There may be way more Kiwis (aka New Zealanders) living on the North Island but because most tourists flock to the South Island and the South Island alone, the North Island is actually where you can get more off the beaten path. It may lack the dramatic mountain peaks of the South but it’s far from short on spectacular scenery.
But really, what is there to see besides Hobbiton (which is actually pretty cool to visit) and the country’s main metropolis, you ask?
Do I have all day to tell you? Seriously, there is so much to see on the North Island - some of the BEST hikes in the country, hot water beaches (you don’t want to miss these!), rugged landscapes, and island paradises that will make you fall in love with the country faster than you can make an instant coffee.
I’m not a Kiwi but I lived on the North Island for 14 months and I made sure to make the most of it. It’s from this experience I bring you the following recommendations. Whether you go to some of these places or do some of the things I recommend, or you choose your own path around the North Island of New Zealand, I promise you won’t be disappointed. You have my guarantee - It’s just that good of a place.
Auckland and surrounds
Since most people will fly into Auckland, we’ll start our tour here.
Auckland’s rugged west coast
If you don’t have much time, spend very little of it in the actual city of Auckland. Head to the west coast beaches as soon as possible. Here you’ve got the choice of Piha, Bethells, Murawai and Karekare, all different and all ruggedly gorgeous.
Hire a car or find a tour group to join and be prepared to be blown away (sometimes not only figuratively speaking). Be prepared for windy, narrow roads to get there which if you don’t get car sick, are very much a part of the adventure and very much what most of New Zealand’s roads are like. Here you’ll dig your toes into black sand that looks like it’s been sprinkled with thousands of tiny diamonds, walk kilometres across deserted beaches, climb rugged rock formations, explore ocean caves (at low tide of course), and maybe even go for a surf.
More on surfing on Auckland’s west coast
At first glance, you may not think Auckland’s west coast beaches are the best place to surf when you see their typically rough waters. When the conditions are decent though, it is an exhilarating experience to say the least. I surfed mostly at Murawai which tends to have the friendliest surf of the west coast lot. Both Murawai and Piha have surf schools and rentals available, though check ahead as they may be season-dependent.
Hiking near Auckland
Oh, and some of the best hikes in the country I alluded to above, you’ll find them here. My absolute favourite and one of the most beautiful hikes I did while living in New Zealand is the Te Henga walkway. The views are absolutely incredible to say the least. It is a one-way hike so you either have to plan to have a car on either end, or head part-way in and return. Even if you only do the latter, you’ll still understand what I mean by my description.
A few other hikes I recommend in this region:
Omanawanui (currently closed to prevent the spread of a local disease that affects the Kauri trees)
Zion Hill (also currently closed)
If you stay in the west coast region for a few days, you’d be silly to miss the sunsets. Throughout the summer you can find locals and tourists alike enjoying golden hour while picnicking at any one of Auckland’s west coast beaches.
Waiheke Island - that island paradise
I had the pleasure of both working and living on Waiheke Island. It’s only a 40 minute ferry ride away from downtown Auckland, and a scenic one at that (typical of New Zealand, of course). Being that close means it makes for a fairly popular day trip or weekend getaway. It’s still well worth the trip as it’s a big enough island with enough variety in things to do that people tend to spread themselves out a fair bit. And if you like to explore and head a bit further in than most visitors to Waiheke, getting away from the crowds won’t be too hard.
What’s so special about Waiheke Island?
You’ll find the beaches here to be in stark contrast to the ones on the west coast of Auckland - calm, safe, and perfect for a day of summer dips. This also makes paddle-boarding and kayaking ideal things to do on the island. Lookout for locals riding horses on the beach, picnicking on the grassy hillsides overlooking the many bays, or working out beachside (you’ll need to be an early-bird to catch this one). The lookouts here to the Coromandel region are breath-taking, and best visible from the eastern edge of the island (you’ll need a car to get there).
Aside from the beaches, you may find yourself visiting a few different wineries and a brewery, eating fish and chips on the beach (I would go back for the kumara - aka sweet potato - chips from the beachside fish and chips shop in Little Oneroa in a heartbeat), hiking the many coastal trails, or even flying at treetop level on a zip-line.
