This is a story about living in someone else’s shadow. It’s also the beginning of our answer to the question: New Zealand, North Island or South Island?
Imagine a geeky younger boy who grows up in the shadow of his brother, the all-star. The big brother gets all the attention, all the fame. But it’s the younger brother with whom you develop a special relationship, who was allowed to surprise you because you spent some time with him.
This is our relationship with New Zealand’s North Island. It lives in the travel shadow of its South Island brother. Sure, the South Island is spectacular (yes, we’ll get to that), but it’s on the North Island that our New Zealand love affair began.
While most may steer you directly to the South Island when asked about New Zealand travel, we take a different approach. Visit both. Really. You can thank us later.
North Island: Delivery vs. Expectations
For us, the North Island is special. It’s where we became enamored with New Zealand’s natural beauty. It’s where we began to meet locals and appreciate the Kiwi sense of humor and approach to life. It’s where we began pushing ourselves to do so many things we didn’t know we could do. It’s where we began to learn about Maori culture and its bond to both nature and humanity. And, it’s where we developed our addiction to the New Zealand coffee style of choice, the flat white.
In one week on the North Island, because of the diversity of landscape and depth of experience, it felt as though we’d visited 10 planets. We were above ground, below ground, island hopping, surfing waves, kayaking out to a crazy scientist living on an estuary, hiking a volcano, rafting down seven meter waterfalls on class five rapids, exchanging the Maori embrace, walking through stunning native forests, and enjoying fish-and-chip (pronounced fush-and-chup) sunsets along a seemingly endless New Zealand coast. The experience meter: on full blast.
And then there were the experiences in the white spaces, those in-between destinations and activities. Perhaps a quick conversation with Kiwis in cafés and pubs where quick, easy conversations yield local perspectives on farming, travel, and what makes the perfect coffee. Or there’s a chat with a passionate rafting guide who unknowingly teaches you about an approach to living, working with people, and honing skills — all carved with a wicked Kiwi sense of humor.
So this is what a week in New Zealand’s North Island might look and feel like. Perhaps you’ll get a glimpse as to why this place became so special to us.
Northland: Beaches, Waterfalls and the Bay of Islands
New Zealand features a staggering wind of coastline, as in equal to that of the United States, Alaska excluded. Take a moment and allow that to sink in. Mind you, not all of this coastline is appropriate for swimming or snorkeling (notice the fleece in the photo below?), but it does lend itself to hours of gazing, mind-opening and listening to crashing waves. Not a bad way to reflect, to begin or end one’s week.
Waterfalls. In full disclosure, we often find them oversold. However, New Zealand gives good waterfall. Witness Whangarei Falls, a place that if you just sit amongst it, it might trick you into thinking that you’ve landed in the Garden of Eden.
There’s something to be said for perspective; sometimes you need to get atop it to appreciate all that’s around you. And that’s what it took for us to grok the Bay of Islands. Walk to the top of Waewaetorea Island for a 360-degree view of the entire bay: the lush grass, the tropical lucidity of the surrounding water and a patchwork of islands approximate serenity.
Raglan: Pancake Rocks, Sustainable Farming and Surfing
Raglan has more going on to it than just surfing (though that’s great too). In the course of two days we cruised around the Raglan area and discovered an estuary shoreline of sedimentary pancake rocks, kayaked to a sustainable farm run by a sort of mad scientist-cum-farmer named Charlie, learned to surf (kind of), discovered some of New Zealand’s best coffee served from a simple shack (Raglan Roast) and drank microbrews with locals as we watched the Superbowl in a pub built for betting on horses.
All this local flavor made Raglan one of our New Zealand favorites.
Rotorua: Caving, Rafting and Geo-Thermal Mud Baths
Glow worms. Sounds cute and cuddly. And when you are deep underground with no light, glow worms light up the cave; you almost feel like you’re outside looking up at the stars on a clear night. But nature is funny. These glowing “worms” are actually cannibalistic maggots who don’t have an anus and create light as they digest their previous dinner — all in an effort to attract their next victim. Dark. Light. Pretty. Yum.
