10 days off?! Magnificent news and pretty exciting that you’re planning a trip around the lower North Island. This 10 day journey will take you to some of New Zealand’s most popular destinations such as the wine growing region of Hawke’s Bay, the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua and the magnificent Lake Taupo but we will also take you to some lesser known spots including surfers’ mecca Raglan and the wondrous glow worms in the Waitomo Caves. So if you’re all set, buckle up and let’s GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
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1Wellington to Napier (315kms – 4 hours 3 mins)
Well, if you’ve just picked up your shiny new GO Rentals car hire, we know you’ll be itching to get on the road and the first day is going to be a biggie where you get some miles under your belt. If you do have a bit of time before you leave, Wellington is a super-cool city with loads of things to do so make sure you try and squeeze in some activities before you leave.
Although you’re heading for one of the most famous wine regions in New Zealand and possibly the world, a great starting point for this adventure is found only 80kms outside of Wellington.
Martinborough (80.1kms – 1 hour 10 mins from Wellington)
Although there are quicker drives to Napier, we always love to take this slight detour up the east side of the lower north island so we can stop off in Martinborough for a great feed and to sample some pretty awesome wines. New Zealand has such a diverse wine culture in the different regions and the lower North Island can sometimes slip under the radar. Martinborough however has become the cuisine capital of the lower North Island with over 30 local vineyards and local restaurants stocking local, super fresh produce.
Mt Bruce Wildlife Sanctuary (64.5km – 1 hour 1 min)
This is a great little stop off as you make your way towards Napier. 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.
Hastings (179kms – 2 hours 8 mins)
Devastated by a huge earthquake in 1931, Hastings was rebuilt using architectural styles of the time which has led to a very art deco look and feel to the place. If you’ve not managed to grab a bite to eat since you left Wellington this morning, Hastings is a great stop off point for a late lunch. With restaurants serving local produce, you’re in for more culinary delights on your first day of this road trip. Couple this with some great local vineyards and it may be tricky to drag yourself away from Hastings to your final destination of Napier (obviously just the soft drinks for the driver!).
Napier is just a short drive away (20.8kms – 23 mins) where you can recharge your batteries, have a wander and get ready for the next full day of exploring.
2Napier and around
As with Hastings, Napier was also hit by the devastating earthquake in 1931, registering a massive 7.9 on the Richter Scale. What resulted was some fantastic building work, much of which was completed within 2 years and much of it in an art deco style. Because of this, 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 ride 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.
Art Deco Guided Walks – if you’re not up on your art deco but you want to know more about this fantastic architectural period, a guided walk is the perfect way to learn about the history of the buildings in and around Napier whilst taking a lovely stroll around the town.
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3Napier to Taupo (142kms – 1 hour 47 mins)
After a full on day in Napier, it’s time to hit the road again. For the early birds, we can highly recommend a morning jaunt up Te Mata to catch the sunrise – we managed it once and it was truly spectacular!
The drive up SH5 to Taupo passes through some rugged landscapes although not much else in terms of stops offs so pack up some treats for the road trip before you leave Napier. Taupo is another one of New Zealand’s iconic stop over destinations and extremely popular with tourists. A lot of people come for the adventure activities like skydiving, but there is plenty more to this lakeside town.
Although this is a guide to off the beaten track activities, it wouldn’t be right for us not to mention the amazing sky diving over Lake Taupo. As you’ll be aware, New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world and sky diving opportunities are abundant all over the country but Lake Taupo is a GO Rentals favourite and luckily for you, Taupo Tandem Skydiving is a GO Play partner giving you a 5% discount. The views as you hurtle out of the plane towards the lake are spectacular and if you can, we recommend you get the photo pack – it’s well worth the extra dollars to remember this day.
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For you budding Rorys out there, Lake Taupo throws up a challenge – can you land your ball on a green floating in the middle of the lake? If the answer is yes, and more importantly, if you can get a hole in one, your trip to Lake Taupo just got a whole bunch better as there are some big prizes up for grabs. Even if you don’t play golf, it’s pretty satisfying just whacking balls into the lake!
