New Zealand’s South Island justifiably garners all the plaudits as possibly the most jaw-dropping and rain-soaked island on the planet. But the country’s North Island is a stunning and diverse destination in its own right.
Admittedly, we did experience it accompanied by the kind of wet, windy and frankly miserable weather we thought we’d left well behind in England. But we’re not ones to complain. Oh no. With our classic British stiff upper lip set to auto-pilot, we committed ourselves to exploring this green and pleasant land with the kind of gusto usually reserved for the most intrepid of explorers.
Our road trip was made all the more comfortable by our Spaceship camper van – basically a converted Toyota Estima with the rear seats taken out to fit in a fridge, portable cooker, storage spaces and a double bed. The back also extended out a further metre or so to allow more space for sleeping and to provide further room in the middle at night. So, instead of having to drive a fully sized camper van or motor home we were effectively driving a vehicle that handled like a car but had all the facilities of a camper van. Quite ingenious really.
And, with two weeks to explore before we jumped on to the ferry across to South Island, we wanted to see as much as we could without breaking our tightly-controlled budget. So here, in a north-to-south route predominantly focused on the central and east coast areas, is our Kiwi road trip through the North Island, from Auckland to Wellington.
The Coromandel Peninsula
After picking up your camper van in Auckland, you do have the option of heading north to the imaginatively named “Northland”, with its rugged landscape of gravel roads, rocky bays and windswept, undeveloped beaches. We’d planned on doing just that but the weather conditions meant that we had to cut it short. With hindsight, we should have just gone for it but a hefty $3000 excess on our motor insurance cover loomed large on our minds.
If you have the time (you’ll need at least four days), and the weather is kinder than it was for us, then you should certainly give it a try. Alternatively, if you’re itching to journey south, then just load up your camper van (we generally just go with wine, cheese and bread) and head for your first destination on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Heading south and east through Thames you’ll then take the coast-hugging road all the way to the tip of the peninsula at Port Jackson. It’s a wonderful drive, twisting its way between beautiful Pohutukawa trees and pebble, black sand beaches.
Beyond Coromandel Town, things get really interesting as the road ascends along the cliff edge while the lush green and mountainous countryside gazes down upon crashing white waves.
And then, after endless miles of twisting gravel road, you’ll reach your destination. Which is pretty much the end of the road, to be honest.
Port Jackson is about as remote as it gets and the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite there is pretty basic – the “long-drop” toilet being a particular highlight. But then again, what’s not to like when you can enjoy your now-chilled Sauvignon Blanc overlooking a pristine beach under the watchful eye of a local seagull.
The reason you’re there, of course, is to get up early the next morning and head off for the Coromandel Coastal Walk from Port Fletcher. Not for the faint-hearted, it’s nevertheless a gorgeous hike through fantastically green farmland, virgin rainforest and cliff-top pathways overlooking turquoise coves. Quite honestly it took our breath away. The scenery reminded us of the Highlands of Scotland, North Wales, and the English Lake District – but just on a more spectacular scale.
Heading back to Coromandel Town you then turn to the peninsular’s east coast to explore the gorgeous beaches.
If you like your beaches big, raw and empty then don’t miss New Chums Beach. It’s a fair walk from the car park but, with the right weather, it’s arguably the best beach on the North Island.
An hour’s drive south are another couple of gems just outside Hahei. But don’t expect these to be empty as they’re some of the most visited attractions in New Zealand. Indeed, the twin beaches at Mare’s Leg Cove and Cathedral Cove featured in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe films. And, in line with most things in New Zealand, the walk down to them is sublime. Pathways lead through beautiful green bush, looking out over cliffs towards off-shore islands.
Take a tip from us, though – get to the small car park early as it gets full pretty quickly. If not you’ll be left to the mercy of enterprising locals who charge a premium for you to park your van on their properties.
From Hahei, it’s a two-hour drive to Matamata – better known as the access point for the Hobbiton Movie Set. But don’t rush there if you can help it – make sure you check out the gold mining tunnels at the Karangahake Gorge first.
