Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island

Highlighting the best routes for the ultimate roadside views.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry red hyundai would be home.

Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

After a quick two weeks in the North Island, we hopped on the Interislander Ferry in Wellington for the beautiful cruise to Picton. It’s a very enjoyable cruise, with lots of available snacks on board and lots of opportunities to see stunning landscapes and maybe even some wildlife - especially going through the Marlborough Sounds when you get closer to Picton. If you’re planning a double-island road trip, make sure you look into prices and timetables for the ferry! It’s always easier to book in advance, especially during the busier months.

Once we landed in Picton, we headed dead south to Blenheim for a weekend of well-deserved wine tasting. Next we darted over to Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days of hiking and camping. After that, we zipped to Kaikoura for a day of whale-watching, and then up into Arthur's Pass for a night. Then we headed down to Tekapo for a night, and onwards to Wanaka for a few days. We ended up doubling back north to spend a night in Mount Cook National Park, and then looped south again to Queenstown. We spent the last week based out of Queenstown, venturing out to Glenorchy for a day, and to the Fiordlands a few times too.

 

Kaikoura

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Unfortunately, we drove this route at night and can’t provide any proof of the pretty views. BUT I’ve driven it before, and if you like winding through mountains and across river valleys, make sure to take SH 76 to Kaikoura. (Depending on when you visit, you might not have a choice… both main access roads to Kaikoura were heavily damaged in a recent earthquake…). Make sure to check road closings before you head out!

 

Arthur’s Pass

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Depending on whether or not you plan on going to the west coast, you can choose to go through Arthur’s Pass, or just into the village and back out. Both are great options, as there are plenty of viewpoints along the way. Just north of the main village, there’s a cool part of the road with a rock slide shelter and aqueduct that’s well worth a quick visit before leaving even if you’re not headed to the west coast!

 

Road to Wanaka

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Another beautiful pass through farmland and rolling hills. We went on a moody day, bringing out the exceptional rustic colors around us.

 

Road to Blue Pools (Haas Pass)

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Haast Pass is aa exceptional drive along the isthmus between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. There are plenty of lookouts to stretch your legs and snap a picture, or for the more adventurous, stop along the way for a day hike up to Isthmus Peak for even more incredible views. Continuing towards the west coast, you enter Mount Aspiring National Park with recreational pull-offs every few minutes. Plenty of things to do!

 

Road into Mount Cook National Park

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There’s only one way in, and one way out. The entire approach to the National Park will be one big tease of Mount Cook staring right at you, waiting for you.

 

Paradise Road

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The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy will put you in a trance, slowly meandering along the east side of long Lake Wakatipu. But, even better, if you continue north after Glenorchy you will find a secret backroad called Paradise

 

Queenstown to Fiordlands

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The first time we followed this road was on a big bus on our way to a Doubtful Sound Cruise. For the first part of the drive, you follow parallel to the Remarkables - which frankly, are quite Remarkable. Once you get into the Fiordlands, it’s all open spaces and distant peaks. Quite peaceful. 

 

Bonus road: Up to the Remarkables

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On the way back from hiking the Key Summit Track, just a few minutes outside of Queenstown, we found a very steep drive up to the Remarkables ski area. Do not do this drive in the winter. If the roads are clear, and you’re confident driving twisty, windy, switchbacks at high elevations - you will be rewarded with absolutely stunning views of the Remarkables and greater Queenstown area. 

 

Interested in the North Island? Check out our other road trip post!

Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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North Island, New Zealand Road Trip

Highlighting alternative routes for the ultimate vehicle-based experience.

 

Why Road Trip?

It’s just fun. Plus, New Zealand’s tourism industry is modeled around the assumption that most tourists are getting around via car rental. Most attractions are pretty far apart, and buses don’t run very frequently. The country is too small (only 5 million people!) to invest in an extensive and inexpensive transportation system to connect two islands with insanely varying terrain. As such, car rentals are the most reasonable and reliable method of transport. 

