New Zealand is one of those destinations best explored by car or campervan. Public transport is limited outside cities, and so much of what you’ll want to see and do is off-the-beaten-track, immersed in New Zealand’s incredible natural environments. Road tripping means touring at your own pace, stopping for stunning walks, cycle rides, wild swimming or wildlife spotting.
A trip to the very tip of New Zealand is more like a pilgrimage – see Cape Reinga lighthouse at sunset © Getty Images
1. Auckland loop
Best road trip in “the Winterless North”
Auckland–Auckland (roundtrip); 650 miles (1050km); a week or more
Kiwis call the regions north of Auckland (Northland & the Bay of Islands) the “Winterless North” because of its year-round subtropical climate. First, to the Bay of Islands, via the surf beaches of Mangawhai and the artsy city of Whangārei, which requires a good day or two of exploring.
Next, drive north and ferry over to the former whaling port of Russell, which matches heritage charm with on-water adventures like sailing, diving, fishing and kayaking. All of these are also accessed from the thriving mainland town of Paihia – where you’ll also want to spend a day at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds learning about the colonial history of New Zealand.
Further north, the attractions are more remote and even more spectacular, leading all the way to the very top of the North Island at spiritual Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. On your way to the tip, stop at foodie Kerikeri; chill out in laidback Mangonui (which will please seafood lovers); and spend another day at Ahipara, with its surf breaks and nearby sand dunes.
Heading south again, you’ll drive through the incredible Waipoua Forest, where the last giants of the once extensive kauri forests here will take your breath away, stopping at sleepy coastal towns peppered with stories of colonization, migration and hard labor.
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2. Coromandel Peninsula
Best beach-coming road trip
Thames–Waihi Beach; 190 miles (305km); 1-3 days
Coastal roads weave a magical path on this journey around the compact but colorful Coromandel Peninsula, a favorite holiday spot for residents of nearby Auckland and Hamilton. As well as a gorgeous beach-fringed coastline, the Coromandel also holds the legacy of its gold-mining past in the heritage streets of Thames, Coromandel Town and Waihi.
Start in Thames, then head north to the thriving community of Coromandel Town via the beautiful 64-acre estate Rapaura Water Gardens. Next, detour from Colvile to the rugged northernmost tip of the Coromandel Peninsula – ideally in summer (December to February) when roads are dry, and the pohutukawa trees are in their crimson glory.
Heading back down the other side of the peninsula, you’ll visit Whitianga and the nearby beaches of Mercury Bay. Diving, boating, game fishing and kayaking are the big draws at Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. Further south, natural attractions like the stone arch at Cathedral Cove near Hahei and Hot Water Beach (which lives up to its name!). Dig a pool in the sand and relax in the hot waters that rise up from beneath the surface.
Foodies will need time to sample the delicious cuisine at the many vineyard-restaurants in Martinborough © Evelyn Dutra / Shutterstock
3. Wellington to Rotorua
Best road trip for vineyards and Art Deco architecture
Wellington–Rotorua; 520 miles (840km); 4-7 days
After a good few days exploring the excellent museums, galleries and bars of New Zealand’s compact, boho capital, Wellington, it’s time to hit the road. First, you’ll head north along the Hutt River valley, detouring into the Martinborough wine region to taste world-famous pinot noirs. Next, continue on to the Pacific coast: a languid arc combining sandy beaches and spectacular scenery with Māori cultural experiences.
The stretch from Havelock North to Hastings is surrounded by bountiful orchards and much-loved wineries, which can be explored on an organized cycling tour, or you can continue by car. At the southern tip of Hawke’s Bay, Cape Kidnappers (Te Kauwae-a-Māui) lures golfers (with a spectacular course) and birdwatchers as there’s a 3000-strong gannet colony on the headland here.
