I had the distinct and great pleasure of spending 22 days driving all around New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Here’s my guide to making the most of your time is this phenomenally beautiful country!
Here’s the essential information you need to know before setting out on your road trip around New Zealand. If you’re looking for tips on how to plan your road trip, check out my post on how to do just that, by clicking here!
In New Zealand they drive on the left hand side of the road which was handy for me, because it’s the same side as Ireland! There are little or no dual-carriageways or motorways (highways) so it helps if you’re used to driving on smaller roads. The roads may be relatively small, but they are generally in great condition, particularly the main routes. There is also a large network of unpaved roads. These are generally on South Island and are in, pardon the pun, off the beaten track areas. They are well sign-posted and are by no means essential. For what they are, they are also in great condition!
When it comes to the car, there are multitudes of car rental companies that offer competitive rates. I went with a Compact Car (Toyota Corolla or similar) from Thrifty Car Rental and it cost a total of € 754 for the 22 days. This included every possible type of insurance as well as my ferry ticket from Wellington on North Island to Picton on South Island. I collected one car for North Island in Auckland and returned it in Wellington. I boarded the ferry as a foot passenger and picked up my second car in Picton, returning it to the airport in Christchurch.
Driving around was quite an enjoyable experience! I love driving! There were amazing sights to see pretty much everywhere! However… Road trips are popular in New Zealand, as is camping. There were loads of camper vans around, both owned and rented. They are a wonderful way to see the country on a budget, but they are by nature slower than cars, especially when it comes to steep hills. To be honest I found them a little frustrating at times because of this and because the drivers in some cases didn’t consider other road users when driving. The Kiwis themselves are very considerate drivers. Any larger vehicles such as lorries (trucks), buses, tractors, etc all pulled in to allow traffic to pass when the opportunity allowed (there are plenty of lay-bys for just this purpose).
The roads did get a little slippy when it rained (and boy when it rains in New Zealand, it doesn’t do it by halves!), but this is totally normal. You do need to be more mindful of it when negotiating the tighter bends, steeper slopes and narrower/unpaved roads. Be aware too that road closures can happen if there are land/mud slips that can happen in the more mountainous areas. Roads can also be closed due to damage from seismic activity and the resulting damage. These can range from a mild inconvenience to a major headache. For example if a main road in the West Coast area of South Island is blocked, it can literally a two DAY drive to get around the problem. This type of closure is rare though.
There are loads of options for places to stay. You could go down the camper van route if you wish. Be aware though it is illegal to park and overnight them in most places. You will need to be sure you use a designated camping/camper van area. The same goes for camping. As New Zealand is a popular destination for backpackers, there are ample amounts of hostels to stay in too! These are certainly good options if you’re on a budget.
I have a few Notions (surprise, surprise!), so I decided to go with none of these sensible or cost saving options. I used three types of accommodation, hotels/motels, AirBnBs and staying with friends/family. Most of the hotels outside of the large urban centres were actually motels. For the places I stayed in New Zealand, there is only one real difference. It’s that instead of your room opening into a corridor, it opens to the great outdoors. In some cases I was able to park directly outside my room so it meant I didn’t need to drag my cases very far. Nearly all of the rooms had a small kitchenette in them with ample cooking facilities!
In general, the AirBnBs were both less expensive and often nicer than some of the hotels/motels. My top tip is to only stay with people listed as “Superhosts”. You may end up paying a little more, but your experience and the accommodation will be absolutely wonderful! The extra bonus is that you will often get great local tips from your hosts!
Food and Snacks
There is no shortage of places to pick up a few snacks for travelling. There is also a decent range of places to eat. In the more rural areas, they tend to have less variety for obvious reasons. Normal Kiwi cuisine is pretty similar to what is on offer in Ireland and the UK.
I would recommend stocking up on snacks for the road as soon as you can. It’s highly likely you’ll be arriving by air, so as soon as you collect your rental car, find the most convenient supermarket and stock up! If you’re looking for the best Kiwi snacks, you can’t go wrong with Whittaker’s Chocolate. My personal favourite had to be the Dark Peppermint. I’m lactose intolerant so I go for dark chocolate and this stuff was perfect! My drink of choice was, what I can only describe as the nectar of the Gods, L and P. It’s a glorious citrus flavoured soft drink that I have literally been craving since I got home.
The Weather in New Zealand is largely similar to Ireland and the UK, more so on South Island. It can be quite changeable and wet, even during the summer months. It does also get quite hot, especially on North Island, so the best thing I can say is to pack a variety of clothes for your road trip. I went in late January and early February. I managed to get away with shorts for the whole trip, but it did get chilly in the evenings when the sun went down. It’d be no harm throwing in a pair or two of long trousers and a good jumper (sweater) if you’re visiting in summer or the shoulder months.
