New Zealand Road Trip Route

Parked at Manuia Springs campsite

Our two month campervan road trip of New Zealand is over and we had a great time. The New Zealand road trip route took us from Tauranga, North Island to Fiordland in the South and back. We drove over 6200km and saw countless beautiful sights.

Freedom camping near the beach in Hawkes Bay
Freedom camping near Napier, Hawkes Bay

Planning Our New Zealand Road Trip Route

Small as New Zealand is – equivalent to Colorado – there’s a lot to see and do. Before we hopped in the van, we didn’t have much of a plan besides seeing as much as we could. We bookmarked Lonely Planet, read people’s blogs, and used Google Maps to decide where to go and what to do.

Once we started driving, we only knew where we were going next. Then, as the days progressed, we booked two things weeks in advance: the Doubtful Sound overnight cruise, and the Kaikoura Coastal Walk. Everything else we booked a day or two in advance or last minute.

We tried to mix it up, visiting both popular and “off-the-beaten” path places. Plus, we hiked and biked, met up with friends, and even relaxed a little. Our New Zealand road trip route took us from Tauranga in the North Island to the South Island fiords and lots in between.


We stayed in all sorts of campgrounds, and used airbnbs in Wellington and Christchurch for convenience and comfort. Having a campervan in New Zealand is pretty handy.

freedom camping sign, Napier, New Zealand
Freedom camping sign

Where We Went in Our Campervan: Road Trip Recap

Since we already explored from Whangerei to Auckland to Tauranga by land and sea, we drove south. We spent eight weeks: a week on the North, six weeks on the South, then a final week on the North Island.

New Zealand road trip route map
Our New Zealand road trip route

Eight weeks for a road trip is long, but the time flew by! We were so lucky to have all that time. Here’s a recap of our road trip.

North island: Tauranga to Wellington

Before we left Tauranga, our only booking was for the ferry across the channel to the south island on January 30th. We left on the 23rd, which gave us a week to travel 524km. We could have done that in one day, but we took seven and camped by lakes and oceans and visited wineries, breweries, funny and pretty viewpoints, biked and hiked. That’s what we did all along the entire New Zealand road trip route.

Week one of New Zealand road trip route map
In our first week we travelled from Tauranga to Wellington

We drove 144km and spent two nights in a freedom camping spot in Taupo, just south of Rotorua. While there, we visited the beautiful waterfall and raced around their mountain bike park.

Hawkes Bay

After Taupo, we headed east for 144km to one of New Zealand’s famous wine regions. The freedom campsites in this region are conveniently located and nice, the surroundings are lovely, and the wineries wonderful. We stayed three nights in two different campgrounds. Hawkes Bay remains a favorite.

Art deco buildings, architecture
Art deco downtown Napier
Two Stops Before Wellington

Between Hawkes Bay and Wellington, we stopped at two freedom camping sites. First was the Mangatinoka Reserve, conveniently located across the road from Tui Brewery, and second, Lake Domain, with black swans and lots of stars at night.


Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, is very different from Auckland. It’s grittier, less polished, but still has some great museums and nightlife.

Waka, Te Papa museum
Waka at Wellington’s excellent Te Papa museum

Wellington is known as the windiest city in the world. I literally had to hold onto my hat so much I just gave up and took it off.

South Island: crisscrossing the south

To start our second week exploring New Zealand by campervan, we took an early afternoon ferry to the South Island. The ferry trip is almost four hours, but we had to arrive at least 60 minutes early to check in. Then we got to explore New Zealand’s South Island.

Car line up, ferry in Wellington, New Zealand
The car line up for the ferry from North to South

Our six week South Island adventure began in the heart of the Marlborough wine region. Blenheim offers free overnight camping downtown, a convenient bike ride to all the attractions, including the wineries.

wine tasting, glasses of wine
Tasting Marlborough wines
Pelorus Bridge
New Zealand Road Trip Route Map, South Island week1
Our route, week 1 South Island

After Blenheim we headed northwest towards Nelson, aiming for Abel Tasman Park. While we could easily have done the drive in one shot, we took some friends’ advice and drove 66km to overnight at the beautiful Pelorus Bridge DOC campsite. After some hiking, we even went swimming in the cold river.

Pelorus River, New Zealand
The Pelorus River

Nelson is an adventure town, with awesome hiking and biking trails. We freedom camped in a convenient downtown parking lot. Billed as the sunniest city in New Zealand, we endured a torrential downpour with hail. Good thing that along with the trails, Nelson has fine museums and excellent craft beer bars!

parking lot, campervans
The parking lot for freedom camping in Nelson

We continued west further into parklands for two nights at a holiday park in Kaiteriteri. Home to one of New Zealand’s best beaches, Kaiteriteri was crowded because it was a holiday weekend. We did a combo sea kayaking-hiking tour and went biking in the local mountain bike park.