Next, you’re going to head to the gorgeous seaside city of Napier with its impressive Art Deco architecture. It’s also another great spot for foodies. The remote East Cape is next. Stop at sun-soaked Whakatāne and the beaches of Ōhope before turning inland to round off this epic circuit at the geothermal hotspot of Rotorua, with its incredible Māori cultural immersion experiences and host of outdoor activities like mountain biking and luging.
4. An epic road trip fully exploring New Zealand’s Southern Alps
Best alpine road trip
Christchurch–Christchurch (roundtrip); 850 miles (1380km); a week or more
Trip through varied landscapes including scenic mountains, wild coasts, lush lakelands, and rural highways dotted with tiny hamlets on this grand South Island tour. Starting from Christchurch, with its mix of old England and future-facing Kiwi ingenuity, head to the alpine reaches of Arthur’s Pass National Park, which rises to 2408m at Mt Murchison.
Next, you’re over the other side of New Zealand, meandering along the west coast through historic towns and artistic communities at Hokitika and Ross. The adventure rises again at the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier townships, where you have multiple options for glacier viewing (helicopter ride or sky diving, anyone?).
Heading south, the Haast region in Te Wāhipounamu–South West New Zealand World Heritage Area is the place for seabird-spotting and perhaps some tree-hugging in the ancient kahikatea swamp forest at Ship Creek. Finally, wend your way to Queenstown via the incredible Lake Wānaka, where paddling, hiking, skiing and climbing are among the outdoor pursuits that have made this region famous.
As well as Gold Rush-era streetscapes like in Arrowtown, Otago has fall colors and great cycling © MJ Prototype / Shutterstock
5. Otago Heritage Trail
Best road trip for gold mining heritage
Dunedin–Dunedin (roundtrip); 280 miles (450kms); 2-3 days
The discovery of gold in the 1860s led Europeans to migrate to this South Island region, now Otago, and much of that heritage remains today. Old miners’ trails and abandoned railway lines have been repurposed for leisurely cycle rides and long strolls. Agricultural towns still house historic stone buildings and Gold Rush stories, while colorful deciduous trees, winding roads and romantic old railway bridges demand to be photographed.
This driving tour starts in the vibrant city of Dunedin, where warehouses have been converted into hotels and art galleries, and university students pack international restaurants and pubs all week. After exploring for a few days, head south towards Lawrence – the scene of NZ’s first Gold Rush in 1861 – to the historically-significant Horseshoe Bend Bridge over Clutha River/ Mata-au, NZ’s second longest river. Next, you’ll visit the sweet-smelling fruit orchards and vineyards of Central Otago before arriving in Alexander, Clyde or Middlemarch to tackle the Central Otago Rail Trail by bicycle or foot.
For more heritage streetscapes, schedule a stop in Naseby, staying overnight to enjoy a night tour under its brilliant starry skies. Detours from this route will take you into snow-capped mountains, across to the dramatic fiords in the west, or to the rugged beauty of the southern coast.
If you have time, plan for some hiking to spend some time in nature on your New Zealand road trip © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
6. Fiordland to the mighty Milford Sound
Best road trip for dramatic views
Queenstown–Milford Sound; 180 miles (290kms); 2 days
Southern Fiordland is arguably New Zealand’s finest outdoor treasure. A landscape hewn in rock and ice, its grandeur can make you feel like a tiny speck in the face of nature (in the best possible way).
Panoramic alpine views characterize this drive as you make your way from Queenstown past Kelvin Peninsula at the foot of The Remarkables, along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu and past the Devil’s Staircase and onto Te Anau. Stay overnight and take a tour of the 200m-long glow worm caves filled with strange rock forms, whirlpools and waterfalls before cruising north past Lake Mistletoe, Mackay Creek, Mirror Lakes and Lake Gunn–Cascade Creek, all stunning spots to stretch your legs and admire the wilderness here.
This area is known to the Māori inhabitants as O Tapara, a regular stopover for parties heading to Milford Sound in search of pounamu (greenstone/jade). The final stretch to the majestic Fiordland National Park takes you through Homer Tunnel, a road laboriously cut through the mountains during the Great Depression.