With nearly a month in New Zealand, it was hard to know just where to start. Each island is different in so many ways. What to see first and when? In the end, we decided to work logically by starting all the way north (well, almost) on North Island and working our way south. And since international flights land in Auckland, on the North Island, it really seemed to make a lot of sense to stick with this plan.
I am going to warn you now: this is going to be a long post. Like pour yourself a cup of coffee or glass of wine, maybe pop some popcorn, change into your PJ’s and get comfy kind of long. Don’t worry, I am going to segment everything out by location, so you can quickly skim to what you are interested in. I want to offer as much information as possible about each place without too much droning on. Since you are probably traveling really far to get here and have limited time, I want to help you determine where to go and what you would like to do, as well as what you might want to skip altogether. I have listed restaurants and hotels we would choose again. As always, feel free to get in touch if you have questions!
First Stop: Auckland
We arrived very early in the morning in Auckland. We were incredibly tired, but decided it would be best to stay awake. What better way to stay awake than enjoy a cup of joe? As you may recall from my Visiting Middle Earth: New Zealand post, (good) coffee joints abound in this country. And we found just the spot at Remedy Coffee in downtown Auckland. After our breakfast and caffeine fix, we were ready to rule the world! Not really, but we did feel ready to explore Auckland. We walked around downtown, locating the famous Sky Tower. You know, the one people bungee jump off of? We watched one such adventurous soul before we moved on to visit the Auckland Museum. We decided to really stretch our legs with a walk up Mount Eden for some really fantastic 360° views. Other spots we visited during our few days in Auckland include the Ponsonby neighborhood (worth checking out if you are in Auckland), Albert Park, and the Britomart Precinct.
Honest Conclusion: Before we delve too deep into the rest of our itinerary while staying in this area of North Island, I am just going to level with you. Because that’s why you’re reading this, right? To get honest advice about what to see and do, and sometimes more importantly, what to skip. My opinion is unless you’ve got time to squander, get out of Auckland ASAP. Compared to the rest of New Zealand, it doesn’t have too much to offer.
Stay: Since we had nearly a month of hotels to pay for, we really tried to choose more budget friendly options (bonus if there was some type of kitchen setup). In Auckland we stayed at the Waldorf Celestion Apartment Hotel. Not fancy, but clean and had a kitchen and it was super spacious. It’s also walking distance to the Britomart and surrounding area.
Waiheke: Island off North Island
Now, I know I just told you to skip out of Auckland in a jiffy. And you should, in my humble opinion. If however, you find yourself stuck in the area, DO hop on a ferry ride over to Waiheke Island. And especially do this if you like wine! You don’t have to bring your car over as there are a variety of transport options, depending on the season and where you would like to go. We opted for to ride the ferry over and use the Vineyard Island Hopper, which picked us up and dropped us off at a few different wineries. This worked well for us and we found the drivers to be very helpful with some good tips. You could also hire a private guide, hire a car once you arrive (or take your own) or rent bikes to get yourself around (click here for more info).
Our first stop was Cable Bay Vineyards, which I recommend if only to enjoy the gorgeous views from their patio. Your lunch stop without question MUST be at Casa Miro. This place is small and gets packed, so I recommend making reservations. Our food was SO delicious and their 2011 Summer Red was outstanding! A “short” walk through the vineyards will take you over to Obsidian Winery. The downside of taking the Hopper bus is you are on their time schedule and they don’t visit every winery. Had enough of wine or just not that interested in drinking the day away? Don’t worry, there is plenty of beautiful scenery and beaches to ogle on Waiheke! We took a stroll down to Onetangi Beach (it’s near Obsidian and Casita Miro) and really enjoyed it.
Auckland’s Wild West Coast: Piha Beach
Piha Beach is one of the most popular beaches (and not just on North Island), but it’s huge and even with a crowd, it doesn’t feel crowded. It’s located about 17 miles (28km) from Auckland, but feels a world away. It’s a black sand beach and incredibly beautiful. If Piha Beach sounds familiar, it may be because there is a popular reality show featuring the lifeguards on this beach. If you are an experience surfer, consider grabbing a board to catch some waves. Take care swimming here…there are lifeguards (and a reality show) for good reason…waves can be a bit wild! For great views, consider a climb up Lion’s Rock, which separates Piha and Little Piha Beaches. If you love waterfalls, take a walk along the Kitekite Track (end of Glen Esk Road).
If you are hungry for more adventure (and even more amazing views), find the hiking path to Whites Beach. If you are facing Piha Beach, walk all the way to the right (north) along the beach. Here, among the bush, you will find what almost doesn’t look like a trail and follow it up. Enjoy some great views of Piha Beach before trekking over and making the descent (it’s a bit tricky, but not too bad) to Whites Beach. There is apparently an upper track that is a bit easier to descend, but we did not see it. Whites Beach is another stunner, and you will likely find yourself alone or in the company of only a few other people. You will also find some fun tide pools and a sea cave to explore. If you are up for even more, consider heading about 2 km more to Anawhata Beach (we were not that ambitious).
