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Last Updated on 27/09/2021
Long stretches of white sandy beaches, bubbling geothermal pools, active volcanoes, glowworm caves, wineries and more await you on New Zealand’s North Island.
From Auckland to Wellington and everywhere in between, follow this epic New Zealand North Island itinerary for all the highlights and hidden gems you won’t want to miss.
So, you want to travel to New Zealand? Visiting the North Island is an absolute must, but there’s so much to see and do that you’re spoilt for choice.
After spending several months in New Zealand, I’ve put together a guide to help you plan all the best places to go on the North Island.
In this itinerary, you’ll visit the Bay of Islands and the subtropical north, hike the famous Tongariro Crossing and swing by Hobbiton Movie Set.
You’ll also have opportunities to experience Maori culture and try some adrenaline-inducing activities.
How much time should you spend on New Zealand’s North Island?
The North Island itinerary below fits comfortably into about two weeks. If you don’t have that kind of time then I’ve made some suggestions for alternative itineraries:
7 Days North Island
Skip the Bay of Islands and go straight to the Coromandel Peninsula then work your way down the route. You can try and squeeze in the Tongariro Crossing at the end.
If you have extra time, Waiheke Island is worth visiting.
10 Days North Island
Start this itinerary from Day 6 and work your way down. You should have enough time to get from Auckland to Wellington with a few days to stop and explore some of the best bits of North Island, New Zealand.
14 Days or more
The perfect amount of time to see the very best of the North Island! You can follow this exact route down to Wellington.
If you have a few extra days here and then you can break up the journey even more and spend longer in some of your favourite places.
This itinerary is best done as a road trip but if you don’t drive don’t worry, it’s still doable. I’ve highlighted some options below.
How to get around New Zealand
This itinerary is best done as a road trip but if you don’t drive don’t worry, it’s still doable. I’ve highlighted some options below:
Hop-on, hop-off bus pass
Popular with backpackers and solo travellers, these passes have set itineraries that are flexible. This means you can hop off at a stop and hop on again when you’re ready to continue your journey.
All transport is covered and you have the option to book activities and accommodation on board. The main downside is that you don’t have the freedom to go wherever you want.
Editor’s tip: Kiwi Experience follows the exact itinerary below. Read my review here.
Both promote responsible adventure travel and offer authentic experiences. You can also pick a tour based on your interests.
Your transport, activities and itinerary are taken care of but you don’t have the flexibility to stop and explore on your own on their North Island itineraries.
If you don’t drive, it’s possible to build an itinerary using local buses like InterCity.
You have the freedom to choose where you want to go. However, one downside to be aware of is that you’re bound by timetable and route constraints. You might not be able to go off the beaten track as easily either.
If you go with InterCity, I recommend that you get a FlexiPass as you can make flexible bookings, top-up any time and manage all your routes online. It will also give you much cheaper rates.
Hire a campervan / car
If you want complete freedom, hiring a campervan or car is your best bet. A campervan is a good option if you want to save money on food and accommodation too.
Only do this option if you feel confident driving and you’re happy to do long stints on the road. You may need to customise your itinerary to fit how long you feel comfortable driving for.
New Zealand North Island Travel Itinerary
Day 1: Auckland
Chances are, you’re flying into Auckland airport. The best way to get to the city is with the SkyBus. It’s only 24 NZD one way (21 NZD if you book online).
To be honest, I’m happy to take or leave Auckland. While it’s a nice city in its own right, most people visit New Zealand for the breathtaking natural scenery and in my opinion, there are other much nicer cities.
With that in mind, don’t feel like you need to go out and explore the minute you land. Give yourself permission to relax and recharge. I spent most of my first day sleeping off jet lag!
That being said, if you do want to explore, here are a few highlights:
You certainly won’t miss this sci-fi looking building towering over the city. If heights don’t faze you, head up there for panoramic views or even a spot of fine dining. You can even do a skyjump or skywalk if you’re feeling brave.
Auckland sits on top of a volcanic field and although very unlikely to erupt, the surrounding 50 volcanoes are dormant rather than extinct. A top one to visit is Mount Eden, the highest natural point in the city.
