North Island: The Ultimate Guide

North Island: The Ultimate Guide

If you’ve always wanted to spend the day hiking amongst active volcanoes, learning about the country’s history and culture from its Māori residents or living out your Lord of the Rings fantasies during a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set, visit the North Island, a 113,730 km² land of striking natural scenery that’s worthy of a great road trip. Here in New Zealand, also called Aotearoa, indigenous culture is honored and celebrated—the Māori language Te Reo is a national language along with English and New Zealand Sign Language, so you’ll see and hear it everywhere. Learning a few key phrases like “Kia Ora” (a greeting that translates to “have life”) or “Kia Kaha” (stay strong) will go a long way with the locals.

There’s plenty to see and do here so make sure you leave lots of time to make stops along the way. The roads here are full of twists and turns, so it can sometimes take more time than you’d think to get from Point A to Point B. Driving from Auckland to Wellington, for instance, takes about eight hours and it can take 5.5 hours to drive from Auckland to Cape Reinga at the very top of the North Island—and that’s without making any stops.

When To Visit the North Island

If you’re into winter sports, come to Mt. Ruapehu and Whakapapa in the winter when skiing and snowboarding conditions are best—you can also go sledding or learn to ski or snowboard at their beginner’s complex, Happy Valley. If you want to try one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, plan your trip for summer. For warm weather and fewer crowds, stick to spring and autumn.

You’ll likely enter the North Island through Auckland or Wellington. Alternatively, you could fly into Christchurch or Queenstown on the North Island, then hop a flight or catch the ferry up.

Must-Visit Towns in the North Island

1. Auckland

Home to a bustling foodie and nightlife scene, Auckland makes a great base for trips to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Rotorua and sites throughout the northern tip of the island as most guided tours depart from this sprawling city.

2. Paihia (The Bay of Islands)

Base yourself in Paihia if you want to explore the popular Bay of Islands. Also make time to visit the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where you can learn more about how New Zealand became New Zealand at the Te Rau Aroha Museum.

3. Coromandel Peninsula

Go for a hike at Karangahake Gorge or The Pinnacles, kayak to Whenuakura (Donut Island), cycle the Hauraki Rail Trail, snap Insta-worthy photos at Cathedral Cove, go for a scenic stroll along the Coromandel Coastal Walkway or dig your own natural hot tub at Hot Water Beach.

4. Hamilton

The Rocky Horror Picture Show fans will want to check out the Riff Raff statue on Victoria Street and do a quick Time Warp to honor its Kiwi creator, Richard O’Brien. Nearby, Hamilton Gardens hosts a collection of beautiful garden scenes from around the world so you can feel like you’re visiting India, Italy, Japan, China, England and the U.S. all in one go. 

5. Tauranga and Mount Maunganui

Typically where most backpackers end up being based to be close to kiwi fruit picking gigs along the northern beaches from March through May.

6. Hawke’s Bay

Wine lovers, rejoice! Hawke’s Bay, the region surrounding Napier and Hastings is home to more than 200 vineyards, over 70 wineries and upwards of 30 cellar doors, perfect if you’re a fan of Syrah, Chardonnay or Merlot Cabernet blends.

7. Rotorua

If you’re interested in learning more about Māori history, culture and how New Zealand’s Māori residents live today, Rotorua is home to several living Māori villages, thermal parks and cultural experiences aimed at introducing visitors to their traditional lifestyle. It’s also where you can catch a tour bus to The Hobbiton Movie Set in nearby Matamata.

8. Taupo

Often visited for its proximity to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Taupo is a charming little city situated alongside one of the most scenic lakes in New Zealand. After a long day of hiking, driving or sightseeing, stop by the Spa Park Hot Pools, a free natural hot springs by the Waikato River that’s a favorite of locals and visitors alike.

