We visited New Zealand back in 2013 and had a wonderful three months living the van life in our bright red 1994 Ford Econovan. We spent our days exploring the beautiful landscape and our evenings drinking delicious New Zealand wine around the campfire.
It’s been a few years since we have been in New Zealand, so we thought we would ask a few of our travel blogging friends about their favorite North Island activities. And don’t forget to check out our New Zealand South Island bucket list as well!
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The Best Things to do on New Zealand’s North Island
1. Get Acquainted with Auckland
If you’re flying into New Zealand’s North Island, you’ll almost certainly begin your trip in the lively capital city of Auckland. And while some people only transit through the city, there are so many amazing activities in Auckland that you really should spend a couple of days here.
Whether you prefer the adrenalin thrill of jumping off the Sky Tower or a more relaxed day of exploring Auckland’s cute coffee shops and cafes, you’ll find plenty to do here. And if you have time, make sure to go wine tasting on Waiheke Island which is home to over 30 wineries and just a short ferry ride away from Auckland.
Arriving in Auckland
Most visitors to New Zealand arrive via Auckland Airport (Airport Code: AKL). What you may not realize is that the airport is actually located about 12 miles south of the city center. The fastest way to get from the airport to downtown Auckland is by hailing rideshare – you can use Uber, Ola, or Zoomy (the local NZ equivalent).
2. Birdwatch at Tiritiri Matangi Island
Tiritiri Matangi Island is a real paradise for birders and those who love nature. Located about 45 minutes by ferry from Auckland, it’s the least known of the commercial islands in Hauraki Gulf.
The island is pest-free, which means wildlife there has no natural predators. It also means that no other pests, like ants, are present on the island. To make sure it stays that way, people need to double-check their backpacks before boarding the ferry.
You can explore the island by yourself, but I highly recommend you join one of the guided tours to fully enjoy Tiritiri Matangi. The guides are engaged volunteers who know heaps about the island wildlife and will point out plenty of birds that you would have otherwise missed. You get to learn the bird names, and if you stay for the night you might even spot a little kiwi.
Don’t miss a visit to the oldest operational lighthouse in New Zealand after your tour!
Even if you’re not into birds, it’s a lovely day out on a beautiful island with an interesting history. And I promise you’ll gain valuable knowledge for your future walks around New Zealand.
Read More: 20 Things to do in Auckland
3. Scuba Dive the Poor Knights Islands
If you know how to swim, it would be a sin to miss out on the Poor Knights Islands while in the Whangarei region. It’s one of Jacques Cousteau’s top 10 dive sites in the world thanks to the warm, nutrient-rich currents from the Coral Sea that support a wide variety of marine fauna. Book a tour at the Whangarei i-SITE to go snorkeling or diving the Poor Knights Islands, and meet at the dock in Tutukaka, just a 30-minute drive away.
The boat ride to the islands takes roughly 45 minutes. Above the surface, the islands are covered in Poor Knights lilies whose flowers turn the former volcano bright red in spring. Below it, corals, sea anemones and macrofauna cling to the walls of arches and caves, and there’s still lots to see even if you only snorkel.
On my trip, I was lucky to spot loads of different fish species. Demoiselle, trevally, wrasse, kingfish, and even a mako shark were just a few of the species that appeared. If it’s your lucky day, you can spot dolphins, orcas, and even whales. And on land, you’ll spot animals like kiwi birds and tuatara. It would be a shame not to see what New Zealand has to offer underwater!
4. Go Sandboarding at Te Paki Sand Dunes (Cape Reinga)
One of the best activities for adrenaline seekers on the North Island is to go sandboarding down the massive sand dunes of Te Paki. The sand dunes are on the Aupouri Peninsula near the top of the North Island, about 10 miles from Cape Reinga. They are just a short detour off the main road and absolutely worth it!
The Te Paki sand dunes were formed by the wind over many centuries and reached up to 330 feet high. The longest run is nicknamed the “Devil’s Hook”, providing a 1,150 foot downslope sandy surf. There is no entry fee to visit the sand dunes and boards can be rented on-site for $15 USD.
