New Zealand is the perfect country for epic road trips! We were in New Zealand for a month and explored the North Island with a car and the South Island with a van. Please see below our trip’s first part itinerary: two weeks in the North Island.
Arrival in New Zealand via Auckland
After our flight from French Polynesia, we spent two days in Auckland. It seemed to be enough to go around the major points of interest:
- The beautiful Myers Park accessible through the St Kevin Arcade walkway
- A walk on the harbour and on the viaduct while observing the yachts
- Ponsonby Road: a very nice shopping street. We particularly liked the Ponsonby Central Market (for a bite) and The Women’s Bookshop.
- The Caker for a gourmet break with vegan cupcakes
- The bookshops Jason Books, Unity Books and Dear Reader
- Albert Park and its surroundings
We then explored another part of Auckland with our car rental: Devonport, located north of the city on the waterfront. We loved the relaxing atmosphere of this neighbourhood. Do not miss out on Victoria Road‘s shopping. Near Devonport, we also went to Mount Victoria. It’s worth climbing to the top for a great view on the bay and the city of Auckland.
Accommodation in Auckland
At first, we couldn’t decide between staying in the city centre and picking up our rental car after our weekend break in Auckland or picking up our car at the airport and staying in the city’s outskirts. Finally, we found it more convenient to save on housing (being cheaper out of the centre) than on two less days of car rental.
We booked a room on Airbnb in a nice and comfortable house: https://www.airbnb.fr/rooms/12347189. It was possible to park in front of the house. The accommodation is close enough to the centre to get there by bus and we even walk there on the first day (count an hour). For a discount on Airbnb, check out our tips and discount page.
132 km / 2 h on the road
We are glad we stopped at Waipu Cave on the way between Auckland and Bay of Islands. You will see many offers to visit glow worm caves in New Zealand but most are overpriced. We are lucky because our friends told us about Waipu Cave. Indeed, this cave can be visited for free!
Access is relatively easy but it is a gravel road, so plan to drive slowly. Once there you will see a glowing worm constellation after a hundred meter walk with water at ankle level. We have seen people sink deeper with water up to their knees. We were not equipped for it but it seemed like a real adventure! Do not forget to take a flashlight and shoes to walk in water and mud.
As a bonus, there is a nice walk starting by the cave’s entrance. Plan to stop for a few hours if you want to do the hike as well. Finally, parking is free, it is even possible to camp there if you are in a van.
Bay of Islands
99 km / 1 h 30 on the road
We planned to be in the Bay of Islands area to coincide with Waitangi Day. We stayed there for 3 days. However, looking back, we thought it was too much time on our short trip. We took advantage of the region to:
- Go on a cruise to see the dolphins! We chose the Dolphin Cruise Hole in the Rock with Fullers GreatSights, departing from Paihia, and had an excellent half day in the middle of the Bay Islands.
- Hike to see the beautiful Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri. An enjoyable and easy walk, 8 km round trip, along the river.
February 6th is a holiday in New Zealand: Waitangi Day. Many celebrations are held across the country and especially at Waitangi, on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Signed on 6 February 1840 at Waitangi, the Treaty of Waitangi officially made New Zealand a British colonial empire colony. The treaty guarantees the Māori (the first inhabitants of New Zealand) their lands and equal rights with British citizens. Waitangi Day, New Zealand national day, celebrates the the Treaty of Waitangi signing.
It is important to note the treaty is subject to many controversy and debate. First, there are significant differences between the English and the Māori versions of the treaty. This is the cause of disagreements between Māori and Pakehas (New Zealanders of non-Māori origin) over the interpretations of the text. Some Māori believe the treaty is not properly honoured. Therefore, celebrations are often the place of political demonstrations.
We spent the day on the ground for the celebrations. There we were able to attend shows such as traditional concerts and dances including the famous Haka. It was also an opportunity to visit this historic site and enjoy the on-site market. Moreover, the entry is free. Finally, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds offers a magnificent view over Bay of Islands.
Level accommodation we opted for an Airbnb in the friendly city of Kerikeri (register here: https://www.airbnb.com/c/cbaudet7 to receive a discount for your first reservation). The accommodations were overpriced in Paihia and Waitangi because of the celebrations. Thus, we advise you to book in advance if you wish to visit the region at this time of the year.
The Coromandel: Tairua, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach
391 km / 5 h on the road
We wished we had more time to visit the charming Coromandel region. Here is what we had time to do in a very busy day:
- Hiking up to Cathedral Cove: we had to run through it but will advice you to plan on being there half a day (bring a picnic to eat on the beach). It is very beautiful. Parking is tricky: there are several parkings indicated but note you must then take a paid shuttle from the parking. It is possible to walk but it is a long hike going up before the actual hike to the beach.
- Climbing Mt Paku Summit: an ancient volcano and superb viewpoint (one of the 10 most beautiful view in the world according to a local, though we don’t quite agree).
