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We spent a total of 12 days in New Zealand, and although you could spend way, way, WAY, more time exploring the islands, what we came to realize within the first few hours of being there is that it’s worth it no matter how long you go! Don’t let going for a short period of time stop you – we were so blown away by all the beauty and landscapes of the country!
Because our time was somewhat limited and we were spanning pretty much the entire country in our 12 days, we had to accept we couldn’t see everything, and that we’d have to pick and choose what we wanted to do.
But also, because we still managed to see and do so many amazing things on our trip, we’re breaking it down by the North and South island. So here we go! North Island itinerary coming right at ya:
Day 1: Arrival
We flew into the Auckland Airport in the afternoon, and it took wayyyy longer than we expected to get our rental car, so with a 2 and a half hour drive to our accommodations for the night, we didn’t get to go and explore Auckland.
But while we were still at the airport, I had been on our maps.me app and saw that there were some waterfalls in the direction we were headed. We made it to Bridal Veil Falls, a 55-meter high waterfall, and got to soak in all its beauty at the golden hour (not a bad way to spend our first night in New Zealand, if you ask us!).
After leaving the falls we got our first real experience with New Zealand backroads. One word for ya – winding! So, so curvy! Which of course is fun to drive, but also once the sun has gone down, and you don’t really know where you are driving, navigating a twisty-turvy gravel road for an hour and a half will get to you 🙂 So if you are taking notes, driving around New Zealand usually takes longer than what your GPS tells you!
After our gravel adventure, we finally arrived at our Airbnb in the countryside of Te Kuiti. We stayed here, because it was close to the Glowworm Caves and our tour for that was leavin bright and early in the morning.
Day 2: Adventuring
Before leaving for our trip, we each choose one fun “splurge” activity that we wanted to do. We both tried to choose things that were unique to New Zealand, so it was Waitomo Glowworm Cave Rafting for me and Hobbiton for Ian. And it just so happens that we ended up doing them both in one day. So yes, you can do both Waitomo Glowworm Cave Rafting and Tour Hobbiton all in one day, but we’d definitely suggest staying close by to whichever activity you are doing first the night before.
Curious about how much our trip cost? Head here to find out!
So after waking up to our first New Zealand sunrise, our first stop of the day was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. We did the Black Labyrinth tour, which involves grabbing a tube + a wetsuit and crawling and rafting through the caves. This also included jumping off waterfalls, kissing a whale fossil, and seeing lots of glowworms! I mean, I feel like it’s pretty obvious, but I’ll say it for good measure – it was amazing! And as part of the tour, you also get hot showers along with hot soup and bagels after you’re done exploring the caves. And let me tell you, tomato soup has never tasted so good.
Our tour started at around 8:30 AM and by the time we finished eating and getting changed, it was around 12. Our tour of Hobbiton wasn’t till 3:30, so we had a little bit of time to kill. We got groceries (and for the rest of the trip pretty much ate buns with meat and cheese), and also stopped in at the New Zealand Torchbearers campus. This is a sister school of the Bible school that Ian and I initially met at in Germany, so it was really neat to see another campus.
We made it to Hobbiton and checked in for our tour, and then waited to board our bus. You can only access the movie set by taking a tour which starts with a 5-minute bus ride that takes you from the ticketing area to the actual set.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect – I mean, I had seen the LOTR movies and all, and always thought Hobbiton was really cute and neat. But also hadn’t given much thought to what it would actually be like and how extensive the set would be. I was so impressed! And of course Ian loved it, it was his activity pick after all 😉 Both of us were amazed by the attention to detail, from the gardens to the little hobbit clothes hanging from clotheslines. The tour ended at the Green Dragon where everyone gets a drink, and a couple moment to sit and enjoy the site. All in all, the tour took about two hours from start to finish.
From there we drove to Rotorua, where we were staying for the night, which was about an hour drive from Hobbiton. We made good time and decided to take the opportunity to explore the Redwood Forest that is in town. After a walk in the forest and the chance to admire the beautiful Redwoods, we headed to the Kuirau Park to dip our feet in the footbaths they have there. Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity and all of its natural hot pools. But be warned! Because of all the geothermal activity and the sulfur in the air, the whole town doesn’t smell the greatest! (and by that we mean, it smells like rotten eggs!).
