New Zealand is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. The landscape is so stunning and unique, it is hard for the rest of the world to compete. And then there are the people. Kiwis are, by far, the nicest people I have ever met. The only downside to visiting New Zealand is that it is so far away. But that distance was a small price to pay for an epic New Zealand road trip that I took with a friend of mine from college.
There are many ways to see New Zealand. However, I do not recommend a 2-3 day stopover on your way to Australia. You will not be doing yourself any favors and you will be doing this wonderful country a disservice. If you are feeling adventurous, I recommend you take a New Zealand road trip.
My New Zealand road trip was mostly unplanned and full of spontaneity. Each night, my friend and I would look at the map and decide where to travel to the next day. Because it was shoulder season (April, which is fall in New Zealand), spontaneity worked well for us. However, there were a few nights we had trouble finding a place to stay. Thankfully, things always worked out in the end.
Below are the places we visited on our New Zealand road trip in a rental car named Hitch.
North Island Part I
We arrived in Auckland, like most, and picked up our rental car. First things first: learn to drive on the left side of the road from the right side of the car. Check. After some confusion about a turn lane, we found ourselves heading north to the Bay of Islands.
Bay of Islands
The land was stunning and very green. We got some rain (hence the green) and saw a wild red stag. We also stopped at the world famous toilet in Kawakawa since that is the stuff good road trips are made of.
We stayed in the beach-side town of Paihia and spent most of our time exploring. Beachcombing quickly became our standard mode of fun and adventure on this road trip. There are just SO many great beaches in New Zealand.
As lovely as the Bay of Islands is, we were on a road trip after all, so it was time to head back down south and see the rest of the country. We made plenty of stops along the way for food, fuel and photo opps. Our favorite food stops were for tasty meat pies, which our rental car guy recommended. They became a food staple for the rest of the road trip.
Rotorua was our next destination. This smelly spot is a must see and do. We learned all about Maori culture at the Whakarewarewa Living Village, visited the hot springs at the Polynesian Spa, explored the museum and rose garden, and learned all about doofers at BurgerFuel. All-in-all, it was a wonderful place to spend some time and money…although we never did get used to the smell.
From Rotorua, we headed to Waitomo (after some roadside stops to see ostriches and other wildlife). We opted to go blackwater rafting in the Waitomo caves. Basically, you float along in a tube through a pitch-black cave with a headlamp. Due to some recent rain, the water levels were high and swift. It was a bit more exciting than we were counting on. Thankfully, there some peaceful moments where we could turn off our headlamps, lean back and look up at the glowworms on the ceiling.
Down the road, we met up with a local to check out the Shearing Shed (his recommendation). We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. At the Shearing Shed, sheep shears are used to shave specially-bred Angora rabbits. It was one of the most fascinating and horrifying things I have ever witnessed. Thankfully, no rabbits are hurt. But the experience is not for the faint of heart and has been forever ingrained in my head.
One of our few planned activities was attending the wedding of a friend in Raglan. This laid-back town with its black sand beaches quickly became a favorite of mine. It was off the beaten path and very relaxing. And the wedding was a wonderful opportunity to see how the locals celebrate their big day. It was beautiful and the food was the best I had on the whole trip. When I return to New Zealand someday, Raglan will be at the top of my list.
Hamilton is a good-sized city that exceeded my expectations, probably because the V8s were taking place. Basically, the city turns into a giant racetrack and the cars can be heard all over the place. It was super unique and a fun surprise. However, even without the race cars, I enjoyed Hamilton. We took a long walk down the river, shopped for handmade shoes and attended a rugby game for the first time ever. Go Chiefs!
There were some random stops, like Paekakariki, on the way to Wellington. And Wellington itself is quite cute. However, our main purpose for visiting was to catch the ferry to the South Island, which takes about three hours.
We settled in Picton for our first night since that is where one disembarks the ferry. It is also the gateway to the South Island and a cute town. We met some wonderful locals here who shared their meal and told us interesting stories about New Zealand. I will always remember Picton fondly.
On the north coast of the South Island is Nelson, a fun little city. We did a little exploring and visited the ugliest cathedral I have ever seen. No lie. It was disappointing for sure, but some shopping and beachcombing made up for it. (Even at this point with dozens of beaches under our belt, I could not get enough of walking along the sand and exploring.)
Nelson is also home to one of the coolest beadshops ever. We saw some advertisements and figured it was just random enough to add to our road trip itinerary. Turns out, it was more than a random beadshop. We ended up spending a good chunk of time in the shop and picking up souvenirs for our friends and family.
