After living in Australia for a year it would’ve been silly to not make New Zealand our next destination. Departing Brisbane, it was an easy 3-hour flight and after a lot of deliberation about where our life would take us next, we decided to get a working holiday visa here in New Zealand. But before the work begins there is so much fun to be had! We began our story in New Zealand by taking an epic Auckland to Wellington road trip before settling in Wellington.
No matter how beautiful the South Island may be, the North is incredible too. From famous movie sets to beaches that double as spas, there is so much to get stuck into. I was stunned by the beauty of New Zealand’s North Island. The cities might not be the most vibrant I’ve seen but in New Zealand, it’s all about getting out of the city and into nature.
Why Choose Auckland to Wellington for a Road Trip?
Regardless of what people say and even though in diameter New Zealand is a small country (especially once you’ve been in Australia) there is still a hell of a lot to see! To fit the whole of the North Island into two weeks I think is being a little adventurous. When we embark on road trips I want to get the most out of each place I visit. I don’t want to rush and I certainly do not want to be driving for eight hours a day. So we decided to keep Northland separate and focus on having a full few weeks from Auckland to Wellington. I mean when we looked into Northland we had already decided on 3 two-day hikes which already takes up a week!
There is so much to explore in-between these two big cities. From hiking, beaches and countryside to the ocean and the mountains New Zealand is the KING of nature. If you love being in the great outdoors amongst the wonders of the world then New Zealand is your place! I’ve never felt like I’ve had so much fresh air and I certainly haven’t felt this quiet, both in and outside of my head, in any other place before. New Zealand has stolen my heart and it was this first Auckland to Wellington road trip where it began!
Best Time of Year for an Auckland to Wellington Road Trip
Okay, this one totally depends on personal preference sorry for the not so helpful answer but let me elaborate. We experienced this road trip in winter and I must say it was incredible. After we landed in New Zealand in late June so the beginning of winter really and the weather was perfect. We got a couple of cloudy and rainy days but other than that the skies were clear and air crisp – perfect conditions for the endless amount of hiking!
The other bonus to road-tripping from Auckland to Wellington in winter is just how quiet it is! If you’re freedom camping in New Zealand then this is especially important. Because it’s low season there aren’t as many tourists around so freedom camping is a lot easier. Most of the designated areas for freedom campers are limited on spaces but in winter it was easy to get a spot.
Fewer tourists may also mean a more enjoyable experience at some of the popular locations around the island. Cathedral Cove is one of my favourite spots on the North Island but in summer it gets will be ransacked with people. When we visited Cathedral Cove in winter we were literally the only ones on the beach amongst about 5 other people. It was stunning and we were able to appreciate the real beauty that oozed from the cove.
To read a little more about the Cathedral Cove experience in winter check out this more in-depth post here. This goes for the rest of the Island winter is quieter and that’s just how we like to travel. The disadvantage is that New Zealand does get cold winters with a lot of rain, wind, snow and ice. If you’re into swimming, ocean activities and sunbathing on beaches then it may be a better idea to travel in the summer months.
Camper vans in New Zealand
Camper vans are a way of life in New Zealand. Every other person you meet either has a camper wants a camper or is selling a camper. So getting your hands on one is easy! There are two options in New Zealand you can either hire or buy. Buying a camper is pretty easy to keep an eye on this website and in Facebook groups for people selling. If you do want to buy then I’d recommend budgeting at least $6000 upwards for a decent van. No point buying one if it’s going to collapse just soon after. There are a few things you’ll need to check out when buying a van which you can take a look at in this super helpful post.
The second option is, of course, to hire which is what we did! Hiring a camper van is just as easy as long as you have a valid drivers license. You can drive on most foreign licences for two years in New Zealand but it must be translated into English. We hired our van from Travellers Autobarn for a super cheap price in the winter! Another thing to note is that the cost to hire a camper will be so much cheaper during the winter months! We paid under $2000, for our Toyota Hi-ace Hi-top, for 5 weeks in total which compared to what we’ve paid before was awesome.
