Classic road trip series: North Island Auckland to Wellington

A road trip between Auckland and Wellington can be done in so many ways, and with no end of wonderful sights to see.

This particular itinerary includes a large portion of the Thermal Explorer Highway – a popular route that begins north of Hamilton and reaches the coast at Napier. There will also be suggestions for roads less travelled, introducing you to some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s hidden gems. Starting in Auckland, this roadie will take you to Taupō, Napier and Palmerston North, before arriving in the country’s fabulous capital – Wellington.

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Taupō via Rotorua (310 kilometres)

There is so much to see and do between Auckland and Taupō, but your first stop has to be the award-winning Hamilton Gardens. Give yourself a good couple of hours to stroll through the themed grounds (add a little extra time if you’re a dedicated greenthumb – you’ll need it!). Less than an hour’s drive south of Hamilton is the Blue Spring, which is so pure that it supplies more than half of New Zealand’s bottled water. The Te Waihou Walkway to the Spring is a lovely must-do. There are two ways to do the walk, with the shorter of the two taking only 15 minutes each way.

You could skip Rotorua and take a more direct route to Taupō, but Rotorua is absolutely worth visiting if you’ve never been there before. Highlights include Te Puia for a geothermal and Māori cultural experience rolled into one, Skyline Rotorua for views, thrills and a fantastic dining experience, and the Polynesian Spa for a luxurious thermal bathing treat.

Related: Top 4 places to see in Rotorua

Huka Falls. Image - Bigstock
Huka Falls. Image: Bigstock

Once you get to Taupō, you’re spoilt for choice on how to spend your time. A visit to Huka Falls is highly recommended, and if you time it right, it’s also worth venturing a further ten minutes down the road to the Aratiatia Dam to watch the water being released into the Aratiatia Rapids. This occurs four times a day in the summer season and three times a day through the winter months. Other Taupō highlights include the lake tour to Mine Bay to see the Maōri rock carvings, or for something a little different, a visit to the Lava Glass gallery, sculpture garden and cafe.

Need a place to stay?

Quality Suites Huka Falls offers a tranquil stay just a few minutes’ drive from the Taupo town centre and Huka Falls.

Napier/Ahuriri (141 kilometres)

Many people travel between Taupō and Napier without stopping to enjoy the amazing scenery along the way. If you do decide to pull off this busy highway, take care and be wary of travelling during the winter months as weather and fallen snow can close the road. It’s always a good idea to check the road status with the New Zealand Transport Agency.

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There are two waterfalls worth stopping for – Waipunga Falls and Pungahuru Falls. Waipunga Falls are spectacular and can be viewed from the dedicated rest stop. Pungahuru Falls are not quite as impressive, but the location is. It’s a great place to visit during the warmer months for a picnic and swim. The best way to find both of these falls is by using Google Maps (as neither of them is well signposted). Between the waterfalls is the Tarawera Cafe, a great place to take a break and refresh. The cafe has some fascinating local history covering the walls inside (it’s like a mini-museum!). On the final section of the Thermal Explorer Highway, Trelinnoe Park consists of 30 acres of gorgeous gardens. For nature lovers, this is a delight.

Waipungu Waterfall deep in New Zealand bush just off Napier Taupo highway, New Zealand
Waipunga Falls. Image: Bigstock

As you near Napier, it will become abundantly clear that you’ve arrived in wine country. The first winery you’ll come to is Linden Estate, which is a good stop for a tasting. There are over a hundred wine producers in the region and it can be a bit overwhelming planning your wine experience. Hawke’s Bay Wine makes recommendations for various wine trails to follow. 

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Napier is known for its Art Deco architecture and you can’t spend time in this seaside city without doing an Art Deco walking tour. Other highlights in the region include seeing the gannets at Cape Kidnappers, checking out the National Aquarium of New Zealand, and taking in the scenic beauty of Te Mata Park.

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Need a place to stay?

