Packing in cosmopolitan cities, authentic opportunities to experience Māori culture, and the country’s bubbling volcanic heart, the North Island is an exceedingly versatile destination.
Welcome to one of the planet’s youngest countries, at least in geological terms. Ascend the volcanic cones surrounding Auckland for super city views, before heading south to Rotorua for hot mud spa treatments and helicopter journeys to the jagged volcanic summit of Mt Tarawera. Journey due south to Lake Taupo, the legacy of one of the planet’s biggest-ever volcanic eruptions, and now gateway to Tongariro National Park. Ski or snowboard on Mt Ruapehu’s still-active slopes, or negotiate a steady path past Mt Ngauruhoe’s brooding volcanic cone on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
New Zealand’s South Island usually steals the attention, but the oft-overlooked North Island also features a sublime combination of forests, mountains and beaches. In the latter, the North has a clear lead – particularly in subtropical Northland, the Coromandel Peninsula and the west coast, with its wild surf beaches. Tackle one of the North Island’s Great Walks – one even offers a river journey by canoe or kayak – or spend a few hours wandering through the accessible wilderness of the Coromandel. Day trips from vibrant Auckland can include kayaking to dormant volcanoes or canyoning and abseiling down forested waterfalls.
Food, Wine & Beer
Kiwi food was once a bland echo of a British Sunday lunch, but these days NZ chefs dip into New World culinary oceans for inspiration, especially the Pacific with its abundant seafood and diverse cuisines. Don’t go home without trying some Māori faves: paua (abalone; a type of sea snail), kina (sea urchin) and kumara (sweet potato). Thirsty? NZ’s cool-climate wineries have been collecting trophies for decades now, and the vineyard restaurants of Hawke’s Bay are seriously good. The North Island’s booming craft-beer scene also deserves serious scrutiny. And with a firmly entrenched coffee culture, you're never far from an artfully prepared brew.
The influence of New Zealand's indigenous culture is more keenly felt in the North Island, where Māori make up a much higher percentage of the population. Across Te Ika-a-Māui (the island's Māori name) you're more likely to hear the Māori language being spoken, see main street marae (meeting houses), join in a hāngi (Māori feast), or catch a cultural performance with traditional Māori songs, dancing and a blood-curdling haka (war dance). Venture to the North Island’s East Cape for the most authentic Māori experiences. Northland and Rotorua are also cultural hotspots.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Island.
Maungakiekie was the largest and most spiritually significant Māori pā (fortified village) prior to British arrival. At the top of this volcanic cone (at 182m high) there is an obelisk and epic 360-degree views of Auckland and its harbours. It is also the site of the grave of John Logan Campbell (the ‘father of Auckland’) who gifted the 230-hectare area to the city in 1901. He also requested that a memorial be built to the dispossessed Māori people at the summit. The 'one tree' cut down Today there is only a stump of the last ‘one tree’. The original tōtara tree was cut down in 1852 by a Pākehā (white) settler, either because it was significant to the Māori people or because he needed firewood – depending on which account you believe. In response, John Logan Campbell planted a stand of Monterey pines of which only one lone tree survived. That tree was felled in a chainsaw attack in 2000 by a Māori activist who wanted to raise awareness of the government's fiscal envelope policy – a target to settle all historic Treaty claims for NZ$1 billion – on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 2015 new native trees were planted on the site, with a view to one day having a single pohutukawa or tōtara. Walk As well as visiting the summit, allow time to explore the surrounding Cornwall Park with its mature trees and historic Acacia Cottage (1841). The Cornwall Park Information Centre has fascinating interactive displays illustrating what the pā would have looked like when 5000 people lived here. Near the excellent children’s playground, the Stardome offers regular stargazing and planetarium shows (usually 7pm and 8pm Wednesday to Sunday, with extra shows on weekends) that aren’t dependent on Auckland’s fickle weather. History The Māori name Maungakiekie means the mountain where kiekie (a native vine) grows abundantly. The mountain and its surrounds were home to the Te Wai ō Hua iwi (tribe) although other iwi also trace their ancestry to the mountain. One Tree Hill and U2 Yes, that U2 song from the 1987 album Joshua Tree is about this place too. It was dedicated to the memory of a New Zealander, Greg Carroll, who Bono became friends with after they met in Auckland in 1984. Carroll joined the group as a roadie, moving to Dublin with the band after touring with them in New Zealand, Australia and the US. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin. The song is referring to the first night in Auckland when he took Bono to One Tree Hill. Planning your visit To get to One Tree Hill from the city, take a train to Greenlane and walk 1km along Green Lane West. By car, take the Greenlane exit off the Southern Motorway and turn right into Green Lane West.
