Road map of the five-day driving itinerary
Auckland, Waitomo Caves, Taupo, Rotorua, Hobbiton, Auckland
Our guests often ask us, 'what are the must-see things in New Zealand if we only have a few days to visit?' Here is our suggested five-day itinerary as a starting point. It takes in some of the most beautiful parts of the North Island, all linked by road and with overnights scheduled in Taupo and Rotorua. It is designed around three nights in Taupo (yes we are biased, we love this town!) and a night in Rotorua. The itinerary has a reasonable drive on day one, two full days in Taupo, a day in Rotorua to explore and then a day to return to Auckland. We have omitted the Coromandel and the Bay of Islands (beautiful, we know) as they are quite time-consuming to reach by road if you only have a few days available.
A few safety tips on driving before you start
We strongly advise that you start driving when well-rested. In New Zealand there are a few dangers associated with driving rental cars and we want you to arrive at your destination safely!
- As New Zealand is quite an isolated destination flight times can be long and driving when tired is obviously an unsafe practice. Make sure you have an overnight in Auckland or sleep on arrival after getting off a longhaul flight.
- Roads in New Zealand are generally in good condition but they are different to what many travellers have experienced. They can be narrow, windy and even though the speed limit may be 'open road' of 100km/hr, this is not always appropriate. Slow down, enjoy the ride.
- In New Zealand we drive on the left hand side of the road. OK, it sounds obvious, but it is easy to forget if you are used to driving on the opposite side of the road, especially when pulling out from intersections or from a side entrance. Keep left! At round-abouts, you must give way to those approaching from your right.
Day 1 - Auckland to Taupo
Slow moving traffic in Auckland is becoming infamous. Long delays can be experienced when trying to leave or arrive back to our biggest city so some prior planning could save you hours in a traffic jam. We suggest that you leave Auckland in the morning, going south, against the main flow of commuters that will be heading into the city.
Take the main motorway (State Highway 1) south following signs and directions for Hamilton. At Taupiri (just over an hour's drive from the airport) you will turn off the main highway and follow signs for Ngaruawahia, thence Whatawhata (or Raglan) thence Pirongia / Otorohanga.
Pirongia - an historic lunch stop
Pirongia is one of the most historically significant villages in the North Island. Formally known as Alexandra, it lies at the foot of Mount Pirongia, a peak rising 962 metres above sea level in a beautiful forest park. During the 1820s it was the site of a battle in the so-called 'musket wars' - a fortified "redoubt" can still be visited (no entrance fee).
Renamed Pirongia to avoid confusion with the town of Alexandra in the South Island, Pirongia is an ideal place to stop for lunch. We can recommend the local 'pub', the Five Stags or a lovely cafe called The Persimmon Tree at 1050 Franklin Street (the main road through Pirongia).
Refreshed, continue south towards Otorohanga and Waitomo. While in New Zealand, you may well want to see our national icon, the kiwi - a reclusive and rather shy nocturnal bird that you will be unlikely to find in the wild. The Otorohanga Kiwi House is undoubtedly the best place for this and they have the Great Spotted, Brown and Little Spotted kiwis in night-time environments viewable during day hours. In addition, the Kiwi House is home to New Zealand's largest free-flight aviary and our native Tuatara, a reptile pre-dating the dinosaurs!
South-bound again, heading towards Waitomo / Te Kuiti, the next stop (time-permitting) is Waitomo, which boasts some of the most amazing black-water rafting and glow-worm caves anywhere in the world.
After experiencing the natural beauty of Waitomo it is time to hit the road again and head for Riverside Apartment, in Taupo. Between Waitomo and Taupo you'll drive through the beautiful Pureora Forest Park and for a short period alongside the Waikato River, by a small settlement called Whakamaru. You'll see the mighty Waikato River again, just outside your window when you arrive at your final destination, at 14 Norman Smith Street, Taupo. Settle in, relax, grab a beer or wine - hook up to our free wifi and tweet, post and pinterest day one to your friends!
