Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Thu April 28 2016

An Epic New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

Features & Advice | Shannon Ullman | April 28, 2016

An Epic New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

PHOTO: Queenstown, NZ. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It may not be the biggest country, but New Zealand has a lot to see. While every road tripper starts their journey from a different location and takes a unique route, I want to share the one that I chose for my recent three-month jaunt around the country. Starting from Auckland, completing a loop and returning back there to finish up, here is the route that served me well and can be just as useful for your trip too.


One of the easiest places to buy or rent a campervan and home to the international airport, Auckland is typically the starting point for most road trips. While visiting this city, check out:

• Ponsonby Road for craft beer, coffee, live music and trendy boutiques

• K-Road for thrift shops, dive bars and lots of international dishes

• The Sky Tower for dining with a view or bungee jumping

• The Auckland Domain for a picnic in the grass or a walk through the greenhouses

• The waterfront for parks and views

READ MORE: How To Prepare For A New Zealand Campervan Road Trip

Bay of Islands

Heading north of Auckland is the Bay of Islands, known for its water excursions, sunny weather and history. While there you can:

• Go kayaking around the bay

• Take a boat tour around the bay

• Visit the island of Russell and its museum

• Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds


Head back down to the Coromandel, a large piece of land jutting out into the water, nearly parallel to Auckland. It’s known for its beaches, coastal views and quirky towns. The best sights to see there:

• Hot Water Beach, where you can dig your own hot tub right in the thermal sands

• Cathedral Cove, a secluded beach with impressive rock formations and bright blue water

• Paeroa, the town with the largest L&P soda bottle in the country (NZ’s favorite drink!)

• Thames, an old timey town with cafes and shops


Famous for its abundance of glowworms, this place is typically a tourist must-see and is well worth the hype. There are multiple tour companies that offer everything from tubing and zip lining to rock climbing and boat cruising down the cave rivers. No matter which tour you choose, you will get plenty of time to see the glowworms light up the cave ceilings like the night sky.


This national park and mountain are well known from their debut in the “Lord of The Rings” film. Many visitors decide to do the hike throughout the volcanic landscape of the park, taking anywhere from 6-8 hours. Trekkers will see thermal pools, stunning views and the infamous Mt. Doom from LOTR.


New Zealand’s quirkier city, Wellington is well known for its arts, youth culture and innovative vibes. While spending time in this city make sure to check out:

• Cuba Street for shops, bars and restaurants

• The Te Papa Museum

• The Wellington Chocolate Factory

• Six Barrel Soda Co. to taste-test craft sodas

• The Weta Workshop, to tour the facilities where many movie props are made (especially ones from “Lord Of The Rings”)


The first city stop on the south island, Nelson is full of quirky surprises. Aside from its unique businesses and artsy atmosphere, Nelson is also a hotspot for breweries and hops growing. While there, try to:

• Visit Mac’s Brew pub (a NZ made beer)

• Find the Elf Cafe, the nearly hidden shop that turns into a hobbit themed cafe in the back

• Tour around the hops growing areas


Abel Tasman National Park

It’s known for its beauty and the thing to do there is either kayak or hike. There are tour companies all over the area that will help you obtain kayaks, take you on guided kayaking tours or arrange for a kayak and hike combo. You will get to see the seal colony there too!


Literally pulling themselves up from the rubble, Christchurch is making a visible comeback from their 2011 earthquake. The city is full of street art, interesting construction and places to eat despite its rebuild. While there, check out:

• The art murals all around the downtown center

• The RE: Start shopping center made of re-used shipping containers and also home to a range of food trucks

• The Saturday morning farmer’s market at Riccarton House

• The Twisted Hop restaurant for locally made beer

Arthur’s Pass

Driving through this national park will give you some of the country’s best natural sites. Make sure to stop off to take some of the short hikes and give Castle Hill a visit to reenact scenes from “Lord of The Rings.”

Franz Josef

Famous for its glacier, Franz Josef is a small town that caters to tourists looking to get a glimpse of the icy wonder. You can pay to take a helicopter up and hike on it or save your money to do the free walk that takes you to the base.


It’s a resort town with a laid back vibe. People here are hanging out by the lake, eating at the abundance of restaurants or hiking around Mt. Aspiring National Park.


An epicenter for adventure sports, Queenstown is the base for adrenaline junkies. During the summer, visitors typically try bungee jumping, mountain swings and jet boats while the winter guests opt for snowboarding and skiing.

Fiordland National Park

It’s an absolutely massive national park filled with forest and hiking trails. The most popular thing to see is Milford Sound, a waterway filled with falls and seal colonies. Take a boat ride if you want to see it from the best angle.


The city doesn’t have much but the Southern Scenic Route that it’s on is, well, scenic. Drive along the route, stopping off at whatever little town sparks your interest and stop in at the Invercargill Brewery for a local beer.


This college town is full of street art and you can take your own walking tour to check out the selection. It is also home to Speights, one of New Zealand’s most famous beers. Have a pint and a meal in the brewpub or head next door for a tour of the brewery.


It’s the place to hunt for penguins. Stop along the coast in Katiki to try and spot them. You can also see the Moeraki boulders, a stretch of oddly round rocks on the beach.

Mt. Cook

One of New Zealand’s most stunning mountains, Mt. Cook is a favorite for seasoned hikers. While there are more tame trails for the less experienced, the terrain can get pretty difficult. One of the most popular hikes is the trek to Mueller’s Hut, a seven-hour round trip hike that is broken up by an overnight stay on the mountain.


It has coastal beauty but also offers up some of the best chances for wildlife interaction. You can see seals and penguins lounging on the rocks and can head out into the water for whale watching or dolphin swimming.

Marlborough Sounds

It’s the heart of NZ’s wine country and has a well-marked route for finding interesting wineries. Book onto a bicycle tour that will take you around to a handful of wineries for tastings.


It’s the country’s largest lake and an epicenter for water sports. The town is set up as a resort so you will find plenty of beer and delicious food for when you want to take a break from the water.


This geothermal town smells of sulfur and is full of white smoke coming out of the mountains, rivers and ground. Stop by some of the thermal parks to see the boiling mud, check out the geysers or visit the Tamaki Maori village to learn about culture and try a traditional meal.

READ MORE: Hop Onboard and Travel New Zealand by Train


This is where the Hobbiton movie set can be found. It’s a top attraction for tourists, even those who haven’t even seen the film. Visitors get to tour the set, learn about the making of the film and drink a free pint of beer in the bar at the end.


Head back to Auckland, your base for returning/selling the campervan and the best point to fly onward to your next destination.

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