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

edit-3419.jpg

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

edit-3479.jpg

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

edit-3596.jpg

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)

edit-3664.jpg

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

edit-3967.jpg

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

edit-4168.jpg

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

edit-4860.jpg

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

edit-4983.jpg

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 Wine Tour Through Marlborough

A Wine Tour Through Marlborough

Disclaimer: We are NOT wine people. We love wine, we do not know wine. This was a learning process. You probably won’t learn much about specific wines in this post. You’ll just have to go check it out for yourself ;)

Read More

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.

edit-1768.jpg

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.

North Island Route.png

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

 

Road to Russell

Russell.png
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

Coromandel.png
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

S Waikato.png
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)

East Coast.png
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

 

 

 

Exploring Northland, New Zealand

Our first stop, after picking up some coffee and our rental car that we’ve fondly dubbed The Cherry, was far north in the Bay of Islands. This far flung string of islands goes around in a curve on the northwestern side of Northern New Zealand and makes for a very scenic four hour drive from the airport in Auckland. 

We weren’t originally going to go this far north, but we got lucky and a family friend offered us the use of their lovely vacation home in Russell, so we took it (duh). We took the drive from Russell to Auckland and back and stopped many times along the way. Here are a few our highlights and favorite discoveries we made.

edit-1454.jpg

The Gallery & Cafe Helena Bay Hill

We pulled over at this gallery & cafe because we were driving through what we thought was the middle of nowhere and were just surprised and intrigued enough to stop. Once we got out of the car, we were really glad we did.

This little treasure is located along Old Russell Road and is featured in The Lonely Planet. Upon getting out of the car, we were greeted by both a stunning view over the hills to the sea and two giant newfoundlands. Having just left home and Brandy, my family’s newf, this was a crazy amazing thing to see. 

We got to meet the owner, who told us a little about the place and how it started, and walk through the amazing sculpture garden he’s created outside the gallery. The art inside the gallery itself is also beautiful. Lucky for us, and our wallets, it was a little out of price and size range for us. I simply settled on a little, silver lily ring (as a birthday present to myself, of course).

IMG_0288.jpg

Russell

Our desire to walk to Russell from where we were staying a little further north died about a mile into our trip. This wasn’t before we managed to find a tiny foot track next to the main road which was called Jim’s Walkway. It’s a riverside trail that’s inhabited by a surprising number of kiwis, the elusive national bird of New Zealand. We didn’t see any on this walk, since they’re nocturnal, but it was fun just knowing they were around. 

This town is, in a word, charming. It’s a small, oceanside town that reminded me a bit of a town in the Hamptons (New Yorkers, you know what I’m talking about). It’s mostly a summer attraction, so since we were there in winter there were many places that were still closed, but that didn’t take anything away from it.

We visited the main dock, which is old and beautiful, walked along the beach and got some of the best crab sticks we’ve ever eaten from a place called Crusty Crab. We also got to explore the oldest church in New Zealand: Christ Church. It, like the town, is both small and beautiful. 

edit-1391.jpg

Strolling into an intriguing woodworking shop had me trying to play the guitar again, for the first time in a long time, and MJ dying to buy everything in sight. She didn’t, but only because we’re a tad pressed for space in our bags.

We got lucky with perfect weather the whole time we were there and got to watch two spectacular sunsets over the bay. The best part? As we were headed out of our home around 8 a.m. to head back to Auckland, we caught a 10 second view of a kiwi crossing the road into Jim’s Walkway. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture, you’ll just have to take our word on it!

edit-1408.jpg

The Mermaid Pools, Matapouri

THIS was incredible. I mean absolutely stunning. We didn’t even know about the mermaid pools until the day before we left Russell. We found them while looking up things to do along the drive back to Auckland and decided we had to check them out.

This drive along the coast took us through some beautiful bays and beaches which were hard to resist stopping for. But once we got there, we were glad we hadn’t.

To get there, you have to drive to beach at Matapouri Bay, which is beautiful in and of itself. Bring good walking shoes because the pathway to get to the pools is steep and rocky. We’re talking literal ropes strung along trees so you can pull yourself up. But once you’re over the hill, it’s a sight to see. 

These shallow pools are an incredible turquoise color, which contrasted against the dark blue ocean and the clear blue sky we had was amazing. It was COLD and we didn’t bring our swimsuits (why?!), but we couldn’t resist. After our first, seriously COLD, skinny dip of this trip (amazingly timed between 3 groups of people coming and going) we hiked back to the beach and set out again.

edit-0409.jpg

Whangarei Falls, Whangarei

This was our second stop on the way from Russell to Auckland. These famous falls are beautiful and there are many ways to view them. 

You can view them from the top, from a bridge that’s perfectly placed a little ways back from the falls, or from right at the base. I think you could even swim, if you really wanted to. We opted out since we were still cold from the mermaid pools. 

There’s a longer track that you can take that goes back along the river away from the falls. MJ had seen it before on a previous trip to New Zealand and we were both itching to get in to town, so we skipped out.

pic3.jpg

If you ever find yourself flying in or out of Auckland, consider making the trip up north to the Northland. A place we hadn’t even considered visiting turned out to have some of the most beautiful places we’ve gotten to see so far.

Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel, New Zealand

Upon the suggestion of my dear friend and director of EcoQuest, Kim and I decided to take the long way back from Whatianga. Instead of coming back the way we came, we looped around the peninsula to the town of its namesake, Coromandel. 

edit-1980.jpg

Driving Creek Railway is a bit north of the town of Coromandel, but well worth the drive. DCR is not only a scenic railway, but also an art gallery and creativity garden. Barry Brickell, DCR’s founder, originally purchased the land for its reserves of yellow plastic clay. Once he got his workshop and kiln up and running, Barry began to draw sculptors from all over the country to come to his co-op - being that it was the only pottery workshop in New Zealand. Soon, Barry was hosting artists from all over the world to come be a part of his homegrown pottery haven.

edit-1982.jpg

While Barry was first and foremost an artist, he quickly became an engineer and builder when the next available clay reserves were moving up and up the mountain. Again, being an artist, Barry didn’t have much money to dedicate to building a railway. So, he reused old tracks and carts from abandoned gold mines (reduce, reuse, recycle)!

edit-2103.jpg

As if Barry’s bohemian heaven wasn’t already amazing, it turns out that he was also a naturalist and conservationist. Before his ownership, most of the land was poor quality farmland and cleared pastures. So instead, Barry used this opportunity to revegetate his land with native bush species such as Kauri, Totara, and Rimu trees. He even built a fenced in, predator proof sanctuary on the grounds for native wildlife.

Art? Trees? Conservation? This place is the most wholesome endeavor you will find anywhere, ever. Barry Brickell didn’t even set out to build a tourist attraction - it only opened recently to the public. Now, it’s protected under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant - all 23ha. 

IMG_0559.jpg

I sat on the creaky rail car as it carried us all the way up the mountain, through 5 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 2 bridges. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the craftsmanship of this railway. Each tunnel was lined with beautifully crafted bricks and glass accents. Little clay creatures hid amongst the ferns. Expressive faces peacefully waited for you around every turn. The entire track was adorned with sculptures, making it one big creative, engineering masterpiece.

edit-2039.jpg

At the very top awaits the Eyeful Tower (ha ha, very nice Barry). If not for the sculptures along the way, the railway is worth the ride even just for the view at the top. We climbed up the pagoda-esque structure and out onto its balcony for an awe-inspiring view of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Hauraki Gulf. Again, we were blessed with another blue sky day.

edit-2066.jpg

On the way back down, the ride is both comforting and inspiring. Being surrounded by so many pieces of creative beauty right alongside such expansive natural beauty is really quite magical. Driving Creek Railway is, through and through, the definition of a hidden gem.

Exploring Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

- Bilbo Baggins

giphy.gif

Everyone who knows me, even a little, knows that I have a geeky side that’s been alive and kicking since I was little. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the whole shebang - I love it.

I’ve watched, and read, every movie and book of the LOTR trilogy, as well as the Hobbit, and nursed a serious fangirl crush on Viggo Mortensen since I was in middle school. I can recite the entirety of the Two Towers and Return of the King by heart (extended editions, thank you very much).

To say that Hobbiton was high on my New Zealand to-do list would be an understatement - it was at the freaking top.

SO, as we made our way down the scenic North Island, we stopped for two nights at a hostel called Matamata Backpackers (awesome place, if you’re headed that way), which is situated just 15 minutes away from the Hobbiton Movie Set.

We soon found out that many of the people staying there were the tour guides, chefs, and set designers that work over at Hobbiton. While we were there, we got to hang out with them and watched someone spend a whole day braiding Hobbit doormats for the set. It was awesome.

And that first night, we finally got to see what all the hype was about. We got the Hobbiton Evening Banquet Tour funded through one of our gofundme’s (THANK YOU humans who contributed) and headed down at around 4:15 p.m. to the Shire’s Rest, the pick-up spot for the tour.

edit-0610.jpg

We had a perfect day, which is luckier than you might think, as we strolled through Hobbiton’s 44 permanent hobbit holes. Hobbiton is situated on 14 of the 1,200 acres of the picturesque Alexander Family Farm. Peter Jackson first approached the Alexander family in 1998 to ask if he could build and film the famous Hobbiton set on their land.

After the younger son talked his father into saying ‘yes,’ the rest is history. While the set was built to be temporary, the resounding success of the films encouraged the Alexanders and Peter Jackson to create a permanent tourist attraction out of the location.

We walked through Bag End and along the path past the Party Tree as the sun was setting and it was magical. The brilliant colors of the door, the details on the little tables and in the windows, are all testament to Peter Jackson’s incredible OCD when it came to getting this set right.

He went so far as to bring in an apple tree, strip it of all it’s fruit and glue the fruits and leaves of a plum tree back on, just so he could have a 3 second scene of children playing under an old plum tree. This scene eventually got cut, but even still, you get the point.

edit-0623.jpg

After strolling through the hobbit holes, we ended at the Green Dragon, the pub in the Shire that actually brews its own beer and ginger beer. After a beer on the house, we sat down to an amazing feast that left us both in the two cushy armchairs by the fire, unable to move.

B2428021-4FC7-4ECD-B600-971956DAD265.JPG
edit-2420.jpg
edit-2433.jpg

Following the feast, the night concluded with yet another tour back through the Shire, this time with the stars out. We all got old-fashioned lanterns to light our way and got to experience all of the hobbit holes illuminated at night. It was tricky to photograph and magical to behold.

edit-2436.jpg

As for souvenirs, well, we were tempted by giant hobbit feet slippers in the gift store for a mere $100 (what?!) but opted for sneaking out two of our ale mugs from the Green Dragon instead. Tricksy, huh?


If you’re a geek like me and are super into this kind of thing AND find yourself in Northern New Zealand - the tour we took is offered every day during the summer and only Wednesday and Friday during the winter. You can read more about it here.