New Zealand Road Trip Part I: The North Island
Two weeks in the North and 3 weeks in the South; 5 weeks of beauty, charm and adventure in New Zealand. This is Part 1 of our New Zealand road trip, featuring all the ins and outs of our time on the North Island. Most people tend to rush or maybe even skip the North Island, but in my opinion it has got just as much to offer as its rival in the South! We too were guilty of rushing things a little, but with two full weeks in the North we got a pretty good idea of the variety and charm it has to offer.
Enjoy Part 1 and stick around for Part 2, our South Island adventure!
To this day, both on our five-month trip and in all of my travels, New Zealand has got to be on the top of my list. There is just something about this place that is so special! If you have been there or have the pleasure of getting to visit you would likely agree with this sentiment.
First off, it’s a fantastic place for those who love to experience the outdoors, see beautiful natural wonders and have a sense of adventure – though there are certainly enough hot springs and luxury options to suit anyone less outdoors-inclined. Even with their strict Freedom Camping rules it is very much a travel culture geared to camping. Whether it is hiking and popping tents, traveling in a basic station wagon or camper van convert or renting a luxurious RV with all the bells and whistles, staying at campsites is the way to do it! It is the most economical accommodation and it widens your options offering flexibility and spontaneity to your itinerary.
We rented a camper van from Spaceships for five-weeks traveling both the north and south islands, and I honestly wouldn’t have done it any other way! I couldn’t recommend this method of travel more! I feel like I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed traveling in a camper van, but I will leave that to another post where I outline my favourite (and not so favourite) things about traveling in a camper van.
Our original plan had only allotted four-weeks in New Zealand, and at about the two-week mark we decided to add an extra week to give us a little more time. Overall, it was fairly jam-packed five-weeks that was exhausting at times, but it was also beautiful, exciting and enriching.
We flew from Toronto to Vancouver, where we had a brief layover before the long haul to Auckland. We flew Air New Zealand and had a really nice experience; the entertainment was great, the food was surprisingly awesome and the crew was regularly offering refreshments and blankets throughout the flight.
We had a day in Auckland before picking up the camper van, which was spent wandering some of the local parks and dealing with jet lag. We are not huge city people, so we didn’t opt to spend much time in Auckland. In general, the more major cities like Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown were places we more or less went through or passed by on route to other things.
Bay of Islands
Driving a few hours north from Auckland will take you to the famous Bay of Islands region. There are a number of options on where to stay, but we found ourselves in Paihia, mostly out of convenience – it is probably the busiest of towns in the Bay of Islands. It’s a small place with a bustling little waterfront geared to boat excursions; kayaking, dolphin swimming, sailing, etc. There are boats anchored in the water and small islands in the distance. It is definitely touristy with your classic gimmicky shops and expensive meals, and can get surprisingly busy considering its small size. If you’ve got the time, staying in Russell (which is directly across from Paihia) is much more quaint and charming. We spent time walking the beach, exploring the waterfront and took a day excursion on a tall ship.
Sailing on the Tucker Thompson was a lovely activity and our highlight of the Bay of Islands. It anchors out of Russel so you will have to get there first, but it is a short 20-30 minute ferry ride from Paihia and is included in the cost. The boat was beautiful; big white sails and gorgeous wood, the crew were fun and knowledgeable and the captain was decked out in a pirate-like get up. You could climb to the crow’s nest, help raise the sails, rope swing into the water and explore one of the islands on foot. The scenery is beautiful as you sail amongst the islands and if you are lucky you might spot dolphins and penguins. We were fed biscuits with clotted cream and jam, coffee, tea and a hearty lunch.
From Paihia we headed northeast to the KariKari Peninsula where we enjoyed an epically beautiful campsite at Maitai Bay; a beautiful half moon bay with golden sand and grassy hills. It was a little out of the way, but it had been recommended to us as being especially beautiful. We ate soup and grilled cheese sandwiches overlooking the water, had a horrific time with the mosquitos and enjoyed an amazing morning hike right outside our door.
