North Island New Zealand Travel Itinerary: What We Did

The North Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

I’m from small town British Columbia, and there were plenty of places on the North Island that felt like home to me. People were friendly. The scenery was beautiful. So here’s my itinerary.

How My Itineraries Work: You can Google “New Zealand travel guide” and find hundreds of blogs telling you that you HAVE to visit Auckland or that you MUST see the glow worms at Waitomo Caves. Instead, I’ll tell you what I did, what worked, and what didn’t.

Day 1) Arriving at Midnight with Overnight Stay at Auckland Airport (AKL)

We flew to Auckland from Cairns, Australia. We had just spent 40 days road tripping up the legendary east coast of Australia. We booked our flight at Peterpans in Cairns the day before we traveled. It cost us around $350. We also booked our “camper van”, which was a small car from Wicked Campers (we bought a tent and sleeping bags instead of “splurging” on a camper van).

Aside from that, we really didn’t do any planning prior to our arrival in New Zealand.

My friend bought a Lonely Planet New Zealand guidebook at the airport. He was reading it on the plane, and the guy next to him (from Thames, NZ) saw him reading it, then spent the next 3 hours of the flight giving us a detailed itinerary. It worked out perfectly.

Our flight left Cairns in the early evening, taking us through Brisbane and getting us into Auckland around midnight.

Our car rental place didn’t open till 6am, so we slept at the airport. There were plenty of comfy-ish benches with outlets nearby. A group of Swedish backpackers setup their sleeping bags in a children’s playground nearby.

In case you forget you’re in Middle Earth, there are statues like this all over the airport:

Day 2) Driving from Auckland to Opononi (3.5 Hour Drive)

At 6am, we caught our rental car shuttle and began our journey. We picked up a DOC Campground map from the rental car place, which is a very valuable resource if you’re camping.

Our friend from Thames told us to “get the fuck out of Auckland the first day” because it’s boring, so we headed straight north out of the city, crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

We didn’t have a GPS and didn’t use the maps apps on our phones. We just followed paper maps like Lewis and Clark. Auckland was somewhat complicated in parts, but the rest of the drive was well-marked and extremely easy.

Remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Tourists get killed surprisingly often in car accidents in New Zealand.

Our friend from Thames told us to stop in a town called Maungaturoto for second-hand camping supplies like cutlery and cups. It’s a tiny, beautiful town nestled in the middle of the hills.

Our friend also told us to stop in Dargaville, which is a metropolis by Northland, New Zealand standards (population: 4,251). We made two important stops in Dargaville, including a department store called The Warehouse and a Countdown grocery store.

We picked up a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, portable camp stove, a cooler (‘Eskie’), and some basic groceries (and alcohol) for the week. We spent less on all of this stuff than we would have with one night at a hotel.

We continued making our way north along Highway 12. You’ll see plenty of signs leading you to the coast. We spontaneously took one road that led us to Baylys Beach. It’s a beautiful spot. We got our first taste of the beautiful Northland NZ coast.

Continuing north, we drove through the windy roads of Waipoua Kauri Forest. The Kauri trees are massive, ancient trees. They’re the Redwoods of northern New Zealand.

We stopped at a place called Tane Mahuta that was right along the road. You can see one of the country’s largest kauri trees called the “Lord of the Forest”. This forest is a must-stop when you’re heading along this highway.

With about an hour more of windy roads, we eventually turned a corner and saw one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen in my life: the view looking down at Omapere, Opononi, and the sand dunes across the bay.

We stopped at Pakia Hill Lookout and just stared for a long time.

Eventually, we went to check-in to our hostel and campground in the hills above Opononi, which unfortunately no longer seems to be around. We set up our tent overlooking a view that looked more like The Shire than Middle Earth.

For dinner, our friend from Thames told us to visit the docks of Opononi at night to cast a line and pull fish right out of the water. We drove down to Opononi Wharf and met a few local guys who were fishing for chum. They were going out on the ocean the next day and needed some smaller fish for bait.

