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!

A Day in Paradise

Literally, Paradise Road in Glenorchy.

 

I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I just didn’t understand what he meant by, “want to go to Paradise today?” Turns out, there’s actually a place on the South Island called Paradise - given, it’s actually Paradise Road, but it’s aptly named for it’s idyllic views. I made a new friend in Queenstown, and he suggested spending Sunday exploring an area just 45 minutes away from Queenstown - a place called Glenorchy on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu.

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The town of Glenorchy is slow and sweet, at least in the off-season. There are plenty of coffee shops, all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But if you continue past Glenorchy, you’ll find Paradise.

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The road winds through the valley and across a few rivers, showcasing the best landscapes around Lake Wakatipu. 

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On our way out of Paradise, we stopped at a secret spot upon Henry’s guidance. The sweet little homestead, home of the Paradise Trust, had charming pink buildings and a treehouse out front.

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There’s a small walking look called the Paradise Loop Track, marked by a tree with a pretty straightforward sign. Make sure to check out the welcome board for info about the Paradise Trust and an opportunity to make a donation!

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The path wanders through the forest for a bit, and eventually spits you out in rolling fields smack in between the surrounding mountains. 

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Everywhere direction you look could be a postcard. There’s even a wedding set-up for an even more enchanting vibe.

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Our little adventure was quite unplanned, but a great secret to uncover - thank you Henry for the perfect Sunday in Paradise.

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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Mount Cook

and the winds of Aoraki.

 

Aotearoa, or New Zealand as many people know it, was created by a fisherman named Māui (yes, sort of like The Rock in Moana). The North Island was pulled out of the sea by Maui’s hook when he was out on a fishing trip with a few of his brothers. Unfortunately, they were caught in a relentless storm that flipped their waka, or war canoe. Luckily, Maui and his brothers climbed atop the overturned boat for safety. Unluckily, the chilly winds of the Pacific froze them to ice, eternalizing the brothers and their canoe into the mountains of the South Island. This is how the land of the long white cloud came to be.

Aoraki, the oldest and biggest brother, is what we know to be the tallest mountain of New Zealand: Mount Cook. The Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park lays just 2 hours north of Wanaka, and is easily accessible via one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand. It may seem like I say this about every road in the country, but seriously this road is beautiful.

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We decided to backtrack to Mount Cook after having been rained out in Tekapo a few days before. Both destinations are located within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an area nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional views of the night sky. But being that our night in Tekapo was unexpectedly cloudy, we saw it fit to come back to the region for a proper night under the stars.

As per usual, we headed straight for the DOC Visitor Centre to plan our short itinerary for 24 hours in the park. The DOC officer let us in on a little secret, “the best spots are past the third block of toilets,” he said. “Go as far as you can, and then all the way out into the field,” he said.

We plopped our party on the farthest patch of grass we could find, with a view of the mountain completely unobstructed by any of the nearby hills or vegetation. The perfect spot. 

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After relaxing in the sunshine for a bit, we headed down the Hooker Valley track, which begins right at the White Horse Hill Campground, only a few hundred feet from where we parked. Only 5 minutes after the trailhead, there’s a beautiful memorial for all the alpine explorers who lost their lives among the peaks of the park.

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The track is an easy, meandering walk through the Hooker Valley, crossing swing bridges over lively rivers, winding through lush grassland flora, and ending at the Tasman glacier. Most of the trail is either gravel or boardwalk, making it extremely accessible to most visitors, so expect crowds.

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At the end, after about one and a half to maybe two hours, you finally reach the Tasman glacier. Sadly, the glacier was just a couple of icy islands amidst a cloudy blue lake. Still, the scene is pretty legendary. 

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We made it back to our campsite just in time for sunset. We ate our dinner listening to the rumbling of avalanches as the snow-melting sun beat down on the far side of the mountain. We even decided to leave the rain fly off our tent for the night so we could watch the mountain beneath the stars.

