The best New Zealand road trip: part 1 – North Island

New Zealand – also known as the land of the long white cloud – is on many bucket lists. The country’s stunning landscapes and unique adventures must be experienced to be believed. This comprehensive New Zealand self-drive itinerary covers the whole country from top to tail.

Part one of the itinerary focuses on New Zealand’s North Island. Over 11 incredible days, we’ll take you from Auckland, via Northland all the way down to Wellington. Part two (coming soon!) will cover the South Island.

The best New Zealand North Island itinerary overview

New Zealand North Island itinerary
  • Days 1 and 2: Auckland city and island hopping
  • Days 3 and 4: Auckland to Northland and Bay of Islands
  • Days 5 and 6: Northland to Waitomo
  • Days 6 and 7: Waitomo to Rotorua
  • Day 8: Waitomo to Rotorua
  • Day 9: Rotorua to Taupo
  • Days 10 and 11: Taupo to Wellington

We’re road trip specialists, so naturally we encourage you to rent a campervan or motorhome for this trip. We’ve partnered with TOP 10 Holiday Parks in New Zealand to provide holiday park recommendations along the way.

Days 1 and 2: Auckland city and island hopping

New Zealand Itinerary Auckland and Island Hopping
  • Auckland city
  • Waiheke and Raintoto

Most international visitors to New Zealand arrive via Auckland airport, so this is the perfect place to start your road trip. Auckland is New Zealand’s most populous city, also known as the “City of Sails”.

twilight picture of Auckland city
(Image by @__rithvik__ – shared with permission)

This nickname reflects the city’s unique twin coastlines, both of which are well worth exploring. We recommend staying in Auckland for at least one night. In fact, if you’ve just come off a long haul flight, this is essential. Fatigue is a killer, so make sure you’re well rested before hitting the road.

sunset photo pf sky tower in Auckland New Zealand
(Image by @__rithvik__ – shared with permission)

Like most world cities, you’ll find fantastic nightlife and dining options in Auckland. The region’s restaurants benefit from the amazing fresh produce grown locally in fertile volcanic soil.

There are plenty of things to do in Auckland. Thrill-seekers will be keen to either jump off or walk along the edge of the Sky Tower. Of course, you can also simply enjoy the view from the top.

We recommend taking a short half-hour ferry from downtown Auckland to Waiheke Island. This stunning spot boasts white sandy beaches, incredible vineyards and fabulous dining options. The island is also home to quirky art galleries and boutiques.

If you’re up for more island hopping, there are many others you can reach via a short ferry trip, including Rangitoto (a dormant volcano).

Places to stay near Auckland

Vehicle hire in Auckland

Things to do in and around Auckland

Days 3 and 4: Auckland to Northland and Bay of Islands

New Zealand Itinerary Northland and Bay of Islands
  • Northland and Bay of Islands
  • Poor Knights Islands
daylight picture of  goat island New Zealand
(Image by @charlottepearl7288 – shared with permission)

It’s time to leave the big smoke! Head over Auckland’s Harbour Bridge to the North Shore. Many are struck by the sudden transition from suburban Auckland to lush farmland. Continue on to your next base – we suggest Whangarei or Paihia.

sculpture from Waitangi Treaty Grounds
(Image by @thetravelegg – shared with permission)

If you can, check out a few attractions along the way. If it’s a Saturday morning, pick up some delicious produce at the Matakana Famers’ Markets. The Goat Island Marine Reserve is also well worth a visit. Snorkelling or diving is the best way to get to know the reserve’s fishy inhabitants. You can either bring your own gear or hire it.

Once you make to Whangarei or Paihia, it’s time to explore. If you’re staying in Paihia, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds are on your doorstep.

This historic site is arguably New Zealand’s most important. Here, Māori chiefs and European settlers signed the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi in the early 1800s. Today, the site is a major tourist attraction, offering authentic Māori cultural performances, food and more.

Next, check out the Poor Knights and the Bay of Islands. Both are world-class diving destinations. The Poor Knights are known for incredible marine and plant life, while the Bay of Islands are famous for shipwrecks.

