8 Must Do Themed Highways in New Zealand | Apollo New Zealand
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Tom Lanauze
/ Categories: NZ blog

8 Must Do Themed Highways in New Zealand.

Your guide to the best road tripping routes from around the country!

Road trips are wonderful things. They are limited only by our imagination and sense of adventure. Quite literally, around every new corner is another experience just waiting for you. With so many beautiful roads to explore in New Zealand, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to our favorite routes to road trip on.

Why travel the themed highways?

Quite simply, they showcase the very best Aotearoa has to offer. They have been road-tested by international tourists and locals alike, many are well signposted, all are easy to follow and represent the beautiful and the stunning, the jaw dropping and the incredible. Some routes can be done in a few days, others will take you a week. All will be remembered forever! They represent a highlights package of New Zealand and are perfect for people with limited time looking to see the best of the best, or for people looking to plan longer trips where they can combine these into a longer itinerary covering each island or all of New Zealand.

We have designed our themed highway itineraries around loops from the two main centers of Christchurch and Auckland to make them more accessible, but the beauty of these routes is that they do link up to give people the option to do several in tandem to make for a longer roadie.

They offer inspiration and ideas for your next road trip adventure or can help point you in the right direction if you are already on your journey and looking for some things to do.

Auckland new zealand

North Island Themed Highways

Glowworms, Great Lakes and Geysers: The Thermal Highway (7 days, 1,100km)

New Zealand is a country made up of many worlds and on this journey, you will experience them all!

Travel through the cultural and thermal heartland of the country with this route linking Auckland in the North to Hawkes Bay in the South. You get a fantastic snap shot into Maori and Pacifica culture and even get to spend some time with Frodo and his friends at the Hobbiton movie set.

Have you heard of Papatūānuku? You might know her by another name – mother nature! On this trip you will see some of her finest work. From the underground stars of the Waitomo glow worms to one of New Zealand’s best preserved wild life sanctuaries at Mountain Maungatautari. Then of course you have the amazing sites that give this highway its name.

With towering super volcanoes and massive geo-thermal lakes, to geysers exploding, steam vents rising and mud bubbling in every direction. You can literally feel the heat coming out of the ground into your feet!

It’s not over yet! If you want to get the heart racing even more, this is an adrenalin seekers paradise! You can do a sky dive over a super volcano, jetboat tours or you can even raft and drop down the 7 METERS high Tutea waterfall on the kaituna river if you're feeling brave!

To top it off, Hawkes Bay is a foodie destination for the ages, with fresh produce, sea food and world class wines in abundance. Napier itself is home to some of the most unique art deco architecture in the world and is even home to our national aquarium.

Camper life gives you flexibility to holiday how you like. You can do this as a loop route back to Auckland via Waitomo or join on to the Pacific Coast Highway to see the amazing Coromandel Peninsula and much more. Check out the full itinerary here.

  • Can be done in tandem with the Pacific Coast Highway if you want to take a longer adventure and make more memories!

The Coromandel and Beyond: The Pacific Coast Highway (6 days, 1,350 km)

Picture a post-card perfect place loaded with world class beaches, wineries and even natural hot springs. If you’re the kind of person who loves beautiful beaches, soaking in the sun and relaxing with a vino, then this trip is for you!

From the steep and winding roads through the rolling bush covered interior, the contrast to the spectacular east coast of the North Island is quite stunning. You will pass through some of the most wonderous coastal scenery in Aotearoa and with sparkling, crystal clear waters, hidden beaches and lagoons, it’s easier to just leave the swim gear on!

This route links Auckland in the North to Hawks bay in the south and encompasses some of New Zealand's favorite regions including the Bay of Plenty, Gisborne and the jewel of the crown – the Coromandel Peninsula, home to must see attractions like Hot Water Beach with its relaxing natural hot springs and Cathedral Cove, a natural archway carved out of white rock connecting two secluded coves.

Ever heard of New Chums Beach? Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? Find out for yourself why “The Observer” rated this as one of the best beaches in the world.

Along with the stunning coastal drives that meander along the coast through beautiful Pohutukawa's, you will also be on a foodie and wine trail like no other! From the fresh seafood to award winning wines, this trip will keep you smiling till it’s time to head home!

  • Can be one in tandem with the Thermal Explorer if you want to take a longer adventure and make more memories!

The Winterless North: The Twin Coast Loop Discovery Highway (7 days, 1,100km)

Here is where Kupe and the first Maori picked to explore New Zealand and now it’s your turn! Often viewed as the best North Island scenic route, this 1,000 km loop will take you on a journey through the “winterless north” at a pace allowing you enough time to explore. Meander around the best of both coasts of New Zealand’s warmest region, getting off the beaten path and finding your own unique places and memories.

