Fitzgerald Glade on the Thermal Explorer Highway, near Rotorua. © Mike Mackinven

Thermal Explorer Highway: Auckland to Napier

What have you got on the boil, friend? How about an epic roadie straight down the guts, as they say, to the land where the languid meandering of the mighty Waikato gives way to the hiss of steam in roistering Rotorua?

You may well need your thermals on the Thermal Explorer, depending on the time of year, but fret not because there are hot pools en route, of course, and a warming glass of world-class syrah with your name on it when you arrive in Napier. (They certainly don’t call the Hawke's Bay 'the land of the long marching vines' for nothing...  Well, they don’t call it that at all, but perhaps they should.)

Let’s back the truck up for a second and start in Auckland...

Leaving Auckland

Heading south and leaving the magnetic pull of Auckland may prove difficult (we all know how hard it is for some to even get over the Harbour Bridge from the North Shore to the city), but leave you must: much excitement awaits.

As the Southern Motorway turns into the Waikato Expressway, the buzz of our largest metropolis morphs into a more gentle energy as you head through the Waikato and Hamilton.

The Waikato has it all: bucolic rolling hills and lush, tranquil pastures, wild coastline and subterranean limestone caverns, an abundance of Māori heritage and the mighty Waikato River. Not to mention, of course, one of the longest left-hand surf breaks in the world. And hobbits.

So there are heaps of exciting little side trips to be explored in this part of the world; over to you how many distractions you give into. Consider a stop-off at Hobbiton for a second breakfast at the Shire's Rest and a glimpse of the place where the little fuzzballs in those giant movies were actually filmed. Or how about a journey to Waitomo, into the mystical world of pristine limestone formations and twinkling glowworms? Or a dash out to laid-back Raglan for a sweet-as flat white and a steep, barrelling left-hander?

Hamilton

Distractions and side trips aside Hamilton is square on your path on the way south. Stretching your legs and taking a stroll through the Hamilton Gardens, an oasis of curated spaces that are a kind of living, breathing horticultural museum, is a given. The European Kitchen Garden may spur you on to cycle to lunch by the river, to fully round out the serenity. Why not?

Rotorua

What’s the best way to Rotorua, you ask? Let me count the ways... 

Stop off in Cambridge, known as the ‘town of trees and champions’ because of its quaint, tree-lined streets and its thoroughbred horse studs and stables, through some of the world’s greatest dairy country and some of the best bloodstock land. Think green, pleasant and rolling, heritage buildings and ploughman’s lunches. The scene here will make Rotorua an even greater contrast, all bubbling mud, hissing steam and sulphur. 

Accessed via the ranges of Kaimāī-Mamaku Forest Park, where mini volcanoes literally dot the landscape, Rotorua itself is alive, people, from below the ground to the top of the gondola and all points between.

Take to the waters, head for the hills, rivers or valleys: bikes, two legs and boats are all de rigueur modes of transport here. And the perfect way to relax afterwards is at your beck and call in thermal spas, baths and creeks.

Taupō and Tongariro

Onwards to Taupō, the largest freshwater lake in the southern hemisphere, where the Waikato begins in the rush and crush of the amazing Huka Falls...

If there's anywhere you can hook a fish, it's here. Fly fishing for rainbow trout has brought the rich and famous to this town for over a century, but controlled, sustainable environmental planning has meant that Zane Grey and his ilk didn’t drain the lakes and rivers.

Look up from your line (or, indeed, down from your skydive) towards the Central Plateau at the southern end of the lake – this is home to the North Island's most beautiful mountains and one of New Zealand’s greatest and busiest day walks, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

It's worth parking up in this neck of the woods for a few days. A quick sojourn down the ski runs of Ruapehu is a winter-only guaranteed thrill but there are plenty of MTB and walking trails here to explore year-round and a chateau well worth sleeping in.

Napier and the Hawke's Bay

Onwards through rugged inland ranges to the beautiful sweeping beaches of Waimarama, Haumoana and the Hawke’s Bay.

Whether you’re hopping off the Thermal Explorer or Pacific Coast Highway or starting the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, be sure to take in majestic sleeping giant Te Mata Peak, enjoy the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk, or discover the striking shark tooth peninsula of Cape Kidnappers and its resident gannet colony.

Take some time out to enjoy the boutique and artisanal appeal of Havelock North at the base of Te Mata Peak, before exploring New Zealand's art deco capital, super-sunny Napier.

Razed in a devastating earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the style of the time, the architecture alone is a staggering diversion, but you may well feel the pull of the land to any of the 50 or so vineyards and wineries in the region. Internationally recognised for its peachy chardonnays and complex, mesmerising full-bodied reds, this is a wine region like no other.

