Our New Zealand road trip was one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was partly due to how unexpected the trip was, but most of all it was down to the sheer magnificence of New Zealand itself. For such a small country, the abundance of natural diversity is extraordinary. From snow-capped mountains to glowworm dells and white-sand beaches, it has so much to offer that it becomes a sort of joke – at every new turn, you think, “Oh, trust New Zealand to go and be jaw-dropping spectacular again!”. But even though you might become less surprised each time you see something incredible, you don’t become less awe-struck. It’s the perfect country for immersing yourself in nature and reminding yourself just how awesome our planet is.
One month in New Zealand: a back-to-nature road trip
We were in New Zealand for two months in total, but spent one month of that doing three home exchanges in Lauder and Nelson. The remaining month in New Zealand was spent on the road travelling by camper van and car throughout both the north and south islands. We managed to see a lot of the country, but never felt rushed. This two-part post details our entire itinerary – what we did, where we stayed and how we got around – essentially our top tips for a one-month New Zealand road trip.
Our travelling style in New Zealand
Our top priority in New Zealand was to spend time in nature so 90 per cent of our time was spent outside of the cities. We had a camper van for most of the trip, which helped with the back-to-nature experience. And we mostly chose paper over tech, using an atlas to map our way and consulting guidebooks, or relying on word-of-mouth, for tips.
We mapped out a rough New Zealand itinerary, but also changed our plans along the way. It wasn’t peak season so we rarely booked a place to stay in advance, which allowed a lot of flexibility.
The AA guides that you find in all the car rental places list lots of private campgrounds, and there are also useful leaflets that list all the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites. DOC became our hero in New Zealand; it not only maintains a lot of the land, it also has some of the best campsites around. They vary from being free and very basic to having lots of facilities and costing up to NZ$15 per person. All are guaranteed to be in an area of outstanding beauty. We tried to stay at them whenever we could. Free camping does exist in New Zealand but it’s not straightforward; there are lots of places where camping is banned and in other places you need to be a self-contained campervan. We tended to want to take advantage of the campsite’s facilities so didn’t do any free camping, but if you want to, this article is useful for explaining the rules.
For the nights when we weren’t in our camper van, we stayed in a mixture of AirBnBs, private rooms in hostels, and a few unique guesthouses, including a treehouse and yurt. The cost ranged from NZ$70 to NZ$180 per room per night.
Our budget in New Zealand
We were on a moderate budget in New Zealand, but doing home exchanges at the beginning and end of our trip helped us to save money for one month, which meant we could afford to splash out at times. I also write for a travel website so some of the activities we did were either free or discounted, and we got a 20-30 per cent reduction in the price of vehicle rental. All the prices I quote in this itinerary are at full-cost rather than including the discount. In the places where I haven’t talked about food, it’s because we self-catered a lot, especially when we were in our van. In this first post, I lay out all the details of our South Island road trip. To replicate the South Island part of the road trip, which is around two weeks long, would cost about NZ$5,282 for two people with this breakdown (all costs are for two people):
Britz Hi-Top van hire for 8 days: NZ$1750
Car hire for 7 days: NZ$280
How we got around New Zealand
We hired three different camper vans during our time in New Zealand and a few different cars. We wanted to try a few vans, plus the various vehicles suited us at different times. The first van we hired was the Britz HiTop, which was the most luxurious of our camper vans and made us fall in love with the camper van lifestyle. Next up was the Spaceships Dreamsleeper Mini, which was more like a car and branded as the “swiss army knife of camper vans”. It was surprisingly comfortable, and ideal for people who don’t want to drive a big camper van. Our final camper was the Britz Action Pod, which is essentially a standard white van with a bed inside, plus a little kitchen that pulls out from under the bed. It was far less luxurious than the HiTop but bigger than the Spaceship (you could stand up inside) so was a great in-between option. We enjoyed all of them and I’m going to write a full post with the pros and cons of each, plus more details on how to choose a camper van in New Zealand.
