14 Amazing Places You Must See on a North Island Road Trip

If you are planning a north island road trip, you probably already know that this diverse region is packed with natural wonders and adrenaline pumping activities. From the beautiful beaches of the surf coast on the Coromandel Peninsula to the hot bubbling mud of Rotorua, there is something for everyone on New Zealand’s smaller island.

We think the best way to explore all the beauty that the North Island offers is to hit the road for a two weeks or longer, you could easily spend months discovering the natural wonders. Today we have collaborated with some New Zealand experts to help you decide which must see destinations you should slot into your road trip itinerary.

Book a rental car or campervan and start planning your road trip of New Zealand road trip now.

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The Ingredients of a Perfect North Island itinerary

Start your trip from Auckland where you can spend a morning exploring and recovering from jet lag before heading off the next day on your adventure.

Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, just north of Auckland in New Zealand, is a must-see destination for any traveller. This gorgeous area with its many bays, islands, and beaches offers so much to explore and admire. 

bay of islands nz nina out and about
Bay of Islands

To fully appreciate this remote part of the country, I recommend staying at least two days and up to four days to make sure you don’t miss out on anything. 

Some highlights include exploring Waitangi Treaty Grounds and National Reserve, the Urupukapuka Island Marine Reserve for snorkelling and kayaking, sailing to some of the 144 islands in the bay – or even taking a day trip from Paihia to Cape Reinga.

Most people skip exploring Paihia to go to Cape Reinga and drive on 90 Mile Beach, but the town itself is stunning. It has a gorgeous white sand beach that’s incredibly quiet and easy to relax on.

Cape Reinga NZ
Cape Reinga Lighthouse, north edge of New Zealand

Your money goes a little further this far north, with meals costing about 1/2 of what they do in the city centre of Auckland. Don’t forget that tipping isn’t common in New Zealand – so the price is exactly as stated on the bill and save money for some of the top sites.

For a bite to eat, I recommend the Gannet’s Beach Bar and Café in Russell – it’s a brilliant spot overlooking the bay for fresh seafood and drinks. 

In terms of accommodation, I suggest booking Bay of Islands Lodge in Paihia, which is conveniently near the wharf. 

Contributed by Nina of Nina Out and About

Russell

Russell and the Rawhiti Peninsula are must visit locations on a North Island road trip. Located in the picturesque Bay of Islands in the Far North of New Zealand, the area is of great historical importance as the landing place of the first Māori waka (canoes) to arrive on these lands. 

The waterfront at Russel, New Zealand
The waterfront at Russel, New Zealand

From the historic colonial buildings and variety of beaches in the charming town, to the boat tours that explore the hundreds of islands off the coast there’s no shortage of things to fill in a few days based in Russell. 

My favourite thing to do however is the Cape Brett Walkway, an overnight hike through beautiful native bush on the Rawhiti Peninsula with sweeping views out over the islands. Either walk the whole thing or catch a lift in or out with a water taxi. Be sure to check out the famous Hole in the Rock whilst keeping an eye out for dolphins!

Russell NZ North Island
Russell

To stay overnight on the peninsula, Cape Brett Hut needs to be booked in advance, particularly over the busy summer season, but luckily there are plenty of campsites around the region – you can even catch a boat and camp out on Urupukapuka Island!

If you prefer a roof over your head, Motel Russell offers large studios and one-bedroom apartments with a swimming pool, free unlimited wifi, and car park.

Once you’re ready to refuel after a day’s exploring, look no further than the iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Nestled under the pohutukawa trees that line the shore, it’s the perfect spot to relax and watch the sunset over the boats anchored in the bay.

Contributed by Laura from Laura the Explorer

Waipoua Forest

The incredible Waipoua Forest situated on the West Coast of Northland is unlike anywhere in the world – home to unique sub-tropical rainforest and New Zealand’s largest and oldest kauri tree Tāne Mahuta thought to be 2,000 years old and measuring over 50 meters high and 4 meters in diameter.

Waipoua Forest NZ


The forest can easily be visited in a day and is a great stop-off on an Auckland to Cape Reinga roadtrip.

