New Zealand is not a small country but a large village” ~ Peter Jackson.
New Zealand’s North Island can be somewhat overlooked for natural beauty as its big sister the South Island usually receives all the attention. I’ll even admit many years ago I used to think the South Island hogged all the stunning wonders. This was until I had the opportunity to live in Wellington and I was able to get out and discover what treasures the North Island had up its sleeve.
I’ve asked 10 travel bloggers what they believe are the lesser-known, most beautiful places in New Zealand’s North Island for a road trip, especially if you decide to stay in mid-range accommodation along the way!
What are the places I must add to my North Island road trip?
Ready to be inspired? Here are some of the treasures you can expect to find on New Zealand’s North Island ✨
Obviously, you may not fit them all into one road trip if you’re limited on time but this selection is sure to kick-off your itinerary planning!
Let’s dive into some must see places you should add to your North Island itinerary, as recommended by travel bloggers:
New Zealand is a beautiful spot, with so many highlights you’ll be gushing anytime you start talking about the country. The Kapiti Coast is a region 30 minutes north of Wellington that doesn’t get a lot of love from international travellers, but the locals certainly appreciate the place.
I recommend all my friends road tripping New Zealand to watch at least once sunset from one of the Kapiti Coast beaches. With the sun setting behind Kapiti Island, you’ve got the perfect backdrop for magnificent sunsets year round. The Kapiti Coast is becoming more popular slowly but surely with the new highway crossing through the towns of Waikanae and Paraparaumu making the Kapiti Coast easily accessible on your North Island road trip.
The Kapiti Coast has a small town flavour yet is close enough to the capital that businesses are creative and innovative, especially when it comes to food. There are dozens of people who choose to live on the Kapiti Coast yet work in Wellington because of the relaxed lifestyle where you’ll find people wandering into the supermarket in bare feet without a care in the world.
Another sneaky good view is from the top of the Hemi Matenga track where you can get a view of the region, and if you’re lucky, can even spot the South Island.
White Island from Whakatane
Located 48 kilometres off the coast from Whakatane, White Island isn’t only the most active volcano in the North Island, but the whole of New Zealand! Back in the day sulphur mining was attempted, though due to a lahar incident in 1914 production was stopped and it has since become a tourist destination. Though, as White Island is privately owned the only way to access it is through booking a tour with an authorised tour company. For my visit to White Island I decided to book with White Island Tours who operate from Whakatane. If you are not on a tight budget, you can also book helicopter tours from places such as Rotorua and Tauranga.
The night before going out to explore White Island I stayed at White Island Rendezvous. It is owned by White Island Tours and is the same location which the tours depart from so is super convenient.
The following morning we all jumped into a large boat and said goodbye to the harbour of Whakatane. On the way to White Island dolphins followed the launch, jumping out of the water and playing in the wakes. We were given helmets and gas mask to protect ourselves from the harsh conditions on White Island. It is easy to tell when you have reached it with the large white plume of smoke rising into the blue sky. The barren landscape shows the harsh realities of this environment and the ocean water around the island turns from blue to a milky green colour. In the interior of the island the carter walls stand fragile and sulphur vents dot the landscape making it difficult to breathe. This landscape is unlike any other and is no doubt one of the most beautiful places in the North Island of New Zealand.
I moved to Auckland only recently but during my brief time here, I’ve explored a number of places. I still squeal with excitement when I see sheep-sprinkled green hills and it baffles me that the nature is so green even in the winter. What I especially liked so far are the beaches. I come from a land-locked country and I love the sea, so you can imagine how happy living on an island makes me.
My absolute favourite is the beach not easily reachable on your daily commute from work to home. I’m talking about Piha Beach, the most beautiful beach I have seen here, maybe even ever. Piha (pronounced Pea-ha) is New Zealand’s most famous surf beach. If you look at the map, you’ll find it 40 kms west of Auckland but reaching it from the city takes about an hour, as the drive is extremely hilly and winding.
