Maori Rock Carvings Lake Taupo, New Zealand | Photo by Holger Heinze on Pixabay

New Zealand Highlights: What to see and do on the North Island

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Thursday 24 September 2020 New Zealand Leave a Comment

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Are you planning a road trip around New Zealand and wonder what to see and do on the North Island? Well, you’ve come to the right place. We explored New Zealand in our campervan and share with you here the highlights of the North Island. Interested in replicating the itinerary? Head on over to check out your Ultimate North Island Road Trip Itinerary.

Northland: Bay of Islands

Apart from its natural beauty, the Bay of Islands is a great spot if you’re into history and/or art. You’ll find New Zealand’s oldest surviving (European) house and store in Kerikeri, and the country’s oldest church in Russell. Waitangi near Paihia is a huge part of New Zealand’s history, and visiting the Treaty Grounds is a MUST for any visitor to Aotearoa.

If you like art, you may have heard of Hundertwasser, who lived and worked in the Bay of Islands for many years. His architectural masterpieces are dotted around the globe. And there is even one in the Bay of Islands: the public toilets in Kawakawa (the small town you pass through on your way to Russell).

New Zealand's Oldest Church in Russell, Bay of Islands
New Zealand's Oldest Church in Russell

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Maori Carving at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Bay of Islands
Maori Carving at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Northland: Cape Reinga

It’s quite a long drive to see the northernmost lighthouse in New Zealand but it is so worth it. On a nice day, you can clearly see where the waves of the Tasman Sea meet the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

If you’re up for an adventure (and don’t mind getting sand into every fold of your body) you can sandboard down the Giant Sand Dunes at Te Paki, about 20km south of Cape Reinga. Boards are available for hire at the car park, but even just climbing them (and sliding down on your butt) is a lot of fun.

Just over 30km further south you will pass the Te Kao Local Store. It might not look like much (and if you see a tour bus parked outside you might be stuck for a while), but you will thank us for recommending to stop here, especially on a scorching day… simply because they sell (huge scoops of) New Zealand ice cream. Paul’s favourite is hokey pokey, vanilla ice cream with small lumps of honeycomb toffee.

Above Cape Reinga Lighthouse, New Zealand
Above Cape Reinga Lighthouse

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Te Paki Sand Dunes Fun, Northland New Zealand
Te Paki Sand Dunes Fun

Northland: Waipoua Kauri Forest

The Waipoua Kauri Forest is one of the few areas that give you a glimpse of the forests that once covered the whole country. This forest is also special because it has Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), the tallest, and Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), the oldest Kauri tree in New Zealand. The forest is also home to many endangered Kiwis (the birds, not the locals or the fruit).

Kauri trees (including those in the Waipoua Forest) are now sadly endangered as Kauri Dieback, a fatal disease, ravages in many areas around New Zealand. To prevent the disease from spreading, make sure you clean your hiking boots thoroughly after/before hikes and adhere to any trail closures.

Giant Kauri in Waipoua Kauri Forest, New Zealand
Giant Kauri Tree in the Waipoua Kauri Forest

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Auckland and surrounds

Being the largest city in New Zealand, Auckland and its surrounds can keep you busy for weeks:

  • If you’re into hiking, we recommend hiking up and around Rangitoto (the dormant volcano in the middle of the harbor) or exploring the Waitakere Ranges. Or climb one of the many volcanoes for great views over the city and harbor. Our favorites are Mt Eden and North Head Reserve at sunset (or sunrise).
  • If you love wine, Waiheke Island and its many wineries are only a 45min ferry ride away.
  • If you like museums or are looking for something to do on a rainy day, visit the Auckland Museum in the Domain.
  • And finally, if you’re a water baby, Auckland has some pretty cool beaches: from the black sand surf beaches at Piha and Muriwai to the white sands of Maraetai, you will surely find your favourite.
Views of Auckland New Zealand from North Head
Views of Auckland from North Head

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Views of Rangitoto Island from North Head in Auckland, New Zealand
Views of Rangitoto Island from North Head

Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel is one of those places I could never get tired of. The road around the peninsula is very windy and whoever drives needs to keep their eyes firmly on the road. But if you’re a passenger it will be a feast for your eyes. You’d want to stop at every turn as you travel from one picture-perfect vista to the next. Keep your camera ready. To top it off, the Coromandel has some great hikes, laid-back locals and gorgeous beaches. There is even one where you can dig your own personal spa bath into the sand.

