Whether you want to explore a winter wonderland or escape the chill, here are our top 10 Australian and New Zealand winter road trips to try.
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While the hallowed road trip is a summer staple, there’s much to be said for packing the car and hitting the road for a winter driving holiday. The air is crisp, landscapes are more dramatic, there are fewer crowds, and who doesn’t like to snuggle up and watch the rain while sipping on a freshly brewed cuppa?! And, even if winter wonderlands don’t exactly take your fancy, the cooler months are also a great time to escape to sunnier climes and bask in some much-needed vitamin D.
If the road is calling your name, don’t hit the bitumen before reading our travel guide on some of the best road trips in Australia and New Zealand. We’ve found top driving holiday ideas suitable for everyone’s tastes – whether you’re looking to embrace the cold or chase the winter sun.
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With its spectacular scenery, cosy mountain hospitality and quality produce harvested just before winter, the misty Blue Mountain region makes an ideal choice for a New South Wales winter road trip with a dose of European festive charm. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed region is scattered with quaint villages and towns to be discovered: stop in at Leura for morning tea and shop for handmade treats, stretch your legs in Katoomba with a hike to see The Three Sisters, and discover stalagmites at the underground Jenolan Caves (you can even stay in a heritage-listed cave house). The annual Yule Festival in July also sees many towns come alive with Christmas carols, log fires, mountain feasts and, if you’re lucky, some snowfall.
Distance: 400km / 6.5 hours driving from Sydney (round trip)
Suggested road trip length: 1-2 days
Victoria’s scenic coastline is the star attraction of this iconic winter road trip, which begins in Torquay, 100 km from Melbourne. The winding road takes in dramatic cliffs beneath brooding skies and passes through a string of quiet surfing towns, like Lorne, Anglesea and Apollo Bay, where locals readily plunge into icy waters with surfboards in hand. The ancient Otway rainforest also comes alive in winter with the gentle radiance of glow worms, which you can find by following the trails with a torch in hand.
From May to September, Warrnambool is an ideal place to spot whales as they make their annual migrations from Antarctica. And don’t forget to stop at The Twelve Apostles for an obligatory photo to remember your winter getaway (but come prepared for wind chill!).
Distance: 665 km / 9 hours driving from Melbourne (round trip)
Suggested road trip length: 2-3 days
Australia’s rugged ‘Apple Isle’ has a charming blend of prehistoric landscapes and abundant produce of cheese, wine and chocolate, which all pair so well with a winter road trip. Beginning in Queenstown, take a detour to the west coast and visit the harbourside village of Strahan, known for its dark convict past and idyllic setting on the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
From here, drive beneath snow-dappled trees to Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park and pull on your hiking boots to tackle the six-kilometre circuit walk at Dove Lake, rated as one of the state’s best. Drive on south to Hobart, stopping in at cute country towns like Sheffield, and nearby Elizabeth Town where you can sample berries in many delectable forms at Christmas Hills Raspberry Farm.
This route is also a good opportunity to escape the city lights and, if you’re lucky, you might even have a chance to see the Aurora Australis, the southern hemisphere’s answer to the Northern Lights, which glows over Tasmania in winter.
Distance: 553 km / 8.75 hours driving from Queenstown to Hobart (one way)
Suggested road trip length: 2-3 Days
The north island of New Zealand is a geothermal wonderland ideal for a winter road trip thanks to its bubbling mud pools, geysers, and natural hot springs to soak in. Heading east from Auckland, you’ll find Hot Water Beach, where travellers come armed with a bucket and spade to dig their own little bath on the beach, which is fed by an underground hot spring. (Hot tip: arrive early or be prepared to jostle for a good spot.)
Further south, you won’t need to compete for a bath in Rotorua with its numerous spas and thermal pools open throughout winter. You can also indulge in a touch of Māori culture while you’re here, with many of the spa treatments here using indigenous herbs or muds. Visiting the legendary Pohutu Geyser in Te Puia is also a must, while adventure seekers can strap on a helmet and ride the Te Ara Ahi Thermal Bike Trail, which visits four geothermal hot spots.
