Your Guide to North Island Road Tripping

Lush and green Te Toto Gorge Lookout in Raglan New Zealand

The North Island is bountiful in its diverse scenery, from geothermal activity to golden sand beaches, enchanting forests to rolling green farms - it’s a landscape that ticks all the boxes. The North Island is also rich in Māori culture, vibrant cities and authentic Kiwi experiences.

Words by: Nicola Amy Hinman

Exploring the North Island via its scenic routes is sure to leave you spellbound at every turn, and as every New Zealander knows, there is nothing quite like setting out on a classic Kiwi road trip. Cranking the tunes, loading up on snacks and exploring the best of what the North Island has to offer, all through the comfort of your vehicle - it really is hard to beat. The North Island is your oyster when it comes to road trips. There is something for everyone.

Donut shop in New Plymouth with a cabinet full of donuts and coffee menu board

Surf Highway 45

A total of 90 minutes of driving time should get you from New Plymouth to Hāwera, but you’ll want to allow a lot longer as there are plenty of neat places to explore along the way. 

Start and end your trip with some local colonial history at each of the Puke Ariki and Tawhiti Museums (in New Plymouth and Hāwera, respectively), climb Paritutu Rock for sweeping ocean views, and kick back at one of the many black sand beaches, including Back Beach, Ōakura and Opunake. 

Stopping at Cape Egmont Lighthouse is time well spent, especially with prominent Mount Taranaki looming behind. Of course, it’s not called the Surf Highway for nothing, so don’t forget to pack the board. Fuel up for the day with breakfast at Monica’s Eatery and stock up on snacks for the car from Knead Artisan Donuts.

Cape Reinga lighthouse with view of ocean and hills in the background

Way up North

Heading up Northland’s west coast from the small surf town Ahipara, two opportunities present themselves. The more direct, traditional route of State Highway 1, or the more unique coastal route of 90 Mile Beach. 

Driving on the sand isn’t as easy as it looks, so do some preparation, but it is certainly a surreal experience. Stop off at the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes and step into the desert, an other-worldly landscape where the steep sand dunes invite sand-boarding fun. Keep driving to the top of the country, where the iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse awaits. Steeped in Māori history, Cape Reinga is where Māori spirits are said to meet before descending into the underworld (reinga) by sliding down the lone pōhutukawa tree into the water below. It is also where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. A road less travelled, bringing your own food and supplies is advisable. 

Drone view of Castle Point in the Wairarapa

Quaint Towns of the Wairarapa

No trip to the North Island is complete without visiting the world’s coolest little capital, Wellington. The winding road over the Remutaka Hill connects Wellington to the quaint country towns of the Wairarapa, where the local coffee shops and corner stores line the way. Greytown exudes a real charm, with an abundance of secondhand galleries and consignment stores, and a wide range of eateries, including the classic White Swan Country Hotel 

Not far from Greytown lies the Wairarapa’s wine country, Martinborough, where a patchwork of boutique vineyards and wineries quilt the landscape. Fuel up on a pie from The Clareville Bakery before continuing north towards the rugged seaside settlement of Castlepoint, the perfect place to unwind and relax. Enjoy a walk to Castlepoint’s iconic lighthouse and soak up the dramatic beauty of the surrounding landscape.

Scrambled eggs for breakfast at Capers in Rotorua

The Heart and Soul of the North Island

As one of New Zealand’s cultural gems, Rotorua is an absolute must-visit for everyone at least once in their lives. Rotorua oozes with Māori history and geothermal wonders, along with the majestic Whakarewarewa Redwood forest. After starting the day with breakfast at Capers or coffee and cronuts from Ciabatta Café & Bakery, head south. Pass through the popular lakeside towns of Taupō and Tūrangi to Ohakune, a small town featuring a giant carrot located at the southern end of Tongariro National Park. Ohakune is a popular launchpad for the Tongariro Crossing Great Walk, as well as home to the beloved Mardi Gras winter festival.

The largest Kauri tree in Waipoua Kauri forest

Ancient Trees and Azure Lakes

Immerse yourself in some of New Zealand’s oldest trees along the Kauri Coastal Highway. Armed with knowledge from the Kauri Museum in Matakohe, travel through the Trounson Kauri Park, a dense forest and bird sanctuary. Travelling north, the perfect pit stop is the Kai Iwi Lakes: three azure lakes adorned with pristine white sand, hiking trails and two campgrounds - inevitably a popular summer destination. Jump back in the car and continue trippin’ north to the Waipoua Forest, a winding corridor with a canopy of trees, including several majestic but threatened ancient kauri trees. Leave time for visiting the 2000 year old Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest living kauri tree - it really is a sight to behold. 

Raglan beach with mountain views in the background

Surf to Surf

This inland route starts and ends at arguably two of the country’s best surf towns: Raglan and Mount Maunganui. Raglan is a proud little town with an interesting assortment of shops, cafes and bars, including the Raglan Roast coffee roastery and a legendary fish and chip down on the wharf. At the other end, trendy Mount Maunganui offers artisan shops, boutique galleries and a lively nightlife at the base of an iconic volcanic cone - trust us when we say the short and steep climb is well worth the view. Visit Eddies and Elspeth for a coffee and to satisfy the hunger post-surf. In between these two surf spots lies some classic New Zealand attractions (at least, they’re not too much of a detour), including the Waitomo Caves, the whimsical Hobbiton movie set and the natural geological wonder, Cathedral Cove.

Boat in the water at Tolaga Bay Wharf in Gisborne at dawn

The East Cape

One of the country’s most isolated yet memorable road trips connects Ōpōtiki in the west to Gisborne in the east, along what is known as State Highway 35. Like all good roadies, ice cream is a feature; the Nuthouse Cafe in Waihau Bay makes homemade ice cream using macadamia nuts and mānuka honey. The spectacular winding coastal route is punctuated with several remote settlements and an abundance of neat places to stop at, including the country’s easternmost lighthouse, largest pōhutukawa tree and the iconic 660 metre long Tolaga Bay Wharf. The journey continues through Tatapouri Bay (where you can stop and feed the resident stingrays) and past Wainui beach (make time to dip your toes in the ocean) before wrapping up in Gisborne, the first city in the world to see the sun each morning. 

Neat Auckland Places

Pici Pasta

Exterior image looking through the big glass windows into Pici Auckland.
Place Auckland
Bars key icon. Restaurants key icon.

Pasta fiends unite; you simply can’t miss a meal at Auckland institution, Pici.

Allpress Auckland Roastery

A man working.
Place Auckland
Cafes key icon.

Coffee is the most important item on the Caffetteria’s menu, and it is some of the freshest in town.

Ebisu

Japanese food on a table.
Place Auckland
Restaurants key icon.

Located on the waterfront in the city centre, Ebisu also lies at the heart of Japanese cuisine in Auckland.

Eighthirty

A coffee cup.
Place Auckland
Cafes key icon.

This little endeavour has carved out an enviable spot amongst Auckland’s booming coffee scene.