This was our first taste of the ridiculous friendliness of Kiwis. These guys just gave us a full fish for dinner. Then, when they realized we had no idea how to cut the fish, they cut it for us right on the dock. We went to the supermarket in town, watched the sunset descend over the bay, then went home to cook.

That was our first day in New Zealand. It was literally one of the best days of my life.

Day 3) Opononi to Cape Reinga (3h30m)

We packed up our tent and left Opononi for Cape Reinga. It’s the most northerly point of New Zealand, and there are several campgrounds right around the point.

We took the ferry from Rawene to Kohukohu and had lunch in town at the Boatshed Café. The ferry cost something like $10 but it saved us 70km of driving.

We also stopped at Ninety Mile Beach. Yup, it’s a really long beach. Look at it on Google Maps: it stretches right up the tip of Northland.

You can view the beach from Ninety Mile Beach Holiday Park, but we stopped in Ahipara to take a few quick pics.

You can actually drive and camp up the beach if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. It’s a thing to do for Kiwis.

As you go towards Cape Reinga through Northland, things get more and more remote. The towns get smaller and smaller. The closest big town to Cape Reinga is Kaitaia. We stopped there for food and gas. Other towns further up the coast (Pukenui and Te Kao) have small stores and gas, but that’s about it. Suddenly, New Zealand feels really (and pleasantly) empty.

We parked at Cape Reinga, then walked to the lighthouse. Take a couple hours here. The view is amazing.

Take a look at the water in front of Cape Reinga. It’s the place where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. You can see the meeting point.

Oh, and look for the Three Kings Islands in the distance. They’re 13 inhabited islands far out in the ocean.

Signs at Cape Reinga claim some Maori guy swam to the islands (55km away) in ancient times. Hey, maybe.

Our accommodation for the night was in the Tapotupotu Camping Area, a beautiful little camping spot on ‘Sandy Bay’.

There are small hikes/walks to do around the area, and a big estuary where you can swim. We cooked burgers on our camping stove, then settled in.

Day 4) Cape Reinga to Bay of Islands and Whangarei (3h45m)

We drove down to Whangarei on day four, stopping at a couple spots along the way.

We hiked just outside of the Bay of Islands. We parked our car, then walked about 20 minutes out to the point. A great hike in terms of work to view ratio.

Next, we drove through Paihia, which is the main town on the Bay of Islands. Contrary to every travel guidebook in the world today, we didn’t stop here. We drove through on our way to Whangarei, which is where we stopped for lunch.

Our campground was just south of Whangarei along the beach. We grabbed food in town, then checked into Uretiti Beach DOC Campsite. It’s a huge area with a big, beautiful beach. You can see islands off the coast. If you look to your left, you’ll see Marsden Point Oil Refinery.

We camped right beside the beach. We set up our tent, put on our bathing suits, and walked to the beach. That’s when things got a little weird.

Apparently, it’s a nude beach (or at least, the beach right south of the campground is). You’ll see naked sun bathers. We saw an old guy biking down the beach fully nude. The guy camping beside us was wearing a dress.

So yeah, apparently Uretiti Beach DOC Campsite is more than just a campsite with a funny name.

Day 5) Whangarei to Hobbiton and Rotorua (5h)

Day five was one of our longest driving days. We planned to drive from Whangarei to Hamilton, stop for lunch, visit the Hobbiton set in the afternoon, then head to Rotorua for the night.

Fortunately, New Zealand is small, and a big drive in New Zealand is still only five hours.

Auckland is beautiful on a sunny day. Locals tell me it always looks like this:

We drove through Auckland on the way down, stopping in Hamilton for lunch. Hamilton is a big, well-equipped city (population: 165,000), although we only stopped for lunch.

Next, we rocked up to Hobbiton, which was an absolute bucket list item for both of us. We’re huge Lord of the Rings fans. My friend can recite dudes from the Silmarillion like they’re dudes he went to school with.

