New Zealand is blessed with epic drives and the best time to enjoy them is over the summer months. We’ve put together a top-five list, plus a few worthy honourable mentions, to recommend if you fancy cruising around the country these holidays and enjoying some of the best scenery in the world.
These breathtaking routes wouldn’t be possible without the colossal efforts of road builders and maintenance workers who tamed rugged country and literally moved mountains to make them happen.
As you travel the country this summer, spare a thought for the unsung heroes behind the journeys you’re taking. You might even consider joining them to make your own epic difference to the experience of future holidaymakers.
Lindis Pass in Canterbury
Can you imagine building a highway surrounded by mountains, or working at high altitude every day to keep it open?
Lindis Pass is a dramatic mountain pass that scrapes the sky at a stunning 966m above sea level, making the drive through it on State Highway 8 is nothing short of spectacular. The Insta-popular roadside views are uniquely beautiful, featuring snow-sprinkled tussock grassland and soaring mountain peaks, and the route is often described as one of New Zealand’s most beautiful drives.
The pass itself is situated at a saddle between the valleys of the Lindis and Ahuriri rivers and is the highest point on the South Island’s state highway network. It also has an international connection, being named by the Otago surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in 1857 after the holy island of Lindisfarne in north-east England near his place of birth.
This is a route that has come a long way since it was original cut during the Otago gold rush in 1857 and road builders themselves came across gold in 1861 as they were working – not a bad perk of the job!
The boundary of the Canterbury and Otago regions runs right through Lindis Pass and the high-altitude maintenance of the highway is split, with Downer taking care of the north side and Fulton Hogan the south. It’s the dedicated efforts of workers from these companies that keep Lindis Pass open and safe for drivers to traverse and enjoy.
The Milford Road in Fiordland
State Highway 94 ventures through the heart of Fiordland National Park from Te Anau to Milford Sound Piopiotahi and has been described as one of the South Island’s most scenic drives.
The route reveals some of Fiordland’s most striking features: the surreal Eglinton Valley, the Mirror Lakes reflecting the Earl Mountains, and the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain, where an optical illusion makes the approaching mountain seem to get smaller rather than larger as you go towards it.
After first being proposed in the late 1880s, the idea was supported by the Otago Provincial Council, which wanted a secure route to transport the area’s gold north, but it took until 1954 until its official opening.
Work was dangerous and challenging, with extreme conditions and the constant threat of avalanches, and construction of the Homer Tunnel required fighting through 1.2km of solid rock.
Milford Alliance’s sterling efforts to keep this route in good nick include avalanche protection under mountain passes as well as normal road maintenance, often in extreme conditions. Workers who keep this road open for the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders and international visitors that travel it every year describe their work as being perfect for people who love the outdoors – it’s certainly a job with a view!
Twin Coast Discovery Highway in Northland
This 800km touring route begins at Auckland airport and offers different two routes around the coast of Northland to end up at Cape Rēinga – the northern-most tip of New Zealand. If you’re looking for an epic road trip this is the way to go!
The west side offers wild coastline, huge harbours and immense dunes, while the east side features smaller, but perfectly formed, coves, bays and beaches. The highway is the best way to see the breathtaking land and seascapes the ‘winterless’ Northland has to offer.
While the Auckland Systems Management Alliance manages the sections of the highway closest to Auckland, the job of maintaining the majority of the 800km route is in the safe hands of Fulton Hogan’s road maintenance team. It’s a huge job and essential to keeping holidaymakers humming along the highway en route to their destinations.
State Highway 25 in Coromandel
As it dances along the border of the Coromandel Peninsula, State Highway 25 provides picturesque panoramic views – making it a solid summer favourite of many road trippers. The route grants access to idyllic beaches and cliff top walks along the beautiful Thames Coast Road on the western side and via Whitianga, Tairua and Whangamatā on the east coast. A short detour off the highway brings you to the unmissable Hot Water Beach near Hahei.
When HEB Construction completed the new Kopu Bridge over the Waihou River in 2012 it revolutionised access to the Coromandel, as holidaymakers no longer had to queue to cross the previous one-lane bridge. Being able to cross safely and without a bottleneck was a great result for drivers achieved by the HEB team.
These days the heroes at Higgins handle the maintenance of this route and have done an outstanding job keeping communities in the Coromandel connected after the extraordinary weather events that pummelled the region during 2023. If you’re driving around the Coromandel this summer, make sure to give a shout-out to those working through the break to keep this holiday hotspot accessible.
Blenheim to Kaikoura along State Highway 1
The highway from Blenheim to Kaikoura has long been celebrated as one of the great South Island coastal drives. But when the magnitude 7.8 Kaikōura earthquake pummelled the area two minutes after midnight on 14 November 2016, large portions of this section of State Highway 1 disappeared under a mountain of rubble.
It has now been fully restored to its former glory, thanks to a herculean effort from a workforce of more than 1,700 people working for over two million hours. The repair response involved almost 1 million cubic metres of loose material being cleared to make the route passable again.
Maintenance of the highway is split approximately in the middle, with Marlborough Roads responsible for the northern section up to Blenheim, and Downer handling the southern section through to Kaikōura. It’s not uncommon for people maintaining the road to see whales and dolphins making their way up and down the coast – not a bad office!
North Island’s State Highway 35: it’s not often a highway has its own song, or at least features heavily in one, but that’s the case with this stunning drive in New Zealand’s North Island. The highway’s name has resonated in listeners’ ears across the globe and been widely celebrated in New Zealand.
Despite suffering damage during the cyclone events earlier this year, the highway is now open, thanks to the efforts of Downer’s road crews. Their work has ensured it remains a quintessentially Kiwi coastal drive along the East Cape, full of hidden gems.
South Island’s Glenorchy Scenic Road: making this list is an almost impossible task as New Zealand has so many scenic routes. But we couldn’t complete it in good faith without mentioning the picture-perfect Glenorchy Scenic Road. The star of many a post-card and Instagram post, this route skirts charming Lake Wakatipu and provides mountains (literally) of opportunities to bask in jaw-dropping vistas – just make sure you keep your eyes on the road if you’re driving!
If you drive out on a holiday mission, as the road rolls back under your wheels, don’t forget to offer a mental ‘cheers’ or a silent steering-wheel salute to give thanks to the hard-working heroes who either created the road out of nothing or regularly put in the hard yards to maintain it.