Driving the North Island of New Zealand
Two years ago my brother decided to move half way across the world to New Zealand. At first I was devastated, however, I soon realised it gave me an excuse to visit and spend some time in this breathtaking country. I'm going to focus purely on the North Island for this post as it seems to get a lot less love than the South Island. You can drive the length of it in roughly 10 days quite easily so I suggest you rent a card and get started!
Day 1 - Auckland
Try to arrive in Auckland in the late afternoon so you can spend some time exploring the waterfront.
Day 2 - Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is short ferry trip from Auckland and offers spectacular scenery, great weather and, of course, the all important wine tasting experiences which the island is famous for. The morning ferry to the island leaves Auckland at 10am, you will meet your guide for the day on Waiheke. There are plenty of tour companies to choose from but I personally would recommend Ananda Tours who made sure our visit to Waiheke was as memorable as possible. First, you are driven around the island, where your guide tells you about its history and the culture and, moreover, convinces you that you have finally found your dream place to live. You visit three vineyards throughout the day which, given the early start, means you do have a glass of wine in your hand by 11am. Normally, unless its Christmas, I have a 12 o'clock rule but for Waiheke, I made an exception.
All of the vineyards are different and offer a variety of experiences. Some pair wine with food to show you how different foods can affect the taste of wine, others let you try some very expensive wines or some, like my favourite vineyard, Batch, offer amazing views across the island.
After you have visited the vineyards you are dropped off at your chosen place for lunch. We chose the Oyster Inn which was in the town near the ferry port rather than in one of the vineyards. Not only was this restaurant cheaper than the others, but its location also meant we had time to visit the beach near the town which we would not have done if we had eaten in one of the vineyards. Plus, the food was incredible!
Day 3 - Kiwi birds and Glowworm caves
We left Auckland in the early morning and headed to Otorohanga and, more specifically, to the Kiwi House. The bird sanctuary isn’t that big and it’s quite expensive but it’s quiet and so you can stand watching the Kiwi birds in the Nocturnal enclosures for as long as you want. I didn't visit the zoo in Wellington which is famous for its Kiwi birds but I hear (from my brother) that the experience is better in Otorohanga than at the zoo. The enclosures where the Kiwi birds are located are dark and it takes time for your eyes to adjust but, once they do, you will see plenty of Kiwis. I couldn't believe quite how big they were! Given that these birds are flightless it’s no surprise that they are a target for predators in the wild.
After you have visited the Kiwis you can take the time to see the other birds including the parakeets in the large open enclosure. Here, you can feed and interact with them which is great for kids…..and fully grown adults like myself.
Near to Otorohanga is the Waitomo Glowworm caves; the main reason for our journey down in this direction. There are over 300 limestone caves in this area and the presence of glowworms all over the cave walls and ceiling has made this quite the tourist attraction. There are a couple of options here; you can walk and take a boat into the caves, you can do tubing in a rubber ring or there is the more advanced option of rock climbing and abseiling. We decided to go with the tubing which I can highly recommend. For those of you who are slightly nervous in water there is nothing to worry about as the caves are large and the guides are well trained and can help you navigate through any of the rapids or deeper areas. The company running all of these tours is Discover Waitomo and I suggest you consider booking in advance.
From here we continued to Matamata and stayed the night in the town so we could be up nice and early for Hobbiton the next day.
Day 4 - Hobbiton and Rotorua
Whether you are a Lord of the Rings fan or not, no trip to New Zealand would be complete without a stop at Hobbiton. Although by no means my favourite part of the trip I am glad we visited. It was, however, as expected; super touristy, overpriced and a little disappointing. We took the 9am trip from Matamata and so met the bus taking us to Hobbiton first thing in the morning from the Tourist Information (I-Site).
On arrival at Hobbiton you are introduced to your guide and receive an hour long tour around the set, learning more about the movies and seeing where your favourite hobbits lived. Unfortunately, you cannot go in any of the buildings other than one which provides you with a good photo opportunity, albeit the interior is sadly empty. Nearly all of the hobbit houses consist of false walls and doors with the interiors being filmed elsewhere in an indoor set. Your tour finishes with a visit to the Green Dragon pub which has been recreated inside and out and you are offered a pint of the local brew before being ushered back on to the coach,
The Hobbiton experience took about 2 hours and as we had plenty of time to drive down to Lake Taupo where we were staying the night. We decided to drive via Rotorua, famous for its hot springs. You can visit the hot springs or the Māori village which are the top attractions in this town but we decided to just take a nice scenic walk around one of the many lakes in the area.