Hobbiton was exactly as advertised. After paying $70 NZD, we boarded an old school bus to take us into the meadow of Hobbiton. Our guide was an extra on a couple of the movies, and he led us around the small town of Hobbiton.

We ended at the Green Dragon (!) for a pint of beer. I was in heaven.

After a couple hours at Hobbiton, we went on to Rotorua. We booked two nights at Rotorua Central Backpackers. After a few nights camping on the road with just the two of us, we needed a break and some friends.

What’s Rotorua Like? Rotorua reminded me a bit of small towns in British Columbia – like Rossland. They even call Rotorua “Rotovegas”. It has plenty of outdoor activities. A beautiful lakefront. Some history and Maori culture. The Maori guy at our hostel even taught us the Haka after a few rounds of beer pong. Oh, and the whole town smells like rotten eggs because of the sulphur vents all around.

Day 6) Rotorua

For the first time all week, we woke up without having to pack up the car and leave.

There are all sorts of crazy things you can do in Rotorua. You can visit Maori villages, take part in a traditional Maori feast, or cruise around the lake.

We went zorbing.

It’s something you can’t do anywhere else. It was a lot of fun. You’re bouncing around in a plastic ball as it tumbles down hill. You literally can’t hurt yourself.

We also walked around town and saw some of the traditional Maori villages along the lake.

Then we hit the town and experienced some traditional New Zealand nightlife.

It reminded me a lot of small town BC nightlife: there’s one bar open in town. Everyone ends up there. It kind of turns into a club later in the night. A bad DJ plays songs that were in the top 40 three years ago.

Day 7) Rotorua to Lake Taupo and Kuratau (2h)

We picked up a friend at the hostel. A French backpacker was hitchhiking around New Zealand and wanted a ride further south. She ended up camping with us for the night.

Driving from Rotorua to Lake Taupo, we stopped at Orakei Korako Geothermal Park & Cave. You buy a ticket, cross a ferry, and visit some caves. We didn’t do it, but we stuck our feet into the boiling water at the lake.

This was dumb, as my feet almost got scalded, but it was cool because a lake had never burned my feet before.

Next, we continued on to Huka Falls, which is a popular spot on the New Zealand travel trail. The falls are beautiful.

We grabbed lunch in Taupo. It’s a cool town, although the best part was the view of Mount Tongariro in the distance. It dominates the lake. It feels like you’re in Middle Earth, looking up at the Lonely Mountain from Lake-town on the shores of Long Lake.

Then, we tried to find a camping site. We couldn’t find a DOC campsite nearby, so we decided to drive around the lake.

We ended up in Kuratau, where locals told us that we could probably camp at Fish Beach without issue. That’s exactly what we did, although it wasn’t officially a camping site.

It also had a great natural cooler for our beers:

It was one of the best places I’ve camped, and the view of Lake Taupo in the morning was incredible.  

Day 8) Tongariro National Park and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

After waking up on the shores of Lake Taupo, we packed up our tent, supplies, and our French hitchhiking friend into our car. We dropped her off in Turangi, then headed to Tongariro to do the first part of the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

We actually couldn’t do the full Tongariro Alpine Crossing because the volcano was erupting while we were there.

We did, however, do the Tongariro Summit Track:

Luckily enough, we caught the last bus from the town of “National Park” (yes, it’s literally called National Park) to take us into the park.  

Getting off the bus, our driver handed us a pamphlet warning us to start running if we heard, smelt, or felt anything unusual. The volcano was actively erupting, but if it actually started spewing, we were basically fucked. But hey, it would have been a cool way to go out.

The hike is spectacular, to say the least. Starting from the parking lot, you climb up the valley between Mt. Ngauruhoe (the one that looks like Mt. Doom) and Mt. Tongariro. If you leave earlier in the day, you can climb both mountains, although some members of our group didn’t even make it to the top of Mt. Tongariro.

