From our last stop on our Northland Loop, we headed south of Auckland to complete a two-week North Island loop.
Warning: This is a long post. We were on the go the whole time we were travelling this loop and didn’t stop anywhere long enough to write the post. So, you are reading all of these stops together as part of one big North Island Loop post, just as we lived it.
We completed our loop in a counter-clockwise direction. Each heading, below, includes any activities we did or stops we made on the way to that location as well as things that we did while there. We overnighted one to three nights in each location.
Our first stop after leaving Northlands was Hamilton, an overnight stop we had set up just in case the drive through Auckland took longer than we expected. Hamilton is about an hour north of Rotorua, and there were a few things we wanted to see and do on the way, so why rush it?
Our AirBnB hosts suggested we go check out Hamilton Gardens, a 54 hectare botanical garden park on the river. We were told that it is free to enter and open all the time. We arrived at about 5:00, only to discover that the Hamilton Arts Festival was taking place there, which meant that the Enclosed Gardens (major section of the park) had just closed. We strolled around parts of the park that were open, saw a bit of the rest of the town by car, and that was about it for us and Hamilton.
On our way to Rotorua the next morning we had to make a quick stop at Tirau along the way for some wildlife photography.
Blue Spring Te Waihou Walkway, Putaruu
Not far from the animal sightings is Blue Spring, a worthwhile walk along a surreal river. It is said that the water can take up to 100 years to filter down to the river, creating pure, clear water. This river provides over half of New Zealand’s bottled water. Until very recently, water was delivered with no additional treatment and you could fill your water bottle at the river’s edge.
We booked to stay in Rotorua for three nights since all the claims were that there were so many things to do here. There are, it is true, but many of these are manufactured tourist attractions like ziplining and Zorbing, which can make for a fun visit, but aren’t unique to Rotorua or even to New Zealand and can rack up costs very quickly.
We spent most of our time experiencing geothermal activity and learning about the Maori culture, which are intertwined in this area. Though you can pay to visit geysers and other geothermal areas, we found plenty of interesting sites, sometimes without even looking for them. Throughout the town, you catch whiffs (or even onslaughts) of sulphur and you can spy steam chimneys everywhere. In Kuirau Park, a community park in the center of town, we walked the pathways that wound around fenced areas containing hot pools or bubbling mud. There’s even a community foot bath where many were sitting along benches with their feet plunged into the steaming waters.
At one end of Rotorua Lake is Sulphur Bay, which sits on top of an active geothermal area. We walked part of the path and boardwalk to explore this strange landscape.
Though there are many options for learning about the Maori way of life, we chose the understated Whakarewarewa (for short) Living Village and were very happy that we did. Our guide walked us through the village of traditional homes, many of which are built right beside (or in the odd case, right on top of) hot pools, which can be used for bathing or cooking. After our tour and lunch, we were free to wander pathways around lakes and up hills to viewpoints. Kuirau Park.
We might have visited the Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa but, since the earthquake in November 2016, it has been closed and fenced. The building sits regally at the end of a park and gardens and continues to be a landmark in this town.
With a little extra time on our hands, we drove about 5 km out of town and walked around Lake Okareka.
We did succumb to the draw of one of the tourist attractions, purchasing a discount ticket for a gondola ride and dinner, seeking a view of the town and lake. The views from the outside decks and our window seat in the restaurant were great, even with a bit of rain, and the meal, though buffet, was quite good.
Taupo is only about an hour drive from Rotorua, but with several things to do along the way and at the lake, we booked to stay in Taupo for two nights.
Our first stop was at mud pools where hot mud bubbles and spurts continually.
Next was Huka Falls. We had our wires crossed thinking this would be a nice little hike. It was only a few-minute walk from the car park.
Though we missed it on our drive down to Taupo, the Aratiatia Dam was close enough to go back to the following day. Every two hours between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm in the summer (2:00 pm in the winter) the dam is opened, releasing a gush of water down the river.
Not far from the dam, and also worth a drive to the lookout, is the Wairakei Power Station, a geothermal plant that captures heat from the geothermal activity in the area. The pipes create an interesting sculpture on the landscape, including several expansion structures that we drove under as we headed to the overlook.
Not far from Huka Falls was Spa Thermal Park, a fun and free place to take a dip in naturally heated water. The pools were a few hundred metres from the car park along a paved path. There were change rooms and washrooms at the pools, and decks and stairs to help you get down to the water. We found that water shoes were perfect since the rocks are slippery. It was fun to climb up under the rushing water for an effective massage or find a teeny private pool to sit and steep in. Where the creek hits the river, the cold clear water offered a refreshing cool down.
