Getting off the Beaten Path
New Zealand has been popular self-drive destination with well-maintained and signposted roads and spectacular scenery around every corner. During your itinerary planning, you are sure to come across dozens of suggested itineraries, ranging from a few days to a month, including the country’s most-visited regions. For a truly memorable trip, we suggest enhancing your itinerary and discover a diverse array of scenery and off-the-beaten-path experiences on three of the North Island’s highways.
The drive will give you the opportunity to relax and explore white sand beaches with rolling surf beaches. See crystal-clear lakes and streams, natural spas, bubbling mud pools, volcanic mountains and Hobbit holes. Experience Maori culture, gourmet food and excellent wineries.
From Auckland, head out on the Pacific Coast Highway to The Coromandel. There is over 248 miles of coastline, including Hot Water Beach, where you can dig your own thermal spa on the shore. Walk, boat or kayak to Cathedral Cove to experience the magic. Explore old-world towns and visit some of the many studios and galleries to uncover The Coromandel creativity. Outdoor lovers can enjoy the hiking the Coromandel Costal Walkway or cycling the Hauraki Rail Trail, sampling homegrown produce along the way.
Drive further down the coast to the Bay of Plenty and visit New Zealand’s only active marine volcano, White Island. Enjoy an evening kayak tour through the glowworm canyon or take a boat trip to remote islands in the coastal Bay of Plenty. Learn about local history and legends that surround the iconic Mount Maunganui ‘Mauoa’. The region is the kiwifruit capital of the world visit a local orchard with Kiwifruit Country. Visit the house that came home – a fully carved Maori ancestral house that traveled the world for over a century before returning home to its people ‘Mataatua’. Explore Moutohora Island, home to a range of rare flora and fauna and endangered species such as the NZ Kiwi and Tuatara.
Discover a unique corner of New Zealand, Tairāwhiti – Gisborne. Visit Kaiti Beach, the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand (1769). Experience the sacred mountain of Ngāti Porou, a mystical spot that is the first in world to greet the sun each day. Hikurangi dominates the sitting 5,755 feet above sea level adorned with nine carvings depicting Māui and his whānau (family). The unofficial ‘Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand’ be sure to visit one of the boutique wineries on the wine trail including Matawhero, Millton’s, Kirkpatrick Estate, Spade Oak, Wrights and Bushmere Estate (wineries with cellar doors).
At the southern end of the Pacific Highway lies Hawke’s Bay, the country’s leading producer of red wines, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, as well as some stunning whites. Explore New Zealand’s Art Deco center, Napier, which was rebuilt in the 1930,’s after a huge earthquake. Join a guided walking tour of Napier’s city center or perhaps take a step back in time, and explore by vintage car. Walk the forest trails of the Ruahine and Kaweka Forest Parks and be sure to visit the Cape Kidnappers gannet colony. There are some glorious beaches that stretch along the coast for a sunset stroll or relaxation.
Turn inland on the Thermal Explorer Highway to Great Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in Australasia (the same land mass as Chicago). Take a cruise across the lake to visit the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings, towering 46 feet above Mine Bay, this is one of NZ’s most extraordinary modern art works.Go fishing for rainbow or brown trout in the world famous Tongariro River or relax in a thermal mineral pool below flowing silica terraces. Be sure to visit Huka Falls NZ’s most visited natural feature, a thundering 36-foot high waterfall where 58,117 gallons of water blast over the falls every second. Hire a bicycle and cycle the Great Lake Trails or perhaps shoot for Par on one of our Championship golf courses.
From Taupo, travel south on the Volcanic Loop Highway to Ruapehu, home to both Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. Yea round, enjoy a guided walk on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, while during the winter months; you can hit the slopes during ski season. For something different, take a RailCart tour along an historic railway line or perhaps try stand-up paddle boarding within the National Park. There are plenty of walking trails through the stunning rainforest or take to the water and kayak down the mystical Whanganui River.
Complete the loop and pass through Taupo to Rotorua, the geothermal wonderland on the North Island. See bubbling mud pools, clouds of steam and natural hot springs. You can also experience Maori culture with demonstrations, performances and traditional foods available around the city. Try OGO, where you roll down a gentle slope inside an orb, a large ball made of transparent plastic. Soak in the healing waters of the Polynesian Spa or the restorative mud of Hell’s Gate. Learn and see everything farm related at the Agrodome and meet New Zealand’s flightless nocturnal bird, the kiwi at Rainbow Springs. Swim, sail or jetboat in one of the 18 lakes that surround the city or test your ability with a grade 5 rafting trip on the Kaituna River. Walk through a real life enchanted forest at Redwoods Treewalk and stand on millennial trees at Rotorua Canopy Tours.
After a few days exploring Rotorua, travel north to Matamata, a small township located in the shadow of the Kaimai Range Mountains, made famous by the Hobbiton Movie Set that was created for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. Join a guided tour of the set and wander past the iconic Bag End and welcoming Hobbit holes before stopping for a refreshing drink in The Green Dragon Inn. There is also a great selection of farmstays available in the area to enjoy great kiwi hospitality and perhaps get hands on experience milking cows or collecting farm eggs.
After a full day sightseeing, head to Hamilton for an overnight stay. Explore the themed garden collections at Hamilton Gardens before traveling to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari for a guided tour of the ancient forest and wetlands.
Make your way to Waitomo Caves where you can enjoy a wide range of underground activities – from peaceful glowworm viewing tours to adrenaline-fueled adventures. Be sure to allow time to visit Ruakuri Cave, which was first discovered 400-500 years ago by a young Maori hunting for birds. The cave offers a captivating blend of subterranean experiences. Journey down through the spectacular spiral entrance, and marvel at the softly folding shawl-like limestone formations and crystal tapestries. Hear the distant thunder of the subterranean waterfalls and get up close to the glowworms.
After a fun-filled journey, return to Auckland before flying down to the South Island to explore some very different sights and experiences.
For more information about travel to New Zealand’s North Island, check out Down Under Answers.
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Bryan has visited exactly one more country than his wife, and she won’t let him forget it! Also an avid photographer, he enjoys entrenching himself within the local culture in order to learn more about the people of a place. He is the co-founder of Budget Your Trip and loves a good adventure, an exotic meal, or a passionate conversation about global events.