New Zealand offers a magical travel experience, with unparalleled nature and adventure experiences that are tough to beat. It boasts the world’s most southerly capital city, and in February 2017, it was proposed that New Zealand could, in fact, be sat on its own continent ‘Zealandia’ (as of August 2017, it is still part of the Australian continent). But it is the landscapes and wildlife, the adrenalin activities and laid back way of life that makes New Zealand tourist draw; and with over 3 and a half million visitors a year, the tourism industry is well established.
One of the most popular ways to travel around is by camper van. For longer trips, I would always advise purchasing a van (there are many on the backpacker circuit), but for shorter trips, hiring is most practical. There are a huge array of camper hire companies, the biggest (but not cheapest) being Britz, Maui and Juicy. Often smaller hire companies offer better rates – we hired with Happy Campers in the past and had a great experience. It is also possible to hire smaller campers, such as a ‘camper car’ – some of the biggest names for small camper hire are Spaceships and Wicked Campers. Depending on the type of camping you wish to do might dictate the type of camper you hire. If you are happy to stay at a campsite each night, then any type of camper is open to you, but if you wish to ‘Freedom Camp’ [free overnight camping in designated zones, usually without facilities such as toilets], then you need to hire a camper with a self-containment certificate.
Alternatively, hiring a car is a great way to see the country. There are plenty of motels, as well as hostels and hotels, across the country. Hiring a car allows more freedom than backpacker buses (such as Kiwi Experience, Stray, and Naked) although the buses allow you to meet fellow travellers, so are a great option for solo travellers. The plan below is designed for those with their own transportation.
Planning a road trip around New Zealand is tough – FOMO [fear of missing out] is real. There is so much to see and do, and such a large area to cover, that something has to give. With 14 days, it will not be possible to see the entire of North Island – driving is often slow as many roads are single carriageway and with lots of tight bends and steep hills. So, I have picked out a comfortable 14-day trip – allowing enough time to do each place justice as well as to partake in lots of adventure activities.
Auckland Walking Tour and Mount Victoria
Auckland hosts the largest airport in New Zealand, so many people find themselves starting their travels in the city. As Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, it offers a whole host of interesting activities, incredible places to eat and stunning viewpoints.
To start, get acquainted with Auckland on a Walking Tour. Head to 89 Quay Street to join the 10am free walking tour (*tours are only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday during winter), and spend 2-3 hours getting to know the rich history of Auckland city. Please remember, that although the tour is free, there are running costs, so tipping your guide is appreciated. [Other walking tours available]
In the afternoon, catch the ferry across to Devonport and climb to the summit of Mount Victoria. The walk is short, expect to take around 20 mins to reach the top, but does have several step sections so is not suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs. From the top, there are brilliant views of Rangitoto and the Auckland City skyline. At the summit, you will find one of Devonport’s disappearing guns – one of only a few left in the world.
Rangitoto and Motutapu
On day 2, take a morning ferry across to Rangitoto Island. The island is home to the world’s largest Pohutukawa forest, and the summit walk allows exploration into the volcanic crater, lava flows and caves (don’t forget your torch!). From the summit, take the 4WD Road Train back down to the ferry port. Hire a sea kayak and explore the island coastline or hire a rod and catch some fish for dinner.
From Rangitoto, you can walk to the conjoining island of Motutapu and hike one of the many walks and tracks, or visit the WWII Military Sites at Northern Junction.
While it is possible to camp on Matutapu, but there is no accommodation, so make sure you check the ferry timetable to avoid missing the last ferry back to Auckland.
In case you hadn’t heard, New Zealand is famous for its wine. And Waiheke is a perfect example of how wonderful NZ wine is. In fact, it is often referred to as the ‘Island of Wine’. Waiheke Island was voted the fifth best destination in the world to visit in 2016 by Lonely Planet and fourth best island on the ‘Best Islands in the World List’ by Condé Naste in 2015, so you know it is definitely a worthwhile day trip.
Book on to a ready made wine tour, such as Waiheke Island Wine Tours, or build your own using the local buses to travel the island. Spend the day learning about the wine making process and trialing different wines from different vineyards.
