From Furthest North to Deepest South, Aotearoa has family road-trip routes promising easy rides, beauty spots, fun activities and pit stops that'll have no one asking, "Are we there yet?"
The perfect place to head out on the highways because the regional tourism organisation's Northland Journeys are designed as half- to full-day family road trips. Each of the dozen or so itineraries is an unhurried exploration of a theme – ancient kauri, ancestry, coastal routes and so on. The new Headlands and Hidden Harbours route follows a trail from the Bay of Islands to Doubtless Bay, past beaches and rocky outcrops, small coastal settlements and heritage towns. As well as the distinctive headlands, there are many rocky-topped maunga you'll see from the road - or stop the car and enjoy the view from the top.
Go west – or east. On the eastern Sheltered Coast route, you'll enjoy smaller, stunning harbours, family-friendly beaches, regional parks and food, wine and craft artisans. Towns and villages include Pūhoi Bohemian Settlement, Warkworth, Sandspit, Matakana and Leigh; regional parks such as Wenderholm, Mahurangi and Tāwharanui as well as Goat Island Marine Reserve; beaches such as Ōmaha and Pākiri (well, there's no beach quite like Pākiri). The eastern Triple Harbour run encounters the Kaipara and Manukau harbour with glimpses of the Waitematā. Titirangi, Huia, Riverhead, Kūmeu/Huapai and Helensville are refreshment stops; Ambury, Waitākere, Te Rau Puriri and Omeru Pā are park breaks; Karekare, Piha, Bethells Te Henga, Muriwai are memorable beaches. Te Hana Te Ao Marama cultural centre near Wellsford is a must-see.
Tripping the peninsula's west coast from Thames to Coromandel is the classic Coro' roadie. Tree-lined bays, calm waters and safe swimming in the Hauraki Gulf. Keep an eye out for Waiomu Beach Cafe; take a short detour up the Tapu-Coroglen road to Rapaura Watergardens and the Seven Stairs of Heaven waterfalls; and look up an unusual forest giant, the square kauri.
Not a long drive but packed with things to do that'll keep the family entertained all day, the triangle of quaint towns, lush green pastures and river gorges around Te Aroha, Morrinsville and Matamata. Soak it all in at Te Aroha's mineral spa and leisure pools or the domain's foot spa; marvel at Mōkena, the world's only natural soda water geyser, and spectacular Wairere Falls; post Instagrams from Matamata's Hobbitish i-Site or Herd of Cows, Morrinsville's life-size cattle sculptures. Take an icecream break at The Scoop, Waharoa.
Bay of Plenty
Might be getting a tad chilly for water sports but that's why wetsuits were invented. Bay of Plenty's Beach Lovers' Roadie is a pick-and-mix of activities such as kayaking on Ōhiwa Harbour - paddle up to the oyster farm at high tide for seafood chowder; Moutohorā Whale Island pest-free oasis to meet rare and endangered wildlife and dig a geothermal spring pool; lose yourself in untouched coastal beauty at Newdicks Beach, its punchy waves a surfer's favourite, or hang with the locals, their horses and 4WD bikes on laidback Pukehina. There's more action at Mount Main Beach or Pāpāmoa; north of Tauranga at Bowentown, Anzac Bay is a pōhutukawa-lined beach with calm waters and bush, a great spot for a picnic, snorkel or easy stand-up paddleboard. There's a playground and boat ramp.
A three-day road trip from Kinloch, the picturesque village at 12 o'clock on a map of Lake Taupō. Day two, drive to 70 minutes to Tūrangi, base camp for world-class trout fishing (kids and beginner lessons available), whitewater rafting and gateway to the Unesco dual World Heritage Tongariro National Park. The route will take you past the lake's western bays; there's a full range of accommodation but (personal experience here) best to book ahead. Day three, take the scenic drive around the southern shores to – brace yourself – the big city of Taupō with its family activities, boutiques, cafes, galleries and one of our best playgrounds.
Waka Kotahi calls it State Highway 4 but The Adventure Highway is a way better name for the 105km Waiōuru-Taumarunui road on the Central Plateau. It opens the door to two national parks, dramatic volcanoes and ever-changing landscapes. We've mentioned some of the family-friendly sites in this less-travelled corner of the motu elsewhere today. Here are more: Ohakune Carrot Adventure Park; Mangawhero River swimming hole; Te Pepe Bike Park and Pump Track, Ohakune; YHA Climbing Wall at National Park; easy, short walk to Tawhai Falls, Whakapapa. There's scenery both picturesque (Waitonga Falls, Ohinetonga Reserve) and man-made (Makatote Viaduct). Refuel with mini-golf and a meal at Schnapps, National Park or Bradley's Garden, Taumarunui; Johnny Nation's Chocolate Eclair Shop, Ohakune; Blue Hill Cafe, Ōwhango.
