Driving up from Wellington to Napier

A Wellington to Napier road trip promises an epic adventure waiting to unfold. As you leave Wellington City behind and head northward to Hawke’s Bay, you'll soon find yourself on a scenic path that winds through rugged coastlines, rolling vineyards, and charming coastal towns. Hiring a vehicle from Omega Rental Cars is the perfect way to stop, relax and explore New Zealand’s top places in style and comfort. 

How far is Wellington from Napier?

The direct route from Wellington to Napier, New Zealand, through Palmerston North is 324 kilometres. The Wellington to Napier drive time takes approximately 4.5 hours without stops. However, we recommend you plan a longer trip to explore the highlights of the lower North Island and Hawke's Bay region.

Read a first-hand account of this awesome scenic route 

This is one of a series of stories written for us by UK-based customers, Glynis and Graham, following their travels around New Zealand last Summer.  We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

Index of Glynis and Graham’s Itinerary:

  • Pick-up from Wellington apartment by Omega Car Rentals
  • Departure along State Highway 1, heading North along the coast
  • Journey through a region experiencing heavy rain and areas recently affected by bushfires
  • Passage on a large motorway out of Wellington, followed by a fast main road
  • Journey along north-east route as road splits three ways
  • Scenic views of the sea on the left and/or the Tararua forest park range on the right
  • Crossing the Manawatu Gorge from SW to NE
  • Journey along SH 2 on the other side of the pass
  • Passing towns with Norse influence such as Norsewood and Dannevirke
  • Stop at Ongaonga, an historic town just south of Napier for brunch
  • Continue journey through landscapes reminiscent of Dorset/Devon, UK
  • Drive through the extensive Hawkes Valley vineyards
  • Arrival at Napier, an Art Deco town known for historical earthquake impact
  • Viewing of the film about Napier's 1931 earthquake in the visitors' centre
  • Participation in the 90-minute town trail in Napier to learn about the town's history and architecture.

Sun 1 Feb

We got picked up at the apartment by the Omega Car Rentals people at 10, as promised, and we left to go directly North along the coast on State Highway 1, as the Sat Nav now calls it. It is no longer the SH1. A real sign we are no longer in the deep South Island, but in a different type of country. 

Where it rains!! Hard! Stair rods! Buckets! Could be something to do with it being the West Coast again, but it was actually forecast, so it comes as no shock. Also, the temperature is still in the 20s. The grass is very brown; they have been having bushfires in this region, and I suspect they are all very happy to see the rain. As we have a 4-hour journey to the east coast, we are not too stressed by the weather. Especially me, as I am only driving by proxy and only braking every now and again!

There is a big motorway out of Wellington and then a fast main road. The towns on this road are bigger, meaner versions of the little colonial towns in the South. They look like American frontier towns turned into modern America. Unsurprisingly, they never look like little English market towns.

After the one road North from Wellington, the road splits three ways. As we took the route towards the north east, the road got smaller and emptier, and the towns calmed down and looked more like something out of Bonnie and Clyde.

Most of the way up, we either had the sea on our left and/or the Tararua Forest Park range on our right. I don't know why Jek was so concerned about it being less dramatic in the North. The forest was steaming in the rain and then disappeared into a white cloud of nothingness, which then reappeared fleetingly as a ghostlike shadowland from time to time. Plus, when we get to see them, they are the weird bumpy hillocks which look like ancient funeral long barrows at home but which say volcanic when you see them here. Graham says glacial. When I come and do my geology course at Otago University, I will know. Or I could look it up on www.

Manawatu Gorge is how you cross SW to NE and is as impressive as anything in the South. I am inclined to say ‘better’, as it gives road access to a very steep, high-sided, very narrow pass with a railway line precariously balanced on the opposite edge. That would be a very scenic train ride! The track around the mountain on the other side of the gorge is just a bit wider than the rails!  The river carving through is not glacial as it is not white, blue or braided. I feel my geology degree is in the bag! 

