April 25, 2015

New Zealand: How to see the North Island

New Zealand may be small (about the size of Great Britain or California), but visitors often make the mistake of planning to see it all in a week.

I often get asked by friends, fellow bloggers and even strangers about how long they should spend in New Zealand. They want to visit, maybe they have a New Zealand road trip on their Bucket List, they’ve heard all the amazing things our country has to offer, and they think ten days is enough to see the North AND South Islands!

Our country is blessed with huge diversity. From the white sandy beaches swimming with dolphins in the far north to the geothermal bubbling farty hot spot of the central plateau, to vineyards rolling over hills producing award-winning wines, surfing on the rugged west coast, glaciers for ogling or taking a heli ride to, plus fiords and ski fields. And that’s before you’ve hit the cities which have a host of great cafes (New Zealand has a reputation for excellent coffee – start with a flat white), dining and shopping.

I’ve written this post to help all those people who are planning to visit New Zealand figure out how long to spend here, and I’ve broken down the number of days that I think gives you just enough time to see and do the highlights. It’s meant to be a guide to help you figure out which places to see and which ones to leave out – this time. You’ll just have to come back and see us again – and that’s before we even get to the South Island! (Which is linked at the end of this post…)

Here we go…

Exploring the North Island

North Island map
Auckland (allow 2 days) 

Most visitors use Auckland just for the airport, but New Zealand’s largest city has a lot more to offer than that! For starters the Auckland food scene is amazing and is usually the first surprise to first-timers to NZ. The waterfront is an easy spot to base yourself for accommodation with too many great restaurants to choose from in the Viaduct, Britomart, on Princes Wharf and the Wynyard Quarter. And that’s before you get to neighbourhoods like Ponsonby, St Heliers or Mission Bay. And then there’s Oh Calcutta, my favourite Indian restaurant in all the world in Parnell! (You can read my curry post here >>)

The Sky Tower is the city’s syringe-looking icon which offers amazing views (which you can have for free if you book lunch or dinner up at revolving restaurant Orbit or Peter Gordon’s fabulous Sugar Club) and you can walk around the perimeter or bungy jump off it.

Get out on the water either on a replica America’s Cup yacht, a dolphin and whale watching boat or just take a ferry ten minutes across to the suburb of Devonport for lunch or spend a day (or overnight) on Waiheke Island. It’s about 35 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland where 30 wineries await, a cute little village for shopping and cafes and plenty of beaches. (Here’s my post on my favourite Waiheke wineries – so far! >>)

Sky Tower walk

Would you??

Auckland has plenty of free events in summer like concerts in parks, movies in parks, beaches for swimming, plenty of hiking and shopping in Newmarket, Ponsonby and around Queen Street. And that’s before you hit the malls like Sylvia Park or St Lukes. It also has a very cool zoo if your kids are into that. A fun thing to do is take your little budding photographers and let them loose to practice their wildlife photography, like I did here >>

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Northland (allow 3-4 days)

Take a car north from Auckland to the Bay of Islands (under 4 hours drive from Auckland) and stay at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in cute, historic Russell on the waterfront, or across the harbour at the Paihia Beach Spa and Resort. It’s from Paihia that you take the dolphin and sightseeing tours, but only a 10-minute ferry ride from Russell.

Russell wharf

Russell wharf is where the ferries from Paihia come, where kids fish and where Birdmen leap off.

Horizon line and perspective: Ninety Mile Beach, NZ

Ninety Mile Beach, NZ

The official birthplace of New Zealand is Waitangi where the Treaty was signed between Maori chiefs and the British governors who had settled here too. Today the grounds tell the story of the ups and downs of that partnership. You’ll see giant waka canoes, walk inside the marae to marvel at the carvings and can stand on the most beautiful front lawn in New Zealand.

This is also a great pivot point to stay and take a day trip to the very tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. I would recommend an organised tour to drive along the sand of 90 mile beach (private cars are not insured on this “official” highway) and boogie board down the dunes.

Another good day trip from Paihia is to travel west to the Hokianga coast and visit New Zealand’s oldest forest, home to the mighty Tane Mahuta kauri tree. If you like hikes and also a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the day, then plan to stay out here at the lovely Waipoua Lodge.

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Central North Island (allow 2-3 days) 

Drive south from Auckland to the literal hot spot of New Zealand – Rotorua. Be warned though, this is a geothermal area and the fragrance is rather “fresh”. However Rotorua is where you’ll find authentic Maori culture as well as plenty of adrenalin-inducing activities like luging, zorbing, jet boating and more. For relaxation, soaking in the Polynesian pools is a must.

Rotorua marae

Catching a marae welcome in Rotorua

For a secluded 5-star hideaway, award-winning Treetops Lodge is set in 70 hectares of native bush with game hunting available. It’s luxury at it’s finest with each lodge room having it’s own fireplace and five-star dining in the restaurant. (I got engaged here!)

