New Zealand is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. While this article is a behemoth, it doesn’t even come close to doing the country justice in terms of encapsulating its sheer beauty.
However, I hope this guide strongly encourages you to plan a road trip to this stunning part of the world.
The following destinations are based off my comprehensive Google Sheets document from my 2019 winter road trip through both islands. Even though I lived in Wellington in 2013-2014, the amount of places that I discovered via car were far more extensive than when I was living and working in the country, just using public transport.
I highly recommend anyone who is planning a trip, honeymoon, or is a Working Holiday Visa expat, to rent a car or campervan and drive throughout both islands. It’s an experience you won’t regret, and if budgeted properly, it’s not that expensive!
I’m NOT lying, I’m a solo traveler who road tripped New Zealand in about two months and spent less than what I did backpacking through Europe.
I focused on three things when I travel: Budget, hiking/nature, and food. If your style of travel is different to mine, this might not be the guide for you. However, there are plenty of incredible sources online for mapping out your itinerary as well.
Know Before You Go
First off, if you’re an avid traveler, this should make sense to you: No matter how much time you spend here, you’ll never get to see everything.
You need to focus on slow or fast travel (I always recommend slow, since you’re bound to enjoy yourself without the constant rushing and moving around).
If you’re an American and limited to the saddening, depressing two-week timeframe (also your entire vacation allotment for the year), then it’s understandable that you’ll want to cram both islands in (i.e. North Island for a week, and South Island for a week).
However, I do not recommend this.
If you’re honeymooning or going to New Zealand for the first time and you only have two bloody weeks, stick to South Island. While both islands are far more picturesque, South Island tends to be the one that is considered the jewel of the country – towering mountains capes, incredible hikes, cascading waterfalls, and views that will take your breath away at every corner.
If you’ve been to Iceland before, South Island is its equivalent in the South Pacific. On the other hand, North Island is still beautiful, full of rolling green hills and sheep. However, it lacks some of the same magical qualities that South Island has.
And no, I am NOT bashing North Island, I still love it! I just want you to maximise your time in New Zealand, so I’m keeping it real and honest.
Some key points to know before you embark on your trip:
- If you’re a huge Lord of the Rings fan like me, research all the locations beforehand and drop them in a big Google spreadsheet (or Notes app). Resources like this site help you organize and pinpoint all the prime spots.
- Read New Zealand’s rules of the road before you go. If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road before, you need to get used to it. Take the free AA visitor training course (some rental car companies give you a discount for showing a certificate to the completed course) and ensure that you feel comfortable driving roundabouts. You don’t need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP), but I got one from AAA before I left California just in case (it was only $20). If you’re traveling from a non-English speaking country and your driver’s license isn’t in English, you will need to bring an international driver’s permit that translates your license to English.
- Unless you have a campervan, book your accommodation beforehand and drop the details and dates into a Google spreadsheet. Whether you’re doing a 2-week or 2-month long road trip, you want to have all your details in the same, convenient location when you need to figure out your next destination.
- Store emergency numbers into your phone (it’s 111 for New Zealand), including phone numbers of local visitor centres, accommodation, and local contacts. Many remote locations tend to lose cell reception, so you need to have access to important phone numbers in case you need to use a payphone.
- The best time to do a road trip through New Zealand is spring (September – November) or summer (December – February), when the weather is most favourable. However, going in the winter (June – August) is also quite nice since it’s off-peak season and has far less tourists at prime locations.
- The weather is beautiful in the spring and summer, but it never gets humid or boiling hot in any regions of the country (thankfully). In the winter, you’ll definitely need to pack plenty of warm clothing and down jackets.
- For my ultimate road trip music playlist, click here.
Campervan or Car?
In regards to renting a campervan or a car, you need to ask yourself these questions first:
- What’s your preferred travel style?
- Are you going alone or with friends?
- Are you flexible with the type of sleeping arrangements?
- How comfortable are you with driving large vehicles?
- What’s your budget?
If you’re a solo traveler on a budget, it isn’t wise to rent a campervan unless you manage to find others to travel with you or tag along with a group. It’s more cost-efficient to split the cost of a campervan, groceries, petrol, etc. with at least one other person.
You also need to consider the season you’re going to New Zealand. If you go in the winter, it also isn’t wise to rent a campervan. You’ll be frigid when you sleep, especially in southernmost regions like the Catlins. If you go in the spring or summer, the weather conditions are more favourable for sleeping in your campervan.
I traveled South Island with my boyfriend for two weeks in a hybrid rental car and then drove the remainder of my 1.5 months in the country in small rental cars from JUCY. For my 35 days driving in South Island alone, I only spent about $750 USD for the rental car, and for my 8 days on North Island, I spent $210 USD.
To put this into perspective, I paid over $1,000 USD upfront in Reykjavik for an 8-day car rental because I hadn’t booked anything online beforehand. The further in advance you book your car/campervan, the more you’ll save!
If you rent a car or 4WD, you’ll have far more flexibility and more comfort with accommodation. I’ve stayed in hundreds of hostels around the world and never had any issues in New Zealand, and the hostels are usually immaculate.
Also keep in mind that your kitchen facilities will be limited with a campervan. Most have small kitchens inside of them, but not every campground has a facility. It gets awfully crowded in a campervan (probably best to squeeze no more than 3 adults in one), but again, this just depends on your travel style.
The roads in New Zealand are incredibly easy to drive, especially since there is (essentially) only one main highway that goes around the entirety of both islands.
I’ve broken my guide into two sections: South Island and North Island (duh). If you want to skip to certain sections, use the Table of Contents listing at the beginning of this article.
These recommendations are based off my travels and experiences, and do not serve as official guidelines for your trip.
South Island Destination Recommendations
Below is a destination guide for South Island regions that you should stop/stay along your road trip.
Queenstown is the ultimate heart of beauty in South Island and will truly wow anyone from their first visit. It’s also the adventure capital of the country, especially since bungy jumping was invented out here.
If you’ve been to Interlaken or Lucerne in Switzerland, you’ll notice similarities. They’re all touristic cities, but absolutely stunning.
