NZ How To: Drive the North Island in Two Weeks
If you’re planning on spending one month in New Zealand then my advice is: extend your trip. You can “accidentally” miss your plane, get lost on the way to the airport, or say “OH I thought I was supposed to leave NEXT Thursday.” This country is a lot bigger than most people think, and it will be a fully loaded month to try to see everything. But if you have no choice because of a job, or finances, or a pet that will pass away without your love, then we've got your itinerary covered. Combine our *2 weeks on the South Island* with this Two Weeks on the North Island and you’ll be good to go just in time to return to your regular life!
This guide starts off in Auckland (1) because that is where the majority of travelers fly into. If you want to try to be hip and go against the grain, the other option would be to start in (10) Wellington and follow along with this guide in reverse.
If you only have 2 weeks to spend on the North Island, then don’t waste a second of it in Auckland. It is just like any other city in the world, and is considered by all the other New Zealanders as the least “Kiwi” of all New Zealand. Do yourself a favor, pick up a car and start heading north immediately so you can be free from traffic and see the real gems of New Zealand.
However if you decide not to heed our advice, here are a couple of places worth checking out:
Piha Beach. This beach is busy because of its proximity to the city, and because it is a stunning stretch of sand. I wouldn’t recommend getting in the water unless you want to become an involuntary star on the hit show “Piha Rescue”
Rangitoto Island is an old volcanic island a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland. Climb to the top for sweet views of the city.
Next head north from Auckland and make your way to Paihia (2) in the beautiful Bay of Islands. You will find no shortage of dolphin cruises, parasailing or skydiving excursions and the world famous Hole in the Rock is not to be missed.
On the way to Bay of Islands:
Whangerei Falls. A short walk to some beautiful falls almost right in the center of the city. There is also a nice loop track to help you stretch your legs.
Abbey Caves. There are three cave systems to explore, as well as some cool rock formations outside. If you're brave you can even find your way from one cave to another. Make sure you have shoes that can get wet and a good headlamp, because you will absolutely want your hands free for this.
* The caves flood when it rains, so use caution in bad weather.
Hundertwasser Toilets. It’s not every day you get to defecate in an art exhibition.
After you’ve soaked up the sun in the beautiful Bay of Islands, head north again and go until you run out of road. Cape Reinga (3) lighthouse is the beginning (or end depending on which way you’re going) of Highway 1. Don’t miss the photo op with the sign so you can take a matching photo with its southernmost sister sign in Bluff.
What to do in Cape Reinga:
90 Mile Beach. At only 55 miles long, this is the worst case of false advertisement you will see in New Zealand. However it is still an impressive sight and you can even drive your car on it if you’ve got a 4 wheel drive vehicle (or an unrelenting sense of bravado).
Te Paki Sand dunes. Didn’t get enough sand after 90 Mile Beach? Rent a sand board nearby and go for the ride of your life. This is definitely worth getting a Go Pro for. Pro tip: leave everything you won't need in your car (shoes included).
It’s all downhill from here, since after the northernmost point you can only go south.
The next destination is the Coromandel Peninsula (5) for some beautiful hikes and beaches. There is no point in retracing our steps so take the east coast down through Opononi (4) for a change of scenery.
On the Way to Coromandel:
The Kauri Museum in Matakohe is one of the most surprisingly engaging museums in the country. If the replica sawmill and giant kauri cross cuts weren’t enough, then the basement will blow you away with its polished gum. And I’m not talking about the kind you chew.
What to do in Coromandel:
Cathedral Cove. You’ll probably recognize this from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian movie. Or maybe that one Macklemore music video. If not that, then definitely from the instagram of everyone who has ever been here. If it still doesn’t look familiar then crawl out from under your rock and check it out. It’s gorgeous!
Hot Water Beach. Rent a spade and dig yourself a hole until you hit the warm water. Don’t bother coming at high tide though unless you want to be serenaded by the laughter of locals from a tidal saltbath.
Castle Rock Hike. A steep (and often muddy) but rewarding hike for 360 degree views of the entire Coromandel Peninsula and beyond. On really clear days you can see all the way to Auckland.
Continue heading south towards New Zealand’s smelliest town Rotorua (6). No, the town didn't hide their easter eggs a little too hard last year. The rotten eggs smell comes from the sulfurous springs spotted all over the city. There are a ton of colourful hot pools and spas around the city, so take a chance to soak away your troubles.
What to do on the way to Rotorua:
Matamata Hobbiton. You can’t come all the way to New Zealand and not visit The Shire. Even though you’ll notice that a lot of the North Island looks like The Shire, it is still worth it to see the movie magic and hear the interesting stories. Also the free included beer at the Green Dragon is a nice touch.
Mt Manganui. If you aren’t too pooped from Castle Rock, then hike is absolutely worth doing. If you aren't up for a big hike, theres a nice trail around the base of the mountain as well.
What to do in Rotorua:
Redwoods in Whakarewarewa Forest. It’s not every day you see giant Californian Redwoods in New Zealand. They were planted commercially for foresting, but now they are protected. Experience the magic on a short walk through the grove, or pat to walk through the treetops.
