New Zealand is truly an amazing country with breathtaking scenery. The natural landscape looks like it’s been already photoshopped with enhanced vibrancy and colours. You really feel like you are in the setting of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
We only had 3 weeks for both islands and decided to spend one week in the Northern Island and the rest in the South. For the entire trip we rented a campervan and most of the time we slept in the back. It’s very convenient because you are free to sleep and wake up anywhere you want! However, there are certain rules you have to follow when camping like this, especially in terms of location. There are also both free campsites and paid ones available with kitchens, showers and sometimes common areas to chill. Generally, the free ones only have a single toilet available and occasionally running water.
For a campervan, there are many different rental companies available, the most popular are Jucy and Spaceships. We went with the latter because it was the best combination of price and quality for our budget. Make sure you check with the company if you can drop off the car at a different location if you plan to do A to B route.
As I mentioned we only had 3 weeks and there are SO many places to see in New Zealand, so even with 3 weeks to travel around our trip was still intense. I found out quickly that I had planned more stuff to see and do than was physically possible.
We have condensed the best 16 places we found along our itinerary (including the ones we, unfortunately, didn’t have time to get to). I marked places we did visit in green, and places we had to skip due to lack of time in red. I hope I will be back to explore those places next time!
- Cape Reinga
It is the north-westernmost tip of the Northern Island where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. There is also a dramatic lighthouse to take beautiful sunrise photos of. On the way to Cape Reinga, there is the infamous ‘Ninety Mile Beach’ with desert-like dunes all the way along the peninsula.
We passed this place on the way to KiteKite Falls (the next location) but didn’t have time to stop. Piha is a scenic black-sand surf beach on the rugged coast west of Auckland. There are several walks through the native forest in the surrounding hills.
- KiteKite Falls
It is a scenic 3-tiered waterfall near Auckland. Very easy to reach and it only takes about 30 minutes walking through the forest with a few elevations up and down (you don’t need hiking boots for this, flip flops will do!) There is an additional 20 min walk to the top of the falls where you have a chance to get into a tiny pool with a great view over the valley. The whole trip from Auckland and back took us about 4 hours of driving.
- KareKare Falls
These falls are only 8 km away from KiteKite and they look gorgeous! By the way, the best way to find any waterfall in New Zealand is to check their official website http://waterfalls.co.nz. Google Maps, unfortunately, can be misleading when looking for directions.
- The Pinnacles at the Coromandel Peninsula
I was both scared and very excited to do this hike. It’s quite steep but the views from the summit are to die for. It is recommended to spend a night at Pinnacles Hut and continue hiking early to see a sunrise. Track overview is here. Unfortunately, due to bad weather conditions the track and roadworks the road was closed and we had to skip this hike. Always check the http://www.doc.govt.nz for track accessibility.
- Cathedral Grove
After being super cold in waters of KiteKite falls we headed East to explore the Coromandel Peninsula. The plan was to hike to the summit of the Pinnacles but I mentioned above it was closed and we couldn’t get there. Instead, we went to famous Cathedral Cove – a beach with a picturesque arch and a giant rock on the shore. It’s also a film location of The Chronicles of Narnia. Expect to do a 45 min hike and takes lots of water with you. Also, check the tide, you might find the beach unaccessible.
- Bridal Veil Falls
This plunge waterfall looks amazing but was a little away from our route. It’s 55m high and only 10 min hike from the carpark.
- Hobbiton Movie Set
A trip to New Zealand just isn’t complete without visiting the Hobbiton Movie Set. Needless to say, it’s an amazing place! Thanks to Lord of the Rings and Hobbit director the decorations were left as it is and we had the opportunity to visit Bilbo’s house 🙂
To see redwoods in all their glory, you don’t have to go to California. New Zealand has them too, however, the tallest tree there is approximately 72 cm tall compared to California, where they get to 110 cm high. It’s free to visit but if you want to do a tree walk, you need to purchase a ticket.
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
This place is an active geothermal area. The technical description for this remarkable place is that it’s part of an 18-sq. km active geothermal park at the northern perimeter of the Reporoa Caldera (a collapsed volcanic crater) formed 230,000 years ago within the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
- Kerosene Creek
This turned out to be the closest thing we came to a wash that morning, as we spent another night in the back of the van. This was the perfect contrast to the cold Lake Tarawera, and the hot springs at Kerosene Creek turned out to be the perfect place for a short soak.
- Lake Taupo
It is the largest lake in New Zealand and a perfect destination for a day out. The most popular sightseeing place on this lake is Maori rock carvings which are only accessible by boat or kayak. We only stopped there to have a break before a long drive south to Wellington, almost getting attacked by black swans as we left! But that’s a completely different story 🙂
- Glow Worm Caves
It is known for its population of Arachnocampa luminosa, a glowworm species found exclusively in New Zealand. The way to experience an incredible luminescent light of these worms is by a guided boat tour. Unfortunately, this place and some others on this list are on the West coast of the island which was not part of our route. Skipped until next time.
- Mount Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom)
We were passing Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings just in time for a beautiful sunset. It’s amazing to visit the location from one of my favourite movies. There is a popular one-day hike – Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is 19.4 km.
- Mount Taranaki
This active volcano is located on the western coast of the island and looks like the only interesting place to see in that area. It’s a bit far from everything else and you will need at least 2 days to get there and see it properly. The view is stunning and not being able to go there was the biggest disappointment of this trip (have a look at some of the photos of the mountain on Instagram!). But it’s also a good excuse to come back one day 🙂
We only stopped there for a night before taking a ferry to go to the South Island but I think it’s worth exploring a little bit if you can. The bars and restaurants are known to be great, and you can enjoy evenings on the waterfront. A great stop is also seeing how the magic of LOTR is done at Weta Studio Tours.