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Waitomo–Rotorua Loop

  • Day

​Snowcapped mountains, tumbling rivers, empty beaches – you’d be forgiven for thinking New Zealand is 100% Pure majestic beauty. And for the most part, it is.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover some strange and crazy stuff lying just under the surface – from ancient cave systems to a fiery volcanic zone alive with steaming vents, bubbling mud and spurting geysers. Many of these extraordinary sights lie in wait on this road trip from Auckland, which offers the bonus of beautiful lake, mountain and rural views, with the option of a beach detour.


5 - 8 days

Best time of year

All year round


Auckland to Auckland



  • Hamilton – award-winning gardens and satisfying dining district
  • Raglan – surfy heaven with an ‘endless summer’ vibe
  • Waitomo Caves – limestone wonderland with galaxies of glowworms
  • Hobbiton – movie set tours of Tolkien’s Middle Earth ‘Shire’


Leg One Auckland

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, and Ponsonby’s restaurants and bars. A cruise out to the island volcano of Rangitoto will give you a taste of the geological wonders to come.

Leg Two Auckland to Hamilton
Distance: 123km Driving time: 1hour 35mins

SH1 heads to Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth-largest city and no-nonsense agricultural centre. It’s a solid option for shopping and other services, and while it lacks flash visitor attractions it does boast Hamilton Gardens – a 50-hectare botanical bonanza so spectacular it won 2014 International Garden of the Year. The city 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.

SIDE TRIP - Raglan
If you fancy some beach time on the way to Waitomo, head west from Hamilton on SH23 to Raglan, around 45 minutes drive away. A sweet little town sprinkled with an ‘endless summer’ vibe, Raglan is famous for its surf beaches, with Manu Bay rumoured to have the world’s longest left-hand break. Nearby Ngarunui is a lovely place to while away a day, playing in gentler waves. Watch the sunset from Raglan Kopua Holiday Park, right on the beach and five minutes’ walk to town.

Leg Three Hamilton to Waitomo Caves
Distance: 74km Driving time: 1hour 10mins

Return to SH3 and follow it through Waikato’s rolling green hills, stopping in Te Awamutu to smell the roses, and Otorohanga to stroll through the Ed Hillary Walkway for a shot of Kiwiana. Stock up here if you’re stopping overnight at Waitomo, 15 minutes’ away to the southwest.

Hidden amidst unprepossessing farmland, Waitomo Caves are a huge surprise –ancient limestone caverns, filled with stalactites, stalagmites and galaxies of glowworms. See the spectacle on a walking tour, or get wet-suited up and delve deeper into the inky abyss on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip. Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park is a lovely lawny park with the Huhu cafe and a brewpub next door.

SIDE TRIP - Marakopa Falls
For more not-to-be-missed natural wonders, drive 30 minutes west of Waitomo Caves on SH37 to Marokopa Falls where a short stroll through nikau palm forest leads to a viewpoint of arguably the most beautiful cascade in the country. On the way, stop at Mangapohue Natural Bridge, a staggering limestone gorge leading to a huge arch, the remains of an ancient cave system.

Leg Four Waitomo Caves to Rotorua
Distance: 148km Driving time: 2hours 15mins

Although it’s marginally quicker to drive to Rotorua via Te Awamutu and Putaruru, a southerly route allows the option of detouring to Taupo. So, rejoin SH3 and head south to Te Kuiti, then across SH30 all the way to Rotorua. Good spots to stretch your legs are the Timber Trail in Pureora Forest near Barryville, and the Waikato River Trail at Whakamaru (20km beyond which SH30 crosses SH1 – it’s less than a hour’s drive south from there to Taupo).

An eggy smell and wafting steam betray the powerful natural forces at work beneath Rotorua. Head to the 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. For a therapeutic soak, dip into the architecturally fabulous Blue Baths or the private pools at the Polynesia Spa. There are numerous holiday parks close to the town centre; for bushier surrounds head 20 minutes’ drive southeast to Blue Lake Top 10 (great swimming) and Lake Okareka DOC campsite. To get intimately acquainted with native forest, consider an award-winning Canopy Tour, just one of many exciting outdoor adventures around Rotorua.

Leg Five Rotorua to Auckland
Distance: 231km Driving time: 3hours

Pick up SH5, known as the Thermal Explorer Highway, and drive northwest towards Auckland. On the edge of Rotorua is Zorb, where you can see folks rolling downhill in an over-sized beach ball. Feel free to give it a whirl. A saner way to break the half-day journey back to Auckland is to call in for lunch in Cambridge, a tree-lined country town 23km shy of Hamilton, or detour to Hobbiton where more underground surprises await.

SIDE TRIP - Hobbiton
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.


There are plenty of great ways to deviate from this itinerary. From Waitomo, you can head to New Plymouth and Surf Highway 45. From Te Kuiti or Rotorua, you can pick up the Thermal Explorer Highway towards Hawke’s Bay, or the Central Volcanic Plateau from Taupo. From Auckland, head north for the Twin Coast Discovery or around the Coromandel.

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