Even if you don’t want to sandboard, the dunes are gorgeous to visit and provide great views from the top. Nearby the dunes is the green Aupouri Forest, which provides a break from the hot sun. It’s completely surreal to go from the sandy desert to a lush forest in a matter of minutes. After playing in the sand dunes, head to 90-mile beach to go for a swim to cool off.
The Te Paki Sand Dunes are a great addition to any road trip through New Zealand’s North Island. Even if you’re only doing a day trip to Cape Reinga, it can easily be done on the way.
5. Swim with Dolphins in the Bay of Islands
If swimming with dolphins is at the top of your bucket list, you’ve got to try it in New Zealand! Swimming with dolphins in the wild is far more enjoyable than in captivity at a busy water park.
One of these places is in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Swimming with these dolphins should definitely be on your New Zealand North Island itinerary! From Paihia, you can take day trips to explore these beautiful islands with their secluded coves and turquoise waters. Spend time relaxing on the catamaran as you sail between islands.
The crew are skilled at finding pods of dolphins and there are usually opportunities to put on a snorkel and get up close and personal with these playful, intelligent water mammals as they duck and dive around you. These close encounters are not guaranteed and you’ll need to keep your fingers crossed the dolphins come out to play. If they do, you are likely to see bottlenose and common dolphins and you may even get to spot whales during your day on the water.
My top tip would be to take a moment when you get in the water to gather yourself before you start swimming. During my trip, the water was icy cold and immediately took my breath away. This made swimming with a snorkel tricky and as such, I didn’t get as close to the dolphins as other people!
6. Tour White Island (Whakaari Island)
White Island, or Whakaari Island, is located in the Bay of Plenty on the Northern Island of New Zealand. It is located 30 miles offshore and is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano.
I hadn’t heard about White Island before I was in the area but when I saw that there was an option to do a tour, I knew that I had to visit. The only way to visit the Island is on an organized tour that you will need to book in advance.
The island is around 1.25 miles in diameter and at its highest is 1,050 feet above sea level. No one lives on the island now, though Sulphur mining was done here until 1914 when all the workers on site were killed by a mud and debris flow.
The 1.5-hour tour of the island is fantastic! You’ll get close to steam vents and the hot volcanic streams and bubbling mud pits. It is amazing to see and the colors of the island created by the sulfur are breathtaking. Everyone on the tour has to wear a hard hat and in some areas wear a gas mask due to the sulfur emissions.
If you visit the North Island of New Zealand, I would certainly recommend visiting White Island!
7. Soak at Hot Water Beach
Just over 100 miles east of Auckland, on the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula, is Hot Water Beach. The name is derived from the fact that naturally heated mineral water filters up through the sand.
You’ll want to head toward the rocks at the southern end of the beach. Up to two hours on each side of low tide is when the sand with hot water underneath is exposed. This is where you’ll want to start digging. If you don’t have a shovel, you can rent one from one of the restaurants nearby.
It’ll probably take a few tries to find the best spot. The temperature of the water under the sand can be as hot as 150°F but it can be mixed with the cold ocean water to create the optimal soaking temperature. Dig your own private pool, or a bigger one, and invite others to join you. You’ve never lounged on a beach like this before!
Be sure to check the tide schedule before heading out.
8. Explore Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove is another magical place located on the Coromandel Peninsula. Made famous for being a film location featured in the Chronicles of Narnia, two turquoise bays are connected by one towering cave. You can walk through the cave from one beach to the next during low tide while taking in views of the impressive rock formations that surround you.
It isn’t just Cathedral Cove that is so amazing, but the journey to get there as well. There are three ways to get to Cathedral Cove as it isn’t accessible by road. They are as follows:
- Walk to Cathedral Cove along a very scenic and well-maintained trail. This walk takes about 45 minutes each way and offers stunning views of the coastline.
- Go on a boat ride. This is the quickest and easiest way to get to Cathedral Cove. Boats depart regularly from the neighboring Hahei Beach.
- Kayak! This is a little more adventurous and takes more effort but makes for an exciting experience.
No matter how you choose to visit Cathedral Cove, one thing is for sure, you will be blown away by this beautiful place!
9. Watch Sunrise at East Cape
The East Cape of New Zealand is one of the least visited regions of the North Island. If that alone isn’t recommendation enough to put on your bucket list, here are a few other reasons to add the East Cape to your New Zealand itinerary.
