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The best self-driving trips in the North Island

Slightly warmer with tropical microclimates in the north, Te Ika-a-Māui is as beautiful as the South Island, with as many forests, lakes and national parks to explore.
By · February 19, 2024
The best self-driving trips in the North Island

New Zealand is one of the best destinations for road-tripping in the world. If you're flying into Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud,’ the North Island is probably your first port of call. Slightly warmer with tropical microclimates in the north, Te Ika-a-Māui is as beautiful as the South Island, with as many forests, lakes and national parks to explore.

What to know before road-tripping in the North Island

New Zealand is a small, safe country to explore, but before you get here, there are some things worth keeping in mind.

Always drive on the left-hand side. New Zealand has many windy roads, and you may need to give yourself extra time to get used to navigating them while driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

If you are exploring New Zealand by car, make sure you have either paid for roadside assistance (you can get this through AA) or have a spare tyre and a jack, torch and other items that can help you in an emergency. Kiwis are very friendly, but it always pays to be prepared to change a tyre yourself.

Pack for a wide range of weather. The North Island is warmer than the South Island. However, some areas are known for having several seasons in one day. In the far North, the weather is often warm and muggy. In Auckland, you can expect sunshine, rain and humidity in summer and slightly cooler temperatures in winter. Wellington is known for its strong winds. The central north island experiences snow and frost during winter and warm temperatures in summer.

Give yourself enough time to explore. The North Island is more than just Auckland, Rotorua and Wellington. There are many beautiful natural wonders to explore. While the country may be small, don’t underestimate how much time you’ll need to drive from place to place.

Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula

Located on the eastern coast of the North Island, the Coromandel Peninsula is the perfect destination for adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts alike. Start your road trip from New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. The Coromandel Peninsula is just a 2.5-hour drive away, but don’t let the distance fool you. You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time for stopping and taking in the scenery along the way. The peninsula is known for its golden beaches, picturesque coves and beautiful blue waters.

Where to Go:

Exploring the Coromandel Peninsula is perfect for a weekend getaway. Begin your journey in the charming town of Thames, a gateway to the Coromandel. As you wind your way along the coast, make a pit stop at Hot Water Beach. Here, you can dig your own hot pool in the sand during low tide, creating a unique and relaxing thermal experience. Make sure to get here early, especially if you are travelling during the peak summer months. Hot Water Beach can get busy, and the beach is small.

Continue your road trip to Cathedral Cove, an iconic spot famous for its naturally formed arch and crystal-clear waters. Usually accessible by foot, the cove is still open but is only accessible by boat, water taxi, or kayak. It’s still worth the extra effort, however, as this picturesque location is perfect for a leisurely stroll or a refreshing swim.

Don't miss the forested trails of the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. The Pinnacles, located in the Kauaeranga Valley, provide another hiking adventure with rewarding vistas of the Coromandel Range. Relax in Coromandel Town, known for its artsy vibe and delicious seafood.

Families may enjoy a visit to Driving Creek Railway, which will take you on a scenic journey by railway car through native forests and creative sculptures.

Auckland to Tongariro National Park

For those seeking a more adventurous road trip, Tongariro National Park is a must-visit destination. Approximately a 4-hour drive south of Auckland, this UNESCO World Heritage site is known for its otherworldly landscapes and the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you may recognise the park and the mountain as the inspiration behind Mount Doom.

Tongariro is perfect for serious hikers and people with a reasonable level of fitness. The area is also worth visiting in winter due to the beautiful surrounding areas. However, hiking in the off-season is not recommended.

Day One: Hamilton Gardens and Hobbiton

As you leave Auckland, consider a brief detour to Hamilton Gardens, about 1.5 hours south of the city. This award-winning garden features themed sections from different cultures and historical periods, providing a relaxing start to your road trip. Hop back in the car and journey straight to Middle Earth for the rest of day one.

Hobbiton, Matamata

About halfway to Taupo, you'll find the famous Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata. A must-visit for any "Lord of the Rings" or "The Hobbit" fans, the guided tour takes you through the lush farmland to the Hobbit holes and the Green Dragon Inn. If you have time, you can add in a trip to Waitomo, as the drive isn’t far. Or, start day two off strong with a glowworm tour.

Day two: Waitomo to Rotorua

A short drive from Hobbiton, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves offers a unique and mesmerising experience for anyone who hasn’t experienced glowworms before. Take a boat ride through the illuminated caves as thousands of tiny lights brighten the way. Make sure you pack a sweater or a jacket, as the caves can be cool even in summer.

