New Zealand is one of those smaller countries that seems easy to visit in a week or two. The problem is, there is so much to do and see here that if you try to see the whole country in that time, you will spend all your time travelling and not much time seeing and doing. Here is just one suggestion for a New Zealand North Island Itinerary to help you with your own planning.
This itinerary is based roughly on the itinerary I took during my first visit to New Zealand. I have altered it slightly, adding in a few activities I’ve done on subsequent visits because we had our kids with us on the first visit and also spent some of our time visiting family friends in Auckland.
But first, some information for your arrival.
Arriving in New Zealand
You will almost certainly be flying into Auckland on your arrival to New Zealand, and that’s where this itinerary will begin and end.
Getting to the city centre from the Auckland Airport is easy if you travel by the SkyBus. The trip takes about an hour, and there are drop off points at various places throughout the city. I recommend buying your ticket in advance. No need to print it even, just show the voucher to the driver on your phone.
The best way to get around New Zealand is to hire a car (or camper van) and drive yourself. You could consider doing that as soon as you arrive and drive yourself into the city. Alternatively, you could pick up the car as you leave Auckland if you prefer. While there are a few buses between towns, you will find there is much more flexibility with your own car, you will have transport around the location once you arrive, and New Zealand has good roads and not much traffic so driving is easy. Just remember to drive on the left, bring your international drivers license if required, and to read up on one of New Zealand’s quirks – one way bridges!
To rent a car I use and recommend Rentalcars.com. This website brings together cars from all different companies so you can easily compare prices and inclusions using just one search.
Another thing you will find useful for your road trip is a SIM card. I’ve used one from Vodafone during my visits and have had no issues. Ensure your phone is unlocked, and then it only takes a few minutes for the staff to insert the New Zealand SIM card. I have always picked mine up from the airport. Order a SIM card through the link below so it is ready and waiting for you.
The New Zealand North Island Itinerary
Let me preface this itinerary by saying this does not cover the whole of the New Zealand North Island, it is really only the north part, going only as far south as Rotorua. To cover the whole north island you would need at least two weeks (I would recommend three!).
I have not included the arrival and departure days in Auckland, so if you arrive early in the day or leave late, you may be able to fit in some of the additional activities I have included.
Day One – Auckland
Spend your first day in Auckland getting to know the city centre. I always recommend starting off a trip with a free walking tour. It’s a great way to get your bearings, learn about important sites and attractions and learn a little about the history and culture. It’s also a great way to get some local information if there is something you want to know. Your guide will always be happy to recommend a place to eat, where to go shopping for a particular item and their favourite things to do in the city. Auckland has free walking tours that run each day at 10am and 2pm. More details can be found on their website here.
After taking the morning tour consider heading to the Auckland Museum to get an insight into the history and culture of New Zealand. This is a particularly good place to start getting to know the Maori culture. While you are there catch the the Maori culture performance where you can see the famous haka. It happens three (or four) times a day – 11am, 12pm, 1:30pm (and 2:30pm in summer)
Now take the ferry over to Devonport and explore this cute little suburb on the other side of the bay. Grab some food while you are over there at one of the many cafes and restaurants along Victoria Street. If you are feeling energetic, climb to the top of the Mount Victoria for some fantastic views back across to the city centre. Venture a little further to North Head and discover military history with tunnels, bunkers and gun emplacements. The Royal New Zealand Navy Museum is also here in Devonport. If you prefer to relax, the beach is calm and a great place for a swim.
The ferry for Devonport leaves from the Queens Wharf ferry terminal every thirty minutes. An adult cash fare is $7.50NZD and the trip across takes about 12 minutes.
On your return to the city centre visit the Auckland Sky Tower to ascend 220 metres over the city for panoramic views. The Sky Tower is open until 10:30pm so this is an ideal activity for the evening to watch the city light up as the sun goes down.
