When I first started talking about visiting New Zealand, many of my friends immediately expected me to say that we would travel the South Island. But interestingly enough, this thought had never crossed my mind. It was summer after all, I am more of a beaches person rather than a mountains person. Getting as high up as possible on the map to secure favourable weather conditions seemed logical to me.
But isn’t the landscape on the North Island less stunning, less captivating, you might say. No, it actually is pretty amazing. Not that I could personally compare these two since I am yet to experience the South Island myself. But we were awed by this beautiful country with every turn.
Let me assure you that the landscape of New Zealand’s North Island is just as spectacular and picture perfect as in the South. Different to the glaciers and the dramatic rugged landscapes, yet still quite otherworldly.
And the best way to experience New Zealand’s North Island is, without doubt, by hitting the road and setting up camp wherever your mood takes you. A road trip is the perfect way to experience the moment and fully emerge in this fabulously unspoilt landscape.
When we road tripped around New Zealand we wanted to experience the most important themes that come up in the general internet consensus of what New Zealand is all about. The itinerary had to be child-friendly, too, of course, since we were travelling with school aged children, so strenuous hikes were out of question.
Despite our best efforts we were hit by pretty bad weather which left us stranded for two days on the Coromandel Peninsula and affected us on another one or two days while in Rotorua. So unfortunately we couldn’t tick off everything we planned for our itinerary. But if you would like to draw inspiration from our itinerary, here is what we had originally planned for ourselves: The beaches of the Bay of Islands, Hot Beach and Cathedral Cove in Coromandel, the deep kauri forests of the Northland, the geothermal activity around Rotorua, and glimpses into the intriguing Maori culture.
So here are 8 excuses for road tripping New Zealand’s North Island rather than the South Island, if you prefer beaches over mountains like me. And in general good reasons why you should start planning your own road trip now, because it’s so ridiculously easy to get around in New Zealand while at the same time having a blast on the road.
Make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom of this post for some mind-blowing photos of New Zealand’s beautiful North Island!
Stunning landscapes – the North Island doesn’t need to hide behind its more popular neighbour
Of course there are no glaciers on the North Island, and the vegetation might look different too, but the North Island is pretty stunning in its own right, as you can see in the photos.
There are not many motorways in New Zealand, so it’s very easy to just take a turn off and lose yourself in the rolling hills of Lord of the Rings country.
A prime example is the road to Coromandel, a winding coastal route right on water level with many, many bays for a quick stop or even a dip in the ocean.
Driving these roads might be a bit challenging at times, and the children in the backseat did struggle with car sickness due to the many bends and turns. But there is nothing wrong with slowing down and just enjoying the road to your destination and not just the destination itself.
New Zealand has look-outs aplenty, and even more then you would expect to find. So it’s easy to pull up to let the driver have a look too, or to have a coffee break with supplies from your camper van. So relaxing!
You can’t be angry at traffic jams when the scenery is like this
When we visited the North Island it was during peak season. Stupid idea you might think. But as a matter of fact it only affected us on our very first day on the road. We had just arrived in Auckland and tried to find our way up north, leaving the big city behind. We shared the road with plenty of Kiwis who were hitting the road at the same time for their own annual family holiday or just for a weekend away, so the motorway up north was jammed with cars.
But did we feel road rage or resentment while we were stuck on the motorway? Not a single bit. Look out of the window – isn’t this scenery just stunning?
This must be one of the most scenic approaches to a road tunnel in the world! And trust me when I tell you that the other side looked even more spectacular. Once we had passed this gridlock and could see what awaited us on the other side of the mountain we knew that we were on the right track.
Spontaneous dips in the ocean
Travelling on your own terms means that you can be your own boss. Enjoy the freedom, enjoy the spontaneity! This beach looks like it’s worth to dip your toes in? Then pull over and just do it! This place is overrun by tourists? Never mind, you can travel a little bit further up the road. The weather is not favourable and you can’t explore the way you planned it? No worries, just pick a new route.
Road tripping New Zealand is perfect when it comes to enjoy all the pleasures that you might find along the way.
