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10 BEST Stops on the Drive from Hamilton to Tauranga

10 BEST Stops on the Drive from Hamilton to Tauranga

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New Zealand’s North Island is full of hidden gems. With amazing outdoor exploration, locally owned shops and eateries, and some truly unique cultural aspects, there is a lot to see. Honestly, you can spend an entire year exploring the North Island and still not experience it all!

That’s why I love breaking up even the shortest of road trips, such as the drive from Hamilton to Tauranga. The drive itself is only about an hour and a half, but there are some of my favorite places in all of New Zealand along this route! You can see the iconic Hobbiton, or find some of the best hikes in New Zealand. Plus, if you rent a campervan and road trip the island, you’ll get even further off the beaten path!

I’ve explored this area dozens of times and simply fell in love with it. So I wanted to share my favorite stops along this drive so you can experience New Zealand in all of its beauty, just like I did! Keep reading for the 10 best stops between Hamilton and Tauranga!

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/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! This discount is only valid for bookings made before June 30, 2024, with travel dates before Dec 21, 2204. You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.

About the Drive from Hamilton to Tauranga

Road that leads into Tauranga
Road that leads into Tauranga

The drive from Hamilton to Tauranga is 105 kilometers (65 miles) and will take just under an hour and a half if you drive straight through. However, this is a road trip blog, so I highly recommend you take it slow and make a few stops along the way, as there is a lot to see! This will make the drive stretch out a full day or you can make it a two-day journey by staying the night in Matamata

If you’re planning on road-tripping all around the North Island, your best option is to rent a car in Auckland (I recommend using Discover Cars). You can also rent a campervan or motorhome in Auckland to get off the beaten path while exploring New Zealand! The drive from Auckland to Tauranga is also a fun trip.

Hamilton is a great launch point for this road trip. It is only 1 hour and 30 minutes south of Auckland and a quaint town that deserves a few days to explore. It is a perfect spot to break up the drive instead of going straight from Auckland to Tauranga. My suggestions in this blog follow State Highway 29, which is the quickest and most direct route, and has some of my favorite stops along the way! 

You’ll go by some great outdoor sights, ranging in activity level. So if you’re looking for a challenging hike, Wairere Falls won’t disappoint, or if you want more of a leisurely stroll, Te Waihou (Blue Springs) might be a better fit! There are also plenty of tasty eateries and local spots to fill up on your road trip snacks. Plus, Hobbiton and Matamata are just a quick 15-minute detour, a must-visit location in New Zealand!

The best thing about this drive is it is doable year-round. While the South Island of New Zealand has colder winters that bring ice and snow, the North Island is much more temperate. The summer months bring clear and beautiful days, around 20°C (68°F), and the winter is mild, rainy, and 10°C (50°F) on average. The road from Hamilton to Tauranga is drivable any month of the year, so no matter when you visit you can embark on this short road trip. 

Hamilton to Tauranga FAQs

Best Stops Between Hamilton and Tauranga

1. Hamilton

Bailey poses for a photo at the entrance to the Hamilton Gardens in Hamilton, New Zealand
Hamilton Gardens!
Bailey sips a beer at Good George Brewing in Hamilton, New Zealand
Cheers from Good George Brewing in Hamilton, New Zealand

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 garden 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 you’ve 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!

Bailey in the river valley in Hamilton, New Zealand
The river valley!

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: Before you take off on your road trip, check out Raglan! Only 30 minutes from Hamilton, Raglan has so much to explore that you’ll want to spend a few days here too!

2. Punnet Eatery

brunch at Punnet Eatery in Hamilton, New Zealand
So good!
Bailey enjoys brunch at Punnet Eatery
The quality of the food is what makes this place so great!

What better way to start a road trip than with brunch? The Punnet Eatery is hands-down one of the best brunches I’ve had in New Zealand, and it’s only 20 minutes outside of Hamilton, so you don’t even have to go too far to reach it!

