Best New Zealand Road Trip Advice

Best New Zealand Road Trip

The best road trip in New Zealand.

Have you ever spent New Year’s Eve in a different part of the world?

Where would you go if you had the chance?

Well, one year I decided to spend New Year’s Eve in the town of Rotorua in the north island of New Zealand. Rotorua is nicknamed Sulphur City and I thought it would be a very unique experience to combine New Year’s Eve celebrations in Rotorua while on road trip sight-seeing around the North Island of New Zealand.

From that trip of mine I’ve created what I think is the perfect itinerary if anyone was to do something similar on New Zealand’s north island. By discussing my own trip, it may even inspire someone to plan their own New Year’s Eve trip of a lifetime in some other interesting part of the world.

The Great New Zealand Road Trip Agenda:

Arrive in Aukland on the 26th of December. Auckland is a great city to start a road trip in the New Zealand’s north island, as this is where the main airport is located. It will also make it easier for the Airport to deliver your luggage to your hotel, if they somehow left it behind in your home country. That’s unfortunately what happened to me.

26th December (1 night) – Auckland

Spend whatever time you have in Auckland however you want.

27th December (4 nights) – Bay of Islands

Luckily, I happily received my luggage in the morning at my hotel. I was really worried that it may have been lost, sent to another country or something equally bad.

In the morning of the 27th go up to the Auckland Sky Tower and take a look around. The views from this tower are spectacular.

At around 2pm start driving to the Bay of Islands. It’ll take a leisurely four hours to get there.

Stay in the small town of Paihia. I found this town to be a fantastic base for the Bay of Islands. Otherwise consider Russell or Kerikeri. All of 3 of these towns are relatively close by one another.

28th December – Bay of Islands

In the morning visit what many consider to be the Birthplace of the Nation. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are a beautiful place. This is probably the best place to watch Maori entertainers in the whole of New Zealand. They put on a great welcome show.

New Zealand Maori Greeting

The lawns are so lush green. The fully carved Maori meeting house Te Whare Runanga is very interesting.

Best Road Trips in New Zealand-Waitangi
Photo credit: Sids1 – Flickr (website page later removed)

After that take a leisurely stroll around the grounds and drive to Haruru Falls, or if you prefer you can walk there by using the walking track. It’ll take a couple of hours if you decide to walk.

Mid afternoon take a cruise around the Bay of Islands back at the Paihia. Make sure you’ve organised this first thing in the morning, so you know the time to be at the jetty/dock in the afternoon.

29th December – Bay of Islands

If you’re a scuba-diver spend the day doing couple of dives. The Rainbow Warrior is a great dive site with a tragic story behind it. The Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, was bombed by the French foreign intelligence services, while it was in the port of Auckland on 10 July 1985. The rascals bombed it because the ship was on its way to protest against planned French Nuclear tests in Morurora, Fernando Pereira. A photographer tragically drowned on the ship as a result. Two French agents were captured but they essentially got away with the crime. On 12 December 1987 it was given a new home at Matauri Bay, where it was submerged near the Cavalli Islands.

Scuba Diving in New Zealand

I was surprised to later learn that the French operation was apparently given the codename Operation Satanic. Are the Greek Gods trying to tell everyone something? The main picture of this post shows me entering the dark interior of the Rainbow Warrior. Feels spooky after I read more about the tragedy at a later time. Here’s an interesting documentary about the Rainbow Warrior if you don’t know anything about it

The coral reefs in this beautiful part of New Zealand are great. At the time I went I actually did my Advanced Scuba Diving certification. I can highly recommend it. This is the next qualification after the standard PADI open water dive qualification.

If you’re not into scuba diving then you can further explore the islands. The marine park making up the Bay of Islands contains around 150 islands. Make sure you visit the ‘Hole in the Rock’ at Motukokako Island, which allows smaller boats to pass through.

Bay of Islands New Zealand

The largest island in the bay is Urupukapuka, so you’ll probably want to go there. Roberton Island looks like a fantastic spot if you can make it there. There’s also an iconic ‘Cream Trip’ that has continued on as a tourist endeavour, after initially being a sea route to collect cream from dairy farms. Sea kayaking is another great way to explore a few of the closer islands in the bay.

30th December – Bay of Islands

Visit the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau rated the Poor Knights Islands as one of the top 10 dive spots in the world.

If you want to do something different visit Waipoua Forrest, a relatively short drive away. Here you’ll see the mighty kauri and Tane Mahuta, the lord of the forrest. Consider going on a drive to Cape Regina, the most northern roadway endpoint in New Zealand’s north island.

31st December (3 nights) – Rotorua

At around 8:00am on the 31st, start your drive to Rotorua. The drive will take you most of the day.

For New Year’s Eve in Rotorua make sure you’ve prearranged a Hangi dinner and cultural show at a popular Maori Cultural Centre. Ensure you make the booking months before your arrival. I went to Mitai Maori Village. It looks like a tourist trap from the outside of the building, but inside it really surprised me. I found it to be an excellent experience. There are also one or two other places around Rotorua where you can visit for a similar type of experience.

When I went, the massive hall was packed out. I was placed at a large table with two attractive girls from Argentina who were holidaying in New Zealand for a month.

Rotorua for me was only a place to stop for the Hangi dinner and cultural show. My plan was to only go for a short walk afterwards around town. I really didn’t expect so many people in town in the open areas waiting for the new year’s fireworks.

