Get ready for a roadtrip through the wild, volcanic heart of New Zealand's North Island, a journey from the big city vibe of Auckland to a relaxed oceanfront destination of fine wine, food and world-famous architecture. Along the way, look forward to steaming, bubbling and spectacular examples of the country's still-active volcanic genesis, and an entire souvenir DVD's-worth of opportunities to get active in the great Kiwi outdoors.
Sure, you could head directly south from Auckland to Hamilton on SH1, but this scenic and usually overlooked detour to one of New Zealand's coolest cafes is well worth the effort. After scouring the vintage clothing and antique shops of sleepy Paeroa – good luck finding that retro 1960s Air New Zealand carry-on bag of your dreams – seek out The Refinery in a quiet back tree-lined street. Grab a spot on the comfy old sofas, fire up the turntable with an album from the overflowing bins of vintage vinyl, and recharge with a local artisan soft drink (soda) and a Cuban-style sandwich packed with spicy roast pork. Now you're really set up for a Kiwi road trip.
Dubbed 'The 'Tron – City of the Future' by waggish locals, you won't find flying cars in this easygoing riverside spot, but there are a few essential diversions before continuing south. Fulfill your James Bond/Austin Powers fantasies with the cool Amphicar at the Classics Museum – along with more than 100 other classic automobiles.
A vital credo when travelling around the food-packed highways and byways of New Zealand is 'always leave room for dessert', and in Hamilton be sure to include a flavourful diversion across the Waikato River to Duck Island Ice Cream. Innovative flavours from Duck Island's huge range include roasted white chocolate and miso, or maple honeycomb and smoked almond. Our tasty recommendation? Go for scoop of each. After all, you're on holiday.
Whilst it’s slight off the beaten track on our Thermal Explorer route to Napier, a detour to Waitomo Caves is very much worthwhile. Waitomo has an array of adventures to suit any traveller, young or slightly less young, fit or slightly less fit. There’s something for everyone - magical or thrill inducing.
If you’re in need of an adrenalin hit on your volcanic roadie, then you need to seek out the Black Abyss. The Abyss is a 35 metre abseiling descent into the seemingly endless depths of Ruakuri Cave. You then shoot along a zipline through a gallery of glowworms as well as climbing underground waterfalls in this awe inspiring setting.
If plummeting the depths isn’t quite your thing, then you could opt for the Black Labyrinth, black water rafting tour. Float along the underground river in your inner tube beneath a canopy of glow worms before leaping into cascading waterfalls.
For those interested in a more leisurely experience, you can join a walking tour through the beautiful native forest, learning about New Zealand’s unique flora. Then climb aboard a boat to glide through the magical glow worm grotto before wandering the maze of stalactites, extraordinary rock formations and coming up close and personal with the prehistoric and strangely endearing weta colony who live just inside Aranui’s clandestine entrance. Aranui is a magical, mystical place that is steep in Maori myth and legend. The other walking tour visits the Glowworm Caves and then into the enchanting Ruakuri Cave which feels almost like a fairy tale with its spectacular spiral entrance, shawl like limestone formations and crystal tapestries.
You've seen the movies (probably more than once), read the books, and just maybe had a dream where you've battled orcs or sat down to a goblet of mead with Bilbo and Frodo. Now here's your chance to get up close and personal with Middle Earth in the South Pacific. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit-inspired film sets at Hobbiton near the rural town of Matamata are one of New Zealand's most popular attractions, and no journey Down Under is complete without negotiating the flower-festooned hobbit holes of Bilbo Baggins and his hairy-footed mates, or enjoying an only-available-in-Hobbiton Oatmartin Ale at the lakeside Green Dragon Inn. And just between dedicated Tolkien fans, here's a handy tip. Make sure you include enough time for plenty of selfies with Gollum along Matamata's main drag.
OK, now you've ticked off Hobbiton, here's your chance to embark on a couple more quintessential New Zealand travel experiences. The lakeside city of Rotorua is well-known for its Maori culture and geothermal landscapes, but for the savvy adventurer, surprising sheep and action sports are also great reasons to spend a few days. Apparently 30 million sheep roam New Zealand – don't worry, they're all on farms – and the ones at Rotorua's Agrodome could be the most entertaining in the land. Add in a supporting cast of laconic Kiwi farmers and whip-smart sheep dogs for the finest woolly, four-legged theatre you'll ever see.
While you're out near the Agrodome, take time to go zorbing down a grassy slope. It's not everyday you get the chance to bounce down a hill ensconced in a see-through, water-filled inflatable globe. Only in New Zealand, right?
