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Active volcanoes, world-renowned wineries, beautiful beaches and two of New Zealand's largest cities are all part of this seven day North Island New Zealand itinerary. While a week in the North Island isn't nearly enough to see everything it has to offer, with a little rushing and quite some driving, it is enough to see the highlights.
With the assumption that you'll be traveling here by car or campervan, we've put together a one week itinerary covering some of the very best in North Island destinations, wine, adventure and road stops from Auckland to Wellington. Auckland and Wellington are two of the easiest and most affordable points of arrival in New Zealand. With this itinerary you could arrive in either, but we're going to assume you arrive in Auckland. Those arriving in Wellington can follow the Itinerary backwards.
Day One: Auckland
Auckland is New Zealand's most populated city. With a busy CBD and a plethora of shops and malls, it's a good place to start a New Zealand trip. The city has heaps of car rental companies to choose from and several stores to pick up any last minute road trip items like tents or maps. As far as activities, like any city there is no shortage of things to do here.
You can walk along Westhaven Marina checking out the most impressive yachts and sail boats docked in the "City of Sails". You can get to know Kiwi culture by visiting the Auckland Art Gallery. You can even get right into New Zealand's extreme activities with a bungy jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge or jump off the Auckland Sky Tower. It's a beautiful city by the sea, but the North Island has a lot more to offer, so see what you can of Auckland in one day, then get ready to hit the road quite early the next morning.
Day Two: Auckland to Rotorua
The next day we leave New Zealand's most populated city, for its most geothermal city, Rotorua. The drive from Auckland to Rotorua is about three hours, we advise leaving Auckland between 7 a.m and 8 a.m. There are two very popular scenic drives in the North Island, one is the Pacific Coast Highway and the other is the Thermal Explorer Highway. For this journey, we'll hop on the latter.
Taking SH1 and SH5 from Auckland to Rotorua, this drive includes busy city roads, roaring farmland and even steaming bodies of water. Matamata, which is home to Hobbiton, better known as "the Shire" in Lord of the Rings is not far off this route. With only a week, you won't have time to stop for a Hobbiton tour, but you will get to see similar terrain and plenty of sheep.
The best scenery on this part of the journey comes at its end in Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park. The drive through will have you unwinding the car window to peak your head out and look up at the trees. The Park is home to an array of native bird life, so be on the lookout for tui birds and more. The Thermal Explorer Highway reaches it's climax in Rotorua with its blasting geysers, boiling mud pools and rotten-egg-like sulphur smell. Rotorua is a huge tourist destination that has something for everyone.
Arriving in Rotorua by midday will give visitors enough time to fit in three activities comfortably that day and one more activity the following morning. We recommend starting your visit in Rotorua with something on the wilder side. Sure you can bungy jump and skydive, but let's save those activities for Taupo. While in Rotorua, how about trying out one of the country's more absurd adventure activities, like ZORB, a padded plastic ball you enter and are rolled down a hill.
After getting your heart rate up, bring it down by relaxing at one of Rotorua's many spas. A good place to unwind with a spectacular view of the city is Polynesian Spa. The spa offers several mineral pools, some more private than others, as well as different therapies. Another spa to try is Hell's Gate, which has mud and sulphur pools. Remember to take off any jewelry before visiting either or these spas, sulphur and mineral waters tarnish jewelry. After an hour or so of some serious R & R, it's time to head back to your accommodation to prepare for an afternoon at one of Rotorua's Maori cultural performances. These offer nightly performances that include dinner and entertainment, all while learning about New Zealand's first people.
Day Three: Rotorua to Taupo
After half a day and one night in the city, you'll have learned a lot about it, but one final tour the following day will be the most important to understanding Rotorua. Before leaving Rotorua, stop at Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. The park is home to Lady Know Geyser, which erupts daily at 10:15 a.m. After seeing the mighty geyser, tour the park's many mud and sulphur pools. Don't feel rushed in Rotorua on day two, but make sure to start heading out by noon as our next stop Taupo is only one hour south continuing on the Thermal Explorer Highway.