The movie “set” is actually a working 1250-acre sheep and cattle farm with a central area built upon to represent The Shire in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. You can only visit on an organised tour with a prescribed time slot. And you’ll do so with hundreds of other people in a rather regimented fashion. But if you’re a fan of the books or the films, then you really won’t want to miss it.
And by the time you’ve finished the tour, you’ll be sat beside a roaring log fire in the Green Man Inn, supping a mug of Oak Barton Ale.
Our tip for a campsite close to the movie set would be Brock’s Place, which is literally a 5-minute drive away and extremely good value.
For more on Hobbiton check out our post, There And Back Again – A Visit To Hobbiton.
If you manage to take in the morning tour around Hobbiton, you can then continue travelling south during the afternoon to Rotorua – home to the world famous geothermal springs and a hub for Maori culture.
To be honest, there are enough forest trails, lakes, Maori cultural sites and geothermal wonders here to last you a week.
For an afternoon of easy walking we’d suggest the Whakarewarewa Forest, with its collection of huge Californian Redwoods, and the nearby twin Blue and Green Lakes.
Rotorua’s big draw, though, are the geothermal springs and mud pools, which fill the air with their smelly, sulphuric fumes. And the grandly named Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, with its multicoloured thermal pools and showpiece Lady Knox Geyser, is well worth a visit. The geyser has apparentlv erupted every day for the past 100 years or so – although nowadays it does get a helping hand with a dose of foaming agent so that it erupts on cue for the paying customers.
Afterwards, you can learn about Maori culture and how they’ve learned to harness the power of the thermal waters at Whakarewarewa’s Living Maori Village.
Next you’ll need to head further south towards Lake Taupo. But before you get there, stop off to take a look at another incredible natural phenomenon at Huka Falls. Here, the Waikato River rages from Lake Taupo through a narrow gorge before plunging into a bowl of whitewater below – at 220,000 litres per second!
If you really want to, you can get a closer look of the falls by taking a jet boat ride.
Tongariro National Park
Lake Taupo itself is another popular hub for outdoor activities, both on and off the water. But our road trip skates past the lake and continues on to Tongariro National Park. And the reason why we’re heading there? To complete the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Trust me, if you do one thing in New Zealand’s North Island make it this one.
The crossing is a 20 km walk up and across a stark, rugged landscape containing no less than three active volcanoes and Alpine lakes of emerald and blue. It’s a panorama of spaghetti westerns, Middle Earth and Planet of the Apes all rolled into one. Yes it’s tough, but it’s also exhilarating. No wonder it’s touted as New Zealand’s best one-day walk.
However, you do need to be prepared to wait for your moment. If the weather is poor (which it often is) you simply can’t do it. So allow an extra day or two in your schedule just in case. And when the weather is good enough, get to the starting point while it’s still dark as you can be sure that everybody else in the area will be joining you as the dawn breaks. It obviously helps if your campsite is fairly close by – like Tongariro Holiday Park, just 14 km away.
For a more detailed description of my experience there, head over to our post, The Amazing Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
As the famous Monty Python line goes, “And now for something completely different”.
After a good night’s rest following the muscle-sapping excesses at Tongariro, our route doubles back to Taupo before heading east to the coastal town of Napier. Destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1931, the city was completely rebuilt mixing the art deco style of the period with Maori motifs. It’s a truly unique place to visit and it almost felt to us like we were wandering through a film set.
Of course, if you’re visiting an art deco city it’s only right and proper that you take in an art deco pub. And they don’t come any better than the Emporium Eatery & Bar at the Masonic Hotel.
Immediately south of Napier is the wine-producing area of Hawke’s Bay and its ever-so-tempting wine trail – probably not the best thing to combine with a road journey on the same day. But if you’ve got the time for another day or two, you just might want to stick around for a while.
The Wairarapa Coast
From Napier, the journey south to the Wairarapa Coast and Cape Palliser is a long one, although the scenery is never less than captivating.