There you can see panoramic views of the city and harbour as well as the remains of a Maori settlement. The impressive 50m deep crater in its centre is sacred to Maori culture and you’re not permitted to enter it but you can explore the rest of the mountain.
Day 2: Waiheke Island (optional)
Highlights: Stunning scenery, delicious food and pretty vineyards await you on Waiheke Island.
If you have time to spare, a day trip to Waiheke Island is absolutely worth doing. This gorgeous island is home to lush green hills, golden sandy beaches and mild weather that makes it surprisingly perfect for wine and olive oil.
Fuller ferries run every half an hour from the Auckland Downtown Ferry Wharf to Matiatia Wharf. Tickets cost about 42 NZD for a return ticket and the journey takes about 45 minutes.
Wine tasting on Waiheke Island
To see the best of Waiheke, I recommend doing a food or wine (or both!) tasting tour like this premium one that includes a platter lunch.
Your tour guide picks you up at the wharf and drives you to three different boutique vineyards and an award-winning olive oil mill.
Lunch is served at one of the vineyard’s top restaurants and you’ll also have the chance to try other Waiheke delicacies such as oysters. View the tour here.
Day 3: Auckland to Paihia
Highlights: Explore the Bay of Islands, go dolphin spotting and learn about Maori and European history.
Distance: 230km (142 miles) | Total drive time: 3 hours
Most people tend to skip the Bay of Islands entirely. Don’t. You’re missing out on historic towns, dolphin cruises, sand dunes and so much more.
The drive from Auckland to Paihia takes about three hours non-stop. If you set out in the morning, you should get there around midday. Head to Charlotte’s Kitchen or the Glasshouse Kitchen & Bar for a spot of lunch when you arrive.
In the afternoon, you have a few options for activities.
If you’re keen to do the half-day cruise, I suggest doing it on the morning of Day 5 before heading back to Auckland as tours depart at 9 am only.
Bay of Islands cruise
Enjoy spectacular scenery on a half-day eco-friendly cruise of the Bay of Islands. Departing from Paihia, highlights include dolphin spotting but look out for seals and penguins too.
The activity will take you to the iconic Hole in the Rock and you’ll even be able to sail through it, weather permitting.
The cruise also includes a 1.5-hour island stop at Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island. An excellent spot for water activities or a bite to eat. Check it out here.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds mark the site of the Waitangi Treaty, an important document signed by British representatives of the Crown and 500 Maori chiefs in 1840. This event played a vital role in shaping the New Zealand we see today.
Entrance to Waitangi costs 50 NZD and includes access to two contemporary museums, a guided tour around the treaty grounds and heritage buildings.
Board the passenger ferry and take the 15-minute ride across the harbour to the historic town of Russell. Much of its original street plans and names from as far back as 1843 remain perfectly intact.
Don’t miss the iconic Duke of Marlborough, a pub that once served all manner of whalers and sailors!
Day 4: Day Cape Reinga day trip
Highlights: Go sandboarding, witness two seas collide and enjoy sunset on the beach.
Distance: 197km (122 miles) | Total drive time: 3 hours
Take a day trip to the northernmost tip of New Zealand, known as the winterless north for its temperate climate all year round.
Here, you can go sandboarding down giant sand dunes, see where the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean and admire the abundance of rugged beaches.
The entire excursion can be completed in a day. If you want to take a break from driving, this full-day tour covers all the activities below.
Giant Sand Dunes
The Giant Sand Dunes or Te Paki Sand Dunes are a remarkable sight to see and it feels like being in a desert. It’s essentially a 10km long coastal strip of 150m high sand dunes – and the best thing to do? Sandboard!
Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Located in Cape Reinga is a lighthouse. Once you see it, you’ll know you’ve reached the northern tip of New Zealand. Here you can see where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea.
It also marks the spot in Maori culture where the souls of the dead travel to embark on their journey into the afterlife.
90 Mile Beach
On your way back from Cape Reinga, you can stop off at Ninety Mile Beach. It’s an actual highway but you’ll need to be with a tour to drive it. Fun fact: it’s actually about 54 miles long…
Day 5: Paihia to Auckland
Stay: At your previous Auckland accommodation or somewhere new. Browse options here.
Do the morning Bay of Island cruise before heading back down to Auckland in the afternoon. Take the rest of the day to relax in the city.
