8. A Wild West to Middle Earth road trip
Let us guide you through the best road trip experiences for your New Zealand holiday: here is No. 8 of our 101 Reasons To Stop Dreaming About New Zealand And Go.
This route begins in the sun-drenched Nelson Tasman region at the top of the South Island/Te Waipounamu, where every desire is met, and ends on the rugged West Coast/Te Tai o Poutini, where nature rules in spectacularly beautiful style.
Nelson’s vineyards, hop fields and orchards feed the body, and the many and varied artists’ studios feed the spirit. Don’t miss the stunning World of WearableArt centre, or the Hoglund Art Glass Gallery and glass-blowing studios outside town; and a visit to Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory is a real treat, too.
You could instead (or as well) spend a day exploring the many tracks in the area, both for bushwalking and cycling – the Great Taste Trail links edible treats of all kinds, as well as lovely scenery.
Detouring west to Pelorus Bridge is non-negotiable, however: used as a location in Sir Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it’s spectacularly beautiful. The bridge stands high above a river of clear, turquoise blue water that runs past huge, rounded boulders. They are perfect jumping-off points for floating along as the hobbits did. There are bushwalks here too, to waterfalls or a 417-metre lookout.
Motueka is a good base for exploring the lovely Abel Tasman National Park. The very accessible walking track along the coast is deservedly popular for day hikes or the full three to five days, with beautiful golden-sand beaches all the way. There’s a kayaking option, too, and the route is well-served by water taxis. Or hire a kayak at Mārahau and paddle round to the remarkable Split Apple Rock/Tokangawhā, an Instagram star. Nearby Kaiteriteri Beach is a classic family favourite; or head inland, to take on Tākaka Hill’s many corners, and explore its caverns full of stalactites, stalagmites, and ancient moa bones.
Drive south now, into the hills to pretty St Arnaud, on the edge of Lake Rotoiti. Based here, there is a variety of walks to choose from, through the beech forest and along rivers to Lake Rotoroa, listening to tuneful tui and bellbirds, and encountering cheeky robins and fantails. You’ll see fine brown trout in both lakes. Or drive on to Murchison, and take a tour to the mysterious Natural Flames – an eternal flame tucked away in the bush, that’s burned non-stop for almost a century. There are some interesting shops to visit here, too, including vintage collectibles and a general store that’s a trip back in time.
Through the hills, you’ll emerge onto the West Coast, where you must stop at Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. This is a spectacular natural formation of layered rocks weathered by the relentless ocean into picturesque stacks. At high tide you’ll be startled, and possibly showered, by dramatic blowholes, but even if it’s not you can follow the path out to a viewpoint to look down into a scarily surging pool. Across the road is a cafe where you can order – you guessed it – pancakes.
Next you’ll come to Barrytown, where you can forge your own knife from red-hot steel and carve a handle from native wood. Driving on, beyond Greymouth, you’ll come to Hokitika, where the town’s arty driftwood name on the beach is an indication of the vibe here. Wander round the studios and watch local pounamu (nephrite jade) being carved into pleasing shapes – or even have a go yourself.