December 31, 2016

New Zealand: How to see the North Island

New Zealand may be small (about the size of Great Britain or California), but visitors often make the mistake of planning to see it all in a week!

I often get asked by friends, fellow bloggers and even strangers about how long they should spend in New Zealand.

They want to visit, maybe they have a New Zealand road trip on their Bucket List, they’ve heard all the amazing things our country has to offer, and they think ten days is enough to see the North AND South Islands.


How to see the South Island in 2 weeks post here >>

Our country is blessed with huge diversity. From the white sandy beaches and swimming with dolphins in the far north to the geothermal bubbling farty smelling hot spot of the central plateau, to vineyards rolling over hills producing award-winning wines, surfing on the rugged west coast, glaciers to climb or take a heli ride to, plus fiords and ski fields.

And that’s before you’ve hit the cities which have a host of great cafes (New Zealand has a reputation for excellent coffee – start with a flat white), and our amazing (yet surprisingly underrated) dining scene and the shopping.

I’ve written this post to help all those people who are planning to visit New Zealand figure out how long to spend here, and I’ve broken down the number of days that I think gives you just enough time to see and do the highlights.

This post on how to long to spend in the North Island is meant to be a guide to help you figure out which places to see and which ones to leave out – this time. You’ll just have to come back and see us again – and that’s before we even get to the South Island! (Which is linked at the end of this post…)

Here we go…

Exploring New Zealand’s North Island

North Island map
Auckland (allow 2 days) 

Most visitors use Auckland just for the airport, but New Zealand’s largest city has a lot more to offer than that!

For starters the Auckland food scene is amazing and is usually the first surprise to first-timers to NZ. The waterfront is an easy spot to base yourself for accommodation with too many great restaurants to choose from in the Viaduct, Britomart, on Princes Wharf and the Wynyard Quarter.

And that’s before you get to neighbourhoods like Ponsonby, St Heliers or Mission Bay. And then there’s Oh Calcutta, my favourite Indian restaurant in all the world in Parnell! (You can read my curry post here >>)

The Sky Tower is the city’s syringe-looking icon which offers amazing views (which you can have for free if you book lunch or dinner up at revolving restaurant Orbit or Peter Gordon’s fabulous Sugar Club) and you can walk around the perimeter or bungy jump off it.

Get out on the water either on a replica America’s Cup yacht, a dolphin and whale watching boat or just take a ferry ten minutes across to the suburb of Devonport for lunch or spend a day (or overnight) on Waiheke Island. Waiheke is about 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland where 30 wineries await, a cute little village for shopping and cafes and plenty of beaches.

(Here’s my post on my favourite Waiheke wineries – so far! >>)

Sky Tower walk
Would you??

Auckland has plenty of free events in summer like concerts in parks, movies in parks, beaches for swimming, plenty of hiking and shopping in Newmarket, Ponsonby and around Queen Street. And that’s before you hit the malls like Sylvia Park or St Lukes.

It also has a very cool zoo and Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium with real Antarctic penguins, if your kids are into that. A fun thing to do is take your little budding photographers and let them loose to practice their wildlife photography, like I did here >>


Northland (allow 3-4 days)

Take a car north from Auckland to the Bay of Islands (under 4 hours drive from Auckland) and stay at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in cute, historic Russell on the waterfront, or across the harbour at the Paihia Beach Spa and Resort.

It’s from Paihia that you take the dolphin and sightseeing tours, but only a 10-minute ferry ride from Russell.

Russell wharf
Russell wharf is where the ferries from Paihia come, where kids fish and where Birdmen leap off.
Horizon line and perspective: Ninety Mile Beach, NZ
Ninety Mile Beach, NZ

The official birthplace of New Zealand is Waitangi where the Treaty was signed between Maori chiefs and the British governors who had settled here too.

Today the grounds tell the story of the ups and downs of that partnership. You’ll see giant waka canoes, walk inside the marae to marvel at the carvings and can stand on the most beautiful front lawn in New Zealand.

