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New Zealand North Island Itenerary

We finally made it to New Zealand! In the fall of 2018, we went on a two-week camper van adventure through both islands. Here is a summary of our itinerary for the North Island with lots of tips and thoughts on what we enjoyed & what wished we had done differently. The itinerary for the South Island will be published soon.

We originally planned on spending one week on each of the islands but after reading countless blogs we decided to spend 60% of the time in the South Island. This is a contentious issue in our household. I think that was a mistake. If I had to do it all over again, I would spend 95% of the time in the South Island with the 5% for the North Island limited to the time waiting at the airport for a flight south! Yolanda strongly disagrees. She has a soft spot for this gorgeous country and feels the North Island is definitely worth visiting. Maybe I’m more of a cynic but I say there is nothing in the North Island that you can’t get on a much cheaper trip to California.

Day One. Arrival, Camper vans, and Muriwai Beach

We planned our flight to arrive to Auckland from LAX in the morning. That was Yolanda’s idea and it was ingenious. It gave us enough time to get our camper van, provision, visit downtown Auckland, stop by the Museum, and head to our first campground before it got dark. Definitely arrive to New Zealand in the morning.

Camper Van Selection. After clearing customs at the airport, we got picked up by Jucy Campers, the camper van company we selected. I confess that the only reason we selected Jucy is that they look very similar to Iceland’s Happy Campers and we loved Happy Campers! Both Happy and Jucy Campers are beautifully obnoxious. We selected the Jucy Condo model for the North Island and the Jucy Chaser for the South Island. The main difference between these two models is that the Chaser has a “real” toilet, which is extremely useful when doing freedom camping on the South Island. Technically, the Condo also has some sort of “toilet” but it is just a potty that is stored under the seat. I guess you could take it out, do your business, and put it back under the seat. I guess you can tell your partner to go out for a walk or just look the other way while you do your thing in the middle of the van. Gross. Yet, the Condo (the one without the real toilet) worked for the North Island because we found public toilets everywhere we camped. So did we like these Jucy vans? Mostly. We loved the design, features, and especially the Jucy community. All other Jucy van drivers wave at you as you drive by; like we were part of some happy family. Yet, we would not rent them again for one very important reason: they are grossly underpowered for the terrain. This felt like a major safety hazard. The vans have a very small engine for their size and really struggled going up hills and mountains. This was especially true in the South Island. Going slow annoyed other drivers and limited our ability to accelerate when needed. More than once we were scared because the van could not go faster than 45km/h on the hills. If we had to do it again, we would rent the Britz Venturer vans that are essentially Mercedez Benz Sprinter Vans. More than once they flew by us while we were crawling up those mountains.

Provisioning. Regardless of what camper van you select, most of their offices are next to the airport, so you will be able to drive right over to the airport Countdown store to provision. Countdown is one of the largest grocery chains in New Zealand and has pretty much everything you need. We even found American craft beer including Lagunitas IPA and Bells Two Hearted! Right next to Countdown, you will find the Warehouse, which looks and functions like a small Walmart. We recommend that you check everything that is included in your van carefully and consider whether there is anything missing that you need and could be purchased at the Warehouse. This is also a chance to get all the stuff you forgot. I forgot to bring warm pajamas and I got a pair of soft fleece pants for $5USD.

War Museum. After provisioning, we drove to downtown Auckland to visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Since we didn’t plan on spending more than just the day in Auckland, we selected this stop with the hopes that it would give us a basic exposure to the country and its history. The museum didn’t disappoint. Although it includes several exhibits on New Zealand’s participation in various wars, the bulk of the museum is about the country and the South Pacific history. It is definitely a must stop for anyone’s visiting Auckland for the first time.

Selecting Campgrounds. We researched and selected all of our campgrounds by using the Rankers App. This app was godsent. We used it daily to explore campgrounds and hikes. Definitely download this free app if you will be camping in New Zealand.

Muriwai Beach Campground. We spent our first night at the Muriwai Beach Campground. This is a fairly standard and clean campground located a few meters from the beautiful Muriwai beach. The site is quite large and has a communal kitchen and hot showers. The beach has an amazing sunset so try to arrive in the day time. The food options nearby are limited. However, if you walk left from the entrance to the campground towards the main road (Motutara Rd) you will find the Sand Dunz Beach Cafe. This cozy cafe has great breakfast and what we thought was uniquely amazing coffee. We were right on the amazing coffee part but wrong on uniquely. I don’t really know how they do it but New Zealand coffee is consistently amazing – as in “best coffee we ever had” amazing. And by consistently we mean everywhere: the coffee houses, the diners, the restaurants, the gas stations, even at the airport!