This dramatic headland is where the waters of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, swirling and breaking together into waves up to 10m high in stormy weather. Cape Reinga is the end of the road both literally and figuratively: in Māori tradition the spirits of the dead depart the world from here, making it the most sacred site in all of Aotearoa. It's also the northern most stop on State Hwy 1. The actual departure point is believed to be the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree clinging to the rocks on the small promontory of Te Rerenga Wairua (Leaping Place of the Spirits) far below; to those in corporeal form, access is forbidden. Contrary to expectation, Cape Reinga isn’t actually the northernmost point of the country; that honour belongs to the inaccessible Surville Cliffs, which can be spotted to the right in the distance. In fact, it's much closer to the westernmost point, Cape Maria van Diemen, immediately to the left. Cape Reinga walk From the car park it's a rolling 1km walk to the lookout, passing the Cape Reinga Lighthouse along the way. Information boards detail the area's ecology, history and cultural significance. Out of respect, you're requested to refrain from eating or drinking in the vicinity. One way to approach Cape Reinga is by foot on the Te Paki Coastal Track © Abi28l/Getty Images Accommodation and camping There are few good accommodation options on the peninsula itself. The DOC has basic but spectacularly positioned camping sites at Tapotupotu Bay. Water, flush toilets and cold showers are provided. Bring a cooker, as fires are not allowed. Pack plenty of insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and sandflies. ‘Freedom/Leave No Trace’ camping is also allowed along the Te Paki Coastal Track. Weather Check weather forecasts ahead and be aware there is no shelter after you leave the carpark area. Little tufts of cloud sometimes cling to the ridges, giving sudden spooky chills even on hot days.
The Waikato, New Zealand’s longest river, squeezes through a narrow chasm at Huka Falls, making the dramatic 11m drop into a surging crystal-blue whirlpool at a rate of 220,000L per second. You can experience the full force of this torrent, which the Māori called Hukanui (Great Body of Spray), from the footbridge straddling the falls. Walking tracks run along both banks. Walk The Huka Falls Walkway heads back towards town and the Spa Thermal Park, while the Huka Falls to Aratiatia Rapids track goes 7km downstream to the rapids. On sunny days the water is crystal clear and you can take great photographs from the lookout on the other side of the footbridge. Jet boats There are multiple ways to see the falls on a tour. An adenaline-pumping jet-boat tour will take you to the base of Huka Falls where you’ll feel the spray on your face. For a more relaxed experience, book a Huka Falls river cruise for a cup of tea with your views. Alternatively, take a helicopter tour of the Taupo region and get a birds-eye view of this spectacular natural phenomenon instead. Huka Falls deaths This is a treacherous body of water with a very high-pressure and extremely dangerous waterfall. There have unfortunately been a number of drownings here over the years, so locals stress that it is a tourist attraction for viewing only. Do enter the falls. We repeat: do not enter the falls.
Occupying a headland draped in lawns and bush, this is NZ's most significant historic site. Here, on 6 February 1840, after much discussion, the first 43 Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown; eventually, over 500 chiefs would sign it. Admission incorporates a guided tour and a spirited cultural performance, and entry to the Museum of Waitangi, the Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House) and the historic Treaty House. Opened in 2016, Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi is a modern and comprehensive showcase of the role of the treaty in the past, present and future of Aotearoa New Zealand. It provides a warts-and-all look at the early interactions between Māori and Europeans, the events leading up to the treaty's signing, the long litany of treaty breaches by the Crown, the wars and land confiscations that followed, and the protest movement that led to the current process of redress for historic injustices. Many taonga (treasures) associated with Waitangi were previously scattered around NZ, and this excellent museum is now a repository for a number of key historical items. One room is devoted to facsimiles of all the key documents, while another screens a fascinating short film dramatising the events of the initial treaty signing. The Treaty House was shipped over as a kit-set from Australia and erected in 1834 as the four-room home of the official British Resident James Busby. It's now preserved as a memorial and museum containing displays about the house and the people who lived here. Just across the lawn, the magnificently detailed Whare Rūnanga was completed in 1940 to mark the centenary of the treaty. The fine carvings represent the major Māori tribes. It's here that the cultural performances take place, starting with a haka pōwhiri (challenge and welcome) and then heading inside for waiata (songs) and spine-tingling haka (war dances). Near the cove is the 35m, 6-tonne waka taua (war canoe) Ngātokimatawhaorua, also built for the centenary. A photographic exhibit details how it was fashioned from gigantic kauri logs. There's also an excellent gift shop selling Māori art and design, with a carving studio attached. Tours leave on the hour from 10am to 3pm. Admission is discounted to $25 for NZ residents upon presentation of a passport or driver's licence.