This is understandably a must-do sight in New Zealand. It’s incredible. I want to go back and do the full crossing one day. You can see Lake Taupo in one direction, Mount Doom in another direction, and all the way to Mt. Taranaki and the western coast of New Zealand 180km away by New Plymouth. It’s insane.

As you can see, we had a great day for weather. I got super sunburnt.

After completing the crossing and getting back to our car, we headed to the DOC’s Kakaho Campsite for the night. We set up our tent in the middle of a beautiful forest with few people around.

Tips for Tongariro:

  • Bring food and drinks with you; your guide might not let you climb if you don’t have at least 4 liters (1 gallon) of water (I had a 2L bottle and a 1L bottle of chocolate milk and I needed all of it)
  • There’s a decent sized grocery store in Turangi, about 40 minutes away from National Park
  • There are also basic supplies in National Park, including a convenience store and bar
  • Take the earliest possible bus from National Park to give yourself the most time possible on the mountain

Day 9) Tongariro to Waitomo (2h)

We drove from the shores of Lake Taupo to the tiny village of Waitomo, home of the legendary Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

We recommend stopping in Te Kuiti along the way. There’s one gas station in Waitomo that sells groceries at inflated prices, but that’s about it. Te Kuiti is larger, and it’s home to the world’s largest sheep shearing statue (seriously):

We stayed at YHA Waitomo Juno Hall. We setup our tent outside while enjoying the hostel amenities (laundry, shared bathroom, cooking facilities) inside.

We had a much-needed chill day, relaxing and hanging around the hostel’s pool.  

Day 10) Waitomo Glowworm Caves and “Black Water Rafting”

We woke up to a spectacular view of mist creeping up the valley in Waitomo.

Next, we did the Black Water Rafting adventure of Waitomo Caves. It was pricey (like $120 NZD), but it was an unforgettable and unique experience.

You hop on an inner tube, do a couple training jumps in a nearby creek, then climb into these dark, narrow caves. There’s “black water” (i.e. just cave water) rushing around you, but I didn’t find it scary or claustrophobic at any point. The caves are surprisingly spacious.

You spend a couple hours rafting through dark caves, dodging eels around your feet, and looking up in complete silence at the “glow worms”, which are actually just pieces of algae hanging from the roof.

Eventually, you reach a quiet, calm channel of water. I looked up and saw the glowworms. But I also heard voices and saw dark shapes moving around. It freaked me out – until I realized we were underneath the viewing platform.

So if you don’t want to go on a black water rafting trip, you can just walk into the caves and stand on the viewing platforms instead.

But the black water rafting was something I’ll never forget.

Day 11) Waitomo to Raglan to the Coromandel Peninsula

Day 11 was an exciting day. We had met two British girls in Australia, and they were flying into Auckland later that day. We had time to kill, so we drove up the coast to the legendary surf town of Raglan.

We stopped at “Bridal Veil Falls” along the way. It’s just outside of town.

I swear there’s a Bridal Veil Falls in every single country. Try to be more original.

Raglan was a cool place to walk around, and a lot of people spend a few nights (or weeks) there. It’s a chill surf town surrounded by aquamarine coastline.

Finally, we picked up our friends at Auckland Airport, then headed for the town of Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Thames is a cool little town that reminded me a little of my hometown of Trail, BC. It’s home to around 7,500 people and has a history of mining and forestry.

It’s also situated within striking distance of the entire Coromandel Peninsula, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth in a country that’s already incredible.

We stayed at Sunkist Hostel in Thames, although it’s now called Lady Bowen Bed and Breakfast. We walked into town, grabbed dinner, then got ready to explore the next day.

Day 12) Thames, Coromandel, Hot Water Beach, and Pauanui

We did a big loop around the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping in the town of Coromandel for lunch.