- Trying to dig your own spa at the Hot water beach. It is a magical beach where it is possible to dig a hot spring. Be careful you have to go to the beach at low tide. Luckily, our hostel provided us with shovels. Sadly, the best part to dig was full of other opportunists when we went there. Moreover, we only found cold water unlike the people digging a few meters from us!
- Treating ourselves with hot springs in a true Polynesian spa: The Lost Spring is perfect to relax in a beautiful natural environment after a day of hiking!
For accommodation, we really enjoyed the Pinnacles Lodge. The private rooms were comfortable and the common area very nice.
Tauranga & Hobbiton
126 km / 1 h 50 on the road
We spent a few days around the Tauranga town. Here are our suggestions:
- Visit Hobbiton, the hobbit village from Peter Jackson’s movies. This was our favourite activity of our entire New Zealand’s trip! Whether you are a fan of Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings or not, it is a must do. It is a 45-minute drive from Tauranga, shuttles are also available. Be careful to book your tickets well in advance. We had the chance to attend a very special evening.
- Climb Mount Maunganui for a beautiful view on the ocean and the city of Tauranga
- Visit the historic village (be careful it is not open every day)
We stayed with family friends there. However, we recommend you to stay in Taurana, it is a good base for the activities around.
Rotorua and around
63 km / 1 h on the road
Also from Tauranga, we made a day trip to Rotorua and its surroundings. Given the exorbitant prices of on-site activities, we chose to visit only free places:
- The geothermal activity is very strong in Rotorua, you will not miss to note the strong sulphur smell (similar to rotten egg), smokes and bubbling pools of mud. We experienced this at the Kuirau Park. Lake Rotorua is also impressive to see on the Sulfur Point side.
- The Blue Lake, Green Lake and Lake Tarawera are worth a visit if you want to swim or practice water activities.
Lake Taupo & Huka Falls
82 km / 1 h on the road
On your way from Tauranga, 6 km north of Taupo, do not miss the impressive Huka Falls. You can also hike there.
To start with, the road south of Taupo along the lake is worth the detour! Once arrived, we suggest you to:
- Chill and soak your feet in the impressive lake (free and fun guaranteed)
- Grab a bite at the Body Fuel Cafe (lots of lactose free and vegan choices!)
We stayed at the Berkenhoff Lodge. The atmosphere is nice and they offer private rooms with en-suite for reasonable prices (but it is very basic).
Ohakune and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
135 km / 1 h 40 on the road
Surely the most famous hike in New Zealand is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the Tongariro National Park. Be careful it is necessary to get organised before going there!
Organisation and logistic for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On the logistics side, we chose to stay in the Ohakune village and booked a shuttle with Dempsey Buses. It is necessary to take a shuttle to, at least, go from one car park to another. To avoid the drive back through the mountains while being exhausted, we booked the shuttle bus from our accommodation. The shuttle dropped us off at the start of the hike and picked us up at the arrival. It is possible to leave at different times according to your walking pace.
Therefore, we booked two nights at the lovely Station Lodge. We had a private room and took advantage of the very nice common areas and the garden (as well as the hot tub). It is perfect after the hike and a great place to meet other backpackers! Moreover, Ohakune is a holiday village offering a lot of winter and summer activities (there is so much to do beside the Tongariro Alpine Crossing). If you have time, we recommend staying there for a few days.
Now let’s talk about the hike: it is 19.4 km, 786 m elevation gain and 1,086 m negative elevation (which can be hiked in both directions). The landscapes are beautiful and diverse. This stunning landscape was also used to film the Mordor scenes in the Lord of the Rings. According to us, it is a great experience for the Tolkien fans. Moreover, the walk goes through the slope of the Ngauruhoe volcano (which is still active). In total, the trek takes about 6 hours. However, we took our time and all possible detours to enjoy it as much as possible, and pushed to 9 hours with 3 lunch breaks.
On the road we suggest to stop at the Chateau Tongarito Hotel. We did it just to have a look around the ground, but if your budget permits it you could also stay there. This place served as a base for the Lord of the Rings actors during the filming in the park.
Wellington, the capital of New Zealand
288 km / 3 h 35 on the road
After a visit on the way to Queen Elizabeth Park we arrived in the city of Wellington. Did you know Wellington is the capital of New Zealand? This city was our favourite urban break during our month-long road trip to New Zealand. It is a central point (being south of the North Island) of both New Zealand and Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth. We dropped off the car on arrival and had 3 beautiful days in the city.
Do not miss to visit the important Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, it is New Zealand national museum. We loved the exhibitions and activities. The city museum, Wellington Museum, is also worth a visit. Finally, for contemporary art lovers, have a look at the City Gallery Wellington.
Finally, it is not exactly a museum but a most anticipated visit for us: the Weta Cave Studios. There you can learn more about filming and editing techniques for well-known movies such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Remember to book in advance your guided tour of the studios.
To get to the popular Botanical Gardens you can take the fun cable car (count $ 5 for the climb), then walk back downtown through the gardens.
