Road trip!!! I decided that I was of course not content containing my North Island time to solely Auckland, so I rented a car for a few days and designed a road trip to match. Hiring a car in New Zealand is really affordable, so it’s a great way to get around (you will spend more on petrol than you will on the car hire itself). I will take you through how I planned my trip, what I did, what adjustments I made along the way, and what adjustments I would make if I were to do it again. I did the whole trip solo, but a really easy way of lowering costs is to find someone who wants to join for part or all of the trip to share costs. Overall it was a great trip and I definitely recommend it – though I would recommend spending more time than I did in certain places (but it can be done in this timeline). Not into hiring a car? There are several bus options – Stray, Kiwi Experience, and Naked to name a few, that offer hop on/hop off options and take a very similar route.
Renting [hiring] a Car
There are heaps of options when it comes to car rentals in New Zealand. I was already in the city, so chose one with a location there, so I wouldn’t have to pay to take a bus back to the airport. I had seen the Jucy logos ALL over the place in Australia and New Zealand, so figured they were worth checking out. And they definitely were!! $15 NZD/day (~$12 USD/day) for a rental. Score.
A few important notes:
- Excess: “Excess” in Oceania can be considered the same as a deductible in the States; the amount you’re willing to reserve for excess will impact the price of your car (the higher you can put in excess, the cheaper the rental); some companies will only take your credit card information, but most will actually put a hold on the funds, so make sure you have this available in your account (and remember that cash taken from debit cards is different than a reserve on credit cards, so be sure to talk with the company about when your funds will be returned)
- Insurance: Insurance can be in the same category as excess for some rental companies, or a separate line item for others; IMPORTANT!!! Check with your credit card company and your card benefits before you rent – you may already have rental benefits, but with most, they are no good if you get the car company’s insurance (WTF?); I have the Capital One Venture One card and it does have rental insurance benefits (so I signed up on Jucy’s “risk-taker” plan, I’m such a rebel)
Driving in New Zealand
I made you a quick video with my 4 things to know about driving in New Zealand. Probably applies to other places as well. Don’t worry possums, I mounted the camera before I started driving, no more danger than chatting with you as my passengers.
Route Planning, Maps and Navigation
So much island, so much to do. Yes, New Zealand is tiny. No, that doesn’t mean it’s barren with nothing to do. I started off by eloquently Googling “New Zealand North Island Road Trips.” None of them seemed to fit my 4.5 day timeline, so I made my own. My premise was to start and finish in Auckland, see as much as I could, choose good stopping points for the evening in order to break up the driving, and avoid any major weather (i.e. avoid snow).
I started with an article I found from National Geographic, but it was more tailored to people who want to see everything Lord of the Rings and who want to stop off at shops and wineries. I’m not particularly [at all] interested in the LOTR stuff, and have no need for shops, so I modified it accordingly.
I used Google Maps to map each day’s travel and saved it in a link and a PDF, so I would have either resource, regardless of my WiFi connection. Note: You have to be on the desktop version of Google Maps to create a multi-destination map and at this time, you can open the link on mobile, but it will only provide you step-by-step directions to your FIRST destination (though you will see the map for the remainder of the destinations).
Navigation. In addition to using Google Maps, New Zealand is incredibly well signed, so if you know your route, you will be able to follow the signs. A few drawbacks to this: (1) after sunset, it is very dark, I found trouble relying on seeing the signs and (2) exercise caution following signs to get to new destinations, particularly landmarks; they use them quite liberally, so sometimes you will find an awesome waterfall (see Day 2) and sometimes you will drive an extra 30k looking for hot springs (also see Day 2).
Day 1: Auckland to Rotorua
I’m sure this drive is really lovely. I say that because the majority of this drive was in the dark and/or pouring rain, so I didn’t get to take as much in as planned. I definitely should have left earlier in the day, given how early the sun sets in winter, but I just didn’t get to it.
Huapai Domain was underwhelming and can be skipped. I may have had the wrong address or may have been soured by the weather, but rather than a scenic national park, as I was expecting, it was a regular park (with cricket, rugby and soccer fields). It was also bucketing rain, so not even worth getting out for a walkabout to see if I was missing anything. The drive Northwest of Auckland seemed really pretty, but might be better served for its own trip.
Port Waikato was…whoa. I got there around sunset and it was incredible. I kept pulling over to look at the sunset and the scenery, and then running back into the car because of the wind. The public rest stop looked like something out of a fairy tale. If I were doing it again, I would give myself more time here and maybe plan to arrive around a mealtime, to make the stay a bit longer. It was incredibly windy when I was there, but I can imagine how nice it would be out on a more temperate day.
This is where Day 1’s success ends. The weather took a severe turn and it was getting dark quickly, so I decided to forego Hakarimata Scenic Reserve – how scenic could it be in the dark, am I right? But I skipped it more out of concern for safety while driving and general navigation, wanting to put the rest of my daylight towards getting to the hostel for the evening. I wish I had a GPS map of where I went versus where I was supposed to go, because I’m sure it would be major zig-zags across the preferred route. Between the darkness and the rain, I missed a whole lot of turns and found myself constantly pulling over or turning around.