What Queenstown is to the South Island, Taupo is to the North. This destination town has plenty of death-defying activities and is home to New Zealand's largest lake, Lake Taupo. Also like Queenstown, Taupo has beautiful scenery, great outdoor activities and a busy town life. One of the obvious natural sights to check out is Lake Taupo, it's kind of hard to avoid anyway, but people visiting this area should also make it to Tongariro National Park. The World Heritage Area has three active volcanoes Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. At 2,797 meters, Mt . Ruapehu is not only the tallest but also the most active volcano in the Park. Not to be outshined, the second tallest, Mt. Ngāuruhoe (2,287 meters), was used for Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Day Four & Five: Taupo, Tongariro, Napier
On a clear day, visitors can see all of these peaks from a distance. In the winter months, this area becomes very busy as Mt. Ruapehu offers the North Island's best (and only!) skiing and snowboarding. One of the best way to explore this area is tramping. The Park has several different tracks at various levels of difficulty and time. With only one week to travel the North Island, you'll only have one day to visit this Park, so we suggest trying the Tongariro Crossing - often ranked as one of the best day walks in the world.
Starting at Mangatepopo Hut off SH47 and ending at Ketetahi Hut off SH46, the route takes about seven hours of walking to complete and passes the Emerald Lakes. Since it starts and finishes at different ends, people must arrange transportation with local tour companies. There are also shorter tracks to waterfalls and other great sights around this area. We recommend spending two nights in Taupo, spending the first day actually exploring the city and the next day visiting Tongariro National Park. This is one of New Zealand's very best walks and we highly recommend spending at least a day here.
Tongariro is located about 80 minutes south of Taupo and can be reached via SH47. To reach the next stop on the itinerary, travelers who visit Tongariro must go back through Taupo, which is why we recommend just spending two nights there. Now here's where the choice comes in. While we highly recommend the Tongariro Crossing, this heavy walking track may not be for everyone. Some may choose just to drive through the area catching a glimpse of the volcanoes and maybe stopping to visit a waterfall. If this is the case, then you'll only really need one night in Taupo. You can spend half a day driving from Tongariro to our next stop, Hawkes Bay.
Day Six: To Wellington
Known for its wine, Art Deco architecture and beautiful beaches, Hawkes Bay is the most laid-back stop on our itinerary. Continuing south on SH5, it's on this two hour journey that drivers switch from the North Island's Thermal Explorer Highway to its Pacific Coast Highway (SH2). Merging at the coast, this road offers breathtaking views of the East Coast's many beaches on the way to Napier which with Hastings makes up the "twin cities" of Hawkes Bay. We recommend staying in Napier while visiting Hawkes Bay as it's more focused on tourism, while Hastings is more focused on farming. Those who left Taupo a day earlier will have two nights in Napier and a day and a half or more to relax on the beach, go on a historical tour of the town, take in its architecture and most importantly, taste the wine.
Those who stayed in Taupo for one extra night, should try and be on the road by 8 a.m. The most important thing to try in Hawkes Bay is the wine and you'll need at least a full day to tour the area's vineyards and cellar doors. Spend one to two nights in the North Island's capital of wine, then get ready to explore its actual capital city, Wellington. This last day of driving is the longest on our itinerary (over four hours), but also the most relaxing and most scenic. There's no rush getting to Wellington. As long as you get there on the same day, you'll have two nights and one day to explore the city. We recommend following SH2 south all the way to Wellington. This route might take 20 minutes more than other options, but it's much more scenic. Part of New Zealand's Wine Trail, your drive includes the vineyards of Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa, cutesy towns like Masterton, views of the Tararua Mountains and stops like Mount Bruce Forest. Enjoy the ride and make sure to stop to take photos, but try to get to Wellington by late afternoon.
Day Seven: Wellington
Wellington city is quite small, so visitors won't feel too rushed to tour it in two days. That said it's packed with heaps of great sights, tasty eateries, great bars, live music venues, theater and shopping. The best way to explore Wellington isn't with your eyes, but with your mouth. During your visit to Wellington make sure to visit some the city's many restaurants and cafes. One could spend hours reading in boho-chic cafes like Fidel's and Memphis Belle. You probably won't have time to do that, but make sure to at least fit in a few coffees. People following this itinerary have two nights in Wellington, which means two good meals and nights out. Since this is the last stop on your tour, why not splurge with tickets to the theater or a show at San Francisco Bath House.
With one full day to explore the city's sights, you'll stay busy. Drive or walk up to Mount Victoria, depending on the time and energy you have left, for great views of the city. After that, ditch the car as all these places in the city center can be reached on foot. Start at Oriental Bay and make your way around the waterfront, taking time to stop at Te Papa for a browse and one of the many great restaurants here for lunch. After seeing the waterfront, make your way to Lambton Quay to catch the cable car up to the Botanic Gardens. Spend the rest of your day walking back into the city center. Fit in one last amazing breakfast in the city. One last day on the itinerary allows just enough time to catch a short flight from Wellington to Auckland or Christchurch, or to catch a ferry to the South Island where you can kick off our seven day South Island itinerary.