Drive New Zealand’s Thermal Explorer Highway

Even in winter, the roads of New Zealand’s North Island offer a chance to drive safely through some of the country’s most scenic areas. Linking the northern city of Auckland with Napier on the east coast; the 450 km stretch of tarmac known as the Thermal Explorer Highway is best given at least four days to do justice, more if you can afford the time. Here are the best places to stop off along the way.

Scenic Drive Along New Zealand’s Thermal Explorer Highway

Thermal Explorer Highway

Known for its splendid gardens, this is the perfect oasis of calming fresh air when you need a break from four wheeled travel. Amble around its twenty or so themed gardens which include the Sung Dynasty Chinese Scholar’s Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden and Japanese Garden. It’s also worth spending some time in Hamilton’s excellent zoo before finding yourself a hotel for the night.


Te Puia, Rotorua.
Te Puia, Rotorua. Flickr: Robert Linsdell / CC BY 2.0

Continuing south east, it’s an easy drive through some of New Zealand’s most fertile farmland to the thermal hotspot of Rotorua. You’ll want to spend at least an afternoon at the well put together Te Puia centre. Not only can you sit on thermally heated rocks to watch Pohutu geyser spurt and mud pools plop, but there it’s also a good place to get acquainted with some of the Maori rituals as well as the area’s arts and crafts traditions. You can experience a lot in just one day. Make sure you try a traditional hangi for dinner.

Orakei Korako
Thermal Explorer Highway

You’re spoilt for choice in terms of geothermal landforms but the pick of the bunch is surely Orakei Korako. Translating as “the place adorned by white glitter” the terraces of Orakei Korako have been attracting visitors for more than a century, taking a boat across to access them. In winter, the boats run on demand only, meaning there’ll be no hanging about. Nearby, you might also want to stop off at Craters of the Moon, another smoking landscape of hot springs and mud pools.

Thermal Explorer Highway

Lakeside Taupo might not be the most fascinating of New Zealand’s towns, but watching the sun set behind the lake is a great way to unwind at the end of a day’s drive. What you’re looking at is a huge flooded volcanic crater. And behind it, in the distance, the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park forming a scenic backdrop. Linger a little longer and there’s an art trail to follow plus some Maori carvings, located at Mine Bay and only accessible by boat.


As you draw near to the end of the Thermal Explorer Highway; a treat looms in the shape of the delightful town of Napier. The town is well known for its Art Deco buildings. It was thrown up within a few years of each other following a devastating earthquake in 1931. The earthquake pretty much levelled everything that was there already. It’s worth seeking out a walking tour with a local guide to get the stories behind these architectural charmers.

About JuliaHammond


Julia Hammond is a Geography teacher turned travel writer with a passion for places. Winning Mail Travel's Deep South competition was the catalyst to write for a diverse range of publications including Bradt's Bus Pass Britain Rides Again. She’s written Kindle guides to Cape Town, Peru and London for Unanchor and advice on Savannah for Wanderlust. When not travelling, she can be found at home in Essex planning her next trip, her two golden retrievers curled up at her feet.

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