If you’re looking to get out of the cities and onto an open road, to explore some of New Zealand’s stunning landscape, then we would highly recommend packing the car up and taking on one of these best New Zealand road trips.
Taking a road trip in New Zealand is immensely popular and for good reason. You can travel at your own pace, exploring some of the country’s hidden gems, breathtaking scenery, golden beaches, soaring mountains and shimmering lakes. These are just some of the adventurous things you could be doing.
There are countless road trips in New Zealand on both the North and South Island, each offering something different and unforgettable.
So, what are you waiting for, pack the car up and hit the open road.
There may be affiliate links within this article, using these links will not cost you anything extra, but we may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.
Table of Contents
Best New Zealand road trips
Before hitting the open road, you should plan which road trip to cover.
To help you get the most of your New Zealand Itinerary, we have provided suggestions on both the North and South Island.
Best road trip North Island New Zealand
Plan your road trip around the North Island of New Zealand
Does driving through mysterious and dense rainforests, past picture-perfect golden beaches, through misty valleys, past cliffside drops and into secluded bays sound like an awesome road trip to you? Then the Coromandel Peninsula is the New Zealand road trip destination for you!
Located only a two-hour drive southeast of Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula (or simply the Coromandel as it is usually called) has all the ingredients for an epic road trip. Even though the area is relatively small, it is so packed with things to see and do that you can easily spend a whole week driving from one amazing sight to the other.
The Coromandel’s most popular attraction, and arguably also the most beautiful, is Cathedral Cove.
A 45-minute coastal walk takes you alongside cliffsides with incredible views, through the forest to a jaw-droppingly beautiful beach which is divided by a big natural rock-arch that around low tide provides passage to the other side.
Another must-visit, and again an incredible formation of nature is Donut Island, just off the coast of Whangamata.
Donut Island is a dormant volcano where after an earthquake a long time ago the roof of the island collapsed, leaving it with a hollow middle that makes the island resemble a donut.
The caldera filled up with water and through a big hole in the rocks you can enter the center with a kayak or paddleboard. Guaranteed to be a highlight of your trip!
The whole Coromandel is filled with equally stunning locations, like New Chums Beach (often rated to be in the top-10 most beautiful beaches in the world), The Pinnacles, Waiau Falls, Fletcher Bay, the Karangahake Gorge, and so much more.
When looking for the most convenient location to stay, you should consider staying in Whitianga as it is quite central and has the most choice in accommodation.
Even though the Coromandel isn’t the most culinary of destinations you’ll also find quite a few decent restaurants in Whitianga, and The Lost Springs; a beautiful spa with geothermal hot pools to get you in a completely tranquil state of mind.
Contributed by Tom & Zi from Craving Adventures
Best road trip South Island New Zealand
Plan your road trip around the South Island of New Zealand
The Catlins is full of stunning natural beauty and is an extremely underrated area on New Zealand’s South Island.
If you like waterfalls, walking tracks, and wildlife this may be the road trip destination for you.
Although there is plenty to see in the Catlins, all the best places are relatively close to one another. This means that you could quite happily cover the Catlins in just three days, giving you plenty of time to see all the best bits at a relaxed pace.
The Catlins is home to all kinds of interesting places to explore and discover such as caves, lighthouses and bays.
It is perhaps most well known for it’s selection of impressive waterfalls, there are so many to see but some are certainly better than others.
The most iconic waterfall in the area is Purakaunui Falls which is a must see spot. The waterfall has three tiers and is surrounded by the beautiful native scenery. It only takes five minutes to walk to the waterfall from a car park so it’s very accessible, however this does mean it can get quite busy during the day.
Another waterfall that you can’t miss is McLean Falls. To get to McLean Falls you will need to walk a little further than at Purakaunui Falls. The walk is a 2.1km return journey but all your hard work will be rewarded with the outstanding 22 metre tall waterfall.
If you enjoy a good hike, the Waipohatu Waterfalls track is the place for you. It’s a 6.5km loop track that travels through rugged rain forest up to two spectacular waterfalls.
One of the highlights of the Catlins are the Cathedral Caves. The caves are situated on Waipati beach and have been formed by the sea. Over time the sea has eroded away two enormous caverns measuring 30 metres high.
The caves are a must see spot but can only be accessed during low tide so this will be an activity that has to be planned carefully.
