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The top 20 scenic drives in New Zealand

  • 18 May 2018

We’re a little spoilt here in New Zealand to have so many unbelievably scenic journeys to explore by car. We’ve put together a list of the 20 most spectacular drives so you can tick off a few. 

  1. Coromandel Peninsula – Thames to Coromandel Road, 54km. 
    This drive is a short distance from Auckland and only takes about an hour. Sometimes narrow in sections, the road hugs the coastline and weaves its way through quaint West Coast Coromandel settlements and stunning bays. Beginning in Thames on a Saturday means you can go to the local markets in the morning and pick up some picnic foods before heading onwards. You’ll pass by some of the best beaches in the country, and best of all, outside of the Christmas and New Year’s period, they are often deserted.

  2. Tauranga to Whakatane, 112km.
    This coastal journey will take you from the bustling city of Tauranga, past kiwifruit orchards and popular surf spots, to the cultural hub of the Bay of Plenty, Whakatane. Here you can probably bask in sunshine – Whakatane often clocks up the most sunshine hours, or watch steam billowing from White Island marine volcano, 49km offshore.
  3. Surf Highway 45 - New Plymouth to Hawera, 105km.
    A Taranaki coastal journey, this trip takes you past plenty of epic surf and empty beaches. There are great walks along the way to break it up, including New Plymouth Coastal walkway, and Cape Egmont Lighthouse. Kina Rd beach draws some of the best wind and kite surfers in the region. There’s also the Taranaki thermal pools and Normanby Dam dropping to check out.
  4. Forgotten World Highway - Stratford to Taumarunui, 150km.
    This historical road wriggles its way over four mountain saddles, takes in a spectacular waterfall and the Tangarakau river gorge. Fifteen kilometres is unsealed gravel and it’s mostly deserted, apart from Whangamomona. This small village declared itself a republic in 1989 and you can actually pick up a passport from the local hotel.

  5. The Desert Road – Turangi to Waiouru, 63km.
    This road gains its name from being completely remote, and is sometimes closed during the winter. To the east you can see the North Island’s impressive volcanoes – Mount Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, and to the west lies the Kaimanawa Range. The Black Gate of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings films was shot here.

  6. New Zealand Wine Trail (Napier to Martinborough), 280km.
    This journey takes you from one spectacular North Island wine region to another, past the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre where you can see kiwi up close, through rolling Wairarapa farmland and into the boutique township of Martinborough to toast your travel with a glass of local wine.

  7. Golden Bay – Takaka to Farewell Spit, 48km.
    This trip takes in the western side of Golden Bay. Be sure to stop at Te Waikoropupu Springs, otherwise known as Pupu Springs, to see the clearest water you are likely to find. There’s also the Mussel Inn – an iconic brewery and local hangout, and countless art studios to drop in on along the way. The road ends at Puponga, where you can explore Farewell Spit and Wharariki beach – both with spectacular scenery.

  8. Queen Charlotte Drive, 33km.
    Located in Marlborough, this winding road has been described as one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. The journey involves sharp hairpin turns and plenty of curves in the road so be prepared to take your time. You’ll see hidden bays of turquoise blue fringed with native forest so make the most of lookout points for some fantastic photo opportunities.  

  9. Blenheim to Kaikoura, 128km.
    This SH1 road along the eastern coast of the South Island has been hit hard by natural disasters in the past few years – first the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016 and more recently cyclone Gita. Travel may still be slow in parts but a highlight is the abundance of wildlife along the way. Seals, hawks and yellow eyed penguins are all residents here.   
  10. Lewis Pass – Hamner to Reefton, 138km.
    The start of this drive is colourful in Autumn, with deciduous trees lining the road from Hamner in gold and orange. Then you’ll reach the dark depths of native forest, where the road twists and turns to Maruia Springs. Here you can stop for a soak in the hot pools before reaching the mining town of Reefton.

  11. Arthur’s Pass – Springfield to Greymouth, 177km.
    This route traverses the heart of the Southern Alps, taking you from the flatlands of Canterbury plains to the rugged West Coast. It involves ever-changing scenery, with a couple of passes to climb, national parks, river gorges and spectacular lakes to take in. Stop to explore Castle Hill limestone rocks, Cave Stream Reserve and a forest walk at Arthur’s Pass for a taste of the wilderness. 
  12. The Great Coast Road – Greymouth to Westport, 107km.
    The West Coast of the South Island is renowned for its scenic roads, encompassing subtropical rainforest, glaciers, wild beaches, mountains and rivers. The best stretch is from Greymouth to Westport, stopping at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and for a walk or caving at Charleston before arriving in Westport.

  13. Haast Pass – Wanaka to Haast, 142km.
    This route takes you from beautiful Wanaka to Makarora at the northern tip of the lake. Here you enter Mount Aspiring National Park, which received World Heritage Status in 1990. The Haast road follows an ancient trail used by Māori in search of West Coast pounamu and crosses the main divide at 563m above sea level. There are numerous walks along this road to take in the scenery of towering mountains and forest.   

  14. Twizel to Mount Cook, 57km.
    For unbeatable photos in the heart of the Southern Alps, this drive is a must. An easy road to navigate with not too many bends, you will feel like you’ve truly escaped from civilisation. This journey takes in the azure Lake Pukaki – a great photo stop, plenty of tussock grassland and the towering snow-capped peak of Aoraki – our biggest giant.

  15. Lindis Pass – Omarama to Tarras, 81km.
    In a dramatic sub-alpine landscape, this trip feels as though you have entered into another world. The road snakes around barren hills blanketed in tussock, and in winter dappled with snow. The summit at 971m provides a fantastic view of the photogenic route you have travelled. This road is hilly and windy so take your time.   

  16. The Catlins – Owaka to Fortrose, 88km.
    In the south eastern corner of the South Island, the Caitlins are filled with stunning sights including the tiered Purakaunui Falls, tree filled vistas and clifftop coastal views. There are blowholes, sea lions, Hector’s dolphins at Curio Bay and a 180 million year old Jurassic forest – one of only three in the world. Nugget Point lighthouse is also worth a stop and Cathedral Caves at low tide.    

  17. Crown Range Road –Queenstown to Wanaka, 67km.
    This mountain pass is the highest main road in New Zealand and reaches an altitude of 1121m – it can get a little icy in winter. The road zig-zags up to the Crown Terrace, providing a spectacular view of the Remarkables Range and Lake Wakatipu. On the other side of the summit, tussock farmland eventually opens up to the stunning vista of Lake Wanaka.    

  18. Skipper’s Canyon Road, 22km.
    A narrow winding gravel road with dramatic sights, this is probably not for cautious drivers. Built in the gold rush by miners 140 years ago, it gets a little narrow in stretches, with sheer drops on one side and steep rock walls on the other. Parts of the road are sometimes closed in winter.  However, it is definitely worth the adventure to see the Shotover River below and glacier-formed Skipper’s Canyon.

  19. Queenstown to Glenorchy road, 46km.
    This road meanders along the edge of Lake Wakatipu and takes you closer to mountains, beech forest, and scenes straight out of the Lord of the Rings – Isengaard was filmed directly across the lake. There are some great short walks along here, including Bob’s Cove.   

  20. Te Anau to Milford Sound, 121km.
    This drive takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in the country – lakes, a tunnel, towering forested mountains, cascading waterfalls and ending in the breath-taking Sound itself. Be sure to stop at the Mirror Lakes and Hollyford Valley lookout.

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