I have been living in New Zealand for almost five years, the vast majority of which has been spent down on the iconic South Island, mostly because I have been living in Wanaka but also because I JUST can’t get enough of the wilderness.
But the longer and longer I spend in New Zealand, I’ve actually been yearning to experience more of the North Island and road trip to new places. In many ways it feels like the cliche “real New Zealand,” with bigger cities, has a more local vibe with plenty of culture to be had, whereas the South Island definitely can feel more touristy, clean cut and privileged. I often talk with my friends here how living in Wanaka feels like such a bubble, so distant from the rest of the country and world for that matter.
I was eager and ready for a North Island road trip.
My little Motorhome Republic campervan underneath the stars in Rotorua
I’ve been on a mission to return to the places I first visited years ago and also to discover other new ones too, and I find myself now more keen to return north than to the mountains around south that I love so much.
Where should I start?
In August I had the chance to explore the North Island on a campervan road trip with Motorhome Republic who I’ve only recently discovered. I dub them the Skyscanner of campervan rentals around the world because they search all the hire camper sites and then poll the results together to give you the best deal.
Where have you been all my life?
I picked up my van in Auckland, and immediately made my way south towards Mount Maunganui, a spot I had been hoping to visit for years but never got around to.
Having the freedom of a campervan is one of my favorite ways to travel especially in New Zealand. It means I can go wherever I want without worry about booking hotels or having a strict itinerary. I prefer to play it by ear, what about you?
Use Code NZTRAVEL5 for 5% off a New Zealand campervan hire
I spent five days exploring new corners of the North Island and stopping by some old haunts on my campervan trip and it was glorious. Without any worries or cares, I really had the freedom to travel where I wanted, and to fall even more in love with this part of the world.
Here are a few highlights from my North Island road trip. Enjoy!
My trusty house on wheels, a lovely Spaceship van rental booked through Motorhome Republic
One of my favorite things about the North Island is the collection of three stunning volcanoes bang in the middle of the island. These three iconic peaks almost erupt out of an otherwise flat and desolate land, making them unmistakable.
Tongariro. Ruapehu. Ngauruhoe
When I used to live in Wellington, I drove by these mountains several times, and they were almost always covered in cloud, just teasing me for the day when I would get to see them shine in all their glory, which only happened once when I did the Tongariro Crossing a few years ago.
To see them on a mint winter’s day, all white and covered in snow was remarkable.
Mt. Ruapehu is a monster of a mountain volcano, with two ski fields on it, Whakapapa and Turoa, both of which were slammed with visitors on a spring bluebird ski day.
You can’t do a North Island road trip and skip these mountains.
Mt. Ngauruhoe (aka Mt. Doom)
Smoke emerges from Tongariro
Mt. Ruapehu ski fields
Mt. Taranaki in the distance on the other side of the North Island
New Zealand’s forests are so underrated.
So many of them have been cleared over the centuries for agriculture, but there are still so many great pockets left too. No matter where you drive around the North Island it’s hard to miss some of the beautiful native bush and lush ferns around the land.
One of my favorite haunts is super easily accessible, the Redwoods walk in Rotorua. The Whakarewarewa Forest has tons of walking and biking trails, with massive California Redwoods dotted around, first planted in 1901.
Make sure to go for a forest walk on any North Island road trip.
There is no shortage of beautiful, stunning, epic waterfalls to be found in New Zealand and the North Island is no exception.
They are everywhere, most of which are easily accessible to boot.
I had quite a few falls to tick off on my bucketlist and managed to make it to most of them, many of them you might recognize from the Lord of the Rings.
Mangawhero Falls near Ruapehu
Little streams in Tongariro National Park
Bridal Veil Falls near Raglan
The first place I headed to was Mount Maunganui, a seaside cute suburban town outside Tauranga.
Lovingly nicknamed “The Mount” by locals, it’s definitely a place I could see myself living, especially as it was t-shirt and no shoes weather in the middle of winter!
I camped my van right at the holiday park under the Mount, the local hill overlooking the beaches, though I never made it to the top. Recovering from cracked ribs (long story), there was no way I could huff and puff my way uphill, which is fine with me, just another reason to come back.
I finished my road-trip with Motorhome Republic in Raglan, a place I haven’t visited since I first moved to New Zealand. I even camped right in the same spot next to the beach, and fell asleep in the van bundled up underneath the Milky Way as the waves crashed nearby.
The adorable seaside suburb of Mount Maunganui
Camping in Raglan
Surf’s always up at Ngarunui Beach near Raglan
Passing through Tauranga, I finally heard about the Elms, one of the oldest historical sites in New Zealand on my North Island road trip.
A mission house built in 1847, it’s a stunning Georgian house and of place of early contact between Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand.
As a big lover of all things historical, I couldn’t get enough of this house and gardens, not to mention one of the best libraries.
Rotorua is one of my favorite places in New Zealand. I was just there a year ago and I couldn’t wait to go back.
Often known as a geothermal wonderland of lush forests and blue rivers, a city of geysers, boiling mud pools and toxic lakes that will eat the skin off your body before you blink, Rotorua is not to be missed on any trip to New Zealand.
I’ve been quite a few times but never made it out to the iconic Wai-O-Tapu, the most famous of geothermal parks in the area. Finally ticking it off my bucketlist, it didn’t disappoint.
You can’t talk about the North Island and not remember all of the beautiful lakes dotted around the countryside, epic and miniature.
I mostly spent my time wandering back to some of my lakes, such as camping next to Blue Lake outside Rotorua. It was one of those perfectly still winter nights with no moon where you could see a million stars reflecting in the water.
And finally my favorite moment of the trip was when my good friend Brando, who you might recognize as the first person ever to walk the entire coast of New Zealand, spontaneously decided to join me for a day on my roadie.
We managed to arrive at the edge of Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake at sunset where we set up an impromptu tree swing, the perfect end to a day of adventure.
Where’s your favorite place you’ve ever road-tripped? What’s your top pick for the North Island? Share.
Blue Lake outside Rotorua
Great Lake Taupo