This is a great little detour as you head out of Taupo and well worth it as it’s not every day you get to see a river that is usually 100m wide get squeezed through a gap which is only 20m wide over a 20m drop! Apparently 220,000 litres of water gushes over the falls every second (that is a LOT of water) – we haven’t as yet managed to see any salmon leaping up the falls and we’re not sure it’s possible – what do you reckon?
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.
4Taupo to Rotorua (81.3km – 1 hour 8 mins)
You probably noticed it as soon as you drove into Rotorua – that sulphuric smell (no that wasn’t your fellow passengers!), 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 (and smell 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.
For stunning examples of Maori culture that you’ll not find anywhere, pay a visit to Te Puia (about five minutes from the centre of town).
You’ll 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), another GO Play partner, 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 north.
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!
5Rotorua to Raglan (158kms – 2 hours 1 min)
Today’s drive sees us heading west across the country to the popular surfing town of Raglan. Although it’s a pretty straight drive skirting just below Hamilton, we have a couple of minor detours along the way but we think they’re well worth it!
Chainsaw Collection at the New Zealand Timber Museum (54.2km – 47 mins from Rotorua)
Not exactly the most obvious choice for a recommended touristic attraction but we’re talking about unique and quaint experiences that you’ll 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 1.5 hours 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 Matamata.
Matamata (29.8km – 28 mins from Putaruru)
Another great place for you Lord of the Rings fans, Matamata (so good they named it twice!) is a great stop off for all travellers heading north.
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 all this Lord of the Rings excitement, it’s time to hit the road again, heading back via SH29 to re-join SH1 and our journey west.
Cambridge (39.1kms – 30 mins)
As you near Hamilton, a great little stop off is the quaint little town of Cambridge. As the name might suggest, it does have an air of England about it and is a great place to take a stroll in one of the pretty parks. If you haven’t eaten yet, you can also get a mean pie in this town.
From Cambridge it’s only another 68kms to Raglan which should leave you plenty of time to explore.
Raglan is a bit of a surfing mecca to kiwis and international travellers alike. With a dramatic black sand coastline, whether surfing is your things or not there is plenty to see and do in Raglan to cap a brilliant final full day of your 10 day road trip.
For those who are into the surfing, they reckon that Manu Bay has the longest left-hand break in the world and if you are up to the task, those who have the gift of surfing can ride a wave for up to 2 kilometres – we’d be happy for 2 seconds up on the board! If surfing is not your thing, we would still recommend getting into the water and enjoying the waves with a bit of body surfing or just cooling off if it’s a hot day.
For those who are not of the sea, there are loads of great walks in the area to take in the views of this spectacular coastline. A climb to the top of Mount Karioi is one for the more energetic but well worth it with views down the coastline to Mt Taranaki on fine days.
The township itself is full of character and characters – many of the locals are bohemian types in search of a sustainable way of life so a trip to one of the cafes or bars is sure to be an eye-opener if you get chatting with the locals – you might not want to leave!
6Raglan to Waitomo Caves (108kms – 1 hour 41 mins)
Waking up in Raglan you will still have plenty of time to explore as it is only a short driving day today. We recommend an early morning surf to wake you up in style and join the masses catching the first breakers of the day.
Te Awamutu (65 kms – 53 mins)
The first stop of the day is in Te Awamutu. Known as the rose capital of New Zealand, November to April is a great time to visit Te Awamutu to smell the beautiful flowers in full bloom. During season, you can take in the magnificent sight of over 2000 rose bushes in full bloom next to the visitors centre.
Notable residents of Te Awamutu include the Finn brothers Tim and Neil who are the men behind the internationally successful band Crowded House. Te Awamutu gets a mention in their debut single from their self-titled debut album ‘Mean to Me’. There’s a little bit of trivia to bore your car companions with!
Waitomo Caves (43kms – 38 mins)
Arriving later in the afternoon is perfect for this particular activity. The Waitomo Caves have been formed by rivers and streams pushing through the soft limestone over thousands of years and are now home to some amazing sights and sounds. From the stalactites and stalagmites that grow from the floor and ceiling to the incredible glow worms that light up these underground grottos, this is a stop over not to be missed.
