The North Island’s volcanic zone puts on a spectacular geological show, starring steaming vents, bubbling mud and spurting geysers, against a backdrop of lakes, mountains and picturesque pasture.
Linking Auckland with Hawke’s Bay on a well-signposted route, the Thermal Explorer Highway takes in stacks of natural wonders, along with rich Maori culture, and great food and wine. Read on for our favourite stops along the way.
Auckland to Napier
Best Time of the Year
All year around
- Orakei Korako
- Hawke’s Bay
The City of Sails, New Zealand’s biggest metropolis.
To survey the City of Sails before hitting the road, overnight at Manukau Holiday Park, 15 minutes’ drive from the Britz Depot, and catch a bus to downtown Auckland. Once you’ve wandered along Queen Street and around the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter harbourside precincts, set your sights on Auckland Art Gallery or Museum, Ponsonby’s restaurants and bars, or board a cruise to the island volcano of Rangitoto.
Auckland to Hamilton
SH1 heads to Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth-largest city and no-nonsense agricultural centre. What it lacks in flash visitor attractions it makes up for at Hamilton Gardens – a 50-hectare botanical bonanza so spectacular it won 2014 International Garden of the Year. The city actually has an abundance of green spaces, such as the tranquil stretch of Waikato Riverbank adjacent to the centre of town. Here you’ll find an impressive collection of restaurants, cafes and bars.
Ancient limestone caverns
It’s an hour’s drive from Hamilton to Waitomo Caves, ancient limestone caverns hidden amidst rugged farmland. There are stalactites and stalagmites galore and galaxies of glowworms to be seen on walking tours, although intrepid types willing to get wet-suited and delve deeper into the inky abyss should leap on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip. Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park is a lovely lawny park with a great cafe and brewpub next door.
Hamilton to Cambridge
Distance 24km - Driving Time 25 mins
SH1 passes through manicured farmland to Cambridge, a tree-lined country town with ample amenities for visitors detouring to nearby Hobbiton. To the west is Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautiri, an ecological reserve bound by a 47km-long predator-proof fence. Various tours take in ancient forest, wetlands, inhabited by a wide variety of native birds.
Tucked in a verdant hollow amongst rolling farmland, 20 minutes’ drive east of Cambridge, Tolkien’s Middle Earth shire was painstakingly reimagined for the block-busting Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Two-hour Hobbiton Tours provide a fascinating insight into movie making while viewing hobbit holes burrowed amidst gorgeous gardens, and finishing with a stein of ale at the Green Dragon Inn.
Cambridge to Rotorua
Distance 84km - Driving Time 1 hour 15 mins
Follow the Thermal Explorer Highway signs to Rotorua, where an eggy smell and wafting steam betray the powerful natural forces at work just under the surface. Head to Rotorua Museum to learn about this region’s fascinating natural and human history, then experience the classic Rotorua combination of geothermal activity and vibrant Maori culture at either Te Puia or Whakarewarewa. These neighbouring reserves offer the chance to enjoy Maori art and eye-popping performance amidst crazy scenes of bubbling mud, steamy pools and shooting geysers.
Rotorua to Taupo
Distance 18km - Driving Time 1 hour 10 mins
Of all the steamy scenes along the Thermal Explorer to Taupo, the most dramatic is Orakei Korako, an incredible geyserland hidden in a valley 20 minutes’ detour off SH5 at Mihi. Taupo, however, is the biggest revelation of the day – a smart resort town on the edge of New Zealand’s largest lake, overlooked by the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. Head to Huka Falls to see the Waikato River’s waters spew through a rocky bottleneck, and take a lake cruise. The town is also a mecca for walkers and cyclists, with kilometres of lake- and riverside trails. There are excellent holiday parks and free overnight parking spots, too.
Taupo to Napier
Distance 142km - Driving Time 2 hours
The Explorer trucks southeast on scenic SH5 towards Hawke’s Bay, a sunny region with bucolic countryside and a diverse coastline. Try to allow at least two days to see its highlights, which include Napier’s art deco architecture, Te Mata Peak and the fun Cape Kidnappers gannet colony tractor tour. The region is also famous for wineries, many of which have tasting rooms and restaurants, and welcome cyclists on self-guided bicycle tours. The Hawke’s Bay Trails are mostly flat and totally fantastic – check out the Puketapu Loop. Those with a good nose will sniff out plenty of delicious food and drink, ranging from ice cream, craft beer and chocolate, to the fresh fruit and vegetables available from roadside stalls.