Rolling hills, stunning coastlines, geothermal marvels and hobbit holes – New Zealand’s North Island has it all. Whether you’re planning a road trip or a flying visit, these are my highlights for the best places to visit…
This itinerary roughly flows from north to south, but of course you could take any of these recommendations individually or in a different order, however suits you best. (Places marked in yellow are my personal favourites.)
I’ve refrained from stating how long to stay in each area, as the timing will largely depend on your schedule and interests. Some places, like Hobbiton and White Island, are mere day trips, but you could easily spend anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks in the bigger areas like Wellington or Rotorua, depending on where your interests lie.
North Island Itinerary
With its sub-tropical climate, Northland is ideal for a coastal getaway, whether that’s lounging in the sunshine, hiking by the sea or getting an adrenaline kick with some adventure sports.
- Head to Bay of Islands for all manner of adventure sports (sailing, parasailing, sky diving and more), plus a glimpse into early pakeha (European settler) history at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds or in Russell
- Visit the northernmost tip of New Zealand and take in the spiritual and natural beauty at Cape Reinga (above)
- Stretch your legs and escape those notorious UV rays under the canopy of New Zealand’s largest kauri trees at Waipoua Forest
About a third of New Zealand’s population live in Auckland, and you can definitely feel that population density. We stayed on the North Shore and only paid occasional visits when necessary, though I will say there’s decent shopping to be had here.
- I recommend the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) if you have an interest in, well, history, transport and/or technology! I especially enjoyed the recreated historic street and the guided tour of the aircraft hangar
- Nearby Mount Eden and Devonport both have more of a laid-back village feel that I preferred to central Auckland. Climb either Mount Eden or Mount Victoria for excellent city views
- We didn’t make it during our visit but Rangitoto Island is supposed to be a wonderful escape from the city, known for its walks and wildlife
3. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Waitomo’s Glowworm Caves are pure magic. It’s hard to put into words how astonishing it is to float through caves dotted with infinite tiny glowing lights, like the night sky brought within reach. Your brain knows it’s simply thousands of bioluminescent larvae, but when viewed in the darkness of the caves it’s seems like something from a fairy story.
- I’ve heard great things about nearby Raglan – a chilled surfing town with black sand beaches – but unfortunately we haven’t yet managed to visit.
- Hamilton isn’t too far away, but the only thing worth seeing there IMHO is Hamilton Gardens.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is pricey, so it’s really best suited to those with a prior interest in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or film sets. If you tick any or all of those boxes, prepare to be completely enchanted by Hobbiton.
The combination of idyllic surroundings and adorable set decoration was so potent that by the time we were on our way back to the visitor centre I was already determined I wanted to move there.
5. Coromandel Peninsula
With a fair bit to see at each part of the Coromandel Peninsula’s coastline, you may want to load up the car for a road trip!
- Take a tiny private railway to a mountaintop in Coromandel
- Admire nature’s architecture at Cathedral Cove (pictured above) or Karangahake Gorge
- After all that exploring, DIY your own thermal hot tub at the renowned hot water beach
6. White Island
White Island is one of the coolest things we’ve done in New Zealand, so I have a tendency to wax lyrical about it. But I recommend it with reservations: 1) it’s New Zealand’s most active volcano, which isn’t for everybody (the air gets very sulphurous), 2) it’s expensive and 3) you catch the boat (or helicopter) from Whakatane, which may be out of your way.
Don’t worry if that’s not something you’re too keen to do, there’s plenty of further geothermal activity down in Rotorua and Taupo…
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua ranks highly on my list of recommendations for North Island. It’s simply like nowhere I’ve ever been before, littered with vividly coloured rocks and towering plumes of steam. Rotorua itself also home to an impressive array of beautiful spots (Hamurana Springs, the Blue and Green Lakes) and fun activities (zip lining, rafting, luging).
Taupo is another geothermal spot and a good place to stay and rest before or after completing Tongariro Crossing. (Or so I hear. Sadly I don’t know from experience since we bailed on the crossing!) Huka Falls and the nearby Aratiatia Rapids are worth a visit if you’re passing.
Napier’s main draw is its historic art deco architecture. If, like me, you have an interest in that, then I’d suggest making a brief detour across into Hawke’s Bay to check it out and do some photography! While you’re there, the walk to Cape Kidnappers is a nice one, particularly if you’re interested to see the gannet colony.
Wellington is the self-proclaimed ‘coolest little capital in the world.’ I have to say, after two years living here I can definitely endorse that! It offers culture, history, views, shopping and great food in abundance, and somehow manages not to feel too overwhelming and city-like. Greater Wellington is awesome too. There are plenty of scenic drives and walks, including the gorgeous Cape Palliser, Somes-Matiu Island (above) and the location used for parts of Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, Kaitoke Regional Park.
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