The meaning of the Maori greeting of rubbing noses, also known as the hongi is told in the video above…

Northland is also a great pivot point to stay and take a day trip to the very tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. I would recommend an organised tour to drive along the sand of 90 mile beach (private cars are not insured on this “official” highway) and boogie board down the dunes like we did in this video!

(Note: the company we did the tour with supplied the boards, so that makes it easy)

Another nice day trip from Paihia is to travel west to the Hokianga coast and visit New Zealand’s oldest forest, home to the mighty Tane Mahuta kauri tree. If you like hikes and also a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the day, then plan to stay out here at the lovely Waipoua Lodge.

(Note: due to a disease that is threatening these iconic trees, some walks are temporarily closed.)


Central North Island (allow 2-3 days) 

Drive south from Auckland to the literal hot spot of New Zealand – Rotorua. Be warned though, this is a geothermal area and the fragrance is rather “fresh”. However Rotorua is where you’ll find authentic Maori culture as well as plenty of adrenalin-inducing activities like luging, zorbing, jet boating and more. For relaxation, soaking in the Polynesian pools is a must.

Rotorua marae
Catching a marae welcome in Rotorua

For a secluded 5-star hideaway, award-winning Treetops Lodge is set in 70 hectares of native bush with game hunting available. It’s luxury at it’s finest with each lodge room having it’s own fireplace and five-star dining in the restaurant. (I got engaged here!)

But for something closer to town, in fact right in the heart of Rotorua, try Regent of Rotorua. This used to be a humble brick and tile motel but has been imaginatively transformed into a chic boutique hotel that is within walking distance to the CBD and right on the corner of Eat Street lined with restaurants and bars.


Waikato or Taranaki (allow 2-3 days) 

This is really an either/or decision. Either you go west towards Taranaki to visit New Zealand’s iconic Waitomo Caves where you can wander through the underground city of glowworms, taking a boat ride in the dark or even go black water rafting. I’d also highly recommend the Ruakuri caves too for incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations. Here’s my post on them so can see pics and read more >>

From here you could tootle out to Raglan, a known surf town and a lovely place to stop for a night at a BnB or hotel. Then meander down the coast to New Plymouth to visit the famous Len Lye Centre, do a spot of shopping, attend music festival WOMAD in March, ride or walk the coastal cycle way, drive up Mt Taranaki or go hiking. Here’s my weekend in New Plymouth, FYI >>

Len Lye New Plymouth
God’s shiny walls at the Len Lye Centre

OR go east to Waikato and spend a few hours at Hobbiton just out of Matamata. If your family is into hobbits then you’ll love the Shire. It’s the actual set from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, with the addition of a proper pub and restaurant for tourists. This ties in as an easy drive on to Rotorua, depending on which way you’re heading.


East coast (allow 3-5 days) 

If you stayed in Waikato, then you can head to the Coromandel Peninsula and down to Mt Maunganui. This would be my next pick if a road trip to the Bay of Islands isn’t feasible on your schedule.

You’ll pass through some cute towns on the way and once you get there, it’s long stretches of beaches and all that is on offer in the water (fishing, skiing, swimming…) I like Whitianga and Whangamata, and a must-do for something quite unique: pick up a sand spade and head to Hot Water Beach in Hahei around low tide when you can dig yourself a jacuzzi in the sand and allow the hot water to be cooled by the incoming or outgoing tide.

Mt Maunganui
I sailed into the gorgeous Mt Maunganui on a cruise around NZ last year

The whole driving distance would only take 2.5 hours, but spend a couple of days in one of those two beachside towns I mentioned above, then travel via Hahei (planning around the tide) to Mt Maunganui for a couple more days. They have a superb campsite at the foot of the mount (which is easy to walk around or up!) and hotel and apartment accommodation along the seafront with cafes and restaurants underneath. Spend a few hours in Tauranga too for some shopping (about 10 minutes up the road).


