Follow this itinerary for 2 weeks exploring New Zealand’s North Island from Auckland to Wellington (long read).
If you’ve stumbled across this article you’re probably thinking about doing a road trip around New Zealand’s north island. When we were planning our trip I spent hours, if not days, looking at other people’s itineraries but I just couldn’t find one that covered everything we wanted or needed.
The purpose of our trip was to attend a wedding in Tauranga so that obviously had to form part of our trip but, other than that we were free to travel the north island as we pleased. We contemplated using our family member’s house as a base but we didn’t want to impose on them any longer than we had to. After a bit more research we realised that Tauranga, being the largest city in the Bay of Plenty, features on a lot of itineraries. So, we decided to come up with our own road trip which would stop off at Tauranga along the way.
We had a week either side of the wedding so spent almost a week making our way from Auckland down to Tauranga. We then spent a couple of days in and around the Bay of Plenty (including the wedding), before spending the last week travelling south where we finally stopped off in Wellington.
Some people recommend using internal flights to get about but for us one of the huge draws of travelling around New Zealand was that it would be easy to drive. Travelling by plane does have its advantages and some domestic flights are incredibly cheap, that being said you miss out on all of the beautiful scenery along the way.
I had grand plans of making a video of our road trip, cutting together different bits of footage, up mountains, through valleys, across plains and alongside rivers and the sea. Unfortunately my GoPro couldn’t quite handle all the driving and my editing skills leave a lot to be desired. Who knows, maybe I will find some time to piece it all together eventually!
The drive: key information
You won’t be driving everyday with our itinerary. We tried to cut down on the cost of car hire while still having the freedom to go off and explore. Our route will take you from Auckland to Wellington, ticking of the Coromandel, Bay of Plenty , Rotorua, Waitomo Caves and Taupo, with plenty of smaller stops along the way.
In total you will cover roughly 700 miles (1,127 km) and spend at least 14 hours driving.
For ease of reference, where a day on the itinerary involves driving I’ve included the distance travelled and time spent driving in red.
Day 1: Arrive in Auckland
On your first day you are going to want to take things easy. It’s probably the case that you’ve been on a long haul flight to get here and so you don’t want to overdo it. That being said, we don’t regret arriving into Auckland bright and early. Our flight landed around 530am and we were in the city by 7:30am. We dropped our bags off at our hotel (Ibis Budget Auckland) and went to explore.
We were in desperate need of food and so stopped off at Chuffed for their famous crumpets. From here we walked to Albert Park you get a great view of the city skyline (and there’s an art gallery to visit too). Keep on walking and you eventually get to Auckland Domain, a large city park containing museums, memorials and the winter gardens.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum is a great way to learn about New Zealand. There are exhibitions on all sorts included Maori culture, the native kiwi, the geology of New Zealand and its volcanic landscape. The volcano simulation is a must visit not matter how old you are!
After a cup of coffee at the museum we strolled back to the city centre just as our room became free to check in. After a much needed shower and a quick cat nap it was time for dinner, a pint and bed.
Day 2: Jump off of Auckland Bridge!
Bungy jumping in New Zealand is an absolute must, and where better to do it than off of Auckland Bridge on day two of your trip? It’s a 40m drop and I can’t even begin to describe how it feels as you fall through the air. Don’t forget to ask for a dip in the ocean. They can’t guarantee it but it’s worth a try! It might have been my first bungy jump but it won’t be my last.
If you’re not feeling quite as brave the bridge walk is also a fantastic experience: as a bungy jumper you get to do part of the walk on the way to the jump pod.
After waking yourself up with a dip in the ocean head back to the city centre for more exploring. The harbour front has lots to offer including a couple of fantastic gelato/ice cream shops and plenty of restaurants and bars.
A visit to the Sky Tower is also a fun way to spend the afternoon if you haven’t already had your fill of heights!
You’re probably still suffering a bit from jet lag at this point so take it easy this evening, grab some dinner over in the Wynyard Quarter, here you’ll also find the awesome craft beer bar 16 Tun, then head back to your hotel for an early night.
Day 3: Take the ferry to Waiheke Island
By day 3 hopefully you’re feeling a bit more energised! Get up and head over to the downtown harbour where you can catch a ferry to Waiheke Island. Fuller’s are the main operator and tickets are cheap at just NZ$38 for a return you can find out what time the ferries leave here.
