King of the North: Highlights of the North Island | Apollo Campervans NZ
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King of the North: Highlights of the North Island

If this is your first or only trip up North, this is for you – hell, do it twice! It’s a 14-day highlights package of FOUR themed highways in the North Island.

14
Days
1,950
Kms
50+
Stops
4
Scenic Highways

This road trip is thousands of years in the making. If you're looking to make the most of your North Island holiday, 14 days gives you just the right amount of time to explore the variety of sites, tastes and adventures the North has to offer! This route takes in the best of the best from not one but FOUR themed highways of the North Island as you visit the Norths iconic attractions. From one of the best day hikes in the world, the great Lake Taupo and Rotorua,  to the crystal clear waters of the Bay of Islands, the sparking living stars of Waitomo and so much more, every day is an adventure.

Visit the coastal jewels in the crown of the Twin Coast Highway as you take in the wonderous sites of the Bay of Islands, the beating heart of Aotearoa and the world famous Tutukaka Coast along with the ancient forests of the Kauri coast.

Join on to the Pacific Coastal Route and visit the world-famous highlights of the Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach along with the other amazing coastal sites of the wonderful Coromandel peninsula.

The Thermal Highway and the Volcanic Loop provide you the amazing sites and experiences of the thermal capital of New Zealand at Rotorua, along with our largest lake at Taupo and of course one of the world's premier day hikes – the mighty Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

From great walks and hard yards to utter decadence and relaxation, this trip will showcase Maori culture, pristine beaches, delectable food and wine and a post card perfect view every day, all on a timetable that won't see you driving all day and all night.

Relax with a touch of adventure on this unmissable journey of North Island exploration.

 

 
 
 
 

Day 1: Auckland to Whangarei via the Twin Coast Discovery Highway (3hrs 30mins, 220km)

After picking up your camper from the friendly team at Apollo Auckland, it’s time to head to the “winterless north” and its sub-tropical climate that makes it a perfect year-round destination! Day one sees a short drive to Whangarei, known as the city of 100 beaches. Before you hit the coast, first you have a stop at Whangarei falls, New Zealand's most photographed waterfall. If this isn’t the best place to start a holiday, we don’t know what is!

Pick from a plethora of beaches and enjoy a relaxing day in the water or simply enjoy the views. We recommend Matapouri bay, it’s not the closest to Whangarei which means less people to share it with and it’s a glorious white sand beach perfect for all ages. With a large grassy park and bbq area, it is a lovely place to make your own.

If snorkeling and diving is your thing, the Poor Knights Islands are a must see and tours by Dive! Tutukaka leave daily. These 11-million-year-old islands are an international underwater icon and home to the world's largest underwater sea cave, an abundance of sea life and the world's last remaining dinosaur! How epic is that! You may spot dolphins and even whales, along with a variety of sea birds. As you travel, your guide will tell you all about the local history and legends that add even more value to an already world class destination. You can also paddle board and kayak at the poor knights, making this tour fun for everyone.

Highlights

Where to stay: Whangarei is loaded with freedom camping spots right on the coast but the Freedom Camping Area at Sandy Bay, just 10 min away from Matapouri Bay and Whale bay is a great option, but if you want to stay on the other side of the harbor then Ruakaka Beach Holiday Park makes a perfect option, especially if you have done this trip in reverse.

Apollo hint: If you like a bit more of an adventure, a 40-minute coastal walk from Matapouri bay (or a shorter 15 min walk from the hilltop car park) will take you to the more secluded and quite stunning whale bay which has no road access.

Day 2: Whangarei to Bay of Islands (1hr 30mins, 80kms)

Today you enter one of the jewels in the crown of New Zealand. With over 140 islands to explore, you can see for yourself why the Bay of Islands is a must see on any New Zealand roadie. Arriving at Pahia, you will find the gateway to some of the best snorkeling, swimming and diving anywhere in the world.

You can relax and unwind for the day on the beautiful beaches or choose to take a dolphin cruise out to the hole in the rock, an awesome natural rock formation, and hear all about the region first hand from those who know it best. This cruise also gives you access to the stunning Urupukapuka Island that you can explore along with a free ferry ticket to visit the lovely town of Russel. Why not have dinner over there and enjoy this beautiful coastal town.