Rotorua: Geothermal Spas and Maori Culture

From Waitomo, Rotorua is a two-hour drive away. If you are a new visitor to New Zealand, the Centra North Island is an excellent place to explore New Zealand's geothermal wonders and Maori heritage. Visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland to witness colourful hot springs and bubbling mud pools. Experience Maori culture through traditional performances and the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village.

Day Three: Huka Falls, Taupo and Tongariro

Just before reaching Taupo, make a stop at Huka Falls, a short drive north of the town. Marvel at the natural beauty and power of 220,000 litres of water per sec tumbling over the Huka Falls, an 11-meter drop to the waters below. Huka Falls is New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction, and is a great option for travellers of all ages.

Taupo

Taupo is a great destination for adventure seekers and people looking to relax and unwind. Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake. Take a leisurely stroll along the lakefront, enjoying picturesque views of the lake and mountains, or for adrenaline junkies, take a view from the top with skydiving or bungee jumping excursions nearby. For those who like their feet firmly on the ground, explore local rock carvings with a river cruise to see the impressive Maori rock carvings on Mine Bay.

From Taupo, head south to the Tongariro National Park. As you approach the national park, marvel at the sight of three active volcanoes – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu – dominating the skyline. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a challenging day hike, offers breathtaking views of emerald lakes, steam vents, and volcanic craters. For a less strenuous experience, explore the Taranaki Falls track or the Tama Lakes circuit.

Relax at the Tokaanu Thermal Pools near Turangi, where natural hot springs provide a soothing post-hike soak. The Whakapapa Ski Area on Mount Ruapehu offers skiing and snowboarding adventures during the colder months.

Auckland to Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, located in the northernmost region of the North Island, is a paradise for beach lovers and the perfect place to learn more about New Zealand’s history. A road trip from Auckland takes approximately 3 hours, leading you to a region adorned with pristine beaches, secluded coves, and significant historical sites.

Where to Go:

Although this is a short journey, there are plenty of places to stop. The road trip from Auckland to Paihia offers a diverse range of attractions, including scenic landscapes, cultural experiences, and historical sites. Here's what to visit along the way:

Day One: Warkworth and Matakana

As you leave Auckland, consider making a stop in Warkworth, which is about an hour's drive north. Stroll along the Mahurangi River, explore the town's boutique shops, and visit the iconic Warkworth Bridge. The nearby Tawharanui Regional Park offers beautiful coastal walks and beaches.

Close to Warkworth, Matakana is renowned for its Saturday farmers' market, where you can sample local produce and artisan goods. The region also boasts vineyards, providing an opportunity for wine tasting and enjoying the picturesque countryside.

Whangarei

Two hours north of Auckland is the town of Whangarei. Although small, the city is growing and punches well above its weight when it comes to natural attractions and art. One of the city's iconic attractions is Whangarei Falls, a picturesque waterfall located in a scenic reserve close to the town. Take a short walk to the viewing platform to admire the waterfall or explore the surrounding walking trails.

For a unique adventure, head to the Abbey Caves. These limestone caves are located just outside Whangarei and offer a chance to explore underground chambers lit up with glowworms.

Explore the Town Basin area, a waterfront precinct with a vibrant atmosphere. Here, you can find a mix of cafes, art galleries, and boutiques, and the sculpture trail showcases artworks along the Hatea Loop Walk. Take yourself on a self-guided walking tour of 15 murals by a range of international artists, located close to the river.

The Whangarei Quarry Gardens are well worth a visit. Located in a beautifully restored quarry that has been transformed into a stunning garden, you’ll find native and exotic plants, sculptures, and water features.

Day Two: Quirky Kawakawa

A quick stop on your journey north of Whangarei is Kawakawa. The town is known for its unique public toilets designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Paihia

The drive to Paihia is only just over an hour, leaving you with plenty of time to explore Waitangi. Paihia is a popular coastal town serving as a gateway to the Bay of Islands and Waitangi. Explore the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where New Zealand's founding document was signed in 1840.

Russell

From Paihia, you can travel to Russell (a 50-minute drive or 20-minute ferry) and explore New Zealand’s very first capital. Known for piracy and with a rich maritime history, Russell is a charming town well worth spending the day in. Wander through Pompallier Mission, a beautifully restored printery and tannery, providing insights into early interactions between Europeans and Maori. From here, head to the golden sands of Matapouri or spend a day exploring the 144 islands that make up the Bay of Islands, each offering its own unique charm.

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