New Zealand is the perfect playground for all kinds of adventure activities, so what could be better than a road trip to take it all in? From Auckland on the North Island to Queenstown on the South Island, Brent takes us along for the ride and gives us the highlights of his epic New Zealand road trip.
A New Zealand Road Trip That’s Full Of Adventure
I don’t even know where to start with New Zealand! It’s a country that had always been on my list but so far had never really made it to the top. I was a huge Lord of the Rings fan (nerd) as a kid though, so I always knew I’d journey to Middle Earth one day…
Last July, a friend and I went on a 2-week road trip around Tasmania. When I got back I showed a few friends my photos and kept explaining how stoked I was about the landscape. Everyone kept saying, “If you loved Tassie, you’ll fall in love with New Zealand.” They couldn’t have been more right.
We landed in the afternoon. After sorting out our rental car we didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore the city, so we decided to make our way to our accommodation in Hamilton. From there we would start our adventure with a tour of Hobbiton.
I think I was around 10 years old when my mum pulled me out of class to go and see The Fellowship Of The Ring (amazing mum, right?) so Hobbiton was an absolute must on our list of things to see in New Zealand. The Hobbiton movie set was about an hour drive from our accommodation in Hamilton, so we got up at a decent time and hit the road.
“Po-ta-toes! Boil ’em, mash ’em stick ’em in a stew!” If you were half as much of a Lord Of The Rings nerd as me, you’ll spend most of the tour quoting the movie in your head — or just let it out, no shame. According to our tour guide that’s pretty common.
On a more relevant note, during the tour your appreciation of the detail that went into this set will increase tenfold. We’re talking about fake trees above Bag End and individually placed leaves on these hobbit sized trees! Tickets for the tour were $79. It lasted a few hours and ends with a free beer/cider in The Green Dragon Inn. I would highly recommend grabbing yourself a ticket of the Hobbiton movie set if you’re a fan. It was well worth it!
Rotorua (On The Way To Taupo)
After we finished up in Hobbiton we took the long way to Taupo (our next destination) with a pitstop just outside Rotorua at a little place called Wai-o-tapu. The usual route from Hobbiton to Taupo takes around 1 hour and 30 mins, whereas the long way through Rotorua was just over 2 hours.
The Wai-o- tapu boardwalk track is easily accessible off the SH5 Highway just south of Rotorua. The mud pool is free, while the entrance fee for the boardwalk was around $30 for adults. Depending on which route you take through the pools it can take anywhere from 30 mins to just over 1 hour.
The Rotorua area is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, so you can expect to see your fair share
of crater lakes, geysers, mud pools, and colourful (rather smelly) terraces. If you plan it right, you might be fortunate enough to see the Lady Knox Geyser erupt.
Here’s a great tool to help you get the most out of your time in the area.
Before we arrived in Taupo we made another pitstop at Huka Falls just outside of town. Huka Falls might not be the tallest waterfall you’ll ever see, but it might be the bluest! I’d recommend you first stop at the Huka Falls Lookout on Loop Rd. Just down the road from the lookout, there is a carpark located just off the Thermal Explorer Highway on the left.
The track starts upstream from the falls before it crosses over and continues along the other side.
We checked into our accommodation and the next morning we had a tour booked with Chris Jolly Outdoors to see the Maori carvings on the lake, which cost around $46 for adults. Although we had a rainy, rather chilly day it made for the perfect moody lighting to capture some great photos. I won’t give you too much background on the carvings themselves, but I will say that I recommend checking them out, the amount of detail is amazing.
Although we didn’t spend a lot of time in Taupo there was no shortage of activities around. There
are plenty of opportunities to bike, hike, fish, shop and jet boat.
Before getting into my recommendations for Napier, I would like to take this opportunity to suggest a quick pitstop along the way. Waipunga Falls is situated just 40-odd minutes outside of Taupo. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon it enroute to Napier. We saw a sign that said, “Lookout 500m on left”. We had absolutely no idea what to expect but we weren’t disappointed!