Heading North: Tutukaka Coast and Bay of Islands
There are two ways to head north in this part of North Island. The quickest is the drive up the interstate, but I HIGHLY recommend you take the longer route up the Tutukaka Coast. In fact, while we just spent the greater part of the day driving it, I wish we had even more time here! Talk about wanting to constantly pull over for not only a picture, but for time to walk on the many beaches that you’ll find on this drive. Seriously, just gorgeous coves I really could spend a day or two enjoying (or more!). And, unlike some of the other beaches on the North Island, many of these are kid friendly (i.e. the water is calm). We literally just stopped wherever we thought the beach and water looked inviting (we made a LOT of stops!). Some notable spots to check out (but not all-inclusive!): Poor Knights Island (scuba diving), Tutukaka Marina (rent yourself a kayak), Ngunguru, Matapouri Bay, Whale Bay, Sand Bay, Wooleys Bay, and Elliot Bay.
Helpful Tip: Some of these roads are unsealed and you should give yourself a minimum of 4 hours to do this drive (with minimal to no stopping).
For the Bay of Islands, there are two main spots to stay for the night (or more): Paihia and Russell. The former is the easier to get to and also the more “commercial and touristy”. The latter takes longer to reach and is the more “charming” of the two. Soooo, here’s my honest opinion: Yes, Russell has more charm than Paihia, but from the descriptions I read, I was expecting to have my pants charmed right off. They weren’t. I was expecting something more like Martha’s Vineyard, but Russell just didn’t live up to those expectations. We only stayed in the area for one night (too short!) and getting to Russell was kind of a pain. Paihia is touristy by New Zealand standards, but I thought it was fine for a night or two. If I was staying in the area longer, then Russell might be my choice. Other towns to consider in the area are Opua and Kerikeri.
There are loads of things to do in this area, but being on the water is the best way to explore it. Definitely get out on a boat! Explore some of the islands, check out a dolphin tour, go scuba diving!
Honest Conclusion: I LOVED the Tutukaka Coast. I could easily spend a few “beach days” in this area. As for the Bay of Islands, I don’t feel it’s a “don’t miss” kind of place. It is beautiful, no argument there. It just didn’t take my breath away like other places in New Zealand did. I feel bad since I read many raves about the area. We’ve had family recently visit the area and they share in my opinion. I feel like you could visit other, much closer coastlines or the Caribbean even, to have a similar experience.
Tip of North Island: Cape Reinga
As you may of guessed, Cape Reinga is the very north tip of North Island. It’s also significant for a few other reasons. First, it’s the place where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, creating an explosion (well, maybe just more of a clash with calmer seas as when we were there) of waves crashing into each other. This place also plays an important role in Maori history and legend. On the east side of the rocky cape extending from the lighthouse, you will find the Pohutukawa tree. It is thought this tree is between 600-800 years old and is believed to be the point at which Maori spirits depart on their journey to the afterlife. This area is considered sacred, so you will be enjoying this view from afar. Take the trail down to the lighthouse for a closer look at the waves and that famous tree. You can also take a steep climb down (and up) to Te Werahi Beach or Sandy Beach. You will likely have the whole place to yourself (we did!).
You can take tours from Paihia to Cape Reinga and many of them include a fun little ride on 90-Mile Beach (typically off limits for rental cars) and the Te Paki Dunes. You can also surf the dunes if you are up for a little sand between your teeth. We didn’t do this excursion, personally, but my family who did said it was fun, but have seen more impressive dunes elsewhere.
Helpful Tip: If you are driving yourself, go early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and tourist buses. Warning: the lot is a bit small, so be prepared to wait for parking if it’s busy. You will also find bathrooms and drinking fountains in the parking lot.
Te Werahi Track: According to our handy dandy NZ Frenzy guidebook, the Te Werahi Track is the premier track on North Island. So instead of taking the steep track down to the beach, we drove a little ways from the car park and found the lot for the “trailhead”. I have that in quotes because while there is a sign, there isn’t much more than a step structure to get over the fence of a cow and sheep pasture. Yes, the “trail” starts out walking through a pasture, forcing you to endure stares from the livestock and dodge (good luck with that!) “fertilizer” along the way.
After the pasture, you pass through a mini forest type area and then a swamp/wetland. Quite honestly, I began to feel like Frodo on my way to Mordor and it only got worse. Sand dunes. Sand dunes that seemed to never end! You can see the ocean, but it feels like you are never going to get there! Alas, finally, we made it! And we had the entire, huge, stunning beach to ourselves! We played in the water, explored tide pools, and frolicked to our hearts’ content.
