The perfect road trip through New Zealand

Road trip through New Zealand

The perfect road trip through New Zealand

Winding road leading to Mt Cook along lake Pukaki in New Zealand

Winding road leading to Mt Cook / Aoraki mountain along the turquoise waters of lake Pukaki in New Zealand south island. This is one of the most famous viewpoint in the country. (Winding road leading to Mt Cook / Aoraki mountain along the turquoise wa

A trip across New Zealand in a van: a road trip with lots to discover…

I have seldom cried as much as in New Zealand. Because so many corners in this small country on what feels like the ass of the world are so incredibly beautiful. Not even Instagram posts prettied up beyond recognition come close to the pretentious dreamscapes that are part of everyday life there. Completely stunned by this beauty, I often sat in my van, overjoyed to be here right now and to be able to call this natural splendor everyday. All about stops, places and attractions of my New Zealand tour.

The road trip at a glance on the map

The stations of the road trip

North Island ) Auckland – Raglan – New Plymouth – Taupo – Paekakariki – Wellington – ( from here South Island ) Abel Tasman National Park – Tauranga Bay – Franz Joseph Glacier – Fox Glacier – Mount Cook – Wanaka – Queenstown – Milford Sound – Dunedin – Tekapo – Fairlie – Christchurch – Akaroa – Kaikoura – ( from here North Island ) Napier – Gisborne – Rotorua – Coromandel Peninsula – Whangarei – Bay of Islands – Cape Reinga – Kaitaia – Kohukohu – Rawene – Waipoua Forest – Piha – Auckland

What to look out for when choosing a vehicle

The van was just as romantic and nature-loving hippie chic as it was absolutely practical and logical. Because if you want to have the world of paradise under your nose day and night and also want to travel cheaply and flexibly, the best way to do that is in a van. You can buy it or rent it privately or from official landlords. But you should make sure that the van is self-contained, i.e. equipped with a toilet, sink and water containers. If you are caught wild camping without the blue and white sticker, you quickly collect a $200 fine (around 118 euros), especially on the South Island.


Anna Wengel drove through New Zealand in a van for months. On TRAVELBOOK she gives tips for the perfect holiday route across the two islands. 

Auckland, Raglan and New Plymouth

After this little introduction, we’re off: Auckland. In my case arrival airport and van location. You can definitely devote a few days to the metropolis and visit the famous harbor, the city center with Queen and Hobson Street and Co. or the surrounding area such as Titirangi. If you want to go straight to the sea and sleep there, you can drive to Muriwai Beach – a dream view directly from the van and surf spot.

Auckland: Travelers to New Zealand should devote a few days to the city in the north 

Once out of Auckland and beyond, the van weaves its way around curves between escarpments and vast ravines planted with palm trees and other greenery. The setting is so pretty that you almost have to force yourself to keep your eyes on the winding road and not accidentally steer the van into Hobbitland, from which Aragorn, Legolas and the like could spring out at any second. With all this distraction, don’t forget: In New Zealand , people drive on the left.

Surfers, wannabes and those who enjoy the laid-back surfing lifestyle stay at Raglan. The surfing capital of New Zealand is now very popular, but not nearly as hipster-overloaded as other surfing hotspots in the world. The classic surfer type feels just as comfortable here as the influencer and the mother with her children. Off-road, the van rumbles on from Raglan to New Plymouth. The small town is slightly larger than the almost neighboring wave paradise and is also popular with surfers.

Taupo, volcanoes and desert

Masses of people are carted onto Lake Taupo every day – and with good reason. The huge glittering lake is framed by green forested mountains and volcanic peaks bathed in mist. The painting-like backdrop is pimped by various nearby natural attractions. Two examples worth seeing are the lunar crater landscapes, which invite Neil Armstrong fantasies, and the Huka Falls. They are populated by lots of selfie addicts who document every milliliter of the water masses, but the small detour is still worth it. A little further away from the waterfall there are some nice hiking trails that are not visited by so many tourists.

Lake Taupo with Mt Ruapehu (2797m left), Mt Ngauruhoe (2291m) and Mt Tongariro (1968m right) on the distant shore in Tongariro National Park.

Taupo, North Island, Waikato, New Zealand, Australasia

The small town of Taupo attracts many tourists with its dreamlike scenery of lake, mountains and volcanoes as well as beautiful natural spectacles nearby 

There are two routes from Taupo that I was so excited about that I recommend everyone to drive twice from the interior of the island to the south. One route goes uphill and downhill through Tongario and Whanganui National Parks. Without a cell phone network, you rumble along gravel roads for hours. Thanks to the deep gorges, they can make the legs of those who panic about heights tremble. In combination with isolated, partly dilapidated and still inhabited farms, they offer the ideal backdrop for a teens-get-lost-in-the-woods horror film. The other, less adrenaline-pumping way is via the highway right through the Rangipo Desert. Sometimes with an outback or Mojave desert feeling, you drive here for what feels like an eternity through the steppe-like flat land, past volcanoes on the right and military training grounds on the left.

