Touring the northern and southern islands of New Zealand for several weeks was one of our greatest travel dreams. I had been thinking about it for years, longing to set foot on our antipodes and get lost among spectacular landscapes and locations of the saga The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And sometimes dreams come true… This is our proposal for a wonderful 19-day route through New Zealand by car.
Incredible destination and almost essential for any nature and hiking lover, the kiwi country is even more beautiful in person than in pictures. Trust me and take a look for yourself. It’s fascinating! In addition, New Zealanders are some of the most relaxed, friendly, and friendly people you will ever meet.
New Zealand’s two islands are isolated about 1,200 miles southeast of Australia and are home to 4.5 million inhabitants in an area of more than 103,000 square miles. With not too big cities and vast expanses of almost untouched nature, it is easy to fall in love with the most untamed side of the country. Seeing it all in 3 weeks is impossible, so it’s going to be up to you to choose your destinations to visit.
Our 19-day New Zealand driving tour starts in the North Island, in Auckland, and goes down to the fjord region in the south of the South Island, ending in the vibrant city of Dunedin on the east coast. There will be many places that will be left out… but on this road trip, we suggest you will see almost all the most interesting places in New Zealand.
Day 1 and 2: Auckland
With more than 1 million inhabitants, Auckland is the most populated city and economic capital of New Zealand. This trip is the gateway to the country and we will spend 1 day and a half. Auckland is not the most beautiful city in New Zealand, but it is a good starting point with enough charm to entertain you for a couple of days.
What to see in Auckland
Although it is not the capital of New Zealand (it is Wellington), Auckland is the largest city in the country and one of the most vibrant. Facing the sea and with a myriad of parks built on volcanic cones, it has a unique cultural offer and a diverse and vibrant community.
On your first day in Auckland, you can take advantage of the afternoon to climb to the top of Mount Eden volcano, one of the 48 that are part of the volcanic field of the city. From the top, there are panoramic views of all of Auckland and its region, with some of the islands in the background.
On the second day in Auckland, we suggest a long walk that will take you to the peculiar Myers Park, along Queen Street, the Town Hall or the Civic Theatre. We continued on to the Auckland Art Gallery and Albert Park, with its Victorian houses and university buildings. Stroll a little more until you reach the spectacular Wynyard Quarter, next to the harbor and with a very modern design, plus excellent views of the skyline.
And in the afternoon you can visit Skytree and then pass by the Auckland Domain Park, where the City Museum and the Wintergarden, a set of two beautiful greenhouses are located.
Surely by sunset, you will be tired of touring the city. This will be a good time to look for a place to have dinner and enjoy the night in Auckland.
Keep in mind that in New Zealand there are many cultures and all of them are intermingled. All the peoples of the different continents have left their mark on New Zealand and its food.
New Zealand food is characterized by a mixture of flavors from Europe, Asia, Polynesia, and the Maori people, originally from New Zealand.
Getting around Auckland
Auckland’s city center is small enough to get around on foot. But if you don’t like walking as much as I do, don’t worry. They have a very efficient bus network.
Where to sleep in Auckland
In Auckland, there are as many places to sleep as you could want. For all budgets, for all tastes, and for all types of travelers. This trip through New Zealand by car is planned in low-cost mode, but without giving up some comforts. So we stayed at the Haka Lodge, a very cool downtown hostel with great private rooms that would rival any boutique hotel, but for a lot less money. Clean, modern, and very comfortable. I don’t think we could have asked for more. And if it happens to be full, well there are many more hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts in Auckland.
Where to rent a car in Auckland
- Auckland Airport: If you arrive by air, renting a car at Auckland Airport will be the best option. Remember that you can book it right now on this website, so, upon arrival, you go to the counter and pick it up, without complications. Click here to view what car rental companies are located at Auckland Airport.
- If you arrive in Auckland in any other way, in Auckland Downtown you have many branches to rent your car. Our recommendation is that if you are going to spend a couple of days in the city, do not rent your car as soon as you arrive at the airport; rent it in the afternoon or evening before leaving for the next road trip destination. Here is a ranking of the best car rental companies in New Zealand.
