The great poet D.H.Lawrence maybe knew a thing or two about our emotions when travelling when he said that the “great home of the soul is the open road”. Is there anything as liberating as an open road stretched out before you and a full tank of gas?

Imagine journeying past some of New Zealand’s best geothermal wonders while you gaze out at the luscious green countryside. With the Thermal Explorer Highway, you can hop on a scenic Rotorua road trip, going from iconic Auckland to Rotorua and then onwards to art-deco Napier.

This majestic route brings you to surf-ready beaches, sparkling glow worms, beautiful gardens and to some of Rotorua’s best geothermal sights. Whether you’re a seasoned New Zealand traveller in need to re-discover your own backyard or a first time visitor, this must-do road trip will bring you on an adventure you won’t forget.

Here are our “must-dos” along this spectacular highway.

From Auckland to Rotorua

230km or 2h40 via State Highway 1

Before you leave Auckland, make sure to visit some of the top attractions. Soak in some culture at the Auckland War Memorial Museum or the Auckland Art Gallery, attend a night market or dine at one of Auckland’s huge range of eateries, grab a drink or go for a scenic walk. With an abundance of activities to do, nature to wander around in and history to learn, you won’t have trouble finding something new to do in New Zealand’s largest city.

Located next to the Waikato river, Hamilton has more to offer than you’d think. The Hamilton Gardens are beautiful and filled with themed gardens to get lost in. Hamilton Zoo is an excellent place to spend a day.

Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most photographed attractions, the Hobbiton movie set will take you into the Lord of the Rings world, complete with lush pastures, hobbit holes and circular doors. Be sure to get the iconic picture in the door of the hobbit hole for the stereotypical (but totally encouraged!) New Zealand tourist experience.  You can check here for updates on Hobbiton.

Rotorua: In and Around, Out and About

Stopover and Explore: Stay 2 nights at Holiday Inn Rotorua

Where do we even start? Rotorua is the geothermal wonder of New Zealand and has so many things to do and places to explore that we don’t even know where to start. If you start at Holiday Inn Rotorua, perhaps the best place to explore would be the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village. Located just outside the Holiday Inn Rotorua hotel, New Zealand’s only living Maori village is an excellent place to sneak a peak at New Zealand’s roots. We recommend trying the sweetcorn on the cob, cooked in the village’s largest mineral pool, Parekohuru. Don’t miss our immersive virtual tour of this true and living icon of NZ culture.

There’s also Craters of the Moon, an out-of-this-world park with steam rising earily out of the hills like something out of a movie. Or if you’re more into being surrounded by towering trees, the Redwoods Forest and Redwoods Treewalk is just minutes away. Regarded by many as one of Rotorua’s best walks and attracting world-wide attention, Redwoods Treewalk consists of 28 suspension bridges traversing 27 majestic trees that are more than a century old. There’s also natural hot-springs in the area like Kerosene Creek and the Wai-O-Tapu Stream. If you love spas and geothermal attractions, don’t miss Holiday Inn’s geothermally-heated swimming pool and many more of our tips (check out our blog Best Geothermal Attractions to Visit in Rotorua this Winter).

If you’re into mountain biking - regardless of skill - there’s also Mountain Bike Rotorua, your gateway to the Redwoods Forest and Skyline Gravity Park (the world’s first all-season gondola accessed mountain bike park!). Redwoods Forest has one of the oldest networks in New Zealand, boasting 130km of world-class trails. Riding surfaces are made of well-draining volcanic soils and are equal to none. It’s no wonder that Rotorua is seen as a little mecca for the sport, being home of the internationally renowned festival Crankworx Rotorua. You can easily hire a bike or - in case you are already taking one with you on your road trip - then you can easily find great hotel accommodation in Rotorua with dedicated mountain biking facilities and located right next to Redwoods Forest. Holiday Inn Rotorua has a safe bike storage room and cleaning areas - besides offering exclusive deals for guests through its partner Mountain Bike Rotorua.

Besides exploring the great outdoors, Rotorua is North Island’s adventure capital and won’t disappoint those who are in pursuit of a healthy shot of adrenaline. So if you’re looking for adrenaline-filled activities, there’s Velocity Valley - where you can bungy jump, freefall, swing on a superhuman swing, take a jet boat ride or race your friends on the world’s only pedal powered monorail track.

And for all golf aficionados, there is something truly unique just opposite Holiday Inn Rotorua. Rotorua Golf Club is a must-play if you want to combine a geothermal experience with a relaxing round of golf. The nine-hole course is gifted with active thermal areas, creating a stunning landscape catered to all skills. The club counts with great facilities and motorised carts, with open arms to visiting non-members by offering accessible green fees.

Whether trying to re-connect with New Zealand’s powerful landscapes and the great outdoors - or in pursuit of some adventure and fun - Rotorua offers a vast menu of options for every taste and the best accommodation options in the heart of the Thermal Explorer Highway.

Rotorua and beyond

220km or 2h30 via State Highway 1

As Rotorua sits right in the middle of Thermal Explorer Highway, it is the perfect base to spend the night, explore its wonders and continue your trip south. Whether Rotorua is your point of departure or the prime stopover in your road trip, there is so much more to see beyond it if you want to get to the end of this classic New Zealand highway.

There is the unmissable Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first national park founded in 1894 and a stunning place to go for a hike. The bucket-list walk Tongariro Alpine Crossing is rated one of the best day hikes in New Zealand. With dramatic landscapes, cultural significance and more, this is a must-do along the geothermal highway.

At the final destination - or at its origin depending on where you decide to start your trip - there is Napier, home to beautiful art, fabulous wineries, delicious restaurants, boutique shops and more. Go for a bike ride around this scenic art-deco city for a lovely afternoon.

These are just some of the adventures you can have along the Thermal Explorer Highway. So fill up your tank and your suitcase and get to road trippin’.

Itching to hit the roads and (re-)discover the beauty of our own backyward?

Check out our brand new Rotorua Open Roads package to get promotional rates with breakfast included, free car parking and exclusive perks from our local partners.