This taste of the North Island is a great way to experience Kiwi culture in a short amount of time. Journey east to the first place in the world to see the rising sun, sip on famous Hawkes Bay wines and get adventurous at Taupo. Travel through diverse landscapes including coastal highways, vast lakes, ancient volcanoes, lush forests, and expansive vineyards.
Stay: Auckland 1 night
New Zealand’s largest city is known as the city of sails. Set between two iconic harbors, Auckland offers a stunning variety of activities. Take a trip out to the islands; easy-going Waiheke, volcanic Rangitoto and the Tiritiri Matangi sanctuary, or see wildlife closer to shore at Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium or the Auckland Zoo. Visit the Toi o Tamaki art gallery or the city’s several museums.
Try bungy jumping off the harbor bridge or the 328-meter Sky Tower for spectacular views and thrills. While you’re there, check out the glass viewing platform, and learn about NZ’s most famous sporting team at the interactive All Black Experience. Wander the waterfront at Viaduct Basin with its trendy bars and restaurants. Take the family for wild rides at Rainbow’s End, climb into the Waitakere ranges or stroll through the Botanic Gardens. Auckland truly has something for everyone.
Drive: Auckland to Tauranga
2.5 hours non-stop SH 1 to Pokeno then SH 2
Beauty begins once you’ve left the Southern Motorway (Coromandel exit). Through small towns, country and seaside views, the road leads to Paeroa, where you’ll find a giant L&P bottle and antiques and collectibles shops by the dozen. A must-stop is the Karangahake Gorge historic walkway which follows an old railway line complete with dark tunnels and rich gold mining history. Continue to Waihi, ride on the vintage train or visit the Waihi Gold Discovery Center to get a hands-on gold mining experience. Follow SH2 through Katikati, known for the gorgeous murals decorating many of its commercial buildings, and on the busy highway to Tauranga.
Stay: Tauranga 1 night
Trendy Tauranga and Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty have surf, sun, sand, and more to delight the whole family. Start with a climb up the iconic Mount, then plunge into the saltwater hot pools or laze on the beach right next door. Get your adventure fix at the Waimarino Adventure Park or Adrenalin Forest’s hire-wire obstacle course. Go chasing waterfalls- the locals recommend both McLaren’s and Kaiate Falls. Discover some history at the Historic Village and art at the Tauranga Gallery or TePuna Quarry sculpture park. Nature lovers will delight in the tranquil Katikati Bird Gardens. Or sail across the Bay on a catamaran to the pest-free oasis of Whale Island to view forest and seabirds in their natural habitat.
Drive: Tauranga to Rotorua
46 minutes via SH 36
This rural route takes you over hills and plantations to the western shores of Lake Rotorua. Stop at Hamurana Springs for an easy walk through towering redwoods and past crystal-clear springs. Continue on SH36 into the Rotorua suburbs.
Alternative Route: 80 minutes non-stop via SH 29A, Te Puke Highway & SH 33
Drive out of Tauranga on SH 29A and avoid the SH 2 Eastern Toll Road by following the signs for Te Puke. The scenic drive leads to Te Puke in the heart of Kiwifruit country. Stop off at a working kiwifruit orchard to discover the story of one of the world’s healthiest fruits. Alternatively, take a break in Paengaroa at the Comvita Visitor Centre and cafe. Continue over the Mamaku Range hills before descending to the picturesque Okere Falls. Now, it’s an easy drive beside Lake Rotorua and onto the city.
Stay: Rotorua 1 night
Rotorua is home to spectacular geothermal wonderlands and Maori arts, culture and history. You can experience storytelling, cultural performances and delicious hangi (traditionally cooked meat and vegetables) at the Tamaki or Mitai Maori Villages. Or opt for Whakarewarewa to see geothermal marvels and the NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Further afield lie the Wai O Tapu thermal valley and the Redwoods Forest Treewalk with its many walking and cycling tracks. Bird watchers will love Wingspan, the national Bird of Prey Center and the Rainbow Springs Kiwi House. Daring adventurers rejoice! Rotorua's got everything from bungy jumping and rolling Zorb balls to a guided tour of the Mt Tarawera crater. Finally ready to relax? Take a dip in one of the hot mineral spas before heading out to Eat Street with its mix of restaurants, cafes, bars and the fabulous Lady Jane's Ice Cream Parlour.
