A road trip on the North Island of New Zealand in 3 words: amazing, authentic, unforgettable. If these three words makes you dreamy, stay with me for a few minutes.
Be aware, this bucket list is made for adventure lovers who want to explore North Island New Zealand without tourist tours. Let’s start and Don’t forget to get extra travel tips at the end of the article!
1. Mix experiences in Auckland
Auckland is the perfect start for a road trip in North Island New Zealand. Even if the city doesn’t seem special at first sight, there are actually fun things to do there… and each one different from the others. Visit the markets at night, chill on the city’s beaches, find music events and festivals all around the year or just appreciate New Zealand’s peaceful way of life. Free activities are easy to find and that’s a good start!
2. Observe geological wonders in Rotorua
First stop after Auckland, Rotorua is an original introduction into the North Island of New Zealand authenticity. No fancy town but a really cute place spread around a geothermal lake – home town of geysers and hot springs, Rotorua is surprising. You can easily spend 2 to 3 days there. The only condition is to get used to the “egg smell”! It comes from the geysers which regularly erupt in the middle of the town… charming and unique. Some fun things to do: go for a visit to Kuirau Park and the Maori museum. It’s a free place to see. Then, wait for the huge geyser to explode… and try to take it in pictures avoiding Chinese tourists. A real sport.
Travel tips to Rotorua, North Island
Driving time Auckland – Rotorua
By car: 2h40
By bus: 4h15
Free things to do – Government Gardens – Waterfront – Kuirau park – lake and sulphur point Rotorua – Maori culture at the free museum
Where to sleep – The hostels we tested... and approved!
YHA – 16$ in dorms - cheap price for clean and safe accommodation – quite impersonal because it’s a worldwide chain
Crash Palace Backpackers – around 16$ in dorms – clean place with its own personality, very chill lounge area with good vibes, comfortable beds!
3. Chase the best photo spots between the trees at Lake Tikitapu
Yeah, that’s a real thing to do among other fun things at Lake Tikitapu… because trees are everywhere and you somehow end up at lookouts where you see… nothing! As photo lovers I and my travel mate had a fun time chasing photo spots around the blue and green lakes. Besides having fun with the camera, you will do relaxing and beautiful walks on the edges of Lake Tikitapu. The landscape is very inspiring. Be prepared to get amazed by the intense Nature’s colours. It’s of course a place to access for free.
Travel info to Lake Tikitapu, North Island New Zealand
From Rotorua, by car – 15 mn
Free things to do – Nature photography, relaxing, getting inspired by the surroundings, walking
4. Get thrilled by watching a torrent of crystal blue water at Huka falls
Huka falls are a Nature wonder. Most visited attraction in North island New Zealand, the Huka falls are 11 meters high and the impressive flow of ice blue water could fill an Olympic pool in only 11 seconds. That’s quite something. A short walk leads to the lookout. From there, watch the tons of water rushing into an impressive fall – of ice and white sparkles. This is for free… and I think, way better than the jet boats full of tourists disturbing the beauty of the place.
Info box about Huka Falls
Driving time from Rotorua By car – 1h By bus – accessible from Taupo town centre
5. Swim in hot pools next at Spa Park hot pools
That’s one of the best fun things to do on North Island New Zealand. You will love swimming in hot streams of water at the iconic Huka falls! For sure, it’s more impressive if you tell your friends you went for a swim in North Island of New Zealand in cold winter. It might be quite crowded in summer. But it’s still New Zealand, so there is space to swim anyway. And it’s for free!
6. Watch (romantic) sunset at Lake Taupo
This one belongs to my very favourite things to do at Lake Taupo on North Island New Zealand. As photographer, it’s even more magic! A 4 hours ride from Auckland brings to one of the must do in New Zealand… the beautiful Lake Taupo. The soft blue water is so placid and the shore so green that it almost looks surrealistic. Go to the lake before sunset. Park the car at a quiet spot and go to one of Lake Taupo’s shores. Sit down, alone or with your travel mate(s), don’t talk and watch the sun setting down. Without exaggerating, I still feel so happy and thrilled when I think back to this day.
Travel tips on Lake Taupo
Driving time from Rotorua -
By car: 1h
By bus: 1h
Top fun things to do Mountain biking, sunset watching, nature photography, walks, skydiving and paragliding (not for free - the only exception)
7. Snap a stylish selfie at the top of Tongariro’s volcano
Yes, you read well… you will climb a volcano! And to have fun things to do, you will take the mandatory selfie (with style please, we are on a photography website) on one of the volcano’s peaks (well, the top for the beginner climbers among us. The climbing to the real Tongariro’s submit is another story). Seriously, even if you might be first sceptic about trekking on New Zealand’s volcano for about 8 hours, you will love it! Tongariro Alpine crossing is almost in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. It’s a lunar landscape covered with volcanic lakes and craters. Also, it’s a must do for a lot of travellers because Tongariro was used as scenery for Lord of the Rings movies – Mordor and home of the dark Lord Sauron, for those in the know. Tongariro Alpine crossing is definitely the highlight of a road trip on North Island’s New Zealand. And what’s the most incredible part? This nature gem is accessible for free.
Trip tips to Tongariro Alpine crossing
Driving time – from Auckland to Turangi -
By car: 4h30
By bus: 6h
Where to sleep
Nearest town: Turangi
The hostel we slept in A Plus Samurai Lodge Backpackers – the place where backpackers go before and after Tonagriro’s climbing – a very authentic hostel – maybe not the most luxurious I’ve been but so interesting place and a very nice owner!
Other location: YHA National park Backpackers. Around 18$ in a dorm.
How to get there
By shuttle bus - pick-up from most hotels in Taupo and Turangi - Tongariro Expeditions: the bus operator we tried. Reliable and on time.