Day 3: Coromandel Peninsula
On our third day in New Zealand, we headed for the Coromandel Peninsula, a beautiful green lung surrounded by coastline where forests and white sandy beaches abound. We started the day at 7 am. Our driving tour of New Zealand began.
When you are on a tight schedule it is important to choose well what you are going to see or do. It is impossible to see everything, so I decided to concentrate the bulk of the route on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula with stops in Tairua and Cathedral Cove. The tide was high, so I had to leave Hot Water Beach for another time. We went deep into the wilderness to see some kauri (New Zealand’s oldest trees) and the Waiau Falls. We drove down the west coast and slept in Matamata.
Day 4: Matamata (Hobbiton) and Rotorua
What to visit in Matamata
The beautiful town of Matamata was put on the tourist map of New Zealand thanks to the filming of The Lord of the Rings saga and The Hobbit movies on a farm on the outskirts.
On the fourth day of our New Zealand driving tour, we propose you feel like a hobbit for a day in the fascinating Hobbiton, one of the magical places of this beautiful country. In high season it is advisable to book your entrance ticket in advance.
How to get from Matamata to Rotorua
At this point, and although Matamata and Rotorua are separated by only a 1-hour drive by State Hwy 5, we recommend you to take a little walk and visit Mount Maunganui, a quite unique volcano with excellent views, a nice beach and plenty of restaurants on the beachfront perfect for a bite to eat at any time of the day. From here getting to Rotorua is easy, just follow State Hwy 2 and State Hwy 33 for 1 hour.
What to visit in Rotorua
In addition to its incredible geothermal activity, Rotorua is known for its significant Maori presence. To learn more about the culture of the first settlers of New Zealand we recommend you book a guided tour with Mitai Maori Village to a Maori village with a local guide. It is well worth it.
Day 5: Lake Taupo
On the fifth day in New Zealand, we will leave Rotorua behind in the direction of Lake Taupo to continue the route by car through the country. But first, we stopped at one of the main geothermal attractions in the area: Wai-o-Tapu. It is one of the most impressive and colorful areas of volcanic activity in the whole country and we are sure you will like it. Perfect if you want to see geysers, thermal pools, and lots and lots of steam.
On the way to Lake Taupo, if you want, you can stop to see a couple of places where scenes from the saga of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have been filmed: the Aratiatia Rapids and Huka Falls, a true wonder of nature.
What to see in Lake Taupo
Taupo is known for its geothermal activity and for its huge lake, which is actually the crater of a large volcano. You can take a swim in an area of the river where hot springs flow… And then a ride on the Ernest Kemp boat on the lake to see the Maori engravings.
Day 6: Tongariro National Park – Tongariro Alpine Crossing
If you like hiking, you will love this visit. If you hate it, better move on to the next destination, although if you visit you won’t regret it.
Rated by many as one of the best one-day treks in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an incredible challenge, with each and every one of its ups and downs. This 12 miles (19.4 km) long hiking route crosses part of New Zealand’s oldest National Park, Tongariro National Park, and is full of wonderful photogenic corners, lava rivers, an active crater, steam vents, emerald lakes, and magnificent views combine to make this trek an unforgettable experience.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing hiking route can be done easily in about 8 hours but you need to be in good physical condition because some sections are somewhat complex.
For the way back, it is not necessary to walk back, there are local transport services. You can find a complete list here.
But before making this visit you need to know that:
- Weather conditions in this area can change quickly. Make sure you are well prepared before starting the hike.
- If you are traveling in winter, the trail is covered with snow and ice and it is highly recommended that you take a guided hike with qualified local guides.
- Visit the National Park Conservation Department website for more information or alerts.
Day 7 and 8: Wellington
The drive from Turangi to Wellington is long and can take between 4 and 6 hours, depending on the route you choose or the stops you make. Take it easy and enjoy the drive. The scenery is worth it.
After a long day of driving, you will arrive in Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. We recommend a day and a half, or 2, in Wellington to be able to visit it thoroughly and discover some of its most beautiful corners.