The only downside is the fact that tourists run rampant here, regardless of the season you visit. Despite coming in the winter, there were still heaps of tour buses.
The majority of people in Queesntown aren’t even from New Zealand; they’re mostly all expats on their working holiday visas. Most locals don’t like going to Queenstown, much the same as their views on Auckland.
However, Queenstown is beautiful around every corner- it’s like seeing postcards in reality. Mountains, lakes, forests, parks, you name it – they’re all within walking distance.
On the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, we scouted out a few Lord of the Rings filming locations (the Dead Marshes) and also had incredible ramen at Tanoshi. We loved it so much, we ate there three times within two days. Hikari also had the best green tea in New Zealand (in my opinion).
If you’re looking for a beautiful, easy walk in Queenstown, there’s the Frankton Arm Walkway, an easy walk around Lake Wakatipu that stretches from Frankton to Queenstown’s city centre. Definitely wander around the Queenstown Gardens when you end the walk, since all of New Zealand’s gardens are free to the public and a beautiful way to spend a few hours exploring.
Some other ideas for what to do in Queenstown:
- Bungy jump off the “home of bungy jumping” at Kawarau Bridge (the most scenic bungy jump in NZ, in my opinion)
- Take the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak, go luging with breathtaking views, and walk the rest of the way down
- Go for a spin jetboating
- Defy gravity again with the world’s highest cliff jump: Shotover Canyon Swing & Fox
- Hire a bike and ride around the city
- Go paragliding
- Take a scenic helicopter flight over some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country (expensive, but worth every single penny)
If you drive 45 min. northwest of Queenstown, you’ll reach Glenorchy, a tiny frontier town. Most people come here since it was the filming location for Isengard in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (and also used for other backdrops in The Hobbit & LOTR series).
It’s a sleepy little town that ended up being far colder than Queenstown, but yielded a gorgeous drive along the coast. If you’re pressed for time, don’t worry about driving here, especially since it’s in the opposite direction of getting to other destinations.
Horseback riding, kayaking, jetboating, canoeing, and hiking are just a few of the many activities you can enjoy in Glenorchy.
The nearby regions of Kinloch and Paradise are also known for their beautiful scenery if you want to drive further. The area is also the gateway to many world-famous multi-day hikes including the Routeburn Track.
Te Anau is known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. If you’re intending on going to Milford Sound, you should definitely stay here for 1-2 nights (unless you’re willing to stay in the one very expensive accommodation option in Milford).
The region is home to endangered, colourful takahē birds and trout in Lake Te Anau, a sparkling body of water almost as nice as Lake Tekapo (but not quite). The Te Anau Caves feature a limestone grotto of glowworms and an underground waterfall if you’re feeling adventurous.
If you pass through Te Anau, you must go to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary (Punanga Manu O Te Anau). Admission is free, but a donation box is at the car park to help with the running of the sanctuary (and I highly recommend donating, since this is an incredible place).
You’ll see the Kākā, a native green forest parrot, kereru (NZ wood pigeon), tūī, ruru, shelducks, silvereyes, grey warblers, tomtits, bellbirds, shags, and fantails throughout the entirety of the sanctuary. There are hourly feeding times for the takahē, in which a guide lets you a certain number of people into the fenced area and shows you the feeding process.
If you’re a bird nerd like me, you can’t miss this. Definitely download Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab on the App Store before going on your trip as well, since you’ll be able to identity all the New Zealand-specific birds throughout your time there!
BAO NOW is just outside the local Countdown, and you can’t miss their Chinese pork buns with a twist. It’s a small food truck that uses locally sourced, fresh ingredients (just be sure to bring cash, since they don’t accept card).
Milford Sound is known as the Eighth Wonder of the World for a reason.
In my 64 days of road tripping, this still stands out as one of my top 2 experiences (along with the Tongariro Crossing hike).
It’s truly a gem of a place that NEEDS to be seen in person, because photos and videos will never do it justice. Isn’t that a recurring sentence I repeat in every article? Hmmmm…
Milford Sound is a 2-hr. drive from Te Anau, where we stayed for two nights. We woke up at 5 A.M. on our second morning in Te Anau in order to ensure that we arrived at the terminal before 9 A.M.
However, the drive to Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful on the island, so I’d recommend leaving a bit later to ensure that you actually get to see the scenery you’re driving through. You won’t see the same grandeur of the drive on your way back, so try to time your drive better than we did (perhaps leaving no later than 6:30 A.M.).
You can also stay in Queenstown and drive 4 hours (or arrange a shuttle), but that’s 8 hours round-trip in transportation time (insane). Be efficient with your time and just stay in Te Anau!
You need to take a cruise (just shy of 2 hours) through Milford Sound to see the fjords properly in Fjordland National Park. There are a variety of companies to choose from online, and I secured through JUCY because they did a buy one, get one half off promotion.
They later changed the promotion to “buy one ticket, get one free,” so be on the lookout for deals- it’s sometimes better to wait until you’re just a few weeks out from your trip to book. Still, it worked out to be only roughly $20 USD for each of us, which was a true bargain.
Again, this is something you do not want to miss when you come to New Zealand. It’s one of the top things I recommend on anyone’s road trip.
You can also kayak through the sounds, which is an even more up-close experience of the waterfalls and fjords.
From start to finish, we were in such awe of everything. Since we went in off-peak season, there were only a few other couples with us, and we had prime viewing spots on the top deck the whole time. It was cold AF, but the weather was worth braving, since it’s far better to stand on top in the fresh air than to be inside, sheltered behind windows.
The towering green fjords (actually not sounds) were almost too beautiful to be real. Clouds floated perfectly in the middle of the air and complemented the mountain backdrop perfectly.
Everything in our photos was real and unedited. These cruises operate rain or shine, and I’ve heard that it’s just as spectacular in the rain (just a bit chilly).
We were extremely lucky and had perfect weather on the day we visited. Milford Sound is known for its towering Mitre Peak, acres of rainforests, and cascading waterfalls like Stirling and Bowen Falls. The majority of cruises will steer you right underneath Stirling Falls, so you can go on the top deck and get absolutely drenched (like we did). Again, totally worth it to see a waterfall of this sheer magnitude.