There are plenty of reviews out there for all the companies but I cannot fault Travellers Autobarn the van was warm, clean and almost brand-new. The customer service was also excellent – I highly recommend! The roads here in New Zealand are small and windy but don’t let that put you off, it’s all part of the Kiwi way of life!
If you’d like to ask me any questions about the van we hired or about van hire, in general, you can email me at [email protected]. Between our time in Australia and New Zealand, we’ve hired a fair few vans!
Freedom Camping between Auckland and Wellington
Freedom camping is legal in New Zealand which is what makes the campervan life so appealing. Once the van is bought or hired there is no need to spend anything on accommodation or campsites. But be mindful, freedom camping does not translate to ‘camp anywhere and everywhere’ there are rules when it comes to freedom camping. You can camp in New Zealand on any public or department of conversation land that has not been prohibited by the council.
I highly recommend reading the rules of each council area you’ll be visiting because some have some very tight rules when it comes to freedom camping. You should be able to find a map on their websites outlining the prohibited areas. If the area is not prohibited, is public land and there is no sign stating otherwise then you should be okay to camp. Check out this government website here.
Leave No Trace!
The most important aspect of freedom camping is to leave the area exactly how you found it. Leave it as if you were never there. So many restrictions have been put in place over the years because of campers not looking after the areas. Please take all rubbish with you, go do your business in designated areas ONLY – if this means using that god damn awful potty in your van then use it! Don’t leave a dump on the street (you’d be surprised what people do!) Or empty said potty or water-waste anywhere other than designated areas! Be mindful of the locals. Some freedom campsites are located very near to houses that quite frankly don’t need to you blaring music at 2 am. Also, don’t wash your freaking dishes in the toilet – use the sink in your van – this one I just do not understand!
Auckland to Wellington Road Trip: The Facts
- Start: Auckland
- Finish: Wellington
- Distance: 1100 km approx
- Road Trip Type: One Way
Auckland to Wellington Road Trip: The Highlights
- Cathedral Cove
- Hot Water Beach
- Lake Taupo
- Tongariro National Park
- Huka Falls
Auckland to Wellington Road Trip: The Itinerary
Auckland – Day 1
If you’re choosing to go on a road trip from Auckland to Wellington then you most likely flew into Auckland airport. The airport is huge and has all the campervan/car hires just up the road so whilst you’re in the city it makes sense to explore! Even though Auckland is kind of a scrappy city there is still plenty to get immersed in. Sunset at Mount Eden was my favourite part about Auckland and is hands down must-do whilst in the city!
One Tree Hill
Start the day by heading to One Tree Hill located just outside of the city. This is also a great place for sunrise if you’re a sunrise chaser. One Tree Hill is a volcanic peak and found its English name because of a solo tree that sat beside the monument, dedicated to the Maori people, upon the hill. The views of Auckland are incredible from this point offering 360 panoramic views of the city below. But there’s more to this hill that the insane views. One Tree Hill was once the home to over 5000 Maori people before the European settlement.
Explore Auckland CBD
This CBD in Auckland isn’t much to shout about in all honesty but it’s still great to explore. Lonely Planet has a great walk which takes you through the heart of the city which you can find here. The CBD is home to cool buildings my favourite being the University Clock Tower in my mind I’d been transported back to the quaint English streets. Vulcan Lane is also a great place to spend time in the city. This cobbled street is home to various pubs from all over the world!
The Auckland Sky Tower is probably the first thing you’ll see when arriving in Auckland. Whether that’s from the sky or in a car the Sky Tower makes the Auckland skyline what it is. Up close it’s just as impressive too. Towering over 320 metres tall it’s Auckland’s tallest building offering insane views! Inside the tower, you can find restaurants, cafes, bars and a 360-degree viewing platform of the city. The tickets are pricey but that’s up to you. If adventure activities are your thing then you can walk around the outside of the tower or even bungee jump off! To find out more about Sky City visit this website!
