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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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