New Zealand is stunning in its natural beauty and remoteness and an unmissable paradise for nature lovers, outdoor adventurers and – of course – hobbit fans. New Zealand possesses an incredible variety – maybe even contrariety – which will keep on surprising you. Get ready for a Kiwi adventure ranging from rolling hills to beautiful beaches, from mountain tops to lowlands, from snowy glaciers to the wet tropics, from tiny hobbits standing next to New Zealand’s indigenous hunky Maoris. The only thing you can get used to is the constantly passing countless sheep when cruising this beautiful country with your camper van.
Before we start with our top destinations for New Zealand’s North Islands we want to give you some hints ahead.
– Camper is the way to go: Simply put – we think there is no better way to discover New Zealand than road-tripping with a camper van.
– Choose the time of your trip wisely: We went during New Zealand’s autumn which logically also constitutes the shoulder season. To be honest, we think this was a super-smart move as New Zealand is overrun by tourist during summer time. We met other travelers that told us there were times they couldn’t find any free spot on campsites so they even had to fall back on a hotel room.
– There are more rules than you expect – especially with regards to freedom camping: New Zealand conveys the image that it is a big, fat adventure-park and you can pull off your camper wherever and spend the night in complete freedom. Well, this might have been the case some years ago but you will clearly figure that Kiwis are a bit annoyed by their camping tourists. There are many areas where freedom camping is completely prohibited and it wasn’t always easy to find a nice spot for the night (no worries, there are still plenty), even in remote areas.
– Get ready for crazy weather: There is nothing more unsteady than the weather in New Zealand – you might enjoy some suntanning and find yourself soaked just five minutes after. Be aware that New Zealand can get really cold, especially when visiting outside summer time. Bring layers!
– The weather will sometimes screw up your plans: Depending on how weather-resistant you are, traveling during shoulder season might force you to change your plans. I know it’s sissy but I rather skip a sight than doing a hike while it is raining or visiting the must-see beach almost getting stoned by hail.
– Get WikiCamps or CamperMate: Both apps will help you to find established and free campspots.
Enough with the hints – let’s het started with our top tips for New Zealand’s North Island.
#1 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Let’s start with our favorite – the Coromandel Peninsula. You will encounter a natural paradise of pristine beaches, stunning views, tropical forests, great hikes and miles of cliff-lines kissing the ocean. There is so much to see and do that it is easy to loose track of time and spend much more of your vacation here than planned. Hike within the national park, relax on one of the countless beaches, kayak or try to catch a fish with many of the local fisherman – and make sure you make it all they way to Fletcher Bay located on the upper tip of the peninsula. The Fletcher Bay campground was probably the most beautiful we encountered during our New Zealand discovery.
By the way, one of the biggest tourist attractions of the Coromandel Peninsula is the hot water beach – a volcanic hot water spring. While it sounds like a great natural spectacle (which we’re sure it is) it is completely overrun by tourists. We skipped it and met a lot of travelers that told us it completely lost its appeal due to the tourist masses even in the shoulder season. But decide for yourself.
#2 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands constitute New Zealand’s tropics and consist of more than 140 subtropical islands that are spread along the coastline. It is a huge playground for all beach- and water-sport lovers and there are countless companies offering cruises across the islands. We chose an overnight cruise on an old houseboat which we couldn’t recommend more. Alone the houseboat is so cool that it is worth the trip – it possesses several simple rooms for the guests, a long wooden bar, a pool table and a fireplace (not sure how safe this is 😉 ). The tour is run by young travelers and you really feel they love what they do, which gives the entire trip a cool and laid-back flair.
You will spend your day kayaking, swimming, diving, visiting one of the islands for a little hike, doing a small night-kayak tour and at some point you also shoot a plastic duck with a paintball gun. Food is good and if you want you even get to try a local specialty – sea urchin. Check it out: https://www.rocktheboat.co.nz/
Most of the cruises leave from a little town called Paihia – we wouldn’t recommend spending a day here as it isn’t very pretty. BUT, next to the cruise, there are two more things to do: Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds museum to learn about New Zealand’s history and its Maori culture and try the nasty huge-warm-cookie dessert at CBK Craft Bar and Kitchen while waiting for your cruise to start.
