This is Part 1 of our 4 part series on planning the ultimate New Zealand road trip. We will cover every aspect – itinerary, accommodation, packing, driving, budgeting – of planning an unforgettable drive through the north and south islands in New Zealand:
Read Part 2 – Where to stay in New Zealand (opens in new tab)
Read Part 3 – Travel Fashion – What to pack for a trip in New Zealand (opens in new tab)
Read Part 4- How much will that Road Trip in New Zealand cost (opens in new tab)
They say a road trip in New Zealand shouldn’t be the first one you go on because it spoils you rotten. It offers so much that any other road trip you might take in the future just leaves you hankering for more. Having driven through the length and breadth of the country, we can tell you it’s true!
I travel for images. When I think of our summer in New Zealand I think of bees buzzing over symmetrical rows of fragrant lavender, magnetic fuchsia lupins sprouting from the ground, sun-soaked beaches, hissing volcanoes and geysers spitting steam to fields full of flowers, and perfectly-preened alpine villages. It truly doesn’t get more scenic than this!
Highlights of our New Zealand road trip
Here are some things you shouldn’t miss for the world when you are in New Zealand:
- Turquoise lakes in Pukaki and Mackenzie country
- Drives and hikes around Queenstown, especially Coronet Peak and Crown Range
- Thermal wonderlands in Rotorua. Spitting volcanoes, geysers, mudbaths, and steamy fumaroles – Rotorua has it all.
- Clouds suspended over South Island’s lakes each morning
- The coffee! New Zealand is a coffee lover’s paradise. You will find great coffee everywhere, even at gas stations.
- The night sky over Lake Wanaka
- Picnics amidst sun-drenched landscapes with freshly-picked berries and Kiwi wine. We loved locally-produced Pinot Noir.
This is the route we followed while we were in New Zealand. Our day by day account will give you further details of our road trip. The official New Zealand tourism website also has great options for hikes, day trips etc. It’s worth consulting when you’re in the area. Let’s go:
Day 1: Fly into Auckland and gear up for your road trip
Write away this day as you’ll fly into New Zealand. The long flight is bound to leave you tired, so spend the rest of the day collecting your rental car and stocking up on groceries for your trip. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before beginning your road trip in New Zealand.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about renting a car in New Zealand:
- Unlike Iceland, you don’t need a 4X4 for New Zealand unless you’re travelling in a large group and need a spacious vehicle. A basic car will suffice as roads are in excellent condition and all landmarks are accessible via paved roads.
- Camping is extremely popular in New Zealand and there are tons of free/affordable camping sites in the country. Most car rental providers have a number of motorhomes and campervans on offer.
- You will need to drop off your rental car at the ferry terminal in North Island before boarding a ferry to South Island. You can pick up another car at the ferry terminal on South Island. We rented an economy car with Hertz. We booked the car online before flying to New Zealand. We picked up our first car at Auckland Airport and dropped it at the ferry terminal on North Island. We took the ferry, crossed over to the South Island and picked up our second car at the terminal itself. The process is seamless. Our ferry was delayed by an hour but the Hertz office at Picton remained open beyond official opening hours. We dropped off the second car at Christchurch Airport before boarding our flight back home. All in all, a seamless experience with Hertz when it came to car rental.
Sleep – We got to Auckland at an unearthly hour (2.30 am), so we slept at an airport hotel. We stayed at Ibis Hotel Auckland Airport. It’s a 5 minute cab ride/15 minute walk from the arrival gates. There’s a large supermarket next door where you can stock up on groceries and snacks.
Day2: The fun begins in Auckland
Explore the city of Auckland during the day and drive to the rugged Muriwai beach in the evening. A gorgeous drive through pick-your-own farms and picturesque pastures takes one to Muriwai beach. The beach is just 40 minutes away from Auckland but its stark wild beauty stuns. It is home to an impressive colony of Gannet birds between August & March. Forces of nature are at their best and fiercest here: huge waves crash against rocks as nesting birds rest on clifftops. Muriwai’s dramatic coastline is especially stunning during sunset. Entry: Free, Parking: Free
Sleep – We stayed at a private ensuite room at Haka Lodge, Auckland City.
