After driving through the green countryside of Waikato and Waitomo, the trip from New Plymouth to Wellington could hardly be more different. This coastal drive takes you past some of the best surf beaches in the region and on a clear day you might even see the silhouette of the South Island from the wild and wonderful Kapiti Coast. But first - you’ve got some exploring to do in New Plymouth!
*If you're beginning your trip in Wellington, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
Like many cities, roads and natural attractions in New Zealand, New Plymouth is named after a place in England (you guessed it - Plymouth!). This is where the first English settlers to the region were from. The city has retained a little of its English charm, but is today best known for its proximity to Mount Taranaki. This snow-capped volcanic peak is visible from most areas of New Plymouth. There’s nothing quite like opening the doors of your NZ campervan hire and being greeted with this magical view in the morning - the mountain is basically calling you to get outdoors and enjoy the stunning scenery. To that effect, you’ll want to make the most of the great walking trails in the region. Egmont National Park is a good place to start, with a range of short and long hiking tracks. As weather conditions around the mountain are changeable, please ensure you check the forecast and pack food, water and warm clothing, plus let someone know before you set out.
If hiking or mountain biking is not your thing, the New Plymouth township offers plenty of activities to keep you well-entertained. With a population of around 74,000, the city is home to art galleries, theatres and historical buildings, as well as great cafes, bars and restaurants. Particular highlights include the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary.
As with nearly all other New Zealand cities, there’s also a sampling of adventure tourism operators based nearby. How does horse riding, quad biking or extreme go-karting sound? Or what about a fly-fishing tour, helicopter ride, wildlife safari or surf lesson? New Plymouth definitely proves there’s much more to New Zealand’s adventure tourism industry than bungy jumping!
For family friendly fun, head to Brooklands Zoo. This free attraction has a range of cute animals for your little ones to admire and makes a great day out. The zoo is open from 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week. If your kids love animals, why not also swing past Pouakai Zoo Park? This family owned zoo has lions, bengal tigers and more. Admission is $16 for adults, $6 for children and $2 for pre-schoolers. Family passes are available.
Other family friendly ideas include a picnic in one of New Plymouth’s lovely parks and gardens (Pukekura Park is a firm favourite) or hiring bikes and riding along the coast. On rainy days, there’s a couple of great options. Air Zone Indoor Trampoline Park is the perfect antidote to cabin fever, while Bowlarama’s mini golf and tenpin bowling facilities are fun for all ages. For something a little bit different, try the Fun Ho! Toy Museum, which houses thousands of homemade toys. You can even opt to watch a toy-making demonstration - but please note, bookings are essential.
A few days in New Plymouth should suffice, unless you’re keen to do several hikes - in which case, stay as long as you need to get your walking fix! When you’re ready to move on, you have a choice of two routes to Wellington. Either opt to drive around Mount Taranaki and hug the coast on State Highway 45, or head inland on State Highway 3. Both routes will take you through Hawera, from where you’ll continue on State Highway 3 until you get to Wellington. So what will it be: coast or countryside? The choice is yours!
Located approximately halfway between New Plymouth and Wellington is Whanganui, a gem of a New Zealand town. Situated where the mighty Whanganui River meets the Cook Strait, this town (also spelled Wanganui) has a population of approximately 42,000 people. Whanganui holds a special place in New Zealand history as one of the first settler towns. You can explore its fascinating past at the Whanganui Regional Museum which houses several interesting collections - a perfect day out for history enthusiasts. Even if you don’t visit the museum, you’ll likely get a feel for Whanganui’s early years regardless - there are several heritage buildings throughout the town. So proud of its past, Whanganui hosts a Heritage Weekend to celebrate its unique history every January - be sure to keep an eye out for it if you’re passing through at this time of year.
Whanganui’s also a superb destination for the active traveller. There are several parks, gardens and nature reserves nearby, with no shortage of hiking trails for you to enjoy, and many visitors choose to explore the river by kayak. A good place to begin is the Whanganui National Park. In this park you’ll also find one of the region’s stranger attractions - the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’. Deep in the park there is a concrete bridge which leads straight into thick native bush. Of course, there’s an explanation for this anomaly - you’ll have to check it out to hear the great story behind this unique bridge! It’s accessible by boat from Pipiriki or Whakahoro, or alternatively you can walk one way from Mangapurua Landing.
Speaking of interesting stories, there are a few more fascinating anecdotes waiting for you on the road yet - just wait until you reach the next stop, Bulls!
What do you do when your town shares its name with cattle? Why, embrace it of course! Bulls, a farming town about 40 minutes south of Whanganui, is a place of puns. Treat yourself to an ice cream at ‘Lick-a-Bull’ or stock up on some fresh food at the local greengrocer, ‘Veget-a-bull’. If you thought that was enough, wait until you see the police station - sorry, ‘consta-bull’. It’s interesting places like this that make touring around New Zealand so fun.
Palmerston North (optional)
From Bulls, you have the option of rejoining State Highway 1 through to Wellington, or you can take a detour along State Highway 3 to Palmerston North, an inland city located in the eastern Manawatu Plains. Visiting Palmerston North (or Palmy as it’s known to locals) will add about an hour to your trip, but if you’re not pressed for time it can be a nice way to break up the drive.
Things to do in Palmerston North include nature walks and hikes, cycling trails, museums, golf and shopping. One of the city’s most popular attractions is the New Zealand Rugby Museum, which houses fascinating memorabilia about the country’s favourite sport. Here you can learn all about the history of the game and gain an understanding of why so many Kiwis take it so seriously. From the oldest All Black jersey to the oldest rugby ball, this dedicated museum has acquired quite the collection. This is a great outing for those travelling with kids as they can let off some steam in the ‘Have A Go’ area, where they can practice their tackles, kicks and other techniques.
If you make the detour to Palmerston North, getting back on the road to Wellington is easy. Simply head down State Highway 56 until it joins with State Highway 57, before turning left onto State Highway 1 just before Ohau. You’ll then travel through some lush countryside before reaching the beautiful Kapiti Coast, the final leg of your drive into Wellington.
It’s almost impossible to drive along the Kapiti Coast without pausing to admire its wild, isolated beaches and quaint seaside towns. It’s no wonder so many Wellingtonians come here to enjoy the restorative power of nature. Less than 20km away from the windy city, it offers a welcome retreat from urban life.
Its namesake, Kapiti Island, provides a gorgeous backdrop for this scenic drive. The island, located about 5km off the coast, is a native marine and wildlife sanctuary. Thanks to careful management, the sanctuary is incredibly prosperous and home to native species such as the Kaka, Weka and Little Spotted Kiwi. You can take a day tour or an overnight kiwi spotting tour to see some of these species up close for yourself. This beautiful attraction has won many awards and is internationally recognised as being one of the best of its kind.
Once you’ve had your fix of Kapiti’s wild beauty, it’s time to continue down State Highway 1 until you reach Wellington, where a whole new array of exciting attractions are waiting for you!