If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, you can always experience some blackwater rafting inside the caves where you‘ll be transported through the caves in a rubber ring. Sounds pretty cool to us.
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7Waitomo Caves to New Plymouth (172kms 2 hours 16 mins)
Today’s drive takes you down the west coast of the North Island where your route will hog the coastline for much of the way. The first stop of the day however is in Te Kuiti.
Te Kuiti (19kms – 17 mins)
We’re not sure about you but we can’t think of anything that’s ore synonymous with New Zealand than sheep! That’s why Te Kuiti is a must visit place when you are down in these parts as each year they host the New Zealand shearing championships, bringing together the best shearers in the country to do battle just after Easter. If you happen to be in and around these parts at that time of the year, be sure to stop in a witness some insane shearing skills.
Piopio (23kms – 18 mins)
Hobbit alert! That’s right folks, it has been a couple of days since out last Hobbit experience so we thought we had better track one down for you and this one is bit more of a hidden gem. Piopio was host to the biggest on-screen location in the first part of the trilogy and here you will find the area where the troll’s campfire scene was filmed. Hairy Feet offer a great little tour where they will take you into the actor’s footsteps and relive the excitement of been on set.
Awakino Point (51kms – 36 mins)
Your journey heads to the coast at Awakino and this is a great little stop off point to look out over the Tasman and take in the beautiful views. Hopefully you will have timed it right for lunch – whitebait is a speciality around these parts so make sure you give it a go.
Waitara (73kms – 55 mins)
Waitara and Urenui are great stop off on the final leg of this trip in to New Plymouth. Waitara is the largest town in Northern Taranaki and there is plenty to do here from white water rafting and bridge swinging to something a bit more cultural and the historic Manukorihi Pa, the site of a modern Maori village featuring a magnificent Maori Meeting House.
New Plymouth (17kms – 19 mins)
In full bloom, New Plymouth’s rhododendrons are a sight to behold and the parks dotted around the city are a great place to take a morning stroll. The waterfront is a great place to go and grab a coffee and you can also visit the Puke Ariki museum and heritage centre which has some great exhibits. If you’re here at the right time of the year, New Plymouth is also home to NZ Surfest, an annual surfing competition that attracts some of the best surfers from around the world. There’s also the opportunity to get on a board yourself as they run ‘learn to surf’ classes to get beginners up on their board and catching the waves. Surf’s up dudes!
8Egmont National Park and Mt Taranaki
Within easy driving distance from New Plymouth is Mt Taranaki in the Egmont National Park, a great place to explore with some fantastic walking tracks and trails.
Egmont National Park (29.1kms – 32 mins)
For those of you looking for something a bit more outdoors-y after all that time spent in the car yesterday, a short drive will take you to the heart of Egmont National Park, the home of the majestically conical Mt Taranaki. In the park you will find an extensive walking track network which will take you through lush rainforests, mossy swamps and lead you to some stunning waterfalls.
The highlight for many people who visit these parts is climbing to the top of Mt Taranaki which is possible year round for experienced hikers although it can be tricky in the winter months and we would definitely recommend a guide. The views from the top are magnificent and without a doubt this is your chance to shine in our GO Snap Happy competition. It will take you between 6-8 hours to complete the return journey to the summit. In the winter months, the ski fields on the eastern slopes offer some nice runs for beginners and a great place to start your skiing career.
New Plymouth Coastal Walkway
If you are looking for something a little less strenuous than a hike in the National Park then the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway is a great way to explore the area. The walk encompasses the sea-edge promenade for much of the way and you will be sharing the path with joggers and cyclists as this is a popular route day or night for fitness fanatics. The walkway also offers fantastic views of Mt Taranaki so be sure to take your camera.
Even if NZ Surfest is not taking place, a trip to Fitzroy beach is still worth a look to see the locals in action. If you’re feeling brave, why not take a dip and go and do some body surfing – then you can always say you have caught the waves down in New Plymouth like the pros!
