With two weeks on New Zealand’s North Island, you can trek one of the most beautiful day hikes in the world at the Tongariro Crossing, witness the mesmerizing shimmer of glow worms at the Waitomo Caves, and explore the country’s surprisingly tropical side at Hahei. This two-week road trip itinerary covering the North Island of New Zealand top to bottom has everything you need to know!
New Zealand’s North Island totally surprised me. Most of the top attractions I’d heard of in my research were based on the South Island. Thus, I traveled through the north without any expectations. The north has more to offer than I knew. Think tropical beaches to world-famous surf towns, and deep respect for the indigenous Maori culture.
Here’s what you’ll find in this comprehensive two-week itinerary through the North Island of New Zealand.
About My Two Week New Zealand North Island Itinerary
This itinerary is based around using the off Stray hop-on/hop-off bus pass, but you can self-drive the same route. Note that this post isn’t sponsored by Stray, but I am a happy customer!
How the Stray hop-on/hop-off bus pass works:
You buy the pass online for the route and coverage you want for your trip. There are many passes available, but we opted for the Maximus pass which covers both the North and South Islands comprehensively.
Since it’s a hop-on/hop-off pass, you can choose to follow the standard route and stay the minimum number of nights in each place. Alternatively, you can spend more time. You can even skip some places entirely by connecting to the next bus via public buses (but why would you really want to do that?).
The bus pass includes all your transportation, your driver/guide, and stops at scenic viewpoints and small hikes. You also have at least one night guaranteed dorm accommodation at each stop (own expense). You can definitely book your own too. The drivers also book your activities for you at a discounted rate. Overall, you don’t have to do much research or planning at all.
I mentioned above that you can also self-drive the entire North Island of New Zealand following this two-week itinerary. Our original plan was to rent a campervan and drive around both the North and South Islands staying at RV parks, but when we looked at the price breakdown, the Stray pass was actually cheaper by several hundred dollars per person. That said, while you gain in ease, efficiency, and budget, you lose in independence, privacy, and spontaneity.
Day-by-Day Two Week New Zealand North Island Itinerary
Below are my personally tested itinerary and recommendations for things to do in two weeks on the North Island of New Zealand.
If you have more time, I highly recommend expanding your trip to spend more time specifically exploring at a more leisurely pace. If you have at least two more weeks, I advise adding my two week South Island New Zealand itinerary to your plans as well!
Nights 1-3: Auckland
I recommend spending three nights in Auckland, especially if you are traveling in from somewhere far away (like North America) and have to wrangle with jet lag when you arrive. We only had one night in Auckland at the start of our trip, but it seemed like a really cool city and I would have loved to explore more. Plus, if you are taking a Stray bus, other hop-on/hop-off bus, or joining a guided tour, it’s always a good idea to give yourself a little bit of buffer time in case of travel delays.
Things to Do in Auckland
- Cornwall Park – What Central Park is to New York City, Cornwall Park is to Auckland.
- Nightlife – There are tons of great bars and restaurants in central Auckland. We particularly enjoyed a Belgian beer called The Occidental. They had live music, dancing, and good beer in a traditional-feeling beer hall.
- Auckland Free Walking Tour – Free walking tours are a great way to get to know a city. While we didn’t have a chance to take this one, the reviews look great!
Nights 4-5: Paihia & Cape Reinga
I’m still not pronouncing the name of this town correctly (I end up saying something akin to paella. Don’t do that, it’s wrong). It’s a small beach town north of Auckland and is the gateway to the Bay of Islands. A very literally named location, the Bay of Islands is exactly that – there are dozens of islands within view from Paihia and nearby Russell Island.
Things to do in Paihia
- Viewpoints over the Bay of Islands – Take the quick water taxi ($12 NZD) over to Russell Island, where you can make the short climb up to a viewpoint over the bay. If you’re interested in something more exhilarating, you can skydive over the Bay of Islands and get what would likely be the best view over the islands short of a scenic flight.
- Hole in the Rock – One of the most popular activities in Paihia is the Hole in the Rock cruise ($112 NZD). Another literal destination, the Hole in the Rock is a large archway (the hole) on one of the islands (the rock) in the bay. It’s so large that boats can actually go through it, which you will do on this tour. You also have the opportunity to see dolphins during your boat ride. If boating isn’t your thing, kayaking is also an option.
- Waitangi Treaty grounds – Nearby to Paihia are the Waitangi Treaty grounds, the historic site where the treaty between English colonists and indigenous Maori was signed. You can stand where New Zealand as we know it today was founded and learn all about the controversy that still surrounds this document. From the Waitangi grounds, you can take a path through a mangrove forest to horseshoe-shaped Haruru Falls. From Paihia, it’s about a one hour walk to the falls.