If you consider yourself a bit of a “wine-o”, Napier is a must see! Napier is situated in the Hawkes Bay Region on the east coast of the North Island, which is one of New Zealand’s oldest leading wine regions. If you decide to make Napier one of your stops, I would recommend looking into one of the many wine tours available in the area. There are plenty of full-day or half-day tours, and some let you bike between the vineyards!
If you plan on driving both the North and the South Island you’ll need to catch the Interislander ferry in Wellington across to Picton.
While you’re enjoying your time in Wellington there are a few noteworthy places to visit. Our first stop was the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Within this ‘container of treasures’ you’ll find heaps of interactive displays and works of art from Maori and other Pacific cultures. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn about New Zealand’s history, culture, and natural landscape. There’s even a preserved 2.5m colossal squid on display!
The museum is located on the Wellington waterfront, which is an excellent place to go for walk and sightsee. The area is full of art galleries, pubs, parks and small museums. And If you’re up for a bite to eat, the pizza and wings at Bin44 Restaurant and Bar will do the trick!
If you’re feeling some good local craft beer I suggest you make your way to the Garage Project on Aro St.
As I mentioned before, if you plan to road trip both the North and the South Island you’ll have to make the 3 – 3.5 hour journey on the Interislander ferry from Wellington to Picton (or vice versa). We rented our car through Thrifty, so we had to drop off our car at the ferry terminal, catch the boat across the windy Cook Strait and pick up a new car on the other side in Picton.
We booked our ferry tickets through directferries.com and they cost around $55 each. If you plan on taking your car across you can expect to pay more.
We didn’t plan on staying the night in Picton as our next stop was Abel Tasman National Park. However, along the way we adjusted our route to check out the Marlborough region (also known for its wine). The Marlborough wine region has the reputation for producing one of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc wines. We stopped in at the Allan Scott Family Winemakers for lunch, which we loved and would totally recommend.
Abel Tasman National Park
Although I say this about a lot of places, Abel Tasman National Park must be one of my favourite places I’ve ever explored. Located on the north-west corner of the South Island, Abel Tasman National Park has no shortage of things to do (seems to be a trend in New Zealand). Some of the most popular activities are sea kayaking, hiking (single and multi-day), and relaxing on the amazing beaches.
There are multiple water taxi services running throughout the day from the main town site that can drop you off or pick you up at most of the beaches in the area. Depending on the package you select, water taxi tickets can range from $37 to $300. To put it simply, it’s very easy to keep yourself occupied in Abel Tasman National Park and it’s a very laid-back fun environment to be in!
Something important to note before you arrive in the National Park is groceries. There are only a few cafes in town (they’re great) but if you’re doing your New Zealand road trip on a budget, I suggest you stock up on food in Nelson or Picton.
The (very) quiet town of Greymouth is located 4 hours southwest of Abel Tasman National Park on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The main attraction in town seemed to be the Monteith’s Brewery, so kick back, relax and enjoy a beer or cider (there’s a lot to choose from)!
My personal highlight from Greymouth was the coast road which heads north out of town along one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen. I decided to make my way along the coast for sunset to shoot some photos and I wasn’t at all disappointed at what I found!
I would recommend checking out places like Motukikie Beach, Point Elizabeth Walkway, and Paparoa National Park for sunset.
Surfers Listen Up: If you’re a surfer like myself, Greymouth had no shortage of waves while I was there! Keep your eye on the forecast before you get there, and you might be in for some fun, uncrowded waves.
Franz Josef / Fox Glacier
Pack your hiking boots because there are plenty opportunities to explore around Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Both main walking tracks to the glaciers are leisurely, very well marked and chances are they’ll be a little busy.
The Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere Walk took around 1.5 hours. Near the start of
the track there are a few waterfalls on the righthand side of the valley that you can stand under!
The Fox Glacier Valley Walk (better known by the locals as Te Ara o Tuawe Valley Walk) is an easy 2.6km return walk which only takes about 1 hour. While you’re on the walk, don’t forget to look around. The cliffs surrounding the glacier valley are amazing! We were fortunate enough to be there on a moody damp day that made for some of my favourite photos.
After all the hiking I had done in Abel Tasman and the Franz Josef/Fox Glacier area, a fantastic way to relax was the hot pools in Franz Josef, which cost $28 per adult. Definitely recommended if you’re half as sore as I was!
