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!
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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.
Auckland Complete Guide
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’s sure to be an unforgettable experience. If you’re looking for some real adventure, our GO Play partner Auckland Seaplanes offer 5% discount on scenic flights over Rangitoto. Go on, splash out, you’re on holiday!
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Once you’ve explored the Big Little City, it’s time to head North for a tour around the tropical North – make sure you pack the suncream – it can get a bit warm up in Northland!
2Paihia (227kms – 2 hours 54 mins)
After a day soaking up the city life in Auckland, it’s time to hit the road as our trip takes us north of Auckland up to the Bay of Islands.
This is one of the great Kiwi road trips and a favourite amongst those who live in New Zealand’s busiest city. This is your first trip out in your GO Rentals hire car but as much as you love the driving, make sure you take some regular pit stops along the way as there is plenty to see and do on the drive north.
Long Bay Regional Park (23.8kms – 27 mins)
Heading out of Auckland on SH1 a great little detour awaits only half an hour into your journey. Long Bay Regional Park located close to Browns Bay is a great place to soak up some fresh coastal air and have a stroll on the cliff top walk. The bay itself is great for kayaking and paddle boarding so if that floats your boat, give it a whirl.
Puhoi (32.3kms – 30 mins from Long Bay)
As SH1 comes to an end in the typical sense of a highway and moves to predominantly a single lane road all the way north, you’ll come across the quaint little village of Puhoi. If cheese is your thing, the Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Store is well worth a stop off to stock up. They do a delicious blue cheese as well as more traditional cheese varieties that you’ll struggle to find in the supermarkets.
Kawakawa (170kms – 2 hours 9 mins from Puhoi)
The next stage of your journey north does not provide much in terms of interesting stops as you pass through commercial hubs like Warkworth and Whangarei. Kawakawa however is worth a quick stop off and for the most unusual reason – the public toilets! Designed by renowned Austrian artist Friendensreich Hundertwasser, the toilets are an artistic marvel!
Paihia (16.5kms – 19 mins from Kawakawa)
From Kawakawa it’s only a short drive to your final destination of Paihia, gateway to the Bay of Islands. Hopefully you’ll have arrived in plenty of time to get your bearings and have an explore and maybe book yourself onto a trip for the following day. The best way to explore the Bay of Islands is undoubtedly on the water so check out your options and get yourself booked on an excursion.
3Around the Bay of Islands
With so many options it’s difficult to decide what to do – here’s a list of our highlights from the adventurous to the more sedate:
Bay of Islands Cruise
There are many companies offering a cruise round the harbour including Fullers and the Explore Group. Trips will take you out dolphin watching and to famous landmarks like the Hole in the Rock.
Use your GO Play card here
Jet Boat Ride
If you have never experience the power of a jet boat ride, the Bay of Islands is a great way to break your duck. Traveling along at breakneck speeds, the jet boat experience will get you out into the deep waters to explore the multitude of Islands whilst giving you a thrill ride at the same time.
For a more sedate day, why not catch the ferry across to Russell (20 minutes) and wander the olde worlde streets. There are some lovely cafes and restaurants on the sea front where you can easily spend a few hours people watching. The Duke of Marlborough is a particular favourite of the GO Rentals team.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
New Zealand’s premier historic site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 – a partnership between Maori and the British Crown and the founding document of New Zealand. Visit the treaty house and take a look at the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe.
Bay of Islands Complete Guide
4Cape Reinga (212.5kms – 2 hours 41 mins)
A trip to Northland wouldn’t be complete without a tip to the Northern most tip of New Zealand where you get to see the rare occurrence of 2 oceans colliding which can be spectacular on a stormy day. The Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean cross over at the tip of Cape Reinga and from the lighthouse, you get some fantastic views out over the spectacle.
The drive north will take you up alongside 90 mile beach and it’s well worth a stop off on your way up or on your way back down.
90 Mile Beach
Officially a highway, 90 mile beach is only recommended for 4WD vehicles and unfortunately our GO cars are not insured to be driven on the sand. This doesn’t mean that you can’t still have lots of fun up here. From surfing the waves to riding the sand dunes, there are plenty of activities on both the land and sea to keep you entertained.
It’s been an epic day of driving but hopefully you will have had a blast. It’s another couple of hours back to Paihia where you’ll be in need of a well-deserved feed and a glass of wine watching the sunset.