- Cape Reinga – If you have a free day at your disposal (or if it’s included in your Stray pass like it was for us!) I highly recommend making the day trip up to Cape Reinga with Fuller’s Great Sights ($150 NZD). On this tour, you will travel by coach onto Ninety Mile Beach (one of the most unique “highways” you’ll ever drive on), try sandboarding on the dunes, and visit New Zealand’s northernmost point, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. Unsure if it’s for you? Check out my complete guide on what to expect on the Cape Reinga day tour!
Night 6: Auckland
If you’re taking the Stray bus, you will end up spending another night in Auckland when you leave Paihia. If you’re self-driving and don’t want to stop, however, you can carry on to Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula (about a 6 hour drive from Paihia).
Nights 7-8: Hahei
Hahei and the Coromandel Peninsula is where New Zealanders come to vacation during the summer. The beach is wide and sandy, there are plenty of islands and coves to explore by boat or kayak, and the town is small and relaxed.
Things to do in Hahei
- Kayak to Cathedral Cove – You can take a guided kayaking expedition to Cathedral Cove (also accessible by hiking from Hahei beach), visiting caves and bays along the way ($115 NZD). There is a good chance you’ll see little blue penguins in the water so keep on the lookout!
- Hike to Cathedral Cove and snorkel along the way – Consider renting snorkel gear (about $30 NZD per person) to look for stingrays in Stingray Bay or schools of fish in Gemstone Bay, both accessible on the trail to Cathedral Cove. This makes for a great, leisurely day of hiking and swimming.
- Visit Hot Water Beach – This is considered a “do not miss” activity in this region. If you’re traveling on Stray, your driver will take your whole group there, but if you’re self-driving you can take yourself. It’s about 15 minutes from Hahei. Plan to come during low tide, and bring a shovel if you’re self-driving so that you can dig your own hot pool in the sand. This is a unique experience because you are on a beach that appears like any other, but running beneath the sand is a hot spring river. At low tide, people dig into it to create their own personal relaxing hot pools. Some people create impressively large pools!
- Sunset hike to Te Pare – On the left of Hahei Beach when you’re facing the ocean stands a hill called Te Pare. This is where Maori warriors would keep watch against invaders. Walking along the beach, we found a rope swing, large trees, a river running into the ocean, and views over the surrounding islands. The hike up the hill is easy as far as New Zealand hikes go and will only take you about 45 minutes.
Night 8: Raglan
Raglan is a world-class surfing destination. If you love to surf or want to learn, this is a great place to spend more than just one night. If like me, you aren’t very interested in surfing, one night (if you’re traveling on Stray) or skipping it entirely (if you are self-driving) should be fine.
Things to do in Raglan
- Take a surfing lesson – Raglan Surfing School offers highly-recommended surf lessons. While we didn’t partake, those who did only had awesome things to say about it! Many first-timers even stood on the board within just a few hours!
- Visit Bridal Veil Falls – A short drive from Raglan brings you to the carpark for two viewing platforms over this beautiful waterfall.
- Look for glowworms in the bushes at night – In the bushes on the main road near the Karioi Lodge, you can spot hundreds of glowworms. If you don’t have time or budget to spring for visiting the Waitomo Glowworm Caves (see Night 9), this is a decent next best option to still get a glimpse at these wondrous little creatures.
Night 9: Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Rotorua
From Raglan to Rotorua, you can easily stop through Waitomo along the way. The Stray bus will do this as part of its standard route, but it makes sense for self-drivers too!
Things to do in Waitomo
- Waitomo Glowworm Caves – The best way to visit the caves is to go on the classic Spellbound Tour, where you walk and then ride a raft through a dark cave with millions of glowworms ($75 NZD, but less with a Stray discount). This was one of my favorite activities on the North Island!
- Abseiling – If you want to see the glowworms in a more adventurous way, you can descend into the deepest cave in Waitomo on the Lost World Tour. It’s pricy, at over $400 NZD, but it looks epic.
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Things to do in Rotorua
Rotorua is one of the most popular towns to spend time in New Zealand. It’s like a mini-Yellowstone, with geothermal features throughout the region (geysers, mud pots, hot springs, fumaroles, etc.). It’s also highly commercialized. If you’ve spent time in Yellowstone, the activities here are very similar, except they are privately owned and not part of a national park system.
- Wai-o-tapu – The most colorful geothermal area is also home to the Lady Knox geyser. Every morning at 10 am, they put soap in the geyser to prompt an eruption. For me, this feels very artificial, so we didn’t visit. ($32.50 NZD)
- Hell’s Gate Thermal Pools – Relax in hot pools and exfoliate with a mud bath. ($35 NZD)
- Kuirau Park – See mud pools and steam vents for free in this park. This is your best non-commercial option in Rotorua.
