New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Road Trip Highlights
Heading to NZ, but not quite sure what to prioritise? There’s a heap to see and do on the North Island – it’s difficult to condense it into one holiday! This New Zealand North Island itinerary will help you plan your own road trip through the rolling greens of this part of the country.
For many travellers, New Zealand is a dream destination.
And why wouldn’t it be? The air is fresh, the people are friendly. It’s stunningly beautiful and there’s a wide range of things to do there, to suit thrill seekers, nature lovers, foodies, film and history buffs… the list goes on.
Despite all this, I didn’t venture out to visit my country’s (I’m Australian) closest neighbour until my late twenties. Not exactly sure why, but it hadn’t been top of my list.
I was misguided, obviously. I’m also glad I waited as long as I did as I appreciated it much more when I finally travelled there.
Plus, let’s face the facts – New Zealand isn’t a cheap destination to visit.
It’s nice to make the trip with a bit of life experience and so, disposable income up your sleeve.
This New Zealand North Island itinerary is tried and tested, as it’s exactly what I did when I travelled through this part of the country.
I put in hours of research before visiting and also asked the advice of both Kiwi friends and others who travelled there regularly.
In this itinerary you’ll find a route recommendation, leading from Auckland to Wellington. There are suggestions for where to stop along the way and certain sights to look out for.
I’ll let you know where we stayed in each town and the activities we feel are worth spending coin on.
I like things that are a bit of the beaten path and so have tried to suggest alternative options to many other itineraries that exist on the interwebs.
If you plan to self drive the North Island of New Zealand, this post should help you in your quest!
A Two Week New Zealand North Island Road Trip Itinerary
- Auckland 3 nights
- Hamilton 1 night
- Rotorua 2 nights
- Taupo 3 nights
- Napier 1 night
- Martinborough 1 night
- Wellington 3 nights
This is the exact itinerary I followed and is ideal if you’re taking a two week road trip in New Zealand’s North Island.
You can also use this as a North Island itinerary for a 7 day road trip. I’d advise you to forgo spending a night in Hamilton, Napier and Martinborough and cut down on your time in the other, bigger towns and cities.
However, if you’re self-driving the North Island for two weeks, I thoroughly recommend spending at least a couple of nights in the bigger towns.
Even though the distances are short, you’ll get tired from the driving – plus some places need at least a couple of night’s stay to do them justice.
Keep in mind also, that New Zealand’s roads can be tricky to navigate.
It’s a mountainous country and many stretches of highway weave through National Parks and have many twists and turns.
As Aussies, we road trip regularly and drive on the left at home. Yet, we still found the roads difficult to tackle at times.
Something to keep in mind, for sure!
In need of a rental car? Compare prices here
Should You Stay in Hotels or a Campervan?
This is entirely up to you – we met people during our two weeks in the North Island who were doing each.
While we floated the idea of renting a campervan, we ultimately made the decision to self-drive and stay in accommodation along the way.
This is due to the fact that I’d read about hotels in Rotorua and Taupo containing their own mineral spa baths and I wanted to check them out for myself.
We also made plans to glamp at some point in our trip, which would render a campervan pointless.
While this itinerary contains accommodation recommendations, if you’re hungry for the van life – simply ignore them!
Begin Your North Island Road Trip at Auckland Airport
You’ll most probably start your North Island road trip by flying into Auckland, the biggest city in the country (but not the capital – that’s Wellington!).
The easiest way to get to the city from the airport is to catch the SkyBus. The City Express is $18 one way and $34 for a return.
Alternatively, pick up your hire car at the airport.
There’s plenty of places to buy SIM cards at the airport, at various booths. If your flight arrives late and everything is closed, you can purchase one in the city.
However – I like to take a road trip as a chance to switch off, so we opted to forgo SIM cards.
Every hotel we stayed in had WiFi and we’d downloaded our itinerary on Google Maps, so we could access the route offline.
When we needed internet, we found WiFi in the usual suspects, such as McDonalds. Many town centres had free WiFi, too.
Things to do in Auckland
Here are some suggestions of what you can get up to during your time in the “City of Sails”.
Visit one of the nearby islands
Off the shore of Auckland is the Hauraki Gulf, which is home to an array of islands.
Many are accessible via ferry from Auckland and offer up a range of unique experiences.
Waiheke Island: Waiheke is the second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf and the most populated, making it an easy choice as a day trip from Auckland. Many visitors come for the food and vino, but there are other activities on offer, too. If you fancy spending more than a day exploring, there are plenty of accommodation options – check them out here.
