THE ONLY NEW ZEALAND NORTH ISLAND ITINERARY YOU NEED
THE ONLY NEW ZEALAND NORTH ISLAND ITINERARY YOU NEED
NEW ZEALAND NORTH ISLAND ITINERARY
This New Zealand North Island itinerary is jam packed with things to do, where to stay, best photo stops, a map of our route and more to ensure your New Zealand road trip is epic. The North Island offers warmer temperatures, more beaches, geothermal activity that will blow your mind and the majority of the Maori population stay there too.
We spent 3 weeks exploring the South Island before our two week North Island road trip began and despite being asked so many times, we couldn’t choose an island we prefer. If you have time, we really recommend your New Zealand road trip includes both islands as they are equally incredible yet entirely unique!
This post is long in order to squeeze in as much info as possible, feel free to ask us any questions you have in the comments or if we missed out any of your favourite places to visit in the North Island let us know!
New Zealand North Island Itinerary – Driving Route
DAYS 1 & 2: PICTON – WELLINGTON
Our final stop on our South Island road trip was Picton, from here it took 3 hours on the ferry to Wellington on the North Island. Our ferry ticket was included in our campervan hire; however it usually costs up to NZ$200.00 – NZ$300.00 for a small campervan and anything from NZ$50.00 – NZ$75.00 per person without a vehicle. We arrived mid-afternoon, hunted down a camping ground in Wellington and settled for the evening. Wellington was definitely one of our favourite places to visit in New Zealand, North Island – a creative, colourful city with so much to see and do!
The Weta Cave
A New Zealand North Island must see for film fans, especially if you’re into Lord of The Rings! From our campsite, it was only a 7 minute drive to the Weta Cave. This is where you can take a tour of the Weta Workshop (approx. NZ$30.00), as a free alternative you can enter the Weta Cave and take photos with the figures outside, then watch the fascinating documentary as well as admire props and costumes from various films such as King Kong, Spiderman and Avatar.
Museum Of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa)
This is one of not only the best things to do in Wellington but with over 1.5 million visitors a year it’s one of the most popular things to do in New Zealand North Island – best of all it’s completely free! We spent much longer here than we expected, intrigued by the artwork, artefacts and insight into Maori culture and New Zealand’s history.
Wellington Street Art
We loved the street art in Wellington, with murals popping up all over the city however the David Bowie mural on the side of Jam Hair Co on Ghuznee Street was a definite highlight and one not to be missed from your New Zealand North Island Itinerary! Created by artist Xoë Hall it even had glittery eye shadow and was neighboured by some equally fabulous murals!
An unmissable stop on this New Zealand North Island itinerary – Cuba Street. It’s the vibrant hub of all things “Welly” and is an eclectic mix of hipster cafes, colourful shops and the best spot to people watch. Although we LOVE cooking in a campervan, we did treat ourselves to lunch in Wellington at Ombra and so glad we did as it was some of the best risotto we’ve ever had! In the afternoon we also stopped at a Wellington icon – Fidels. Such a quirky wee find, we loved the décor, staff and vibe and really recommend stopping for a milkshake or much needed coffee and unbeatable cake before your hike up Mount Victoria.
Mount Victoria Lookout
It is a well known fact that Wellington is one of the windiest places to visit in New Zealand’s North Island and the best way to test this is a hike up Mount Victoria. If you are short on time, you can drive up or hike from the bush-covered Town Belt if you fancy more of a challenge. As well as leaving you windswept, it will also give you the most beautiful views of Tinakori Hill, the Hutt Valley, Eastern harbour bays, Somes Island and the Miramar Peninsula.
Botanical Garden & Cable Car
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our New Zealand North Island itinerary, it’s not to trust Google Maps following our attempt to find the Wellington Cable Car. Instead of directing us to the bottom stop at Lambton Quay, we unknowingly ended up at the top stop (in Kelburn) and had to take the cable car all the way down the hill instead of the tiring trek up (kind of defeats the purpose of a cable car). Regardless of this mishap, we really enjoyed our walk through the Botanical gardens and then down in the cable car – and for only NZ$4.50!
Campsite: Camp Wellington – Wellington
If looking for a campsite in Wellington, this is ideal as it’s only 15 minutes from the city centre and you have penguins on your doorstep. The owner is so friendly offering all guests a free coffee voucher for the Chocolate Fish Café, which was nearby. His passion for van life was so inspiring – he used to convert campervans until making his dream of opening a campsite a reality!
