New Zealand in one word: breathtaking. I always wanted to come to this little island at the end of the world and what can I say… It absolutely exceeded my expectations. That is why I share our 3-week New Zealand road trip itinerary and some tips & tricks with you. Everybody you talk to tells you New Zealand is beautiful, but you just have to see it yourself to know what they actually mean.
When I visited the country last year, I did a road trip around the North and the South Island with our little campervan. Traveling New Zealand is actually perfect for road trips, since there is so much to discover off the path and literally every single corner has some hidden gems. Plus, you’ll see breathtaking landscapes as you go. So here’s my three-week road trip itinerary. Since I did not have plenty of time, I mostly spent one night at a camping spot/place and then drove on.
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What you need to know before your 3-week New Zealand road trip
Before you start your New Zealand road trip, it is important to inform yourself properly. Traveling in New Zealand can be a little bit different than in other countries, since the conditions can change very quickly or generally be different than you are used to. So here are some tips we figured out would help you.
- Spend the majority of your time on the South Island. I actually spent 2 weeks on the South Island and 1 week on the North Island. The reason being is, that the South Island has a lot more to offer. The landscapes are spectacular and there’s so much to see and do. On the North Island, the main thing to see is the volcanos and the geothermal area.
- Choose your campervan wisely. Since you are going to live in this van/car for the next three weeks, you have to make sure you are feeling comfortable with it. I traveled in our Jucy Condo during this trip. We will also do a detailed post on everything you need to pay attention to, when renting a campervan in New Zealand.
- Routes take longer than shown in Google Maps. When you are driving around the island, you will probably use Google Maps for navigation. Keep in mind, that due to the hight differences and the uneven terrain most routes take longer than anticipated by Google Maps. From my experience you can add some time on top in most cases. For this reason, I shared the anticipated driving time for each section of the route.
- For some journeys, you need to plan on stopovers. The distance between spots in New Zealand can be pretty short, but the roads are built around the mountains, so the journey a lot longer. If your driving time takes more than 4-5 hours, try to do a stopover overnight in between.
- Plan in some extra time for taking pictures. A road trip in New Zealand is a once in a lifetime experience, where you want to capture every single memory. So, when you are planning your driving time always add some time for taking pictures and enjoying the view. (and breaks for food)
South Island – 2-week road trip
The start of my 3-week road trip itinerary in New Zealand was on the South Island. I’ve been traveling around the South Island of New Zealand for 2 weeks. To give you a short overview we entered our driving route in Google Maps, so you have a quick overview of what I am talking about.
My first stop in New Zealand was Christchurch. That’s the place, where I landed coming from Australia. I would recommend doing the South Island first, so starting in Christchurch is perfect. The first night I stayed at a hostel near the airport to get my trip sorted out and pick up the campervan the next day. If you’d like to discover Christchurch more, you could also stay a little bit longer. However, I wanted to start the road trip right away.
Stay: 1 night To do: Pick up your campervan & get a sim card
Lake Pukaki/ Lake Tekapo
After I picked up the campervan and got all the essential things organized, I started driving to Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. You can’t miss seeing these glacier lakes. The clear blue color of the water looks unreal. Take a short break at the Church of Good Shepherd to enjoy the view over Lake Tekapo.
Driving time: ca. 4 hours Stopover: 1 night You can't miss: Church of the Good Shepherd Adress: Pioneer Drive, Lake Tekapo 7999, Neuseeland
After stopping at the Lakes I drove on to Mount Cook. Normally, the view during the drive is breathtaking, since you are driving straight towards the highest mountain in New Zealand. Unluckily, that was not the case for the day I’ve been there. In the valley of the mountain lies a hiking trail, which leads to a glacier lake. When I was there the trail was closed, because the bridges were damaged from a storm earlier that year. Ideally, you inform yourself before you come here.
Driving time: ca. 1,5 hours from Lake Pukaki You can't miss: The Hooker Valley Track
You could look for a camping spot around Mount Cook or Lake Pukaki, since you have to drive back the road you came from. As an alternative, I kept driving to a camping ground near Wanaka. The reason being is, that I wanted to attempt the Roy’s Peak sunrise hike the next morning. It would have taken too long driving to Wanaka in the morning before the hike. If you have more time, you could sleep at Lake Pukaki for one night and then do the hike after that in Wanaka.
Driving time: 3 hours from Mount Cook You can't miss: The Roy's Peak sunrise hike Stay: 1 night
After my morning hike in Wanaka I drove to Queenstown on the same day. Actually, I would recommend staying in Wanaka for one night, since it is a very beautiful little town to discover. It would be a perfect spot to relax for a day during your 3-week New Zealand road trip. In addition to that, the hike is very draining and you’ll probably be exhausted afterward. Anyways, Queenstown is a little town with a beautiful center, that is directly located next to the Wakatipu Lake. That is why walking around the town has a very special vibe.
