By Sonia Narang
Road trips anywhere in the world can be a delightful escape. But, coasting along New Zealand’s fairly empty highways full of picture postcard views elevates road tripping to a whole new level.
Most long-haul international flights arrive into Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Spend a day or two exploring this cosmopolitan city, and then load up on provisions for your road trip adventure. My favorite place to grocery shop: New World, a popular New Zealand supermarket chain stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, gourmet cheeses, dairy products, and more.
New Zealand Adventure:
A Road Trip on the North and South Islands
North Island New Zealand Road Trip
Auckland to Whangarei Heads
From Auckland, drive north on State Highway 1, over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. As you drive further north along this toll road, you’ll notice the cityscapes transform into idyllic, green pastures and farmlands.
About half an hour north, take a short detour into the charming village of Puhoi, which means “slow water” in the indigenous Maori language. Book-lovers should not miss the cute little Puhoi Town Library, which closes super early, by 2pm most days. It’s housed in a small, century-old building that’s been flooded and restored many times since the library was established in 1923. Further down the road, stop for a cup of Devonshire tea at the historic Puhoi Cottage Tearoom.
I’ll admit my biggest New Zealand addiction is Puhoi Valley’s Real Belgian Chocolate Milk. As someone who is slightly obsessed with tall glasses of ice cold milk and rich chocolate, this was a dream come true. While you can find this chocolate milk on store shelves across New Zealand, you might as well try it at the source, so make a quick stop at the Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Shop.
After Puhoi, you’ll want to keep driving another 72 miles (116 kilometers) up State Highway 1 until you get to the city of Whangarei. While it doesn’t seem like that long a distance, roads in New Zealand are slow-going and narrow in sections, so it takes more time than you’d expect. There’s also a large New World supermarket in town, and it’s worth the stop to replenish your stash of food, especially if you’re doing a home stay or a BookABach (New Zealand’s version of Airbnb.)
The city of Whangarei itself doesn’t have too many sights aside from the lovely Whangarei Falls, but the surrounding, off-the-beaten-track areas are a real treat and mostly tourist-free. Here’s where the driving gets a bit trickier, and views get even more spectacular.
The winding drive west to the town of Parua Bay hugs the shimmering coastline, and takes you to the Parua Bay Tavern, the area’s best-known watering hole. Inside the historic tavern, enjoy piping hot pizzas, falafel burgers, and thick cut fries with homemade garlic aioli.
Where to Stay: From Parua Bay, it’s a 6-mile (10-kilometer) drive to the ultimate vacation retreat, Ara Roa Villa and Boutique Lodgings. These luxury mountainside and cliff-top homes have incredible panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and expansive rolling hills.
Each tastefully decorated private villa has its own modern style – such as the four-bedroom Cliff House overlooking the stunning deep blue coastal waters or the chic Aria apartment with a heated lap pool and outdoor deck for dining. There’s also the architectural wonder of the Glass House, complete with large floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The mountaintop two-bedroom home Te Huia, which means “Rare Bird” in Maori, is surrounded by 60 acres of sustainable farmland and walking trails.
Make the Ara Roa retreat your home base as you take road trips around this subtropical region, known as Whangarei Heads. Ara Roa even offers catering and a private in-house chef, who can cook meals at your boutique villa.
From here, my favorite scenic trip loops around much of the Whangarei Heads peninsula, passing idyllic beaches, volcanic peaks, forests, hidden coves, and walking trails galore. The best part: the roads are relatively quiet and you won’t run into the masses of tourists you’ll find in many other parts of New Zealand.
The drive south to McLeod Bay is a beautiful stretch of road, and passes Mount Manaia, a sacred mountain with a steep trail to the top.
The highlight of this road journey is a stop at Urquharts Bay, where an easy trail hike takes you up to a hilltop overlook, and then downhill to the photogenic beach at Smuggler’s Bay.
When you reach the water, you’ll likely find the entire pristine beach to yourself (and perhaps a few birds). There’s also a loop trail that navigates around Busby Head to the Smuggler’s Bay beach. This coastal forest area, known as the Bream Head Scenic Reserve, is a refuge for all kinds of New Zealand species, including the famous kiwi bird.
From Urquharts Bay, drive inland along the final stretch of road to Ocean Beach, a surfer’s paradise and ideal place for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. Drive back along the same road to Parua Bay for sunset drinks by the water.
South Island New Zealand Road Trip
Queenstown to Milford Sound
Start this trip in the lakefront town of Queenstown, a mecca for outdoor adventurers. Before heading out on the road, don’t miss a thrilling jet boat ride on the glorious waters of Lake Wakatipu. On K-Jet’s hour-long ride, you’ll race across the picturesque lake and two rivers while breathing in the clean crisp air and enjoying exhilarating 360-degree spins. Or, try the Shotover Jet ride for an even faster, and somewhat scarier ride with speeds of 50 miles an hour along a narrow stretch of river wedged between rocky canyons.