My plan was to walk the Tangariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s great walks, on the 1st of January, the very first day of the new year. This meant I needed to get some sleep at a reasonable hour because the trek required waking up very early in the morning. I should’ve stayed in Rotorua for the night and I kicked myself for it. That’s why I’ve re-arranged my original itinerary, to ensure that if anyone goes to Rotorua for New Year’s Eve, you allow a few nights to enjoy yourself and recover if need be.

After the Hangi feast go and follow the crowds. Watch the fireworks by the lake.

1st January – Rotorua

Sleep in, relax and take it easy. Visit a thermal national park in the afternoon for a leisurely walk to smell the sulphur. You may want to visit a thermal spa to recharge, like the well known Hell’s Gate.

Rotorua Champagne Pool
Photo credit: Gopal Vijayaraghavan – Flickr

2nd January – Rotorua

You really do need to spend 3 nights in Rotorua. There are so many things to see and do in sulphur city. If you get tired of this place you can always go to Lake Taupo which is close by, or even another location on the outskirts of town. You won’t though. This is a great part of New Zealand.

3rd January (3 nights) – Coromandel Peninsula

Take your time getting to the Coromandel Peninsula. Visit the Bay of Plenty along the way.

4th January – Coromandel Peninsula

Visit Hot Water Beach at low tide and bring a shovel with you, which you can normally rent or take from your accomodation provider. This will allow you to dig your own warm bath on the beach. I couldn’t believe how many people I saw. It was so crowded when I arrived that there was no way I could dig a hole anywhere near where the hot water sand zone. There must have been a couple hundred people on the day I went. The lucky spa diggers had beaten me to it. Spend an hour or so here at the most. It’s definitely worth seeing the unique spectacle. Hopefully you’ll be able to make your own spa.

5th January – Coromandel Peninsula

Drive to Hahei. The one and a half hour return walk from Hahei to Cathderal Cove is unbelievable. Spend a few hours at Cathedral Cove just lying on the beach like a God or Goddess. This is one of the best beaches of all time in my opinion. Cathedral Cove separates two pristine small beaches. It’s a dream location of the highest order.

Best Beach in New Zealand Cathedral Cove


Spending the whole day at this beach is easy if the weather is nice.

Best Beach in New Zealand
Photo credit: Takver – Flickr

6th January (3 nights) – Lake Taupo

In the morning start your long drive from Coromandel Peninsular to Lake Taupo. When leaving the Coromandel Peninsular take the other coastal road on the other side of the peninsula, through the town of Thames and back through Waihi.

Arrive at your accomodation on Lake Taupo in the late afternoon. I stayed at Oreti Village Resort on Pukawa Bay and found the place to be pure magic for its spectacular scenery, especially in the cabin I stayed in, which was in a prime position. The restaurant was fantastic. I highly recommend having dinner there while it’s still daylight to enjoy the views. I have to say the food in New Zealand overall is absolutely delicious, a real treat.

7th January – Lake Taupo

Walk the 17 km Tongariro Crossing on the 7th of January. The walk will probably take you between 7 and 9 hours to complete it. You have to book a place well in advance, to ensure you get a bus ride back to the start of the trek. This is probably the greatest one-day walk I’ve ever done. It’s New Zealand’s most popular day walk, so don’t miss it.

The video below shows a pretty unique experience of walking the track when it also has snow. When I did walked the track it was completely dry apart from a few muddy areas.

I actually parked my hire car at the end point of the track, which is the exact opposite to most people. I had a prearranged bus pick me up from the carpark at the end of the track early morning. They then drove several of us to the start of the track. Most people do it the other way round. They park their car at the start of the track. When they finish the walk they get on a bus that takes them back to the start of the track where their vehicle is located. When I finished the walk there were loads of people waiting for the bus. My car was nowhere to be seen, so I had to keep walking down a very dusty and rocky road for another kilometre or so. I was sure glad to see the car at the end of the road when I finally came to a t-section, because by that time I was pretty exhausted.

8th January – Lake Taupo

Make the most of the day:

  • Visit the Tongariro National Trout Centre for half an hour. The highlight is walking over the bridge to the entrance of the building where you’ll most probably see a few big trout.
  • Explore the town of Taupo and enjoy the lake from the town’s edge.
  • Definitely include a boat ride to the edge of Huka Falls.
  • In the late afternoon visit a magnificent thermal pool for a dip.
  • If you’re interested take a boat trip or kayak out to the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay on Lake Taupo.

If you’re able to stay for one night at the exclusive Huka Lodge, near Taupo, I’m very envious. The extravagant lodge has a reputation for allowing well-heeled travellers to indulge in Kiwi style lotus-eating.

9th January – Auckland or return Flight Home (later in the night)

On your way back to Auckland on the 9th of January, stop at the Waitomo Caves and take a boat ride to see glow-worms that light up the cave roof like the stars.

They also have a few other adventurous things to do in the water filled caves at Waitomo. You’ll have to make sure you book well in advance for something more adventurous.

10th January – Return Flight Home

There you have it. During my road trip around the north island of New Zealand I had spurts of rain, grey clouds and sunny weather, the whole smorgasbord board actually. My biggest regret though was not spending more time in Rotorua.

Where do you want to spend New Year’s Eve?