Few places in the world boast such natural beauty as New Zealand, particularly its Central North Island. Replete with gorgeous hidden beaches, majestic mountain ranges, and a fascinating cultural and historical heritage, there’s something for every traveler in the Land of the Long White Cloud. With so much to see and do, planning the perfect trip takes careful thought. Self-driving tours through the Central North Island allow you to set your own pace and take in the sights and activities that appeal to you and suit your personality.
Three major highways traverse the Central North Island ̶ The Pacific Coast Highway, the Thermal Explorer Highway, and the Volcanic Loop, three routes each with breathtaking scenery in spades and all offering an array of experiences to please every traveler from honeymooners to family and multigenerational groups. Each highway is well sign-posted making a self-driving tour easy, relaxing, and stress free.
Self-driving tours across the Central North Island give you infinite possibilities – see it all, or pick and choose as the mood strikes; whatever your desire, self-driving tours give you the flexibility to explore at your own pace and enjoy off the beaten path experiences. With a little bit of everything for everyone on each of these routes, including accommodations ranging from budget-friendly options to indulgently luxurious resorts, it’s impossible to cover them all, so we’ve selected notable regions along each route that would appeal to different traveler personalities.
For the Foodies: Sip Some Wine, Sample the Seafood & Enjoy a Great Ride
The Pacific Coast Highway, whose highlights include the beautiful white sand beaches of The Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty, is a worthwhile route for any traveler, but has special appeal for food and wine enthusiasts. A visit to The Coromandel gives visitors the chance to sample some of the fresh and delectable seafood that the region is known for. Be sure during your stop in the Bay of Plenty to enjoy the abundant (and famous!) kiwifruit and local honeys. In addition to these foodie paradises, and cited by locals as having the best weather in New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay, also along the Pacific Coast Highway route, is considered the culinary jewel of the country. The vibrant and burgeoning food and wine culture of Hawke’s Bay gives tourists the chance to taste authentic New Zealand. Food and wine trails (Hawke’s Bay is home to 170 vineyards and 70+ wineries!) coupled with a farm-to-table culinary tradition, serve up tasty experiences and memories you’ll savor forever. Walk off your lunch with a stroll through the Art Deco city of Napier or cycle through the Hawke’s Bay Trails which include three of New Zealand’s Great Rides — there’s 19 in total!
For the Thrill Seekers: Ski Down a Volcano, Visit the Glow Worms, & Play in The Mud
If adventure is what you seek, a trip along the Thermal Explorer Highway will push your adrenaline levels into overdrive. Running from Hawke’s Bay through the center of North Island, the Thermal Explorer Highway will take you through the dramatic scenery of Great Lake Taupo, Ruapehu, Rotorua, Hamilton, and Waikato. Crystal clear lakes dot this geothermal landscape along with active geysers, natural hot mineral springs, and extensive underground limestone cave systems.
With no shortage of thrill-seeking activities, this route offers several exciting, off the beaten path experiences. Try world-renowned sky diving at Great Lake Taupo or feed your need for speed with an exhilarating jet boat experience at Huka Falls. Take an underground boat ride in Waitomo in the Waikato region and discover 30 million-year-old limestone caverns lit by glow worms or kick your cave exploration up a notch with an exciting zipline or black water rafting in this ancient underground wonderland. If you prefer an above-ground option, carve the slopes of New Zealand’s only skiable volcano at Mount Ruapehu (a serious bucket-list checkbox!) and enjoy an après-ski aperitif in the charming ski villages that surround this unique ski site. A journey along the Thermal Explorer Highway would not be complete without indulging in the South Pacific’s natural spa -- Rotorua. Take a dip in the natural hot springs or enjoy a revitalizing mud bath, whatever you do, be sure to make a stop in this idyllic natural oasis to fully appreciate the region’s geothermal history and the beauty of nature. The Volcanic Loop is also a fantastic add-on option to the Thermal Explorer Highway as well.
For Taking the Kids: Surf, Sand, Culture, & Gannets
The Central North Island is not only wonderful for foodies and adventure-seekers, but has a great many options for family travelers as well along both the Pacific Coast and Thermal Explorer highways. The Pacific Coast Highway gives family travelers the chance to enjoy some time on the beautiful white sand beaches of The Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty. Bring your flock to admire a (slightly!) bigger one when you embark on a tour of Cape Kidnappers in beautiful Hawke’s Bay where you’ll find New Zealand’s largest mainland gannet colony. The Thermal Explorer Highway route is another great option for family travelers as it adds both an element of cultural immersion and learning to your trip with a stop in Rotorua, the spiritual home of the Māori where enjoying a traditional hangi —a Māori feast of meat and vegetables cooked in the ground— must be on your list. Also along the Thermal Explorer Highway is Great Lake Taupo, a bustling lakeside region full of family activities and opportunities to explore the geothermal landscape. Journey a little further south to Ruapehu where you can take a nature walk through Tongariro National Park, a dual World Heritage site and one of the world’s oldest national parks.
The Land of the Long White Cloud is Calling
Wherever your travels take you in New Zealand, the Central North Island with its breathtaking natural beauty, exciting activities for travelers of all kinds, and easy and accessible highway routes that encourage you to plan your own adventure, is a world unto itself and a chance for the experience of a lifetime.