In my opinion, one of the best ways to discover New Zealand is taking a road trip around the country. Well, two road trips: One around the North Island, and another around the South Island.
New Zealand embodies the old Tolkien saying about the journey being more important than the destination, which makes sense, given that “Lord of the Rings” was filmed here. While you can do a fair bit of sightseeing without your own set of wheels, being able to stop and start as you please is essential to getting the full New Zealand experience.
Over the next few paragraphs, I’ll go into greater detail about how you can plan your road trip around New Zealand, including how many days you’ll need, where you should go and other logistics. We’ve got a lot to talk about, however, so let’s get started.
How Long Does It Take to Drive Around New Zealand?
Once you’ve booked your flights to New Zealand, you need need to be realistic about how much you can see on a road trip around New Zealand over any given length of time. While New Zealand looks small on a map, the distances in the country are very large. Here are a few examples:
- Auckland to Taupo: 275 km/3.5 hours
- Rotorua to New Chums Beach: 225 km/3 hours
- Christchurch to Tekapo: 225 km/3 hours
- Queenstown to Milford Sound: 300 km/4 hours
- Franz Josef to Punakaiki: 225 km/3 hours
Another suggestion is to travel light, in spite of the fact that you will have a vehicle and not necessarily need to neatly repack each night. In fact, I actually used the trunk of my rental car as something close to a second closet, laying out my clothes so that they could air out (and the wrinkles could relax out!), and only bring the clothing I planned to wear for the next day into a given hotel.
Where to Go on Your NZ Road Trip
Leaving back New Zealand’s underrated capital (and lovely Waiheke island, which is probably the best place near it), I recommend heading first to Lake Taupo. While the lake itself is nothing compared to those you’ll see in the south, Taupo is the best base for trekking along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is probably my favorite one-day hike in New Zealand, and a great place to begin getting a taste of the North Island.
From Taupo you can read to Rotorua (which, in my opinion, is quite disappointing), but quickly head north from there. Specifically, you’ll want to set your GPS for New Chums Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, which was probably the most gorgeous place I visited on the North Island portion of my road trip around New Zealand.
Whether you travel between New Zealand’s islands with a flight from Auckland, or drive south from Wellington and catch a ferry, Tekapo is my pick for your first major destination of the South Island. Even if you can’t visit here in summer, when pink and purple lupines perfectly contrast with the fluorescent waters of the lake, this is a standout destination.
Continue your road trip around New Zealand by making your way to the adventure hub of Queenstown—there are many ways to do this. I went from Tekapo to Aoraki/Mt. Cook, then headed down through Wanaka, where I would later return to skydive. If you’re shorter on time, however, you might simply head directly from Tekapo to Queenstown.
Upon finishing in Queenstown (and the sort-of nearby Milford Sound), head north toward Franz Josef Glacier. Whether or not you continue all the way up to Punakaiki is up to you, but I definitely recommend spending some time in underrated Christchurch before you leave the South Island behind.
North Island vs. South Island
On the surface, the South Island of New Zealand is far more impressive than the north. From the dramatic beauty of the Southern Alps and the various lakes that sit between them, to bountiful opportunities for adventure tourism, the South Island is the place that corresponds closely with most peoples’ assumptions about New Zealand. This does not mean, however, that the North Island is not worth visiting.
Overall, if you can, I would recommend that your New Zealand road trip visit both islands, even if your time on one or the other ends up being truncated. With this being said, if it’s a choice between the North Island or South Island, I would probably prioritize the South Island. You can always return to the North Island in the future and, using the benefit of hindsight, decide whether or not it was the right call.
Other FAQ About Taking a Road Trip Around New Zealand
How many days to road trip New Zealand?
If you want to see both the North Island and the South Island, I’d recommend spending a minimum of two weeks in New Zealand. This will give you a couple of days to get your bearings in Auckland, followed by 4-5 days to drive around the North Island. You’ll then have an entire week for your South Island road trip, which is really the shortest amount of time in which you can see it.
Which month is best for a New Zealand road trip?
Personally, I love road-tripping in the New Zealand summer, which takes places during the months of December, January and February. However, many travelers love the vibrant colors of autumn (especially in April) and the slight chill in the air as spring flowers bloom in October and November. Ultimately, the best time to take a New Zealand road trip is the time you have available!
Is driving difficult in New Zealand?
Driving in New Zealand is extremely easy, even if you’re from the US, Canada or Europe, and are accustomed to driving on the “other side” of the road. In fact, in some parts of the South Island, you may go quite a while without seeing other drivers (i.e. no traffic), which makes the experience even more relaxing and enjoyable.
The Bottom Line
There’s never a bad time to start thinking about taking a road trip around New Zealand. The devil, as it always is, is in the details. Do you focus on your energy on exploring one of New Zealand’s two main islands, or do you split your itinerary and choose a smattering of treasures from both the North and South? While conventional wisdom suggests that the South Island is more beautiful, I would encourage you not to write off the North, particularly if you’ve got time enough—say, two weeks in total—to see both. Of course, no matter how you decide to explore New Zealand, one thing is for certain: Your next trip there won’t be your last!