Discover the contrasting land of New Zealand by taking an unforgettable road trip on the East Coast. Nothing beats the pleasure of driving through the wilds of the South Island to explore all the wealth in this multi-faceted region. From the north to the south, your route will lead you from fjords and mythical glaciers to the golden beaches and turquoise waters of Abel Tasman National Park, via the immense lakes and snowy peaks of the island’s central region.
Christchurch: the start of the trip
Once you get your Europcar rental vehicle at the airport, it’s only a half-hour trip to Christchurch, located in the heart of the varied landscapes of Canterbury, a region of peaks and plains.
When strolling through Cathedral Square around the Anglican Church, the residential neighbourhoods or Hagley Park Botanical Garden, you’ll discover the warm spirit of the largest city on the South Island, appropriately nicknamed “The Garden City”.
At the start of your road trip, Christchurch has many top-notch things to do: cultural visits in an architectural and historic setting, which always have a strong British influence, sporting activities (skiing, rafting, mountain biking, golf, etc.) and natural heritage treasures.
Located 87 kilometres from Christchurch, Akaroa, or “long harbour” in Maori, is worth a visit. Expect about an hour to access New Zealand’s unique French village, founded by 19th century settlers.
You have 2 options for getting there: you can take SH574, the winding road on the mountainside that offers incomparable views of the bay but which requires driving a light vehicle, or you can choose SH75, the shortest and most direct route, which is recommended for the pleasure of driving in the lush hills while watching Akaroa emerge on the horizon.
By detouring on Summit Road, you’ll drive along Banks Peninsula to your destination, zigzagging along the ridges. Otherwise, drive directly to Daly’s Wharf, a charming little port where the shops welcome you facing the sea.
Kaikoura, a 100% nature stop
Food spots punctuate the 190 kilometres leading to Kaikoura, firstly in the Waipara wine region and then in roadside caravans that sell excellent fresh lobsters at great prices.
A picturesque coastal town between the sea and the mountains, Kaikoura promises you unique and memorable encounters with dolphins, whales and sea lions, who are attracted by the richness of the Pacific Ocean seabed.
Before getting back on the road, don’t miss out on enjoying some crayfish, the jewel of the local gastronomy, where the city gets its Maori name – “kai” means “food” and “koura” means “crayfish”!
By car to Abel Tasman National Park
After you depart Kaikoura, you’ll access Abel Tasman National Park by going through the city of Nelson on Route 6, after a long 290-km journey.
Located at the north-western tip of the South Island, it is the smallest National Park in the country, but it’s also the most visited. To see everything it has to offer, which includes beaches, majestic fjords, steep granite cliffs and lush forests, take the Coast Track, the famous trail frequented by many hikers, and return to your car by taking a boat taxi.
Punakaiki, access road to the Pancake Rocks
In under four hours, the western route leads you to Punakaiki, along the coast of the Tasman Sea, in a setting of black sand and pristine vegetation in Paparoa National Park. You’ll find yourself at the foot of the Pancake Rocks, named for their characteristic structure, similar to piles of gigantic limestone pancakes! It’s a sight that will take your breath away, particularly during high tide, when the sea bursts through several rocky blowholes, causing impressive saltwater geysers.
On the road to the Glaciers of the South Island
From the lands of Greymouth, known for the history of the gold rush, to the highest peaks on the South Island, Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, the scenic route unfolds for 240 kilometres, opening the door to the Glaciers region.
Either on foot for the most courageous or by helicopter for thrill-seekers, many hikes offer you the unusual experience of climbing Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.
For those of you who like driving, there are 330 kilometres and some 4 hours of switchbacks in the mountains, via Haast Pass. Then, on New Zealand’s highest paved public road, head for Queenstown, known as the world capital of outdoor activities. What a nice way to relax before driving again to your next stop!
Fiordland, via the most beautiful route in New Zealand
Once you get past the police checkpoints in Te Anau, the road is fun and full of discoveries, through the magical lands of Fiordland.
Considered one of the most beautiful in the world, the road meanders through verdant valleys, where the snowy peaks of the Earl Mountains are reflected in the famous Mirror Lakes. Going through the century-old forest, immortalised on the big screen in “The Lord of the Rings”, you can access the fjord by taking the Homer Tunnel, which was dug from 1935 to 1954 through a mountain that was considered impassable for a long time.
After 20 kilometres of curves through the canyons, with the banks of the legendary Milford Sound looming, you come upon this fjord described by Rudyard Kipling as the “8th wonder of the world”. No matter the time or season, your jaw will drop as you behold the spectacle of its breath-taking waterfalls and cliffs, carved since the Ice Age, rising from the dark waters up to the sky.
From Wanaka to Tekapo, the final leg of the journey
The lakes region welcomes you at the end of your tour of New Zealand, offering tourist activities that are conducive to relaxing after many long hours behind the wheel: walks around the lake in Wanaka, wine-tasting at Rippon Valley, a stop at Lake Tekapo to take pictures of the “Church of the Good Shepherd”, and bathing in hot springs while admiring the gorgeous view of Mount Cook National Park from the summit of Mount John, at a height of more than 3700 metres.
A little reminder of New Zealand’s driving rules: must be 21 years old to drive, have an international permit, obey speed restrictions (100 km/h in the countryside and on the few motorways; 50 km/h in towns and cities), observe the signage and of course, always drive on the left!
Be careful on the roads, which are often one-way, not always paved and subject to weather conditions as extreme as they are variable, requiring the appropriate equipment, which is provided in your rental vehicle.