Having enjoyed a road trip through the South Island of New Zealand in Dec-Jan 2014-5, we decided to go back and see the North Island in Dec-Jan 2015-16.
While not having quite the ‘wow’ factor of the South Island, the North Island has a different feel and plenty of spectacular places to visit – we loved it. Highlights include the thermal activity around Rotorua, Northland & Bay of Islands, the Hawkes Bay region, the iconic Pacific Coast Drive (State Highway 35), Wellington and Auckland.
Sydney to Auckland
We fly with China Airlines to Auckland – it is by far the cheapest fare at this time of year (26 Dec 2015). It is a comfortable 2 hour 45 minute flight – no complaints. Arriving at Auckland airport we change some money, buy a SIM card, and phone (from the ISite courtesy phone) for a courtesy transfer to our hotel – Jet Park Hotel – about a 10-minute drive away.
Jet Park Hotel
The Jet Park Hotel is a comfortable place to stay and close to where we are due to collect our van the next morning from Lucky Rentals.
Lucky Rentals is located at 5 Aintree Avenue, Mangere, Auckland, just a few minutes drive from the hotel (we take the Hotel shuttle bus). It is a quick and easy collection. Our Toyota van could have been exactly the same one we had driven last year! It is a 2-berth ‘Lucky Crib’ – an old vehicle in good condition. The back of the van has a bed for two, and at the very back is a one-burner cooker, a small basin with water bottle underneath, an Esky with plates and utensils, kettle, saucepan and frypan.
We find the rental van a great way to travel around New Zealand (about $70/day) as the camping facilities are excellent.
For our second night in Auckland we camp at the conveniently located Remuera Motor Lodge and Camp Ground.
We love the city of Auckland. Highlights include:
- Auckland waterfront – stroll around the Viaduct and the Wynyard Quarter – lovely views of the city, restaurants, Maritime Museum.
- Parnell – attractive boutiques and good restaurants. We have a delicious meal at Blue Elephant Thai restaurant.
- Ponsonby – we enjoy brunch at Bam Bina and take a stroll around this cool area – good restaurants and upmarket shops.
- Devonport – worth a drive to the north shore (or take the ferry) to see the galleries, historic buildings, beaches and pretty timber cottages of this seaside village.
- Scenic drive around Mission Bay, Kohimarama Beach and St Helliers Bay.
- Piha Beach – about a 40km drive from the city, stunning Piha Beach is worth a visit.
- Sky Tower – great views from the top of this city landmark.
We leave Auckland in the direction of Rotorua. Highly recommended on the way is a stop at Hobbiton – where scenes from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed. Hobbiton is located on beautiful farmland and the only way to see it is by taking a tour – it is advisable to book well in advance during peak season.
We book into the very pretty Blue Lake Top 10 Holiday Park, a few kilometres outside of Rotorua on beautiful Blue Lake. The facilities are excellent and the location beautiful.
Highlights of Rotorua include:
- Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland – our favourite
- Te Puia – Pohutu Geyser, Maori Culture, Geothermal sites
- Whakarewarewa Thermal Village
- Waimangu Volcanic Valley
- Redwood Forest – walk through the forest at ground level or high in the canopy on the Redwoods Treewalk
- Blue Lake & Green Lake
- Tarawere Lake – have a meal at the Landing Café and enjoy the view
- The Buried Village – the story of the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886
- Hell’s Gate – geothermal park where you can have a mud spa
We are headed for Ohope and stop at the excellent Whakatane iSite Visitor Centre. On their advice we:
- Take a drive to the end of Muriwai Drive for lovely views of the Whakatane River and the statue of Wairaka
- Visit Muriwai’s Cave – a sacred site
- Visit Mataatua Wharenui – a beautiful Maori meeting house with an interesting history
- Drive up to Kohi Point Lookout for fabulous views of Whale Island, Whakatane and Ohope.
A popular excursion from Whakatane is a boat tour to the volcanic White Island.
We arrive in Ohope, ‘NZ’s Most Loved Beach’, and check into the Top 10 Holiday Park. The Park which is on the beach, is very crowded at this time of year (December), there seems a long wait for cooking facilities, so we eat out at the Fisherman’s Wharf Café at Ohope wharf – and what a great experience that is. The owner of the café is a charming man, the food is delicious and the views of the sunset sensational.
