New Zealand was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been to, and I never once felt like I was still on planet Earth, but rather on Mars, the Moon, Pandora, or found my way to Middle Earth. The colors in nature here were so vibrant and otherworldly! I am already excited to go back one day to see South Island too.
We spent about 10 days exploring the North Island, and it went by so fast! Ideally, you probably need 14 days to see everything, as we missed Wellington, but in this time you can cover quite a bit of ground!
This guide will take you through our itinerary for the entire road trip. This Google Map shows you the route we took to cover over 1000km throughout New Zealand!
Arriving in New Zealand
Upon arrival in New Zealand (likely Auckland!), it will take you some extra time to get out of the airport as the customs process is very detailed. Almost everyone arriving in New Zealand has something to claim. This includes all food, plant based products, and used camping or hiking gear. Be sure to declare everything! There are signs all over the place explaining that you will be fined if you do not. I was most concerned about bringing my hiking boots in as they are far from new, and I washed them fairly thoroughly before arriving. I wore them on the plane, and they did actually check the bottom of my shoes to make sure I wasn’t bringing in any soil. As long as you read the rules and declare what you have, you will be fine! After that, we headed straight to our rental car!
Driving in New Zealand
If you’re like me, driving on the opposite side of the road was a brand new experience. While it was daunting at first, after a little bit of time it was comfortable, and there are arrows everywhere reminding you what the correct direction is. We rented through Avis and got a great deal to add an additional driver for free as well as every 4th day free. We went with a compact SUV, which was the perfect size for the three of us! No special international driving permits were required with a US Drivers License.
Stop 1 – Coromandel Peninsula, Cathedral Cove, and Hot Water Beach
Our first stop on our road trip was the Coromandel Peninsula, about 2-3 hours through beautiful farmland and rainforest from Auckland. We stayed in the tiny town of Cook’s Beach, which was centrally located between all the sites. We chose to utilize AirBNBs throughout New Zealand for their location and price. Here, our AirBNB host was especially sweet and gave us great recommendations and baked us some fresh bread.
After arriving and resting for a bit, we checked out our first attraction – Hot Water Beach. During the two hours before and after low tide, this beach turns into a natural phenomenon and digging into the sand allows steaming hot jacuzzi water. It was crazy to see so many people lounging in their personal beach jacuzzis! Our AirBNB had a shovel we could borrow to make it happen too!
Meals in New Zealand were fairly diverse, and we ate whatever was nearby. This definitely wasn’t a foodie trip, however we ate amazingly. In Cook’s Beach, we walked to the nearby bar and grabbed some Thai Mussels – delicious!
The next morning we packed up and then headed to see Shakespeare Point on the recommendation of our host, and we deeply appreciated the suggestion. From here, you get a panoramic vista of all of Mercury Bay, named because this is where Captain Cook viewed the crossing of Mercury in front of the sun. From here we also hiked down to Lonely Beach, where we found ourselves able to enjoy the private little nook.
After enjoying some amazing rest and relaxation, we drove over to Hahei to see Cathedral Cove. We had originally intended to kayak there, but conditions were windy and we decided the hike was the better option. From Hahei it is a bit of a trek. Definitely stop in Hahei to pick up sandwiches and other snacks! The trek down to Cathedral Cove is beautiful, and worth the effort for sure. We had a picture perfect picnic down on the beach before trekking back the way we came. We stopped for another delicious quick bite before heading south to our next destination.
Stop 2 – Ohope and White Island
After leaving Hahei, we drove several hours to the quaint town of Ohope. We settled in for a quiet night with Indian take out before beginning our adventure the next day.
We chose Ohope as our home base to explore White Island, also known as Whikare. White Island is an active volcanic island that until recently was open to tourists to explore and see the incredible sulfuric formations, crater, and old mining location. It was about an hour and a half by boat through the Bay of Plenty to the island.
In early December 2019, only two weeks after we explored the island, it erupted while tourists were visiting, costing many lives. I feel incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to explore this wonder safely, and saddened for those who lost their lives to the adventure and their families.
After exploring the volcano, we grabbed some seafood and fell asleep early from the exhaustion!
We did find an amazing little cafe here that was right next door to our AirBNB, where we had coffee, avocado toast, and delicious eggs. Cafe culture was huge in New Zealand similar to the culture in Australia!
Stop 3 – Rotorua
After wrapping up in Ohope, we ventured west to Rotorua. Rotorua is known for it’s extreme thermal activity, which gives much of the city a strong sulfuric smell – be warned!
Before entering into Rotorua, we stopped at the Redwood Forest. Here you can opt to explore these amazing California Redwoods from an elevated tree walk or by hiking. We went with hiking and chose a moderate route, which was actually quite challenging but so beautiful and serene.
Upon arriving in Rotorua, we first stopped at the Government Gardens and did a walk around the lake front. There were definitely parts that were very strongly sulfuric, but you got used to it fairly quickly. The Rose Garden was also a highlight with many colors of gorgeous flowers! After this, we grabbed lunch in town at Atticus Finch and headed to our AirBNB to rest and refresh.
That evening, we participated in a Maori Warrior experience. To be perfectly honest, this was the only thing that didn’t 100% live up to my expectation, and I think it’s because I went in thinking it would be similar to a luau. We met in town and there was a brief overview of some Maori legends, and then a bus took us out to the site. Upon arrival there was a welcome ceremony (this was amazing and the highlight for me), and then in groups we explored several different aspects of Maori culture including weaving, carving, and clothing. After this there was the reveal of the meal, then a brief show in the common house, then finally dinner. I personally found there to be too much logistics involved, and all the moving made everything feel rushed. However, it was a unique experience and I would definitely recommend doing something Maori related while in Rotorua.
