Road tripping New Zealand’s North Island-10 Day Itinerary

Posted by Beth | May 10, 2016

New Zealand was one of the countries we were most looking forward to on our itinerary. We’d seen amazing photos of the scenery, we knew it was full of hiking and adventure activities, and best of all, my best friend from college Ellen and her husband were flying from North Carolina to meet us there. We rented a mini-van for  the first segment of our trip and had a blast road tripping across the North Island.

Day 1: Landed at the Auckland airport around 7:30 a.m. and picked up our rental van from JUCY Rentals. We went with the “old model” mini-van option (about $480USD for 8 days with full insurance) and it worked great!

Our beloved rental van, 'Big Blue'

Our beloved rental van, ‘Big Blue’

Checked in to the Crowne Plaza in downtown Auckland. As platinum members were upgraded to the club floor so enjoyed the free evening receptions and breakfasts. The Sky Tower and Bungy are right next to the hotel so are a good urban adventure activity, but we passed.

Spent most of the afternoon wandering around Auckland’s waterfront. Strolled through a Saturday market, ate fish and chips, admired the yachts and pushed through crowds of tourists. Would recommend finding dinner near the Viaduct Harbor.

Day 2: Drove to the North Auckland wine country. We stopped in Puhoi Village to visit the cheese shop and the Sunday Farmer’s Market. It was an adorable town and a great spot to canoe or kayak along the river. We continued on to Ransom Wines for our first tasting of the day. Turned out to be our only tasting of the day because it was Easter Sunday and everywhere else was booked solid. Instead we walked along the beach for awhile then found a great sports bar and pizza place in Matakana that was actually showing the NCAA Tournament (only KU game of the whole season I was able to watch and we choked in the Elite 8). The highlight of the day was hiking in Tawharanui Regional Park. Beautiful place to watch the surfers at sunset!

There are two other wine regions within close driving distance of Auckland, Waiheke Island and west of Auckland is the traditional winemaking districts of Henderson, Kumeu and Huapai.

Day 3: Hiked Auckland’s best “walk,” the Coast-to-Coast track. Possibly the only place in the world you can walk from one side of the country to the other in a matter of hours. We ran part of it and it took us about 2.5 hours. Even if you don’t do the whole thing, definitely walk to the top of Mt. Eden for epic 360 degree views. We grabbed a quick-casual lunch near the hotel.

View from Mt. Eden

View from Mt. Eden

Drove three hours to Rotorua. Make sure you fill up before you take off, as there’s limited fueling options along the route. Walked around the geothermal are of Kaikoura Park (free). In Rotorua we struggled to find a DOC (Department of Conservation) campground nearby so ended up getting a last minute points reservation at the Holiday Inn (20,000 points/night) and cooking over our camp stoves out by the pool with some free local beers from the bar.

Day 4: We utilized the site for several great deals this day. First we went zorbing with OGO Rotorua ($30 USD). Well worth it! Then we went jet boating, which was also invented in New Zealand, on Lake Rotura ($25), but were less impressed. Finally we visited Whakarewarewa, the Living Maori Village, for a tour and cultural performance. This is the only Maori Village people still live in and though it was a large tour we still thought it was worth the time and money, and felt like our time in Rotorua wouldn’t have been complete without seeing the Haka War Dance.

We drove an hour or so to our DOC campsite partway between Rotura and Waitomo. It was $6NZD/person/night.

Day 5: Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour with Caveworld. Again we found this deal on, which significantly reduced the price. Lots of options in this area but we liked Cave World. The two-hour tour included a hot shower and hot drink afterward and they emailed the pictures from the tour for free. I think for me this was the highlight of the North Island! This tour didn’t include as much waterfall jumping or swimming as I’d hoped, and no repelling like some of the tours offer, but floating through the pitch black cave on our inner tubes looking up at the glowworms was really quite incredible.

Afterward we had lunch at Curly’s Bar, right next door. Great craft beers and food with a nice patio to enjoy the sunny afternoon. We drove to Tongariro where we camped at the Discovery Lodge ($32NZD/couple). We did a few short hikes to see waterfalls and had a wine and cheese picnic at sunset on the trail.

Day 6: Today was all about the Tongariro Crossing Hike. We took the Discovery Lodge Red Bus shuttle for $35NZD each roundtrip. The hike is 19.4km long, but we added a side trip to summit Mount Tongariro, which added two or three kilometers. It took us about seven hours in total. It was pretty cloudy and foggy most of the hike but there were still some pretty spectuacular sights and photo opportunities, including the famous emerald lakes. Though we are not Lord of the Rings fans, we’d agree it’s probably one of the better single day hikes out there.