For the adventurous there are some adrenalin activities to consider while at the Sky Tower. During the SkyWalk you are harnessed to the tower and walk a complete lap around it, outside, 196 metres above the street. Alternatively you can do a SkyJump, and leap from the top of the tower. The fall is guided as you are attached to wires, but still I think my legs would be shaking when I hit the ground
Where to Stay in Auckland (2 nights)
Here are some suggestions for places to stay in Auckland
- Metro Adventure Backpackers – dorm accomodation in the centre of town
- Jucy Snooze – budget private rooms, some with private bathroom
- President Hotel Auckland – solid budget hotel right in the centre, also has family rooms
- Latitude 37 – at the higher end of the range, centrally located apartment accommodation
- The Grand by SkyCity – Modern five star hotel at the Skycity entertainment complex
- Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour – Five star hotel located right on the harbour with great sea views
Day Two – Auckland
Spend today over on Waiheke Island, the playground of the rich and famous in Auckland. Not only can you find pristine beaches and great hiking trails, Waiheke Island is home to all sorts of delicious food and wine. Visit a few wineries or even a craft brewery to enjoy the local drops. Dine either at one of them, or find a local restaurant to try the tasty local food. Also well known for olive oil, there are places for tasting that too. For adventure, spend some time zip lining across the treetops.
The best way to get to Waiheke Island is by ferry. They leave from Queens Wharf about every half an hour and take 40-50 minutes to get to Waiheke Island. Fares are $42NSD for adults return.
My recommendation is to buy a combined ferry and hop on hop off bus ticket, which will allow you to spend your day visiting as many places as you would like. The whole loop takes around 1.5 hours and has fifteen stops.
If that’s not how you want to spend your time on Waiheke Island, there are some other options to choose from
- take an organised wine tour from Auckland
- enjoy a snorkelling tour
- explore the island by e-bike
- take a segway tour
- discover the island with a nature walk
If a full day on Waiheke Island is too much, I still suggest visiting for half a day. For the rest of the day, visit one of the below Auckland attractions
- Auckland Zoo – see some of New Zealand’s native wildlife and more from around the world
- Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium – see some of the unique sea life from this part of the world, including penguins
- Auckland Harbour Bridge Bunjy Jump – for the adrenalin junkies. No need to go to Queenstown you can bungy here in Auckland
- Auckland Harbour Bridge Climb – don’t want to bunny? How about climbing the bridge instead?
- Half Day Sea Kayak Tour to Motukorea Island – see another of the islands just off Auckland
- Eden Park Stadium Tour – one for the rugby and cricket fans
Day Three – Auckland to Paihia
Today you will be leaving Auckland and driving north to Paihia, ready to explore the Bay of Plenty. It’s a three hour drive, and my suggestion is to spend the morning in Auckland doing one of the activities listed above and then spend the afternoon on the road.
Once you arrive in Paihia take a walk along the foreshore and enjoy the sunset, appreciate the chilled vibe of this lovely coastal town. Get dinner at one of the restaurants along the main street. For a cheaper option, grab some delicious New Zealand seafood at Vinnies Fish & Chip Takeaways, cross the road and sit on the foreshore to enjoy them right by the sea.
Where to Stay in Paihia (3 nights)
Here are some suggestions for where to stay in Paihia
- Bay Adventurer Backpackers & Apartments – dorm accommodation, private rooms & budget apartments
- Aarangi Tui Motel – budget hotel with private rooms, also has family rooms
- Bayview Motel – apartment accommodation right on the waterfront
- Paihia Beach House B and B – lovely B&B style accommodation also right on the beachfront
- The Waterfront Suites – Heritage Collection – luxurious aparthotel, centrally located with free parking
- Sanctuary Palms – luxury suites and apartments over looking the town
Day Four – Paihia
Today my recommendation is to take a tour to the very northern tip of New Zealand. Why do I suggest a tour when you have a rental car? It is a really long day, around twelve hours, and a lot of driving. The tour will allow you to fit a lot in without the worry of driving for hours, navigating, finding a place for lunch etc.