9. New Plymouth (Mount Taranaki)

Also called Mount Egmont, Mount Taranaki offers a thrilling 8-12 hour summit trek. You can also capture the perfect New Zealand volcano photo from vantage points near Lake Mangamahoe, just a short drive from New Plymouth.

10. Wellington

New Zealand’s captivating capital is where you’ll find Peter Jackson’s WETA Cave Workshop, Mount Victoria, a lively waterfront promenade, upscale hostels and heaps of restaurants, bars and nightlife to keep you busy.

Driving Tips for the North Island

  1. Check sites like Transfercar or Imoova to score free car rentals—or nearly free if you pay for extra insurance—and ask your favorite car rental companies if they’re running any rental relocation specials between certain cities.
  2. The roads in New Zealand are full of twists and turns, so take it slow, pay attention and watch the speed limit.
  3. Need to use your phone? Pull over. You’ll get an $80 fine and 20 demerit points if you’re caught using it behind the wheel.
  4. Check road conditions in case of floods, landslides and road closures.
  5. Always lock your most important belongings in the boot or take them with you.
  6. Use backpacker groups on Facebook to see if anyone wants a lift so you can share fuel costs and swap travel stories during a long drive.
  7. Hitchhiking is popular in New Zealand so don’t be afraid to give it a go. The Thumbs Up app also connects drivers to people who need a ride.
  8. Use apps like Gaspy to track down the cheapest fuel near you.
  9. If you feel an earthquake, drop, cover and hold.

If You Don’t Want to Drive

Trains

Take in views of Tongariro National Park and its magnificent volcanic landscapes from the Northern Explorer, which brings passengers on a scenic journey between Auckland and Wellington, with additional stops in Hamilton, National Park, Ohakune and Palmerston North.

Bus

Intercity and Skip offer affordable coach service throughout the North Island—Intercity even has an overnight bus between Auckland and Wellington, complete with sleeper seats that lie flat. If you’re going anywhere more than two hours, spring for the Gold seats, which, for a few more dollars, will give you a separate section and reclining seats to make the journey more comfy. Adventure HQ provides shuttle service from Taupo to Mt. Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park and Whakapapa Ski Resort (seasonally). Those interested in doing the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing can also book a return shuttle through Tongariro Expeditions.

Guided Tours

Kiwi Experience and Stray offer hop-on-hop-off touring experiences around the North and South Islands. Guided tours by G Adventures, Intrepid Travel and Contiki (strictly for 18-35 year olds) can also be booked. For day trips and discounts on local attractions, check sites like BookMe, Viator and Groupon.

Hike

Trekking enthusiasts will love the Te Araroa Trail, which runs the length of both islands. The North Island half stretches roughly 1,600km from Cape Reinga all the way to Wellington.

Ferries Between the North and South Islands

Choose between Interislander Cook Strait Ferry and Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries for a relaxing three-hour sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sound and Marlborough Sounds on your way from Wellington to Picton. Bring your car along, watch a film in the onboard cinema, hear live music in the lounge or take in the view from the top deck.

Accommodation

Freedom Camping is huge in New Zealand, but only if you follow the rules, camp in the right places and leave nothing behind. You’ll also find everything from hostels and poshtels to familiar chain hotels, luxury lodges and Airbnbs in the North Island.

Auckland

  1. Hilton Auckland
  2. Crowne Plaza Auckland
  3. Haka Lodge Ponsonby
  4. Attic Backpackers
  5. YHA Auckland City
  6. YHA Auckland International

Paihia (The Bay of Islands)

  1. The Sanctuary Bay of Islands
  2. Paihia Beach Resort & Spa Hotel
  3. Saltwater Lodge Backpackers Paihia
  4. Pickled Parrot Boutique Hostel
  5. Peppertree Lodge
  6. Haka Lodge Paihia
  7. YHA Paihia

Coromandel Peninsula

  1. Beachside Resort Motel Whitianga
  2. Andrea’s Bed and Breakfast
  3. Fern Lodge
  4. Wairua Lodge
  5. Turtle Cove Accommodation
  6. The Cat’s Pyjamas