Paekakariki and Wellington

If you want to make a little stop before getting windy in New Zealand’s capital, you can drive to the small but charming Paekakariki. There is not much going on here, but it used to be. “Lord of the Rings” fans and other film set friends should be happy: Queen Elizabeth Park is one of many freely accessible film locations in the country.

Once in Wellington, be sure to drive off the Miramar Peninsula’s North Tip Coastal Drive. There are some overnight accommodation options here by van. They are rather meager in the center of Wellington. However, the city center is still worth a walk.

Ferries depart from Wellington to Picton, the South Island ferry port.

Abel Tasman National Park and South Island West Coast

Arriving on the South Island, the first destination is the Abel Tasman National Park with its wide sandy beaches, small bays, granite cliffs and various hiking trails through dense forest. If you have walked and paddled enough, continue to the west coast. There are seals here – a lot of seals. They lie on a huge rock on Tauranga Bay, seemingly undisturbed by the flashes of numerous tourist cameras nearby. By the way, the pretty stretch of beach at Tauranga Bay looks pretty much the same today as it did in 2008.

A woman is sea kayaking the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park
The huge Abel Tasman National Park is a natural playground for all hiking and paddling enthusiasts 

The west coast becomes a place of longing for Portugal lovers from around Woodpecker Bay . Here the van curves along a coastal road (State Highway 6) along cliffs that reminded me of the characteristic rock shapes of the Algarve . As in the south of Europe, sometimes meter-high waves roll in here, smacking the rough cliffs with full force. A popular and heavily visited tourist destination on the way: the Pancake Rocks. They really look like a lot of pancakes stacked on top of each other. Unlike in the past, however, you are no longer allowed to climb them. Selfie Death Danger!

The Pancake Rocks are one of the popular tourist destinations on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island 

Mount Cook, Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers

State Highway 6 can be followed as far as the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers and almost as far as New Zealand’s highest mountain , Mount Cook . If you feel like gazing at the glacier, you should hurry up a bit. If you have a personal before and after comparison or look at pictures from the past, the change can be frightening – not much is left of this once lush ice landscape.

Glacier death can also be observed in New Zealand. Here is the comparison between 2008 (photo above) and 2018 (photo below) at Fox Glacier. 


It’s almost 330 kilometers from the glaciers to Queenstown – depending on the type of vehicle, it can take a few hours more than the four hours calculated by Google Maps. If you want to take a break in between, you should stop in the small, charming town of Wanaka.


A fearless stomach is required before you finally reach what I think is the most atmospheric city in the South Island. Curves after curves meander down the mountain to Queenstown. Arrived at New Zealand’s third largest inland lake, Lake Wakatipu, all the stomach turns were worth it. Queenstown is a quaint spot that attracts party-loving backpackers, nature lovers and adrenaline seekers. In addition to numerous hiking trails, close to the city at the foot of the southern Alps, you can jump into huge gorges, jump out of small planes or swing onto the highest swing in the world. Anyone who has always toyed with the idea should definitely seize the opportunity and jump, swing or fly – the adrenaline rush and the scenery together ensure unforgettable experiences.

Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park

New Zealand or Europe? Thanks to the similar vegetation on the Emerald Isle in the South Pacific, it’s easy to get lost. For example on the way to and below Milford Sound. Small houses in Swedish design and fjords and lakes reminiscent of Norway can be seen here, as well as less typical Scandinavian but definitely worth mentioning keas. The funny mountain parrots jump around and onto the vehicle from about the height of Mount Christina and keep motorists busy while they take photos here and there or wait in front of a tunnel end. In addition to keas, seals and, with a bit of luck, dolphins are the animal companions on the Fiordland trip, which also conjures up beautiful mountain landscapes and enchanting waterfalls with a rainbow guarantee in front of the camera lens.

Milford Sound, Fjordland, New Zealand
Milford Sound is a beautiful fjordland paradise that feels like you’ve come to the end of the world Photo: Getty Images

Dunedin and Tekapo

If you want to get to know New Zealand’s party scene, you should definitely go to Dunedin. You can go out in any city, of course, but Dunedin attracts even party-happy Kiwis. If you don’t feel like getting drunk and dancing the night away, you’ll find something to do in Dunedin. For example, walking up the steepest street in the world . Baldwin Street is almost 350 meters long and has a gradient of about 35 percent.

Lake Tekapo – a dream backdrop of glittering lake and New Zealand Alps 

Before moving from this city to the next, mountain and lake lovers should definitely make a detour to Tekapo – and everyone else too. Because: The small town is located on a glittering lake typical of the country, surrounded by a mighty mountain backdrop. Here you can see Mount Cook and its fellow Alps (yes, there really are the New Zealand Alps!) from the other side. Those who come early in the morning and later in the evening may be lucky, but usually you can watch crowds of tourists posing between cameras and the lake. By the way, shortly after Tekapo there are supposedly the best pies in New Zealand. I can’t really say whether the fat pastries from the Fairlie Bakehouse are really the tastiest, but they are definitely delicious.