Day 3: Drive to Rotorua via Coromandel Peninsula
If you love your roadtrips as much as we do, then take a long-winded detour to the Coromandel Peninsula before ending up in Rotorua. Sure you’ll be on the road for 3 extra hours, but it’s worth it!
The Coromandel Peninsula, jutting out at the eastern corner of the North Island, is home to spectacular beaches and woodlands. Leave Auckland early in the morning, picnic along the way, and head to the one of Coromandel Peninsula’s famous beaches for the afternoon. We spent most of our time at Cathedral Cove, a dramatic cerulean beach framed by volcanic rocks. There is a park-and-ride facility to ferry visitors from the car park to the entrance. Entry is free and the park-and-ride ticket costs NZD 5/person. The beach is a 40 minute walk from the entrance.
You could stop at the little town of Tairua for a cup of coffee and head onwards to Rotorua. If you drive through the Coromandel Peninsula, you’ll reach Rotorua in the evening. Sleep early and get a good night’s rest after a long day on the road 🙂
Sleep – We stayed at Shula Lake House on Days 3-5, a quaint and beautiful B&B overlooking Lake Rotorua
Day 4: Explore New Zealand’s Thermal Wonderlands In Rotorua
Locals joke that you can smell Rotorua before you see it and it’s true. The town is famous for its sulphur pools and bubbling geothermal areas and you can smell the sulphur EVERYWHERE. Rotorua is the site of incredible thermal activity. Unfortunately you will have to pay entrance fee to enter all geothermal reserves in New Zealand. Unlike Iceland or Bolivia, most Geothermal Areas, especially the dramatic ones, are all charged here 🙁
But Rotorua’s geothermal areas are astounding and you shouldn’t miss them for the world. In fact, they were one of the highlights of our road trip in New Zealand. There are many options to choose from, so we chose 2 based on locals’ recommendations:
1. The aptly named Hell’s Gate is one of the most dramatic geothermal reserves we’ve ever visited. This is because the heat source is very close to the surface of the Earth here: the Earth’s crust is extremely thin in certain places here, so visitors are constantly warned not to steer off the designated paths. There are bubbling sulphurous springs, volcanic mud pools, steaming fumaroles, highly acidic Sulphur baths, a unique cooking pool, and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest hot waterfall. The temperature of the pools ranges from 40 degrees celsius to a whopping 145 degrees. The bubbling lava, hissing steam, inferno pools and unique mud volcanoes will have you marveling at Mother Nature.
Maori people used these naturally occurring sulphurous and acidic waters for treating aches, pains, and war wounds. Today it’s not possible to touch these formations. But if you want to get deep and dirty, it’s possible to take a dip in the adjoining mud baths at Hells Gate. The mud here is said to have healing properties, so slather away…..
2. We also visited the popular Wai-o-tapu reserve, also known as a Thermal Wonderland. Wonderland is the right word because here at Wai-o-tapu it’s possible to see some incredibly colourful manifestations of thermal activity – entire pools of orange, green, and yellow lie next to steaming geysers and dreamy white terraces. These unique natural formations left us completely gobsmacked. I couldn’t get enough of the Artist’s Pallette, a large pool deftly coloured in shades of blue, green, yellow, and orange by naturally-occurring minerals. The intensity of the colours keeps changing according to water levels, the direction of the wind, and sunlight, so I found it hard to tear myself away from it.
The adjoining Champagne Pool is no less dramatic. Greens, oranges, and metallic outline the pool and complement the bubbling CO2 : the result is a surreal formation that seems to have walked right out of a postcard. Then there is Devil’s Bath, a cloudy green lake, that keeps changing colour with the wear. One thing’s for sure – you, like us, won’t forget your visit to Wai-o-tapu for a long long time
Top Tip: Wear sturdy shoes to explore geo-thermal areas and go early to avoid crowds. We reached Hell’s Gate at 9.00 am and almost had the entire reserve to ourselves.
