Start a New Zealand road trip in Auckland, home of the SkyJump. // © 2017 Creative Commons user jasonpratt
Feature image (above): In Rotorua, visit the Champagne Pool, a 900-year-old geothermal hot spring. // © 2017 Giselle Abcarian
In an ideal world, New Zealand-bound clients would have ample time to visit both the North Island and the South Island. But for those with limited time looking for an in-depth experience, consider a road trip through only the North Island.
Though both islands have plenty of activities and showstopping scenic views, the North Island is smaller than the South Island and features warmer weather as well as plenty of cosmopolitan cities, Maori culture and geothermal activity.
Driving straight from Auckland to Wellington takes around eight hours, so, while not mandatory, it’s nice to spend a night or two in a few cities along the way. Here’s a breakdown of the best towns to park your car en route, in addition to the top attractions to check out in each area.
A walkable and vibrant city, Auckland is the ideal starting point for any trip to New Zealand’s North Island. The coffee is stellar; the food scene is cosmopolitan; and the people are European-stylish without the attitude that sometimes follows. Exploring Auckland by foot is pleasant, but experiencing the city from the Sky Tower is a must. It stands at 1,076 feet tall and offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city below. The two sit-down restaurants in the tower fill up quickly, but the casual Sky Cafe — selling coffee, cheeseboards and ice cream — is a great spot to sit along the tower’s windows and watch the city lights flicker against a colorful Auckland sunset.
For adrenaline junkies, SkyJump is sure to provide a memorable, heart-stopping experience. Brave clients can jump from the Sky Tower in a full body harness connected to a wire before falling about 630 feet down onto a landing platform.
Sky Tower is also home to the SkyCity Auckland entertainment complex, which contains two luxury hotels, more than 20 bars and restaurants, a grand theater and a casino.
About two hours south of Auckland lies Cambridge, which is the next stop on the road trip. With its quaint antique shops and tree-lined streets, Cambridge’s relaxing vibe is a pleasant contrast to Auckland’s hustle and bustle. It’s a smaller town, but there’s much to do here, from boating on the Waikato River to learning about champion thoroughbred horse studs.
One of the best spots in Cambridge is not a place to stop for a visit, however, but a place to stay for the night. Earthstead Villas — run by Alistair and Suzie Osmond — offers eco-friendly lodging on a vast farm lot. Guests can roam the extensive gardens; learn to milk the family cow as well as drink the fresh cow milk; and even choose to stay in a “glamper van” instead of one of the villas. The morning breakfast is an unforgettable treat, too; there’s the choice of omelets made from the eggs of on-site hens; baked bread with homemade honey, chutney, jams and freshly churned butter; yogurt parfaits; or house-fermented oats. Around 80 percent of the food is produced or baked on property, and they taste just as delectable as they sound.
After an hourlong exploration of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, clients will learn that New Zealand is just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Located a quick 45-minute drive southwest from Cambridge, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are a sight not to be missed. They’re filled with a population of glowworm species found only in New Zealand, which line the limestone cave walls by the thousands. The resulting effect is a bright luminescent light that illuminates the caves, giving them a starry, otherworldly appearance: like an underground space galaxy.
After returning to Cambridge from Waitomo, clients should head about an hour east to Rotorua. A feast for the eyes and a punishment for the nose, Rotorua’s Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a colorful, geothermal natural beauty worth holding one’s breath for. The unpleasant sulfur smell may be strong, but the yellow, green, ice-blue and orange hot springs — formed by thousands of years of volcanic activity — are too dazzling to avoid.
Clients should begin their adventure at Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts at 10:15 a.m. every day and blasts water up to 65 feet high. A walk through the geothermal park is next on the agenda, with a stop at the colorful Champagne Pool, known for its bright orange and green color as well as the efflux of carbon dioxide that causes it to bubble and steam. To finish the experience, a quick look at the largest mud pool in New Zealand is a must.
An hour south of Rotorua is Taupo, a popular destination town for family vacations. The obvious attraction in the area is Lake Taupo, where visitors can go boating, fishing and biking around what’s the largest lake in New Zealand.
Though it may be tempting to spend the whole day at the lake, Huka Falls just north of Taupo is worth checking out. At more than 30 feet tall with water flowing at more than 220,000 liters per second, Huka Falls is at once thrilling and unnerving. Visitors can enjoy the falls via walking and mountain biking, or experience it up close with Hukafalls Jet via jet boat or the Huka Falls River Cruise.
A trip to the North Island is not complete without a day-trip to Tongariro National Park, which is located 1.5 hours south of Rotorua. Not only is it New Zealand’s oldest national park, it’s also celebrated as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Within Tongariro National Park lies the world-renowned Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a challenging all-day hike with sensational views. Before arriving, climbers should book their morning and evening transportation shuttles to and from the trailhead as well as prepare for constantly changing terrain and weather conditions. Most of the hike is through volcanic terrain, some of which is still active.
Tongariro National Park to Wellington is doable four-hour trip, especially with the sheep-covered rolling hills as a constant distraction. But after around 2.5 hours in the car, a pit-stop in Palmerston North will be a welcome detour for one’s back and legs. With cafes, picnic areas, an observatory and a well-maintained rose garden, Victoria Esplanade — Palmerston North’s premier park — is a great place to recharge for the second leg of the trip.
Wellington might be small, but the range of restaurants, museums, boutiques and bars to visit can seem rather endless. Before anything else, clients should visit the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Te Papa is New Zealand’s national museum, and it’s also a world leader in interactive and visitor-focused museum experiences.
Within the six-story museum, visitors can expect to view artifacts and learn about the history of the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. There’s also changing international exhibits; themed hands-on discovery centers for children; and galleries focused on New Zealand’s natural history and environment. The museum also contains two gift shops and cafes, and general admission tickets are free.