Day 2. Muriwai to Cathedral Cove to Pauanui Paradise Coast

Cathedral Cove. Our second day included one of the longest drives of the trip. We started early and drove directly to Cathedral Cove. This postcard beach is located in the town of Hanei at the northeast corner of the North Island. As soon as you get to town (before you start seeing the shops) you will see signs for a public parking lot on the right side. Use it. There is minimal parking anywhere in town so this is your best option. A shuttle that takes you from this lot to the entrance of the Cathedral Cove hike. Once you get to the entrance, the hike to the Cove is relatively easy if you are in decent shape but it involve going down and up some steep stairs. The return is mostly uphill so save your energies. The cove itself is gorgeous and definitely worth the visit.

Tairua. After spending some time at the cove and sweating a bit on the hike back, we decided to stop by Tairua for a late lunch. Tairua is a beachside town with many very inviting roadside bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, we were underwhelmed with the food. If you are tempted and decide to stop here, keep your expectations in check and enjoy drinking a cold beer while watching the tourists drive by.

Pauanui freedom camping. We spent our second night in the town of Pauanui, which is also called Paradise Beach. It is a pricey beach town with some very expensive-looking homes and two overnight freedom (i.e., free) campsites. We stayed at the South End Reserve Car Park located at Pauanui Beach. The views of the beach from our van were beautiful and the car park was quiet even though it was full by the end of the day. The site has public bathrooms open 24 hours. We highly recommend setting up your alarm to wake up early so you can capture the sunrise at the beach. The other campsite in town is the Pleasant Point Boat Ramp. We visited this campsite in the morning as they have a dump station and we needed to empty our gray water tank. Although it does not have views of the ocean, it has views of the inside bay and it is still quite gorgeous. However, we didn’t see a single camper van that morning despite being there before most people were awake. So, it is unclear if they still allow overnight camping.

Day 3. Pauanui to Rotorua

Hells Gate. The next day we began to transition from beach towns to the volcanic towns of Rotorua and Lake Taupo. We drove directly to Hells Gate Geothermal Park. This is one of two thermal parks we visited (Wai-O-Tapu being the other). The place is beautifully weird. It is much smaller than Wai-O-Tapu but also significantly less crowded. It is fully Maori owned and has a more authentic feel than the overly touristy Wai-A-Tapu.

Rotorua freedom camping. After Hells Gate we had to decide where we would sleep that night. The few freedom campgrounds in the town of Rotorua are supposed to be full by midday so we headed to town early to explore. We first checked the “campground” next to the roundabout at the intersection of Lake Dr. and Lakefront Dr. The site was perfectly located just a few blocks from a busy restaurant area. Yet, it was already full and it was quite uninviting. It was essentially 4 parking spot on a small ugly parking lot without any charm. The other freedom option was in a parking lot across the street from the Polynesian Spa (more of this below). It was larger than the previous lot but still uninviting and a bit stinky from the thermal fountains around the lot. It also had a major limitation in that it did not have bathrooms nearby and our van only had that potty under the seat. So we passed.

Polynesian Spa. While we were contemplating our campground options, we decided to splurge and got a private thermal tub at the Polynesian Spa. This is a luxury spa with public and private thermal pools. We were desperate for a real shower and the pictures on their website did a marketing job on us. It was money well spent as we really enjoyed the time relaxing on the thermal bath and taking showers with endless hot water. Sometimes it’s the little things.

Cozy Cottage Holiday Park. When we finished with our spa escapade, we decided to stop looking for a free place to park overnight and instead headed to the Cozy Cottage Holiday Park located on the north side of town. It was a great standard campground with a clean kitchen, showers, and the added bonus that you could walk to the edge of Lake Rotorua and dig in the sand until you found hot thermal water.

Redwood Tree Walk. Before our day ended we drove to the Redwood Tree Walk in the south side of town. This is a gorgeous forest of California Sequoia trees with many hiring, running, and biking trails. It also has a suspended tree walk that is quite popular at night as the park has beautiful lanterns and lasers illuminating the trees. We got tickets for the night walk earlier in the day because we heard that sometimes they are sold out. We arrived at the park in the late afternoon and decided to go on a hike before our night walk. We highly recommend doing this hike just before sunset because the sunlight made the forest look magical. After our walk, we waited, like many others, for the forest to get dark as we thought the darker the better the light show. This was a mistake. By the time we decided to start the walk, it was so dark that we couldn’t see anything but the light show. Without seeing the trees, the show was underwhelming. We realized that the best time to do the Redwood tree walk is right at twilight when there is enough light that you can still see the trees but it is dark enough to see the light show.