Alternatively, Waiheke is also a fabulous spot to spend a day on the beach; but only if the weather is on your side!
Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach
Start day 4 of your tour by driving from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula. Drive the coastal road through Thames and Coromandel before heading across the peninsula to Hahei. This route offers a beautifully scenic drive with lots of great landscape photo opportunities.
Auckland to Hahei (via Coromandel). Drive: 3hrs 30, 230km
Hahei is the nearest town to Cathedral Cove (featured in the Narnia films). It is possible to walk to the Cathedral Cove car park from Hahei town, but it is advisable to drive (or catch a shuttle bus). From the car park, the walk to Cathedral Cove takes approximately 35 minutes, and 45 minutes on return. Make sure that you take plenty of water down to the cove as there is nowhere to purchase any after you leave the car park. Alternatively, there is a water taxi that leaves from Hahei beach every 30 minutes.
Hot Water Beach is another major draw to the area, twice a day, two hours either side of low tide, one section of the beach fills with people digging their own sandy spa pool. Due to the geothermal activity in the area, the springs under the beach come through with hot water (It is extremely hot in some areas, so basic common sense is necessary). Day time low tide offers great sunbathing and ocean views, whereas night time low time has fantastic star gazing opportunities. You can hire spades from several local businesses.
Karanghake Gorge and Glow Work Kayak
Head out of Hahei towards Karanghake Gorge.
Hahei to Karanghake Gorge. Drive: 1hr 30, 100km
There are lots of short walks through the gorge, ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Several of the walks take you through old gold mining tunnels (don’t forget your torch!) and along disused mining cart tracks. Nearby, you will find the Owharoa Falls, a staircase waterfall, and Paeroa – famous for its giant Lemon and Paeroa bottle, and for producing the drink!
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From Karanghake, it is a relatively short drive to Tauranga.
Karanghake to Tauranga. Drive: 1hr, 70km
A highly recommended evening activity here is the Waimarino Glow Worm Kayak Tour. It is advisable to book in advance; and be aware that the tour begins at different times throughout the year. The 3-3.5 hour experience includes approximately 1-1.5hrs of kayaking, as well as local refreshments.
White Island and Mount Maunganui Summit Walk
Spend Day 6 of your North Island Tour on one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes: White Island. If you are feeling particularly adventurous (and rich) you can take a helicopter tour of the island, or for a slightly cheaper option, join the boat tour.
After your trip to White Island, take the 45-minute walk up Mount Maunganui to take in the views of the local area, and to watch the sunset. The walk in relatively easy, but some sections are steeper than others.
Head out of Tauranga towards Matamata on route 29 – this takes you through the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park and affords incredible views over the Matamata Plains en route.
Tauranga to Matamata. Drive: 40mins, 50km
Matamata is most famous for being the home of Hobbiton – and since the Lord of the Rings was filmed here, the Hobbiton village has grown into a major tourist attraction. It is necessary to book your trip to Hobbiton in ahead of time, as tickets have been known to sell out months in advance during high season.
Once you have completed you Hobbiton tour, head over to Rotorua for the night.
Matamata to Rotorua. Drive: 50mins, 65km
Zorb, Skyline, Whakarewarewa and Blue Lake Track
Rotorua is famous for its geothermal activity and for its high adrenaline activities. Start your day off at Zorb (the original zorbing company). Zorb offer three track options: straight, zig-zag and ‘the drop’, each offering their own experience. It is possible to have up to three people in a zorb ball on the straight track, so you can make it a group activity!
After that, head over to Skyline to luge, zipline, mountain bike or even skyswing! The gondola is free to ride, and there is a restaurant at the top of the hill, but it is the downhill activities that will get your blood pumping!
For lunch, go to the Whakarewarewa Living Māori Village and experience a traditional hangi, as well as a tour around the geothermal park and a Māori cultural performance show (performances at 11.15am and 2pm daily).
Calm things down for the afternoon with a tramp around the Blue Lake Track. The walk follows a 5.4km route circling Rotorua’s Blue Lake, taking in beaches, the Whakarewarewa Forest and views over both the blue Lake and the nearby Green Lake Rotokakahi.