We also hired a car for seven days from Wellington to Auckland, and got a transfer car from Christchurch up to Picton. We found that Omega Car Rentals was the cheapest option and we had no problem with any of the cars.
We also hitchhiked one day in order to get from our homestay in Lauder back to Queenstown. We got three different rides and had to wait no more than 20 minutes for each one. I’m reluctant to advise hitchhiking as there are, of course, safety issues, but it is very popular in New Zealand, and as well as hitchhiking ourselves, we also picked up a few people along the way. It was a lovely way to meet people.
Our one-month itinerary: New Zealand road trip
Queenstown is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world, home of bungy jumping and pretty much every adrenaline-fuelled activity you can think of. I did the Nevis bungy jump here when I was 18, which sparked my adrenaline binge throughout the rest of the country. This time was a little more mellow, although Steve and I did do the Nevis Swing together, which involves free falling into a canyon and swinging across the valley. It’s not cheap at NZ$350 for tandem, but I highly recommend it!
Queenstown is also spectacularly beautiful, surrounded by mountains and centered around the crystal clear Lake Wakatipu. As soon as we arrived we took the Skyline Gondola up to the viewpoint at Bob’s Peak, which immediately showed us the magnificence of the setting. There’s also a luge ride up there, which is brilliant fun. A combined gondola ride plus two luge rides cost NZ$47. Don’t miss it!
You could easily spend weeks in Queenstown, and many people do. It’s a hub for backpackers and people working abroad; you’re more likely to be served by someone from outside New Zealand than you are by a local, and the town has a big party scene. However, if you’re looking for quieter times, don’t let that put you off as it’s a gorgeous place to visit and there are plenty of good restaurants, riverside cafes and natural retreats to keep you occupied.
Queenstown is also a popular ski resort, but we were there at the start of autumn so the season hadn’t started yet.
Accommodation in Queenstown
It is notoriously difficult to find accommodation in Queenstown. Its popularity is a problem for its size and you’ll find that a lot of the hostels and hotels get booked up weeks in advance, especially in peak time. Luckily, lots of the local residents have taken advantage of this and put their spare rooms on AirBnB. We stayed with Sarang in his spare room about 30 minutes walk from town. He works in hospitality and was the perfect host, providing lots of info on things to do. One night costs NZ$165.
Food and drink in Queenstown
Queenstown has loads of restaurants and most famous of them all is Fergburger, which seems to have a queue at every hour of the day. We’re vegetarian so only tried the veggie burger, which was okay but nothing particularly special. We much preferred the Vudu Cafe and Larder, which is a light and airy cafe on the lakeside with loads of amazing (and sometimes healthy) breakfasts, lunches and cakes. The Winery is also a great place to sample lots of New Zealand’s wines as you can buy little measures from over 80 different bottles.
Travel to Queenstown
For our first few days in Queenstown, we hired a car to get around. If you stayed closer to town, you could do most things on foot. The airport is just 10 minutes out of town.
Milford Sound / Te Anau
Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world and also one of the most beautiful. It’s the only one of New Zealand’s fiords that is accessible by road, and it has become an icon of New Zealand tourism. The classic thing to do there is go on a boat trip to the mouth of the sound and marvel at the sheer rocky cliffs and many waterfalls. We went on a two-hour trip (NZ$80) with Cruise Milford and spent the entire time spellbound. The guides were great at explaining the history and nature of the sound, as well as pointing out the wildlife. We were lucky to see dolphins!
Other options In Milford include taking a helicopter flight or exploring the sound by kayak. There are very popular walking routes in the area including the Kepler, Milford and Routeburn tracks. A quieter alternative to Milford Sound is Doubtful Sound, which we would have loved to visit if we had more time.
Accommodation in Te Anau
Steve hit the jackpot with our AirBnB in Te Anau. The photos on AirBnB don’t do it justice and we were gobsmacked to arrive and find a breathtaking view of the lake and mountains. Plus there was a hot tub in the garden. This place is amazing! One night cost NZ$140.