From the Kauri Walks car park, a 20-minute walk leads past the Four Sisters, a graceful stand of four tall trees fused together at the base, to Te Matua Ngahere (The Father of the Forest). At 30m, he has a significant presence. Reinforced by a substantial girth – he’s the fattest living kauri (16.4m) – the tree presides over a clearing surrounded by mature trees resembling mere matchsticks in comparison. It's estimated that he could be up to 3000 years old. A 30-minute (one way) path leads from near the Four Sisters to Yakas, the seventh-largest kauri.
Near the north end of the park, not far from the road, stands mighty Tāne Mahuta, named for the Māori forest god. At 51.5m, with a 13.8m girth and wood mass of 244.5 cu metres, he’s the largest kauri alive, and has been holding court here for somewhere between 1200 and 2000 years. He's easy to find and access, with a well-labelled car park (complete with coffee cart) on the highway.
Te Puia dials up the heat on Māoritanga (things Māori) with explosive performances from both its cultural troupe and Pōhutu (Big Splash), its famous geyser that erupts around 20 times a day, spurting hot water up to 30m skyward. It erupts in tandem with the adjoining Prince of Wales’ Feathers geyser. Also here is a kiwi conservation centre and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you can watch students at work. Daytime visits (Te Rā) include an informative guided tour of the entire complex (departing on the hour), which also features a wharenui (carved meeting house), a re-created precolonial village (Te Puia is on the site of a Māori Village that was inhabited for 600 years), the kiwi enclosure and a large chunk of the Whakarewarewa thermal zone. After the tour you're welcome to wander around at your leisure. It's well worth paying extra for the cultural performance (10.15am, 12.15pm and 3.15pm), incorporating a traditional welcome into the wharenui and a 45-minute kapa haka (traditional song and dance) concert. The three-hour Te Pō (night) experience starts at 6pm and includes a cultural show and a hāngi meal, followed by a tour through the thermal zone in a people mover. The Arts and Crafts Institute houses the national carving and weaving schools, and you're free to watch the bone and wood carving and the flax weaving.
From the top of Auckland’s highest volcanic cone (196m), the entire isthmus and both harbours are laid bare. The symmetrical crater (50m deep) is known as Te Ipu Kai a Mataaho (the Food Bowl of Mataaho, the god of things hidden in the ground) and is considered tapu (sacred). Do not enter it, but feel free to explore the remainder of the mountain. The remains of pā terraces and food-storage pits are clearly visible. Until recently it was possible to drive right up to the summit, but concerns over erosion have led to vehicle access being restricted to travellers with limited mobility. Paths lead up the mountain from six different directions and the walk only takes around 15 minutes, depending on your fitness. A network of boardwalks was established in mid-2020 to help protect the historical and cultural significance of the site. Catching bus 27 from Britomart to stop 1870 near Tahaki Reserve is recommended. Start and finish your exploration of Mt Eden at the nearby Maungawhau Visitor Experience Centre. Opened in late 2019, this excellent visitor centre showcases the geological and Māori cultural history of Maungawhau/Mt Eden. Highlights include an interesting 10-minute video about Auckland's volcanic field, and there's a good cafe with innovative brunch fare and fine views of the city's isthmus location.
Tucked away from other more popular thermal fields, Orakei Korako is (since the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces, at least) arguably NZ's most spectacular thermal area, with active geysers, stunning terraces, bubbling rainbow lands and one of only two geothermal caves in the world. A 2.5km walking track (allow 1½ hours) follows stairs and boardwalks around the colourful silica terraces for which the park is famous. Entry includes the boat ride across the lake. Be sure to take the short side track to Ruatapu Cave. This impressive natural cave has a jade-green pool, thought to have been used as a mirror by Māori women preparing for rituals (Orakei Korako means ‘the Place of Adorning’). MudCake Cafe, inside the visitor centre, does only the likes of sandwiches and pies, but has a lovely terrace overlooking Lake Ohakuri. It’s about 30 minutes to Orakei Korako from Taupō. Take SH1 towards Hamilton for 23km, and then travel for 14km from the signposted turn-off. From Rotorua the turn-off is on SH5, beside Mihi Bridge. You can also arrive in more spectacular style with New Zealand River Jet.
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