A sunrise visit to the East Cape Lighthouse will make you one of the first people to see the sun that day anywhere in the world. Even if you can’t make it for sunrise, the lighthouse is worth a trip for beautiful views of the cliffs that form the East Cape promontory.
In Te Araroa, you can see New Zealand’s oldest and largest Pohutukawa tree called Te Waha-o-Rerekohu Pohutukawa. The tree is especially spectacular if you visit during December as it will be ablaze with vibrant red blossoms.
One of my favorite places to visit on the East Cape is Te Kaha. I love the view from the rocky beach and the White Island out in the Bay of Plenty when the sky is clear. There is often a plume of white smoke billowing from this still-active volcano.
The East Cape is the best place to experience Maori culture as well. The village of Raukokore has one of the best examples of a Maori Marae, which is a complex of carved buildings that are used for meetings, celebrations, funerals, and other events. The carved meeting house (wharenui) and surrounding grounds are sacred sites for Maori people.
10. Go Black Water Rafting in Waitomo
A truly unique experience on the North Island of New Zealand is Black Water Rafting in the Waitomo Caves. Many people have heard of the experience of venturing into the caves of the Waitomo area on a boat to see the glow worms. But for the more adventurous travelers, black water rafting is basically inner tubing down an underground river.
You will need a wetsuit in these very chilly waters and you probably should not do this trip if you are claustrophobic as there are many times when you can touch the cave ceiling, just inches from your face. There are also eels in the water and at least one place where you’ll jump off a rock into the water in the dark. But if you love adventure, this is the trip for you.
Note: Children must be at least 12 years old to go on the Black Water Rafting trips.
11. Hike Through the Karangahake Gorge
There’s no end to incredible hiking and tramping opportunities in New Zealand, and a visit to Karangahake Gorge is one of those that should not be missed.
Combining breathtaking views with the area’s gold mining history, there are several different walks at Karangahake Gorge, most of which are suitable for the whole family. So, what makes them different from any other walk in New Zealand? A walk through Karangahake Gorge isn’t just about enjoying nature, but history as well.
Artifacts from the old mining days are scattered along the path and information boards along the way explain exactly how mining in the canyon worked. The Karangahake Gorge walks are a unique way to not only experience New Zealand’s natural beauty but learn about how the country came to be as it is today. History lessons aside, the walks are also incredibly fun!
The 1.5-mile Windows Walkway is the best one to do if you’re short on time as it is one of the shortest walks in the gorge. The walk takes you along creaking swing bridges, through pitch-dark caves, along the old mining tracks, and features several “windows” for you to look down and see the dramatic views across the Gorge and the Waitawheta River.
12. Experience Hobbiton
The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour is a definite highlight of any trip to the North Island of New Zealand. Here you can tour the hobbit holes that you see in both the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies. The construction of Hobbiton was purely for the making of the movies and the Alexander family, who own the land, run tours of the movie set. Hobbiton is located just outside the town of Matamata, located one hour from Rotorua and two hours from Auckland.
Originally designed for a movie set, Hobbiton is now a major tourist attraction. The tour of Hobbiton takes you among the forty-four hobbit holes dug into the hillside, surrounded by hobbit gardens and orchards. The level of detail that went into designing the set is truly remarkable, from the washing hanging on the line to the hand-painted leaves on the trees! The tour ends up at the Green Dragon with a drink for everyone.
There is something special about a trip to Hobbiton. You certainly don’t have to be a Lord of the Rings fan to enjoy a visit here!
13. Marvel at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
While there are many stunning attractions on New Zealand’s North Island, few demonstrate the power of Mother Nature quite like Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Located 27 minutes from Rotorua and 40 minutes from Taupo, Wai-O-Tapu is one of the best examples of geothermal activity on the planet. Only Yellowstone National Park in the USA compares. Want to capture the perfect photo? The best time to visit Wai-O-Tapu is during Spring or Autumn when the North Island is less rainy.
Wai-O-Tapu (Maori for “sacred waters”) is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. You’ll experience incredible geothermal activity at sites like Champagne Pool, Devil’s Bath, the boiling mud pools, and Lady Knox Geyser. Getting through the park in a few hours is doable, especially if you have a helpful map from the visitor center. Most trails are covered with wooden decking, making them easy to navigate.