Travel to Te Anau
The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is about two hours, and then it’s almost another two hours to get to Milford Sound. Some people do the whole thing as a day trip from Queenstown but we decided to stop in Te Anau along the way. One stupid mistake we made was forgetting to re-fuel at Te Anau, which meant we nearly didn’t make it to Milford Sound! Luckily for us, there is a fuel station at Milford Sound, but it’s unreliable so, to be safe, you should fuel in Queenstown or Te Anau. The drive is gorgeous with lots of things to see along the way. Keep your eyes open for the brown signs, which signal viewpoints or areas of beauty.
Wanaka often gets overshadowed by Queenstown, but it’s worth visiting both. Although they’re both next to a lake and surrounded by mountains, they’re very different places. And while Wanaka is certainly the quieter of the two, it still has a great buzz with people filling the lakeside bars and restaurants. There’s no end of activities to try out. It’s also incredibly beautiful and there are tons of hikes (or ‘tramps’ as the Kiwis call them!) to do in the area. We intended to walk to the Rob Roy Glacier, but couldn’t due to bad weather. Even though it looked sunny in town, the tourist information office let us know that it was icy up there that day – be sure to check with them before you go on any hikes. Instead, we did the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Track, which was a gorgeous three-hour walk. It gets quite steep at the top and some of the tracks were very narrow around the side of the mountain, but it was manageable, and the views were stunning. My friend Liz of Young Adventuress lives in Wanaka and has written loads of great posts about things to do there, including this post with all the best views.
Accommodation in Wanaka
We stayed in our camper van at the serene Lake Outlet Holiday Park right on the edge of Laka Wanaka. When we popped open the boot of our van in the morning, we were staring right at the water – the location was idyllic. The campsite is about 5-10 minutes drive out of town and has bikes for hire and walking trails to follow. It cost NZ$37 for two people on a powered campsite. There are some campsites closer to town, but we thought this one had the most beautiful location.
Food and drink in Wanaka
One night Liz took us to a cute, atmospheric restaurant called The White House Cafe and Bar, which had some great veggie options. We also had a good Italian-style pizza from Francesca’s van which is an offshoot of a popular local restaurant by the same name.
Travel in Wanaka
We picked up our first camper van in Queenstown and drove it to Wanaka. There is a one-hour mountain pass (the Crown Range) between the two towns, but you’re not allowed to drive on it with a camper van. The alternative route via Cromwell takes about 30 minutes longer. Cromwell is famous for it’s fruit so it’s worth stopping along the way to do some fruit picking.
Haast Pass / Gillespies Beach
The drive from Wanaka to the glacier country goes via the Haast Pass and was one of the most beautiful drives we did in New Zealand, along a winding mountain path. It’s known to be dangerous in bad weather, but wasn’t a problem on a fine day. There are lots of little places to stop along the way, including The Neck lookout over Lake Wanaka, the Blue Pools, and Bruce Bay. It wasn’t a sunny day so the pools weren’t as blue as I’ve seen in photos, but they were still worth seeing. And Bruce Bay is gorgeous, lined with dramatic, windswept trees. We ended the day at Gillespies Beach, which I rave about in the accommodation section below! One other thing worth stopping for is the lookout at the junction of Cook Flat Road and Gillespies Beach Road. There’s a cool little dial that you can look through and move around to find out which mountains and glaciers you’re looking at.
Accommodation near Fox Glacier
The campsite at Gillespies Beach is one of the most special places we’ve ever stayed. It’s essentially a little carpark, but what makes it so special is the beach it’s right next to. Not only is it the perfect sunset spot, but when you turn your back on the sea, you can see Mount Cook and the surrounding mountains. It’s one of the most breathtaking sights we saw in New Zealand.