Ohope is a beach holiday destination and for us a stopover on our way to drive on the iconic Pacific Coast Drive (State Highway 35).
At the Opotiki iSite office, we pick up a detailed map and some good advice from the helpful staff, and begin the drive around the East Cape on State Highway 35.
Pacific Coast Drive (State Highway 35) – East Cape
The road follows the coast and we have fabulous views along the way of Maraenui, the Motu River, Whitianga Bay, Maori carvings at Omaio, Te Kaha, Whanarua Bay, Maraehako Bay, Papatea Bay, the Christ Church at Raukokore, Waihau Bay (where we stop for lunch), Oruaiti Beach, Whangaparaoa Bay, Hicks Bay, Tokata Flats, Te Araroa, Tikitiki Church (stop to look inside), Tokomaru Bay (don’t miss the wharf), Tolaga Bay (another historic wharf), Turihaua Beach, Makorori Beach and finally Gisborne.
State Highway 35 (Pacific Coast Drive) between Opotiki and Gisborne is an absolutely beautiful drive. Allow at least 6 hours – the road is bitumen but winding – and there are many places you may want to stop to take photographs.
We book a campsite at the Waikanae Beach Top 10 Holiday Park – just across the road from the beach. The staff are very friendly in reception and the facilities very good. It is New Years Eve and very busy.
Gisborne is a relaxed place with some interesting things to see and do:
- Spectacular views from Kaiti Hill lookout
- Tairawhiti Museum and Art Gallery
- Adventure on the Reef, Tatapouri Bay
- Gisborne Harbour – a working harbour
- Wine tasting at the Gisborne Wine Centre
- Buy a snack from Morell’s Artisan Bakery
- Beer tastings at the Sunshine Brewery
- Oneroa Cycle & Walkway along Waikanae Beach
- Rere Rockslide – a natural water slide
- Lake Waiharemoana/Te Urewara Rainforest
- Mahia Peninsula
Morere Hot Springs
It is a scenic drive from Gisborne to Napier with a highlight being a stop at Morere Hot Springs, and across the road the Morere Tearooms.
Wairoa is a charming town to stop and take a stroll on the way to Napier. Wairoa has some charming buildings and a lovely park on the river.
We follow State Highway 2 and have beautiful views of Whiriinaki Beach before arriving in the Art Deco town of Napier.
Napier suffered a devastating earthquake in 1931 destroying much of the town. Napier was rebuilt over the next two years with many buildings in the Art Deco and Spanish Mission style. These buildings have been beautifully maintained – making Napier an interesting architectural destination. You can take a tour or a self-guided walk around this unique town.
Also of interest are:
- the beautiful Marine Parade Gardens
- the Art Deco Centre – don’t miss the short film on the earthquake
- Bluff Hill Lookout
- MTG – the Museum Theatre Gallery
- National Aquarium of New Zealand
- A tractor tour to spectacular Cape Kidnappers to see the gannet colony
- Centennial Gardens
We stay in Hastings at the excellent Hastings Top 10 Holiday Park. Hastings is also a very pretty town with an Art Deco influence. The highlight of Hastings is a drive up the spectacular Te Mata Peak – the drive itself is fantastic and the views equally as good.
Another highlight is visiting the Birdwoods Café – a beautiful gift store, café and gallery with a gorgeous sculpture garden – don’t miss it.
Hawkes Bay Wineries
We spend time touring the famous Hawkes Bay wine region.
The highlights are:
- Black Barn Vineyards – we start the day at the beautiful produce market before visiting the Black Barn Kitchen store, cellar door and bistro. Don’t miss this vineyard – it is gorgeous.
- Te Mata Estate
- Craggy Range Winery – beautiful gardens/views – another must see and home to the Terroir Restaurant.
- Mission Estate Winery – another beauty not to be missed.
- Church Road – has a fabulous rustic dining room
- Elephant Hill – another one not to miss
- Trinity Hill Wines
- Ngatarawa & Farmgate Wines – housed in an historic stables building.
- Hawkes Ridge Wine Estate
- Alpha Domus Winery
- Sileni Estates
Next stop on our itinerary is Greytown on the way to Wellington. This is a delightful and popular town where we stop for lunch. It is a town of pretty timber buildings, gift shops, galleries, cafes, restaurants and an amazing nursery. We can recommend lunch at Salute Tapas/Restaurant/Bar and a visit to Schoc Chocolates!
