Auckland to Nelson: Sails, Sulphur and World Class Wine
Auckland to Nelson
Est Driving Time12-25 days
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
Est Driving Time3 hrs
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.
One of the best places to get a feel for Auckland at its best is the Viaduct - a waterfront area nestled between the CBD and Auckland Harbour. Transformed in the late 90’s from rundown commercial harbour to cosmopolitan urban hub boasting classy office spaces, upscale apartments and fine dining establishments, the Viaduct also hosts a beautiful marina, giving rise to Auckland’s current nickname: The City of Sails. This is definitely the place to go if you’re hunting for world-class restaurants or exciting nightlife. Even if you’re sorted for meals, just a stroll along the waterfront on a sunny day is well worth your time.
Those hunting for fine food and wine in a less urban environment would do well to head out west - Auckland’s sunny, temperate climate lends itself well to winemaking and there are quite a number of wineries on the western edges of the city. They tend to be a bit hidden away, but there are plenty of wine tours for you to choose from that will guide you through all the best offerings.
If you’re itching to get amongst the rich wonder of the New Zealand bush, simply head a little further west to the Waitakere ranges. There are a whole range of walking tracks available, from those you can complete in well under an hour to multiple-day treks through native forest, across wetlands and along isolated coastlines.
Those travelling with kids will also find that the city has more than enough to keep young ones entertained. Rainbow’s End, New Zealand’s premier theme park, offers spine-chilling thrills for older children and more gentle adventures for the wee ones. It’s also open every day of the year except Christmas, so you don’t have to worry about whether it will fit in your schedule. Auckland Zoo is always a favourite; the zoo’s Discovery and Learning Centre helps to educate kids about the environment and the animal kingdom. For those looking to learn a little more about the history of New Zealand in a fun and entertaining environment, Auckland Museum is a great pick. And if you’re hunting for something a little out of the ordinary, consider a ferry trip across to Rangitoto Island for a Volcanic Explorer tour. The views are unbeatable and park rangers will take you through native bush and across rugged lava outcrops, recounting the turbulent history of the region.
There’s certainly no shortage of things to do in Auckland, but in spite of all that the city has to offer, eventually it will be time to jump in your motorhome and strike southward.
South of the Bombays
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.
If you were taking the most direct route toward Nelson, you’d take the road south out of town - but where’s the fun in making a beeline for your destination? Head east instead and an hour long drive will bring you to one of the best tourism spots in the whole country...
Leg 2 Rotorua to Turangi
Est Driving Time1 hr, 45 mins
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).
Once you’ve had your fill of steam and sulphur, the rest of Rotorua awaits. Just minutes out of the city is Skyline Rotorua, one of the best places in the whole country to spend a few fun-filled hours. Visitors to Skyline glide up the slope of Mount Ngongotaha in a wire pulled gondola (don’t forget to look back for an expansive view over the city and lake) but getting to the top is just the start. There’s a little something for everyone at this unique mountainside destination. If you’ve come around lunchtime, grab a bite to eat at the marketplace-style Food Market Kitchen before heading over to the Volcanic Hills winery to sample one or two of the local vintages. To inject a little excitement into your day, you have to try the Rotorua Luge. A toboggan/go-kart hybrid will send you hurtling down the mountainside - challenge your friends or family to a race to the bottom and find out who’s the real daredevil among you. If that sounds a little bit too scary, there are also relaxing scenic tracks that allow you to cruise down gently amidst lush forest surroundings. If you have kids with you, you can’t miss the Jelly Belly store and gallery. Featuring 100 different flavours, enticing jelly-bean-centric activities and painstakingly detailed jelly bean art, this truly is a unique experience.
This is only beginning to scrape the surface of all the things to do in Rotorua - I haven’t even mentioned the Agrodome, home to a massively popular (and interactive!) show demonstrating some of the highlights of New Zealand farming life, or the towering Redwood forest that attracts both day trippers and mountain bikers to pass among the giants. There is far too much here to see and do in a morning, or even several days, so choose your activities wisely and then hit the road again, knowing that there are far more wonders ahead.
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!
If you do elect to spend a bit of time in Taupo, you certainly won’t be bored. The town is something of an adventure hub, with skydiving and bungy jumping both on the cards. Although there are many places that allow you to throw yourself out of planes and off platforms (safety measures in place, of course) Taupo is one of the most scenic spots in the country in which to do so. Skydiving will allow you a good amount of time to appreciate the gorgeous landscape from on high, while bungy jumping allows you to walk onto a cantilever platform stretching out over a deep blue river before plummeting into the gorge. You can even ask for a little extra length so you’ll take a dunk in the river at the bottom! The ski fields of Mount Ruapehu are nearby, with Whakapapa being a popular choice for casual skiers and snow bunnies alike. On the other hand, Taupo DeBretts is a solid choice if you’re just looking to unwind and loosen muscles tensed by driving. Whether you opt for a simple soak in their hot pools, a spa treatment or an overnight stay, DeBretts is sure to leave you refreshed and ready for the next stage in your journey. However if you’re just passing through the town, a short jaunt along the shore of Lake Taupo will quickly clear any mental cobwebs and leave you inspired for the final leg.
From Taupo, it’s just a 45 minute trip around the shores of the lake to the day’s final destination: Turangi.
Leg 3 Turangi to Wellington
Est Driving Time4 hrs, 15 mins
*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!
The road to Wellington
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.
At the end of the Desert Road you’ll find Waiouru, a town that exists mainly because of the major Army base nearby. It does have a decent military museum, well worth a look especially if you have young ones who need to stretch their legs.
