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Exploring New Zealand's North Island regions

Little beats the charismatic North Island when it comes to tapping into New Zealand’s native Maori past, blissing out on ravishing white-sand beaches, and marvelling at volcanoes, geysers, and other geothermal wonders. Here’s our guide to the unique regions of this rural heartland punctuated with national parks, world-class vineyards, dense rainforests, cosmopolitan cities, and incredible scenery throughout.

Northland and Bay of Islands

Setting: Stretching upwards from Auckland to the very top of New Zealand, the Northland region is a subtropical wonderland of giant Kauri forests, myths and legends, numerous historic sites, and aquatic adventures galore (the Bay of Islands is one of the best places on the planet for diving, sailing, big game fishing, and cruising). This is also where Maori explorer Kupe arrived on his wooden waka (canoe) to discover the country - and later returned with a band of settlers aboard the iconic Ngatokimatawhaorua, using only the stars and ocean currents as guides.

See and do: Head to Dargaville for its Kauri forests and wild west coast beaches, Whangarei for its gorgeous bays, Kaitaia for its stunning Ninety Mile Beach, and the northernmost Cape Reinga for its spectacular swirl of currents where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. Equally standout are the boutique towns of Opua, Paihia, Russell and Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands - the micro-region that encompasses 144 islands between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula.

Star attraction: The award-winning Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the go-to heritage attraction for learning about New Zealand’s significant Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) that was signed in 1840. The full-day guided tour includes visiting the Treaty House and Museum, watching Maori cultural performances in an authentic meeting house, admiring the 115-foot ceremonial war canoe, and enjoying the gardens, art spaces, and lovely Bay of Islands views.

Auckland

Setting: The City of Sails that one third of New Zealanders call home, cosmopolitan Auckland is located on a narrow isthmus flanked by two busy harbours: the Waitemata on the Tasman Sea and the Manukau on the Pacific Ocean. As the largest Polynesian city in the world (and one that’s continually ranked as the most liveable), it’s blessed with beautiful white-sand beaches, a flourishing dining scene, and outstanding scenery (the best views are from the 328-metre Sky Tower and the 196-metre summit of Mount Eden - the highest mainland volcano).

See and do: Once you’ve marvelled at the iconic Auckland Harbour Bridge, visit the Auckland Art Gallery for its inspiring collection of works by New Zealand, Maori, and Pacific artists. Further highlights include the Auckland Museum for its 1000-plus taonga (treasures), Kelly Tarlton's SEA LIFE Aquarium for its shark, penguin, and stingray encounters, the National Maritime Museum for its Maori and Polynesian sea vessels, and Auckland Zoo for its 1,400-plus animals.

Star attraction: The 182-metre extinct volcano that serves as a crucial memorial, One Tree Hill is home to a 30-metre stone obelisk that surrounds the grave of John Logan Campbell (it was erected on top of the summit to mark Auckland’s centenary commemorations in 1940). While the “one tree” was chopped down in 1852, this historic spot still wows with 360-degree views, grassed picnic slopes, and an information centre in the neighbouring Cornwall Park.

The Coromandel Penisula

Setting: Truly deserving of its beach paradise moniker, the Coromandel is the peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean and lies east of Auckland, across the Hauraki Gulf. Named after the British Royal Navy’s HMS Coromandel that stopped at the harbour in 1820, the landscape is as sublime as it gets; not least for the forested mountain range that runs through its heart, bordered on each side by miles of coastline. The hiking opportunities here are excellent, especially the popular Kauaeranga Kauri Trail (also known at Pinnacles Walk) that can be done in a day.
 
See and do: Learn about Coromandel Town’s gold rush history at the School of Mines Museum before heading to the legendary Cathedral Cove - arguably the region’s most picturesque spot. Further thrills include digging yourself a hot pool at Hot Water Beach at low tide, discovering the swingbridges, tunnels, waterfalls, railways and rusty mining equipment at Karangahake Gorge, and watching thousands of endemic Wrybills at the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre.