Another highlight on the way to Wellington is the pretty village of Martinborough and its wineries. Unfortunately for us it is pouring rain during our visit – just too wet to stop. We did, however, take a look at a few vineyards:
- Vynfields Estate
- Ata Rangi
- Schubert Wines
- The Viineyard Café, Margrain Vineyard
- Martinborough Vineyard
They all look so appealing. Can’t wait to go back!
On reaching Wellington we check into the Wellington Top 10 Holiday Park – a large holiday park quite a distance from the centre of the city with good facilities and plenty of space.
We love Wellington – there is much to see and an interesting waterfront area.
Highlights we recommend are:
- Guided tour of the Parliament (including the Beehive)
- Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
- Mt Victoria lookout for wonderful views of Wellington
- Weta Cave – visit this TV and movie special effects workshop – made famous by the Lord of the Rings movies.
- Ride the Wellington Cable Car to the Botanic Gardens and the Carter Observatory
- Old St Paul’s Church – a charming and historic wooden church
- Visit Cuba Street for restaurants and people watching
- Visit the beautifully restored home of author Katherine Mansfield.
- Wellington Waterfront area – the Crab Shack, Wellington Museum, NZ Academy of Fine Arts, NZ Portrait Gallery.
- Take the scenic coastal drive around Oriental Beach, Shelly Bay (Chocolate Fish Café is popular), Scorching Bay, Karaka Bay, Breaker Bay and at Lyall Bay head back into the city.
- The iSite in Wellington is excellent.
We are sorry to leave the lovely city of Wellington.
Kapiti Coast – Wanganui
Leaving Wellington, we head north along the Kapiti Coast and stop for beautiful views of Pukerua Bay and Kapiti Island. We drive through the pretty towns of Otaki and Wanganui (where we stop for lunch).
Wanganui to National Park Village, near Tongariro National Park
From Wanganui we take the very scenic State Highway 4, stopping at Raukawa Falls. This is some of the prettiest countryside we have seen on this trip.
National Park Village
We had hoped to stay at the campground in Whakapapa village (at the entrance to the Tongariro National Park) but it is full, so we book a camp site at Plateau Lodge in National Park Village. Plateau Lodge primarily offers rooms, apartments and dorm beds but has a small area for camping that has just opened. Excellent facilities.
National Park village is small and it is possible to walk to most amenities that include:
- a petrol station/Four Square supermarket
- Schnapps (the pub)
- Station Café
- Macrocarpa Café
- The Park Hotel – accommodation and a restaurant
From National Park village to Whakapapa village is 15kms – an easy drive.
Whakapapa Village & Tongariro National Park
The three peaks (all three are active volcanoes) of Tongariro National Park can be seen for many miles:
- Mt Ruapehu (2797m)
- Mt Ngauruhoe (2290m) Mt Doom for Lord of the Rings fans
- Mt Tongariro (1978m)
In December during our visit Mt Ruapehu is topped with snow.
Whakapapa village is the gateway to the park and has a beautiful setting. This is where the excellent Visitor Centre is located. Driving beyond Whakapapa village, up Bruce Road is the ski village of Iwikau where there are many ski lodges and one of the chair lifts is open during our visit
Highlights of a visit to Tongariro NP are:
- Walking tracks – short or long walks (from 45 mins to 6 days)
- Tongariro Alpine Crossing – one of the most popular hikes
- Chateau Tongariro Hotel – a grand hotel
- Drive out on Bruce Rd up to Iwikau Village – past Scoria Flat – fabulous views
- Chair lift ride to Knoll Ridge Cafe
- Skiing in winter
There are several places to eat:
- Ferguson’s Café, Whakapapa
- Pihanga Café, T-Bar and Ruapehu Lounge at Chateau Tongariro
- Skotel Alpine Resort Restaurant and Bar, Whakapapa
- Tussock Tavern, Whakapapa
- General Store, Whakapapa Holiday Park
- Knoll Ridge Café – at the top of the chair lift, NZs highest cafe
- Lorenz’s Bar & Café, Iwikau village
Places to stay in Whakapapa include:
- Chateau Tongariro Hotel
- Ferguson’s Villas
- Skotel Alpine Resort – hotel and chalets
- Whakapapa Holiday Park – camping and cabins
- Mangahuia DOC campsites (for self contained campers)
Tongariro National Park to Taupo
The drive from Whakapapa to Taupo takes about 1.5 hours. The views are fabulous back across to Tongariro NP and we see smoke billowing from one of the volcanoes. There is also a scenic lookout on the left with wonderful views over Lake Taupo.
