The ultimate New Zealand road trip

Allison Yee

Travellers can be a funny bunch sometimes. We plan extravagant, expensive holidays that involve gruelling18-hour plane trips half way around the world, lugging suitcases from hotel to hotel, all the while battling a serious case of chronic jet lag.

But what if there was an idyllically scenic hotspot that covered plane, train and automobile - with award winning food and wines thrown in for good measure - located just hours away from home?

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Sometimes the most beautiful hidden travel treasures are the ones sitting right underneath our noses, and the South Island of New Zealand is one of those places.

A short three-hour flight from Sydney, New Zealand had long been the top of my bucket list. Lured by the prospect of a four-day driving holiday (suitcases in the boot and fast food pit stops - what’s not to love?), the west coast in all its lush, green glory promised to be a road trip worth taking.

First stop on the tour: the pretty streets of Christchurch. Photo: Be

Flying into Christchurch with a trusty driving buddy in tow, one thing is clear – this plucky little city, still recovering from the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that devastated it - is well worth exploring.

With much of the CBD still in the process of being rebuilt as construction workers march along many of the streets, pockets of beauty such as Christchurch Botanic Gardens (take a punt along the Avon River for the best views) sit alongside edgy shipping containers-turned-shops.

Settle back for a relaxing punt along the Avon River. Photo: Instagram

It’s the perfect jumping off spot for adventures down the coast, with the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth a great way to cover some kilometres in the comfort of a world-class carriage. A glass of champagne in hand doesn’t go astray either.

Covering 223 kilometres and taking five hours, hopping on the train means no arguing over who’s driving and who’s taking in the view as you approach the breathtaking Southern Alps before climbing your way up to Arthurs Pass. For the thrill seekers, an open-air carriage at the front of the train really gives you the chance to feel the wind in your hair.

All aboard for what some say is one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. Photo: Be
The journey covers lush greenery and a climb up into misty mountains of Arthur's Pass. Photo: Be

It’s in Greymouth when the road trip fun really begins. Picking up our hire car (with a quick snacks shop for Kiwi chips and chocolate, obviously) it’s time to hit the road.

With the little coastal town of Hokitika in our sights, driving in New Zealand is a breeze for jaded cityslickers. Traffic jams? Nonexistent. Traffic lights? A handful at most. Gorgeous winding roads with lush greenery? Everywhere you look.

For your first taste of stunning New Zealand scenery that looks too-Photoshopped-to-be-true, Hokitika Gorge is a must-see. A five-minute stroll takes you down to a suspension bridge hovering over dark turquoise waters where you can bounce to your heart’s content. Luck out like we did and have the whole place to yourself for #nofilter worthy Instagram photos.

Photos don't even do Hokitika Gorge justice. Photo: Be
A famous swing bridge takes you over the gorgeous turquoise water. Photo; Be

If you’re after oceanfront digs with uninterrupted views, the Beachfront Hotel in Hokitika is the place to be to rest your weary head. For those tuckered out from travelling, wander no further than the hotel’s Ocean Front restaurant for delicious seafood chowder, with the added bonus of the iconic Hokitika driftwood sign sitting just outside on the beach for easy happy snaps.

The cosy little coastal town of Hokitika is well worth a stop. Photo: Be

Prefer your sightseeing with a little more adventure? Fox Glacier is the next stop, and lies just a scenic two hour drive away. There’s one main street through town, but let’s be honest, the glacier – and the chance to chopper your way onto it for a once-in-a-lifetime hike - is what everyone’s really here for.

Nature seekers rejoice: choppers can take you out onto Fox Glacier for an up-close look. Photo: be

After heading over to Fox Glacier Guiding, we’re kitted out with crampons and soon into a helicopter to be flown onto the 13-kilometre glacier. Stepping onto the ice is a surreal experience, but it’s contorting your way through slippery caves and crunching your way through paths your guide clears with a pickaxe that really gets the blood flowing.

Blue skies and white ice combine to create a beautifully surreal landscape. Photo: Be
See the world from a different perspective inside a Fox Glacier ice cave. Photo: Be

Three hours of exhilarating ice exploring later, and we’re back on dry land. But that’s not all this lovely little town has to offer. For those after more Insta-worthy nature snaps, head to the glassy waters of Lake Matheson to do an easy hour-and-a-half stroll, while a stay at Distinction Hotel and probably the friendliest staff ever will make you feel at home. For dinner, we stopped by The Last Kitchen. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming interior, rib-stickingly hearty meals and charming Kiwi service are just the thing after a long day.

After a good night’s rest, it’s back on the road for a three-hour drive to Wanaka, a town beloved by celebrities. Touted as the Byron Bay of the South Island, this chilled-out, hippy town was the home for Oprah and Reese Witherspoon, along with Mindy Kaling, while filming A Wrinkle in Time in February.

There’s a lot to love about Wanaka. Not only boasting easy access to the ski fields of Cardrona without the hustle and bustle of bigger towns, you’ll be spoilt for scenery with the glacier carved Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, while food lovers will be in heaven with the waterside hub of good food, wine and coffee.

Make a trip to see the famed Wanaka Willow. Photo Be

Foodies take note: Bistro Gentil is well worth a visit thanks to their perfectly executed French fare, along with the chance to give your credit card a good workout at the self-dispensing wine machine that features 24 wines by the glass. That’s right, a wine machine. It’s dangerous.

Taste New Zealand produce at its best at Bistro Gentil. Photo: Be

From Wanaka, it’s a hop, skip and one hour and 20 minute jump to Queenstown. If this buzzy, beautiful lakeside city hasn’t been on your travel radar, it’s time to take note.

Stop at the Cardrona Hotel if you're looking for an epic pub feed between Wanaka and Queenstown. Photo: Be

Cobbled streets meet cosmopolitan hotels, where ski bunnies mingle with families. Snow topped mountains circle the town, and it’s the perfect mix of activity – royals Kate Middleton and Prince William loved the Shotover Jet ride and wine tasting at the Amisfield Vineyard during their visit in 2014 – along with all the essentials to zen out, such as an hour-long soak in your own private cedar hot tub at the Onsen Hot Pools.

Queenstown got the royal tick of approval in 2014 when Wills and Kate visited. Photo: Getty

So, after four days on the road, how did I rate my first road trip?

Truth be told, I might just be a little bit of a convert. Forget the stress of making a connecting train, or being at the mercy of breakneck speed taxi drivers, having the freedom to explore, and the flexibility to stop wherever you want while you meander at your own pace certainly makes for a relaxing holiday.

Taking me from lush greenery to icy hills, the South Island promises a road trip to remember. Photo: BE

Of course, New Zealand’s famous scenery helps as well. While you might have seen glimpses of glassy lakes, lush forests and epic mountain ranges in movies or in photos, it’s hard to describe the beauty and accessibility of it all, and like many impressed travellers I met along the way, it’s something I most definitely want to see more of. Next stop: North Island…

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