Day 3: Sulfer
We left Rotorua in the morning and headed to Kerosene Creek. I had been wanting to go to a hot spring since the area is so well known for them, but a lot of them cost quite a bit of money. After a bit of searching, I found out about Kerosene Creek, which is a natural creek with a hot tub-like temperature, and completely free! After you lock your car and hide your valuables (apparently a lot of things get stolen in this area) it’s about a 5-minute walk into the forest before you come upon the small pool that the creek flows into. We were the only people there at first, which was great in the privacy sense, but also left us wondering if we were in the right place. But people did start showing up, and getting in the water so I’m guessing we were! This was one of Ian’s favorite things – and it was pretty neat. Instead of the typical hot pool, this was literally a rushing creek with a waterfall at one end of the pool and the water was hot. Just one of those bizarre, but amazing NZ experiences.
From Kerosene Creek we drove down towards Taupo, and along the way, Ian saw a sign for something called “Mud Pools”. This wasn’t on our original itinerary, but Ian swung a hard left and we drove up to these pools of plopping mud bubbles. I’m not sure how else to describe them… It was a big muddy area, with small, more active “puddles” that would “pop” and mud would go plop.
Just outside of Taupo we stopped at Huka Falls, a powerful 11-meter waterfall that rushes through a small gorge and is the most visited natural attraction in New Zealand. After checking that out, it was onto the town of Taupo itself. We spent some time walking around the shops before driving to our accommodations for the night which were on the other side of Lake Taupo, near Tongariro National Park.
Although we did a lot of driving and you might think, heck, driving isn’t doing anything, simply driving around the country was one of our favourite parts because you get to see so many different things. Ian likes to say that one of the best things about New Zealand was the way the countryside demanded your attention – it was all so dramatic! Did we mention New Zealand is beautiful? 😉
Day 4: Scenery
So. We had read and heard that one of the best things to do on the North Island was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It was named New Zealand’s Best One-Day Hike and takes about 6-8 hours to complete. But with our time constraints we knew that that wasn’t going to be an option for us, so we opted for a shorter hike, that was still in the national park and also gave you views of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings!) just like the Alpine Crossing. Sadly the weather wasn’t cooperating fully. When we arrived in the morning, it was drizzling and visibility wasn’t the greatest. We didn’t want that to stop us completely from getting out for a hike, so we walked from Whakapapa (a little resort town in the national park) to Taranaki Falls. We had planned to continue on to Lower Tama Lake to get views of Mount Ngauruhoe, but at that point realized that with the cloud cover we wouldn’t have been seeing anything anyways. So we decided to head back and start the 3.5 hour drive to Wellington, hoping to take advantage of some extra time there.
Driving out of the national park we swung a detour to see Tawhai Falls (the filming location of Gollum’s Pool), which was a quick 15-minute walk from the car park they set up for it. It was really neat to see, and Ian being the LOTR buff got a kick out of seeing the location for the iconic Gollum introduction. Also on our drive south to Wellington, we spontaneously stopped in a town called Foxton, because it had a giant Dutch windmill and Dutch store. With me being Dutch, I just got a tad bit excited 😉 After a quick snack of fries and mayo, we hit the road onto Wellington.
Our first stop in Wellington was the Weta Workshop, a special effects and prop company that was basically started by Peter Jackson to make the LOTR series look good. Even if you aren’t taking a tour of the studios, you can still go to the gift shop and mini-museum, and also watch a documentary. And I’m not gonna lie, seeing the documentary and walking around the shop made me wish we had had some more time to actually go on the tour. It looked really neat!
We then explored downtown Wellington for a bit, walking along the waterfront and the main streets. From there it was to our Airbnb for the night, before catching our ferry to the South Island the next morning.
The Simple Summary
Our time on the North Island was quick, and there were so many other things that we could have seen, but we knew that our time was limited, so we made the most of our 4 days. This basically involved driving from the top to the bottom of the island, but New Zealand is so naturally beautiful that even driving was a joy and sightseeing experience.