More great beaches were found at our next destination: Punakaiki. It seemed as if every beach we visited had its own personality or vibe. This one was no exception. Near here was a unique geological feature called the Pancake Rocks. These rock formations were so interesting and the most interesting part is that scientists are not sure why they are formed like that. They were a perfect stop on our New Zealand road trip.
Continuing along the coast, the drive was breathtaking. Fall in New Zealand on the South Island is just like fall in Idaho. The leaves are changing and the air is crisp. It was pretty much perfect.
Franz Josef Glacier
One thing I love about New Zealand is that you can visit the beach and a glacier all in the same day. Franz Josef Glacier was everything a glacier should be: set in a beautiful location, kind of dirty, resulting in a river whose blue/green color that cannot be described. In short, it was amazing. It was also the first time I had seen a glacier, so I might be a little biased. But it made for an excellent New Zealand road trip memory.
Queenstown is a little hard to explain. It feels a bit like a resort town (the prices were certainly worthy of a resort town) and everyone seemed to be on the verge of doing something epic like heli-skiing or bungee jumping. It is a beautiful city, but it just did not hold a lot of appeal for us. Perhaps that was because we were on a simple road trip and not on the verge of doing something epic. Oh well. We did some shopping and ate at a pizza joint named Hell. I believe we ordered Gluttony.
Driving into the fjordlands was amazing (are you tired of hearing me say that yet?). Staggering mountains, changing leaves, jungle and snow? It was incredible. We passed many lakes, including Lake Gunn, that were as still and reflective as glass. And the trees and shadows made me think that this must be where the hobbits live.
To get to the Milford Sound, you have to drive through the mountain. What awaits you on the other side is a little slice of paradise. My photos do not do the views justice. When I think of New Zealand, I think of the fjordlands and I usually sigh.
If you are going to explore the fjordlands, Te Anau makes a decent homebase. Te Anau is a quaint town that feels a bit like a retirement community. We had bad luck with the Chinese food in this town, but the sunsets made up for it. Just make sure you spend some quality time walking along Te Anau Lake and you will be glad you stayed here.
We headed to Dunedon and the Otaga Penensula for one reason: to see penguins. Sadly, it was the wrong time of year (planning fail) and the penguins were all out to sea…or in Antarctica. We did visit the albatross colony and we are almost positive we saw one, so it was not a complete loss.
I loved Dunedon. It felt like a Scottish town, kind of gritty and mystical all at the same time. We did a lot of walking around and exploring. We also visited the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street. I’m not going to lie, that was anticlimactic.
Back up the coast, we made various pit stops including one in Christchurch. Nothing really stands out from this drive other than the gorgeous views. I know I sound like a broken record, but this country really is stunning.
After another night in Picton, we took the ferry back to the North Island through Queen Charlotte Sound. I recommend you do at least one leg during the day so that you can enjoy the views. (Note: the food on the ferry was not good, so be sure to bring snacks.)
North Island Part II
Napier is a beautiful beach-side town, although the beach is rubbish (according to one of the locals). It was mostly rocks and a strong undertow discourages swimming. Compared to all the other beaches we had visited, it was not the most impressive. We enjoyed walking it nonetheless and since we stayed in a place right on the beach, we enjoyed listening to the waves all night long.
Lake Taupo would have been more enjoyable had it not been raining. We tried to do some exploring, but the rain and fog were relentless. Unfortunately, poor weather is just one of those disappointments one must sometimes deal with when traveling. So we did our best to make the most of our time in Lake Taupo, but I know we did not see it at its best.
Thames and Coromandel
I have no idea why or how we ended up in Thames. But this sleepy little town was fun to walk around and treated us right for a night. It was also a jumping off point to explore Coromandel. We were very much off the beaten path at this point and I have no complaints about that. We found some great walking paths and I even got the chance to go swimming. Floating on my back in the warm ocean water, staring up at the blue sky is one my favorite moments from the trip. I remember feeling so relaxed and content. And happy.
Our last stop on our New Zealand road trip brought us full circle. We explored Auckland a bit before hopping back on a plane to head home. The city is large, so we were not able to do it justice before leaving. Oh well. I am not a big city person anyway, and I preferred spending my time out on those roads.
I was sad to go, but not sad to return home and drive on the right side of the road from the left side of my car.
There is so much to see and do in New Zealand. We did not see it all, but we managed to explore a good chunk of it from our trusty rental car, Hitch. If you are interested in exploring one of the most beautiful places on earth, I suggest you rent a car and head out on your own New Zealand road trip.