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The North Island is home to some of my favorite places in New Zealand! So of course, the best way to get into the culture and experience all of its natural beauty is by road-tripping. The road trip from Hamilton to Rotorua is a fantastic way to get out of the bustling city and enjoy the small towns, rolling farmland, and some of New Zealand’s most beautiful places!
Hamilton is a quaint town just 1.5 hours south of Auckland and has that authentic Kiwi feel. You’ll need a few days to explore Hamilton, but then you can set off on a one or two-day road trip to Rotorua. Rotorua is another popular destination, largely due to its geothermal activity that gives us some of the best hot springs in New Zealand.
Between these two destinations is much more to explore! So to help you make the most of your time in New Zealand, I’ve put together the 9 best stops on the drive from Hamilton to Rotorua. You’ll get to see the iconic Hobbiton, set off on one of my favorite hikes at Wairere Falls, and even get to pet some sheep along the way for a totally unique New Zealand experience.
Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can browse JUCY’s availability here. Alternatively, you can see all of the different rental companies available in NZ on Motorhome Republic.
- About the Drive from Hamilton to Rotorua
- Hamilton to Rotorua FAQs
- Best Stops Between Hamilton and Rotorua
- Where to Stay in Rotorua
- Thanks for reading!
- Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
- Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
About the Drive from Hamilton to Rotorua
The drive from Hamilton to Rotorua is a 110-kilometer (68-mile) journey that will take you an hour and a half without stops. Since this drive isn’t too long, you can easily make a few stops mentioned in this blog to make it a full day of adventure. You can also make it a two-day trip by staying in Matamata, as it’s a bit out of the way and home to one of the main highlights of this road trip, Hobbiton!
Being centrally located from Auckland, this part of the North Island is full of amazing things to explore. If you’re starting this road trip in Hamilton, you’ll probably also spend some time in Auckland beforehand. You can rent a car in Auckland, I recommend Discover Cars as they are super simple to work with and give the best rates!
Hamilton is a great area to spend a few days in before hitting the road to Rotorua. It’s basically a straight shot to get to Rotorua, but you can also take a detour on State Highway 27 to see Hobbiton, Matamata, and Wairere Falls. These are arguably the best stops along the way, and if you have two full days for this trip, I highly recommend traveling slowly and taking this side quest so you can see all of these locations.
One of the main differences between a North Island and a South Island road trip is the winter weather conditions. While the South Island gets hit with snow, ice, and harsh conditions, the North Island stays pretty temperate. The summer will be around 20°C (68°F) and the winters will only get to about 10°C (50°F). You can expect a decent amount of rainfall, which can lead to landslides, so still be cautious when visiting during the winter.
Hamilton to Rotorua FAQs
Best Stops Between Hamilton and Rotorua
Hamilton is a great launch point for a North Island road trip, and you’ll definitely want to spend a few days here! It is a lesser-visited city, which if you travel like I do, you’ll really love the local vibe. Hamilton is only 1.5 hours south of Auckland, so you can easily get here if you fly into Auckland and rent a car. It is a great escape from the hustle-and-bustle of the city and allows you to settle into the authentic Kiwi culture, full of amazing food, charming architecture, and gorgeous countryside.
The top thing Hamilton is known for is the Hamilton Gardens, an aesthetically unique garden that focuses on design rather than plant variety. It is truly impressive how these landscape artists create an outdoor scene that showcases the cultural meaning and context of gardens in history. It is unlike any botanical garden I’d ever been to before! The gardens are free to enter (my favorite phrase while traveling) or you can join a guided tour to learn the intricate design of the gardens, which I found extremely informative!
I spent a few hours wandering through these gardens, as well as having a stop at the cafe onsite. You can really spend as much or as little time at the gardens as you’d like, but it’s worth a stop no matter how much time you have!
