New Zealand Road Trip – North Island
New Zealand – The Land of the Long White Cloud; two islands, two different climates, characters and charm. After our South Island excursions which you can read about here, what would North Island have in store for us? Despite views that south is best, we decided to split our time evenly between both islands. And we are so glad we did. In fact we had too little time in the north and missed a huge amount of this fabulous island. Although here are our Top 6 highlights from our North Island exploration. Check out our Interactive Map below with all our POI’s and overnight stopovers.
1. Marlborough Sound and Cook Straight
The first of our highlights has to be Marlborough Sound. Renowned to be the most beautiful ferry journey in the world, the trip from Picton to Wellington is certainly an experience. With a 3.5hr crossing through Cook Straight, named after Captain Cook, you will be invited to explore the joys of Wellington. Although think not of the capital, because appreciating the Marlborough Sound with its inlets, coves and bays is a must. If you don’t get to see Abel Tasman National Park, then this journey offers a taster of this incredible part of New Zealand.
Before you know it Wellington is your host as you disembark the Interisland ferry. New Zealand’s capital (not Auckland as many think), Wellington is one of the world’s classically understated capitals. I would put it in the same category as Bratislava, Slovakia and Zagreb, Croatia. The first sight is a built up area of docks and shipping terminals although in the city’s heart you feel its youthful vibe and arty characteristics. We didn’t see much as our primary focus was attending the ICC World Cricket match between England and New Zealand. Although I guess in truth we saw more of Wellington than we expected because the match was dire. Still, the less said about that the better.
Our two hours around the city gave us a great flavour and our one recommendation would be to take a trip up in the iconic Wellington Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens. The panoramic views across the Cook Straight, the docks and city is amazing. Myles summarised the day up nicely, saying that it was “A great palate cleanser between the two isles and cleared the decks for an equally magically ride ’on t’other side’”.
2. Whanganui River Adventures, Pipiriki
We love taking the route less travelled and getting off the beaten track. Sometimes it get us into trouble, although on the whole we find some absolute gems. And Pipiriki is one of those treasures. With a gift from my mum for our anniversary, we decided on a Rafting and Jet Boat adventure up the Whanganui – what a top drawer choice.
It was a 5 hour trip from Wellington, yet as we drove through the isolated valley to Pipiriki our spirits were raised by the landscape. It looked like it had jumped straight out of the pages of The Hobbit’s Middle Earth. Our arrival at Pipiriki was just sublime and the Whanganui River Adventures team welcomed us with open arms. We stayed at their lovely campsite and with a good night’s sleep we were prepared for our next adventure.
Now rafting down a river through a stunning gorge sounds quite tranquil. What we didn’t realise was that there were five rapids to negotiate on this sedate meander downstream. Although that was for the return journey. In the meantime we had the most spectacular high-sided gorge to immerse ourselves in and its Maori history. On top of that we also had a hike the the Bridge to Nowhere, which a fabulous sight. A bridge built literally in the middle of nowhere, to absolutely no where!
Our trip back down the river was, in part on the Jet Boat which skimmed the surface of the mid-summer water with exhilarating hand-break turns. The final stretch of 10km back to camp was by canoe. We were told that it would be a Canadian Double Canoe, as if somehow that would make all the difference. Alas it still meant we had rapids to navigate. Despite the water level, this part of North Island benefits from more tropical weather so the rapids were still pretty fierce for us as first timers. I look back now and have very fond memories although it wasn’t without its challenges, check out our video below to see exactly what we mean.
The rest of the trip was just insanely beautiful, especially as the sun started to change the visions in front of us. Like a stage, spotlights of the sun’s rays started to bounce off the gorge walls and light up the crystal waters. With echoes of the historical ghosts dancing amongst the gorge, it left us feeling that this river adventure would be on our Top 10 list.
3. Thermal Wonderland
The thermal wonders of North Island are out of this world. When people try to compare the two islands, my view is you can’t. North Island has a rawness where the earth quite literally opens up, like windows for you to see into its soul. The only downside to this particular region is that it is most certainly not off the beaten track. It is full of visitors looking to see the geysers (that predictably go off at 10.30 each morning!!). There are thermal parks everywhere and so you must do your research to find the right one for you. Just beware that some Parks really are quite commercial, especially if you are keen to see the Haka dance by the Maoris.
The drive north offered us a clue to the thermal activity we were about to experience; a trio of volcanoes filled the sky line. I’ve never had a close encounter with a volcano before and there was something very humbling about treading its molten larva pathways. What history has been strewn around this land. Seeing these active volcanoes up close, was amazing as there was a tantalising uncertainty about when it might blow next. Especially given the billowing pillar of white smoke coming from one of the smaller volcanoes. They are still very much alive and kicking and they commanded our respect. We highly recommend popping in to see the Whakapapa Village at the Tongariro National Park. We didn’t do the famous Tongarriro Pass hike, although it is said to be an experience all of its own.
The volcanoes were just an introduction to the geothermal adventure for our next two days and we were enthralled by the earth, quite literally steaming. It is called a living landscape and you can see why. It was such a surreal vision to see bursts of steam coming out of the vegetation like hidden dragons waiting to pounce. We visited Haka Falls and The Craters of the Moon a great introduction to the thermal landscape so iconic in North Island. Rotorua is the capital of the Thermal Wonderland and you will smell it before you see it. The sulphur aside, Rotorua is worth looking around and of course it is the centre for exploration of the thermal parks and Maori culture.