Cathedral Cove at Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand
Cathedral Cove at Coromandel Peninsula

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Views of the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand
Views of the Coromandel Peninsula

North-East Waikato

Heading from the Coromandel south towards Rotorua, we recommend a slight detour. This allows you to:

  • Check out Waihi, an old gold mining town – the giant open mine is still in operation, and you can take a glimpse down into the abyss from its edge or join a tour of the mine;
  • Drive through the Karangahake Gorge, admire Owharoa Falls (one of the most beautiful in New Zealand), and hike or mountain bike along the Hauraki Rail Trail;
  • Pay a visit to Paeroa with its giant (world famous in New Zealand) L&P bottle – the Lemon and Paeroa drink has made this town famous. While the recipe is a secret, it tastes like a mixture of coke and lemonade (in Germany, we would call it Spezi);
  • Check out the Hobbiton movie set south-west of Matamata (if you’re interested in the Banquet tour, make sure you book several weeks in advance); and
  • Finish off with a hike or mountain bike ride along the Waikato River trails.
Owharoa Falls in Waikato, New Zealand
Owharoa Falls in Waikato

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Hobbiton Movie Set in Waikato, New Zealand | Photo by Lucas Gruwez on Unsplash
Hobbiton Movie Set in Waikato | Photo by Lucas Gruwez on Unsplash

Rotorua

There is something magical about geysers, hot springs and geothermal activity in general. Being witness to the powers of Mother Earth reminds us, mere humans, how insignificant we really are.

Rotorua and Taupo (together with the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park and White Island in the Bay of Plenty) are part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, one of the most active volcanic zones in the world. If you love everything geothermal, this is paradise: Te Puia with its Pohuto Geyser, Wai-o-Tapu with its Champagne Pool and Frying Pan Lake in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley are just a few of the spectacles of Mother Earth in the area.

Rotorua also has a strong Maori identity: More than 1/3 of the district’s population is of Maori ancestry, and Rotorua is New Zealand’s first bilingual city. Visiting one of the Maori villages (for example, Whakarewarewa, Ohinemutu, Mitai or Tamaki) will give you a glimpse into Maori culture. Be sure to attend a Pōwhiri (Welcome Ceremony). It provides a special opportunity for visitors to experience Māori traditions in action.

Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu, New Zealand
Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu

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Maori Welcome at Whakarewarewa, New Zealand | Photo by Bernd Hildebrandt on Pixabay
Maori Welcome at Whakarewarewa | Photo by Bernd Hildebrandt on Pixabay

East Cape

I was in two minds whether I should even mention the East Cape. Social media (and the ensuing popularity of so-called travel secrets) has ruined many gorgeous, unspoiled places around the globe. The East Cape is New Zealand as it once was. It is rugged, wild and pleasantly non-touristy. Its locals are friendly and chilled. There is no celllular or internet coverage: You have no choice but to disconnect. Waihau Bay, on the road from Whakatane to the East Cape, is the setting of one of New Zealand’s must-see movies: Boy.

The East Cape Lighthouse is the first spot in New Zealand to see the sunrise. While the closest campsite is only about 5km away, you will have to leave from there about an hour before sunrise. The road is very rough (I would only attempt it by car or campervan, a motorhome is already too big), and it takes about 20 minutes to climb the 700 steps up to the lighthouse.

Along the coastal road between Whakatane and Gisborne are many beautiful spots to check out: stunning Whanarua Bay, the picturesque Anglican Church in Raukokore, the historic wharf in Hicks Bay, the wood carvings in Tikitiki’s Church of St Mary, charming Anaura Bay and the impressive, 660 meters long Tolaga Bay Wharf are just a few of them.

Scenery along the road to the East Cape, New Zealand
Scenery along the road to the East Cape

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Sunrise at the East Cape Lighthouse, New Zealand
Sunrise at the East Cape Lighthouse

Mahia Peninsula

Conveniently located between the East Cape and Hawkes Bay is the Mahia Peninsula, another place where you can get away from it all. Enjoy some great hikes, admiring stunning coastal vistas at every turn. You can even soak your tired muscles in the Hot Springs in nearby Morere. Mahia is also home to Rocket Lab. We happened to be there a few days after the first successful rocket launch and managed to see the launch pad in the distance.

Mahia Peninsula Beach, New Zealand
Beach on the Mahia Peninsula

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Hawkes Bay

If you’re into architecture, you’ll want to explore Napier and Hastings. In 1931, a 7.9 magnitude Earthquake shook Hawkes Bay, killing more than 250 people and devastating the region. Large parts of Napier and Hastings had to be rebuilt, resulting in two cities with a unique Art Deco streetscape. Some of Hastings’ original buildings did survive the big earthquake, including its beautiful, recently renovated Spanish Mission-style Opera House.

If you’re more into food (or wine) than architecture, you will love Hawkes Bay for its orchards and wineries. Rush Munro’s ice cream is famous beyond Hawkes Bay, as is its Farmers Market. And if you need to get rid of the calories after so much yumminess you can hike, mountain bike or even paraglide at Te Mata Peak.