Book onto a food and wine tasting tour of Waiheke Island here
Tiritiri Matangi Island: Tiritiri is one of NZ’s predator free islands and fairly unique, in that it’s open to public access. An easy day trip is to take a ferry to the island and go on a guided tour, to learn about the unique fauna that can safely call Tiri home. You can read more about visiting Tiritiri Matangi Island here.
Book onto the ferry to Tiritiri in advance
Rangitoto Island: Rangitoto is a volcanic island not far from the city at all. It’s only 600 years old and its summit offers spectacular views of Hauraki Gulf. You can kayak out to the island to watch the sunset, take a 4WD train or walk to the summit, stepping among volcanic terrain.
Book a tour to Rangitoto Island here
Great Barrier Island: This island is a little bit more far-flung from Auckland, taking around a four hour ferry trip (you can also fly, but blergh and boats are more fun anyway). There’s plenty of wildlife to see and wilderness to explore. It’s also the first island in the world to be named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, meaning the night sky there is off the hook. It’s definitely worth spending the night on the island – look for accommodation options here.
Visit Mount Eden (Maungawhau)
Auckland contains 48 volcanic cones and at 196 metres high, Maungawhau is the biggest of those you can find on the mainland of the island.
You can walk up to the summit and take in spectacular views of Auckland at the top. Hop on a guided tour to learn more about its history as a traditional fortified Māori village.
Leap off the Sky Tower
New Zealand is probably the adventure-sports capital of the world. Adrenaline junkies can start their trip off on the right note, by hurling themselves off the side of the tallest tower in the city.
Those less inclined can simply journey up the top of the tower, to take in the views of the surrounding city.
Book your ticket to the Sky Tower here
Try some crazy ice cream
Screaming for ice cream with a unique twist? Get thee to Giapo, which boasts the whackiest artisan cones in surely the Southern Hemisphere.
Although the gelato speaks for itself, its the add-ons that make it extra special.
Order a cone with built on extras to make it resemble a giant squid, or opt for a scoop in a yorkshire pudding cone.
One iteration has a golden frame attached to its cone, making posing for that inevitable Instagram photo all the more easier.
Be warned in advance, these whacky desserts don’t come cheap, but they’re worth every dollar.
Where to Stay in Auckland
We stayed in the very comfortable Waldorf Tetra apartments, about a ten minute walk to the city centre (if that).
Check out other hotel options in Auckland here.
An hour and a half from Auckland in good traffic, Hamilton is an idea stopover point on your journey south.
Those doing a shorter road trip might want to pass through. However, if you have the time, consider spending at least a night in this small city, to have a poke around its gardens and check out some quirky features hiding around town.
Things to do in Hamilton
Here are some suggestions of what you can get up to in Hamilton and surrounds.
Pay homage to Richard O’Brien at the Riff Raff Statue
Rocky Horror Picture Show actor and co-writer Richard O’Brien, who played Riff Raff in the movie, spent some time living and working in Hamilton.
To honour O’Brien, the City of Hamilton has set up a Rocky Horror themed square, a must-see for all fans of the 70’s cult classic.
The toilets are bright red, there’s quotes from the movie, a painting of giant lips, instructions on how to do the Time Warp (again and again) and a statue of Riff Raff, within the square.
So jump to the left, take a step to the right and get yourself there.
Visit Hamilton Gardens
Fan of flowers? Head to the free Hamilton Gardens.
You can explore carefully cultivated gardens from around the world (think English flower gardens and tranquil Japanese green spaces) and tour their fantasy garden collection.
Permaculture enthusiasts will delight in the more practical spaces, such as the herb garden and Te Parapara gardens. It’s New Zealand’s only traditional Māori productive garden, which showcase traditional Māori practices.
Certainly very interesting if you’re into sustainable gardening.
Stop in the town of Tirau
Also located between Hamilton and Rotorua, this is a town well worth making at least a pit stop in.
This town has become a quirky tourist destination, due to the presence of corrugated iron creations, built to look like animals.
There’s a couple of sheepish sheep, public toilets in the shape of a dog’s head and a bunch of quirky signs around town.
Make sure you check out the Tirau Museum, a curious collection of many different antiques, run by a Tirau local.
Read more about the history of the corrugated iron works here.
This is undoubtably one of the most popular tours in New Zealand’s North Island.
