Cultural lovers, get in! Here’s the ultimate itinerary to soak in the best of NZ’s culture in some of the best spots on offer in the North Island. Learn about Kīngitanga, the Maori King movement in the mighty Waikato. Take a scenic flight above the UNESCO status Tongariro National Park. In Rotorua, watch the masters at work at the Māori Arts and Craft Institute, creating the most amazing handiworks. Taste delicious local indigenous flavours whilst embracing the vista of the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. Travel to Whakatāne and visit Mataatua for some unforgettable stories, and see the dawn of a new day in Tairāwhiti Gisborne.
There is much to see and do on the way – take another day or two to further explore.
Depart Auckland on the Thermal Explorer Highway through the rolling green hills and pastures that are synonymous with the Waikato region. The story of the Waikato region is also the story of Kingitanga (the King Movement). In the nineteenth century, the area became the home of the Kingitanga. Today the Māori King has his impressive base at Tūrangawaewae in Ngaruawahia just north of Hamilton. Several historic sites mark the 19th century Waikato wars fought between Māori and the advancing colonialist army. For those looking to find out more, Te Ara Wai Journeys is a free self-guided tour which explores culturally-significant sites throughout the Waipa district, and the Waikato War Driving Tour also provides a great insight into the Waikato’s history.
Taonga (treasures) of Tainui are held in historical places and museums throughout the region including the Waikato Museum in Hamilton. Situated in Hamilton’s CBD, the museum has more than 38,000 taonga/objects in their collections. The collections contain important historical Māori taonga (treasures) from the early years of European settlement to today. A feature is a magnificent 200-year-old carved waka taua (war canoe) overlooking the culturally significant Waikato River. As a further marker to the region’s history, on the far bank of the river from the museum the shell of the Rangiriri paddle steamer is on display.
As you head south, visit the famous Waitomo Caves. Here you can explore the magic underground world of glowworms, stunning cave formations and underground rivers. From spectacular underground caves to the wild coast, Waitomo and its surrounding landscape offer an experience that is unlike any other.
Caving options on offer include a gentle boat ride under galaxies of glowworms in Waitomo Glowworm Caves, walking tours of awe-inspiring limestone formations in Ruakuri Cave, while the beautiful Marokopa Falls and the Mangapohue Natural Bridge are well worth a visit above ground.
Continue your journey to New Zealand’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Taupō. Spend the evening relaxing in the warm thermal waters rising to the surface from deep in the earth’s core that have been prized by local Māori for generations, for their therapeutic powers and healing properties at Wairakei Terraces, adults-only thermal hot pools. Surrounded by native bush and set below silica terraces and waterfalls, this visit will leave your body rested and rejuvenated for another day of exploration.
This evening you are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining opportunities. Highly recommended is The Brantry, an award winning restaurant with a reputation for top quality New Zealand cuisine. Other divine dining options are Vine Eatery, Bistro Lago, The Bistro and Plateau Bar & Eatery.
This morning take a scenic flight over the dramatic landscapes of the Tongariro National Park with Inflite Experiences. This National Park holds dual UNESCO World Heritage status that recognises its cultural and spiritual significance for Māori as well as its outstanding natural landscape.
Then race down the Mighty Waikato River by jetboat with New Zealand RiverJet. Learn the legends of local Māori who lived in one of the most prized sections of land in New Zealand, the geothermal landscapes around Orakei Korako. Wander around a spectacular geothermal landscape of bubbling mud pools, gushing geysers and stunning silica terraces.
This afternoon make your way to the Land of the First Light, Tairāwhiti-Gisborne via Napier – If you have another day up your sleeve take a little more time to explore along the way.
Begin your morning with an amazing new cycling adventure from Railbike Adventures on the very scenic 90 kilometres of coastal railway between Gisborne and Wairoa. A totally unique tandem cycle that allows you to pedal side-by-side along the actual rails. No balancing or steering required, just relax and take in the spectacular scenery.
