Eight of the best New Zealand road trips

DRIVING | December 2019

New Zealand has a great range of gorgeous landscapes to explore, from volcanic mountains and native forests to rolling farmland and spectacular coastlines. The roads are generally easy to drive and the scenery seems to change at every bend.

There are lots of quaint historic towns to visit along the way, with great little cafés to keep you fully fuelled. To get the most from these exceptional multi-day drives, be sure to allow plenty of time for the winding roads, photo stops and short walks along the way. To help you find your next scenic tour, here are some of the best road trips New Zealand has to offer.

Northland’s Twin Coast Highway

Head north from Auckland to Whangarei, the Bay of Islands and Doubtless Bay, then cross to Kaitaia on the west coast and return via the Hokianga Harbour, Waipoua Forest, Dargaville and the Kaipara Harbour. Add to your journey with side routes to beaches on the Tutukaka Coast and up to Cape Reinga, or shorten the journey by crossing to the Hokianga Harbour directly from the Bay of Islands. It’s a wonderful way to combine Northland’s spectacular beaches and forests with time in Auckland’s big city attractions.

Geothermal route from Auckland to Wellington

From Auckland, the Geothermal Explorer Highway heads south through Hamilton to the steamy, boiling mud, geyser land of Rotorua. Here you can unwind in thermal hot pools, bike or hike the giant redwood forest, experience traditional Maori art and culture or explore impressive geothermal attractions. From Rotorua the route heads south to Lake Taupo and east across the ranges to finish in the Art Deco coastal city of Napier. This is the heart of Hawke’s Bay wine country with world-class dining options to match. From Napier, State Highway 2 leads south through the rural Wairarapa food and wine region before crossing the Rimutaka Ranges into the capital city, Wellington.

Coromandel Peninsula loop

About 1.5 hours from Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula is a laid-back beachy wonderland with a spine of magnificent ranges covered in protected native forest. From historic Thames, head north up the western side of the peninsula past sheltered beaches and tidal harbours to the town of Coromandel. Be sure to stop here for a plate of seafood - the local mussels are divine. Just out of town the Driving Creek bush railway is a fun and educational stop, especially if you’re travelling with kids. At Coromandel the road crosses to the east coast, known for its holiday towns and gorgeous white-sand surf beaches. From Tairua and Pauanui in the south, you can head inland across the ranges to complete the loop back to Thames or continue south to Whangamata, Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty.

Forgotten World Highway, Taranaki to Taumaranui

Originally a horse trail for early European settlers, this incredibly scenic route covers 148km from Stratford to Taumaranui. It’s a winding, hilly route through rugged mountains and river gorges, so allow plenty of time to enjoy the drive. There are several elevated saddles with must-stop long range views and a long one-way tunnel that adds to the excitement of driving this route. A stop in the tiny town of Whangamomona, with its famous historic hotel, will help break the journey. Forgotten World Adventures operate popular jet boat tours and self-drive rail cart journeys in this beautiful wilderness. The Forgotten World Highway ends at Taumaranui, a gateway to outdoor adventures on the Whanganui River and hikes in the Tongariro National Park.

Greymouth loop in the northern West Coast

From Greymouth on the South Island’s West Coast, head inland on State Highway 7 to the historic gold mining town of Reefton. Be sure to pre-book a Reefton Distilling Company tour and botanical gin tastings. You should also visit the Bearded Miners on the main street for a cup of billy tea and insights into the town’s early history. From Reefton, continue north on State Highway 69 to Inangahua and the Buller River before taking State Highway 6 to Westport via the incredibly scenic Buller Gorge. From Westport, follow the Great Coast Road south to Punakaiki, famous for self-guided kayak trips into the Paparoa National Park and the spectacular Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. From Punakaiki continue south along the Tasman Sea for 40 minutes, completing your loop back to Westport.

Christchurch to Queenstown via the West Coast

This route begins with a drive or TranzAlpine train journey across the Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass. Either way it’s a remarkable experience that reveals engineering marvels like the Waimakariri Bridge and Ōtira Viaduct. From Greymouth you’ll follow the driftwood-strewn black sand beaches south to Hokitika. If you take a 30-minute detour inland to the Hokitika Gorge, you’ll find a short native forest walk that leads to a swing bridge over an amazing turquoise river. Continuing south from Hokitika, the road steps away from the coast, crossing rivers and ranges before arriving at Franz Joseph Glacier and Fox Glacier. At Haast, a hub for national park hiking, you farewell the West Coast beaches and travel through Haast Pass to the resort towns of Wanaka and Queenstown. This is a truly spectacular journey at any time of the year.

Te Anau to Milford Sound

The world-famous Milford Sound Highway is a magnificent two-hour drive one way. It leads to some of New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes, including lakes that look like mirrors, waterfalls, huge cliffs, untouched native forests and the rugged mountains of Fiordland National Park. When you arrive at Milford Sound you’re in for even more visual treats; the sides of the glacier-carved fiord rise almost vertically more than 1000 metres from the sea. Pre-book a cruise on the sound to get up close and personal with the waterfalls and wildlife on this pristine fiord. On your two-hour journey back to Te Anau, you get to enjoy fresh views of the landscapes from the opposite direction.

Top of the South Island

There’s a fabulous loop journey from Christchurch north through the Waipara food and wine region and on to Kaikoura, where you can enjoy delicious crayfish dishes and whale watch tours. Continuing north, you’ll reach Blenheim in the heart of Marlborough’s internationally recognised wine country. From there it’s a short distance to Picton and the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. Arty Nelson is next on the route, with opportunities to taste local craft beer and wine, ride cycle trails and hike or kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park. Heading south from Nelson you enter the beautiful Nelson Lakes district before turning east again to the alpine hot pools of Hanmer Springs. From there it’s only 1.5 hours back through Waipara to the city fun of Christchurch.

Getting your car insured ahead of your road trip

When planning your road trip it may be worth reviewing your car insurance policy to make sure you have the right level of cover. State offers three levels of cover to choose from:

  • Car Comprehensive - Full cover for accidental loss or damage to your car as well as accidental damage to someone else’s car or property. Click here.
  • Car Third Party, Fire and Theft - Cover for loss or damage to your car from fire or theft, plus accidental damage to someone else’s car or property. Click here
  • Car Third Party Only - Cover for accidental damage to someone else’s car or property. Click here
  • Roadside Rescue - optional cover. For just $30 extra each year, you’ll get up to three free Roadside Rescue call-outs over 12 months. No matter who’s driving your car, 24/7 help is just a phone call away. And it's available with all State car policies.