Complete Driving Tour of the North Island

A Driving Tour of the North Island, New Zealand, with Sights and Highlights

Cathedral Cove
••• Cathedral Cove, Coromandel, North Island. Image Courtesy of Tourism New Zealand/David Wall

Here is a quick overview of the North Island. It will help you to identify the places to visit if you are planning a trip to this island of New Zealand. It starts and finishes in Auckland.


For most visitors to New Zealand, the journey starts in Auckland. As New Zealand's largest city it's a great place to explore for at least a few days. Enjoy the nightlife, restaurants and entertainment. Check out one of the city's shopping districts or the lovely harbor area around the Viaduct.

You could also take a ferry ride to one of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf or visit one of Auckland's great beaches.

Northland and the Bay of Islands

From Auckland, make sure you head north to Northland. It's a large area with many great beaches and forests. Travel up the east coast through Northland's main city, Whangarei (distance from Auckland is 100 miles/160 kilometers). From there drive on another 44 miles (77 kilometers) to Northland's best known tourist destination, the Bay of Islands. Discover the history of the Maori people and their relationship with the early European settlers at Waitangi or Kerikeri. Take a boat trip into the Bay from Paihia to explore some of the 144 islands.

From the Bay of Islands continue north to the very northern tip of mainland New Zealand at Cape Reinga. This is a special, remote and dramatic place. It is 130 miles (200 kilometers) from Paihia but well worth the journey.

As you travel back, choose the route along the west coast. You can drive along Ninety Mile Beach, although not recommended for cars or rental vehicles. Pass through Kaitaia and take the scenic route through the Waipoua Forest and the magnificent kauri trees, some up to 2000 years old.

Coromandel Peninsula

Traveling back through Auckland, a beautiful part of the island to visit is the Coromandel Peninsula.

Like Northland this is a place of beaches and forests. Make sure you check out Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, both on the eastern coast near Whitianga.

East Coast and Eastland

Further south along the east coast is the Bay of Plenty and the towns of Tauranga and Whakatane. Take a flight to the active volcano White Island. Carry on further on the eastern coast (through Ohope and Opotiki) along one of the loveliest stretches of coast in the country. From there it's past the east coast lighthouse and on to Gisborne, New Zealand's (and the world's) easternmost city. There are more great beaches to explore.

  • More: The Scenic Coastal Drive from Opotiki to Gisborne

Hawkes Bay

The next stop heading south is the Hawkes Bay and the two cities of Napier and Hastings. Like Gisborne, this is an in important wine region. Hawkes Bay is renowned for its red wines and is the largest wine region in the North Island. At this point the main road heads inland on the final stretch to Wellington. On the way you will pass through another wine region, the Wairarapa, with the towns of Masterton and Martinborough.


Wellington, New Zealand's capital, is a vibrant and cultural city. It's also the departure point for the ferry to the South Island.

Spend a few days in Wellington, exploring the harbor area and especially Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum.

Manawatu-Wanganui and Taranaki

The drive north towards the western side of the island takes you through the towns of Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth. Near New Plymouth is Mount Taranaki (formerly called Mount Egmont), one of the North Island's most distinctive landmarks. Further north is the Waitomo Caves, an incredible maze of glow worm caves.

Tongariro National Park and Waikato

Through the center of the island is some of the country's most impressive natural features and the most volcanically active part of New Zealand. The Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand's three UNESCO World Heritage sites. Within its boundaries are the mountains of Ruapehu, Ngaurahoe and Tongariro.

The Tongariro Crossing is regarded as New Zealand's best day walk. Ruapehu also is the location of the North Island's ski fields, Whakapapa and Turoa.

In the distance is Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest lake. It's a great place for such outdoor activities as trout fishing, hiking and boating. Just 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Taupo is Rotorua. This is one of New Zealand's most famous tourist destinations, and a must for any North Island tour. In addition to the unique geothermal areas (featuring geysers, mud pools, hot springs and sulphur pools) it is the best place in New Zealand to gain an appreciation of the Maori culture.

It's then through the green farmland of the Waikato (the setting for Hobbiton in the 'Lord of the Rings' movie trilogy) and back to Auckland.

The North Island is very different to the South Island and is an island of great contrasts. There are picturesque beaches and islands along the east coast, mountains, forests, thermal and volcanic areas and lots of green farmland. It's every bit as enjoyable to visit as the South Island. But if you're not sure which island to choose read my story: North Island or South Island - Which Should I Visit?

More information about planning a North Island trip:

  • Great Driving Tours of the North Island
  • Top Ten Reasons to Visit the North Island
  • North Island Highlights
  • Guide to North Island Regions
  • North Island Maps