Car-camping New Zealand’s North Island

Prancing around Hobbiton, midnight date with glow-worms, hot springs, redwoods and mud pools, all on a tight budget road trip
New Zealand Hobbiton

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The year we decided to chase the summer around the world, we landed in Auckland in February. The weather was perfect: warm sunny days, cool nights, and sea breezes. It was a 3 hr flight from Sydney, following the nearly three months we spent in Australia. But that’s a whole another story.

New Zealand map and hobbit house

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

– Bilbo Baggins

Sleeping in a car in New Zealand

We read that the best way to see New Zealand is by car or campervan. Since we were on a tight budget, we opted to rent a car for about $20 USD/day. The plan was to use it for transport and spend an occasional night in it to save on hotels. New Zealand is so well equipped for travelers that sleeping in a car was easy and fun. We found beautiful bathrooms, free showers, drinking water, good food, and clean picnic tables, coupled with lovely locals wherever we went. 

We parked in a rest area by the sea that first night and went to sleep to the sound of the waves outside our windows. I curled up in the back seat and Mark reclined the driver’s seat of our Toyota Corolla. While we car-camped, we bathed in rivers, lakes, and the sea (but only used soap and shampoo in the bathrooms and showers). Freedom camping rules have been tightened since then, check it out here: Right Vehicle Right Place, and but regardless of rules, we try to leave each place we visit cleaner and prettier than we found it.

We shopped for food in the supermarkets and set up a picnic in a new, beautiful spot each day. Vegemite became a daily staple after we got bitten by sand flies and learned that one of the B vitamins in the tar-like but tasty spread worked as a natural repellent.

Meanwhile, we found free alternatives to many well-rated, expensive attractions and got good deals on the rest.

Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel Peninsula is spectacular, with pristine beaches, winding roads, misty forests, and picturesque seaside towns.

My friend’s mom (whom I had never met before) welcomed us to her home in Whitianga on our second day in New Zealand. We spent a lovely evening drinking wine and telling stories and we have kept in touch ever since. The following day, armed with travel tips and veggies from her garden, we set off on our adventure.

Hot Water Beach

As you can imagine, New Zealand is home to some pretty unique phenomena. On the east coast of the Coromandel peninsula, there’s an underground water reservoir heated by ancient, cooling magma. The hot water seeps to the surface and if you dig a hole at the beach, 2 hours on either side of low tide (check tide times here), it fills with hot water, creating a natural hot tub. It’s free to visit and there were lots of people there when we went, all having fun digging, steeping in hot water, and then cooling off in the ocean. We didn’t even have to dig, a nice couple surrendered their pool to us when they had enough merriment for the day.

I imagine this could be a relaxing, romantic kind of situation on a day the low tide happens to be at 5 am during the shoulder season and you had the beach to yourself. Crowded and noisy, it was still fun and worth a visit if just for the uniqueness of it.


We’re big fans of the Lord of the Rings movies and re-listened to the audiobooks during our travels in New Zealand. Hobbiton is just south of the Coromandel peninsula, so of course, we had to go. The tour takes 2 hours and I was seriously tempted to hide in one of the hobbit houses and extend my visit by a few weeks. There’s a pub, and veggies grow all over the place, I wouldn’t go hungry. Just look at the pictures. If someone told you that the only reason you don’t see any Hobbits running around is that they’re all snoozing at home before a dance at the Party Field, you’d believe them.

You get to walk around (in a group), touch things, peek inside a couple of the 44 hobbit-holes, take pictures, ask questions, and enjoy a free pint at the Green Dragon Inn, as well as order some traditional fare from the menu.

There are very few places on earth that make me cry happy tears, and Hobbiton was one of them. It’s undeniably magical, whimsical, and lovely.

Besides the regular tour that we took, they do a bunch of other events. I’d definitely want to go to the International Hobbit day celebration or an Evening Banquet tour. Check them out here: Hobbiton Experiences

Searching for Glow Worms

One summer night in Spain, a group of us jumped into the sea and the movement of our bodies made it twinkle. The more we splashed around the more it glowed. It was the first time I experienced bioluminescence and I’ve been on the lookout for it ever since. When I heard of the famous New Zealand glow worms, I had to see them.

