From volcanoes and simmering lakes to rugged coastlines and beautiful beaches, New Zealand’s North Island’s got it all when it comes to great scenery. I’ve already written about our favourite hikes on our two week road trip through the island, and this post is a deeper dive into our North Island driving itinerary from Auckland to Wellington.
Whilst Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city and has lots to offer travellers, we decided to get on our way down south straight away – journeying a little over 2000km in a little over 2 weeks. Here are our top recommendations for your North Island road trip…
Head straight from Auckland up the coast to Coromandel on the first leg of your North Island driving itinerary. Located in the north east of the island, the drive is stunning and the area has plenty on offer for beach lovers.Coromandel town itself is known for its vibrant arts and crafts scene, as well as its mussel farming industry. The seafood in this area of New Zealand is fantastic and definitely worth trying. After a stop off in Coromandel, head across to Whitianga Bay and enjoy the drive South down the coast.
Whitianga Bay: this beach was deserted while we were there and a lovely place for a wander. It’s also possible to get a water taxi round the coast to explore further.
Hahei Beach & Cathedral Cove: beautiful blue seas and white sand beaches with impressive natural rock formations make this a popular stop off.
Hot Water Beach: pretty much what it says on the tin, at this beach you can dig your own little pool filled with hot water from a geothermal spring. The hot water is accessible a couple of hours either side of low tide, and be careful because it’s really hot!
We freedom camped here, there’s lots of spots along the coast to choose from – we picked Taurua for a quiet location and great sea views.
Our next stop was Hamilton, a city located in the Waikato region, where that rolling green countryside starts to take shape. The city itself is nice for a wander round, and there’s beautiful walks and campsites around the area.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves: a little pricey but an unforgettable experience, try black water tubing through a series of caves where you can see thousands of glow worms. There’s lots of places to observe the glow worms throughout New Zealand but this is lots of fun and a completely different way to see them. Be prepared to jump backwards in your tube off some waterfalls!
Hamilton Gardens: these gardens are some of the best we’ve seen. Make sure to save them for a sunny day and you can happily spend several hours exploring the gardens located in the city centre. From Italian renaissance and English cottage gardens to Japanese zen gardens and Indian inspired temple flowers, they are seriously impressive. The cafe is also well worth a visit. This is a must on any North Island driving itinerary and we had no idea how famous the gardens are.
We camped at Narrows Park Christian Camp – it has great facilities and is set in several acres of beautiful countryside.
This is where the countryside gets really good – hence it being the home of New Zealand’s famous race horsing scene and the location of ‘The Shire’ in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films. We stayed a few days with friends and enjoyed this part of our road trip exploring rural North Island.
Hobbiton: at this stage of the trip I’d never seen any of the hobbit or LOTR films, and had only half an idea of what a hobbit was, the fact that I still enjoyed our day out in Hobbiton immensely shows just how good it is. Not just for geeks, the village is painstakingly maintained for visitors and is the only living film set in the world.
Waierere Falls: more on this specifically in the hiking post but this is a great walk and definitely worth the uphill effort! The views of the surrounding countryside are second to none.
We popped back to the coast to stay with the same friend up at Tauranga, a harbour side city located in the Bay of Plenty. The city centre is small, but it hosts some nice eateries and pretty much backs on to some great beaches.
Mount Maunganui Beach – perfect for surfing, paddle boarding, fishing or just sunbathing, this beach is stunning and stretches for miles along the bay. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins, we didn’t sadly ?
Climbing the Mount – get some great views and some exercise climbing the mount. You’ll have perfect panoramas of the city, beach and forest areas surrounding it.
A few handy free camping sites – we parked up at the park opposite the Burger King, across from the public toilets – quiet and convenient.
Famous as the centre of New Zealand’s geothermal activity and home to many activities for adrenaline seekers, Rotorua is a good stop off for a day or two on your North Island driving itinerary. The sulphuric smell in the air takes a bit of getting used to but it’s worth it to explore some of the unique landscapes.
City Centre Thermal Springs: a surreal experience especially on a cloudy day as you wander through steaming lakes and rocky areas.
Government Gardens: nice city gardens, they’ve got nothing on Hamilton but are worth a visit, especially for the impressive museum in the centre.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley: great few hours out to explore New Zealand’s newest volcanic area. Formed after eruptions in the late 19th century, you’ll see thermal craters, volcanic peaks and a rather attractive lake where you can also take a boat ride if you so wish.
Waikite Thermal Pools: there are so many options when it comes to thermal pools in this area, but we thought these ones were pretty good. They’re a few dollars cheaper than many others and you can enjoy 6 pools fed by the Te Manaroa spring.
We stayed at Cosy Cottage at a powered site, located right next to a hot water stream leading to Rotorua lake, it also has its own thermal pools you can bathe in.
6. Lake Taupo
Similar to Rotorua, there’s plenty to enjoy in the way of sky diving / luging etc, as well as further geo thermal activity. Sadly it was pretty rainy while we were here so we didn’t stay long, but in sunny weather it’s definitely worth lingering a few days. Plenty of nice lakeside bars.