The thing that struck me most, as we visited a Wai-o-Tapu thermal park outside of Rotorua, was that New Zealand is a powerhouse of seismic activity and each Island has its own unique way of expressing it. The south is disturbingly unpredictable, secretive and threateningly powerful – whereas North Island is very transparent in its seismic expression. You feel it, see it, smell it and hear it. Every sense knows that just below the surface, there is a cauldron of fire from Earth’s soul being thrown into our world. To be privy to these one-way conversations from Earth’s core was just incredibly primal and puts so many things into perspective. The futility of our materialist living put in its place with the volatility of the planet’s existence. I bow to your magnificence.
Wai-o-Tapu was mindblowingly beautiful with its myriad of colours going way beyond the spectrum of a rainbow. 7 colours is just insufficient to describe the hews and palette that we were presented with. This volcanic wonderland had a real treat in store for us. Iridescent greens, lime, burgundies, bright reds, intense crystal blues and opal, primrose yellows and snow-like whites. My eyes and imagination were in heaven.
Closer to Rotaruo was the Living Village of Whakarewarwea, which was the most authentic way to see Maori life without the obvious tourist traps of some of the other expensive parks. It allowed us to submerge ourselves into Maori culture, see the children who lived here and contribute to their way of life without feeling like too much of a tourist. We found ourselves loving this whole area at a spiritual level. Just one of those places that you just have to go to to experience as there is insufficient vocabulary to do it justice.
Check out our Gallery of pictures from this staggeringly beautiful region.
4. Coromandel Peninsular
When you think of New Zealand’s North Island what jumps into your mind? The thermal activity I’m sure, perhaps the Bay of Islands or may be 90 Mile Beach. What about Coromandel Peninsular? Not many people we talked to mentioned this eastern edge of North Island. So good enough reason for us to explore the area whilst indulging my camera lens in some iconic New Zealand coastline.
Coromandel Peninsular is home to the iconic Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, Cook’s Beach and a plethora of hikes, cycles and kayaking opportunities – ooh plus a bit of natural hot-tubbing on the beach.
Hot Water Beach is stupendously beautiful, with magnificent surf that any Cornish dude would be willing to negotiate. With golden sands like velvet beneath your feet. Blue sea, trimmed with white foam and thunderous crashing waves -this is a heavenly place for all the senses.
The surf aside, the reason you go to Hot Water Beach is to dig your own hot water jacuzzi in the sand at low-tide. The underground thermal spring waters that your digging reveal then wash over you. It’s somewhere between a mud bath and a hot water spa. So armed with our spade, we headed off. The beach was strewn with early morning revellers of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Whilst English may not have been spoken by everyone, there was only one language required – dig, shape, sit, smile and enjoy.
Creating our own DIY jacuzzi was a pretty unique experience and whilst it took us 20 minutes to get the right temperature, it wasn’t long before we too were languishing in a thermal induced heat being nicely stewed and looking like overcooked prunes.
Hahei Beach and Coromandel Cove
How do you follow that? We took ourselves off to Hahei Beach and had a boat trip around the coast and out to the Islands. What a great introduction to the seascape that offered the most perfect setting for Pirates of the Caribbean. With secret coves, blowholes, caves, seals and sting rays, what a way to see this volcanic influenced coastline. If the boat isn’t an option for you, then you could experience the famous Coromandel Cove with its iconic formations either by kayak or by foot – either way you must visit here.
We found a sensational freebie campsite at Cook’s Beach, where we parked up right in front of a golden beach that we pretty much had all to ourselves. The sound of crashing waves would be our evening’s lullaby and our morning’s alarm once more. What a fabulous end to this amazing part of the world.
5. The Land of the Gannets – Muriwai
On our last expedition before returning to Auckland, we were in turmoil about whether to blast it up to Bay of Islands or just mosey our way to the city. Our six week road trip had taken a bit of a toll on us and we were travel weary. So we decided to head to Muriwai for our finale because I’d heard about the gannets here. I was a great spot to rest up.
We heard Muriwai before we saw it – surf waves as tall as buildings – or so it seemed to my eye. It was like a thunderous applause for the kite surfers working their magic. It’s a deafening roar, as if a thousand lions are calling their loved ones. This part of North Island is seriously wild and you can’t help than to feel alive when you feel the wind on your face, the salt upon your lips and the primeval elements of nature colluding. In fact this area in Maori legend is known for the war against the Father of the Elements, the Father of the Forests and Father of the Oceans. And you certainly get full force of all three as you stand precariously on the cliff edge, watching, listening and feeling the effects of the battle.
Add to this the Gannet colony that is perched on the cliff edge, close enough for you to get right up close – if you have a strong enough stomach and nose for it, that is. Truly amazing. Just a dream for the photographer in me. If you love Mother Nature at her best, then this is worth driving west for.
Check out our Gallery of images of this magnificent area.
6. The Big Smoke – Auckland
So to our final recommendation, Auckland. It is fair to say that you could have a week in this area alone, with the neighbouring vineyards, the harbour and the city itself. Although given we’re not huge city lovers, having just a day to explore before we flew back to UK was taster enough. And what we saw was great. It is certainly a lively and vibrant place. From its beaches, marinas to its shopping area and Sky Tower, there’s plenty to entertain. The Tower is definitely a highlight for us and whilst we took the lift up and down, if you have one of those adventurous spirits in you, then you could always take the Zipline down instead!
Take some time to see the city as some of the skyline images are wonderful.
Aotearoa, you thrilled us with your natural beauty and culture, you inspired us deep within our bellies to travel more and see the world. And so with gratitude we thank you, with respect we honour you and with pleasure we will remember you for all our remaining days. It has been memorable for so many reasons. It has been a journey that will undoubtedly give us many stories to tell.
New Zealand is most certainly one of those places you need to come to in your life, just once and may be twice. The Land of the Long White Cloud, we applaud you.
Complete your New Zealand journey by checking out our 11 Highlights from our South Island trip by clicking here.