While glow worms are cool, the real fun of going into the Waitomo Caves (we were on the Haggas Honking Holes Tour) includes an adrenaline package of abseiling, cave diving and rock climbing. Who knew that you could exert so much energy underground? Now we do.
But if a morning of caving is not enough to tip your adrenaline-meter, consider a twilight whitewater rafting trip down the Kaituna River. As we approached the river, it was cold and rainy, we were tired, and we harbored second thoughts on whether rafting in these conditions was such a good idea.
It was. In fact, it was an amazing idea.
Not only did the Kaituna River rafting trip include a 7-meter (23 feet) fall and class 5 rapids that are just pure squealing fun to navigate, but the entire rainforest and river setting is mind-bogglingly beautiful. It’s not a coincidence that this area was once a sacred spot for Maori. These days, a few chiefs are buried behind waterfalls and in caves along the river. As a bonus, the temperature of the river water turned out to be much warmer than the air.
As you approach the town of Rotorua, the smell gives it away. The entire area is full of geothermal activity and features that “smells so good” sulfur odor that permeates everything, everywhere. While we didn’t have an opportunity to pop into one of the local mud baths or thermal springs, we did get a chance to admire, and smell, one from afar.
As one Maori man joked with us, “There’s a reason you find most of the Maori on the North Island. We don’t like the cold.”
You can feel and see the influence of Maori culture and approach to life more — almost exclusively — on the North Island. Just outside of Rotorua we visited a Maori community and a wharenui, a Maori meeting house. The opening blessing gave us a fitting glimpse into the Maori reverence for nature and humanity.
For one American in our group, meeting a Maori leader years ago and coming to know the Maori philosophy of human equality and oneness helped pull him out of a bad place and make him who he is today. Years later, he came full circle and we chose him as our chief to represent our group during our formal welcoming at a local Maori meeting house.
Tongariro Crossing Trek
This was the trek that almost wasn’t. Although the Tongariro Crossing trek was the activity we most looked forward to in the North Island, weather conditions almost put it out of reach. The day before was truly lousy: cold, horrible winds, no visibility. Nick, our guide, tried to manage our expectations by preparing us for the worst. We were heartbroken at the thought of cancellation.
Then in the morning the skies began to break. Slivers of blue emerged. And when we started our trek up the mountain, the clouds continued to clear. Winds tapered off. The colors and textures of the mountains, minerals, vegetation and volcanic craters emerged as fog and clouds burned off. We couldn’t have planned better weather even if we had tried. The mountain gods were smiling upon us.
The Tongariro Crossing trek is described as “one of the best one-day hikes in the world.” No high expectations or anything. But even these were exceeded. We loved this trek; each section was a thrill with the changing terrain, colors and views of the whole region. Even the Devil’s Staircase was fun as it was the pathway to the craters and lakes we knew were waiting above.
When we did get to the top of Tongariro Crossing, our reward was great. Everyone talks about the Emerald Lakes (yes, they are spectacular), but we were blown away by the contours and richness of the Red Crater. Mother Nature had gone all out.
Note: Because of the volcanic eruption in November 2012, we were not able to do the full Tongariro Crossing as part of the path is blocked by lava. We had to turn around at the Emerald Lakes and returned on the same path. The ~20km (12.4 miles) trek takes around 6 to 6.5 hours in total. If you get a ride into the park with a bus, they will arrange a pick up time for you.
Our time in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, was too short. But what we saw and felt in that time we liked. The city had an energy and creative feel to it; the calendar was chock full of festivals, concerts and performances. The city was made for people to enjoy.
We’re lucky to have Kiwi friends who took us out when we were there, but if you keep your eyes open you’ll find cool bars tucked back into alleyways or in the courtyards of buildings. Our two favorites were Matterhorn (106 Cuba Street) and Fork & Brewer (14 Bond Street).
Best of New Zealand’s North Island Photo Essay
If you don’t have a high-speed connection or would like to read the captions, you can view our New Zealand North Island photo set.
The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!