Tauranga and Mount Maunganui

  1. Clarence Hotel
  2. Mount Backpackers
  3. Pacific Coast Lodge and Backpackers
  4. Apple Tree Backpackers
  5. ArtHouse Accommodation

Napier and Hastings

  1. Scenic Hotel Te Pania, Napier
  2. The Crown Hotel Napier
  3. Porters Boutique Hotel
  4. Peak House
  5. Stables Lodge Backpackers
  6. Rotten Apple

Rotorua

  1. Prince’s Gate Boutique Hotel
  2. Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel
  3. Holiday Inn Rotorua
  4. Rotorua Downtown Backpackers Hostel
  5. YHA Rotorua
  6. Rock Solid Backpackers

Taupo

  1. Hilton Lake Taupo
  2. The Cove on the Lake
  3. Haka Lodge Taupo
  4. Taupo Urban Retreat
  5. Rainbow Lodge Backpackers
  6. YHA Taupo, Findlay Jack’s Backpackers

New Plymouth (Mt. Taranaki)

  1. Novotel New Plymouth Taranaki Hotel
  2. Millennium Hotel New Plymouth Waterfront
  3. State Hotel
  4. Ducks and Drakes Boutique Hotel and Backpackers
  5. Ariki Backpackers
  6. YHA New Plymoth, Sunflower Lodge

Wellington

  1. DoubleTree by Hilton Wellington
  2. InterContinental Wellington
  3. Sofitel Wellington Hotel
  4. The Marion
  5. The Dwellington
  6. YHA Wellington

Attractions

Just a short ferry ride from Auckland’s CBD, Waiheke Island is where you’ll find wineries, zipline adventures and a chance to get back to nature in a place that’s as popular with Kiwis as it is with international visitors.

If you only splurge on one thing when you’re in New Zealand, let it be a guided tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, which fans will recognize as “The Shire” from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If you don’t have a car, add transport from Auckland or Rotorua to your ticket, which includes a free beer from “The Green Dragon” pub, also featured in the films, at the end of your tour.

Pronounced “fa-ka-where-a-where-a,” this living Māori village offers an inside look at how geothermal wonders helped shape the lives, homes and traditional cooking customs of New Zealand’s indigenous people, and see a cultural performance featuring the Haka.

Whether you choose to take a boat ride, walk through Ruakuri Cave or try your hand at black water rafting, this glow-in-the-dark natural wonder is sure to impress.

Get a good look at Huka Falls, a powerful rapids type of waterfall located 10-minutes by car from Taupo, from one of the bridges at the lookout point. For a real treat, hike two hours alongside the mighty Waikato River and end your trip with a free dip in the natural hot pools at Spa Park on your way back into town.

This challenging and unforgettable 19.4km trek takes you up and down three active volcanoes—Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu—across colorful lava fields and through some of the most amazing scenery in the country.

Learn more about the history of Aotearoa and its first peoples at Te Papa, a free world-class museum that’s home to exhibits on all things New Zealand, including Māori moku (traditional tattoos) and legends, British colonization and art, native birds and other Kiwi creatures, earthquakes, contemporary refugees and an impressive exhibition about Gallipoli in WWI that was designed by Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshop.

Kaitoke Regional Park is where Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings cast filmed Rivendell, kingdom of the elves. Take some photos by the Elvish gates and check out the swing bridges in this beautiful natural space within an hour’s drive of Wellington.

Fans of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and any of Peter Jackson’s films will want to visit the Weta Workshop for behind-the-scenes tours and a chance to take a closer look at the magic behind the camera. Don’t leave without taking a photo with Gollum and the enormous trolls at the gift shop.

Whether you choose to hike or drive up Mount Victoria, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views of Wellington Harbour and CBD and have the chance to spot airplanes taking off and landing from nearby Wellington International Airport. Follow the signs along the trail to see where several scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed.