This itinerary will help you discover all the hidden gems in between Auckland and Wellington, beyond the usual attractions all guidebooks tell you about. Sure, everyone wants to go to the top of the Sky Tower and visit the geysers in Rotorua – but along with the big famous structures and the famous natural wonders lies a country full of unique experiences to be had, if you dare to venture a little off-the-beaten-path. We’re about to let you in on some of those secret spots. Ready? Let’s GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
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1Auckland – Days 1 & 2
Known as the City of Sails or the Big Little City, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city with 1.3 million people calling it home. The renowned Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranked it the 3rd best city in the world to live and even the prestigious New York Times has named it one of the “hippest” cities in the world. Home to the largest Polynesian population in the world, 1.3 million people can’t be wrong, right?
The excitement of picking up your new rental car might tempt you to head out of the city and explore the open roads of the island. Don’t make that mistake. Auckland is not your average city and there’s plenty to see before you get on your way.
The city is the perfect mix of the natural beauty the country is famous for and a hip modern cosmopolitan urban area. Whether you’re looking to wander through luscious bush in the Waitakere Ranges or explore the wild West Coast beaches such as Piha or Muriwai, there is something for everyone in the Big Little City.
It’s also a geology-lover’s paradise, with over 50 extinct or dormant volcanoes to explore. Climb to the top of the tallest of them all, Mount Eden, for the best view of the city, or take the short ferry ride across the harbour to Rangitoto, the youngest of them all. Whichever you choose to visit, it is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
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With so much to see and do in Auckland, this is a chance to get out and explore some of the things you may have missed on Day 1. We can highly recommend heading down to the Viaduct and catching a ferry to one of the islands that are found just off shore. Here are 3 of our favourite trips:
Although this is not an island, the easiest was to get to Devonport from the city is via a 15 minute ferry. As you disembark, you will find yourself taking a step back in terms of the pace of life over in Devonport. With a great variety of cafes and bars, it’s a great place to spend a few hours meandering around the headland or for the more energetic, take a walk up Mount Victoria, the highest volcano on the North Shore.
You must have noticed the conical island located just off shore and visible from many places around Auckland? Rangitoto is the youngest of the 50 volcanoes dotted in and around Auckland and there are regular ferries running to the island every day. Once you get dropped off, there is a clearly marked path which allows you to walk all the way to the summit offering amazing views back to the city and on clear days, across to the Coromandel Peninsula and up to Goat Island.
This is probably the favourite trip for the GO Rentals crew as there is so much to do on Waiheke. The island is extremely developed with all the amenities you would expect on the main land. The best thing about Waiheke however is the grapes and in particular, those used for making wine. There are a number of companies offering wine tours or you can hire a bike and cycle to the cellar doors – most offer sampling and it’s a great way to see the island. As well as some superb wine, the island also has some amazing beaches and we recommend spending a full day on the island.
Once you’ve explored the Big Little City, it’s time to head south. Get on the Southern Motorway and prepare for a few interesting stops along the way.
3Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula (168km – 2 hours 30 mins)
Heading out from central Auckland and taking the State Highway 1 south, you will soon find yourself getting away from the hustle and bustle of the big little city as you start to hit the lush green countryside. Just past Bombay is the turn off towards the Coromandel onto SH2 however we urge you to head down SH1 for one additional junction – the detour will be well worth it we promise!
Pokeno Ice Cream (52.1km – 36mins from Auckland)
We know we made you come an extra junction down but it’s already time for the best kind of stop – an ice cream pit stop. The Pokeno store is renowned for the biggest ice creams in the country. Pokeno Takeaways, on Great South Road, will sell you a 15-scoop ice cream (yes, you read that right). Treat yourself. See, we told you it was worth it!