Venture out to the coast and discover the Children of Tangaroa: Short-tail stingrays, Eagle Rays and other reef dwellers that reside on the reef with Dive Tatapouri. You will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with these majestic creatures on a Reef Ecology Tour. This unique marine experience is sure to create lasting memories for your road trip.
An early wakeup call will be worth the effort to be the first to see the sunrise for the day. Find a scrummy brunch spot in town then take a stroll through the colours of Eastwoodhill Arboretum (NZ’s National Arboretum) before travelling through the stunning Waioeka Gorge to the coastal town of Whakatāne.
Visit Mataatua, the House that Came Home! This is an unforgettable encounter with a story, a house and a people, where captivating indigenous storytellers and world-class digital technology combine to leave a warm and lasting impression of this powerful New Zealand experience.
After a hearty breackfast in Whakatāne, continue to Rotorua, you are in for a treat – this is the cultural heart of New Zealand! For accommodation options, there’s something for everyone.
First up, visit Te Puia, this incredible experience combines culture, geothermal wonders and nature. On the cultural side, Te Puia is also home to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Craft Institute which was established in the 1920s to nurture all aspects of Māori culture. At Te Puia you can visit the national schools of carving, weaving and other traditional arts – and see, first-hand, talented students being trained under the guidance of master craftspersons. Here there’s wood, stone and bone carving schools – there’s a weaving school too. Watch, chat and learn with the experts! Make sure you allocate enough time for a guided tour, there’s twice daily tours and this is the best way to learn about Māori culture.
On the geothermal side, make it a priority to explore! Here you’ll encounter bubbling mud, pools of boiling water that are still used for cooking, along with stunning geysers. Here, Pōhutu Geyser, the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere is the star of the show.
Hungry? Stay for dinner at Pataka Kai, Te Puia’s in-house restaurant which offers incredible views of the geothermal valley, along with delicious Kiwi flavours. Their set menus are sophisticated and innovative, infusing Māori flavours, cuisine and cooking styles.
Top tip: Staying for the weekend? Sunday Brunch at Te Puia is a #RotoruaMustDo
If you are in town, Mountain Jade is definitely worth a visit. This is home to the largest and most diverse collection of pounamu in New Zealand. Step into their workshop, meet local artists as they work, and discover the art and stories that make up our gallery. Bonus: Their behind scenes tour is free!
Today, step back in time to learn about one of New Zealand’s greatest natural disasters, the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. The Buried Village of Te Wairoa is New Zealand’s most visited archaeological site and where stories of the eruption come to life. Here you can see what life was like at the village before, during and after the eruption. Make sure you allow enough time to explore, it’s a gentle walk around the site to the stunning Te Wairoa stream and Te Wairoa Falls. Te Wairoa stream flows from the Green Lake to Lake Tarawera in which wild trout swim freely down the crystal clear water – and it is beautiful.
Another option to really immerse yourself in culture, is experience Totally Tarawera. This whanau (family) owned business cleverly combines Māori culture and geothermal on an ecotour. On the fully guided two hour Discovery Tour, which starts on Lake Tarawera, you’ll hear cultural stories, including about the history of Mount Tarawera. You’ll get to interact with the environment to make yourself a snack: Ever cooked a piece of corn or boiled an egg in geothermal waters? You’ll also visit Hot Water Beach on Lake Tarawera, as well as the Bush Hot Pool for a geothermal soak, all while enjoying the wonderful mountain and lake views.
Stretch out that holiday feeling just a little bit longer and stop off at Putaruru for a walk at the Blue Spring at Te Waihou Walkway – the water here is so pure it supplies around 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water.
On your way home, Cambridge is well worth taking the time to explore. Set in rich farming countryside at the heart of the Waikato region, Cambridge with ‘Old English’ charm is packed with top galleries, cafes and stores. A wander through the main street of Cambridge will spoil you for choice with everything from gourmet producers and artisan delis, to art galleries, giftware emporiums and designer outlets. Lake Te Koutu at the top end of town offers another opportunity to stretch the legs before the 90-minute drive back to Auckland city.