With high mountains, crystal clear lakes, natural hot pools, roaring waterfalls and literally no people miles and miles around, New Zealand’s North Island attracts wild nature addicts from all over the world.
And though the gorgeous country, tucked at the outskirts of the world, actually consists of two major islands, many tourists hop on a plane to the South Island immediately after landing in Auckland’s International Airport. Clearly, there are a few solid reasons for that. For example, Milford Sound fjord, named ‘The Eighth Wonder of The World’ by Rudyard Kipling, or awe-inspiring Mount Cook – the highest mountain in the country, and don’t forget all the spectacular glaciers, or endemic parrots Kea, who prefer snow to palms and are so intelligent, they could probably win a Nobel prize for birds, should there only be one.
All these world-famous sights leave mighty, yet a bit shy North Island way behind in a race for visitors’ attention. But trust me, there’s nothing like a good old road trip around the North Island. Given that 2/3 of locals live in this part of New Zealand, you’re safe from being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no gas and mobile coverage. Makes any adventure so much comfier! And here’s the itinerary that will make you fall in love with this country forever.
Jump in a rental car in the airport and head directly to the legendary West Coast – a row of wild, rugged black-sand beaches, hugged by the fractious Tasman Sea. Aren’t these views the reason you came to New Zealand after all? The greatest thing about this country is that you don’t even need to travel too far to see them.
The most popular West Coast destination is lively Piha Beach, always full of surfers and relaxed families, indulging into delish pizza in a local café. Take a stroll up the Lion Rock for the bird’s eye view over the beach.
On your way back don’t miss a turn to the gravel Anawhata road, that will take you directly to Auckland’s best kept secret – Anawhata beach. This epic place is tranquil and empty all year round, thanks to the 10 km of a wee bit shaky ride and a challenging track down to the beach. But soaking in the beauty of the moody beach, surrounded by the sheer cliffs is so worth the hike!
Did you know ‘Good for your soul’ is the official moto of Coromandel Peninsula? Auckland’s closest geographical neighbor is loved by locals for pristine beaches and laid-back vibes. Sounds truly good for soul!
Since it’s time to take a break now, navigate your way to the tiny Hahei town and check in at The Church – a hotel, built around the real 1916 Methodist Church (that is now a restaurant). Instead of rooms they have cosy little houses, surrounded by the beautiful gardens. Privacy and relaxation at its finest!
The best thing about The Church is its proximity to the main Coromandel sight – Cathedral Cove. If this place looks strangely familiar, you might want to revise ‘The Chronicle of Narnia: Prince Caspian’, that was filmed here. Seriously, can you think of a better location to open a door to Narnia?
Nothing beats the magic of The Lost Spring Spa in Whitianga after an intense 1.5 hour walk to Cathedral Cove (telling ya, New Zealand is all about walking, hiking and exploring!). This adults-only paradise is based on 16,000 year old hot mineral water springs, and is probably the most beautiful geo-thermal area in the whole country. Keen to warm up a volcano? Than grab a refreshing cocktail from the bar and head to the upper pool. Its volcano design blows away even the most experienced hot pools’ junkies!
Speaking about volcanoes. The mesmerizing beauty is hiding 50 kilometers off the coast of Whakatane and it’s a destination not to be missed!
White Island is the only active marine volcano in New Zealand. Though it currently sits at level 1 of activity, which is the least dangerous one, a trip here will hands down tickle some nerves. It might be a bit sleepy at the moment, but it’s still a volcano. Steamy, smelly, hot volcano. Hope, gas mask and hardhat suit your style, as you’ll have to wear them here!
Lush and green New Zealand looks so blissful, it’s hard to believe it actually located right at The Pacific Ring of Fire – a row of 452 volcanoes, stretching all the way up to Japan. Not surprisingly, volcanoes and eruptions are a big part of its landscapes and history.
White Island isn’t the only place showcasing what’s it like – to live ‘on a powder keg’. In Rotorua, hot pools and geysers are so common, many casually have them at their own backyard. This area has faced a major Tarawera eruption in June 1886, which makes it the world’s youngest volcanic valley.