Imagine fireflies but glued to a cave wall or a side of a cliff. You stand (or sit) there, in the darkness, with small, blue, glimmering lights all around you. It’s magical, like looking at the galaxy but within your arm’s reach.

There are tours you can take, often involving a raft, a cave, and a dozen companions. They range from $50 NZD to several hundred. Being the frugal travelers that we are, we figured that surely these little creatures must live all over the place, not just in the roped-off caves with an entrance fee. And, of course, they do. We found them in McLaren Falls.

McLaren Falls

We picked the humongous McLaren Falls Park since it has a lot going for it apart from the glow worms. You can see waterfalls, swim in the lake, picnic in a meadow, have a free shower, wash your clothes in the sink, get sandfly bites that itch for a month, and walk among the sparkling glow worms after dark along the Waterfall Track. We manage to do all those things, in that order. The lovely guard at the gate let us in for free as long as we promised to leave before 7 am the next day.

We set our alarm to 2 am half an hour after the moon set that night, cracked the car windows, and went to sleep at the Waterfall Track parking lot to utter silence apart from a few night birds. At 2 am, in complete darkness, we ventured out. I didn’t expect crowds, but I also didn’t think we’d be the only ones there. There wasn’t a soul to be seen.

This walk loops around a stream with a waterfall and the walls of the little canyon are covered with thousands of little glow worms twinkling into the pitch-black night. You can get right up close to them. It was magical and scary, and dreamy.

McLaren Falls Park would be worth a visit even sans the bioluminescence, have a look at the McLaren Falls Park amenities and maps. You can also look how many glow worm places these guys found during their New Zealand trip, both free and paid.

Rotorua, the Stinky Mud capital of New Zealand

Rotorua is one of those places you catch a whiff of before you even roll down your window. The geothermal activity is responsible for the sulfur smell in the air and the whole town seems to be sitting atop a lake of boiling mud. It seeps through holes in parks, it warms the waters, and some sidewalks feel like they have floor heating installed.


above – mud pool at Waiotapu Boardwalk

Other than the bubbling mud in public parks, hot soak pools for your tired feet, and steam rising from the ground, Rotorua is a regular town. A third of the population is Maori so it is a good place to learn about Maori culture and see some spectacular, traditional architecture. There’s also plenty to keep one amused close by: Crystal clear Hamurana spring, Volcanic Valley, geysers, Lake Rotorua with its black swans, Skyline gondola for sweeping views, or my favorite – A Redwood forest with its hiking and biking trails and a canopy walk that is beautifully illuminated after sunset.


We’d been on the road for 8 days at this point, seven of the nights spent in our trusted Corolla. The last night before taking the Interislander ferry to the South Island of New Zealand, we booked a hotel (with 8000 Chase Bank points) in Wellington. We wanted to be well rested and presentable, so we don’t scare the little kids that our old friends (who were to meet us on the other side of Cook Strait), acquired since we last saw them.

Wellington is altogether fabulous. This southern-most capital city in the world is surrounded by nature and is hip, artsy, and energetic, with great museums and galleries (check out Te Papa), quirky cafes, a sandy beach, a cable car that takes you to the Botanic Garden and Planetarium, and even a memorial fountain to Paddy the Wanderer. This beloved Airedale terrier used to delight people in the streets of Great-Depression-era Wellington.

It’s been noted that taxi drivers ferried him around town, he rode aboard trams and even snuck into ships and sailed to Australia. He also knew the traffic lights and would only cross on green. When he died in 1939, a funeral procession of a dozen taxis accompanied his body. The local newspaper reported: “It was no mock affair but a touching tribute to a good comrade.”

Paddy the Wanderer

On to the South Island adventures. Don’t forget, if you sign up for the Mappy Monday Monthly (below), I’ll let you know when a new story pops up. I also include travel, health, and money-related bits that I found interesting that month.

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