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    This Is What A South Island Road Trip Really Looks Like
    In any other country, buying a car for a road trip would seem ridiculous. But New Zealand isn’t just any other country. For years, backpackers have been buying and selling cars from each other and taking to New Zealand’s roads to see as much of that famous scenery as possible. So I decided to give it a try.

    Even if you don’t trust a 1984 Mazda junker that’s been through 15 different owners, there are plenty of other ways to get on the road: rental RVs and camper vans, bus tours, motorcycles, bicycles. And you should, because the real soul of New Zealand is best found in the bends and curves of its roads. It may only take about 11 hours to drive from one end of the South Island to the other, but the the variety in scenery packed into that one island is absolutely astounding.

    It’s one thing to talk about it—it was a whole different thing when I actually got behind the wheel and had to constantly remind myself to keep left! Crank up that radio—here’s what it looks like to cruise the ultimate road-trip county.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Starting Off on the South Island
    Gimmerburn, New Zealand

    Kia Ora, welcome to the South Island. 

    These are the kind of landscapes New Zealand is famous for—vast and rugged. But it's hard to take in the sights without being distracted by the little white dots of RVs and campervans (can you spot them?), all roaming those same long roads.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    All Aboard
    KaikouraNew Zealand

    That's the thing about winding your way along New Zealand's roads: one minute it's nothing but scrub brush and hills for miles, and the next, you've rounded a bend to watch the ocean and dunes of sea grass stretch open in front of you. 

    Whereas inland, farm stands and apiaries dot the New Zealand highways, along the coasts, it's all about the seafood. Keep an eye out for seafood shacks and restaurants. Crawfish can get expensive, but you can't beat that fresh-from-the-sea flavor.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    The Dawn Patrol
    Meatworks Surf Break, KaikouraNew Zealand

    The farther south you get, the harder it is to find freedom camping, or free camp sites. As tourism in the area increases, the campsites are getting overloaded and causing a slew of problems for locals. There are, of course, plenty of holiday parks and pay-to-stay campgrounds that come fully equipped with showers, kitchens and laundry facities. 

    But the good news, if you really prefer something more rugged, is that there are a few freedom camping sites left where you can pull up quietly alongside campervans and RVs lined up along water's edge and settle in for the night.

    Because whether you're in a fully-equipped RV, one of the ubiquitous green-and-purple Jucy rental campervans, or just curled up in the back of a Subaru, nothing beats waking up and looking out over the ocean in the early morning light.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Embrace the Cafe Culture
    Turangi, New Zealand

    It's hard to find bad food on the road in New Zealand. 

    Pull off the highway into any small town and pick any small cafe, and you're sure to get a delicious and hearty full breakfast, fresh-baked pastries, or a fantastic sandwich. 

    And you may even get a bit nostalgic after ironically stumbling on a Route 66 Americana-themed cafe like the Cadillac Cafe in Turangi.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    It's For the Birds
    KaikouraNew Zealand

    The best road trips are about the stops along the way, not just the stretches of roads. Kaikoura is a great place for whale watching, dolphin spotting, and especially bird watching, since it's home to more species of sea bird than anywhere else in New Zealand.

    But it's not just along the coast that you'll find yourself inadvertently bird watching. There are an astonishing number of birds to be seen throughout the country: birds of prey looping aimlessly over the motorways, purple swamphens waiting to cross the road, and any number of song birds brightening up even the quietest rest stops.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    New Zealand Doesn't Believe in Straight Roads
    QueenstownNew Zealand

    It may not be the biggest country, but when all the roads look like this, it can take days to get from point A to point B.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    The Views are Remarkable
    QueenstownNew Zealand

    The mountains just to the east of Queenstown across Lake Wakatipu are called The Remarkables. And, like much of the scenery in New Zealand, they are pretty remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that almost every pull-out and rest stop you'll pass in this particularly photogenic region will have at least one other person, iPhone or DSLR in hand, snapping away. You just can't get enough of these views.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Believe the Hype
    Te AnauNew Zealand

    Milford Sound is one of the most famous spots in the South Island, due in large part to how hard it is to get there—it's a 4-5 hour drive from Queenstown—but also to how beautiful the area is. Most people choose to hop a tour bus to avoid road fatigue. But if you're willing to brave the kilometers, or looking to camp around Fjordland National Park, it's absolutely worth it to see the sun-streaked forests, mirror-like lakes, and ice-blue alpine rivers. You really get it all in a small space. 

