How to drive from Rotorua to Taupō & Napier

New Zealand is a country that lends itself perfectly to a road trip. From incredible stretches of ragged coastline to gorgeous inland towns, rolling hills and spectacular waterfalls, there’s just so much to see and do. It’s this kind of thinking that saw us plan a 3 1/2 week long road trip through New Zealand‘s north and south islands. As part of that trip, we found ourselves doing part of our road trip from Rotorua to Taupō and Napier. To help you #TravelWell, here’s exactly how we did it, where we stayed, what we did and so much more.

But first, watch our video on how to do this drive!

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The perfect North Island road trip itinerary

It’s most likely this portion of your trip will form part of a larger itinerary through New Zealand’s north island. If you’re still in the planning stage and wondering how long you need and where you should visit, here’s a look at our north island road trip itinerary:

Our drive from Rotorua to Napier actually began in Tauranga in the coastal Bay of Plenty. We spent 2 nights there before continuing further south. I’ve included a map, below, so you can see the route we followed.

Our detailed itinerary

To help you get a sense of the trip here’s a detailed look at our itinerary including drive times, where we stopped along the way, what there is to see, do and eat + where to stay! I’ve also included a succinct overview of our itinerary further down for you.

Rotorua

The drive time from Tauranga to Rotorua only took around 50-minutes to an hour. We decided to treat ourselves to a late start on this morning, opting to sleep in until around 9am then grab coffee and baked goods to go from Eddies & Elspeth.

Rotorua is a hub of adventure activities and a renowned geothermal wonderland. You may like to get your heart pumping with a skydive, canopy tour, visit to the adrenaline park, mountain biking, rafting, zorbing and many other fun things to do. There are also plenty of activities at a more relaxed pace including a visit to one of the geothermal attractions like mud spas, walking tracks and more. Another great option is to take part in a cultural experience, like Mitai Village.

As we only planned to spend an afternoon in Rotorua and have visited once before, we decided to spend our time doing one great, outdoor activity we hadn’t tried before. So, we visited The Redwoods at Whakarewarewa Forest. This free activity saw us wander through a grove of some 5 hectares of California Redwoods, slowly covering around 2.25km. It was incredibly peaceful, relaxing and energising. If you have the time, budget and desire, you may also like to do the Redwoods Tree Walk suspended high above the ground on bridges.

Afterwards, we grabbed a bite to eat at Burger Fuel located around the corner at Redwood Centre. The burgers here are fantastic and really well priced, making it the ideal option for a quick, easy and delicious lunch on the go. Wanting to catch the sunset at Lake Taupō and make a stop along the way, we got in our car and set off. If you wanted to slow down the pace and have more time, you could easily add 1 or 2 nights in Rotorua to your itinerary.

Taupō

Located just outside Taupō, Huka Falls is a must-visit. It’s here the mighty Waikato River, which is normally around 100m wide, is forced through a 15 metre wide gorge and shot out over an 8 metre drop. The water is a spectacular vibrant turquoise and you can clearly hear the power behind it, rushing out over the edge at a rate fast enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in 11 seconds.

It took us around 55-minutes to drive from Rotorua to Huka Falls and, from there, it was only 8 minutes to Taupō. We made a beeline for our accommodation, a fantastic Airbnb located a short 5-10 minute drive from the heart of town.

Apartment 5 is beautifully styled, very well-priced and perfectly maintained. It was incredibly clean and comfortable, the perfect space for our one-night stay in Taupō. The owners live in the main house on-site, with the Airbnb situated off the back of their house, to the left. You have the entire place, including the backyard, to yourself and can enter the accomodation via self check-in.

Once settled, we made our way down to the waterfront to catch the last bit of light over Lake Taupō. With a surface area of 616 square kilometres, it is the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand and close to the same size as Singapore! In the warmer months, it’s a haven of water sports so be sure to add some of those to your itinerary if time permits.

We spent an hour wandering around the town, ducking into local stores and taking photos at the #LoveTaupo sign on the water’s edge. Then, we made our way to Tejano Taupo Cantina for dinner. As luck would have it, we visited on Taco Tuesday so made the most of it, ducking into delicious tacos and cold beers, before heading back to our accommodation to get a good night’s sleep.

