10 Days in New Zealand: Our North Island NZ Road Trip Itinerary

New Zealand is the PERFECT place for a road trip. As promised, here is our itinerary, finally!

Due to budget and time restrictions, J and I only hit the North Island, but it was enough to sate our thirst for mountains and adventure… at least for a little while! We spent hours researching our trip (we have a 30-page google doc of notes and itineraries to prove it), and due to all of our research, we managed to see everything on our list.

I know I looked at plenty of online itineraries while planning our own, so if you are New Zealand dreaming on a bit of a budget and love mountains and adventure like we do, here is an idea of a successful road trip! Although I’m no expert, I included  few tips for budgeting in NZ at the end.

Day One:  Auckland – Hamilton

The Plan: This was our arrival day. We landed in Auckland at 9:55 AM, and spent a few hours going through immigration / picking up our rental car. By 12:30 PM, we wanted to be on the road, heading to Hamilton. We didn’t plan to do anything else on this day (after 17 hours of flying, we assumed we’d need a break) aside from shower and sleep.

What Happened: Our AirBnB hosts actually invited us to their granddaughter’s birthday party that evening, just hours after meeting them. Our hosts kindly drove us an hour further south to their son’s home, and we spent the evening with their family, enjoying a lamb roast, drinking wine, and playing games with the four grandchildren. It was an unexpectedly lovely first day.

Driving Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes. Accommodation: our Hamilton AirBnB.

Day Two:  Hamilton

The Plan: The only reason we stopped in Hamilton was because of the Balloons over Waikato Festival that we had found out coincided with our NZ road-trip. Our original plan was to hit the 7:30 AM event to see the balloons in flight, then maybe drive to Raglan for some kayaking, then head back to Hamilton for the Zuru Night Glow.

What Happened: Well, unfortunately, the morning balloon event was rained out. We met with one of our AirBnB hosts for coffee at his favorite cafe, then spent a long time acting like 5-year-olds on the AWESOME playground next to the cafe. When an afternoon drizzle set in, we headed back to our AirBnB and took a long nap. The rain cleared by the evening though, and we were able to experience the Night Glow festival (live music and hot air balloons, all completely free!).

Driving Time: None (we took a free bus to the festival). Accommodation: our Hamilton AirBnB.

Day Three:  Hamilton – Waitomo Caves – Ohaupo

The Plan: Pack up, hit the Hamilton East River Market to browse / buy breakfast, then drive to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves for a 2PM Black Odyssey Tour. Afterwards, drive to our new farm AirBnB in Ohaupo.

What Happened: We ended up skipping the River Market because our AirBnB hosts made breakfast for us, so we left later than we had planned. Because of this, we arrived at the Glowworm Caves two hours early for our tour, so we went exploring the forests nearby before going on our Black Odyssey tour. J and I were the only ones on the tour with our three guides, so it was five hours of personalized caving. After that adventure, we drove back north to our Ohaupo AirBnB, where we met our new hosts over huge slices of homemade blueberry cheesecake and we all watched a movie together with glasses of wine!

Driving time: 1 hour 50 minutes   Accommodation: Ohaupo Farm AirBnB

Day Four:  Ohaupo – Hobbiton – Ohaupo

The Plan: Spend a lazy morning on the farm, then drive to Hobbiton for our 2:30 pm tour. After a magical two hours in the Shire, we’d return to our farm AirBnB for dinner with our hosts, and then pack up for an early start the next morning.

What Happened: Everything went according to plan. The rain stayed away, so we frolicked on our hosts’ beautiful farm in the morning, playing with their dog and enjoying the peace. The drive to Hobbiton was absolutely beautiful — probably my favorite drive in our whole trip. The Shire was just as magical as I had hoped it would be, and luckily the sunshine held until we were driving home. We ate a delicious dinner with our AirBnB hosts and then  they let us use their outdoor spa under the stars.

Driving Time: 1 hour 20 minutes  Accommodation: Ohaupo Farm AirBnB

Day Five:  Ohaupo — Tongariro Alpine Crossing — Taupo

The Plan: Wake up at 4 AM, drive the approximately 2 hours 30 minutes to the Ketetahi parking lot, catch our shuttle bus to the Mangatepopo hiking start point, then hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at our leisure, all the way back to our car at Ketetahi. Drive back North to our new AirBnB in Taupo for dinner and a long, hot shower.

