Driving Around New Zealand North Island
New Zealand is a micro version of what most travellers want, modern, comfortable but wild and exciting, relaxing, beaches but rugged and mountainous, skiing, snow but volcano’s and boiling mud. Although most of the highlights are not unique to New Zealand or the North Island of New Zealand, what is unique is that snow, beaches, fjords, bungee jumping, dolphins, volcano’s, glaciers, surfing, trekking and wineries can all be found within a few hour’s drive of each other which makes visiting New Zealand a perfect place for all tourists and adventure seekers. The fact that it’s near neighbour Australia is much more expensive and vast, New Zealand is perfect to rent a campervan or car and spend several weeks taking it all in.
Time to Drive Around New Zealand North Island: To do what I mention below would take 2 weeks minimum but up to 3 weeks would make it comfortable
I’ll highlight below what I found as the main highlights of the North Island and leave the South Island to another post.
- Northland (Bay of Plenty, 90 Mile Beach)
- Lake Taupo
- Tongariro Crossing
- Palmerstown North (Museum)
- Waitomo Caves
- Raglan (surfing)
There are many things such as jet boating, rafting, mountain biking and bungee jumping that can be done in every second town so what I name below is what I feel are the best one’s. Obviously you may think different or your plan makes it easier to do them somewhere else. If you rent a car or campervan the route is possible in about 10days but more would be desirable.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Auckland – 5 Things to do (Map Below)
The city on the bay, in the ‘City of Sail’ the sea is your companion no matter where you turn. Boats and yachts are all around in the harbours and there are plenty of islands and beaches all within a short distance of the city. As a lot of tourists fly into Auckland you should look around as you are there but Auckland has more to offer around the city but not that much in the city. Here are a few of my recommendations:
- Rangitoto Island: This small island just north of the city is great for a day out and some nice short trekking if you head to the top of the island. Lava caves, WWII bunkers and super views of the turquoise waters can be had in this DOC managed Recreation Reserve. Return ferry trips are NZ$25 return and take 25min each way leaving from the Ferry Terminal on 99 Quay Street. www.fullers.co.nz/tickets-fares/timetables/rangitoto-island.php
- Mount Eden/One Tree Hill: At 196mtrs Mount Eden you won’t get altitude sickness but you will get great views of the city and Waitemata Harbour. One Tree Hill has great cultural significance for both Maori and European culture. You can walk or drive to the summits or various tour operators such as www.torutours.com/ bring you to the top among other activities.
- Auckland Domain: This huge park on a former volcano crater in the centre of Auckland containing the Auckland Museum, beautiful glasshouses and plenty of space for walking and relaxing in the sun. The museum houses the history of both the New Zealand Maori’s and the Pacific Islanders. Admission: NZ$10 donation is recommended. Open Mon-Sun 10:00-17:00.
- Auckland Art Gallery (Toi o Tamaki): This recently redeveloped art gallery shows many local and international painters and has 3 free guided tours daily. Admission: Free. Open: 10:00-17:00 Mon-Sun. Free guided tours 11:30, 12:30 and 13:30 daily. www.aucklandartgallery.com/
- The Sky Tower: An icon in the centre of Auckland is impossible to miss and so are the views from the observation deck. If you want more adventure then you can take a walk on the wild side around the edges 192mtrs above the ground below or even jump off the tower should you want to. Admission: Observation Level incl Skydeck: NZ$28. Open: Sun-Thurs 8:30-22:30, Fri-Sat 8:30-23:30. www.skycityauckland.co.nz/
In my own experience I never rated Auckland that highly although the bay and yachts are nice. I’m sure people will disagree but for a city I didn’t think there was that much to see or do and compared to what the rest of New Zealand has to offer I feel it is better to be out of the city enjoying the spectacular sights elsewhere.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – North of Auckland (Northland)
If the weather is nice this little finger of New Zealand pointing towards Papua New Guinea thousands of miles away is a great way to enjoy the coastal life as you are always less than 40km from the coast. From the Bay of Islands to 90 Mile Beach in the far north there are plenty of walks and islands to discover. Heading to Northland is always a question of how much time you have as you must return through Auckland again. It is possible to make the 230km (3.5hrs) trip from Auckland to Paihia at the Bay of Islands and back in 3 days but much more are needed if some camping or surfing is going to be done at 90 Mile Beach. The roads are hilly and single lane and not motorway but there are plenty of places to take breaks and enjoy the scenery. If you have a week or less then I would recommend going south of Auckland and skipping Northland as the best and most different sights are there.