What to visit in Wellington
These are some of the things you should see and do in Wellington in a couple of days: walk around downtown, see urban art, visit the Weta Cave, enjoy the views from Mount Victoria and look for locations of The Lord of the Rings, stroll through the Botanical Garden and spend a few hours in the mythical Te Papa museum. As you will see, there are plenty of things to do in Wellington. Enjoy it!
Here are some of the must-do activities in Wellington:
- Visit the National Museum of New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa: If we had to advise you of only one activity to do in Wellington, without a doubt, this would be to visit this museum. There you could spend a whole day learning about the land, history, and culture of the country… In short, your visit is great to learn things about New Zealand and its inhabitants.
- Climb Mount Victoria and be amazed by its views: If you want to contemplate the city of Wellington from its best viewpoint, you can not fail to climb Mount Victoria. From there you can enjoy excellent 360º views. And on clear days you will be able to see the South Island without too much difficulty.
- Wellington Funicular: Another of Wellington’s most remarkable attractions is its famous funicular railway. These historic red carriages have been transporting Wellington’s citizens from Lambton Quay to the Botanic Gardens for more than 100 years. When it was built, it transported workers from the city center to the uptown, then emerging neighborhoods. Today it has become a tourist attraction, although many locals still use it as a means of transportation. Hop on and enjoy the view. The ticket costs 5NZD one way and 9NZD if you buy a round trip.
- Stroll through the city’s Botanical Garden or browse in the Space Place: And since you’ve made it all the way to the top, why not visit the Wellington Botanic Gardens? Although it is not one of the most beautiful we have visited, we recognize that it is beautiful. Especially for the views, you have from the top. There you will find a greenhouse, curious sculptures and much more. If you are interested in astronomy this is a place you can not miss on your visit to Wellington. It is located right next to the Botanical Garden of the city and is ideal if you are traveling with children. There they will be able to understand the beginning of the universe in a fun and interactive way, among many other things.
- Visit the Parliament of New Zealand: On your visit to Wellington, you can not miss the Parliament buildings, the legislative body of the country: the Parliament, the Beehive building, the Parliament Library, and Bowen House. Parliament stands out for its neoclassical architecture, while the Beehive, where the offices of the prime minister and cabinet ministers are located, stands out for its modernity. You can discover how the New Zealand government works by taking a free guided tour of three of the four buildings.
- Visit Cuba Street: It is the most vibrant street in Wellington, the coolest and most colorful. This is where most locals meet for drinks, dinner… You will find beautiful historic buildings and many interesting bars and stores. Part of the street is closed to traffic, so stroll freely and enjoy.
- Strolling along the Wellington Waterfront: Another essential activity to do in Wellington is to walk along the Waterfront. It is a very popular place for locals to stroll or play sports. So feel like one of them and go for a stroll while enjoying the views.
- Visit Clyde Quay Boatsheds: One of Wellington’s most picturesque sights is the boathouses that line the harbor at Clyde Quay. Take a sunset walk along the promenade just in front and enjoy the sea breeze.
- Climb Mount Kaukau: If you are looking for something different to do in Wellington you can venture to climb the most characteristic mountain of the city. Partly because it is home to the 122-meter high television tower. The top of Mount Kaukau is 445 meters above sea level. In general, the 4 kilometers of ascent are quite steep but then the views are a great reward for the effort.
Getting around Wellington
The city of Wellington is very easy to get around on foot. But to go to places a bit far from the center such as the Botanical Gardens or the Weta studios you can take a local bus or Wellington Funicular.
Day 9: Crossing from the north island to the south island
On the ninth day of your 19-day New Zealand driving tour, it’s time to cross from Wellington to Picton on the South Island by ferry.
How to cross from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand
There are two ferry companies that make the crossing from the North Island to the South Island of New Zealand: Interislander and Bluebridge. Both cover the Wellington-Picton route, crossing the Cook Strait in a couple of hours. Prices are similar, so choose the one with the schedule that best suits you. We recommend booking in advance in the high season to avoid being stranded.