Kaiteriteri Beach, New Zealand South Island
Kaiteriteri Beach
Heading Back East

We were booked for a two day hike on the east coast, 304km from Kaiteriteri, so we broke up the trip over two nights. The first was on Kina Beach on the Tasman Sea, which offered lovely beach walks. Then we drove 226km to The Store campsite, another beautiful beachfront spot.

The Store campground at the beach New Zealand
The Store campsite was beautiful
Kaikoura Walk

The two day Kaikoura Walk included accommodations in cottages on farmland owned by the walk organizers. We saw a lot of sheep and cows in addition to seals on the beach over the course of the 26km two day hike, enjoyed the company of the two other couples also hiking, and got a break from the campervan.

Seal on the beach
We walked by seals on the beach near Kaikoura
Hot Springs
map, New Zealand south island
The second week of our South island drive

After Kaikoura, we went west to two hot springs. The first, Hanmer Springs, even had water slides! Then, Maruia, less than 80km away and more exclusive. Only guests at the resort, including campers, can use the hot springs. We treated ourselves to dinner in the fancy restaurant and and enjoyed the restorative waters.

Maruia Hot Springs, New Zealand Road Trip Route
Maruia Hot Springs
West Coast – Wind and Sand Flies

It was our third week exploring New Zealand by campervan when we decided on a whim to check out the northwest of New Zealand. Part of the beauty of having both time and a vehicle, besides seeing the natural wonders, is making decisions on the fly.

Lewis Pass map Kaikoura west
We took the Lewis Pass across from Kaikoura

We spent one night in the only freedom camping park in Westport, alongside the beach. After cycling and hiking along a lot of coastal pathways for stunning seaside views, we moved 100km south to Greymouth.

Cape Foulwind on our New Zealand road trip route
Stunning scenery near Westport at Cape Foulwind

The west coast is known for both sand flies and wind, and we got a lot of both. The towns are not accommodating to freedom camping, most have only one site removed from any attractions or amenities. We were glad to have our bikes.

New Zealand road trip route map South island west
The west coast part of our South island road trip
Franz Josef

We continued south for the glaciers, which have receded massively in the last 50 years, but the weather was not on our side. Soon after we arrived in Franz Josef it poured for over 24 hours. We probably needed the down time but we and everyone else there were stir crazy by the end of the storm. So we attempted multiple hikes in both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier next door, but the rain and fog persisted. We pulled up stakes and drove inland and were we glad we did! Those aren’t our first glaciers anyway.

cloudy Franz Josef glacier
Lots of clouds in Franz Josef

Our introduction to the stunning Southern Alps, Wanaka was a whirlwind. In two days and two nights, we watched a triathlon, biked around the hills, and hiked the gorgeous and very steep Roy’s Peak.

Panorama Roy's Peak view, lakes, mountains
Panorama from Roy’s Peak

After that arduous 16km climb up 1200+ meters, we rewarded ourselves with a private spa including hot tub and sauna at the holiday park!

Private baths, hot tubs, Wanaka Holiday Park
Nice to have private baths after a long hike!
Te Anau and Doubtful Sound

One of the few excursions we booked ahead was the Doubtful Sound overnight cruise. Since we live on a boat, we generally avoid boat tours, but for Fiordland, we made an exception, and this was a highlight of New Zealand for us.

Doubtful Sound, fjordland
We had lovely weather for our Doubtful Sound cruise

Our tour left Te Anau on a Tuesday morning and returned Wednesday afternoon, so we spent Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday nights there.

rainbow, Lake Te Anau, Fjordland, New Zealand
A rainbow over Lake Te Anau, Fjordland

We broke up our drive to Queenstown with a night in this quiet little town on the bottom of Lake Whakatipu. While there, we cycled some of the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail while staying at the Top 10.

campground, campervans, mountain
Our campground in Kingston

Queenstown began the “beautiful but busy” section of our South Island tour. This lakeside spot at the base of Ben Lomond is very popular, a ski resort in summertime. We liked the natural beauty, the multiple bike trails, and the nearby wineries, but only stayed two nights due to the crowds.

river view, green trees blue river
A viewpoint on the bike trail in Gibbston
New Zealand road trip map, South Island
Week 5 from Queenstown to Christchurch

We broke up the trip from Queenstown to Mount Cook with a night in Omarama, a sleepy mountain town with a sheep statue.

Omarama sheep on our New Zealand road trip route
Omarama sheep sculpture
Aoraki/Mount Cook

Another campsite we booked in advance was the DOC site at the foot of Aoraki Mount Cook. New Zealand’s biggest mountain gets thousands of visitors daily for day hikes. We arrived early afternoon, parked our van and then cycled some of the nearby Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail. The campground is ideally located next to the start of several hiking trails, so we got up the next day and did two hikes before escaping the crowds and tour buses.

hiking trail, Hooker Track, Mount Cook
Me about to do our second hike at Mount Cook
Lake Tekapo

Leaving Mount Cook early meant we could stay the night in pretty Lake Tekapo, and give ourselves a soak in the baths after a double hike day. Approximately 104K from Mount Cook, the main attractions of Lake Tekapo are the hot Tekapo Springs, the Dark Sky Project and an old church.

