Our trip to New Zealand started with a 4 hour flight from Melbourne, Australia to Auckland on Emirates airlines. Auckland is the largest, most populated city in New Zealand and thus, it makes for the cheapest and most efficient place to fly in. We stayed 1 night at an airport hotel so that we could wake up rested and fresh for our RV rental the next morning. We highly recommended this approach, especially if you are traveling from afar because you can expect to experience some serious jet lag after a 20+ hour flight.
In the morning of our first full day in New Zealand, we rented an RV from Maui Rentals. It was a fairly smooth process to pick up the RV, although it did take about 2.5 hours before we were free to go. It’s a big adjustment driving on the opposite side of the road and on the opposite side of the car; so, we recommend taking a few online prep courses prior to arrival. They offer video tutorials so that you can ‘practice’ driving and learn the different rules of the road before you arrive. This helped us to adapt more quickly, feel more comfortable with the road signs and of course, conquer the infamous roundabouts.
Our first stop was the Pak ‘n’ Save grocery store, where we loaded up on groceries and provisions. We LOVED Pak ‘n’ Save as it’s highly affordable and carries everything from food and alcohol to bath and beauty products at discount prices.
As we set off on our road trip, we knew we had to determine our route right away. We had 17 days to see as much as possible before returning the RV back to Auckland on February 1st. Since Auckland was both our pick up and drop off location, we decided to focus our time ONLY on the North island so that we could experience everything it has to offer. We really wanted to see the South Island too; but, we didn’t want to spend 8-10 hours a day driving long distances and risk missing out on all the hiking, site seeing, and adventuring NZ has to offer.
We started our tour of New Zealand by heading due north and driving from Auckland to Trounson Kauri Park which is a terrific place to see Kiwi Birds at night. The next morning, we drove all the way up to the Northernmost of New Zealand, known as Cape Reinga. It is quite the journey to get there; but, WOW is it spectacular! There is a lighthouse on the tip of the cape where you can literally see two oceans colliding into huge swells. This is the exact location where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet. The scenery is breathtaking and it turns out, this area is sacred to the aboriginal people “Maoris” of New Zealand who are the original “Kiwis.” When you park at the lighthouse lot, you will walk down a long hill to reach the lighthouse and along the way, there are many placards explaining the historical and spiritual significance of Cape Reinga in Maori culture. It’s quite fascinating. Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely FREE of charge?
On the way to Cape Reinga, you can also surf down the Te Paki Sand Dunes and/or take a bus tour of the Ninety Mile Beach, as it is not accessible via the main highway.
We spent about 2 hours walking around Cape Reinga and decided to camp at Rarawa Beach & Campsite which is a terrific location. The amenities were simple and basic, but our camp site was very private and located on the water. Plus, it’s only a 5-minute walk to Rarawa Beach which was absolutely gorgeous and completely deserted. We had a blast walking the silver sand beach, collecting iridescent sea shells and swimming in the warm water.
The next morning, we drove down through Kerikeri on the way to the Bay of Islands. We stopped for the afternoon at Paihia, which is a small, quaint beach town. We heard that it’s a great place to take a boat tour out to some of the different islands; however, it was quite rainy when we were there, so we weren’t able to partake in the water activities.
After our visit in Paihia, we enjoyed driving Highway 1 down to our next campsite in Orewa. Here, we signed up for a membership to the Top 10 Holiday Parks of New Zealand which is a large group of camp sites with excellent amenities located all over New Zealand. With at least 50+ camp grounds all over the country, it’s a great option for those who like a little more upscale camping or “glamping” as I like to say. The cost is about $20 NZ dollars per person for a powered camp site. At Orewa, there are tons of sites literally steps from the ocean. It’s a windy location at all times of year but we enjoyed walking the large stretch of beach and watching the kite surfing and kite boarding every day. This area is known for its gorgeous sunrises too!
