Travel Guide to New Zealand – Part Three: The North Island
And now for the final leg of our adventure. In my Travel Guide to New Zealand Part Three: The North Island, you guessed it, we’re heading north! The North Island and the South Island are united in their natural beauty; as you move north you will notice that the national parks, rugged volcanic scenery and lush, green landscapes are still in abundance; however the North has a slightly more ‘cosmopolitan’ vibe, mainly because it plays home to the country’s harbour-side capital, Wellington.
It makes sense to start our tour of the North Island here in the capital. Wellington sits near the North Island’s southernmost point on the Cook Strait. It’s a pocket-sized city that’s jam-packed with personality. Amongst the many sights, you will find a waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, a working harbour and a splash of colourful timber houses on the surrounding hills. The climate is generally sunny and mild throughout year, however strong winter winds from the Cook Strait mean the city has earned its nickname of ‘Windy Wellington’.
If you’re looking for a ‘city break’ during your visit to New Zealand, this is the place to do it. There are plenty of museums, such as ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’; a host of natural spectacles, such as the eco-sanctuary of ‘Zealandia’ and the numerous bays and lookout points from Mount Victoria; and even tours of some of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ locations that leave from the city. However, my time in Wellington was memorable because of the food!
Wellington is often seen as a fairly ‘average’ city, but if you veer off the beaten track you are sure to find some quirky pop-up restaurants and plenty of exceptional independent cafes, pubs and eateries. I particularly enjoyed a Friday night at the Cuba Street Night Market, which was a melting pot of incredible international cuisine, local music and a place where the community seemed to unite. It was a great evening and one I’d highly recommend.
As with most cities, Wellington has something for everyone, but the best way to experience it is to simply get lost amid the streets and discover your own side of the city.
I’d like to move on from Wellington now and head further north to Napier. Just over 300 km north of Wellington sits another coastal city called Napier. A relatively new city, as it was rebuilt in 1931 following a devastating earthquake, Napier is nestled in the famous wine-producing region of ‘Hawkes Bay’. As a wine lover, I must confess that this fact alone was a sufficient lure for me to visit this region, and I’m delighted I did!
Aside from the wine, Napier’s streets are scattered with a huge amount of Art-Deco buildings, including the famous zigzag-patterned Daily Telegraph Building. The city also features a tree-lined waterfront promenade, where you can find the ‘Pania of the Reef’ statue, which depicts a Maori maiden and is a symbol of the city.
Napier is certainly atheistically beautiful and personally I preferred the slightly more relaxed ambiance of this city compared to Wellington (the wine may have swung it for me though!) The selection of art gives the city a ‘cultural’ feel, which coupled with the natural beauty, gave this city a ‘European’ feel. Sadly I missed out, but every February, thousands of people flock to Napier to celebrate the Art Deco Weekend Summer Festival, sending the township back to a time of new hope. The Festival celebrates the reconstruction of Napier City after the earthquake and is a hotbed of music, performers, dancing in the street; trains, planes and automobiles; picnics, galas and frivolity in true vintage style, which bring the 1930s back to life. My wife and I even said we would base another New Zealand trip around that event!
But the North Island is not just about the cities; on the contrary, many believe that the natural beauty of the North outshines that of the South! So with that in mind, let’s see what Mother Nature has to offer here!
Roughly 150km north-west of Napier, you will find one of New Zealand’s most famous sights: Lake Taupo. Heralded as ‘nature’s ultimate playground’, this great lake is huge! And there are so many activities to enjoy to boot! I’d recommend spending a few days here, especially if you’re an adrenaline junkie!
But let’s start with gentile- Lake Taupo can be enjoyed in a relaxed and serene sense too, not just one full of high octane adventure! There’s so much to do at Lake Taupo: from golf and fishing, to pampering and shopping. If you are taking along young children, or indeed prefer to experience life at a calmer pace, you can enjoy Lake Taupo on one of the scenic cruises, or even jump-aboard the ‘Ernest Kemp Replica Steamboat’. Both tours will take you out into the lake, where you can see the majestic mountains, crystal clear waters and verdant volcanic backdrops.