Moderate to good level of fitness, take water and energy snacks, avoid doing it alone if you don’t feel confident
8. Do a fun photo contest on the wild West Coast
So many places to photograph while traveling the West Coast… These following fun things to do on a road trip might speak rather to photo addicts. But it’s still a very cool way to spend time exploring the surroundings on a road trip… and doing something creative. No need to be a pro or to have the latest Canon. A bit of imagination and a dose of good mood will do it. Take your travel mate(s), a teddy bear, locals, yourself or whatever you find inspiring and shoot! Original places are everywhere – on this volcanic beach, at the end of this little path, at the shore of this colourful lake. Get the coolest photos to show when you come back!
9. Explore Wellington at night… and go crazy!
City life in New Zealand… is relaxing! Wellington is, along with Auckland, the only ‘big city’ you will find. It’s a chill place and there are fellow backpackers there. Also, it will be a nice break on your adventurous and wild road trip. What to do there? Go first to Mount Victoria. At sunset, the brave traveller who climbed a mini forest to get there, will see a beautiful sea of city and harbor lights. Mount Victoria offers a panoramic view pretty panoramic view of Wellington and its bay. Then, climb down (in the dark, it’s even more fun) and go out for one… or many drinks. The entrance to most bars and clubs are for free. Backpacker bars offer deals and night events. To dance until you can’t anymore, Cuba Street is the place to be. Even if it’s rather commercial music, it’s a fun way to spend the evening after days of road tripping. If the hangover is not too bad the next morning, visit the free museum Te Papa – a very interesting place telling about Maori history, ANZAC soldiers and showing the only displayed squid in the world.
How to get to Wellington
By car 9h – By bus 11h - By plane 2h Low cost airlines: JetStar – Air New Zealand
Free and fun things to do in Wellington
Museum Te Papa, Mount Victoria, night life, walking to Weta Cave (movie studios and special effects workshops)
10. Drive like a pilot (but not like a suicidal one) on crazy twisty roads in the rainforest
On a road trip, we drive kilometres every day. And good news… on the North Island of New Zealand, it’s a lot of fun! Maybe less if you sit on the passenger seat though. Highways are not that common in New Zealand. Instead, the twisty mountain roads, which run like a lazy snake through the beautiful rainforest, are perfect to practice your pilot skills. Of course to do with caution, driving across the rainforest is a fun experience. Don’t forget to watch out for kiwis (the birds and the human ones) on the road, even if they are pretty rare (both of them).
Info box to driving in New Zealand
Driving on the left-hand side
Max. speed 100km/h in the countryside (so, everywhere in the country) and 110 km/h on highways
Search information about driving rules in New Zealand before renting a car
11. Take an adventurous walk to Cape Kidnappers, Napier.
After the West Coast, direction the other side. Your road trip will probably continue to North Island’ East Coast, its surf beaches and cute coastal towns. Napier is the fancy one. For us adventurers, the fun is here to find in an uncommon walk… to an impressive succession of cliffs on the coast. Really cool birds make the effort also worth it. The worldwide biggest gannet colony lives there. However, Cape Kidnappers might challenge your skills. It’s a 5h return walk and tides to overcome! Cape Kidnappers walk is doable by foot only at low tide, so make sure you do a bit of planning before going. The fun could otherwise turn into little issues.
12. Get lost on Bay of islands
Getting lost belong to the fun things to do on road trip… things that you find funny afterwards. For the free things part, it will cost you a bit of extra fuel but it’s totally worth it! Bay of Islands is the perfect place on North Island New Zealand to lose your way. On the upper loop, Bay of Islands gather 140 subtropical islands. From a ferry to another, we discovered some top places empty of any civilization. We felt like Robinson Crusoe and Friday, we felt alone on Earth. It was a lot of fun to stumble upon beaches which are ignored in tourist books… and to enjoy the place at dark, with no clue of where we actually were. If you can keep track of the location, go to Russell, Paihia and Opononi. Awesome places to see.
Travel resources about Bay of Islands
Drive from Auckland
By car: 2h (to Whangarei)
Top places to see for free
Paihia (surf beaches), Russell (coastal town). Opononi (sand dunes), Waipoua – Tane Mahuta (worldwide largest Kauri tree on a sacred Maori site)
13. Live like Robinson Crusoe
Do you fancy to try living in the forest? Fishing your own dinner? Sleeping at the feet of waterfalls and volcanos? Welcome in New Zealand… all of that is here possible! And for free. So, if road trip means for you adventure in Nature and come back to a simple way of life, you will love camping on the North Island. Free camp spots are spread all over the island. Wild camping is of course tempting but be aware of the law. If not, you will get a fine and it is understandable – the Nature has to be preserved.
My camping tips –
Free camp spots apps: Rankers NZ – Wikicamps New Zealand
14. Explore, enjoy, repeat!
The North Island of New Zealand is stunning. So, the last but not least: enjoy! Explore every corner, don’t make too many plans and just go with the flow. It’s the road trip freedom. Landscapes change every minute, natural beauty is absolutely everywhere. Be happy to be there, fall in love with everything (and someone) and appreciate this intact piece of Earth.
Quite not everything you need?
Complete your ultimate check list of fun things to do on the North Island with Alltherooms’ useful blog post!
My extra travel tips -
To do a road trip in new Zealand, nothing better than renting a car or a van! All the places below are best accessible by car. But the busses on the North Island are also very good. Most must-do places can be reached by bus as well. InterCity is one of the most recommended public bus company – they also offer rates for backpackers.
Map Of North island New Zealand – top places and fun things to do for free
I am made of photography, travels and a good dose of passion. I am Ophélie, French-born traveler always on the go. My articles are about sharing my travel experiences with you and giving tips on how to explore countries on your own… as a cultural traveller.