The park’s most famous attraction, Lady Knox Geyser, erupts daily at 10:30 am. You’ll need to drive there, as it sits a bit off of the main site. Plan to arrive before 10 am to get good seats. Remember though, if you sit up front, you just might get a little wet from the blast of water.
14. Walk Among the Redwoods
Just a few minutes outside of Rotorua’s city center, you’ll find the Redwood Forest. It’s a 15-acre grove of California Coastal Redwoods planted at the beginning of the 20th century.
Not only is the forest a popular spot for hiking and biking, but it’s also home to the Redwoods Treewalk. The Treewalk is a 1/4-mile long structure comprised of 28 suspension bridges that allow you to walk between 27 trees. Don’t worry – no Redwoods were harmed in the construction as it uses no nails, screws, or bolts.
If you aren’t a fan of heights, it might make your knees a little shaky because the bridges soar up to 60 feet above the forest floor. Not only can you get a unique birds-eye-view of the forest during the day, but you can also traverse the Treewalk at night.
The perk of braving the bridges in the dark is that you get to experience a magical light display that uses more than 30 lanterns, some nearly 10 feet tall, to illuminate the trees. It will be a highlight of your trip to the North Island.
15. Go Ball Rolling (AKA “Zorbing”)
Ball rolling, often referred to as Zorbing, originated on the North Island of New Zealand in 1990 and was developed by Andrew Akers. Andrew and his friend were playing at the beach and decided to try the idea out so they could walk on the water. They had great fun but soon realized it would be much better (and safer) if they rolled down hills instead!
Zorbing in Rotorua has to be on your bucket list as the OGO company is based here, which Andrew owns, and they do it better than anyone else. They even build their balls right here in Rotorua! Not only do they have larger, rounder, and ultimately faster balls, but they have the longest track in the world too!
You can race against another person in their straight track, or jump in with your friend and take on the bumpy sidewinder track, which is a guaranteed laugh. Don’t forget to take your GoPro, you will not regret it!
16. Visit the Whakarewarewa Maori Village
No trip to New Zealand would be complete without an insight into the fascinating Maori culture and the most authentic way is to visit Whakarewarewa, New Zealand’s only living Maori village.
You’ll get a memorable tour of village life led by a local resident and you will witness the Pohutu Geyser and many other geothermal treasures. How the thermal activity provides energy for their everyday life is as fascinating as the traditions and myths shared by your guide.
The Tuhourangi Ngati Wahiao tribe has welcomed visitors from all over the world for over 200 years, yet the guides remain as passionate and informative about their culture as if you were the first visitor to step foot in their backyard. The highlight of this powerful and impressive tour is the cultural performance. You’ll see the world-famous Haka and hear more stories and songs passed on from generation to generation.
From bubbling mud pools to energetic poi performances, the Whakarewarewa Maori Village guarantees an educational yet unforgettable visit and was a highlight of our North Island road trip.
17. Skydive over Lake Taupo
Great Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, with an area similar to Singapore. In fact, the lake is a crater of a super-volcanic eruption 26,000 years ago. The town alone merits a visit thanks to its gorgeous views and geothermal activity. But what better way to get a unique view over Great Lake Taupo than to skydive over it?
New Zealand may be most famous for its bungee jumping, but skydiving is just as common here. For as little as NZ$279, you can experience a 124 mph adrenaline rush as you jump out of Skydive Taupo’s iconic pink plane. And on the way down you’ll enjoy views all the way to The Lord of the Rings Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park.
Tip: If you’re not wracked with nerves, make the most of the 20-minute plane journey to jump altitude. Use this time to take in the stunning scenery and marvel at just how large the lake really is!
18. Trek the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Set in the heart of Tongariro National Park, this two-day, 28-mile hike has it all! Three huge volcanoes (one of which starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), stunning emerald and blue lakes, and a landscape that varies from something like the surface of the moon to dense lush green forest. You’ll hike along rivers, through open heathland, and scramble up the scree slope of the Red Crater, which offers an out-of-this-world view from the top.