#3 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Russell (Bay of Islands)
Instead of staying a night in Paihia we strongly recommend to have one or two days in Russel – which is a small town lying across the bay. There is a little ferry service that brings you and your car over there in just a couple of minutes (Opua to Okiato, from there it’s a 20 minute drive to Russell). Russell has a strong and dark historic meaning as it was the first permanent European settlement and sea port in New Zealand and became a place full of prostitution, alcohol and lost souls that fell for it. Today, there is not much visible from its dark past as it is a peaceful beach town with great restaurants and a beautiful town center. Make sure you check out the Duke of Marlborough Hotel and its associated bar (few blocks further) as it was the first licensed establishment and in the past the playground for all the drunks. Today it is rather a fancy restaurant with great food. Also the Gables Restaurant is worth visiting for sunset and dinner.
#4 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Tongariro National Park including its view on the gigantic Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom for all Lord of the Ring fans)
Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park and sits right in the middle of the northern island. It is a wildlife paradise, important conservation area to the kiwi birds and home to three still active volcanoes. It is especially a must-see for all Lord of the Ring fans as “Mount Doom” (in reality Mount Ngauruhoe) thrones over the national park like a majesty. But you don’t have to be a fan to appreciate this (I haven’t even seen one of the movies) as it simply looks stunning how the mountain with its snowy tip ascends over the lush bush land. There is great camping within the park and you can spend your days hiking, fishing, chasing kiwis or discovering waterfalls. For all hiking-lovers – there are several options for all levels, but the most popular is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing passing over the volcanic terrain and by the multiple craters of Mount Tongariro. We unfortunately had to skip it (due to the raining cats and dogs thing) but it is definitely a worthwhile adventure.
#5 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Cape Reinga & Spirits Bay Campground
Cape Reinga sits all the way on top of New Zealand’s North Island and constitutes the northern-most point of the country which is marked by a lighthouse. This also became the famous landmark of this area and I understand why – it looks beautiful how the lighthouse stands on the most northern tip while the water clashes against the cliffs (at least as we where there, it was super-stormy). There are several nice hikes in this area and we even read that it is possible to sleep in the lighthouse – for sure a magical place for sunsets.
Make sure you spend at least one night at the Spirits Bay campground 45 minutes from Cape Reinga. A gravel road leads you through lush forests until you reach this beautiful spot right at the beach. Definitely a great spot to hang loose, start a hike, catch a fish or relax on the beach. You can even light a campfire here, which is rare in NZ.
#6 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Ninety Mile Beach
On the way to or back from Cape Reinga you will drive parallel to a seemingly endless stretch of beach – the Ninety Mile Beach. Winding along the West coast it is famous for its stunning sunsets and apparently offer one of New Zealand’s best surfing waves. We also found it quite impressive that there are no fancy hotels whatsoever – so the beach is basically left on its own in all its beauty. A great day activity is to rent a board (lots of private households around the beach area rent them out), hike up the sand dunes and bodysurf down the sand. It’s hilarious.
#7 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
To be honest, we didn’t expect much from Auckland – somehow no one ever recommends or even talks much about New Zealand’s largest city. But that’s such a shame – Auckland is a great city with an amazing restaurant and bar scene and definitely should be on your list.
Make sure you spend plenty of time (especially evenings) in Ponsonby – Auckland’s coolest neighborhood with so many great restaurants and bars that it is hard to choose. My personal favorite was SPQR – a hip Italian restaurant with (mostly gay) super-friendly servers. Also spend some time strolling Ponsonby Central – a converted old warehouse stuffed with bars, boutiques and gourmet food.
Also the CBD is a great place to stay at with a nice port, waterfront area and lots of shopping. Make sure to visit the best cocktail bar of Auckland – the Caretaker. Choose your seat, answer some taste-questions to the bar tender and get surprised what he will prepare for you. If you don’t like it you will simply get a new drink until you are happy. When you get hungry stroll over to the port and treat yourself to one of the plenty restaurants – especially when you like oysters it will be paradise for you. Last restaurant tip: Baduzzi – super-tasty Italian restaurant in the Wynyard Quarter (not far away from the CBD), best pasta we had in New Zealand.
#8 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Waiheke Island (for wine-lovers!)
Waiheke is an island sitting in the Hauraki Gulf right in front of Auckland. It is a heaven for wine lovers with its countless vineyards and some of the best wines New Zealand has to offer. There is a frequent ferry service that brings wine-fanatics and “normal” visitors to the island in a bit more than an hour. Next to wine, wine & wine the island also hosts white-sandy beaches, beautiful coastlines, loads of olive groves and pretty little towns that invite for dinner.
