A week off! Magnificent news and pretty exciting that you are planning a trip around the lower North Island. We have a few itineraries that will take you out from Wellington for trips around the North Island but this one is one of the less travelled itineraries and one of discovery. From the vines of Hawkes Bay to the Forgotten Highway, this trip has some real hidden gems that will make for a pretty special New Zealand road trip so it’s time to get the car packed up and get GOing!
- 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. 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.
Stonehenge Aotearoa, Carterton (28.7kms – 23 mins from Martinborough)
Continuing north from Martinborough, a great pit stop is at Stonehenge Aotearoa.
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.
Mt Bruce Wildlife Sanctuary (40.9km – 30 mins)
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.
Although Taupo is a great place to spend the night, we have a lot to squeeze into these 7 days so we recommend you head on over to National Park Village tonight so you’re ready for the early start in the morning. Be sure to organise your return bus transfer to the start and from the end of the walk in advance.
Its 101kms to National Park Village which will take you around an hour and 20 minutes.
4Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often described as the best one day walk in New Zealand if not the world. There are many places providing accommodation and a lift to the start of the trail which takes you up into the Tongariro National Park. The walk itself is 19.4km and on average takes between 7-9 hours to complete. It reaches altitudes of over 1800m and is covered in snow during the winter months.
The bus will drop you off at the start of the work and they will usually allow for a 10 hour day so you can take your time and enjoy the walk.
The weather can change quickly out on the walk so make sure you pack for all seasons from the sun cream to the warm base layers – even if it’s a lovely sunny day when you set out, things can soon change out on the track.
A gentle start to the walk will soon be replaced by some gradual climbs before the steep ascent to Red Crater where you get some amazing views looking down to the Emerald Lakes. Make sure you have your camera at the ready as there are so many photo opportunities on the walk.
Lord of the Rings Fans
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan (we won’t hold it against you if you’re not – promise!) then this is the place for you. Home to the sinister Mordor, you’ll soon start to recognise landscapes from the trilogy and a look over to Mt Ngauruhoe should bring flashbacks of the infamous Mount Doom. If you have the fitness and the equipment, climbing to the summit of Mount Doom is a possible add on to your day but be aware that this is a steep climb and should only be carried out by experience climbers.
After a full day out on the trail, you will feel like Sam and Frodo after their trip to Mordor but you should have a camera full of amazing pics and that beer is going to taste pretty awesome once you have showered and freshened up. Enjoy!
5Tongariro to New Plymouth (232kms – 4 hours 50 mins)
Ok, so this is going to be a pretty exciting day of road tripping on a journey of discovery to find a forgotten highway – sound exciting? It’s gonna be!
Taumarunui (42.3kms – 30 mins)
Setting out from National Park Village in the Tongariro National Park, your day will start with a short drive towards Taumarunui and the start of the Forgotten Highway. Located between the Whanganui National Park and the Tongariro World Heritage area, Taumarunui is a great place for the first big stop off of the day. Located at the junction of the Whanganui and Ongarue rivers, the fishing as you can imagine is pretty good round these parts but there are a ton of activities from cycling to golf to great walking trails so take the time to explore the town which is also home to some great little cafes and places to grab a bite to eat for lunch.
Whangamomona (87kms – 2 hours 38 mins)
Although its only 87kms to Whangamomona, this section of the Forgotten Highway will take you just over two and a half hours and realistically it will probably take you longer as there are so many great photo opportunities along the route. There are a couple of stop off points on the way including a quirky museum (The Nukunuku Museum) and one of the highest waterfalls (Mt Damper Falls) in the North Island which also includes a nice 20 minute stroll to get there.
Shortly after your visit to the falls, you come across one of the highlights of the Forgotten Highway – the 180m long, single-lane Moki Tunnel which was built in 1936 and is known locally as the Hobbit’s Hole. Next stop will be Whangamomona, a small village full of character, home to the only hotel on the Forgotten Highway and the guarantee of a friendly welcome. The village declared itself a republic in 1989 and you can pick up a passport from the Whangamomona Hotel. Now that is pretty quirky!
Stratford (61.9kms – 1 hour 7 mins)
The final section of the Forgotten Highway takes you through some spectacular scenery, initially heading over the Whangamomona Saddle which provides some fantastic views of the surrounding forest before you will finally end up in Stratford.
Stratford 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!
It’s a further 40 kms to your final resting place of New Plymouth and this will have been a long day of driving so it’s time to get a good feed in you – tomorrow is going to be a day out of the car (well, mostly out of the car!)
6Egmont National Park and Mt Taranaki
After the excitement of the drive across the Forgotten Highway yesterday, you will wake up refreshed and ready to explore the Taranaki region starting out in New Plymouth. 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!
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.
7New 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.
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.
Whanganui (90kms – 1 hour 9 mins)
There’s 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.
After a stop off in Whanganui you can always call in at Stonehenge Aotearoa if you missed it on the way out. It’s about 2 hours 40 mins from Whanganui to Carterton and from there it’s a further 83.6kms to Wellington which will take you just over an hour and will bring to an end your week-long 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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