As a visitor for the day, it’s difficult to appreciate what makes this place so special aside from its beautiful setting. The locals of the island are very proud of their bohemian island paradise and make it a point to maintain its eco-friendliness. Some locals are descendants of generations living on the island, others settled after visiting from overseas and never leaving, while still others came over from other parts of New Zealand. Many islanders commute to and from the city daily while some rarely leave as their work and family life is all found within the borders of the island. The island has a large artist population and if you get a chance to see more than just the wineries and popular beaches, you’ll pick up on that. You may also notice a stark contrast in socioeconomic levels here too - most evident by the scale of residences that fall along a very wide spectrum.
Hot tip: if you’re planning a day trip in the busy season (December through February) catch an early ferry to beat the crowds at the terminal. Grab a map of the hiking trails when you arrive on the island, check off a coastal walk, grab lunch beachside at Onetangi beach, then explore the far end of the island (if you rent a car). If you’re not renting a car, hop on the bus to one of many wineries before catching a sunset ferry back to the city.
Truly going off the grid on Great Barrier Island
If you’re prepared to really get off the grid and experience a getaway like a true local, make the effort to get to Great Barrier Island. It’s the island that people already living on islands go to for holiday! Sadly, I never made it there but it’s at the top of my list for my next visit to the North Island. Getting there takes a 5 hour boat ride or a flight from Auckland, which should highlight the remoteness of it. Because New Zealand is a small country, and getting more popular with foreigners every year, there aren’t too many places one can go to truly escape the crowds. This would be one of those places though. But.. I only recommend you to visit Great Barrier if you’re truly interested in having minimal connection to the outside world, very limited (if any) dining out options, and hundreds of metres between you and the other family on the beach.
Northland New Zealand
There is way too much to explore in Northland to list most things, so I’ll just stick to a few gems.
Sunrise at the top of New Zealand
Let’s start right at the top - Cape Reinga - where I recommend you absorb the top of New Zealand with a sunrise. Here you have the choice of looking down and across the Tasman Sea to the east, or the South Pacific Ocean to the west. Taking in the sunrise is a memorable experience in itself but doing so with the views available to you at Cape Reinga, is pure magic. You probably won’t have the place entirely to yourself but it will definitely be less busy than at other times throughout the day.
Explore the Kari Kari Peninsula
When I did a road trip through Northland, I actually had no plans to go the Kari Kari peninsula specifically. Was I ever glad that I did though. And guess what? My DSLR camera actually never made it out of the station wagon when I was in this part of New Zealand so I have no photos to prove how spectacular it really is. But perhaps the fact that I don’t have any photos just goes to show how mesmerized I was of this place, just wanting to soak in every minute.
I won’t give you any specific locations or directions - there aren’t many roads in this area anyway - but I will strongly encourage you to take a drive through this area to explore its turquoise bays and white sand beaches. You won’t need to add a side-trip to Fiji if you take my advice. Just make sure your snorkel gear is in the car.
Hike to Cape Brett
For those that are particularly adventurous, and organized, put hiking to Cape Brett very high on your list. This is an overnight trek that requires reservations so you must plan ahead. The hike starts near the town of Rawhiti, close to a 4 hour drive north of Auckland, and yes, the roads are windy. With an overnight pack it’s a challenging hike, especially if the sun is beating down on you. Just when you think there are no more climbs, there are more climbs. The views, though, they are incredible (surprise!). And that much more incredible with the physical effort involved. Start early, make sure you have enough daylight to get to the hut, and be prepared to be amazed. Heck, even Kiwis themselves marvel at the beauty that is this track. There are many huts to spend an overnight in in New Zealand, in locations you can only imagine. This is one of them.
If you have some additional time to explore the surrounding area, you’ll find some beautiful (and probably fairly deserted) beaches and coves for some well-deserved post-hike relaxation.
Dive at Poor Knight’s Island
New Zealand may not be known as a diving destination but you bet it has some fantastic diving spots. I certified with PADI many years ago but I sure don’t use my certification to my advantage, allowing years to pass between dives at times. Every time I do a dive, however, I’m blown away and walk away wondering why I don’t do it more often. You guessed it - this was one of those times. I managed to sneak in this dive trip just before leaving New Zealand and I was so grateful that they had space on the dive boat for me.
The islands, part of a marine reserve underwater and a nature reserve above water, are found 23 kilometres off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. This sub-tropical underwater paradise is courtesy of ancient volcanoes. And thanks to the body of water they now sit in, they have numerous caves and tunnels, some of which you will experience if you dive here. I still vividly remember the schools of hundreds of blue fish swimming around us. This trip really re-ignited my love for exploring the underwater world. Here’s hoping it’s not years before I dive again!