You choose. Two legs or two wheels? Either way, exploring this forested labyrinth of tall timber on the southwestern edges of Rotorua is a great half-day adventure. Shaded walking tracks weave through the forest, but the most spectacular option on two legs is to ascend the Redwoods Treewalk, a series of 21 raised platforms in the forest canopy. Better still, come back after dark to see the Treewalk illuminated by more than 30 massive lanterns. On two wheels, the Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest is one of the southern hemisphere's best spots for mountain biking, and visiting around March's international Crankworx festival is our recommendation for action sports fans.
You'll definitely notice Rotorua's geothermal credentials soon after arriving in town – those wispy clouds of steam and the telltale aroma of sulphur are pretty hard to miss – and the road south from Rotorua to the lakeside tourist town of Taupo has three spectacular examples of the earth's volcanic might. First up, and formed by the massive eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, Waimangu Valley combines otherworldly thermal features like Inferno Crater Lake and Frying Pan Lake – when you're imagining a hostile alien planet you could do worse than think of these seething and steaming spectacles – and the walk on well-marked trails concludes with a 45-minute boat trip taking in rugged cliffs alive with geothermal steam. This is where you definitely need to set your recording device of choice to video.
Just ten minutes' drive from Waimangu – today's adventure packs in lots of volcanic action in a relatively small area – Wai-O-Tapu is where you'll find the colourful Champagne Pool. Sorry, there's no imbibing of the bubbling expanse but the intense colours range from incandescent orange to mysterious blues and greens, and your photo will make a great laptop screensaver when you get home. Translating from Maori to 'Sacred Waters', Wai-O-Tapu is also home to the Lady Knox Geyser. Make sure you're onsite by 10am as the spectacular display – apparently aided and abetted by the sly addition of liquid soap – kicks off punctually at 10.15am.
Less-visited than other volcanic areas, but actually one of the region's most interesting sights, Orakei Korako is packed with expansive silica terraces, and is a great place to conjure up new names for the surreal colours of the surrounding landscape. Catch a ferry from the visitor centre to the start of the gentle downhill walkway through the terraces to the shimmering green pool in the Ruatapu Cave, and before you kick on to Taupo, settle in for coffee and cake – try the excellent homestyle baking – at the Kiwiana-themed Mihi Cafe. Yet more evidence some of New Zealand's best eateries are in the most unexpected places, and Mihi's banana cake is a retro classic.
Then experience the intense natural theatre of the Huka Falls. The ten-metre drop of the Waikato, New Zealand's longest river, can be seen from above the ravine, but it's worth going the extra few hundred metres and viewing the falls from a closer footbridge. If it's a windy day, you may wish to pack a raincoat for the inevitable (but enjoyable) drenching by the torrent that local Maori call Hukanui (Great Body of Spray).
On a clear day, the volcanic often snowcapped peaks of Tongariro National Park are visible across the broad expanse of Lake Taupo, but ascending Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mordor's Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), or skiing down Mt Ruapehu are road trips in themselves so spend your time in Taupo mountain biking around the lake's edge, river rafting on nearby Tongariro River, or hop on a breathtaking jetboat for a spin to the foot of the Huka Falls.
Factor in a riverside bungy jump and the best skydiving in New Zealand, and Taupo is definitely an exciting rival to more famous Queenstown as the country's adventure capital.
Taupo's Huka Falls may be more famous, but this trio of cascades just off isolated SH5 linking Taupo to Napier is often overlooked but worth stopping at. The surrounding landscape of semi-alpine forests and barren steppe is rugged and remote – there are occasional snowfalls during winter – but the three waterfalls are easily seen from the nearby carpark. If it's been raining, you may even get lucky and spy the smaller Waiarua Falls just to the left of the main falls.
The volcanic and seismic energy experienced earlier on this roadtrip aren't immediately obvious around Napier, but in 1931 the city experienced New Zealand's most devastating earthquake. More than 250 people were tragically killed, and the redevelopment of the city was strongly influenced by the prevailing Art Deco and Spanish Mission architectural trends of the time. In a new century, many Art Deco buildings have been restored - think South Beach Miami in the South Pacific – and Napier is one of the world's best open-air museums of Art Deco style. Near the revitalised port of Ahuriri – itself a raffish destination for cool bars and cafes – check out the unique Maori-influenced design motifs of the stylish National Tobacco Company Building form 1932.
In a road trip packed with natural spectacle, loads of ways to get active, and good food, wine and beer, it's time to end the journey with some local wildlife. From early November to late April, the beach at Cape Kidnappers southeast of Napier is teeming with gannets, with the seabirds pairing up and giving birth to fluffy chicks.
How's that for an intrepid journey to put your own travels in perspective?