Advice for Day 1
Leave early enough in the day to make the most of the daylight – driving in the dark without navigation can be really tough; feel free to skip places in your plan if it is in the interest of your safety, personality, or because you just feel like it.
Day 2: Rotorua to National Park
Planned Stops: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, Lake Taupo, Kaimanawa Forest Park, Tongarino Alpine Crossing
End: National Park [YHA National Park Backpackers hostel]
Route: Google Maps | PDF
Mega day. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is AMAZING and worth the trip all by itself. Check out the full post on this destination for details on planning your trip, but a key note here is timing. I was originally considering putting this destination in the afternoon, but instead slotted it in a morning because I had a feeling I’d love it and want to spend more time there. Good move because the geyser goes at 10:15 am every day, so if you plan to go in the afternoon, you will miss this part.
This drive was by far the most scenic. There are beautiful, green, rolling hills in every direction and a mysterious combination of forest and tropical fauna. I detoured from my plan by following a sign outside of Wai-O-Tapu to hot springs, which just led me on a really long drive, though quite scenic, and cost me time.
Next stop was Lake Taupo. Google Maps did not like the lake as a destination, so I put in a spa near the lake to get me in the right direction. This worked, and I picked up a hitchhiker from Taupo on the way, so he gave me the lay of the land. After dropping him off in the city, I backtracked a few kilometers to where I saw a sign for Huka Falls and a scenic lookout. The lookout was ok, but Huka Falls was aces. Definitely worth the diversion, and not far off the original path. I spent only a few minutes there to take it in and take some pictures because I was so cold, but there are hiking and biking paths if you want to spend more time there.
Because of the cost time, I didn’t spend much time in Taupo and skipped the Kaimanawa Forest Park. I felt like I would have time to get there and back in the daylight, but the weather was again turning and I didn’t want to risk being on the Alpine Pass in the dark and cold. Perhaps had I not been dawdling around chasing hot springs, I would have had time. Taupo is a beautiful lake, but given the conditions, nothing would be feasible on the water that day (though I can see it is a major water sport destination in the summer).
The Alpine Pass was quite beautiful and nice to see from the car. During the winter I can’t imagine doing any hiking. The hostel I stayed at does trips to the pass as well as trips to the volcano, weather-permitting. They said that in the winter it is really unlikely to go up the volcano because of the extreme winds and lack of protection from said winds.
Advice for Day 2
Make sure you get to Wai-O-Tapu early enough to see everything and plan 3-4 hours there; if you are prone to dawdling on the route, make sure to incorporate that into your itinerary so that you don’t skip anything. Add Huka Falls to the journey!
Day 3: National Park to Wellington
Easy drive. I didn’t plan any stops here because I didn’t see anything that really stood out. When getting my morning coffee before leaving, a lady at the service station gave me advice to take a different route than I had planned. She said that my route would be really lovely, but given the conditions (surprise – cold and rainy), it wouldn’t be worth the extra 70k it would add to the drive. The other route was quite easy and the day cleared up near the end of it, making it a great day in Wellington. Wellington itself is beautiful and quite spread out. HOWEVER, the streets are really narrow and in many spots one-way. If you miss a turn or need to turn around, you may not be able to adjust for several kilometers, so it’s best to know your city route before getting off the motorway. I missed a turn and spent the next 45 minutes trying to get back to it, which is exponentially more difficult without access to maps.
Advice for Day 3
Talk to the locals, they know the best ways to get anywhere. Wellington is REALLY confusing – make sure you know the route you need in the city before you pass your turn.
Day 4: Wellington to Tauranga
By far the heaviest driving day. Like, seriously. So much driving. But, like the rest of New Zealand, so beautiful and great views all around. Napier was breath-taking. As you drive into the city, you can see the spray of the waves crashing, before you can even see the beach. Huge breaks.
Advice for Day 4
If I did it again, I would stay a night in Napier. Not only to break up all the driving in the day, but was quite picturesque and seemed like a lovely town.
Day 5: Tauranga to Auckland
Back to the city. But first! To the beach!! It was a welcome stop to actually get on a sandy beach with the sun out, after several days of cold and rain. The beach in Tauranga – Mount Maunganui – is just minutes from the downtown area and was surprisingly empty. A few folks were out walking their dogs, but otherwise, this gem of a beach was surprisingly sparse. There were several picnic spots, so would be a great place to spend a day and have a beach BBQ. The drive to Auckland should have been quick, but there were constructions zones everywhere, so lots of speeding up to slow back down.
Advice for Day 5
If you have the time, stay longer in Tauranga. Great beach and easy to get around by bike. My rush back to Auckland was to get the rental car back early in the day, but wish it had been due back later.