After a short (35 minute) boat trip – which gives you fantastic views of the Auckland skyline – you will arrive on Waiheke Island, or “the island of wine”. The island has over 30 boutique wineries and vineyards as well as award winning restaurants making it the perfect place to eat and drink to your heart’s content.
After a long day of eating and drinking take the boat back to Auckland – bonus points if you manage to watch the sunset from the front of the boat!
Day 4: Head to the Coromandel
Auckland to Hahei via State Highway 1 and State Highway 25/25A
Total time spent driving: 2hrs 20mins
Total distance: 175km / 109 miles
You’ve probably spotted that despite this being a self-drive tour of the north island you don’t actually have your car yet… You can pick it up at the airport but you won’t need it while you’re in Auckland. Instead, pick it up the day you leave Auckland and go on your first big drive. That way you will save some pennies!
Once you’ve picked up your car, stopping off at Best Ugly Bagel is a must; you’ll want to have something packed for lunch.
The drive to the Coromandel will take you through the Coromandel Forest Park. The scenery is absolutely stunning so if you are the driver keep your eyes on the road. You will see signs everywhere which say “drive your own drive” which basically mean just take it easy and drive how you feel comfortable. Locals will inevitably drive a lot faster and that’s fine. Just drive at the speed you feel comfortable and use the “slow lanes” and passing laybys to let faster cars go past you, that’s what they are there for after all.
Hahei is the perfect place to visit in the Coromandel when you’re short on time. It is easy to get to from Auckland, has a beautiful beach plus it is close to Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. I’m surprised it doesn’t show up in more itineraries! When we pulled up at our accommodation just after lunch we couldn’t have been more pleased with our choice – The Church Accommodation is fantastic for anyone looking for a bit of escapism and tranquillity.
In the afternoon treat yourself to a trip to Hot Water Beach (though check the time of low tide first). Most accommodation will provide you with a spade to dig your personal hot tub but you can rent them at the beach too. If you time it right there will probably be plenty of holes already dug which you can make the most of! This really is the way to soothe your muscles after a big drive.
In the evening why not head to The Pour House, Hahei’s finest pub and brewery (to be honest there isn’t really anywhere else to eat or drink but they food is delicious and the beer is great!)
Day 5: Kayak to Cathedral Cove
Spend the morning at leisure, sunning yourself on Hahei beach. The sand is white and the sea is blue. If you wander left as you come on to the beach, you will find a rope swing hanging from one of the native trees. Perfect for an Instagram snap or two!
In the afternoon take a sea kayaking tour round to Cathedral Cove. The team at Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours are fantastic and will make sure you’re properly kitted out. As you paddle round the shore you will learn lots of useful information about the marine reserve, the history of New Zealand and more!
You’ll be knackered by the time you return home, dinner and a beer is all that’s on the cards for the evening.
If you do find yourself with some energy left there is plenty more of the Coromandel to explore including mountainous covered in native rainforest and plenty of sandy beaches where you can cycle, hike, dive, fish and more!
Day 6: Drive to Tauranga via Wentworth Falls
Hahei to Wentworth Valley via State Highway 25
Drive time: 1hr 15mins
Wentworth Valley to Tauranga via State Highway 25 and State Highway 2
Drive time: 1hr 30mins
Total drive time: 2hr 45mins
Total distance: 160km / 99.5miles
The scenery between Hahei and Tauranga is beautiful. On your drive you will see lots of signs for forests and parks. Almost all of these have walking routes through them so feel free to stop off and have an explore when you see a lay by (car park) and walking signs.
We took a minor detour through Whangamata where we picked up a few bits for a picnic. We then headed to Wentworth Falls. You’ll find the car park right at the end of Wentworth Valley Road (a very long gravel road). From here follow the signs for a 1hr 30min hike up to the top of the waterfall. Roughly 10 minutes from the top there is a fantastic view point which is a great place to stop and eat your lunch). Wentworth Falls really is a hidden gem and doesn’t appear in many guidebooks. It’s a 50 meter tall, two leaps waterfall surrounded by forest.
The way down is a lot quicker (around 45mins-1hr) and there are plenty of places to stop off and have a paddle or swim in the stream created from the waterfall.