Enjoy Art Deco-era accommodation by the beach at the Comfort Inn Westshore Beach, which offers two award-winning on-site restaurants. Quality Inn Napier is located in the heart of the city, within easy reach of popular sights and attractions, restaurants, cafes and bars.

An old car parked outside a cinema that was built in Art Deco style following a major earthquake in 1931. Napier, New Zealand.
Step back in time to the Art Deco era in Napier. Image: iStock

Palmerston North (Te Papaioea) via Waipukurau – 181 kilometres

The road from Napier to Palmerston North is one less travelled, which makes for an interesting trip. Passing through Hastings, the first place of interest is the Settlers Museum at Waipawa. This fantastic facility reveals the history of Central Hawke’s Bay. If you are keen to visit the town with the longest (disputed) place name in the world – ‘Taumata­whakatangihanga­koauau­o­tamatea­turi­pukaka­piki­maunga­horo­nuku­pokai­whenua­ki­tana­tahu’– turn off at Waipukurau. From there, you can take Weber Road to get back on the route to Palmerston North. Less than an hour out from Palmerston North, you’ll reach Dannivirke. This town has a strong Scandinavian heritage and a historic settlers’ cemetery that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Palmerston North is a thriving regional hub, which many visitors arrive at not knowing much about, but are delighted with what they discover. Nestled between the coast and the hills, the city is home to the New Zealand Rugby Museum, which is well worth a visit. Gorgeous gardens and cafes add to the ambience of the city centre. Check out the Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and Heritage, explore the Victoria Esplanade, and take a trip out to the Te Apiti Wind Farm.

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Need a place to stay?

Located on The Square in the heart of Palmerston North, Quality Suites Central Square offers easy access to cafes and restaurants and is a short walk to city attractions (including the New Zealand Rugby Museum). Comfort Inn Kauri Court is located just south of the city centre and offers a range of guest amenities, including free parking.

Palmerston North. Image: Destination Manawatu

Wellington (Te Whanganui-a-tara) via Masterton (Whakaoriori) – 249 kilometres

The quickest route to Wellington takes you down the east coast and offers stunning coastal views. However, the more interesting way to go is via Masterton and through the Wairarapa region. It will add more than a hundred kilometres to your trip, but is definitely worth it. Once on the road, take a little detour to the Tui Brewery at Mangatainoka. Even if a beer tasting doesn’t interest you, don’t miss seeing this iconic brewery. Heading towards Masterton, stop in at the Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre at Mount Bruce. Here you’ll meet Manukura the white kiwi, and a friendly kōkako named Kahurangi. You can take a guided tour of the park, but also check the keeper talk times to learn more about some of the very special species that call this place home.

Arctocephalus forsteri, the New Zealand fur seal, southern fur seal or long-nosed fur seal at Cape Palliser, New Zealand
See fur seals at Cape Palliser. Image: Bigstock

From Masterton through to Wellington, there is so much to take in. Masterton has the family-friendly Queen Elizabeth Park to explore, while Martinborough offers a plethora of amazing food and wine experiences. Drive down to Cape Palliser at the very southern tip of the North Island to see the large fur seal colony and iconic lighthouse. Greytown is renowned for its antique stores and art galleries. From there, you’ll head over the Rimutaka Range and down into Wellington.

Fondly known as the ‘windy city’, the country’s capital deserves a generous proportion of your time. Many creatives call Wellington home, including musicians, artists and the famous filmmakers at Weta Workshop. Wine and dine in Cuba Street or hit the pavements and shop. Must-sees include Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand, the Botanic Garden, the Space Place at Carter Observatory, and Zealandia ecosanctuary.

New Zealand winter school holiday escapes
Weta Workshop, Wellington. Image: Alamy

Need a place to stay?

Quality Hotel The Angus in Lower Hutt offers an idyllic alternative to staying in the busy heart of Wellington, and you’ll enjoy complimentary parking and Wi-Fi.

About the writer

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. In the past few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off over more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors – especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.