Day 5 - Lake Taupo
There is plenty to do in Lake Taupo and a lot of people just spend time walking around the lake itself. However, we decided to rent mountain bikes and take the trail to Huka Falls. We were told by the bike rental company that the route was fairly easy and that we would be able to do it without issue. However, as someone who doesn't often ride bikes (unless spin class counts) I want to warn you that it was much harder than expected and I sliced my knee open twice (ouch!) falling from the bike whilst trying to stop myself tumbling over the cliff edge. It was good fun though and the scenery was incredible and so it was worth the ride to the falls. I must admit, I refused to cycle back over the trails and so we did cycle back along the main roads....
We still had the afternoon to spare and so decided to visit Orakei Korako Cave and Thermal Springs as we hadn't visited any hot springs in Rotorua. It was a good way to waste an afternoon but if you don't have time I wouldn't worry too much about missing it as there isn't a huge amount to see.
Day 6 - White water rafting and the route to Tongariro National Park
One activity which I love is White Water Rafting and doing this in New Zealand, the home of outdoor adventures, was high on my list. The Tongariro river seemed to offer the best rafting experiences and so we stopped at 'Great Lake Taupo' in Turangi on the way down to Tongariro National Park. We were presented with wetsuits, given instructions and driven to the top of the river. Here, we all got into the raft and away we went, down a number of rapids which seemed to get bigger in size as we rafted down the river with a short break in the middle for a swim. The guide talked us through each rapid before we got to it and told us how many times people had capsized on that rapid to give us an idea of the difficulty level.
From here we continued on to Tongariro National Park and to the Chateau Tongariro which is where we were staying, It was early afternoon when we arrived and so we took the chance to enjoy their famous afternoon tea.
Day 7 - Tongariro Crossing
The highlight of the trip for me was the Tongariro Crossing which is a 19.4km length height over a volcanic pass. When researching this hike at home a lot of internet reviews described the hike as difficult and advised it could take at least 8 hours to complete. I think some people have exaggerated the difficulty and would say that anyone who is relatively fit will manage this route fairly easily and could complete it in as little as 6 hours.
We booked onto the early morning bus from the Chateau and were dropped at the route starting point ahead of quite a few of the tour buses. The hike itself takes you up a steep volcanic terrain into a plateau, with views of the emerald lakes, and down a fairly easy (but long) path through the forests to the bus pick up point. You have the opportunity to add an extra 1.5 hours and 3 km to your hike by taking the side route to Mount Tongariro summit. I think this is well worth doing if you are fit enough as you get some amazing views over the crossing and Mt Ruapehu.
It can get pretty windy towards the summit so make sure you have a proper waterproof coat if only to block you from the wind as it batters against you as you climb upwards. Also, don't forget to take those all important photos of Ngauruhoe also known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings!
Day 8 - Wellington
The drive from Tongariro to Wellington takes 4 hours and it can be quite difficult getting out of the National Park if there are any road blocks. Wellington, the Capital City, is known for being very windy and you will soon realise that this city is a lot cooler and wetter than most of the rest of the North Island.
After arriving you can spend the rest of the day exploring and trying out some of the bars and restaurants that Wellington has to offer particularly on and around Cuba Street. Make sure you visit Ekim Burgers which, in my opinion, is a lot better than the famous FergBurger in Queenstown. One great option for the afternoon is a trip on the cablecar to the Botanic Gardens. The gardens wind their way back down the hill into the city and so are great for a leisurely stroll.
Day 9 - Wellington
Before you leave Wellington and head home or to the South Island you can't miss the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum which has to be one of the best museums I have ever visited - especially as its free. There are some great displays including the history of the wars in New Zealand (something I knew little about), the history of the Maori and other villages and cultures and natural disasters such as the most recent earthquake. Well worth a visit!
If you have time it is worth heading down to the South Island to visit Queenstown and Milford Sound. You can check out more about this in another of my blog posts - 'Hiking Milford Sound - New Zealand'