You won’t find masses of tourists along the way. Neither will you come across any big-ticket attractions. Just a beautiful drive on State Highway (SH2) through iconic New Zealand countryside until you reach the southernmost point on the island.
Of course, you’ll want to take some breaks along the way. And at Mangatainoka, you might want to stop at the historic Tui Brewery and sample one of its famous brews.
Further on at Masterton, take a left to Castlepoint, a worthwhile detour to stretch the legs, with its commanding lighthouse and coastal walk along to Castle Rock.
Returning to NH2, the road down to Cape Palliser is a spectacular and relatively empty one. It’s a land of craggy hilltops, black sand beaches…and another lighthouse. Oh, and the largest colony of fur seals in the North Island.
The seals can be seen lounging around on rocks and frolicking in pools from the side of the road. But you can also wander over for a closer look. Just make sure you keep a reasonable distance and don’t inadvertently stand between an adult male and the sea – they don’t take too kindly to it.
There are walks and also a strenuous climb up 250 wooden steps to the lighthouse but, other than that, there’s not much else to do here. However, that’s not the point. This is a road trip after all, and part of the joy of reaching the southernmost point on the island is appreciating the journey for what it is.
But, for a taster of what you can expect to see in both Cape Palliser and Castlepoint take a look at this beautiful drone footage from Lilian Pang.
From Cape Palliser it’s a relatively short two-hour journey to your final destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. You’ll either be dropping off your camper van here or, like us using it as the access point for the ferry crossing to the South Island.
Either way, make sure you allow sufficient time to visit the renowned Te Papa Tongarewa – the Museum of New Zealand. That and one or two of the city’s blossoming craft beer pubs.
After all, you’ve driven over 1500 km to get here so you might as well celebrate in style!
The Auckland to Wellington itinerary
This road trip can easily be done within 12 days. But, of course, that depends on how fast or slow you wish to travel. And, if you really want to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which you really should) then you may have to linger for one or two days while you wait for suitable weather conditions.
Adding on some additional time in Northland, Auckland and Wellington will take the whole trip to the best part of three weeks.
Drive from AUCKLAND to PORT JACKSON Do Stop off at Coromandel Town and any of the many viewpoints on the coast road Accommodation Port Jackson Campsite
Do Explore the Coromandel Coastal Walkway Accommodation Port Jackson Campsite (recommended)
Drive from PORT JACKSON to HAHEI Do Take the coastal walk down to Mare’s Leg Cove and Cathedral Cove; walk along Hahei beach, Accommodation Sea Breeze Holiday Park
Do Explore New Chums Beach and Hot Water Beach Accommodation Sea Breeze Holiday Park
Drive from SEA BREEZE HOLIDAY PARK to MATAMATA Do Visit the Karangahake Gorge Accommodation Brock’s Place (recommended)
Do Take the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour (am) Drive from MATAMATA to ROTORUA Accommodation Lake Okareka Campground (recommended)
Do Visit Whakarewarewa; Explore Green Lake and Blue Lake Accommodation Lake Okareka Campground (recommended)
Do Visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (am) Drive from ROTORUA to TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK Do Explore Huka Falls en route Accommodation Tongariro Holiday Park
Do Complete the Tongariri Alpine Crossing Accommodation Tongariro Holiday Park
Drive from TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK to NAPIER Do Explore Taupo en route; explore Napier late afternoon/evening Accommodation Kennedy Park Resort
Drive from NAPIER to CAPE PALLISER Do Explore Castlepoint en route Accommodation Ngawi Camping Area
Do Explore Cape Palliser Drive from CAPE PALLISER to WELLINGTON Do Finish with a craft beer or two in Wellington!
Visit our New Zealand page for further posts on the country and information on where we stayed.
- There And Back Again – A Visit To Hobbiton
- The Amazing Tongariro Alpine Crossing
- 3 New Zealand Walks You Won’t Want To Miss
…or visit our New Zealand page.
What did you think? Have you been to New Zealand’s North Island? Maybe you’ve had the chance to enjoy your own Auckland to Wellington road trip? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.