An insider tip is to take the short 5-minute walk to see Tāne Mahuta, but also take some time for the Te Matua Ngahere walk, a short 20-minute trail in the forest that avoids many of the crowds who go to see the giant tree.

Te Matua Ngahere is the second largest kauri tree in New Zealand, and you’ll also experience the peacefulness of the forest and hear incredible birdsong.

A great place to stay is at the Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park which has excellent facilities including river tubing, a basketball court, and an epic playground complete with a flying fox! You can also take a self-guided night walk in the forest where you may come across a kiwi bird if you’re lucky!

At the northern end of the forest, be sure to check out some of the quirky eateries in the cute town of Opononi – the Opononi Hotel serves good pub-style food at reasonable prices.

Contributed by Kylie Gibbon from Our Overseas Adventures.

Auckland

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and is by many considered to be the gateway into the stunning country. The city itself is on top of no less than 53 burned-out volcanos and is surrounded by a beautiful sea. For this, Auckland is full of sailing boats and has even acquired the nickname “The City of Sails”.

Auckland from above
Auckland city skyline with Auckland Sky Tower from Mt. Eden at sunset New Zealand

Anyone doing a road trip of the North Island of New Zealand needs to set aside at least a couple of days to experience the most popular city in the region. Visitors should take some time to wander around the many shopping streets and enjoy the great food and bar scene of the city. On top, it is a must to visit the marina, Waiheke Island, and Sky Tower. Finally, like almost any location in New Zealand, it is possible to Bungy jump in the surrounding area.

auckland tower north island
The Sky tower in Auckland New Zealand cityscape. Credit: Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye

The highest point in Auckland is an ancient volcano called Mount Eden. This spot makes for a perfect day trip to get out of the city center and enjoy an incredible view of the area.

In terms of camping and places to stay, the great part about Auckland is that it is full of campgrounds on either side of the city facing the ocean. A great place to stay is at the Takapuna Beach Holiday Park. This natural and social spot, paired with a few camper van accessories, makes for a perfect New Zealand road trip experience.

Contributed by Josephine Remo

Napier

Napier is a relaxing seaside city on the east coast. Its location with an average 2,271 sunshine hours makes it a city to spend at least three days exploring.

The city is a popular destination with its abundance of wineries and wonderfully preserved art déco architecture. Book yourself on a guided tour to one of the local vineyards for wine tasting, often with a stop for lunch.

Napier North Island New Zealand
Napier Town Centre

Two of my favourites are The Crab Farm and The Mission. The wines are delicious and so are the menus. The Mission has the advantage, to sit with a view overlooking Napier.

 The other popular event in Napier is the Art déco festival held annually in February. Napier was rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake in the art déco style. You can book a guided walking tour, but my suggestion would be the vintage car tour. Much more fun.

Daily Telegraph Building Napier
Daily Telegraph Building in Napier

But if you want something special to do while in Napier, rent a cycle. Napier has a lot of cycle tracks around the city. One of my favourites is the shoreline ride along the Marine Parade to Ahuriri. Here you’ll find restaurants and cafes. Try The Thirsty Whale for casual dining for all the family.

For somewhere to stay, the Harbour View Lodge, Ahuriri, offers large rooms with free parking. Pebble Beach Motor Inn on Marine Parade the same. Both options allow you to relax with sea views of sunrise or sunset. And if you have hired a campervan, the Kennedy Park Resort motor camp has full facilities, including a pool.

Contributed by Terry & Maura of TravelKiwis Inspiring Destinations

Taupo

Taupo is almost the centre of the North Island. With beautiful views of the iconic Mt Tongariro, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe off in the distance.

Taupo Rock engraving North Island New Zealand
To enjoy the splendour of Taupo, you must really stay at least a couple of nights.

