New Zealand’s North Island is not often given the time it deserves. Most visitors tend to hit the tourist hotspots and then head straight for the South Island. This is a real shame because the North Island is bursting with beautiful scenery, delicious wine, amazing wildlife and Maori culture.
By adding some extra time to your New Zealand North Island itinerary, you can get beyond the tourist trail and find some little-visited treasures packed with interest. Here’s my guide to planning a North Island trip that mixes the tourist highlights with lesser-visited spots that many visitors simply don’t reach.
I travelled on Air New Zealand, transiting through the States. I can see why the airline has won countless awards; it’s by far one of the best airlines I have used. I flew in Economy Class and I found it comfy with a generous seat pitch.
For added comfort, you can’t beat booking a Sky Couch. It’s a real must for couples and families. This innovative seating arrangement is unique to Air New Zealand and means that you can arrive feeling refreshed without paying business class prices.
Air New Zealand offers plenty of entertainment options to keep you occupied. Even better, you can order a glass of NZ wine straight from your seatback entertainment system. Children of all ages are treated to child-friendly entertainment, meals and an activity pack.
I travelled to NZ in October, which is spring in the Southern Hemisphere. In spring, you get the best of everything - the weather isn't uncomfortably warm, and the rural landscape is breath-taking. Spring flowers are bursting into bloom, giving the lush green scenery an extra splash of colour.
If you travel in spring, you’ll also avoid peak summer season (January to March). Prices will be lower, and the major attractions will be less crowded, especially in tourist hotspots such as the Coromandel Peninsula and Rotorua.
Our first stop was Auckland. From the airport, it’s just a quick 30-minute transfer into the city itself. I recommend spending a couple of nights in Auckland to acclimatise and shake off your jet lag.
We stayed at the Sky City Complex in Auckland, home to the Sky City Hotel and Sky City Grand Hotel as well as the famous Sky Tower. The Sky City Hotel offers spacious rooms and modern facilities, as well as an on-site casino. Just a short walk from the waterfront area and the shops on Queen Street, it’s a great base for exploring Auckland.
While you’re in Auckland, try taking the Time Unlimited Auckland Private Volcanoes tour. It’s a brilliant way to immerse yourself in the local Maori culture and get your first taste of traditional Hangi cuisine. The tour will also take you up to the highest point in Auckland, Mount Eden, with amazing views over the city and neighbouring islands.
While in Auckland, don’t miss out on on a day trip to delightful Waiheke Island. You can board the short ferry over to the island from the wharf and, within half an hour, you’ll be on the island. Along with gorgeous sandy bays, Waiheke is home to a handful of top-notch wineries. Bach Winery is one the best, so stop here for a bite to eat and an amazing sunset before heading back to the city.
From Auckland, we headed north to the Bay of Islands. The 3-hour drive took us through villages that gave way to lush green forests and rolling fields. As it was springtime, the fields were full of newborn lambs.
The main towns in the Bay of Islands region are Paihia and Russell. We stayed in Paihia, a quaint seafront town with a coastal promenade and a handful of restaurants and boutiques. It’s a lovely place to unwind for two or three nights.
The Bay of Islands is steeped in history, thanks to the Waitangi Treaty grounds, famed for being the birthplace of the nation and where the nations independence was signed. I recommend taking a tour here and tying it in with a traditional Hangi dinner and Maori Performance.
During our stay, we set off on the Hole in the Rock sightseeing cruise. This was a real highlight for me, with magnificent scenery and wildlife throughout the trip. If you’re lucky, you might even see dolphins.
For something a little different, try taking a trip up the Waitangi River in a traditional Maori Waka boat. As you sail up to Haruru Falls, you can listen to stories about local Maori life, told by guides that have lived here for generations.
After a few nights in the Bay of Islands, it was time to head south again. Rather than doubling back through Auckland again, I recommend spending some time at the amazing Castaways Resort on Karioitahi Beach. Perched on the clifftop, it overlooks the black sandy bay and the Tasman Sea.
Castaways Resort offers chalets, studios and glamping, providing affordable luxury with breath-taking views. I particularly loved watching the sunset from my own private veranda. The onsite restaurant serves food to die for and the starry night skies took my breath away.
From Kariotahi, we travelled to the stunning Coromandel Peninsula. The journey took a little over two hours. Coromandel is packed with fantastic scenery and offers all kinds of activities, so I would recommend at least two nights here.
Whilst here, a must-visit spot is Hot Water Beach, where you dig yourself a hole and make your own personal hot spring! You can hire the spades at the beach for a small deposit or ask your hotel.
Another iconic spot is stunning Cathedral Cove. It was a real highlight of my trip. I recommend parking in Hahei and getting the shuttle to the top. From there, you can walk down to Cathedral Cove.
