If you’re planning a trip to New Zealand that involves a rental car, you’ll probably get all sorts of suggestions on all the best places to see, eat and stay. You’ll be told not to miss the scenery in the Bay of Islands and Milford Sound. You’ll be advised of the must-see (but smelly) geothermal activity in Rotorua. You’ll have to make a pit stop in Queenstown for some adventure sports. And the list goes on with a host of beaten-path suggestions. (For example, Backpacking Matt just recently put together his Top 5 Drives in NZ.)
But what about some of those less-traveled roads? How about those not-so-well-known spots? All of New Zealand is postcard-perfect, but there are some areas that are slightly more perfect than others. And many of them won’t show up in a list of top NZ destinations.
Which is why I’m here to share with you five roads less traveled in New Zealand that are definitely worth your time and gas money.
Note: Most of these drives require at least a full day, if not more.
And, if you want to see a map of where some of these mentioned spots lie, scroll down to the bottom of this post.
Starting up north and within easy driving distance from Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula. The area markets itself as “where Kiwis go on holiday!”, claiming to be a popular vacation destination among local New Zealanders. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I can agree that the Coromandel Peninsula is worth a visit for a day or two.
Hop on the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Auckland, and take the scenic loop around the Coromandel Peninsula. The highway winds along a spectacular coastline, with ocean on one side and rainforest-draped mountains on the other.
- Hot Water Beach, where, at low tide, you can dig your own hot tub, allowing it to fill with geothermally-heated water.
- Cathedral Cove, where a 40-minute hike takes you down to a spectacular beach nestled beneath natural rock formations. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can spot penguins here.
- Whitianga in Mercury Bay. If your itinerary doesn’t allow for the hike down to Cathedral Cove, sign up for a boat tour here (I recommend Cave Cruzer Adventures), which will allow you to see Cathedral Cove and many other nearby natural rock formations along with a variety of wildlife from the water.
- The towns of Thames and Coromandel.
- If you have the time, hiking to the Pinnacles in the Kaueranga Valley upriver from Thames (an overnight trip) is listed as one of NZ’s “true hidden treasures.”
Some other suggestions for the peninsula include: fishing; surfing at Whangamata or Pauanui; golfing; and learning about gold mining in Waihi, complete with a ride on Goldfields Railway through the Karangahake Gorge.
Further down the north island lies the small beachside town of Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast, a couple of hours northeast of Wellington. Castlepoint was named in 1770 by Captain James Cook, who was reminded of castle battlements when sailing past Castle Rock.
Castlepoint is home to a lighthouse that sits upon Castle Rock, sand dunes, and a reef that encloses a blue-green lagoon. Castlepoint is by far one of the windiest places I’ve ever visited, but also one of the most naturally beautiful.
If you’re starting out in Wellington, the drive to this stunning spot involves traversing through the Wairarapa wine country.
- Stop at a winery along the way, or perhaps stay at a B&B in the heart of wine country in Martinborough.
- Once at Castlepoint, you can climb on and around Castle Rock up to the lighthouse, where you’ll get some spectacular views of the reef and lagoon.
- Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as seals and sea lions.
Prepare to leave Castlepoint coated in sand from the strong coastal winds. But, I promise, it’s worth every crunchy grain lodged between your teeth.
West Coast of the South Island
Hopping down to the South Island, be sure to explore the rugged west coast before heading further south. Many people ignore the west coast of New Zealand entirely when they visit the country. The west coast of the south island is especially remote (it markets itself as “wild”), and is often characterized by wet, foggy weather. But, by all accounts, it is beautiful in its own right.
A favorite jumping-off point for a west coast adventure is Greymouth, situated in the northern half of the south island, almost directly across the island from Christchurch. If you’re looking for an interesting way to get across the island, check out the TranzAlpine train, which cuts a path through the Southern Alps from Christchurch to Greymouth and back each day.
From Greymouth, hop on State Highway 6 and discover yet another side of New Zealand.
