If digging your own hole at the beach and jumping in a naturally hot bath looking out at the pacific ocean sounds like something you want to do then the Thermal Explorer's got lots more hot and cold treats on this trip. But first, you've got to get out of Auckland...
From Auckland, New Zealand's biggest and most cosmopolitan city, embark on this arcing journey around the eastern edges of the North Island. With the vast Pacific Ocean a continuous presence outside your left-hand window – next stop Chile and South America – this is a road trip combining traditional Maori tribal lands, superb coastal scenery and a misty and remote lake.
Hot pools or birdwatching? How about both? From your start in Auckland, meander your way around the Firth of Thames to take the more scenic route to the Coromandel Peninsula.
Ocean Leopard Tours sees you zip into sea caves and along the stunning coast in sturdy inflatable boats, and regular marine mammal visitors to the crystalline waters include fur seals, dolphins and even the occasional penguin.
Loop around SH2 to Hahei for the opportunity to experience the best of the Te-Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve's coastal scenery even more closely. An easy going walk of around half an hour leads to spectacular Cathedral Cove – bring along gear to tackle the underwater snorkeling trail at Gemstone Bay en route – before descending to the cove's giant stone arch and thrilling outdoor shower. Cathedral Cove is very popular with visitors so the locals' tip is to visit early in the morning or late in the day.
About 8 minutes drive north you’ll get the chance to dig your own natural spa pool on the edge of a wild surf beach. For two hours either side of low tide – tide times are advertised by local businesses and at the visitor centre in Whitianga – get digging in the soft sand and wait patiently for hot water from an underground spring to come bubbling up. Bring along a spade or rent one for a few dollars from the Hot Water Beach Store and join the throngs at this popular spot. Just note that Hot Water Beach itself can be dangerous, and it's essential to swim between the flags and in the presence of patrolling lifeguards.
After soaking up your fill at Hot Water Beach, jump back in the car and head south for an hour to Whangamata. 'Whanga', as it’s endearingly known, is absolutely packed with holidaying families from Auckland and Hamilton, over the Christmas & New Year period, but for most of the year it's a sleepy surf town with a pair of surprising islands just off the coast. Around 1km from Whangamata's arcing beach, Whenuakura Island and Hauturu Island are both wildlife sanctuaries – sorry, you can't land on them – but kayaking and paddle boarding around them is very popular. Check out SurfSup in Whangamata for paddle boarding and kayaking lessons and tours.
The most direct route from Waihi to Tauranga is to zip south along SH2, but in-the-know travellers will take a detour via one of the North Island's best beaches. Stop to see what's new in the low-key foodie scene of Waihi Beach township.
The life-changing promise of silver and gold has been mined from around Waihi since 1878 – evident in the grandiose heritage architecture lining the town's main street – and the 250m-deep Martha Mine is still turning out the good stuff. Gaze down into the mine from near the derelict remains of the century-old Cornish Pumphouse, or join a tour deep into the mine with Waihi Gold Mine Tours. The nearby Gold Discovery Centre combines whizzbang 21st-century interactive displays with poignant stories of the area's mining history. If your travel budget is looking a bit depleted, good luck in taking on a bearded holographic miner at the classic gambling game of 'Two Up'.
From late October to Easter, the Sunday morning Waihi Beach Fresh Produce Market is the choice of savvy locals looking for seasonal produce and fresh artisan baking – before swimming or walking along the 9km stretch of sand extending all the way to Matakana Island and the entrance to Tauranga Harbour.
Head to the compact harbourside precinct along the Strand for a tasting paddle of Croucher's craft beer at Brew.
Cosmopolitan Auckland and Wellington may get the regular kudos as the dining capitals of New Zealand, but surprising Tauranga punches well above its weight in the tastiest ways possible. And if you're keen to meet the locals, Monday night's pub quiz at Brew could be the most fun you'll ever have over a hoppy pale ale.
