this – as well as quality cafes and restaurants on offer, Akaroa is ideal for a little sojourn while traveling in the Canterbury region. You can enjoy a number of walks on Banks Peninsula, or head out onto the Akaroa harbour in a rented kayak or dolphin watching boat.
27. Drive Down To Lake Tekapo & Enjoy Some Of The Clearest Skies In The World. Fabled as one of the best visitor destinations in New Zealand, Lake Tekapo is renowned for its extremely clear night sky. Home to the Mount John observatory, the night sky is actually protected as an “International Dark Sky Reserve” – one of only four such places in the world. The township also features one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand; the Church of the Good Shepherd.
29. Make The Short Trip To Mount Cook Village. From Lake Tekapo it’s a short, enjoyable drive to Mount Cook Village. Although this tiny settlement is only home to around 300 permanent residents, it attracts almost a quarter of a million visitors a year. It is the starting point for intrepid climbers looking to scale the peak of Aoraki/Mount Cook. The village is also home to the popular Hermitage Hotel, as well as backpackers and guided tour operators. You can enjoy a number of walks and short hikes in the area; particularly popular is the Hooker Valley walk, which takes you to the edge of a glacial lake.
30. Explore Queenstown– The Adventure Capital of New Zealand. One of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand is Queenstown. This picturesque city is a hive of activity all year round, with snow sports and the annual Winter Festival in winter, as well as a variety of adventure activities and superb nightlife in summer. Whether you want to hit the slopes, blast down the Shotover River in a high-powered jet boat, go bungy jumping, or just enjoy the vibrant atmosphere, Queenstown is an essential destination on your New Zealand roadie.
31. Get A Taste Of The South In Dunedin. The city of Dunedin is known for its cold winter weather, internationally-ranked university, and stunning coastline. In this charming city you’ll also find some of the best architecture in New Zealand, excellent nightlife, and even the world’s steepest residential street. A trip to Dunedin also provides the perfect base from which to undertake the final leg of your epic road trip down the length of New Zealand.
32. Experience The Tranquility Of Fiordland. The Fiordland region of New Zealand is famed for its remoteness and pristine beauty. From the gateway town of Te Anau you can explore a number of world-famous destinations, including the Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Milford Sound has been voted the best visitor destination in the world, and is definitely one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand.
33. Explore The Catlins. Before you reach the southern end of the mainland, you’ll want to take the time to indulge your senses in the Catlins region. This area on the south-east coast of the South Island is home to some of the most iconic coastal scenery in New Zealand. Sparsely populated, if you are in NZ to experience nature and natural beauty at its best, then The Catlins is where you need to be. Home to some of the rarest wildlife in the country, including the yellow-eyed penguin, you’ll want to spend plenty of time here.
34. Finish Up In Bluff. Sure, you can actually get further south in New Zealand (Slope Point is further south) but the “spiritual” home of the bottom of New Zealand remains Bluff. This town is famous for its oysters, and features a number of other attractions including a maritime museum and world-class walking tracks. What an ideal end to the ultimate NZ road trip!
Thanks For Reading!
If you like what you saw, then please share this page with your friends and family on your favourite social network. Equally, if you think we’ve missed anything essential off this road trip, then don’t be afraid to get in contact and let us know – we might just be able to amend the guide to include your recommendation. We also welcome your snaps to add to the collection.