If you’re feeling active, you could visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum or head to the black sand Piha Beach about 45 minutes from Auckland.
Day 6: Auckland to Hot Water Beach
Highlights: Visit Cathedral Cove and finish off with a natural hot water bath on the beach.
Distance: 173km (107 miles) | Total drive time: 2.5 hours
Back on the road and this time you’re heading to the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, known for its secluded bays and native rainforests.
You’ll be heading to Hot Water Beach via Cathedral Cove, two absolute must-visits on your New Zealand North Island itinerary.
Head to Hahei Beach and do the 45-minute walk accompanied by stunning coastal scenery to Cathedral Cove.
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the arched cave which connects the cove to the adjacent Mare’s Leg Cove.
It’s a truly magnificent sight and deserving of a photo. Go kayaking, cruising, swimming or simply admire the view.
Hot Water Beach
Finish off the day at Hot Water Beach, just right around the corner from Cathedral Cove. An underground river of hot water flows into the Pacific Ocean and it surfaces at Hot Water Beach.
Two hours on either side of low tide, visitors and locals alike flock to this unique spot to find hot water bubbling through the sand. Grab a spade or use your hands and dig your very own hot water bath. It’s free!
Editor’s tip: When I say the water is hot, I mean VERY hot in some parts. Be careful not to scald yourself. You’ll also only be able to do this activity for two hours on each side of low tide. Check the tide times for here when you plan to visit. You can always try going on Day 7 if you miss it on Day 6.
Day 7: Hot Water Beach to Waitomo
Highlights: A gorge frozen in time and a subterranean world lit up by glowworms.
Distance: 224km (139 miles) | Total drive time: 3 hours
Stay: Waitomo Homestead Cabins
Leave the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula behind and take a little detour down to Waitomo (it’s worth it, trust me). Along the way, you’ll stop at the magical Karangahake Gorge to explore the old mining tunnels.
Nestled among the Kaimai Ranges, the Karangahake Gorge is a place that time forgot. Hike through the gorge to find a labyrinth of tracks and walkways with relics left behind from the once-lucrative gold mining industry.
Do the Windows Walk, an hour-long trail that takes you over dramatic swing bridges and along a rusty old tramway with cliffs rising up all around you.
Highlights of the walk are the low-ceiling pitch-black mining tunnels. Remember to bring a torch or use the light of your phone to help you get safely through!
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The village of Waitomo is home to the most famous glowworm caves in New Zealand. Glowworms light up the pitch-black caves like stars in the night sky.
If you like a little adventure, I recommend black water rafting. You’re kitted out in a wetsuit and you have an expert team to guide you. It does get cold though so head to the canteen afterwards for soup.
Day 8: Waitomo to Rotorua
Highlights: Onwards to Rotorua, the heart of Maori culture but not before stopping at a little village/film set known as Hobbiton.
Distance: 140 km (87 miles) | Total drive time: 2 hours
Hobbiton Movie Set
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan then you’ll have this activity down as a must-do. Even if you aren’t too bothered about the franchise itself, Hobbiton is a lovely attraction to visit.
You can’t actually visit the movie set without going on a guided tour of Hobbiton. The general Hobbiton Movie Tour costs 89.00 NZD for an adult (age 17 and above). It lasts two hours and starts with a free coach transfer to the movie set itself.
A guide then leads you through the village, sharing fun facts and tidbits about Hobbiton and LOTR. You also get plenty of opportunities to take photos. The tour ends with a pint of your choice at the Green Dragon Pub. Check it out here.
Tamaki Maori Village
As you arrive into Rotorua, designate your evening to Tamaki Maori Village, voted one of the top 10 experiences in the world. Here’s an opportunity to learn about Maori history and culture through performances, songs and games.
Tamaki Maori Maori village itself is a replica of what a Maori village would look like and the staff wear traditional dress. You can also stay the night for a full cultural experience.
A big highlight is the traditional hangi feast, a meal slowly cooked in a hot stone oven in the ground. It usually consists of tender vegetables and meat. There are also delicious vegan and vegetarian options available.
Day 9: Explore Rotorua (optional)
If you want to take a break from your busy itinerary and you have a few days spare, Rotorua is a good stop.
