The intriguing Bell Rock in Hawke's Bay. © Ankh Photography

Six unmissable road trip detours on the Thermal Explorer Highway

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Head off the main route on the Thermal Explorer Highway to discover these six unmissable Kiwi Gems between Auckland and Hawke's Bay.

1. Auckland's regional parks

From ancient lava flows to tidal estuaries and pōhutukawa-fringed coastlines, there are many landscapes to explore in the 27 regional parks around Auckland. 

From Ambury Farm on the shores of the Manukau Harbour with its interactive animal encounters to the pest-free environment of the open sanctuary at Shakespear at the tip of the Whangaparāoa Peninsula, recreational opportunities abound.  

At the mouth of the Pūhoi River, Wenderholm – perhaps one of the prettiest parks – has one of Auckland's best examples of mainland coastal forest, Tāwharanui boasts some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches, and the Whakakaiwhara Peninsula in Duder Regional Park provides 360-degree views of the Hunua Ranges and Hauraki Gulf islands. 

Bushwalks, beach walks, swimming spots and secret coves can be found in parks across the region, and best of all, they’re free and available for everyone to enjoy. 

2. Hamilton Gardens

At Hamilton Gardens you can have a real-life Alice in Wonderland experience. 

A recent addition to the gardens’ fantasy collection, the Surrealist Garden, which opened in early 2020, is a journey into the unexpected. 

With giant-sized paving curling dramatically at the edge of a manicured lawn, an oversized garden gate and topiary trimmed into biomorphic shapes known as ‘the trons,’ it’s like walking through a strange dream. 

Based on the Surrealist movement made popular by artists 100 years ago, the garden plays with scale, distortion and elements that are either out of place or unnerving. 

In the Surrealist Garden, dwarfed by garden tools and other features five times their normal size, you’ll feel like you’ve wandered into another world. 

3. Hamurana Springs, Rotorua

Rotorua’s Hamurana Springs are the deepest natural freshwater springs in the North Island. 

Hamurana is comprised of two separate, but equally beautiful springs – Te Puna-a-Hangarua and the smaller Dancing Sands Spring.

Water travels underground from the Mamaku Plains for about 70 years before emerging in vibrant gem-like hues at Hamurana. 

Te Puna-a-Hangarua, the larger of the two springs, produces a staggering four million litres of water per hour – enough to fill two Olympic swimming pools. The Dancing Sands Spring is shallow, and the name relates to the way the water bubbles up through the sands on the bottom.

At Hamurana Springs you’ll also find an impressive grove of Redwoods, planted more than 100 years ago. 

4. Spa Thermal Park, Taupō

Where the Waikato River meets Otumuheke Stream in Taupō you’ll find free outdoor hot pools. 

Rich with historical significance for local Iwi, Otumuheke Stream was once a landing point for waka where people gathered to cleanse and heal themselves in the waters.  

Today, Spa Thermal Park at Otumukehe Stream is still a popular spot with local bathers enjoying the warm geothermal waterfalls and relaxing in natural rock pools. 

The water temperature changes depending on where you sit in the stream, so you can find a comfortable spot to suit everyone. 

Changing rooms, toilets, stream-side lounging areas, seating and a coffee kiosk have recently been added to enhance your bathing experience. 

5. Boundary Stream, Hawke's Bay

Find Hawke’s Bay’s highest waterfall, rare birdlife and intriguing geology at the ‘mainland island’ of Boundary Stream. 

The conservation area in northern Hawke’s Bay was established in 1996 to restore the natural habitat of threatened species, including North Island robins, kōkako, kākāriki and the New Zealand falcon. 

Today, thanks to predator eradication, the Boundary Stream birdlife is flourishing.

Also at Boundary Stream, you’ll find the impressive 58-metre-high Shine Falls, Hawke’s Bay’s highest, and a towering 800-year-old mataī tree.   

Many family-friendly walks wind through the native forest, or for a more challenging hike, take the three-hour loop to the distinctive limestone outcrops of Bell Rock. 

6. Hawke's Bay food and wine

It’s no secret that Hawke’s Bay is renowned for its fine wine and vineyard dining but there are plenty of other unique options for eating out around the region, too. 

Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand's oldest wine region – many of today's renowned wineries were established back in the 1920s – so unsurprisingly, the region's drinks lists are chock-full of local tipples.

To sample a stellar selection in one place, head to Smith & Sheth in Havelock North. A wine bar with a difference, Smith & Sheth offers a unique multi-sensory tasting experience where you can immerse yourself in the world of wine.  

For the freshest seafood fare, visit Hunger Monger on Napier’s Marine Parade; eat at Bistronomy for modern gastronomy or check out Matisse for artful wine and delicious nibbles. 

You can sip a cider in the sunshine at The Filter Room or Zeffer, grab a locally-grown scoop from Hawke’s Bay institution Rush Munro, or head further afield for fine dining in the countryside at the historic Wallingford Homestead.



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