The Waikato River is another significant point of interest in Hamilton, as it has influenced the growth of this community for hundreds of years! You can take a leisurely stroll along the Riverside Walkway, which is simply a pretty way to experience the unique flora and fauna of New Zealand. You can also head to the Waikato Museum if you’re interested in learning about the history of this area and check out some amazing local art! There are often events and rotating exhibitions, so you might be able to catch something unique and fun while there.
Finally, rugby can’t be overlooked when talking about Hamilton! The famous FMG Stadium is here, where you can catch an All-Blacks rugby match and feel the true passion for the sport from the Kiwis, it’s contagious!
If you’re planning on staying a few nights, there are some great hotels in Hamilton! This way you can check out the local food scene as well. Victoria Street is the go-to place for amazing restaurants in Hamilton. I suggest checking out Gothenburg for a wide variety of vegetable, meat, or seafood tapas– they will blow your mind!
Related Read: After your time in Rotorua, you can take another road trip to Tauranga! Check out the 8 best stops on the drive from Rotorua to Tauranga so you can start planning!
Optional Side Trip to Raglan
While exploring the North Island, it’s hard not to mention a visit to Raglan. This small surf town is about 30 minutes from Hamilton and honestly one of my favorite towns in New Zealand! Being so close to Hamilton, you could easily take a side trip to Raglan to start off your road trip. However, I would highly suggest staying a night or two in Raglan so you have enough time in this quirky little town.
The main draw for visiting Raglan is that it’s one of the best surfing spots in New Zealand! But with 100,000 people visiting each summer month, it’s clear there is a lot more to it than just the surf! That being said, a trip to Manu Bay is a must. This iconic beach is a great place to watch all the surfers, it was even in the movie Endless Summer! If you can time it right, this is the best spot to see the sunset in all of New Zealand.
One of my favorite parts about Raglan is the quirky surfer vibe. It is full of eclectic shops and cafes, and the locals are known for their alternative nature. I highly recommend spending an afternoon wandering the town to get a feel for this unique vibe! While here, check out Raglan Roast for its famously strong Kiwi coffee! There are plenty of outdoor activities, local art galleries, and stunning views in Raglan, so this list just scratches the surface.
Related Read: After you’re done exploring the North Island, consider taking a road trip around the South Island! You can let me know which one is best once you’ve tried both!
2. Punnet Eatery
Having brunch on a strawberry farm sounds almost too wholesome to be real, but I can assure you that it is! If you time this road trip right, you can enjoy brunch at the Punnet Eatery which is worth the drive alone!
The Strawberry Farm here is a gorgeous, family-run farm where you can pick your own strawberries during the summer, and there’s also a playground for kids, so this place is perfect for families. However, for me, the highlight of the farm is the Punnet Eatery, which serves up amazing brunch favorites like chocolate and caramel waffles, homemade stuffed portobello burgers, English breakfast muffins, and so much more. I’m seriously getting hungry just thinking about it.
This place is so cute and I love that they specialize in breakfasts! The kitchen is open from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday or 3 p.m. on weekends. You don’t necessarily need to reserve a table but word is spreading fast about this place so I’d suggest booking one online if you don’t want to wait.
A trip to New Zealand isn’t complete without some Lord of the Rings-related activity! Luckily, the Hobbiton movie set is only about 45 minutes from Hamilton and 30 minutes from the previous stop, the Punnett Eatery. You can easily make this a stop on your road trip from Hamilton to Rotorua.
Even for those who aren’t die-hard LOTR fans (like myself) this is still a really fun area to explore. It was fascinating to see all of the work that goes into creating another cinematic world, and the set itself is beautifully crafted! You can see the Hobbit Holes, and the Mill, grab a drink at the Green Dragon Inn, and pretend you’re living in the Shire.
Even if you are driving yourself, you will need to book a tour at Hobbiton to explore the actual movie set, you can’t just wander around by yourself. I honestly preferred having a tour guide because I was able to learn about the in-depth process of creating the set and all that went into filming, it’s a huge ordeal!
