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New Zealand’s South Island gets all the glory. And its reputation is well-deserved. From heli-hiking a glacier to an overnight wilderness cruise, our South Island adventures were memorable. But I’m so glad we also included a New Zealand North Island itinerary in our trip. The North Island also deserves your valuable sightseeing time!
This itinerary is perfect for New Zealand first timers! It works great if you’re flying into Auckland on an international flight, are hoping to hit the highlights on the North Island, and want to make your way south to Wellington to then fly/ferry over to the South Island.
Also, even though it’s a New Zealand road trip itinerary, it works to minimize one night stands” in a place. This is one of my top tips for planning a restorative trip! Resist the urge to drive and unpack all over again every single night. You just lose too much time on a short trip and wind up feeling exhausted and frustrated at the end.
This seven day North Island itinerary has you based in Auckland for two days and in Rotorua for three days with single overnights near Matamata for Hobbiton and in Wellington at the south end of the North Island. Then you can hop over to the South Island.
If you only have time for the North Island, however, you can still use this itinerary. Just do it as a roundtrip back to Auckland. To be efficient with your time, consider catching an hour-long flight back to Auckland from Wellington.
We were so impressed by the convenience and inexpensive options for in-country flights through Air New Zealand. If you’d rather skip those, plan for an eight-hour drive back.
- Day 1: Auckland
- Day 2: Best Day Trips from Auckland
- Day 3: See the Hobbiton Movie Set
- Day 4: Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
- Day 5: See Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park
- Day 6: Rotorua
- Day 7: Wellington
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Day 1: Auckland
If you’re flying into Auckland—New Zealand’s largest and busiest international airport—it’s easy to hit a few highlights in a day or two before flying south (which I recommend if it’s your first trip).
Things to Do in Auckland
• Don’t miss Sky Tower! It’s the highest freestanding structure in the Southern Hemisphere at more than 1,000 feet tall. This observation tower is Auckland’s best-known landmark due to the superb views of the city skyline.
Upper floors are accessible to the public and because the tower slowly rotates, it’s a great place to get 360-degree views of Auckland. (You can even jump—yikes—from the Skydeck.) Get your Sky Tower tickets here.
• See the nearby village of Matakana for incredible wineries and beaches.
• Go whale watching. If you’re interested in up close and personal wildlife sighting, consider a half day tour on a luxury catamaran from Viaduct Harbor in Auckland. Marine scientists on this eco-cruise make learning about whale behavior fascinating. Enjoy views of Auckland Harbor Bridge, the Hauraki Gulf, and Rangitoto Island.
• Hike Mount Eden. Looking for a convenient half-day local hike? Just three miles from downtown Auckland, Mount Eden is the highest volcano in Auckland, last erupting 15,000 years ago. The hike is just a little over a mile (2 km) but it’s mostly uphill so be ready.
Looking for more ideas? Here are more ideas for things to do in Auckland.
Auckland Accommodations (2 nights)
Auckland is big and sprawling. Neighborhoods all have their distinct personalities. My picks? If you’re a first-timer or without a car, consider Auckland’s CBD for easy walkability. We enjoyed our stay in classy Parnell on the outskirts (but sadly can’t recommend the Airbnb). Next time, I’d stay in hipster Ponsonby. I loved the unique cafés, independent bookstores and artisans I met here.
Luxury: SkyCity Grand Hotel
You can’t beat this five-star hotel in the heart of Auckland! The hotel offers a sleek contemporary vibe, beautiful views, and dozens of beautiful restaurants and bars just out your door. Travelers love being enveloped in first-class elegance and comfort here. Best for couples and luxury lovers.
Mid-range: The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel
Looking for some personality in vibrant Ponsonby? This is your place! The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel is a gorgeous 1890’s heritage villa decorated colorfully with traditional artwork. It’s just a five-minute drive from Auckland’s harbor and free on-site parking is included!
Budget: Airbnb Skyrise Apartment
How about a chic apartment with a balcony all to yourself in the CBD? I mostly stay in AirbnbPlus lodgings these days as I find they’re a typically a cut above the rest for not much extra money.
This skyrise apartment is luxe! Decorated in contemporary neutral colors and located on the quiet side of the street, you’ll also enjoy access to the heated indoor pool and gym located on the hotel level. Note: Secure parking is extra.
Check out prices for the Airbnb skyrise apartment here. And if you’re new to Airbnb, you can save up to $55 if you use this COUPON to reserve.)
Day 2: Best Day Trips from Auckland
There are so many incredible choices here! If you only have 7 days on New Zealand’s North Island, you’re going to have to make some difficult decisions when it comes to day trips!