Not only does the Punnett Eatery serve amazing food, but it also is on a family-run strawberry farm! You can go pick your own strawberries during the summer for a fresh and healthy road trip snack. It is a really cute and charming farm and also has a playground, so it’s the perfect stop for families!

However, the brunch is what really stands out! It takes brunch to the next level with its strawberry lemon waffles, English breakfast muffins, and chicken bacon guac burger. Pair that with a nice espresso or mimosa (if you’re riding shotgun!) and that sounds like the perfect start to your day! The Punnet Eatery is open from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. on weekdays and until 3 p.m. on weekends. You don’t need to reserve a table, but the weekends might get busy so I suggest booking one in advance if you think about it!

3. Hobbiton

Bailey sits in the door of a red Hobbit home at Hobbiton, NZ
The detail is incredible!
Bailey walks up to the door of a Hobbit Hole at Hobbiton in New Zealand
It’s such a cute place!

Some people come to New Zealand solely to visit Hobbiton, and it just so happens to be on the way from Hamilton to Tauranga! You might know Hobbiton as “The Shire” from the Lord of the Rings movies. 

This is a fun stop on your road trip not only because of the significance this movie franchise has had on the film industry, but it’s also so fascinating to learn about creating this quirky and vibrant set! You’ll get to explore the Hobbit Holes, the Mill, and have a pint at the Green Dragon Inn almost as if you’re a Hobbit yourself. Hobbiton looks upon the Kaimai Range, so the views are stunning here too.

I think this experience is great for anyone, whether you’re a LOTR fanatic or not! It’s still cool to see the actual movie set where these films were made. It’s a quick detour off the main highway, and about 45 minutes from Hamilton or 30 minutes if you’re following the road trip itinerary and coming from Punnett Eatery!

You will need to book a movie set tour to visit Hobbiton, unfortunately, you can’t just wander around on your own! But the tours are great because you get to learn so much more than you would by exploring by yourself.

A lady drinks a beer at the winow in the The Green Dragon Inn at Hobbiton, New Zealand

If your whole goal of coming to the North Island is to see Hobbiton, you can visit from Auckland easily! This full-day tour includes transportation from Auckland in addition to the movie set tour. Or, if you’re heading to Rotorua after Tauranga, you can take this day tour from Rotorua. This one includes transportation, the movie set tour, and lunch at the Green Dragon Inn! Alternatively, there are also tours from Tauranga that visit Hobbiton for that day as well.

You can’t miss out on visiting Hobbiton, it is easily one of the best things to do in New Zealand! It is truly a unique place that has become part of the country’s culture.

4. Matamata

bailey enjoys a coffee at The Coffee Gallery in Matamata, New Zealand
The Coffee Gallery
Racehorse statue in Matamata, New Zealand
You know you’re in Matamata when…

If you have room in your schedule to make the road trip from Hamilton to Tauranga a 2-day endeavor, I highly recommend spending the night in Matmata! Matamata is less than an hour from Hamilton, but it’s right next to Hobbiton so you can take a few hours exploring this iconic NZ location, stay the night in Matamata, and have the whole next day to hit the other stops on this list!

While Matamata is most famously known for being home to Hobbiton, I feel that there is much more to this little town that’s worth exploring! There are some easy hiking options right in the city, Rapurapu Kauri Track or the Te Panui Scenic Reserve, which is a great picture of the beauty of this area. If it’s raining though, an afternoon at the Morrinsville Art Gallery is my go-to activity. 

Another hidden gem of Matamata’s unique culture is horse racing! Yep, Matamata is the Racing Capital of New Zealand, which is a pretty big deal here. The town breeds famously strong thoroughbreds and you can find stables all around. This historic activity has been around since the 19th century when both Maori and European settlers competed on stock horses. If you’re in town on a race day, seeing a live horse race at the Matamata Racing Club is an amazing experience!

Before you take off on the rest of your road trip the following day, be sure to stop by The Coffee Gallery for breakfast! They have a great breakfast spread, and also tasty coffee to fuel your day. It is also owned and operated by a local family, so you’re supporting a local business in the process too!