Book a room at Four Canoes, authentic motel with Maori decorations and, of course, a hot pool – it totally makes sense to stay in Rotorua for a few days. Besides being famous for volcanic valleys, this town is also known as ‘the Maori Culture capital of New Zealand’, which means, it’s a perfect place to learn more about the history and traditions of local people. Visit Te Puia to cover both – this beautiful place has traditional Maori concerts and hāngi degustation (Maori food cooked on hot stones under the ground) as well as some mud pools and a local superstar – Pōhutu, the largest geyser in Southern Hemisphere, putting on a spectacular show with water skyrocketing 30 meters into the air around 20 times per day.
Excited? Trust me, it was only a warm up! To experience Rotorua at its fullest, head to Whakarewarewa forest for a Treetop walk – a row of 23 suspension bridges, hanging in a giant red trees’ canopy. Magical during the day, they truly appear in full glory after the dusk, illuminated by the lights of all colors and sizes. Top-notch photo opportunity!
Taupo is ‘The Hearth of the North Island’ both geographically and ideologically. Country’s largest lake is located in the very middle of the North Island and boast hearty, charming activities.
How about a yacht tour to Maori Rock Carvings with hot drinks, sweets and an obligatory swim in the lake? Though I would definitely prefer to swim in the natural geothermal hot springs of Otumuheke Steam. Because where else can you alternate a boiling hot spring and a refreshing river stream without even getting out of the water? Truly is this place one of the most incredible nature’s wonders.
For a spectacular walk head to the Craters Of The Moon – a formation that might look familiar after Rotorua (minus Rotorua’s omnipresent Sulphur smell), but that never gets old.
Welcome to the Art Deco capital of the world! Yes, you’ve heard me right. The self-proclaimed ‘Art Deco capital of the world’ is really located in New Zealand. In 1931 Napier was destroyed by a severe earthquake to be later rebuilt in this style. There are over 140 authentic and unbelievably gorgeous, colorful Art Deco buildings here, all located in a walking distance from each other.
To experience Napier at its finest, spend a night at the Masonic Art Deco Hotel, which name speaks for itself. Not only is it one of the rare buildings to survive the earthquake, but it’s also perfectly located in the city centre. Couldn’t get any better!
When in Napier, you can’t skip a tractor tour to the breathtaking Cape Kidnappers. Just imagine: a super-fun tractor ride along the beautiful coastline (interesting facts and endless jokes from your guide are included) is followed by a spectacular walk up the cliffs, and you finally get as close to the huge gannets’ colony as possible. This experience is unbeatable – 20,000 elegant smart birds will be flying all around you.
This region is also famous for its amazing wines and is home for the country’s oldest winery – Mission Estate. With over 160 years of experience, there’s no better spot for a relaxed lunch after an epic adventure. A bit overpriced? Maybe. But the beauty of sitting outside, overlooking the rows and rows of grapes, nibbling on local cheeses and indulging into the flavourful wine is worth every penny.
Finally, it’s time to discover New Zealand’s capital – busy, extremely windy, but oh so friendly Wellington. This city, balancing at the Southernmost edge of the North Island, is all about welcoming coffee shops, great shopping and smiley people with great sense of humour.
So, grab an extra scarf (trust me, ‘extremely windy’ is a mild euphemism for the crazy gusts you’re most likely to battle. Even their own version of a Hollywood sign has a ‘Wellington twist’ on it, with some letters being blown away by the wind!) and had directly to the recently renovated Wellington Cable Car for a postcard view over the cheerful city. After a short ride up the hill, take a walk down through the mesmerizing Botanical Gardens.
One of the many wonderful places in Wellington is Zealandia – enormous ecosanctuary on a mission to recreate pre-human state of New Zealand. They have already brought back 18 species of native wildlife back into the area. Luckily, the humans are still allowed here, though should follow special paths to observe the wild life of the historical New Zealand from a safe distance.
P.S. Yes, Wellington is the starting point for a South Island part of a great New Zealand road trip. But before a comfy ferry takes you to the neighborhood island, I should ask you just one last question –not jumping on a plane in Auckland was the best decision ever, wasn’t it?