Mmost visitors to this part of New Zealand have one plan in mind – to head to the model town of Hobbiton, purpose-built for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
The current iteration is not the one used for LOTR, having been re-built as a permanent structure in 2010 for the Hobbit films.
Hobbiton can be found near the small town of Matamata, around halfway between Hamilton and Rotorua and is located on private land.
You can book onto guided tours of the film site to check out Bagshot Row, the Party Tree, and Bilbo’s Bag End home… and of course, pose in front of them.
Interested in going? Read more about what it’s like to visit the town of Hobbiton.
Book your ticket to Hobbiton here
Check out Waitomo Caves and the glowworms
This is a real highlight of any New Zealand North Island itinerary, in my opinion.
The 30 million year old Waitomo caves are home to gorgeous glowworms, lighting up the darkness with their soft, blue light.
You can jump on guided tours, taking you down into the depths of the caves and on a boat, past the twinkling light of the glowworms.
Those looking for a more daring option can tour the Black Abyss, where you abseil and black water raft your way through the caves. Hectic.
Read about the experience here.
Book a tour of Waitomo Caves here
Visit the Putaruru Blue Spring
This clear, bright blue pool is found in the middle of the North Island’s Waikato region.
How is it so blue? Well, its journey starts deep underground.
On the way up, the water absorbs particles that react with light, turning it a bright turquoise colour when it reaches the surface of the earth.
It used to be a bit of a local’s secret, but word got out. Swimming in it is now banned, to prevent degradation and preserve it for future generations.
There are two entrance points to the Te Waihou Walkway – the path that will lead you to the spring.
You can park off State Highway 28 and take the hour and a half walk to the centre point of the spring.
Alternatively, head to Leslie Road, which will get you there in 10-15 minutes.
Remember that you’ll have to circle back for your car on both legs.
Do pay attention to the signs advising you to stay on path. Please don’t wander off and tread on private land, for the sake of a stupid photo.
Where to Stay in Hamilton
We stayed in the Heartland Ambassador Hotel, which was basic but pretty inexpensive.
Check out other hotel options in Hamilton here.
Welcome to the town of Rotorua, perched on the south side of Lake Rotorua.
It’s known for its hot springs, geysers and mud pools and is an ideal place to head to if you want to learn more about Māori culture.
Definitely plan on spending at least a couple of nights in Rotorua, as there’s plenty to do here and in surrounding areas.
Things to do in Rotorua
Here’s a few ideas on how to spend your time in Rotorua.
Dip your toes in the free hot springs in town
Experience the thermal pools of Rotorua without paying a cent at the Kuirau Park foot pools.
There are spaces here where you can dangle your feet in and enjoy the relaxing sensation of the hot springs.
Unless it’s already a hot day… the temperature then starts to get scalding!
The park is quite lovely in itself, especially in spring when we visited, with all the flowers in bloom.
Or take a mud bath at Hells Gate
I’m a volcano nut, so I was gonna get all up in any geothermal activity on offer. This meant a visit to Hells Gate Geothermal Reserve was definitely on the cards.
As Rotorua’s most active thermal park, there’s a lot of activity going on at Hells Gate.
Tour the paths and take in sights such as mud volcanos and a geothermal pool that apparently looks like Australia. As an Australian, I disagree.
Obviously, don’t wander off the path unless you want to be scalded by often above-boiling water. Doesn’t sound pleasant in the slightest.
Along with the reserve, you can head to the spa, to take a few rejuvenating moments in the springs.
I was rolling with my boyfriend, so we purchased the couples deal, where we had access to a private mud bath and hot springs area. As it was a weekday when we visited, we had the place to ourselves.
My one bit of advice is to clean your swimmers as soon as possible and perhaps don’t use a pair you’re very fond off. They may smell like sulphur for days.
Grab a ticket to Hells Gate here
Spend an evening at the Mitai Māori Village
As stated above, there are opportunities to learn about Māori culture in Rotorua.
Knowing embarrassingly little about New Zealand’s Indigenous people before travelling over the Tasman, I wanted to learn more. So, I spent a rather pleasant evening at the Mitai Māori Village.
The experience started with a Hangi meal (cooked in an earth oven in the ground), followed by a Māori performance within the space.
We then went outside to see warriors paddling an ancient waka (war canoe) and took a night time tour of the natural springs within the area.
It’s a beautiful spot, the food was delicious and I came away with at least a little more knowledge about the Māori culture of the area and certainly a hunger to learn more.