If you’re making the trip from Auckland, there are plenty of tours to Hobbiton that include transportation. This day trip from Auckland to Hobbiton consists of the normal movie set tour and transportation from Auckland. Or, if you’re doing this road trip in reverse order, you can take a Hobbiton tour from Rotorua! This tour includes transportation as well as lunch at the Green Dragon Inn.
Hobbiton is one of those must-see places while traveling from Hamilton to Rotorua, as it’s a staple in New Zealand’s culture! Plus, it’s a really fun experience and a great afternoon activity, one of the top things to do in New Zealand.
Note: If you don’t have time to stop at Hobbiton on your road trip day, you can always book a day trip from Rotorua to Hobbiton instead.
Matamata and the next stop are a little out of the way, but TOTALLY worth a visit! In fact, my best road trip tip is to spend a night in Matamata before you reach Rotorua. Located less than an hour from Hamilton, this is the perfect place to land for the night so you can see all the cool sights between Hamilton and Rotorua.
Matamata is widely known for being the home of Hobbiton, but there is actually much more to do in this quaint town. There are some great hiking options, such as the Rapurapu Kauri Track or the Te Panui Scenic Reserve. You can also visit the Morrinsville Art Gallery, which is a perfect activity for a rainy day.
You also can’t miss Matamata’s connection to horse racing – it’s known as the Racing Capital of New Zealand! This town is famous for its thoroughbreds and there are stables all around. Horse racing actually dates back to the 19th century when both Maori and European workers competed on stock horses. Nowadays the Matamata Racing Club is famous for producing champions! So if you’re lucky enough to be in town on a race day, don’t miss it!
If you do stay the night, you have to visit The Coffee Gallery for breakfast the next morning! Not only does their coffee hit the spot, but they also have a fantastic selection for breakfast. It’s owned and operated by locals, which I always love to find when I’m in a new town.
Related Read: New Zealand has no shortage of amazing hikes. While you’re here, see how many hikes you can cross off my 50 best hikes in New Zealand list!
5. Wairere Falls (Detour)
If Hobbiton and Matamata haven’t been enough of a reason for you to take this side trip, perhaps an outdoor adventure will convince you! Wairere Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand and is actually the highest waterfall on the North Island. If you are looking for some incredible hikes on the North Island, you will be pleasantly surprised by spending some time at Wairere Falls!
Wairere Falls is 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Matamata, only about a 15-minute drive. I recommend you hit Hobbiton the first day, stay the night in Matamata, and then get up early so you can hike the following day! You can take the Wairere Falls Track, which should take about 3 hours in total unless you add the extra track to the upper viewpoint. There is a large parking lot with toilets if you need them before you start the hike.
The Wairere Falls Track will take you to the lower viewpoint. This is a 2.5-kilometer (1.5 mile) hike, which isn’t very long, but it takes a while because it is a stark incline with steep steps the whole way! It takes most people three hours to hike up and back down again. The views are totally worth it though, and it’s honestly really beautiful the entire way!
If you are up for more of a challenge, you can make the trek up to the upper viewpoint. This will add another 3 hours round trip, and it is even steeper and rockier terrain. I recommend bringing trekking poles, plenty of water, and snacks if you’re going to add this portion to the hike.
Note: This stop is a little out of the way, but one of my favorites in the area and I want everyone to know about it!
6. Blue Springs (Te Waihou)
Back on the main SH 1 and SH 5 route, a stop at Te Waihou (Blue Springs) is the perfect excuse to stretch your legs and explore nature for a while. The water is so pure that it’s actually used for about 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water!
These springs are located about one hour from Hamilton or only 40 minutes from Rotorua. There are two choices for visiting the springs. You can drive straight from Hamilton to the Leslie Road car park and then walk about 10 minutes to the springs.
But if you want a longer walk, you can park in the Whites Road car park instead and stroll along the Blue Spring – Te Waihou Walkway. It’s a really easy walk that’s 4.7 kilometers (2.9 miles) each way, so it takes around 2.5-3 hours to complete, with some time to soak in the views.
