Itinerary Options: Driving to the Top of New Zealand

The top of New Zealand is too often overlooked by tourists, as there are so many amazing places to visit in this country. However, it is a paradise, filled with amazing natural history and cultural folklore. We have made the journey a few times. The trip to the top of New Zealand can be done is 3-days if you hurry, although I think 5-6 days is optimal if you have the time.

Top of New Zealand, the northern tip of the North Island.

Top of New Zealand, photo taken from the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, thought of as the northern tip of the North Island (but it’s not).

If you want to do the maximum, in the least amount of time, drive to Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Spend the night and in the morning take one of the all-day bus tours to the Cape Reinga. On day three drive back to Auckland. Have you been to the top of New Zealand?

From Auckland to the Bay of Island

If you are on a tight schedule, this is an easy three-hour drive. If you have an extra day a few interesting stops along the way are Sheep World, Piroa Falls (look for 80 Waipu Gorge Rd on Google Maps), Waipu Caves, and Whangarei Falls.

Whangarei Falls in Whangarei New Zealand

Whangarei Falls

You will want to spend at least one night in the Bay of Islands, locals (and many tourists) often spend a week. Paihia is centrally located, Russell requires a car-ferry passage and is both more relaxed and more expensive, and Kerikeri is ideal if you are going to see it all on the first day and be ready to head out again on Day 2.

Top 10 Things to do in the Bay of Islands (in the order you will come to them driving north from Auckland):

  • Use the facilities at the artistic Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa.
  • Walk along the waterfront or have a swim.
  • Take the ferry from Paihia to historic Russell, and enjoy a self-guided walking tour.
  • Get out on the water to see the hole in the rock – either an exciting jet boat or a relaxing cruise.
  • Be adventurous: swim with dolphins, parasail or skydive.
  • Explore the Waitangi Treaty Grounds: home to the birthplace of New Zealand and possibly the country’s most important historic site.
maori warrior at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Cultural show at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Here is a map from Auckland through Kerikeri, just north of the Bay of Island:

From Paihia to Karikari Peninsula

The Karikari Peninsula (this is a different spot than the city Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands) will not take you to the top of New Zealand. It is a stunning peninsula before the road to Cape Reinga (top of New Zealand).

  • Stop at Haruru Falls, if you have extra time, hike on the trails in the surrounding forest.
  • Visit the Kerikeri Mission Station with the Old Stone Store and Kemp House, two of the oldest buildings in New Zealand, the Old Stone Store was actually built in 1832. (Kerikeri)
  • Enjoy a taller waterfall at Rainbow Falls.
  • Have a late lunch at the famous Mangonui Fish Shop.
  • If you have extra time, stop at any of the lovely beaches along the north coast.
  • Depending on your chosen itinerary you might skip the Karikari peninsula. If not, stop for a relaxing glass of wine, coffee or dessert at Karikari Estate winery, or head straight to the gentle waters at the picturesque Matai Bay Beach. We were told that there are occasional little blue penguins at the beach in Whatuwhiwhi, but we didn’t see any. However, there are several places to stay here including a Top 10 Holiday Park.
Old Stone Store in Kerikeri (NZ'z oldest stone building)

Old Stone Store in Kerikeri (NZ’z oldest stone building)

Mangonui Fish Shop is a landmark amongst the Far North restaurants in New Zealand.

Mangonui Fish Shop

Spend the night on KariKari Peninsula, in Coopers Beach or Cable Bay, unless you are doing a condensed or budget version, in which case you will want to continue on and spend the night in Pukenui. The campground at Pukenui also has bunk rooms and shared kitchens.

A map for this section:

Aupouri Peninsula – to the Top of New Zealand

You will be traveling up and back 90 minutes each way on the same road. The order presented here heads north, but you can save half of the stops for the way back down.

Walking path to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, the top of the North Island in New Zealand

Walking path to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga. (top of New Zealand)

The meeting of the seas at Cape Reinga top of New Zealand

The meeting of the seas at Cape Reinga.

