North Island Road Trip Itinerary | New Zealand Travel Tips

Mud Pools in Kuirau Park in Rotorua

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Our Perspective on New Zealand’s North Island

He Said

I have many fond memories of New Zealand and although I couldn’t see myself moving there permanently, I often catch myself daydreaming of these magical islands. I was most excited to visit the South Island, but the North Island turned out to be just as dreamy. I was blown away by the diversity of foliage in particular, but the entire atmosphere was just so peaceful that I wanted to let the scenery envelop me.

She Said

If I had to spend the rest of my life in one country, I would definitely choose New Zealand. New Zealand is the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to. It has everything from deserts, thick forest and Caribbean-like beaches to mountains, vibrant cities and incredible landscapes. I highly recommend traveling New Zealand at least once in your life. You will not regret it!

Transportation

Before starting your road trip, you’ll need to get your mode of transportation figured out. There are a few viable options in New Zealand and we’ve listed out the pros and cons of each.

  1. Rent a Car:
    • Pros:
      • 100% flexibility
      • Very cheap when booked through a third-party website (we paid $250 for two weeks including full coverage in high season! We got this deal from rentalcars.com)
      • Easy to drive (remember you’ll be driving on the left side!)
      • Easy to park (small car)
      • Less gas needed than in a bigger car
    • Cons:
      • Most likely not suitable for sleeping
      • You’ll have to stay in hostels/Airbnbs/hotels
  2. Rent a Camper Van:
    • Pros:
      • You don’t need to book accommodations
      • 100% flexibility
    • Cons:
      • They book out fast (especially in December). You can try rentalcars.com for this too.
      • Very expensive due to high demand
      • Limited privacy
      • Less comfortable
      • Bathroom situation can become annoying
  3. Use Public Transportation:
    • Pros:
      • Most eco-friendly option!
      • You don’t have to drive
      • Easy to reach all main highlights in New Zealand
      • Can be cheap if booking sale prices
      • Meet other travelers
    • Cons:
      • Low flexibility
      • Can be very expensive without sale prices
      • You’ll miss out on beautiful places only accessible by car
      • You’ll have to stay in hostels/Airbnbs/hotels
      • More time intensive
  4. Hitchhiking:
    • Pros:
      • New Zealand is known for hitchhiking culture and is very safe.
      • Free transportation
      • No driving required
      • Meet locals and other travelers
    • Cons:
      • Very unreliable
      • Very low flexibility
      • Very time intensive, as you may have to wait a long time on a ride
      • Might end up riding with people you don’t like
      • You’ll have to stay in hostels/Airbnbs/hotels

Personally, we went with option 1 and rented a car. At the time we went, a camper van would have been more expensive than renting a car and staying in hostels/airbnbs/hotels. Here’s how we did it…

The Route

Our New Zealand North Island road trip lasted about 18 days in total. In hindsight, we should have tried to stay a little longer because we felt rushed most of the time. If you’re going to take this same route, then we recommend trying to take at least 3 full weeks to do it; longer if you plan on adding destinations.

We rented a car for 14 days from Auckland Airport and returned it in Auckland, which saved us hundreds of dollars. From there, we took an overnight bus to Wellington, where we spent two days before catching a ferry to the South Island. The ferry is also way cheaper without a vehicle. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s the route we took, what you should do in each place and where you should stay (if we have a personal recommendation):

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Auckland

Even though some people don’t seem to like Auckland very much, we personally really liked it there. It’s a modern city covered in green trees and plants and it overlooks the ocean. While in Auckland, you won’t need a car as public transportation will take you anywhere for a reasonable price. We stayed at two great Airbnbs while there.

Where to stay:

What to Do in Auckland:

There are three places that we highly recommend visiting while in Auckland:

  1. Albert Park: This is a beautiful park in the center of Auckland. It’s wonderful to walk around, have a picnic and relax.
  2. Auckland Waterfront: The waterfront in Auckland offers some pretty views of the peninsula on the opposite side. Bring something to drink while enjoying the boats going by and the sound of the waves.
    Waterfront Auckland
  3. Achilles Point: At Achilles Point, you are able to see Auckland’s skyline, the islands on the opposite side peeking out of the ocean and some beautiful beaches.

We give you even more Auckland tips in our Premium North Island Travel Guide!

Kerikeri

The northern part of the North Island is characterized by beautiful beaches, low population density and a colorful landscape. If you have the time, drive all the way up to the north (Cape Reinga), which is supposed to be really pretty. When we were in Kerikeri, we focused on exploring the immediate surrounding area.

