New Zealand’s North Island, known as Te Ika-a-Māui in Māori, offers a tapestry of cultural richness, breathtaking landscapes, and thrilling adventures. From the cosmopolitan vibes of Auckland and Wellington to the geothermal wonders of Rotorua and the pristine beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, the North Island is a destination that promises unforgettable experiences. This article takes you on a journey through some of the must-visit locations and hidden gems of the North Island, ensuring your trip is nothing short of magical.
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Where to start your trip in New Zealand : Auckland as a first step
Begin your North Island trip in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. Auckland Airport is the main airport in the country so is an ideal starting point to begin your trip. When exiting the airport (near door 8) you will find shuttles to get to the city centre. Alternatively, at the airport itself, you can also rent a car, motorhome or purchase bus tickets. Travelling New Zealand by bus is very popular, due to the cheaper cost but also the well-developed routes catered to tourists. Of course, we recommend that you book in advance, especially if your trip falls in the high tourist season, from December to March.
To visit Auckland is to visit a large city of 1.6 million inhabitants. What better way to start discovering the country gently than to start with one of its biggest cities? We can recommend some activities that make this city a really nice stopover:
- Stroll through its two ports, the Waitematā harbor and the Manukau harbour.
- Visit the SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton Aquarium, which exhibits the largest penguin colony in captivity
- Discover the largest collection of Maori art in the world, at the War Memorial Museum
- Go kayaking, jet skiing or jet boating with breathtaking views of the city
- Treat yourself to breathtaking views of the city and its surroundings with a walk to the top of the Sky Tower, 328 m height.
- Take a ferry to Waiheke Island for a day of wine tasting and art galleries. Auckland’s diverse cultural landscape offers a plethora of dining options, showcasing the best of New Zealand’s produce.
Best travel options to move around on the Island
Best modes of Transport
Some travellers prefer to buy a van from other backpackers who are at the end of their travels. The obvious advantages of this are the price, as it can be easily negotiated because they van will need to be sold before they leave. A second advantage is that the van is likely to be fully equipped. Having your own vehicle gives you more freedom, especially if you want to work on farms and orchards. Many also prefer to travel by van or motorhome because New Zealand offers endless possibilities to camp for free. In order to do so, simply download one of the many camping apps which recommend the best free camp spots nearest your location.
However, if you are visiting the North Island in New Zealand for only a few days or weeks, it is more beneficial to rent a van or motorhome in New Zealand. This will save you so much time trying to find a vehicle to purchase, not to mention the paperwork involved and also the time spent at the end of your trip trying to sell it!
The best way is to compare camper van and motor home prices before booking a vehicle. We strongly recommend motorhome republic.
Alternatively, if you are travelling alone, there are many organised tours which are great ways to discover the island and meet others. You can book individual tours as and when or book a bus pass for the duration of your trip. The bus passes allow you the freedom to hop on and off where you like as well as staying in each spot for as little or as long as you want.
How long to stay ?
In order to have enough time to make the most of your North Island trip, allow at least three weeks to explore the island, especially if you are planning on doing multi-day hikes. The most breathtaking landscapes can be found when hiking in New Zealand so take your hiking shoes and enjoy the amazing scenery. Do not be fooled by maps of the North Island which make it look small or distances short. The roads can be incredibly winding at times not to mention the numerous tourist drivers new to driving on the left. For this reason, a longer trip is ideal although it can be possible to discover the North Island in 5 to 15 days if you plan your trip well.
Best season to visit the North Island in New Zealand
You now have recommendations of where to arrive on the North Island so the next step is when to arrive on the North Island. To be honest, it depends on the type of climate you are looking for. Planning a trip to the Southern Hemisphere can be confusing because of the inversion of the seasons. However, keep in mind that New Zealand has a temperate and cool climate all year round. It is never excessively hot. The locals will tell you that four seasons in one day is very likely. If you are looking to hike, surf and swim visit New Zealand in Summer December to February). Although even during the Summer months, pack a raincoat or hoodie just in case.
For wildlife lovers, the Pacific Ocean has a lot to offer. Several species of cetaceans visit New Zealand waters more or less all year round:
- Sperm whales all year round
- Orcas from December to March
- Humpback whale in June and July
- Different species of dolphins all year round
What to visit on the North Island – The highlights
Paihia is a small tourist village by the sea and is the perfect place to relax. From this village, there are numerous tours available, for example, you can book to go to Cape Reinga in the North-West, to witness the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. Coach tours such as this are a great compromise because they offer a walk in the forest, crossing on the Ninety Mile Beach, surfing in the dunes and visiting local villages all within one day and you don’t need to drive!
Piha is an isolated yet beautiful little beach. It is renowned for its huge rock standing on the edge of the sand. Although the path to Piha is as captivating as the beach itself, as forests and valleys are dotted throughout the journey.
This place is full of caves to explore and thrilling activities such as rafting. The main is to visit the Waitomo cave, home to thousands of glow worms. Although you won’t need long to explore the cave, it is guaranteed to be a memorable experience!
Any Lord of The Rings fans will likely know what Hamilton is home to – Hobbiton. Hamilton was transformed into The Shire for the Lord of The Rings and Hobbit films. Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies can’t miss a visit to Hobbiton, the movie set used for the Shire. Located in Matamata, this picturesque movie set allows you to step into the world of Middle-earth, explore the Hobbit Holes, and enjoy a drink at the Green Dragon Inn.