Finish the Day at Mount Eden for Sunset
Mount Eden is another volcanic peak in Auckland. The sunset is incredible as is the crater that you walk around. Mount Eden erupted over 15,000 years ago leaving some impressive marks in the land behind. There’s parking at the top and bottom of Mount Eden but I recommend parking at the bottom and walking up. You can walk up the pavement or scramble through the fields up to the summit. Either way takes about 25-30 minutes.
For more information on Things to Do in Auckland then you can check out my post about spending one day in Auckland where I go into a lot more depth about the place’s I’ve mentioned here.
Freedom Camping in Auckland
During this Auckland to Wellington road trip, freedom camping is the cheapest option! If you’ve got a self-contained van then the opportunities are endless. There are limited freedom camping areas in Auckland and it’s actually not legal to just camp on the streets of Auckland. Be sure to download the Wiki Camps app for all the freedom campsites in the area – it’s an absolute godsend!
In Auckland, we had to travel an hour North to reach Gulf Harbour Marina to camp out for the night. In hindsight, there were probably others closer but this was the only option in Auckland showing up. That said the area of Gulf Harbour is gorgeous and definitely worth visiting if you do camp up there. Both Big and Little Ma only beaches make for gorgeous early morning walks. This camping area has both toilets and a dumps site. In summer this place will be super busy so I’d recommend getting there early then getting the ferry back into Auckland. But in winter (June 2019) we arrived at 7 pm and there were loads of spaces left.
Cathedral Cove – Day 2
In my opinion, this is where this Auckland to Wellington road trip really begins! It’s time to leave the big city behind and head out west to the Coromandel Coast. The drive from Auckland to Cathedral is just under three hours so get up early and ready to hit the road.
The drive out to the cove is stunning especially winding through the Coromandel Forest, be sure to stop at every lookout on the way! You may have seen Cathedral Cove on the internet as its one of the most popular spots on the North Island and for good reason. Cathedral Cove is found in Hahei, a tiny town situated on the Coromandel Coast. It’s famous for its tranquil beaches and massive stone archway curated by Mother Nature herself.
The only way to reach Cathedral Cover is by foot or boat. On arrival to Hahei, you can park for free in the Hahei visitor car park or in winter at the start of the Cathedral Cove walking track. This car-park is closed for the summer months due to the number of people flocking to the area. The council do put on shuttle buses from the visitor car park in the summertime, $10 per adult or $5 per child. Or to save the cash you can simply walk which is what we did.
For a complete guide to Cathedral Cove then check out this post!
It took us about 35 minutes to reach the start of the track via road because there are a lot of hills! For an easier walk walk-along the beachfront! Upon reaching the start of the Cathedral Cove walking track it’ll take another 60 – 120 minutes to reach that famous archway! The walk could be seen as strenuous to some with hills and a lot of stairs. But it’s totally worth it at the end. If walking isn’t for you then you can boat trips out to Cathedral Cove.
I recommend taking a full day to explore the area. In summer it will be SO busy so get there early and beat the crowds. In winter anytime time of day should be good. We visited Cathedral Cove in June and were accompanied by only five others on the beach. The sunset also looks epic at this spot if you don’t mind walking back to the car in the dark.
Freedom Camping Near Cathedral Cove
We found a sweet freedom camping spot just 15 km from Hahei during our trip to Cathedral Cove. Coroglen Reserve is a small area on State Highway 25 where you can camp overnight. It’s essentially a lay-by set back from the road. It does have toilets and a picnic area though so it really isn’t that bad. It was also one of the best sunrises we saw on our first week in New Zealand so definitely get up for that too!