Drive: Rotorua to Gisborne
4 hours non-stop, via SH 30 and SH 2
Lakes, native bush, pine plantations, rolling hills and winding river gorge — this drive has it all. You’ll travel on SH 30 through rolling farmland past the Rotorua lakes towards SH 2 at Awakeri. Detour to Whakatane and beautiful Ohope Beach for a swim and snack and to fill the gas tank before continuing on to Opotiki. Wind through the Waioeka Gorge alongside sparkling rivers and over high country farmland. There are plenty of stopping points to admire the breathtaking scenery, and learn the area’s fascinating history from the many interpretation boards along the way. Stop for a walk along the historic Tauranga and Manganuku Bridges then continue to Matawai and Otoko, where the Otoko Walkway follows an old railway line. The final 50km (33 miles) open out to orchards and vineyards before entering New Zealand’s most eastern city.
Stay: Gisborne 1 night
It's worth the journey to get to Gisborne, the first city in the world to greet the sun each day. There's plenty of culture on offer here. For example, the Tupapa Heritage trail leads to the spot where both the Maori ancestral canoes and Captain Cook first came ashore in New Zealand. Or climb Maunga Hikurangi to see the sunrise and another Maori cultural experience.
If you've always wanted to surf, here's your chance. Gisborne offers surfing lessons and next-level beaches to try out your new skills. If you'd rather bodysurf, try a hands-on workshop where you'll craft your very own wooden bodysurfer's hand-plane. Why not try a railbike adventure — ride side-by-side along disused railway lines, including tunnels and magnificent scenery. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, interact with wild stingrays on Dive Tatapouri’s low-tide reef ecology tour.
Drive: Gisborne to Napier
3 hours non-stop via SH 2
Drive through hilly farmland and admire inland and coastal views as State Highway 2 winds its way from Gisborne to Napier. Stop halfway at Wairoa to visit the District Museum with its impressive display of local history. Further on, Lake Tutira wildlife refuge is known for its prolific birdlife and a great place to stretch your legs before the final leg into Napier.
Stay: Napier 1 night
Napier, New Zealand's Art Deco City, was largely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake struck in 1931. Now, it makes the most of its status with an annual art-deco festival each February and plenty of all-year-round art tours around town. It is also one of New Zealand's sunniest regions, which boasts beautiful beaches, wineries, and the country's longest-running Farmers Market in nearby Hastings. Napier is home to the NZ National Aquarium, where you'll see 100+ native and exotic animals from land and sea. Or, experience nature at its wildest and windiest with a tractor tour onto Cape Kidnappers to visit the world's largest mainland gannet colony. But, if you're into haunted buildings, you can call in at New Zealand's oldest prison in Napier for a spooky, scary self-guided tour.
Drive: Napier to Taupo
Turn onto SH5 and head West to Taupo. Here the winding hill road allows for spectacular views, but be prepared for slow traffic as there are few passing lanes. This road is best traveled in daylight, especially in winter. Along the way, are two of the “must-see” NZ waterfalls Waipunga and Waiarua Falls. Approach Taupo in awe at the sight of New Zealand’s largest lake.
Stay: Taupo 1 night
Another geothermal and water paradise awaits visitors to Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest freshwater lake. Here you can kayak, parasail, sail, paddleboard and more. Or let someone else do the work and take a scenic cruise to see the gigantic Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay.
Taupo has myriad walking, hiking and cycle trails for all fitness levels. Head through forests and along mountain tops. Then walk past the bubbling, boiling mud and colorful mineral rocks at Craters of the Moon and Orakei Korako Valley. Locals will recommend you watch the spectacular release of water at Huka Falls and Aratiatia Rapids or get amongst it with the various river rafting and jet boating adventures on offer. Finally, relax and enjoy soaking in the mineral waters of the Otumuheke Stream or swim at the DeBretts pool complex.
Drive: Taupo to Auckland
3 hours, 30 minutes non-stop via SH 1
Drive through the heart of New Zealand’s timber country towards Putaruru, where you can stretch your legs on the Te Waihou Walkway or visit the Timber Museum and wander around the town’s decorative Water Park. Alternatively, stop a little further on at Cambridge, NZ’s equine capital. Take a tour through working racing stables or visit nearby Lake Karapiro to try its many water activities or get an adrenalin rush with a thrilling Camjet tour to the base of the Karapiro Dam. After Cambridge, it’s a straight but busy drive on SH 1 through Huntly and on to Auckland.