Day 5: Enjoy Rotorua’s Free Attractions and relax at a spa
Fortunately there is also plenty of free stuff to be enjoyed in Rotorua. Drive by Ohinemutu to see a modern day Maori Village for yourself. This isn’t a cultural attraction perse, so it’s a good way to peak into the real lives of Maori locals in 21st century New Zealand. Kuirau Park has some sulphur activity and it’s free to witness : however it is nowhere near as dramatic as the geothermal activity in the paid parks.
We recommend spending the better part of the day driving along Lake Rotorua, the famed Blue and Green Lakes, and Lake Tarawera. Picnic by the banks of the Blue Lake and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the absolutely dreamy Redwood Forest. The Redwoods are home to tall trees and boast of dozens of walking trails.
Spend the evening at one of Rotorua’s famed thermal pools. We spent it at Polynesian Spa, which is a bit of a legend in Rotorua. It is home to naturally acidic waters, said to vanish aches and pains. Local rugby players are said to swear by these hot pools. It also boasts of alkaline pools with antiseptic properties – according to local legend, this water is the elixir for ageless beauty! We don’t know about the veracity of those claims, but a dip in Rotorua’s thermal spring water did leave us invigorated. Polynesian Spa has a variety of pools – we rented one of their tiny private pools, at quite a reasonable rate (NZD 27/person for 30 minutes).
Day 6 The Thermal Explorer Highway and Taupo
It’s time to leave your hotel in Rotorua and get back to the road. However New Zealand’s geothermal areas don’t end with Rotorua – geysers, mudpools, hot springs continue along the route known as The Thermal Explorer Highway.
Evidence of volcanic activity and sulphur springs is everywhere to be seen. Drive down to the bustling town of Taupo via the Waireki Terraces. The chalky silica terraces, surrounding bright blue pools of bubbling water, are one of the most unique things you’ll see in New Zealand. The complex also has some rather beautiful thermal pools but we skipped them as we’d had our fair share of soaking in thermal pools in Rotorua. Entry to the the terrace walkway costs NZD 12.50 and there’s an additional charge for using the pools.
Instead of the thermal pools, we chose to spend our evening at Huka Falls. There are various scenic points overlooking the falls and there is a pleasant 1 hour walk around the falls if you’re craving some activity. Both entry to the falls and parking are free
Sleep: We slept in a private room at Haka Lodge, Taupo on days 6&7
Day 7: Explore Taupo
Lake Taupo (toe-paw) was formed thousands of years ago by a volcanic eruption. Its volcanic character ensures a proliferation of steaming mud pools, silica terraces, and thermal valleys. The Lake itself is the focal point of all activity: its shores are lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars. We were in Taupo on a dreary grey day, so we spent it lazing on the shores of the lake, enjoying a languorous lunch in the town, and devouring one too many cups of coffee at Ozone Coffee Roasters (highly recommended).
In case you’re in the mood for something more adventurous, Taupo is the getaway for a gorgeous 17 km hike to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We didn’t get a chance to go on the hike but heard great things about it from fellow travellers.
Day 8: Interislander Ferry Terminal via Wellington
This was a long day that took us through some of the most scenic panoramas on the North Island of New Zealand. Taupo’s volcanic environs give way to a sensational stretch of highway through a desert, which in turn swiftly gives way to fields of flowers and vineyards, with towering mountains on the horizon. This part of the drive through the North Island of New Zealand is sure to cast a spell on the most skeptical of tourists – sunlight spills over through the windows as the car glides through villages dotted with picture-perfect cottages, orchards laden with fruit, and bright purple flowers billowing in the wind.