- If you head north, stop at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, located about halfway between Greymouth and Westport, which mark the gateway to Paparoa National Park.
- If you head south, don’t miss out on seeing the Franz Josef and/or Fox glaciers in Westland National Park. If you have time, definitely go glacier trekking.
Be prepared for the west coast’s quickly-changing weather, along with some impressive coastal vistas.
While in the South Island, be sure to allow time to explore the Otago Peninsula if you’re going to spend any time in or around Dunedin. Take the harborside road from Dunedin, which will give you views of bays and inlets, sandy beaches, and sheep-dotted hills on your way to Taiaroa Head.
- Larnach Castle and gardens. Touted as the only castle in Australasia, Larnach Castle really does look like something plucked right out of the Scottish highlands and plunked down in New Zealand. Built in 1871 by William Larnach and restored over the past few decades, the “castle” comes complete with a history of scandal and a reputation for ghosts.
- Catch a glimpse of rare yellow-eyed penguins (some of the rarest in the world) in a wildlife preserve habitat at Penguin Place.
- The Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, where you can view a rare natural albatross colony — the only mainland breeding colony for the big birds in the southern hemisphere, in fact. Sign up for a tour at the visitor’s center, watch the birds from the Richdale Observatory, tour Fort Taiaroa, or simply watch for free from atop the cliff at Taiaroa point.
On the way back from the tip of the peninsula, take “the high road,” also known as Highcliff Road, which offers fantastic views over the whole region. If you can time this drive to coincide with sunset, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Southern Scenic Route and the Catlins
From the Otago Peninsula, the next drive that makes the most sense is taking the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins to Invercargill. This might possibly be one of my favorite things I did while living in New Zealand for five months — and that’s saying something!
Beginning in Dunedin, follow the route first through rolling farmland and then along the south island’s rugged coast. There’s a lot to choose from along the Southern Scenic Route, so be sure to pick up a detailed map before you leave so you can plan your journey accordingly.
- Tunnel Beach, where a half-hour hike will take you to striking sandstone sea cliffs, arches, stacks, caves, and a beach accessed by a stairway tunnel. Tunnel Beach Road is closed during lambing season (September/October), however.
- Nugget Point and Roaring Bay. At the right time of year, you may see yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand fur seals, Southern elephant seals, and Hooker sea lions at Roaring Bay. Continue on to the lighthouse at Nugget Point (perhaps a 10-minute walk), which has spectacular coastal views and rock formations that give the area its name.
- Purakaunui Falls, or nearby Matai Falls. Both waterfalls are located within podocarp forests, and take 15 minutes or less to reach from parking lots.
- Cathedral Caves, which are only accessible at low tide. The trek to these spectacular sea caves includes bush and beach walking, which may take up to 45 minutes one-way. There is a small fee for this attraction, but the views will be worth it.
- Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay. Rare Hector’s dolphins call scenic Porpoise Bay home, and Curio Bay boasts one of the world’s most extensive and least disturbed examples of Jurassic fossilized forest. The petrified forest is best viewed at low tide, though the area is worthy of a visit at any time of day.
Before you head into Invercargill, consider driving down to Bluff, the southern-most city on New Zealand’s south island. It touts itself as being the place “where the highway starts,” and the international signpost at Stirling Point is a popular spot for photos. If it’s a clear day, head up to Bluff Hill, where you may be able to spot Stewart Island away in the distance. You can take a ferry over to the island, if you dare brave the treacherous Foveaux Strait.
These five drives don’t really even begin to scratch the surface, of course. New Zealand has so many stunning spots to discover that it would be impossible to list them all. But these, I think, are a good start.
You also will want to check out the drive between Queenstown and Wanaka, the trip up the middle of the south island through Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, the north island Desert Road through Tongariro National Park with views of the volcanoes… and the list really goes on and on.
Hopefully these roads less traveled will give you some inspiration for your New Zealand adventure. Or, at the very least, inspire you to venture off the beaten path.
Do you like to get off the beaten path when you travel? What's the most out-of-the-way place you've ever been?