After one night in Orewa, we kept driving south and headed to Coromandel which proved to be a HUGE highlight for us. We stayed at another Top 10 Holiday Park located next to Hot Water Beach. This campsite was amazing, as they offered spade/shovel rentals, an onsite grill restaurant and even a convenience store. We rented a spade for $5 and the staff told us the perfect times to head to Hot Water Beach so that we could dig our very own hot tub in the sand! You can only experience the geothermal pools during low tide which was from 1pm-5pm (it changes daily) while we were there.
So, in the morning, we decided to check out the infamous Cathedral Cove before heading to Hot Water Beach. The track to Cathedral Cove begins at the northern end of Hahei and takes about 45 minutes. It’s a gorgeous walk on paved road with many stairs. But, when you reach the beach, it is absolutely spectacular! The only bad thing is that many tourists come to see the beach and its amazing rock formations. We got lucky because we went in the morning; so, there weren’t very many people on the beach. You can expect more people to arrive around lunch time. If you want to capture some epic photos, try coming for sunrise or at least for the early morning. If you like kayaking, you can also do a kayak tour from Hahei to Cathedral Cove and back.
We returned back to our camp site from Cathedral Cove around 2pm and immediately started on the 15 minute walk to Hot Water Beach. We were glad we brought plenty of water because it was a hot hot hot sunny summer day. Just to warn you, Hot Water Beach is a very popular tourist attraction so this may be the busiest beach you encounter while in New Zealand; but, don’t fret. Even on the busiest of days, it isn’t nearly as busy as any SoCal beach on a summer day. We had a blast digging our own hot tub in the sand and we were extremely surprised to discover the drastic differences in underground water temperatures. It’s really amazing to create your very own natural hot spring! And when you get too hot, the refreshing ocean water is right there for you to take a swim in. The waves were perfect for frolicking, making it one of our favorite days on the trip.
Heading south from Hot Water Beach, you can take a pit stop in Matamata for a tour of Hobbiton, the famous movie set from Lord of The Rings. Tours start from $80 NZ dollars per person. We were running low on budget at this point in our trip, so we decided to forego the Hobbiton tour; but, if you’re a Lord of The Rings fan, we’ve heard it’s a worthwhile visit.
Off the coast of Whakatane, you can also pre-book a tour of White Island which is often described as the #1 New Zealand highlight by tourists. Cruise across the Bay of Plenty and explore the inner crater of New Zealand's most active volcano at White Island. Experience roaring fumaroles, amazing colors and the sense of awe you get by stepping foot onto a live volcano! We didn’t think to pre-book the tour and thus we not able to go; but if you have an adventurous spirit, White Island is a must-see.
Heading South from Matamata, we made Rotorua our home for one night since there are several nature-lover attractions nearby including Hell’s Gate, Waimangu and Waiotapu Volcanic Valley. All the main sites in this area of NZ are centered around geothermals, hot springs and nature walks; however, unlike the sites in the north of the island, none of these are free of charge. We looked at the reviews for all three famous geo thermal parks and decided to spend our money at Waimangu because it is the youngest geothermal system in the world, created by the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886. It’s also the least crowded and most “natural” of the 3. They offer several self-guided walking tours from 1 to 3 hours in length from $38 per person. The top highlights were the Warbrick Terraces, Frying Pan Lake and the Inferno Crater.
On the other hand, Hell’s Gate offers a 45-minute walk to the geothermal springs for about $35 per person. They also offer a mud bath spa package for $75 per person if that is up your alley. Waiotapu is the most famous geothermal wonderland in New Zealand and the most picturesque because of the multi-colored thermal systems. The cost is $33 per person to enter. They also set off a Geyer every day around 10am which makes for a pretty cool photo or video but it’s not exactly “natural” if you catch our drift.
From Rotorua, we kept heading south for a pit stop in Lake Taupo. We didn’t spend but a few hours in Lake Taupo but it’s a HUGE lake and beach town for locals. Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake and is known as a fishing and boating paradise. There are many hiking trails, boat cruises and mountain biking tracks through beautiful national parks. Two highlights for the area are Orakei Korako, a thermal area, and Huka Falls, a phenomenon of natural hydro power.