Lake walks: lots of opportunities to wander round and explore the lake itself
Huka Falls: number one on trip advisor, make sure to see the waterfall and bright blue river rapids. Also a few walks to enjoy around this area.
We freedom camped right in front of the lake just opposite the superloo. Lots of spaces and amazing views.
7. Tongariro National Park
Sadly another place where we didn’t have the best weather to fully take advantage of exploring the park, but still an incredible stop off on our trip. Famous for being the location of ‘Mount Doom’ in the LOTR films, there’s fab scenery at every turn. Visit for skiing, hiking, cycling and more and if you have good weather make this one of the key parts of your North Island driving itinerary like we had planned to do!
Tongariro Crossing – if the weather’s good enough this is supposed to be one of the best hikes in New Zealand. We’re determined to go back and complete it another time!
Taranaki Falls – a fairly short hike, this 2 hour loop gives great views of the mountain as well as a couple of impressive waterfalls and lots of pretty woodland and several creeks.
Prepare to be pretty cut off if you stay in the park, we enjoyed staying at a small local camp, with awesome mountain views and starry skies on a clear night – there are plenty to choose from.
8. Hawkes Bay & Napier
One of our favourite places in North Island, we came here in search of some sunshine and ended up staying 3 nights of our 2 week North Island driving itinerary. Famous as one of New Zealand’s many excellent wine regions, there’s plenty to do in this lovely coastal area. Our experience staying in Napier city was great – the whole city is Art Deco style after being rebuilt in the 30s following an earthquake.
Te Mata Peak: a quick trip out of Napier, it’s a short walk or a shorter drive to the top where you can get great views of the countryside and see across the whole bay.
National Aquarium: well worth a visit, especially if you happen to get a rainy morning like we did. Not only does it have great marine life on display but you can also see Kiwi birds.
Art Deco Architecture: whether it’s wandering round Napier city centre or taking an Art Deco tour complete with Gatsby style car and driver, you’ll struggle not to appreciate the city architecture. It’s like stepping back in time to the roaring twenties and really adds to the atmosphere of the place.
Cape Kidnappers: we arrived too late to do the full coast hike, but the walk we did was still pretty fun – bright blue seas and grey stone beaches with lovely views. There’s a gannet sanctuary at the end if you make it that far.
We free camped for 3 nights in a carpark on the coast a short walk from the city centre. Amazing sea and sunset views but can get a bit rowdy at night. ISite showers just down the road are a dollar each.
Our favourite place after Napier, we stayed here for 4 nights and it was an unexpected bonus on our North island driving itinerary as we’re normally not big city people. There’s so much to do I’ll write a full post when I get round to it, but expect to spend time exploring the waterfront with all its cafes and restaurants and wandering round museums and galleries to your heart’s content.
Don’t Miss… well, any of it, but these are the best bits:
Mount Victoria Lookout: an uphill stroll to a mountain lookout that gives amazing views over the city and cook strait. Definitely do this on a clear day.
Te Papa Museum & Gallery: we spent time here most days exploring different exhibitions and enjoying the coffee shop and amazing wifi. This has recently been named one of Trip Advisor’s top 500 places in the world and is a fantastic museum on New Zealand’s history.
Great War Exhibition: just behind the city’s impressive war memorial, this exhibition is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Designed by Peter Jackson, it’s a walk through of the history of each of the four years of WW1 – moving and educational.
Weta Workshop Tour – more lighthearted, take a tour of the workshop where the special effects and costumes / props have been created for films like LOTR, the Hobbit, Avatar, Tin Tin and much more.
Zealandia – a wildlife sanctuary just outside the city where work is carried out to preserve an area of native New Zealand bush, expect to see many native birds and other wildlife. A great way to spend a few hours walking through the woodland.
We free camped for 4 nights (the maximum permitted) at Evans Bay Marina, a $8-9 Uber or 50 minute walk into the city centre. Showers for $2.50 at the local leisure centre.
North Island Driving Itinerary & Accommodation Summary
Travel & Camping (total)
Total driving distance: 2150km
Fuel cost: $400
Camping: 4 nights paid, 10 nights freedom, 2 nights with friends, 1 night on the ferry – $167
North Island Driving Itinerary Activities & Prices
Worth bearing in mind that we didn’t invest in a lot of paid activities – we knew we wanted to do some pricey bits like glacier heli-hiking and whale watching in South Island, so tried to limit our expenditure on days out for this part of our itinerary. It also helps that we’re not hugely into extreme sports. If you are prepare to budget plenty for things like sky diving, bungee jumping, zorbing etc! Worth also mentioning that some of these are student prices, which you’ll need a student card to get hold of.
- Hamilton Gardens – free
- Glow Worm Caves Labyrinth – $135
- Hobbiton – $79
- Government Gardens – free
- Rotorua Hot Springs – free
- Waimangu Valley – $46
- Waikite Thermal Pools – $16
- Aquarium – $15
- Weta Workshop Tour – $25
- Great War Exhibition – $15
- Te Papa – free
- Zealandia – $15
- All other hikes etc – free
So there we are – bit of a long post, but hope it’s useful to any New Zealand road trippers out there!