The tour I am recommending mirrors the one we took. You will visit the Cape Reinga Lighthouse at the tip of New Zealand and see the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific Ocean. Then you will drive along ninety-mile beach (which really does seem that long) and go sand boarding at Te Paki sand dunes – which was so much fun, even if the sand was a little warm for us. You will see some of the ancient Kauri trees along the way, and enjoy a delicious lunch.
Day Five – Paihia
Today you are going to explore the Bay of Islands. First up take a cruise out to The Hole in the Rock, admiring the stunning scenery from the water. On the way keep an eye out for some of the many dolphins that call the waters here home. I am glad to see that swimming with the dolphins is no longer allowed like it was when we did a similar cruise. Instead you will step ashore one of the islands and have a chance to snorkel in the shallows.
Just 2km out of the centre of Paihia are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This is the location where the original treaty was signed between the European settlers and and the local Maori people. This treaty effectively gave control of New Zealand to the British. Waitangi Day, on February 6th, is New Zealand’s national day. Now the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a protected site and the perfect place to learn about the history of the signing and the local people. When visiting, see the room the treaty was signed in, take a guided tour, visit the Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, watch a cultural performance, and admire traditional Maori buildings. A basic ticket gives two-days of entry if that is required.
If you would like to instead spend some time hiking, there is a great trail leaving from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to the Haruru waterfall. It’s about 5.5km each way, so you will need at least two hours for the return journey, The trail follows the Waitangi River, winding it’s way through native bushland until it reaches the horseshoe-shaped waterfall.
If the romance of sailing the high seas appeals to you, there is a late afternoon excursion available on an old fashioned sailing ship. Spend two hours sailing around the Bay of Plenty, and help out hauling the main sail, just like any good sailor of history.
Day Six – Paihia to Waitomo
Today is a full day of driving to get to your next stop of Waitomo and you head south. The drive takes around 5.5 hours with no stops, so plan to leave early in the morning and arrive late afternoon. This will give you time to stop for lunch and any other interesting things you see along the way. The first half of the drive you will be backtracking to Auckland
The reason you are going to Waitomo is to visit the Waitomo Caves and see the glow worms, but it is possible to see them just by going to a hike. Speak with the people at your accommodation to get the best suggestion for your time of year but I recommend the Ruakuri Walk. It is a loop walk that takes around 45 minutes to an hour and it is quite close to Waitomo township. Remember you will have to go after dark to see the glow worms so either be prepared with headlamps or borrow torches from your accommodation if available.
The Ruakuri Walk trail will take you along a river to a small viewing platform near a natural bridge where you can see into a cave with stalagmites and stalagtights. Look out for glow worms on the banks as you walk by and in the cave. There are also BBQ facilities near the start of this walk (at the carpark to the Ruakuri Cave) so you could bring picnic supplies and eat dinner here before going on the walk. This walk was certainly one of the highlights of my trip, my children loved it.
Where to Stay in Waitomo (2 nights)
Here are some suggestions for where to stay in and near Waitomo
- JunoHall Backpackers – highly rated dorm style accommodation
- Kiwipaka Waitomo – dorm accommodation and private rooms, some with private bathrooms
- Waitomo Caves Hotel – historic hotel, exceptional value for money
- Waitomo Caves Guest Lodge – perfectly located B&B style accommodation
- Waitomo Boutique Lodge – lovely rural property although a little further from the Waitomo Caves
Day Seven – Waitomo
Today is dedicated to exploring the Waitomo Caves. There are quite a few different options, from sedate tours to those particularly good for the adrenalin junkies. I would have loved to abseil down into the caves when we visited, but unfortunately my youngest daughter did not meet the height requirements so in the end we opted for doing a guided tour with a boat ride on the underground river. While it was good to see the glow worms the night before as we did the Ruakuri Walk, here they are in much larger numbers and it is such an amazing feeling to be floating down an underground river in total darkness with only the glow worms on the roof providing light.