Day 2 - Taupo - Tongariro Alpine Crossing - or other outdoor action around Lake Taupo
After a few hours in the car on the previous day you might feel like getting some fresh air and, weather permitting, the best way to do that is to experience what many believe to be one of the finest one-day hikes in the world. Do take care, check the forecast and remember that this is an alpine crossing and shouldn't be underestimaged. Take the right gear and be prepared. We have more information available here on the Tongariro Crossing but if the weather isn't suitable or a long walk just isn't your thing we've got a whole lot of other suggestions of what to do while in Taupo.
Day 3 - Taupo - a relaxing day - shopping, cafes, bars and restaurants
By now you'll want to have a more relaxing day, perhaps exploring what is around the town. Riverside Apartment is ideally located because on this day you can leave your car in the secure garaging and go for a wander. Stroll across the bridge over the Waikato River and walk through the Taupo Domain to the marina. Good coffee is to be found at Stir cafe before heading into the town itself.
There are many great dining and entertainment options, far too many to list. Along the waterfront the Lakehouse bar and restaurant is consistently good with an excellent rage of craft beers, great menu and is a wonderful spot in nice weather to enjoy the lake views. For more family-orientated places, try the phenomenon that is Burger Fuel (the kids adore the children's meals) and an absolute family favourite for dining is the Lone Star, Taupo - with wonderful service and lake views.
For a more romantic or quiet atmosphere, try Vine on Tuwharetoa Street.
For more up to date information check out our webpage on the events and what's on in Taupo.
Back to your luxury apartment for aperitivi and if you're lucky, trout caught from directly in front of the apartment. The time around dusk is ideal... (don't forget to get your fishing licence though and do send us the pictures!)
Day 4 - Taupo to Rotorua
No trip to the North Island of New Zealand would be complete without experiencing our cultural capital, Rotorua. After checking out of Riverside Apartment, head north-east along State Highway 5 - about an hour will get you to the tourism mecca fondly known as 'Rotovegas' or more simply 'Vegas' to the locals!
On the way there it is easy to visit the Huka Falls and Aratiatia Rapids if you haven't done so already. Also, a good way to spend a few hours is walking the geothermal wonderland of Wai-o-Tapu, about 40 minutes drive from Taupo.
If lakes and mountains are more to your preference, you can bypass the touristy-cultural options and head east of Rotorua to the stunning nearby lakes; the Blue Lake, Green Lake and Lake Tarawera.
Day 5 - Rotorua to Auckland
From Rotorua, follow the signs towards Hamilton which will take you over the Mamaku Range and descend back into the Waikato region. Tirau, a small town approximately halfway between Rotorua and Hamilton has several iconic corrugated iron sculptures - massive, delightfully kitsch and worthy of a photo as you pass by. The original sheep has been joined in recent years by a sheepdog (of course) and the Good Shepherd himself. Sprouting to keep them company, local businesses have also added pukekos (native swamp hens), vehicles of all sorts, bees and various animals to join the corrugated fun!
After Tirau and taking just a short deviation off the road towards Hamilton, you'll find Hobbiton, the set where the famed Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, a must for fans of the movies.
Cambridge - a quaint country town in the heart of the Waikato - lunch stop
Lovely Cambridge, reminiscent of an small English town, relaxed and genteel. A perfect lunch stop on your way back to Auckland.
Continue on your chosen route back to Auckland to complete your road trip. Plan to arrive after the 'morning commuter's rush' and from Cambridge it should take you just over an hour and a half to reach the airport.
We hope you've had fun, and would love to get your thoughts and experiences on your time in New Zealand.
Add your best destinations, ideas and tips
We'd love to get your feedback, experiences and thoughts on how we could improve our suggestions or itinerary.
If you have any feedback on this webpage or would like to ask us a question, please don't hesitate to contact us at Riverside Apartment.