While we only spent 1 night in Taupō, you could easily enjoy 2 full days and nights here. There’s an endless list. of outdoor sports and activities to choose from and you may like to tackle the spectacular Tongariro Crossing.

Napier

It was an early start as we began our journey to Taupō. While checking out the Love Taupo Instagram page I had seen a photo of Waipunga Falls, a spectacular spot often overlooked by visitors. It only took 40-minutes to get there, with the entry point being located a 1-minute drive off the main road, making it a very easy stop!

We continued onward, making the 1 1/2 hour drive from to Te Mata Peak, located around 30-minutes drive outside of Napier. I had seen photos of Te Mata Peak when putting our itinerary together and was blown away by how beautiful it looked and knew I needed to see it. I’m so glad we made the effort to visit as it was truly spectacular and a highlight of our trip!

We made our way to the carpark near the entry, following the Karaka (Yellow) Wander. It took us around an hour to cover some 4km, making our way through a range of terrains including Redwoods, Karaka trees, winding paths and forest spots. It was, honestly, amazing. At the end, we got back in the car and drove up to the peak to enjoy the very best views over the area then stopped in at Peak House for a very well-deserved lunch of delicious burgers.

It took around 30-minutes to drive to Napier, a destination that was rebuilt after a 1931 earthquake devestated the region. As a result, it feels like you’re stepping back in time, wandering past beautifully preserved art-deco buildings that give Napier a distinctly elegant and romantic feel. Located right on the water, this gorgeous spot has it all and you could easily spend 2 days sampling the best of the Hawke’s Bay wine region, days spent exploring the town, eating out, wandering along the beach and so much more.

For our 1 night in Napier, we stayed at Liezel’s Place, an Airbnb located close to Mission Estate. Affordable, clean and well looked after, it was the ideal spot for us. We were able to check-in by ourselves, had the entire place to ourselves and loved that it was freestanding and very private. We ended our time in the region with dinner at Fun Buns, a spot specialising in Asian street-eats and cocktails.

The full itinerary

Here’s our full itinerary in one spot. You may like to use it for inspiration or follow the same route!

Day One

  • Check-out of accommodation
  • Grab coffee and baked goods from Eddies & Elspeth
  • Depart Tauranga
  • Arrive Rotorua (50-minute drive time)
  • Visit The Redwoods (allow an hour)
  • Grab lunch at Burger Fuel at Redwood Centre
  • Depart Rotorua
  • Arrive Huka Falls (55-minute drive time)
  • Depart Huka Falls (allow 30-minutes at the falls)
  • Arrive Taupō (10-minute drive)
  • Check-in at accommodation
  • Head down to the waterfront and explore the town
  • Enjoy dinner at Tejano Taupo Cantina
  • Overnight at Airbnb accommodation

Day Two

  • Check-out of accommodation
  • Grab coffee on your way out of town
  • Depart Taupō
  • Arrive Waipunga Falls (40-minute drive time)
  • Depart Falls
  • Arrive Te Mata Peak (1 1/2 hours drive time)
  • Follow Karaka (Yellow) Wanderer (allow 1 to 1/2 hours)
  • Check out the views from the lookout spot at the top
  • Grab burgers and coffee/tea at Peak House
  • Depart Te Mata Peak
  • Arrive Napier (30-minute drive time)
  • Wander around Napier and visit wineries like Church Road and Mission Estate
  • Enjoy dinner at Fun Buns
  • Overnight at Airbnb accommodation

How to get around

On arrival at Auckland Airport we collected our hire car from GO Rentals and, if you’re planning to do a road trip, a car is, obviously, essential. We opted for a small SUV (Toyota RAV4) owing to our 3 1/2 week road trip through the north and south islands, though a small car would be fine too. The GO App allowed us to complete check-in before we departed home, making our vehicle pick-up fast and easy! Find GO Rentals here.

Pro Tip: Stay connected with a local sim card from SimsDirect. Get your sim card before leaving home, ensuring you’re able to ‘check-in,’ navigate and find great things to do on the go!

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Useful travel resources for your next adventure!

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Little Grey Box

I'm a writer and presenter and my husband Matt is a videographer. Together, we run Little Grey Box; an award-winning travel blog and YouTube channel.

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