There are plenty of photo opportunities along the way. Between Coromandel and Whitianga, you climb a mountain pass that takes you up high above everything. The views are spectacular.

Coming down the other side, you approach Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, two of the hottest spots to stop on the Coromandel Peninsula.

At Hot Water Beach, you can rent a shovel for $5 NZD, then dig your own hot tub in the middle of the beach (seriously). It’s a bizarre little tourist attraction created by geothermal vents under the sand. If you hit the right spot or dig too deep, you’ll literally scald yourself – so be careful.  

We didn’t make it to Cathedral Cove, but the pictures looked amazing.

We stopped in Pauanui just outside of our campground to get food for the night.

We ended the day at Wentworth Valley Camping Ground. We cooked a great dinner, then set up the tent for the night. We heard some noises outside of our tent later that night and were shocked to see possums raiding our food. We threw our shoes and other stuff at the possums and they didn’t move. It was kind of scary.

Day 13) Pauanui, Karangahake, and Auckland (3h)

After two weeks of traveling New Zealand, it was time to head to our final destination of Auckland.

We made the most of our last day, stopping in Karangahake along the way to check out the Karangahake Gorge, the Karagahake Windows Walk, and The Crown Mines. It’s a narrow gorge with old mining tunnels you can climb through.

Continuing back towards Auckland, you’ll head through Paeroa. There’s a soda in New Zealand called Lemon and Paeroa. It came from this town – so of course, they built the world’s largest Lemon & Paeroa bottle in this town.

We ended up staying at Nomads Auckland Backpackers, which is a really cool hostel. It has a rooftop patio in the heart of downtown Auckland. We cooked food there, then went out on the town for the night.

Day 14) Auckland to Hawaii

I flew from Auckland to Hawaii, which is one of the most bizarre flights you can do in terms of the time change.

We went out Saturday night in Auckland. I woke up Sunday morning and went to the airport.

After 8 hours of flying, I landed in Honolulu…on Saturday night at 8pm.

So I got two Saturday nights in a row by going back in time 23 hours. It’s a wild time change.

Other Tips for New Zealand

Pick up a DOC campground map brochure at any tourist spot. This was our lifeline in New Zealand. We jumped between DOC campgrounds every day.

Most campsites have no pay stations. You pay using cash and your own honesty. At remote campsites, you grab an envelope from the check-in counter, fill the envelope with cash (typically $10 to $20 per campsite per night), write down your car info, then that’s it. The envelopes always say the rangers check daily, but that’s obviously not the case.

Beer in New Zealand is like Canadian or Australian beer: expect a lot of domestic lagers. NZ Pure and Steinlager are both very drinkable, although our favourite was Tui (and I’ve never seen Tui outside of New Zealand).  

Most DOC campsites have cold showers and toilets at the very least. Some even have hot showers and laundry.  

We probably spent $1500 in 13 days in New Zealand for two of us. Camping and cooking for ourselves saved us a lot of money. A lot of people find New Zealand expensive, but I found it comparable to Canada and cheaper than Australia.

Don’t spend too much time in Auckland. The Kiwis we met did not have a favorable opinion of Auckland. Most told us to leave the city and see the wilderness and countryside instead. I found Auckland to be similar to Vancouver or Sydney: a beautiful and liveable city with expensive real estate around a huge harbour – but the best things to see are outside of town.  

Splurge on tourist stuff. We spent $120 NZD per person doing the blackwater rafting adventure thing. We agonized over the amount for a while. We were at the end of our trip and funds were low. We’re so glad we did it. Once you get back, you’re working full time and forget how much you spent anyway. Certain tourist stuff in New Zealand is expensive, but it was always worth it in our experience.

Everyone talks about the South Island, but don’t ignore the North Island. Everything you read about New Zealand focuses on the South Island, which understandably looks beautiful. We ran out of time on our trip, but we were extremely impressed with the North Island. We spent two weeks there doing something different every day and didn’t even see half the island – not to mention the other half of the country.

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