Although it’s a really nice walk along the entire springs, I was happy to just go and see one end of them from the Leslie Road car park. They look pretty much the same the whole way, so although they are beautiful, you don’t need to do the whole walk to fully appreciate them. With that being said, it is a lovely stroll if you’ve got the time.
7. Mamaku Blueberries
What is a road trip without a great snack stop? Mamaku Blueberries is a staple in the Rotorua area as a historic and incredibly successful farm. This is quite a fruitful stop!
While there are some amazing wine regions in New Zealand, this is the only orchard and winery in the Rotorua District. The Blueberry Cafe also sits along the property and is known for its fresh food and delicious desserts, including ice cream made of locally grown fruit! You can also pick up chocolate, jams, fresh fruit, juice, and wine made from blueberries grown right there.
I also love this stop because it’s a family-run shop, so it has that small-town feel where people simply love sharing their harvest. It’s the perfect stop to pick up a fresh fruit snack and a bottle of wine for later as you get closer to Rotorua!
Related Read: If you’re looking for a little more thrill in your Rotorua adventure, I got you covered! Rotorua is in the top 10 places to bungee jump in New Zealand, the perfect activity to add to your itinerary.
Just before you hit Rotorua, I have one more stop you have to check out! Agrodome is located 10 km (6 miles) from Rotorua and gives you a taste of New Zealand’s farm life.
If you have learned anything about New Zealand, you’ll know sheep are popular here! Agrodome is a sheep farm, which is also home to llamas, alpacas, emus, and cattle. This is a fun and educational hands-on experience, as you join in on the farming activities right next to the sheep farmer!
Agrodome showcases all of the animals and you might even get to try milking a cow or hand-feeding the animals! There’s also a live sheep shearing demo and a sheep auction with some audience participation! I didn’t realize how awesome this experience would be until I went, but it was a lot of fun.
Agrodome is especially great for kids and families. You can book tickets in advance to ensure your spot for $50 NZD for adults and $26 NZD for children. The shows are at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., and 2:30 p.m., so be sure to time your visit for one of those.
Once you make it to Rotorua, you’ll be ready to relax and unwind after sitting in a car all day! Luckily, Rotorua is well known for its geothermal activity, so you can expect to find some of New Zealand’s best hot springs, geysers, and spas. Rotorua also has a strong Maori culture, amazing lakes, and close proximity to some of the best beaches in the country. There is so much to explore in Rotorua, that you will need to book a hotel and spend a few days here just to scratch the surface!
If natural hot springs, incredible spas, and mud baths sound like your thing, you’ll love Rotorua. The town sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, so the geothermal activity is strong here. You will find a lot of spas, but my favorite is the Secret Spot Hot Tubs, which are private hot tubs tucked away in the forest and sit along the Waipa Stream. It is incredibly serene and you can book a 45-minute soak for only $39 NZD.
These natural hot springs and mud baths aren’t anything new, they have actually been used by ancient Maori warriors to help heal their wounds. You can soak in the same waters at Hell’s Gate, which is a giant geothermal reserve and now a lovely spa. Not only is it a super relaxing experience, but you can actually take a tour of Hell’s Gate to learn about the ancient Maori carvings that have been left behind!
Speaking of ancient Maori culture, you can really dive into it through the Maori Cultural Experience at Te Pā Tū. Rotorua is interesting because over 40% of the population is native Maori, in fact, the most concentrated Maori population is on the North Island.
The Te Pā Tū village welcomes travelers into their community through a Powhiri (welcome ceremony), Hāngī feast, and a Haka performance. It was a truly fascinating and immersive experience that I’d recommend anyone traveling to New Zealand to do! This 4-hour experience sells out fast (because it’s that awesome!) so book your tickets ahead of time for $250 NZD.
While in Rotorua, you can check out the cute local shops and the many delicious eateries in town. Eat Street has by far the most popular restaurants in Rotorua, and Tutanekai Street has some great options too! Atticus Finch is great for sharable options, such as dumplings, fried fish, and pavlova.
