New Zealand North Island: Don’t Sell It Short

"Get amongst it!" - Audrey grabs a bit of junglelicious New Zealand rainforest
The New Zealand advice mantra of choice: “Get amongst it!”

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 Beach Stop at Uretiti Beach
Who cares if the wind blows? The beach is just as beautiful.

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.

A Garden-of-Eden moment in Northland, Whangarei Falls #newzealand #dna2nz #gadv
In the lush, Whangarei Falls

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.

Waewaetorea Island - Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The Bay of Islands, our first “I’m going to faint!” moment in New Zealand.

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.

Who knew?

All this local flavor made Raglan one of our New Zealand favorites.

Cruising the pancake rocks / limestone stacks of Ragland Harbor #newzealand
Pancake rocks in Raglan Harbor.

Kayaking on Whaingaroa Estuary near Raglan, New Zealand
Kayaking the estuary, learning about the ecosystem along the way.
Dan Walks a Donkey - Sustainable Farm near Raglan, New Zealand
Dan crosses another item off his bucket list: walking a donkey.
A view over the surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Fine conditions to catch our first waves. #newzealand
Surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Time to hit the waves!
Dan & Audrey Surfing in Raglan - North Island, New Zealand
Surfing. Another first for us in New Zealand.

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.

Abseiling Down Into Cave at Haggas Honking Holes - Waitomo, New Zealand
Cold water shock. Audrey abseils an underground waterfall. Photo courtesy: Waitomo Adventures.

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.

White Water Rafting Down 7 meter Waterfall - Kaituna, New Zealand
White water rafting down a 7-meter fall on the Kaituna River. Photo courtesy: Kaitiaki Adventures.

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.

Holy buckets! The beautiful, bubbling mud pools of Waiotapu. #eerie #newzealand
Mud pools of Waiotapu, New Zealand

Maori Culture

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.

Carved head, Maori meeting house -- Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Carved head, Maori meeting house.

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.

Devil's Staircase and Tongariro National Park - New Zealand
The Devil’s Staircase. Can stairs ever be fun? With views like this, maybe.

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.

Red Crater - Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
The Red Crater at Tongariro. An unexpected reward for making it to the top.

Emerald Lakes of Tongariro Crossing - New Zealand
Tongariro’s Emerald Lakes. As nature designed. No photoshop needed.

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.

Wellington

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.

Snap on Cuba Street: A taste of the soul of Wellington, New Zealand.
Wellington street scene – musicians and bars on Cuba Street.

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.

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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!

Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. We thank all the good folks at Waitomo Adventures for the Haggas Honking Holes Tour and Kaitiaki Adventures for the Kaituna River rafting trip. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Comments

  1. says

    On the whole e preferred the South Island on our trip to New Zealand last year. However, I agree that once you reach the Northlands and Coromandel the North starts to win back some kudos and gives the south a run for its money.

  2. Sutapa says

    I have a friend and his family in Wellington and what you describe pretty much tallies with what he says about the North Island. Loved your description. I am glad you went rafting even though you had questions about it.

  3. rob says

    I literally just returned yesterday from my trip to NZ, where I spent all of my time on the south island, excepting two days in Wellington and 3 days in Tongariro. And two “jetlag” days in Auckland. I like the north island well enough, except for all the people. South island is much less crowded and the cooler weather that keeps the Maori out is what appeals to me.

    One minor point you make that I’ll disagree with. You comment on the Maori and their “bond to both nature and humanity.”. That might be true now, although it’s not so obvious since they’re pretty much all city dwellers and the only place I was ever warned away from as being dangerous was a Maori ghetto (not my word)an hour or so north of Auckland.

    Prior to Europeans arriving in NZ the Maori were an ecological disaster in the making. They hunted a number of species to extinction, deforested 40-50% of New Zealand and were extremely warlike. Any bond with nature and humanity is definitely something that came after the European New Zealanders arrived and integrated them into a more European society.

  4. James says

    @Rob
    Maybe I’m just uneducated in this area, but were the Europeans of the 1600′s very concerned with ecology and animal preservation? Did I miss that part when I learned about all the wars that were going on in that part of the world at that time?

  5. rob says

    James:

    You’re trying to attack my observation with a non-sequitur.

