With summer just around the corner, it’s time to get excited about the holidays - we’re looking forward to long evenings, days at the beach and of course, the classic Kiwi road trip!
We’ve all got great memories of scenic drives with family and friends, beautiful views and interesting places - so while overseas travel is limited, why not spend your summer exploring some of the stunning road trips New Zealand has to offer?
Christchurch to the West Coast, via Arthur’s Pass
If you leave Christchurch at 8am you’ll be on the West Coast by lunchtime, with time for a quick stop at Otira Gorge to snap some impressive Instagram shots and meet a cheeky Kea!
Once you reach the coast, head South to be amazed by the incredibly blue waters of the Hokitika Gorge. If you’ve read the Luminaries, stop off in Hokitika township on the way, and visit some of the places Eleanor Catton wrote about in her Booker Prize-winning novel.
Head North to visit Punakaiki’s famous Pancake Rocks - which really do look like giant stacks of pancakes - then carry on up the coast to Karamea, the northernmost town on the West Coast. Karamea is the perfect place to spend some time in peaceful isolation, exploring striking natural limestone formations and wandering along long, empty beaches.
State Highway 8, from Roxburgh to Alexandra
The first words from Europeans visiting this part of the country are “It’s just like Tuscany!” This Central Otago trip is only a half-hour drive, but with so much to see along the way we think you should set aside your whole morning.
Roxburgh is steeped in history and is a great spot for keen cyclists; choose from the Roxburgh Gorge Trail or the Clutha Gold Trail for an unforgettable ride. An authentic gold panning experience will keep the little ones entertained before you continue on towards Alexandra.
There are plenty of opportunities to stop amongst the colourful scenery as you drive through to Alexandra; we recommend a rummage through the legendary Shingle Creek Collectables antique store!
If you arrive in ‘Alex’ with energy to spare, take a rambling walk through hilly goldminers’ tracks and soak up some beautiful scenery… or if you’re ready to relax after a long day of exploring, settle in for the afternoon at one of the fantastic local vineyards.
State Highway 85 (The Pig Route)
For a dramatic drive that’s steeped in history, look no further than Central Otago’s ‘Pig Route’ - the scenic, mountainous section of State Highway 85 leading from historic Palmerston through to Naseby.
Nobody’s quite sure where the ‘Pig Route’ name came from, but there are some entertaining theories. One suggestion is that the local wild pigs were so friendly you could walk right up to them - another is that it was a ‘pig of a route’ to traverse with a horse and cart!
The route leads up from Palmerston to the Maniototo Plains, one of New Zealand’s most climatically extreme places. With only a few small towns along the way, it’s easy to get lost in the eerie solitude of the mountains.
For an interesting detour take the side road to St Bathans, a quaint historic town that remains almost how it was back in the Gold Rush days. Architecture and history buffs will enjoy the original two-story kauri Post Office, and mud-brick Anglican Church.
State Highway 94, from Te Anau to Milford Sound
When you factor in all the great places to stop along the way, this stunning two-hour drive easily turns into a full day’s road trip. There are plenty of lookouts and opportunities to gaze across the landscape, so don’t forget your camera!
Make your first stop at the Mirror Lakes, which are world-famous for their beauty and ability to perfectly reflect the Earl mountain ranges on a calm day (hence the name). Keep an eye out for the pāpango, our smallest native duck, as well as the trout and long-finned eels that call the lakes home. If you prefer rivers over lakes, stop off at Cascade Creek for a short walk through towering red beeches and alongside tumbling waterfalls.
As you reach the end of your trip, don’t forget to visit The Chasm, one of the area’s most spectacular walks. As you approach you’ll hear the roaring of the Cleddau River, as it carves through narrow rock formations in a breathtaking display of the power of nature.
The Catlins Coastal Road
The Catlins coastal road is the spectacular stretch of highway between Balclutha and Invercargill, and it’s well worth the trip down South! This two-hour drive boasts some of the South Island’s most rugged and beautiful scenery including lush native bush, hidden beaches, and dramatic rocky outcrops. Keep an eye out along the coastline for sea lions lounging in the sun.
Visit the Catlins Forest Park for a 30-minute walk through a sheltered native forest, leading you to the Matai Stream, Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls.
Plan your Catlins trip carefully and you’ll be able to walk through the Cathedral Caves, a huge sea-formed cave system that can only be reached for an hour at either side of low tide. With chasms up to 30m high and acoustics to rival the greatest man-made cathedrals, it’s no surprise that these remain one of the area’s most popular attractions.
From Queenstown to Glenorchy (and Paradise)
The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy takes you along the shores of Lake Wakatipu, through the heart of Lord of the Rings country. Eagle-eyed film fans will recognise a range of locations during the drive, and a stop-off in the aptly named ‘Paradise’ - where some of the most famous scenes were filmed - will have you quoting The Two Towers all the way home.