Star attraction: Wainuiototo Bay’s New Chums Beach gets all the love for its glittering golden sands backed by impossibly clear waters and thick native forest. Accessed only by boat or on foot, there’s nothing here but pure nature and an Insta-worthy lookout that requires a hairy climb. Also squeeze in a visit to the five-mile-long Waihi Beach at the southern end of the Coromandel - a safe surfing spot with great views of Mayor Island, the dormant volcano off the Bay of Plenty.

Hamilton-Waikato

Setting: An obvious Middle-earth location choice for Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Hamilton-Waikato is the scenic region of bush-covered rolling hills, ancient mountains, and lush pastures. It’s known as the gateway to central North Island, tempting further with black sand surf beaches, unique limestone formations, underground caves, award-winning themed gardens, and New Zealand’s fourth largest city of Hamilton - a vibrant (and rugby mad) hub on the banks of the mighty Waikato River.

See and do: Once you’ve soaked up history at the Waikato Museum, enjoyed a summer picnic at Hamilton Lake, got lucky (or not) on the gaming tables at the SKYCITY Casino, and splashed out on a hot air balloon ride, take a relaxing Waikato River cruise. Also enjoy a guided tour of the twinkling Waitomo Glowworm Caves and make time for outdoor activities such as abseiling, kayaking, black water rafting, ziplining, climbing, cycling, and off-road driving.

Star attraction: Located to the west of Hamilton, Raglan is the dramatic stretch of black sand coastline with one of the longest left-hand surf breaks in the world. Head here to watch the boarders in action, book a surfing lesson, try other watersports (stand-up paddle boarding, kite surfing, paragliding), or simply cruise around the harbour. Also paddle out to the Pancake Rocks of Raglan to see these amazing layers of limestone rocks up close (go at low tide).

Rotorua

Setting: Nowhere does bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers, natural hot springs, and volcanic scenery quite like Rotorua - the thermal wonderland on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty region. Nicknamed the Sulphur City for its rather unfortunate rotten egg-like pong, it’s one of the country’s most dynamic places for enjoying adrenaline-pumping and nature-based experiences, touring ancient villages, and learning more about Maori culture by way of dance performances, concerts, and hangi evenings (cooking that uses the earth's elements).

See and do: Make a beeline for Wai-o-tapu Thermal Valley to see its bright orange and turquoise pool, stinky sulphur mud baths, impressive craters, steaming fumaroles, and silica terraces. Also walk along the TreeWalk suspension bridge at Redwood Forest, visit the active thermal park known as Hell’s Gate, and brave the rapids of the thundering Kaituna River that’s famous for its highest commercially raft-able waterfall in the world - the seven-metre Tutea Falls.

Star attraction: As the heartland of Maori culture, Rotorua offers a dizzying amount of walking tracks, spiritual experiences, and guided tours that shed light on age-old stories, teachings, and traditions. Visit the villages of Whakarewarewa, Tamaki Maori, and Mitai Maori to find out more about the region’s indigenous history and ancient rituals and enjoy hangi feasts and entertainment with music and dance shows (including the ceremonial Haka).

Bay of Plenty

Setting: Named by Captain James Cook who circumnavigated New Zealand in 1769 and was rather taken with this bay “full of plantations and villages”, this coastal wonder is located east of the Kaimai-Mamaku Ranges and south of the Coromandel. Stretching from Waihi Beach in the west to Opotiki in the east, it has a roll call of attractions: mountains, forests, rivers, beaches, fruit-producing gardens, orchids, and New Zealand's only active marine volcano. It also boasts a burgeoning food scene that pulls focus on locally-produced wines and fresh seafood.

See and do: Hit the Pacific-backed beach of Mount Maunganui for surfing events, parasailing, sandcastle building and swimming, enjoy hair-raising rafting down the Wairoa River, and explore the 45,000-hectare Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park that’s made up of two distinct areas: the Kaimai Range and the Mamaku Plateau. Also visit the habourside city of Tauranga for its buzzy Strand waterfront area, fishing, sailing, diving and dolphin tours, and interesting heritage buildings.
 
Star attraction: Accessed from any Bay of Plenty city, the extraordinary White Island (Whakaari) is an active volcano located 30 miles off the coast of Whakatane. Characterised by its hissing, roaring, and trailing plume of steam, it attracts volcanologists and thrillseekers alike with a wild lunar landscape, geothermal steam vents, bubbling mud pools, and the remains of a sulphur mining factory that was destroyed by a lahar in 1914 (ten miners were tragically killed).

