Travel Daydream: The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip

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It could be said that the true joy of a road trip is the feeling of freedom as the wind whips through your hair, your favourite tune plays on the radio, and you’re in complete control of your destiny.

It’s just you, the wheel, and the open road.

I’ve never let a small thing like my lack of a car or a driver’s license stop me from enjoying the road trip experience, even going so far as enlisting the aid of my friend and sometime wingman, Hogg for this year’s Great US Road Trip.

In fact, when you’re a travel blogger who can occasionally get stuff for free, you’d be surprised how quickly friends come out of the woodwork to ask if they can drive you around a country…

New Road Trip Ambitions

Now that I’ve achieved my life long dream of doing a road trip across the US, I’ve had to set my sights on new road trip conquests.

One country I’ve been meaning to revisit and take my time with is New Zealand and, as luck would have it, it’s the perfect country for a road trip.

With car rental in New Zealand being affordable and there being no shortage of road trip routes to choose from, it’s the perfect place to spend a week, a month, or longer exploring at your own pace.

My Dream New Zealand Road Trip

I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand on a ten day ‘break up tour’ with my first travelling girlfriend, Fallon. While the trip itself was obviously a bittersweet one knowing that we’d say our goodbyes at trip’s end, we still managed to have a memorable Christmas period travelling through the land of the long white cloud.

Our trip packed in the highlights: Auckland, Rotorua, Christchurch, Queenstown, Franz Josef, and Milford Sound.

We even found time to stop off at Nelson for Christmas Eve.

As amazing as that trip was, it left me with a thirst to see it all again at a more sedate pace and in more detail.

Below, you’ll find my dream New Zealand road trip. I’m sure there are some glaring oversights, so feel free to let me know where I’ve fucked up.

North Island Road Trip

Auckland

I’m not alone in finding New Zealand’s largest city to be nowhere near as charming as Wellington, Christchurch, or virtually any other sizable population centre in the shaky isles.

That isn’t to say that Auckland isn’t without its charms, not the least of which is that it’s usually the cheapest place to fly to from Australia.

auckland museum
Auckland Museum is a fun rainy day activity. Image courtesy of Siyamalan.

It’s pretty telling that TripAdvisor’s list of top things to do in Auckland seem to be day trips out of the city, but there are galleries, museums, and memorials aplenty in the city for those who are interested in such things.

When I was last in Auckland, I stayed in the very quaint Verandahs Backpackers. It’s a bit flashier than the usual hostel, with a Colonial feel that makes it a good deal more ‘grown up’ than my usual backpacking digs.

Paihia & The Bay of Islands

A three hour drive north of Auckland, the subtropical Bay of Islands is a natural playground that I completely overlooked on my previous trip to New Zealand.

Whether it’s sedate cruises between the islands, serene scuba diving, adrenaline pumping sandboarding excursions, scenic cycling, or hardcore hiking – the area is one of many examples of New Zealand’s unmatched natural beauty.

It’s the kind of place I’d love to spend a few days exploring and just soaking it all in.

bay of islands new zealand
New Zealand’s east coast is an area of rugged beauty. Image courtesy of Graeme Churchard.

Matamata

One of my biggest causes for outrage on my last trip to New Zealand was that my then girlfriend would not acquiesce to my desire to visit Hobbiton.

hobbiton new zealand
Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to overnight in your own hobbit hole. Image courtesy of Tom Hall.

Maybe she hadn’t grown up as enamored of the Lord of the Rings books as I had, but I was more than a little bummed that we wouldn’t be able to make a brief stop in at the filming location that introduced the world to Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.

The filming set has been kept in good order for tourists, and a cold beverage at the replica Green Dragon Inn would be a must as well.

When it’s all done, a farm stay at one of the local farms would be a nice way to see what rural life is like in NZ.

Rotorua

Onwards to the stinkiest city in New Zealand – Rotorua.

I spent Christmas Day of 2010 exploring Rotorua; taking the scenic gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha for a Christmas feast before racing back down to the bottom with the Skyline Luge.

The next day, we’d venture out for some Boxing Day zorbing, before finishing our time in the area with a visit to the world famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves for some blackwater rafting.

My post zorb leap of excitement after trying it in Rotorua, New Zealand.
My post zorb leap of excitement after trying it in Rotorua, New Zealand.

The area has so much to see and do, and even with a fairly packed three day visit, a brief look at Rotorua Tourism showcases kayaking, white water rafting, Maori cultural tours, treetop walks, geothermal springs, and so much more to be done in the area.

Wellington

Our last stop on the North Island is the Kiwi Capital, Wellington. A far more attractive prospect for tourists than the capital, the Windy City has some well regarded museums, galleries, and attractions to compliment its natural beauty.

For me, Te Papa (New Zealand’s national museum), the Zealandia sanctuary, and the WETA Cave are all on the to do list.

On the natural beauty side of things, Mount Victoria offers up unparalleled views of the city and Oriental Bay – and the city itself is a famed haven for foodies.

wellington
Searching for symmetry in Wellington. Image courtesy of Gregory Bodnar.

It’s here we bid farewell to the North Island, taking the ferry from Wellington to Picton on the South Island. At around $300 NZD (including a car) and taking three scenic hours, it’s an adventure all of its own.

South Island Road Trip

Marlborough Wine Region

With Picton being the spot where the ferry docks, it makes sense to spend a few days in the Marlborough region to sample some of New Zealand’s best wine.

marlborough new zealand vineyard
There’s something absolutely magical about wine country. Image courtesy of Peter Burge.

I first developed a love for the grape when I took a wine tour of Broke, and have since added to my limited knowledge with wine tours in southern California.

With more than 150 wineries responsible for more than 75% of New Zealand’s wine output, spending a few days soaking in the ambiance (and the wine) sounds like heaven to me.

Franz Josef Glacier

I was lucky enough to climb Franz Josef Glacier on my last visit to New Zealand, and it remains one of the most remarkable experiences of my travelling life.

Enjoying my lunch on Franz Josef Glacier
Enjoying my lunch on Franz Josef Glacier

We opted for the full day hiking experience on my original visit, and I’m so glad that we did. Standing atop such an ancient and powerful force of nature was a humbling experience, and the view was just surreal.

The nearby town of Franz Josef is a quaint little mountain town without a whole lot going on, but it’s hard to match that serenity.

Queenstown

Nestled on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown remains one of my favourite towns on earth. It’s just epitomises the idyllic mountain town, and its tourism industry means it packs a lot to see and do into a small package.

In addition to local activities like zip-lining, hiking, and water sports, Queenstown is the unofficial capital of extreme sports in New Zealand. It’s here you’ll find world-class bungee jumping, canyon swings, and much more.

lake wakatipu queenstown
Queenstown might be the most picturesque town I’ve ever visited. Image courtesy of Andrea Schaffer.

Fiordland National Park

While it’s certainly possible to see and experience a fraction of Milford Sound’s majesty with a day trip from Queenstown, the park itself warrants far more than a cursory examination.

At over 1.2 million hectares, the Fiordland National Park is far more than just its 8th Wonder of the World contender – although you’d be forgiven for thinking it might be hard to top the soaring cliffs and deep waters of the famous site.

Doubtful Sound (sometimes amusing called the Sound of Silence) is a beauty all of its own, and the park’s legendary hiking tracks range from the picturesque to the downright grueling.

mitre peak milford sound fiordlands
Like something out of fantasy, right? Image courtesy of Andy Maw.

Invercargill

From the Fiordlands, it’s the Southern Scenic Route down to Invercargill at the very foot of the country.

Not so much a tourist spot as a place to unwind away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist trail, it’s also an important stop on the aforementioned Southern Scenic Route.

Dunedin

With some of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the entire southern hemisphere, Dunedin could easily be confused with its northern hemisphere equivalent.

There’s something very appealing about the idea of wandering the streets and laneways of Dunedin, visiting New Zealand’s only castle, and exploring the surrounding land on foot or on the famous Taieri Gorge Railway.

There’s beaches, breweries, and a whole lot more. I’m actually ashamed we didn’t hit Dunedin first time around.

larnach castle dunedin new zealand
Like something out of the Scottish Highlands. Image courtesy of Sally.

Christchurch

I’ve saved one of New Zealand’s best for last.

Despite its continued bad luck with natural disasters, Christchurch remains one of the most beautiful cities in the country. While it’s definitely showing signs of wear after its bad run with earthquakes, there’s still a sense of peace and creative energy to the Garden City.

base backpacker christchurch
Christchurch was actually my very first backpacking destination.

Regularly ranked highly in tourism journals as one of the world’s must see cities, Christchurch is creative, bohemian, resilient, quirky, and wonderfully serene. It well and truly won my heart first time around.

It’s from here we’d fly on home or to our next stop.

Your New Zealand Road Trip

What would be on your dream NZ Road Trip? Have you made one before?

Did I miss anything that you’d have included?

Have I included something that you think is woefully overrated?

 

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  • Clarissa

    I was in the North Island for 5 days or so in January and really enjoyed Hobbiton. Also nearby is the Blue Spring and Te Waihou Walk – easy walk with places to swim in clear blue cool (maybe cold…) water

  • If you like hiking, I highly recommend doing the Tongariro Crossing south of Rotorua. It’s an amazing day walk through crazy scenery!

    And I must admit I wasn’t much of a fan of Christchurch, but it was 10 years ago that I visited, and that was with my biased ex-Kiwi boyfriend.

    • Good to know! I spent more time in Rotorua than anywhere else on our trip, but we still missed quite a bit, it seems!

  • Lori

    Leaving for NZ on September 16th, and plan a driving tour of the South Island. Thanks for the timely post!

  • Sounds like a fabulous adventure. So sorry you didn’t get to visit Hobbiton — that would for sure be on the top of my list!

    • Someday! Thankfully, New Zealand is a relatively affordable trip to make from Australia.

  • Looks like a great trip. We did the North island only and had a great time. Really liked Wellington

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