Third Place Cafe. On our way out of town we missed a turn, got temporarily lost, and suddenly ran into the Third Place Cafe. That was our best “missed turn” of the trip. We ended up stopping at the cafe for breakfast and it was by far the best breakfast we had on our trip. The place has amazing views of the lake, yummy food, and the type of towny feel that we love. Definitely don’t miss this place when in Rotorua.

Day 4. Rotorua to Lake Taupo

Wai-O-Tapu. The drive to Lake Taupo is short so but full of potential stops. Our first one was at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park, one of the largest Thermal Parks in New Zealand. The place gave me flashbacks to the time I lived near Orlando Florida and had to bring my out-of-town family and friends to the Disney parks. It was by far the most crowded attraction we experienced in the entire trip. It felt even more crowded than Milford Sound! Yet, just like the Disney parks, it is definitely worth doing – but just once.

Huka Falls. Before getting to Lake Taupo we stopped at Huka Falls just north of Lake Taupo. Maybe we are spoiled by Iceland’s waterfalls but Huka falls was interesting but not worth the stop if you have other options in Lake Taupo.

Lake Taupo Holiday Resort. In lake Taupo, we decided to sleep at the Lake Taupo Holiday Resort. The place has a massive party pool that unfortunately was closed when we were there. It was a solid campground with the standard conveniences (kitchen, showers, wifi, etc) but with limited charm. I actually wish I had done a bit more research on Lake Taupo because on our way out of town we saw a beautiful freedom camping area on the edge of the lake at the 5 Mile Bay Recreational Reserve.

Lake Taupo. The town itself is a bit utilitarian.  There is a large selection of grocery stores and restaurants, so it’s a perfect place to reprovision. The town seemed promising but unfortunately, it rained all day and we decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing in our van.

Day 5. Taupo to Wellington.

Don’t speed. We spent most of our last day on the North island doing the long drive from Rotorua to Wellington. A month after we got back to the U.S. we got a speeding ticket for a mystery infraction we committed this day. Apparently, some speed cam caught us driving 5km/h over the speed limit somewhere between Lake Taupo and Wellington. What we find hilarious is that our van could barely go the speed limit and most of our trip was spent worrying about causing an accident for going so slow! So most likely we got caught driving a bit too fast through one of the towns on our way. So, careful out there. The cams are watching!

Downtown Wellington. We got to Wellington by midday and drove directly to downtown as we were starving and craving some non-camping food. Parking is tight and if you have a large camper van I would recommend that you drive to your campground and take a taxi into downtown instead. We were especially excited about eating in Wellington as we had heard that they have many vegan restaurants and even a fully vegan grocery store. We settled for a small vegan Chinese restaurant called Aunty Mena’s (167 Cuba St) that was quite amazing. We also found vegan dessert at a vegan bakery and cafe called Sweet Release Cakes and Treats.

Freedom Camping in Wellington. We considered 3 campsites in Wellington, two of which are freedom camping. We first explored the Evans Bay Marina Carpark. It is close to downtown and it has a beautiful view of the marina. However, there are mixed reviews of the bathroom availability as they are far from the nearest public restrooms and they are not always open 24 hours. We had no intentions of using our potty for the first time the last night in Wellington, so we passed on this freedom carpark. We then considered the Camp Wellington located a bit north of the city. This is a very small site with amazing reviews due to its intimate setting. It is basically someone’s home with beautiful land overlooking the bay. We had decided on this site but it was fully booked by the time we tried to reserve a spot. So make your reservations early. We ended up staying in Owhiro Bay Carpark which became the most spectacular campground of the trip (including those at the south island!).

Owhiro Bay Campsite. The car park is located at the western end of Owhiro Bay Parade. There are only about 20 spots available for freedom camping and by mid-afternoon it was completely full. However, most of the vans that arrived after the freedom camping area was full simply parked on the no overnight parking area and they were still there in the morning. Although the place is crowded with vans parking very close to each other, the views more than make up for the close neighbors. All vans are parked facing the ocean just a few meters from the water. And to make the site even more mesmerizing, the hike west on the RedRocks Walkway is one of the most beautiful hikes we did in New Zeland. This place made our North Island trip.

The second half of our trip covering the south island is coming soon.

Disclaimer: We do not receive any referral or affiliate money from any of the businesses described below.

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