Nab a table at the Mitai Māori Village here
Perched on a unique geothermal landscape is Whakarewarewa, New Zealand’s only living Māori village.
Home to the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people, head here if you wish to learn more about Māori culture and heritage.
Local residents give guided tours of the village and alternatively, you can have a wander around yourself.
Take a walk through Whakarewarewa Forest
This forest is over 5600 hectares big and is a delight to explore.
There’s mountain biking trails and walking tracks and a collection of California Coast Redwoods.
If you’re not terrified of heights, you can try the Redwoods Treewalk, which takes you across a series of suspension bridges, located 20 metres above ground.
If not, just take a wander along the trails and admire the foliage along the way.
Where to Stay in Rotorua
We stayed in the Jack & Di’s Lakefront Motel. It wasn’t half bad, waking up to a view of Lake Rotorua every single morning.
Check out other hotel options in Rotorua.
The town of Taupo was for me, the highlight of my road trip in the North Island.
A small town, perched on the edge of the stunning Lake Taupo, there’s so much to see and do here that it’s a holiday destination in itself.
Things to do in Taupo
Here’s a bit of what you can get up in Taupo.
See the Māori Rock Carving on Lake Taupo
The Māori Rock carvings are a fantastic piece of modern art.
Carved into the cliff face by master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell in the 1970s, they are best seen from kayak or boat.
We kayaked out there, but there are other less strenuous options, such as taking a gentle cruise out across the lake.
Do the Tongariru Alpine Crossing trek
This is one of the most popular hikes in NZ.
19.4 kilometres long, it takes most trampers around 6 hours to complete. Although reputedly challenging at times, most beginner hikers should be able to complete it.
This was top of my list of things to do in Taupo – alas, I was put out by an old foot injury. Regardless, I’m determined to return to New Zealand’s North Island and complete this trek.
Some need know info I came across in my research – you need to book a shuttle to access the path, as there are time restrictions within the carparks.
Definitely something worth taking into consideration when planning your tramp.
Read more information about Tongariru Alpine Crossing here.
Book a return shuttle for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing here
Check out Craters of the Moon
Another NZ town, another geothermal park!
Like Rotorua, Taupo is well known for its geothermal activity and you get up close to some of this spectacular landscape at Craters of the Moon.
Enjoy a 45 minute stroll around the park and take in the phenomenal geothermal activity!
Entry costs a pretty reasonable $8.00 an adult.
Get up close to Huka Falls
Huka Falls is a delight to see from dry ground.
However, if you want to go next level, jump on a speedboat tour.
It’ll take you up close to the powerful falls, thrilling you with 360° spins.
Book a spot on a speedboat tour of Huka Falls here
Check out Taupo’s street art scene
I was blown away by the street art in Taupo. Walking through the city, you’ll encounter fantastic murals, painted by big names within the NZ and Australian street art scene.
Much like the Wall to Wall Festival in the Aussie town of Benalla, street artists converge upon Taupo to take part in its annual Graffiato festival.
As such, Taupo is a living canvas, with colourful murals around every corner.
It’s a delight to wander through.
Where to Stay in Taupo
Our accommodation in Taupo was one of my favourites – VU Thermal Lodge. It was a tiny more exxy than other places we stayed in, but there was a tub in the room where you could bathe in mineral water. You betcha I used that thing nightly.
Check out other hotel options in Taupo.
In 1931, Napier was devastated by a horrific earthquake.
260 people were killed and the town was almost wiped off the map.
Napier was rebuilt, taking inspiration from the popular Art Deco movement of the era.
The town is now full of gorgeous, colourful buildings. Walking down the street feels akin to journeying back in time, to a glamorous past.
Things to do in Napier
Here’s some of what you can get up to in this colourful little town.
Take a tour and learn about the art deco buildings
Here’s an opportunity to learn more about Napier’s art deco scene.
You can self-guide your way around town, or take a tour with a knowledgeable local volunteer.
You’ll uncover the history of Napier, learning about 1931 earthquake and how the townspeople were able to get back on their feet and rebuild, to make the town better than ever.
If you want to go next level – consider touring the city by vintage car!
If you’re a real art deco nut, time your visit with the annual Art Deco Festival, held every February.
Book a spot on a tour of Napier here
Go wine tasting
The Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand is renowned for its wine.
You can either drive to wineries yourself, or jump on a tour and let someone else do all the hard work for you.
Get up close to some gannets
Here’s one for the birdnerds.
