Journey the length of New Zealand's North Island on this self-drive road trip from Auckland to Wellington. In between kayaking with glowworms, exploring the Pacific "Ring of Fire" in Rotorua, sitting down to a Maori feast, and stepping into the worlds of Middle-earth and Hobbiton, this whimsical 12-day adventure leaves you with plenty of time to relax on the Bay of Islands' beaches and sample some of the country's best pinot noirs.


  • Eat dinner with a view in an orbiting Auckland restaurant
  • Kayak through the night in a glowworm grotto in Tauranga
  • Explore Hobbit holes and get lost in Middle-earth on a visit to Hobbiton
  • Hike among geysers and volcanoes in Tongariro National Park

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Auckland Auckland
Day 2 Waitakere Ranges, Auckland Sky Tower Dinner Auckland
Day 3 Drive to Tauranga, Glowworm Evening Kayak Tauranga
Day 4 Drive to Rotorua, Hobbiton Movie Set Rotorua
Day 5 Wai-O-Tapu, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance Rotorua
Day 6 Drive to Ohakune, Tongariro National Park Ohakune
Day 7 Tongariro National Park Hike Ohakune
Day 8 Drive to Martinborough Martinborough
Day 9 Martinborough Half-Day Wine Tour Martinborough
Day 10 Drive to Wellington, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary Wellington
Day 11 Wellington Food Tour, Weta Workshop & Te Papa Museum Wellington
Day 12 Depart Wellington & New Zealand  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Auckland is known as the City of Sails

Welcome to Auckland! After picking up a rental car at the airport, your self-drive adventure on New Zealand's North Island begins. Take some time to relax before heading out to explore this playground for city lovers and adventure seekers alike. Set on a narrow strip of land surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean and home to two bustling harbors, it's not hard to see why Auckland is nicknamed the "City of Sails."

Soak up the sea air as you stroll Waitemata Harbour, translated to "sparkling waters" in the Māori language and a starting point for sailing, cruising, and whale watching excursions. Then spend the afternoon in Wynyard Quarter to taste seafood at Auckland Fish Market or take a ride on a scenic tram. Another neighborhood to explore is Britomart, filled with bars, restaurants, designer shops, and a Saturday market. Later in the afternoon, head for Mount Eden, the highest point in Auckland at 643 feet (196 m) and the perfect spot for sunset views. 

Day 2: Waitakere Ranges, Auckland Sky Tower Dinner

Auckland's harbors and ports are the starting point for water sports and adventures

This morning you can see more of Auckland's harbors and neighborhoods on a short walking tour. In the afternoon, you'll leave the city behind and travel about 30 minutes west to the Waitakere Ranges rainforest. From there, high on a ridge at the Arataki Center, you'll have breathtaking ocean views as you follow rainforest trails through lush ferns and kauri trees. To cool off after hiking, spend some time on the beach on the wild and rugged Piha west coast, where you can go for a swim or rest.

Tonight you have reservations at Orbit, a panoramic restaurant that rotates once every hour for views of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf. The restaurant focuses on local and seasonal produce with meat and seafood dishes that highlight New Zealand's cuisine in a three-course set menu. Watch the sunset as you toast the second day of your trip. 

Day 3: Drive to Tauranga, Glowworm Evening Kayak

Tauranga's sea views provide a relaxing stop on your road trip

The drive today takes you southeast for approximately three hours and 139 miles (225 km) on a scenic route from Auckland to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. Tauranga is the largest city in the region and one of the fastest-growing centers in New Zealand. Explore Mount Maunganui, a relaxed beach town popular with surfers, or hike Mauao, a dormant volcano. In downtown Tauranga, take a stroll in The Stand, a modern waterfront area with cafés, restaurants, pubs, and nightclubs. In Tauranga Harbor, go for a swim, book a dolphin-watching tour, kayak, or go fishing.

In the afternoon, take a 20-minute drive south of the city to McLaren Falls and its Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park for a chance to experience the magical natural phenomenon of glowworms. Board a kayak before the sun sets and paddle out to a canyon viewing spot, then wait for complete darkness as thousands of glowworms light up the night. 

