New Zealand is a diverse country split across two main islands. With 15,000 km of coastline, fascinating Maori culture, spectacular scenery, adorable native animals and some of the world’s best adventure activities, it can be difficult deciding what to include in your New Zealand itinerary.
The official tourism board splits the country into 29 main regions – 15 in the north and 14 in the south. The perfect New Zealand holiday would incorporate a bit of everything, but one of the great facts about the country is that whatever your interests, you can plan a route filled with unforgettable experiences. The country lends itself particularly well to a road trip, so the majority of visitors choose to rent a car and see the sights at their own pace. The highlights of the North Island are discussed below.
NORTHLAND AND THE BAY OF ISLANDS
Because of its location, Northland gets some of the mildest weather in the country and can be a good spot to choose if you’re visiting in winter. This part of New Zealand is known for its long stretches of sand, including Ninety Mile Beach and Ripiro Beach. There’s excellent scuba diving off Aorangaia and Poor Knights islands (especially in March), and the Bay of Islands is a popular spot for whale and dolphin watching, big-game fishing and sailing.
Some of the highlights of Auckland include the Sky Tower and Harbour Bridge (both of which you can jump off!), as well as Kelly Tarlton’s aquarium, where you can dive with sharks, and the Auckland Zoo. If you have more spare time, you can sail an America’s Cup yacht or check out the beaches in Takapuna. Auckland’s oldest park, the Domain, is a great spot for a walk, with frequent live music events and museum exhibitions. Once you’ve seen the city, there are plenty of Auckland day trips to consider, including sand boarding at Bethells Beach, surfing at Muriwai, canyoning near Piha and wine tasting on Waiheke Island.
Although it can get a little crowded, one of the top destinations in the Coromandel is Hot Water Beach. Find yourself a patch of sand, dig a hole and enjoy a natural warm spa bath. Boat and kayak tours are popular around the picturesque Cathedral Cove. Otherwise, you can learn about the history of gold mining in the area or take a ride aboard the Driving Creek Railway train.
HAMILTON AND WAIKATO
Venture south of Auckland to Waikato and you’ll never be short of interesting activities. This is the location of Hobbiton, where you can take a tour of the movie set and enjoy a pint of locally brewed beer in the Green Dragon Inn. Just a short drive away are the Waitomo Caves. Filled with glow worms, they’re often cited as one of the world’s most mesmerising and unique experiences. You can either join a chilled out boat tour or an adrenaline-fuelled blackwater rafting adventure with caving and zip lines. This region is also famous for its surfing at Raglan.
BAY OF PLENTY
The Bay of Plenty is one of a number of excellent locations in New Zealand for swimming with dolphins. Combine this with a trip to White Island, the only active marine volcano in the country, or visit the wildlife sanctuary of Moutohora (Whale Island). Those who prefer to stay land based will enjoy a hike around Mount Maunganui. In August, this extinct volcano cone plays host to a popular running festival incorporating a half marathon, as well as shorter distances and a range of events to celebrate the local area.
Rotorua is best known for its geothermal activity. If you can stomach the slight sulphur smell, it’s a fun little town with a lot to keep you entertained. The nearby national parks of Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu contain bubbling mud pits, geysers and mineral-dyed pools. Go white water rafting or sledging in the day and warm up later with a hot pool and massage at a natural spring. There’s also a decent adventure park nearby, with zorbing, a bungy and a skydive simulator. Though small, RotaVegas, as it’s affectionately known by the locals, also packs a decent punch in terms of nightlife. Finally, this is one of the best parts of New Zealand to join a Maori village experience, complete with dancing and hangi.
Also known as the East Cape, Eastland doesn’t attract too many visitors, making it a great place for those who enjoy solitude. This region has some decent surfing and loads of great cycling trails. It’s also home to the Rere Rockslide – a huge natural waterslide perfect for bodyboards and airbeds. Here, you can also be among the first in the world to welcome in the New Year or watch the sun rise at the most easterly lighthouse.
Formed by a super-volcanic eruption around 26,000 years ago, Lake Taupo is now a major attraction on New Zealand’s north island. Besides water activities on the lake itself, jetboating to the impressive Huka Falls is a must-do activity. This is also one of the main skydiving locations in the country and a base for starting its greatest day hike – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (not advisable in winter). This national park includes some fantastic biking trails and exhilarating grade III rapids.
In its Best in Travel 2017 guide, Lonely Planet put Taranaki at number 2 in its list of the world’s best regions to visit. Among the top experiences it has to offer are the Pouakai Crossing hike, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and annual WOMAD music festival, but the area also boasts over 200 km of trails and world-class surfing breaks.
Mount Ruapehu is home to the North Island’s main ski resorts. With runs ranging in difficulty from green to black, Whakapapa and Turoa are great for beginners and advanced skiers alike. Cyclists visit this region to start the Mountains to Sea cycle trail or explore suspension bridges in the Pureora forest. For a bit of fun, you can also hop on a railbike and wind along a disused railway track through the countryside.
Whanganui is one of the country’s smallest regions. Located on the south of the North Island, its river is one of the top attractions, with guided canoe trips a popular choice. If you have time, you can combine this with an overnight stay in a Maori village. There’s also a glassworks school/museum and the chance to ride the Durie Hill elevator.
Anyone who knows a thing or two about wine will recognise Hawke’s Bay as one of the leading global wine-producing regions. Tourism in this part of New Zealand is very wine-focused, but there are plenty of different options, including cycle tours of the vineyards and taster tours that include cheese or chocolate. You can also visit a hill with the longest place name in the world – Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu, which translates to ‘The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one’.
Although many people pass through Manawatu on their way from more popular regions to Wellington, this part of New Zealand offers some pretty unique experiences. Owlcatraz is a wildlife park with rare native species and a petting zoo; Himatangi Beach is perfect for blowcarting; and Vinegar Hill has been hosting an annual LGBTQ New Year’s Eve party for over 30 years.
Its proximity to Wellington makes Wairarapa popular as a day trip destination. There’s plenty to see, including a to-scale Kiwi version of Stonehenge, one of the country’s biggest fur seal populations at Cape Pallister, and the lighthouse and rugged landscape at Castlepoint. If you like pinot noir and missed out on the wineries of Hawke’s Bay you can visit Martinborough instead. This quaint village hosts a wine, food and music tour in November.
Though small, New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, has plenty to offer. Take a ride in the cable car for panoramic views of the city, then explore the botanic gardens and observatory. Te Papa museum is one of the biggest and best in the country, and a great way to learn some local history. In the city centre, don’t miss Cuba Street and Frank Kitts Park for their unique sculptures. Wellington is also home to Weta Cave, where you can learn about the creation of props and special effects in some of New Zealand’s best-known movies. You can also join a Lord of the Rings tour, with the chance to re-enact scenes in the locations where they were filmed.