Where to Stay: Get a good night’s rest in Queenstown before you hit the road. For a luxurious private villa experience, try the newly opened Rees Lakeside Residences, overlooking Lake Wakatipu, with a private boat jetty for your very own K-Jet boat ride pick-up.
These three-bedroom residences are a home-away-from-home, complete with a full-service kitchen and a fridge stocked with gourmet food from the hotel chef. Villa guests even have their own 24-hour personal travel curator who takes care of all their arrangements, including champagne and chocolates upon arrival and a freshly baked loaf of bread daily.
For a boutique hotel experience, stay at the St. Moritz Hotel, full of old-world charm and a friendly, international team that attends to your every need. The comfortable lake and garden-view suites are spacious, with a classic alpine, ski lodge feel.
The hotel’s breakfast is a great way to start the day, complete with a customized egg menu, assortment of pastries, cereals, and other hearty dishes that fill you up before you start your journey south.
Make sure to stop at the bustling, and reasonably priced Four Square supermarket in town to load up on picnic foods, like gourmet cheeses, chocolate milk, breads, dips, and New Zealand wine.
The first leg of the road trip takes you south from Queenstown to the town of Te Anau, the gateway to the famous Milford Sound. Drive south along State Highway 6, a scenic road that borders Lake Wakatipu all the way south to the town of Kingston. Stop along the lake for gorgeous photo opportunities and a picnic lunch.
The drive then takes you west along State Highways 97 and 94 as you approach Te Anau, which borders Fiordland National Park. A quiet lakeside town, Te Anau primarily serves as an overnight stop for tourists making the pilgrimage to Milford Sound.
The western shore of Lake Te Anau is also home to an underground world of sparkling glowworms. Take a Real Journeys boat cruise across the peaceful lake to the caves, where a tour guide will lead you through the 12,000-year-old labyrinth of limestone passages. Deep inside the caves, you’ll board a small wooden boat to view the glowworms, which emit an incandescent twinkling blue light in complete darkness. Gliding along the water in silence is a mystical experience, and you can see hundreds of tiny blue glowworm lights shimmering above.
The next day, continue on your road trip from Te Anau all the way north to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. The beautiful 73-mile (118-kilometer) drive can take a few hours with all the scenic stops. I’d recommend driving directly to board the morning Milford Sound cruise, and then take scenic stops on the afternoon drive back to Te Anau.
A boat cruise on Milford Sound is an absolute must while in New Zealand, despite the extreme tourist crowds and package bus tours that crowd up the area. While there are many boat companies to choose from, I was lucky I picked a lesser-known company called Cruise Milford, with a smaller boat, fewer passengers, and friendly crew.
The two-hour cruise takes you across the calm waters of Milford Sound, a breathtaking fiord surrounded by majestic mountain peaks. The boat passes soft waterfalls cascading down massive cliffs, and it’s quite amazing to feel the spray of fresh glacial water. The hardest part is putting your camera down for a few minutes and just taking in all the glory.
After some delicious chocolate cake and snacks at the Milford Sound visitor’s center café (which closes at 4 p.m.), hit the road again for a memorable drive. Take it slow on the way back to Te Anau, making sure to stop anywhere you see a turnoff, pretty bridge, or any other view point you see. Click here for a handy map.
My favorite stops on the road from Milford Sound to Te Anau:
- Just 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the Milford Sound parking lot, definitely stop at The Chasm for an easy 20-minute stroll through the forest to a deep ravine full of sublime rock formations.
- Another 14 miles (22 kilometers) brings you to the Hollyford Valley Lookout for beautiful mountain views.
- In another 6 miles (10 kilometers), you’ll reach Lake Gunn, a serene lake featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- A few miles away is Cascade Creek, where you can take another short nature walk through a red beech forest and along the lake.
- Finally, there’s Mirror Lakes, where the water reflects a mirror image of the mountains on the other side of the valley.
Short South Island New Zealand Road Trip
Queenstown to Glenorchy
The 45-minute one-way road trip from Queenstown to Glenorchy is perhaps one of New Zealand’s best. The road curves alongside Lake Wakatipu for an incredibly scenic drive. Once you reach Glenorchy, you can photograph the awe-inspiring surroundings, famously depicted in films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia.
After driving around New Zealand’s North Island and South island, you’ll realize little can ever compare to the peaceful highways, pristine nature, and magical landscapes you’ve just experienced on your road trip adventure.
Guest Post by Sonia Narang
Sonia Narang is a California-based journalist and photographer who covers world cultures, travel, and more. On her travels, Sonia is always on the lookout for one-of-a-kind driving trips, tasty vegetarian food, and global music. A sweet tooth, Sonia once won a Japanese speech contest about her lifelong quest for the perfect cake.