There are some attractions on New Zealand’s North Island that are absolute must-dos, and you can combine three of them into a single day trip from Auckland. Get up early, put plenty of snacks in the rental car – Perky Nanas and Pineapple Lumps for the win – and begin by heading south. Along the way you’ll cover some pretty amazing territory, tour a movie set, meet some feathery locals and explore an incredible underwater river system.
Here’s what to see and do on a day trip from Auckland to Waitomo.
What happens when your 500-hectare sheep farm bears a striking resemblance to a major location in one of JRR Tolkein’s book series? It gets spotted by a location crew and turned into Hobbiton. That’s what happened in 1998 when Peter Jackson’s team were looking for places to film and found this spot almost three hours’ drive from Auckland.
It’s quite a long way, so if you’re tracking well in the rental car, stop somewhere like Cream Eatery. The stylish cafe overlooks Garden Place in the middle of Hamilton, and offers up some super delicious breakfasts, like Sichuan Shrooms, as well as smoothies and coffee any way you like it.
It’s about another 45 minutes to the first of the day’s main attractions. Hopefully you’ve already booked your Hobbiton Movie Set Tour before you’ve left and have timed your arrival correctly – they do tend to book up quickly but run at least five times every day. From Shire’s Rest, there’s a short bus ride through rolling countryside with views of the Kaimai Ranges to the set, which took nine months to create. Embark on a 75-minute walking tour where you’ll get to visit Bag End, hobbit holes and the Party Tree before stopping for a drink at The Green Dragon Inn. All up you should give yourself just over two hours to enjoy the tour.
Once you’ve set off from Hobbiton, it’ll take just over an hour to arrive at your next destination. If you love to see the creatures that are unique to a destination, you’ll love Otorohanga Kiwi House. And, no, it doesn’t sell a lot of furry green fruit. Instead, you’ll be able to visit with New Zealand’s national bird.
Here, the flightless and endangered brown kiwis are bred to be released into the wild. At any time, there are about 20 kiwis living here, but they’re not all you’ll see. There are also native teals, falcons, kingfishers, and parrots, including the incredibly cheeky kea. In 2021, the Clown of the Alps, as it is sometimes known, was named the world’s smartest bird by the Institute of Cognitive Biology in Vienna.
Another big attraction here are the tuataras. These living fossils are the only surviving members of the reptile family known as Sphenodon, which means ‘wedge tooth’. Most other Sphenodon’s became extinct 60 million years ago. At one time, tuataras lived right across the mainland, but now only survive on small islands with no introduced predators. If you see one that’s about 50 cm long and has spines running down its back, that’s a male lizard.
There are keeper talks throughout the day, so join one if you want to find out more about the animals and see them being fed by the people who know them best.
The last stop on the day trip is Waitomo, a village best known for what goes on below its surface. Over the course of about 30 million years, limestone caves formed from the movement of fossilised rocks and movement of water through the cracks. There are more than 300 known caves in the system, which the local Māori people first showed English surveyors in 1884.
Apart from the incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations, embedded fossils, and otherworldly beauty of the caves, one of the biggest attractions here are the glowworms. You need to join a guided tour and there are a variety to choose from. The 2.5-hour Glowworm and Cave Explorer takes you for a boat ride on the underwater river beneath hundreds of these illuminated insects before you walk along an ancient dry riverbed to the Cave of the Spirit. Here, you can check out the limestone formations and fossils and look up through tomo (sinkholes).
There are other excellent adventures if you’re looking for thrills. The half-day blackwater ‘rafting’ adventure involves pulling on your wetsuit then wading, climbing, swimming and floating on a tube through Tumu Tumu cave, where you’ll see all the different formations and check out the glowworms. (This is a morning tour, so if you’re keen to take it on you might need to drive straight to Waitomo and see the other attractions on the way back.)
Another option is the half-day Lost World Adventure that will see you abseiling 100m into a massive void before touching down in the cavern and gradually climbing back up through craggy caverns and along ledges back to the surface.
Get ready to take a day trip from Waitomo Caves when you hire a rental car from Auckland before you leave.