Southbound (allow 2-3 days) for Hawkes Bay

Drive from Auckland or Rotorua to Hawkes Bay (5 hours from Auckland/2 hours from Rotorua) en route to Wellington. Stay for at least 2 nights here to experience New Zealand’s first vineyard, Mission Estate and the plethora of  wineries that have sprung up in Napier and Havelock North. My favourites for tasting and dining at are Elephant Hill, Clearview, Craggy Range, The Mission, Church Road and Black Barn.

Play golf at exclusive Cape Kidnappers (and stay a night at this exclusive 5-star resort if your credit card will stretch), shop in Napier, go to a vineyard concert if you strike it right. Napier was destroyed in 1931 by a massive earthquake and rebuilt in Art Deco style. Architecture and history buffs will love to take a walking tour of the historic buildings in the central city that are now saved and preserved.

Napier vintage care
Shopping in Napier in Art Deco buildings

In Hastings on Sundays is New Zealand’s first and, I reckon, best Farmer’s Market which is worth going to for artisan breads, meats, cheeses, coffee, jams, olive oils and a whole lot more.


Wellington (allow 3 days) 

Drive from Napier to Wellington (about 4 hours). This is our capital city and a tour through the Beehive (parliament building) is cool if you’re into that sort of thing.

Wellington is easily walkable around the labyrinth of shopping streets and the picturesque waterfront that sparkles on a fine day. Take a trip in the cable car from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn for great views of the city and harbour (like my pic below).

Wellington cable car
The cable car track

Shop along Lambton Quay, have brunch on Cuba Street, and a drink on the waterfront.

If you’re there during rugby season, catch a game at Westpac Stadium – ideally it’ll be the All Blacks whipping some foreign butt preceded by a kick-ass haka!

If you’re there in September/October get tickets to WOW, World of Wearable Art (see my post on WOW here >>), and prepare to be thoroughly entertained by the huge stage show and costumes designed all over the world for this prestigious competition.

Then cross Cook Strait and start your South Island adventure. Here’s my post on How to See the South Island in 2 weeks!






If you’re an international visitor, have a look at DriveSafe to make sure you’re cool with driving on NZ roads and know the rules!

Or have a go at doing a driving theory test at Driving Tests here>>

About Megan Singleton


Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel writing journey 18 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!)I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

"New Zealand: How to see the North Island" - What do you think?

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  1. lion on

    Hello from Paris Megan,
    I am arriving in NZ between 14th February until the 14 March.
    To be honest with you I didn’t do my homework yet but I am intended to
    Because I am travelling alone, cost wise is an issue but, despite that I am planning to rent a motorbike for minimum 10 days and camp wherever possible.
    do you have some tips for finding a rental shop reliable ?
    furthermore, I am planning of doing both islands so a bit tricky about where should I spend more time north of south ?
    many thanks for your imput into my project
    kind regards

  2. Mary Hoather on

    Thanks for links so far Megan. Next possibility to research is car hire with Airbandb. Any recommended car hire firms from Picton and /or Auckland….just got to research vehicle crossing costs.Mary

  3. Mary Hoather on

    Really helpful blog…Megan, I am going to be doing the South Island tour itinerary on my own….better to use buses and accommodation or hire a campervan? Both have advantages and disadvantages….what do you recommend ? Travelling 25 Jan- 11 Feb 2018 which is I know quite peak season so need to make my mind up fairly quickly! Mary

    • Megan on

      Hi Mary, yes it is peak season. Gosh, how to decide! Buses might not be as regular as you expect, so you’d need to book those soon and also know that you might take an entire day to get somewhere and then not have a vehicle to go exploring once you get there (like to wineries as you will be in the city). I would hire a campervan and stay in the many campervan parks around the country – you’ll need to book those too at that time of year. Freedom camping not allowed in many parts of NZ, although if you have your own toilet, etc, you might be ok. I have a post on tips for campervanning in NZ on the blog too Fun!


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