Places Not to Miss In Taupo:

  • Huka Falls – Only 10 minutes north of Taupo, Huka Falls is a must-see aqua-blue waterfall that roars through a tiny 15 metre wide channel before bursting back into the river below. You can view the falls from the bridge or take one of the walking tracks to see the stunning sight from different perspectives.
  • Orakei Korako Geothermal Park and Cave – Only 30 minutes north of Taupo you will step into this volcanic world where ‘the floor is lava’ isn’t that far from the truth! This family-friendly walk is one of the best places to explore geysers, hot mud pools and sulphur springs at your own leisure.
  • Spellbound Glowworm and Cave Tours – Less than 2 hours from Taupo, this amazing place is great for a day trip. You’ll be able to explore the stunning caves and visit one of the largest glowworm colonies in NZ! It’s definitely a spectacle not to miss.
  • And after a fun day adventuring, don’t forget to stop in at Dixie Browns for your dinner reservation. The food is delicious; the service is friendly, and the atmosphere is relaxing.
Taupo 2MAADT
Lake Taupo

As you can see, Taupo has so much to offer. We highly recommend a visit for its natural beauty and hidden gems.

If you are looking for accommodation, we highly recommend staying at the VU Thermal Lodge in Taupo as it’s right on the lake and has the most spectacular views. Great value with spacious rooms and optional personal thermal spa for the ultimate experience. Let me tell you, it’s so worth it!

Contributed by Nae Correia Co-owner of 2 Mums and a Dirt Track

Waitomo

No trip to New Zealand’s North Island is complete without a trip to Waitomo. You may have heard of it because of the famous Waitomo Caves, but there are actually many things to do in Waitomo that are worthy of a spot on your North Island itinerary.

Waitomo is in the heart of the King Country, so if you love to explore the classic green New Zealand countryside, this is a great place to take in those rural views. The Waitomo region is predominantly farming and the wee settlement is actually really tiny.

nz glow worms
Glow worms in Waitomo

It became popular as it is home to Waitomo Caves. Waitomo Caves are a beautiful natural attraction that houses a grotto of glow worms. They shine like little sparkling fairy lights. You can tour through the incredible rock formation or if you are more adventurous, then check out the Black Water Rafting Experience.

Take one of the glow worm tours while you are at Waitomo. Or consider a Black Water Experience, you float down the underground river on an inflatable tube, jump down waterfalls and clamber over rocks, in the dark!

But if you are willing to travel a bit further off the beaten track, you can explore New Zealand’s prettiest waterfall, Marokopa Falls. Another 30-40 minutes down a windy road, these falls are worth the drive. In only 5-10 minutes walk, you will reach the incredible Cascade Falls.

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Marokopa Falls

You can visit Waitomo on a day trip from Hamilton, or else if you are up for some unique accommodation, why not try Woodlyn Park where you can sleep in a plane, train or a ship? While you are there, visit the Huhu Cafe for exceptional dining.

Contributed by Jennifer Parkes from Backyard Travel Family: Active Family Travel Specialists in New Zealand

The Coromandel

The Coromandel is a popular weekend escape for Aucklanders for a reason and is a must-visit on any North Island road trip. The main allure of the region is its beautiful, pristine beaches.

coromandel NZ
Cathedral Cove

You’ll be spoiled for things to do in the coromandel with a surprising variety of attractions that go beyond just beaches! Of course, Cathedral Cove and New Chums Beach shouldn’t be missed as two of the best beaches in New Zealand. Try to fit in Hot Water Beach where you can create your own hot pool in the sand.

A sunrise walk to the former from the beachside town of Hahei will be a highlight of your trip and is the perfect way to avoid the crowds that arrive from mid-morning.

The Pinnacles Track is one of the best day hikes in New Zealand. It is a challenging 3-4 hour day walk but achievable for most people. You’ll be rewarded with commanding views from the lookout at the top. There’s a hut up there as well, which we’d highly recommend spending a night in – just remember to book from DOC well in advance.

pinnacles Corramandel nz
The Pinnacles Track

Two to three days is the perfect amount of time to spend in the Coromandel in order to tick off the main sights (though you could easily spend a week). Whitianga, Tairua and Coromandel Town are great towns to stay in, though our favourite spot in The Coromandel is Hahei.

We’ve stayed at Tatahi Lodge a handful of times and highly recommend it to anyone. They have backpacker accommodation through to nicer units. The location is impeccable. Alternatively, there is an awesome campsite, Hahei Beach Resort, right on the beach.