If you want to take your relaxation a step further, why not have a soak in a natural geothermal pool? Lake Taupo is home to three impressive volcanoes, including the iconic cone-shaped, Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans). A gentle hike through this geothermal wonderland will enable you to see spectacular steaming cliffs, geysers, boiling lakes, bubbling mud pools and floating pumice rocks. It’s definitely worth a day exploring this side of Lake Taupo!
Now on to the heart-racing stuff! If you have an action-packed Bucket List, chances are that a visit to Lake Taupo will help you tick off 3 or 4 items! The ‘Great Lake’ is place to try bungee jumping, skydiving and white-water rafting! Whilst I was here I took on the Huka Falls Jet, which was the perfect combination of thrills, excitement and natural beauty.
Thrilling customers in Taupo since 1990, Huka Falls Jet is a must-do experience! The half hour of thrills, fun and excitement takes you along a beautiful river environment, lined with native bush, sheer rock cliff face and natural hot springs. But it’s not quite as placid as it may sound! Coupled with the stunning sights, you will experience 360° spins at disorientating speeds before reaching the awe inspiring majesty that is the Huka Falls.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
I could spend all day talking about Lake Taupo, but it’s time to move on, well sort of. Our next stop is situated on the south-west shore of the lake and can be found within the Tongariro National Park. Now, if you’re a hiker, this section is dedicated to you!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is supposed to be the best one-day hike in the whole of New Zealand. The national park you will adventure through is not only New Zealand’s oldest, it’s also a World Heritage Site. You will see incredible volcanic pools of the most unbelievable jade-green, see snow-peaked mountains and encounter some of the most unique landscapes in the world. It’s no wonder than many claim that this hiking route is in the top-ten in the world! Many who complete the 19.4-kilometre journey will tell you the climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, though worth it in every aspect, so it’s worth bearing these words in mind before you embark on the challenge.
Even if you don’t feel up to taking on the main trek, the Tongariro National Park is a beautiful day out, where you can still enjoy many shorter walks and see, what I personally feel, the best scenery on the North Island.
From one lake to another; we’re moving north-east now towards Rotoura; the ‘Sulphur City’. Rotorua is a town set on its own lake of the same name, so as you can imagine, offers an abundance of natural beauty. But there is far more to this town, as it a cultural centre for the indigenous Maori people and houses the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Rotoura is also home to geysers and thermal mud pools fuelled by the area's geothermal activity. The Pohutu geyser here erupts many times daily.
I used my trip to Rotoura to relax after the non-stop adventure at Lake Taupo and indulged in several cultural and more laid-back activities.
My first stop was to the hot springs of ‘Hells Gate’. Despite the rather ominous moniker, Hells Gate is the only place in New Zealand where you can soak and relax in an outdoor mud bath, used for generations by Maori to ease joint and muscle pain. You have a choice of three different types of mud too: black, white or grey. The views over the geothermal landscape are spectacular too, and I would recommend experiencing a ‘Twilight Spa’, so you can see the wonderful sunsets.
If you can’t stand the thought of sitting still for long, you can also take part in a ‘Native Bush Walk’ at Hells Gate, giving you the opportunity to see the erupting waters, coloured pools, hot water lakes, bubbling mud, steaming cliffs, sulphur crystals and land coral up close and personal.
I also visited the Polynesian Spa Complex, which is New Zealand’s equivalent of the Japanese ‘onsen’: natural thermal spas. These spas are a great way to relax and take in the stunning views.
Aside from ‘pampering’ I also indulged in some incredible cuisine during my visit to Rotoura. Firstly, I took the ‘Skyline’ gondola (http://www.skyline.co.nz/rotorua/ssr_gondola/) up the 900m Doppelmayr cable system to the ‘Stratosfare Restaurant’. The views from the top made this dining experience unforgettable!