5. Wairere Falls

Wairere Falls Lower viewpoint
Wairere Falls Lower viewpoint
Bailey walks along the Wairere Falls track

I love taking the drive from Hamilton to Tauranga slowly because there are just so many things to see right along the way. Wairere Falls is the highest waterfall on the North Island, and honestly one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country, and it’s right on your route!

Wairere Falls is an impressive 153 meters (500 feet) high and cascades down the rocky cliff in a beautiful pattern. It is worth the effort to catch a glimpse– and let me tell you, it’s a bit of an effort! 

There are two viewpoints, the upper and the lower. It is a 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) hike to reach the lower viewpoint, which doesn’t sound very long, but it’s all stairs. You can expect this hike to take 3 hours round-trip, including time to stand and gawk at the waterfall! While the hike is challenging, it is scenic the entire way and the payoff is worth it at the end. 

If you’re feeling really ambitious you can climb to the upper viewpoint, which I actually haven’t done. It will take you another 1.5 hours just to get to the upper viewpoint as the trail is even more challenging. It is full of loose rocks, roots, and a very steep incline. Hiking poles would be a great choice if you decide to take on this part of the hike!  

Wairere Falls is only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Matamata and will take you about 15 minutes to drive there. From the parking lot, you’ll follow the Wairere Falls Track to reach the falls. The parking lot is large and has toilets, so I recommend using those before you hit the trail because it will take you at least three hours to complete the hike. Possibly even double that time if you go to the upper viewpoint! Bring plenty of water and snacks, and stay safe on the trail.

Related Read: If you’re looking for a bit of adventure while traveling around New Zealand, add ziplining to your itinerary! There are some world-class ziplines in New Zealand that will leave your heart racing!

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6. Blue Springs

Blue Springs (Te Waihou) in New Zealand
So cool!
Bailey at the Blue Springs (Te Waihou) near Hamilton, New Zealand
The water is so clear!

Perhaps the time/challenge level at Wairere Falls isn’t suitable for your road trip, so you can check out the hiking options at Te Waihou (Blue Springs). Blue Springs is a gorgeous walking track that takes you through New Zealand’s lush forest and the purest water in the world– no joke! Te Waihou is one of the purest water sources in the world and accounts for about 60% of the bottled water in the country. The water is impressively clear and moves quickly, giving it a totally unique look. 

These springs are about halfway between Hamilton and Tauranga. There are two spots where you can visit the springs. The Leslie Road car park is a quick 10-minute walk to reach the springs. Although short, it’s stunning! 

If you want a longer walk, head to the Whites Road car park which is a 4.7-kilometer (2.9-mile) trail. It’s flat and easy and will take around 2.5 to 3 hours to complete, but you’ll have beautiful views the entire way. 

If you have ample time and love a leisure stroll, walking along the entire springs is a lovely experience. However, I took the shorter option from the Leslie Road car park and felt that was just enough. I got to get out and see the springs, and honestly, they look the same the entire way so you don’t necessarily need to do the whole walk to fully appreciate them.

7. Kaimai Mamaku Lookout

Bailey at Kaimai Mamaku Lookout in New Zealand
Bailey at Kaimai Mamaku Lookout in New Zealand

Kaimai Mamaku Lookout is a really quick stop with some amazing views! As you get closer to Tauranga, you’ll pass through Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park, which is a lush conservation area that stretches for 37,000 hectares (91,000 acres).

The Kaimai Mamaku Lookout is just off State Highway 29 and overlooks the sprawling valley below. It is 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Tauranga, about a 25-minute drive before you hit the city. You don’t need a super long time here, but you will definitely want to stop to snap a photo and gaze over the landscape. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Raupehy, Tongariro, and Ngaruhoe in the distance, it’s quite stunning!

The lookout has a good-sized parking lot with enough room for a few cars. If you time it right and visit here at sunset, it is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see!