Divided in two by the huge rock you can climb on called the Lion Rock, Piha is a beautiful wild beast. Apart from the magnificent Lion Rock watching over the beach, what makes Piha so lovely yet edgy is its black sand, which is of volcanic origin.
Due to the nature of the sea here, high waves and dangerous rip currents, swimming is only allowed if there are lifeguards present—and naturally, there aren’t any in the winter. The Tasman sea here is mysterious and moody, and there have been some skilled swimmers and surfers who thought they could challenge it, but failed.
Still, if you follow the instructions, you can have a great chill time at this black-sand beach. Or you could just enjoy in the view and sound of waves crashing the Lion Rock.
Hawkes Bay Region
The Hawkes Bay is an area on the East Coast of the North Island consisting of three towns/cities and the surrounding regions. It’s about a four-hour drive from Wellington or five hours from Auckland. Napier, Hastings and Havelock North are perfectly pleasant places but the cities themselves aren’t anything to write home about. The surrounding areas on the other hand…
All around the neighbouring hills and plateaus is row upon row of grape vines. And this only means one thing, wine! Yes, the vineyards of the Hawkes Bay are some the best in the country and most are coupled with excellent restaurants and beautiful views. A great way to explore is by bicycle which you can hire in any of the towns. The staff will help you plan a route and there are lots of cycleways in the region.
So grab your friends, your two wheels and take yourself on a trip through rolling hills, along the coastline and across fields to reach some gorgeous little spots and enjoy some great kiwi wine.
Shipwreck Bay is one of the hidden surf gems on New Zealand’s west coast. It’s not difficult to get which makes it ideal for your North Island road trip and you can park right on the beach. The road can be hard to find, so look out for it! It’s in the small town of Ahipara, just beside the more well known Kaitaia.
For you surfers out there: This is one of the sweetest small left handers in the country. On a good day the afternoons will be busy, but morning surfs are less crowded and you’ll have a stunning sunrise to go with it. Everyone is welcome, as long as you’re respectful in the water and to the locals who call that beach home.
There is a strong Maori population in the region and the culture will represent this – it’s a peaceful, friendly place where you can really experience the magic of small town New Zealand. I’ve spent many spring afternoons learning to surf down at Shipwreck, and have always been enamoured by the charming town and people of Ahipara as well. Do make a stop here, I’m sure you will love it.
My friend and I arrived in Hahei in the Coromandel Peninsula to a wet, wild and windy greeting but we donned our jackets and headed down the path to Cathedral Cove. The walk down is fairly easy with a well-maintained path that meanders along the edge of the cliff line. Cathedral Cove is a favourite destination for many, we frequently came across smiling, albeit, wet, tourists in various stages of puffing from the walk back up again.
A gushing waterfall spilled over the edge of the cliff at the far side of the bay and waves crashed into the natural arch formed into the rocks. The walk back up to the carpark is slightly more difficult as it was mainly uphill.
Hot Water Beach is another must see for your North Island road trip, a natural underwater spring makes this a great spot to dig your own spa in the sand to sit back, relax and watch the rolling waves. Just don’t dig your spa too close to the waterline or it will quickly get filled in again! We settled for dipping our feet in and being slightly surprised that the water was actually warm. There are only certain parts of the beach where you can dig to find hot water and the best times to dig are 2 hours either side of low tide.
Both of these places are easily accessed by main roads.
Ninety Mile Beach + Spirits Bay
During our 18 day North Island road trip by motorcycle, we had a free day. We were staying in Paihia for 2 nights so we got directions to Ninety Mile beach. Riding on the sand was fun, it was firm and smooth, and we could ride fast.
We rode up the beach for two hours, and I was certain that we should have reached the road out indicated on the map. It turned out that what looked like a road on the map was Te Paki Stream, and it’s only drivable at low tide. We made it through to the road and continued north all the way to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point.