Hahei Beach Resort also has a few food trucks serving burgers, pizzas, and drinks. Whether you stay here or not, we’d highly recommend this spot as the best place to eat in the entire region – strange, I know, but it’s actually that good!

Contributed by Delilah Hart from Our Travel Mix 

Tongariro

Tongariro is a spectacularly beautiful area located on the North Island of New Zealand. It has three active volcanoes, Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro, and Mount Ruapehu, as well as several other impressive natural features such as thermal hot springs, lava fields, and forests. With its dramatic landscapes and unique history, Tongariro is a must-see destination for anyone visiting New Zealand.

Tongariro North Island New Zealand 1
Tongariro New Zealand

It’s the best advice to book the accommodation well in advance and spend at least 2 nights. So, one day allow you to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (find official link and insert) which takes around six to eight hours to complete. When you then finish the hike, you have time to take some rest without having the stress of going somewhere else.

It’s also a good idea to book your shuttle in advance, which will take you from your accommodations to the start of the Tongariro hike and back again once you reach the end. They keep track of hikers so that no one gets left behind (or they could send rescue in case).

Whakapapa Holiday Park is a great option for those looking to explore Tongariro National Park. It’s conveniently located inside the park, so you don’t have to worry about traveling far from your accommodation when it comes time to hike the Alpine Crossing. The holiday park offers a variety of different accommodations, such as backpacker dorms, campervans, and self-contained units, so there’s something to suit everyone’s needs.

Contributed by Giorgy from G-Extreme Travel.

Hobbiton

Every good New Zealand North Island itinerary needs to include a stop at Hobbiton. This is the actual set that was built for the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies – but even if you’ve not a rings fan or even read the book or seen the movies you will love visiting here.

Hobbiton 13
Hobbiton comes to life in Matamata

Located in Matamata, Hobbiton is easily reached from Hamilton, Tauranga or Rotorua. You could even visit on a day tour from Auckland. Spend a few hours immersing yourself in another world.

By joining in on a tour, you will get to walk the world famous streets of “The Shire”, admiring the amazing detail. It really is a little Hobbiton Movie Set that has been built here amongst the rolling hills. Learn interesting facts about how the movies were made and have your own photo inside a Hobbit house. The tour concludes with a drink at the Green Dragon pub.

Before (or after) your tour, visit The Shire’s Rest, the onsite cafe, and have a “Second Breakfast” or “Elevensies”. Stock up on all your Hobbit souvenirs from the gift shop to remember your visit.

While Hobbiton is a good road trip activity to do as you are driving between nearby towns, perhaps on the way to or from Rotorua, you can also stay right nearby at Buckland B&B

Contributed by Josie from Josie Wanders 

Mount Maunganui

The seaside suburb of Mount Maunganui is located in the city of Tauranga on the eastern coast of the North Island. If you’re planning a North Island road trip, you won’t want to miss spending a night or two in Mount Maunganui!

mount maunganui 1
Mount Maunganui

Mount Maunganui (referred to by locals as “the Mount”) is home to one of New Zealand’s best beaches, with a gorgeous stretch of white sand and a popular beach break for surfers. 

Besides the beach, the most iconic landmark at Mount Maunganui is its namesake extinct volcano, known as Mount Maunganui or “Mauao.” 

Hiking up Mount Maunganui is one of the best things to do in the area. The lung-busting hike up Mauao takes about 45 minutes one-way, but it has a huge payoff: from the summit, you’ll get panoramic views over the Pacific Ocean and the wider Bay of Plenty region.

When you’re not hitting the beach or hiking up Mauao, go for a soak in the Mount Hot Pools. These hot saltwater pools sit below Mauao and are a favourite with locals and visitors alike.

Where to eat: Head to The General for breakfast or lunch—get the Turkish eggs! Rice Rice Baby is an excellent dinner spot, with fresh Vietnamese food and cocktails in a fun, vibrant setting.

Where to stay: The Mission Belle Motel is within walking distance to everything and has comfortable, modern rooms. Campers will love the Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park, located right by the beach at the base of Mauao.