Nugget Point Lighthouse and Curio Bay are some of the Catlins best coastal destinations. Nugget Point is a great place to see the sunrise from because of it’s sensational panoramic views. Curio Bay on the other hand, is the perfect destination for sunset as you will have the opportunity to see one of the rarest penguins in the world, the yellow-eyed penguin.
Accommodation wise, if you’re travelling in a campervan there are a few holiday parks and Department of Conservation camping grounds which are reasonably priced.
For those looking for a little more luxury the Whistling Frog Resort is a popular choice. There are also plenty of options to choose from on Airbnb.
Contributed by Jonny from The Photographers Passport
The west coast of the South Island in New Zealand is one of the most pleasurable and scenic drives in the world.
The dramatic west coast has unspoiled beaches, winding roads, rugged coastline, spectacular views, hikes and trails. The drive stretches from Westport all the way to Haast or the other way around.
The highlights of this trip and beautiful places to stop at include the following.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blow hole is one of the stunning places in this route with unique limestone formations like pancakes stacked one above the other and blow holes spurting out water.
Paparoa National park which is located close to Punakaiki is a great place for easy and challenging hikes. Pororari River track is an easy trail with great views perfect for families.
There are two awesome gorges in this route – Buller gorge and swing bridge near Westport, and the pretty Hokitika gorge.
West coast sunsets – Pristine beaches including Hokitika and Haast are popular for their amazing and lingering sunsets over the Tasman Sea.
Two famous glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef are worth exploring. Lake Matheson offers stunning views as it reflects Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. There is a beautiful walk encircling the lake ideal for both walkers and hikers.
A west coast drive planned for 5-6 days would be sufficient to enjoy all the above highlights and more.
There are plenty of hotels and bed-n-breakfasts on the West Coast. It is best to book the room in advance especially in the high season due to the popularity of this route. Some good hotel suggestions are Alpine Rose Motel in Hokitika, Punakaiki Beachfront Motels in Punakaiki and Rainforest Retreat in Franz josef.
Contributed by Jan from Leisurely Drives
Practical information for a road trip in New Zealand
There are some elements of planning that need to go into a road trip for New Zealand.
Road rules and driving tips
Firstly, you’ll need to be familiar with the rules of driving in New Zealand.
Before your trip, we would recommend checking the rules and making sure you’re familiar with them. You don’t want to put you, your family or other road user at risk.
You can learn more about New Zealand road rules here
You’ll also need a full driving license. If you’re an overseas traveller and you do not have a New Zealand driving license, you may require an International Driver Permit along with your driving license. Just do some research before you intend to travel and ensure you have the right documents with you.
Planning will be key to an adventurous road trip in New Zealand.
Once you have chosen which road trip you would like to cover, you should plan each stop and where to stay.
New Zealand has so many options from hostels, hotels, B&Bs and even camp sites.
Budget travellers may want to check out hostels and camp sites as these will be far cheaper.
Once you have planned each stop and where you’ll stay, then take the time to book those accommodations quickly. Depending on the season, some places will be in high demand, and you won’t want to miss out on somewhere to stay.
Drive in style on your New Zealand road trip with a camper van.
Some camper vans are luxurious with plenty of space for a bed to sleep and somewhere to cook. You may also find camp site cheaper with a camper van than staying in a hostel or B&B.
Just consider the route you plan to take. Some roads may not be suitable for a camper van.
Hiring a vehicle is the best option, unless you plan to stay in New Zealand for more than 6 months.
If you are spending an extended period in New Zealand, then you may want to purchase a vehicle. It may work out cheaper than hiring a vehicle.
We can’t suggest this enough, but research and planning are so important when road tripping in New Zealand.
New Zealand is truly a paradise for road trippers, offering stunning landscape, charming towns and beautiful beaches.
Enjoy snowcapped vistas to sun-kissed beaches, there is no shortage of things to see along the way.
These best New Zealand road trips have their own special charm and plenty of opportunity to explore the beauty of this incredible country.
New Zealand is an experience like no other and sadly I didn’t get to explore all its glory when I was there, but don’t make that mistake.
Continue your travel planning in New Zealand, with these useful posts
- Beautiful places to visit in New Zealand
- 10 Best day trips from Auckland, New Zealand
- Best hikes in New Zealand
- Best beaches in New Zealand