With a population of only 4 million, New Zealand is definitely lacks the vast web of roads more densely populated countries, like the UK, have. There are 3 major roads traversing the North Island, one along each coast and one up the middle. They connect top and bottom and middle too, but it definitely makes getting around without a map easy. Weather its Wellington’s fabulous beaches or Lord of the Rings attractions, driving is undoubtedly the best way to travel New Zealand independently.
Many of New Zealand’s roads are great to drive. In fact, they pretty much all are once you’re out of the towns, (Auckland is a confusing busy nightmare). The roads range from wide long flat stretches with super convenient passing lanes (there are barely any motorways in New Zealand so these make overtaking trucks, motor homes and veggies with trailers super easy). There are windy narrow mountain passes that use plenty of concentration and low gears. There are even metal (gravel) roads aplenty to get off the beaten track. If you’re anything like my partner you’ll have plenty of fun on these!
But where are the best roads to drive on New Zealand’s North Island? Here’s a few of my favorites.
The forgotten highway is state highway 43 and goes from Stratford, near New Plymouth, to Taumaranui. It is a narrow little used country road. Some of it is gravel and it passes through a small tunnel. It’s definitely of the beaten track but is definitely one of the best roads to drive in New Zealand.
Did you know New Zealand has a republic? It’s called the republic of Whangamomona and it’s here that the forgotten highway takes you. The republic has been governed by a goat, and a poodle and a turtle! The small village is home to a hotel and a couple of touristy shops but is predominantly a farming community. However it’s a great place to stop for lunch or even a night. You can even get your passport stamped here!
The desert road is a section of state highway along the Rangipo desert. It’s not actually a dessert in the classic sense of the word, but the scenery is moorland, open, barren and wild. A drive through it is very atmospheric, and is unique throughout New Zealand.
The road itself is generally wide. It’s reasonably busy as a state highway, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the drive. Part of the road is very straight with views of Mount Ngauruhoe in the Tongariro National Park, which was the film location for Mordor in Lord of the Rings. LOTR was filmed throughout much of New Zealand, including these locations near Wellington.
The other section is windy, through the foothills with the road cutting through earth embankments. All along the road are multiple places to stop for photo opportunities and hikes. Or you can do as the locals, and just pullover wherever there’s room on the side of the road.
Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach
Cape Reinga is the most accessible northernmost point of New Zealand. nearby Surville Cliffs are the most northern point but can only be reached with a multi day trek.
Cape Reinga is also the place where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, creating an obvious dramatic meeting of seas which is easily visible. A white line where the currents meet is a visible seem on along the water. I would love to see it on a stormy day.
The drive there is beautiful and quiet, as there is no town past Te Kao, which is still a 40 minute drive away from Cape Reigna. The countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills and wilderness surrounding you. Stop off at Te Paki, the giant sand dunes, which you can board down if you dare!
You could make the trip circular by bracing driving on 90 Mile beach. It is actually 88 miles long so the name is a little misleading. However the golden sands are dramatic sand dunes make up for it. 90 Mile Beach is a ‘road’ in the loosest sense of the word. There is no tarmac, or gravel, just natural beach. Only a few speed limit signs show that it is actually a road. A drive along here is sure to be an experience, just make sure you are in a suitable vehicle, drive on the hard sand nearer the sea, check the tides and be prepared to ford streams. You cannot drive here in a rental car (it invalidates your insurance) but there are several bus companies who provide your asking this stretch of sand. And yes, that little 1.2L 1998 Mitsubishi mirage in the picture was my car, and I had the most thrilling drive of my life on 90 mile beach. It is undoubtedly one of the best roads to drive in New Zealand.
Highway 309, Coromandel
Highway 309 is a gravel road that connects Coromandel town and Kaimarara on the Coromandel penninsular. Apart from being a longer ‘shortcut’ across the peninsular, and being one of the best places to see giant Kauri trees, it is a road only those who enjoy driving would take. You are likely to see only a handful of cars along one of New Zealands most exciting roads to drive.
The road snakes its way through native bush, and is used by locals for the gold rush Coromandel rally, so you can imagine the thrill of driving fast along a narrow, windy gravel track surrounded by forest. Even at a much safer pace for us mere mortals, a journey along highway 309 is one of the best roads to drive in New Zealand.
Rimutaka Hill Road
Follow state highway 2 north from Wellington and you will reach the Rimutaka Hill road. We are lucky enough to drive this regularly as we have friends and family on the other side.
It is a twisty windy mountain pass with steep drops and amazing views. Keep your eyes on the road if you’re the driver and stop at the viewpoint to appreciate amazing views over the Hutt valley towards Wellington, and a rugged valley of native bush in the other direction.
In bad weather take extra care as rocks do fall on the road, it has also been closed occasionally in high winds, usually only overnight. It is a beautiful fun drive though. Greytown in the Wairarapa is a good stop with plenty of boutique shops frequented by trendy Wellingtonions. It’s also the route to Martinboroguh, a pretty small town with almost more vineyards than people, perfect for Wine Tasting!
These are just 5 of the most interesting and fun roads you can drive on New Zealand’s North Island. In truth, pretty much anywhere in New Zealand is a fantastic drive, except for the cities. With no motorways you really get to see the stunning landscape, and quaint towns along the way with their quirky cafes and bizzare, classic kiwi icons such as the giant carrot in Ohakune, Giant Kiwi in Eketahuna and the giant gumboot of Taihape. A road trip is sure to be heaps of fun, especially if it involves any of these 5 amazing roads.