Whangarei's Rebecca Te Namu could not fly home from Wellington fast enough following a night where her Cuba St hotel "rumbled and swayed".
Ms Te Namu was sharing a hotel room with her colleague Maria Poolman and returned north yesterday.
"We were on the fourth floor. We woke up to this rumbling and the room was shaking like crazy. It stopped for a quick second, then started swaying and it was full-on," Ms Te Namu said.
"We were stunned waking up to that. We were taken off our feet and knocking into the walls. Then we just tried to get under a door frame, you could still feel the rumbling."
The women were feeling the effects of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake which struck near Hanmer in the South Island just after midnight and which triggered a tsunami warning for most of New Zealand's east coast, including parts of Northland.
Ms Te Namu said following the initial quake, the pair went down to the hotel lobby.
"We could hear sirens going hard out outside. People were very anxious and crying. It was madness on the street. Neither of us have ever experienced anything like that."
Aftershocks continued throughout the night "big time", she said.
"We felt sick from all that swaying. Even as we stepped on the flight [home], all around the airport you could feel it. It was like 'get us out of here'."
Meanwhile, a Waipu couple camping at Marfell's Beach south of Blenheim and about 200km north of the epicentre, said their 9.5m campervan was "rocking right over".
"I thought the ground had opened up under the back wheels," said the man, who did not want to be named.