New Zealand adventure: 6 nights in the North Island with kids

North Island with kids

New Zealand had been on our family bucket list for a long time. We finally made it there this Spring and travelled in a motorhome – an adventure in itself! We loved our motorhome. So much so that my three-year-old cried when we had to hand it back at the end of our trip.

Our New Zealand adventure was split in two, with our first leg spent in the North Island. Before we left I read review after review on TripAdvisor to formulate our itinerary. As our stay in the North Island was relatively short I had also pre-booked campsites and a few tours along the way. Ideally, you would have loads of time to choose your own adventure, but we had just under a week to squeeze everything in.

Our aim was to balance memorable experiences for the kids (aged three, five, eight and 10) with what we wanted to see. We travelled late September to early October and the weather was still cool so we skipped most of the coastline which looks stunning… We’ll have to save the beaches for another trip.

This is how we spent six nights in the North Island with kids:-

Day 1: Sydney to Auckland

Our first day was a travel day. We don’t fit into a taxi so booked a shuttle service to the airport and all went well for our flight from Sydney to Auckland. We landed just after 4pm local time, so we headed straight to our hotel for the evening.

We had booked in for one night at the Oakwood Manor Motor Lodge. Finding reasonably-priced accommodation is always a challenge for a family of six, but the lodge was okay. A bit frayed around the edges, but we had a two-storey unit so the kids had room to run. It also has a free return shuttle service to the airport which was a big win.

Day 2: Driving Creek Railway and Hot Water Beach

Auckland – Thames – Coromandel Town – Hot Water Beach: 4 hour drive time

After a quick breakfast, it was back on the hotel’s shuttle bus. The driver very kindly agreed to drop us off at the Maui motorhome depot which was en route to the airport. This is when the fun began – the kids were just as excited about travelling in a motorhome as they were being in a new country! The motorhome was much easier to drive than I had expected, and the road out of Auckland was nice and straight which helped get my confidence up.

North Island with Kids
The scenic route

Our first stop was Thames, a little seaside town at the foot of the Coromandel Penisula, about an hour and a half east of Auckland. We stopped for lunch and stocked up on groceries, then headed north up the west coast of the peninsula. The drive started to get windy, but it was absolutely beautiful, with the road skirting the edge of the water for much of the way.

Our main destination was Driving Creek Railway, 3km past the quaint and arty Coromandel Town, and an hour and a half on from Thames. I had already booked us in for the 2pm departure and it was lucky that I had – there were quite a few people turning up hoping for a spot and being told to come back later in the day.

Driving Creek Railway is New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge train ride and is fun for younger kids. The train zig-zags its way up 2.7km up to the ‘Eyefull Tower’ 167 metres above sea level. The one-hour train ride was worth it for the view alone!

North Island with Kids
The view from the ‘Eyefull Tower’

From Coromandel Town, we drove south-east towards Hot Water Beach. We passed some absolutely stunning beaches along the way. It’s not surprising that the Coromandel Peninsula is a mecca for summertime holiday-makers. Alas, the weather wasn’t quite warm enough for the beach… Next trip!

We arrived at Hot Water Beach at 5pm which was right on low tide. The famous beach has two volcanic hot water springs below the sand which keeps the water really warm. The best time to visit is two hours either side of low tide (you can check tide times here). We timed our visit perfectly as people had already started to leave and left behind some big holes for us to wallow in.

It really was lovely to lie in the hot water. You have to be careful though, especially with kids, as some of the water is burning hot – keep away from the bubbles coming up from the sand! The other watch out is if you are there when the tide starts coming back in: We saw a few people abandon their holes very quickly once a cold water wave washed over them.

Everyone recommends taking a shovel to dig a hole, and to dig where the steam is rising up from the sand, but we didn’t really have to worry as we could jump from one pre-existing hole to another until we found our perfect spot.

North Island with Kids
Hot Water Beach at dusk

This natural wonder was one of the big highlights of our trip, and the kids loved it. We stayed for about an hour and a half, then it was time to wash off with a (disappointingly) cold shower by the cafe before a very short 700m drive to Hot Water Beach Top 10 where we stayed for the night.

