We recently visited New Zealand for our honeymoon - it was 17 days on the ground with 5 on the North Island and 12 on the South Island.
If you are interested in planning a solid North Island trip, below is our itinerary. 5 days felt like a decent amount of time to spend in the North hitting all the tourist spots, though if you have a few days to spare, you can enjoy a less rigorous schedule and spend more time relaxing by the beach, which is one of the highlights that the North Island offers.
Day 1: Hot Water Beach and the Coromandel Peninsula
We flew into Auckland from San Francisco, which was 13 hours direct. We arrived early in the morning, allowing us the whole day to acclimate to the time difference. Given it was 21 hours ahead of Pacific time, it really wasn't hard to adjust as night and day were so closely aligned to back home.
We started our journey by renting a car, a highly recommended method of getting around the island. Yes, learning to drive on the left side of the road took some getting used to, but it wasn't impossible and added to the adventure.
We headed past Auckland towards the seaside vacation towns that make up the Coromandel Peninsula. We stopped for lunch at the Corner Stone Cafe for some classic New Zealand, British inspired cuisine - fish and chips (and espresso). Sleepy farmland turned into tropical jungle hills, and we headed straight for Hot Water Beach. At this beach, the Pacific backs up against a hot spring, so that during low tide you can dig yourself a personal hot tub and watch the tide flow back in from the sea. It is important to check the tide tables in order to go at the right time and rent a shovel at one of the cafes nearby.
Afterward, we made it to the town of Cooks Beach by sunset and checked in to our beautiful AirBnB (Cooks Beach Flat Right on the Beach) along Mercury Bay. There’s only one restaurant in Cook’s Beach, Go Vino, where we enjoyed incredible New Zealand wine and delicious risotto and dessert. We fell asleep to the sound of the waves slapping the shores of the bay.
From Left to right: fish and chips at Corner Stone; salad at Go Vino; sunset views from Cook's Beach.
Day 2: Cathedral Cove and Exploring Auckland
We woke up refreshed and headed over to the beach town of Hahei so that we could hike to Cathedral Cove. Parking for Cathedral Cove is quite limited and requires either parking at a lot and taking a shuttle, walking up a large hill (adding about 2 miles each way to the trip) or parking in one of the lots of the neighbors at the top of the hill. We opted for the latter option and promptly began our 2.5 km hike down to the beautiful cove. Fair warning: the hike can get very warm so bring water with you! After the hike we headed back into Hahei for a quick lunch before driving back out to Auckland.
We made a quick stop at Mt. Eden which had panoramic views of the entire city of Auckland, as well as views into an old volcanic crater. After, we checked into our room at the City Lodge - Backpackers Accommodation (which we booked on booking.com). Located in the heart of downtown, we had no problem walking from there and exploring the main tourist drag of the city, Queen Street, and heading down to the harbor. We then walked over to the Parnell neighborhood, which was a bit quieter and cuter with old, colonial New Zealand homes. We enjoyed dinner at Oh, Calcutta. We then wandered back through Auckland’s version of central park, Auckland Domain. We didn’t realize it beforehand but an enormous celebration was going on for the Chinese New Year, and pretty much the entire population of Auckland was on hand to celebrate with lantern decorations, street food, and music.
Top then bottom left to right; Coromandel Penninsula views and Cathedral Cove; Auckland Sky Tower and Gates of the Auckland Harbor.
Day 3: Kiwis and Glow Worms
In the morning, we drove out of the “big city” (over 50% of the country’s population lives in the greater Auckland area) and down south, where we stopped for a quick visit at the Otorahanga Kiwi House. There, we learned that Kiwis are endangered and nocturnal. After the bird sighting, we headed out to the Waitomo Glow Worm caves, where we saw hundreds of thousands of glowing worms from the ceiling as we paddled through a cave. Though a quick journey, it was worth every second. Head’s up, no photos allowed and reservations required!
Exhausted, we then drove off to our AirBnB in Turangi (“Tongariro Homestay”), which was the cutest little town directly south of Lake Taupo. We had an entire house to ourselves (four bedrooms!) and could walk into town for dinner, which made us feel like we actually lived there. This is the kind of place where the locals walked around the grocery store with no shoes on.
Day 4: Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This was the day we had been waiting for (and why we had come to the North Island). We drove early to a car drop off stop and picked up the Mountain Shuttle for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This allowed us to do the 19.4km journey one way (as the shuttle drove us to the other side of the hike). You can read more in depth about this hike in my post "The New Zealand Hiking List".
Views along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike.
Day 5: Hot Springs and Maori food in Rotorua
Still recovering from Tongariro, we popped into Rotorua on our way back to Auckland. Rotorua is known for it's incredible thermal activity and is home to a plethora of hot springs. We visited the Polynesian Spa, which provided a classy environment to soak in multiple mineral springs, all while taking in views of Lake Rotorua. We also enjoyed some traditional Maori food in the form of a Hangi, which is a traditional way of cooking using a stone pit. Maori culture is also on large display in Rotorua and there are many multicultural shows to enjoy.
We finally headed out towards the Auckland airport to say goodbye to the North Island and travel on to Queenstown on the South Island.
Overall, it is quite manageable to visit the North Island in less than a week. There is obviously much more to see, but I would argue we hit the major tourist highlights. If I were to go back, I would have made a point to visit Wellington, which is the up and coming capital of the country.
A map of the highlights mentioned in this post can be found here.