Contributed by Jac from Weekend Path

Rotorua

Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Hot Springs is one of the most popular tourist attractions of New Zealand’s Northern Island, near Rotorua. It’s the largest surface area of thermal activity in the Taupo zone that has one of the highest geothermal activity ratings in the world, with bubbling hot springs, bubbling mud pools and geysers. 

Wai O Tapu champagnel Hot Springs
Champagne Pool

When you enter the site, you will be hit by a sulphur smell resembling that of rotten eggs. It comes from vents and geothermal pools scattered around the site. 

One of the main features of the Wai-O-Tapu is the Champagne Pool. The largest hot spring in the country it has a clear orange line framing the bubbly water that looks much like a glass of champagne. 

The Devil’s Bathtub is another great stop. A deep crater created by an underground eruption, it is filled with neon-colour water that comes from the high concentration of sulphur on the surface. 

And don’t miss Ngakoro Lake. It changes the colour from a subdued green hue to the iridescent green colour when the sun comes out. Although it sits at the end of the walkway, it’s worth getting up here. 

Many geothermal features in Wai-O-Tapu are fenced off and have many warnings, as falling in there could cause serious injury and even death. 

Lady Knox geyser is also a must see

Stay in the area at least two nights to enjoy other highlights like the glowing worm caves, the Maori Village and the gorgeous Lake Taupo, that many travellers end up missing. Thermal Oak Motel is a great stay in the area. 

If you fancy treating yourself, schedule a visit to the Polynesian Spa.

 Daria from The Discovery Nut

Paekakariki

Paekakariki is a small town a little 45 minutes north of Wellington. For such a small town there are a few things you can do to make the place a fun place to explore for a few hours or make it a relaxing couple of days.

For hikers Paekakariki Escarpment Track is a must-do. Departing from Paekakariki, the track takes you 10km south and finishes at Pukerua Bay Train Station where you can catch the train back. The hike has some significant elevation change and includes a lot of stairs. So it isn’t easy, but wow, the views are so good.

Paekakariki Escarpment Track North Island New Zealand
Paekakariki Escarpment Track

For the artsy people, check out Paekakariki Art Studios where you can see an array of art made by locals. There’s a good chance you’ll see them creating too, and they love to chat. That’s something no one told me about and is a great way to meet locals.

Other activities include hanging out on the beach, the Fly By Wire, an interesting alternative to bungy jumping that isn’t wildly now, and exploring Queen Elizabeth Park.

As it’s a great place for a day trip and/or a relaxing couple of days, an easy place to stay is Paekakariki Holiday Park, which offers a variety of accommodation options (including tent sites).

For restaurants, options are limited in Paekakariki, but there are heaps in nearby Paraparaumu. That said, do stop for brunch at The Perching Parrot Cafe in the centre of town. Or grab some fish and chips to take to the beach.

Contributed by Jub of Chru New Zealand

Wellington

As New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington has lots to offer for both first-time and return visitors. A trip to the National Museum, Te Papa, on the waterfront is a must, particularly the Gallipoli exhibit.

Te Papa Museum Wellington New Zealand
Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand

A ride on the Wellington Cable Car is another iconic activity, there are superb views across the city from the top and you can walk down through the Wellington Botanic Garden.

Wellington Cable Car 1
Ride the Wellington Cable Car

Wellington is a foodie city with tons of options for where to eat. Coenes on Oriental Bay is an all-day restaurant that serves a great brunch and has some of the best views in town looking out over the harbour and beach. Make sure to try a flat white from one of the best Wellington cafes while you’re in town, Wellingtonians are very proud of the local coffee.

While you could see most of the highlights of Wellington in 2-3 days, if you have more time, it’s worth taking a trip out to the Wairarapa to experience the wineries in Martinborough or the hikes in the Remutaka Ranges. You could also drive up the Kapiti Coast to the beaches at Paekakariki or Waikanae.

There are no campgrounds in central Wellington, but you can find a few motels in the inner suburbs. Apollo Lodge Motel in Mount Victoria is within walking distance from the CBD. 

Special mentions also to Palmerston north – Home of the rugby museum and a must for sports lovers

Check out our South Island Road trip if you are planning to visit both islands.

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