Once we had had our fill (not really, but we were starting to feel a bit hungry and sunburned), we decided taking the other half of the loop trail might be shorter and easier. WRONG! So miserably wrong! I honestly felt like we were somehow transported to Namibia…so much sand! While the track did take us near Twilight Beach (yet another glorious secluded beach), by this time we were exhausted and wanted nothing more than to not see any more sand! Finally, we reached a pasture and could see the trailhead area in the far distance. Who knew I would be so happy to be walking through cow and sheep poo (not really, but at least it was less tiresome than trudging through sand).
Long story made quite long: it was the worst hike ever to enjoy the best beach day ever. If I had to do it over again, I would try to hike down the steep hill near the lighthouse instead of walking this track. It’s important to note that this trail is part of the larger Te Paki Coastal Track (a 3-4 day tramp).
Honest Conclusion: We did enjoy our time here. However, I am glad we visited towards the beginning of our trip. I honestly feel we would’ve been disappointed had it been last. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful! But, it takes a while to get here and you would be missing out on some really (even more) amazing places if you don’t have a lot of time.
Convenient Stop: Whangarei
From Cape Reinga, we drove to Whangarei for two nights. We knew we’d need a break from driving. Our choice was based purely on logistics. However, if you do happen to find yourself here, there are a few places worth checking out (again, don’t go out of your way). Whangarei Falls and the Kauri Walkway is a nice place that’s mostly shaded to go for a walk. You can see some native Kauri trees and a nice waterfall. If you are fit and like great views, give the Mt. Manaia Track a go.
Eat: Fat Camel Cafe
Geothermal Wonderland: Rotorua
Rotorua, a.k.a Rotovegas, is truly a unique area of New Zealand. I doubt there are many other places like it, if any. You should also be prepared for the unique smell. There’s no escaping that sulfuric, rotten egg smell. To me, what makes this area so interesting is that these active areas are smack dab in the middle of the city. Want to take your kid to the park? Be sure to watch out for the hot, bubbling pools of mud! You can walk through this area and enjoy these phenomena up close. There’s a nice little boardwalk through this area and on the shores of Lake Rotorua (it’s not safe to swim here). Don’t forget to wonder around the downtown area as there are some cute shops, cafes, and restaurants. If you want even more geothermal, visit Wai-O-Tapu (though I wasn’t super impressed with their detergent inspired geyser).
If you want to escape the smell, there are a number of lovely lakes just a short drive away. A lesser known gem can be found at Hamurana Springs Loop Walkway. If you are itching to know how a hamster feels in one of those clear plastic balls rolling around, I highly recommend zorbing! Seriously, I giggled like a school girl the whole ride down. So. Much. Fun!
If you visit Rotorua, don’t miss a visit to Tamaki Village. At first, I thought it might be touristy or gimmicky, but we bought tickets anyway based on recommendations. I am glad we did. It was a wonderful experience and I came away with a much greater understanding and appreciation for the Maori people.
Honest Conclusion: We loved zorbing and enjoyed our Tamaki Village visit. However, in the U.S., we have Yellowstone National Park. If I had to do it over again, I personally would skip Rotorua or spend less time there. If, however, you are seriously obsessed with geothermal wonders, you may disagree with me.
Stay: Rotovegas Motel is a short enough walk from downtown Rotorua. There’s a grocery across the street and we had a kitchen in our room. They also had laundry facilities and a super helpful staff.
Glow Worms and Movie Magic: Waipu Cave and Hobbiton
Most tourists flock to Waitomo Caves for their glow worm fix. However, in our attempt to keep to a budget, we opted for a bit more adventure and visited the Waipu Caves. These caves are absolutely free, you just need a little bit of a daring spirit. Another bonus is you can take as many pictures as you want-you can’t do that at Waitomo. We have never gone caving before and we did just fine. Once you enter the cave, just allow a few minutes for your eyes to adjust. And then wait for the magic! The longer you wait, the more you will see! If you are into caving, you can certainly wade into deeper water and go further into the cave. Since we didn’t visit Waitomo, we can’t compare, but we were happy with our choice to visit Waipu instead.
Helpful Tip: There is some shallow water to navigate and it can be slippery, so I recommend appropriate footwear. We also brought a couple flashlights to help us get a feel for the space initially.
We are Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans and decided we really wanted to check out Hobbiton while on North Island. This set is not the original set (it’s been rebuilt a few times), but this was the location for all the movies in the series. It is a guided tour and the area is quite picturesque. Keep in mind these homes are only “fronts”. There is nothing to be seen inside. If you are not a fan of the movies, I think you’d find it cute, but can’t imagine you would find it worthwhile.
Helpful Tip: I advise purchasing tickets ahead of time because you are driving out of your way to visit and it would really stink to get there and not be able to get in.