After the hike we tore down our tents and drove to Lake Taupo. We redeemed Hilton points for a king suite at the Hilton Lake Taupo and were upgraded to a one-bedroom apartment with a giant balcony, full kitchen and washer/dryer. We enjoyed some local wine while soaking in the hot tub then ventured out for Thai food at Thai Lotus (a BYO so be sure to pick up wine at the nearby Countdown grocery store and then just pay the $5 corkage fee).

Day 7: After enjoying another round of the gym/hot tub/pool and the free breakfast we drove to Huka Falls, the fastest moving waterfall in New Zealand for a short hike. We briefly walked around downtown Taupo then headed to the Two Mile Bay Watersports Centre for our chance to sail our own boats. The “mini-yachts” are 19-ft., two-man boats that you can sail yourselves for half an hour on the lake for $45 NZD ($30USD). This was a highlight for Captain T!

We drove the two hours to Napier in the Hawke’s Bay region and camped at the Napier Beach Kiwi Holiday Park Campground, right on the beach. We were able to negotiate a slightly lower rate via email prior to arrival and for $30NZD per night, per tent, we even got a free case of local beer. The campsite had free grills, a nice kitchen, laundry facilities, hot showers (small fee) and even trampolines.

Day 8: Hawke’s Bay is the oldest wine region in New Zealand, specializing in Chardonnay’s and red wines, so a day of wine-tasting was in order. All the wineries we visited waived the tasting fee with purchase. We first visited Esk Valley Estate and our favorite was the Verdelho. Then we drove a little further south to rent bikes from Coastal Wine Cycles. The all-day rate was $40NZD/person, which included the bike, helmet, map, and water. We biked about 30km total, visiting three different wineries. Our favorite winery by far was Te Awanga (Rod McDonald Wines). The tasting was extensive, then we enjoyed an affordable bottle and giant platter of cheese, bread and meat on the patio between rain showers.

besties on a bike ride on our last day together

besties on a bike ride on our last day together

For our last dinner together before our friends flew out the next day we ate along the West Quay Ahuiri Village at the Gintrap.

Day 9: While our friends drove about five hours back to Auckland in the rental van, Caleb and I hopped on a bus to Wellington. Through the company Naked Bus, we got fairly cheap tickets ($39NZD) for the 5.5 hour ride. If you don’t have a rental car, this is a great way to get around the country, though it’d certainly take more advance planning and our exact itinerary would have been very difficult via bus alone.

In Wellington we checked into the Intercontinental, redeeming 35,000 IHG points per night. We got free drinks at check-in, but even as Platinum and Spire Elite members, were unfortunately not upgraded to the club level. We walked around the city and got fish and chips at The Chippery in the Mount Victoria neighborhood. It was a popular place and quite crowded, for good reason. We walked back along Courtenay Place, which was hopping even for a Sunday night.

Day 10: Enjoyed sleeping in after a few nights camping and got in a good workout at the hotel gym (including the biggest indoor heated pool in Wellington, but still pretty small). Grabbed a quick breakfast at a coffee shop across the street and headed to the Te Papa Museum, the national museum of New Zealand. It was fairly impressive for a free museum, with art, history and science exhibits spanning six floors. We ate Malaysian food for lunch at Rasa on Cuba Street, a lively street with art galleries, thrift stores and cafes. We also enjoyed walking down Eva Street, whose small boutique shops make chocolates, peanut butters, sodas, bread and craft beers. For dinner we ate at Flying Brothers Burritos back on Cuba Street, which had BOGO entrees on Monday nights. We hit up the Raw Meat Monday Open Mic Comedy Night at The Fringe Bar ($8NZD).

Overall we really enjoyed Wellington, and thought it was the city with the most personality in New Zealand and way less touristy than the rest of places we’d been so far.

Day 11: We got in a quick run along the waterfront before heading to WLG Airport to fly to the South Island. The Airport Flyer bus was very easy to use and only took about 20 minutes to get to the airport from downtown for $9NZD each.

This 10-day itinerary gave us a good sampling of all New Zealand’s North Island has to offer: beaches, mountains, wineries, cities, geothermal areas and adventure activities. The must-do for us would be the Tongariro Crossing hike and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, while we probably would have skipped Roturua if we had to cut out one place because it just felt way too touristy.

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