The fiord is also home to fur seal colonies, penguins, and dolphins. If you’re lucky, you’ll see all three species of this wildlife throughout your cruise!
Bottle-nosed dolphins swam next to our boat the entire time, practically racing us- we think they enjoyed the waves we were producing. I’ve never seen dolphins that close (other than in Lanai), and a bunch of us screamed every time they jumped out of the water to show off.
Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the ice ages and now attracts thousands of tourists every year. Make sure you book everything in advance, since things will be incredibly crowded during the spring and summer.
If you enjoy hiking, you’ll want to research the Milford Track: a 4-day track beginning at the northern end of Lake Te Anau. During the Great Walks season (early October – late April), the DOC huts on the Milford Track book up months in advance.
If you’re planning to hike or do any of New Zealand’s Great Walks, make sure you plan, research, and book huts and accommodation well in advance so you’re not caught in an emergency situation upon arrival.
When you drive out of Milford Sound, make sure you stop at the following landmarks:
- Mirror Lakes
- Eglinton Valley
- Knobs Flat
- Homer Tunnel
- Lake Fergus
- The Chasm
- Lake Gunn
- Hollyford Valley Lookout (Pops View)
- Monkey Creek
If you’re short on time, the main attractions to hit are The Chasm, Mirror Lakes, and Hollyford Valley Lookout. For a detailed map that shows locations of all of these, click here.
Many ask the difference between Doubtful & Milford Sound, and they’re both very hard to compare. Since I personally have never visited Doubtful Sound (yet), I suggest you read Liz’s comparison of the two here.
From everything I’ve researched, it seems that Doubtful Sound is actually far more tranquil and worthwhile because it attracts far less tourists (at about triple the price of a cruise). The scenery of Milford vs. Doubtful Sound are incredibly different, but both seem jaw-droppingly beautiful – so it’s up to you which one you choose.
You can even combine Doubtful and Milford Sound, but it’s more costly. Check out the Real Journeys site for more info on timetables and price comparisons.
Lake Marian Track
I’m including the 3-hour round-trip Lake Marian Track since it’s the unfortunate site of my dislocated shoulder and medi-vac helicopter rescue. I will never forget this place because of the story attached to it, but I’ll recommend this hike nonetheless.
The hike itself isn’t exactly dangerous, but because I went in the winter, ice was glazed over most of the rocks. Disaster was bound to happen (and it did), so my takeaway advice for anyone doing this trail is to wear damn hiking boots and take extra caution if you choose to go in the winter.
Lake Marian is only a 30 min. drive from Milford Sound, so you can stop here before or after your fjord cruises.
The trail began with beautiful waterfalls that cascade into the river, but after those first 10 minutes, the trail consists of rocks and plenty of tree roots. See why you need to take extra caution on this track?
If you make it all the way to the end of the trail, you’ll be rewarded with this view:
FYI, the DOC site prefaces the following: Beyond the waterfalls, this is a tramping track, so you will need good fitness and moderate to high-level backcountry (remote areas) skills and experience, including navigation and survival skills. I don’t necessarily think this is true, since the arrows and signage along the trail are prevalent throughout its entirety.
Wanaka is one of my absolute favorite places in New Zealand. It’s unfortunately become a bit more touristic since I first visited in 2014, especially since it’s right next door to Queenstown.
Wanaka is a picture-perfect city with all the best hikes and restaurants – except with half the crowds and half the cost of everything in Queenstown.
It’s a short 45-min. drive from Queenstown and well worth it. You have two driving options: The easy, less scenic way with a longer distance, or a shortcut with breathtaking views (but ultimately harder to drive).
The Crown Range is the latter option, and it’s the highest main road in New Zealand. It’s definitely worth driving if you have the guts – just go very slow and try to use pullouts to let locals pass so you’re not holding back traffic.
In winter, the road can be covered in snow and ice, so take extra caution when turning blind corners. I carried chains in my rental car through the duration of my road trip and thankfully never needed to use them, but you should still have them in the winter.
Just remember: Do not EVER stop in the middle of the road, since it’s considered a highway. Never stop your car to take photos (dumb tourists), as magnificent as the scenery is. You can safely do so in authorised pullouts, but do so at your own discretion, especially if they’re around blind turns.
And anyway, the best photos are never taken from pullouts- advice from someone who’s driven the entire South Island by herself.
Some of my recommendations for what to do in Wanaka:
- Hike Roy’s Peak
- Horseback riding
- Hike Isthmus Peak (similar to Roy’s Peak)
- Snowboard/ski at Cardrona or Treble Cone (just a 45 min. drive from the city centre)
- Go paragliding, canyoning, skydiving, or wild wiring – all for about half the price of activities in Queenstown
- Take a picturesque walk through Wanaka Lavender Farm
- Walk along the lake and photograph #thatwanakatree
- Hire a bike and ride around the city
- Take a scenic flight above Mt. Aspiring
- Hike Rob Roy Glacier Track, one of the nicest hikes in NZ
- Hike the Mt. Iron track, a short walk with stunning views
- Explore museums like Puzzling World, National Transport & Toy Museum, Warbirds & Wheels, and activities like Crossfire
- Southern Lakes Heliski
- Drive/hike through Mt. Aspiring National Park (consider camping and doing multi-day treks here)
- Food: Kika (voted the best restaurant in NZ in 2017), Charlie Brown Crepes (cheap eats), Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen, Black Peak Gelato
Eden and I thoroughly enjoyed doing horseback riding on the outskirts of Wanaka, and I took pride in feeling like Eowyn galloping through Pelennor Fields. We found a great deal on Bookme (always check here before booking NZ activities).
In Wanaka, we stayed in the best Airbnb of my life (thanks to my friend Laura for recommending it).
It had two fireplaces (one inside and one outside), stunning view of the vineyards in the area, a giant bed and bar, comfy sofas, Netflix and a giant TV, and dogs and a cat who greeted us upon arrival. Deemed “the man cave,” it was definitely a favourite spot of ours.