Make sure you spend some time vineyard-hopping trying a range of Waiheke’s wine offer – most of the estates also have great restaurants that offer tasty lunch (and sometimes dinner). Our not-to-miss tip is definitely a dinner at Mudbrick Restaurant & Vineyard. The food and wine is delicious but the view is even better – overlooking grapevines and olive groves you have a beautiful view on the ocean and even can see Auckland’s skyline from afar. Make sure you come for sunset!
#9 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Surf along the surf highway 45
New Zealand with its huge coastal line is a surfer’s dreams and offers one of the best swells in the world. Well, you have to be resistant to the cold as neither the water nor the wind are particularly warm – but the waves are perfect for some wave riding. If you are into surfing (or just like to watch others doing it) – don’t miss New Zealand’s legendary surf highway 45. The road starts in New Plymouth and winds its way along the coast passing several surf spots on the way such as Oakura Beach, Ahu Ahu, Kumera Patch and Opunake Beach until it ends in Hawea. If you don’t make it to the south-west of New Zealand or the weather is too bad Ngarunui Beach in Raglan is a cool surfing spot also and a cool town to hang out at.
#10 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
The Feast @ Hobbiton
We are back to all hobbit and Lord of the Ring fans and your inevitable must-see: The Hobbition Movie Set. It is more or less located in the center of the norther island on the property of a family run farm. It is as picturesque as you imagine it to be with rolling green hills, countless sheep and little hobbit houses that make you feel like in a fantasy world.
The move set offers several visiting options but we strongly want to encourage you to do the Evening Banquet Tour. It is kind of pricey (195 NZ dollars per person) but it is definitely worth it. First of all, you will get the last movie set tour of the day which has the advantage that you can enjoy the beauty of the set in pretty orange-ish evening light and, most importantly, without lost Asian tourists constantly running in front of your camera. During the day tours leave every 10 minutes so we don’t want to imagine the chaos if you have one of the normal day tours. Secondly, the movie set tour is followed by a beer at the Green Dragon Inn and an amazing, unforgettable feast with hearty food. After you are stuffed and had a chitchat with other travelers you will get a lantern and have a night-walk through the set under a bright moon. No joke, the crew members all look like hobbits – not sure if a this is a requirement – and they will supply you with loads of information and fun facts about the movies and film shooting. As said before, I didn’t see any of the movies and was quite an outcast – but next to the beauty of the set it is still quite amusing as there are loads of geeks around that know every line by heard and completely freak out at the sight of Bags End or the Green Dragon Inn. Make sure you book your tickets in advance for the Evening Banquet Tour as it is in high demand.
Camper-insider-tip: The feast is only a feast if you can drink plenty of beer and wine. Just call the front office before your tour and tell them you want to camp on the parking lot – they will supply you with a sign so the security guards won’t bother you at night.
#11 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
The Farm might be a bit off in this context as is not a sight, national park or landmark – it is simply a place to stay at and chill out. But it is cool, really cool. The Farm is a 1000 acre working farm close to Russel and the Bay of Islands with horses and cows and everything a farm needs to have. The special thing is that they offer accommodation within the farm house and camping in the backyard for travelers and share their life with people from all over the world. When we got there we got welcomed by several people and we didn’t really know if they belong to the owners or they are just visitors – and this is so special about the place. It is a melting pot of travelers and family members, half of the visitors seem to work at The Farm for accommodation and more or less become bothers and sisters.
We stayed there for a couple of days and couldn’t quite figure out who really belongs to The Farm and who just chills there but this is not important – everyone was lovely and the environment is just beautiful. There is also loads to do – from kayaking, horseback riding, driving through the mud with motorbikes or joining the owners in the morning to milk the cows – you cannot get bored. Marvin got invited to a little impromptu jam session when two of the sons figured he can play bass guitar. That’s just how this place works. Fun-fact: The lovely owners of The Farm have several kids – due to the constant stream of travelers coming to The Farm ALL of them are somehow married to, engaged to or together with an international fellow.
Check it out: http://www.thefarm.co.nz
#12 of our top tips for New Zealand (North Island)
Rotorua is a town located next to the same-named Lake Rotorua and is famous for its hot springs and thermal activities. We are usually not big fans of the “typical” tourist spots but Rotorua is quite worth it to stop by during your road trip. It just looks epic driving through the green New Zealand nature with columns of smoke of the natural thermal springs rising here and there out of the bush. There are several spots where you can jump into hot or mud pools and heat up during cold days – they even have campgrounds with their own little hot pool spas.