Highlights

Where to stay: Paihia Top 10 Holiday Park has it all. Direct access onto a sheltered lagoon, kayaks, a swimming pool and being just a few minutes from Paihia, it’s a great spot to spend your first night in the Bay of Islands.

Apollo hint: Want to spend some time out of the sun? Why not take a visit to Northlands largest glowworm caves at Kawiti and be amazed by sparkling glow worms and rugged rock formations?

Day 3: Explore and Relax in the Bay of Islands

Among the beauty of the area is also a sad but important part of New Zealand’s unique history. Visit the memorial site for the “Rainbow Warrior” in the morning, a Greenpeace activist boat that played a crucial part in the stopping of nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Depending on how much you crammed into your first day at the bay, today you have a few options. You can relax and enjoy some of the best beaches in New Zealand, or you can take a tour all the way to the top of the North.Your tour will depart based on tides as you are driven first along 90-mile beach towards Cape Reinga, the northern most point of the New Zealand mainland that the public can access. Steeped in history, this tour will take a full day but is full of awesome views and great commentary of the far north.

Highlights

  • Explore the Bay of Islands and its beaches, walks and watersports or;
  • Full day tour to Cape Reinga via 90-mile beach with Dune Rider
  • Rainbow Warrior memorial
  • Spot wild kiwi at Aroha Island Eco Centre

Where to stay: Aroha Island eco-centre is one of our favorite campsites and for good reason. For many locals and international visitors alike, it is the place where you can see kiwis in the wild at your campsite! It is a hidden gem with waterfront pitches and also home to wild kiwi that you can view in bush walks at the campsite at night. The camp hosts have red-filtered torches and a map of all the recent kiwi activity giving you the best chance to spot this illusive, iconic bird. Special note is that when travelling into this campsite at dawn, dusk or at night, please drive slow as often the kiwis wander along the roads!

Apollo hint: Up for an adventure? if you take the tour, wear shoes as you will have the option to dune board down the massive sand dunes... but first you have to climb them!

Enjoy the amazing food and wine of the Bay of Islands

Day 4: Bay of Islands – Waipoua Forest – Auckland (5hrs, 345kms)

With so much natural beauty, it is only fitting that the New Zealand we have today was created here. Start the following morning with a walk-through time in the footsteps of the Maori chiefs on the foundations of Aotearoa at the Waitangi treaty grounds

After, head west and make a short stop to visit Haruru falls before travelling from one side of the island to the other where one of the best forest walks in the country has been waiting for you for other 2,000 years. A stroll in Waipoua forest will bring you face to face with Tane Mahuta, or “the lord of the forest”, a 2,000-year-old, 51-meter-high Kauri tree. Nearby you will also find the “father of the forest”, estimated to be up to 3,000 years old! This is one of New Zealand’s most famous forests and is also home to loads of native birds for you to enjoy.

A long but scenic drive lays ahead as you overnight in Auckland before you head towards the Coromandel Peninsula via Auckland.

Highlights

Where to stay: The Port Albert Freedom Camping area provides an easy place to pull in the night on your way south. It’s free and located in a pretty we park close to the beach not far from the motorway.

Apollo hint: Give yourself plenty of time to explore Waitangi, as between the treaty grounds, the forest walks, museum, nias track and hobsons beach, you can easily spend quite a few hours here.

The amazing Maori meeting house at the Waitangi treaty grounds

Day 5: Auckland – Coromandel via The Pacific Coast Highway (4hrs 30mins, 289km)

Once on the other side of the Bombay hills, take the slightly longer coastal route where you will travel along New Zealand’s Pacific Coast Highway on SH2.

Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea blessed this area with breathtaking beaches framed by beautiful Pohutukawa trees making it one of New Zealand's most popular destinations, while its ruggedness still makes you feel like you are off the beaten track. This coastal route provides a plethora of spectacular views along the east coast of the North Island. With stops, walks and viewpoints like the sea bird observatory signposted along the way, it is one of New Zealand’s most easy and beautiful driving routes.