Following the flavour-packed distractions of Tauranga, an infusion of exercise is probably what's needed for your Down Under travels, and 'the Mount' is just place to balance the ledger between virtue and vice. Just 12 minutes from Tauranga, The Mount is known to local Maori as Maouo. This bulky 232m-high outcrop at the southern end of Tauranga Harbour is best explored via the steep summit walk – count on a really good workout taking about an hour – or on the more leisurely Maouo Base Track. Walking non-stop on the 3.5km track takes around 45 minutes, but it's best to spend longer to clamber down into the rocky coves dotting the perimeter.
Welcome to the sunniest town in New Zealand. Just over an hours drive to the south east of the Mount, Whakatane is a laidback regional centre sitting at the mouth of the eponymous Whakatane River. Check out the wonderful carvings on the restored 1879 Maori meeting house at Te Manuka Tutahi Marae, before joining a boat trip with White Island Tours to New Zealand's most active volcano.
Less than 50km from the coast, White Island – known to local Maori as Whakaari – is a sulphurous cauldron punctuated with steaming and hissing vents rising from an ever-evolving crater floor. Access includes a careful guided walk taking in spectacular landscapes and the remnants of an abandoned sulphur mining factory. It’s also possible to visit White Island on a pricey, but stunning helicopter adventure. If you've been saving up for one very special Kiwi experience, it's now time to fire up your credit card.
Reached via a winding forested road just over the hill from Whakatane, the easygoing beach scene at Ohope is a relaxed spot to break your travels. Get in touch with local company KG Kayaks to explore the remote bays of Ohiwa Harbour, or journey with them on a boating and kayaking trip out to nearby Whale Island (Moutuhora). It's been a conservation wildlife refuge since 1965, so look forward to plenty of birdlife and the occasional company of New Zealand fur seals.
East from Ohope, New Zealand's Pacific Coast Highway breezes past increasingly remote beaches studded with twisted and bleached driftwood, and it's a spectacular road overlooked by most visitors. Stop in Opotoki to see the traditional Maori carvings lining the town's main street, and check out the Maori-influenced arts and crafts for sale at the Tangata Whenua Gallery. Most designs are from local Maori artisans and you won't find their work anywhere else in the country. This is definitely the place to shop for unique souvenirs and gifts.
Continuing east from Ohope, it's around two and a half hours drive to the remote oceanside village of Te Araroa. Don't be surprised if you see Maori from the East Coast's proud Ngati Porou tribe getting around on horseback. Check out Te-Waha-O-Rerekohu, almost 400 years old and the country's largest Pohutukawa tree.
From East Cape, SH35 continues through the ancestral heartland of the Ngati Porou – keep an eye out for beautifully-carved meeting houses on the marae (meeting places) of local Maori – to Gisborne. Surf beaches and sun-kissed chardonnay vineyards characterise New Zealand's easternmost city, and the city's Saturday morning farmers market is crammed with East Coast produce to sustain you on your road travels. Stock up on local cheeses, organic wine and plump citrus fruit at the market.
From Gisborne, SH2 continues directly to the Hawke's Bay and Napier, but at Wairoa, around 90 minutes south of Gisborne, SH38 leads northwest to a magical and mountainous lake often shrouded in mist. At the southern edges of the rugged and remote Te Urewera National Park, Lake Waikaremoana is best explored on the 46km Lake Waikaremoana Track. The complete hike is classed as one of New Zealand's Great Walks, and the absolute highlight for walkers is the ascent of spectacular Panekire Bluff (1180m). If you're not able to invest three to four days on the entire route, Panekire can also be reached on half and full day walks. New Zealand's Department of Conservation website lists other shorter walks taking in waterfalls and views of the lake, that is the spiritual heartland of the fiercely independent Tuhoe people.
After the challenging adventures of exploring Lake Waikaremoana, you've definitely earned more self indulgent pleasures, and the vineyard restaurants around Napier and the surrounding Hawke's Bay region deserve your attention. Here's a handy guide to three of the best. One of New Zealand's oldest wineries, Church Road in Taradale is renowned for their elegant and bold blends of merlot, syrah and and cabernet sauvignon.
Located in the sheltered Tukituki Valley, Terrôir restaurant at Craggy Range Vineyards combines French flavours with delicious local produce, but the looming presence of spectacular Te Mata Peak is quintessential New Zealand.