New Zealand is a country eminently suited to road trips. It’s small enough that you could conceivably drive across the entire nation in 24 hours, but within that relatively small space are a startling variety of landscapes and cultures. Travelling no more than a few hours in any one direction could bring you to a sunny beach, rugged alpine highlands, gently rolling wine country, a bucolic rural town or a thriving city. With so many options presenting themselves, you’ll certainly have no difficulty in finding magnificent places to visit but to make sure you get the most out of any route you choose to take, we have a few top New Zealand road trip tips from those who’ve spent many hours exploring the highways and backroads of this truly exceptional country.
1. Visit the South Island
Not to disparage the North Island at all (which has a plethora of incredible destinations to visit) but if you’re taking a New Zealand road trip that doesn’t include the South Island, you’re doing it wrong. The easiest way to start is flying in to Christchurch airport, getting a car rental and then setting off in pretty much any direction. To the north you’ll find whales, vineyards and gorgeous beaches; to the west, a majestic mountain pass, glaciers and a wild coastline; to the south, stunning lakes, jagged mountain ranges and the adventure capital of the world.
2. Venture off the beaten path
Metaphorically, that is. While those who pick up a New Zealand car rental can stick to the main State Highways and still discover many of the country’s attractions, there’s the potential to find some real hidden gems when you head off down smaller roads. After all, road trips aren’t really about the destination - the beauty of having your own wheels is the fact that you can choose to detour as much as you like and discover amazing places that most others would simply pass by.
3. Chat to locals
This works beautifully in conjunction with tip No. 2. New Zealanders, as a rule, tend to be friendly people who’ll happily point you in the right direction or even have a bit of a chat if they’ve got the time. Tapping into that local knowledge will allow you to find authentic experiences that the tourist guides haven’t even heard about. Plus, getting to know the locals will enhance your experience immeasurably, give you a better insight into Kiwi culture and you might even make a few new friends.
4. Stop often
This may not seem like an important point, but it really is. There are just too many incredible vistas in New Zealand not to schedule in plenty of time to stop and admire them - and to take photos of course, so you can make everyone back home insanely jealous. Stopping frequently will also give you the chance to take in the charms New Zealand’s small towns and get a taste for what Kiwi rural life is all about.
5. Set out on foot
While booking a car rental in Christchurch will grant you the freedom of New Zealand’s roads, there’s so much of this country that is best seen when you leave your wheels behind for a while and strike out on foot. After all, New Zealand is renowned for its natural beauty, and there’s only a certain amount of nature that you can see from the side of the road. To get the most out of an NZ road trip, you’ll want to bring along some decent walking shoes. Even if you’re not really the outdoorsy type, there are plenty of short “bushwalks” that will take you into New Zealand’s lush native forest and return you to your vehicle within 30 minutes.
6. Take enough time
A common mistake for road trippers who aren’t familiar with New Zealand’s roads is not setting aside enough time to get from place to place. Barrelling your way across the country at top speed will not just cause you to miss out on some incredibly beautiful views, it’s also literally impossible. Even state highways in New Zealand can be winding, hilly affairs, outside of a couple major cities. In other nations this could be seen as an obstacle or an annoyance, but here it simply encourages travellers to take it slow and appreciate the otherworldly vistas on offer.
7. Experience something entirely new
One of the glorious things about exploring a new country is having the chance to try things that you’ve never tried before - and possibly would never get to experience if you had stayed at home. It doesn’t really matter what the new experience is. Whether it’s a food (whitebait fritters may look odd, but they’re delicious), a daring feat (Nevis Bungy near Queenstown will treat you to a full 8 seconds of freefall), or simply a magnificent vista, don’t wrap up your road trip without going out of your way to embrace an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.