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

Thermal Explorer Highway: Auckland to Napier


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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?


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?


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.

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