    Whatever the Europeans did or thought is irrelevant to my observation. What the Maori *did* upon arriving to NZ demonstrates that *they* were neither friends of nature nor did they have much in the way of bonds with humanity prior to Europeans arriving.

    Dan and Audrey experienced NZ as it is *today*, where the Maori have the advantage of a 21st century society and can claim to be peaceful and ecologically minded because they have an easy life.

  6. says

    What a fabulous adventure! We haven’t been to that part of the world yet, but New Zealand has been our minds lately. You have us completely sold on the North Island.

  7. James says

    @Rob
    I believe I drew an accurate comparison. Your point is that it was the Europeans who came in and saved the Maori from themselves and “phew” because they were really a mess.

    It would be more accurate to say that modern Kiwis, Maori and Pakeha advanced with the rest of the world in terms of ecological studies, appreciation, and responsibility.

    To your second point, that they weren’t “friends of nature”. Maybe not to our modem standards. Because, and get this awesome bit, they were PART of nature. They lived in harmony WITH nature. They didn’t mine the world for coal or any other minerals, or clear whole city’s worth of trees to put up brick and mortar.

    They hunted animals, yes, true, ok you got’em there. Along with every other group of human beings and at the time, NO ONE was looking out for the poor animals.

    They didn’t have much in the way of bonds with humanity before the Europeans came? Well, excuse me, but, yaknow, DUH. Have you SEEN how far out in the ocean NZ is? But they were aware of other peoples. Their beliefs and values stand to that knowledge. When the Europeans came of course there was war, initially. There’s always war when the Europeans show up somewhere throughout history.

    However, when peace eventually came, and the Maori chieftains were asked to choose the symbol for the two islands, they, in their wisdom, chose what is now called the Flag Of The United Tribes of New Zealand. Look it up. The canton is a blue field quartered by a Red Cross with four, white, eight pointed, or “compass”, stars. The compass stars were chosen by the Maori chiefs to symbolize that people from all over the world could come to Aotearoa and be welcome, it was also because they foresaw that eventually New Zealand would come to the multicultural mixing pot it is today. There’s your connection to humanity.

  8. rob says

    My point was that the Maori were well on their way to turning NZ into another uninhabitable Easter Island through deforestation and war before Europeans disrupted their trajectory.

  9. says

    Wow great post. Now I want to go back to NZ!

    We did a self drive tour around both islands about 5 years ago and had the best time! Both islands have so much to offer and we really enjoyed both.

    There is quite a bit you have mentioned that we did now see however so I think another trip there would be a good idea when we are back in that hemisphere!

  10. James says

    @Rob
    In this case “disrupted their trajectory” means “saved the poor savages from themselves” right? So why not just say that?
    Again, it’s more accurate to say that modern Kiwis, Maori *and* Pakeha, advanced with the rest of the world in terms of ecological studies, appreciation, and responsibility.
    No Kiwi would say the Europeans did it without the Maori or that the Maori did it without the Europeans. That’s *my* point. I’d bet my hat. And I’m very fond of that hat.

  11. rob says

    @James.

    Left alone, it’s clear the Maori would have made NZ uninhabitable, as the Polynesians did on Easter Island.

    They were not left alone, and that didn’t happen. That’s the entirety what I said and meant.

  12. says

    Thanks for giving the North Island some well-deserved love (and adding to the list of places to visit on our next trip!). I have very fond memories of our month there last year–seeing a wild kiwi at night in a kauri forest, staying on a citrus farm near the Bay of Islands, bush walking to a beach in Coromandel, enjoying arts & culture in Wellington and of course Tongariro–a walk I almost didn’t do but so glad I did. I always tell people that they need to visit both islands to experience New Zealand in full.

  13. says

    Great pictures and such an elaborate report!
    This isn’t the first ttime I read someone saying that the north is definitely worth a visit as well. This only prooves it once more:)

  14. says

    @Craig: I would agree that starting in the North Island and then going south is probably the preferred route, both for getting to know New Zealand’s nature and people. We didn’t make it to the Coromandel on this trip, but have heard great things about it. Next trip…

    @Caroline: Good luck getting everything sorted for your next working holiday in New Zealand. We met many people doing this – what a fabulous way to experience New Zealand slowly and thoroughly.

