NZ’s best road trips

NZ is made for road trips. With awesome destinations aplenty and epic landscapes as far as the eye can see, we wouldn’t blame you if you tossed this whole “work” thing to the curb and spent the rest of your life on the road. But if that feels a tad extreme, a road trip might be the way to go. And with return drive times between 3-14 hours, these are some of our faves.

From Auckland

Thermal Explorer Highway

Return driving time: 6-14 hours

A classic NZ road trip, the Thermal Explorer Highway runs through the centre of the North Island, from Auckland to Napier. The whole trip is 457km, so don’t try to do it in a weekend. Pro tip: Go halfway and spend some quality time in Rotorua. Waiotapu and Waimangu Volcanic Valley’s incredible geothermal pools, geysers, and hot springs are serious must-dos.

From Auckland

The Bay of Islands

Return driving time: 6-9 hours

Just north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands Loop is like two road trips in one. Take the east coast to check out Paihia, where you can swim with wild dolphins or hike to the spectacular Haruru Falls. Take the west coast to visit Opononi and Omapere, where you can chill on the beach, cast a line, and sandboard down the giant North Head sand dunes. Then find peace with the sand in your togs. Accept it. It’s part of you now.

From Wellington

Napier via the Kapiti Coast

Return driving time: 8 hours

Nature and retro lovers, this one’s for you. Leave early to get to Paraparaumu Beach in time for the 9am ferry to Kapiti Island (note: you’ll need to apply for a Department of Conservation permit first). It’s one of NZ’s oldest and most important nature reserves, and home to kiwis, blue penguins, kōkakos, and more. At 3pm, take the ferry back, then drive on to Napier. You’ll arrive around 6.30pm, which is a bit late for sightseeing, but just in time for dinner with a wine or two (very convenient!). Then spend a day or two checking out Napier’s awesome art deco architecture before cruising home to Wellington.

From Christchurch

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Return driving time: 7 hours

Awesome Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki views are more than enough to make this road trip a winner. But it’s the final destination – Aoraki Mount Cook National Park – that puts it on the bucket list. Check out The Red Tarns and Kea Point Trackor the Hooker Valley Track for an easy day hike, or take it easy and stay up late. Mount Cook is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the only dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere and one of only eight in the world – making it one of the best places on earth to do some stargazing. Wow!

From Hamilton

Waitomo via Maungatautari

Return driving time: 3 hours

This one’s a quickie in terms of driving time, but punches well above its weight in terms of awesomeness. From Hamilton, take the SH 3 south to Pukeatua and spend a day exploring Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. This huge, ancient forest is home to heaps of rare bird and reptile species, such as the kiwi, hihi, kaka, and tuatara. In the afternoon, jump back on the SH 3 and continue south to Waitomo. Stay the night (possibly in a Hobbit Hole, old seaplane or grounded ship, ‘cause why wouldn’t you?), then get up early to check out the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves. Awesome.

From Dunedin

Queenstown via Garston

Return driving time: 8 hours

A road trip to Queenstown – you’re sold already, right? But wait; it gets better. Take the SH 6 through Garston and check out the stunning Welcome Rock Trails. At 27km, the full hike is… well, a hike and probably best left to experienced walkers. Pro tip: Hike to the Slate Hut (6km return) or the Mud Hut (18km return) and bask in the incredible scenery. Then head back and drive onto Queenstown, where you can wine, dine, and luxuriate ‘til your heart’s content. Don’t worry about the calories. You earned them 😉

From Rotorua

Rotorua to Gisborne

Return driving time: 7.5 hours

With awesome beaches, boutique wineries, and fantastic scenery, this trip’s a winner for surfers, foodies, and… well, everyone. Stop at Opotiki for kayaking, river rafting, horse riding, and swimming, or take the ferry to Whakaari (White Island), New Zealand’s most active volcano (eek!). In the afternoon, take Matawai Road to Gisborne, then tuck yourself in for an early night. You’ll want to get up early to catch the sunrise at East Cape Lighthouse. It’s one of NZ’s most eastern points, and one of the closest to the International Date Line. This makes it one of the first places in the world to greet every new day, so it’s basically like living in the future.

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