In countries like Australia and New Zealand it does make so much sense to drive around with your own bed. A camper van is perfect in case you get stuck somewhere or if you are travelling through the more remote parts of the country. Even better: you do save quite a lot of money.
So if New Zealand doesn’t happen to be just around the corner from your country of origin, this is certainly good news. Plus, there is still the possibility to camp “wild” in certain areas of New Zealand, provided your vehicle is fitted with a toilet.
Now, imagine setting up camp in some of these wonderful locations and enjoy a sunset with a bottle of vino from the supermarket and a self-cooked meal from your camp kitchen. Priceless.
North Island is more than just rolling hills
One of the comments I got when proposing our travel plans of road tripping around the North Island was that the north of New Zealand was less interesting and less diverse than the more rugged south. I beg to differ here. Yes, there is plenty of rolling hills and grazing land on New Zealand’s North Island, but there is much, more more.
One of the most fascinating parts of the North Island were the ancient kauri forests that we travelled through. In particular the century-old Tane Mahuta tree, literally the “Lord of the Forest”. These old and majestic trees are now extremely rare because the first white settlers got a little bit overboard when logging the island. But there are some precious examples left, trees that are some 50m high, with a girth of around 13m.
Overall, New Zealand’s nature seems to be in overdrive. Never have I seen more beautiful landscapes, with roadside vegetation matching those that you would in any gardening centre – lush, majestic, flowering, growing in just the right spot to frame this photo or be the star in that photo.
Add to that the strange and lopsided peaks that would stand out from the rolling hills every couple of hundred metres or so. No painter would ever think of painting these shapes – they just look too surreal to be true. Boulders, strewn across a meadow that is dotted with wildflowers, look like as if they’ve been places there for effect. Pine forests, so pristine, so thick and so lacking ailing trees, you think you have arrived in some sort of fairyland.
It’s the perfect place for nature photographers.
Surprises along the way: churches
What is it with New Zealand and churches?
I don’t think I have ever seen so many pretty old wooden churches in one place. Painted in white, surrounded by a carefully maintained graveyard, with bell tower and spires, a picket fence. Framed by mature trees that screen off any modern contraptions, letting you easily forget that it’s the 21st century.
They are almost serene, reminiscent of times when life was slower and simpler. I just loved looking at these small churches that would show up along the side of the roads we travelled, unexpected and unmentioned in any travel guide.
New Zealand offers a variety of experiences: wilderness, geothermal, city breaks, culture, nature
And a road trip is just perfect if you want to combine some of these vastly different things on one trip. Hiking is fantastic even on the North Island. I promised myself to return one day for some of the more challenging hiking routes that are simply not doable with small kids.
But then there is also the geothermal activity that New Zealand is so renown for. Some of the attractions and spas can be found in the cities, for example Rotorua, but others are only accessible by car. Having the freedom to go wherever you like, picking destinations to your liking is just wonderful. Our most favourite geothermal attraction definitely was Orakei Korako with its silica terraces, hot springs and the Blue Grotto.
And the beaches, oh yes the beaches. I know you will love them as much as I did.
What made our road trip really easy planning-wise was the fact that all attractions and destinations were relatively close together.
Usually it would take us around three hours to drive from one spot to the next with the beautiful landscape making the trip a true pleasure.
When driving in the Australian outback it is not rare that you spend double the amount of time on the road with frankly less interesting things to look at along the way.
But I do need to warn you: do not underestimate travelling times in New Zealand. There are many one-lane roads and bridges that will slow you down, as well as winding stretches, inclines, and so forth. While the streets were generally in very good condition, we did feel the pain with our massive six berth camper van. It will be easier for you if you choose a smaller vehicle option.
Having destinations so close together meant we could see a much more diverse range of attractions within a relatively short timeframe. Which is awesome, because time is so limited for most of us.
Interested in checking out the South Island of New Zealand as well? Then check out this cool blog post by my lovely friends The Freedom Travellers who conquered the other half of New Zealand – South Island – not so long ago.
But before you go, make sure you have a look at the beautiful New Zealand North Island photos on the bottom of this post. Ta!