Day 3: Cathedral Cove and Hobbiton

Hot Water Beach – Tairua – Hobbiton – Rotorua: 3 hour drive time

Cathedral Cove, with its naturally-formed rock archway, is one of New Zealand’s “must see” destinations. Most people hike down to the beach to see it. A one-hour walking track leads along the cliff top and then descends to the Cove. The thought of an hour and a half return hike with a three-year-old didn’t appeal so we booked a two-hour Cathedral Cove glass-bottom boat tour instead.

Our skipper picked us up from Ferry Landing which saved us driving to Whitianga or having to catch the ferry across the channel. There were only four other people on the boat which was great as we had loads of room to move about to get the best vantage point.

North Island with Kids - Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove by boat

While you can’t get off the boat to get on to the beach, our skipper took us quite close to Cathedral Cove and we all had enough time to take photos. We also got to see a lot more of the volcanic coastline and the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve than if we had hiked. The kids also loved that our skipper took the boat deep inside a cave.

After our boat tour, we headed south towards Matamata to join the last Hobbiton movie set tour of the day. The drive towards Tairua was on quite possibly the windiest road in the world. Probably not, but it sure felt like it. You definitely need your motion sickness pills for this stretch!

We had lunch (fish and chips!) at Tairua before continuing on to The Shire’s Rest, the launch pad for tours of the Hobbiton Movie Set. We only just made the last tour of the day as we spent a bit too long in Tairua looking at crystals in Heaven and Earth, a lovely crystal, gem and mineral gallery on the main street.

Noth Island with Kids - Fish and Chips
Quite possibly the world’s best fish and chips!

It would have broken my heart if we had missed out on Hobbiton. I loved it, and it was one of my main highlights from all of New Zealand. Even if you haven’t seen the movies this is a wonderful, magical place to visit. And so picturesque! I took so many photos and we all had fun exploring the little village and peeking through the Hobbit hole windows. You can read more about our Hobbiton adventure here.

North Island with Kids - Hobbiton
I fell in love with Hobbiton… Magical.

After the tour, we drove another hour to the Rotura Top 10 holiday park. The park has its own heated mineral pools, which were right alongside our powered site. The pools are open until 9pm with really funky blue lighting. As soon as we were set we went into the pools and soaked the day away. You could pick from the 38 degree or 40 degree pools… Nice.

Day 4: Rotorua

Day off driving for us!

The next morning we had our first real taste (smell!!!) of Rotorua’s famous geothermal activity. Next door to our holiday park was Kuirau Park, Rotorua’s only free Geothermal reserve. We walked across a few football fields to get there, but it was pretty cool. Lots of bubbling hot springs and mud pools to discover.

In the afternoon we took the free shuttle from our campsite to Hell’s Gate, one of the most active thermal parks Rotorua. The best part of Hell’s Gate was soaking in the sulphur spa and then taking a mud bath!

North Island with Kids
Mmm… Mud

In the evening we shuttled off to the Mitai Maori Village for a traditional Maori experience. We had a Hangi buffet for dinner (the meat was cooked underground using steam from heated stones) and were all captivated by a cultural concert. The definite highlight was watching the warriors do the Haka! We arrived back at our holiday park later in the evening, but not too late for another dip in the thermal pools.

Day 5: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Reserve and Huka Prawn Park

Rotorua – Wai-O-Tapu – Taupo: 1.5 hours drive time

After a relaxed morning, we headed south towards great Lake Taupo. We stopped en route at Wai-O-Tapu thermal reserve for a few hours. This part of New Zealand is just like Jurassic Park, and a really scenic drive with steam shooting up from the landscape. Sadly we missed the daily eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser (10:15am every day), but the park was beautiful. If you visit one thermal park in New Zealand, this is the one. It was overcast on the day that we visited, but the pools were still colourful and it was lovely to explore the wonderfully diverse landscapes.

