New Zealand’s North Island is sometimes passed off as being inferior to the dramatic landscapes of the South Island.
I’ve heard of people skipping the North Island altogether, or only spending time in Auckland, which I think is a travesty!
Sure, you may not be constantly surrounded by mountains, glaciers and jungles, but do you really want to skip the incredible volcanoes, waterfalls, hot springs and beaches that make New Zealand’s North Island one of my favourite places in the world?
Okay, so now that we’ve established that you should definitely set aside some time for the North Island on your itinerary, here’s my list of the 14 best things to do in New Zealand’s North Island.
I’m starting here because this is where most people will start, although I’m not going to write about the city itself.
There are plenty of awesome things to do in Auckland, but I’m just going to include the best bits here.
1: Rangitoto Island
Visible from most parts of the city, Rangitoto is Auckland’s most recently formed volcano at only 600 years old!
It is an island, and you can get there by ferry from the wharf in downtown Auckland through Fullers ferries. The journey takes around 25 minutes.
Once on the island, you can climb to the summit or wander around the shoreline. Marvel at the lava fields and the incredible vegetation which grows in such an inhospitable environment.
This is also a wonderful sanctuary for birds such as Tui, Silvereye and the North Island Saddleback.
2: Great Barrier Island
This stunning island is a 4 hour boat trip away from the city, or a 30 minute plane ride.
Great Barrier Island is completely off the grid, and pretty much off the tourist trail, too.
This means that it’s a quiet, eco-friendly community, with incredibly hospitable people.
We visited through Workaway, which meant that we stayed with a lovely local couple and helped them out for a few hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget!
There are lots of beautiful hikes on the island, which make up the Aotea Track. My favourite was the Windy Canyon to Kaitoke Hot Springs hike.
There is also an abundance of bird and marine life: we woke up to the song of the Tui everyday and kayaked with dolphins in Tryphena Bay!
This is the area above Auckland that is often missed by tourists who are eager to head south, but it is an absolutely beautiful area with great weather!
3: Cape Reinga
Right at the top of New Zealand’s North Island is Cape Reinga, a special place of Māori significance.
Here, the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide, forming great whirlpools and swirling currents. In Māori legend, spirits of the dead travel here and leap from a pōhutukawa tree into the ocean, on their way to the spiritual homeland of Hawaiki.
You can walk down to the lighthouse on the point and watch the two oceans writhing together, which is quite a spectacle!
4: 90 Mile Beach
This incredibly long beach is on the western side of Northland and is actually a highway (for 4WD vehicles only). You’ll even see speed limit signs sticking out of the sand dunes!
Although it’s really 55 miles / 88 kilometres long, you can understand why it was slightly exaggerated when you stand on the beach; all you can see in both directions is a huge expanse of flat sand and rolling waves.
Sunsets here are stunningly beautiful, and you can also bodyboard down some of the giant sand dunes nearby!
Just south of Auckland, on the east coast, is the Coromandel Peninsula.
Now, this is on the tourist trail and can be very busy, especially in summer.
But don’t let that put you off! There are some gorgeous spots here that you won’t want to miss.
Unfortunately, my photos from the Coromandel Peninsula have been lost in the ether somewhere so I am unable to include them here. 🙁
5: Cathedral Cove
Near the little village of Hahei is this famous beach that features on many postcards and Instagram accounts.
From Hahei, Cathedral Cove is a beautiful 45 minute walk away, with little detours to viewpoints and beaches at intervals along the way.
When you finally descend onto the beach at your destination, you’ll see the cavernous hole in the cliff that gives this place its name, and the standing rock rising from the sea on the other side.
You’ll probably also see a lot of people taking photos.
The beaches on either side are beautiful and a lovely place to relax for a while before you make the walk back.
6: Hot Water Beach
Not far from Cathedral Cove is another famous tourist spot: Hot Water Beach.
There is a hot spring located nearby and the water runs underneath the sand and into the ocean.
It’s best to visit early if you can, before the beach gets too busy; there is only one section of the beach that gets the hot water so it gets crowded very quickly.
Bring a shovel if you have one, or rent one from the building at the car park.
Then, head down onto the beach and dig yourself a hot spa in the sand!
Be aware that in some places the water is scalding hot! But just a metre or so away, it will be a much more pleasant temperature.
If you can’t manage to get there early, you can probably save the money you may have spent on a shovel and use one of the holes that someone else has dug and left. You might be waiting a while though!
Moving south again from the Coromandel Peninsula, we’re heading for Matamata.
This gorgeous landscape of rolling green farmland was little known until it was chosen as the location for The Shire in The Lord of the Rings movies.
As you drive up to the car park at The Shire’s Rest, you can’t help but notice how perfect this area is for Hobbiton, especially if you’ve read the books.
There are daily tours of the movie set, which are best booked in advance. I’m sure you can imagine how popular this place is with Tolkien fans!
There are a few tour options, and I can recommend getting one that includes a meal.
We opted for the buffet lunch experience and afternoon tour, and it was wonderful!
Once we were full of delicious food, our tour guide took us around the whole set, answering lots of questions and encouraging lots of engagement.
The tour ended with a beer in The Green Dragon Inn, which was also included in the ticket price!
If you’re after a bit of geothermal activity mixed with some Māori culture, Rotorua is the place to go.
The town is located on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and the most noticeable first impression of the place is probably its smell.