Distance: 737 km / 10 hours driving from Auckland (round trip)
Suggested road trip length: 2-3 Days
Tucked away in the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, the Otago region is a hidden gem full of gold-rush history, wildlife and vineyards surrounded by picturesque snow-capped mountains and shimmering lakes. You can enjoy a city break in Dunedin, perhaps visiting New Zealand’s only castle while you’re there, then breathe in the crisp alpine air on a winter road trip through the spectacular Waitaki Valley to discover quirky steampunk museums, curious penguins, and a giant merino sheep in Oamaru and Omarama.
Why not take a detour through Otago’s romantic wine region and stop in for a taste at cellar doors and restaurants en route to Queenstown? This route is even further south than Tasmania, which means you could have an even better chance of seeing the Southern Lights on a clear winter night, and its proximity to the mountains means it’s a great way to see some of the New Zealand countryside away from the slopes after a ski holiday.
Distance: 680 km / 8.5 hours driving from Dunedin (round trip)
Suggested road trip length: 4 Days
If winter mornings aren’t for you, escape to Tropical North Queensland and follow the Great Barrier Reef on a driving holiday from Cairns to Airlie Beach. You can take some time in Cairns to savour its local breweries and gin distilleries (sensibly, of course!), unique Aboriginal art galleries, and perhaps even join a snorkelling day trip out to the reef, before driving south through a collection of interesting coastal towns.
(Tip: for travel insurance that covers recreational holiday activities – like snorkelling – and adventure sports, check out the range of sporting activities we automatically cover and our popular optional extras.)
Keep your eyes peeled for cassowaries in the rainforests off Mission Beach (but don’t get too close!), and you can also go white-water rafting in Tully, and discover Mount Fox – a dormant volcano in Ingham.
In Townsville, don’t miss the chance to visit turtles at Reef HQ Aquarium’s Turtle Hospital or see a colony of dozing koalas on Magnetic Island. Townsville is also an ideal place to fit in one last dive at the Great Barrier Reef before heading to the aquamarine waters of Airlie Beach.
Distance: 650 km / 8 hours driving from Cairns to Airlie Beach (one way)
Suggested road trip length: 3-4 Days
The Australian Outback is scorching hot during the summer season, but from May to September the sun is less intense, making it an ideal time for winter campervan travel through South Australia and into the country's Red Centre.
Thankfully, the directions are straightforward: simply follow the Stuart Highway (ensuring you’re carrying plenty of spare petrol and water supplies!) and consider taking out travel insurance before you depart for extra peace of mind and support on your winter road trip.
Before leaving Adelaide, consider a detour south to the rolling wine region of McLaren Vale, then head north to Port Augusta and the spectacular Flinders Ranges. From here it’s the wide, open road, vast stretches of epic red desert punctuated by underground towns and outback pubs, and an unforgettable pilgrimage to iconic Uluru – sacred to indigenous Australians – before arriving at Alice Springs.
Distance: 2,237 km / 23 hours driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs (one way)
Suggested road trip length: 4-5 Days
Starting just outside Sydney’s CBD, the Grand Pacific Drive is a stunning 140 km coastal drive set against the glittering South Pacific Ocean. This road trip leads south through rainforests and chic coastal towns before looping inland and returning to Sydney via the Southern Highlands.
After crossing the Sea Cliff Bridge, you can stop in to admire Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist shrine in the Southern Hemisphere, then carry on to Minnamurra Rainforest outside Shellharbour. Don’t forget to stop in at Kiama Blowhole for a refreshing spray, then put your legs up at Jervis Bay, where you can watch migrating whales (May through November) and visit winery cellar doors to taste some of the best drops in New South Wales. Then, turn around and head back to Sydney, stopping in Bowral and its famous collection of boutique shops, restaurants and public gardens along the way.