Day 4: Drive to Rotorua, Hobbiton Movie Set

See Bag End and other Hobbit holes on a trip through Hobbiton

Rotorua, 39 miles (63 km) south of Tauranga, is your next stop, and it's a geothermal city with many areas to explore. There are a few ways to get an up-close view of Rotorua's volcanic craters, geysers, and mud pools. In Buried Village, learn about Mount Tarawera's eruption on June 10, 1886, which engulfed several settlements.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley's craters are among the youngest ecosystems in the world—walk in the valley to see its native plants and birds. Hell's Gate Geothermal Park is 50 acres (20.2 ha) of land to explore in this Pacific "Ring of Fire"—where the tectonic plates are constantly moving. After seeing Rotorua on foot, it's time to get fitted for a helmet and bicycle in this mountain bikers' paradise. In Redwoods Forest (Whakarewarewa Forest), select trails from among 87 miles (140 km) designed for all skill levels. 

After a geothermal adventure, drive through a 1,250-acre (505 ha) sheep farm with Kaimai Ranges views to enter the fictional Middle-earth. Here, at the Hobbiton Movie Set, the bucolic setting for The Shire in the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" films comes alive. Spend a couple of hours touring the site to get lost in Hobbiton, visiting Hobbit holes and the Green Dragon Inn. Then, travel back to reality, and settle into your Rotorua hotel for a relaxing evening.

Day 5: Wai-O-Tapu, Te Pā Tū Māori Feast & Performance

Colorful hot springs at Wai-O-Tapu

The Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area in Rotorua is sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity—it's one of the world's most active volcanic regions. Take a walk here in the morning and see the diversity of its wildlife and geysers and what lies below the surface. This is one of the most extensive geothermal systems in New Zealand and it extends over 7 square miles (18 sq km). Stay as long as you want and then head back to your hotel to rest for an exciting evening.

By night, it's time to learn about Māori culture during a three-course meal and four-hour celebration. As a manuhiri (guest) at Te Pā Tū (Tamaki Māori Village), watch an opening ceremony with dancing and music. Taste kai horotai (appetizers) and listen to stories and songs in a forest amphitheater. Then follow a Māori guide by torchlight to the hākari (feast). Select from hāngī (meat, fish, and vegetables cooked over heated rocks in a pit) and other local specialties from Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand. With a full stomach, make your way back to your Rotorua hotel.

Day 6: Drive to Ohakune, Tongariro National Park

Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is worth exploring

Get your camera ready for a scenic drive from Rotorua to Tongariro National Park and Ohakune today. Following the thermal highway through Taupō, home of New Zealand's largest lake, the road trip will be about 105 miles (170 km), or approximately two hours. Stop at Waimangu Volcanic Valley to see bubbling hot springs, then follow the lake's edge to Turangi, known for its trout fishing. Pass the peaks of Tongariro National Park, Ruapehu, and the Whakapapa ski fields before arriving at Ohakune and Tongariro National Park.

Plan your trip to New Zealand
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with three dormant volcanoes—Ruapehu (9,176 ft/2,797 m), Tongariro (6,453 ft/1,967 m), and Ngauruhoe (7,503 ft/2,287 m). Take time to walk around and ask the visitor center for itinerary suggestions. 

Day 7: Tongariro National Park Hike

Lakes in Tongariro National Park add to the bucolic scenery

Because one day isn't enough in Tongariro National Park, try another trail today for mountain views or a forest trek. Soda Springs is a two-hour or approximately 3-mile (5 km) hike that begins in a lava flow. Tama Lakes, a five-to-six-hour hike, is 10 miles (17 km) and follows a path between Upper Tama and Lower Tama Lake, with part of the trail surrounded by volcanoes. 

For the ultimate hike, pick the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which takes approximately six to eight hours and is an 11-mile (19 km) trek with a 2,460 ft (750 m) altitude gain. Be sure to gear up with food and water to fuel you as you see some of the area's most picturesque landscapes. Rest your tired legs at your Ohakune hotel at the end of the day.

