Auckland to Nelson: Sails, Sulphur and World Class Wine
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From buzzing urban centres to remote golden sand beaches, an Auckland to Nelson road trip will treat you to some of the most incredible experiences that New Zealand has to offer. Whether you’re seeking adventure and excitement, family fun, scenic serenity or the joys of exemplary food and wine, you’ll find that this is a country which constantly surprises and delights travellers.
Once you've brushed up on your New Zealand road knowledge, hiring a motorhome in Auckland is a great way to begin, and a home on wheels will see you on your journey with the freedom to explore at your own pace. Lakes, beaches, vineyards and mountains are just some of the highlights, and you can choose your own path to see those which interest you the most. Read on to discover what treasures could be in store for you... #LetsGoMotorhome
Leg 1 Auckland to Rotorua
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Stretched along a broad isthmus in the upper half of the North Island, Auckland never strays too far from the coast. The coastal vibe permeates the city, lending a fresh and laid back air to the region and influencing everything from cuisine to recreation. Although it is New Zealand’s most populous city, this isn’t the mega-metropolis you may be imagining. With less than 1.5 million inhabitants, it would be a stretch to label it the “Big Smoke” but there’s still more than enough people to provide a fantastic array of sights and activities for curious visitors.
The first part of your journey should pass fairly swiftly, although you will want to be careful what time you depart. The traffic on Auckland’s southern motorway can be a bit of a headache around rush hour but if you leave before 3pm or after 7pm you should be fine. Head straight over the Bombay Hills before taking the Coromandel Peninsula / Tauranga exit straight into rural New Zealand. The next hour is the perfect opportunity to turn up your favourite road trip tunes and soak up the serenity of the Kiwi countryside. Gently rolling hills and green fields stretch out for as far as the eye can see - so it really should be no surprise when you find yourself in the town that has become famous worldwide as the homeland of Hobbits: Matamata.
Of course there’s more to Matamata than just Hobbiton, but it’s hard to deny that this is the prime attraction for many. Far more than just a few building shells, the Hobbiton movie set (complete with extensive landscaping) has been left intact and in great condition - for fans of the The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, the movie set tour is an absolute must. If you’re less than inspired by fantasy creatures, Opal Hot Springs might be the place for you. Soak away the miles in sparkling blue mineral hot pools - you might even be tempted to stay, as the Springs have their own holiday park attached. Feeling a little peckish? The Kaimai Cheese Company tempts visitors with delectable dairy delights - there’s more than just cheese on offer, but you may forget about all the rest as you sink your teeth into a silky brie or a pungent blue.
Leg 2 Rotorua to Turangi
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When you catch a whiff of sulphur, you’ll know that Rotorua is nearby. The distinctive smell (which you stop noticing after a short time in the city) is due to extensive geothermal activity - the land surrounding Rotorua is rife with bubbling mud, geysers and giant clouds of steam rising from the earth. The restless land really is incredible to behold - in some places it feels like you’ve been transported to a whole other planet, or back to Earth’s formative days many aeons ago. For most, this will be the first thing they want to see - for an up close and personal encounter with these unruly natural forces, Hell’s Gate and Whakarewarewa are great places to start. While these spots are fantastic locations to witness Earth’s raw power, mud pools and sulphurous streams are far from all that they offer. Treat yourself to a luxurious spa treatment at Hell’s Gate - from mud baths to massages, this is a place that takes what nature has provided and builds on it to offer experiences both indulgent and invigorating. Whakarewarewa, on the other hand, gives tourists a very different kind of experience. The Tuhourangi / Ngati Wahiao tribe has been welcoming visitors on to their land for over 200 years, allowing them to see traditional Maori culture firsthand. Witness cultural performances and hear songs recounting ancient myths and legends, see a hangi meal in the making and taste the flavours of the earth for yourself, and take a guided tour of the traditional Maori village (or marae).
Just an hour down the road from Rotorua is another lakeside town, even more stunning than the last. You may not have a lot of time to spend in Taupo, depending on what you chose to do in Rotorua, but the beauty of picking up a motorhome hire in New Zealand is the fact that you can adapt your plans as you go - just because this itinerary says ‘Day 2: Rotorua to Turangi’ doesn’t mean you have to do exactly that. You’re free to travel as you choose!