We just kept going north until there was no further we could go, making it to Cape Reinga the most northerly point of the mainland. We lucked out with some beautiful sunshine and clear skies as we drove the winding ocean view roads, passing lush green fields and great sand dunes that were so white they looked like snow-capped mountains.
Cape Reinga is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, creating turbulent waters like a washing machine of currents. It is marked by a lighthouse and is flanked by 90 mile beach, which is exactly what it sounds like – a massive beach that seems to stretch on forever.
If you are adventurous you can boogie board down the Te Paki sand dunes, which we were so keen on doing! Sadly, we had our first of campervan troubles and had to book it south to a repair shop, or risk being stranded several hours from civilization.
We passed through Kaitaia for care repairs, and spent the night in the Herekino region at a small independent camper van campground, The Travellers Huts. Equipped with outdoor kitchen, hot shower and flushing toilet for $10 was a bargain; a night without drop toilets is a campers dream! We met a young vibrant German couple who purchased a camper van and were living in it and working all over the country for a year. They were only one of many doing this very thing, which I think is so cool. We headed back to Kaitaia as we had punctured a tire (the second of our camper van woes), and then continued heading south to the Waipoua Forest.
Waipoua Kauri Forest
Waipoua is an ancient forest with Kauri trees that are over 2000 years old! Visiting some of the largest and oldest Kauri trees are accessible by roadside, free and such a beautiful experience. There are trails of various length that are all fairly easy (flat and gravel packed), so it is a nice opportunity to stretch your legs since there are a lot of long windy roads to get in and out. There is something special about the forest that you can feel. We definitely took some time to bask in its presence.
We had a long haul of driving after this, passing through the bottleneck of Auckland to move to the southern part of the North Island. With a night break somewhere in the middle we crossed from the west coast to the east coast.
We didn’t exactly enjoy the Coromandel park since we more or less booted to the western coast to experience hot water beach. This was one of my favourite activities on the trip! Right under a portion of the beach are natural hot springs and at low tide you dig yourself a hole and you’ve got a little hot tub! You can rent a shovel for $5 at the local gallery at the main parking lot. We met a few lovely British girls who shared their shovel and their hot tub with us, since every hole we started was unsuccessful. If you get too hot or need to rinse off the ocean (and showers) are right there. Considering how cool and popular this was, there wasn’t anything built up around it, so it still feels very natural and undisturbed. And as the tide comes in the hot tubs disappear and the beach is whole again.
A short drive north brings you to Cathedral Cove. Cathedral Cove is an amazing spot with some beautiful hikes along the coast, pristine beaches and an impressive massive cathedral like arch in the midst of it all. We didn’t even know this place existed and were happy to have the recommendation from some fellow travellers. We spent the second half of the day hiking and enjoying the beach.
I don’t know what else there is to do here other than go to The Hobbiton Movie Set, but obviously that is what we did! This has got to be one of the most charming, endearing and magical places you could go. You just have to get over the crazy $84 entrance fee and the reality that this magical little place is not even remotely real, and enjoy it – and oh you will! Wander down the dirt trails of The Shire, through miniature gardens and wash lines with little hobbit clothes hanging to dry, check out the little hobbit holes with their colourful round doors and enjoy a pint at the Green Dragon Inn to finish. Does that not sound dreamy or what? If living in The Shire was possible, I would do it.
We did a little crisscrossing and headed back west to enjoy Waitomo, which is mostly known for its caving activities involving glow worms. Glow worms are not really worms but are maggots that radiate a luminescent light to attract their food. The effect is that of a starry sky. There are a variety of options ranging from basic walking tours to adventurous multi-activity abseiling tours, but we found a happy ground in black water rafting. Black water rafting is essentially walking, jumping and floating in a wet cave with a giant inner tube. The highlight was floating down the long underground river with nothing but darkness and the glowworms overhead – it really did look like a starry sky! As a nice bonus, we finished off with a hot shower and a bowl of tomato soup and bagel. I feel all cozy just thinking about it.