Visit the captivating short walks at Waiau, with its well-formed trails and boardwalks, its easy access for all ages. Here, you can see the lovely falls and the magnificent kauri grove, with its towering kings of the forest. Once a thriving mining town, Coromandel is now a haven for artists and alternatives, it has a great vibe and is a great place to listen to some live music and enjoy some locally sourced wine and seafood for dinner.

Highlights

Where to stay: Camp at the beachside campsite at Shelly Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park located just out of Coromandel town.

Apollo hint: While taking state highway 1 is slightly quicker, we recommend taking the scenic coastal route via kawakawa bay miranda. It is a lovely drive and well worth the extra time.

Driving the Coromandel coast is stunning

Day 6: Coromandel Town - Whitianga, Hahei (2hrs 30mins, 130km)

Begin the day with a journey over the coromandel range and with its beautiful forests and scenic views, it provides a lovely gateway to the eastern side of the peninsula, home to some of New Zealand's best beaches. In a country known for its place names not doing things justice, “new chums beach” is another example which is your next stop of the day. This beach was rated in the top 20 in the world by Britain's “The Observer” and is a favorite of Lonely Planets. Enjoy a golden beach with shimmering waters surrounded by New Zealand's only native palm before its time to head to Whitianga for lunch then onward to Hahei .

With two of the country's top attractions on your back door step, what a place to be! Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove have two things in common. Both are world renown attractions and both are best done on low tide. It’s best to start the coastal walk to Cathedral Cove on half tide, giving you enough time to explore Hot Water Beach later in the tide.

Highlights

  • New chums beach
  • Whitianga
  • Shakespear Cliff Lockout and Cooks beach
  • Hot Water Beach
  • Te Karo Bay
  • Cathedral Cove

Where to stay: Hahei holiday resort provides an ideal place to explore the region. It has waterfront sites that give you access right onto the stunning beach and you can walk to cathedral cove from the campsite. This walk also takes in the beautiful coastal trail which is the best short walk in the region and takes about an hour. Watch out for the little tufted headed Californian quail that call the hills home.

Apollo hint: If you visit the Purangi winery not far from Hot Water Beach and spend $40 per couple on wine or food (they do amazing pizzas), you can park up and stay on site for free!

Dig your own hot pool and relax at hot water beach

Day 7: Hahei – Tauranga (2hrs 45mins, 160km)

Explore a plethora of beaches as you head south, including Whangamata beach, one of New Zealand’s best surf beaches with Kayak access to the amazing Whenakura Island that has a lagoon hidden away at its center! Next stop is Waihi, an historic mining town where you can explore the Karangahake gorge walkway with its stunning river walks and hidden swimming holes. Next you will pass through the scenic Athenree gorge and its fresh fruit and vege stalls before reaching Tauranga where Mt Manganui provides the perfect backdrop to relax for the evening.

Highlights

Where to stay: There is a freedom camping area located on the waterfront at Maketu or if you want to stay a little closer to the hustle and bustle, nightlife and cafes, then Mt Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park is an ideal option set against a white sand beach and the beautiful back drop of the mount.

Apollo hint: The best way to explore Whenakura Island is by Kayak allowing you to explore the hidden lagoon. The best sea conditions are usually earlier in the day after winds drop off overnight.

Karangahake Gorge has some wonderful walks and swimming holes to explore

Day 8: Tauranga – Rotorua via the Volcanic and Thermal Highways (2hrs, 130kms)

Start the day the best way possible with sunrise over Mt Manganui then it’s time to wave goodbye to the beaches of the Coromandel and the lovely Mount and say Kia ora to Frodo and the hobbits at Hobbiton as you venture into the Lord of the Rings Universe in the best way possible.

Next up you are welcomed on to both the Volcanic and Thermal Highways. It’s time you explore the Pacific Ring of Fire!

It’s a notorious mix of tectonic plate boundaries and fault lines which has provided the building blocks for both the pacific land masses and its infamous geo-thermal activity. No surprises to find that Rotorua lies right in the thick of it and with its plethora of thermal parks with bubbling hot pools, skyward shooting geysers and natural hot springs, it has earned its moniker as the thermal capital of New Zealand while also being a hub of Maori and Pacifica culture making it one of New Zealand’s top destination towns.