Travel to Fox Glacier
This was a whole day of driving. Without stops, it would have taken about four hours, but it took us around seven as we wanted to take our time. The final part of the drive, from Fox Glacier town to Gillespies Beach was along an unsealed track and quite tricky in the campervan, but it was definitely worth it! Be aware that your insurance might not cover driving on such a road!
Lake Matheson / Fox Glacier / Hokitika
After waking up at Gillespies Beach, we took an early morning walk around Lake Matheson. We were super lucky as it was a perfectly clear and still day, which meant we could see Mount Cook reflected in the lake. It’s what the “mirror lake” is most famous for and even the slightest breeze can disturb the image so we counted our lucky blessings. However, even without the reflections, the lake is beautiful and it’s a nice one-hour walk around the perimeter.
We had to choose between seeing Fox or Franz Josef Glacier, and eventually decided on Fox after some friends convinced us it was the best choice as they said you can get better views of the Fox Glacier from the ground. We can’t vouch for their reasons as we have no comparison, but we were certainly happy with our Fox Glacier experience. You can get really close to the glacier by following the walking path from the Fox Glacier carpark. Be sure to heed all the warnings telling you to stick to the path – people have died by not obeying them.
We also did something really special and took a helicopter ride over the glacier. We landed at the top and walked in the snow for about 10 minutes. It was short, but incredible to see the glacier from above. The whole trip was 20 minutes in total and cost NZ$200. Definitely worth it! There are loads of companies, all offering the same trips at pretty much the same price.
From Fox Glacier, we drove up the coastal road to Hokitika. We chose it mostly due to convenience, but it’s a cute little town with a beach that’s incredible for sunsets. There had recently been a sculpture competition on the beach so we enjoyed looking at all the driftwood creations. Another highlight was the glowworm dell. We walked there at night and were amazed to see the whole area light up like a nighttime sky. It was breathtaking. The dell is super easy and safe to access, just off the main road.
Accommodation in Hokitika
We stayed in our van in a the 252 Beachside Holiday Park, which had not much more than a carpark for the camper vans. It was conveniently located for the glowworm dell and the beach, but was one of our least inspiring stays. It cost $30 for a powered site.
Food and drink in Fox Glacier / Hokitika
We self-catered from our van for most of the day, but did pick up a delicious cake at the beautiful Lake Matheson cafe. And in the evening, we got fish and chips and took them to the beach at Hokitika to watch the sunset – a classic New Zealand experience!
Travel to Hokitika
The drive from Fox Glacier to Hokitika is just over two hours.
Pancake Rocks / Ocean Road / Lake Brunner
From Hokitika, we knew that our next stop was Akaroa, but we had one night before we needed to be there, so we decided to stop at Lake Brunner along the way. There was no particular reason for choosing this lake, we just wanted to stay the night somewhere beautiful before driving along Arthur’s Pass the next day. To get there from Hokitika only takes an hour, but we decided to take a detour and travel up to Pancake Rocks first. We’d heard that the stretch of road between them and Greymouth is one of the most beautiful in New Zealand, plus we were curious to see the rocks. The two-hour detour was most definitely worth it. The coastal road is gorgeous and Punakaiki’s pancake rocks and blowholes are an incredible natural wonder. Try to time your visit with high tide so you can see the surge pools and blow holes at their mightiest. I was completely mesmerised by the power of the pool that’s been nicknamed “the Devil’s Cauldron”.
Accommodation at Lake Brunner
After our uninspired stay in Hokitika, it was great to be back in nature at the Lake Brunner Country Motel Holiday Park. It’s 2km from the lake itself, but is set in idyllic gardens, surrounded by forests and mountains. It was a wonderfully peaceful place to spend the night and costs NZ$35 for two people on a powered site.
Travel to Punakiki / Lake Brunner
It took just over an hour to drive to Punakaiki from Hokitika. And from there, it took about the same amount of time to drive to Lake Brunner, including a 40-minute stretch where we were just doubling back on ourselves. This was no hardship as we were driving along the gorgeous Great Coast Road. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan a coastal drives.