Hot Water Beach – Day 3
Another gem on the Coromandel Peninsula is Hot Water Beach. Voted one of the best beaches in New Zealand I’d say it’s probably the most unique. There aren’t many beaches in the world where you can dig out a hot spring of your own. Because of the volcanic activity under the surface of the earth here in New Zealand, the water found underneath the sand is red hot! When we visited Hot Water Beach in winter it was an easy 7 degrees. Yet there we were stripped down to our bathing suits sat in bubbling water, it was so cool! There are a few things to be aware of when visiting Hot Water Beach but the main thing is the tides.
The hot water is only accessible at low tide. Check online beforehand for the exact tide times so you don’t miss out. The other essential point to remember when visiting the beach is to bring a shovel! Now I’m not talking about the likes of a spade used to dig sandcastles. I’m talking a garden shovel. Of course, this isn’t an easy piece of luggage to bring along on a road trip so you can hire them on the beachfront for $10. Or if you’re lucky someone might lend you one on the beach.
For more information on parking and all the info, you need about Hot Water Beach go here!
Mount Manganui – Day 4
A couple of hours drive south along the coast is Tauranga and Mount Manganui. This small seaside city on the West Coast is definitely worth a visit for its breathtaking views if nothing else. It’s certainly not the backpacking hub of the North Island but it’s certainly worth stopping by for the day. Mount Manganui is especially wonderful for the avid hiker. The volcanic peak that towers over the Bay of Plenty is referred to as ‘The Mount’. Rich in Maori history and culture many lived on ‘The Mount’ evidence of which you can today throughout the track to the summit. This walk starts off on Mount Manganui beach. When you reach the top the views are sublime of the peninsula and ocean.
Matamata & Hobbiton – Day 5-6
Calling all Lord of the Rings Fans, welcome to your paradise! Snippets of the Lord of the Rings are everywhere in New Zealand. Though there is so much more to this country than the world-famous film you just have to visit Hobbiton when you’re on the North Island. Even if you don’t brand yourself a real LOTR fan (I certainly don’t, I’ve only seen the first movie) Hobbiton will amaze you. Driving from Mount Manganui to Matamata only takes 51 minutes. I recommend hanging out in Matamata for a day as well as Hobbiton. The town itself is full of LORT inspired buildings and has such a welcoming vibe.
Did you know that the Hobbits hanging out at Bilbo Baggings’ birthday party weren’t professional extras but people from the town of Matamata? Sir Peter Jackson wanted to ensure the locals felt involved and got some to take part, as a kind of thank you I guess.
Other Things to Do in Matamata Besides Hobbiton
- Explore the main high street and find all the Hobbiton inspired buildings.
- Visit Wairere Falls
- Opal Hot Springs
- Firth Tower Estate and Museum
- Simply drive around and take in the epic rolling hills and misty mountains in the distance
Camping in Matamata
Matamata was one of the only places on this Auckland to Wellington road trip we didn’t freedom camp. We actually stayed on a local farm just minutes away from the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours and I simply have to give ‘Bucks Place’ a shout out. This gorgeous farm is located out towards Hobbiton with insane views over the valley. The owners rent out non-powered campsites for just $8 per person.
It’s probably the cheapest place you’ll stay and one with the best views. You can pay an extra $2 each for a hot shower. Or if you’re feeling brave you can get a free cold shower! The toilet facilities are excellent and sunrise was exceptional. You’ll also want to go outside once the stars come out for insane views of the milky way! This was our first glimpse here in New Zealand and not one I’m likely to forget! – one day I’ll be better at photographing the milky way hopefully whilst we are still in New Zealand.
For more information on Bucks Place simply take a look here. They don’t take reservations simply turn up and put your money in the minion or to Linda if there on arrival. Check out is at 10 am and the owners specify that this campsite is not suitable for children. I’ve seen some negative comments online about this but I do see why. There’s an electric fence running around the garden as it’s a working farm.