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We spent some time satisfying our stargazing needs, but quickly snuggled into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. I tried to sleep, laying facedown with my eyes closed for maybe two hours. Come midnight, I decided to drag myself out of the tent and put the fly back on for a bit of extra warmth, as the wind was starting to pick up. Soon enough, the wind was shaking the sides of the tent so hard that it was impossible to sleep - if not for the loudness of it, the sides and ceiling of the tent were literally slapping us in the face. Neither of us slept, for our concern of our tent ripping open kept us awake all night. While we picked a good spot for views, we realized a little too late that we picked a place smack in the middle of a wind tunnel beneath the biggest mountain in New Zealand. Nice job Einsteins. Needless to say, we accepted complete and utter defeat once the rain came for the last few hours before sunrise. That morning was pretty wet and pretty miserable. 

Worth it though.

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Exploring Wanaka

Wanaka is that not-so-hidden “hidden gem” of the South Island. Similar to Queenstown, it’s full of fun-loving young folks hanging out by a beautiful lake. Unlike Queenstown though, it’s not nearly as big, which means it’s not nearly as crowded. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to go adventuring around Wanaka.

We chose to start with an excursion to the Blue Pools. The rivers are fed by glacial melt, giving them that crisp, icy tint. After spending some time tip-toeing at the edges, we finally bit the bullet and took the plunge.

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Arguably though, the drive to and from the Haas Pass area was more breath-taking than dipping into the freezing cold water. The town of Wanaka is on the southern edge of (you guess it…) Lake Wanaka. Just to the east lays Lake Hawea, and at one very special place on SH 6, the isthmus between the lakes narrows to a point called (you guessed it again…) Isthmus Peak. 

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After 8 km of steep uphill switchbacks across grassy pastureland and around rocky outcrops, you reach the most stunning panorama possible at 1,385 meters high. Every direction lays glistening lake water rimmed by robust, white-frosted giants.

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Even the walk back down will get you giddy with awe. It’s like you’re tightrope walking a very wide (safe) line between sacred pools - almost like you’re not even supposed to be able to float that high above them. 

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The entire hike takes more or less a full day, summit snack included.

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It’s tiring, mostly from the steep decline going back down. Talk about a quad workout. Obviously we spent rest day lounging by the waterfront. It was absolutely lovely. The birds flutter in and out of the trees, and the entire park feels like it’s buzzing with energy. Everyone was out in the sunshine, playing at the waters edge. It’s not the warmest water, but there are docks that some bold souls were jumping off in the middle of the day. Otherwise, for those adverse to cold water, you can opt to stand up paddle board or pedal boat if you still want to get out there! 

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We didn't do nearly as much as Wanaka had to offer - but overall, we had a fantastic time! 

Arthur's Pass

A day of grey between the mountains.

 

Arthur’s Pass lays among the towering giants of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that trails the entire length of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique mountain pass is one of thirteen National Parks in the country, protected for its rugged landscape within the main divide of quite an idyllic mountain range. 

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On the way into the park (coming from the east), we stopped at the Castle Hill Conservation Area, otherwise known as Weathertop from Lord of the Rings. For those of you who need a reminder: the Battle of Weathertop, in the first movie, is when Frodo gets stabbed by the Morgul Blade and gets rescued by Aragorn.

You can’t quite get an idea of what the true lay of the land looks like from the dark, gloomy battle scene, but here’s the actual landscape of where they filmed it:

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It’s a fun stop on the way into the pass! There are a few walking trails through the big boulders, and you really do feel like you’re exploring Middle Earth for a bit - especially during golden hour.

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After our LOTR adventure, we kept on towards the mountains. Unfortunately, our entire time in Arthur’s Pass was a bit hampered by dreary weather. The fog settled in overnight, so we ended up taking the shorter, backup itinerary for the day. We started with the 252 stairs up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a waterfall that cascades down 131 meters from the ridges above the viewing platform. 

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The rain cloud really started to settle in by the time we got back to the car, so we decided to see a few more sites from the dryness of our Hyundai. The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Aqueduct are just north of the main village - you would pass it on the way out to the west coast. With the fog, the shelter felt like a magical mountainside passageway, as if we were back in Middle Earth again.

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Luckily on our way back east, we managed to sidestep the storm long enough to climb all over the park sign.

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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