Plan your route for the day depending on the schedule of the ferry that will take you to the South Island. We booked an afternoon ferry with Interislander – we left Taupo early in the morning and had a gorgeous brunch in Wellington, walked around and finally reached the ferry terminal by 1 pm, dropped our rental car, and checked in our bags. If you’ve booked a rental car with international providers such as Hertz then you will have to drop the car off and pick another vehicle on the South Island.
Our ferry was delayed a bit. Don’t think of the ferry crossing as a mere commute – the Interislander ferry passes through the scenic Cook Strait and there are great vistas on offer. There’s wifi on board, so I spent a bit of time indoors. Needless to say, Vid was on the deck clicking photos throughout the 3 hour ferry ride. Urgh photographers 😉
Top Tip: Have a leisure lunch at a winery in Hawke’s Bay on this day. If you don’t want to splurge at a winery in Hawke’s Bay or find a restaurant in Wellington, pack a picnic because there are plenty of opportunities along the way.
Sleep: We slept at at a ‘luxury’ apartment in Picton, but it was quite a let down, so we can’t recommend it. But we would recommend spending this night in Picton (search for accommodation here), where the ferry pulls up, instead of driving onto Kaikoura.
Day 9: Whale watching and hiking in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is THE place to go whale watching on your road trip in New Zealand. We were there on a day when the probability of spotting whales was low and most tours were cancelled, so we had to give it a miss. Oh well!!
Instead we went for a long rambly walk on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway – the well-maintained walkway traverses the cliffs of Kaikoura and offers stunning views of the Kaikoura Peninsula. There’s a colony of seals, rare birds (sparrows, titis, albatrosses) and plenty of flora along the way to keep you occupied. Golden fields overlook the azure ocean, ensuring an invigorating experience. We were there on a grey, dreary day and still loved it. I can imagine it being absolutely spectacular on a clear day. Parking and entry to the walkway is free. The entire walk takes around 3 hours but you can turn back anytime. Take your camera, water, and raincoat.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite and made your way back to the car park, head to town to sample Kaikoura’s fresh seafood. There are plenty of restaurants in town but Kaikoura Seafood BBQ seems to the most popular. The take-away has been featured in Lonely Planet and locals love it too.
Top Tip: Don’t book your whale watching tour in advance. Kaikoura’s weather is notorious and tours get cancelled at the last minute quite frequently. It’s best to enquire about whale-watching conditions once you are there and then book a tour.
Sleep: We slept at Brook House B&B for the night.
Days 10 & 11 –Arthur’s Pass National Park (New Zealand You BEAUTY!!)
This part of South Island is where the fun truly begins for any road trip enthusiast. We have no qualms in admitting we enjoyed the scenery of South Island much more than North Island. As far as drives are concerned, this is the stretch where the magic begins. The drive along the Great Alpine Highway is sensational – clouds suspended over mountains and lakes dilly dally with daisies and lupins.
You will cross Castle Hill, where Maori and European settlers cleared the forest centuries ago. The huge limestone boulders are said to have provided shelter for Maoris. The boulders are unmissable and definitely worthy of a stop. Castle Hill, home to one of the most scenic public toilets in the whole wide world. If it seems familiar, it’s because portions of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ were shot here.
Arthur’s Pass, nestled in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, is the highest pass across the Southern Alps. It will definitely be one of the most scenic places you will see on your road trip through New Zealand. Arthur’s Pass Village, an alpine village surrounded by forests and mountains on all sides. Just 5 minutes from the village is the spectacular Bealey Valley. You’ll find glacier views, entire fields full of flowers, stunning drives, and forests in the area. It offers a lot of hiking and photography opportunities and we stayed in a rustic cabin overlooking the valley.
We spent the afternoon walking to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. The return loop takes about 1 hour. If you want something shorter and less strenuous, try the Millennium Walk:This walks takes you over a little stone bridge where you can see Avalanche Creek Waterfall. If you want something longer, look up the stunning Bealey Spur Walk.