5Paihia to Auckland via Waipoua Forest (345.5kms – 4 hours 50 mins)
Instead of heading back to Auckland the direct route, we highly recommend a detour on your way back to check out the Kauri forest at Waipoua. Here you will find the best preserved and largest of the remaining Kauri forests in New Zealand. Among them is the legendary Tane Mahuta, the ‘Lord of the Forest’ who at 51.5 metres is the largest (by volume) of these ancient trees.
It’s another 232kms back to Auckland which will take you just over 3 hours so it’s time for a night off and a chance to recharge those batteries.
6Auckland to Coromandel Peninsula (168kms – 2 hours 30 mins)
After a couple of days up in the Bay of Islands, it’s time to start heading South on your kiwi adventure.
Pokeno Ice Cream (52.1kms – 36mins from Auckland)
We know it’s only been half an hour since you left Auckland but it’s already time for a pit 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.
Coromandel Peninsula (120kms – 2 hours from Pokeno)
It’s not exactly on the way but it’s well worth the detour and you’ll get some of the most stunning coastline photos on your side trip up the Coromandel Peninsula.
Coromandel Complete Guide
Make sure your camera is well charged and stop at the Coromandel Township for a glimpse into life in small town New Zealand. 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.
New Chums Beach – Wainuiototo Bay
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 will find is an example of the really pristine and unspoiled natural wonders of New Zealand.
One of the more famous and most visited beaches in these parts is at Cathedral Cove. There are plenty 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.
7Coromandel Peninsula to Paeroa (87.9kms – 1 hour 35 mins)
Waihi (106.9km – 1 hour 4 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’s 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-respecting tourist so make sure you strike a pose in front of it too – make sure you send your photo in to our GO Snap Happy collection on the GO Rentals website for your chance to win back the cost of your rental – can’t say fairer than that!
With plenty of accommodation options from B&Bs to lodges, Paeroa is a great place to stop off for the night on your route south.
8Paeroa to Rotorua (127kms – 2 hours 2 mins)
Matamata (55km – 42 mins)
Matamata – so good they named it twice! 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.
Rotorua Complete Guide
9Rotorua 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.And…Wai-O-Tapu is a GO Play partner so you get all this geothermal fun with a 10% discount. Result.
Use your GO Play card here
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!
10Rotorua to Lake Taupo (81.3kms – 1 hour 8 mins)
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.
Rotorua really is the town that keeps on giving with lots more GO Play partners based in and around this geothermal wonderland. We have only given you a flavour of the things you can do here but you may decide you fancy something a bit different so go knock yourselves out and have some fun!
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.
Although this is a guide to off-the-beaten track adventures it would seem wrong if we failed to mention the amazing skydiving to be had over Lake Taupo. The views are simply stunning as you plummet from 13,000 feet heading towards the lake. A further bonus is that Taupo Tandem Skydiving is a GO Play partner and will kindly offer you a 5% discount for the pleasure of throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aeroplane!
11Lake Taupo to Wellington (370lms – 5 hours 5 mins)
Whanganui (220.4km – 2 hours 41 mins)
From Taupo, we have nearly three hours to drive before we hit our next destination: Whanganui.
There is plenty to see in Whanganui so you’ll have to be a bit selective. We suggest a look at the Cooks Gardens, on St Hill Street, right in the centre of town. These are famous because they were the location where Peter Snell ran the famous sub-four minute mile in January 1962 (that’s crazy fast). If you’re feeling particularly fit, you can try attempting your fastest mile time here too, right where Snell did it in front of 13,000 people.
Afterwards, take some time to wander around the Whanganui Regional Museum, on Watt Street, which displays the impressive work of Gottfried Lindauer, one of the most famous colonial artists in the country. The museum also includes one of the most important collections of Moa bones, including some complete skeletons of the extinct giant bird.
Stonehenge Aotearoa (179.5km – 2 hours 24 mins)
We’re going to continue south to Wellington along a slightly longer route, past Palmerston North, with a pit stop in Carterton.
Take Park Road out of Carterton and follow the signs to Stonehenge Aotearoa to see a full scale model of Stonehenge located on the hills of the Wairarapa, pretty much as far from actual Stonehenge as anything can be. You’ll be able to learn a bit about astronomy, both ancient and modern methods, and find out more about Maori astrology too.
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.
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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).
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).
Wellington Complete Guide
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. You can also check out some of our other top tips for Wellington here.
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- 5 seats
- Large Bags
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