From the Art Deco city, head north to the beach township of Māhia. Along the way discover Lake Tutira (top pitstop), Guthrie-Smith Arboretum (stunning in autumn), Shine Falls (easy 30-minute walk), Wairoa's riverfront playground, rail-bikes in Opoutama and finish with a swim at Māhia's white-sand beach. Or head south to Pōrangahau Beach, stopping off at quaint and historic Ōtāne, Central Hawke's Bay Museum and Tukituki walking and biking trails in Waipukurau before turning off to the beachside settlement of Pōrangahau.
Aotearoa's oldest heritage trail, the 155km Forgotten World Highway runs between Stratford and Taumarunui, following ancient Māori trade routes and pioneering farm tracks through historic settlements, untamed bush and stunning scenery. It can be a three-hour scenic drive or several days with notable stops: Mt Damper Falls (perfect picnic spot), Moki Tunnel, Lauren's Lavender Farm and Cafe, the Bridge to Somewhere and Whangamomona Hotel. Surf Highway 45 is the 105km coastal route connecting New Plymouth and Hāwera. Between the two are dozens of surf breaks, beaches, historic and cultural sites, scenic spots and cafes.
Pick your day to arrive in Nelson and you could start the city's two-day family-friendly itinerary at Pic's World of Peanut Butter (not open weekends). Other must-see-and-do's include Cable Bay, for mud-rides and quad-biking; a coastal highway drive toward Māpua and the Ruby Coast for the Jester House, a whimsical world of giant chessboards, eel-feeding, mazes and mosaic animals; and Māpua Wharf's safe swimming, local icecream and fish 'n' chips. On the second day, it's another short drive to Kaiteriteri, gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, and more activities such as a waka trip, scenic cruise, wildlife-spotting and scoff burgers on the waterfront in the evening.
Lonely Planet reckons the 100km Westport-Greymouth highway is one of the world's Top 10 Coastal Drives. Full-throttle, you can knock off The Great Coast Rd in 90 minutes but you and the family will want a day to appreciate its beaches, nooks and crannies. Some tips: Carter's Beach near Westport, long, wide and sandy for swimming, sandcastle building, sunsets with bonfires on the beach; there's a holiday park and Donaldo's beachfront restaurant. Nearby, Cape Foulwind is our largest seal colony. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes is bound to impress kids of all ages, as are the hot cakes across the road.
The Alpine Pacific Touring Route takes in 405km of spectacular scenery around the Christchurch, Hurunui and Kaikōura districts, winding past wineries for the over-18s, soaks in thermal pools, swims and picnics at wild beaches or wildlife-spotting in Kaikōura for everyone. The regional tourism organisation has curated options for road trips and family holidays at its website, ranging from two to five days and covering a wide range of activities around the province.
State Highway 80 is the official name but everyone calls it "the Mt Cook road" - 55km from Twizel to Mt Cook Village. Short but very sweet, you'll want to stop at the NZ Alpine Lavender Farm for icecream and photos, at Pūkaki Boulders so the kids can climb on ancient glacier rocks and Boundary Stream Bridge for a swim. We've mentioned Glentanner Park Centre in another feature today; from the cafe you can admire the Tasman River delta and watch helicopters take off and land. At the national park, you'll find walking tracks, cafes, accommodation and the excellent DoC Info Centre.
Dunedin, Central Otago and Queenstown
Stitched together from the highway network covering 340km between Dunedin and Queenstown, the councils promoting the Central Otago Touring Route suggest families budget four days for the one-way trip. That includes a full day of Dunedin's attractions – Larnach Castle, Otago Museum's interactive Discovery World and St Clair's hot saltwater pools. Day two stops might include Wal's Plant and Fun Land with cafe and activities, a 3.5km walk around Sutton Salt Lake and curling at Naseby. The third day takes in St Bathans, the historic gold rush village, and Alexandra (aquatic centre or outdoor ice-skating; while the fourth is an easy run, maybe stopping for adventures at Highlands Motorsport (and more) Park, Arrowtown gold panning or Shotover Jet before arriving in Snowvegas.
The Southern Scenic Route goes a long way and it's come a long way since Mainland tourism pioneers Les Hutchins (RealNZ, Save Manapouri) and John Fraser battled tourist and transport authorities to declare NZ's first tourist highway open in 1988. It now encompasses a 610km route linking Queenstown, Fiordland, Te Anau and the Milford Road to Dunedin via Riverton, Invercargill and the Catlins – and has been named as one of the world's top 10 touring routes. Somewhere along this route you and your family will find the best of everything about Aotearoa. Promoters suggest taking six days but that includes full days in Queenstown and Dunedin.
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
Check traffic light settings and Ministry of Health advice before travel at covid19.govt.nz