About an hour from Wanaka is the Blue Pools, a mystical place that is usually rammed with people in the summer due to its crystal-clear aquamarine waters. The waters are so clear, you can easily see trout swimming down below.
You’d typically drive up here through the Haast Pass route since there are a few tourist stops along the way to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers from here.
A swing bridge crosses the Makarora River to a viewing platform that yields stunning views of the entire river gorge.
The Haast Pass drive takes about four hours without stopping, so with all the stops involved, be sure to plan your day accordingly.
Use this link to map out points of interest that you want to consider stopping at. Below are some of the main stops:
- Fantail Falls
- Roaring Billy
- Thunder Creek Falls
- This blog does an incredible job of detailing the stops in maps form
This route was a traditional pathway for Maori journeying west in search of pounamu (greenstone or jade).
At the Gates of Haast gorge, many travelers stop to photograph the gushing water as it crashes over the river boulders (use the pullouts and do so safely!).
Lake Hawea is often glossed over on travel sites, but it shouldn’t be. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in South Island, a definite hidden gem of sparkling water and pure tranquility.
It’s only a 10-15 minute drive from Wanaka, so you can easily fit it into your itinerary, even if you’re short on time. The best part is that it’s like a hidden hideaway from the busier Wanaka and Queenstown, so people who love being by themselves (like me) will love it.
I stayed here overnight and spent a good day and a half driving around and sitting by the reflective lake in solitude, eating lunch and feeling like I was in absolute bliss.
The lake is New Zealand’s 9th largest, measuring at 35 km. from north to south. The area was completely snowed in when I first arrived (photos below), but the remainder of the day was sunny and provided the perfect backdrop for photos.
Lake Hawea is a place of indescribable beauty, surrounded by mountains and Banff-esque scenery. Definitely drive through here and stay awhile to take in all of its sheer wonder!
Lake Tekapo is part of UNESCO’s Dark Sky Reserve, making it an ideal spot for stargazing. If you go in the spring, you’ll be lucky enough to see the blooming pink and purple lupins that sprout up around the turquoise lake as well.
The lake is similar to all lakes in New Zealand – vibrantly turquoise and crystal-clear, a colour due to the fine rock-flour ground by glaciers that swirls around in the water.
Some important landmarks here include the Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheepdog monument. Between April and September, you can catch the Southern Lights here (if you’re lucky enough). Lake Tekapo has very little light pollution, making it a prime viewing spot. The best viewing spot is Mt. John Observatory, which faces south.
Mt. John Observatory yields 360° panoramic views of the region, and you can either hike or drive up to the mountaintop (I’d recommend driving).
We stayed in a private room at Tailor Made Tekapo Guesthouse and discovered that it was also home to an array of farm animals, my favourite being the rotund rabbits.
The town itself is very quiet and peaceful. We ate ramen for lunch and dinner at Ramen Tekapo, which we rated as the best ramen in the entire country.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has over 19 mountain peaks standing 3,000+ metres, including New Zealand’s highest, Mount Cook.
Hands down, this was one of our favourite spots. Lake Pukaki, a jewel in the national park, was the filming location of Laketown in The Hobbit films. The towering mountains were also used as aerial views of the Misty Mountains.
Make sure you stockpile groceries from the supermarket at Lake Tekapo (or wherever you’re driving from) before you stop here, since the nearest market is a 45-min. drive otherwise. We ended up buying pasta, biscuits, and rice from the reception desk at our hotel due to my lack of research, but we survived nonetheless.
When you drive in, you’ll be surrounded by enormous mountains that block all forms of sunlight because of their height. If you go in the winter (as we did), keep in mind that it’ll be particularly chilly here because of the lack of sun.
However, the snowcapped mountains were truly a spectacle, and I couldn’t imagine coming here during any other season. We had a full-body view of the mountains directly from our glass sliding door!
You’ll base yourself at Mt. Cook Village, which only has three hotels. We stayed at Aoraki Court and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
When you’re out here, you definitely want to hike the beautiful trails. Unfortunately, if you go in the winter, you’ll see that many tracks are closed. The most famous track, Hooker Valley track, was partially closed due to the season.
Eden braved the Red Tarns track that consisted of a steep uphill climb of 300 metres. I sat it out, since I hate uphill climbs – and don’t be fooled by its “easy” track rating on the DOC site.
Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers
The West Coast of New Zealand is also home to Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers. They’re only about 45 min. apart, but one typically stays in one area or another when basing themselves for a few nights.
I did a helicopter-hike to Franz Josef Glacier in 2014 and stayed in Fox Glacier in 2019. This is the heli ice climb I did (yeah, that price is STEEP), and it was 100% worth it. It was the only real time I’ve ever climbed an ice wall (with proper belaying) using the ice axes provided. In Iceland and the winter Tongariro hike, we were given an ice ax as a mere support for hiking along edges rather than for being a badass on ice walls.
Franz Josef Glacier is a slightly bigger township than Fox Glacier, but both offer an adequate amount of shops and restaurants. If you’d like a more detailed comparison of the two, check out articles here and here.
As far as my recommendation, if it’s your first visit to the South Island and you’re short on time, check out Franz Josef. It’s larger, steeper, and the more famous glacier of the two. However, keep in mind that erosion is sadly washing the glaciers away at a rapid pace – so you definitely want to visit them soon if you can.
In addition to the obvious glacier hiking in Franz Josef, you can also kayak, camp, take scenic flights, carve pounamu, or relax in the hot pools.
Since the Fox Glacier hike to the base was closed off due to a stone avalanche when I went, I drove to Franz Josef and hiked to the lookout in the pouring rain. It was definitely worth it, and my head-to-toe GORETEX gear came in handy here.
It was much different than actually hiking on top of the glacier itself, but in inclement weather, you’re better off hiking to the base of the glaciers rather than trying to scale the top of them. Tour companies will refund you if any helicopter tours need to be refunded due to weather conditions.
Hokitika is known as a “cool little town” on the West Coast of NZ. It’s an artsy hippie’s dream, filled with arts & crafts shops, cute cafes, and plenty of ship wrecks.
