Guides

From Glow Worms To Mud Baths: Your Guide To A 7-Day Road Trip Around New Zealand’s North Island

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New Zealand (aka Aotearoa) is the perfect place for a road trip. It’s small enough that you can get around a lot of places in a short time, which is perfect if you need a holiday but you’re short on annual leave. Plus, every road is damn beautiful — no boring concrete highways here!

While the South Island is known for skiing and rugged landscapes, the North Island is full of cute towns, idyllic beaches, rolling green hills, volcanoes, and geothermal springs.

If you’ve only got a week to explore, here’s an itinerary that’ll take you through the best of the North Island.

Day 1: Auckland

Auckland is the country’s biggest city so there’s a lot here to explore, depending on what you’re up for.

Obviously, you’ve gotta start with brunch and coffee. Daily Bread has excellent fresh pastries, The Candy Shop’s brunch menu is decadent but a good bet if you’re starving, Billy Cafe is a chill hidden gem and right next to the Domain for a post-brekky stroll. For a real laid-back morning, eat on the deck at Takapuna Beach Cafe while looking out at the water.

Then you could take a ferry out to Waiheke Island for the day. This stunning island in Auckland’s harbour is covered in vineyards and ringed by beautiful bays perfect for swimming. You can go winery-hopping and hiking on your own, or join a cycling tour to get your bearings. Or just park your butt up at Mudbrick for excellent views, wine, and food.

For more of an active day, climb to the summit of Maungawhau / Mt Eden, a former volcano that is now a grassy bowl offering amazing views of the city skyline. The botanic gardens on the side of the hill are definitely worth checking out as well while you’re there. Afterwards, grab burgers and curly fries at nearby Ralph’s – they’ve even got a couple of vegan options.

Otherwise, just wander down the busy Karangahape Road, which is packed with boutiques, cafes, op shops, and places to keep you entertained all day.

Some great dinner options include pasta from Coco’s Cantina (they have a great happy hour), pork belly bao at Blue Breeze Inn, or basically all the Korean food on the menu at Pocha. Don’t end your night before grabbing an ice cream from Giapo, it’s some of the best in the country.

Day 2: Auckland to Coromandel

Driving time: Two-and-a-half hours

On your first day of driving, head to the beach. The Coromandel is a favourite weekend hotspot for Aucklanders wanting to escape the city, and once you arrive you’ll see why it’s so beloved.

Here, lush rainforest meets white-sand beaches, with water so bright and blue you’ll feel like you’re in Tahiti. There are plenty of campsites and caravan parks to choose from, or book yourself a rental in a town like Whitianga or Hahei.

An absolute must-see here is Cathedral Cove, a pristine beach with a naturally-formed rock archway that you’ve no doubt seen in countless pictures of New Zealand. Put Hot Water Beach on your itinerary as well, where you can dig your own warm natural spa in the sand, so long as you visit within the two hours of low tide.

If you wanna get off the beaten path, New Chum Beach is only accessible by a 30-minute walk down a rocky path. Or take a guided kayak tour out to Whenuakura (aka Doughnut Island) which has a gleaming emerald lake.

End your day with fish ‘n’ chips by the water (we love Coromandel Takeaways or Surf’n’Sand Takeaways in Tairua). For good local craft beer, hit up Luke’s Kitchen or The Pour House.

Day 3: Coromandel to Rotorua

Driving time: Three hours

 

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Today we’re heading to Rotorua, a lakeside town known for its hot springs and mud pools – so get ready to relax after your drive. It’s a stunning place, with plenty to see, eat, and do.

Hit up Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland to explore thousand-year-old geothermal pools, or head for Hells Gate to soak in their black mud spas.

For epic views, take the gondola up Mount Ngongotaha, then zoom back down to the base on a luge through the forest.

If you’re a fan of the outdoors, head to Whakarewarewa Forest where you can take a treetop walk that winds through the canopy of the towering redwood trees. There’s also a great mountain biking trail here, if you’re into that.

Come nighttime, you’ll definitely want to try out Abracadabra Cafe & Bar, which has a huge tapas menu and some excellent cocktails. Factory Smokehouse is one for the carnivores – they smoke their meat in-house – or try Atticus Fish for a delectable menu that caters to all dietary requirements.

Or you could immerse yourself in local Maori culture with a traditional hāngi, where the food is cooked by fire in an underground oven.

Day 4 and Day 5: Rotorua to Taupō

Driving time: One hour

There’s so much going on around Lake Taupō that you’re going to want as much time as possible to explore this area.

You should definitely get out on the lake – take a kayak or boat tour out to the Maori rock carvings, which are incredible to see in person. Adrenaline seekers could also get their heart pumping with a jet boat ride at Huka Falls, or instead hire a doughboat, pack a picnic, and spend your day putting around the lake. Taupō is also home to NZ’s highest bungy jump, if you’re looking to get the blood pumping.

Pizza for lunch is always a good idea, and 2 Mile Bay Sailing Club has a menu almost as good as their views.

If you didn’t get in enough hot spring action in Rotorua, Wairakei Terraces has a bunch of thermal pools of different sizes and temperatures where you can while away the afternoon.

Hiking fans can summit Mount Tauhara, where you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the lake and town, or tackle the two-hour trek out to Huka Falls along the Waikato River.

If you’re here during ski season, Mt Ruapehu is only an hour-and-a-half from Taupō, with slopes for everyone from beginners to experts.

Day 6: Taupō to Raglan

Driving time: Three hours

 

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Time to return to the coast. Raglan is a chill surf town on New Zealand’s west coast, and a very cool destination to check out before heading back to the big smoke.

Leave Taupō early in the morning so you’ll have time to stop by Waitomo Caves on your way. The ceilings of these rock tunnels are covered with glow worms, giving everything a beautiful (or eerie, depending on how you look at it) glow. You can hire a tube and float down the underground river, marvelling at the bright blue insects that look like stars.

Hopefully, you’ll get to Raglan in time for a late lunch. Fish ‘n’ chips from Raglan Fresh Fish can’t be missed, while The Shack definitely has the best coffee.

Surfers will want to head straight to Ngarunui Beach, which has some of the best waves in the country. It looks pretty spectacular as well, with black sand and the clear icy blue of the Tasman sea.

You can hike up Mt Karioi for epic views of the region, though honestly, you might just want to spend the afternoon wandering around Raglan. It has a real hippie vibe, with plenty of small shops, galleries, and local businesses to keep you entertained.

End the day with dinner al fresco at George’s Beach Club or The Harbour View Hotel. If you want to splurge on something fancy for your last night, The Wharf Kitchen and Bar has a bougie seafood menu and a great local wine selection. Then hit up YOT club for live music and a couple more drinks.

Day 7: Raglan to Auckland

Driving time: 2 hours 

 

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All good things come to an end. After brekky in Raglan (try Rock-It Kitchen), it’s time to make tracks back to Auckland.

If you’re got time you could stop off in Hamilton for a gander on your way up north. They’ve got a lovely botanic garden and zoo, or just take a little stroll around the lake.

Your drive back to Auckland will take you through the rolling hills of the Waikato – there’s really no corner of this country that isn’t breathtakingly beautiful.


(Lead image: Corin Walker Bain/ Adam Bryce via Tourism NZ)