Finish off the afternoon at Te Puia, home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, one of the few places you can watch master carvers breathing life into their amazing works of art. After dinner, do the nightlights tree tops walk at Redwood forest where you can explore between massive redwoods that are over a hundred years old while watching a fascinating light show.

Highlights

Where to stay: Overnight Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park or nab one of the free spaces at the Rotorua Freedom Camping Areas either on the waterfront near the yacht club or near the Polynesian spa behind the Governemnt Gardens.

Apollo hint: Check out the government gardens and Rotorua Museum, a wonderful garden to explore and a very unique colonial building, plus a great museum to get lost in!

Say hello to Frodo and his fellowship at Hobbiton

Day 9: Explore Rotorua

Start the day with a challenge and white water raft the grade 5 kaituna river, where you have the opportunity to do the highest (7 meters!) commercial waterfall raft drop in the world! This is just the half of it though as your guide will tell you lots of stories and legends of the area.

Immerse yourself in New Zealand on both a natural and cultural level. There are many thermal attractions to choose form, but our favorite is Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother has spent thousands of years sculpting this thermal area, complete with dazzling colors and geysers reaching for the skies. Make sure you relax at the hot and cold stream after your visit to Wai-O-Tapu as it is just down the road from the thermal area.

In the evening, enjoy a Maori and Pacifica cultural show at Mitai Village along with a fabulous hungi for dinner

Highlights

Where to stay: Overnight Rotorua Top 10 Holiday Park or nab one of the free spaces at the Rotorua Freedom Camping Areas either on the waterfront near the yacht club or near the Polynesian spa behind the Governemnt Gardens.

Apollo hint: A lot of the activities in Rotorua have curtesy shuttles that leave from the CBD. This means you can get to the lakeside Freedom Camping Area at the Yacht club nice and early park up and explore, reserving yourself a spot for later!

Rotorua is the Maori and Pasifika culture capital of New Zealand

Day 10: Rotorua – Taupo (1hr 15mins, 90kms)

Start your day with a short drive to kerosene creek where you can let life's problems was away as you bathe under a geothermally heated waterfall. Even better, it’s all free!

Ever heard of the Golden fleece terrace? Your next stop today is at one of New Zealand's few remaining geothermal hidden gems at Orakei Korako where you will also find geysers, bubbling mud pools and one of only two geothermal caves in the entire world!

Huka falls on the mighty Waikato river, where you can watch over 220,000 liters PER SECOND barrel over an 11m high waterfall. Just a few minutes away you will find the Craters of the Moon, a boardwalk through an extraordinary thermal landscape.

Time to head into Lake Taupo, the adventure capital of the north and home to some amazing experiences. For thrill seekers, world class sky diving over a super volcano awaits, while those looking for a more relaxed experience can enjoy some of the best fishing in the world, river rafting, lake cruises and the many short walks that lead to some amazing vistas. A must see are the massive Maori carvings at Mine Bay, best explored by kayak.

Highlights

  • Orakei Korako
  • Kerosene Creek
  • Huka Falls Lookout and walk
  • Craters of the Moon

Where to stay: Moutere Bay Top 10 Holiday Park is the only lake side camp site on Lake Taupo. It is an excellent option for those wanting to do some fishing as it lies between Taupo and Turangi while also being just 45 minutes from the ski fields for winter trips.

Apollo hint: While many people visit Huka falls, lots of people miss the amazing walk through “craters of the moon” just a few minutes away while catching the flood gates open at 12pm at Aratiatata Rapids is also a pretty awesome experience!

Orakei Korako is one of the more unexplored thermal areas of Rotorua

Day 11: Explore Lake Taupo - Tongariro National Park (1hr 15mins, 80km)

Lake Taupo is the adventure capital of the north and is home to some amazing experiences. For thrill seekers, world class sky diving and white-water river rafting awaits, while those looking for a more relaxed experience can enjoy some of the best fly fishing in the world, river cruises and the many short walks that lead to some amazing vistas.

A must see are the massive Maori carvings at Mine Bay, best explored by kayak.

After a busy day, head to Otumuheke stream spa park where you can relax in a wonderful geothermally heated stream.

Highlights

Where to stay: Tongariro Holiday Park is conveniently located just 15 minutes' drive away from the Tongariro Expedition Shuttle pick up point at Ketetahi making it an ideally placed campsite for those wanting to do the crossing.

