Planning your North Island self-drive? 5 places not to be missed

New Zealand is truly a country of enormous diversity. Here, we’ve rounded up some recommendations for the top places to visit on the North Island.

New Zealand is truly a country of enormous diversity. From the wide sandy beaches in the far north to the glaciers of the South Island, there are some incredible places to see when visiting New Zealand. The country is relatively small, about the same size as the UK, but it’s easy to get around and self-drive is a popular choice. Here, we’ve rounded up some recommendations for the top places to visit on the North Island.

Before you book your self-driving holiday, check out the driving times between places to make sure you have enough time to enjoy the North Island properly. New Zealand is very small, but it can take a while to get from place to place and no one wants to spend their holiday sat in the car!


After landing in Auckland, some people head straight out of the city to hit the road on their North Island tour, but Auckland is worth a day or two in its own right. There’s plenty on offer, from climbing to the top of Rangitoto Island, to watching the sun go down at Piha Beach. Adrenaline junkies might want to bungee jump into the harbour from one of the world’s first bungee jump stations. More cautious types could take in a winery tour. Auckland is surrounded by four wine regions, so visitors are spoiled for choice.

Moving on from Auckland, it’s time to see the real North Island. There are many things we’d love to recommend, but we’ve whittled it down to the five places you just cannot miss on a North Island tour.

Bay of Islands

A morning’s drive north of Auckland is the stunning Bay of Islands. The emerald-coloured bay is dotted with over 140 islands, and the beaches here are just incredible. Many activities here are focused on the water. New Zealanders visit the Bay of Islands for serious sea-fishing, whilst tourists enjoy dolphin watching, sailing, sea kayaking and scuba diving.

Away from the ocean, there’s still plenty to see and do in the Bay of Islands. If history is your thing, visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, an historic location where The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the Maori and the British in 1840. Other historic locations include Pompallier House and the small but interesting Russell Museum.


Whilst it is a small town, Rotorua is a popular destination for self-drive travellers because of the wide range of activities on offer there.

It would be crazy to visit New Zealand and not see a geyser. The Whakarewarewa Thermal Village offers guided tours as well as Maori performances and even geothermally-cooked meals. All of that geothermal activity around Rotorua means that the town has a thriving spa and wellness scene, so some pampering and relaxation may well be in order. Try the Polynesian Spa for hot spring bathing or visit the Art Deco Blue Baths, for some geothermally-heated swimming.

Lake Taupo

Located in the heart of the North Island, the Great Lake Taupo lies in the caldera of the Taupo Volcano, and covers 238 square miles. The lake deserves some time in its own right, so pack a picnic and a bottle of New Zealand wine and enjoy the stunning lakeside views.

No trip to Lake Taupo would be complete without seeing the staggeringly powerful Huka Falls. Close to the city of Taupo, the falls are one of the largest waterfalls in New Zealand and the volume of water is astonishing.
If you’re thirsty for adventure, a tandem sky-dive with Lake Taupo as the backdrop might just quench that thirst. For some high-speed water-based excitement, try jet boating on the Waikato River.

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park, and is also a dual World Heritage Site, recognised for both its Maori cultural heritage and its natural wonders.

There are many hiking trails in Tongariro to suit all levels of experience and fitness. The spectacular Tongariro Alpine Crossing is probably one of the best hiking trails in New Zealand. It’s 19.4km one way, but there are buses back to town from the end of the trail. Highlights of the trail include the stunning Red Crater, the Emerald Lakes and the Ketetahi Springs.

If the Alpine Crossing sounds a little too much, there are shorter, easier trails or you could hire mountain bikes and cycle along the Ohakune Old Coach Road for beautiful views across farmland and hillsides.

The Coromandel

On a clear day, you can see The Coramandel Peninsula from Auckland. The peninsula extends for 85km and protects the Hauraki Gulf from the Pacific Ocean. The area was once a gold mining centre, but nowadays ecotourism is the big thing here. Hike through native rainforest to see crystal clear streams, towering Kauri trees and ancient volcanoes.

Cathedral Cove offers another opportunity for some spectacular sea kayaking, as you paddle along the coast past sandy beaches and volcanic rocks.

Hot Water Beach is a definite must-do when visiting The Coramandel. A hot spring lies right in the middle of the beach, so you can combine hot spring bathing with swimming in the sea.

Winding up with a relaxing day or two in The Coramandel area brings us neatly back to our starting point, Auckland. We’ve only touched on a few great North Island locations, but with enough time and a decent rental car, the North Island will definitely leave a lasting impression. It certainly did on us.

Keep posted for part two of this series detailing the best of the South Island!

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