I also took part in the Tamaki Maori Village experience, where I was transported back to the times of ancient warriors and traditions. Whilst I’m not always a huge fan of ‘manufactured’ tourism, I’m glad I took part as it allowed me to glimpse into Maori culture, experience some ancient rituals, enjoy some traditional entertainment and eat some authentic, native cuisine in the ‘Hangi Feasting’. If this sounds like an experience you’d enjoy, visit http://www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz/ for more details.
We’re going to move directly east now to Waikato, or more specifically, Waitomo. Now, I’m quite excited about writing this section, as it was at Waitomo that I had some of the most mind-blowing, subterranean experiences of my life!
When you Google ‘New Zealand North Island’ there is one experience that will show up time and time again: The Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. Pictures do not do the caves justice, so I urge you to go and see them for yourself. You’ll be taken, by boat, through a sparkling labyrinth, bejewelled with a galaxy of breath-taking bio-luminescence. The only way to describe the magic of the ‘Arachnocampa Luminosa’ is that they are like nature’s Christmas lights, adding spectacle to the ancient caves. It’s just amazing!
The caves also offer a range of activities to try, including the more ‘conventional’ caving and abseiling. However, for me, I really enjoyed the ‘Black Water Rafting’, commonly known as ‘tubing’. This exciting activity sees you gently floating through beautiful caves on an inner tyre tube one minute and jumping off a waterfall the next! You can even whizz down a hydro slide or crawl up to a hidden waterfall! It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and I high recommend it to the ‘fearless’ amongst you! http://www.caveworld.co.nz/tubeit
The Coromandel Region
We’re going to move much further north now, and back to the east-coast of the North Island, to The Coromandel Region. Renowned for its natural beauty, green pastures, misty rainforests and pristine golden beaches, The Coromandel is blessed with hundreds of natural hideaways, making it an ideal place to escape, and chance to calm down after all of the excitement of Waitomo!
I’d recommend that you explore this region by foot and by boat, as some of the sights are only accessible by water. Firstly, I’d suggest visiting ‘Cathedral Cove’, which is accessible by foot, but I think more enjoyable by boat or kayak. The cove offers some beautiful sights and geological points of interest. It’s also a great, relaxing day out, with plenty of coastal walks to enjoy.
Next on the list is ‘Karangahake Gorge’, which has been voted by New Zealanders as one of the top 101 things to do. This incredible stretch of river will take you through old tunnels and walkways, and allow you to discover the rich, hidden history. You can also cycle the route, if you fancy a change of pace.
If you would prefer to spend the day reclining on the beach, then you are in luck. The Coromandel Region has many beaches, but maybe none so lovely as ‘New Chum Beach’. This highly protected beach is consistently voted as one of the best beaches in the world. This is no surprise, as the setting is superb: with deep, green rainforest flanking the golden sands and turquoise waters lapping at the shores.
Another beach to visit is ‘Hot Water Beach’, where visitors can often find hot, bubbling water running through the often deserted sand. It’s eerily beautiful and if you’re feeling brave you can even dig your own natural spa!
We’re nearing the end of our tour of the North Island, but before we go we have a couple of important stops to make. If you jump on a ferry from The Coromandel, you will quickly be transported into a completely different world!
Despite not being the capital city, Auckland is a major and iconic destination in New Zealand. Based around two harbours, Auckland is the playground for the rich, so don’t be surprised if you see the odd ‘super-yacht’ parked up for the night! Auckland is even called ‘The City of Sails, as it’s one of the most famous places in the world to go yachting. To come from the incredibly rugged and unspoilt Coromandel, you will be a little bit disorientated to be back in the hub of social activity, modern architectural feats and buzz of modern life, but it is worth a visit.