In springtime, the trail is lined with gorgeous wildflowers, while you keep the turquoise crystal sea on your right all the way down. After you have spent some time at Cathedral Cove, you can take the water taxi back to Hahei beach (around $15 per adult).
You can also opt for a glass-bottomed boat cruise to Cathedral, which is a great way to see the scenery and its marine life. If you’re lucky, you might see dolphins or even orca whales. The tour also gives you the opportunity to snorkel.
Coromandel is home to many boutique lodges and B&Bs, but I would personally recommend the Sunlover Retreat in Tairua. Donna and Chris are fantastic hosts and their hospitality is second to none, not to mention their amazing rooms. The sunsets and sunrises are beyond magnificent.
From Coromandel, we travelled to Rotorua. The drive takes you through some beautiful scenery. One of the best things about driving through New Zealand is the ever-changing landscape, from forests and mountains to rolling green hills. It’s truly spectacular.
To break up the journey, we stopped at the amazing Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. They are like nothing I have ever seen before and well worth a visit.
Another absolute must-see on the way to Rotorua is Hobbiton. Spring is a great time to visit, as all the flowers are in bloom, adding another layer of magic to the place. Just be aware that you’ll need to pre-book to avoid disappointment. It’s an extremely popular attraction.
Rotorua itself is home to many major attractions, from the geo-thermal geysers of Te Puia to the Maori Village of Tamaki and the Gondola with its luge track. I would say that two to three nights is a good amount of time to spend here.
On our first evening, we headed to the Tamaki Maori Village for a cultural evening and Hangi Dinner, which was awe-inspiring. When the Haka was performed, it blew me away. During the evening, the tribe also teach you some Maori traditions, such as the Poi and weaving.
If you have a spare evening during your time in Rotorua, try visiting Redwoods Forest and experience the fantastic canopy tree-walk at night. The colours that are illuminated against the huge trees, bringing the whole forest to life.
If you’re travelling with children, I highly recommend a trip to the Rainbow Springs Nature Park. Home to the Kiwi Hatchery, is a wonderful place to learn about kiwi conservation and, if you’re lucky, you might even see a newborn kiwi.
Another must-do in Rotorua is a trip in the gondola for amazing views over the lake and its surroundings. At the top, you can try wine-tasting from the Volcanic Hills winery or try your hand at the famous luge.
We took the gondola before sunset and had a meal at the Volcanic Hills dine @VH restaurant. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip and, coupled with a beautiful sunset, it was a great way to end our stay in Rotorua.
From Rotorua, we continued south, making a brief stop for the Huka Falls Jetboat ride. It’s pretty hair-raising but makes for a great adrenaline rush. We then headed to Lake Taupo for a scenic boat cruise to see some traditional Maori rock carvings.
Next, we travelled to Tongariro National Park, packed with mountain views and lush forests. It’s a popular spot for skiing in the winter, and there was some fresh snowfall juat a few days before we arrived.
We stayed at the elegant Chateau Tongariro Hotel, located in the heart of the park. I would recommend two nights here because that will give you a full day to follow the beautiful walking trails.
From Tongariro, most travellers head straight to Wellington (which is about 4.5 hours in one go) or Napier. However, I recommend taking some time to visit the wine region of Martinborough.
The town itself is quaint, with a lovely atmosphere and the main square is shaped like a Union Jack. The surrounding area is scattered with amazing wineries, so why not take a cycling tour and sample some of the region’s best Pinot Noir?
One or two nights here is ideal, and I recommend staying in the Chateau Marlborough. This boutique hotel has a real charm about it and, for a little luxury, try staying in a Garden Suite.
In the evening, you can’t miss the Star Fields tour. It’s absolutely amazing. The guys who run it have a real passion for astronomy, and the clear starry skies are breathtaking.
From Martinborough, it’s a scenic drive over the Remutaka Range into Wellington. You definitely need at least two nights in Wellington, because there’s so much to do in the city.
A real must-see is Zealandia, where you might be lucky enough to spot a kiwi. If you love nature and wildlife, you can’t miss it. Other highlights include a guided tour of Te Papa Musuem, a cycle trip along the waterfront to Oriental Bay and a journey up to Mount Victoria for panoramic views over the city.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, book a tour of the Weta Caves and Workshop, where you can see the actual props from the films and even try your hand at some special effects. If you’re in Wellington over a weekend, head for the underground markets.
QT Wellington is a great place to stay in the city. It’s a quirky hotel full of artwork that sits right by the water opposite the Te Papa Museum, and it’s walking distance to plenty of bars and restaurants. Try staying in one of the Harbour View Rooms or Suites.
My advice - don’t rush the North Island. It offers a great mix of culture, wildlife, scenery and delicious wine, with something to suit all ages and interests. If you budget a few extra days to explore the North Island, you’ll be able to see the highlights and take some real time out in extraordinarily beautiful places, giving you the best of both worlds.
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