Here are my recommendations for how to spend this precious day below. It’s up to you to do the hard work of choosing…
You can do these on your own with a car or save your drive time for tomorrow and enjoy a tour with a local guide instead for a more personal experience.
• See the stunning Coromandel Peninsula. Cathedral Cove, which is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful and iconic natural attractions can only be accessed by foot or kayak. (You may remember it from the opening scene in the movie The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe!)
There are also incredible thermal pools here, including Hot Water Beach. The Pinnacles is a gorgeous three-hour hike featuring dramatic trees and swinging bridges across vibrant streams. You can check out day tours from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula here.
• Enjoy a Piha beach day. Piha is a black sand beach! It’s a Kiwi local favorite in the summertime. It’s a dramatic beach with beautiful cliffs, waterfalls and dangerous currents in the winter (but safe summer swimming). Surfers flock here!
A day tour makes it easy to visit at your own pace without the hour drive to the west coast. A shuttle bus takes you through a subtropical rain forest while sharing knowledge on local flora and fauna. Explore Piha on your own for six to eight hours—take in a stunning sunset here—and then return to Auckland.
• Go wine tasting or ziplining on Waiheki Island. There are more than 25 departures daily from Auckland for the 35 minute ferry ride over to this lovely island. Once you’re there, you can taste at world-class wineries, kayak the 40 kilometers of coastline, nap on Oneroa Beach, cycle the island, and so much more!
Or, leave the planning to a local. After all, you’re on vacation, right? You can choose from day tours to the island geared foodies and wine lovers, thrill-seekers looking for a zip line experience, or a hop-on hop-off bus tour.
And that’s just the beginning! You could also do a guided wilderness walk, see the stunning wildlife sanctuary on Tiritiri Matangi Island or hike to the summit of the volcanic Rangitoto Island.
Auckland makes such a great base for exploring with day tours. The options are nearly endless.
Day 3: See the Hobbiton Movie Set
Seeing the Hobbiton movie set is everyone’s favorite things to do on New Zealand’s North Island! This, of course, is the movie set that’s been preserved since the famous movie Lord of the Rings was filmed here in 1999. When location scouts saw the gently rolling hills here on the Alexander sheep farm, they knew they’d found The Shire in Middle Earth.
Today, you can see 44 reconstructed Hobbit Holes and feel the magic for yourself…along with approximately 1 million other LOTR fans, unfortunately. I work hard to avoid massive groups of tourists on trips, but there’s always an exception and this is the one to make on New Zealand’s North Island!
independent travelers are not allowed to roam here so don’t expect to show up here without a pre-booked ticket or you won’t get in.
Tips for visiting Hobbiton: Book in advance and choose the earliest time to visit to minimize crowds when you book. The best way to visit early in the day is to stay overnight nearby to beat the hoards of day-trippers arriving from Auckland. It’s about a two-hour drive from Auckland to Matamata and a 15-minute drive from Matamata to Hobbiton.
Where to Stay Near Hobbiton (1 night)
Luxury: Lake Karapiro Lodge
With sweeping sunset views of the lake and personalized attention by your hosts, a stay at Lake Karapiro Lodge is memorable. Guests rave about the gourmet breakfast here. It’s just a 15-minute drive to Hobbiton!
Mid-range: De Preaux Lodge
Located conveniently in Matamata—the town closest to Hobbiton—De Peaux Lodge offers a peaceful farm stay with comfortable, spacious rooms and a joyful hostess.
Budget: Awanui Cottage
Just five minutes from Matamata, this is a self-contained Airbnb studio cottage located on a thoroughbred farm! You get the best of both world: easy access to restaurants and shops with a rural stay for views of the Kaimai mountain range.
Day 4: Visit the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
It’s just a 90-minute drive from Hobbiton to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves so you have lots of time to explore this incredible area…which is great as there is plenty to see and do here! Book ahead to avoid long lines. (See below.) You’ll base in nearby Rotorua for two nights to avoid unnecessary packing and unpacking.
Waitomo is Maori for “the stream which flows into the hole in the ground.” And what a stream it is! We took a 45 min boat ride through these underground caves and ogled the glowworms over our heads the whole way. It was just like sitting under a starry, starry night sky. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Glowworms are unique to New Zealand. They are essentially the larvae of insects that use their glow to attract a food source. You can see them in other places within the country, but they are perhaps at their most impressive here in Waitomo.
