As you travel across New Zealand’s fabulous North Island, the thing that strikes you is the diversity of experiences on offer.
That, and the fact that you don’t have to travel too far to see something amazing, which makes road tripping the ideal way to explore. From the cosmopolitan city centres of Auckland and Wellington, to the sublime natural beauty of Northland and the intriguing Māori cultural traditions and geothermal wonders of Rotorua, the North Island is the travel destination that consistently delivers something for everyone — making multi-generational travel a pleasure.
Here are ten of the best things to do on a North Island road trip, which can all be ticked off in around ten days. We travelled from Auckland up to the Bay of Islands, then down the centre of the island to Rotorua, Taupo, and on to the nation’s capital Wellington. This list only scratches the surface, and there are hundreds of other amazing things to see and do along the way. But if you tick off these ten highlights, you’ll have given it a good go. Enjoy!
Auckland may be New Zealand’s biggest city, but it has a relaxed charm. It’s generally the arrival and/or departure point for international travellers, and a convenient spot to pick up or drop off your hire vehicle. There’s plenty to see and do, and you’ll want to spend a couple of nights here. With its twin harbours, the city enjoys one of the world’s most beautiful settings, and getting out on the water is a must-do. Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari offers a half-day dolphin spotting cruise that departs from Viaduct Harbour.
Also pay a visit to the fabulous Auckland War Memorial Museum, which is located in the 75-hectare Domain parklands. The building was constructed in the 1920s as a monument to those who lost their lives in WWI. Today it shares the story of New Zealand as a modern nation. The museum is about 30 minutes’ walk from the city centre, or choose one of the plethora of transport options on offer.
As the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere (for now), Sky Tower is visible from all over the city and provides suitably epic views from its observation deck. For those on a very tight timeframe, SkyJump is the quickest way back to ground level!
Auckland is the gateway to Northland, which cover most of the northern end of the North Island and is home to the shimmering Bay of Islands. The bay is around three hours’ drive from Auckland and makes a great base for exploring the region. There’s only one way to see the best of the bay and that’s by boat. If you have the time, look into a full-day sailing charter. If not, Fullers Great Sights offers a three-hour cruise from Paihia and Russell out to the Hole in the Rock on Motukokako Island (one of more than 140 islands dotted across the bay). You’re likely to spot dolphins, seals, and even the odd whale.
3. Explore New Zealand’s history at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most significant heritage sites and a must-see for history buffs. It’s the location where the country’s founding document between Māori chiefs and the British Crown was signed in 1840. You can visit the Treaty House (where the document was actually penned), and a carved meeting house that was built for the treaty’s centenary in 1940 (as was Ngātokimatawhaorua — the largest Māori war canoe in the country — which is displayed in the treaty grounds). The excellent visitor centre offers a range of multi-media displays.
From the Bay of Islands, it’s just under three hour’s drive to the most northerly accessible point of the North Island — Cape Reinga. This is not the northern most tip of the country (as is often thought), but it is the spot where the Tasman Sea officially meets the mighty Pacific Ocean.
If you want to spend less time looking at maps and more time looking out the window, consider the Explore Group’s Dune Rider day tour from the Bay of Islands to Cape Reinga. This epic adventure includes transport in a purpose-built off road vehicle, and full commentary from a local guide along the way. One of the highlights of the day is a drive along the sweeping west coast expanse of Ninety Mile Beach (in reality, 88 kilometres or 55 miles long, but hey, who’s counting?). With sand dunes as far as the eye can see, sandboarding is a popular part of the experience.
The kauri tree is one of the tallest in the world and as you travel through Northland, you’ll have the opportunity to encounter this ancient giant of the forest. Scattered pockets of kauri forest are all that remain, but even these are threatened by dieback disease. Follow all directions from the authorities to prevent its spread.
Northland’s stunning Waipoua Forest is a two-hour drive west from the Bay of Islands and is home to the largest kauri in the country — Tāne Mahuta — which is thought to be around 2,000 years old and tops the 50-metre-mark in height. The tree attracts plenty of visitors and is just a five-minute walk from the carpark.
As you head back down south, drop into The Kauri Museum in the west coast village of Matakohe. It provides a fascinating insight into the history of European settlement in New Zealand and the use of the kauri by settlers.
6. Do a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set
Passing Auckland, you’ll enter the Waikato region — home to the Hobbiton Movie Set, which was built for the filming of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. This is one of New Zealand’s most visited tourist attractions and occupies a working sheep station. Enjoy a guided walk through the village of Hobbiton — the fictional home of Bilbo Baggins in the Shire in Middle Earth, which is one of the non-fictional North Island’s prettiest rural areas. You’ll have the chance to grab a photo in front of the various hobbit holes, and hear insider information about how the movies were made. Tour bookings are essential.
Hobbiton is around 2.5 hours’ drive from Auckland or less than an hour from regional hub Hamilton. It’s an hour’s drive from Hobbiton on to Rotorua.
7. Marvel at Rotorua’s geothermal wonders
Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty has been drawing fascinated visitors for decades with its geothermal goings-on. One of the best spots to experience the bubbling mud pools, steaming vents and gushing geysers is Te Puia, which literally translates to ‘geyser’ or ‘hot spring’. The 70-hectare site has more than 500 active geothermal features, including the famous Pohutu Geyser. Join a guided tour to learn the area’s significance to Māori culture, before seeing — and smelling — the thermal activity that’s given Rotorua its nickname of ‘Sulphur City’.
Rotorua has an array of amazing attractions, so you may want to spend some extra time here. The Rainbow Springs Nature Park is an opportunity to come ‘face to beak’ with the iconic, but sadly endangered kiwi — the country’s flightless, nocturnal, ground dwelling national bird. There are actually five species of kiwi and all of them are threatened to varying degrees. Rainbow Springs is playing a vital conservation role through its hatching and captive breeding programs.
Basking by magnificent Lake Taupo, the town of Taupo is situated an hour’s drive south from Rotorua and is renowned as an adventure lover’s playground. Nearby Mount Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park is home to two of New Zealand’s largest ski fields, while the lake offers trout fishing, canoeing, kayaking and a variety of leisure cruise options.
Just north of town, you’ll find the stunning Huka Falls — one of New Zealand’s most popular, and most photographed natural attractions. Here the Waikato River pushes through a narrow ravine of volcanic rock, creating a stunning spectacle.
10. Take in the incredible collection at Te Papa
From Taupo, it’s a four-hour drive south to the nation’s capital Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. If you have the time, you could detour east to the Hawke’s Bay wine region and Art Deco enclave Napier, or head west to arty Whanganui. Te Awa o Whanganui (the Whanganui River) is New Zealand’s longest navigable river and offers a range of outdoor leisure options. However, leave yourself at least two full days to explore Wellington, which offers a top notch dining and cafe scene and plenty of amazing cultural attractions.
Te Papa Tongarewa — New Zealand’s national museum — is located on the waterfront and should be at the top of your to-do list. Loosely translated, the museum’s name means ‘box of treasures’, and inside you’ll find six levels packed with art and artefacts. It will keep you busy for hours.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do on a North Island road trip? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Te Puia. Image courtesy of Destination Rotorua. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.