- Bay of Islands: This cluster of islands off the countryside of Northland is the home of water-based activities. Orupukapuka Island is the main tourist island and visitors can enjoy the great panoramic views from the summit of the island or swim, walk or kayak around the tranquil bays and spot some dolphins. Motorua Island is also popular with tourists. Boat tours are good if the weather is nice and can be taken on day trips to the ‘Hole in the Rock’. Cost per tour are all around NZ$100. www.dolphincruises.co.nz. The car park is NZ$8 per day. There is also Haruru Waterfalls which is a 3km walk from Paihia.
- Whangarei: This sleepy town can be reached easily from Auckland and enjoys the most sunshine in all of New Zealand each year. A good spot to base if going diving or beaching in nearby Tutukaka.
- Doubtless Bay / 90 Mile Beach: I did not go this far north but Doubtless Bay has the best regarded beaches in Northland and 90 Mile Beach is an 88km long (I know!) highway of waves and dunes. A warning, that car rental companies won’t allow you to drive on the beach although it is possible to do. There is surfing, sand boarding among the activities.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Rotorua
‘You will smell it before you see it’! That is the greeting that awaits you on entering Rotorua. The smell of sulphur in the air is a sure sign you are in the right place and going to see spectacular geysers, hot springs and sinter terraces. These are a must see and one of the advantages of being on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Rotorua is the heart of Maori Culture and has plenty of outdoor activities among the boiling waterfalls, colourful lakes and smelly vents. Here are some of the highlights
- Te Puia (Whakarewarewa): This Maori centre is where Maori’s have called home for over 700years is home to an arts and craft centre as well as lots of geothermal activity and is a great introduction to what NZ is about. Inside this centre has the 30mtrs high Pohutu Geyser as well as the Geothermal Valley which contains hundreds of hot pools and vents. On the culture side there is a great show with audience participation about some of the Maori traditions and dances. I got nominated, by some coward in the back, to be the tribal chief of the tourists meeting the Maori leader. This involves 3 semi-naked male Maori’s doing an aggressive dance (which is supposed to be friendly) before touching noses. If you smile or laugh (which is hard not to do) they take this as an insult! The show then gets females visitors on stage doing dances with the Maori’s before the men have to also try to follow the guide for the haka (Maori war dance, now done before rugby games). Let me tell you I as many times as I have seen it, I was still useless! Te Puia is well worth going to see just for the geysers and pools but the Maori show and Kiwi centre make it a definite. Open:09:00-17:00, Admission: NZ$47.50, with cultural show NZ$59.10 (on 3 times daily). 10% savings if bookings are done online. www.tepuia.com
- Waimangu / Waiotapu: 15 and 20min south of Rotorua on highway 5 are two places that show New Zealand’s hot underbelly. Waimangu is the world’s youngest geothermal site and was formed in only 1886 but has plenty of multicoloured rock and emerald pools to enjoy. Waiotapu has orange (Champagne Pool) and yellow lakes, steaming water and Lady Knox Geyser which erupts around 10.15am everyday.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Lake Taupo
- Huka Falls: Just north (1.6km) of Lake Taupo, the narrow canyon squeezes the Waikato River to just a few meters wide to ensure it picks up speed and produces spectacular falls with thunderous water. A 1hr walk to Spa Park through the forest can be done to add to the history of how the placid waters turn so noisy. A jet boat into the falls is also possible to do to get the juices flowing for NZ$100. The local bus from Taupo goes past Huka Falls several times a day on its circuit.
- Skydiving: As spectacular as the lake is from the ground, imagine how good it is from the air?? Both coasts of the North Island are visible from 15,000feet when you are falling at over 100mph! The self proclaimed Skydive Capital of the world is a popular activity and there are several places that you can drop into with several different companies. www.skydivetaupo.co.nz/, prices from NZ$440
- Mountain biking: Around Taupo has some of the best biking in New Zealand. Several companies offer trips to various parks in the area from beginner to expert trails with trails such as the Great Lake Trail and the Tongariro River Trail. www.trr.co.nz/mountain-biking, www.treadroutes.co.nz/
- Bungee jumping is one of the things NZ is famous for and can be done in many place, Lake Taupo being just one of them. This bungee is in Taupo town on the river and is possible to touch the water from 50mtrs if you are brave enough. A friend of mine was never as delighted as when he was told he shouldn’t do the bungee jump because of his dodgy knee! www.taupobungy.co.nz/
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Tongariro (World Heritage Site)
Red rock, black dust, no vegetation, gaping craters, emerald lakes, Mt. Doom, treacherous climbs – welcome to the Tongariro Crossing. The Tongariro Crossing in Tongariro National Park is regarded as the best one day walk in New Zealand and even in the top 10 treks one day treks in the world. Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was filmed here although it only gives glimpses of what was in the movies due to the digital alterations. This is definitely still an active volcanic zone and an eruption in August 2012 and again in November 2012 caused widespread road and air disruption.