Driving time: 1,5 hours You can't miss: Lake Wakatipu & Queenstown centre Stay: 2 nights (with daytrip to Milford Sound)
From Queenstown I did a day trip to Milford Sound. Most travelers drive to Milford Sound themselves if they are on a road trip. However, I decided to take a bus to get to Milford Sound and do the cruise. In my eyes, this was a very good decision, because the roads to the fjord are very small, curvy and bumpy. I was able to enjoy the whole beauty of the drive, while the driver was telling us many inside stories about New Zealand and the fjord. Also, we were stopping many times to take pictures on the road.
Driving time: Daytrip You can't miss: Milford Sound Cruise
Franz Josef Glacier
Back in Queenstown we set off to Franz Josef. This town is famous for its view on one of the biggest remaining glaciers in New Zealand – the Franz Josef Glacier. I stopped many times on the way, since the journey is very long. Potential stops could be the Blue Pools Track and Lake Matheson. Keep in mind, that you’ll probably have to camp two nights on the way.
Driving time: 6-8 hours from Queenstown Stopover: 2 nights You can't miss: Lake Matheson in the morning & Glacier hike Stay: 3 days
Abel Tasman National Park
After spending 2 nights in Franz Josef and exploring the area, I decided to drive to the Abel Tasman National Park. On the road I stopped at the famous Pancake Rocks. The Abel Tasman National Park is the perfect spot for some hikes or kayaking along the coast around the national park. If you are into overnight hikes, you could attempt the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which runs along the coast.
Driving time: 10 hours Stopover: 2 nights You can't miss: Hiking in the National Park Stay: 1 day
Renwick is a little town in the north of the South Island. It is a very quiet and relaxing place to stay. The view over the vineyards looks incredible, especially in autumn when the leaves are shining in orange hues. I stopped there to do some winetasting and drive from winery to winery with a bike. I loved that experience and the atmosphere in Renwick in general.
Driving time: 2,5 hours You can't miss: Winetasting on a bike
The last stop on the South Island was Picton, from where the ferry to the North Island is leaving. I did not do much during my stay, except a hike to the view-point over the harbor.
Driving time: 30 minutes You can't miss: Picton Harbour View Track Stay: 1 night
North Island – 1-week road trip
After two beautiful weeks at the South Island, I had one week left to explore the North Island of New Zealand. To help you get an overview where I have been, here’s my route:
After I took the ferry in the morning from Picton to Wellington, I drove straight to a camping spot near the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at Ruapehu. I did not stay in Wellington, because I only had one week to explore the North Island. Actually, I wasn’t able to do the Alpine Crossing due to bad weather conditions. If you are planning on doing the hike, inform yourself about the conditions in advance, so you can adapt your plans to that.
Ferry duration: 4 hours Driving time: 5 hours You can't miss: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Stay: 1 night
After a short stop in Taupo, the Thermal Explorer Highway, and Rotorua I made my way to Tauranga. The main reason for our visit was the view from Mount Maunganui. After a short hike you have a beautiful view over the coastline and Tauranga. I would recommend hiking up before sunset to have the best light and atmosphere.
Driving time: 5 hours Stopover: 1 night You can't miss: Hiking up Mount Maunganui Stay: 1 night
Another place I visited during my road trip through New Zealand was the area around Coromandel. Ideally, you are driving a loop around the Coromandel Forest Park to explore this region. I had some bad luck with the weather again, so I had to take it slow. However, on the way I hiked to the Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. The Hot Water Beach is actually not ideal in autumn.
Driving time: 4 hours Stopover: 1 night (due to bad weather) You can't miss: Hiking to Cathedral Cove Stay: 1 night
My best time on the North Island I had in Auckland. After a 3-week road trip through New Zealand and a lot of camping, it felt amazing to finally be in the civilization again. In addition to that, Auckland is a pretty cool city to spend some time at. If you are a student like me, visit the University of Auckland. It’s always fun to look around universities all over the world.
Driving time: 3 hours You can't miss: Visiting the University of Auckland Stay: 3 nights
After I spent two nights in Auckland, I wanted to explore the north some more before I was leaving New Zealand. That is the reason, why I drove up from Auckland to see the Abbey Caves. Honestly, the caves itself weren’t that spectacular, as I am not really comfortable in climbing very deep into the caves. However, I looked for a nice camping spot and enjoyed my last night camping before heading to Bali.
Driving time: 2,5 hours one-way You can't miss: Camping next to the ocean one last time Stay: 1 night
And that is my 3-week road trip itinerary for New Zealand. Hopefully, this helps you to plan your trip to this beautiful country.
Let me know if you got some inspiration!