This seven day self-drive itinerary allows you to immerse yourself in the natural wonders of the North Island, from primal forests to wild coastlines, and see birds and wildlife found nowhere else in the world. We're starting in Auckland and ending in Wellington, but its also possible to follow the route in reverse.
Day 1: Auckland to Paihia
Kayaking in the Bay of Islands (Credit: Adventure HQ)
Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, revels in the nickname, City of Sails, and one of the best ways to appreciate the striking skyline is from the sea. The Hauraki Gulf, on the doorstep of the city, is New Zealand's largest marine reserve, and home to whales, dolphins and a bounty of birdlife. Take a ferry to Rangitoto Island and hike to the top of its iconic cone for spectacular views, or join a guided sea kayak tour, or board a scenic harbour cruise to explore this volcanic island which emerged from the water only 600 years ago.
Birdwatchers will want to take a tour to Tiritiri Matangi island, known locally as Tiri. Work by the Department of Conservation and volunteers has restored the island to a sanctuary for 11 species of threatened native birds, including the takahe, kokako and little spotted kiwi.
Hit the road after your island adventures, and leave Auckland for Paihia, on the edge of the Bay of Islands. The drive takes around 3 hours, with a chance to break your journey at picturesque Whangerei Falls or the eerie Waipu glow worm caves.
Day 2: Paihia to West Auckland Beaches
Piha Beach (Credit: Scott Venning)
The Bay of Islands is a haven for marine life, and one of the best places on the North Island for close encounters with dolphins. Start your day by following in the footsteps of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin on a boat trip to explore the bay. Highlights include the Hole in the Rock, the historic site of Waitangi, and the resident pod of around 500 bottlenose dolphins. Common dolphins, pilot whales and orca are often seen as well. Some tour providers will also allow swimming with the dolphins.
In the afternoon take the scenic drive (approximately 4 hours) south to the Waitakere Ranges, the wild west coast of Auckland, and the rugged black sand beach at Muriwai. The clifftop trails give excellent views into the huge gannet colony, and the Te Henga walkway is the perfect backdrop to the sunset. Spend the night locally in Bethells Beach (Te Henga) or nearby Piha.
Day 3: Paihia to Tauranga
Take a leisurely morning to enjoy the beach at Piha, and hike up Glen Esk to the picturesque Kitekite Falls, where you can take a dip in the swimming hole. In the native forest you might spot kereru (native pigeons), fantails, tauhou (silvereyes), and hear the song of tui among the nikau palms, puriri and regenerating kauri trees.
The three hour drive to Tauranga takes you through the rolling farmland of Waikato and into the Bay of Plenty. You have the option of visiting Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari on route. A mainland ecological island established to exclude pests and allow the native wildlife to thrive, it will give a taste of the ancient native forest that once covered most of the country.
Day 4: Tauranga to Gisborne East Cape
Gisborne Sunset (Credit: Tourism Eastland)
After a morning stroll on the beach or swim in the sea, its time to hit the road. Your final destination for the day will be Gisborne, around four hours drive from Tauranga, but this is a route to linger over.
At Whakatane you can board a boat for a tour of White Island (Whakaari), an active volcano that spews out steam and boiling mud, and occasionally a bit more. Beach lovers might prefer to call by the white sand beach at Ohope or hire a kayak to paddle Ohwia Harbour. It's an important stop-over for migrating birds, and a guided trip with an expert will help you with species identification. If hiking is more your bag, stop off at Waioeka Gorge Scenic reserve, on SH2 near Opotiki, for forest walks with waterfall views. You might also want to visit Tatapouri Bay near Gisborne for a reef ecology tour and the chance to snorkel with stingrays.
Back in Gisborne, there's always an opportunity to try some of the world-class wines from the regions boutique wineries, and explore the city's reputation for great food.
Day 5: Gisborne to Napier
Gisborne is the first city in the world to watch the sunrise every day, so make the most of the morning to explore this historic city by the sea. The first Maori waka (voyaging canoe) arrived in Kaiti Beach, and the area is still rich in old traditions. Around 400 years later, the crew of Captain Cook came ashore in the same place, the first Europeans to set foot in New Zealand.
Continue your North Island journey by heading towards the art-deco city of Napier. Break the three hour drive at the Mahia Peninsula, the legendary fish-hook of Maui, for walks along the shore or a swim in the sea. A former whaling station, it is occasionally possible to spot whales and dolphins offshore from the lookout point at the top of the cliff.
If you missed out on Muriwai, head to rugged Cape Kidnappers near Napier. The largest mainland gannet colony in Australasia, with more than 20,000 birds at the peak of the breeding season, is accessible at low-tide from a hike along the shore to the cliff tops, fat bike tour or 4x4 trip.
Day 6: Napier to Martinborough
Cape Kidnappers (Credit: Gary Lisbon)
Push on southwards this morning with the three and a half hour drive from Hawkes Bay towards Martinborough, in the heart of the Wairarapa region. From here you have several options: exploring hiking trails through the native bush in Remutaka Forest Park; discovering the striking Putangirua Pinnacles; watching the Wairarapa Moana; or taking the scenic drive out to Cape Palliser lighthouse to see the colony of fur seals, the largest on North Island.
Wairarapa Moana, "the sea of glistening water", will prove irresistible to birdwatchers. The largest wetland complex on North Island, it attracts an abundance of birds, including bar-tailed godwits, which migrate every year from Alaska on one of the longest non-stop bird flights made anywhere in the world. Other species to look out for include endemic banded dotterels, pied stilts, bitterns and Royal spoonbills.
Return to Martinborough for the evening, where you can spend the evening sampling the finest produce of the vineyards and cellar doors of the Wairarapa.
Day 7: Martinborough to Wellington
Wellington Skyline (Credit: Julian Apse)
Have an easy morning and enjoy the short drive on SH2 from Martinborough (just one hour) over the rugged Remutaka Range and through the Hutt Valley into the capital, Wellington. Spend the day discovering the wild side of the city with a hike up Mount Victoria, taking the cable car to the Botanic Gardens for an easy stroll or visiting the wildlife displays in Te Papa, as well as all the other highlights the city has to offer.
Finish off the day with a guided sunset kayak tour around the harbour or a twilight tour of Zelandia ecosanctuary, home to native birds like kiwi and morepork, and the unique tuatara, a "living fossil" from the age of the dinosaurs.
From Wellington, you can either catch a domestic flight back up to Auckland, an international flight home, or a ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island. Have a look at this South Island itinerary for some inspiration! Feeling lost or overwhelmed?! Don't fret - check out our free New Zealand Travel Planning Service!