The famous Masonic and Dome 🙌

A post shared by heritage (@deco_heritage) on Jan 11, 2018 at 1:24am PST

Here you can toast the Thermal Explorer with a good tumbler of terrific wine and a platter of local produce. I mean, really, you’ve earned it.

Explore more...


Be the first to comment on this page. You cannot post comments until you have logged in. Please log in or register if you don't have an account.

More stories like this

Find out more

Activities

Rotorua: embracing the laws of physics

Millions of people have ridden the luge since it opened, and the vast majority of them have survived. They’ll swear by it...  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Activities

Waitomo Caves: one of the wonders of the world

Set in a weird and wonderful landscape where weathered limestone and marble outcrops form outlandish shapes on the surface, the caves are one of the wonders of the world. Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Natural attractions

Hawke’s Bay: in search of the good life

Hawke’s Bay isn’t on the way to anywhere. It requires a deliberate choice to discover its delights.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Natural attractions

Tongariro National Park: volcanoes of the south wind

Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park with excellent skiing on Mount Ruapehu in the winter season and some of the most epic mountain-hiking trails in the world. Read the story . . . 

Waikato Region Where to stay in

4.0 /5
From $90
4.0 /5
Best Price Around
Motel Six Visit website

REST FOR LESS. 10 minutes walk to town centre. 5 minutes walk to supermarket, riverside walks and golf range. 15 minutes walk to Founders Theatre . . . More . . . 

From $90

Book now

Book now

4.9 /5
From $139
4.9 /5
Best Price Around
Eldonwood Bed & Breakfast

Eldonwood Bed & Breakfast offers luxury accommodation located in a beautiful setting just a few minutes from Matamata's main centre. It is an ideal option . . . More . . . 

From $139

Book now

Book now

4.7 /5
4.7 /5
Best Price Around
Matamata Central Motel

MATAMATA'S NEWEST MOTEL... Matamata Central Motel is your ideal accommodation provider for overnight stays while travelling through, or for staying in Matamata for the Hobbit experience. . . . More . . . 

Book now

Book now

4.4 /5
From $89
4.4 /5
Fountain City Motor Inn Visit website

Only 5 minutes from Hamilton City. A superb motel with 21 units, serviced daily; studio units (sleep up to 2), standard units (sleep up to . . . More . . . 

From $89

Book now

Book now

Lake Taupō Region Where to stay in

4.2 /5
From $90
4.2 /5
Best Price Around
Adelphi Motel Visit website

Adelphi Motel is a tidy motel located in a central area only 5 minutes walk to Taupo town centre, restaurants, shops and scenic lakefront. . . . More . . . 

From $90

Book now

Book now

4.7 /5
From $140
4.7 /5
Best Price Around
Creel Lodge Motel & Retreat Visit website

Quiet, affordable relaxing retreat on the river. Trout fishing at its best. Rafting, snow skiing, Tongariro Crossing, kayaking, canoeing, biking, walking and tramping. . . . More . . . 

From $140

Book now

Book now

4.7 /5
From $95
4.7 /5
Sportsmans Lodge Visit website

On the banks of the famous Tongariro River. Inexpensive, quiet garden setting. 1 self-contained garden cottage with queen-size bed and single bed, and nine very . . . More . . . 

From $95

Book now

Book now

4.2 /5
From $100
4.2 /5
Dunrovin Motel

We are centrally located in Taupo, 600m from the lake and 700m from the town centre. Dunrovin is one of Taupo's original motels, established in 1962. . . . More . . . 

From $100

Book now

Book now

Hawke's Bay Region Where to stay in

4.3 /5
4.3 /5
Claremonte Motor Lodge Visit website

Located in the heart of Hastings' Central Business District, Claremonte Motor Lodge accommodation is ideally situated for you to enjoy Hastings and the Hawke's Bay region. . . . More . . . 

Book now

Book now

4.4 /5
From $99
4.4 /5
Albatross Motel Visit website

The Albatross Motel scored 9.5/10 in Target TV's hidden camera trial . Offering 35 units,studios, deluxe studio units and 1 and 2-bedroom family units. . . . More . . . 

From $99

Book now

Book now

4.8 /5
4.8 /5
Hawkes Bay Holiday Park

We are in walking distance from the fantastic Crab Farm Winery for which we have a reserved table for our guests who wish to dine . . . More . . . 

Book now

Book now

4.9 /5
From $105
4.9 /5
Best Price Around
Elmore Lodge Motel Visit website

Opposite Hawkes Bay Regional Hospital. Our 15 units are designed to suit every need. The serviced units have large studio lounges sleeping up to 3 . . . More . . . 

From $105

Book now

Book now