Coromandel Peninsula (120km – 2 hours from Pokeno)
Head back one junction north on SH1 and take the turn off onto SH2 heading for Thames. This will take you through lush flat lands as you follow Route 25 and really start to hit the open roads that NZ is famous for. When booking your trip to the Coromandel, there are a number of places to stay – our personal favourite is on the east side of the peninsula at Whitianga or Hahei but you could also choose to stay in Coromandel Township – wherever you stay down here is going to be amazing so pick whatever suits your trip.
If you picked to stay at Coromandel Township you will take Route 25 up the west side of the peninsula. After passing through the quaint little town of Thames, the road makes its windy way along the coastline with some fantastic views back across towards the mainland where you have just come from.
Arriving in Coromandel Township, you’ll immediately notice that the town has a laid back feel to it so take the Kiwi approach and don’t rush around – it’s time to take a more laid back approach to this road trip! Enjoy the atmosphere, as well as the numerous artisan centres spread around the place where you can take your pick at different workshops and pick up some beautifully handcrafted pottery, wood carving or painting. Before you head off, stop by the Coromandel Museum and learn a little about the town’s gold mining and Kauri history, both of which have shaped the region into what it is today.
If you decided that Whitianga was for you, then you will instead head to the east coast on Route 25A, merging with Route 25 towards Tairua, a small village on the drive up which is a nice place for a stop off to break up the drive. The next section of road from Tairua to Whitianga is very hilly and very windy so drive with care whilst taking in some of the breath taking views – there are regular lookout spots along the way so take your time, especially if you haven’t driven this way before.
Whitianga is a great little town with heaps of character. The shell-clad beach around Mercury Bay stretches on for miles and there are a number of accommodation options which open up right on to the beachfront (there is a road between you and the sand if we’re being honest!). Whitianga has a great range of bars, cafes and restaurants so it’s the perfect place to relax on your first night down on the Coromandel.
4Around the Coromandel Peninsula
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach holiday or something a bit more adventurous, there is plenty to do whichever side of the peninsula you have based yourself. Here are a few of our top tips for adventure or relaxation.
Hot Water Beach (34kms – 30 mins from Whitianga)
One of the quirkiest spots on the Coromandel is Hot Water Beach. Located around 30 minutes from Whitianga, for one hour either side of low tide, it’s possible to dig yourself a little hot pool and bathe in the waters – if you kick your legs enough you might even think you’re in a hot tub! This is great fun in the summer or winter and spades are available for hire or most places to stay in and around Whitianga will be able to help you out.
New Chums Beach – Wainuiototo Bay (15km – 20 mins from Coromandel Township)
Now this is something truly special. This little hidden gem is considered by many one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s small and it requires a short hike to get to but what you’ll find is an example of the really pristine and unspoiled natural wonders of New Zealand.
Cathedral Cove (37kms – 40 mins from Whitianga)
One of the more famous and most visited beaches in these parts is at Cathedral Cove. There are a number of tour operators who will give you a guided tour out to visit the sea caves and check out the towering cliffs of the Te-Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve.
Hahei (36kms – 35 mins from Whitianga)
If you’re looking for a really great spot to lay back and watch the world go by, Hahei is the perfect place. Lovely golden sands and crystal clear waters will greet you and there’s no better place when the sun is shining. This is also an access point to Cathedral Cove which is only accessible by foot or boat so make a day of it and visit both while you are round this way. If you’re brave enough, there is a great rope swing at the end of the beach which will swing you out over the incoming tide – lots of fun!
Adventure and Activities
Cooks Beach (1.5 hour walk from Whitianga including ferry crossing)
If you’re looking to head out and about and leave the car at home for a day, Cooks Beach is a great walk out from Whitianga harbour. Catch the ferry across to Ferry Landing and then head round Maramaratotara Bay towards Shakespeare Cliff Scenic and Historic Reserve. It’s possible to access the walk from the beach at low tide or from the road if the tide is high. From the top of the reserve, you have some great views out over Mercury Bay before dropping down to the 3km crescent of Cooks Beach.