It’s the birthplace of pounamu (New Zealand jade), so almost every shop sells this stone crafted into jewelry. You can walk, cycle, hike, or just enjoy Hokitika Beach – everything is quite relaxing.
Some of the main things to do in Hokitika are the following:
- Have a photoshoot on Driftwood Beach (the famous “Hokitika” letters made out of driftwood are here)
- Check out Hokitika Gorge (looks similar to the Blue Pools)
- Go on a beautiful walk
- Do the West Coast Treetop Walk (17km outside of Hokitika)
- Hike to Dorothy Falls and find glowworms
Punakaiki is one of the most magical regions of New Zealand. It’s best known for its oddly-shaped Pancake Rocks and blowholes, which are absolutely stunning on a nice day.
However, your mind will be blown when you drive along the jagged coastlines that surround towering rainforests of lush greenery. It’s simply a place you truly need to see to believe it’s real.
It’s generally the region where you base yourself if you want to explore Paparoa National Park, which essentially looks like the entirety of Jurassic Park.
I highly recommend that you spend time here rather than just driving through. I stayed at this beach hostel which lives up to its name – you fall asleep and wake up to the crashing waves outside, and you can walk along the coastline to some rocks that look very similar to the Twelve Apostles of the Great Ocean Road in Australia.
Here are some options on how to keep yourself preoccupied in Punakaiki:
- Go kayaking along the Pororari River (just mind the sandflies)
- Walk one of the many rainforest and/or coastal tracks
- Go horseback riding
- Do a stargazing tour
- Catch an incredible West Coast sunset (they’re honestly the best in the world)
- Swim, surf, fish
- Go rock climbing, bouldering, or caving in the limestone rocks
- Take up knifemaking, glassblowing, or support local artisans in their shops
- Go kayaking along the Pororari River (just mind the sandflies)
- Walk one of the many rainforest and/or coastal tracks
- Go horseback riding
- Do a stargazing tour
- Catch an incredible West Coast sunset (they’re honestly the best in the world)
- Swim, surf, fish
- Go rock climbing, bouldering, or caving in the limestone rocks
- Take up knifemaking, glassblowing, or support local artisans in their shops
Cape Foulwind is another beautiful spot along the West Coast where you can look for New Zealand fur seals (kekeno).
Despite the strange name, Cape Foulwind was believed to have been named after Captain Cook, the British explorer to first set foot on New Zealand, who was blown offshore due to high winds. Others debate that the name comes from how this western region gets winds from Australia.
Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is on the northernmost point of South Island, so many sadly never make it out here. Despite being the smallest national park in New Zealand, it’s still picturesque and worth a visit because it has trails with breathtaking views of the coastline and forest.
There are so many trails for the avid hiker in this national park. Regardless of the one you choose, they’re bound to be a great experience. Some are as short as a few hours, whereas others require camping as multi-day treks, so make sure you do your research beforehand.
I stayed in this floating backpacker hostel (and I don’t know how, because I get massively seasick on small boats), and it was a really cool experience. We even jumped off the top of the boat, as pictured in the link.
Nelson is deemed “the sunniest region in New Zealand” (unless you go in July, like I did – and then it’s just pouring rain).
The coastline looks incredibly similar to that of Wellington’s, and its beaches are supposedly some of the best in the country, with golden sands. It’s also a mecca for arts & crafts aficionados, as there are plenty of boutiques and adorable shops to support in Nelson central.
Picton is a beautiful seaside port town often hailed as the heart of the stunning Marlborough Sounds. It’s the main point of connection between North and South Island on the ferry, so in spring and summer seasons, the small town can be overflowing with tourists.
Picton’s main town is filled with artsy shops that showcase the talent of local designers and artists. You can also visit the maritime museum, aquarium, go dolphin watching, kayaking, or biking.
According to New Zealand’s official site, Blenheim averages 2,438 hours of sunshine per year, meaning that they’re constantly play-battling with Nelson for the title of “sunniest region” of the country.
However, that also means that Blenheim’s summers tend to be quite warm (generally 30°C+), especially in February and March. If you’re not keen on the heat, it’s best to visit in the spring and winter.
A good friend of mine from ships is based in Blenheim, so I used my two days there to catch up with her (and meet her baby!).
Wither Hills Farm Park is an absolute must-visit if you stay in Blenheim. I described it as the “Hobbiton of South Island,” since it’s the only region where I’ve seen rolling green hills that rival those in North Island.
There are a range of walking, running, and biking trails throughout the 1,100ha farm park, and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city from many angles.
Bamboo Garden Restaurant is a beautiful choice if you’re looking for an elegant dining option with amazing Chinese cuisine.
Kaikoura is a coastal known for whale and dolphin watching. It’s one of my personal favourite spots in New Zealand because of its sheer beauty.
The majority of the photos I reuse in other blog posts are photos I took in Kaikoura when I hiked along the coastal cliffs during sunset.
Use this guide for a list of Kaikoura’s walks.
I highly recommend the Kaikoura Coast Track. Start about 30-45 min. before sunset so you can arrive at cliff lookout points right in time to see the sun go down. If you time it perfectly, you’ll see an array of colours (orange, yellow, purple, blue, and green) fill the sky – and you won’t even need to edit your photos to showcase this.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walk is also an easy walk, but don’t forget to stop at Point Kean Seal Colony along the way. Even in the winter, you’re bound to see tons of seals sunbathing on the rocks!
The Kaikoura Lookout is also noteworthy because it yields stunning views of the city from above, in addition to the mountain scapes and ocean. Kaikoura is branded as “where the mountains meet the sea,” and this viewpoint showcases why.
Arthur’s Pass is the highest and most dramatic pass of the Southern Alps. It’s a 2-hr. drive from Christchurch and one of the definite highlights of South Island.
The pass connects Canterbury to the West Coast, much like a shortcut (and a beautiful one). Viaducts, steel-engineered bridges, rock shelters, and towering waterfalls are amongst some of the breathtaking sites you’ll see here.