Sleep: We slept at The Bealey Hotel – they’re comfortable (not luxurious) and the location is exceptional.
Day 12 – Wanaka via Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier, and Franz Jozef Glacier
It’s hard to get enough of the pristine Alpine beauty of this area of New Zealand. Barren river beds, glacial valleys, New Zealand’s characteristic purple lupins swaying in the wind, daisies peeking out of rugged cliffs, and gorgeous villages populated with colourful cottages along the way. This is where the drive becomes truly special. Stop for a picnic and take a short helicopter tour and hike at Franz Jozef Glacier. The drive to Wanaka through Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier, and Franz Jozef Glacier is a long and tiring one – you might consider breaking it and spending a night around Fox Glacier.
Sleep: We slept in a private ensuite room at Base Wanaka for 2 nights in Wanaka.
Day 13 – Explore Wanaka
After the long drive on Day 12, it’s best to relax on this day. However if you’re feeling active (and we were!), opt for a short trek to the Diamond Lake lookout or Lake Hawea lookout. We chose for the former. The Diamond Lake circuit is just 45 minutes long but you can continue onto the Wanaka lookout point. We went all the way upto the Wanaka lookout and the entire circuit took about 2 hours.
Wanaka is a compact town and it’s easy to explore on foot. Spend a leisurely morning walking along the lake – you could also go kayaking or sunbathe on the shores. Try the scrumptious coffee and ice-cream at Patagonia Chocolates. Make sure you grab an afternoon nap because we recommend going star-gazing at night. The night-sky at Lake Wanaka on a clear day is mesmerising – in fact, we’ve never seen so many stars even when we were deep in the Bolivian Wilderness
Day 14 – Drive to Queenstown
Queenstown is a short drive from Wanaka but it’s one that takes ages. That’s because you will feel compelled to stop and take photos every 2 minutes. There are 2 ways to get to Queenstown but make sure you take the Crown Range route to Queenstown – this is the highest main road in New Zealand and it’s a beautiful drive. There are plenty of lookout points as you drive through New Zealand’s Lake District. This drive offers a bit of everything – glistening lakes, ice-capped peaks, and stunning roads. Try to spot keas (mountain parrots) and enjoy the journey – it truly doesn’t get better than this. You’ll also pass Cardrona, a small township where you can stop for coffee.
Sleep: We slept at Lake’s End Lodge for 4 nights in Kingston, close to Queenstown
Day 15: Explore Queenstown
Choose lake-side accommodation and you could wake upto clouds suspended over Lake Wakatipu. Spend a leisurely day exploring everything that Queenstown has to offer: drives, picnicking in the countryside, and panoramic points of view. Queenstown is so picturesque, it will definitely leave you gobsmacked! If you’re into adventure sports, Queenstown is also extremely popular for bungee jumping and sky diving.
If there’s one thing you need to do see in and around Queenstown, it’s Glenorchy. I know I said that drives don’t get better than Wanaka-Queenstown – I lied! The 40 minute drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is probably the most scenic drive you’ll ever experience. No wonder then, there’s a place called Paradise just up the road from Glenorchy. A number of movies including The Lord of The Rings and Wolverine have been shot here – one look at the grand landscapes and you’ll know why!! On your way back from Glenorchy to Queenstown, take a li’l detour on a gravel road for Lake Moke. It’s a perfectly secluded picnic spot – we loved it!
Day 16: Milford Sound
Help me, I’m running out of superlatives here! Leave your hotel in Queenstown early for a drive to the heart of New Zealand’s Fjordland on Day 16. Milford Sound was referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, so we had high expectations from it. As with everything else in New Zealand, it delivered!!