Within Hawke’s Bay is an area known as ‘Cape Kidnappers’, which is home to the largest colony of gannets on mainland NZ.
Tours to the colony are available from April to September and depart daily.
Where to Stay in Napier
You gotta stay somewhere Art Deco-y and the Art Deco Masonic Hotel certainly fits the bill. Plus, it’s nice and central.
Check out other hotel options in Napier.
Martinborough in the Wairarapa region may prove to be a random stop off for some, but it’s a place worth making a detour to, even if you’re just stretching your legs on the journey to Wellington.
I had known about the town for awhile, being a devout follower of organic cotton undies brand Thunderpantz, who work out of the area!
We arrived to go for a glamp nearby, but ended up finding an array of interesting things to do in the area.
I thoroughly recommend squeezing this town into your New Zealand North Island itinerary.
Things to do in Martinborough
Here’s a few sights worth seeing in Martinborough.
Tour through Stonehenge
Did you know there’s a henge in New Zealand?
I certainly didn’t until I drove to Martinborough and saw the sign for “Stonehenge Aotearoa”.
We stopped to explore and I’m so, so glad we did.
Read more about Stonehenge Aotearoa here.
Taste test the wares at local wineries
Martinborough is yet another venerated wine region within New Zealand’s North Island.
Stop in for a bottle of plonk to take on with you to Welly.
Alternatively, book onto a tour to truly enjoy what this region of NZ has to offer.
Book a spot on a tour of Martinborough’s wineries here
Go for a glamp!
A highlight of our North Island road trip was glamping just outside of Martinborough.
It was the perfect setting to relax and unwind.
I particularly enjoyed the use of the outdoor bathtub, set right on the river’s edge.
Where to Stay in Martinborough
As mentioned, we glamped in Martinborough. If I were coming again, I’d opt to stay at the Martinborough Hotel.
Check out other hotel options in Martinborough.
We arrive at last at New Zealand’s fair capital – the funky city of Wellington.
Brace yourself for some good food, great art and unpredictable weather, as you wind down on the last leg of your New Zealand North Island itinerary.
Things to do in Wellington
Here’s what you can get up to during your time in the NZ capital.
Take a ride on the cable car
One Wellington must-do is hitching a ride on the city’s very cute cable car. It travels back and forth between Lambton Quay, the main shopping street and the hillside suburb of Kelburn.
The views of the city from the top of the hill are really rather nice.
There’s also a regular shuttle bus in Kelburn, which will take you directly on to Zealandia.
A one way ticket on the cable car is $5 – a return will set you back $9.
Explore the Museum of Te Papa Tongarewa
This is New Zealand’s national museum and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Wellington.
The museum celebrates Māori culture, national art and natural history and holds world class exhibitions.
There’s also a gnarly taxidermy section, ideal if you’re a sick person like me who is intensely interested in this sort of thing.
Best of all, entry to the general museum is gloriously free.
Zealandia is a marvel – a world-class conservation project in the form of a 255 hectare fully-fenced eco-sanctuary, within an urban setting.
The grand plan is to restore the area to its pre-human state – as much as can be done. 18 species of native wildlife have already been reintroduced into the area and are protected from introduced pests.
Apart from us humans of course, as you’re allowed to enter the park under strict conditions, to hopefully catch a glimpse of some of NZ’s unique fauna and flora.
Browse among the bookstores for Kiwi literature
Like Australian literature, the Kiwi book scene is both extremely good and very much underrated.
Fortunately, Wellington has a few independent bookstores shining a torch on some of the best of NZ literature.
The best place to head is probably Unity Books, located on Willis Street.
Pick up a book that you can take back as a beloved souvenir.
Check out the urban street art
Wellington is a city with art on every corner. Think brightly coloured buildings, crocheted park benches and street art galore.
There’s even a rainbow crossing welcoming you to Cuba Street.
It’s certainly worth wandering around the city centre and taking it all in.
Where to Stay in Wellington
We spent a couple of nights at Trinity Hotel. It was a bit small, but very comfortable and I couldn’t fault the location.
Check out other hotel options in Wellington.
Your complete New Zealand North Island itinerary
So there you have it – a complete itinerary, featuring some of the best places to visit in New Zealand’s North Island.
There are many, many more, but you’d need months to do the island proper justice. Let alone the South Island – blergh!
I hope this New Zealand North Island self-drive itinerary has been helpful for you in planning your trip.
Tips for Your New Zealand North Island Road Trip
Any admission prices listed are in Kiwi dollars – as in $NZD.