Kiwi summers mean road trips. Whether you’re exploring close to home or venturing down a route less travelled, you can almost guarantee that a New Zealand road will lead you to something interesting.
1. Northland: Bay of Islands to Kaitāia to Cape Rēinga
- 232km; 3 hours 12 minutes.
Driving to the top tip of the country is something quite special and definitely deserving of its spot on many bucket lists.
The top of the North is a mix of welcoming seaside villages and service towns, stretches of white-sand beach, remote peninsulas and deep water harbours. Plus it’s warm. The climate up north has warmer temperatures all year round and, usually, dry summers.
Begin in the Bay of Islands, nestled between rolling green hills, the sea and biscuit-coloured beaches. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can skydive or parasail here. Visit the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds with its excellent museum, the Treaty House and the beautifully detailed whare rūnanga.
In Doubtless Bay you’ll be spoilt for choice of stunning beaches. But Cooper’s Beach is a great pick for safe swimming and rock pool exploration.
Kaitāia is the gateway to the Far North; if you don’t want to take the famous drive to Cape Rēinga along the beach, this is where to join a tour to the top. While you’re in town, visit the regional museum to learn about gum digging and Māori history.
2. West Coast: Hokitika to Franz Josef to Haast
- 339km; 4 hours 29 minutes.
The vibrant tourist town of Hokitika is a hub for pounamu/greenstone carving and is also home to the famous annual Wild Food Festival, a culinary adventure that celebrates the eclectic taste of the West Coast.
A 30-minute diversion inland from Hokitika township, you’ll find the spectacularly scenic Hokitika Gorge. An easy-access short walk takes you onto a swing bridge with excellent views of the turquoise waters of the Hokitika River.
The road south from Hokitika takes you into glacier country, sandwiched between the towering Southern Alps and thunderous sea.
Both a town and a glacier, Franz Josef is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The glacier is a 5km drive from the town, and then a 45-minute walk from the car park will take you within 750m of the terminal face making it one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. If you want to feel the ice beneath your feet, there are several guided heli-hiking options.
Heading south, the angle of the coastal trees almost bent to the ground gives you an idea of the weather in these parts. It’s windy, wild and often wet.
Finish in Haast, which is actually a group of three settlements – Haast township, Haast Junction and Haast Beach that lie on an extensive low wetland created by the massive rivers that flow from the Southern Alps into the Tasman Sea.
3. Coromandel: Kaiaua to Thames to Coromandel to Whitianga
- 128km; 2 hours, 16 minutes.
Just 75km from Auckland, the Firth of Thames is famous for its Shorebird Centre. Begin your adventure with a spot of bird watching and have a soak in the hot pools at Miranda.
This road trip route sees you hugging the Coromandel coast with narrow seaside roads bordered by pōhutukawa trees.
Thames was first established in the 1870s when the region’s gold mining was at its peak. Today, with a population of 7,350, it’s the largest town in the region.
Coromandel Town also started life as a gold-rush settlement. It has beautifully restored Victorian buildings and a creative spirit evident in its art and craft studios and galleries.
Take the 309 Road between Coromandel Town and Whitianga and be sure to stop at The Waterworks, a quirky theme park filled with water-powered attractions.
Your destination, Whitianga, is renowned for its annual Scallop Festival, beautiful beaches and excellent fishing and boating in the pristine, deep water harbour.
4. Otago: Dunedin to Ōamaru to Ōmarama
- 259km; 3 hours 35 minutes.
Depart Dunedin and head north to Ōamaru on SH 1. It may look like a short trip but this route is far from a whistle-stop tour, with much to discover along the way.
The Moeraki Boulders are a must-do. Reach the strange 60-million-year-old spherical rocks dotted across the beach via a short walk from the nearby café.
Some of New Zealand’s most complete Victorian streetscapes can be found in Ōamaru’s Harbour & Tyne precinct. A recognised national heritage landmark, with white limestone buildings and vintage-style shops, it’s an authentic flashback to the past. Ōamaru has also embraced the Victorian-themed subculture of Steampunk and a visit to the retro-futuristic Steampunk HQ is a must.
On the outskirts of Ōmarama, stop at the remarkable Clay Cliffs. Lofty pinnacles and ridges separated by narrow ravines create an otherworldly landscape carved out by the flow of glaciers over a million years ago. Between mid-November and February, swathes of vibrant purple lupins add to the magic.
5. Taranaki: New Plymouth to Hawera to Whanganui
- 194km; 2 hours 31 minutes
Part of this trip comprises Taranaki’s Surf Highway, taking in black sand beaches with rolling waves, charming coastal towns and bucolic landscapes.
New Plymouth is famous for its nationally significant art, both indoors at the remarkable Govett- Lye Centre, and outside where you’ll find more of Lye’s work including the famous 45-metre-high kinetic Wind Wand. If you’re visiting in the summer months, the Festival of Lights and WOMAD a New Plymouth’s sprawling Pukekura Park are must-do’s.
In Māori Hāwera means ‘burnt place,’ in reference to a period when warring tribes burnt down a wharemoe (sleeping house.) The name proved prophetic as Hāwera suffered three more large blazes in 1884, 1888 and 1912. As a result, a large water tower was constructed in 1914, which is now one of Taranaki’s best-known heritage landmarks. You can climb the 215 steps for panoramic views across the coast and countryside.
Continue on to Whanganui, a city surrounded by the peaks of Taranaki, Ruapehu and Tongariro and bordered by wild west coast beaches. But Whanganui is triply endowed, as it’s the mighty river that is synonymous with the town. New Zealand’s longest navigable river is also the first river in the world to be awarded legal personhood in recognition of its cultural and historical significance to local Māori.
6. Nelson: Motueka to Tākaka to Farewell Spit
- 118km; 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Motueka has a lively café culture, quirky boutiques, crystal shops and health stores. It’s also home to the historic Salt Water Baths and a popular walking track that skirts between the beach and golf course.
Before you begin the climb up the iconic Tākaka Hill, take a short diversion after Riwaka to the beautiful beach at Kaiteriteri. The descent into Golden Bay is equally dramatic, with breathtaking views to Kahurangi National Park. A drive along the river valley leads to the bohemian township of Tākaka. Time your visit for market day to stock up on locally-made treats, such as award-winning cheeses and honey.
Nearby, Abel Tasman is the smallest of New Zealand’s national parks but has a weighty reputation for its beauty, golden beaches with crystal clear water and a stunning coastal track – one of the country’s Great Walks.
The Treasured Pathway aka SH 60 ends at Collingwood but continue on along sweeping the coastline towards Farewell Spit, via a short detour to explore the gorgeous Whanganui Inlet. One of the world’s longest, naturally-formed sand bars, Farewell Spit is home to more than 90 species of birds, plus beyond the lighthouse, New Zealand’s only sea-level gannet colony. You can walk 4km onto the base of the Spit, with further access is provided by guided tours in 4WD vehicles.