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Driving New Zealand's North Island

Driving New Zealand's North Island

New Zealand had been on my list of places to visit for years, but had never found myself there until I was researching for my book Hello, New Zealand!; a dedicated research trip was the perfect excuse to hop across the ditch from Sydney and explore the beautiful Land of the Long White Cloud. Taking a bit over a week to explore the North Island was the perfect way to enjoy some of the highlights, and while of course I’d have loved to have spent longer in lots of the places, nothing felt too rushed or tricky to get through with the time constraints. Trips that cover lots of cities and stops can feel overwhelming to plan for, so I’ve broken it down into all the locations we stopped into and stayed — if you’re planning a trip for yourself, I hope this helps!

We flew from Sydney into Auckland, and had pre-booked a hire car from one of the places in the airport. Hiring in the airport can sometimes be more expensive than finding another rental place in the CBD or nearby, but the convenience of being able to get straight into a car (without having to plan for interim transport) is always worth it for us. I usually use the website Vroom Vroom Vroom to make the bookings, whether in Australia or abroad.

AUCKLAND

Into Auckland for just one night, leaving enough time to have a fun dinner (dumplings and tapas near the water) and explore the harbour a little. Some shopping and browsing around the town and an early night in the hotel. We spent the following morning at the Botanic Gardens, full of native plants and international species to admire.

HAMILTON

Out of Auckland and down the highway to Hamilton, just under 2 hours drive, to visit the beautiful Hamilton Gardens. We stopped for brunch at a cute cafe nearby, but didn’t spend much longer in Hamilton. We were visiting on a Sunday, so the Hamilton Gardens were quite busy with families enjoying the exhibits in the sunshine.

ROTORUA

Heading straight from Hamilton to Rotorua, arriving into Rotorua in the early afternoon. The smell is what you’ll notice first about Rotorua, but it changes and shifts slightly, and you do adjust to it after some time. We explored the waterfront and admired swans and ducks splashing about. The time we spent in Rotorua was focussed on nature; seeing the redwoods at Whakarewarewa Forest - definitely recommend for a free, and stunning, walk where you can choose a path most suited to you based on time and activity level. The other exciting part of our trip to Rotorua was a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, a ‘thermal wonderland’ where we got to see geysers, mud pools, and the most amazing colours I’ll never forget. We visited first thing in the morning, and were able to enjoy most of the park to ourselves! Be sure to plan for time to see the geyser too, as that only shoots at certain times of the day.

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NAPIER

This was a big-ticket item for me, I’d been wanting to visit Napier for such a long time it was a dream to finally make it there and see it in person. Perfect pastels, dainty details, and a very laid back atmosphere around the town. We stopped in over a couple of week days, so there wasn’t a huge amount of things to ‘do’ but I mainly wanted to spend time in the town taking in the architecture. There were some great antique options, and building buildings to see, as well as some small cafes that were really lovely. Read the quick guide to Napier.

WELLINGTON

A couple of stops on the way from Hastings Bay down the highway to Wellington, such as the kiwi enclosure with Manukura, the white kiwi. Arriving into Wellington in the mid-afternoon made traffic a tiny bit tricky, but still manageable. We stopped for a couple of nights in Wellington so we could visit Zealandia, Te Papa, ride the cable car and do some shopping! It was a lovely city to navigate and had great coffee and food options, and it was also a good choice to stay somewhere for a couple of nights to reset from lots of time in the car on the days before.. Read the mini guide to Wellington.

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TONGARIRO

Leaving Wellington and back onto the highway to head to the Tongariro region. The roads here are more spread out, and to access the Tongariro National Park, and the Chateau Tongariro where we stayed, we needed to circle further around to come back in to centre. These roads might vary at different times of year, so make sure you’re planning accordingly. Read the mini guide to Tongariro.

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WAITOMO

The last nights stop in New Zealand was in the glow-worm district of Waitomo. There are several different caves and companies offering tours to see the glow-worms in Waitomo; we did the ‘Waitomo Glow Worm Caves’ tour, the original cave first explored in 1887, and it was a good mixture of walking through the caves underground, and then into a boat ride to see more of the glow-worms towards the end. There are (understandably) no photos allowed in the caves of this particular tour, so if that’s important to you, research the different tours available in the region to find one that is more photo-friendly. Personally, the experience of floating along in the dark cave under the soft starry glow of millions of worms, as our guide sang a Maori song was a really special memory that I’m glad I didn’t have a camera for.

Nearby is the Otorohanga Kiwi House, where we visited to see the famous kiwi in the flesh, in a dedicated night-time simulated enclosure. You can also feed birds here, where they’ll come and sit on your hand to get the seed inside a giant aviary. We stayed overnight in Waitomo and drove straight to Auckland from Waitomo (just under 3 hours) for an afternoon flight back to Sydney. We stopped into the town for breakfast, stocked up on blocks of Whitaker’s chocolate in our suitcases (the only souvenir worth having, in my opinion!) and returned out rental car to the airport before checking in for our flight.

Our time in New Zealand was so much fun, and the perfect break, it felt far enough way to enjoy an international holiday, but close enough to not be affected by jet lag or other struggles like language barriers that often come up with overseas destinations. If you’re looking for a holiday that is nature focussed without having to camp or hire a big vehicle, then a trip around North Island might be for you! We were able to still do most of the trip on a reasonable budget, staying in lower priced hotels and BnB’s, to be able to splurge more on the experiences (such as the flight in Tongariro or the Waitomo Caves). If you are planning a trip of your own, please let me know if this guide has been helpful for you!


All of the locations we visited in the North Island are featured in my book Hello, New Zealand!, as well as lots of other fabulous spots in the South Island too. My latest release has just landed on book shelves around Australia and New Zealand (but is available world wide from online book retailers) and I hope you’ll think it shows off how beautiful the country of New Zealand is!


Want more vacation guides? You can view all of our holiday tips and vacation guides for cities all around the world, and follow along anytime on Instagram under #McKeanStudioVacation

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