On the way back I lobbied for a side trip to Spirits Bay which turned out to be my most beautiful spot in New Zealand. Down logging roads to a campsite, parking area and a short hike over the dunes to a gorgeous white sand beach and turquoise water. Spirits Bay is a sacred Maori cultural place and local legend has it that this is the place where spirits gather before moving on to the afterlife.
In our 2.5 week trip on New Zealand’s north island, we choose lesser visited Tutukaka, which was one of our ‘stand out’ destinations on the north island. We loved it because of its access to Poor Knights Marine Reserve. Our preference for nature, water sports, and diving, coupled with quieter, less touristy areas drove our choice. Poor Knights Islands and Marine Reserve is 15 miles northeast from Tutukaka and accessible on a boat ride from Tutukaka harbour.
On the boat ride to Poor Knights, the towering sheer cliffs of the islands appear, some rising over 600 feet above the ocean. You can motor by or through some of the rock arches, like Southern Arch and Blue Maomao Arch to enter Poor Knights harbour. It is amazing to find yourself on a boat in the protected ‘harbour’ of Poor Knights surrounded by the sheer cliffs and caves. In the sheltered harbour, it is a great opportunity to enjoy the spectacular scenery – the sea, rock formations, hillsides, and to learn the Maori history. Our boat excursion took us into Rico Rico Cave, the world’s largest sea cave. The Poor Knights islands create an unusual underwater environment of giant sea caves, kelp forests, sand channels, and underwater caverns. It’s a great dive area, and considered one of the top 10 in the world by Jacques Cousteau.
Tutukaka is an easy drive from Auckland so you should consider visiting during your North Island road trip.
New Plymouth is one of the most beautiful cities in New Zealand and is ideal for your North Island road trip. The area was nominated as one of the best regions to visit in the world by Lonely Planet. New Plymouth is located halfway down the North Island on the West Coast. The road from the north passes through undulating hill country, carved out gorges and opens up to spectacular views across the Tasman Sea. On a fine day, Mount Taranaki with its classic cone shape and snowcapped peak greets you in the distance.
The city of New Plymouth sits on the ocean, the paved Coastal Walkway runs the length of the city starting at the harbour, past parks and long stretches of black sand beach. Coffee carts and sculptures along the path invite walkers and bikers to stop and linger. Len Lye Gallery‘s mirrored facade is becoming an iconic landmark. The Gallery holds a revolving collection of kinetic sculptures, physics and art come together to create pieces that create illusions of light and sound.
Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley
On our North Island road trip from Rotorua to Wellington (5.5 hours) Greg and I made an impromptu stop at Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley. Just about 20 minutes south of Rotorua, it was easily accessible and turned out to be one of our favourite destinations on the North Island. This valley contains the largest hot spring in the world and is a unique ecosystem like nothing else I’ve seen.
There are several ways you can explore the valley. On foot you can choose a self-guided tour to fit your level of fitness, or opt for a guided hike. They also offer a fully-narrated boat tour that cruises around Lake Rotomahana. There is a shuttle that operates continuously that will take you back to the Visitor’s Centre at the end of your hike, or you can hop on/hop off throughout the park as you wish.
The numerous thermal pools are interesting and beautiful, set within the natural and protected New Zealand landscape. At times it seemed almost prehistoric as the steam rose from isolated pools hidden within the bush. The price wasn’t cheap but if you enjoy natural wonders, it was well worth the cost.
As an added bonus…
Of course, having lived in Wellington myself I would definitely recommend at least spending a few days here. The “world’s coolest little capital” has loads for you to see and do, not to mention Welly’s always ready to blow you away with her natural beauty! Click here to read more about what you can see and do in New Zealand’s stunning capital city.
Where to stay: QT Museum Wellington Apartments
So, which destinations will you add to your North Island road trip?
I hope we have managed to convince you to add at least a few (if not all) of these beautiful places to your North Island road trip. Thanks again to these fellow bloggers for their great suggestions!
Until next time,
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