Day 10: Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park
On the tenth day, we will visit Abel Tasman National Park, where its enchanting beaches fill the spaces between the trees and the tide line. Crystalline streams flow down mossy valleys to join the ocean. Granite and marble formations line the headlands, which are covered with regenerating native forests.
At Te Pukatea Bay, a perfect crescent of golden sand, a trail leads to Cape Pitt to the site of an ancient Maori pa (fortification). Terraces and food storage pits can still be seen, and it is easy to understand why this location was chosen as a defensive site as the views are expansive.
The native flora and fauna are a fundamental part of the landscape. The song of the tui and bellbird fills the forest; cormorants, gannets, and little blue penguins dive for their dinner; sea lions relax on the rocks around the edge of Tonga Island.
How to get to the park
The park can be reached from Golden Bay and Totaranui from the north, or if you are coming from the south, it can be accessed from Marahau and Kaiteriteri. Most water cab services depart from Marahau or Kaiteriteri and travel only as far as Totaranui in the north.
How to visit the park
There are two ways to visit the park; it is customary to rent kayaks and visit it by sailing along its beautiful beaches, or by hiking. If the weather is good you can do it all. So you can paddle for a while with the kayaks, then discover its postcard corners and walking trails, and then you can take a boat trip with Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles.
Day 11: West Coast – Pancake Rocks and Hokitika
With only 19 days to see the two islands, it is impossible to see everything, so we propose to go down the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
What to see on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand
The first part of our route along the west coast of the south island of the country will take you to the peculiar rock formations of the Pancake Rocks. And then, bordering a wild sea, to Hokitika, where you can have a look at Hokitika Gorge and swim in Lake Kaniere.
How to get around the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand
The roads on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand are in good condition and well signposted. However, be cautious and refuel whenever you can because gas stations are scarce. And you don’t want to drive thinking that at any moment you are going to be stranded. This is what one who went through the experience tells you.
Day 12: West Coast – Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier, and Blue Pools
On the twelfth day of our driving tour in New Zealand, we visited the glacier area. As time is short, we do not think you will have time to visit more than one of them, but these two are recommended: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier.
What to see in Fox Glacier
The only way to step on the ice of the fragile New Zealand glaciers is to hire one of the helicopter tours that drop you on the icy mass. If your budget allows, do it. But for lower budgets, we recommend following the marked route on foot. The glacier itself, seen from the viewpoint, is not too spectacular… What is spectacular is to see how climate change has made it retreat alarmingly. It is quite desolate.
What to see in Franz Josef Glacier
The glacier is located about five kilometers from the town of the same name. From the parking lot in the glacier area, you can hike to several observation points to get a more extensive view of this wonderful river of ice.
If you really want to touch the glacier, you can take a guided walk on the ice or a helicopter tour if your budget allows. The panoramic views from the air are amazing.
What to see at the Blue Pools
The Blue Pools, on the way to Wanaka, are the ideal place to cool off if you travel to New Zealand in summer. It is a place of great beauty and the intense blue of the water is very beautiful.
How to get from the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island to Wanaka
There are not many gas stations on this stretch of road. Be cautious and refuel whenever you can if you don’t want to be stranded on the road shoulder.
Day 13: Wanaka
The Wanaka area in Otago is sure to be one of your favorites in New Zealand.
What to see and do in Wanaka
Wanaka is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand for adventure sports. You can also climb Mount Iron to enjoy the views, stroll through the town, walk along the lake and photograph the wonderful “Wanaka tree”. You won’t get bored.
Getting around Wanaka
The small town of Wanaka is very friendly. You will be able to walk almost anywhere because the distances are small. If you don’t want to walk, you can always rent a bike to explore the area.
Day 14: Arrowtown and Queenstown
Our driving route through New Zealand continued south. On the way, we recommend a stop in Arrowtown before reaching the final destination of the day, Queenstown, the adventure sports capital of the country.