Arthur’s Pass National Park ultimately has two landscapes (one with riverbeds and beech forest, and the other with dense rainforests and deep rivers). There are quite a few trails within the national park, but I only trekked to the Devil’s Punchbowl, a beautiful waterfall with a 1-hour return track. It was pouring rain for the duration of my stay, but it was gorgeous nonetheless.
Otira Viaduct is a 445-metre bridge that replaces a previous rocky road filled with hairpin turns that needed constant repairs. You’ll have to drive over this very long, narrow bridge in order to reach Arthur’s Pass (and to leave), but it’s worth the drive.
It looks especially cool from the Otira Viaduct Lookout, where you can see the overarching length of it from above.
Christchurch is a unique city combining urban regeneration with history. While it has unfortunately been the centre of unfortunate events in the past few years, the city has been revitalised by art galleries and a $92 million library that costs an estimated $7mill/year to run.
It’s known as “the newest city in the world” and has great restaurants and landmarks to explore. However, if you’re short on time, I wouldn’t say this is a “must visit” city.
If you’re on a working holiday, you should take the TranzAlpine between Greymouth and Christchurch for some stunning scenery (and you can stare out the window rather than worry about keeping your eyes on the road).
Akaroa is STUNNING. Most people don’t put this quaint town on their itinerary, and it’s a downright shame, since it’s a pure gem.
Its history is steeped in 19th century British and French colonial days, so you’ll notice that the streets are all French names. It’s such a cute, comfortable town that you won’t want to leave – and the drive into Akaroa is simply one that can’t be paralleled (pictures below).
Some suggestions for activities in Akaroa include:
- Play with alpaca at Shamarra Alpaca Farm
- Stroll along Akaroa Harbour and see the Akaroa Lighthouse
- Do the Rhino Walk
- Trek through the Hinewai Reserve
- Hike or bike through Misty Peaks
- Visit the Giants House
- Kayak or paddleboard (SUP board)
- Visit Newton’s Waterfall
- Eat Belgian waffles and indulge in a huge milkshake by the waterfront
Keep in mind that this is a tender cruise port, so tender boats from cruise ships will be coming and going in the spring and summer. Another reason to visit in the winter!
Dunedin is a university town, so you’ll most likely see plenty of university students around. It’s known for its Scottish and Maori heritage coupled with Victorian and Edwardian architecture and is built around what was once a volcanic crater (WHAT?!).
There are quite a few activities you can do here:
- Hike up to Signal Hill for panoramic views
- Explore the Dunedin Botanic Gardens (free)
- Visit Larnarch Castle, New Zealand’s only castle
- Visit Otago Museum (also free)
- Visit the Royal Albatross Centre (30km from the city centre; allows you to see colonies of royal albatross up close)
- Visit Dunedin Public Art Gallery (free)
- Have a photo op at Dunedin Railway Station
- Visit Tunnel Beach
- Visit Orokonui Ecosanctuary (30km outside of Dunedin)
Just 75km north of Dunedin, you can also visit the famous Moeraki Boulders on Koekohe Beach. However, they’re not something you need to see, so I skipped this my second time around.
I accidentally flubbed our itinerary (TWICE in the same spot), so we ended up staying in Geraldine as an in-between point.
Geraldine is a tiny town, not particularly somewhere you need to stop – but I’m adding this just in case anyone gets tired from a long drive and has to stop midway between destinations.
We stayed at a large Airbnb house here and everything was beautifully decorated. Overall, we had a 100% stellar stay at every single one of our Airbnbs in New Zealand.
Bluff is the southernmost town of South Island. It’s usually cold AF down here, but I didn’t find it too bad.
You’d base yourself here for a night if you want to catch the ferry to Stewart Island and leave your car at the parking lot (or your accommodation). There’s not a whole lot to do here except Bluff Hill Lookout.
I had exceptionally gloomy weather during my drive, so these were my memories of Bluff:
There’s not much to do here, so I drove 20 min to Invercargil and ended up loving it a lot more.
Just 10 min. from Invercargil city centre lies Oreti Beach, which was home to one of the best sunsets of my life.
You’re able to drive on this beach legally (yes!), and I was the only car along with another that parked right next to the waves. It was surreal. It was so cold outside, sitting in my car ended up being the smartest option as well.
I watched in awe as purple and pink shades were overtaken by hues of yellow and orange inflaming the sky. It was truly incredible.
The Catlins have it all. If possible, try to stay at least 3-4 nights here. I could have easily stayed a week and still not have had enough time to see everything.
For starters, it’s on the southern tip of New Zealand, so you wake up to jaw-droppingly beautiful coastal views every morning (nearly all the accommodation will be dotted along the beach).
You’re surrounded by towering cliffs, isolated beaches, turquoise bays, huge waterfalls, blowholes, caves, lighthouses, and tons of native wildlife (birds, sea lions, dolphins, and more).
There are SO many attractions you don’t want to miss while driving through the Catlins. You’ll need to base yourself somewhere (i.e. Curio Bay), so make sure you research ahead of time and determine where you want to stay in relation to the driving route.
Here are my recommended destination points:
- Fortrose (for petrol, accommodation, and the Ino Steamship shipwreck, which you can only see at low tide)
- Jack’s Blowhole
- Surat Bay (home to many sea lions)
- Matai Falls
- McLean Falls
- Cathedral Caves
- Slope Point (my personal fave- the most southern point of NZ)
- Niagra Falls (yes, New Zealand has its own)
- Lake Wilkie
- Kaka Point
- Purakaunui Bay & Falls
- Tunnel Hill
- Catlins River-Wisp Loop Track
- Nugget Point (also one of my favourites) – if you only have time for one, GO HERE
- Waipapa Point
- Petrified Forest
I stayed at Lazy Dolphin Lodge in Curio Bay and ended up having a huge dorm room in a giant two-story beach house all to myself for four days. Again, the perks of traveling in off-peak season! I’d highly recommend it if you’re a backpacker, since the price is unbelievable for such a gorgeous, picture-perfect location.