Mike and I decided to head toward the wine country rather than spend more time in Lake Taupo; so, we took Highway 5 southeast to Napier and made Hastings our home base for 1 night. In the early morning, we drove the RV to the base of Te Mata Peak and reviewed the trail map for the 6km hike to the top!
For nature lovers, Te Mata Peak is one of the best places to see in Hawke’s Bay because the park offers stunning and varied scenery, unique topography, geology, flora, fauna and EPIC views from the top.
NOTE: You do NOT have to hike the peak to capture photos from the top. You can actually drive almost the entire way and there is a Summit Car Park.
However, we just fell in love with the trails here and really enjoyed the 2-hour hike on the Rongokako Loop Trail. Being that it’s a loop, we tackled the trail counter-clockwise so that we would be climbing UP the final peak track as we found it to be MUCH more rewarding in the end. We highly recommend spending a morning at Te Mata Peak. It was one of our favorite highlights and a good workout too!
After our hike at Te Mata Peak, we went to 2 of the local wineries on our way down the Highway 2 which is known as The Classic NZ Wine Trail. It took us 3 hours to drive from Hastings to Martinborough, passing numerous wine farms along the way. We decided to stay at another Top 10 Holiday Park in Martinborough Wine Village which was amazing because all the cellar doors in the area are just a short bike ride or walk away from the campground. And, the campground rents out beach cruiser bicycles to campers to do their own self-guided wine tours for $20 per bike.
We got a map of the area from reception and started plotting our bike route. All the cellar doors are so nearby that we were able to make 5 stops at 5 different shops in just 1 day. Our route included Palliser Estate Wines, Schubert Wines, Ata Rangi Vineyard, Poppies Martinborough and Olivo. Make sure you check to see which wineries are open during the days and times of your stay because some are closed on random days. By far, the most memorable winery and a must-visit is Poppies, where you will likely have the pleasure of meeting the winemaker, Poppy, who is a complete joy! We tasted over 8 wines here and enjoyed an exquisite charcuterie and cheese board as well. The experience, ambiance and wine were top notch and it was interesting to learn that aside from the Marlborough region being famous for Sauvignon Blanc, the Martinborough region is best known for its Pinot Noir.
For wine lovers and connoisseurs, Martinborough is so special because it’s a small region with less production, making their wines harder to find worldwide. Thus, you will really have an opportunity to try wines you’ve never experienced and will never experience anywhere else in the world.
From Martinborough Wine Village, we continued South to Cape Palliser, which is the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s north island. The road to Cape Palliser is dramatically scenic. The narrow road clings to the edge of the coast, providing unstoppable views of Palliser Bay. Top attractions are the fishing village of Ngawihi, the lighthouse and the fur seal colony.
During our 1 day in Cape Palliser, we stayed at Waimeha Camping Village which was an incredible experience due to the friendliness of the owner, John. He has a campground right on the ocean with stunning sunset views. He’s also an avid fisherman and offered to take us lobster fishing. Not to mention, he delivered fresh lobster tails to the door of our RV! He really treated us like guests and we can’t wait to go back.
There are also MANY places for freedom camping in Cape Palliser. We highly recommend freedom camping here in the summer months (Dec-Feb) because the ocean is just mesmerizing, with hardly a soul in sight. During this time of year, also DO NOT miss a chance to visit the seal colony which is on the way to the Lighthouse. We witnessed dozens of mother seals with their babies, swimming and playing around the bay. It was very special and fun to see them in their natural environment, not afraid at all of the human bystanders. And when you head to the lighthouse, don’t be shocked when you see a GIGANTIC set of stairs to get to the top. It’s about 250 stairs and will leave you winded when you get to the top; however, the view is pretty smashing from the lighthouse. See our photos in the gallery below.