Expect nothing but peace, calm and tranquillity in Cathedral Cove, the highlight of Coromandel Peninsula. With its charismatic rock formations and small islands as far as the eye can see, Cathedral Cove will seduce you and your friends with its memorable charm. Ideally, you need at least a day to explore with a picnic and take a dip at the beautiful beach. It is definitely advised to arrive early as the parking places are limited so fill up quick!
Hot water beach
Hot water beach is located less than 15 minutes from Cathedral Cove. You will need a shovel for the surprise that awaits at this beach (although the clue is in the name.) At low tide, a natural yet unique phenomenon occurs: when you dig in the sand, boiling water will spring from the ground. Popular with locals and tourists alike, simply dig a hole and relax in your own private “hot tub”. Be careful also, as the water can be very hot in certain places. Apparently, the water can get so hot it’s possible to boil an egg!
If you are an adrenaline junkie, White Island is for you. Situated 48 km from the East coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty, White Island is home to New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. Both historically and visually spectacular, you can depart from Whakatāne via helicopter or boat to witness this phenomenon.
Known as the volcano region, Rotorua is breathtaking. You can visit limited parts of the volcanic park for free or alternatively, Wai-o-Tapu Park offers an incredible experience through the volcanic area for a fee. Although you have to pay, it is definitely worth it.
Rotorua is also home to a redwood forest and public hot springs such as Kerosene Creek, Blue Lake and Green Lake. The latter, although side by side all have a different colour, allowing for some epic photos. You will have the opportunity to swim in Green Lake but not in Blue Lake as it is sacred Maori territory. There are also many hikes in the area to see the impressive rocks formations and volcanic smoke.
Rotorua is also a hub of Māori culture, offering visitors the chance to experience traditional Māori performances, cuisine, and the famous hospitality. For adventure seekers, Rotorua provides a myriad of activities from mountain biking in the Redwoods Forest to ziplining and white-water rafting.
Taupo and its majestic lake are full of hiking trails, waterfalls and free hot springs. Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand. Free camping and facilities such as showers and toilets are available by the lake, ensuring a comfortable and memorable trip.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This 19.4km hike is ideal for nature lovers and Lord of The Rings fans alike. Expect lunar-like landscapes thanks to the volcanic terrain, snow-capped peaks, forest and blue lakes – this walk is like hiking on a different planet! Be warned, prepare for four seasons in one day with raincoats and suncream. The hike partly owes its popularity to Peter Jackson and his The Lord of the Rings saga as Mount Ngauruhoe (which provides an impressive backdrop for the hike) was used for the fictional Mount Doom in the movies.
Ohakune is a ski resort on the North Island in New Zealand, ideal for winter sports enthusiasts to explore the mountains in style. It is also a popular place for hikers due to the peaceful grasslands, ponds, wetlands, flowers and birds contributing to the tranquil landscape.
Mount Taranaki is another dormant volcano that due to its vast size and the eternally snowy peak, is easily recognisable. Although it is more commonly referred to as Taranaki, officially it has two names and is sometimes referred to as Mount Egmont due to the alternative names policy of the New Zealand Geographic Board. From Mount Taranaki, you can get incredible views of the New Zealand countryside and the sea. As a bonus, if you travel by van you can camp nearby to the sound of the ocean with the mountain as a backdrop.
New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is nestled between rolling hills and a rugged coastline. Known as the “Capital of Cool,” Wellington is famous for its vibrant arts scene, world-class café culture, and the national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. Take a walk along the waterfront, ride the historic Wellington Cable Car, or hike up Mount Victoria for stunning city views.
If you are a surf or wine enthusiast, Gisborne is the place for you. Many visitors appreciate the perfect waves for surfing and snorkelling. Whilst others, enjoy The Rere Falls waterfalls or numerous wineries. By spending a few days in Gisborne you will have the opportunity to explore all of these amazing experiences!
Situated North of Gisborne, this place attracts the sunrise enthusiasts as it is the easternmost point of New Zealand. It is also hotly debated that Cape East is the first place in the world to see the sunrise every day due to the Earth’s curvature. Expect wild yet beautiful landscapes and sparse civilisation. The early wake up will be worth it as a sunrise here is unforgettable.
Adventure and Culture
The North Island is also a place of adventure and cultural experiences. From the glowworm caves of Waitomo to the surf breaks of Raglan, there’s something for every type of traveler. Engage with the local culture through immersive experiences, learn about New Zealand’s history and biodiversity, and embrace the spirit of manaakitanga, or hospitality, that defines the Kiwi way of life.
Suggested itineraries on North Island
You are now bursting with ideas for places to visit on the North Island in New Zealand, but don’t panic, we have created itineraries to ensure you have enough time to see as much as possible. If your goal is to plan a road trip, then there are two route options: either a circuit clockwise or in the opposite direction. These itineraries will help you stay better organized and not miss a single highlight!
North Island Itinerary from 5 to 7 days
If you plan to stay for five to seven days, your itinerary will need to be condensed. We suggest:
- Coromandel Peninsula
North Island Itinerary for about 10 days
If you are planning a ten day trip to the North Island in New Zealand, you can afford to add other must-see spots:
- Tongariro Crossing
North Island Itinerary from 14 to 20 days
Finally, if you have between fifteen and twenty days, we invite you to follow the following route:
- Paihia / Cape Reinga
- Waitomo Caves
- Hamilton / Hobbiton
- Tongariro Crossing
The North Island of New Zealand is a land of diversity and beauty, offering everything from urban exploration to natural wonders and cultural immersion. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or a deeper understanding of New Zealand’s heritage, the North Island welcomes you with open arms and unforgettable experiences. Pack your bags, and get ready to explore the heartland of Aotearoa.
KIA ORA !