There are some great fishing trips to take whether you are staying in Whitianga or Coromandel Township. Snapper is a popular catch round these parts but once you get out into the deeper waters, game fish like kingfish can be found and make for a great catch. There are a number of charters available so get yourself booked on for a relaxing day out to sea and catch your supper!
One of the most popular activities in Whitianga is the banana boat. You will have all seen them before but if you have never been brave enough to have a go, maybe now’s the time to break your duck. The banana boat will take you out into Mercury Bay and speed you around whilst you cling on for dear life – a dip into the water is a typical end to one of these trips but the water is lovely and warm in the summer so enjoy.
Kauri Grove (3kms south of Coromandel Township)
A spectacular grove of New Zealand’s oldest and most famous trees, the kauri. The walk is a 30 minute return along boardwalks and footbridges – a fairly sedate walk but a great chance to see some of New Zealand’s oldest trees if you have not yet had the chance.
Rangihau Ranch Horse Riding (18kms – 20 mins from Whitianga)
Follow the old pack horse trails in the valleys of the Coroglen through native bushland and across open pastures on a 1 or 2 hour horse trek. There is something quite romantic or rugged (depends on who you’re with!) about horse trekking and the stunning views out across the peninsula are well worth a bit of saddle soreness the next day!
5Coromandel Peninsula to Rotorua (232km – 3 hours 6 mins)
Waihi (106.1km – 1 hour 41 mins)
As you head out of the peninsula, make sure you stop by the impressive Martha’s Mine in Waihi. You can take a goldmine tour and find out more about this important part of New Zealand history. Take some time to learn a bit more about the gold mining history, as there won’t be many other opportunities to do so during the trip.
Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway (8.9km – 8 mins)
Dust off the hiking boots, we’re going for a little walk. Well, sort of little – 7 kilometres.
The Karangahake Gorge Walkway features the remains of a historical railway nestled in a natural gorge setting. The walk will take you through relics of back in the day when the area was a big gold mining region. It follows the railway line through the gorge and alongside the Ohinemuri River, through the Victoria Battery Complex and ending in the Waikino Station (which includes a cafe for a much deserved post-walk beverage).
To get to the start of the walkway, park your rental car at the Karangahake Domain Car Park on SH2 between Waihi and Paeroa, get your hiking boots on and off you go!
Giant L&P Bottle (11.8km – 10 mins)
Paeroa will be your next stop after the walk. There isn’t much to this small town but it is known for being the birthplace of L&P, the iconic kiwi drink that is “world famous in New Zealand”. This soft drink was originally produced using lemon and mineral water from Paeroa (hence L&P). The giant L&P bottle landmark is a mandatory photo stop for any self-respected tourist so make sure you strike a pose in front of it too.
Matamata (55km – 42 mins)
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, this is the place for you. If you’re not a Lord of the Rings fan (we don’t judge), you’ll still enjoy the stop in Matamata.
The town includes the set of Hobbiton from Peter Jackson’s movies and a guided tour of the movie set (starting from the Information Centre right on the main street) is a must-do for any visitor. You’ll be able to visit 44 unique hobbit holes (just like in the movies), including Bag End (Bilbo Baggins’ house), as you make your way through the Shire, passing iconic locations such as the Green Dragon Pub, the double arched bridge and the Party Tree.
After that, it’s time to continue south. Our next stop: Putaruru.
Chainsaw Collection at the New Zealand Timber Museum (29.9km – 24 mins)
Not exactly the most obvious choice for a recommended touristic attraction but we’re talking about unique and quaint experiences that you will only get in New Zealand, right? So here’s one: a chainsaw collection at a Timber Museum in the small town of Putaruru, about an hour south of Hamilton. You don’t find that in many other places.
Before you head out of Putaruru, stop for a visit to the international acclaimed Blue Spring with crystal clear blue waters. Pack a picnic and head along the Te Waihou Walkway to reach the spring. The walk takes about 1h30 each way and passes through rolling farmland, New Zealand native bush and even some waterfalls.
