True, the South Island is beautiful. With her majestic mountains, serene lakes and untouched rainforest, she offers some of the most stunning, untouched scenery on the planet.
Three times as many people live on NZ’s North Island in comparison to the South, meaning the South Island’s roads and tourist spots are often much less populated than those on the North Island.
The South Island is home to NZ’s tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the renowned Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, many stunning beaches such as those in Abel Tasman National Park, and the adrenaline capital of the world: Queenstown!
Before James and I began our travels around New Zealand, so many people told us that the South Island was way better than the North Island – some even told us to skip the North Island completely.
I believe that you cannot claim to have seen New Zealand without visiting both of the islands; in many ways, they are very different from each other.
I cannot tell you which of the islands I prefer – I’ll leave you to make your own decision on that. Here’s why you absolutely should not skip New Zealand’s North Island.
Before we started our travels around New Zealand, everyone told us there weren’t any mountains on the North Island; there was just miles of farmland and hundreds of sheep. Only part of that is true…
The terrain on NZ’s North Island is mostly green and hilly, and yep, there are lots of fields with cows and sheep. It is nowhere near as mountainous as the South Island, however, there are still a number of peaks rising above the landscape.
There are basically two types of mountain on NZ’s North Island: various mountain ranges, which are situated along the eastern side of the island, and volcanoes, located in the centre and west. And yes, you can ski on them in Winter!
Three of the most dominating peaks on the whole island are situated in Tongariro National Park: Mount Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe – the latter of which you may recognise from a well-known movie series… but more on these ones later.
My favourite peak on NZ’s North Island has got to be Taranaki. It rises as a perfect cone that towers over the flat landscape. There are so many walking tracks in and around Egmont National Park, including a trail that leads to the summit, 2,518m above sea level.
When we visited Taranaki in early June, we decided against climbing the mountain as there was too much snow; you are strongly advised to take ice picks and crampons with you. And even if you are adequately prepared, accidents still do happen. The same day we decided against climbing the mountain, a tourist lost his life; although he had all the right equipment, he slipped and fell. Taranaki is not a peak to be underestimated!
Related: How to spend a weekend in Taranaki
New Zealand’s “coolest little capital” really is just that – and was named as such by Lonely Planet in 2011. James and I have been living in Wellington for five months now and we absolutely love it. Whether you want to stick around longer or just visit for a couple of days, there is always so much to see and do.
It’s home to Te Papa, the National Museum of NZ, which is free to visit and gives you an insight into the history of New Zealand – it is apparently the best museum in the country. There are heaps of great walking tracks in and around the city, as well as the beautiful botanical gardens and climbed Mount Victoria, a summit that looks over Wellington. There is always something going on in the city centre, whether it’s a weekend festival or just Cuba Street’s weekly night market. There are so many restaurants and bars to choose from in the evenings, and there are lots of craft beer breweries – we are spoilt for choice!
Loads of capital cities around the globe have all of this and more. So why is Wellington so great? It prides itself on being the “coolest little capital” – the key word being “little” – Wellington is so small you can drive from one side of the city to the other in half an hour, tops. But I think that’s part of what makes it so attractive.
Because it isn’t huge, it feels connected. The suburbs are in the leafy outskirts and great public transport links makes it easy to get into the city centre. Welly has a fun, welcoming vibe and the people are friendly and quirky. If you are looking to do a working holiday in New Zealand, I 100% recommend basing yourself in Welly for a few months. Sure, it’s wet and windy in winter, but in comparison to Auckland, I am enjoying it a lot more…
The beaches in New Zealand vary from one extreme to another: there’s the ones that are like you’re on a tropical island and then there’s the moody, mystical ones…
There’s the Bay of Islands, which is just beautiful, and you can go kayaking or snorkelling or dolphin-spotting. Also in the Northland is 90 Mile Beach – a truly enormous stretch of sand that is actually 88km long.
Waiheke Island has some gorgeous beaches, and the Coromandel contains the gems of Hahei, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach – where you can dig your own bubbly hot pool in the sand!
For surfers (whether you’re a pro or a complete beginner) there are so many places to go surfing on New Zealand’s North Island.
Around Auckland, a popular spot is in the Waitakere: Piha. It’s one of the most dangerous beaches in NZ, but is a stunning black-sand beach, and its neighbour Karekare is a huge, serene beach that is made mystical by the sea-spray.
Further south is Raglan, another favourite with surfers, and the west coast sees a whole highway devoted to the sport: Surf Highway 45 in Taranaki.
New Zealand was created when two tectonic plates collided: the Australian plate and the Pacific. This caused the mountain ranges on the South Island and the geothermal activity on the North Island. Much of the central plateau is home to thermal springs, many of which you can enjoy for free – just pull up beside the hot springs, get your swimsuit on and take a dip! There are also some commercial spas dotted around the area so you can pamper yourself.
For a real geothermal fix, you should visit Rotorua – the town is simply bursting with geothermal activity! You can enjoy the free hot springs and bubbling mud pools in Kuirau Park, located in the town centre.
A short drive from the centre of Rotorua is an active geothermal area which is now a park named Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland. The park has been named ‘one of the 20 most surreal places in the world’ and is New Zealand’s most colourful geothermal attraction – a must do!
Related: How we spent a day in Rotorua
If you want to see the “real” New Zealand, i.e. what the country was like before the Pākehā (Europeans) or even the early Polynesians arrived, then I urge you to visit Te Urewera. This is a truly off-the-beaten-track part of New Zealand; the “track” being a very long, narrow, winding, gravel road which is impossible to drive at more than 40kph.