    @Sutapa: Glad to hear that our description matches that of your friend in Wellington. And regarding rafting, we are very thankful that we had a bit of a kick in the butt from our leader and rafting guides to get us out there. So glad we did it.

    @James: I hope you don’t mind that I’ve told your story so many times – I find it so inspirational.

    @Rob: When we mentioned the connection between bond between nature and humanity, we were looking to the Matauranga Maori (Maori world view) that was passed down orally from generation to generation. We learned a bit about this from our guide, as well as from the visit to the Maori meeting house. All living things have a mauri, or life force. Nature is spiritual and sacred. This is why revered chiefs were often buried in nature to go back to the spiritual. And humans were directly connected to nature genetically and were therefore all part of the same ecosystem; we’re all intricately connected.

    That said, actions can be different. You are right in that Maori destroyed parts of New Zealand’s environment through burning/cutting down forests (estimated 50%) and hunting/eating animals (e.g., Moa). And they are extremely tribal and are fierce fighters, often going to war over land and property. How to reconcile these actions with the traditional Maori belief system mentioned above is one for a long conversation. I can’t answer that. Today many Maori do live in cities and so many of the cultural connections and are lost with younger generations.

    @Nicole: Glad to see that we offered some inspiration for another trip to New Zealand! If we can help with any more advice or ideas, just let us know!

    @Rachel: Everyone we spoke to before we went to New Zealand just talked about the South Island. And after a few days in the North Island, we thought “Wow, this is pretty spectacular” and it doesn’t have the tourist traffic of the south. It’s so worth visiting and spending some time there. Glad you are part of the “visit both islands” campaign with us!

    @Sofie: The more people go to the North, the more they’ll be cheerleading for it :) Glad you enjoyed this post!

  15. says

    I’ve only been to the north island (my husband is from Wellington, and I visited for the first time last year) and it was glorious!

    My favourite was Napier – we were there in winter, although it wasn’t very cold, and it was lovely to see all the art deco buildings without the summer tourists around.

  16. says

    @Kerry: I can understand how you had such a great time just visiting the North Island. It’s nice also because there are so many less tourists than in the south. Napier was one of the places we didn’t get to on this last trip but wish we had. We hear it’s a really cool place and feel.

  17. says

    New Zealand is at the top of our bucket list, and I’m so glad to have found your blog so we can get the inside scoop before we go!!!

  18. says

    @Emily: Hope we can help with your New Zealand planning – there’s just so much to do and see on both islands! We’ll be writing more about the South Island shortly, so keep checking back for more.

  19. says

    Loved the post and the images are beautiful. Must say New Zealand is also on the top of our bucket list. I really enjoyed reading your post and the great information you provided!

  20. says

    New Zealand is a must-visit place for me and my partner simply because of the LOTR & The Hobbit. Didn’t know that beautiful beaches and other attractions can be found there too. My heart is overwhelmed with joy. Thank you for sharing! :)

  21. says

    @Barbara: Can definitely understand why New Zealand is on the top of your bucket list. We’ll continue to write more about the South Island in the next couple of weeks, so keep coming back for more information.

    @Ces: That’s the amazing thing about New Zealand – it has all the amazing mountain and shire landscape as you saw in the movies, but also incredible beaches. Hope you enjoy them for yourself soon!

  22. says

    Loved this post! I agree that it would be foolish to visit New Zealand and not visit the North Island, I’ve found some of the most beautiful spots up here! Definitely visit the Coromandel next time you visit NZ… it’s paradise!

  23. says

    @Kilee: We’ve heard good things about Coromandel, so it’s on the wish list for next visit. We had such good experiences and memories from the North Island – hard to imagine a trip to New Zealand without seeing it!

  24. says

    Great article! Brings back a lot of memories. I’ve been to NZ 10 times. Love it! The North Island is awesome. 90 Mile Beach, Pahia, Rotorua, Tongoriro, all great sights to see. I haven’t been to Raglan yet or to Stewart Island. Raglan looks really interesting. Loved the photos! Keep up the great work you two.

  25. says

    @Cynthia: Wow, you are certainly the New Zealand expert then! Raglan was a lot of fun – good feel to the place, nice people and awesome coffee. And if you like to surf (or want to learn), it’s one of the best spots in New Zealand!

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