We come to Lake Taupo long before we reach the town of Taupo. There are good views once we follow the shores of the lake. Five kilometres before Taupo there is a scenic lookout across the lake to the peaks of Tongariro NP.
Taupo feels like a resort town and there is much to do here, although if you’ve already been to Rotorua you may not feel the need to visit the thermal attractions.
Highlights of Taupo:
- Huka Falls – short walks around falls
- Falls Lookout
- L’Arte Café & Gallery – a unique, colourful gallery and garden
- Maori Rock Carvings at Mine Bay (accessible by boat/cruise)
- Jet Boat & Prawn Farm
- Volcanic Activity Centre
- Craters of the Moon – a geo-thermal walk
- Spa Thermal Park – natural hot springs
- For the adventurous – bungy, skydiving rafting, mountain-biking, etc
During our visit we stay at the Lake Taupo Top 10 Holiday Resort – a fabulous place with excellent facilities. The swimming pool is quite something!
Whangarei is the regional capital of the spectacular Northland region and it is a long drive from Taupo.
Normally a NZ North Island itinerary would have you visiting Northland from Auckland (on the Twin Coast Discovery Touring Route), however we wanted to miss the crowds in Northland between Christmas and New Year so headed south of Auckland and left a visit to Northland until later in our trip (the second week of January).
Northland has 4 areas:
- Whangarei & Tutukaka Coast
- Bay of Islands
- Kauri Coast & Hokianga
- Top of the North
It is a beautiful place where you need plenty of time to enjoy the beaches, the walks, the Maori culture, historic buildings, the Kauri forests, the food and the wine.
Whangarei & Tutukaka Coast
Whangarei is a good place to begin your trip to Northland as it has an excellent iSite Visitor Information Centre. We have good advice from the friendly staff on what to see and do. Pick up a copy of Northland and the Bay of Island Visitor Guide.
Whangarei & Tutukaka Coast highlights include:
- Town Basin Harbour – for cafes, galleries, museums and shops
- Whangarei Falls
- The Poor Knights Island – Marine Reserve – a top diving spot.
- Tutukaka Scenic Drive: a stunning drive through stone wall countryside and white sandy beaches – Ngunguru, Matapouri Bay & Whale Bay, Sandy Bay.
- We take the scenic route to Russell via Oakura and Helena Bay however if you’re short of time, it is best to stick to State Highway 1 and travel via Opua (at Opua there is a car ferry across to Okiato/Russell so good idea to check the ferry times).
Russell & the Bay of Islands
Russell is a highlight of our trip. It is a charming, historic village with a pretty wharf and waterfront. Although pouring rain during our visit, we loved it. We book into the very pretty Russell Top 10 Holiday Park that has excellent facilities and a great location.
Highlights of Russell include:
- A drink or a meal at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel
- Pompallier Mission
- Christ Church & Cemetery
- Flagstaff Hill Lookout
- Russell Museum
- A boat trip on the Bay of Islands
Paihia is across the bay from Russell and is the main tourist town in the Bay of Islands. We take the car ferry to get there. The weather is still wet, misty and overcast so visibility is not great.
Paihia highlights include:
- Cruises in the Bay of Islands including Swimming with Dolphins, and Hole in the Rock
- Haruru Falls
- Waitangi Treaty Grounds & Museum
Still in pouring rain we drive north to Kerikeri. On the way we pass orchards, vineyards and roadside stalls selling local produce. Kerikeri is known for cafes, galleries, boutique wineries, art and crafts, and specialty food shops.
We have a delicious lunch in town at the charming Village Café – highly recommended – and push on in the pouring rain.
- Stone House – NZs oldest stone building
- Kemp House – NZs oldest standing European building
- Speciality food stores including Get Fudged, Chocolate Factory, Bay of Island Honey Shop, The Rusty Tractor Café & Trading Post plus lots of good restaurants.
- Scenic drive: Matauri Bay – Te Ngaere Bay – Wainui Bay – Tauranga Bay – Whangaroa Harbour
KeriKeri – Mangonui – Top of the North
Today we are leaving the Bay of Islands area to visit the Top of the North region of Northland, including Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach.