Here is the rough layout for the 22 blissful days that I travelled around New Zealand:
Day 1. Arrived into Auckland. Collected the first car. Stocked up on snacks and supplies and drive to my cousin’s house for a catch up.
Day 2. Went for lunch in the Sky Tower’s 52nd Floor Revolving Restaurant. Visited the Auckland Museum and One Tree Hill. Drove to my AirBnB at Cook’s Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Day 3. My kayak was cancelled due to poor sea conditions, so this was substituted for a walk to Cathedral Cove instead. Drove to Hot Water Beach and dug the traditional hole. Continued on to Hobbiton for a Banquet Tour that included a day tour, night tour and a massive banquet in the Green Dragon. Finished by driving to my AirBnB in Rotorua. (Very busy day!).
Day 4. Drove to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park and Lady Knox Geyser. Went to Tamaki Maori Village in the evening for their Maori Experience that included a Hangi (meal cooked in the ground).
Day 5. Drove to Waitomo for Black Water Rafting and abseiling in the glowworm caves. Drove on to New Plymouth, via the Three Sisters and a Black Sand Beach to visit my friend Niamh. Went to see the beautiful lights in Pukakura Park.
Day 6. Climbed Paritutu Rock with Niamh. Drove the surf highway and then on to Upper Hutt to visit my other friend Hannah and her family.
Day 7. Visited Wellington Zoo and saw amazing creatures like a kiwi, kea birds, sun bears and got to feed the giraffes. Drove to Brooklyn wind turbines and old gun posts. Walked around the city and harbour.
Day 8. Drove to the ferry terminal and gave back my car. Boarded the ferry and crossed to South Island. Collected my new car, drove to Nelson for dinner and on to my AirBnB in Abel Tasman. Went for a walk around the area.
Day 9. Did a skydive from 16,500 feet with Skydive Abel Tasman. Drove to Lake Rotoiti and then on to the St. James, my hotel in Hanmer Springs.
Day 10. Spent most of the day in the Thermal Parks and spas in Hanmer Springs. Went for a hike up Conical Hill before returning to the thermal park.
Day 11. Drove to Kaikoura. Checked into my hotel and walked around the scenic peninsula. Ate locally caught lobster for dinner.
Day 12. Went whale watching and had two encounters with sperm whales. Drove to Castle Hill and walked around the amazing landscape. Drove on to Arthur’s Pass and explored the Devil’s Punchbowl.
Day 13. Drove to Hokitika and collected some greenstone on the beach. Bought myself some carved bone and carved greenstone. Explored Hokitika Gorge and the surrounding area. Drove on to Lake Matheson.
Day 14. Did the Heli-hike on Fox Glacier. Drove to Wanaka to see the lake and the famous tree. Drove on to Queenstown via the scenic Crown Pass.
Day 15. Explored Queenstown and got myself a Fergburger. Took a trip out of town to where some scenes for The Lord of the Rings were filmed. Drove on to Te Anau and checked into my phenomenal AirBnB.
Day 16. Set out for Milford Sound at 04:30. Started my dawn kayak at 06:30 and kayaked the full 18 km length of Milford Sound. For full details, click here. Drove the equally scenic Milford Road back and then on to my AirBnB in Invercargill.
Day 17. Caught my (12 seater!) flight to Stewart Island. Explored Ulva Island first, even seeing a wild kiwi! Took a tour and then further explored Oban before flying back to Invercargill (on a 4 seater plane!). Drove on to Stirling Point to see the famous sign.
Day 18. Drove to Dunedin via the Catlins, Slope Point, Purakaunui Falls and Nugget Point. Started my visit to my friend Caoimhe and her boyfriend Will before going to a Barre Base class she was teaching.
Day 19. Visited St. Clair’s Beach and Tunnel Beach. Walked around Dunedin and the stunning campus of Otago University. Drove around the Otago Peninsula and saw some wild yellow-eyed penguins at Sandfly Beach.
Day 20. Left Dunedin and drove to Oamaru and then to the Takiroa Maori Drawings. Visited Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd. Continued on to my hotel in Christchurch.
Day 21. Strolled to Cathedral Square and witnessed the destruction wrought by the earthquake in 2011. Visited the Cardboard Cathedral, the Christchurch Museum and the Botanical Gardens.
Day 22. Enjoyed a lazy morning before returning my car at Christchurch airport.
Total distance driving in 22 days? 4751 km. Everyone of them bliss that I would do again in a heartbeat.