This is due to the fact that there is a huge amount of geothermal activity here, including geysers, hot mud pools and thermal springs. That smell is sulphur.
The Māori village of Whakarewarewa is located here, and I highly recommend a visit to Te Puia: the centre for New Zealand’s Māori culture and geothermal wonders.
Here, you can get a guided tour from a member of the Whakarewarewa village, who will most likely be a descendant of the original guides of this area. You’ll see the Pōhutu geyser – the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere – as well as bubbling mud pools, a recreation of some traditional Māori buildings, a kiwi sanctuary and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.
You can also gain access to one of the regular Māori cultural performances, which take place inside the Marae (meeting house). For me, this was one of the highlights of my whole two years in New Zealand! So it’s definitely worth the extra 20-odd dollars 😉
Slap bang in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island is the huge Lake Taupō: the result of a supervolcanic eruption around 26,500 years ago.
And, on the shores of this vast lake, sits the town of Taupō.
You can continue your geothermal adventures at Craters of the Moon, where the ground bubbles and steams; although, to be honest, after the wonders of Rotorua it’s a little disappointing.
Much more exciting is Huka Falls, where 220,000 litres of water per second rush through a narrow canyon and over the falls.
From Huka Falls you can follow a trail upriver to Spa Village, where a hot stream meets the cold river. There are several areas of differing temperatures where you can soak in the warm water or swim out into the river.
Back in town, you can catch a boat out onto the lake to see the incredible Māori rock carvings at Mine Bay.
You can even skydive over Lake Taupō if you fancy the ultimate adrenaline rush!
10: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This 7-8 hour trek across a dramatic volcanic landscape is a must for anyone who loves to hike.
As the name suggests, this is an alpine hike, so the weather conditions are a very important factor when considering when to attempt it.
Highlights on the track include great views of Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom for my Lord of the Rings fans), and the Emerald Lakes.
Make sure you book a shuttle that will take you to the start of the trek in the morning after you’ve parked your car at the end. This means that you won’t need to hurry to catch a shuttle at the end!
If you don’t have a car, you can book a shuttle at both ends. Visit the iSite in Taupō for shuttle options.
11: Hawke’s Bay
Back over on the east coast is Hawke’s Bay, an area often overlooked by travellers, except seasonal workers who pick fruit in this region.
The towns of Napier, the Art Deco capital, and Hastings are the main settlements here, and between the two they offer a lot of fun things to do, including plenty of wine tasting!
One of my favourite things to do here was to climb Te Mata Peak for stunning views over the whole Hawke’s Bay region.
12: Mount Taranaki
Whether you’re a hiker or not, the majestic Mount Taranaki cannot be missed!
If the weather is clear, you can see the huge volcano for miles around as it is 2,518 metres high and an almost perfect cone!
Taranaki is located on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and is surrounded by Egmont National Park, which makes a circle around the mountain.
There are many hiking opportunities here, short or long, easy or hard.
Obviously, the hardest and most gruelling is the Mount Taranaki Summit Track, but probably the most popular is the hike to Pouakai Tarns, where you get fantastic views of the volcano reflected in the water.
If you plan to do any hikes here, make sure you research them thoroughly!
New Zealand’s capital city, and the jumping off point for the South Island, Wellington is a very popular place to spend some time.
I much prefer the vibe here to that in Auckland; it just seems a little more chilled out and a little more cultured. But that might just be me.
Speaking of culture, make sure you check out Te Papa Museum while you’re here. It’s free to enter and has some incredible exhibitions and artefacts on display.
Visit the Weta Cave for more Lord of the Rings fun: the Weta Workshop was responsible for producing these and many other popular movies.
Keep an eye out along the water’s edge in Wellington for some awesome marine life that visits this area, particularly penguins and sometimes even whales!
14: Cape Palliser
Keep heading south east from Wellington and you’ll eventually reach Cape Palliser, the southern-most tip of New Zealand’s North Island!
If you made it up to Cape Reinga then it’s worth coming here, if only to say you’ve been to both!
You can climb up to the lighthouse on the point, but I have to say my favourite thing about Cape Palliser is its colony of fur seals!
You can watch them from the lighthouse or get closer to them down on the beach. Just don’t get too close! They move surprisingly quickly!
We found a campsite nearby Cape Palliser in the tiny village of Ngawi and the sunset across the water was so lovely.
On the way back to Wellington, be sure to check out the Putangirua Pinnacles. These incredible geological formations were used for the Paths of the Dead scene in The Lord of the Rings, but even if you’re not a fan, this is a sight too good to miss!
This country truly is a wonderful place to explore, and these are only my New Zealand North Island best bits! There are so many other amazing things to do that I haven’t included, or that I didn’t manage to visit myself.
I sincerely encourage you to get out there and do some exploring of your own, and let me know what your favourite North Island places are.
I’ve loved writing about the 14 best things to do in New Zealand’s North Island, and it’s made me realise there’s still so much I want to see! I guess I’ll just have to get back there again one day.
Is the North Island of New Zealand on your bucket list? Is there anywhere that you think I should have included here? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Mount Taranaki Summit Track
- Lake Taupō’s impressive Māori rock carving
- Workaway: an introduction to work exchange
Most images in this post are the property of lastminutewanders.com. The image of Cathedral Cove is by marina on Unsplash.
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