Even though the South Island of New Zealand gets more credit as the more picturesque of the two, anyone who has traveled through the North Island would quickly be able to refute that argument with a list of mindblowing places. From beaches to islands and mountains to forests, the North Island offers a different view than its southern part but in no way is it second-rate.
Renting a vehicle and exploring the island by car is the best way to experience it all, and the only way to visit all nine regions that make up the North Island. Assuming you start in Auckland, this guide starts off by exploring the area north of the city and then continues around the island in a clockwise direction and finishes back in Auckland. Use it to plan your itinerary and design your perfect North Island road trip.
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. Check out the nightlife, restaurants, and entertainment. Stroll around 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
Head up to Northland from Auckland, the northernmost region of the country referred to by locals as the "Winterless North" because of its perpetually great weather and superb beaches. The biggest city is Whangarei, 100 miles from Auckland, but drive on an additional 40 miles to Northland's best-known tourist destination, the Bay of Islands. Apart from water sports and fishing—which the area is most known for—it also holds a special place in the history of New Zealand. It was one of the earliest settlements of the original Maori tribes that arrived at the island, and the coastal towns of Waitangi and Kerikeri were the sites of important treaties signed between European settlers and Maori residents.
Distance From Auckland: 3 hours; 141 miles (227 kilometers)
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 from the Bay of Islands but well worth the journey. In the native Maori culture, it's believed that departed souls enter the Underworld at this far-flung promontory that feels like it could be the end of the world.
As you travel back to Paihia and the Bay of Islands, choose the route along the west coast. You can legally drive along the sand of the Ninety Mile Beach if you're seeking an adventure, although it is not recommended unless your car is equipped with four-wheel drive (and if you have a rental vehicle, most companies prohibit it). Pass through Kaitaia and take the scenic route through the Waipoua Forest and the magnificent kauri trees, some of which are 2,000 years old.
Distance From Auckland: 6 hours; 262 miles (421 kilometers)
Drive back through Auckland and continue on to the Coromandel Peninsula, which sits just across the Hauraki Gulf from Auckland. Like Northland, this locale is full of beaches and forests, although its most well-known attractions are on the farther east coast of the peninsula. Cathedral Cove is one of those places, and if you're on the Coromandel Peninsula you can't miss its pristine beaches and wild rock formations. Hot Water Beach is one of the most unique attractions of the area, as the beach itself sits on top of a geothermal pool. Visit during low tide and bring a shovel with you (they can be rented nearby if you don't have one), and you can dig into the sand and make your own personal hot spring right on the beach.
Distance From Auckland: 2 hours, 30 minutes; 117 miles (188 kilometers)
East Coast and Eastland
Further south along the east coast is the Bay of Plenty with its massive island volcano and the coastal towns of Tauranga and Whakatane. The drive along the bay is one of the most beautiful routes in the country, with luscious mountains to one side and the bright cerulean water on the other. The main city in the region is Gisborne, New Zealand's easternmost city and one of the first places on Earth where you can see the sunrise each day. The nearby Tolaga Bay Wharf juts out nearly half a mile into the sea, making it a scenic spot for fishing, diving, or just taking a stroll.
Distance From Auckland: 6 hours; 298 miles (480 kilometers)
The next stop heading south is Hawke's Bay and the two cities of Napier and Hastings. Like Gisborne, this is one of the premier wine regions in New Zealand. Hawke's 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'll pass through another wine region, the Wairarapa, and the towns of Masterton and Martinborough.
Distance From Auckland: 5 hours, 30 minutes; 257 miles (414 kilometers)
Wellington is the vibrant capital of New Zealand and sits on the southernmost tip of the North Island. It has a reputation for being one of the hippest cities in the country for its numerous bars, trendy eateries, and an exhaustive list of cultural events. The Te Papa is New Zealand's national museum, dedicated to the island nation's history, culture, and biodiversity. Wellington is worth at least a couple of days to truly explore and get to know the city. If your road trip is a two-island adventure, you'll catch the ferry from Wellington for a quick ride to the South Island. If you're making your way back up to Auckland, continue up the west coast for a different route and new adventures.
Distance From Auckland: 8 hours; 404 miles (651 kilometers)
Manawatu-Whanganui and Taranaki
The fastest way back to Auckland is to cut straight through the middle of the island, but that would require leaving out all of the magnificent sites on the west side. Drive through the city of Whanganui and continue on to Egmont National Park, home to the most distinctive landmark in the area, Mount Taranaki. If you feel like moving your legs after so much drive time, you can hike to the top and back in one strenuous day, but it's just as enjoyable from sea level for those who didn't plan to summit a mountain during their vacation. To get back toward the interior of the island for the final stretch, you could cut through Whangaganui National Park along Highway 43. But beware: This highway is also known as the "Forgotten Highway," because it's the only national road in the country that still contains unsealed portions, and driving on it is an adventure, to say the least.
Distance From Auckland: 5 hours; 250 miles (403 kilometers)
Tongariro National Park and Waikato
Through the center of the island are 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 trout fishing, hiking, and boating. Just 50 miles from Taupo is Rotorua. This is one of New Zealand's most famous tourist destinations and a must-see for any North Island tour. In addition to the unique geothermal areas, featuring geysers, mud pools, hot springs, and sulfur pools, it is the best place in New Zealand to gain an appreciation of the Maori culture.
The road then takes you through the green farmland of the Waikato, the setting for Hobbiton in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, and back to Auckland. The Waikato is also home to the Waitomo Caves, a cavernous network of waterways whose dark interiors are illuminated by the natural light of tiny glowworms; it's one of nature's most magical phenomenon.
Distance From Auckland: 3 hours, 30 minutes; 170 miles (273 kilometers)