Here are suggestions for some of the tours through the Waitomo caves:
- Waitomo Glowworm Caves 45 Minute Experience – the basic tour with boat trip
- Waitomo Caves Black Abyss Ultimate Caving Experience – 5 hour adventure tour with abseiling and zip lining
- Waitomo Caves 4-Hour Black Water Tubing Adventure – Get wet while visiting the caves by tubing through them
- Waitomo Caves Lost World 4-Hour Guided Tour with 100m Abseil – really test your nerves with this abseil
- Waitomo: Glowworm Cave 3-Hour Guided Eco-Tour – Learn about the cave environment in more detail
- Ruakuri Cave 1.25-Hour Guided Tour – walking tour through one of the more well-developed caves
Another quirky thing we did in Waitomo was to visit The Shearing Shed. With the amount of sheep in New Zealand you would be forgiven for imagining that this is for sheep, but no, it’s all about angora rabbits. We learnt about them and then saw one being shorn. This was a particularly fun thing for my kids, but I think anyone would enjoy it.
As I have been researching to provide you with current information, I believe it is likely that The Shearing Shed has closed down, even though some prominent websites still mention it (like here). I can’t find many recent mentions of it on places like Trip Advisor which makes me suspicious. If you have visited Waitomo recently, I would love for you to let me know in the comments if it is still open.
If you finish your activities early and are looking for more to do, take a drive to the Marokopa Falls, 30km away. From the carpark it’s an easy 5-10 minute walk to the waterfall, which is 35 metres tall and can be quite spectacular after rainfall.
Also nearby is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and another short walk. This path is about 20 minutes on a boardwalk through the forest to see a natural arch. Another highlight is fossilised oysters from 25 million year ago.
Day Eight – Rotorua
Today is the drive to Rotorua, just two hours from Waitomo, but you won’t be going straight to Rotorua. Take a short detour and visit the ultra-popular Hobbiton. This insta-worthy site was used as a film set for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies and even if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies it is well worth a visit. I visited recently as part of another trip to New Zealand (read about my visit here), but I really think this should be on your New Zealand must-see list.
Hobbiton is one place you really will need to book in advance. Visitors are allocated a time slot, and you don’t want to arrive and discover there are no available places for three hours! The drive from Waitomo to Hobbiton is about 90 minutes, so take this into consideration when booking your time slot.
The basic tour is not the only option though when you visit Hobbiton, You can also opt to have lunch included with your tour
Or over summer (Nov-Feb) you can book and early bird tour and visit at either 8 or 8:30am before the rush of visitors who are coming form further afield at no additional charge.
After enjoying Hobbiton, continue on to Rotorua, which will take you around another hour to drive.
Where to Stay in Rotorua (3 nights)
Here are some suggestions for where to stay in Rotorua
- Funky Green Voyager Rotorua – both dorm style accommodation and private rooms
- Six On Union Motel – neat motel style accommodation or apartment
- Silvereye Retreat – great value B&B style accommodation a little out of Rotorua, but right near the lake
- Thermal Oak Motel – well rated motel near the centre of town
- Regal Palms Resort – includes studios, suites and apartments, all with spas and kitchenette
- Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel – small lakeside hotel with lots of luxury
Day Nine – Rotorua
Today is for exploring the nature and cultural side of Rotorua. You simply cannot come to Rotorua without visiting at least one of the geothermal parks. Of course it is possible to simply be driving down the road an see steam coming out of the cracks in the ground, but the parks offer some more unique natural wonders and added extras too. During our visit we went to Craters of the Moon which is a geothermal park near Taupo (we drove to Rotorua via Taupo not Hobbiton) and Te Puia Maori Village. The former is simply a park with a boardwalk to see lots of the thermal activity, whereas the latter also had a lot of Maori cultural aspects and museum-like displays along with some stunning geysers and bubbling mud.