This is the heart of all that geo-thermal activity New Zealand is known for, and you can smell it too. It’s a stinky town but it has some cool activities. There is a decent size free geo-thermal park right in town where you can see some of the hot pools, pots and mud puddles steaming, gurgling and spitting. There is one active geyser in town, but it is in a private park that we thought was not worth the price. We were sneaky and heard about a hiking loop in the Redwood Forest Park (which is free) that would allow you to see the geyser from a distance. It goes off 1-2 times per hour and we didn’t have to wait long to see it. We brought our small pair of binoculars and enjoyed it from a far for free.
And you really can’t go to Rotorua without visiting a hot spring. Options vary from natural and free to luxurious and expensive. Again, we chose a middle ground and went to the Waihete Hot Springs outside of town, which were known for being less expensive and less busy. After hiking all morning in some cool and windy weather, jumping from hot pool to hot pool was pure bliss.
With the big beautiful Lake Taupo at its centre and the mountain range in the distance, it’s a beauty spot to stop for a few days. It’s also a great place to participate in some adrenaline activities, think bungee jumping, skydiving, rafting, etc. For reasons unknown to me we decided to do the tandem “Cliffhanger extreme swing”. It is a harness and swing like contraption at 44 meters high and you are dropped feet first over the beautiful Waitako River Valley. It’s a beautiful view if you aren’t too terrified to forget that it’s there. Did I mention I was terrified? I don’t think I have ever trembled with fear more in my life, but I was so grateful to have had Bryan there with me. It was exhilarating and I am so glad I did it, but one extreme swing is probably enough for this lifetime.
We also took some time to check out the local Huka falls, which I thought was surprisingly awesome!
Taupo is also a base for many people doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing also doted “The Lord of the Rings Hike”. It is a 20km one-way trek with a maximum elevation of 1886m across an amazing volcanic landscape. It is by far the most beautiful hike we have ever done featuring volcanos, dessert-like valleys and pristine green and blue crater lakes. It’s a tough day no doubt; especially if you add Mount Ngauruhoe (AKA Mount Doom) like we did. This was not a good idea, by the way!
The best approach to this hike is to take one of the shuttle services that drop you off at the start and pick you up at the end. If you choose the right company (Backyard Tours) they will have a nice cold beer for you at the end, and it is the best beer you will ever have! We made this an exceptionally challenging day for ourselves by adding Mount Doom to an already long day, so there were parts of this hike I was dehydrated, fatigued and generally miserable. That all being said, with a little fuel and lots of water my spirits were turned and it was a fantastic day nonetheless. I would highly recommend this hike to everyone! I would also recommend taking the earliest shuttle possible so that you can get to all the picturesque spots without the volume of people.
We continued our way south towards Wellington, our ferry crossing point to the South Island, but first took a little relaxing time around Ohau and Otaki on the Kapiti Coast. We found a magical little campsite with a bubbling brook, fields of wildflowers and serenading birds, so we were happy to relax and linger. There are long stretches of coast with sand beaches that are lovely but the water is cold, though to be honest, it the water was cold everywhere in New Zealand!
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to the North and hello to the South! We arrived in Wellington with just enough time to grab some food for the evening and catch the ferry.
It was jam-packed two weeks, but every day was something new and exciting. The North Island also has a tendency to be slightly warmer, so that was a bit of a plus too.
I loved all of our time here, but my favourite places to visit were Cape Reinga, hot water beach and Hobbiton.
The North Island has a lot to offer; pristine white sand beaches, maritime coastal towns, lush rainforest, volcanoes, waterfalls and the like, not to mention its fair share of adrenaline activities too. Do not underestimate the awesomeness of the North.
Stay tuned for New Zealand road trip part 2 where I share details of our 3 weeks on the South Island! If you think these photos were brilliant, then just wait, you are in for a treat!
If you are lucky you might also see some hilarious photos of me jumping out of a plane…
Have you been to the North Island? If so, what was your favourite spot?
Is there something you are aching to know more about?
Share your thoughts in the comments!