New Zealand Attractions: How to Road Trip NZ in Style

New Zealand

By Ashley Chalmers

One month in New Zealand sounds like a long time, but the truth is—even with two weeks on the North Island and two more on the South—I feel like I barely scratched the surface.

The North Island

To properly see New Zealand, it’s definitely easier with a car. Unfortunately, this can be tough on a budget. We opted for a car from Go Rentals on the North Island, and the low day rates counterbalanced the mass amounts of money spent on gas, making life just a little bit easier.

Stop 1: Auckland (2 Nights)

This was our port of arrival in New Zealand, and two days was the right amount of time to get a feel for the city. Don’t miss the café culture and the food court circuit—and head to Elliott Stables if you want a classier alternative to the mall options (or if you’re just craving Italian food). Skip the Coast to Coast Walk and instead head straight for Mount Eden, where views from above the crater will give you the best overview of the city.  We stayed at the Nomads Auckland, which goes down in history as the best hostel I’ve ever visited. Clean, perfectly located, and with an adorable outdoor bar… it doesn’t get much better than this.

Stop 2: Northland (3 Nights)
Drive time from Auckland to Russell: 3 Hours

North Island Roadtrip
Russell, the Bay of Islands, & Cape Reinga:

Paihia is the more popular spot in the Bay of Islands, but Russell has all the charm. It felt a bit like a sleepy New England town, and no stay is complete without a boat tour of the Bay of Islands. Spend another day driving up to Cape Reinga—and ideally try to go when the weather is stellar for the best cliff-side views. After Cape Reinga, make your way to 90 Mile Beach, stop to watch the sand boarders, and pose for pictures with the mass amounts of sheep dotting the countryside!

Stop 3: Rotorua (1 Night)
Drive time from Russell to Rotorua: 6 Hours

Rotorua gets a bad rap… and to be honest, it deserves it. Even still, it’s kind of a North Island right of passage: you can’t say you’ve been there if you haven’t smelled the wonder that is the hot springs of Rotorua. You can skip the whole experience if you’re not an adventure seeker—but it’s a must if you want to experience the ZORB.

Stop 4: Waitomo (1 Night)
Drive time from Rotorua to Waitomo: 2 Hours
Most people head to Waitomo for one thing and one thing only: glowworms. This is the right decision. You can take a tour (we went with Black Water Rafting and loved it) or visit the caves on your own, but seeing glowworms dot the pitch black ceiling above you is just as weird and worthwhile as it sounds.

Stop 5: Taupo (2 Nights)
Drive time from Waitomo to Taupo: 2 Hours

Lake Taupo
Taupo is what Rotorua so longs to be. It’s quaint, clean, odorless!, and has  a big, beautiful lake right in the center. The two seem to be competing to be the North Island’s adventure capital, and after some research, we decided to save our white water rafting for Rafting New Zealand in Taupo. We were told it was the right decision to skip rafting in Rotorua—though to be fair, the affirmations all came from residents of Taupo.

Stop 6: Napier & Hawke’s Bay (2 Nights)
Drive time from Taupo to Napier: 2 Hours

Napier Wine Tour
We couldn’t wait to visit Hawke’s Bay for the wine, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the town of Napier as well. The entire city was decimated by an earthquake in 1931, and then rebuilt to fully reflect the Art Deco style at the time. The vineyards are all close to the city center, so we opted for a bike tour on our first tour and a guided bus tour on our second. Bikes are definitely the way to go.

Stop 7: Martinborough (1 Nights)
Drive time from Napier to Martinborough: 3.5 Hours
We, unfortunately, arrived in Martinborough right in time for Good Friday. We had only allotted one night in the region, but none of the vineyards were open… and neither were most of the restaurants. The town was still adorable, with The Martinborough Hotel was undoubtedly my favorite building on the Main Street, but the rest of our time was kind of a bust. Take note if you’re planning a trip during a major holiday.

Stop 8: Wellington (2 Nights)
Drive time from Martinborough to Wellington: 1 Hour
Our time in Wellington also fell on Easter Weekend. I really, honestly, did not realize that Easter was such a huge holiday in Australia and New Zealand. Lesson learned.
Two highlights? Cafe-hopping down Cuba Street and dinner at Chow. Holy GOD, Chow. Don’t miss it. We stayed at the Downtown Backpackers, which was conveniently located within walking distance to the bus to the ferry to the South Island. Our private room was spacious, which was particularly helpful since Easter Weekend meant we had earlier nights than expected.

The South Island

I loved our time on the North Island—don’t get me wrong—but the South Island was everything I imagined New Zealand to be and more.

We took the ferry from Wellington to Picton, and opted to rent a campervan for our time down south. To be honest, it’s not really any cheaper to go for the campervan over hostel hopping, but it is an amazing way to explore New Zealand.

Stop 1: Christchurch (1 Night)
We didn’t dedicate nearly enough time to exploring Christchurch, because it was just a quick stop before we could pick up our van. It was nice to have a homebase for the night at Kiwi Backpackers and to advantage of our spacious room to get everything in order before our week of camping began.

Stop 2: Lake Tekapo (1 Night)
Drive time from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes

Lake Tekapo
Because the temperatures were quickly dropping, we opted to head south first, and hopefully beat some of the cold. It was April, so you can imagine how well that worked out, but we bee-lined it for Lake Tekapo anyway. It turned out that this was an amazing idea, because Lake Tekapo was one of the best introductions to the natural beauty of the South island.  We hiked around the lake, made our way up to Mount John Observatory, and here is where I officially fell in love with New Zealand.