By the time we finished up at Wai-O-Tapu, the kids were all thermal-parked out so we headed to Huka Prawn Park in Taupo for a surprisingly fun afternoon.

Huka Prawn Park is about 10 minutes north of Taupo and sits on the bank of the gorgeous Waikato River. The park is full of fun stuff for families. We arrived around 1pm and stayed for three hours. We could have stayed a lot longer but the park closed on us at 4pm.

North Island with Kids
Huka Prawn Park

Once you are inside the park there’s loads of free fun stuff: Pedal boats, aqua trikes, trout feeding, an adventure walk with cool activities for the kids, a tree climb, playground… Heaps of stuff. It’s quirky and colourful, and you could spend all day kicking back with your rod and bucket fishing for prawns. We were lucky enough to catch a few good sized prawns which was exciting. Best of all the restaurant cooks them up for you!

North Island with Kids
They taste even better when you’ve caught them yourself!

After eating our freshly cooked prawns, we headed for Taupo to spend the rest of the day relaxing at Lake Taupo Resort. The holiday park has a thermally-heated lagoon pool that the kids refused to get out of. There’s a swim-up bar, giant poolside movie screen and a funky cave that the kids can swim in.  The pool is heated to 35 degrees all year round so it was warm enough even for me.

Day 6: Huka Falls and Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

Taupo – Huka Falls – Waitomo – Huntly: 3 hours drive time

After breakfast, we packed up our motorhome and went down to the shore of Great Lake Taupo. It was a bit cold so we didn’t stay long, but first, we had to check out the world’s coolest McDonalds (fact!) – the playground has a decommissioned aeroplane that you can climb up and eat your fries in!

Heading north we stopped to marvel at the thunderous Huka Falls. A quick stop, but well worth it. The water was a beautiful colour, and so powerful.

It was then a bit of a drive (two hours) to Waitomo Caves where I had booked a glow worm tour with Spellbound Tours. I had been reading about the normal tours and it sounded like there were hoards of people coming in and out so we opted for a more personalised experience. Spellbound only takes 12 people on each tour and the caves are hidden away on private farmland.

We walked down into the first cave with our guide and spent a little while walking and talking before hopping into a raft to take us into the heart of the caves to see the glow worms. It was so serene and magical to glide on the water in darkness and look up at what looked like a milky way teeming with tens of thousands of glow worms. It is a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. We also visited the Te Anau glow worm cave in the South Island and they were nothing compared to what we experienced at Waitomo.

Waitomo Caves
Image courtesy of Spellbound Tours

After seeing the glow worms we headed out for a hot chocolate before walking our second cave which didn’t have glow worms but was still fascinating to explore, with animal bones and sink holes and some great stories to go with them.

The tour lasted for just over three hours. After a play in the local playground we drove on to Huntly for the night to get us closer to Auckland. We stayed at Lake Hakanoa Caravan Park which was on a beautiful spot in a not-so-beautiful town. It is a no-frills campsite and there was nothing for the kids to do in the park, but we took a walk by the lake and found a playground and skate park nearby where the kids got their crazies out.

North Island with kids
Lake Hakanoa skate park

Day 7: Auckland to Christchurch

Huntly – Auckland: Just over an hour’s drive… In theory.

After breakfast, we packed up and headed back to Auckland airport to catch our flight to Christchurch to start the second lead of our New Zealand adventure. We had a midday flight but left our campsite super early as we needed to return our motorhome and also deal with Auckland’s peak hour traffic.

North Island with kids
Sunrise on Lake Hakanoa

Our original North Island plan had been to skip Waitomo and head to Wellington from Taupo and then ferry it across to the South Island. However, flights for the six of us were really cheap and flying also reduced our total drive time quite dramatically.

Most people will say they prefer the South Island over the North, but I am quite partial to the North Island. There was so much to see and do, all within a relatively short distance. It’s perhaps more suited to younger families than the South, although both islands are worth exploring.

Have you been to the North Island with kids? Which parts did you like the best?

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