Arthur’s Pass / Akaroa
Arthur’s Pass, like Haast Pass, is a gorgeous drive through the mountains. One of the iconic points is the Otira viaduct that snakes through part of the valley. There are a few great lookout points along the way, and we stopped at Lake Pearson for lunch. This is actually a DOC campsite and would be a lovely place to spend the night. It’s also worth stopping at Castle Hill to see the giant boulders; it’s very popular with rock climbers. Once through the mountains, it’s about an hour and a half to Christchurch, but we bypassed the city and headed straight to Akaroa. We were booked onto a dolphin swimming tour the next morning. Sadly, bad weather meant the tour was cancelled, but the trip to Akaroa was worth it anyway. It’s a beautiful drive out to the peninsula from Christchurch, and Akaroa is a charming little town. It’s a historic French settlement and you can still see the French influence through the street names, colonial cottages and French restaurants. Akaroa is one of the only places from where you can swim with Hector’s dolphins. A two-hour trip costs NZ$155 to swim, or NZ$80 to watch.
Accommodation in Akaroa
We stayed at the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park, which had good facilities and great views across the bay. A powered site cost NZ$44.
Travel to Akaroa
The drive from Lake Brunner to Akaroa took just over four hours in driving time, but we stopped a few times so it was more like seven hours in total. The drive to Akaroa is pretty narrow and precipitous in places – it’s not for the faint-hearted driver.
Christchurch / Kaikoura
This was our last day with camper van number one, the Britz HiTop. We dropped it off at Christchurch airport and picked up a hire car at the same time. The next day we were due to meet a friend in Picton, so to break up the drive, we decided to stop in Kaikoura for the night. We also spent a bit of time in Christchurch during the day. I was working at the Red Cross when the 2011 earthquake happened and I wrote a lot about the disaster, so I was interested to see how the city is being rebuilt. It’s slow progress, and it’s devastating to see how much of the city was destroyed, but there’s also a great spirit of creativity among the people in Christchurch. We saw lots of interesting art and creative use of reclaimed space. The now famous Cardboard Cathedral is also really impressive.
We were only in Kaikoura for the evening and had to leave early the next morning, but if we’d had more time, we definitely would have stayed an extra night. It’s a great place for whale watching, and I would particularly like to have taken a helicopter ride to see the sperm whales from above.
Accommodation in Kaikoura
We stayed in a double room in a friendly hostel in Kaikoura called Albatross Backpacker Inn. It had a lovely common room with lots of instruments and art materials. A double room cost NZ$74 for the night.
Travel to Kaikoura
The drive to Christchurch from Akaroa takes about 1.5 hours. And from Christchurch to Kaikoura took 2.5 hours. The rental car we picked up in Christchurch was a transfer car, which meant we didn’t have to pay for it. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this concept; essentially rental companies sometimes need to return a car to a different location, and if you can do it for them, they offer the car for free. They are usually for a set period of time, and we were lucky to find one that needed to be returned to Picton from Christchurch within two days. There are a few different website that list transfer car opportunities, and we used this one. It was a nice way to save a bit of money.
Marlborough / Picton
Our time in Marlborough was a highlight as I’m a huge fan of New Zealand wine, plus we were meeting up with one of our dearest friends from home. We drove up to Picton to meet our friend off the ferry and then got a lift to the wine region with Explore Marlborough. This was the only company we could find that allows you to do a self-guided cycling tour, and provides a lift to and from Picton. All the other tour companies either offer only guided tours, or you have to make your own way to and from Picton, which is tricky as there are very few buses each day. And we obviously didn’t want to drive as we had lots of wine to try!