What to Do in Kerikeri

There are 3 main things to do in Kerikeri:

  1. Rainbow Falls: The rainbow falls are very accessible and you don’t even have to hike to see them. They are only a few meters away from the parking lot. However, if you like, you can hike around and down to the falls. From there, you can take other nice trails that bring you back into town.
  2. Russell and Bay of Islands: Seeing the Bay of Islands is a day trip from Kerikeri. If you don’t have a boat tour booked and want to save money like we did, then you will want to take the ferry from Opua to Okiato and drive around the island to get some breathtaking views. This ferry ride is much cheaper than from Pahia to Russell as it is much shorter with a duration of only 5 minutes. We recommend stopping at these points:
    • Tapeka Track (780m): very short hike with breathtaking views of the Bay of Islands
    • Russell: A cute historic town to stop for some coffee or lunch
    • Te Araroa Trail, Kempthorne Road, Manawaora Road: Follow these roads from Russell to Parekura Bay for beautiful views and beaches
    • If you have time, take the scenic route on Russell Road from Whakapara all the way to Russell or the other way around.
  3. Do a Bush Walk at Night: We actually did this at our Airbnb as they had their own little bush walk behind their house. However, this wasn’t one of our favorite Airbnb’s, which is why we didn’t list it, but if you’d still like to stay there, just contact us.
    The purpose of doing a bush walk at night is that, if you’re lucky, you get to see glow worms and kiwis! We were only lucky with the glowworms, but it was magical.

We have a true insider tip that only locals know about in our Premium North Island Travel Guide!

Tirau

Some of our fondest memories come from Tirau. While here, we stayed at one of the best Airbnbs ever! We highly recommend booking a room here if you plan on visiting the following places.

Where to Stay: Airbnb The Moa on Main in Tirau

What to Do in Tirau

Tirau is the perfect base to explore many of the highlights that the North Island has to offer, such as Rotorua, Hobbiton and Mount Maunganui. Without further ado, here’s everything you need to do in Tirau:

  1. Hobbiton: Obviously, we only recommend this to Lord of the Rings fans. At 89 NZD (~58 USD, ~50 EUR) per person, the entrance fee is pretty high, but totally worth it for any Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fans out there! They really created a magical place with Hobbiton.
  2. Rotorua:
    • Kuirau Park: Rotorua is famous for its stinky boiling mud pools. If you want to see many of them in one spot, you have to go to Kuirau Park in the center of Rotorua. There, you can also soak your feet in the hot springs for free. It’s a creepy park covered in smelly fog, but totally worth a visit and completely free!
    • Redwoods: Who would have thought that New Zealand has an entire forest full of redwoods? We would have never guessed it! Stop here and take one of the many trails (from short to long) through these majestic trees.
      Red Woods in Rotorua
    • Blue and Green Lake: These lakes were our favorite stop in Rotorua. Here, we highly recommend going to a rather unknown lookout point that is located right between these two lakes. Here’s how to get to the viewpoint:
      1. Take Tarawera Road towards the Blue Lake
      2. Pass the Blue Lake and take your first right into a parking lot (at the Blue Lake Track trailhead)
      3. Park and walk back towards the road and up onto a small hill where you will have an amazing view of both lakes!

      Note: The Green Lake is not accessible to the public, as it belongs to the Maori community. We recommend enjoying the scenery at the Blue Lake public beach in front of the Airstream Cafe. If you have more time, you can take the Blue Lake Track around the entire lake.

  3. Blue Springs Putaruru: The hidden Blue Springs in Putaruru were our absolute highlight on the North Island. We have never seen such a beautiful river with natural colors that we can’t even describe. We discovered it by reading through the guide that our Airbnb hosts provided. If you only want to see the spring, park at the parking lot on Leslie Road. If you want to walk the Te Waihou Walkway (9 km return), which we highly recommend, park at the parking lot on highway 28.
    Do not touch the water at all!!! This is a Natural Preserve; touching the water will interfere and destroy the animals’ and plants’ natural habitat.
  4. Mount Maunganui: If you love the ocean, you will love this day trip to Tauranga from Tirau. Mount Maunganui is a mountain surrounded by the ocean and, therefore, offers amazing sea and land views. The Mauao Walkway offers various tracks. The summit track takes around 1 ½ hours round trip with a length of 2.6 km.