The thermal park in Wai-O-Tapu, a little outside Rotorua, was wonderful. It’s like nothing else you’d see. It gives you an idea of how powerful and wonderful the planet we call home is! It may smell strongly of Sulphur, but don’t let that put you off going to see all the natural phenomena there!
Tamaki Maori Village (also near Rotorua) was wonderful too! You get a full on, in depth, experience of Maori life and Maori traditions. There are load of Maori traditions that you get to witness. In some cases you can get involved in them too! They are things such as the Haka and various Maori games and craft. You also get to enjoy a performance of Maori song and dance. The icing on the cake was definitely the Hangi. It’s a giant feast cooked using hot rocks buried in a pit oven. It’s like the best (and most novel) barbeque you’ll ever have!
Hobbiton was utterly wonderful! Being a bit of a nerd, I loved exploring the set that was used to film both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. You can explore the whole Hobbit village, learn about how they filmed the scenes where the human sized Gandalf visited the smaller hobbits and even visit Bag End’s garden! I booked the banquet tour. This is the last tour of the day and is followed by a MASSIVE feast in the Green Dragon pub located on the set. This was topped off with an after dark tour where all the hobbit holes and pathways were beautifully lit up!
Abel Tasman is definitely the best spot for skydiving! As the airstrip/landing point is pretty much at sea level, you get more free fall and parachute time than in other locations (such as Queenstown). There is also a hugely varied landscape to witness as you return to the ground! There are mountains, green fields, forests, beaches, the sea (the Cook Straight) and on a clear day, you can even see North Island!
Hokitika was a wonderful surprise! I only stopped off here for a few hours on my long journey from Arthur’s Pass to Fox Glacier. The pebble filled beach is full of stones that contain some New Zealand Greenstone (Jade). If you’re very lucky, you might find a high quality/purity stone, but this is quite rare. It’s a beautiful liitle town with a great vibe and the nearby Hokitika Gorge is a definite must! You won’t believe how brilliant a shade of azure blue the water is! Photos just don’t do the place justice!
If you can help it at all, don’t miss Milford Sound! It has to be the most magnificent feat of nature I’ve laid my eyes on. Getting to paddle the entire length of it was wonderful. Essentially sitting at the same level of the water gave you a true appreciation of the scale of the whole place. I’d highly recommend doing it. There are shorter kayaks available, so take a look at the options to find the one that suits you best. In case you need more convincing, have a read of my full post all about it by clicking here.
Sandfly Beach, on the Otago peninsula outside Dunedin is a beautiful beach in itself, but if you’re there in the evening, you might get the chance to see wild yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore. Don’t go too close though, they are easily spooked. I was lucky enough to see some and learn about them from a Department of Conservation volunteer who kindly lent me her binoculars too!
This much lesser known third island is south of South Island. You can get there by boat from Bluff (be aware that the waters here can be quite rough), or by air from Invercargill Airport. I chose the latter option. It’s a quick 20 minute scenic flight on a small plane.
The island itself has one town/village called Oban and the total permanent population when I visited was 328! I also visited Ulva Island (a smaller island in a cove off Stewart Island) where I was very lucky to see a wild kiwi! The photo isn’t great, but they are an incredibly shy creature, so even this felt like a huge achievement!
Yes and no. There are no real downsides to New Zealand if I’m honest. The scenery is astounding, the people friendly, the activities fun and the facilities wonderful. The only aspect that might be deemed be be slightly sub-par is the wifi coverage. This is mainly on South Island which is much more sparsely populated. The same could be said for phone signal, but in general, this can be accounted for by the copious amounts of mountains, especially in the West Coast region.
I did feel that Queenstown was overrated. It was totally worth the visit, but I think it gets a little bit more credit than it should. If you’re into extreme sports such as bungee jumping or skydiving, it’s wonderful. The more changeable weather means you mightn’t get the best views for your skydive. There are loads of options when it comes to doing one though, so you might find one that is less expensive then elsewhere.
Invercargill and Bluff are nice enough places, but they do have an “end of the known world” feeling about them. This is possibly because, with the exception of Oban on Stewart Island, they are pretty much as far away from home (in Ireland) as you could go on land.
Do it! Do it! For the love of God, do it! A New Zealand road trip is a once in a lifetime thing and having done one, I can safely add my voice to the chorus of praise for how wonderful an experience it is! If I were to live anywhere, other than Ireland, it would totally be New Zealand. If it wasn’t so far from home, I would very strongly consider moving here!
Since I flew out from New Zealand, I have been trying to both work out when I can go back and I’m constantly trying to justify a return visit!
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