Before travelling to New Zealand we noticed that its South Island drew the lion’s share of traveller press and attention. So when we arrived in Auckland to begin our exploration of the country via the North Island, our expectations were in check.
The North Island surprised us. In one week, we felt as though we’d peeked into multiple worlds. We went island hopping, surfing, caving, kayaking and volcano trekking. And whitewater rafting through class five rapids, down 23-feet-high (7 m) waterfalls, too. Adrenaline? Check.
But we also balanced our experience with depth and perspective by visiting a fascinating scientist living on an estuary, experiencing the core of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori culture with a local guide and strolling through native forests whose giant ferns dwarfed us.
To top it all off, we reflected on our experiences over sunset picnics of fish and chips (pronounced “fush and chups”) along the light-bending New Zealand coast.
For us, our appreciation of New Zealand in full would not have been what it was without our North Island experiences. So it is that we hold the North Island, the underdog not to be underestimated, dear to our hearts. It’s where our love affair with New Zealand began.
These experiences might explain why.
1. Northland: beaches, waterfalls and the Bay of Islands
New Zealand features a mind-warping amount of coastline distributed between its two islands — as in equal to that of the continental United States (excluding Alaska). Although not all of this coastline is suitable for swimming, it all lends itself to horizon gazing and allowing the mind to clear. What’s remarkable still is that much of this is just a short distance from cosmopolitan Auckland.
For even more serenity head further north to the 140-island cluster known as Bay of Islands. Hike to the top of Waewaetorea Island for a 360-degree view of the entire bay where lush green grass contrasts against the island-dotted turquoise waters below.
After an evening barbecue on the boat, slip into a kayak for a night paddle to enjoy the phosphorescent algae that lights up as you move through it. The experience is akin to watching the Milky Way move underwater in the stillness of the night.
2. Raglan: pancake rocks, sustainable farming and surfing
While Raglan is known best for surfing, there’s more to the story. Take a boat through the nearby estuaries in search of the Dali-esque pancake rocks, then kayak to a sustainable farm run by a scientist farmer named Charlie whose life’s work is to highlight and protect indigenous species.
Of course, you ought to try surfing in Raglan. Even if you have no experience, as we did, you can take a surfing course to learn the basics of how to get up on a board and then hit the waves. No, you won’t catch the perfect wave the first time (or perhaps the first 100 times) but with a little practice and discipline you will eventually be rewarded with the rush of successfully riding a wave.
Finally, enjoy some of the best coffee in all of New Zealand at Raglan Roast, a simple coffee shack where if you don’t yet know what a flat white is (we did not at the time), you should order one.
3. Rotorua: caving, rafting and geo-thermal mud baths
Rotorua, the adrenaline capital of the North Island, offers endless adventure above and below ground. At the Waitomo Caves, we opted for the Haggas Honking Holes tour that not only included deep caving, but also abseiling down a waterfall to reach the famous glow worms tucked deep inside the cave network. Of course, you must rock climb to get out.
Who knew you could exert so much effort underground?
End your day with a sunset rafting trip down the Kaituna River, which includes a 23-foot-high (7-metre-high) waterfall and class five rapids. In between the wild rapids and drops you float along the river that runs through a mind-bogglingly beautiful rainforest. It’s not surprising that this area was once a sacred spot for Maori. Memorials for Maori chiefs buried behind waterfalls and in caves along the river make what is already stunning that much more majestic.
For the relaxation oriented, in Rotorua there are the mud baths and thermal springs. The entire area audibly percolates with geothermal activity and the surroundings feature that “smells so good because it’s healthy for you” sulphur odour.
Since we missed out on that, we were almost tempted to jump in the mysterious bubbling, fragrant mud pools at Waiotapu.
4. Maori culture
The North Island also carries the distinction and noticeable influence of being home to the majority of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population. Just outside of Rotorua, at a wharenui (a traditional Maori meeting house) we had an opportunity to experience a formal Maori welcome, and to learn — in a firsthand, uncontrived way — about the Maori, including their culture, history and the challenges they face today.
The opening Maori blessing offered a fitting glimpse into the Maori reverence for nature and humanity.
“Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koutou me he maunga teitei.”
“Pursue that which is most precious. If you should bow down, let it only be to a lofty mountain.”
5. Tongariro Crossing trek
If it’s lofty mountains you seek, carry thyself to the Tongariro Crossing trek, described often as “one of the best one-day hikes in the world.” Even our outsized expectations of this day trek were exceeded.
Each section of the trek was a thrill. Terrain changes quickly, colours do, too. Even the so-called Devil’s Staircase, its challenging pitch aside, served as an enjoyable path to the craters and lakes we knew were waiting above.
When we made it to the top of Tongariro Crossing, we were greatly rewarded for the effort. Everyone talks about the Emerald Lakes (and yes, they are remarkable), but we were blown away by the contours and richness of the nearby Red Crater and what some may know as “Mordor” from the Lord of the Rings movies.
Mother Nature gives it all on this trek.
New Zealand, visit both islands as they each have something special to offer.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in New Zealand encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.