With 144 Islands, world class beaches, along with some of the most culturally significant places in New Zealand, the Bay of Islands is known by people the world over as their trip highlight to Aotearoa. Will it be yours?

That’s just the beginning.

From local legends around Cape Reinga to massive Kauri trees that are thousands of years old, this route will take you on a journey like no other. It’s not just the land that welcomes you, with world class diving and snorkeling at the Poor Knights Islands on the Tutukaka peninsula a favorite part of this route.

To top it off, here is your chance to see kiwis in the wild thanks to the unique experience on offer at Aroha Island Eco-center where you can camp amongst New Zealand's favorite and allusive feathered friends! Read the full itinerary here.

Adventure in the Central North Island: The Volcanic Loop (5 days, 800km)

This route is packed full of new adventures around every corner. It is perfect for people short on time but high on wanting to see and experience as much as possible. If you think variety is the spice of life, then this loop trip is for you! It takes you on an enticing route through some of the best parts of the Central North Island at a fast pace allowing you to see the best of the best of the other themed highways while taking in the amazing volcanic landscape.

It will give you a highlights package you can post all over Instagram.

Walk in the footsteps of Frodo at the Hobbiton movie set and leave your own on the mighty Tongariro Alpine crossing as you conquer New Zealand's favorite day walk over the towering volcanic central plateau.

Swap the snow-covered peaks for glistening lakes and glittering glow worm caves before being captivated by the amazing geothermal sites around Rotorua. Relax in the hot springs or get your heart racing as you raft down a 7-meter waterfall on the grade 5 Kaituna River.

This route is full of options and memories. What will your favorite be?

Perhaps it will be sky diving over one of the worlds super volcanos?!

This route can be done at any pace, so if you have more time, slow it down and spend more time wherever you fancy and it can also link up to the Pacific Coast Highway for an even longer adventure.

South Island Themed Highways

Best of The West: The Great Coast Road and Glacier Highway (7 Days, 1,340km)

These two themed highways go together like road trips and fun, so we thought it would be rude not to do them both at the same time! You will meander your way around the beautiful west coast of the South Island on this journey of discovery millions of years and an ice age or two in the making! Between Haast and its world heritage area and Hokitika with its fabulous old town feel, you can enjoy the spectacle of not one but two easily viewed glaciers from the comfort of native rain forests! You can soak in the wild in the forests and at the Okarito bird sanctuary before soaking in the hot pools at Franz Joseph! To top it off, you have one of New Zealand’s most beautiful lakes to explore at Lake Matheson and even some penguins and dolphins and maybe a Kiwi or two to look out for!

As amazing as the first leg was, you’re just getting started. As you pass through Greymouth you will enter the Great Coast Road. It will soon be apparent why this is rated as one of the top ten coastal routes in the word by Lonely Planet. You will be awed by huge rock formations and lime stone cliffs, native rainforests of Paparoa National Park full of bird song, exploding fountains of water and the long expanses of stoney beaches that the west is known for. With the main divide on one side and the Tasman sea on the other, you will be spoilt for choice.

Search out one of the world's rarest penguins, spot New Zealand fur seals, see the blowholes and “pancakes” at Punakaiki, go black water rafting and caving underground at Charleston and enjoy the epic limestone cliffs and coastal scenery from the numerous lookouts that help give this road its world renown reputation.

Finish up this loop journey with both the relaxing tranquility and thrill seeker attractions at the alpine spa town of Hanmer springs before heading home via the Waipara wine region.

These two themed highways form part of State Highway 6, New Zealand’s longest continuous highway. And the best part? This is also the gateway to the Lakes district to the South and Able Tasman National park and the beaches and vineyards of Nelson and Marlborough to the North! Check out the full itinerary here.

  • Can be done in tandem with The Treasured Pathway, Alpine Pacific Touring route or the Southern Scenic Route if you want to take a longer adventure and make more memories.

Queenstown at night

The Wild South: The Southern Scenic Route (8 Days, 1,600km)

Get off the beaten track and enter the wilderness! Your journey takes you along the untouched, untamed east coast of the South Island as you first explore Otago and the Catlins.  Feel the spray on your face at Purakaunui falls, watch out for New Zealand’s rarest penguin, swim with tiny dolphins or just sit back, relax and soak in the true wonders of the south. This coastal route is full of scenic view points and walks around every corner. This is the great ocean road – kiwi style.

As you continue your journey, swap the coast for lakes and alps as you travel through Queenstown and the lakes district. Finish up your trip at one of the most beautiful parts in the world. Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki not only have phenomenal views over turquoise lakes of the snowcapped Southern Alps, but are also located in one of the few Dark Sky Reserves in the world where all the stars in the sky glitter down upon you.

