Stunning trip from Auckland to Napier

HOBBIT HOUSE: Stop for a tour of Peter Jackson’s movie set in Matamata.
HOBBIT HOUSE: Stop for a tour of Peter Jackson’s movie set in Matamata.

I was in my undies, dancing to a screaming James Brown around the flashest hotel room I'd ever stayed in.

It might have been the whiskey, tiredness or the East Coast air but I was deliriously happy.

And I wondered how I had got there.

SCENIC STOP: Poverty Bay from the Kaiti Hill lookout.
SCENIC STOP: Poverty Bay from the Kaiti Hill lookout.

My North Island road trip started in Auckland just a couple of days earlier.

Sitting on the balcony on the top floor of Quality Hotel Parnell, looking out over the Viaduct towards Devonport, the city looked different.

Living and working on Karangahape Rd, it's sometimes easy to forget how stunning Auckland can be, but it really is.

Mayor Len Brown might have his faults, ahem, but he raves about the beauty of the place.

And he's not wrong.

From Auckland, I would cover about 700 kilometres over five days, driving south through Rotorua and out to Gisborne before ending my trip in Napier.

It was only when I began the journey to Rotorua that I realised how new this all was.

Growing up in England, the only road trips we did were to formerly thriving holiday hotspots turned beachfront ghost towns such as Blackpool or Morecambe.

We were usually only there a few hours and it would typically end with one of my siblings standing in dog poo or Dad being outraged over the price of icecreams before a tense drive home.

As we got older the destinations were upgraded to Spain and Portugal but the dynamic stayed the same.

Driving down State Highway 1 towards my first stop in Matamata the drizzle started.

Maybe it would not be so different from my childhood experience in the motherland.

But, as the traffic thinned and the grey became green, the sun came out.

The flat dairy land of Waikato began to undulate as I travelled south, something Peter Jackson will forever be thankful for.

A tour of the hilly Hobbiton movie set could be written off as a gratuitous money spinner - film-makers trying to line their pockets long after sales had tailed off - but it's undeniably impressive.

I was not expecting to be wowed but the attention to detail on the brilliantly crafted hobbit holes and the surrounding scenery was a hit with film buffs as well as those dragged along by them.

Even Andre and Phil - South African rugby nuts relaxing with a beer at The Green Dragon Inn - gave it the thumbs up.

Before long I was off to sulphur city - Rotorua.

It might have only really served as a place to sleep but there's something about the place.

People there pride themselves on being part of a tourist town and it comes through whether you're checking into a hotel or grabbing a coffee before heading east.

Salt of the earth, or sulphur of the whenua maybe.

Confession time: I'm not a good driver.

I'm impatient, I get bored and my bum goes numb quickly, but it all changed.

I didn't really have a concrete itinerary, so (uncharacteristically) I took the scenic route to Gisborne, via Whakatane.

The decision looked to have backfired as I drove past the lakes in lashing rain but it stopped almost as soon as it had started.

The emerging sun quickly evaporated the wetness from the steep bush, creating a hazy mist almost like a scene from the movie Predator, minus a human-hunting-alien-versus-Schwarzenegger fight to the death.

Drinks with an old mate on the main street of Whakatane were the perfect way to spend the afternoon, even if I did feel like the only person who wasn't greeted by everyone walking past.

The beauty of road trips is also their downfall.

You get to see so many new things but as you leave every location you realise there were probably dozens of local treats you missed out on.

There must be at least 100 "scenic lookouts" on the drive down the East Coast to Gisborne and it's easy to feel guilty as you drive past every one.

Being stuck in a long line of cars driving through the Waioeka Gorge was a blessing.

As the road sliced through the dense bush alongside the river, around each corner was a view more breathtaking than the last and I was in no hurry.

Gisborne's Wharf Cafe, overlooking the picturesque harbour, fed me with one of the best fish dinners I had ever had and inspired me to hit the town in search of some evening revelry.

After a walk through the Poverty Bay town it became clear Thursday nights were not particularly popular with the locals but I had a spacious hotel room, whiskey and a special fridge that made its own ice.

I'd barely spoken to anyone in a couple of days but I wasn't lonely.

Watching the spectacular sunset sparked a wave of simple elation.

Then there was the Godfather of Soul, dancing and semi-nudity.

It made sense at the time.

The long drive south was punctuated by stops at the serene mineral pools of Morere Hot Springs and later a pie at the famous Osler's Bakery in Wairoa - nourishment for the body and soul, Hawke's Bay-style.

At my final destination in Napier the solitude got the better of me and after a stroll on the beach I rewarded myself with a trip to the Westshore Beach Inn.

The archetypal Kiwi pub served up rugby, racing, crate bottles and banter.

As the blokes celebrated the end of their working week, it was only fair I did the same with another superb feed, this time at the bistro next door, which had more than 60 New Zealand beers on tap.

But I had time to try only a handful of them before bed and the journey back to the big smoke.

Now home, I've drunk and danced again, but it's just not the same as when you're on the road.

Where to stay

The writer stayed courtesy of Choice Hotels – see Quality Hotel Parnell, 20 Gladstone Rd, Parnell, Auckland. Ph 09 303 3789

Quality Inn on Fenton, Cnr Fenton & Victoria Sts, Rotorua. Ph 07 350 2211

Quality Hotel Emerald, 13 Gladstone Rd, Gisborne. Ph 06 868 8055 Econo Lodge Napier, 85 Meeanee Quay, Napier. Ph 06 835 9879

Where to eat

Wharf Cafe & Restaurant, 60 The Esplanade, Gisborne. Ph 06 868 4876,

Osler's Bakery, 116 Marine Parade, Wairoa. Ph 06 838 8299.

Westshore Beach Inn Bistro & Cafe, 84 Meeanee Quay, Westshore Beach, Napier. Ph 06 835 9879,

Where to stop

Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours, 501 Buckland Rd, Matamata. Ph 07 888 1505,

Tamaki Maori Village, 1220 Hinemaru St, Rotorua. Ph 07 349 2999, Morere Hot Springs, SH2, Morere. Ph 06 837 8856,

You could win your own Kiwi road trip – see section A of today's Sunday Star-Times for details.

Sunday Star Times