Mount Victoria is the most popular viewpoint on the city. In addition, it is within walking distance of the city centre. On site, there are several walks you can take. It’s also an iconic place for The Lord of the Rings fans.
Cycling on the beaches
An excellent way to explore the city and its surroundings is with electric bikes rented from Switched on Bikes. It would be difficult to climb to Wellington’s wind turbine (one of the most beautiful views on the city) without electric assistance. You will also be able to ride long distances. This allowed us to get out of the city and along the coast stopping on beautiful beaches to watch surfers and admire the Bay of Wellington Harbour.
Wellington for book nerds
Clémentine took advantage of our weekend in this city frequented by New Zealand authors and artists to take on some beloved book nerd activities.
The National Library offers very interesting permanent and temporary exhibitions. It is also possible to visit the house and garden of Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand’s best-known writers. Finally, the National Archives are open to the public.
There is also a thematic walk to go on: the Wellington Writers Wall. This is a series of concrete plaques with quotes related to the city from 23 New Zealand writers.
Finally, to perfectly finish off the day, you must try a cocktail from the The Library Bar: a paradise for literature lovers.
Eating in Wellington
The coffee and brunch culture is very much anchored in Wellington. Sweet Release Cakes and Treats offers excellent vegan cakes (and even milkshakes). At the Chocolate Fish Café, located on the waterfront, you can sit on chairs decorated with comic strips from The Peanuts.
For dinner, we recommend going to Cuba Street. You will have plenty of choices in this trendy street for restaurants, bars and shops. There are also many markets in town.
Where to stay in Wellington ?
The Dwellington Inn is perhaps the coolest hostel we have stayed in during our world tour! There you can find :
- a movie theatre with great movies every night
- a tennis court
- a garden with a barbecue
- a living room with games
- breakfasts with eggs cooked by a chef
- very nice private rooms and impeccably clean communal showers and toilets
For our last night we booked an Airbnb closer to the airport in Island Bay: https://www.airbnb.fr/rooms/32165904. Caroline is a super nice host, the house is very cosy and close to the beach. Finally, for a discount check out our tips and discounts page.
How to travel to the South Island
From Wellington to the South Island it makes more sense and it is more convenient to have a ride on the ferry to Picton. However, as we were changing vehicles and were very limited in time we had to fly from Wellington directly to Christchurch. From Christchurch, we did a two-week van road trip in South Island.
Tips for the best New Zealand road trip
Regarding the car rental, we went through the local travel agency Antipodes Travel who helped us with finding the vehicle adapted to our needs during this peak tourist season.
Car or van?
We found the car rental and hotel more economical than a motorhome or van rental. Also, driving on the left on small roads is not easy and we were happy to have the opportunity to get used to driving with the car before driving the van.
However, a car means less freedom and flexibility. Indeed, in high season, it means having to book accommodations in advance. In addition, taking into account New Zealand food is not the cheapest nor the best, we tried to book accommodations with a kitchen access.
In the end, the van is our favourite way to travel.
Do not forget to drive left! It’s a bit confusing the first time but you get used to it quickly. Try to remind yourself every time you get in the car. Moreover, roads in New Zealand always take longer than what your GPS indicates so plan accordingly.
How much time for a road trip in New Zealand ?
In general, we regretted not having more time to visit New Zealand. Only one month for both islands is not enough and to do it properly it takes a minimum of 6 weeks.
If we were to do it again with the same length of time, we would not have visited Bay of Islands. It was a detour and it would have been easier to start south of Auckland. If you would like to do a complete tour of the North Island, we recommend to plan a full month or at least 4 weeks.
New Zealand phone and data provider
To stay connected, we find it is always cheaper to get a local SIM card. Consequently, we picked up a SIM card when we arrived in New Zealand, directly at the Auckland Airport in the duty-free zone before the customs controls. All the suppliers are present and we have been able to choose an offer adapted to our needs according to the duration of our stay.
Crasshoppers and Wetas
Finally, get ready in your walks to face sticky giant crasshoppers and wetas! No one had warned us of this scourge we are mentioning in our article about the assessment our first 6 months around the world.
Find more of our advice, especially on the period to leave, in our article on the South Island with a van.
Clémentine’s New Zealand reading and movie list
- The Lonely Planet guides: the very complete New Zealand Travel Guide and the road trip inspiration guide New Zealand Best Trips
- The movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an excellent comedy-drama which will make you want to get lost in New Zealand nature.
- The historical novel, Napoleon’s Willow, by Joan Norlev Taylor. Very interesting to discover the living conditions of the first settlers and the political struggles between French and English.
- The trilogy In the land of the Long White Cloud, Song of the Spirits and Call Of The Kiwi from Sarah Lark
However, we must admit that contrary to the feedback we had heard beforehand, we would probably have been disappointed if we had been on the other side of the world to simply visit this country. We intend to expand this point in an upcoming article. Our stay was still unforgettable thanks to our trip around the locations from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which we will share very soon on the blog.
Thank you for your reading, we would very much like to know your opinion and your recommendations, do not hesitate to leave us a comment.