What Happened: We did indeed wake up at 4 AM, and we managed to leave our farm AirBnB at 4:30 exactly as planned, saying goodbye to the dog on our way out. The clouds from the night before had cleared, and we were treated with truly amazing early morning skies full of thousands of stars. I’d never seen so many stars before. After a few minutes of admiring, we finally got into the car for our race to Ketetahi to catch our bus. The roads were extremely serpentine, so we could only go so fast safely… we ended up speeding for the last 40 minutes of our drive to catch the shuttle bus. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a huge highlight for us, and I’ll write more about that amazing day in a later post. After finishing the crossing and getting back to our car, we peeled off our hiking boots, massaged our poor feet, and drove north to Taupo. We met our new AirBnB hosts, grabbed take-out, and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. It was by far the longest day of our trip, but 100% worth it.

Driving Time: about 4 hours total;   Accommodation: Taupo AirBnB

Day Six:  Taupo 

The Plan: This was the day we originally planned to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but because weather forecasts looked so grim, we pushed our hiking plans a day forward (resulting in a lot more driving on Day 5). Good thing, too, because Day 6 was the rainiest day of our whole trip — it poured from morning till night! We had a list of things to do on this day, including the Natural Hot Springs Spa Park, the Huka Honey Hive, Huka Falls, walks around Huka Falls or Lake Taupo, cafe hopping, and watching glass blowing at Lava Glass.

What Happened: After our exhausting hike the day before, we slept in and had a rather lazy morning. We headed to the Huka Honey Hive around noon and ended up spending two hours test-tasting different honeys, buying honey ice creams, and spending about $200 each on souvenirs for friends, family, and coworkers (as one must do when one lives in Japan). After the Honey Hive, we made the quick drive to view Huka Falls, getting soaked to the bone in the process. Since we were already wet, we headed to the Spa Park. Warning: the actual thermal stream is about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot, which is probably fine in nice weather but it was freezing on a rainy autumn day when attired in just a sports bra and running shorts. The thermal spa was interesting — sitting with a bunch of strangers in a warm, steaming river with all the sediment and rocks that a river naturally contains. The naturally hot waters were diluted by the cold rain, though, so after half an hour, we were shivering and made the rather painful run back to our car. I much prefer Japan’s sento and onsen if I’m honest, but it was a cool experience nonetheless. We ended our day in one of Taupo’s cozy breweries, drinking  beer / cider, eating strange pizzas topped with venison, olives, and grape jelly, and playing chess.

Driving Time: minimal (about 30 minutes around town)  Accommodation: Taupo AirBnB

Day Seven:  Taupo – Waimangu – Rotorua – Mt. Maunganui 

The Plan: We rather ambitiously planned to hit both the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Park AND the Waimangu Volcanic Valley before having a late hangi lunch at Kiwi Kai in Rotorua. Then we planned to check out the Rotorua Night Market (5pm -9pm, only on Thursday nights) before driving on to our 4th AirBnB in Mt. Manganui.

What Happened: We left Taupo a little later than originally planned and decided to skip Wai-O-Tapu entirely. We drove straight to Waimangu and spent two hours there, in that incredible geothermal world. Being in Waimangu Volcanic Valley felt as if we had slipped into Jurassic Park. It’s really a hidden gem. We then managed everything else on the day’s schedule: we ate lunch at Kiwi Kai, walked around Roturua’s Government Gardens, and stuffed our faces at the Night Market, before driving through the darkness to Mt. Manganui.

Driving Time: 40 min Taupo – Waimangu, another 30 to Rotorua, and 1 hr 15 to Mt. Manganui (about 2 hours 10 min total)    Accommodation: Mt. Manganui AirBnB.

Day Eight:  Mt. Maunganui 

The Plan: BEACH DAY. Plus, a sunset hike Mt. Maunganui (that hill on the left of the picture)

What Happened: Exactly as scheduled. We had a lovely beach day, reading by the ocean and looking for dolphins / orcas / penguins in the distant horizon. We ran up Mt. Maunganui to catch the sunrise, and we were the only ones over prepared in hiking boots — everyone else wore sneakers or sandals to “hike” the hill. We then dined on more pizza and called it a day.

Driving Time: None (our AirBnB was right on the ocean).  Accommodation: Mt. Maunganui AirBnB

Day Nine:  Mt. Maunganui – Auckland

The Plan: A morning walk along the beach, brunch somewhere, a leisurely drive back to Auckland towards our 5th and final AirBnB, and a rugby game.