DAY 3: WELLINGTON – NAPIER – HASTINGS
Mount Victoria Tunnel
Before you depart Wellington, don’t forget to beep your horn through the Mount Victoria Tunnel. The tooting tradition is in memory of 17-year-old Phillis Symons who was buried alive in there while the tunnel was being built in 1931.
Napier was one of the most interesting places to visit in New Zealand’s North Island due to it’s beautiful Art Deco architecture. After a devastating earthquake in 1931, the majority of the town was rebuilt resulting in pretty pastel coloured buildings and fascinating facades. There was a festival on in Napier during our visit so we were treated to bustling streets, friendly locals and live music, however we’d imagine on any ordinary day it’s a little more sleepy although non the less beautiful to explore. Highlights include the zigzag-patterned Daily Telegraph Building and the promenade along the waterfront called Marine Parade for a scenic stroll.
Campsite: Ballymena Driveway – Hastings
The joy of campermate is that not only does it show you free and paid camping grounds in New Zealand but it shows you a few hidden gems such as private driveways and farms. Ballymena Driveway was like this – the owner had a spare field next to her house and an outdoor bathroom which she allowed travellers to use. For a peaceful, clean site with power & Wi-Fi it was NZ$25.00 per night.
DAY 4: NAPIER – TAUPO – TURANGI
We drove from our campsite to Aratiatia Rapids which took around 2 hours. Aratiatia Rapids are one of the most popular natural New Zealand North Island attractions and we guarantee you will be mesmerised if you squeeze in a visit during your North Island road trip. You will witness thousands of litres of water be released from the Aratiatia Dam, creating an insane surge of water that flows through a narrow gorge transforming it in minutes. There are dedicated times to watch the dam open and close depending on the season and it’s incredibly exciting to either stand on the bridge or take the short hike to the view point to watch the magic happen!
- Summer Release times (October to March): 10am, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm
- Winter Release times (April to September): 10am, 12pm, 2pm
If like us, you haven’t seen enough wild waters for one day we recommend the 10 minute drive from Aratiatia Dam to Huka Falls. Although we tried to capture it, our photos do not do these insane falls justice – a definite New Zealand North Island must see for the sheer size and striking colour! Nearly 250,000 litres blast through the gorge PER SECOND – you will honestly hear the falls from the minute you step out the car! We could’ve stood and watched for hours and can completely understand why Huka Falls is said to be the most visited natural attraction of all New Zealand North Island attractions.
Back in the campervan for another short 10 minute drive to Taupo. There are so much things to do in New Zealand North Island however in Taupo, I think we chose the most random two of all – golfing into a lake and dining in the World’s coolest McDonalds. Firstly, we didn’t just title Taupo’s McDonald’s the World’s Coolest – it is voted number 1 as it’s inside an aeroplane! Even more amusing, we had no idea this existed, so literally stumbled across an aeroplane McDonalds in the street, apologies for spoiling the surprise but definitely add it to your North Island itinerary!
Hole In One Challenge – Lake Taupo
Despite being Scottish and golf being one of the many reasons to visit Scotland we are absolutely hopeless at the sport. Yet, for some reason we felt obliged to pay NZ$25.00 for 25 balls and take part in Lake Taupo’s Hole in One Challenge. The aim was to whack the ball from the shore, into a hole in the centre of the Lake in the hope you’d win the NZ$10,000 prize. I’d like to lie and say we came close, but truthfully there were several balls that barely rolled off the shore (cheers Loz). Some may argue a pointless waste of money and others may agree one of the most hilarious things to do in New Zealand’s North Island.
All that hilarity and McDonald’s munching didn’t prepare us well for the big day we had ahead next. We drove from Lake Taupo to Turangi which took around 45 minutes and we mentally tried to prepare ourselves for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Campsite: Tongariro Junction – Turangi
If you plan on doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which you 1000% should) this is the best Tongariro crossing accommodation as it’s on the gateway to the National Park so you are close for the early start. It also had the most incredible showers we encountered during our entire North Island road trip – they were so powerful that it made the pricey NZ$45.00 fee worth it! The campsite also had Wi-Fi, power & offered a Tongariro crossing shuttle bus however already had ours booked with Mountain Shuttle prior to arrival.
DAY 5: TURANGI – TONGARIRO – MANGAOKEWA RESERVE
Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was one of the most challenging yet rewarding things to do in New Zealand, North Island. Although we thought our many hikes on Oahu would have trained us well, Tongariro was the longest hike we’d ever done at 19.4km. We read several guides and packed an epic picnic to prepare ourselves, yet in all honesty the hike wasn’t as difficult as we expected.