We take Hwy 10, detour onto the Matauri Bay/Te Ngaere Bay/Wainui Bay/Tauranga Bay/Whangaroa scenic drive, before joining Hwy 10 again to Mangonui. Mangonui is charming strip of lovely old buildings along the water. This historic fishing village is famous for the Mangonui Fish & Chips café.
Mangonui to Ahipara
Just beyond Mangonui we pass the beautiful Coopers Beach and Cable Bay – lovely golden sandy beaches. We are heading for Ahipara to camp for the night.
Ahipara & 90 Mile Beach
Arriving in Ahipara, we check into Ahipara Kiwi Holiday Park, a small campground with cabins and a large, cheerful reception/lounge/dining room with an alternative vibe.
Ahipara is a very small town with just a few amenities including the Ahipara Superette, Bidz Takeaway & Grocery Store and the North Drift Café. We can recommend dinner at the North Drift Café.
Ahipara to Cape Reinga
Today is a highlight of our trip to Northland – a day-trip to spectacular Cape Reinga.
It takes us a couple of hours to drive each way from Kaitai to Cape Reinga (more if stopping often).
Highlights of the trip include:
- Cape Reinga Lighthouse
- Giant Te Paki Sand Dunes – toboggan rides available
- Te Kokota – white silica sand
Cape Reinga is known as Te Rerenga Warua – the departure point of the spirits – and is a sacred place in Maori culture. The walk to the lighthouse and the views are spectacular. Cape Reinga is located in the Te Paki Recreational reserves and there are several walking tracks in the area. When we first walk to the lighthouse, the Cape is covered in mist however just as we turn back towards the carpark the mist lifts so that we can see the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Kauri Coast & Hokianga
After a day trip to Cape Reinga we began to make our way back down the west coast of Northland – along the Kauri Coast.
Kaitaia to Opononi
The first section of the drive to Opononi is along the inland Kaitaia-Awaroa Rd – the scenery is beautiful. We arrive in the lovely little town of KohuKohu were we get our first good look at Hokianga River before continuing 5 minutes down the road to the Hokianga Vehicle ferry across to Rawene. The crossing takes just under 20 minutes – beautiful scenery on the crossing and on the drive to Opononi.
Opononi has a stunning location on Hokianga Harbour. We check into a campsite at the Opononi Beach Holiday Park – gorgeous setting overlooking the water. We can recommend the meals at the pub nearby – the Opononi Hotel.
This is a small town with a Four Square Supermarket, an iSite Visitor Centre, the Landing Café, Dolphin Lodge, Lighthouse Motel, the Holiday Park and the pub. It has a great feel.
We take a short drive up to the Scenic Lookout on Signal Station Road for fabulous views of the Harbour.
Omapere is a small settlement a few minutes down the road, also on the Harbour.
It is only a short distance from Opononi to the beginning of the Waipoua Forest (the road travels through the forest for about 18kms all together). There are a couple of interesting places to stop in the Forest. Our first stop is at Tane Mahuta – a giant Kauri tree – an awesome site just 3 minutes easy walk from the road. There is an ambassador of Tane Mahuta at the site when we visit who is able to give us information about the tree.
A couple of minute’s drive from Tane Mahuta there are three walks in the forest:
- Four Sisters – 20 min return
- Te Matua Ngahere – 50 min return
- Yakas – 1 hr 20 min return.
Waipoua Visitors Centre
A short drive and we visit the Waipoua Visitors Centre which has a very good café, offers accommodation and camping.
Leaving the Visitor Centre, we travel back in the direction of Auckland but with one more scenic drive on the way (we missed it on the way up!) – the Waipu Coastal Drive.
Waipu Scenic Coastal Drive
This scenic drive is well worth doing:
- Waipu – this charming town has a Scottish heritage. Stop for excellent cafes and the Waipu Museum. Waipu Cove and Langs Beach are beautiful beaches nearby.
- Waipu Cove
- Langs Beach
- Mangawhai – don’t miss Bennetts French café and chocolates.
Mangawhai to Auckland
At Mangawhai we leave Northland and travel to Auckland. We arrive late afternoon and drop off our van to Lucky Rentals where the staff are very friendly and there is no trouble with the drop off. The van has been very reliable and comfortable on our trip.
Auckland to Sydney
We take a transfer from Lucky Rentals to the airport, where we fly with Emirates back to Sydney.
December 2015-January 2016