There are a lot of activities to keep you occupied here, although one thing that might take you by surprise is the smell.
No beating about the push – the town smells like rotten eggs due to the hydrogen sulphide emissions wafting up from underground. You get used to it though, don’t worry!
Some things to do in Rotorua:
White water rafting
Get the adrenaline pumping by white water rafting on the Kaituna River. It’s home to the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world – 7m Tutea Falls.
Pamper yourself at the Polynesian Spa located near the Government Park. The spa’s geothermal mineral waters are sourced from two natural springs that feed into 28 hot mineral pools.
The slightly acidic waters have therapeutic properties so it’s the place to go for tired and achy muscles. There are also a series of massage treatments available.
Ever feel like you want to roll down a hill in a giant inflatable ball filled with water? Well, you can finally live the dream through zorbing. There are three tracks to go down so prepare to get soaked. Check it out here.
Just outside the town is a towering redwood forest. You can certainly go on plenty of walks or you can take it up a notch and do the Redwoods Treewalk.
This ecotourism activity allows you to walk quite literally among the trees on a series of suspended walkways and viewing platforms. It’s gentle and suitable for all fitness levels.
Go in the day or in the evening for a spectacular lights show.
Learn about New Zealand’s most famous and elusive bird – the kiwi. It’s very unlikely you’ll see one in the wild. They’re timid and only come out at night.
At the hatchery, you have a chance to get a glimpse of one and find out about the conservation programmes working to protect this species.
Te Puia Geothermal Reserve
Te Puia is home to the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. You can wander through the geothermal valley, see traditional Maori carvers and weavers at work, visit the restaurant, and learn about kiwi conservation too.
Day 10: Rotorua to Taupo
Highlights: Take the short drive to Taupo, the site of a dormant supervolcano. See the mighty Huka Falls.
Distance: 80km (50 miles) | Total drive time: 1 hour
Today’s drive is pretty short so you can spend the morning finishing off any activities you still want to do in Rotorua before heading down – unless you’re itching to get going.
Taupo sits on the northeast shore of Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in Australasia. To put it into perspective, it’s roughly the same size as Singapore.
It’s also the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions from the last 5000 years. Don’t worry, the volcano is dormant and unlikely to erupt in our lifetime.
One pitstop you can make on your journey down to Taupo is Huka Falls.
The Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river flows from Lake Taupo into a shallow ravine of volcanic rock where the previously serene water becomes a pounding mass before plummeting over the 11-metre high waterfall.
You can follow the Spa Park to Huka Falls trail to stretch your legs or get up close and personal on a jet boat ride or river cruise.
Day 11: Explore Taupo
The next two days are designed to give you some flexibility. Taupo is the gateway to Tongariro National Park wherein lies the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most famous hikes in New Zealand.
If you’re keen to do the hike (and you absolutely should!), you need to build some wiggle room into your itinerary just in case of adverse weather conditions – particularly in winter.
So, with that in mind, check the weather forecast in advance. Your accommodation can help you plan too.
You may be able to do the Tongariro Crossing on Day 11, but if not there are plenty of things to do in Taupo to keep you occupied. Try these amazing Indian restaurants too!
If you haven’t braved a skydive yet, Taupo is a great place to do it. You can see the huge lake from above surrounded by mountains, volcanoes and a coast-to-coast view of the North Island. Choose from heights of 9,000 ft, 12,000 ft, 15,000 ft or 18,500 ft.
It’s a tandem jump so you’re in safe hands. Check it out.
For adrenaline-inducing activities closer to the ground, go bungy jumping or swinging over the Waikato River. If that’s not enough for you, you can adjust the cord and get dunked into the water. Check it out.
Maori Rock Carvings
One of the best things to do in Taupo is visiting the giant Ngatoroirangi Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. Rising 14 metres above the water, this contemporary Maori artwork is a formidable sight.
You can cruise, kayak or take New Zealand’s only commercial electric sailboat to see it. View it here.
Since you’re still in geothermal country, why not make the most of it with a trip to Spa Thermal Park? You can soak under a waterfall or in the natural rock pools completely free of charge.
