Road tripping in New Zealand
Just you, a car, and some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes
Taking a trip of such epic proportions can be daunting. It starts with 28 hours on a plane and ends after 1,500 kilometres and 10 days on the road. But New Zealand’s South Island is the trip of a lifetime, and totally worth all the time, logistics and expense. Here’s how to do it.
Day 1 Queenstown
A two-hour flight from Auckland and huddled around the majestic Wakatipu lake, Queenstown makes a great starting point. Pick up your rental car at the airport but beware: New Zealand is strict on speeding and police are generous with tickets.
Use today to stock up on food for the road, as some areas (such as Mount Cook) don’t have many restaurants or any supermarkets. Then spend the evening soaking up Queenstown’s small-town feel with a drink. Or two.
Day 2 Aoraki /Mount Cook National Park
At 3,724 metres, Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain and the crowning glory of the Southern Alps. The national park surrounding it is packed with hiking trails, but after a three-hour drive from Queenstown, the short hour-long trek to the Tasman Glaciers and Blue Lakes is a perfect leg-stretcher.
While it’s possible to make a day trip to Aoraki, it’s better to spend the night so you can stargaze at the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and take another hike. The Hooker Valley trail is a long but easy walk that takes around three hours and has the most stunning views. You’ll soon realise you don’t need to be a good photographer to capture a beautiful picture in New Zealand because the scenery does all the work for you. And unlike in neighbouring Australia, nothing on New Zealand’s trails is trying to kill you – no snakes, spiders, scorpions or poisonous insects – so you can wander at your leisure.
Day 3 Lake Pukaki
After two days of non-stop travel, driving and hiking, it’s time for a little rest and relaxation. Lake Pukaki is an hour away from Aoraki and dotted with beautiful waterside lodges that offer breathtaking views.
For food, visit a salmon farm and order a hot and cold smoked salmon platter. New Zealand’s a big exporter of salmon, but the best in the region comes from the glacial waters around Mount Cook.
Day 4 Oamaru
Oamaru may only be a small town, but it has two big things going for it: beer and penguins. Scott’s Brewery is one of New Zealand’s finest craft beer makers, and also serves up amazing wood-fired oven pizzas. Afterwards, head to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony to watch the nightly migration of the world’s smallest penguins. (The premium passes are worth it.)
The place to stay is Pen-y-bryn (left), a luxury lodge run by two lovely gentlemen, both called James. Built in 1889 by English migrants the Bullied family, it remains the largest singlestorey timber dwelling in Australasia. While the façade has been restored to its original Victorian appearance and some of the original furniture is still in use, the lodge’s facilities are current and topnotch. If you can, stay in The Garden Room, complete with in-room iPad, Nespresso machine, California King bed and oversized bathtub.
Day 5 Dunedin
Dunedin is a vibrant university town with a number of museums and attractions. Start at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, a reserve that strives to preserve New Zealand’s native biodiversity as it was before settlers arrived. The other unmissable is Cadbury World where a very animated tour guide in purple overalls walks you through the factory, feeding you along the way. The highlight? A one-tonne waterfall of pure Cadbury chocolate.
But Larnach Castle is probably the most special attraction. New Zealand’s only castle was built for a merchant baron and politician named William Larnach in 1871. After Larnach died, the castle was left for ruin until the Barker family acquired it 50 years ago. They’ve been restoring it to its former glory ever since. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon here, wandering the gorgeous Alice In Wonderland-themed garden and castle interior. Come nightfall, the castle transforms from museum to opulent hotel, with communal dinners in the music room and private dining in the drawing rooms.
Larnach Castle offers three tiers of accommodation; for an affordable night’s stay, there’s the Stable Stay, a converted coach house. The next step up is Larnach Lodge, for private rooms in a colonial farm building with dramatic harbour views. Finally, there’s Camp Estate, a stone art deco manor with five neo-classical rooms and a bird’s-eye view of all Dunedin.
Day 6 - 7 Invercargill & te anau
So begins the foodie part of the trip, and it starts at a restaurant with no name. Driving towards Invercargill, you’ll pass a tiny town called Waihola, where you’ll find the freshest blue cod fish and chips and sweetest mussels ever. Just look for the tiny shop opposite the Black Swan Café with a huge sign that reads ‘Fresh Fish n’ Chips’. Invercargill is most famous for its Bluff oysters – juicy, sweet and not briney. If you find yourself travelling in May, try to time your visit to coincide with the Bluff Oyster & Food Festival. It caters to all taste buds, with local meats (beef, lamb and venison) and seafood (oysters, mussels, crayfish, scallops and fish).
Day 8 Milford Sound
There are no words to describe the majesty of this World Heritage area. Even photographs don’t do it justice. I hopped aboard the Milford Mariner for a dinner, bed and breakfast experience unlike any other, complete with spacious private cabins with ensuite bathrooms. Day trips are possible, but an overnight cruise gives you time to go kayaking or ride a tender craft so you can get up close and personal with the fjords. You can take your time to search for seals (who usually hop aboard the boat at night too), dolphins and even disappearing waterfalls with an onboard nature guide. Also look out for naughty kea birds; one may distract you while another steals your car antenna, belongings or food. If some of Milford Sound looks familiar, it could be because you’ve seen it in the recent
Alien: Covenant movie.
Day 9 - 12 Queenstown
And it’s back to Queenstown! The resort town has a reputation for being ‘a playground for the rich’, and it’s no surprise why. Here you can experience just about everything – bungee jumping, sky diving, luging, paragliding, fine dining and countless wine trails. When you’re looking for a lunch spot, don’t be fooled by the insane queues at Fergburger; head straight to Devil Burger, which is a local favourite.
Squeeze in a final drive to Glenorchy, just 45 minutes away. Dubbed Lord Of
The Rings country, it’s where some of the movie trilogy’s most iconic scenes were filmed. An unexpected highlight is the Glenorchy Animal Experience where you get to play with and feed free-range animals including adorable alpacas.
Day 13 Auckland
After all those days on the road, checkin somewhere comfortable before the long journey home. The Langham is the perfect five-star choice – it’s right in the city, a stone’s throw from the Auckland Museum and shopping districts. The rooms are luxurious urban oases furnished with rich textiles, plush beds, handcrafted wood furniture and killer views of either Auckland’s city skyline or green Auckland domain.
Naturally, hotel dining comes in many forms. Choose from experiencing eight types of cuisine at Eight Restaurant to elegant high tea in the afternoon and cocktails at Palm Court at night. But if you choose to wander outside, just around the corner is The Burger Bar. The idea (and menu) here is simple – crazy delectable burgers and really good craft beer. If you’re still hungry, continue walking towards Coco’s Cantina. This trattoria is an institution and serves up the best ravioli I’ve ever had. Then hop in a cab for a five-minute ride to Giapo on Gore Street, otherwise known as heaven for the imaginative ice cream lover.
Queenstown overlooks the beautiful Wakatipu lake
Serene views at Lake Pukaki
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
Use your time at Te Anau to relax
The scenery and wildlife around Milford Sound are beyond compare
Plush interiors at The Langham
Prepare your stomach for serious eats at Invercargill