The distance from Auckland to Rotorua is roughly 228 km and it takes about 2 hrs 40 mins of continuous driving to complete by State Highway 1. Unless you're in a big hurry to get to Rotorua, peppering the road trip with interesting stops along the way is definitely the way to do it.
Whilst a lot of people choose to break the journey by going on a tour of Hobbiton for a few hours, it wasn't part of my to do list as I preferred to stop elsewhere. For the record, my sis' family, who're fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, thoroughly enjoyed their visit at Hobbiton.
My pick of rest stops, however, were Hunua Falls, Pokeno, Hamilton, Tirau and Putaruru Blue Springs. Depending on your schedule and interests, you can stop at one or two of these places on your drive to Rotorua, and stop at the rest on your way back to Auckland. Whatever the case is, don't miss out on Hunua Falls and Putaruru Blue Springs. They were some of the best natural sceneries we experienced in New Zealand, which were really easy to get to as well.
No. 1: Hunua Falls
Situated 50 km outside Auckland CBD is a 30m tall horsetail waterfall called Hunua Falls. From Auckland Airport, it's only 38 km away. We took a domestic flight from Christchurch to Auckland on Boxing Day, picked up our rental car, and headed straight to Hunua Falls.
The Hunua Ranges, where Hunua Falls are located, are home to the largest area of healthy Kauri in the Auckland area. The Kauri is native to New Zealand, and is one of the world's mightiest trees. It can grow to a height of above 50m, with a trunk girth of more than 16m, and live for longer than 2,000 yrs. In a bid to keep the Kauri population in the Hunua Ranges free from disease, authorities made sure that each visitor cleaned and disinfected his or her shoes before entering the park. It was the first time we came across such a mechanism installed at the entrance of a park and really admire the Kiwis for their conservation efforts.
We could see and hear Hunua Falls tumbling vociferously almost immediately after entering the park. The walk to the falls didn't take long at all. It was a public holiday on the day we visited, and the park was particularly busy. Although swimming wasn't encouraged at the falls, owing to multiple hazards which had claimed lives before (according to the warning signs), that didn't deter many local families from doing so.
No. 2: Pokeno
Although Pokeno wasn't in our itinerary this trip, it was in our last. The town is about half an hour's drive from Hunua Falls, and their famous monster 12-scoop cones put them on the map as "the ice-cream capital of New Zealand".
If you're passing through the area and feeling peckish or sleepy, stop by for some grub and ice-cream. The sugar rush will certainly perk you up!
No. 3: Hamilton
Hamilton, with its population of 177,000, is the fourth largest city in New Zealand, after Auckland (1.6 million people), the capital city of Wellington (418K people), and Christchurch (401K people). The city is well-known for its award-winning Hamilton Gardens. The Gardens looked lovely in pictures, but unfortunately, we didn't have sufficient time to make a visit.
We were retail-starved in New Zealand, and as typical Singaporeans, we needed our regular dose of retail therapy. After shopping at Westfield Riccarton, the largest mall in the South Island, on our first day in New Zealand, we had yet to step into another mall. We decided to stop at one of the North Island's largest malls, The Base, which is located in Hamilton.
The Base is a collection of shopping outlets spread across a massive area, and not a standalone shopping centre. We were there on a public holiday, and the whole place was busy with shoppers scooping up post-Christmas offers. We managed to find some pretty good deals ourselves, and were satisfied with our haul. We also had fun checking out a large large outdoor equipment store which had interesting stuff.
No. 4: Tirau
Tirau, which means "place of many cabbage trees" in the Maori language, is a town with a population of about 800 people. State Highway 1, the longest and most significant road in New Zealand, cuts right through the town.
Quite unexpectedly, this tiny town was the one and only place where we encountered a traffic jam which went on for miles in New Zealand. Initially, we thought the jam was caused by a road closure, roadworks or a serious accident, but it turned out to be something else altogether.
Tirau was a scheduled stop in our itinerary. We had visited once before in 2019 and I remembered their super cute buildings in the shape of a dog, sheep and ram made out of corrugated iron. The town's all important public toilets are housed in the dog building, and the sheep and ram buildings used to be occupied by The Merino Story, a wool retailer catering to tourists which, sadly, went out of business on 10 December 2021 as a result of Covid border closures.
Owing to the terrible traffic jam, we inched into town like a snail and pulled into a carpark lot. The local giftshop, Little Gem, was doing brisk business with a steady stream of customers. The lady behind the counter was very friendly and we struck up a conversation between the jam outside. She said it happened once a year during the Christmas and New Year holidays when the locals took time off work. Many driving through Tirau would stop to have a coffee, buy a few things and use the public toilets, thereby causing a bottleneck at Tirau.
We bought a few knick knacks from Little Gem, took a walk through town, and headed for the public toilets in the cool dog building. That was when we discovered the true cause of the jam - the zebra crossing which led across the road to the public toilets! Every few seconds, someone would want to use the zebra crossing and people were just taking their own sweet time to cross, causing the traffic on State Highway 1 to come to a standstill. The zebra crossing must have been fairly new, as it doesn't show up in Google Map's street view. If the authorities were to replace the zebra crossing with a set of traffic lights, that would easily solve the problem.
No. 5: Putaruru Blue Springs
Just 12.5km from Tirau lie one of New Zealand's most stunning natural wonders, Putaruru Blue Springs. The spring has such crystal clear and pure water that it is the source for approximately 60% of bottled water in New Zealand.
We parked at the carpark at Leslie Road, and from there, it was only a 10min walk before we caught sight of the amazingly clear blue spring.
The public toilet at Putaruru Blue Springs was a self-composting one. The stench was bad, but not as unbearable as the one at Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park, as Putaruru Blue Springs probably see far fewer visitors compared to Hooker Valley Track. After using the bio-loo, you had to reach into a hole to get some sawdust to sprinkle over your do. There was no running water for us to wash our hands, so we used our bottled water to do so.