Maori Dinner. Rotorua is a hotbed of Maori culture and activities. Culture yoself with a traditional Hangi dinner (similar to a Hawaiian Luau) and watch a live Maori performance.
Polynesian Spa. If you want the relaxation of a spa without having to dig your own hole for it first, then this is the place to be. It’s a bit more expensive than the free Hot Water Beach, but the views and pools are worth it.
OGO aka Zorbing Have you ever seen a hamster running in its hamster ball and thought, “Wow that looks like fun?” Then you’ll love this activity that was invented right here in New Zealand. If you’re lucky, you might even get a chance to talk to the inventors themselves because they are frequently around working on new and exciting projects.
The next destination is Taupo (7) which gets its name from the massive body of water it sits on. That is the largest lake in all of New Zealand (and a massive caldera), so of course you have to spend some time on it. Luckily there are plenty of boat rentals or cruises to make that possible.
What to do in Taupo:
Mine Bay Maori Carvings. Don’t expect some ancient Maori carvings here, because this was an art installment from 1976. However the dude who did it is Maori, so technically it is still a Maori carving. And technically ancient if you’re a Millenial.
Tongoriro Crossing. It’s been heralded as one of the best day walks in the world. You’ll need to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and the one ring to rule them all if you’re going to tackle Mt Doom. It is also good to have a buddy because Frodo would have died if it wasn’t for Samwise.
Ready to go somewhere other than south? Me too! Take the highway west towards Mount Taranaki (8) and New Plymouth where you’ll find the Surf Coast Highway and the land of fantastic sunsets.
On the Way to Taranaki:
The Forgotten World Highway. With a name like that how could you miss this drive? There are tunnels to drive through, saddles to drive over, and even the Republic of Whangamomona to visit. It’s also the quickest way to Taranaki, and if you’re trying to do the North Island in 2 weeks, you’ll be looking for shortcuts. Be warned, this is an unsealed road that narrows in places. Large vehicles will not fit through the tunnels.
What to do In Taranaki:
Hiking the Mountain. Mt Taranaki is full of hiking trails, whether you want to go for a few minutes or a few hours. Check out the Pouaki Tarns for a quick daytrip.
Te Rewa Rewa Bridge lines up well with Mt. Taranaki on a clear day, and is part of a lovely waterfront walk.
Hollard Gardens. Beautifully manicured and notated garden pathways complete with complimentary tea and snacks.
Surfing. Hop on the surf highway and there will be no shortage of waves begging to be ridden. Don’t have a board? Try talking to some locals. Taranakians (or is it Taranakese?) are some of the nicest people in the world so maybe they’ll help you out. Don't get in the way of their favourite spots though or you'll hear about it.
Now drive east to the other coast to get to the beautiful city of Napier (9). The art deco architecture, the countless wineries, and the consistently sunny weather combine to make this one of our favorite cities to chill in.
On the way to Napier:
Te Mata Peak. Many trails lead on a gorgeous hike up to a peak overlooking all of Hastings and Napier.
Bulls. The punny-est town since Punnsylvannia. Get some photos with a const-a-bull if you can find them. They’re probably eating something delect-a-bull in the bakery. Careful if they’re not in a soci-a- bull mood though! (Are you tired of my bull-shit yet?)
What to do in Napier:
Experience the Art Deco. After the great earthquake in 1931 devastated the Hawke’s Bay region, there no choice but to completely rebuild. Good thing Art Deco was super in fashion in the 30’s. Put on some old fancy clothes and enjoy!
Rent skates and go down the Parade. Skate down the path along the beach on a gorgeous day. Don’t forget to stop by a winery on your way!
Trace your footsteps back towards Palmerston North and continue on south to the capital city of Wellington (10). They don’t give it the nickname Windy Wellington for nothing, so grab a windbreaker and enjoy this small yet bustling capital.
On the way to Wellington:
Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamatea-turipukakanuipikimaungapokaiwhenuakita-natahu aka the longest place name in the world. There’s not a whole lot to see other than this sign at this particular stop, but how could you miss the chance to see the longest place name in the whole world?
De Molen Windmill in Foxton. This fully functioning Dutch windmill is worth a stop even if you’re not into fully functioning Dutch windmills. I wasn’t before, but I definitely am now!
What to do in Wellington:
The Beehive. If you’re in the capital city of New Zealand, then be sure to check out the parliament building. You might even see Jacinda to give her a high five!
Te Papa Museum. Easily the best museum in New Zealand. And it is free. So what are you waiting for? Go! Stop reading this article and go!
Mt Victoria Lookout. Drive to the top (or walk if you’re feeling fit as) and enjoy the views over the city of Wellington. Careful if you drive though for the roads can be quite narrow.
Weta Cave. This is the workshop for the brilliant minds behind the Lord of the Rings. Explore the shop for free and see a little bit behind the scenes, or fork out a few more dollars for a whole lot more behind the scenes. You won’t be sorry!
Continue your trip by jumping on a ferry to the south island (itinerary here), or grab a flight back up to Auckland. Tell us how your time on the North Island was in the comments below, and check out our post about hidden gems on the north island for more planning tips.