8. McLaren Falls Park

Bailey at McLaren falls inside McLaren Falls Park, Tauranga, New Zealand
A waterfall at the entrance to McLaren Falls Park near tauranga, New Zealand
It was a little dry on my last visit!

Just 10 minutes outside of Tauranga is a nature lover’s outdoor haven. McLaren Falls Park is a 190-hectare (470-acre) park with a huge variety of botanical trees, great hiking tracks, and stunning waterfalls. Being so centrally located from Tauranga makes getting outside and enjoying New Zealand’s natural beauty easy at McLaren Falls Park. 

One of my favorite hiking options here is the McLaren Falls Loop Track. All of the hikes in the park are relatively easy, so it makes for a nice relaxing afternoon exploring. The McLaren Falls Loop track will take you along Lake McLaren and McLaren Falls, which are both impressive sights to see. 

This is also one of the places to see glow worms in New Zealand! If you visit the park at night, you’ll see the blue/green bioluminescence of glow worms, which is truly a sight to see! Glow worms live in cold and damp places, which makes a waterfall the perfect location. You can take the Nikau Track, which connects to the Waterfall track to spot these unique little worms. 

While you can simply drive from Tauranga, I think it’s more fun to camp out at McLaren Falls Park to see the glowworms! This is one of the best things you can do in Tauranga, and perfect if you rent a campervan in Auckland. Campsites are only $23 NZD per person and have full facilities to make your overnight stay comfortable. 

9. Fernland Spa

hot pool at Fernland Spa in New Zealand
Photo credit: Fernland Spa

There is nothing quite as wonderful as a relaxing spa day, especially if you’ve spent a day or two sitting in a car! The Fernland Spa is just a 5-minute drive outside of Tauranga and my favorite way to unwind after a road trip or a day of hiking. 

The best part of the spa is the hot pools filled with non-chlorinated mineral water, so it feels great on your skin. There are three different types of pools, the main pool is large and surrounded by lush jungle and birdlife. There are also private indoor pools or private bubbly pools, which is ideal if you are planning a little romantic getaway while in New Zealand

What’s fun about Fernland Spa is that you can actually book a hotel room there, or camp! It is a unique stay in Tauranga and a seriously relaxing destination. Besides the pools, they offer massages and exercise classes and are right next to the Tauranga walkway/cycleway for a beautiful fern-filled walk after your spa day. 

This place is relaxing, and super fun with a group of friends. It is definitely a must-do activity while in Tauranga!

10. Tauranga

Bailey walks around Tauranga, NZ downtown area

Tauranga is an unassumingly awesome town and one of my favorite places to visit on the North Island. It is the biggest city along the Bay of Plenty, so it’s a great launch point for exciting water activities like sailing, surfing, or swimming with dolphins! There is plenty to explore in Tauranga, especially in the summer, so you’ll definitely need a few days here!

Hiking Mount Maunganui is one of the best hikes on the North Island because it gives 360-degree views of the Bay of Plenty below– it’s incredible! This hike is only 10 minutes from Tauranga, which is the easy part because this hike is more challenging than it looks. The 232 meters (761 feet) up the Mauao Summit Walk takes most people about 40 minutes, and once you reach the top any exasperated effort is worth it! Bring some water and snacks, and be sure to take breaks along the way and this hike up Mount Maunganui will be a breeze.

Another activity that is simply unique in Tauranga is swimming with dolphins in the wild! While many people may have swam with dolphins in a resort setting, this area of the Bay of Plenty is swarming with dolphins, and they let you swim up close with them! The best way to experience this is by taking a tour; this specific one doubles as a cruise of the Bay of Plenty. The captains know exactly where to go, provide snorkel equipment, and ensure your safety throughout this exciting endeavor. 

I’ve swam with many animals through all of my snorkeling and scuba diving excursions, but swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat is at the top of my list! You can have this same experience too for $150 NZD, book your spot online here!