Cape Palliser Lighthouse
From Cape Palliser, it’s a quick 1-hour drive to Wellington, which is the 2nd largest city in New Zealand. This is also the place where you take the ferry crossing to the South Island. As I mentioned previously, we did not end up going to the South Island as we wanted to get the most out of our 17-day tour. Plus, we needed a reason to come back to NZ considering how beautiful of a country it is at literally every turn.
There are a lot of attractions in Wellington to see, depending on what you like to do. Mike and I were most captivated by the natural wonders of New Zealand, so we didn’t spend much time in the big city life of Wellington. The 2 attractions that interested us most were the Mount Victoria lookout and the Wellington Cable Car . The Mount Victoria Lookout is easily accessible from Wellington's city center and offers 360-degree scenic views of the city. The Cable Car takes you on a 5-minute ride through beautiful landscape and provides you easy access to the Botanic Garden, Cable Car Museum, Space Place (at Carter Observatory) and Zealandia. Rountrip tickets are $7.50.
For wildlife experiences, you can go to the Wellington Zoo or Zealandia which is more like a wild animal park. Walk down Cuba Street for the shopping, bars and cafes and soak up the sun at Oriental Bay. There are also a lot of excellent dining options. Don’t forget to try the delicious New Zealand Lamb.
After our time in Wellington, we tackled the long drive North to Ohakune which is at the base of Tongariro National Park. Originally, we planned to follow the coast all around the North Island; however, we didn’t realize how many amazingly beautiful roads we would be missing out on as well as some of the best national parks. Again, we opted to stay at the Ohakune Top 10 Holiday Park which is at the gateway to the Central Volcanic Plateau, Tongariro and Whanganui River Parks.
The most popular thing to do in the summertime is a full-day, 20km trek through the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Others like to drive or bike Ohakune Mountain Road or Old Coach Road. Multi-day canoe trips and back country fishing are all favorite activities for avid outdoorsmen.
We were most excited about the downhill mountain biking and hiking excursions. We rented mountain bikes in town and rode down Turoa Ski Area. It was super fun! We stopped along the way to see Mangawhero Falls and did the Mangawhero Walk too.
Other popular walks and hikes to take in the area are as follows: Waitonga Falls (1 hour), Lake Surprise Walk (5 hours), Old Blyth Track (4 hours), Lake Rotokura (30 min), Lake Rotopounamu and Ohakune Coach Road. Many of these are longer treks so you may want to spend 2 nights in the area to take advantage of all the natural wonders around. Plus, the downtown of Ohakune has its unique New Zealand Charm with a few small restaurants and bars. We always enjoyed meeting the NZ locals and getting a taste of the culture!
Once we had our fill of outdoor adventure in Ohakune, we chose to drive the Forgotten World Highway, 150km to the beach at New Plymouth. This highway is winding, with many switch back roads, amazing views, undulating road peaks, and is overall rich in natural wonder. This was our favorite drive of the entire island with great places to stop and explore along the way. Taumarunui was a hub for NZ’s pioneering rail network and marks the eastern end of the highway, which is the gateway to the North Island’s mountain range. Along the way, make sure and stop to see Herlihy’s Bluffs, Tangarakau Gorge, Bridge to Somewhere, and at least 1 of the 4 saddles.
Whangamomona is the only real town you’ll find, which was first settled in 1895 and is a legitimate Republic, with only about 20 residents these days. It’s worth a stop at the Whangamomona Hotel for a refreshment and a chat with the locals. It was a long drive to our campground in New Plymouth; but so stunning, interesting and well worth it.
If you want to stop and experience another national park, you can go to Whanganui National Park and do a multi-day Great Walk trek or you can canoe 100+ km down the Whanganui River. We didn’t have the time to do this; but, would like to do this canoe trip in the future.