Probably the most iconic image associated with Taupo is one of the Maori carvings at Mine Bay. The carvings are modern, completed in 1980 after four years of work by artist Matahi Brightwell and his team, and are significant enough to be considered sacred. They can only be seen by boat. We took a trip to see them on the replica historic steamboat, the Ernest Kemp.
The youngers might be interested in Taupo’s other icon, found at the self-proclaimed World’s Coolest McDonalds. They can enjoy their Happy Meal while cooking themselves inside this retrofitted DC3.
Napier’s claim to fame is its art deco architecture. A 1931 earthquake destroyed the commercial center. When it was rebuilt, the buildings reflected the architectural designs of the times and have been preserved to this day.
The seaside Marine Parade is a paved walkway all along the town’s waterfront, which includes the public pool, an amphitheatre, sunken gardens, the i-Site visitor’s center, a skatepark, a children’s cycle track and more. While out walking, we stopped at an Airstream trailer for a quick lunch of delicious and well-priced toasted sandwiches.
We checked out a couple of the nearby wineries and loved the setting of Mission Estate Winery, established in 1851 by French missionaries. It is the oldest winery in New Zealand.
Te Mata Peak has many hiking routes to reach the top, but the drive is probably equally exhilarating.
Gisborne is about three hours up the coast from Napier, winding through the mountains around Hawke’s Bay. About half-way through the trip, we drove down out of the mountains and along a river to Wairoa. It was a perfect place to stop for coffee (we can recommend Eastend Cafe & Bar), a stroll along the riverside parkway to the historic lighthouse (moved to this location), and a detour drive to follow the river around the town and right out to the bay.
From Wairoa, we hugged the coast for the rest of the trip, taking side trips whenever the navigator (me) fancied and thoroughly enjoying the scenery. At one point, we were peering toward Onenui Station, Rocket Lab‘s New Zealand launch pad. Though we went well off the beaten path and climbed up some hot sand to reach the rocket viewing area, it was too far away to see anything at all. We’ll have to plan our next trip around the launch schedule.
Since we were only staying for one night in Gisborne before turning inland, we stopped in town for lunch, checked into our AirBnB, and then took a drive a little way further up the coast. The hillside provided lovely views of Gisborne.
Our original plan was to drive around the East Cape following the coast, but we were glad we switched to the inland route. We especially enjoyed the Waioeka Gorge Scenic Reserve, which surrounded us with incredible greenery.
We stopped and took the path down to see the historic Tauranga Bridge, a harp suspension bridge built in 1922.
Out of the mountains and back on the coast in the Coastlands region, we made a quick grocery stop in Opotiki and then a lunch stop at the beach at Te Ahiaua Reserve.
Our AirBnB for the night was on the skinny Pukehina Peninsula, just across the road from the beach. We walked several kilometres along the white sand to reach the peninsula’s tip.
Further up the coast, at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, we pulled into Waihi, a historic gold and silver mining town. The enormous Martha Mine pit, which sits adjacent to the town, was closed for decades, but has been reopened and continues to be upgraded and worked. The 4 km Pit Rim Walkway circles the pit and provides interpretive signs along the way.
Our AirBnB for two nights, just north of Whitianga, provided beautiful views out to Mercury Bay.
Cathedral Cove is one of the big draws on the Coromandel Peninsula. In the high season, you can’t park near the start of the walking path, but a huge parking lot a couple of kilometers away and a shuttle ($5 NZD per person) resolve the problem and keep the crowds out of the little village. The shuttle driver acted as a tour guide on the short trip and suggested we also hike down to Stingray Cove, one of several coves that the 2.5 km walking path provides access to. The 5 km return path meanders along the coast, up and down hills and stairs.
On our second day on the peninsula, we drove across it to the west side and the town of Coromandel. The town itself is quite small and not particularly interesting, but the viewpoint on the way there along the Whangapoua Road was worth the trip.
On the return drive, we took a crazy gravel road and stopped at Waiu Falls.
A quick look around the town of Whitianga completed our time on the Coromandel Peninsula.
On our final morning, we drove back to Auckland, returned our rental car, and hopped a flight to the south tip of the North Island for a short stop in Wellington (post to come).
- Rotorua gondola and dinner: Booked through bookme.co.nz, gondola ride and dinner for two $105 NZD ($90 CAD).
- Taupo boat trip: Booked through boat company, two-hour boat ride for two, including pizza and a glass of beer or wine $78 NZD ($68 CAD).