This adventure of a lifetime will showcase the very best of the bottom of the South Island which is probably why “Traveller” magazine named it in its top 10 coastal driving routes in the world!

To top it all off, with its crystal-clear night skies free of light pollution, Southland you will have your best chance of seeing the almost mystical Aurora Australis, better known as the “Southern Lights”, as they dance their way across the southern skies.

We have compiled this as a fast paced but manageable itinerary starting and finishing in Christchurch, but this is just a guide. If you have more time, you can spend extra days in places you want to spend more time exploring along the journey or even link it up with some of our other itineraries to give you a larger adventure.

  • Can be done in Tandem with the Glacier Highway if you want to take a longer adventure and make even more memories!

New Zealand rainforest

Whales, Spas and Waipara Wines: The Alpine Pacific Route (5 days, 460km)

This unforgettable journey truly does offer something for everyone, with a fantastic mix of relaxation and thrill-seeking activities on a journey of discovery from the alps to the coasts. You will crisscross the vast plains, passing vineyards, rolling hill country and the wonderful clear braided rivers of North Canterbury that lead down to a deserted and unspoiled coastline full of both swimming and surf beaches.

The wonderful Waipara wine region might be small, but it is the fastest growing of all of New Zealand's wine regions producing award winning Pinot Noir and Rieslings. While there are some major players in the area, most of the 75 vineyards that inhabit this area are small, boutique wineries producing high end wines for the region. The area is also strewn with olive groves and bright fields of lavender, making this section of North Canterbury quite stunning.

From the fertile fields to the braided rivers, swimming and surf opportunities, the North Canterbury waterways have it all. Its coastline is filled with little hidden gems while the rivers that come out of the high country provide awesome fresh water swimming and fishing opportunities.

It’s not all about the countryside however, with two world class towns on this route. Hanmer Springs alpine spa town will spoil and excite you while the quite amazing plethora of sites and wildlife available at Kaikoura, one of the best places to view whales and marine wildlife anywhere in the world will thrill you!

This route can be accessed by those finishing up the treasured pathway in the North, or the Wild West Coast Road in the West to extend your road trips into longer adventures or it can be done as a loop itinerary from the hub of Christchurch as shown here.

  • Can be done in tandem with either the Great Coast Road or the Treasured Pathway if you want to take a longer adventure and make more memories!

Best of Blenheim and Tasman: The Treasured Pathway (8 days, 1,287km)

This is one of New Zealand’s newest themed highways and takes you through an amazing highlights package of the top of the South Island. You can access this route from many places. Firstly, it is a perfect way to start your roadie in the South Island if arriving on the ferry into Picton. Next, it can be joined on to either the Wild West Coast Road or the Alpine Pacific Touring Route to create a longer itinerary and of course you can do it as a loop journey form Christchurch for ease of accessibility which is what we cover here.

The Marlborough Sounds, made up of the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus and Mahau Sounds has a massive 1,300 km of coast and sunken valleys to explore. This makes for a beautiful and dramatic landscape, home to hidden beaches, playful dolphins and lazing seals. Getting out of the water and into the rolling hills, you find one of New Zeeland's great walks with many shorter trails taking you through native bush tracks alive with bird song. To top it off, Marlborough has more sunshine hours than most other areas of New Zealand making it not just a 4-season destination but home to some of New Zealand's most famous vineyards.

Gaze across over 20,000 hectares of ever-green vineyards as you weave your way through one of New Zealand's iconic wine regions in Blenheim, where over 70% of New Zealand's wine is produced. The vineyards are split between the Southern Valleys, Wairau Valley and the Awatere Valley where they produce many wines, including the world-famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

Entering Nelson Tasman, you gain access to three national parks including one of the jewels in the New Zealand crown - Able Tasman National Park.  This incredibly picturesque place can be explored on foot through the amazing walks or via the water. Sea kayaking is something the region is famous for, allowing you to explore hidden away golden beaches and watch out for the local seals and dolphins who call the sheltered bays home as you paddle at your own pace.

Then of course you have the extraordinary Golden Bay right at the top of the South Island. A mix of fertile plains, steep mountains and amazing coastal scenery, it really is one of the most unique landscapes in New Zealand. While it is home to some incredible beaches, it also happens to be where some of the clearest fresh water ever measured in the world can be found.

And the best part? We have just scratched the surface of all the amazing sites on this amazing touring route! Check out the full itinerary here.

  • Can be done in tandem with the Alpine Pacific Touring Route and Great Coast Road to make a longer adventure and is also a perfect option for those coming into Picton on the ferry

south island new zealand road trip

Ready to road trip New Zealand? Say Kia Ora to Apollo in Auckland and Christchurch for more details.



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