About 20 minutes on from Waiouru, you’ll pass through Taihape - the self-proclaimed ‘Gumboot Capital of the World’. Believe it or not, every year it draws large numbers of people for the annual gumboot throwing competition.
If you thought that Taihape had an odd theme, just wait till you get to Bulls, another hour down the road. Look for the big black bull on wheels. It’s well worth taking a rest stop here, if only to chortle at terri-bull puns on display everywhere. Just a small sample: the ice cream parlour is “lick-a-bull”, the greengrocer is “veget-a-bull” and the police station is “consta-bull”. Even the local church has got in on the act, labeling itself “forgive-a-bull”. Of course, there are only so many bovine puns that you can take in one day, so eventually you’ll strike south again.
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.
It’s now time to take the final two hour trip down along the western coast, then inland to Wellington City.
Leg 4 Wellington to Blenheim
Est Driving Time4 hrs, 30 mins
*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.
On the other hand, if you’re wanting to experience first hand that nightlife that everyone talks about, you’ll want to head to either Courtenay Place or Cuba Street in downtown Wellington. The particular club or bar you pick will depend on your mood and tastes but it’s best to try several different venues over the course of the night as each will differ wildly in atmosphere and theme. The Library on Courtenay Place is a low-key lounge bar - as you might expect the walls are lined with books which you can peruse over a cocktail or craft beer. The feel of Cuba Street’s Good Luck Bar harkens back to its Opium Den past, with a floating lantern bar dividing the lounge from the dance floor and alternative music giving the place a unique, dreamlike vibe.
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.
Those searching for something a little more low key need to try the Wellington Cable Car. This massively popular attraction runs from downtown Wellington to the picturesque suburb of Kelburn, where you’ll be just a short walk away from the Wellington Botanic Gardens and Space Place at the Carter Observatory. The winding hill paths of the Botanic Gardens are the perfect spot to get away from all hustle and bustle of the city and spend a little time living at a slower pace. Featuring native forest, a large Victorian-style glasshouse and a renowned Rose Garden, you’ll soon be set at ease by the serenity of your surroundings. If you come during the spring or summer months, you may even be lucky enough to catch a free concert.
Fans of movie magic will probably know that Wellington has become a major filmmaking hub thanks to the efforts of Peter Jackson and a handful of others, and if you want to get a glimpse behind the scenes of their cinematic wizardry, you can! The Weta Cave Workshop Tour will introduce you to props and models that may seem very familiar, and give you an insight into what goes on offscreen to create those incredible movie moments.
Ready to move on? The next stage in your journey will be just a little bit different. To get from Wellington to Blenheim, you’ll first have to take the Interislander Ferry, crossing Cook Strait and cruising through the calm waters of the Marlborough Sounds. Taking your campervan rental onboard is no problem - when you get to the ferry terminal you’ll find signs telling you exactly where to go. The trip takes about three hours and has been described as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world. If you get peckish, there’s plenty of food and drink available onboard but you’ll probably want to spend most of your time outside on the observation deck, especially once the ferry comes into the sounds. Remember to bring a jacket with you as the wind can get a bit chilly.
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
Est Driving Time1 hr, 45 mins
*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.
For those who’d rather get out and about and discover what nature has in store for them in the Marlborough region, Molesworth Tour Company offers a 4WD tour into the Marlborough highlands. Giving visitors a rarely found taste of what life is like in remote rural New Zealand communities, this is an adventure that you won’t soon forget. But as glorious as the Marlborough region is, Nelson awaits.
If you’re looking for a place to break up the journey (which takes a little under two hours if you make a straight shot through) you could do a lot worse than Havelock. This coastal village at the head of Pelorus Sound is famous for its green lipped mussels, so it’s no surprise that the most popular spot to drop in for a bite to eat is called The Mussel Pot. This quirky little restaurant and cafe serves superb food - mussels are the specialty of course but they have plenty of other options for those who aren’t so shellfish savvy. After you leave the mussels of Havelock behind, you’re only an hour away from your ultimate destination.
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.
To really immerse yourself in the best of the Nelson region, consider setting out on the Abel Tasman Coast Track. The entire track stretches for 51 km within the Abel Tasman National Park, and takes 3 - 5 days to complete. While the full walk only requires a moderate level of fitness, many choose to do only small pieces, whether that be for a day or just an hour or two, an option made easy by the fact that there are water taxis that provide pick up and drop off services. But if you’re at all tempted to do the whole walk, it certainly is worth your time. Winding through native bush to emerge again and again at gorgeous secluded beaches, and occasionally rising along ridges where you can look down at the sparkling sea below, this will be a handful of days that you will never forget.
Of course, no description of Nelson would be complete without mentioning the wineries. Whereas Marlborough prides itself on its sauvignon blanc, Nelson boasts excellent pinot noir, chardonnay and aromatics. Seifried Estate Winery’s ‘Sweet Agnes’ riesling, which has won gold medals all over the world, has to be tasted to be believed and this is just the tip of a very delicious iceberg when it comes to Nelson wines.
To enjoy some of the best beaches in New Zealand, you need look no further than Golden Bay. It’s a two hour drive up the coast, but every minute will be worth it when reaching the pristine sands of this remote bay. This is the place that many Nelson locals choose to go on holiday, a fair indicator of just how special this place is. It also borders the northern entrance to the Abel Tasman Coast Track, so you can use it as a launching point for the trek!
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.
- Bathing suit
- Ski gear
- Evening wear, for the Wellington nightlife
- Hiking boots
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