Auckland to Christchurch via Bay of Islands, Tongariro, Nelson & Tranzalpine
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Auckland’s stunning harbour is the centerpiece of New Zealand’s largest and most international city. This is the ‘City of Sails,’ boasting more boats per capita than anywhere else in the world. Forty-eight dormant volcanoes are located around the city, including Mt Eden, from which you can enjoy superb views of the city. Alternatively, get a superb city from from the top of Sky Tower, in the city center. If you have time, jump on the ferry to Rangitoto Island, where you can climb to the summit of this extinct volcano in the middle of Auckland harbour. Great restaurants abound, including in swanky Viaduct Harbour, on the edge of the city centre.
Auckland to Bay of Islands
Head north from Auckland, up the Hibiscus Coast towards New Zealand’s winterless north. A scenic mix of lush, rolling farmland and stunning golden coastline characterises the route up to Paihia and the Bay of Islands. In Paihia, find yourself presented with an abundance of options, from exploring the nearby historic townships of Russell and Kerikeri, to taking a cruise on the bay to visit Hole in the Rock. Just out of town are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, historic scene of the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Those with more time can make the visit to the northern tip of New Zealand at Cape Reinga, with possible stops at 90-mile beach and the ancient Kauri forests at Puketi en route.
Bay of Islands
Enjoy a relaxed day in the immediate vicinity of Paihia; exploring a kaleidescope of ocean vistas and historic attractions – or alternatively take on a wider exploration of the delights of Northland. Those happy to clock up some distance can travel to Cape Reinga, at the northwesternmost tip of the North Island. Those wishing to explore 90-mile beach can take daily tours departing Paihia. Alternatively, head west from Paihia to Waipoua Forest – the best preserved and largest of the remaining Kauri Forests in New Zealand.
Bay of Islands to Auckland
Make your way back south to Auckland. Take a walk to view the impressive Whangarei falls, and consider detours of the main route – such as heading from Waipu out to Mangawai Heads, taking in glorious coastal scenery and tidy seaside villages. If you have little more time, consider a detour to Waipoua Forest on the west coast to see the largest Kauri Tree (Tane Mahuta) in New Zealand (about 5 hour drive). Estimated to be between 1250 and 2500 years old, it is the largest kauri known to stand today.
Auckland to Rotorua
The route from Auckland to Rotorua leads through rolling green farm country, so picturesque that it was featured in Lord of the Rings as Hobbiton, which can be found along the route at the town of Matamata. Rotorua offers a multitude of attractions, from adventurous thrills – including rafting the world-famous Kaituna Rapids – to the quiet relaxation of the Redwood forest, and the many thermal areas within and around Rotorua. Farm tours, Maori cultural performances, kiwi viewing, world-class mountain biking and mud spas are all the many offerings available in Rotorua.
As one of the North Island’s main tourist hubs, there is more than enough to keep you extremely active during your time in Rotorua. There are of course the countless thermal parks and spas to visit, but also some unexpected wonders, such as Rotorua’s Redwood forest. The town is also home to some of the world’s best mountain biking, though a trip up Skyline Gondola may be of more interest to those not looking to overexert themselves! Birdwatchers will want to check out the Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust. And just about everyone should take a walk around Lake Rotorua, with its simmering vents showing just how thin the Earth’s crust is in this part of the world.
Rotorua to Taupo
The amount of time on the road today is relatively brief, leaving more time to explore some of the many attractions in the area. Between Rotorua and Taupo are the popular Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu thermal areas. At Wai-O-Tapu, the Lady Knox geyser is induced to erupt daily at 10:15am. Closer to Taupo is the unmissable Huka Falls, where in spectacular fashion over 200,000 litres of water squeezes through a narrow passage every second – the falls are New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction. On the shores of the deep blue of Lake Taupo, the township of Taupo can offer either relaxation or adrenalin. Taupo offers skydiving, jetboating, kayaking, bungy and many other adventurous activities.
Taupo to Tongariro National Park
Drive your way along the striking blue waters of Lake Taupo, arriving after about an hour at the amazing volcanoes of the World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park. Drive your way up to Whakapapa and enjoy some stunning walking in this alpine wilderness. During the summer months, walking the Tongariro Crossing is highly recommended, as it is regarded as one of the world’s best day walks. Note: this is a full day walk and preparation is essential.
Tongariro National Park to Wanganui
From the wonderful alpine wilderness of Tongariro, continue toward the lowlands of the wonderful Whanganui National Park. Take the route to Pipiriki where you can enjoy some canoeing on the river, or even a wilderness jetboat ride to the so-called Bridge to Nowhere. From Pipiriki, continue down the quiet scenic road following the Whanganui River toward the pleasant riverside city of Wanganui.
Wanganui to Wellington
Start off early for the route from Wanganui to Wellington, giving yourself more time to explore the capital in the afternoon. The route starts out leading you through more rolling green dairy farm country, eventually rejoining the coast to pass through the wonderful seaside towns of the Kapiti Coast. Finally, arrive in Wellington, New Zealand’s indisputably fantastic capital city. Although small by population, Wellington is dense with wonderful attractions, from its stunning harbour, to Te Papa Museum, the famous red Cable Car, the Beehive, and Zealandia sanctuary. Definitely a great place to keep you busy – the fact it has the best restaurants in New Zealand is just a bonus!