Hobbiton – Day 6
Visiting the Hobbiton movie set is one of my highlights of our Auckland to Wellington road trip without a doubt! Just to see a movie set come to life is so magical. I was so inspired by the movie set it was just incredible to see how distant it is from our land but looks like it fits in perfectly. The Hobbiton Movie Set tours take place on the Alexander farm in the hills that hug Matamata. As soon as you set eyes on the area you can see why Sir Peter Jackson chose this place. But to find out all the intimate details was such a learning experience.
The Alexander farm was chosen because it had all three qualities Jackson was looking for, a tree, a lake and the hills. In fact, the lake is the only thing that stopped the neighbours getting the deal. How I bet they wish they had a lake now! Another interesting fact is that the set you see there today is not the original from the first movie! That’s right, the first movie set was torn down after the filming ceased. It wasn’t until Russel Alexander approached Sir Peter Jackson in regard to the second movie that he suggested they re-build the set permanently! I could honestly go on all day about all the enchanting and eye-opening facts I learnt that day, perhaps I’ll dedicate a blog post to it!
Hobbiton Movie Set Tour Facts
- Price: $84 PP yes this isn’t a cheap ticket but I can guarantee it’s worth it
- Included: 2 Hour guided tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set
- 1 Free Alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage in The Green Dragon Inn brewed, especially for Hobbiton tours.
- Transfer to and from the car park
- Plenty of photography opportunities
Auckland to Wellington Road Trip – Rotorua Day 7-8
Rotorua, the geothermal wonderland of New Zealand! Rotorua is one of the most unique towns I’ve ever visited. Granted it smells like rotten eggs but that’s because of the crazy adventures mother nature gets up to. Rotorua is basically built upon volcanic activity which creeps up from the ground, everywhere. It’s home to erupting geysers, bright green lakes, craters in the earth and insane bubbling mud pools. There is so much to do in what seems like the little town of Rotorua. It’s wonders spread far and wide across the city. I recommend at least two days to see the best of Rotorua if not three! We had planned to stay just one night but ended up staying even longer!
However long you decided to stay in Rotorua here are the must-sees:
- Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland
- Hells Gate Mud Baths
- Kuirau Park
- Explore the Redwoods forest
- Sunset walk to Sulphur Point Walk
- Enjoy Lake Rotorua
- Take a dip in Kerosene Creek natural hot springs
For more tips on Things to Do in Rotorua check out this more in-depth post here.
Huka Falls – Day 9
Ready for the most insane waterfall in New Zealand? Huka Falls is nothing short of impressive. Located on the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river. Huka Falls holds more than 220,000 litres of water per second! It’s not just the gushing but the aqua blue colour of the water that takes its viewers by total surprise. There’s plenty of walking trails around the falls too. You can view the falls from various viewpoints from the car park and from above via a lookout further up Huka Falls Road falls. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous then you can take a jet-boat right up to the falls!
Freedom Camping at Huka Falls
There’s also the option to freedom camp at Huka falls. The campsite is literally next to the Huka falls car park. There are two campsites A and B. As of July 2019 only campsite B was open for freedom camping overnight. The road into the site is a little bumpy but perfectly fine for a one night stay just expect portable toilets.
Lake Taupo – Day 10
Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s biggest lake, it’s crazy how big this abyss of water actually is. The reason? Well, it isn’t a lake at all. No, Lake Taupo is actually New Zealand’s biggest supervolcano. Lake Taupo first erupted over 300,000 years ago leaving the lake we see today. The last noted eruption was just 1800 years ago which is pretty insane. Of course, it’s been a long time since the last eruption and when you see Lake Taupo you wouldn’t think of it as anything but a gorgeous lake. The town Taupo sits at the north of the lake and smaller towns surround it.
Another interesting fact we also learnt in Taupo is that the supervolcano is not actually extinct just dormant! Lake Taupo comes alive in the summertime with water sports and all things alike. Lake Taupo is also one of the main gateways to the Tongariro National Park. Home to New Zealand’s famous Alpine Crossing the National Park is one of the most popular on eta North Island. Lots of rentals, holiday apartments and campsites around Lake Taupo offer a shuttle service during the summertime.