Mandatory waterfall photo taken, it’s time to keep heading south. Our next stop is Rotorua (52.8km – 41 mins).
6Rotorua and around
You probably noticed it as soon as you drove into Rotorua – that sulphuric smell, the vents on the ground letting steam off, the boiling mud everywhere. You’ve arrived in New Zealand’s thermal wonderland.
Rotorua is bubbling (see what we did there?) with geothermal activity and you can see it wherever you look. But one of the best places to see it in all its glory is Wai-O-Tapu, a place that encompasses a range of different volcanic activity, including the world famous Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser. You’ll want to spend a good couple of hours wandering around Wai-O-Tapu and visiting all the different lakes, mud pools and geysers.
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For stunning examples of Maori culture that you will not find anywhere, pay a visit to Te Puia (about five minutes from the centre of town).
You will learn about Maori culture and costumes from Maori people themselves, as well as witness a few more examples of geothermal activity (we’re still in Rotorua after all). Make sure you attend the Maori culture performance at the Marae (by the entrance) and visit the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute located inside as well. Te Puia also includes a live kiwi bird enclosure (a rare opportunity to see the New Zealand icon) and the famous Pohutu Geyser.
Right, that’s enough walking around, it’s time for some adrenaline. Head to the Zorb (149 Western Road in Rotorua) for a few minutes of adrenaline-infused adventure.
Zorbing first started in New Zealand so what better place to experience it than right in the heart of the country where it all began? Zorbing (which is basically rolling down some hills inside a giant inflatable ball) is one of those activities on many people’s bucket lists. Tick that off yours now before we continue heading south.
Our next stop is Mamaku Blue (311 Maraeroa Rd) for a more relaxed, less adrenaline-infused activity. This is where you’ll find out that, in case you didn’t know, blueberries are the solution to all your problems. At Mamaku Blue, everything is blueberry-based, from the wine to the toiletries. Did you even know you could get blueberry wine? The cafe only serves blueberry-based food and you’ll have the chance to learn all about how this fruit can heal pretty much anything.
New Zealand Caterpillar Experience
The New Zealand Caterpillar Experience will be another one of those unique places you probably don’t expect to find anywhere.
Located on 171 Fairy Springs Road, this is the work of Lindsay Willis, a man who has been collecting Caterpillar equipment for most of his life. We’re talking heavy machinery here, no small stuff. This is the world’s foremost collection of this sort of equipment and Willis keeps it all in excellent condition (with some of the oldest ones still in working order).
The displays are set alongside footage of some of the machinery at work, way back in the day, and you’ll get to see some trucks and bulldozers that are now the only examples left of their kind. Impressive stuff!
It’s been an exciting few days and we’re not even close to done yet. It’s time to relax. Before you head out of Rotorua, we suggest you take a few hours to visit the Polynesian Spa, voted one of the best spas in the world. Choose from a range of hot pools or book a massage and enjoy a couple of hours of what holidays really are about – doing absolutely nothing.
7Rotorua to Taupo (81.3km – 59 mins)
Our journey south continues through to Taupo, a town on the shore of New Zealand’s largest lake (with the same name). There is no shortage of things to do and you can pick and choose from a range of activities.
Make sure you stop at the Huka Falls, a set of incredibly impressive waterfalls along the Waikato River, with about 220,000 litres of water flowing per second (that’s a lot of water). Next, stop at the Huka Prawn Park (Karetoto Rd) for a visit (you’ll need a couple of hours if you want to take the tour) and some seafood deliciousness.
Lake Taupo itself is pretty impressive and, not far from the township, along the Desert Road, you’ll get to see Mount Ruapehu (Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans) and its neighbouring (and equally impressive) volcanoes.
The Desert Road itself is worth the drive as the scenery is not something you’ll find anywhere else (alpine deserts such as this one are a rare sight anywhere else in the world) so take your time to soak in the views.