- ZORB – A New Zealand invention, you can roll down a hill in an inflatable clear ball.
- Hobbiton Movie Set – For hardcore fans of the Lord of the Rings, $99 NZD can get you entrance to explore the whimsical movie set.
Night 10: Lake Aniwhenua
With the Stray bus, you can stay at Kohutapu Lodge for an evening of Maori cultural activities, including learning the haka (intimidating war dance), weaving and eating a traditional hangi (a special feast cooked underground). The family that runs the lodge donates their earnings back into the community, sponsoring scholarships for local students and providing school lunches.
You can also stay at the lodge independently if you are driving yourself.
Compared to what I saw of other Maori cultural activities, this seems to be one of the most authentic. They aren’t putting on a show. It’s just a modern Maori family sharing their home with visitors. They also give you the opportunity to visit the local school to learn about the educational programs for students.
Nights 11-12: Blue Duck Station
From Lake Aniwhenua, the Stray bus heads to another unique destination – a two-night farm stay at Blue Duck Station. Again, you can also drive yourself here and stay in one of the cabins.
Blue Duck Station is a great playground for exploring the outdoors without swarms of tourists. It’s quite remote, and there is no cell phone reception and spotty internet.
Things to do at Blue Duck Station
- Hike – The easy hiking here will bring you to a beautiful little pool and waterfall. Plus, it’s free!
- Kayak – You can kayak and jet boat in the nearby Whanganui National Park for $129 NZD.
- Horseback riding – The staff at Blue Duck can organize guided treks for $145 NZD.
- Hunting – Interestingly, they call hunting “pest control” which creates a quite different image in my mind. They do this, though, because goats and rodents that were introduced to New Zealand have overpopulated the area and are considered “pests.” I personally do not hunt. Additionally, I have mixed feelings about killing the animals even if they are causing problems for local native species. I understand the importance of conserving native species. At the same time, it feels wrong to kill the non-native species. It’s not their fault they live there. But I digress. You can hunt goats for $150 NZD if that’s your thing.
Night 13: Near Tongariro National Park
With the Stray bus or on your own, you will have the opportunity to hike the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If you are relatively fit, you should make this a priority in your plans! On a clear day, you will see breathtaking volcano views.
General Tips for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
It’s important to know that the hike starts and ends in different spots, so you will need to arrange transportation at the trail’s end to take you back to your vehicle or accommodation. For $49 NZD you can arrange this through Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures.
For complete details about this hike, check out my comprehensive guide for what to expect on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Overnight, the Stray bus stays in a small town called Raetihi. There is not much here, but it’s a good place to catch up on sleep after the long hike!
Night 14: Wellington
Your journey on the North Island ends in Wellington, the southernmost capital city in the world! This cool little city deserves more time than on the standard Stray itinerary (which is just one night). I recommend staying a few days to explore the cafe and art scene.
Things to do in Wellington
- Te Papa Museum – New Zealand’s National Museum houses exhibits on geology, history, and wildlife in New Zealand. Even better, this museum is free!
- Climb Mount Victoria – This urban hike gives you outstanding views over the city and harbor.
- Zealandia – Experience an ancient ecosystem only found in New Zealand.
- For more ideas, check out these top 10 Wellington attractions.
From Wellington, you can fly out, or take a bus back to Auckland. If you have more time, ferry down to the South Island to continue your New Zealand adventure!
Tips for Following this Two Week New Zealand North Island Itinerary
- Don’t forget to check out my South Island itinerary if you plan to continue your New Zealand explorations!
- Considering helihiking Franz Josef Glacier? Check out my guide on whether the helihike on Franz Josef Glacier is really worth it.
- New Zealand is an expensive country to travel in. Expect to pay higher than you might be used to do for less-than-nice hostel accommodations.
- The infrastructure in New Zealand is generally top-notch in populated areas. If you are self-driving to more rural areas, however, plan your route in advance. You don’t want to be lost without cell phone service or internet reception.
- To fuel up on your drives (or rides if on Stray!), I highly recommend meat pies and an L&P soda from petrol stations along the way! Food doesn’t get more New Zealand than this, especially when enjoyed during an epic road trip!
- If you are self-driving, use a campground app like Travellers Autobarn (on iOS and Android) to find dump stations, wifi, campgrounds, etc.
Check out my other New Zealand guides!
- Tongariro Crossing Hike – Guide to NZ’s Best Day Trek
- Cape Reinga Day Trip New Zealand
- Two Week New Zealand South Island Itinerary
- Stewart Island Itinerary – New Zealand’s Other Island
- Franz Josef Glacier Helihike – Is It Worth It?
I’d love to hear what you think of this two week New Zealand North Island itinerary. Drop me a comment below or feel free to contact me.