Somewhere in the Middle: Lake Taupo and Tongariro Crossing
It’s important to note we skipped over the popular Coromandel Region in favor of not only this area, but the area discussed in the next section. Even with almost a month, we didn’t have time for everything! Since we weren’t doing a Great Walk this trip, we REALLY wanted to hike The Tongariro Crossing (home of Mt. Doom for you LOTR lovers!). We chose Lake Taupo as our base, but there are a few other nearby towns you could stay in as well. Lake Taupo is lovely, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. Especially if you’ve ever visited Lake Tahoe in the U.S. But I personally would go out of my way to do the Tongariro Crossing again!
Helpful Tip: On your drive to this area, check out Huka Falls. It’s easy to find and quite pretty.
The Crossing is a very popular hike, so you will not find even a sliver of solitude here. I would also not attempt this hike if you are not in shape. It’s honestly one of the most difficult hikes I’ve done, in part because it is a bit long (12 mi/19.4 km) and you are exposed to the elements for nearly all of it. There are some fairly steep climbs, even requiring a chain to help you navigate your way up. The weather can be totally unpredictable and you are hiking by two active volcanoes, so it’s important to be prepared for anything. All this being said, we would do it all again (I think I said that already)!
Helpful Tip: The Crossing is not a loop or out and back type trail. Meaning you start one place and end in another. If you have a car, park at the Ketetari carpark at the trail end and hire a ride (there are several options) to the start of the trail head. This way you can take as long as you like for your hike. We used Mountain Shuttle and had a no problems, just book ahead of time.
Art Deco and Wine Country: Napier and Hawke’s Bay
Napier is approximately a 2 hour drive from Lake Taupo, on the coast. This city is famous for its devastating earthquake history and its art deco architecture. If you love art deco, this place is worth a stop. We did spend time walking around downtown, however be forewarned it becomes a ghost town fairly early (as do many New Zealand towns). If you want to see a bit more of that coastline and wildlife, consider a tractor ride out to Cape Kidnappers to see the gannets. You can walk the beach and up the trail for free, but it’s a bit of a walk. And what’s not fun about a tractor ride, right? Do be prepared for some serious odor when you get close to these cute little boogers, though.
The real reason we came here, besides the beauty of the coastline, is the up and coming wine region. We are wine lovers and especially enjoy trying wines from lesser known/underappreciated regions. Hawke’s Bay has a lovely trail system and you can rent a bicycle to visit some of the wineries. I was a bit nervous about this, since I haven’t been on a bike in over a decade (a spin bike doesn’t count, huh?). We rented our bikes from Coastal Wine Cycles and went off her recommendations of where to go. Turns out she was spot on (and you really don’t forget how to ride a bike)! We had a great day of riding the California style bikes, sipping wine, and enjoying gorgeous coastal views.
Helpful Tip: Every lunch we ate at a winery in New Zealand was fantastic and a reservation was needed for all. Each meal was also on the more expensive side.
Honest Conclusion: This area is just gorgeous! We very much enjoyed our time here and would visit again. We did find Bluff Lookout not worth our time or trouble. But there were other areas, such as around the Craggy Range we would’ve liked to explore.
The End of North Island: Wellington
Wellington is the not only (nearly) the end of North Island, its also the capital of New Zealand. It’s approximately a 4 1/2 hour drive from Napier. While we had read some nice things about this city, we chose it mainly because we planned to ride the ferry across the Cook Strait. There are a number of things to do, both indoors and out.
If you are a Peter Jackson fan, Wellington is the home of his Weta Workshop, which you can tour. If you still don’t have your fill of LOTR, check out a tour of film sights around the city. Not interested in all that movie magic? Have no fear, Wellington has plenty else to offer.
Stop to smell the roses (and other flowers) at the Botanical Garden. Bonus: it’s free! We’ve been to a number of botanical gardens and this one is quite nice. The Te Papa Museum is also worth checking out and…it’s free! In particular, I recommend visiting the Maori history section; it’s quite informative. After your museum visit, spend some time wandering around the surrounding area and the city in general. To enjoy some lovely views of the city, visit the Mount Victoria Lookout or Mount Kaukau. If you want to get out of the city, consider a visit to Matiu/Somes Island (you can even stay overnight).
Stay: Quest on Thorndon (location just fine with a ton of space, a kitchen, and free laundry in our room)
Honest Conclusion: Wellington was a logistical location for us. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, especially if you don’t have a lot of time, it is worth a day or so if you find yourself in the area.
After two nights in Wellington, we boarded the car ferry to Picton and waved farewell to North Island! Our adventure to be continued…
Have you been to North Island? Have any “Don’t Miss” places? As always, if you have questions or need advice, feel free to get in touch! To leave a comment just click on “comment” and type away.
In the meantime, I will leave you a few shots during our Cook Strait Crossing.