I would recommend taking the time to relax a little and indulge in a thermal spa or mud bath. But if you would rather stay dry, then there are other options to explore too. Here are a few suggestions
- Hells Gate Mud Bath and Sulphur Spa Experience
- Geothermal Mineral Baths Experience: Pavilion Pools
- Waiotapu: Thermal Park and Lady Knox Geyser Entry Ticket
- Waimangu Volcanic Valley Entry Ticket
- Whakarewarewa Maori Village Cultural Experience
- Te Puia Maori Village Entry & Optional Cultural Performance
For New Zealand culture of a completely different type make a visit to the Agrodome and learn all about sheep farming in New Zealand. There are currently about ten sheep to every person in New Zealand, and it has been a huge part of the industry since European settlement. See the farm show where you watch the sheepdogs go about their jobs and then see a sheep being shorn. You can even participate and feed lams or milk cows. You can also take a farm tour on a tractor to see how the farm works. Visit the farmyard nursery to check out all the cute baby animals. Afterwards visit the Woollen Mill & Shearing Museum.
This is the perfect opportunity on your North Island itinerary to see the Kiwi. This elusive bird is nocturnal and also now only lives in more remote areas of New Zealand but there are some of them here in Rotorua at Rainbow Springs. The kiwi have been acclimatised to think day is night and vice versa, so they are more likely to be active during your visit. There are also plenty of other animals and birds here that call New Zealand home
In the evening attend a Maori cultural show combined with a Hangi for dinner. The Hangi is the traditional way the Maori cook meat by using heated rocks. During the cultural show you will usually see the Haka danced as well as other dances appropriate to the local Maori tribes. This is a really popular activity in Rotorua (and the food is delicious so worth it) so there are many options. Here are some for you to consider:
Day Ten – Rotorua
We have possibly saved the best for your last day in Rotorua – adventure activities! Lets have a bit of fun today and get the adrenalin pumping – after all, that’s one thing New Zealand is really well known for. There are activities of all levels, and one I can recommend for all ages and abilities is the Skyline Luge. It is so much fun flying down the mountain side in a little go-cart with the wind in your hair! I have done this in both Rotorua and Queenstown and would happily do it again. My family also tried the Zorb here in Rotorua too. Yet another memorable activity we will remember. Rotorua also has some of the best white-water rafting available in the north island, so consider that too. Here are just some of the fun things you can find to do in Rotorua
- Skyline Rotorua Gondola and Luge Tickets
- Kaituna River and Tutea Falls Whitewater Rafting
- Parasail over Rotorua
- Rotorua Forest 3-Hour Zipline Canopy Tour
- ZORB Inflatable Ball Rides
- Rotorua Bungy Jump Experience at Velocity Valley
- Lake Rotorua: Jet Boat, Speed, Spins and Adrenaline
Depending on what time your flight is out of Auckland tomorrow, you may need to do the 2.5 hour drive back to Auckland tonight, or if it’s a later flight, make the most of your time and drive back in the morning.
And all too soon your New Zealand holiday is over. You will have had a busy but enjoyable time, and I’m sure you will already be planning to return and see more of this amazing country!
You will have noticed I’ve included a lot of activities that can be booked in advance through booking sites like Get Your Guide and Viator. If you haven’t booked through these websites before, be assured they are both reputable world leaders in this field. I use and recommend both sites personally when I travel for a few reasons. Firstly, I can book using my own currency therefore I save on foreign transaction fees or money lost on exchanging cash on arrival. Secondly, most of the activities can be cancelled up to 24 hours in advance so there is no risk if I change my mind. That gives me the confidence to book well in advance to secure tickets that could become scarce, even before I have finalised my itinerary. Thirdly, I have regularly found that by booking online in advance I get a better price than if I just turn up and pay at the attraction.
Good luck planning your trip!
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.