Wellington to Nelson
Take a flight from Wellington to the place that is arguably New Zealand’s arts capital: Nelson. Take a walk up to the Centre of New Zealand, visit the Cathedral, or just hang out in one of the towns many funky cafes. If you like the seaside, Tahunanui Beach, said to be excellent for swimming, and popular with walkers, joggers, windsurfers and sunseekers, is a mere 5km along the coast road from the town centre.
Abel Tasman Daytrip
Make the drive from Nelson to Marahau, access point to Abel Tasman National Park. This is a place of golden beaches, granite cliffs and deep blue ocean. It is synonymous with both kayaking and the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s nine designated Great Walks, so the recommended plan is to combine the two in a day trip in conjunction with one of the local operators.
Nelson to Kaikoura
Depart Nelson and head through the Marlborough region, making your way to the sunny city of Blenheim, located in one of New Zealand’s best known wine-growing regions. Consider a gourmet lunch at a winery, before continuing south on the brilliant coastal route to Kaikoura. Seafood lovers must be sure to stop by Nin’s Bin, for a sampling of some of New Zealand’s famous fresh lobster – before continuing on to the whale-watching mecca of New Zealand: Kaikoura.
Kaikoura to Christchurch
Early risers can enjoy one of the most special experiences in New Zealand, swimming with dolphins. Kaikoura is also a major whale watching destination, and you can consider a scenic flight or ferry trip to view these wonderful creatures. Fill up on local seafood for lunch, and make the drive south to Christchurch. Christchurch continues to recover from significant earthquake damage and increasingly boasts new sights and attractions for visitors. At the edge of the city is the Canterbury Museum, the Botanic Gardens, and Hagley Park, where you can enjoy punting along the Avon river. The International Antarctic Centre, near the airport, is another major Christchurch attraction, interesting for adults and kids alike. The Port Hills – formed by the crater of an extinct volcano that exploded six million years ago – offer great views back over the city.
Christchurch to Mt Cook
The route southwest from Christchurch heads first through the flat, agrarian landscape of the Canterbury Plains. Continue to Lake Tekapo, the most well-known and stunning of New Zealand’s glacial lakes. Visit the famous Church of the Good Shepherd on the lake shore, and consider taking part in some of the great activities available in town. From Tekapo, take the route up to Mt Cook township, and consider a walk to soak up the best views of Mt Cook itself – New Zealand’s highest peak.
Mt Cook to Queenstown
Heading south from Mt Cook, visit the alpine salmon farm near the town of Twizel (the highest-altitude Salmon on Earth!). Continue to the small township of Omarama, located in the dry, inland country of central Otago. Although small, Omarama is famous as one of the best sites in the world for glider flights, and once hosted the world championships. Make your way to the airfield if you’d like to go for a flight of your own. Otherwise, drive on to Cromwell, and find yourself in orchard country, with apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries all grown in abundance. Stop by one of the local fruit stands for some of the local ice cream. Finally, continue alongside the Kawarau River to Queenstown – with possible diversions to Kawarau Bungy or a local winery en route.
Queenstown to Wanaka
Make the short drive from Queenstown to the town of Arrowtown. Stroll the historic streets and check out the old Chinese gold mining settlement before continuing over the scenic Crown Range road to Wanaka. Pause at the top of the range to look back at stunning views of the valley and surrounding mountains, then follow the road along Cardrona River between hills covered with rippling tussock. Experience the rustic charm of one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels, Cardrona Hotel, and pass one of New Zealand’s family-friendly ski-fields as you wind gently down to Wanaka. Enjoy some of the great local walks and activities here, stroll the lake, and consider making a visit to Puzzling World
Wanaka to Franz Josef
Today’s long but spectacular drive leads from drier climate on the east side of the New Zealand Alps to the green wilderness of the West Coast. Drive past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, heading past Makarora and along one of the finest routes in New Zealand. Stop by some of the impressive waterfalls that line the route, making your way along the winding Haast Pass Highway as it descends down a narrow valley between towering mountains. Stop by the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre at Haast before heading up the coast to the glaciers.
Franz Josef to Hokitika
At the glaciers, opportunities for adventure are plenty, from glacier hikes and helicopter flights to scenic fixed-wing flights around Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest summit in New Zealand. Alternatively, head out for morning kayak trip on the dark, seductive waters of the stunning Lake Mapourika. Later on, hop in the car and make the drive north along a narrow strip of vibrant green farmland, wedged between the wild coast and the high mountains. Arrive in Hokitika, where you’ll find loads of pounamu (greenstone) and craft shops – along with plenty of places to eat whitebait, the tiny fish for which this area is justly renowned.
Hokitika to Christchurch, with Tranz Alpine Train
Take the short drive north from Hokitika to Greymouth. Drop off your rental vehicle and board the world-renowned Tranz Alpine train, which crosses the spectacular Southern Alps en route to Christchurch. The train heads through lush terrain, making its way through extraordinary scenery, heading into Arthur’s Pass National Park. Enjoy great vistas over deep gorges as the route makes its way along the Waimakariri River, leading down to the Canterbury Plains, finally arriving at the city of Christchurch. Pick up your vehicle and in the evening, consider going for a view over the city from the Port Hills.