Day 12: Tongariro National Park (optional)
Highlights: Epic volcanoes, sacred lakes, LOTR’s Mount Doom and an otherworldly landscape.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand is one of the most formidable and awe-inspiring walking trails in the world. Located in the Tongariro National Park, the trail intersects a dramatic and rocky landscape of tall mountain peaks and active volcanoes.
Dried-up lava flows scar the land and plumes of steam rise from geysers and boiling mud pools. There isn’t anything quite like it.
The Crossing is 19.4 km in length and it takes roughly six to eight hours to complete depending on the weather.
The best time to do the Tongariro Crossing if you want an easier hike is in the summer from November to the end of April. It’s the most popular time with hikers and you can do it safely without a guide.
Winter is just as beautiful but a lot more challenging. Be prepared to wait a few days for good weather.
You can read my complete guide to doing the Tongariro Crossing in winter here.
Editor’s tip: Book a shuttle to and from Taupo. Although you can drive to the park, you’ll be glad of the rest once you’ve completed the hike, trust me.
Day 13: Taupo to River Valley (optional)
Highlights: A remote retreat with outdoor activities and an amazing restaurant serving dishes with homegrown produce.
Distance: 164km (102 miles) | Total drive time: 2.5 hours
Stay: River Valley Lodge
As you near the end of your New Zealand North Island itinerary, you can either head straight down to Wellington and spend a few days in the capital or you make a short stop at River Valley.
The drive from Taupo to Wellington is long (about 5 hours) which is why I’ve added in an extra stop if you want to break up the journey.
River Valley is a remote family-run farm beside the Rangitikei River. Nestled among the trees, this retreat offers accommodation (both hostel and private rooms), a restaurant and bar.
Activities include horseback trekking, scenic riverboat trips and rafting. It’s a calm little oasis before you reach the city.
Day 14: River Valley to Wellington
Highlights: It’s the last leg of diving before you reach Wellington and complete the itinerary!
Distance: 260km (162 miles) | Total drive time: 4 hours
Wellington is a must-see on your trip to New Zealand. This capital city is bursting with character and has an amazing selection of food and craft beer.
It’s also a very affordable city and there are plenty of things to do to keep you busy for a few days if you decide to stay.
Check them out:
- Te Papa Museum
- Mount Victoria
- Wellington cable car
- Weta Studios
- Comedy gig
- Botanical Gardens
- Nightlife on Cuba Street
So, what’s next after you complete this epic itinerary? You can either go:
Back to Auckland
Follow the route back through Taupo and Rotorua (takes about 2 days of solid driving).
Onwards to the South Island
Some say New Zealand’s South Island is even more beautiful. You’ve got mountains and national parks galore.
If you’re heading down that way, you’ll need to book a ferry ticket to take you across the Cook Strait to Picton.
It’s a good idea to book your tickets in advance to secure your spot – particularly if you’re travelling with a vehicle.
Top tips for travelling New Zealand’s North Island
The best time to visit
New Zealand experiences all four seasons of the year and to be honest, the best time to visit depends on what you like doing.
Most attractions are available throughout the year but winter tends to be cheaper as it’s the off-season. Summer is busy and more expensive.
Temperatures on the North Island stay pretty mild in winter, particularly in the subtropical regions of the northernmost tip.
Buy a SIM card
WiFi can get patchy and it’s not always free. Buy a SIM card with a good amount of data as soon as you land.
If you can, try to buy one at duty-free as it’s cheaper and they will set it up for you. All you need is an unlocked phone.
Be realistic and flexible
This itinerary is meant to be a guideline with enough time built in to take it slow and really enjoy places along the way. Be realistic about how much you can do and don’t try to rush through it.
Don’t forget travel insurance!
Don’t learn the hard way. Always make sure you have cover for all the activities you want to do. It’s just not worth the risk.
I always use World First. It has affordable insurance plans that suit my needs perfectly.
Planning a trip to New Zealand?
Read my ultimate New Zealand travel guide for tops tips and practical information. These articles and resources can also help you plan an epic trip:
- Milford Sound in Winter: Is it Really Worth it?
- Epic Day Trips From Queenstown You Need To Do
- How to Spend 4 Days in Queenstown: The Perfect Itinerary
- The Best Place to See Whales in New Zealand