New Zealand’s North Island, with its diverse cultures, ocean border, and glorious nature, gathers together a wide range of unforgettable sights and adventures into a small and accessible space. Dive into the Pacific from the island’s northern tip. Eat and drink your way around Polynesia’s unofficial capital, cosmopolitan Auckland. Watch the earth roll and buckle in fiery Rotorua. Then finish your trip by ascending through fields and forests into a landscape unlike anything you have seen before, on the upper slopes of a live volcano.
Of course, New Zealand’s South Island offers its own plethora of treasures. But with only one week, it’s probably best to restrict one’s trip to only the North Island. With two weeks, however, it’s a different story altogether.
Start your trip in New Zealand’s cosmopolitan capital, Auckland, where almost a third of the country’s population resides. The largest city in Polynesia, it has an eclectic mix of identities from all across the Pacific and beyond, and its seafaring history is reflected in its layout – the main sprawl of the city is wedged between two large harbors to the east and west. All this creates an exceptionally vibrant cultural scene, with a world-class art gallery, heaps of festivals and a huge range of cuisine from all over the world. You can gain an overview of this vivid metropolitan tapestry from the top of the Sky Tower, a futuristic 328-meter structure with views over the city and onto the ocean and mountains beyond. One of these, Mount Eden, is worth climbing as it rises above the suburbs, laced with several trails which provide an insight into Auckland’s dynamic history.
A couple of hours north of Auckland, Whangarei is a peaceful seafront city warmly couched in a pleasant semi-tropical climate. Its main attraction – and sufficient reason to make the trip – is the wild and spectacular natural world that encircles the city. It is built along the banks of the Hatea River, from the floodplains of which rise a ring of fern-covered hillsides, including beautiful Mount Parihaka. Just outside the town, the gorgeous Whangarei Falls tumble over a broad rockface and flow between green walls of thick forest. The Abbey Cave Reserve is also well worth visiting, hosting a memorable walk that takes in a series of jagged limestone outcrops, bluffs, sinkholes, and three significant caves. And more outdoor adventure can be had on the ocean itself – many travelers hit up the town solely to surf, snorkel, fish, sea kayak or scuba dive.
Perched on the eastern edge of the Bay of Plenty, Whakatane is a blissful, beautiful place to pull into for a few days – the biggest problem will be not wanting to leave again. It receives more sunshine than almost any other town in New Zealand, which makes sites such as Ohope Beach, an 11-km stretch of golden sand washed by big Pacific waves, all the more appealing. It’s one of the best spots in the country for swimming with dolphins and whale watching. There’s a superb Maori cultural center based around an artfully intricate old meeting house. And those seeking truly unique experiences can take a boat or helicopter trip out to Whakaari, a live volcano situated 50 km out in the ocean with a surface of stark rock, a broiling acid lake, an ash-layered crater, sulfurous fumaroles and roaring steam vents.
Rotorua is prettily situated beside a lake of the same name, on top a great volcanic caldera which pulses powerful geothermal forces through the soil beneath the town. These forces break out of the earth in a series of spectacular ways: geysers, steam vents, hot springs and boiling mud pools are among the breathtaking sights scattered in and around the town. The best places to witness and experience these geothermal wonders are generally in the area’s myriad parks and spas, where you can see mud roll and boil and wait for sizzling steam to burst from the earth’s crust and out into the open air. Aside from this geothermal activity, other attractions in Rotorua include a superb museum covering both culture and nature, and a hilltop entertainment complex with rides, restaurants, food markets and beautiful views.
Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand’s great wild landscapes, a dramatic terrain where three active volcanoes tower above a rolling, quixotic patchwork of forests, herb fields, bare mountain slopes, barren plateaus and still, crystal-blue lakes. Much of the area is sacred and invested with great spiritual significance for the Maori people, a fact that UNESCO has recognised in making it a World Heritage Site. Among the park’s most spectacular stretches is the fabled Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which makes for a magnificent one-day hike, climbing through forests and past emerald lakes to reach a mist-swathed, extraterrestrial landscape high on the lava-charred slopes of a live volcano. There are plenty of other hiking trails if you want something more manageable (or more extreme), and other activities include skiing, mountain biking and kayaking.