Also, they are cannibals. True story. A glowworm lives for three days and gives birth to 100 babies. But just 20 will survive thanks to all the other glowworms who gobble them up.
So many huge stalactites and stalagmites in the caves! I found myself meditating on the power of perseverance as our guide encouraged us to watch a bead of water pool on the tip of a vast stalactite over a period of minutes and then drip into the pool of water below.
It takes millions of years for these caves to form. In 100 years, a stalactite only grows as much as a fingernail!
Tour Options for Glowworm Caves
1. Waitomo 45 minute guided tour. This is the tour we took. Essentially, you enter the cave in a boat, float through the “starry night” with a short walk afterward before exiting. You can check prices here on a Waitomo tour.
2. Three-hour Ruakuri cave guided adventure. Looking for an exhilarating underground experience? An expert guide offers a bit of technical instruction first. Then you’ll hop a few waterfalls and float the underground river in Ruakuri Cave on a raft as you weave through a glowworm studded wonderland.
With more time here, check out Marakopa Falls or the Mangapohue Natural Bridge Walk. Then cut across the island toward Rotorua to stay for the next two nights.
It’s a beautiful and scenic drive through constantly shifting landscapes, from bucolic pasture and steep cliffs to rain forest with steam drifting up through the vents and geothermal features here.
Rotorua Accommodations (3 nights)
Luxury: Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel
Your luxury lakeside room comes with a fireplace, breakfast and access to a solar-heated pool and sauna here. This charming boutique hotel is set on a full acre of manicured gardens. Travelers rate a stay here as an exceptional experience.
Midrange: Kotu Beach Bed and Breakfast
Kotu Beach Bed and Breakfast offers beachfront accommodations and comes with access to free bikes and parking. Close to downtown, it’s a super convenient choice. Guests particularly loved the Asian breakfast here!
Budget: Ruth’s Landing Airbnb
If you’re interested in connecting with a local, consider booking a room at Ruth’s Landing as we did. While the room wasn’t fancy, we loved having access to Ruth’s encyclopedic knowledge about what to do and see in Rotorua. Located right on Lake Rotorua, your stay comes with free access to her kayaks!
Bonus: A fun (but private) outdoor shower with a lake view. Check prices at Ruth’s Landing here.
Day 5: See Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park
Spend a few hours to a half-day today at Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park. The closest I’ve come to seeing anything this incredible was at Yellowstone National Park in the US!
Be sure to book your ticket in advance. You can get tickets to Wai o Tapu here.
When you approach the park here, you’ll likely notice a strong sulfur smell permeating everything.
Wai-o-tapu is a surreal experience…It’s a geothermal park on the edge of a collapsed volcano that was formed 230,000 years ago. Boiling mud pots abound.
The park is relatively small and flat, so there’s a big pay-off for a 60 or 90-minute hike around it. But you could also spend much longer enjoying some incredible tramping here.
However, be aware that if you plan an afternoon visit, you’ll miss the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser, which takes places at 10:30 am daily. (The bonus: No crowds! We had the place almost completely to ourselves.)
Enjoy an authentic Maori Evening and Dinner
No trip to New Zealand would be complete without learning a bit about the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. After exploring Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park, spend an evening with the Maori.
The Maori—pronounced “Mow-ree”)—are a Polynesian people who make up 14 percent of New Zealand’s population. The Maori culture is deeply threaded throughout New Zealand’s language, culture, and daily life.
One of the best ways to experience it for yourself is to head to one of the native Maori villages here. Descendants of the Maori in residence at the one we visited have lived there since 1350 AD.
As we entered the villages, we passed crackling open fires in a forest, traditional homes, and participated in a Maori welcome ceremony.
In our few hours there, we were treated to demonstrations of everything from the games they played and an explanation of Maori history to demonstrations of Hangi cooking—meat and fish roasted in a pit dug into the ground— and explanations of their unique tattoos.
For example, facial markings are like a person’s resumé, a history of personal achievements and status. On a man, markings above the eyes signal his spiritual gifts.
Finally, after learning about the history of the Maori, we enjoyed a delicious Hangi meal of meat, seafood, and root vegetables and a final cultural performance of traditional Maori song and dance.
Proverbs are very important in Maori culture. They are a poetic form of the language, with underlying messages and perspectives about Maori values and how to live.
You can book this Rotorua Maori Hangi dinner here. We enjoyed it, but also found it a bit over dramatized for tourists. Our Airbnb host rated this Mitai Maori village cultural experience as more authentic.
Day 6: Rotorua
If I was headed back to the North Island, I’d definitely spend more time in Rotorua. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand’s North Island!