8Lake Taupo to Napier (143km – 2 hours 3mins)
After a full day relaxing, it’s time to get your skates on and head on over east side to Napier – the wine growing heart of the North Island and a place where sunshine is usually the order of the day.
From Taupo take the SH5 heading east and follow the signs for Napier. It’s a lovely drive down with plenty of little villages along the way if you want a taste of kiwiana or just a stretch of the legs – the main event of the day awaits in Napier though.
With so many things to do in Napier, hopefully you’ll have arrived in good time to cram it all into one day (and the next morning – shhh!). Napier feels like a step back in time (even more so than the rest of NZ!) with its art deco facades and fountains so take your own step back, slow it all down and spend the day doing exactly what you want to do – you’ve deserved it.
Here are some of our top tips:
Wine tour – Hawkes Bay is one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions along with Marlborough so it would be rude not to sample at least a couple of the local drops. If you’re feeling energetic, why not hire a bike and cycle between the vineyards – you’ll have truly earned your vino then!
Te Mata Peak
Offering some superb panoramic views of the Ruahine, Kaweka and Maungaharuru Ranges and Cape Kidnappers, whether you bike, hike or drive to the summit of Te Mata, it’s well worth the trip. For the more adventurous, you can even choose to paraglide back down to sea level.
Coastal walks – the Hawkes Bay coastline provides some of the best walking tracks in the North Island which you can easily hop on to and spend your time admiring the spectacular views.
Arataki Honey Visitors Centre – you may or may not have heard of manuka honey – something that NZ is very famous for. Fabled for its medicinal properties, you can find out all about the bees that help to produce this delicious honey and pick up a pot to take with you on the rest of your travels.
9Napier to Wellington (315km – 4 hours)
If you’re an early riser, try and head up to Te Mata Peak for sunrise – we managed it once and it was spectacular! After a leisurely morning in Napier, maybe exploring the Marine Parade, it’s time to hit the road to Wellington.
Mt Bruce Wildlife Sanctuary (206km – 2 hours 32 mins)
This is a great little stop off as you get ever closer to Wellington. Home to a whole host of wildlife including the world’s only white kiwi in captivity, the Manukura as well as the Turua, a North Island Brown Kiwi, this is a great place for kids and adults alike. With regular feeding sessions, talks and other activities to keep you entertained, it’s a great way to break up the journey south.
Martinborough (65.5km – 48 mins)
Although it’s a slight detour off the main route into Wellington, Martinborough is well worth a look if you have the time to spare. Martinborough has become the gourmet capital of the lower south island with 25 boutique vineyards and several fantastic restaurants serving delicious local produce. With the whole day to spend in Wellington tomorrow, this is a good shout for dinner as it is only a short drive to your resting place for the night.
It’s been quite the journey but here we are – New Zealand’s capital. Wellington is small but has no shortage of things to see. Head for the CBD, park your rental car and wander around the small streets.
Grab a coffee (Wellington claims to have the best coffee in New Zealand so check for yourself), visit the cool one-of-a-kind stores along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. When you’re on that street, notice the cool Bucket Fountain that doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to (take a close look at it and you’ll see the water doesn’t actually obey the easy bucket system and sometimes misses the buckets altogether).
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A visit to Archives New Zealand, on 10 Mulgrave Street, allows you to see the Treaty of Waitangi (the document that is considered the foundation of the country). You can also take a tour of the Beehive, the country’s parliament, if you’re feeling politically-inclined, before taking a stroll along the waterfront, decorated with interesting sculptures and populated by numerous bars (including some decent craft beer spots).
Before you head to the airport to drop off your car, we suggest you park Wexford Road, on the northeastern side of the airport. On a typical windy Wellington day, you’ll have the chance to see what you escaped from, making the very wise decision to drive down from Auckland. Planes taking off and landing in Wellington often sway a little more than they should – a little scary for passengers on the plane, a bit of fun for us safely watching from the comfort of our rental car on safe ground.