*If you have an extra day, stay the night in Pukenui and enjoy Ninety-mile beach in the morning. Then stay in Opononi after crossing the Hokianga harbour on the ferry.

To the top of New Zealand (and back):

Kaitaia to Auckland along the Hokianga Coast (West Coast)

  • Take the Hokianga car ferry across from 4 km past Kokukohu to Rawene. Check the Hokianga Ferry schedule to be sure you don’t miss the last ferry of the day.
  • Have lunch in the quaint Opononi Village.
  • Be sure to see New Zealand’s largest kauri trees in the Waipoua Kauri Forest. You will want to make two stops here. Heading south, you will see the sign posts for the five minute walking path leading to the 2000 year old Tane Mahuta, ‘Lord of the Forest’. It is New Zealand’s largest known living kauri tree. You may also want take the easy 20 minute (one way) walk to see The ‘Four Sisters’ and  ‘Te Matua Ngahere, ‘Father of the Forest’ (the second largest tree). It is a short drive between the two trailhead markers.
  • The Kauri Museum in Matakohe is a favourite museum of many of our guests. If you try to do the trip from Kaitaia in one day, you probably won’t get to the museum in time to enjoy it before it closes.
Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest in the Waipoua Forest New Zealand

Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest

Returning along the West Coast:

How many days will you spend to drive to the top of New Zealand?

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Itinerary driving to the top of New Zealand from Auckland to Cape Reinga

This post also linked at: The Weekly Postcard at Travel Notes and Beyond,  Photo Friday at Pierced Wanderings Sunday’s in My City at the Unknown Mami, and Travel Photo Mondays at Travel Photo Discoveries.

Disclaimer: We are frequently provided with a complementary services, however the opinions expressed here are strictly my own.

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  1. says

    Look forward to exploring all this in two weeks time 🙂 loved bay of islands from our last time and can’t wait to explore further up north! Thanks for linking up with #theweeklypostcard

  2. says

    Hi Rhonda .. staggeringly lovely photos with your pertinent notes. Love seeing them all … and I’d love to do that trip … if I had time I’d double the journey time – a good 10 days+ … did you see the Haka being performed at a wedding? It’d gone viral – we saw it on the news?! Cheers Hilary

  3. says

    Hi Rhonda, thank you for sharing this great road trip itinerary for the top of NZ. You’re right when you say that the top of NZ is often overlooked by tourists, often in favor of heading south – but you have provided lots of reasons to head north instead! And your photos are stunning!
    Thanks for the inspiration and happy travels 🙂


  4. says

    Wow that photo of the Whangarei Falls is beautiful! This has so much useful information and gorgeous photos. I have always wanted to go to New Zealand and this makes me want to go even more!

  5. says

    Breathtakingly beautiful. Each time I visit your blog, I think I need to make a trip to NZ.
    Thanks for the tour, Rhonda! You live in paradise.

    • says

      I think in general, the more rural, the lower the costs. We tend to do a lot of thing that locals do, so we spend less traveling then people who go to all the tourist destinations.

  6. says

    The Bay of Islands was the first place we ever visited in New Zealand. It was 1994 and we were on our way home after spending 9 mths travelling the world with our two small boys. It was just magical to be able to relax in a place so lovely and so close to home – both culturally and geographically. I have had a soft spot for the Bay of Islands ever since.

  7. says

    I’d chew up a memory chip with photos.

    Surfing on the dunes would be fun. There are giant sand dunes on the southern Oregon coast and I always wanted to turn by old VW Bus into a dune buggy and go riding across those dunes.

  8. says

    This is exactly the sort of post we like! I have bookmarked it. Although: it will take us quite a few years until we come to NZ. We keep saying that we’ll visit once we’re too old to travel far – LOL. New Zealand is only a short hop from Australia, currently we explore Latin America in our own overland camper.

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