Along the way there are several walking tracks, coves, and bays to stop for a picnic and some exploration. Bob’s Cove and Bennett’s Bluff are both great spots to look out over Lake Wakatipu and take a photo that’s worth hanging on the wall - and if you’re lucky, bellbirds and tui might join you on your walk!
Once you reach Glenorchy, get ready to get active - ziplining, horseriding, jetboating and canyoning are all on the menu! For something a little more relaxed, book in a scenic flight and take in the views from high above the lake.
State Highway 6, from Wanaka to Makarora
This drive takes you to the doorstep of Mount Aspiring National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Area and home to some of our most beautiful scenery.
Makarora is a hiking hub, but if you aren’t after a multi-day trip then treat yourself to a short walk to the pristine waters of the Blue Pools. After a 15-minute stroll through dense native forest, you’ll cross a swing bridge (an essential part of every Kiwi holiday) and discover the stunning hues of the pools, hidden away deep within the forest. On a still day, take your time and see if you can spot brown trout swimming in the pools.
If you’re keen to extend your trip, carry on from Makarora through to Haast on the West Coast. This drive takes you through Haast Pass, where the alpine views will have you falling in love with New Zealand all over again. Keep an eye out for plentiful short walks just off the side of the road - Thunder Creek Falls is definitely worth a visit!
State Highway 75 from Christchurch to Akaroa
The drive from Christchurch to Akaroa takes you through peaceful farmland, rolling hills and down to one of Canterbury’s most charming towns.
Stop off along the way to visit the famous Little River Art Gallery and pick up a piece by one of our talented Kiwi artists, or take a detour to Birdlings Flat and go fossicking for agates on the stony, windswept beach.
Once you reach Akaroa, be ready to say ‘Bonjour’ - this harbourside town is a historical French settlement and retains plenty of European character! Akaroa is a great place to spend the afternoon shopping, visiting historic buildings, and taking a harbour cruise to see the tiny Hector’s Dolphins.
State Highway 60, from Motueka to Collingwood
The drive from Motueka to Collingwood is a showcase of the Top of the South, with fertile farmland and impressive sea views.
Fuel up for your journey with a coffee from the Motueka Sunday Market, a combination of a farmers’ market and a second-hand extravaganza! If you feel the need for a little more relaxation, have a dip in Motueka’s historic Saltwater Baths before you hit the road.
After leaving Motueka, the road takes you up Tākaka Hill. When you reach the summit at 791 metres above sea level, prepare to have your breath taken away by the sudden appearance of stunning views out over Golden Bay.
From there the road descends to Collingwood, the gateway to the Heaphy Track. Collingwood has plenty of untouched paradises to explore: take a horse trek along Wharariki Beach to visit the local seal colony, or visit the bird sanctuary on Farewell Spit.
State Highway 79 from Peel Forest to Tekapo
This trip begins at Peel Forest, a historic bush-clad area with a range of walking tracks. It’s also close to the Church of the Holy Innocents, a beautiful building in its own right and the resting place of famed New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh.
Make your next stop Geraldine, a charming town nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps. Geraldine has a thriving local art scene, with plenty of galleries and studios to explore. Don’t forget a trip to Barkers of Geraldine to stock up on your favourite jam!
From there you’ll continue through Fairlie to Burkes Pass, home to New Zealand’s oldest church (it’s well worth pulling over for a photo). The pass itself runs through wide-open alpine spaces, leading down to the stunning blue of Lake Tekapo and Lake Alexandrina.
The town of Tekapo is renowned for its stargazing, so prepare to stay up late and take in a night sky free of light pollution! After a refreshing sleep-in the next morning, head to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to see our highest mountain and walk the incredible Tasman Glacier.
Stay safe on the roads
New Zealand’s roads are beautiful and exhilarating but can be challenging to drive - particularly if you don’t regularly travel outside the city. We’ve got a few tips to help you stay safe out there.
- Make sure your car is up to the journey! Check your tyre pressure, oil and water, and make sure any routine maintenance is done before you hit the road. If your vehicle is older, it might struggle with some of the more mountainous routes (especially with the whole family on board). If it’s time for an upgrade, pop in to see us. We’ll help you find just the right car to take on your future adventures.
- Our back-country highways are very different from smooth, wide city roads. Be prepared for narrow, winding roads in various states of maintenance, and always keep an eye out for potholes and unexpected debris.
- If you’re driving an unfamiliar road (especially a narrow mountain one) remember that you don’t have to drive at the maximum speed limit. Take it carefully and take your time. If you notice cars piling up behind you, just find a safe place to pull over and let them pass.
- Concentrate on the road. If you’re feeling tired, or if kids arguing in the back are causing a distraction, pull over for a break before carrying on.
- Be patient with other drivers. We all know there’s nothing more frustrating than getting stuck behind a campervan going up a hill, but don’t let impatience trick you into making unsafe driving decisions.
Happy exploring, New Zealand - we hope you have a summer to remember.
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