With nearly 1/3 of the population living in and around Auckland, it’s no surprise that everything you need and want is on your doorstep: there is a vibrant dining scene in Auckland, and plenty of exceptional wines on offer to compliant the gourmet delights; a huge array of outdoor pursuits within easy reach and museums and galleries galore. I’ve spoken in great depth about the natural delights that New Zealand has to offer, so I think it only fair to discuss some the man-made attractions that are worth paying a visit. Auckland has so much to see, especially through the fresh eyes of tourist, however, if I had to choose just five things to do, I’d recommend the following:
- Auckland Sky Tower: Not only the tallest building in New Zealand, but a landmark of Auckland. And stood at the staggering height of 1,076 feet, the tower is the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere! As you can imagine, the view from the observation decks is simply incredible, and a fantastic way to take in the Auckland cityscape from all angles.
- Waitemata Harbour: Another iconic sight in Auckland, which is often referred to simply as ‘Auckland Harbour’. In my opinion, the best way to see the harbour in its entirety is by jumping on one of the many cruise boats and sitting back whilst the view sails by.
- Auckland Fish Market: If the sea air has made you hungry, then head on down to Auckland Fish Market. Here you can sample fish and seafood, literally caught that morning, and even learn how to cook your purchases at the Auckland Seafood School. I really loved the couple of hours I spent at the market, especially the fresh sushi, smoked fish and lobster being sold with local wine!
- Auckland Harbour Bridge: You can’t claim to have seen all of Auckland’s sights without seeing the Auckland Harbour Bridge. A feat in engineering, it defines the Auckland skyline and is worth a visit. However, the main draw for tourists is so that they can don their walking boots and conquer the iconic structure. If you’re feeling exceptionally daring, you can even climb to the top of Auckland Harbour Bridge with a professional guide.
- Auckland Museum and Institute: Perched on top of a dormant volcano, the Auckland Museum (also referred to as the War Memorial Museum) is a fantastic place to explore Maori and Pacific Island history. It has the world’s largest collection of artefacts on these topics, including buildings, canoes, carvings and around 1.2 million images.
I could go on, but sadly it’s time to leave Auckland. In all honesty, I went to New Zealand to see nature’s incredible vistas and experience outdoor adventure, but I’m really pleased that I had a few days in Auckland, as it’s a wonderful city full of charm, and in an incredible setting to boot!
Bay of Islands: Paihia
Our final stop takes us just over 200km north of Auckland to the ‘Bay of Islands’, or more specifically ‘Paihia’. Known as the ‘jewel’ of these isles, Paihia, for me, encapsulates all that I have seen, in one, seaside town. It has golden beaches, picturesque coastal walking trails and waterfalls, and a vibrant population of local birds. The town also played an important role in the country’s history, as it was here, after a century of conflict between indigenous Maori tribes and Western settlers, that peace was finally made and the ground-breaking Treaty of Waitangi was signed.
I went to Paihia as I’d heard about how beautiful it was, and the rumours were certainly true! This town and its surrounding landscape are stunning and gave me the perfect opportunity to relax and soak up the friendly atmosphere and lounge in a hammock underneath a palm tree.
But that’s not all I did! The main purpose of my trip here was to take part in one of the whale and dolphin safaris, where you can join a boat and sail around this incredible group of 144 islands. I love seeing nature up close and personal, so this trip was right up my street. I also took another cruise out to the ‘hole in the rock’ at the tip of Cape Brett, where I had dinner on board.
If that all sounds a little too relaxed and laidback for your taste, you’ll be pleased to know that Paihia also offers visitors the chance for adventure: You can skydive, parasail, scuba dive or go exploring on a sea kayak. For a true Northland cultural experience, you can also paddle a ‘waka’ (Maori for watercraft) up the tidal estuaries of the Waitangi River.
I really enjoyed my time in Paihia and really felt at home there. It’s perfect for a 2-3 day stay and a great way to end your New Zealand travels.
Well sadly that brings me to the end of my guide to New Zealand. I hope that you’ve learnt lots along the way and gained a real insight into what this magical country has to offer. But like all travel, the only real way to experience it is to live it, so get out there and pay New Zealand a visit now!