Exploring New Zealand by car

“Australia? That’s near New Zealand, isn’t it?”

I was asked this question in the USA several decades ago. At first I laughed but then I realised the speaker saw NZ as a great travel destination and Australia as merely a big blob to the west. Of course, Australian tourism has taken off since then, (thanks, Hoges!) but New Zealand remains one of the world’s most desirable travel destinations.

Our near neighbour holds little to fear for even the most timid traveller. Apart from a few flattened vowels, we have a common language, and our cultures and heritage are very similar. Even our phones work across the ditch, at least on many networks.

On the road
Driving in New Zealand is both easy and rewarding. The highlights extend from the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island to Milford Sound at the bottom of the South Island. And although New Zealand is relatively small, that’s still about a 2300 km drive — with a ferry in the middle.

Renting a car is also easy, though, particularly in the summer months, you may prefer the freedom of a camper van. There are several companies that rent campers including Britz, as well as a choice of rental car companies, such as locally owned Omega.

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Exploring the fiords of Milford Sound is a truly majestic experience

South Island
Many of New Zealand's grand highlights are found here and the challenge will be deciding what to leave out. Milford Sound, with the stark pyramid of Mitre Peak, is a fitting goal as it’s the end of the road and you have to take to the water — or a helicopter — to explore further.

Christchurch is a remarkable city making a comeback from its recent earthquakes. Take a drive out onto the glorious Banks Peninsula, aiming for quaint Akaroa and take a cruise out into the harbour to swim with rare dusky dolphins.

A good driving loop to take from Christchurch is to the west coast via Arthur’s Pass then heading south. The west coast weather is notoriously fickle, tending to rain, but it’s worth waiting for a sunny day, especially around the Franz Josef Glacier and the beautiful drive up to the Fox Glacier. Take a detour out to Lake Matheson for great reflections of Aoraki/Mount Cook. Continuing south to Haast, the road turns inland and weaves around Mount Aspiring to Wanaka, the outdoor town for the Treble Cone and Cardrona ski fields.

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Aoraki/Mount Cook is the centrepiece of the Southern Alps, surrounded by a protected national park area

There’s a bit of backtracking required in this area. Continue on to Aoraki/Mount Cook, the nation’s highest peak and part of the whole spectacular Southern Alps. Coming back through Wanaka, take the back road through Arrowtown and Cardrona on the way to Queenstown as it offers beautiful scenery in all seasons.

The adventure capital of New Zealand is definitely Queenstown and it has become increasingly sophisticated over the decades. Wine tours, Lord of the Rings location tours, and the iconic 1912 TSS Earnslaw steamship on Lake Wakatipu are some of the draw cards. One of the great drives is along the lake to Glenorchy, passing through Paradise on the way. The switchback road to The Remarkables provides great views across the valley, town and lake as you watch aircraft landing below you.

Dunedin is going through a dramatic urban revival that makes this university city with strong Scottish origins well worth a visit. The drive along Otago Harbour to the Albatross Centre at Harington Point is spectacular — make sure to stop at the unique and rumoured to be haunted, gothic Larnach Castle on the way.

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A great scenic drive is the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu

The drive between Christchurch and the ferry to the North Island from Picton passes through the Marlborough region, best know for its excellent wines. The Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand’s several great walks or stop in Blenheim to visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre to see Sir Peter Jackson’s WWI aircraft collection.

North Island
As the capital, Wellington has several impressive national buildings including the Parliament building, known locally as the Beehive. It also has a fun waterfront and a vibrant cultural scene around bohemian Cuba Street, but the highlight is a visit to Te Papa, the national museum.

There are a few driving options heading north. You can turn west towards New Plymouth and the perfect cone of Mount Taranaki (also known as Mount Egmont). Or travel east to the beautiful Art Deco town of Napier that was extensively rebuilt after a 1931 earthquake. The main road goes up the middle past Mount Ruapehu to Lake Taupo and onwards to the geothermal region of Rotorua.

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Kuirau Park in Rotorua is a perfect stopover on your drive, with bubbling mud pools and traditional Maori sites

The east coast areas of the Coromandel Peninsula, and around Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty, are often overlooked as good holiday destinations but are well worth the drive. Auckland is the largest city and has a lot to see and do.

Everywhere north of Auckland is simply Northland. For most of us the goal is the Bay of Islands — and there are 140 of them. It’s a place where you really have to get onto the water, perhaps with a fishing rod in hand, to properly appreciate it. The warmth of summer brings the crowds so it may be best visited between February and April when the crowds have cleared and the weather is settled.

The only way to access the lighthouse at Cape Reinga is to walk the last kilometre or so. From this headland, the view is of the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific Ocean in boisterous confusion. It’s the Maori belief that this place is where souls depart for their spiritual homeland of Polynesia. It’s a fitting end to a grand journey.

Have you explored New Zealand? What were your highlights?

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Image credits: Miles Holden, Adrian Hodge, Rob Suisted.

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