Cycling around the wineries was wonderfully idyllic; they are all pretty close to one other and the furthest we cycled to get from one to the next was about 2km. Some of the roads have occasional trucks passing, but it was nothing like our wine experience in Mendoza where the traffic was quite unnerving. Most of the wineries do free tastings, while some charge a small fee. Places we went to and recommend include: No.1 Family Estate for some great sparkling wine; Giesen for wine and lunch; and Bladen for a very cute, atmospheric cellar door experience. To be honest, I don’t think you could go that wrong at any of the wineries and there are over 20 to choose from in the Renwick area, plus many more in the surrounds. There’s a useful map of all the wineries here. The bike hire costs NZ$40 per person for a full day plus about NZ$50 for the return transfer.
Picton is also really pretty and we enjoyed continuing our wine drinking on the waterfront into the evening. This would be a nice place to spend a few days, exploring the Marlborough sounds as well. You can catch the ferry from Picton over to Wellington, which takes about three hours.
Accommodation in Picton
We stayed at Julie’s AirBnB, which cost NZ$200 for all three of us in two rooms. It was bright and clean with good views, and Julie was a lovely host.
Travel to Picton
The drive from Kaikoura to Picton took two hours. And the transfer from Picton to the wine area in Renwick was 30 minutes.
Nelson / Abel Tasman
We spent two weeks in Nelson at the very end of our time in New Zealand as we did two home exchanges there and that’s how the timings worked out. This meant we flew down there from Auckland. However, if the timings had been different, the more logical thing would have been to go to Nelson and Abel Tasman in-between Kaikoura and Picton, or perhaps as a little side trip after Picton. That’s why I’m including it here, so you can fit into your south island trip.
We really loved our time in Nelson. It’s great little laid-back city (more like a big town) with lots of friendly people, good cafes and restaurants, a great Saturday market, and a brilliant waterside location. One of our exchanges was in Cable Bay, a little inlet about 30 minutes from the city, which is the perfect place to relax in nature. When the tide is in, you can go kayaking and when it’s out you can walk for miles across the bay. There’s also a great 3-hour walk across the hills from Cable Bay to Glenduan.
While in the area, we also went to the gorgeous Abel Tasman National Park, spending a night in a yurt and then exploring the park for a full day of kayaking and hiking. There are plenty of companies to choose from and we went with Kaiteriteri Kayaks who were really friendly and laid back. We opted for the Heart of the Park Explorer tour, which included a two-hour walk and three hours’ kayaking, stopping for lunch on a beautiful beach. The full tour, including lunch and all equipment cost NZ$189 per person. I recommend doing one of these combined tours as it’s great to see the park both from the sea and on foot.
Steve also did a skydive while we were in Abel Tasman in the exact same place where I did one ten years before! The 16,500ft skydive cost NZ$399, or you can do a lower one at 13,000ft for NZ$299.
Accommodation in Nelson / Abel Tasman
For our night near Abel Tasman, we stayed at a beautiful yurt in the Motueka Valley, run by a lovely family who dedicate themselves to a paleo lifestyle. It was the perfect back-to-nature experience, and a special highlight was the outdoor bath that overlooks the valley. The yurt costs from NZ$74 per night.
In Nelson, one of our home exchanges was also a holiday home called Cable Bay Lodge. It’s a gorgeous spot, set in incredible gardens overlooking the bay, and with a little jetty out to the water. There are kayaks you can use and loads of little nooks and crannies to cosy up with a book. It’s one of the loveliest places we’ve ever stayed.
Food and drink in Nelson
Some of our favourite places to eat and drink in Nelson were: the Red Art Gallery; the vegetarian East Street Cafe; Mexican at Nicola’s Cantina; and the food stalls at the Saturday market.
Travel to Nelson / Abel Tasman
To get to Nelson from Kaikoura takes just over 3 hours, or it’s close to two hours’ from Picton. The drive from Nelson to Motueka is just under an hour.
Hopefully you’ll find this useful. Do let me know how your trip goes!
In part two, I cover the North Island part of our road trip.
If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check out our travel planning pages. We also have full, detailed itineraries for How to relax in Goa and Kerala; The ultimate South Africa honeymoon guide; How to make the most of 10 days in Japan; Finding hygge in Copenhagen, and 48 Hours in Dublin.
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