Firstly you park your car, then take a Tongariro Crossing shuttle bus to the start of the Tongariro Crossing then hike back to your car. Unlike most hikes where you hike to a summit then return, it’s a hike across volcanic terrain from one point to another. This means you end at a different point and will pass the most incredible views such as the famous “Mount Doom” and Emerald Lakes. We left at 8am and were back by 1pm although the weather was on our side, it was sunny yet cool which definitely helped the track conditions.
For a better insight into hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing we recommend watching our video, although watching those views through a screen really cannot do it justice. Over and over again, when asked for a highlight from our entire New Zealand road trip – this is it!
Following our hike we drove to Taumarunui to use a public swimming pool for a shower (the campermate app is great for this – it shows on a map nearest showers, public toilets etc.) We then headed to Mangaokewa Reserve for our camp for the night, which was our only free campground on the North Island but was one of our favourite campsites from our entire New Zealand road trip!
Campsite: Mangaokewa Reserve – Mangaokewa
One of the best things about freedom camping in New Zealand is the views. As most free campsites are out with towns and a little off the beaten track, they provide the most incredible spots for star gazing which is the reason we loved Mangaokewa Reserve so much! It also had a FLUSH toilet – a rare specimen in free campsites and a nearby bush walk. All completely free!
DAY 6: MANGAOKEWA RESERVE – WAITOMO – MATAMATA – WAIKITE
We were up bright and early for our busy day ahead which turned out to be one of the best days in our New Zealand North Island itinerary! From Mangaokewa Reserve we drove to Waitomo which took around 20 minutes.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
Waitomo is famous for its glowworm tours and there are numerous tour companies to choose from. Some offers large tours (we’re talking 60+ people) however we opted for Cave World tour of Footwhistle caves as it is a more intimate affair with around 12 people per tour. Although generally, the more popular tours have more glowworms, we weren’t too keen on cramming through underground tunnels with that many people so it depends what your preferences are.
We were picked up from the Waitomo tourist information and after a short drive arrived at Footwhistle caves. Our guide was friendly and informative and although we enjoyed the tour, we did find it more exciting seeing them in the rainforest in Franz Josef during our South Island road trip (and it was free). After a wander through the caves we were treated to a traditional Kawakawa tea tasting in a ponga hut which was an unexpected bonus, before heading off to Matamata also known as “The Shire” to Lord of The Rings fans.
Matamata – Hobbiton Tour
Confession time: I have never seen a single Lord of the Rings Movie yet still loved every minute of our Hobbiton Tour. Although it’s one of the most popular New Zealand North Island attractions I genuinely thought it would be boring. I was so wrong. Firstly, we took a Hobbiton themed bus from Matamata (included in ticket price) which played a documentary enroute explaining the history of “The Shire”. Once we arrived, I ashamedly was the only one in our group who hadn’t seen a single film but our guide was hilarious, helpful and dare I say it – so fascinating!
Although Daz has seen all the films and he initially dragged me to Hobbiton, he even proclaimed it far exceeded expectation as it didn’t feel like a Disneyland style set but more of an actual village. The highlight was the free beer in the village pub which was again (like the morning tea at the glow worms) an unexpected inclusion of the ticket price. You are also allowed to film and photograph until your hearts content which is often prohibited in these style tours!
The cherry on top of this epic day, was our campsite for the night at Waikite Valley thermal pools. That’s right a THERMAL SPA within in a campsite, we take it back. . . maybe our North Island road trip beats the South Island.
Campsite: Waikite Valley Thermal Pools – Waikite
Although we paid NZ$54.00 for a powered site here (& no Wi-Fi) this allowed free access to the thermal spa on site which was such a welcome treat after a busy day being Hobbits. Not only that, there is also a Nature Eco-walk over the thermal spring which provides the boiling water. We did the walk the following morning and found it so fascinating! A definite highlight from all the North Island camping grounds we visited.
DAY 7: WAIKITE – ROTORUA – TAURANGA
The drive from Waikite to Rotorua took only 30 minutes. The area of Rotorua is bustling with geothermal activity and traditional Maori culture. There is so much to see and do in this area, that no North Island road trip would be complete without a day or two here.
Lady Knox Geyser
Lady Knox Geyser was our first stop of the day, be warned as it is a “New Zealand North Island must see” therefor can get incredibly busy. Right enough, despite arriving early (9.45am) we squeezed on some of the very last seats. Although the geyser itself was impressive (it shoots 10-20m in the air), we didn’t realise it was instrumented manually and in fact a chemical is inserted to ensure the geyser performs on cue at 10.15am each day. We felt a tad cheated as it wasn’t natural, however it was part of our Wai-O-Tapu ticket which was an unforgettable experience so we’ll let them off.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand North Island for a thermal show like no other! From the devil’s pool to bubbling champagne pools, walking through Wai-O-Tapu will feel like walking through a different planet! If you can get over the smell of sulphur, you are in for an unforgettable day as at 18sq km it is the largest geothermal park in New Zealand and one of the most unique things to do in New Zealand’s North Island.