Apollo hint: The Lake will usually be calmer in the morning, so that’s often the best time to do a kayak or boat cruise to the Mine Bay carvings.

The Maori carvings at Mine Bay, Lake Taupo are a must see

Day 12: Tongariro Crossing or Explore Tongariro National Park 

The Tongariro alpine crossing is widely regarded as New Zealand’s best day hike and in the top 10-day hikes anywhere in the world, and for good reason. It is part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s great walks and features a truly unique, dramatic volcanic and glacial landscape that was used as the back drop for Mordor in Lord of the Rings. This 19.4 km journey takes 8 hours and does require a moderate level of fitness but it is often hiked by 12-year olds.

If you would rather take an easier day, then you can explore other parts of Tongariro national park including the Tama Lakes trail, and the much easier to access Taranaki falls (20 minutes). In winter, you can swap your hiking boots for ski boots and enjoy a day on the slopes at Ruapehu. An alternate day walk that is easy on the legs is the Great Lake Pathway. It takes you on a scenic walk or cycle around the lake, through kowhai forests and with amazing views of the peaks of the central plateau – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.

Highlights

Where to stay: Tongariro Holiday Park is an ideal option to stay at if you have completed the crossing. It is just a few minutes from the trail end meaning you can be relaxing back at camp with a cold drink or a warm coffee and putting your feet up.

Apollo hint: The park and ride is a great option for the Tongariro crossing. By parking at Ketetahi and taking the shuttle to the other starting point at Mangatepopo (which has a 4-hour parking restriction making it suitable only for a short return hike), you will avoid a large uphill climb and finish the crossing at your vehicle while being just a few minutes from camp.

The Tongariro alpine crossing is ranked among the top day hikes in the world

Day 13: Tongariro National Park – Waitomo (3hrs 30mins, 228km)

Start the day with a trip not far from camp to Tawhai falls, perhaps better known as “Gollums Pool” from Lord of the Rings where he was captured by Farimir.

Stop for a bite to eat at the lovely Te Kuiti and grab a picture at its massive statue commemorating its place as the sheep shearing capital of New Zealand and say hello to the statue of Sir Colin “Pine Tree” Meads, one of our most famous and influential All Blacks. It just doesn’t get much more kiwi than that!

Next up is a short walk to Marokopa falls, one of the most impressive in all of New Zealand. End the day with one of New Zealand’s most iconic bucket list experiences – a tour through the magical Waitomo glow worm caves.

Highlights

  • Tawhai Falls
  • Sir Colin Meads Statue
  • Shearing Monuement
  • Marokopa falls

Where to stay: Waitomo Top 10 Holiday park provides an ideally placed campsite close to the caves, while there is a lovely free camping spot down the road at Te Anga at a lovely scenic lookout.

Apollo hint: If you have the time, Make a stop off at Pureora forest, a 760-square-kilometre rain forest with a protected 1,000-year-old majestic podocarp forest. With towering totaras and rimu, matai, miro and kahikatea trees. this incredible place is also home to the burred forest, one of the world's best-preserved forests following a volcanic eruption of Taupo in 232AD.

The 35m Marokopa Falls, often described as the most beautiful in New Zealand

Day 14: Waitomo – Hamilton – Auckland (2hrs 30mins 200km)

Start your day with an early tour at the world famous and equally amazing Waitomo glow worm caves. Let the dazzle of the underground stars wash over you thanks to New Zealand's endemic glow worm species. The grotto offers ambiance and luminescence as you explore first by foot and then by small boat through the cave system.  

There are some fantastic sites to see in Hamilton, with wonderous world class gardens and of course Hamilton Zoo. The local highlight is the amazing sanctuary at Mountain Maungatautari. At 3,400ha, this is one of the world's largest fence protected, pest free areas and contains New Zealand's endemic species living how they did before the introduction of mammals. From bats to birds, reptiles to giant Weta, take a walk back in time in our real-life version of Jurassic park - less the dinosaurs!

Highlights

Apollo hint: Make an early start so you can complete these final stops as they are well worth it!

Visit the land of the living stars at the Waitomo glow worm caves

 

Ready to explore?

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