The route is 19.4km and takes approx 7-9hrs to complete officially but it is possible in 5.5hrs. During peak season it gets very busy and on the way down on the wooden walkway it can be frustrating overtaking unless somebody wants to let you pass. The earlier you get out the less people you will have to encounter. It is also possible to climb the very conical Mount Ngauruhoe (Mt.Doom in Lord of the Rings) on the way as you pass it on the track but just make sure that you start your trek very early if you intend to climb it as it is a steep and slippy climb that will take approx 2hrs to get up and down and is not included in the times above.
It is not possible to drive to the National Park so you must get a bus. At each end there are carparks with the buses dropping people off at one and then waiting at the other end when you finish. The usual route is to finish in Ketetahi Carpark. The best place to organise a bus for the morning is the National Park Village which is on the west side of the park on Highway 4. Almost all buses leave at 7am and 8am and return between 3.30pm and 5pm (www.tongariroalpinecrossing.net.nz) and cost approx NZ$20. These buses can also be arranged from Taupo. The National Park Village is small and accommodation is limited and relatively expensive. The next nearest town is about 20min drive away.
There are no shops for snacks or water on the way and the weather can change rapidly so make sure to bring enough food, water and warm clothes with you.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Palmerstown North
Continuing south towards Wellington you reach Palmerstown North which houses ‘The New Zealand Rugby Museum’ which is a must for anybody with an interest in the sport. If you are into culture then along with the Maori’s you must look up rugby. It is the national sport and the country has an obsession with it. Despite having a small population of 4.4million it has been considered one of best teams in the world for almost 100years. Since the official IRB world rankings emerged in 2003, New Zealand has been the number one team for 75% of the time and are the current world champions.
Like many towns, there is kayaking, biking etc in Palmerstown North but they are not among the best places in New Zealand.
I would like to point out where I did my bungee jump (you have to do one don’t you? You are in New Zealand!) was with www.gravitycanyon.co.nz near Taihape on Highway 1 south of Tongariro. It’s an 80mtr jump into a canyon with about 2foot of river water! Well it was when I was doing it! And yes it is scary and I was scared! I found that it was good bang for your buck considering it is the same price as most 50mtr jumps and any higher one’s cost so much more. eg Ben Nevis in Queenstown. Keep it in mind.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Waitomo Caves
Waitomo can be explored in a canoe, tractor tubes or by foot and are mainly famous for the luminous glow worms that light up the cave. Floating down the underground river and squeezing yourself through gaps in rocks are all part of the adventure. There are two choices, either the Dry Cave tours or the Stream Cave tours. The stream cave tours can then vary in length and adventure type but the glow worms are guaranteed.
There are lots of tour operators and information available in the official centre www.waitomocaves.com/ which houses information about the caves and organises tours. I would recommend though that you do Black Water Rafting which involves abseiling down into the caves and then some floating and squeezing underground. www.waitomo.com/Black-Water-Rafting/. Cost NZ$119 for a 3hr tour but longer tours can also be done. It’s a very good tour that gives some adventure as well as seeing the glow worms. It does take a surprisingly long time for your eyes to adjust to the complete darkness once your torches are switched off. Initially you can see none, then a few and after 5min, thousands.
Waitomo Caves are about 200km south of Auckland on Highway 3 south of Otorohanga. The Kiwi Experience, the Gray Line and Great Sights buses have Waitomo on their routes.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Raglan / West Coast Surfing
If you are passing the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island then you should definitely try some surfing whether have done it before or not. From New Plymouth/Taranaki all the way to Auckland and especially around Raglan is full of surfing opportunities. Places like Piha outside Auckland can get busy during the summer and good surfing days. Some of the famous breaks are reef breaks for the experienced surfers but most beaches can be tried for surfing and especially around Raglan. It is possible to rent boards or even buy some if you plan on staying a while. The best time to do surfing is in the summer (Nov-March) when the weather is a bit warmer although the best waves in general are during the May-Aug period during the winter when the water temperatures can be 6-7deg Celsius lower. www.surf.co.nz/ will give more information and forecasts of the swells.
Driving around New Zealand North Island – Wellington – 5 Things to Do (Map Below)
It was the ‘coolest little capital in the world’ in 2011 according to Lonely Planet so I’m not sure what it has done since but it’s still a cool city to visit. There are several activities such as seal watching, kayaking and mountain biking that can be done in Wellington but can also be done in other, better places if you are travelling around New Zealand. I am not saying that for example, seeing the seals won’t be good but if you are heading to the South Island you will end up seeing much more of them there. The same goes with the others.