Te Urewera used to be a National Park, the largest in New Zealand, in fact. In 2014, the land was officially returned to the Tūhoe tribe – the Māori people who have inhabited the area through many generations. Aside from a handful of walking tracks, a visitor centre, and a few Maori settlements, there’s nothing there but miles of untouched rainforest and a number of serene lakes, including Lake Waikaremoana.
I would also recommend visiting the Waipoua Forest, located a few hours north of Auckland in the Northland. Here, you can see trees that have stood the tests of time through centuries: a group of enormous Kauri trees called the Four Sisters, and the tallest Kauri in NZ, Tāne Mahuta.
If you’re located close to Wellington, I recommend a visit to Otari-Wilton’s Bush, just a 10 minute drive from the city centre, where you can see an 800 year old Kauri tree.
87% of people of Māori descent live on the North Island, and there are a number of opportunities to learn about Māori culture. I recommend visiting a Māori village in Rotorua, where you can have a tour of traditional dwellings and see an evening performance. In Northland, you can visit the grounds of Waitangi, where the Treaty was signed between the Māori tribal chiefs and the Pākehā (New Zealanders who are of European descent) in 1840. Wellington’s Te Papa museum offers a huge insight to Māori history.
Across the rest of the North Island, there are many towns which have pās that you can visit – these are historical settlements that used to be inhabited by the Māori. Look out for marae, which are Māori meeting points, and try to visit one but don’t enter uninvited. And don’t leave New Zealand before trying hangi, the traditional Māori dish!
I had to give the waterfalls their own bullet point because they are just spectacular. You know when you’re rendered speechless and just marvel at the beauty of something… Yeah, that’s New Zealand’s waterfalls for you. And the North Island has quite a few lookers…
Some of my favourites include:
To be honest, I’m not much of an adrenaline junkie, the most exciting things I’ve done are gone kayaking in Doubtful Sound (which is on the South Island) and hiked a lot of walking tracks.
The North Island is home to three of NZ’s Great Walks: Tongariro, Lake Waikaremoana and the Whanganui Journey, which is in fact a trip down the Whanganui River by canoe or kayak!
There are also loads of other exciting activities on the North Island for adrenaline junkies: you can go black water rafting or caving at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, bungee jump off Auckland Harbour Bridge, skydive at Lake Taupo, go zorbing in Rotorua, go white Water Rafting on the Kaituna River near Rotorua, take a jet boat down the Huka Falls, go bodyboarding down the sand dunes in Cape Reinga… the options are endless!
If there is just one day hike I recommend you do while you’re in New Zealand, it’s the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Even if you hate hiking, you HAVE to do this walk. It’s just too good to miss. If you want to stretch out the experience a little longer, opt for the 3 day Great Walk, the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
It’s no wonder that the Alpine Crossing is the most popular day walk in the whole of New Zealand. The walk is a challenging but not impossible 19.4km hike across the ridges between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, which are both active volcanoes. You might recognise Ngauruhoe for its feature as Mount Doom in the LOTR films (So one does simply walk into Mordor…)
The scenery on this track is simply out of this world; the red ridges, the rocky craters, the Emerald Lakes… I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life. This is one of my absolute highlights of my travels around New Zealand.
There are some incredible hikes on the North Island, from short walks to multi-day tramps – and there are so many I still need to do!
Some of my favourites include: –
The South coastal region of the North Island is called Hawke’s Bay, deriving from the body of water which was named Hawke Bay by Captain James Cook on his visit to NZ in 1759.
Napier is a must-visit for architecture lovers, as most of the town is built in the art-deco style (think Great Gatsby!) Hastings and Havelock North are pleasant towns, and both have very good weekend fruit & veggie markets!
If you like wine, this is THE place to visit – Hawke’s Bay wines are recognised on the world stage (they’re bloody good!!) Visit a winery and have a tour of the vineyards or rock up to the cellar door and get tasting. The region also produces amazing honey at Arataki, just outside Havelock North.
The region is also home to a hill that has the longest place-name in the entire world: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu (Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it!)
Auckland is the hub of the Hauraki Gulf and is definitely worth a visit – let’s face it, you’re probably flying into or out of Auckland International airport! AKL is New Zealand’s commerce and economic capital, with towering skyscrapers and designer shops. The city itself is pleasant enough for a few days visit, and is a good place to find work and save some money if you intend you stick around longer.
A few must-dos in Auckland include: ambling down Queen Street, the main street in the city centre; going up the Skytower, which offers panoramic views across the city; visiting Auckland Museum, one of the best museums in the country; and climbing Mount Eden, an inactive volcano with a huge, sacred crater. But also remember that the region of Auckland has so much more to offer!
There are a number of islands in the Hauraki Gulf that make great day trips from the city and you can take the ferry from the harbour. Rangitoto is a now inactive volcano that last erupted 600 years ago. You can climb to the summit which offers a fantastic view of the city’s skyline. For wine-lovers, Waiheke Island is the place to visit; with a number of vineyards and beautiful scenery, it’s worth stopping by a few cellar doors and having a taster (or five…)
For hikers, rent a vehicle and explore the Waitakere Ranges, the gorgeous rainforest located to the west of the city. Here you can find black sand beaches, enchanting waterfalls and all kinds of foliage. You wouldn’t think it’s just a half hour drive from the city!
Related: Walking tracks in Auckland
Whether or not you are a fan of Peter Jackson’s films, a visit to the Shire is a must for all. Sure, it’s touristy and quite expensive – but where else in the world can you see real life Hobbit holes?!
I have a confession to make. I’ve not seen any of the Hobbit trilogy. I’ve only seen the Lord of the Rings films because they have been played on repeat by my brothers. BUT I still loved walking around the film set of the Shire. The guided tour is informative and there are so many photo opportunities – plus a free beer at the Green Dragon Inn to finish!
Tickets start at $79 NZD per person and the website can be found here.
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
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