Day 8: Drive to Martinborough

Martinborough's wineries are among the best in New Zealand

Today's drive takes you 3.5 hours or 178 miles (287 km) south to Martinborough, located at the southern end of New Zealand's North Island. Along the way, you can stop in the Wairarapa region at Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre for bird watching and then refuel in Greytown to sip a coffee and admire its restored Victorian architecture. Crossing the Ruamahanga River signals your approach to the famous Martinborough wine country.

Upon arrival, get settled in, then head out and stretch your legs; it's time to explore Martinborough's town and taste some of the world's finest pinot noirs. Starting at the historic town center, visit the Martinborough Wine Centre to learn more about the region and then have your pick from approximately 30 wineries. Pair your wines with local cheese, meats, and other local specialties for an early dinner or late lunch.

Day 9: Martinborough Half-Day Wine Tour

Welcome to the wine region
Martinborough is known as the Burgundy of New Zealand

This morning, meet your local guide to discover more of the Martinborough region on a half-day wine tour. Learn how the area compares to Burgundy because of its soil and climate, and then try a variety of pinot noirs, sauvignon blancs, and syrahs paired with local food.

At Te Kairangi Wines, you'll taste pinots surrounded by mountain views. Sauvignon blanc is the star of the show at Tirohana Estate, one of the oldest vineyards in Martinborough. Stop for lunch at its restaurant, then continue to Cabbage Tree Vineyard for a small selection of pinots, chardonnays, sémillons, and merlots produced from vines that grow among cabbage trees. Known as the first producer to plant pinot noir grapes in the region in 1980, Martinborough Vineyard is a must-visit. 

Day 10: Drive to Wellington, Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary

Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary protects New Zealand's rare birds and reptiles

New Zealand's capital of Wellington is your destination today, traveling 50 miles (81 km) west from Martinborough, passing through the Remutaka Range, which means "a place to sit" in Māori. The range spans 34 miles (55 km) in the Hutt Valley, and its highest peak, Mount Matthews, is 3,083 feet (940 m). Arrive in Wellington, set on the edge of a harbor surrounded by rolling hills, and then get out your walking shoes to explore the half-square mile (1 km) city center.

To see some of Wellington's best views, take the four-hour City to Sea Walkway trail, looking for Cook Strait and the Kaikōura Ranges. Then, climb Mount Victoria to see the skyline at sunset and go back to the city center to enjoy its many bars and restaurants. By night, kiwi birds, tuatara reptiles, and Maud Island frogs come alive in Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary, just 10 minutes outside the city. With a guide and flashlight, come eye-to-eye with more than 100 nocturnal species exploring the more than 500-acre (225 ha) area. 

Day 11: Wellington Food Tour, Wētā Workshop & Te Papa Museum

See more of Wellington today 

Wellington is New Zealand's political and culinary capital, and on today's five-hour food tour, you'll learn why. Try regional cheeses, honey, and chocolates at specialty shops, and then eat lunch paired with pinot noirs and other wines at a local restaurant. After lunch, enter the magical cinematic world of the Wētā Workshop. In its museum, see the characters, props, and sets from films such as "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings," "The Legend of Zorro," and "Master and Commander." Marvel at artists at work on costumes and sets and see how fantasy comes to life.

Then learn about New Zealand's history at the Te Papa Museum, which means "container of treasures" in the Māori language. Six-floors showcase the art, history, and natural wonders of New Zealand's origins from one hundred million years ago. See Māori artifacts, seventeenth-century English furniture, and a colossal squid collection. After a full day of exploring, it's back to your Wellington hotel to pack your bags for tomorrow's departure.

Day 12: Depart from Wellington

Say goodbye to New Zealand's North Island.

Enjoy your final morning in Aotearoa however you please. When the time comes, make your way to Wellington Airport to drop off your rental car and catch a flight home or on to your next destination. Safe travels!

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Map of  New Zealand North Island Road Trip: Auckland to Wellington - 12 Days
Map of New Zealand North Island Road Trip: Auckland to Wellington - 12 Days