Whakarewarewa – The Living Maori Village
Following the cutest wee stop for lunch at nearby Peppers Café ran by the friendliest old couple, we headed to Whakarewarewa known as The Living Maori Village. No New Zealand North Island itinerary would be complete without an insight to the country’s Maori culture and this was a fascinating yet fun way to do just that!
The tour is led by a local resident as they explain what life is like growing up in a Maori village as well as the traditions and ceremonies Maori life involves. During our visit we witnessed Pohutu Geyser which “went off” naturally and also learned how the village use the geothermal energy for everyday life. The tour finishes off with a traditional performance which showcased historical songs (Waiata) and rhythmic chants known as Patere as well as games, poi dancing and the famous Haka.
Following the theme of thermal activity and still mesmerised from our campsite the night before, we headed to Tauranga to stay at Fernland Spa.
Campsite: Fernland Spa – Tauranga
Just when we thought we had reached our peak of campsites on the North Island, Fernland Spa became a very close contender for the top spot. It too had a thermal pool which was huge and surprisingly quiet despite also being open to the public as well as campers. It was also cheaper than Waikite Valley at only NZ$40.00 a night and included free Wi-Fi which was the best from our entire North Island road trip.
DAY 8: TAURANGA – HOT WATER BEACH – WAIPU
We were relieved to have such a relaxing sleep, as this was a big day of driving. Our first drive of the day was from Tauranga to Hot Water Beach which took around 2 hours. As the name describes, on Hot Water Beach when you dig a hole in the in certain areas, it fills with warm water. To be honest it was a fun 5 minutes or so to paddle in it but the weather wasn’t the best to strip off and bathe in the warm water. The beach itself is beautiful so we enjoyed a long walk and a giggle at other tourists equally as baffled as us trying to find a “hot spot”.
Coromandel Peninsula – Cathedral Cove
From one famous beach to the next, it was only a 10 minute drive to one of the most famous things to do in New Zealand’s North Island – visit Cathedral Cove. Situated in the famous Coromandel Peninsula, Cathedral Cove attracts over 500,000 visitors a year! The car park is closed annually from 1 October – 30 April so we parked in the alternative Visitor Car Park on Pa Road (turn right just after entering Hahei). We then walked up Grange Road which felt like forever (approx. 20 mins) before realising shuttle busses run regularly for NZ$5.00 return. They will take you to the top of Grange Road which is the start of the Cathedral Cove track.
The walk to Cathedral Cove from the top of Grange Road should take around 1.5 hours (return), we cheated and took photos from the view point instead then headed back to our van for ice cream. We do regret not making the effort however do not regret the ice cream, it was amazing!
We decided to opt out of the Cathedral Cove walk as our drive from Coromandel Peninsula to Waipu was going to take 4 hours. Our aim was to reach the most Northern point during our North Island road trip so we needed to make a fairly big dent in the drive as we were running short on time.
Campsite: The Rose And Thistle Inn (Waipu Hotel) – Waipu
We stayed here for one night however, in hindsight we would’ve stayed near Cathedral Cove or anywhere on Coromandel Peninsula as the area was so beautiful. We then would’ve continued the drive North the following day, so recommend this as a better option!
DAY 9: WAIPU – AHIPARA
As we had made it to the most Southernly point on our South Island road trip our mission for day 9 of our New Zealand North Island itinerary was to keep heading up to the most Northernly point – Cape Reinga.
In order to reach Cape Reinga there is one road in and out or if you are not in a hire car you can also drive on the famous 90 mile beach. As we were in a hired campervan, we were following the road version until we were stopped and told to turn back. Assuming it was a road accident we planned to set up camp nearby until the road was clear in the morning, this was until we were told the road had literally been swept away due to heavy rainfall literally moments before we got there.
We were so grateful for our short pee stop at Pukenui on route, otherwise we would have been at the opposite side of the Cape Reinga road and therefor stuck in the North until the road was repaired (or forced to drive on the beach, against our campervan hire policy).
Had we made it, there was a few things we wished to tick off our New Zealand North Island must see list such as:
- Witnessing the natural phenomenon of The Tasman Sea colliding with the Pacific Ocean
- The pohutukawa tree believed to be over 800 years old
- Cape Reinga lighthouse
Please fulfil our North Island road trip bucket list and let us know if you manage to tick these off where we didn’t!
