New Zealand is one of those countries where you could spend unlimited time. Its natural beauty is world famous, and for good reason. While the South Island is arguably more rugged in terms of its scenery, we chose to stay in the North for one reason – we have a friend who lives there. Luckily, we weren’t shy of things to do. The North has an incredible array of mountains, beaches, geothermal activity and the only “large” city in New Zealand, not to mention a certain famous movie set or two.
We flew in from Sydney to Auckland, which is the main airport on the island. There is also one in Wellington should you wish to start at the bottom and work your way up. A little note about flying into New Zealand — Air New Zealand are probably the best airline I have ever flown with. Their planes were really comfy, the staff helpful and they even contrived to make the safety video worth watching by letting Peter Jackson guest direct it.
New Zealand doesn’t look very big on a map. However, public transport isn’t really a very good option outside the main cities and, away from Auckland, there are no motorways on the North Island at all. Thus, getting around takes some time.
We were very fortunate to be able to use our friend’s car (thanks, Rob). However, if we weren’t we would have rented one of the thousands and thousands of campervans famous for backpackers throughout NZ. I found myself a bit envious of the people cruising with the freedom of New Zealand’s beautiful and largely empty roads in front of them. They are pretty cheap and obviously save massively on the cost of accommodation.
One point we did find out about driving in NZ is that there are possums everywhere. If they wander out into the road in front of you, you must not stop. They are viewed as pests in NZ and people swerving around them cause countless accidents every year — it isn’t worth it.
Things To Do
It’s a little disingenuous to write a North Island “to-do” list. There is something for everyone and honestly you need to do more research than this. Instead I’ll just put the highlights of what we did and saw and let you fill in the blanks. We had 10 days and filled them all – we could have filled them again without any hesitation. A disclaimer – we didn’t have the time or means to go any further South than Tongariro so Wellington was missed out, something which we would obviously have seen should there have been time.
Tongariro Crossing – This was the personal highlight for me. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as New Zealand’s best one-day walk, and in a country as beautiful and diverse as NZ that is one hell of a compliment. Situated just to the south of magnificent Lake Taupo, the crossing is a 19 and a bit km walk taking you up to the mountaintops which Peter Jackson imagined to most resemble Mordor. We went in April and caught the snow, making the bubbling emerald lake even more other-worldly. There are active volcano vents, luminous sulphurous lakes, breath-taking views, perilous ridges and lush, green forests. The weather for us went from about -10 and snowy to 20 degrees in the plus throughout the walk. It is simply stunning. Stay in the National Park the night before so you can get a good early start.
Hobbiton, Matamata – Ok sorry about the continued Lord of the Rings mentions. It’s quite hard to avoid when you are in NZ. Hobbiton is a massive, unashamed tourist attraction, there to fleece you out of your hard-earned cash, no apologies made. That said, with Sadie being the world’s biggest Tolkein geek it was unavoidable and, despite being pricey it was actually completely worth it. The guides are knowledgeable and you get endless photo-ops, and the price includes a locally brewed beer in the Green Dragon. If you like the films or the books you absolutely have to go.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves – The first non-LOTR related thing on this list, but it is so surreal you would think it was a film set anyway. The caves do what they say on the tin, they are caves full of glow worms. Your tour takes you deep underground, into a boat where you wold expect total darkness, only for the roof of the cage to be lit up by tens of thousands of tiny blue white lights, all caused by the glowworm Arachnocampa luminosa (cheers Wikipedia). Like a lot of things in NZ it isn’t cheap but I have never seen anything like it, before or since.
White water rafting, Rotorua – NZ is of course well known for its extreme sports and general outdoorsy stupidity. White water rafting on the Kaituna River ticks both of these boxes, as it takes you over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. It is nerve wracking and ridiculously good fun. A nice touch before you start your rapid adventure is that the guides give a Maori blessing, as the Kaituna River is sacred in Maori culture. It might just be for the tourists but it felt genuine to me…
Geothermal activity, Rotorua – As well as the limitless extreme sports you can do all over the area, there is one feature that you simply cannot miss about Rotorua — It absolutely stinks. It smells like rotten eggs and, despite lots of people’s assurances, I didn’t “get used to it.” This is because of the countless bubbling pools, geysers and other such sulphur-emitting shenanigans all over the place. It does however make for some pretty nice baths. We went to the Polynesian Spa right on the Lakeside and, despite some traditional New Zealand weather combinations (it rains out of blue sky here), it was a great way to chill out for an afternoon and I felt fantastic afterwards.
Auckland – It’s quite hard for me to give you a one paragraph overview of Auckland. You could easily spend a few days there, we had about a day and a half, spent a good chunk with some family friends and another good chunk nursing a hangover. On that note, there are some really cool bars and a great craft (read: hipster) ale scene in Auckland – Ponsonby was a great little stretch within walking distance of the city centre (although taxis are really cheap too). Other stuff to mention: You obviously have to check out the harbour — it’s like a mini-Sydney really; the SkyTower is iconic and if you are sort of mental you can do an abseil off it; Mount Victoria is in a really nice area of the city with stunning views right over the city and the art gallery has a really interesting mix of modern, classical and Maori art.
Food & Drink
There’s no getting around it, Kiwis love their food. They are also miles ahead of the UK on environmental concerns regarding their food and where it comes from — you see a lot more locally sourced, in season, sustainable, organic stuff in their shops, restaurants and cafés. They are famous — rightly so — for their lamb, but they do good, simple food very well indeed.
It also turns out they aren’t bad at wine either — we went up to a vineyard in the Coromandel peninsula to do some wine tasting (it’s free but they do kind of expect you to buy some…) and it was fantastic. I’m not a wine writer and I’m certainly no sommelier, so I can’t tell you what was good about it, but I assure you that it was pretty bloody tasty. Throw in their famous coffee scene and countless craft beer breweries and you can have a pretty exciting gastronomic experience just about anywhere you go in the North Island.
Something I’ve mentioned a few times already here — I hate to break it to you but NZ isn’t a cheap country. Its cause isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of the best things about NZ are the activities which you can do there, and unfortunately these cost even more. It’s one of those places where you simply have to budget and stick to it. I would recommend doing some thorough research and decide on the things that you absolutely must do, then fill the rest of your days around them as best as you can afford.
Secondly, I always assumed Kiwis spoke English. I was wrong. They speak New Zealand English, which is kind of like English with some weird words thrown in there. For example, flip-flops are “jandals,” peppers (the kind you put in a salad) are “capsicums” and if something is good, it’s more often than not “sweet as, bro.” They also (and this is really weird for me, maybe not for you) call rugby “football,” and when they talk about “the World Cup” they mean the one with the egg-shaped ball. It can catch you by surprise in a conversation with a load of Kiwis when you realise mid-way through that you’ve only caught about a third of what they have said.
Lastly, and I really mean this, Kiwis are by and large unbelievably welcoming and friendly. There is next to no crime in New Zealand and you can see why — people are happy with what they have. I can’t say I blame them.