New Zealand: its finest themed highways

Planning an epic New Zealand road trip? You can’t go wrong adding one or more of these themed highways to your route. They take in some of the country’s most iconic landscapes and attractions, marked with easy-to-follow brown signs.

Twin Coast Highway

Route: From Auckland north to Cape Reinga at the very tip of the country and back

Highlights: Outdoor and marine escapades in the ‘winterless north’. Heading north up the east coast you’ll discover the jewel that is the Bay of Islands, rich in historic sites and perfect for boat cruises and dolphin encounters. In the far north Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach are the big draws. Returning down the west coast, stop to see ancient kauri at Waipoua Forest and take a dip at the Kai Iwi Lakes.

Cape Reinga. Photo by wasabi kiwi

Thermal Explorer Highway

Route: From Auckland south through the central North Island, via Hamilton, Tirau, Rotorua, Taupo and Napier.

Highlights: This route’s all about the power of the earth, from fascinating caves to shooting geysers and bubbling mud pools. As you drive through the Waikato region make time to visit the world-famous Waitomo Caves. In Rotorua make the most of the many geothermal sights (and maybe take in a natural spa too) and the rich Maori culture. Taupo is a laidback town great for fishing, hiking, biking – and it’s close to the magnificent Huka Falls. Finish up in Napier, home of art deco architecture and fine wines.

Waimangu Valley, Rotorua. Photo by Tom Hall

Pacific Coast Highway

Route: From Auckland trace the coastline around the North Island via the Coromandel, Bay of Plenty and East Cape

Highlights: A seaside journey that’s second to none. The Coromandel Peninsula includes some of the country’s best beaches (don’t miss digging your own spa pool at Hot Water Beach). Relax in the coastal towns of Tauranga and Whakatane, and try your hand at surfing in Gisborne, before you conclude your journey in Napier.

Wainui Beach in Gisborne. Photo by studio tdes

Surf Highway 45

Route: Follow the Taranaki coast from New Plymouth through Oakura and Opunake to Hawera.

Highlights: It’s all about the waves. There are surf hotspots all along this bulging coastline – too many to name, in fact!

Back Beach in New Plymouth. Photo by Dave Young

Forgotten World Highway

Route: From Taumarunui to Stratford (or vice versa) through remote parts of Ruapehu and Taranaki. Part of the route is unsealed gravel.

Highlights: Rugged and rich in history, this is a fairly short route based on ancient Maori and pioneer paths. Traversing four different mountain saddles, it is truly well off the beaten track, You’ll be rewarded with vistas of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki along the way. Other highlights include the single-lane Moki tunnel, the Tangarakau Gorge and the Whanganui River.

The Along the Forgotten World Highway. Photo by itravelnz

Classic New Zealand Wine trail

Route: From Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa in the North Island to Marlborough in the South Island

Highlights: Fine wine, obviously! Your tastebuds will be tingling at every stop – there are so many vineyards and restaurants to choose from. Hawke’s Bay is the home of red wine including merlot and syrah. Pinot noir reigns in Wairarapa. Marlborough is where you’ll find the best sauvignon blanc.

Martinborough is famous for its wineries. Photo by Sarah-Rose

Alpine Pacific Triangle

Route: From Christchurch north through Canterbury through Kaikoura, Hanmer and back to Christchurch, via the Waipara Valley.

Highlights: Indulge yourself at every step of the way. Kaikoura is a wildlife mecca – here you can see whales, dolphins, and seals, and enjoy the freshest seafood you can imagine. Waipara is brimming with wineries and olive groves, and at Hanmer Springs the eponymous thermal pools and spa are a treat at any time of year.

Big skies in Kaikoura. Photo by Tom Hall

Great Alpine Highway

Route: From Christchurch through Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast, crossing the width of the South Island via SH73.

Highlights: It’s all about the Southern Alps on this epic journey. The wide, flat patchwork Canterbury Plains give way to majestic mountains, rivers and gorges, before descending to the West Coast. The fresh air and awe-inspiring sights will soothe your soul.

Arthur’s Pass along the Great Alpine highway. Photo by Tom Hall

Inland Scenic Route

Route: From Amberley to Geraldine, past Mt Hutt and Mt Somers, this is rural Canterbury heartland.

Highlights: On one side you’re surrounded by bucolic greenery and the other, towering alpine ranges. For skiing in Canterbury, you can’t go past Mt Hutt, while Mt Somers is ideal for hikers.

The Canterbury Plains. Photo by AllWays Rental NZ

Southern Scenic Route

Route: From Dunedin to Invercargill then up towards Queenstown via Fiordland, this route takes in the best of the deep south

Highlights: Scenery on an epic scale. From charming Dunedin venture into the untouched Catlins, whose secluded beaches are home to penguins and seals and, further inland, waterfalls and petrified forest. Then it’s on to Invercargill before turning northwards to placid Te Anau and finally to breathtaking Queenstown, the home of adventure.

The Catlins are a highlight of the Southern Scenic Route. Photo by Christopher Crouzet

  (Featured images: Dan Dwyer; Flights to New Zealand image by Tristan Schmurr)

QUIZ: Guess the country from its flag

QUIZ: Guess the country from its flag

The votes are in, and New Zealand has decided to keep its flag. In celebration of this historic moment, we’ve put...
Tomas Dano
New Zealand’s best and worst airports revealed

New Zealand’s best and worst airports revealed

A quarter of a million Kiwis are set to experience the best and worst of New Zealand’s airports this Christmas, with Cheapflights’...
Sam Shillabeer
30 quirky facts about New Zealand [infographic]

30 Quirky Facts About New Zealand (Infographic)

What is ‘hangi’ and how many tries has Jonah Lomu scored? What are New Zealand’s only native land mammals and...
Olga Szoke
Travel tips See all
10 ways to escape the crowds in London

10 ways to escape the crowds in London

London and crowds go together like summer and fruit flies; it sometimes feels like you just can’t escape them. While...
Emily Ray
9 things I wish I’d known before visiting Sri Lanka

9 things I wish I’d known before visiting Sri Lanka

Packing in history, culture, wildlife, food and activities from the lush hill country to its palm tree-fringed exterior, it’s really no...
Kirsten McCroskrie