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To my delight, the Sat Nav tells us we are on SH 2 on the other side of the pass. It's not urban enough to be a state highway, then! The mountains are now on the left, and as we near the coast, the weather eases. The proximity to the sea must be why there are Vikings here. As an exception to the Maori and English names, we get Norsewood and Dannevirke. And adverts for Vikings. And the SH becomes a State Highway again.

Turning off a road just south of Napier, we happen upon Ongaonga. Maori names often repeat the same sound twice. It literally is Onga. Twice. It competes with anything in the South Island. It is a historic town (pop about 200) and is a joy. An amalgam of 1950s English feel and colonial buildings dating back to the earliest years of the 20th century. And I think it was what I was secretly expecting/hoping all of NZ to be like when I'm honest with myself.

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We had brunch in the general store, where a lovely lady prepared us wonderful scrambled eggs and bacon on toast with tea that could have come from any little cafe in England. It felt like my childhood. Not that we ate out when we were children! There was nothing on that menu that my Grandmother would not have recognised. It really felt frozen in time, but we had the radio playing, so we knew we could still get to a PAK’n’SAVE up the road. I like this NZ a lot. I suspect there are parts further North I will find more urban. Carole, you should run that place when the present owners retire.

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However, continuing along the road, we crest a hill and below us is Dorset / Devon. It is attractive and greener as there are fewer farms here than in the Canterbury plain, which is grazed to exhaustion. Then, through the extensive Hawkes Valley vineyards.

Finally, the Art Deco town of Napier is prone to destruction by earthquakes. Always the worm in this apple! The last time was February 3, 1931. Our timing is very good. We know the exact date as we saw the film in the visitors' centre and then joined the 90-minute town trail to find out more about the earthquake and the concrete, one-style rebuild. Fascinating! Loads of people died again. Tragically. Gruesomely. Many squashed under falling bits of Victorian masonry. The hill was ok. Mostly! We are staying on the hill!

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EE81C57C B9A6 4295 8D05 4F33EB53C8CBIt's a shame we won't be here for their famous Art Deco weekend. Sounds like fun. Bad timing. It's the weekend we leave............. Next time!

Even more scenic stops between Wellington and Napier 

While your soon-to-be Napier-Wellington adventure is already brimming with captivating sights and fun activities, here are more highlights to add to your North Island itinerary:

Martinborough Wine Tour

Drive just over an hour from Wellington to reach Martinborough, a charming town known for its wine-making. Explore multiple wineries on a cycle tour or join one of the guided tours. Then, dine in style at one of the town's renowned restaurants

Cape Palliser

With its rugged beauty and colonies of adorable fur seals, travelling to Cape Palliser is a must. Ascend the iconic red-and-white lighthouse for amazing panoramic vistas. 

Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre

This Wildlife Centre offers an opportunity to spot New Zealand’s unique and often rare species, such as tuatara, kaka, and the kiwi bird. Learn about their conservation efforts to protect and preserve New Zealand's natural heritage.

Tui Brewery, Mangatainoka 

The iconic Tui Brewery (Tui HQ) is set against rolling green hills and clear blue skies. Enjoy a cold pint of Tui beer while taking in the panoramic vistas of the New Zealand countryside. 

Te Apiti, Manawatu Gorge

The Manawatu Gorge Scenic Reserve is a great place to stop to immerse yourself in lush native forests, the soothing sound of flowing streams, and abundant native birdlife. 


Norsewood is a charming blend of Scandinavian heritage and is an excellent place to stop for coffee or food like Swedish meatballs and herring platters. 


Located in the heart of Hawke's Bay, Waipukurau blends natural beauty and historic charm. Take scenic walks through lush parks and vibrant gardens and enjoy exploring timeless architectural gems. 

Rent Your Own Car for Your New Zealand Road Trip with Omega

It's easy to explore New Zealand when you rent a vehicle from Omega! 

Driving a rental car lets you visit awesome spots around the country at your own pace, tailoring your own Wellington-Napier experience. It also provides comfort and privacy as you travel, making your road trip more enjoyable and stress-free. So don't wait on it – book a rental car in Wellington from Omega and get to exploring the North Island now!

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