Just up the road from the lodge, you can try to find yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho), native to only New Zealand. I wasn’t successful, but many others were, especially if you’re on watch at dusk and dawn.
Stewart Island was always on my bucket list thanks to Liz’s article that I read. It’s the ONE place you go if you really want to see a Kiwi bird in the wild (also the only place they really inhabit now).
It’s a very tiny island (for reference, it’s the tiny dot you see right below the southernmost point of South Island on maps).
You’ll need to book a ferry roundtrip (approximately $145NZD), and if you get seasick easily, ensure that you take ginger pills & seasick tablets beforehand and stay out on the back open deck.
There’s only one backpacker accommodation on the island, and it unfortunately had the most uncomfortable beds where you could feel every outline of the springs. However, the receptionist was a lovely Kiwi who recommended hikes and arranged my transport to Ulva Island, which is just another boat ride away (and only $20NZD).
However, perhaps it was due to the fact that it rained for the majority of my two days there and because I didn’t get any rare Kiwi bird sightings, but I wouldn’t put Stewart Island on my “must do” list. While it has beautiful trails and gorgeous beaches to walk around, I’d recommend saving your money and extending your length of stay in southern regions like the Catlins instead.
North Island Destination Recommendations
The recommendations below are based on where I’ve been, but I haven’t explored most of the east coast of North Island. Please consult other trip-planning blogs that encompass the entirety of North Island if you’re looking to cover all highlights.
There will never be enough words to describe my sheer love for Wellington. To this day, it’s my favourite city in the world – it encompasses so much culture, great food, happiness, and entertainment.
It’ll always hold a special place in my heart because it’s where my travel journey initially began.
Also, 90% of my blog is just Wellington/New Zealand content, so you don’t have to be daft to realise that this truly is the “coolest capital city in the world.”
For my top 10 recommendations on what to do in Wellington, check out my article here.
If there’s one place you visit while on North Island, please, please pay a visit to Wellington. It’s such a vibrant, welcoming place, and I literally will never stop raving about it.
Also, the entire Lord of the Rings cast lived here from 1999-2000 while shooting the trilogy. There are deep-rooted connections to Lord of the Rings around every corner, so you obviously would be a ‘fool of a Took’ if you missed out on exploring Wellington.
Paraparumu is a small town on the Kapiti Coast, just 45 min. northwest of Wellington. You’ll inevitably pass this when you drive onwards from Wellington, and it’s a stunning, sunny coastal slice of heaven that you’ll want to enjoy for a bit.
On your way to Paraparumu, you’ll pass Paekakariki Beach, one of my favourite spots that I found by accident via train.
One of the delightful things about New Zealand is how stunningly serene their beaches are – and how most of them barely have a soul around. There are plenty of incredible photo opportunities along the Kapiti Coast as well.
Tongariro National Park
For any diehard Lord of the Rings fans and avid hikers, you also don’t want to miss Tongariro National Park.
I’ve written about my experience hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the snow, and it was absolutely incredible. I’d recommend going in the winter over summer because of the picturesque views, less crowds, and the temperate weather.
The national park itself is quite vast, so you’d need to spend a couple days here if you want to truly explore it inside and out. Don’t forget to check out the nearby waterfalls and Whakapapa ski fields, New Zealand’s largest ski area, while you’re there.
Taupō is another gorgeous city famous for its lake and water activities like fishing, kayaking, sailing, and water-skiing (jet skiing to Americans). It’s smack dab in the middle of North Island, so it’s an easy, comfortable stopover city for many travelers.
Huka Falls is its most famous attraction, with over 220,000 litres of turquoise water spilling out.
Taupō is also considered to be the outdoor adventure hub of North Island (basically the equivalent of Queenstown, just with less grandeur). Many choose to skydive and participate in numerous adrenalin-pumping activities here.
Are you really going to visit New Zealand without possibly stopping at Hobbiton Movie Set Tours?
Regardless of whether or not you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, Hobbiton is a magical place that is one of the prime tourist attractions in the country. It’s based in Matamata, a lush, green town with plenty of tranquil walks.
The price of a ticket to Hobbiton is quite steep, so if you’re on a budget, you’ll be glad to know that there are plenty of Lord of the Rings filming locations you can visit… for free.
Also, the entire town of Matamata looks like Hobbiton, with rolling green hills around every corner you turn. Don’t be dismayed if you don’t want to pay $75NZD or more for a ticket, when the landscapes around you are just as realistic and beautiful.
Others also visit Rotorua from here, famous for its geothermal activity, especially Pohatu Geyser. However, it’s nicknamed the Sulphur City for a reason, so I don’t recommend coming here if you have a weak nose like myself (yes, the entire city smells like rotten eggs).
Hamilton is a beautiful city built on the Waikato River and best known for its visually stunning Hamilton Gardens. The Waikato Museum and Hamilton Zoo are also popularly visited attractions, and there are heaps of cafes to entice you along the way.
If you’re near Hamilton, definitely drive an hour to the Blue Spring (Te Waihou Walkway), a hidden alcove of beauty that my local friend showed me.
Blue Spring will blow your mind with its amazing views. Its water is so clean, it supplies 60% of the country’s bottled water.
The spring is fed from the Mamaku Plateau, where it takes up to 100 years (?!) to filter. As a result, the water is extremely pure, which is how it produces a sparkling blue colour while being crystal-clear.
The walkway is an easy 1.5 hours each way and has a guided track that takes you through wetlands, across rolling hills of pastures, and features waterfalls, bush, and plenty of trout swimming in the spring.
Tauranga is a harbourside port city, the largest in the Bay of Plenty. It’s a stunning city that bears some similarities to Cairns (Australia).
While here, you should hike up Mount Maunganui. In beautiful weather, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning aerial view of the city. The main beach that you see down below has been crowned “Best Beach in New Zealand” by TripAdvisor numerous times and ranks among the 25 best beaches in the world.
There are plenty of things to do while in Tauranga. Chances are, you’ll be mesmerised by the stunning white sands and turquoise waters of the city for the majority of the time.
The Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most beautiful regions of New Zealand. It’s known for its picturesque beaches, sprawling forests, and chill vibe.