The Northern Circuit also includes the majority of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is a day hike regularly described as the best in New Zealand (and one of the best in the world). This section can get incredibly busy, leaving the rest of the Northern Circuit to the few that decide to tackle the full loop.
It is definitely the best Great Walk on the North Island and arguably the best in the whole country. Waking up to sunrise behind the Mount Ngauruhoe volcano from Oturere hut is one you will never forget. It’s a tough walk to achieve in just two days but it will definitely be worth it.
19. Summit Mt. Ruapehu
Mount Ruapehu is an active volcano within Tongariro National Park. And at over 9,000 feet it’s also the highest mountain on the North Island. Home to New Zealand’s largest ski resorts (Tūroa and Whakapapa), Ruapehu is a very popular destination in winter. However, summer is also a wonderful time to visit.
If you’re planning on hiking the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, you should also check out the lesser-known trails on Mount Ruapehu. Atop the mountain, there’s a beautiful crater lake and depending on the water temperature, the lake can appear milky-blue, grey, or deep green. There’s actually no marked trail to the lake, but you can join a guided group, or use this guide to hike there independently.
From the top, you can also see the recognizable peak of Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) and a melting glacier. This trek traverses very rugged volcanic terrain, so it’s essential to have proper hiking shoes and equipment.
20. Enjoy the View from Te Mata Peak
Enjoying the view from the top of Te Mata Peak should be on the bucket list of everyone that is traveling to the east of New Zealand’s North Island. According to a Maori legend, the mountain range is the body of the fallen giant Te Mata, who died by trying to bite a path through the hills so that people could move easier between the coast and the plains.
The 360° view of Hawke’s Bay alone is enough of a reason to make it up the peak. On clear days, you can see all the way to the Ruapehu volcano in Tongariro National Park! The mountain range lifts up to 1,300 feet above sea level and a visit fits into any schedule, no matter how little time you might have.
You can hike to the summit, ride your bicycle, or simply drive your car up to the viewpoint.
21. Climb the Paekakariki Escarpment Track
A stroll along the Paekakariki Escarpment Track is something I recommend to everyone who comes to Wellington. Known as New Zealand’s Stairway to Heaven, this is a 6.2-mile track along the side of the hill above the train tracks. There are two fun swing bridges, but the most rewarding aspect of the track is the epic views out to Kapiti Island and on a good day all the way to the South Island.
The track is well-maintained and despite the occasional minor slip is not dangerous. There are around 500 stairs to climb, so it is a challenging walk, but people of all ages can enjoy it.
The majority of the walk is in the open. A few sections will take you through the forest which is a nice respite on a hot day. As an end-to-end hike, you have the option of walking back to the starting point (12.4 miles total) or catching the train back to the starting point (the track runs from Paekakariki Station and Pukerua Bay Station).
22. Enjoy Kaitoke National Park
Just a short, forty-minute car ride from Wellington lies the spectacular Kaitoke National Park. It is undoubtedly most famous for being the filming location of Rivendell and Fords of Isen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Although it might look unassuming at first arrival, it is a forested fantasy land to explore. Wander through the temperate rainforest until you reach the swing bridge that leads across the river while taking in the pristine views of the pebbled streams and lush greenery. It’s definitely easy to see why it was chosen to be the home of the Elves.
Pack a picnic and go swimming or kayaking in the park on a sunny day. There are a couple of markers and a piece of scenery left here from the films and it’s fun wandering through the forest to find them and take a photo!
23. Marvel at Weta Cave
One of the places we ALWAYS end up visiting when we go to Wellington is Weta Cave, which is the studio responsible for the art and special effects of many awesome movies (including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies).
It’s basically a store and a museum. They have replicas of the props they made for a lot of movies, a short film showing how they make some stuff, and they offer a studio tour. It lasts for around an hour and you’ll be led through the studio where they make the cool stuff. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, unfortunately, but it’s really interesting! We heard many stories and curiosities, held the original props for some movies, saw people actually working on things, and had many, many questions answered.
And you can take the tour as many times as you want and it’ll always be a little bit different. We absolutely love it!
Weta Cave, in Wellington, is definitely worth a visit, even if you’re not doing the tour!
What’s on your New Zealand bucket list?
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