New Zealand North Island Itinerary
We spent an incredible three weeks travelling from the North to the South of New Zealand in a campervan. We flew into Auckland and spent 8 days in the North Island. Set out below is my New Zealand North Island Itinerary as well as places we missed on the way.
Days 1-2 of New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Auckland
Most North Island trips start in Auckland. We stayed in the centre of the city in Star Queen Serviced Apartments which was a reasonably priced, modern apartment complex.
The harbour area of New Zealand is beautiful but I felt that the rest of the city (central) lacked atmosphere. I can’t put my finger on it but I just didn’t ‘bond’ with it like Wellington and Queenstown.
You therefore could skip Auckland all together and visit Bay of Islands (north of the city) instead. However, there are good parts of Auckland! We absolutely loved Waiheke, situated 45 minutes by ferry from the city. Make sure you visit Mudbrick and Cable Bay vineyards which are incredible. Another great day / half day trip from Auckland is to Devonport which is only 15 minutes on the ferry.
You can read more about Waiheke, Devonport and other things to do in Auckland here.
Day 3 of New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Hamilton and Waitomo Caves
On our third day, we collected our Jucy campervan from the airport! Decked in green and purple, this campervan certainly stood out. If you are planning on travelling by campervan (which I thoroughly recommend) check out my post on Camping Tips for New Zealand.
On our way to Waitomo Caves, we stopped off at Hamilton Gardens, which is around 1 hour 45 minutes from Auckland Airport. They are not your typical botanic gardens as they have been created to explore and tell the story of relationships between people and plants. The complex has five garden collections that are spread over 58 hectares. Entrance is free (yey!) and was the perfect stop to break the journey.
From Hamilton Gardens, Waitomo Caves is another 1 hour 15 minutes. There are a number of experiences available at the caves, including black water rafting! We opted for the Waitomo Glowworms Experience ($55). Make sure you check out any arrival books from the airport or campervan rental as they can contain discount codes.
We booked ahead and committed to a specific timeslot. However, if you are flexible, the tours run every 30 minutes so you should be fine booking on the day.
All tours are operated by direct descendants of the founder which makes it extra special. The caves were first explored in 1887 by English surveyor, Fred Mace, accompanied by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau. They built a raft of flax stems and with candles as their own lighting, floated into the caves where the stream goes underground!
Our tour of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves tours began in the upper level which is dry and decorated with stunning, delicate cave formations. You then take a 10 minute boat ride through the glow worm grotto where you are simply amazed by thousands of glowworms lighting up the darkness. The glowworm (Arachnocampa Luminosa) is unique to New Zealand so this is a really special activity! No photography is allowed (understandable!)
Within the same complex as the caves, there were signs to a viewpoint which only took 15 minutes.
Our first night camping was at Little Waipa Reserve found through the CamperMate app (which we used for all of our bookings). This was free of charge (for two nights) and situated right on the banks of Lake Karapiro. There was plenty of space when we arrived around 5pm and we loved eating dinner staring at the lake. The are two showers (cold water only) and two toilets (drop holes) in the campsite which were fairly clean. There is no cell phone coverage but that’s rather nice! An amazing, free of charge spot for camping in between Waitomo Caves and Rotorua.
Days 4-5 of New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Rotorua and Lake Taupo
Day 4 was spent exploring Rotorua and we had an amazing time visiting:
- Kuirau Park
- Polynesian Thermal Spa
- Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest
- Rainbow Mountain / Crater Lake
You can read more about things to do in Rotorua here.
We stayed at Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park which was a powered site costing $40 for 2 adults. The campsite was well located to access Rotorua but the cleanliness of the bathroom area was average. On a positive note, they have a couple of bbq’s on the campsite, which we took advantage of and free hot mineral pools.
Day 5: Rotorua / Lake Taupo
Day 5 was busy! We started off early at Waimangu Volcanic Valley which is the youngest geothermal system in the world and the only one wholly created as a direct result of a volcanic eruption. The key stops on the 2 hour walking loop are:
- The Southern Crater and Emerald Pool (stop 2): 50m deep with a cold water pool at the floor of the crater
- Frying Pan Lake and Echo Crater (stop 7/8): this was so steamy and you could hear bubbling eery noises from the lake bed boiling!
- Inferno Crater (stop 18): A crater on the side of Mount Haszard – the bluest water we have seen in NZ!
- Warbrick Terrace (stop 28): Multi coloured silica platform with new ripple terraces continuing to form
- Lake Rotomahana (end of the walk): Lots of birds including black swans!
This is a must do in Rotorua!
We drove one hour south towards Taupo to Orakei Korako, known as the ‘Place of Adorning’ with its large geothermal field next to the Waikato River at Lake Ohakuri. You can read more about Orakei and Waimangu here.
A further 30 minute drive south takes you to Huka Falls (free entrance), which is only a 5 minute drive from Lake Taupo. You actually hear the Huka Falls before you see them! Almost a quarter of a MILLION litres of water PER SECOND fall 9 metres from the natural gorge and crash into the Waikato River below. That is enough to fill five Olympic swimming pools every minute – madness! It really is incredible to watch – the water is so powerful. A little further down the Waikato River jet boats operate where you can feel the spray of the falls!
We drove another 1 hour and 30 minutes to get to the Tongario Alpine National Park ready for the one day hike across the crossing the following day. Sadly, the weather was rainy and windy and we received notice that the crossing was closed. Ultimately, safety comes first but we had been very excited for the 8 hour hike, which is known as the best one day hike in New Zealand! In case you get the chance to do it, we booked our transfers through Dempsey Buses (luckily they refund the cost if the crossing is closed). We also booked to stay at Whakapapa Holiday Park ($40 / night) as the shuttle picks you up from the campsite.
Day 6 of New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Whanganui & Himatangi
Instead of the Alpine Crossing, we started making our way down to Wellington a day earlier. The first stop was Whanganui where we visited two lakes: Virginia Lake and Westmere Lake. The former is a beautiful lake with plenty of wildlife – a walk around takes a casual 30 minutes.
Our next stop was to visit Durie Hill elevator, which was integral to providing access between the suburb and Whanganui centre. It opened in 1919 with a shaft of 65 metres which is unique for its kind in the world. The cost to ride the elevator is only $2 per way and it takes you through an amazing 213 metre long tunnel to the centre of town. You can also climb the Durie Hill Tower which you gives you amazing views over the city.
After Whanganui we drove to Himatangi Beach and stayed at a fantastic campsite, Himatangi Beach Holiday Park. The facilities were super clean and they had a book share, foosball table and a pool table as well as a BBQ.
Days 7-8 of New Zealand North Island Itinerary: Wellington
The drive from Himatangi Beach to Wellington only took 2 hours. This was much better than 4.5 hours it would have taken from the Alpine Crossing!
We stayed at Camp Wellington which was situated a 10-15 minute drive from the town. This is one of the few campsites that is situated close to the town and therefore gets booked up quickly. Owner, Si, was really helpful before and during our stay and has a map of Wellington recommendations!
We enjoyed the following acitvities in Wellington:
- Cable Car
- Botanical Gardens
- Climbing Mount Victoria
- Drinks in and around Cuba Street
- Weta Caves
You can find out more about activities in Wellington here.
Places we missed
It was tough cutting some areas in the North Island but SO many people had advised us to spend more time in the South. This was a choice we did not regret. However, the places we missed that I would have loved to visit are:
- Bay of Islands (North of Auckland)
- Bay of Plenty (far East of the Island covering a large area)
- Coromandel to see the dolphins!
- Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga)
East London Girl: New Zealand North Island Itinerary