Aoteoroa, Land of the Long White Cloud, God’s Own. New Zealand is known by many names, including ‘home’ for me. At least once in your life, you must do a North Island road trip. With gorgeous waterfalls, geothermic oddities, amazing beaches, snoozing volcanoes – the North Island is gorgeous, but it often plays second fiddle to the glory of the South Island.
What qualifies me as an insider? I’m a born and bred North Island lass of New Zealand. I’ve lived in gorgeous cities from Auckland all the way down to Wellington, and beautiful places in between like the Art Deco capital of the world Napier and spent a lot of time the beautiful shores of Tauranga.
I’ve probably written this North Island road trip post a thousand times over the years via email, so thought I would gather all of my advice together in a conclusive, helpful blog post that could act as a guide, and I’ve sprinkled it with insider knowlege – including a few random gems.
This top-to-toe North Island road trip is probably worth spreading out over at least two weeks – but if you have limited time, I would go from Auckland down to the National Park – but you’ll be missing out on some amazing places.
At the end of this post I’ve embedded a Google map, and each link below leads to a blog post with more detail and my personal experiences in these places which qualify their place in this exclusive list.
The famous landmark sits at the tip of the Te Paki Recreation Reserve. A highly significant area to Maori, it marks the point from which Maori wairua (spirit) return to their traditional homeland. It is a beautiful, haunting site that will give you goosebumps. There is a beautiful coastal walkway that has to be done.
Officially called Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē, Ninety Mile Beach stretches from Ahipara Bay, to Scotts Point and is actually just 88 kilometres long. Famous for its length at low tide you can have fun driving along the sand. Fact: in 1932 the beach was used as the runway for some of the earliest airmail services between Australia and New Zealand.
Auckland Sky Tower
The Sky Tower used to be the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 metres (1,076 ft) tall making it the tallest freestanding structure in the Southern Hemisphere and the 23rd tallest tower in the world. You could simply go up to the viewing deck to enjoy the stunning views of the Auckland, you could jump 192m off the edge of it or, how about a meal overlooking the beautiful Auckland skyline? Book into the rotating Sky City Orbit 360° Dining…
Rangitoto Island – a volcano in the Auckland Harbour
A number of Māori myths exist surrounding the island, including that of a ‘tupua‘ couple, children of the Fire Gods. After quarrelling and cursing Mahuika, the fire-goddess, they lost their home on the mainland because it was destroyed by Mataoho, god of earthquakes and eruptions, on Mahuika’s behalf. Lake Pupuke on the North Shore was created in the destruction, while Rangitoto volcano rose from the sea…
Waiheke Island Winery hopping
Waiheke is a haven of beautiful vineyards, olive groves and beaches, all just a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland. What more do you need to know?
I hadn’t visited the strikingly beautiful black volcanic sands of Piha beach since I was in pigtails, aged approximately 9 & 2/3rds, so a return visit was needed. With a strong surf swell, Piha beach and waves hold a challenge for many surfers (in high school I even knew crazy friends who would night surf there – how they made it back to class I’ll never know) and gets rather popular in summer…
Paeroa – World Famous in New Zealand
L&P embodies one of the things I love the most about New Zealand. On one level it’s a tasty bubbly “Lemon-ish” soft drink that we love to drink on most any refreshment occasion (well, apart from those hard work days where nothing will do but a nice glass of wine). On another entirely different level, it’s a beverage that used to embody the crazy can-do attitude of a local company with a grassroots mentality…
We made our way up the gradual rise of old mine tracks, with an occasional flurry up a flight of sturdy steps. Stopping every so often to grouch at our cameras, and then crouching to read the information boards posted in front of moss-covered mining equipment, we simply followed the path along Karangahake Gorge…
Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula
I mean, just look.