Distance: 472km / 8 hours driving from Sydney (round trip)
Suggested road trip length: 2-3 Days
New Zealand’s North Island is sometimes referred to as the “winterless north” thanks to its milder temperatures in the northeast corner surrounding Auckland. You can start your winter road trip in New Zealand with a visit to Waiheke Island – a popular New Zealand wine region – for a pitstop that’s perfect for both romantics and foodies. The local ferry is both a passenger and car ferry, so you can safely take your owned or rented car with you to the island.
Next, you can set off along a stretch of road that hugs the coast and visits some of the North Island’s most beautiful landscapes. These include the world-famous Cathedral Cove in Coromandel, the wilderness of Whale Island, and the many wineries of the Hawke’s Bay wine region.
Meanwhile, in Napier, you’ll find one of the world’s best collections of Art Deco architecture, and nearby Cape Kidnappers/Te Kauwae-a-Māui is home to the world’s largest gannet (bird) colony.
Distance: 1,030km / 15 hours driving from Auckland to Napier (one way)
Suggested road trip length: 7 Days
One of the best wine regions for vinophiles to explore is Marlborough, which is located at the top end of New Zealand’s South Island. Set alongside the pristine Marlborough Sounds, it is the centrepiece of this romantic road trip from Christchurch to Nelson.
Starting in a rejuvenated Christchurch, travel to the coastal charm of Kaikoura, where the dramatic waters set the stage for unforgettable encounters with whales, fur seals and dolphins. Be sure to pack your appetite for your road trip to Marlborough, where seafood – including King salmon, mussels, and clams – is plucked fresh straight out of local waters each day.
Walk off the local delicacies – if only for a moment – with a stroll through local markets featuring artisanal produce ranging from saffron to honey, and olives to chocolates. Finish up in Nelson, which is brimming with creative energy, and explore art galleries and hidden studios where you’ll find everything from handcrafted jewellery to pottery, glasswork and Lord of the Rings paraphernalia.
Distance: 436km / 6 hours driving from Christchurch to Nelson (one way)
Suggested road trip length: 2-3 Days
There’s no denying winter can be a stunning time to travel – think misty mountains, fresh snowfall and cleansing rains – but it can also present a number of hazards to drivers, which is why it’s important to follow a few key safety tips on your road trip.
If you’re driving using your own car, be sure to check your car’s safety equipment, tyres, windscreen wipers, batteries, lights, and brakes. It’s also a good idea to have your car professionally serviced, too. If you’re hiring a car, ask when the vehicle was last serviced.
Your car might need more time to properly brake when driving in wet weather conditions during winter thanks to water and ice on the road. Remember to keep a wider gap between you and the car in front of you, aiming for more than four seconds between vehicles.
Several things can cloud your visibility when driving in winter, from windscreens fogging up to literal fog on the road and unexpectedly intense bouts of rain. It’s important to know your limits, and if visibility becomes a problem, it’s wise to pull over and wait for the driving conditions to change.
If you’re driving on unfamiliar roads, ask for some pointers from the locals at your next pitstop or refuel station. They’ll have better insight into recent weather that might affect your travel plans (like fallen trees blocking roads) as well as other seasonal insights.
Wildlife are most active at dawn and dusk, and, as the days become shorter in winter, it’s more likely you’ll encounter wildlife during these peak driving times. Keep an eye out for wildlife on or near the road, and reduce your speed when travelling through built-up areas of bush.
Even with the best-laid road trip itinerary and plenty of planning, things can – and do – go wrong on the road at times. Obtaining the best travel insurance coverage for your needs before you leave can help ensure you don’t get caught out while travelling – whether you’re exploring domestically in your own vehicle or internationally with a rental car.
Discover if the benefits of our domestic and international travel insurance plans are right for you and your road trip today.
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