Places to stay in Northland and Bay of Islands

Things to do in and around Northland and Bay of Islands

Days 5 and 6: Northland to Waitomo

New Zealand Itinerary Northland to Waitomo
  • Waitomo Glowworm Caves
  • Filming locations from the Hobbit

Once you’ve had your fill of the islands, it’s time to head back north. Either stop over for another night in Auckland or leave early and drive straight to Waitomo. The name Waitomo comes from Māori words meaning water and shaft  – referencing the region’s main attraction.

picture of glow worms inside Waitomo Caves New Zealand
(Image by @lucycowardwhittaker – shared with permission)

The Waitomo Glowworm caves are world-famous for their huge glowworm population. However, there’s much more to see here. This vast cave system is absolutely spectacular, and accessible on foot to all with reasonable mobility. Adventure options such as abseiling, spelunking and black water rafting are also available.

The Waitomo region is also home to some of the filming locations from The Hobbit. Exploring with a local tour guide is one of the best ways to see the best spots in the movie.

Places to stay in Waitomo

Things to do in and around Waitomo

Day 7 and 8: Waitomo to Rotorua

New Zealand Itinerary Waitomo to Rotorua
  • Rotorua
  • Hot springs

Head east to Rotorua for a steamy experience. If you want to explore along the way, bring food supplies as there aren’t many major towns to stop at. During your journey, you’ll have the opportunity to bushwalk or hike in the ancient Pureora Forest Park.

You may smell Rotorua before you see it; the town is known for its pungent sulfuric aroma. The good news is most people become desensitised to this fairly quickly. However, the smell is worth it as it comes from the town’s famous hot springs.

photo of a steamy geothermal pool in Rotorua New Zealand
(Image by @westloulou – shared with permission)

Many believe the geothermal pools around the region have health benefits. One thing is certain – you must check them out if you’ve come all the way to Rotorua.

Rotorua is also known for its rich Māori culture; check out the Mitai Village or enjoy a traditional Hangi dinner and show.

Places to stay in Rotorua

Things to do in and around Rotorua

Day 9: Rotorua to Taupo

New Zealand Itinerary Rotorua to Taupo
  • Lake Taupo
  • Mine Bay

The town of Taupo is most famous for the vast inland sea of Lake Taupo. This glorious body of water is approximately the size of Singapore!

Cruise the lake itself or explore its surrounds. The landscapes vary enormously; you’ll see snow-capped mountains, forests, deserts and waterfalls. The whole region is volcanic, so if you didn’t get your fill of hot springs in Rotorua you’ll find more here.

photo of cliff face with maori carvings on lake Taupo
(Image by @kevinmfaro – shared with permission)

In addition to the lake, Taupo is also famous for its Māori Rock Carvings at Mine Bay. The 10m high carvings of Ngatoroirangi and other figures can only be reached by boat. Kayak is the best way to see them up close.

Places to stay in Taupo

Things to do in and around Taupo

Days 10 and 11: Taupo to Wellington

New Zealand Itinerary Taupo to Wellington

Journey from Taupo

  • Tongariro National Park
  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing
  • Taihape
  • Kapiti Island

You could easily spend days in Taupo, but there’s so much more to see in New Zealand. As you head towards Wellington, you’ll have the opportunity to explore Tongariro National Park.

The famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing offers dramatic views of the volcanic yet alpine landscape. However, this trek is only suitable for experienced alpine hikers with about six to eight hours to spare.

photo of  Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New zealand
(Image by @taliatravels – shared with permission)

Other potential pit stops along the way include Taihape. This quirky town celebrates gumboots, with its giant gumboot sculpture being the main attraction. Natural wonders along this leg also around. Check out stunning Mangaweka Gorge or head over to the Kapiti Island nature reserve. Accessible by ferry, this 10km long island is a sanctuary for rare bird species.


  • Wellington
  • Wellington Cable Car
  • ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Well done – you’ve made it to the bottom of the North Island! Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city and the perfect place to end part one of this New Zealand road trip.

Wellington is a picturesque town and well worth taking the time to explore. The city claims to have more restaurants and bars per person than New York City, so dining out here is essential. Be sure to sample the city’s tasty local craft beer and coffee before you leave.

Night time photo of Wellington city, New Zealand
(Image by @satyaki.hosmane – shared with permission)

Perhaps the best way to see the sights is via the iconic Wellington Cable Car. This historic attraction departs every 10 minutes from the city centre. It takes passengers to a gorgeous lookout near the Botanic Gardens.

The ZEALANDIA sanctuary is another must-see. This conservation project is home to incredible wildlife and is located just 10 minutes from the city.

Places to stay in Wellington

Things to do in and around Wellington

Need help planning your next New Zealand road trip? We can help you find holiday parks here. You can also download our android / itunes app. We’d also love to see your holiday snaps – follow us on Facebook and Instagram.