14-day roadie

By: Lisa Jansen, Photography by: Lisa Jansen

Lisa Jansen takes two weeks to travel from Wellington to Auckland via Cape Palliser, Hawke’s Bay, and the East Cape. She shares the highlights.

If you had asked me a few months ago how much time you should allow for a trip from Wellington to Auckland via Cape Palliser, Hawke’s Bay, the East Cape and Rotorua, I would have probably said at least six weeks.

The freedom-camping site in Ngawi

But when my mum visited from Germany last November and had only two weeks in the North Island to get from Wellington to Auckland, it was time to find out how much you can do and see in a fortnight. It turns out, quite a lot.

Cape Palliser ( Days 1 to 3)

Mum and me at the Putangirua Pinnacles

Our first destination after leaving Wellington was Cape Palliser. Having never been, I was looking forward to exploring this remote part of the North Island. If you ever find yourself in the area, it’s definitely worth the detour. The drive alone is stunning. Of course, the lighthouse is a must-see - but be prepared for more than 200 steps to get to the top.

I can also highly recommend heading out to the Putangirua Pinnacles. It’s not the easiest walk, with uneven ground and several river crossings, but it’s worth the effort to get a chance to marvel at what nature can create. However, my highlight was the numerous seals that seemed to be everywhere along the coast between Ngawi and the lighthouse. You had to be careful not to step on them.

We spent two nights here, which was enough to see all the sights and explore the area. You could probably see everything in one day, but you can also spend more time and soak in the scenery. On your way there or back, I can recommend stopping at the Land Girl café in Pirinoa for great coffee and food in a lovely setting as well as the chance to pick up some souvenirs and other treasures.

Where to stay

We stayed at the freedom camping site in Ngawi. I was surprised how busy it was, given the remoteness of the place. If you’re planning to visit in the middle of summer or on a sunny weekend, it might be wise to have a plan B. There is a DOC site right by the Pinnacles and also a private campground just outside of Ngawi.

Hawke's Bay (Days 4 to 6)

From Cape Palliser, we headed straight to Hawke’s Bay. If you have more time, I can recommend a stop at Castlepoint, which I visited on a previous trip. There is no shortage of things to do and see in Hawke’s Bay.

We happened to be there at the weekend, which gave us a chance to enjoy some live music at Abbey Estate Winery and to visit the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market in Hastings on Sunday morning.

The markets are worth a stop - though I was a bit disappointed about the limited selection of local produce. If you go, I would recommend skipping breakfast and, instead, treating yourself to some of the many delicious options at the markets.

A must-visit when in Hawke’s Bay is Te Mata Peak. You can drive to the top (though I wouldn’t recommend it for large buses or caravans) or leave your vehicle at various car parks along the way and get your heart rate up climbing to the top. Once at the summit, you can enjoy magnificent views over Hawke’s Bay.

Art deco-style cars in Napier

On Monday, we made our way into Napier for a stroll along Marine Parade and to join an art deco walking tour - something I highly recommend for anyone wanting to learn about the architecture and history of the area. There is a lot more to do and see in Hawke’s Bay, but we were on a schedule, so after three days, we continued north.

Where to stay

There are many options in the area, ranging from freedom-camping sites to holiday parks. We enjoyed staying at Clifton Road Reserve, with fantastic views over the bay and towards Cape Kidnappers as well as the Eskdale Holiday Park, which is an excellent option if you want peace and quiet while still being within 20 minutes of Napier.

The East Cape (Days 7 to 11)

Tolaga Bay's famous pier and cliffs

I first visited the East Cape about two years ago and fell in love with it right away, so I was excited to go back. After a stop in Wairoa for the night, we headed to Gisborne where we stocked up on groceries, water and fuel, knowing that options would be limited around the cape. (Drinking water to fill up tanks is especially hard to get, so plan ahead.)

Since the weather was amazing and there wasn’t anything in Gisborne we wanted to see or do, we decided to keep driving to Tolaga Bay. Famous for its 660m-long pier that stretches out into the water, Tolaga Bay is a must-visit. Close to the pier, you’ll find the start of the Cooks Cove Walkway.