From here carry on your drive to the Bay of Plenty and Tauranga!
Day 7: Mount Maunganui
Known as “the Mount” to locals, Mount Maunganui is by New Zealand standards just a large hill on a peninsula roughly 10 minutes from the centre of Tauranga.
Here you can surf, swim, play golf, shop, eat and drink, and hike up the mount of course!
The views from the top of the Mount are wonderful. It’s almost entirely surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and I’ve been told you can sometimes spot whales passing by! There are two routes up the mount, one involves A LOT of steps (I couldn’t bring myself to count them all) and the other is a (rather steep) slope. We found that the steps were good going up but the slope was better coming down. All in all it takes 45mins to get up and unsurprisingly a little less coming down.
Treat yourself to a BIG burger and ice cream once you’ve finished your hike, or dumplings at The Rising Tide (a favourite with our NZ family!)
If you want a truly relaxing break, make sure you visit the Mt Maunganui Hot Water Pools. You can visit until close at 10pm making it a lovely way to spend the evening.
Day 8: Explore the Bay of Plenty
The Bay of Plenty is the catch all name for the area found on the Northern coast of New Zealands’s North Island, stretching from the Cormonadel down to the Cape Runaway. It covers not only Tauranga but also Papamoa, Whakatane, Wihi Beach, Kati Kati and Te Puke.
If you’re visiting New Zealand in summer than Waihi Beach is a must visit. Grab a surf board to make the most of the waves or head off on foot to explore the beautiful nature reserves which are idea for a picnic and a paddle.
You’ll find the beach at Papmoa too but there is also adventure to be found in the nearby hills which is ideal for people looking for another adrenaline rush after the bungy jump in Auckland.
Kati kati is one for the culture vulture – it’s known as the mural town thanks to the 47 murals and sculptures along the main street.
Wherever you decide to visit in the Bay of Plenty make sure you make the most of the restaurants and bars on offer. Most will be selling fresh seafood. If I have one recommendation, it Is to try the oysters. I’ve genuinely never seen oysters so big!
Day 9: Explore Rotorua
Tauranga to Rotorua via State Highway 36
Total drive time: 1hr
Total distance: 63km / 39miles
Today you will want to hop back in the car to drive on to Rotorua.
Rotorua is a real geothermal wonder. Famous for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and natural hot springs, as well as showcasing our fascinating Maori culture you’d be mad to miss off this stop on your journey.
On your way into Rotorua stop off at Skyline for a morning of fun on the zip line (with a surprise at the end) and “the luge”, a fast and furious go-karting track down the hillside. Don’t forget to take your picture with the “Rotovegas” sign!
Nearby you’ll also find lots of places offering zorbing for some wet and wild fun!
After working up an appetite head to Eat Street for your lunch before heading to the geothermal park to see the eerie lakes covered in steam and boiling mud. On a really hot day the smell does get quite bad – don’t say you weren’t warned.
Day 10: Taupo via the Waitomo Caves
Rotorua to Waitomo Caves via State Highway 5 and Arapuni Street.
Drive time: 1hr 50mins
Waitomo Caves to Taupo via State Highway 30
Drive time to Taupo: 1hr 55mins
Total drive time: 3hr 45mins
Total distance: 288km / 179miles
If there’s one thing you must do while in New Zealand it’s Waitomo Caves – it’s definitely one of the most memorable parts of our trip. There are various options for seeing the glow worms which suit all budgets.
After a lot of research we decided to book with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. For over 30 years they have been offering underground caving and rafting adventure tours through the glow worm caves. There are a couple of tours to choose from, including the Black Abyss and the Black Labyrinth. Each tour will be made up of 6 – 12 people and 2 expert guides who will support you through your journey into the cave network.
The Black Abyss is the longer (5 hrs), perhaps more scary, of the two. We opted for the Black Labyrinth (3hrs) which included some challenges you could opt into (e.g. crawling through very small cave networks, or doing the limbo under low level rocks), some small waterfall jumps and of course seeing the glow worms. I won’t tell you any more than that as I don’t want to spoil your adventure but trust me, this is one activity you don’t want to miss.
After the trip you can help yourself to free soup and a toasted bagel. It’s then time to drive on down to Taupo.
We hit a massive electrical storm on our drive. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Pink and purple forks of lightning crashed into the fields either side of us and cows were running left, right and centre! Hopefully your drive will go more smoothly!
We chose to stay in La Chalet Suisse Motel in Taupo. The accommodation was very comfy and after the storm the Jacuzzi bath went down a treat. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from for the evening so wander down to the lake front and take your pick.
Day 11: Explore Taupo
Lake Taupo is HUGE so don’t be under any misconception that you’ll be able to hike or even around the lake. But, don’t worry there are lots of other things to do while spending your time in Taupo.
If you want to get out on to the lake then why not take a boat trip to see the Maori carving.
If you’ve got a need for speed then you can kill two birds with one stone by taking a jet boat right up to the base of Huka Falls.
My best bit of advice for Huka Falls is to visit the main car park AND stop off at the lookout point along the main road. From here it’s a 10 minute walk down through the trees and you will come out at a grassy area overlooking the falls.
Further up the road is the Aratiatia dam and rapids. It’s well worth checking the time at which the dam is released to see the rapids in action.
If you want to see more of the volcanic landscape then Craters of the Moon is an absolute must! Here you can wander round a large park made up of cracks, crevices and craters in the ground out of which steam pours. It’s a stunning landscape quite different from anything else you will have seen on the trip.
It is possible to squeeze all of this into one day if you time it right and are happy jumping in the car between activities. In fact, we managed to visit the Huka falls TWICE, the second time Jon proposed!
If you wanted to stretch Taupo out over two full days you could swap it for one of the days spent in Wellington.
Day 12: Drive to Wellington
Taupo to Wellington via State Highway 1 and State Highway 4
Total distance: 421km / 262miles
Total drive time: 5hrs 15mins
Don’t worry you may be leaving Taupo but the first stretch of your drive follows the edge of the lake, there are some fantastic places to stop off for a photo and when you finally leave the Lake Taupo region you will come to the top of a large hill which has fantastic views back the way you came.
Whichever way you do it the drive to Wellington is LONG. There are two main routes but we were advised by multiple locals to take state highway 4, to the west of Tongariro National Park. State highway 1 is a much more difficult drive along dessert roads so there isn’t an awful lot to look at.
If you take state highway 4 you will also pass the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If you take this detour you’ll be rewarded with stunning snow-topped mountain landscapes.
On the drive down to Wellington you’ll pass lots of small towns. Most have a Subway which isn’t a terrible idea for lunch (New Zealand subway is awesome by the way…)
You’ll also want to stop off at The Chocolate Éclair Shop in Ohakune for, you guessed it, chocolate éclairs! The town is known for its pastries which will also help keep your sugar levels up after a long drive. Don’t worry, you’re almost there!
When you arrive into Wellington you’ll want to head straight to the car hire company. Although Wellington is much larger than Auckland there’s really no need to keep the car. Save yourself a few pennies by getting rid of it when you arrive.
For your first evening in Wellington head to Cuba Street. It’s the main street in Wellington with tonnes of shops, restaurants and bars.
Day 13: Explore Wellington
Wellington sits right at the south-west tip of the North Island on the Cook Strait. For your first day exploring spend some time getting to know the Wellington water front. From your hotel why not wander down to Oriental Bay for an ice cream and some sunbathing or alternatively head straight to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. There are some fantastic bars and restaurants to be found away from Cuba Street. Basque is a lovely tapas restaurant which is slightly off the beaten track – they serve epic sangria, plenty of craft beer and there’s even a roof terrace up top!
Day 14: Take the Cable Car
For your second day exploring Wellington head over to Cable Car Lane (off of Lambton Quay) where you can pick up the famous Wellington Cable Car which takes you directly to the Wellington Botanic Gardens where you will get fantastic views of the city.
If you can, head to Zealandia later in the day for “Zealandia by Night“, an after-hours guided tour by torchlight in search of New Zealand’s nocturnal wildlife. I was gutted we didn’t get to see a little spotted kiwi but we did see plenty of other native creatures including Pateke, Longfin Eel and Tuatara. We heard lots of female and male kiwi calls which was still quite exciting.
Unfortunately that is where the itinerary ends as tomorrow you will no doubt be heading to the airport to catch your flight. If you do find yourself with some time in the morning there are plenty of cafes and restaurants which do a mean brunch.
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