What Happened: We skipped brunch, opting instead to just eat the free breakfast at the AirBnB like always. Then we bid the beach goodbye and drove up to Auckland, stopping in a small town for lunch, baked sweets, and real ginger beer. We met our final AirBnB hosts, dropped our bags, and headed by bus into central Auckland for the 5:15 Blues vs. the Force rugby game in Eden Park. I played rugby for two years in University, so watching the game brought back a lot of memories for me. Even if it wasn’t the All Blacks, it was still a fun experience.

Driving Time: a little less than 3 hours   Accommodation: Auckland AirBnB

Day Ten:  Auckland

The Plan: We had big plans for this day originally — a possible wine tour of Waiheke Island, or kayaking around Rangitoto Island, a picnic on Mt. Eden… but money, weather, and time were all against us.

What Happened: Our last day ended up being pretty leisurely, and that’s exactly what we needed it to be. We packed up all our stuff pretty early and left our AirBnB. We headed to a local mall for last-minute souvenirs (grocery store chocolates for English clubs) and lunch. Then we headed to the Auckland Art Museum (free!) for a while. After that, it was a quick trip to Mt. Eden for a rain-spattered last little hike around the crater before we headed to the airport to drop off our rental car and go through security. We had one last delicious dinner at Pita Pit (oh how I will miss you) and messed around with all the odd NZ-themed souvenirs (sheep soap? bee venom toner? kiwi hats?) before our 23:59 flight.

Driving Time: about 50 minutes total   Accommodation: our airplane seats

Day Eleven:  Hong Kong 

The Plan: With only a 9-hour layover in Hong Kong, we wanted to do too much : take the tram up to Victoria’s Peak, maybe hike a part of Dragon’s Back, take the Star Ferry, eat dim sum, and visit Man Mo Temple. We knew it was too ambitious. We planned our NZ trip meticulously, having a timed schedule and back-up plans for weather on almost every day, but for Hong Kong, we threw out a bunch of ideas and never really made up our minds, so it wasn’t the most organized day of our trip.

What Happened: It ended up being a hazy day in Hong Kong, so we cut the idea of Victoria’s Peak — what was the point if there was no view? We did visit Man Mo temple, we did eat DELICIOUS dim sum, and in between randomly wandering around a lot, we had fresh juice smoothies and bubble tea. It was just a taste of Hong Kong, and I really want to go back one day, for a lot longer than a 9-hour layover!

Driving Time: none   Accommodation: none

Well, that’s it! That was our NZ North Island 10-Day Itinerary! We managed to do everything for almost exactly $2,300 U.S. dollars per person. Which, of course, is still a heck ton of money at this point in my life. But that’s including EVERYTHING — food, accommodation, activity fees, car rental, gas,  the plane tickets (about ~ $900 U.S. dollars each), about $250 of souvenirs, and all the food we ate in Hong Kong. Overall, not too bad.

I’m no expert on road trips, nor on NZ, but here are some tips for possibly saving money: 

#1 Restaurants can get pretty expensive, and that’s how we saved the most money. For the entire time we were in New Zealand, we ate in an actual restaurant TWICE — the rest of the time, we ate at night markets, small bakeries, take outs, picnic lunches from grocery stores, fast food chains like Pita Pit, or at our AirBnB hosts’ house. We focused our money on the adventure, and not so much on the food (although we still ate a lot of delicious things).

#2 Skip the hotel, and go with AirBnB. All the AirBnBs we stayed at were reasonably priced, the most expensive being the Mt. Maunganui place right on the beach at ~ $35 per person per night. Per person, though, our AirBnB average for the entire trip was about $31 U.S. dollars per night, or $281 total per person. It’s hard to find decent hotels for that price.  They also all included free breakfast, with the added bonus of friendly local hosts to chat with.

#3 Look for free events. The Balloons Over Waikato festival was completely free, as was visiting Huka Falls, the Thermal Spa Park, the Auckland Art Museum, the beach day at Mt. Maunganui, and Mt. Eden. And while the rugby game wasn’t free, it was a lot cheaper because it wasn’t NZ’s famous All Blacks. We interspersed these free activities with the expensive ones (caving in Waitomo, visiting Hobbiton).

#4 Aggressively stalk airfare to get the best rates. Check everyday. And be flexible about dates. Our trip actually went down by $300 dollars if we left NZ on Sunday night instead of Saturday. That meant one more full day in NZ (yay!) although it also meant arriving back in Japan on Monday night and hence taking an extra vacation day.

And that’s all! I’ll probably post more pictures of the trip later on, but for now, this wraps up New Zealand.

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