What to see in Arrowtown
Picturesque Arrowtown looks like it has been frozen in time. Its wooden buildings and a Chinese village are testimony to the importance of this corner of New Zealand during the local “Gold Rush”. It’s easy to feel a bit like you’re in the Wild West. I’m sure you will like it. But you have to continue your way to Queenstown.
What to see in Queenstown
Here is this video travel guide to visit Queenstown
Queenstown, much more touristy than Wanaka, also has breathtaking scenery, a beautiful lake, and is known for being the adventure sports capital of New Zealand. On your first afternoon here you can visit the city, or take a tour of scenes from the movie The Lord of the Rings with Nomad Safaris, and then climb to the heights with the gondola and fall in love with the views.
Day 15: Te Anau, Fiordland, and Milford Sound
The landscapes of Fiordland National Park are a World Heritage Site, and no wonder. Carved by glaciers for more than 100,000 years, here waterfalls cascade into the fjord, virgin forests speckle the landscape with green and the great peaks make you feel tiny. It’s a bit far from everything… But it’s well worth seeing.
What to see in Milford Sound
Milford Sound is nature in its purest form. A spectacular fjord where you will feel the force of nature like never before. Located on the west coast of the South Island, Milford Sound is a fusion of spectacular natural features and stunning visual details in every corner.
Milford Sound was carved by glaciers during the Ice Age. Milford Sound is breathtaking in any weather. The fjord’s cliffs rise vertically from the dark waters, mountain peaks scratch the sky, and water cascades down in waterfalls, some as high as 1,000 meters. When it rains in Milford Sound, which happens frequently, the waterfalls multiply and take on a magnificent effect.
Boat trips, day or night, are an excellent way to experience the place. More adventurous people might also like to go kayaking, scuba diving, or scenic flights. To learn more about the local marine life, visit the Harrison Cove underwater observatory and marvel at the black coral, 11-legged starfish, and delicate anemones.
How to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown.
There are two ways to make this journey:
- By car: The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is approximately 200 miles (288 km), about 3 h 40 min. You have to take into account that the round trip is more than 7 hours driving.
- Day Tour: If you don’t feel like driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound, there are transportation companies that make this trip. Among the companies that offer this tour is Jucy Cruise, which offers a pre-dawn departure. Perfect to make the most of the day. The trip takes about 12 hours by coach and cruise and costs about $200 NZD for adults and less than $75 NZD for children.
Day 16: Clyde
It’s time to leave Queenstown and head to the next destination: Clyde. My 19-day New Zealand driving route continues to Central Otago, a somewhat arid region where ochre tones and rock formations take center stage. The trip is a short, one-hour drive, 53 miles (85 km) along State Hwy 6 and State Hwy 8.
Clyde is a peaceful town that, at some point, lived its particular “Gold Rush”. Today it is the perfect place to rest, take a breath of fresh air and discover one of the least exploited tourist spots in New Zealand.
On the way to Clyde, stop by towns like Alexandra, Ophir, or Cromwell.
What to see and do in Central Otago
One of the best ways to fall in love with Central Otago’s landscapes is to rent a bicycle and ride along the old train tracks that crossed the area, now converted into a greenway. You will go through tunnels, cross bridges and you will love it. If you have more time, you can also walk the Otago Central Rail Trail.
Day 17: Lake Tekapo – Lake Pukaki – Oamaru – Moeraki Boulders
The penultimate day of my driving trip in New Zealand will be spent driving for many hours on the road, around 370 miles (600 km), driving north to Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, and then south again, to visit Oamaru, Moeraki Boulders, and finally arrive in Dunedin. Although it is a bit tiring, if you like to see beautiful scenery, follow my steps and join me in the Canterbury and Otago regions.
What to see in Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki
Looking for turquoise lakes? None more beautiful than Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. They are very close to each other. Fall in love with the fragrance and colors of the flowers, the views of Mount Cook, and the untamed landscape. If I had had more days to travel around New Zealand I would have saved them to do some hiking in the area.
What to see in Oamaru
Back from the lakes, go down the east coast of New Zealand, and stop in Oamaru, to contemplate the Victorian styles of the Steampunk capital of the country. This town has a very well preserved Victorian architecture and converted into design stores, bookstores, cafes, and more, very beautiful.
