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, so I traveled through the north without any expectations. The north has so much more to offer than I knew, from tropical beaches to world-famous surf towns, and a deep respect for the indigenous Maori culture.
This itinerary is based around using the off Stray hop-on/hop-off bus pass, but you can definitely self-drive the same route. Note that this post isn’t sponsored by Stray, but I am a happy customer!
If you’re traveling over both the North and South Islands, you can easily tag this into my South Island itinerary, coming soon!
How the 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, or you can spend more time. You can even skip some places entirely by connecting to the next bus via public busses (but why would you really want to do that?).
The bus pass includes all your transportation, your driver/guide, and stops along the way for scenic viewpoints and small hikes. You also have at least one night guaranteed dorm accommodation at each stop (own expense), but you can definitely book your own too. The drivers also book your activities for you at a discounted rate, so you don’t have to do much research or planning at all.
I mentioned above that you can also self-drive this 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.
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 leg 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.
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.
You can spend your time here lounging on the beach if the weather is good, or 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.
One of the most popular activities in Paihia is the Hole in the Rock cruise. 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.
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.
If these activities don’t interest you, or 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 sand boarding on the dunes, and visit New Zealand’s northernmost point, where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet.
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
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. While in Hahei, 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).
If you hike to Cathedral Cove, 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.
Visiting Hot Water Beach is also 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!
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.
Night 9: Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Rotorua
Leaving Raglan, the Stray bus will stop in Waitomo long enough for you to do one of the iconic glowworm cave activities. You can go canyoning if you’re feeling adventurous, or opt for the classic glowworm experience on the Spellbound tour, where you walk and then ride a raft through a dark cave with millions of glowworms ($75 NZD). This was one of my favorite activities on the North Island!
The Stray bus will also drop passengers off at the Hobbiton Movie Set if they desire ($99 NZD) on the way to 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, fumeroles, 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. Ever morning at 10am, 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.
You can also ZORB (roll down a hill in an inflatable clear ball) or luge in Rotorua. Both are class New Zealand activities.
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 (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; they are 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 and spend time with them during their recess.
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.
At the farm, you can hike to the waterfalls onsite, go kayaking, horseback riding and 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 and 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, but it also feels wrong to kill the non-native species – it’s not their fault they live there. But I digress.
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, and if you are relatively fit, you should absolutely make this a priority in your plans!
The hike starts at the Mangatepopo carpark (altitude 1120 meters) on a flat boardwalk, with views of alpine desert wildflowers and Mount Ngauruhoe volcano. About a half hour into the trek, the trail begins to ascend between Mount Tongariro on the left and Mount Ngauruhoe on the right. The ascent takes about an hour and a half, with intermittent descents and level portions. After the first big climb, the trail descends again into the volcanic crater. After crossing the crater, it then ascends again to a steep ridge overlooking another crater. The views get bigger and bigger before one last steep climb to the top of another ridge. It’s windy and rocky – and admittedly kind of scary given the height!
Once at the top, this is good place to have your lunch, take photos and stretch your legs. The initial descent on the other side overlooks the crossing’s three iconic lakes, perfectly blue and green against the burnt tan dirt landscape surrounding them. The descent to the lakes is very slippery over loose volcanic ash.
After leaving this beautiful area, you’ll walk by another large lake and around the other side of the Tongariro volcano, where you can see the hardened river of lava spilled out over the valley.
From here the hike is a series of switchbacks descending down for what feels like forever (you’re descending in altitude lower than where you started the trek to end at the Ketetahi carpark, altitude 800 meters). This part of the trek is admittedly boring. Eventually you reach a forest and cross by a stream marked with signs warning of flash floods and to move quickly and not stop.
All in all the hike will take between 5 and 7 hours, and covers about 20 km. You will definitely want to bring plenty of food and water with you. Since the hike starts and ends in different spots, you’ll also need to arrange a pick up at the trail’s end to take you to your accommodation. For $49 NZD you can arrange this through Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures.
The weather in this area is very erratic, so if you have time to give yourself a few days in the area, I highly recommend it, just to optimize your chances of having a good weather day to do your hike. Many have hiked it in subpar conditions only to see fog and clouds the whole way.
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), so I recommend staying a few days to explore the cafe and art scene.
Wellington is also home to the fantastic national Te Papa museum, which houses exhibits on geology, history and wildlife in New Zealand. Even better, this museum is free!
From Wellington, you can fly out, take a bus back to Auckland, or ferry down to the South Island to continue your New Zealand adventure!