A year in New Zealand gave me plenty of time to visit quite a lot of this spectacular country.
Due to New Zealand’s handily compact nature though, you don’t need as much as a year to get to see most of the splendour on offer.
If I was visiting New Zealand’s North island, and didn’t have all the time in the world, then these would be the places and things that I would absolutely want to visit.
Here are my five highlights of the North Island, from my year in New Zealand. I hope you enjoy it - a south island version is also available!
Climb Mount Taranaki
Rising incredibly improbably from otherwise flat surf fringed farmland, the two and a half kilometre high Mount Taranaki is the north island’s second highest mountain. It is also quite probably one of the hardest day hikes available in New Zealand, so is not for the faint hearted.
This volcano cone was my absolute favourite day hike in New Zealand, combining stunning views of the north island with a seriously challenging walk. It takes 6-8 hours all in, and if you are looking for a hike that is far away from the crowds you will encounter on something like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with views to match, then this is the one.
Hike the Tongariro alpine crossing
Ok, so I’ve just provided you with an alternative to this walk, but really, if you like hiking (and this is almost a prerequisite to visiting New Zealand!), then the day long Tongariro alpine crossing hike is an absolute must.
Rated by the Lonely Planet, and pretty much everyone you will talk to, as the number one day hike in New Zealand, this takes you across the spine of Mount Tongariro, in the Tongariro National Park, a volcanic plateau home to the North Island’s highest peak, Mount Ruapehu.
It’s also home to lakes of startling colour, volcanoes which stood in for Mount Doom (complete with steam – these are active volcanoes!) and views across the North Island that are unbeatable without a helicopter.
Yes, it’s going to be busy during the summer months (if you can, visit in the shoulder season months around October), but just take your time, and enjoy the views. If you are feeling fit, the side trek up Mount Ngauruhoe is breathtaking. Literally.
Take a road trip around the east cape
The east cape of New Zealand’s north island has got to be one of its best kept secrets. Despite it’s incredible rugged beauty and fascinating Maori culture, less than 1% of all visitors to New Zealand make it out here.
This means you get deserted beaches, coastal jungle and endlessly scenic roads to yourself, which is no bad thing. I’d advise putting two to three days aside to do this area justice, giving you time to explore all the highlights, including New Zealand’s most easterly point. You will not regret it.
Get volcanic in Rotorua
New Zealand sits firmly on the Pacific ring of fire, and nowhere is this more apparent than the town of Rotorua. With a permanent sulphurous odour keeping you company (think rotten eggs), attractions here are distinctly of the boiling mud variety.
There are a number of ways to get up close and personal with remarkable volcanic scenery. I’d recommend visiting one of the volcanic parks, my favourite being Wai-O-Tapu, the “Sacred Waters”. Here you will be astounded by a shooting geyser, weirdly coloured lakes, and more boiling mud than you can shake a stick at. It’s really other worldly stuff.
As well as peering at boiling mud, you can take the waters in Rotorua itself, at one of the many spas. The Victorian English travelled here to cure themselves of all sorts of ailments back in the day, so there must be something to it.
Finally, Rotorua is also the north islands adventure capital. You can bungy, sky dive, white water raft, jet boat and more, with some of the most competitive prices available in New Zealand. The locals call this place Rotovegas for a reason!
Escape to Northland
If all of the above seems like a lot of work, then I can advise a road trip up to the far north of the North Island. Here you will find sparkling bays studded with islands, forests home to some of the most ancient trees in the world and truly massive sand dunes.
Again, you will want to spend a few days exploring this area, as the trip from Auckland to the far north and back again is at least a thousand kilometres. The benefits are myriad though, with the far north boasting New Zealand’s most temperate climates. Not a bad place to spend a Winter, if you have the time to spare.
Further reading & resources
If you need more information to help you plan your New Zealand adventure, look no further than my series of New Zealand guides, which cover everything from finding free internet to buying and selling a vehicle, to the perfect one month itinerary in New Zealand.
If you'd like some physical resources to further plan your trip, then the following should help:
- This collection of New Zealand travel guides on Amazon.com (Amazon UK for EU readers)
- The Lonely Planet Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
- The Rough Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
Free options and other online resources
If you prefer your guides less physical and a bit more online, then the following are good resources:
- The Wikitravel guide to New Zealand
- New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
- The official New Zealand tourism portal
Plan your Accommodation now!
Finding the best deal on your accommodation is an important part of trip planning – helping you to get the most from your budget, as well as find the property that is right for you.
- Our current favorite way to find the best deals on accommodation is with HotelsCombined. These guys let you search over 100 booking sites at once, including booking.com, Agoda and TravelPony, and nearly always get the best price. Try them and see!
- If you prefer an apartment or more of a hosted stay, then I recommend AirBnB. I've tried all the others, and AirBnB consistently has the most options for locations around the world. Plus, if you've never used them before, you'll get a $25 discount on your first booking with this link!
Between these options, you should find the best prices and places to stay for your trip, as well as a good selection of reviews and feedback to help you make an informed decision.
Thanks for reading my five favourite things to do on the south island of New Zealand! Got a favourite that you think I missed out? Let me know in the comments below!
Those therefore were my five highlights of New Zealand’s north island. Think I missed something? Let me know in the comments below, and do check out the south island version!