White Water Rafting and Wai-O-Tapu
Start another day with a rush of adrenaline, and book yourself on to a White Water Rafting trip on the Kaituna River. There are several companies that raft the river, Kaitiki is my favourite and we have rafted with them twice. The trip takes you down the river, over rapids and most impressively, over a 7m waterfall. It is an exhilarating experience, not to be missed.
After your white water rafting experience, drive out to the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park
Rotorua to Wai-O-Tapu. Drive: 25mins, 30km
Wai-O-Tapu is New Zealand’s most colourful and diverse geothermal attractions. There is a geyser by the park that is presented once a day at 10.15am, so if you wish to see that, it is recommended that you arrive at the park at 9.30am (so it is not possible to see it if you are white water rafting in the morning).
From Wai-O-Tapu, drive through to Taupo. Drive: 40mins, 50km.
Aratiatia Rapids, Huka Falls and Maori Carvings
This is another water-based day, have a lazy morning and head to the Aratiatia Rapids for its 10am opening. Aratiatia Rapids was one for the filming locations for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. After seeing the river fill, head over to Huka Falls and take the Huka Falls Jet back up the rapids on an exhilarating ride!
In the afternoon, take a relaxing sail cruise on Great Lake Taupo to visit the Maori rock carvings. The cruise takes around 2.5 hours and allows you to bring your own food and drink aboard.
We all know that New Zealand is famous as the setting of Lord of the Rings, and Mount Ngauruhoe on the Tongariro Crossing played a major role in the films: it was the basis of Mount Doom. Tongariro Crossing is one of the most famous tramps (hikes) in New Zealand. It is a one-day walk, expect to take between 4 and 8 hours to complete the trek, although it could take longer depending on how often you stop for photos! Ensuring you have the correct footwear and clothing is a must – check the Department of Conservation Alerts before heading out on the crossing to ensure you have the safest possible conditions.
The track runs in an L-shape between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe. There are car parks at either end of the track and a shuttle that runs between each. Most people start from Mangatepopo and finish at Ketetahi – this allows the best views during your walk. I highly recommend parking at Ketetahi car park and catching the shuttle to Mangatepopo to start your hike (this way, there is no possibility of you missing the last shuttle and being stranded in the wrong car park if your walk takes longer than expected!)
Otorohanga Kiwi House and Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Drive from Taupo to Otorohanga to visit the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park.
Taupo to Otorohanga. Drive: 1hr 50, 150km
Get up close to local birds and reptiles, and even help out with feeding. This is also a great chance to see a live kiwi bird – although they are very shy and spooked by bright lights loud noises, so there are sadly no guarantees one will be out.
From Otorohanga, take the short, drive to Waitomo. 15 mins, 15km.
Otorohanga to Waitomo. 15 mins, 15km.
Spend the afternoon at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Head into the cave network, enjoy a guided tour of the subterranean caverns and glide along the underground Waitomo River under the lights of thousands of glowworms.
Black Water Rafting
Spend your penultimate day underground once again – caving and rafting with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. There are different options available, each lasting a different amount of time, costing different amounts of money, and offering different experiences. The ‘original’ adventure: Black Labyrinth will have you climbing, tubing and leaping off waterfalls. And the Black Abyss experience sees you abseiling, climbing, zip-lining, and tubing through the cave systems.
From Waitomo, drive back to Auckland. Drive: 2hr 30, 190km
Spend your last day back in Auckland – but don’t think the adventure is over! Head up the Sky Tower and marvel at the views over Auckland. Then, take the SkyWalk around the 1.2m wide platform situated around the edge of the tower, 192m above the ground. From there, it is time to head back down to the ground. But not by the lift – leap off the side of the tower! The SkyJump is New Zealand’s only Base Jump by wire, allowing you to freefall safely at over 85km per hour!
New Zealand is an unforgettable holiday experience – there really is nowhere that compares!
Are you going to New Zealand North Island? What is on your ‘must see/do’ list?