The Beacon of Light in Tolaga Bay

The two-hour return walk takes you up the hill to stunning views over the bay and the new Beacon of Light before winding its way through hills and farmland to a cove where Captain James Cook stopped in 1769.

From Tolaga Bay we made the short drive up to Tokomaru Bay where we spent a relaxing day enjoying the beach and sunshine before making our way to Ruatoria for the highlight of our East Cape visit: the Māori carvings at Mount Hikurangi. Surprisingly, this is still one of the lesser-known sights in the area.

Māori carvings on Mount Hikurangi

The stunning carvings were installed at the end of 1999 and officially opened with a ceremony on 1 January in 2000 to welcome the new millennium. Almost 1000m up the mountain, the views from the top are amazing, and I loved hearing the stories about the carvings from our tour guide.

You can walk to the carvings on your own, or even further, to the summit of Mount Hikurangi. However, you would need a pretty good level of fitness and, of course, you wouldn’t have a guide telling you everything about the carvings and many other stories about the area.

It’s not cheap, at $220 per person, but for us, it was worth the money. After an exciting day on the mountain, we made our way to Te Araroa. From here, you can make the drive out to the East Cape Lighthouse - something that’s popular at sunrise for those wanting to be among the very first in the world to welcome the new day.

While only 20km, the drive takes about 45 minutes which tells you a lot about the road. But it’s a beautiful drive, and I would say it’s doable for most vehicles (but maybe leave caravans and trailers behind). Te Araroa also claims to have the largest pōhutukawa tree in the world, and the town centre offers a Four Square and a café serving excellent coffee. 

From here, we made our way around the west side of the cape and eventually ended our East Cape trip in Ōpōtiki. When I visited the area two years ago, I had a lot more time and spent almost three weeks getting from Gisborne to Te Araroa. I highly recommend you do the same. It’s an amazing, unspoiled part of New Zealand and there are many more bays and beaches to explore.

Where to stay

There are several scenic camping grounds run by the Gisborne District Council between Gisborne and Waipiro Bay. In winter, they are free. In summer you need a permit, which you can get online or from the iSite in Gisborne.

It’s affordable and worth it. Many of the campgrounds are absolute beachfront. I can also recommend the Tolaga Bay Holiday Park and Morepork Nest in Te Araroa for those wanting additional facilities and comfort.

Rotorua & Hobbiton (Days 12 to 14)

While touristy, Hobbiton is a magical place

After we made it around the East Cape, the end of our two-week trip was in sight, and we had to start making our way back to Auckland. We decided to take the inland road via Rotorua, mainly because my mum wanted to visit Hobbiton. 

Since we had both been to Rotorua before, we skipped the tourism attractions for which the area is famous. Instead, we opted for a leisurely walk around the Blue Lake and a stroll around the city centre. But if you have never been, Te Puia is worth a visit and so are the various other geysers and thermal parks.

One of the many hobbit holes

From Rotorua, we made our way to Matamata for our last stop: Hobbiton. I’m not usually a fan of crowded, commercialised tourism attractions but I was happy to make an exception for Hobbiton. It was my third visit, and I’m not even really a fan of Lord of the Rings, but there is something magical about the place.

So if you find yourself in the area, maybe consider playing tourist for the day. If you’re like me and dislike crowds, I would recommend going on the first or last tour of the day to reduce the number of people with whom you share it.

I'm definitely too tall to live in Hobbiton

Where to stay

In Rotorua, we stayed at Willowhaven Holiday Park, which I recommend. The facilities are old but spotless. It’s affordable, the staff are super-friendly and, best of all, you can park right on the edge of the lake. In Matamata, I recommend the Firth Tower Museum as an affordable option.

However, this time we opted for the Opal Hot Springs & Holiday Park to take advantage of the private pool at $10/person, which was worth the money to us. And with that, we made it to Auckland just in time for my mum to catch her flight back to Germany.

We had two amazing weeks and even though it was a lot of driving, and it would have been nice to have more time, it did not feel overly rushed. It turns out that getting from Wellington to Auckland via Hawke’s Bay and the East Cape in just two weeks is definitely doable. More than that, it is a great trip. 

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