What to see at the Moeraki Boulders
Following the route by car through New Zealand we stopped to see the Moeraki Boulders. These huge spherical stones are on a secluded beach and I was a little disappointed. Probably because I imagined them bigger. But seriously, stop and judge for yourself.
Once in Dunedin, we will no longer use our rental car, so if you wish, you can return it.
Day 18: Dunedin
Dunedin is one of the largest cities in the South Island of New Zealand and the University city par excellence of this island.
It is very different from any other in this country as it offers much more European architecture. Take the opportunity to discover the very interesting urban art in Dunedin, to visit its beautiful train station, browse the stores in The Octagon, stroll through the center, go to the campus of the University of Otago. You won’t be able to do much more in one day. But you’ll like it.
But not only architecture you will enjoy in Dunedin, but you will also find urban art in the form of graffiti and a very university atmosphere that gives this city a modern, fresh and youthful air despite being one of those few cities with historical air.
Day 19: Return Home
Dunedin airport currently has no international flights but connects to all major airports in the country (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington o Queenstown). You will have no problem finding flight combinations to get back home.
Which is better, renting a car or a motorhome to discover New Zealand?
Rent a Car in New Zealand.
Although public transport in New Zealand is not bad, what is very clear is that if you want to get lost in its spectacular nature and go at your own pace, renting a car is the best option. Whether you rent a car or a motorhome (a super popular option that will allow you to sleep in dreamlike landscapes) there are countless car rental agencies in New Zealand. Do you want to know what are the best car rental companies in New Zealand?
This is the route we suggest around New Zealand, and as we have mentioned above, it is organized from north to south, but you can do it from south to north, just go through the sections you want, or take ideas and plan your own route. You will be able to do many activities to enjoy nature, but you can also visit some of the most important cities on both islands.
So, Car or motorhome to discover New Zealand? Well, it depends. Many travelers have toured New Zealand by motorhome or campervan and rave about the freedom and the experience. Keep in mind that this is a one-way road trip, and it might be a bit difficult to rent a campervan on the North Island and return it to the South Island.
However, if you want to get into mountain routes and reach places where a car is more agile than a campervan, a large, spacious, and comfortable vehicle would be the most suitable. In addition, you will also have the freedom to park it quietly in any city without too many space problems. The vehicle we recommend is a 4WD SUV with automatic transmission.
In any case, before booking a rental car in New Zealand do as with flights. Search, compare, and book the one you are most interested in.
Driving in New Zealand
Driving in New Zealand is not difficult at all. What could potentially be more complicated?
– In New Zealand, you drive on the left side of the road. If you have never driven on the left, don’t be afraid, drive with caution.
– If you are renting and driving a car with automatic transmission for the first time, as with driving on the left, take it easy, familiarize yourself with the vehicle and drive with caution.
TIP: get an international driver’s license before starting your trip to New Zealand. If not, you will have to pay to have it done at the offices of the car rental agency.
What is the best time of year to travel to New Zealand?
Well, it depends. If you want to ski and see snowy landscapes, you should visit New Zealand during its winter (June, July, and August). Its spring has a variable and changeable climate but it is a more or less safe bet if you want to avoid the overcrowding of summer. I traveled to New Zealand in November, in the middle of spring, and maybe I was very lucky… or not, but I had great weather all the time (and no, not because it was much better than in Scotland, that’s easy).
The New Zealand summer is the ideal time to enjoy the fantastic beaches of the North Island and to go hiking. But it is also the most crowded, the most difficult to find good deals and the most expensive time to book any accommodation or rental car. In contrast, the Kiwi autumn can also be a good excuse to travel to New Zealand. The country stands out for its lush nature… so imagine seeing it with the typical colors of the season.
Depending on what you want to do, choose one season or another. And don’t get complicated, you will like it whenever you go.
Unless you are traveling in the high season, you will have no problem finding accommodation or activities. However, if there is a hotel, accommodation, or activity that you are particularly looking forward to, book in advance.