Eastland

Setting: Also known as the East Cape, the wild, windswept, soul-stirring, and hilly Eastland region is the most easterly in New Zealand (its main town of Gisborne is the first place in the world to greet the sun each day). Not only does it delight with glorious headlands, tranquil bush-fringed mountain lakes, empty bays and coves, lush rainforests, and remote farms and vineyards, but it also has an illustrious history - it was where the first Polynesian canoes landed, Captain James Cook made his first landfall, and the Maori and European people first met.

See and do: Drive the Tiniroto Road between Wairoa and Gisborne for stops at Te Reinga Falls, Tiniroto Lakes and Donneraille Park, journey into the enchanted green world that surrounds Lake Waikaremoana, and soak up views across Gisborne and Poverty Bay from the Kaiti Hill Lookout. Further must-dos include snorkelling, surfing and fishing on the Mahia Peninsula, soaking in the Morere Hot Springs, and hiking to the summit of the sacred Mount Hikurangi.
 
Star attraction: The world’s most eastern city, Gisborne (the unofficial Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand) is cherished for its surf beaches, gorgeous botanical gardens, and fantastic wine, beer, and cider offerings. Highlights include shopping at the Saturday market on Stout Street, speeding into the water at the Rere Rockslide, and taking selfies outside Wyllie Cottage - the oldest European-style house still standing (built in 1912, it was restored in 2016).

Taranaki

Setting: Set on a peninsula jutting into the Tasman Sea on the North Island's rugged west coast, Taranaki is the outdoor playground set squarely on every adventurer’s radar. Dominated by the symmetrical volcanic cone of the 2,518-metre Mount Taranaki, it offers 12 world-class surf breaks, a multitude of activities (river rafting, multi-day hikes, snowboarding), and a slew of art trails, festivals, museums, and galleries. It also a go-to spot for hiking trails - the most famous of which is the Pouakai Circuit that takes you to Egmont National Park.

See and do: Walk the New Plymouth coastal walkway to see the 48-metre kinetic sculpture, Wind Wand, by pioneering artist Len Lye, make your way to the Cape Egmont lighthouse, and marvel at the glasshouse, orchard, and cliff cascade in the unique gardens at the historic Tupare homestead. No trip here is complete without learning about the region’s geological, Maori, and pioneering past at the impressive Puke Ariki museum, library, and information centre.

Star attraction: Horticulture takes centre stage and fewer places beat Pukekura Park, Te Kainga Marire, and Pukeiti - the rainforest garden nestled in the foothills of Mount Taranaki. The volcanic soil and unique climate means that growing conditions are perfect for increasing numbers of exotic flowers and plants, many of which are on display at the 10-day Taranaki Garden Spectacular - the annual gardening event that runs from late October to early November.

Ruapehu

Setting: Marked by huge volcanoes, including the breathtaking Mount Ruapehu that offers awe-inspiring views reaching all the way to the coast, the Ruapehu region in central North Island is a big draw for skiers, snowboarders, botanists, geologists, and nature lovers. There’s two national parks: the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park celebrated for its steaming craters, surreal lakes, strange rock formations, and alpine gardens and the Whanganui National Park famed for its 180-mile-long river - New Zealand's longest navigable waterway.

See and do: Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for epic vistas of snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes, towering glaciers, and emerald lakes in winter - and get stuck into the rafting, canoeing, fishing, horse riding, golfing, and farm bike tours in summer. Don’t miss the Raurimu Spiral, an engineering masterpiece built to negotiate a 215-metre escarpment on the North Island Main Trunk Railway (railway enthusiasts travel here from across the globe to ride this section of track, either on scheduled services or on special vintage steam train excursions).

Star attraction: Some of New Zealand’s best mountain biking trails traverse Ruapehu’s amazing landscapes. Hit the Timber Trail to follow the path of old logging roads and tramlines deep into the heart of Pureora Forest Park. Alternatively, tackle the Mountains to Sea Trail that begins on the slopes of an occasionally smoking volcano and takes you along historic roads, massive viaducts, and onwards to the legendary Bridge to Nowhere in Whanganui National Park.

Taupo

Setting: Much of life in Taupo focuses around its 238-square-mile freshwater lake - the largest in the country that fills a caldera left by a massive volcanic eruption approximately 26,500 years ago. While tagged as the Skydiving Capital of New Zealand, many come here for fishing - the town of Turangi located at the lake’s southern end is home to the world’s largest natural trout fishery and has large brown and rainbow trout throughout the year (boat fishing in summer and fly fishing in winter with knowledgeable local guides are available).

See and do: Take a rafting trip on the Tongariro River for over 60 Grade 3 roller-coaster rapids, pristine forests and volcanic landscapes, ride the Great Lake Trail along Lake Taupo’s shores to admire the peaks of Tongariro National Park, and brave a water-touch bungee jump from the designated platform atop the Waikato River. Also head to the lakeside town of Taupo to enjoy organised geothermal walks or guided kayak expeditions to the rock carvings at Mine Bay.

Star attraction: Nothing prepares you for the roar and rumble of Huka Falls, the phenomenal 11-metre high waterfall famed for its voluminous flows (approximately 220,000 litres of water are blasted every second). Witness this thundering display from above on the walking tracks, platforms, or footbridge - or take a jet boat ride or river cruise to get up-close. Afterwards, hike the Spa Park to Huka Falls trail, a gentle one-hour walk passing through native forests.

Hawke’s Bay

Setting: The first stop on the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, Hawke’s Bay is among New Zealand’s leading producers of wine; notably full-bodied reds (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah) and incredible chardonnays. Located on the North Island’s east coast, the region offers a compelling mix of fertile soils, wonderful beaches, long-established vineyards for pleasure-seekers and Art Deco architecture in Napier. There’s also 125 miles of easy-to-navigate cycle trails for those wanting to pedal around the 30-plus cellar doors, quaint country pubs, and artisan outlets.

See and do: Hire a bike to work your way around the region’s 72 vineyards and wineries, most of which are family-owned (among the best are the award-winning Te Mata Estate Winery, Craggy Range, and Mission Estate). Also stroll along Marine Parade to soak up sea views, stop for a drink in one of many cafés and bars that line the walkway, stock up on cheeses, meats and breads at the market, and visit Napier's MTG Hawke’s Bay - a museum, theatre and gallery in one.

Star attraction: The Food and Wine Classic (FAWC) is a Hawke's Bay calendar highlight. Running twice-yearly (June and November), this one-stop, multi-day festival brings together the very finest on offer from across the region, including culinary delights from talented chefs and award-winning wine from some of the most prestigious growers. There’s also great entertainment on offer for an ever-growing audience of hungry locals and discerning visitors.

Manawatu

Setting: Sweeping from the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges and across hills and a wide river valley to the beaches of the Tasman Sea, Manawatu is New Zealand’s farming stronghold (it was named by a Maori explorer who was chasing his runaway wife and her lover, according to folklore). The region rewards with plenty to please lovers of the great outdoors, including award-winning gardens, horse trekking and 4WD tours, and interesting walking and cycling routes that take in agricultural village, farmers’ markets, and other tucked-away treasures.

See and do: Tee off on New Zealand’s oldest course at the historic Manawatu Golf Club, venture to the Manawatu Gorge Scenic Reserve for hours of walking, hiking and cycling, and visit the Totara Reserve for swimming areas and picnic spots. Further thrills include marvelling at the region’s dazzling gardens, especially Palmerston North’s Victoria Esplanade Gardens for its 5,000 roses and Kimbolton’s Cross Hills Garden for its rhododendrons and azaleas.

Star attraction: Manawatu’s main urban hub, Palmerston North, offers an appealing line-up of heritage collections, museums, theatres, art galleries, studios, cafés, bars, and restaurants. It’s also home to the New Zealand Rugby Museum - an impressive space filled with the country’s largest collection of rugby memorabilia. Among the artifacts, there's an 1882 "puntabout" ball, a 1950s square-toed boot, and an example of the iconic All Blacks jersey dating from 1905.