- Te Papa – The National Museum of New Zealand: This huge museum is free and is the last word in New Zealand’s geology, flora and fauna, environment and Maori culture and all done though interactive features and exhibitions. There are various other temporary exhibitions ongoing in Te Papa. Admission: Free. Open: Mon – Sun 10:00-18:00. Thurs 10:00-21:00
- Mount Victoria Lookout: Spectacular views of Wellington and of the bay. Located in Charles Plimmer Park
- Walks: Wellington has some fabulous routes around the city that can be walked or longer ones can be cycled
- Southern Walkway: Great views of the coast and bay walking the Southern Walkway which takes 4-5hrs inland and along the coast. The walk goes from Oriental Bay to Island Bay
- Great Harbour Way: A long route that is better if cycled. Goes every inch of the coast around Wellington. Need several days to do entire route. www.greatharbourway.org.nz/
- Rent a bike: A bicycle is a great way to see any city and Wellington is no different. Wellington has lots of cycle lanes to make life safer and hills for good views. Also for some proper mountain biking Makara Peak Mountain bike park is only 15min drive outside the city and has dedicated trails. www.mudcycles.co.nz/
- Cable Car and Botanical Gardens: This 111year old cable car is quaint and an easy way to get to the Botanical Gardens perched up near the Kelburn Lookout for more great views of the city and bay. Admission: NZ$7 return. Open: Mon-Fri 07:00-22:00, Sat -8:30-22:00, Sun 09:00-21:00. www.wellingtoncablecar.co.nz/
Practicalities – About New Zealand
- €1 =NZ$1.60, USD$1=NZ$1.50
- Language = English
- Flights- Mainly from Australia, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore. Flights also possible from Santiago, Chile.
- Buses: Kiwi Experience, Magic Bus is built for tourist to see the sights. Hop on/Hop off bus over north and south islands and are very popular. www.kiwiexperience.com, www.magicbus.co.nz
- Motorhomes, campers: Renting out a motorhome or camper while in New Zealand is one of the most popular ways to get around. There are several companies that offer these and vary in price and luxury depending on what you choose.
- From my experience there were 4 of us and we chose a ‘Spaceship’. This was the budget option and was very good. As there were 4 it definitely gets claustrophobic after a while when basically living in a 7 person car for 6 weeks! You may get fit renting one of these as you will probably have to go to the swimming pool fairly often for a swim but also a shower!
- There are oodles of campsites in New Zealand and they are well equipped. Some work on the honesty system but the main ones have water, electricity, a shop etc. The campsites though I found expensive compared to other places. For example the second person usually costs the same amount as the car and first person. The same goes for the 3rd and 4th person even though you may be only taking up the one camping space. Such as NZ$25 for first person and van but also NZ$25 for each of the next three people. Unfair I feel.
- Motorhomes: www.maui.co.nz, www.britz.co.nz
- Budget Campers: www.spaceshipsrentals.co.nz, www.wickedcampers.co.nz,
- Accommodation – NZ$55 per night for an average double room in a city
Map of New Zealand North Island with items listed above
|Rangitoto Island, Auckland|
Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand
|Mount Eden, Auckland|
Mount Eden, Auckland, New Zealand
|One Tree Hill, Auckland|
One Tree Hill, Auckland, New Zealand
|Auckland Domain, Auckland|
Auckland Domain, Auckland, New Zealand
|Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland|
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand
|Sky Tower, Auckland|
Sky Tower, Auckland, New Zealand
|Bay of Islands|
Bay Of Islands, Waikato, New Zealand
Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand
|Te Puia, Rotorua|
Te Puia, Hemo Road, Rotorua, New Zealand
Waimangu Volcanic Valley Geothermal Attraction Rotorua, Waimangu Road, Rotorua, New Zealand
Waiotapu Loop Road, Waiotapu, New Zealand
|Lake Taupo, Taupo|
Taupo, Waikato, New Zealand
|Huka Falls, Taupo|
Huka Falls, Huka Falls Road, Wairakei, Waikato, New Zealand
Tongariro National Park, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
|The New Zealand Rugby Museum, Palmerstown North|
New Zealand Rugby Museum, Main Street, Palmerston North, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand
Waitomo Caves, Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Otorohanga, New Zealand
Raglan, Waikato, New Zealand
|Te Papa Museum, Wellington|
Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand
|Mount Victoria Lookout, Wellington|
Lookout Road, Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand
|Cable Car, Wellington|
Cable Car Museum, Upland Road, Wellington, New Zealand