Unfortunately, due to timing, we didn’t get to spend a lot of time in Wanaka, but it’ll remain on my list of places to visit again. There’s plenty more hiking in the area and lots of opportunity to mountain bike. I would recommend you check out some of the other We Are Explorer articles for some ideas of things to do in this area.
Our next stop was Te Anau, we spent a few days here with the intention to day trip to Milford Sound. We spent one day walking around town and booked a lake tour which included stopping at the glow worm caves. The tour was about 2.5 hours long, and cost $93. I had never been to glow worm caves before, so it was worth it for me. The guide will take you across the lake and into the caves where you’ll be treated to what feels like something out of the movie Avatar. Sadly, there were no photos allowed in the cave as the glow worms don’t like light, but it was a great experience none the less.
Milford Sound (Day Trip)
I think it goes without saying that most people who visit the South Island look forward to the massive fiords of Milford Sound. It’s a bit of a drive from Te Anau but there’s no shortage of lookouts along the way.
One of my favourite stops along the way was the Chasm. Essentially, a waterfall has carved out tunnels and curls in the rock, and there is a 400m walking track that goes above the falls. There is also the option to book a bus tour to Milford Sound from Te Anau if you’re not keen on driving.
Once you arrive in Milford Sound there are plenty of activities to choose from including boat cruises, scenic flights, kayaking, hiking, and scuba diving. Before getting to Milford Sound, we had a cruise booked, the cruise took us from the main town site out to the Tasman Sea. On the cruise the boat went alongside waterfalls, massive cliffs, and even stopped at a few locations full of fur seals.
Prices for the activities generally ranged from $50 – $200 depending on the activity and company.
Queenstown was the final destination of our trip. I had been told numerous times how amazing this town was and everyone was right. No matter what your flavour, there’s a pretty good chance Queenstown has something for you.
Plenty of opportunity to hike, bike, swim, raft, 4WD, or bungie! One of the most famous attractions in the area is the Nevis Swing. If you’re up for it, be prepared. It’s huge! I personally opted for the smaller ledge swing in town which is more than enough to make a grown man scream his brains out.
Aside from the adrenaline-inducing activities around Queenstown there’s also a lot of good food! I’d recommend checking out Winnies if you’re in the mood for some good pizza, or Fergburger if you don’t mind waiting in line for one tasty burger.
I’ll Be Back!
New Zealand will forever hold a special place in my heart. The people were amazing, the scenery was breathtaking and it was impossible to be bored. It may not be the cheapest place on the planet, but it’s well worth the trip. I personally think a road trip from the North to South Island was the perfect opportunity to get an overall taste of the country for my first visit. I fully intend to head back.
Your gear list is probably going to vary depending on what activities you want to focus on. I packed my bags with a couple things in mind. I planned on taking a lot of photos, hiking, and swimming as much as possible. Here are a few things to remember:
- Camera gear
- Hiking boots (tip: clean them before you arrive in New Zealand, as customs will ask!)
- Rain jacket / essential outdoors clothing.
- Appetite for good wine
- Epic road trip playlist
Start And End Points
We flew into Auckland and drove down to Queenstown, which is where we flew out from.
Distance Driven / Time Spent Driving / Days
Auckland to Hamilton – 120km (1hr 30 min)
Hamilton to Hobbiton – 60km (50 min)
Hobbiton to Rotorua (Waiotapu) – 102km (1 hr 30 min)
Rotorua (Waiotapu) to Taupo – 52km (40 mins)
Taupo to Napier – 141km (2hrs)
Napier to Wellington – 322 km (4hr 9 min)
Ferry from Wellington to Picton (3.5 hr)
Picton to Abel Tasman National Park – 198km (2 hr 50 min)
Abel Tasman National Park to Greymouth –305km (4hr 4 min)
Greymouth to Franz Josef – 173km (2hr 15 min)
Franz Josef to Wanaka – 286km (3hr 45min)
Wanaka to Te Anau – 227km (2hr 55min)
Te Anau to Milford Sound (day trip) – 118km (1hr 42min) one way
Te Anau to Queenstown – 171km (2hr 7min)
More road trip inspo for ya…