Whanganui

Setting: Located at the Tasman Sea end of the wild and wonderful Whanganui River on the North Island’s lower west coast, Whanganui is based around the 180-mile-long river that bears its name. The city itself was one of the first founded in New Zealand (it means 'big bay' or ‘big harbour') and features exotic gardens, well-preserved heritage buildings, excellent museums, and numerous galleries, theatres, and music venues. It’s also big on scenery; expect landscapes of ridges, forest, river valleys, black sand beaches, and rolling green hills.

See and do: Get out and about in Whanganui National Park and make the most of the river by jet boat, kayak, canoe, or a ride on the historic paddlewheeler, PS Waimarie. Also visit the Whanganui Riverboat Centre for interesting artifacts, spend time at Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary to wander among giant trees and gaze at rare birds, and enjoy awesome views from the 113-metre-high Durie Hill War Tower - a memorial to those who died in WWI.

Star attraction: Buzzing with creative energy, Whanganui is home to over 400 resident artists specialising in photography, graphic design, fine arts, mosaics, jewellery, pottery, sculpture, fashion, textiles, glass, and much more. Visit Sarjeant on the Quay and the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics before heading to New Zealand Glassworks - a community-run space that allows free public viewing of the glass blowing process (workshops are also available).

Wellington

Setting: Named in honour of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, New Zealand’s compact capital is rather proud of its “coolest little capital in the world” nickname. Located at the North Island’s southern end between the Cook Strait and the Rimutaka Range, it offers a powerful mix of history, coffee culture, magical movie-making, and waterfront delights. There’s also plenty of nature-based thrills, too, including seawater kayaking, sailing around the harbour, and relaxing on sandy beaches and bays.

See and do: Discover geological, biological, cultural and social history in exciting ways at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, wine and dine around Courtenay Place, Cuba Street, Willis Street and the waterfront at Queens Wharf, and take the nature trail to the Mount Victoria Lookout for 360-degree views.  Also ride the historic Wellington Cable Car that runs daily from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn (it’s New Zealand’s only functioning funicular railway).

Star attraction: Take one of Weta Workshop’s behind-the-scenes guided tours for film industry secrets about movies such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies as well as other cutting-edge TV offerings by the dual companies of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. Middle-earth fans can also fulfil their fantasies on a full-day Wellington Rover The Lord of the Rings Location Tour that showcases some of filming locations used in the city and its surrounds.

Wairarapa

Setting: Bordered by the rugged Tararua Mountains to the west and the wild Pacific Ocean to the east, Wairarapa is a region of magnificent coastlines, wide valleys, and five characterful towns: Martinborough, Featherston, Greytown, Carterton, and Masterton. It’s also overflowing with picturesque spots, including the Putangirua Pinnacles for its Palliser Bay and Lake Onok views, Cape Palliser for its lighthouse and seal colony, and the Castlepoint Scenic Reserve for its fossil-rich limestone reef, sand dunes, lagoon, and 162-metre-high Castle Rock.

See and do: Head to the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre for sightings of rare birds (including Manukura, the only white kiwi in captivity in the world), hit the Remutaka Cycle Trail for peaceful lakes and wide ocean views, and swim, surf and relax at the two main beaches of Riversdale and Castlepoint. Also visit the impossibly pretty Greytown for its cute colonial-era cottages, well-preserved Victorian buildings, designer boutiques, and quirky one-off shops.

Star attraction: Wairarapa’s flagship town of Martinborough is home to some of New Zealand’s finest pinot noir. Pick up a map from the visitors centre and take a self-guided walk (or cycle) to visit over 30 boutique wineries - most of which are family-owned. For a tipple or two, the best cellar doors include Poppies Martinborough, Vynfields, Coneys Wines, Tiwaiwaka Wines, Moy Hall, Margrain Vineyard, and Luna Estate (all open on select days and require advance booking).

Experience the best of New Zealand's North Island with these recommended tours

 

Northern Explorer Escorted Tour 7 nights)
New Zealand North Island Discovery Escorted Tour (7 nights)
North Island Highlights with Scenic Train Self-Drive (8 nights)
The Winterless North Luxury Self-Drive (5 nights)


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