Finally, you can spend a day tapping into your adventurous side by taking on some ziplines in Rotorua! This 2.5-hour zipline tour will fly by (quite literally) as you explore Rotorua’s forest from above the treetops. Not only does it include ziplining, but you will also get to explore three waterfalls and zipline over Tutea Falls, as well as join in traditional Maori customs throughout the tour. This high-flying fun tour can be reserved online here for $159 NZD!
Where to Stay in Rotorua
If Rotorua is your final destination or just another stop on your road trip, make sure you stay a while! This is a fantastic area of New Zealand to explore, so all you need is a great hotel.
Luckily there are tons of choices for accommodations – whether you are backpacking on a budget or looking for a luxurious place to call home for a few nights. These are my top picks for every budget!
This is one of the budget-friendly hotels centrally located in the city within walking distance of many Rotorua attractions like Government Gardens and the Polynesian Spa. It is a perfect fit for travelers with a tight budget where rooms in a shared dorm of four to eight people start at only $27 NZD per night. If you don’t want to share, there are private rooms available as well around the $100 NZD mark.
You can save money on meals by using the communal kitchen complete with cooking facilities and there’s a spacious guest lounge where you can hang out. If you’re in the mood for a more challenging activity, head to the 20-meter (65-foot) rock-climbing wall next door which offers guests staying here a discounted rate.
$$ – Thermal Oak Motel
If more room and spacious accommodations are what you’re looking for, you’ll find them here. The motel offers modern suites and high-quality units with free parking and Wi-Fi. The choices range from deluxe studios to a three-bedroom flat house, with rates from $180 NZD up to $600 NZD per night.
All accommodations are complete with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV, a fully equipped kitchenette, and a large modern bathroom with a walk-in shower. There’s also a dining area available in most of the rooms, including the executive two-bedroom unit (which also has a private outdoor spa pool).
Besides the rooms, you can go for a dip in one of the two public mineral spa pools. Another advantage is the convenient access to the city center, which is only a 10-minute walk away. This means you can enjoy the activities and sights of Rotorua downtown anytime you please. Book your stay online here.
$$$ – Rydges Rotorua
For a more luxurious stay in Rotorua, this hotel offers a scenic view and a relaxing atmosphere located on the edge of Redwoods Forest and overlooking the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Reserve and Historical Village.
Choose between a superior or deluxe room, which each features air conditioning, comfy beds, and cable TV with free movies. If you’re looking for something a little extra, you can book a private suite instead. Accommodation rates start from $242 NZD per night.
Start your morning with a visit to the on-site gym or a swim in the heated outdoor swimming pool. You can also drop by the hotel’s award-winning restaurant and bar that offers modern New Zealand cuisine. Then, spend the day exploring the mountains by bike. If you bring your own mountain bike, they have secure storage for it inside the hotel and a bike washing station.
Anything for the little ones? Yes! Rydges Rotorua houses a Play Zone with various games for children of all ages, including table tennis, foosball, Nintendo Switch, air hockey, and more. Easily book a room at Rydges Rotorua here!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
- JUCY – JUCY is one of our favorite rental companies in New Zealand! They have a huge inventory and offer regular cars, small campervans, larger campervans, and even motorhomes! The prices are also super competitive and their multiple offices around NZ make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can check availability, prices, and book with JUCY online here.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
Exploring everything between Hamilton and Rotorua is one of the best ways to discover the North Island. This part of New Zealand is simply gorgeous and full of exciting activities, unique outdoors, quaint towns, and yummy eateries all along the route. I can’t think of a better way to really get into New Zealand’s culture than taking a road trip!
I hope you found this guide helpful as you plan your road trip from Hamilton to Rotorua. I have taken lots of other road trips around New Zealand, and love sharing my experiences with you! Be sure to check them out for road trip inspiration, as well as my other guides on the North Island to help you plan an epic New Zealand vacation.