Once we were in New Plymouth, we found a campground called the Belt Road Seaside Holiday Park that we absolutely loved. The amenities were nice and we had a panoramic ocean view with lovely sunsets at night. Just a few minutes walking from the Holiday Park, you find the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway which is a 13km stretch along the ocean. It’s a lovely walk on a summer day and during the month of February, you can walk to the Festival of Lights as well.
Aside from enjoying the beach life in New Plymouth, we also drove to Mt. Taranaki in Egmont National Park to do a 3 hour hike up the volcano. You can do the complete Summit Track in 8-10 hours or Poukakai Circuit which is a 2-3 day loop. We aren’t THAT athletic, so we decided to do the Maketawa Hut Circuit. It was a lot of fun and pretty challenging for us too. We really enjoyed the hour and a half spent in the deep forest. It was so peaceful, rich in plant life and just gorgeous. The Veronica Loop track is supposed to be lovely too and even easier at only 1.5 hours in length.
During our time in New Zealand, Mike and I really discovered a love for hiking together. The topography, geology, flora and fauna in New Zealand are more beautiful than anywhere we’ve been. There is endless beauty at every turn and the best way to see it is on foot. You really get to feel like you’re one with nature while in New Zealand. It’s such an inspirational place.
Upon leaving New Plymouth, we took the scenic drive up Highway 3 with the intention on staying 1 or 2 nights in Port Waikato before returning the RV to Maui Rentals in Auckland. On the way, we had the opportunity to see the Three Sisters rock formations and part of Elephant Rock. You will see the sign for Three Sisters along the state highway 3. If it is daytime and low time, it is definitely worth a stop. For great views of the Three Sisters, turn down Pilot Road. If you want to walk down on the sand for better views of the formations, turn down Clifton Road, which is south of the Tongaporutu Bridge. At low tide, you can walk alongside the river to see the gigantic rock formations. They are spectacular!
It took us a few hours to reach the campsite at Port Waikato and boy were we disappointed. There is literally NOTHING in this area except long stretches of beach and sand dunes. After 16 days in New Zealand, it was one of the most uneventful areas we saw. We were hoping the camp site would have an ocean view per the photos; but, we were disappointed to learn that the campground is 15 minutes walking to the beach. Plus, this particular campground, Port Waikato Holiday Park is mainly for permanent and long stay residents instead of RVers.
All that said, we decided not to stay in Port Waikato and to go find a beach side campground for our last 2 nights in NZ. We wanted to be within 45 minutes driving of the RV drop off location; so, we decided to head back to the Top 10 Holiday Park in Orewa. Those last 2 days, parked steps away from the beach, watching the 6 am sunrise each morning were unforgettable. We took long walks on the beach, swam in the ocean and watched countless kiteboarders enjoying the windy yet hot weather.
Overall, New Zealand was probably our favorite place on the entire world tour. It’s hard to explain why exactly unless you’ve been there. If you like the outdoors, interesting geography, geology and topography, you will be enthralled with all New Zealand has to offer. Even the history and culture of the people were fascinating to us.
Not to mention, by far the best way to see the country is by RV or campervan. Our only regret is not having seen the South Island because we heard that it’s even better and more beautiful than the north island, which is hard to even imagine. Just remember, even in the summer, the weather is much colder in the South Island so be prepared with the appropriate gear. The best time to visit New Zealand is the month of February – that is when you are guaranteed the best weather. 1 month is the right amount of time to really SEE the country and if you have more time than that, you should take it! I honestly did not want to leave New Zealand. I could have stayed there for many more months and I hope to go back in the near future to explore the South Island!
Mt. Taranaki Hike
A short clip of the view once we walk down to Cathedral Cove. It's best to go in the morning to avoid the crowds!
Cape Palliser is located at the southern tip of NZ's north island. Here, you will find a large fur seal colony. If you are a fan of these precious animals, you can sit and watch them for hours!
Mount Taranaki offers a plethora of hiking and trekking options. Here's a quick video from our Maketawa Hut Hike which took about 3 hours.