Hot Water Beach
At higher tides, Hot Water Beach is a lovely white sand beach that is very easy on the eye. But, at low tide is when it becomes a little bit magical. If you hire a spade, you can dig yourself a hot pool that will naturally fill with geothermically heated water – and cool off with salt water from the ocean or a cheeky cocktail if you’re well organised.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
One by one as the luminescent cave dwellers winked on, the ceiling began to resemble a galaxy of twinkling stars. Still sat with arms clutched tightly and our necks craned as we tried to absorb the moment, floating along a 30 million year old subterranean limestone grotto…
Tauranga – swimming with wild dolphins
Honestly, I could almost just write this section as ‘wild baby dolphins’ ad finitum. Wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins, wild baby dolphins. There, got it out of my system. Wild baby dolphins. Ok, now I have…
A 20-Meter High Kiwifruit in Te Puke
The small town of Te Puke not only hosts some of the people most precious to me in the world, but is proud to boast the title of Kiwifruit Capital of the World. The unique volcanic ash soil and climate make this area perfect for growing all kinds of super foods that are exported all over the world – in fact when Captain Cook discovered New Zealand, he named the area the ‘Bay of Plenty’ because of the lush vegetation, probably never thinking that it would host a gigantic Kiwifruit statue…
Visit the Naturally Geothermic Rotorua
Rotorua, a town set on its namesake lake on New Zealand’s North Island, is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. In Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Valley, there are bubbling mud pools and the 30m-tall Pohutu Geyser, which erupts many times daily. But, my favourite thing – apart from the amazing natural history – are the many hot pools and spas (both paid and free) that you can relax in.
To be honest, Taupo is somewhere I go to relax. The still, deep waters surrounded by forest always relaxes me. Make sure to watch out for the evil spirit, or taniwha, of Taupo Lake, called Horomatangi. He is said to inhabit a cave in the reef which lies to the north-east of Motutaiko Island. They say that when a canoe approached the reef, Horomatangi lashed the water into foam, throwing up pumice and stones, and creating such a disturbance that canoes were frequently capsized. In these modern times, as long as you don’t litter, he keeps to himself (bar for his annual international holidays with the Loch Ness monster.) Make sure you visit the Huka Falls.
The Raurimu Spiral
The small settlement of Raurimu is most famous for the Raurimu Spiral, an engineering masterpiece that made it possible to access the steep slopes between the Volcanic Plateau and the gorges of the Whanganui River. If you time it right, you can see the train as it emerges near the top of the spiral – there’s a road called Top Mill Road which goes past the Wood Pigeon Lodge and terminates near the railway line – check it out on Google Earth.
National Park Village
In the middle of a true wilderness wonderland, National Park Village borders Tongariro National Park to the East and Whanganui National Park to the West. It boasts panoramic views of all three mountains, Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, showcasing a unique World Heritage site, 300,000 years in the making.
Napier – the art deco capital of the world
Napier, a coastal city on New Zealand’s North Island, is set amid the renowned wine-producing region of Hawke’s Bay. Rebuilt after a 1931 earthquake, the city is known for art deco landmarks like the zigzag-patterned Daily Telegraph Building. It’s also where I went to high school – but that’s neither here nor there on your road trip.
Tui Brewery, Mangatainoka
Tui Beer, brewed on the banks of the Mangatainoka river since 1889 has become a bit of a Kiwi icon thanks to a rather clever TV ad campaign. The brewery/HQ is a great place to stop off at the end of a day of driving for a tasty beer and a bit of liquid Kiwi history.
Discover Windy Wellington
The capital city of New Zealand is my spiritual heart (I fell in love whilst at university there) and with more cafes per capita than any other city in the world, it always feels like home. Walking down Wellington streets, my mind overlays so many memories – and I’m always amazed at how after a decade I still know how to get around without a map. I suspect it is indelibly etched on my heart. Capping off the bottom of the North Island, and overlooking the Cook Strait towards the hills and valleys of the South Island, Wellington is a compact city surrounded by tree-shrouded valleys and hills. These are the 10 things you absolutely have to do in Wellington…
Visit Weta Workshop
To get an idea of how creative and weirdly impactful New Zealand is on an international level, a tour of the Weta Workshop is definitely in order. Weta Workshop is a special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, producing effects for television and film – most notably the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies directed by Kiwi Peter Jackson.
So, there you have it. 21 places you absolutely have to visit on the ultimate North Island road trip.
Do you love off the cuff road trips or meticulously planned drives? Have you seen the North Island?
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