The drive to Milford Sound is a long and scenic one. Make sure you stop at the reflective Mirror Lake to stretch your legs. Grab some snacks and get your fuel tank topped up at Te Anau because there are no gas stations or supermarkets between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
You’ll start spotting hand rugged cliffs as you inch closer to Milford Sound. Once there, Mitre Peak, the distinctive mountain you’ll spot on most postcards, will greet you. That’s the cue to look around and absorb jaw-dropping 360° views of New Zealand’s Fjordland. The views multiply manifold as you hop on a short cruise at Milford Sound. We took an afternoon cruise with Cruise Milford, which allowed us to get up close and personal with waterfalls, rainbows, sea-lions, and the gorgeous scenery at Milford Sound. The landscape here reminded both of us of the Norwegian Fjords.
Optional: We’ve spent a lot of time exploring fjords in Scandinavia, so we opted for a short afternoon cruise at Milford Sound. However if this is your first time exploring Fjords or they simply fascinate you to no end, you could opt for a long multi-day trip to Doubtful Sound.
Day 17: Otago’s wineries & scenic drives in New Zealand
Now that you’ve had your fair share of glistening crystal lakes and craggy peaks, it’s time to enjoy the finer things in life. Spend the morning exploring Otago’s wineries. Book a wine-tasting tour or simply drop by a winery (Amisfield and Mt. Difficulty are two of the most popular options!) for a leisurely lunch. Sample some wines as you go along. If wines aren’t your thing, walk up Queenstown Hill or take the Skyline Gondola for stunning views of Queenstown.
Spend the evening in Arrowtown, a historic gold mining town. Take Gorge road from Queenstown towards Arrowtown and go up Coronet Peak for some incredible views. Once you’re in Arrowtown, just walk around the charming historic settlement full of vintage candy shops, restored cottages, and restaurants. You could also explore gold-mining sites or the Chinese settlement by the river before you grab dinner in Arrowtown. End your stay in Queenstown with a spot of star-gazing – you can spot the elusive Milky Way on most clear nights.
Optional: Spend two days in Dunedin to see yellow penguins and visit the Otago Peninsula for the Albatross Colony.
Day 18: Drive to Christchurch via Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo
After 4 nights in Queenstown, it’s time to leave it and drive onward to Mt. Cook National Park, famous for its flora. The drive will take you through Lake Hayes, perfectly-manicured vineyards and wineries in Gibbston, and fruit farms and orchards in Cromwell. Spend the afternoon exploring the unmitigatedly turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki (check out this short video we recorded at Lake Pukaki). This entire area is overrun by bright purple lupins in the summer and it will cast a spell on you! Spend the entire day exploring the flora of Mackenzie and Canterbury and driving through Mount Cook National Park. Check into your hotel in Christchurch at night.
Optional: If you have an extra day or two spend it in a hotel near Lake Tekapo. The night skies here are legendary because it is a part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve.
Day 19: Snooze in Christchurch
I’ll be honest. 4000 kms and so many new places later, we just wanted to sleep in Christchurch. We ventured out only to sample some amazing coffee at Pure Café and grab some eats. We spent a lazy afternoon walking through Hagley Park, observing tourists punting on the Avon, and acquainting ourselves with dozens of varieties of roses at Central Rose Garden. If you are craving another jam-packed day, there is no dearth of things to do and see in Christchurch.
Sleep: We slept in a spacious serviced apartment at All Stars Inn in Christchurch
Day 20: Fly back to your home country
20 days and 4000 kms later, it’s time to fly back home. We’re sure you’ll spend the flight back home dreaming of crystal lakes that act as mirrors to surrounding glaciers, winding roads that hide secret lookouts, romantic long-winded walks, countryside lodges laden dripping with flowers, and New Zealand’s night skies that you experienced on your epic road trip. We don’t blame you one bit! 🙂
Here’s a short video of all the fun we had driving in New Zealand 🙂
Has our New Zealand road trip itinerary convinced you to book your flights to this breathtakingly gorgeous corner of the world? If you need more convincing, have a look at all our New Zealand posts.
Read about all our favourite road trips from around the world 🙂