The next day we started the morning at Wai-O-Tapu, the geothermal wonderland (maybe you’ve noticed a theme here?). We arrived just in time to see the geyser here erupt, which was interesting as they create the geyser eruption with surfactants. Exploring the park was beautiful and I was again stunned at the palette of color that could be seen in the different ponds here.
After completing our explorations, we drove out to Hobbiton. Hobbiton was an attraction that blew us away, we loved it! I was worried it would be gimmicky and cheesy, and for the price I didn’t know how they could make it worth it but it was honestly magical. The starting point feels like you got dropped right into the movie. You meet your tour bus at the designated time (make sure to pick up your ticket when you arrive!) and then they drive you down to the set. The area is HUGE with about 30 hobbit holes on the sheep farm, and the colors are so vibrant. It really felt like we were a part of Middle Earth. You spend about an hour exploring each unique hobbit hole, and end at the tavern for a cider or ale. We were shocked how thoroughly we enjoyed our time here.
On our last night in Rotorua, we explored a street market that happens Thursday nights in summer, and ate a huge variety of asian dishes! We ended the evening by walking over to the Polynesian Spa, a thermal bath house. We opted for the Deluxe Lake Spa pools, which included 5 pools of differing temperature and acidity. We enjoyed just relaxing and hanging out in the warm water.
Stop 4 – Taupo and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The next morning, we headed further west to the city of Taupo. Taupo was definitely the largest city we visited, and is situated on the huge Taupo Lake. As we drove in, we stopped off at the roaring Huka Falls, a magnificent wintergreen fall that is more about speed than height. You can hike a bit around here and cross over the booming water.
We spent our afternoon just hanging out at our AirBNB before heading into town for dinner. There are many cute options right on the main waterfront in town, and we loved the one we chose. After eating, we headed to the grocery store to pick up supplies for our big hike the next day.
We woke up very early to head about an hour west to Tongariro National Park. To complete the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, voted New Zealand’s best day hike, you have to first book transportation. You must park off site and take a shuttle to the starting point. That shuttle will then pick you up at the end of your hike and bring you back to your car. This all went much smoother than we expected!
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a rigorous 19.4 km (~12 mile) hike, with about 3000+ feet of elevation change. You can see volcanic scenery, forest, lakes, craters, snow, and more in this full day excursion, but be prepared for it to be difficult. It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to have proper hiking shoes, and also to carry more water than you expect. You will climb up hundreds of stairs, go down some steep inclines, and towards the end you might feel a little lost, but it’s an incredible experience at the end and well worth the effort. Check out my blog about hiking Half Dome in Yosemite for more hiking and packing inspiration
We could have spent another day or two in Taupo exploring and playing on the lake, however it was time for the next stop!
Stop 5 – Waitomo
Waitomo was part of our itinerary as a recommendation from a friend, who said the Lost World Tour was the highlight of her time in New Zealand. While we didn’t opt for that tour, the Blackwater Rafting Tour through Waitomo Adventures was definitely one of the highlights of our trip too!
If you’ve never adventured through a cave before, it’s pretty magical (I’ve also done the ATM Cave Tour in Belize!). We started this tour by gearing up – wetsuit, jacket, helmet with light, and boots. Then we walked out to the start of the cave, a ladder going straight down about 50 feet into the pitch black! I went down first and it was a little scary getting down there! Then you walk through the caves for a bit before reaching the tubes. Our guides were awesome and we all chose to get into our tube the fun way by jumping backwards into it! We then all attached and turned off our lights and floated down the river admiring the incredible glow worms attached to the ceiling! We then had about another 45 min to an hour of hiking through the cave, over rocks and even with a bit of swimming. Our guides pointed out some fun sqeezes you could try and fit through as well! This activity is not for anyone with fears of enclosed spaces, darkness, or cold water.
After returning back to our home base, we showered on site then began our trek to our last destination – Auckland!
Stop 6 – Auckland and Waiheke Island
Our last stop on our incredible road trip brought us back to Auckland. We did not have as much time to actually explore Auckland as I would have liked, but did get some great sushi an coffee while we were there.
We spent our full day in Auckland exploring Waiheke Island, a WINE ISLAND (yes you heard that correctly, heaven is real). This little wonder is about 45 minutes from Auckland by ferry, and we opted to take a tour of the island. During the tour, we stopped at several beaches and lookouts and got to see the beauty here, and then stopped at three wineries for some tastings! Everything was delicious, and I loved how quaint each of the wineries was. One of the wineries also included olive oil and honey tastings, and sauvignon blanc oyster shots!
We ended our day on wine island at Mudbrick, one of the nicest and best known wineries on the island, with incredible views, reasonable tastings, and a nice restaurant, a perfect place to watch the sunset and enjoy the last night of vacation. We loved ending here to bring us back to reality after 9 incredible days in nature.
New Zealand was an incredible country to explore, and there really is something for everyone! From beaches, to nature and hikes, to wine and good food, and don’t forget incredibly kind people, New Zealand is somewhere I can see myself coming back to one day.
Special thanks to my friend Michelle who took all of these pictures on her phone while my camera was scratched!
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New Zealand was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been! Everything was so vibrant and lush 🌱, it was a perfect nature getaway . This is Cathedral Cove, named for the stunning rock arch in Coromandel Peninsula. A beautiful 45 minute hike 🥾 will land you here for a perfect picnic lunch . I can’t wait to share all my pictures from this very adventurous trip, and check out all about our adventures in my new blog ✏️ post . #travel #travelblog #travelnewzealand #newzealand #newzealandtravel #newzealandroadtrip #girlswhotravel #womenwhotravel #exploremore #optoutside
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