Christchurch to Kaikoura

Christchurch is the name of the next destination – scene of the massive earthquake in 2011. I was there in 2008 and now I hardly recognize Christchurch. The earthquake not only shows signs, the city is completely changed. In my memory, a lively metropolis, Christchurch feels rather dreary today. Only the numerous graffiti works of art on the ruined walls and house walls are reminiscent of the city of yesteryear and give its center an artistically morbid charm.

Historic tram passing through New Regent street, known for its Spanish mission-style architecture. [Image taken pre-2011 earthquake]

Christchurch, South Island, Canterbury, New Zealand, Australasia

Christchurch is a colorful mix of old and new 

More life is in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, about an hour from Christchurch. The charming bay town is the starting point of various boats that go out to watch dolphins. You can also rent kayaks and go in search of dolphins yourself. Kaikoura attracts tourists with slightly larger sea creatures: the small town on the north-east coast is the whale-watching capital of the South Island.

Kaikoura is about two hours from Picton. From here the ferry takes the van and its crew back to the North Island.

east coast of the North Island

Back on the North Island there are a few cities to explore before the next and my absolute highlight is due. Napier for example. The place immediately reminded me of a Californian getaway for the well-heeled. As a barefoot van driver without a neat haircut, you might be looked at in a bit of amazement, but the visit is worth it for the good coffee. For coffee lovers, Six Sisters Coffee House should be the destination of choice. The nearest towns are a little less posh and just as worth seeing: Gisborne with its pretty beach, which you can stroll along undisturbed for hours. Rotorua, with its chic lakeside setting, geysers and abundance of Maori artifacts – not quite on the way but definitely worth a stop.

Coromandel Peninsula

Ah, Coromandel. Definitely the highlight of my trip. You can plan a few days for the small peninsula. Up the west coast, the van jerks over sometimes adventurous gravel roads, through water and green mountains that appear almost fake, reminiscent of Ireland with their flashy colors and sharp curves. Especially in a van it is wonderful to sleep here, depending on the season you are all alone in many places up north. Not only is there a lack of people from time to time, the mobile phone network is also becoming rare.

The north and interior of the Coromandel Peninsula offer numerous opportunities for sometimes strenuous hikes. My favourite: the Pinnacles Trail. You hike and climb around 18 kilometers up and down and, according to your smartphone, 228 floors here through the forest. The journey may be the goal, but the goal itself is also pretty good.

The Coromandel Peninsula with its breathtaking rainbows, dreamy landscapes and especially the Pinnacles Trail is one of the highlights of travel book author Anna Wengel.

Another, less sweaty, highlight on the peninsula: flocks of pigs. They stand in the way of motorists on the gravel road from Coromandel to Waiau Falls and grunt for food.

Whangarei and Bay of Islands

Coastal roads lead from the Coromandel Peninsula to Auckland. If you want to go faster, take the highway. With the port city behind you, the journey takes you north, to what is known as Northland. Irish-green meadows stretch here over secluded hill and mountain landscapes, where you can expect a hobbit behind every tree. The first destination is Whangarei, the laid-back northern city where time has stood still in at least one place: the magical little beach and the path to Whale Bay appear unchanged from 2008. Those who are a bit tired of the van life can go to sleep in the jail in Whangarei. Once a 1960s prison, The Cell Block hostel still invites its guests to sleep behind bars.

Small islands connect with a large bay and turquoise waters about 70 kilometers north of Whangarei to form the Bay of Islands. It’s as pretty as it is historic, this is the part of New Zealand where the first European settlers settled. The Rainbow Falls near Kerikeri are also pretty pretty. If you fancy a slippery adventure, you can try to get behind the water masses. As in the rest of the country, you can of course also hike here.

From Cape Reinga back to Auckland

The North of the North is the next destination: Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip and the place to watch the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. This is also where the souls of the dead jump off to make their way to Hawaiki, the mystical place of Maori culture. Then you can’t see it. From the Cape, the trail heads back past Spirits Bay to the east and Ninety Miles Beach to the west. Driving is allowed on the beach, but if you don’t want to live permanently on the beach with your van, you should rather walk.

The route takes a side road through the charming towns of Kaitaia, Kohukohu and Rawene to the Waipoua Forest and thus to the largest known kauri tree: Tāne Mahuta. It is more than 50 meters high and has a diameter of more than four meters.

The last two stops on the way to Auckland are Kitekite Falls and surfing hotspot Piha. Back in Auckland it’s time to say goodbye – to the nomadic life in the van and the mini world of natural beauty.