Tekapo Springs, hot pools
We relaxed in Tekapo Springs
Christchurch Area

After a month in the South Island, we aimed for the east coast and Christchurch, to meet up with our friends Ian and Ann from S/V Afrikii.

Between Tekapo and Christchurch, we found a pub in an outlying suburb which allows freedom camping in one of their parking lots.

The next day it was a quick drive to the south island’s biggest city, which feels like a town, albeit one with excellent street art. The Quake City museum informed us about the 2010-2011 earthquakes which changed Christchurch dramatically, but we focused on reuniting with our friends, which we did for a few days in Christchurch and the nearby southern coastal town of Akaroa. After four nights in the CHCH area, we left Ian and Ann, who’d just begun their road trip.

campervan in a parking lot with graffiti mural
Our campervan parked in a Christchurch lot

With a ferry booked for Friday, on Tuesday we headed north for a few last must dos on the South island.

Road trip map, New Zealand
Heading back on our road trip.
Back North to Kaikoura and Picton

We backtracked for one night in Kaikoura, then to Picton and a tour of the Marlborough Sounds, which included a water taxi and a beautiful hike.

Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Another beautiful hike along the Marlborough Sounds

Luck had it that our friends from S/V Lupina had a ferry the same day so we met them for one last drink in Picton.

End of the road: northbound on the north island

Two Nights in Wellington

We stayed the weekend in Wellington and it was both Fringe and Pride fest, so we saw a little of both. We had one more festival to get to before the end of our New Zealand road trip: WOMAD.

The Last Leg: Heading North to New Plymouth for WOMAD

After Wellington, we drove north about 60km and spent one night freedom camping near a park in Waikanae. While there, we biked along the river, visited a brewery and a cool new coffee shop.

New Zealand road trip route North Island west
End of the New Zealand road trip

Next, we detoured inland to Ohakune. The 229km drive took most of the day because we stopped twice to get Brian’s bicycle fixed, which we finally did in Palmerston North.

Another ski town in the off-season, Ohakune was charming but very quiet. One of our favorite things there was the bike trails. For our first ride in Ohakune, we got driven to the ski lodge at Mount Ruapehu, the tallest mountain on the North Island, and biked down the road. It was exhilarating!

Mountain, nature, New Zealand
Mount Ruapehu

We spent 2 nights there and were going to extend another to do the Tongariro Mountain Crossing, a famous day hike, but the weather didn’t cooperate. We still enjoyed our time in the Carrot capitol of New Zealand.

For our last stop before New Plymouth, we freedom camped downtown by the river in Whanganui. An artsy town with excellent mid-20th century architecture, the food scene was kind of blah, but we loved the street art and the elevator in the hill.

tunnel to elevator, Durie Elevator
A tunnel dug into the mountain takes you to the Durie Elevator
The Final Weekend: New Plymouth and WOMAD

We’ve been dreaming of going to a music festival in New Zealand, and WOMAD was fantastic! We loved the cool Kiwis in their colorful clothes and the incredible musicians from all over the world: we saw bands from several continents and had a fun day dancing and clapping along. It was a great way to celebrate the end of our eight week adventure on the road.

Band onstage at WOMAD fest
Pongo at WOMAD New Zealand

Thanks for reading about our New Zealand road trip route. We were fortunate to have a lot of time to travel around this beautiful country.

What’s the best road trip you’ve ever done? Let me know in the comments, I want to do more!

New Zealand Road Trip Pin
Please pin
New Zealand Road Trip Route pin
Pin it!
New Zealand Road Trip pictures, pin
Please pin

Author: Mel

Living aboard a sailboat, blogging about the places we visit and the adventures we have. Love hiking, cycling, scuba, animals and adventure.

10 thoughts on “New Zealand Road Trip Route”

  1. Hi Mel and Brian,
    very interesting summary. And of course we fully agree with you: one of the best road trips you can do. Also we enjoyed it to great extent.
    Looking forward to reading further adventures of you 2 and hope to see you somewhere and somewhen again.
    Pia and Kobi / SY Lupina

  2. My wife and I did a campervan trip in NZ last year, both north and south islands, about 4000 km. and was one of the greatest experiences of our lives. NZ is one of those places we would definitely return to. Cheers!

  3. As RVers I’ve always known that when we go to New Zealand we will 100% be seeing it via van. This is an awesome guide, definitely saving it for when we’ll need it!

    1. Thanks, Laura! I know a lot of people who drove around NZ and stayed at airbnbs but we loved the van. It gave us so much flexibility.

  4. Great road trip itinerary! New Zealand is such a beautiful country, I wish its wasn’t that far away!!! Mount Cook hike and Southern Alps are high on the list for possible future visit

  5. WOW – what an adventure! I did all your North island stops, but now you have reignited my desire to go back and explore the South island. NZ is such an amazing place!

Leave a Reply