Art Deco Buildings and Vintage Car in Napier, New Zealand
Art Deco Buildings and Vintage Car in Napier

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Tomatoes at Hawkes Bay Farmers Market in Hastings, New Zealand
Tomatoes at Hawkes Bay Farmers Market in Hastings

Taupo

Did you know that Lake Taupo is the result of one giant volcanic eruption some 26,000 years ago? Yep, New Zealand’s largest lake is actually the caldera of a dormant volcano. To really appreciate the size of the lake, join a boat or kayak tour from Taupo. This also allows you to check out the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay.

If you’re up for more geothermal exploration, Orakei Korako‘s colourful silica terraces are worth a visit. Also pretty spectacular are the Huka Falls, created where the mighty Waikato river drains out of Lake Taupo through a narrow gorge, resulting in 220,000 litres of water per second (!) being pushed out of the gorge into the basin beneath the falls.

Huka Falls near Taupo, New Zealand
Huka Falls near Taupo

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Orakei Korako near Taupo, New Zealand
Orakei Korako near Taupo

Tongariro National Park

While the most direct route gets you from Taupo to Tongariro National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in just over 100km, we recommend a detour along Desert Road, especially on a sunny day. The road cuts through the Rangipo Desert, where the landscape is just out of this world. Note: the road does get closed for short periods between May and October if road conditions get too treacherous.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of (if not THE) most popular Day Hike(s) in New Zealand. Equally stunning is a day of skiing on Mt Ruapehu’s ski fields of Whakapapa or Turoa. Either way, be aware you are on an active volcano, and eruptions can happen at any time: In September 2007, one of the valleys I had enjoyed skiing in was covered by mud the very next day, after an overnight eruption had sent a lahar down the mountain.

A lahar was also responsible for New Zealand’s worst rail disaster on Christmas Eve 1953, when the rail bridge over the Whangaehu River collapsed just as the Wellington to Auckland passenger train approached, killing more than 150 people on board. A memorial to commemorate the tragedy is just off State Highway 49, about 10km after the turn-off from Desert Road.

View of Mt Ngauruhoe from Desert Road, New Zealand
View of Mt Ngauruhoe from Desert Road

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Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand | Photo by Laura7933 on Pixabay
Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park | Photo by Laura7933 on Pixabay

Waitomo

The glow worm caves around Waitomo are a popular tourist attraction. You can even book day tours here from Auckland. Rather than joining the hordes of tourists, we did a caving tour with Glowing Adventures, a family business that shares its very own glow worm cave with interested visitors. The property is about 20 kilometres south of the more famous caves that are on every bus tour’s itinerary.

Glowworm Caving Tour with Glowing Adventures in Waitomo, New Zealand
Glowworm Caving Tour with Glowing Adventures in Waitomo

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New Plymouth and Egmont National Park

When you think of volcanoes, does a picture of a perfect cone-shaped mountain pop into your head? One of the specimens that could easily fit this description is Taranaki/Mt Egmont, which (on a clear day) can be seen from as far away as Wanganui (more than 100km away). Similar to Tongariro National Park, visitors of the Egmont National Park can enjoy awesome hikes (and a great little ski field in winter).

New Plymouth to the northwest of the mountain, is a vibrant place with a beautiful coastal walkway that just calls to be explored on foot or by bike, so make sure you check it out.

Taranaki/Mt Egmont, New Zealand
Taranaki/Mt Egmont

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Te Rewa Rewa Bridge in New Plymouth, New Zealand
Te Rewa Rewa Bridge in New Plymouth

Wellington and surrounds

The capital is one of our favourite cities in New Zealand. Its harbour setting is gorgeous. The city has a ton to offer, and most of it is FREE (or cost very little):

  • A free guided tour of New Zealand’s Parliament buildings (including the aptly named Beehive) gives you a glimpse into one of the world’s most progressive democracies.
  • Wellington has some world-class museums and galleries, and the entry to many of them is free. As New Zealand’s national museum, visiting Te Papa (meaning ‘Our Place’ in Maori) is a MUST.
  • The Town Belt, a huge green space, traverses the City and offers great hikes and mountain bike trails. We hiked up Mt Victoria for awesome 360-degree views over the city.
  • Another cool (and easy) hike is along the Red Rocks Walkway where you can observe the fur seals and dolphins that love to hang out along the Northern Cook Strait shoreline.
  • While not free, taking the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens and then strolling through the gardens back down to the city centre makes for an awesome half-day outing, as does a tour of the Weta Studio – a MUST for any movie buff.
Beehive Parliament Building in Wellington, New Zealand
Beehive Parliament Building in Wellington

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Views of Wellington, New Zealand from Mt Victoria
Views of Wellington from Mt Victoria
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Did we whet your appetite? Check out our itinerary for your Ultimate North Island Road Trip. Have you visited Aotearoa? What are your favourites of the North Island?

Feature photo by Holger Heinze on Pixabay

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New Zealand Highlights: What to see and do on the North Island
New Zealand Highlights: What to see and do on the North Island
New Zealand Highlights: What to see and do on the North Island

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