Stop 3: Glentanner & Mount Cook (2 Nights)
Drive time from Lake Tekapo to Glentanner: 1 Hour

Mount Cook Glentanner
Just when I thought it couldn’t get much better, we found Glentanner. There were very few fellow campers at the Glentanner Park Centre, and we were able to get one of the best spots on the lot. Along with killer views, a giant BBQ center, and perfect weather, the hike around Mount Cook that cemented our love.

Stop 4: Dunedin (1 Night)
Drive time from Glentanner to Dunedin: 3.5 Hours

Moeraki Boulders

After our second night at Glentanner, we decided to head down to Dunedin, which wasn’t in our original plan. We had heard mixed reviews on the city itself, but needed an Apple reseller due to some major computer complications, so to Dunedin it was! En route, we stopped by to visit with the Moeraki Boulders, which were worth the detour. We strolled around Dunedin, and then went to the Speight’s Brewery to find out more about the beer we had been drinking during our time in New Zealand. Speight’s was definitely the heart of Dunedin and the city’s prie and joy.

Stop 5: Te Anau (1 Night)
Drive time from Dunedin to Te Anau: 3.5 Hours
As is often the case, I totally hyped Te Anau and Milford Sound up in my head. I had read so many things about how visiting either Milford or Doubtful Sound was everyone’s favorite view in the South Island. I’m sure you can guess… I wasn’t that into it. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful. But we couldn’t drive our campervan there, meaning we had to join the dreaded bus tour, and unfortunately, this tour epitomized everything I hate about these activities. I missed the freedom of making our own choices, and would advise doing your research on the best way to see the Sound.

Stop 6: Queenstown (2 Nights)
Drive time from Te Anau to Queenstown: 2 Hours

Unlike Te Anau, Queenstown totally lived up to expectations. We saved on food so we could splurge here, and I’m so glad we did. Aside from strolling around the town and shoving our faces with Fergburger, the hubs decided now was the time to bungee jump. I passed on this, but had enough of a scare just watching him.

Stop 7: Central Otago (0 Nights)
Drive time from Queenstown to Central Otago: 2 Hours

Central Otago
We were starting to miss our wine tours, and, as red lovers, were excited to find out we were close to one of NZ’s best regions for Pinot Noir. Central Otago wasn’t in the original plan, but I can’t recommend this region enough. I think it was my favorite in New Zealand, and definitely one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

Stop 8: Haast (1 Night)
Drive time from Central Otago to Haast: 3.5 Hours
We realized in Queenstown that our ambling down the east coast was cutting our time up the west coast short. It was here that we made an executive decision: head to Blenheim. This meant an insane amount of driving over two days, but we really wanted time to explore Marlborough’s wine region, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices.

Haast was our quick stopover from Queenstown to Blenheim, and though there was little to see, it was necessary for our sanity to avoid driving the entire length of the South Island.

Stop 9: Blenheim (3 Nights)
Drive time from Haast to Blenheim: 7.5 Hours
By the time we made it to Blenheim, we were so ready for wine. It was a long two days on the road, but once we saw how beautiful Blenheim was, we realized it was worth it. We explored the wines of Marlborough, which is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyards here are slightly more spread out, and rather than opting for another tour, we decided to be responsible and split all of our flights so we could explore by car. We weren’t surprised to see many others doing the same thing, and the vineyards were all very accepting of our decisions to split the flights (and tasting fees). An added bonus was our beer tasting at Moa Brewery, which was a nice little break from the wine.

Stop 10: Kairkoura (0 Nights)
Drive time from Blenheim to Kaikoura: 1.5 Hours

Kaikoura Seal Nursery
After we left Blenheim, we were advised to head to Kaikoura for the seal nursery.
Best advice ever. Each day, little baby seals make their way to the same spot and run around, playing and sleeping and snoozing until they decide they want to head back to their parents. It did feel a little invasive, and I’m concerned that it’s going to get worse as more tourists head here, but for the most part, people were respectful. A friendly reminder to turn off your flash when photographing animals up close—especially in the wild!

Stop 11: Christchurch (1 Night)
Drive time from Kaikoura to Christchurch: 2.5 Hours
After 12 days on the road, we made it back to Christchurch. Because we stopped for baby seals (like you do) we got there on the later side and again… didn’t see much of the city before hopping on our next flight to Sydney!

Though there is still so much to be seen in New Zealand, our very first tour was one of the best parts of our five-month RTW. I can’t wait to return—and either plan to go during warmer weather, or be way, WAY more responsible when packing.

Author Bio: While her very first trip abroad with her family may be the most memorable—who can forget a Beatles’ tour of London & Liverpool?—Ashley Chalmers didn’t realize her passion for traveling until her boyfriend-now-husband took her on a whirlwind tour of Greece… and proposed in Santorini! They’ve learned a lot since their first trip together, and in March 2013 the pair decided to abandon life in New York City to tackle their very first long-term trip: a five month RTW adventure. The two have since relocated to France, where they’re temporarily residing (read: drinking all the wine and eating all the cheese). Ashley is the co-founder of The Lazy Travelers.

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All photos cc. Ashley Chalmers except for hero shot from Flickr, thanks to Tomas Sobek. Please note, all Flickr images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting. 

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