This area of New Zealand happens to sit along a large geothermal range, known as the Thermal Explorer Highway. This means you will get the chance to soak in natural hot springs, take mud baths, and see impressively large geysers! If you travel from Tauranga to Rotorua, you’ll find a plethora of spas and hot springs. 

Views from the top of Mount Manganui, New Zealand
Mount Manganui!

You can also take this full-day guided tour to see the best hot springs, learn about Maori culture within the geothermal bounds, and return to Tauranga on the same day! This experience takes care of everything for you, which is exactly what I want on a relaxing hot spring day for $190 NZD.

One of my all-time favorite travel activities is trying out all of the unique food options! Spend some time walking along the Strand, and you’ll find more eateries than you know what to do with. The Hop House is my favorite brewery in town, specializing in incredible craft beer, as well as pizzas, burgers, and classic pub fare. And if you’re jonesing for a good brunch, The Med Cafe has delicious home cooking. 

Tauranga is not to be missed! With all the great food, outdoor activities, and quaint charm of the town, you will certainly enjoy a few days here. 

Related Read: Continue your road trip heading south and check out one of my favorite cities on the North Island, Hastings! This cute coastal town is teeming with architecture, wineries, and beautiful scenery, there is really so much to explore in Hastings!

Where to Stay in Tauranga, NZ

Penthouse apartment with a seaside view at Trinity Wharf Tauranga, New Zealand
Photo credit: Trinity Wharf Tauranga

Now that you have made it to Tauranga, you will need a place to stay! Whether you’re a backpacker making your way across the North Island or looking for more upscale accommodations for a night or two, Tauranga has you covered.

These are my top picks that fit a variety of budgets.

Wanderlust NZ – $

This waterfront hostel has million-dollar views of the harbor but without breaking the bank! Wanderlust NZ has a huge balcony overlooking the harbor and the historic building has been recently renovated. There are two shared kitchens to cook in, a lounge area, and a wide variety of rooms.

You can opt for the typical bunk bed in a shared room for around $40 NZD or upgrade to a private room for $130 NZD. The location is perfect and fills up fast, so book your room on or quickly!

ASURE Harbour View Motel – $$

Have the beach and water views right out your front door at ASURE Harbour View Motel. The property is beautiful with a cobbled courtyard and a BBQ area to enjoy. You’re close to the harbor and center of Tauranga.

The rooms here are elegantly decorated and more like mini-apartments with a full kitchen or kitchenette, flat-screen TV, and free Wi-Fi. The motel also offers free kayak rentals! Rooms here are $200 NZD a night, which is a great deal for the amount of space you get.

You can check all rooms and rates for ASURE Motel online here!

Trinity Wharf Tauranga – $$$

Treat yourself to a luxurious getaway with a room at the Trinity Wharf Tauranga. The panoramic views over the harbor and convenient location close to the center of Tauranga, mean you’re in a great spot to explore. The infinity-edge swimming pool is spectacular and the rooms have fluffy robes and comfy beds to relax in after a busy day. Rooms here are on the higher end, starting at about $300 NZD per night.

You can check availability and book online here!

Related Read: Starting your journey in Auckland and need a place to stay? Check out the best hotels and areas to stay in Auckland before you set off on your road trip!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

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’s what most budget travelers use 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…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.

Thanks for reading!

Bailey walks the vibrant area in Tauranga called The Strand 
Thanks for reading!

Exploring New Zealand on a road trip is one of my favorite ways to experience this beautiful country! The route from Hamilton to Tauranga is full of quaint and unique things to discover, from locally owned restaurants to amazing hiking trails, and that classic Kiwi charm that I love! While it was a short drive, I was really glad I slowed down enough to enjoy the journey from Hamilton to Tauranga. 

I hope you found this blog helpful as you plan your road trip around the North Island. If this is just the start of your adventures, I have tons of other awesome road trip routes all around New Zealand. Be sure to read up on all of my North Island guides so you can really dive into New Zealand while visiting!

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