    And even better if you're lucky enough to be there on one of the rare clear days.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Walk in the Footsteps of Nature
    Fox GlacierNew Zealand

    A glacier encounter, whether Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, or Rob Roy Glacier, is another one of those "musts" while touring the South Island.

    But the sad truth is that the glaciers are so fast retreating that they may not be musts for much longer. In fact, as recently as the 1920s, Fox Glacier extended all the way down this track that dwarfs tourists using the path to approach the nearest viewing point (which is roughly 500 meters away from the glacier itself).
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    New Zealand's Fog Game is On Point
    Hawea FlatNew Zealand

    There are almost as many ways to sleep in New Zealand as there are ways to drive through New Zealand. Hitch your RV to a powered campsite in a holiday park, pop the tent top of your camper van in a freedom campsite, pull into the driveway of one of the coziest B&Bs, or even lay down your bike and unpack a tent in some high-up mountainous campsite.

    Just be sure to get up early enough to catch the fog rolling over the mountains, especially in Queenstown's quieter, less touristy, and still naturally stunning neighbor, Wanaka.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Take a Break and Take It In
    Gowanbridge, New Zealand

    One reason road trips are such a popular way of seeing the country is that New Zealand takes good care of its roads and rest stops. All along the motorways are little scenic rest stops and view points complete with trash cans and picnic benches and views like these.

    And don't be surprised if your favorite spot from a NZ road trip happens to be a rest stop. Mine was.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Where the Sidewalk Ends
    WanakaNew Zealand

    Occasionally, the road ends. The big motorways, of course, are well-maintained, but with the majority of New Zealand's population living in the North Island, the South Island really has only the roads that it needs. 

    If you turn off on some little road to get a deeper experience, remember, you may only get so far!
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Share the Road
    Somewhere between Franz Josef and Hokitika, New Zealand

    Motorcyclists love to weave their way through the crowds or cars and RVs. With lazy bends and long streches of winding scenic routes, what motorcycle enthusiast could resist?
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Unintentional Secrets
    Somewhere between Franz Josef and Hokitika, New Zealand

    As with any roadtrip, the key to New Zealand is the things you happen upon. Gasp-inducing views are a given, but it's the smaller things that give the country its personality.

    You might stop by a quirky art gallery on the outskirts of a tiny town, or buy local honey from a roadside apiary and honey stand. Maybe your favorite winery will be one that's not on the tourist map. Or even a "secret" rest stop beside an abandoned barn. Why was it a secret? I have no idea.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Counting Sheep
    ArrowtownNew Zealand

    There's an old joke that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand, which, judging by all the sheep crossings, pasture passings, and sheering opportunities, may just be true.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Not for Sale
    Stillwater, New Zealand

    There's a curious mix of old and new along NZ's roads. You really won't see many rust heaps like these, but gorgeous, shiny, restored vintage cars cruise the roads on any day of the week. And among all the Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets, you may even spot one of those 1920's-era Chryslers.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Yes, This Is the Same Country
    Brightwater, New Zealand

    Yes, this is the same country, same island. From sharp alpine peaks to stretches of high desert, thick pine forests to rolling farmland, New Zealand's vistas are endlessly varied. You'll probably pass through two or three different types of scenery within a couple of hours.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    Soak Up the Sunshine
    ChristchurchNew Zealand

    And, of course, the sunsets are gorgeous.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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What It Really Looks Like to Roadtrip Through New Zealand's South Island

If you really want to experience NZ, get behind the wheel