Broadlands Forest

Broadlands Forest is the small village we stayed in while exploring the Taupo and Tongariro regions. We stayed here because accommodation was so much cheaper than anywhere else near Lake Taupo. We stayed at a lovely Airbnb we stayed at with a river right behind the house!

Where to stay: Airbnb Safe and Sound Sleep out – home away from home

What to Do in Broadlands Forest

We visited 4 amazing places during our stay in Broadlands Forest:

  1. Huka Falls: The Huka Falls are very popular as the crystal clear waters are a total eye catcher! You can stop here on your way from Tirau to Broadlands Forest/Taupo. Try to be here early as it gets crowded pretty quickly. The falls are easily accessible and only a few meters away from the parking lot. Therefore, you won’t need a whole lot of time.
  2. Mount Tauhara: This is another unknown place to the common tourist. From Mount Tauhara, you will have spectacular views of Lake Taupo and the Tongariro National Park. It’s a 5 km return hiking trail that leads you to the summit.
    We have a confession to make at this point: We didn’t hike all the way up to the summit because the views started to get amazing after only a short walk. So we decided to enjoy the scenery from there and walk back early to continue our drive to the next destination listed (cut us some slack, we were short on time that day).
  3. Lake Taupo: Lake Taupo is a beautiful lake in the middle of the North Island. To enjoy the lake and its mountain views to their fullest, we highly recommend driving to the Five Mile Bay Recreation Reserve. You can park for free and walk along the beach surrounded by beautiful wildflowers on the Five Mile Bay and Awaroa track.
  4. Tongariro National Park: Everyone knows this park, as it is probably the most famous one on the North Island of New Zealand. What should you do and see in this park? Many would recommend the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at this point, but we won’t. We won’t because you can no longer park your car for longer than a few hours at the designated parking lot. Therefore, you will have to park in the closest town where a shuttle takes you to and from the track and this is pretty expensive ($40 per person).
    We researched the best alternative and hiked the Tama Lakes Trail instead. We are so happy we did! This trail has it all: volcanic landscapes, a waterfall and beautiful lakes! It’s completely free to park and take the trail. The Tama Lakes Track is a 17 km return trail that takes around 5-6 hours.

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Thames

We stayed in Thames to explore the Coromandel Forest Park. It’s the best town to do so, but we do not recommend the Airbnb we stayed in.

Coromandel Forest Park

This is really the only thing worth doing here, but it can be really awesome if you have good weather, so it’s definitely worth a try! Unfortunately, we were very unlucky when visiting the Coromandel Forest Park as it was pouring rain the entire time. Nevertheless, we highly recommend taking the Pinnacles Track (Kauaeranga Kauri Trail). It’s a 12 km trail that takes around 5-6 hours. We weren’t able to hike the full track because it kept pouring on us and the slopes of track started to become very slippery. Therefore, we had to turn around at some point.

Wellington

Wellington is a beautiful city by the sea and serves as New Zealand’s capitol city! Here, we stayed at a lovely Airbnb right in the heart of Wellington.

Where to stay: Airbnb Room 2 in Cuba Street Apartment

What to Do in Wellington

If you only have limited time like us, we have two places that we recommend checking out while in Wellington.

  • Botanic Garden: The Botanic garden in Wellington is a popular park for people to take walks. We loved it here even though the weather was not very nice.
  • Cuba Street: If you want to experience the charm and the vibe of the city, go to Cuba Street. There’s plenty of restaurants and cafes to check out. If you love Indian food, we highly recommend going to Little India. If you are in need of a cheap breakfast like us, we recommend going to the Enigma Cafe.

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Ferries to the South Island

As we mentioned before, Wellington is where you’ll catch the ferry going to the South Island. The ferries are more expensive if you bring a vehicle with you, which is why we recommend going as a foot passenger.

IMPORTANT TIP: Check prices EARLY, as they will often be much cheaper. Also, check on the prices of renting vehicles and/or public transportation on the South Island. If you book early, you may be able to find a sweet deal on ferry tickets that let you take a car.

There are currently two ferry companies that run regularly between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island:

Interislander

Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries

Continuing to the South Island?

We’ll be uploading a South Island Road Trip Guide soon, so subscribe to our emails to be notified once it’s uploaded. 🙂

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About the Authors

Authors Ryne Cook and Denise Braun from He Said or She Said

Ryne Cook and Denise Braun: We spent 6 weeks in New Zealand learning about the people and culture as well as the best ways to get around, the best things to do and the most affordable ways to do them. Our time on the less-popular North Island inspired us to write this article about all of the great things to do there and why it is actually worth visiting.

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