For other things to do around Lake Taupo besides the Alpine Crossing and National Park take a look at this website.
Tongariro National Park – Day 11 – 12
Tongariro National Park, I followed the crowd with this one and will say it’s 100% a highlight of the North Island! I think maybe it’s because it’s the first time I ever saw a snow-capped mountain and that was a pretty special moment! The main reason travellers visit Tongariro National Park is because of the insane Alpine Crossing. From the photographs I’ve seen the hike just looks incredible. The 19 km treck hikes over volcanic land past three of New Zealand’s epic volcanic peaks, Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu.
It’s famous all over the world and attracts hundreds every year. The hike is accessible all year round but be very cautious in winter. We had planned to hike the Alpine Crossing in winter with a guide (going without a guide in winter is not recommended) but it got cancelled due to the horrendous weather we copped that weekend. Because of our schedule, we didn’t have time to change the dates so we’ll just have to return to hike it in summer which also looks incredible. People complete the hike without a guide in the summer-time.
Other Hikes in Tongariro National Park
If a 19 km treck doesn’t sound like your thing then don’t worry as there are plenty of smaller tracks to enjoy around the base of peaks. We actually completed an 8 km trip to Soda Springs which is the first part of the Alpine Crossing when we got rained off. Turned out the weather was perfect at the bottom of the mountains just not at the top! This walk is beautiful and I definitely recommend it for an awesome view of Mount Ngauruhoe. I’ve listed some more options below when it comes to walking in the Tongariro National Park:
- Taranaki Falls 2 hour return
- Silica Rapids 7 km return
- Whakapapa – Tawhai Falls Walk 20 minute return
- Meads Wall
- Lake Lotopounamu – 10 km return
- Tama Lakes – 17 km return
- Soda Springs – 8 km return
For more information on hiking in Tongariro National Park check out this website as I found it very helpful! Make sure you check the weather forecast before any hiking in the National Park especially in winter as the risk of avalanche can be high. In the summer months prepare well for any hiking in hot weather. Always be over-prepared.
Freedom Camping in Tongariro National Park
Mangawhero campsite is a great freedom camping spot for the night. It’s very basic but has toilets and plenty of space for tents as well as campers.
Ohakune – Day 13
Ohakune is a small ski town at the foot of Mt Ruapehu and it comes alive in the winter. With the ski field and open for business during the winter months, it’s a great little town to swing by. With amazing views of the mountains and fantastic options for biking riding and walks it’s a great place to spend a few days. We enjoyed a few cold days hiding in the ski bars with plenty of beer and fabulous food. The Old Coach Road is a must-do in Ohakune where the old railway line ran, you can now bike or walk the track which will be wonderful on a warm summers day.
Ohakune – Wellington Day 14 – 17
It’s a little drive from Ohakune to Wellington but we decided to spend more time in the capital. Wellington is definitely one of the coolest cities I’ve visited. The vibe in this city is chic with a rich culture in cafes, food and beer just a few of my favourite things. There is something to do in Wellington for everyone from museums, to wildlife spotting, enjoying the beaches, cafe hopping honestly the list could go on. I wrote a great post on things to do in Wellington in winter because the weather can be super unpredictable. Wellington is nicknamed ‘wind welly’ by the locals so I’ll let you work that one out for yourself. Here are some of the must-do things in Wellington
- Cafe Hopping on Cuba Street
- Wellington Botanic Gardens
- Visit the Weta Cave
- Hike Mount Victoria
- Te-papa National History Museum
- Red Rocks Coastal Walk – Home to a colony of fur seals from May-August
I’d recommend spending 3 or 4 days in Wellington as there is plenty to explore!
This Auckland to Wellington road trip is a great way to see so much of the North Island. I hope you enjoyed reading about some of my favourite spots in New Zealand! If you did enjoy this post I would love it if you could share it!