Cathedral Cove is a popular tourist site you’ve probably seen on every postcard and tourism site for New Zealand. However, don’t just see that – there are far more beautiful gems to discover beyond that cove.
The Pinnacles is rated as one of New Zealand’s top overnight hikes (and if you’re really ambitious, you can do it in 8 hours).
Hot Water Beach is a natural phenomenon you might want to check out as well.
Whiti Farm Park was one of my personal favourite spots where you can feed, pet, and get up close and personal with over 40 species of animals. It’s incredibly affordable and a great family activity (who wouldn’t want to pet bunnies, wallabies, alpaca, and sheep all day?!).
In terms of accommodation, you usually base yourself at one of the main areas (Hahei, Whitianga, Tairua, Coromandel township) and drive to the rest of the main sites.
Waitomo is a stunning city famous for blackwater rafting and its glowworm caves.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting experience is quite pricey, so definitely book online through BookMe before using the official site. If you’ve done canyoning before, it’s essentially the same thing, except there are several options to choose from based on fitness level. The main one everyone likes doing is the 8-hour option where you get to zipline through a glowworm cave at the very end, but keep in mind that it’ll be rigorous.
I stayed at YHA Waitomo Juno Hall, which was a delightful experience (and the receptionist was so lovely). I even got the chance to feed baby lambs!
If you’ve never seen a kiwi bird before, definitely pay a visit to Otorohanga Kiwi House. It’s only a 15-min. drive from Waitomo city centre and you can pay a separate fee of just $12 to enter the dark kiwi house (or you can buy a general ticket to see the entire sanctuary).
There’s no guarantee that you’ll have a kiwi sighting, but I saw two large kiwis come right up to the glass within a few minutes. You’re not allowed to record or take any type of photography (it wouldn’t come out in such a dim room anyway), but the experience of seeing a kiwi bird in person is phenomenal.
They’re absolutely adorable, although their balance seems a bit off. Their huge feet and large body keep them upright, but their beak also seems to serve a balancing purpose as they poke for food in the ground.
They do regular kiwi feedings every 2 hours. For past videos of kiwis, you can check out their official YouTube account.
For a list of free activities in Waitomo, check out this article.
While you’re staying in Waitomo, drive to Marokopa Falls (considered the most beautiful waterfall in New Zealand), Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk, and Piripiri Cave Walk. They’re all within 5 minutes of each other, and each attraction can be explored for 15-30 minutes, depending on how many photos you take.
I continued on to Kiritehere Beach, known for its plentiful marine fossils. You’ll find sandstones with fossilized clams, mussels, and scallops that date over 200 million years old!
If you keep driving further up the road, you’ll be driving on hills that yield the perfect spot for sunset viewing. It’ll truly take your breath away.
Raglan is a surfer town in the Waikato region with a hippie-esque culture and flowing with plenty of quirky cafes.
I’ve actually never been to Raglan, but I’m hoping to venture out there in the future when I head back to New Zealand again.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest and most populated city. You’ll typically fly into Auckland Airport from overseas since it’s one of the largest.
Most Kiwis (and travelers) don’t tend to like Auckland that much. It’s like a mini Sydney (but its waterfront isn’t even 1/4 as gorgeous as Sydney’s), which also means that it’s a hub for great food, wine, and entertainment.
Some must-see attractions include the following:
- Walk to the top of Mount Eden
- Check out the Auckland Night Markets
- Take the ferry to Waiheke Island and/or Rangitoto Island
- Go up to Sky Tower (for viewing or bungy jumping)
- Check out Piha Beach
- Check out Mount Victoria for panoramic views of the city
- Day trip to Goat Island
- Go on some coastal walks
Paihia is a beautiful town known as the gateway to the Bay of Islands. I was blessed with the fortune of meeting some Kiwis in California before I moved in 2013, and they invited me to spend Christmas and New Year’s with their entire family in this gorgeous area.
It was the best Christmas season I’ve ever experienced. The warmth, love, generosity, and hospitality of Kiwis is simply unparalleled on all levels. And much like every other region of New Zealand, it’s absolutely breathtaking around every corner.
Here’s a list of some of the main things to check out while here:
- Hururu Falls
- Go horseback riding, kayaking, biking
- Take a scenic helicopter flight
- Go dolphin watching
- Eat some ice cream and fish & chips, Paihia trademarks
- Do the Opua Forest Walk
- Venture to Ninety Mile Beach (it’s not actually 90 miles, but it seems like a never-ending stretch of picture-perfect coastline)
Russell was New Zealand’s first capital and the ferry from Paihia to Russell is only $12NZD. You can enjoy some scrumptious noms here, jump off the wharf, and walk around this quaint island (the smallest of the Bay of Islands).
If you time your ferry back just right, you can catch the flaming sunset that lights up the entire sky.
Cape Reinga is the opposite of Slope Point in South Island – it’s the northernmost tip of the peninsula. It’s where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a magical display of strong currents, so tourists often flock here and brave the long drive up north.
According to Maori history, the spirits of deceased Maori leap from the pohutukawa tree (over 800 years old) into the ocean to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. Thus, it is a sacred site, so don’t eat or drink around this area.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is like walking into heaven, with over 140 subtropical islands.
There are far too many things you can do to maximise your stay here, so I’ll link to this Culture Trip article for your enjoyment. I was fortunate in having my friends show me around, and we explored tons of beaches, parks, and beautiful areas with such stunning landscapes that they seemed too perfect to be real life.
There are so many gorgeous destinations to consider stopping at when planning your next road trip through New Zealand. Whether you’re going to North or South Island (or being an overachiever and squeezing in both), you’re bound to have a priceless trip that will leave you awestruck and wondering why you hadn’t come to New Zealand sooner.
While I can never pinpoint specific favourites, here are my top recommendations of places to see in South Island if you’re short on time:
- Milford Sound
Here are my top recommendations of places to see in North Island:
- Tongariro National Park
- Bay of Islands
Happy trip planning and exploring! Feel free to reach out via comment or e-mail if you have further questions.
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