Leg 3 Turangi to Wellington
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*If you're beginning your trip in Wellington, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
With the lengthiest drive of your trip before you (over 4 hours), you may want to head out from Turangi at your earliest convenience. But if you have the time, there’s plenty to do in the Turangi area. For a start, it’s the gateway to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a trail that takes hikers right through the midst of the most spectacular alpine scenery to be found in the whole of the North Island. Lord of the Rings fans might recognise the outline of Mount Doom in the smooth slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe, but whether or not you’re a Middle Earth aficionado, this place of unearthly rock formations, towering peaks and steep gullies is sure to fill you with a sense of the fantastic. For a unique family adventure, try a rafting trip down the tumbling waters of the Lower Tongariro River. This caters specifically to children and those who are new to rafting, so don’t be afraid to give it a go!
Leaving Turangi behind, it’s time to hit the Desert Road. While the name may conjure up images of a baking sun and drifting sand dunes, the reality is a little different. This long, straight stretch of road between Turangi and Waiouru is characterised by windswept plains and low, tough grasses. Much of the surrounding area is used by the New Zealand military for training exercises, so travellers are advised not to stray from the road.
About an hour out of Bulls, you’ll come across the Kapiti Coast, one of the country’s most jealously protected coastlines. This northern section of the Wellington region is renowned for its biodiversity and natural beauty - Peter Jackson used it as a location for both King Kong and the third Lord of the Rings installment; regardless of whether you’re a movie buff or not, the scenic delights of Kapiti may well have you imagining mythic beasts and towering fortresses around the next corner. The road sits a little way back from the sea itself, but if you want to get right up close to the coastal views that have made this area a local legend, Waikanae Beach is the place to go. This is no crowded tourist beach, but a beautifully wild section of the Kapiti Marine Reserve where whales and Hector’s dolphins can sometimes be seen during their migration.
For those more interested in manmade marvels than nature’s offerings, just a few minutes away is Paraparaumu - a town that you could be tempted to pass right by except for its incredibly impressive automobile museum. Armour plated vehicles used by gangsters, cars that have carried Queen Elizabeth II - even one purchased by Adolf Hitler. The range of vehicles on display is startling, and well worth a look in for anyone who’s even a little interested in motoring.
Leg 4 Wellington to Blenheim
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*If you're beginning your trip in this area, find motorhome rental from Wellington, Picton or Blenheim.
The Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa (or Te Papa, as it’s commonly known) is the first port of call for many visitors to Wellington. Encompassing both the role of a traditional museum and that of a multifaceted cultural exhibition space, Te Papa is the place to go if you want to really get a handle on what makes New Zealand tick.
Alice pays tribute to Lewis Carrol’s delightfully bizarre Alice in Wonderland, while Sandwiches on the corner of Kent Terrace and Majoribanks Street is the hub of Wellington’s drum and bass, club and electronica music. Needless to say, there are far more nightspots to experience than could ever be described here so you’ll just have to go and explore for yourself - or even better, if you know someone local get them to guide you to the places that suit you best.
The Interislander will deposit you safe and sound in the quaint little town of Picton in the South Island. There’s not a whole lot in this pretty seaside town but it is a great place to stop for a meal. Freshly caught seafood and world-class Marlborough wine makes for a sublime pairing… Less than half an hour south of Picton, you’ll find Blenheim - your final stop for the day.
Leg 5 Blenheim to Nelson
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*If you're beginning your trip in this area, find motorhome rental from Blenheim or Nelson.
This is one of the biggest towns in the Marlborough region (although with a population of just over 30,000 calling it a large town would be a serious stretch) and is widely known as one of New Zealand’s sunniest places. The baking hot summers are one of the factors that have helped to make Marlborough the most acclaimed wine region in the nation. Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc vintages have dazzled wine critics worldwide with their explosive flavour and consistently excellent quality. Blenheim is the best place to taste for yourself the wines that have the world talking. There are a whole range of wine tour options, including a self-guided bike tour complete with transport to and from Blenheim. Just keep in mind that if you’re planning on sampling the fruit of the vine, you should cross driving immediately on to Nelson off the menu.
Nelson is arguably among the greatest holiday spots in New Zealand. The weather is brilliant, the wineries are numerous (and almost as highly regarded as Marlborough’s) and the city serves as a gateway to some of the most beautiful beaches and hiking trails in the world.
From the bright lights and harbour breezes of Auckland City to the remote beaches and bushland of the Nelson region, this trip will leave you with a lifetime’s worth of memories and the desire to cruise New Zealand’s roads once more. And although you can do this trip in 5 days, even this brief itinerary should show you that the route has more in store for you than you could explore in a month of road tripping. Remember to embrace surprises along the way, enjoy the journey and tell others so that they too can experience the secrets that New Zealand has in store for them.