Our bad luck continued as we attempted to hunt down a campsite as many were flooded or fully booked by the numerous campervans and motorhomes also stuck like us. We found an absolute gem however called Ahipara Holiday Park where we spent the evening doing what we do best – eating.
Campsite: Ahipara Holiday Park – Ahipara
Although this was not meant to be part of our North Island itinerary, we are so glad we stopped here! Not only did it have free gas BBQs but also unlimited free Wi-Fi. Needless to say we abused the latter due to the rain. There was also a great communal kitchen and huge comfy sofas with a fire put on in Winter which looked so inviting! It cost NZ$37.80 for a powered site (we’d a little discount thanks to our Kiwi membership).
DAYS 10 & 11: AHIPARA – KERIKERI
We’re no strangers to waking up in unusual places however particularly loved waking up on my birthday in a campervan. Our first stop of the day was to drive to nearby Rainbow Falls then to Kerikeri for an amazing birthday brunch at Café Zest. We also decided to buy a birthday gift for each other, as Daz’s birthday is 2 days after mine so we booked a wee glamping adventure for the next few days.
We are obsessed with glamping and wanted to find a quirky yet cute place to spend our birthdays as a wee treat from van life. Takou River lodge was unbelievable and to this day one of the most tranquil retreats we’ve ever been to. Not only did we have access to kayaks for a short paddle to Takou Bay but a rooftop bath which we used both in the sunshine and under the stars.
We loved every minute of our two days/nights here and cannot recommend it enough if you’re looking for romantic places to visit in New Zealand’s North Island.
Campsite: Takou River Lodge – Kerikeri
Voted one of the Top Ten Luxury Lodges in New Zealand, it is the perfect romantic escape from van life and to treat yourself during your New Zealand North Island itinerary.
DAY 12: KERIKERI – WHANGATEAU
After our unforgettable birthdays, it was time to head back South towards Auckland as the end of our South Island road trip was near. From Takou River Lodge (nearby Kerikeri) to Whangateau took 3 hours. After the long drive, we chilled for the afternoon continuing our birthday celebrations at the amazing Whangateau Holiday Park.
Campsite: Whangateau Holiday Park – Whangateau
Our last campsite in our New Zealand North Island itinerary but by no means least. The views from Whangateau Holiday Park were a definite highlight as it’s located on the shoreline of Matakana & Kowhai coast. For only NZ$35.20 (with Campermate discount) we had a large powered site, although you can pay a little extra to have an ocean front pitch. There are great communal facilities such as a kitchen/dining area and TV room as well as clean, hot showers although remember coins as they are NZ$0.50 each.
DAY 13: WHANGATEAU – AUCKLAND
For the last day in our New Zealand North Island itinerary we drove from Whangateau Holiday Park to Auckland which only took about 1 hour. This gave us the whole day to explore Auckland which was a little shock to the system to be back in such a big city after so long!
Aotea Square is a large paved public area in the CBD used for concerts, festivals and events so check if there’s anything on during your time in Auckland.
As we had spent the past few days doing nothing but eating birthday cake and driving, we decided to enjoy the sunshine by taking the 1.5 hour walk from Auckland CBD to Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium. It was such an enjoyable way to see Auckland from a different view and of course, there were penguins at the aquarium, so we were happy to walk for nearly 2 hours to see those little fellas.
After quite some time chatting to the penguins, we were thankful there is actually a shuttle bus (that looks like a shark) that will take you back to Auckland CBD to save another 1.5 hour walk. Our afternoon in Auckland was cut a little short as we were meeting relatives of Darren nearby, however read this post for other FREE Auckland suggestions.
Campsite: Darren’s Relative
We stayed in the garden of Darren’s relative, however recommend these campsites near Auckland.
DAY 14: AUCKLAND (DROP OFF CATHY)
Woohoo we made it to the end of our North Island itinerary and you made it to the end of this huge post! Sadly it was time to officially say bye to Cathy the campervan after an incredible New Zealand Road trip and welcome a real double bed and ensuite bathroom at the Holiday Inn near Auckland Airport.
DAY 15: FLEW TO MELBOURNE
Our New Zealand North Island itinerary is officially over and after the busiest few weeks of our lives, it was time to fly to Melbourne to begin our Working Holiday Visa. Let us know how your New Zealand road trip goes and if you find any more hidden gems along the way, we’re constantly looking for excuses to return!
For more photos of our adventure, please take a peek at our New Zealand gallery.
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