Shopping and eating
Considering we are now 6 days into this trip and much of it has been off the beaten track, New Plymouth may be the place to indulge in some retail therapy. There are some great shops in the city where you can easily spend an afternoon meandering around. To cap it all off, there are some fantastic restaurants here so you can treat yourself to a delicious meal out tonight and reflect on what has hopefully been an amazing trip. Tomorrow is the last day of your road trip and the journey back to Wellington.
9New Plymouth to Wellington (352kms – 4 hours 36 mins)
We have a few miles ahead of us today but as we hug the west coast of the lower North Island there are plenty of stops along the way to break up your drive.
Stratford (41kms – 36 mins)
Stratford is the first stop off of the day and was named after William Shakespeare’s birthplace and the town’s streets also recognise some of his most famous characters. Stratford is also home to New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clock tower where performances of Romeo and Juliet are carried out daily. See, we told you this was a guide to off-the-beaten-track activities!
Hawera (71.4kms – 1 hour 2 mins)
Hmmmmm cheese! The first stop of the day will be at Hawera, home of the southern hemisphere’s largest single site dairy factory. We do love a bit of cheese! Around 13 million litres of milk are processed at Hawera every day – that’s a lot of calcium goodness and it is one of the areas big attractions along with the museum. One thing we love about Hawera is the water tower. Sure, we’ve seen water towers in other towns and cities but we love the history of this one. Built in 1914, the 54 meter high water tower was constructed after a string of fires destroyed parts of the town in 1884, 1895 and 1912. Hawera literally means ‘the burnt place’ or ‘breath of fire’ and it is easy to see why it gets its name. It is possible to climb to the top of the water tower and the views from up there are pretty stunning.
Patea (27kms – 23 mins)
The Taranaki town of Patea is famous in New Zealand for one thing – the hit Maori song Poi-E! See if you can get one of the locals to sing it for you if you have never heard it before – it’s an instant classic and spent a lot of time in the charts in the 80s. Other than that, the town has a rich Maori and European history so it is well worth stopping off for a nosey on your way through.
Whanganui (90kms – 1 hour 9 mins)
There’s plenty to see in Whanganui and this makes a great lay over on the drive back down to Wellington as it sits about half way between New Plymouth and the capital city. 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.
If you arrive in good time, it’s good to get out on the river, New Zealand’s longest navigable river which was an important transport route for the early settlers. One of our favourite things to do is head to the Bridge to Nowhere, built in early 1936 and abandoned in 1942 without really ever going anywhere.
10Whanganui to Wellington (192 kms – 2 hours 29 mins)
So, the final day of this road trip has arrived and the last drive back down to Wellington. We do have a couple of pit stops along the way so make sure you leave plenty of time to drop off the hire car.
Bulls (44kms – 32 mins)
There’s not much to say about Bulls but you wanted quirky on this tour and quirky is what you’ll get. The only thing of note in this town is the clever (or not!) use of the town’s name by local businesses – unforget-a-bull and hospit-a-bull are two of our personal favourites – let us know yours!
Palmerston North (29.8km – 25 mins from Bulls)
The penultimate stop of the day before hitting the capital will be in the small farming town of Palmerston North. Although it’s the biggest town between Taupo and Wellington, Palmerston is pretty quiet and this will give you a true insight into Kiwi life. With a plethora of cafes to pick from, this is a great place for afternoon tea and cakes – go on, treat yourself to one of those amazing looking muffins!
Stonehenge Aotearoa (193km – 2 hours 41 mins from Whanganui)
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.
From Carterton it’s a further 83.6kms to Wellington which will take you just over an hour and will bring to an end your 10 day adventure around the lower North Island. We hope you have had a blast and enjoy getting off the beaten track and exploring the sights and sounds of New Zealand at its best. If you came across any hidden gems along the way, maybe an awesome bakery serving the best pies in NZ or a little chippy that had the best fish and chips you’ve ever tasted, drop us a line on our GO Explore Facebook page and we will add your tips in to our itinerary.
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