But for something closer to town, in fact right in the heart of Rotorua, try Regent of Rotorua. This used to be a humble brick and tile motel but has been imaginatively transformed into a chic boutique hotel that is within walking distance to the CBD and right on the corner of Eat Street lined with restaurants and bars.

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Waikato or Taranaki (allow 2-3 days) 

This is really an either/or decision. Either you go west towards Taranaki to visit New Zealand’s iconic Waitomo Caves where you can wander through the underground city of glowworms, taking a boat ride in the dark or even go black water rafting. I’d also highly recommend the Ruakuri caves too for incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations. Here’s my post on them so can see pics and read more >>

From here you could tootle out to Raglan, a known surf town and a lovely place to stop for a night at a BnB or hotel. Then meander down the coast to New Plymouth to visit the famous Len Lye Centre, do a spot of shopping, attend music festival WOMAD in March, ride or walk the coastal cycle way, drive up Mt Taranaki or go hiking. Here’s my weekend in New Plymouth, FYI >>

Len Lye New Plymouth

God’s shiny walls at the Len Lye Centre

OR go east to Waikato and spend a few hours at Hobbiton just out of Matamata. If your family is into hobbits then you’ll love the Shire. It’s the actual set from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, with the addition of a proper pub and restaurant for tourists. This ties in as an easy drive on to Rotorua, depending on which way you’re heading.

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East coast (allow 3-5 days) 

If you stayed in Waikato, then you can head to the Coromandel Peninsula and down to Mt Maunganui. This would be my next pick if a road trip to the Bay of Islands isn’t feasible on your schedule.

You’ll pass through some cute towns on the way and once you get there, it’s long stretches of beaches and all that is on offer in the water (fishing, skiing, swimming…) I like Whitianga and Whangamata, and a must-do for something quite unique: pick up a sand spade and head to Hot Water Beach in Hahei around low tide when you can dig yourself a jacuzzi in the sand and allow the hot water to be cooled by the incoming or outgoing tide.

Mt Maunganui

I sailed into the gorgeous Mt Maunganui on a cruise around NZ last year

The whole driving distance would only take 2.5 hours, but spend a couple of days in one of those two beachside towns I mentioned above, then travel via Hahei (planning around the tide) to Mt Maunganui for a couple more days. They have a superb campsite at the foot of the mount (which is easy to walk around or up!) and hotel and apartment accommodation along the seafront with cafes and restaurants underneath. Spend a few hours in Tauranga too for some shopping (about 10 minutes up the road).

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Southbound (allow 2-3 days) for Hawkes Bay

Drive from Auckland or Rotorua to Hawkes Bay (5 hours from Auckland/2 hours from Rotorua) en route to Wellington. Stay for at least 2 nights here to experience New Zealand’s first vineyard, Mission Estate and the plethora of  wineries that have sprung up in Napier and Havelock North. My favourites for tasting and dining at are Elephant Hill, Clearview, Craggy Range, The Mission, Church Road and Black Barn.

Play golf at exclusive Cape Kidnappers (and stay a night at this exclusive 5-star resort if your credit card will stretch), shop in Napier, go to a vineyard concert if you strike it right. Napier was destroyed in 1931 by a massive earthquake and rebuilt in Art Deco style. Architecture and history buffs will love to take a walking tour of the historic buildings in the central city that are now saved and preserved.

Napier vintage care

Shopping in Napier in Art Deco buildings

In Hastings on Sundays is New Zealand’s first and, I reckon, best Farmer’s Market which is worth going to for artisan breads, meats, cheeses, coffee, jams, olive oils and a whole lot more.

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Wellington (allow 3 days) 

Drive from Napier to Wellington (about 4 hours). This is our capital city and a tour through the Beehive (parliament building) is cool if you’re into that sort of thing.

Wellington is easily walkable around the labyrinth of shopping streets and the picturesque waterfront that sparkles on a fine day. Take a trip in the cable car from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn for great views of the city and harbour.

Wellington cable car

The cable car track

Shop along Lambton Quay, have brunch on Cuba Street, and a drink on the waterfront. If you’re there during rugby season, catch a game at Westpac Stadium – ideally it’ll be the All Blacks whipping some foreign butt preceded by a kick-ass haka!

Stay at the Museum Hotel, opposite Te Papa Museum, or for somewhere unique, try Ohtel. Each room has been given a retro-modern touch with locally inspired art and 1950s furniture. Make sure you allow at least a couple of hours to visit Te Papa to immerse yourself into some kiwi history and art.

Then cross Cook Strait and start your South Island adventure. Here’s my post on How to See the South Island in 2 weeks!

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If you’re an international visitor, have a look at DriveSafe to make sure you’re cool with driving on NZ roads and know the rules!

Or have a go at doing a driving theory test at Driving Tests here>>

About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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