This area is also a beautiful playground for nature lovers. With less than 7 days for the North Island, however, you can omit this day in your itinerary.
Things to Do in Rotorua
• Enjoy a mud bath at Hell’s Gate. Tour the mud pools, then add a soak in the sulphur springs, massage or mud bath.
Or visit a deluxe lake spa for geothermal hot spring bathing! An inexpensive ticket gives you up to four hours of access to the acidic waters of Priest Springs and the alkaline waters of Rachel Springs. Think waterfalls and heated poolside recliners. You can get your spa ticket here.
• Do a Redwoods tree walk, hike or bicycle ride! I had no idea until we actually arrived in Rotorua that the beautiful Whakarewarewa redwood forest was here. What a mistake that was to not allow time in our itinerary.
It’s just five minutes from downtown Rotorua. This is a paradise for cyclists, hikers, and horseback riders. In fact, travelers worldwide come here for the epic mountain biking trails.
But the most unique experience here is undoubtedly the redwoods tree walk. It’s a 30-minute ecological walk—suspended midway from the forest floor—for a bird’s eye view of these 117-year old iconic California Redwoods. (No safety harness required.)
Do it at night if you can! The redwoods glow under the moody lighting. You can read more about this experience on TripAdvisor here.
• Zipline through a canopy. If you’re an adventurer, don’t miss the opportunity to soar through a pristine forest canopy as you listen to the native birds calling. You can book your ziplining experience here.
• Jet boat through the Tutukau Gorge. Meet your guide about 30 minutes from Rotorua for a 2.5 hour jet boat ride on the Waikatau River through the sheer cliffs of the Tutkau Gorge and past the Orakei Korakao geothermal Park.
Then you’ll “water walk” through The Squeeze to a waterfall and nearby spa. You can book this experience here.
Day 7: Wellington
Wellington—at the southernmost tip of the North Island—is New Zealand’s capital. As such, it’s home to New Zealand’s parliament, a rich foodie scene, and the Interislander ferry that takes you on a scenic three-hour journey across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island.
Things to Do in Wellington
Here are recommendations on how to spend your time in this lovely city:
1. Take a hop-on hop-off bus tour. It’s one of my favorite ways to get a sense of a city when I have limited time. This one is in a minivan and will only take you 90 minutes if you stay on for the whole ride.
But the beauty of these tours is that you can disembark at any of 11 stops, including Zealandia, the Wellington Zoo, the Carter Observatory, and the Botanic Gardens. So you can squeeze in your tour in 90 minutes or make this your full-day itinerary.
2. Visit Zealandia. This urban wildlife sanctuary has a 500-year vision to restore the ecosystems in the Wellington valley to their pre-human state. The best way to experience New Zealand’s native forest is at twilight or at night (by torchlight) when you’re most likely to spot rare and endangered species here like glow worms and takahe.
3. Take a Lord of the Rings tour. This is a fun half-day trip for die-hard LoTR fans! You’ll see forest scenes from the movie you may recognize, learn about props and make-up, and visit the Weta Cave. You can reserve a guided tour here.
4. See the view from Mount Victoria. This is the best spot in Wellington for a bird’s eye view of the city. If you’re up for a strenous walk, you can hike here from Oriental Bay. Otherwise, drive it but be prepared for lots of sharp, windy turns and blind curves.
5. Explore further afield! Trip Advisor rates The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa as the #1 most popular thing to see in Wellington. If you’re interested in digging deeper in New Zealand history and culture, add this museum to your itinerary.
Other Wellington favorites are Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sgaglands Wildlife Reserve, a ride on the Wellington cable car, and a visit to Oriental Bay.
Wellington Accommodations (1 night)
Luxury: The Intercontinental Wellington
This 5 star hotel offers world-class service in the best-rated location in Wellington. You can park onsite or walk to most local sights if you don’t have a car. Enjoy a meal at the Intercontinental’s award-winning Chamelon restaurant and take advantage of the top-rated buffet breakfast and spa here.
Mid-range: Doubletree by Hilton Wellington
Just a hop from the waterfront, this Doubletree Inn gets tops marks from travelers on location and stylish rooms! It’s also easy to walk to the Te Papa Museum and catch the Wellington cable car from here.
Budget: Mt. Victoria Airbnb
Stay in your own brand new studio with an Airbnb super host on Mt. Victoria! Wake up to panoramic views of the Wellington Harbor and mountains here. This gorgeous stylish studio includes kitchen facilities as well.
Looking for more itinerary ideas on the North Island? Go here.
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