Sunbathe in the Tutukaka coast
As I write this in the middle of January (northern hemisphere January, that is), I’m wishing teleportation was a thing already. I’d land right at Matapouri Beach, and walk straight into the emerald waters. And then I’d spend the afternoon at Whale Bay and maybe even visit the Mermaid Pools, but only if the instagram crowd isn’t already there. Even when the drive here doesn’t hug the coast, it has that famous New Zealand-rolling-green-hills appeal. It’s a perfect place to spend a weekend. Do the loop off highway 1, though you may get stuck in there and not want to come back out. Very true story.
I mean, check it out:
Bay of Plenty
This region, other than boasting plenty of sunshine, is home to the Coromandel Peninsula, Mount Maunganui, and Rotorua - all incredibly popular tourist destinations, and for good reason. But given their popularity, I will instead bring attention to a couple of other remarkable spots within the Bay of Plenty. Just to spread the love, you know? ;)
Experience authentic New Zealand at Lake Tarawera
Sticking to the “off the (most) beaten path” theme, we come to Lake Tarawera. Visiting Lake Tarawera, or it’s namesake mountain, will have you admiring a number of the things that make New Zealand’s landscape so special - all in one location - lush waterfalls, geothermal hot springs, and volcanic mountains. if you want to see a more untouched part of the North Island, and have a more authentic experience, this here is where to go.
So what can you do here?
Hike, of course! Hiking, or tramping as it’s called in New Zealand, is the best way to experience Aoetora (that’s New Zealand) in my opinion - if you haven’t noticed already. The nice thing about hiking here is that if you complete the Tarawera trail, you’ll have the option of soaking in a natural hot spring at the end. If the scenery isn’t enough of a reward, a natural hot water pool has got to be. You’ve definitely done well on your trip to New Zealand if you’ve combined these two experiences!
Now if the Tarawera Trail is a bit out of your league - it’s 15 km one way with the option of a water taxi pick up at the end - don’t fret as there are other options. As a secondary option, I recommend the 2 hour Tarawera Outlet to Falls track where you’ll experience the rugged Tarawera waterfall as your end of walk reward (see above). Truly not a bad plan B!
Walk the rim of a volcanic crater at Mount Tarawera
If you have multiple days in this region, the other not-to-miss experience is hiking Mount Tarawera, a sleeping giant of a volcano. Full disclosure, I didn’t get a chance to check this experience off my long list of adventures, but you bet I’m leaving it on the list for my return visit. The views on this adventure look breathtaking (again, I know!) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the photos I saw online don’t do it justice. I’m especially drawn to the colourful striations of volcanic rock, and the 400 metre scree run at the end! If that’s not a unique travel experience, I don’t know what is! If you’re still not sold, check out this Canadian couple’s experience at Mount Tarawera. Heads up, Mount Tarawera isn’t directly open to the public so climbing the volcano requires booking a tour.
Breathe sulphur at White Island
If walking a crater rim of a dormant volcano isn’t exhilarating enough for you, you won’t have to go far to top that experience. Still in the Bay of Plenty region, White Island is located about 50 kilometres off the coast and you have the option of getting there by boat or a small plane. Whichever way you approach the island, you’ll quickly notice that it’s not your typical island. The white smoke steaming out from the land should confirm that this is an active volcano. Not to worry, hardhats and gas masks will be provided. I imagine sturdy hiking boots are highly recommended for this outing, too.
Like experiencing Mount Tarawera, White Island has to be visited on an organized tour. Yet another adventure I have on my list for when I visit New Zealand again. I can already picture myself walking around bubbling mud pools, scrunching my nose inside my gas mask at the overpowering sulphur smell, and marvelling at the colours created by years of volcanic activity. I can’t wait for this full day adventure - as long as the volcano cooperates in the meantime, of course!
Is there more to see and explore on the North Island?
Ok. Wow. When you sit down and really reflect on it, the North Island is chock-full of beauty and adventures. The places I’ve covered in this post are obviously not all there is. Very far from it. But if I kept going, we’d be here all day! I haven’t even touched upon Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, East Cape and Wellington! Perhaps a part 2 is in order. But if you can’t wait that long, here are a couple more posts for you to check out:
Do you have additional tips on special places to visit on the North Island? Share them in the comments below. ⤵️