New Zealand is world renowned for its breath-taking landscapes and plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. So we brought camping gear, and bookmarked tons of secret spots for camping. (They’re not actually very secret. There’s a great app called CamperMate that shows you all the local camping options on a map.) Having a car just makes it easier for us to explore some of the more remote treasures. Plus, camping helps us save money on accommodation. which in turn helps fund the cost of the car! Full circle!

The Department of Conservation, mainly referred to as DOC (as in, waddup doc!), is absolutely phenomenal here in New Zealand. Most areas have an i-Site and/or DOC visitor centre dedicated to helping tourists plan their visit around the local area. So many pamphlets. So many maps. So much support. 

 

Renting a Car

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to rental cars and campervans. JUCY is the most popular - and iconic - choice here in New Zealand. They make a whole line of vehicle options, including the infamous purple and green campercan. A lot of people opt for campervans because they’re well equipped and easy to maintain here in NZ, but being that we already have an outstanding backpacking tent and two mediocre sleeping bags, we chose to downsize to the “el cheapo” option. For 40 days, this little cherry hyundai would be home.

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Unfortunately, you can’t get around the fact that you constantly need to buy gas. It takes 91 unleaded, which isn’t cheap compared to prices in the States, but luckily el cheapo’s are relatively fuel efficient. Much more efficient than a campervan would be.

Also it’s weird, but you pay for gas after you pump it. We learned that the awkward way our first time at the pump. Apparently they “trust people” here. Also it’s called petrol, not gas.

 

Driving on the Other Side of the Road

It’s not actually that weird. It really only takes a day or two to get used to. As always, never drive distracted, and it’s totally fine. At first, turning is the trickiest part. Roundabouts, too. While they’re super efficient for traffic control and emission reduction, they’re definitely less straightforward than a 4-way intersection.

Only complaint: windshield wipers. Every time we go for the blinkers, our wipers start wiping. RIGHT HAND for indicating, not the left. 

 

Our Route

Most people go the most direct route from Auckland to Wellington, stopping in Waitomo, Hamilton, Matamata, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro, and finally Wellington. That’s pretty much the most basic way to go through the North Island, hitting some of its top attractions.

However, we took a very different route, expanding out to other regions of the North Island and cruising roads less travelled. We started in Auckland, and immediately shot north to the Bay of Islands, where we stayed at a friend’s place in Russell. Then we revisited Auckland briefly before heading down to EcoQuest on the Firth of Thames, and around to the Coromandel Peninsula where we stopped along Hahei Beach and the town of Coromandel. Afterwards, we wandered around Waikato, Matamata, Tauranga/Maunganui, and Rotorua. After that, our plans got a little jumbled, but we headed down past Wai-o-tapu to Taupo, and then back up to Ohope to take the East Coast Road to Gisborne and Napier. Finally, we took route 2 through the mountains to the North Island’s southernmost city, Wellington.

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If you’re wondering why we doubled back from Taupo, read this post.

 

Road to Russell

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Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Dome Forest trail, off SH1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Rockman trail, off SH 1 leaving Auckland

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

Kauri Grove Trail, Russell Whakapara Road

 

Coromandel Peninsula - the 309 Road and the Pacific Coast Highway

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Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Waiau Falls, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Stuart and the Pigs, the 309 Road

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

Pohutukawa trees along the Pacific Coast Highway

 

Southern Waikato

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Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Limestone rocks poking out of farm hillsides in Southern Waikato

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Surprise rainbow over the farms along the Waikato River

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

Rainbow over the limestone rocks

 

East Coast Road (Tauranga-Gisborne-Napier)

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The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

The East Coast Road climbs and falls through the mountains right up against the ocean

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

Blue and purple rivers wander out to the ocean under the overpasses of the highway

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

The East Coast is known for the "old time" feel, where townspeople still ride horses from place to place

Churches dot the coastline

Churches dot the coastline

 

And of course, no matter where you go:

Sheep

Sheep