Odds are if you’re reading this you have either planned a trip to New Zealand or want to plan a trip. If you happen to be in that second group, do yourself a favour and get planning. Even it’s a year or two in advance, I promise you that it’s worth it. The people, culture and geography of this country is something special.
To help you build your North Island Itinerary, here are the highlights from my North Island experience with my Kiwi comrades.
My flight from the east coast of the United States to New Zealand brought me one day into the future, giving me lots of jet lag with it. After recovering from my time travel, my first journey was to the beaches. I was told to grab my “togs” and “jandals”, whatever those things were… (I was later informed togs are your swimsuit and jandals were flip flops or sandals).
My first New Zealand beach experience was to the tucked away Anawhata Beach just 38 km (23.6 miles for us imperial system users) from Auckland. Everyone told me it was “cool as”.
This mysterious beach is truly a hidden gem amongst the forest. After turning off the main road and onto a windy and narrow 7 km dirt road we eventually come out to a small clearing used as the car park. The car park sat on a lovely lookout overseeing the beach giving me a moment to soak it all in. There is about a 20 to 30 minute walk down to the beach (depending on how excited you are). Towards the middle of the beach is a rock formation that has a small path to the top of the rock to give you another view of the beach.
During the time we were there we didn’t see a soul so if you’re looking for a quiet and more personal experience, Anawhata is a must!
Anawhata has a bigger and noisier neighbour named Piha. This well known Beach was definitely near the top of my list for beaches to see with its famous Lions Rock and for being only 40 km (24.8 miles) from Auckland. Piha does not require windy dirt roads or walks through the woods. We just found a spot to park and strolled onto the beach. I was wonderfully greeted by the towering Lion Rock and the long, wide beach perfect for sunset strolls.
I couldn’t resist taking a walk up Lions Rock. It has an amazing view of Piha and the surrounding hills with beautiful houses scattered amongst them.
Being just down the road from Piha I couldn’t say no to a nice walk into the forest to see these falls. After about a 30 minute walk we came out to the base. From there, we decided to hike up another 20 minutes to the top. Due to recent rainfall, it ended up taking about 30 minutes because of how slippery the mud was. The view from the top overlooks the large waterfall and the surrounding hills – well worth the muddy shoes!
Cathedral Cove at Hahei
If you’re looking for a beach that takes the wow factor up a notch the east coast beach area of Hahei is the place to go. A fair warning if you are planning to stay in Auckland. Hahei will be about a 2 hour and 25 minute car ride so plan on finding a place to stay while you’re there. We took a ride right through the Coromandel Forest Park so there was plenty of natural entertainment. The park is full of breathtaking mountains with farms spread out along the rolling hills before the jagged mountains.
If you had googled Hahei before this you would have probably seen some beach with an enormous cave. This would be Cathedral Cove. It is about a 30 to 45 min walk in from the path just outside the main town of Hahei. The path took us through the forest along the coastline. Every so often we’d come across a lookout to reveal the beautiful cliffs that shape the coast and the many islands that look like the tops of mountains poking out from the sea.
Hahei Beach is often overlooked, caught in the shadow of its more famous neighbour Cathedral Cove. It’s genuine beauty is underrated, and something not to be missed. Being the local beach to Hahei town centre, you can run outside and be at the water in minutes no matter where you stay. Although its not as dramatic as Cathedral Cove with the big cave and cliffs, I had just as much fun body surfing the waves in the middle of winter.
FUN TIP: There’s a hidden rope swing on the far left side of the beach that is great fun for the kids (or if you’re still a kid at heart). We sure had a tonne of fun!
Luge at Rotorua
Next stop after the beaches was to the thrill-seeking town of Rotorua 3 hours outside of Auckland (also known as “Rotovegas” to the locals). From the many activities to take part in we made our way the well-known luging at Skyline. There’s three courses to choose ranging from easy to difficult and a chairlift to take you back up for nonstop fun. Being the “American Tourist” my Kiwi friends immediately took me onto the most difficult course to test my abilities on the fly. I was given the reassurance that “she’ll be right!”. Thankfully I met their expectations!
I was brought to Te Puia to get a glimpse of New Zealand’s natural geothermal wonders, Kiwi birds, Maori culture and that wonderful smell of sulfur. Whether you’re interested in geography, the power of nature or New Zealand’s culture, this is a good place to start.
Around the area are lots of walkways and bridges to observe all the steaming and bubbling holes scattered around the park. After walking around the park we made our way to this black dome shaped building to see the famous Kiwi bird. Inside the building it’s completely dark with only a faint red light to guide you to the birds protected area. We had to be very silent and were not allowed to take any pictures while in the habitat. Fortunately we were lucky and patient enough to get a quick look at a Kiwi bird waddling its way around the habitat.
Redwood Tree walk (Redwood Nightlights)
To finish off the day in Rotorua we ventured a few minutes out of town to the Redwood Tree Walk. Unlike most walks this one is hung 12 meters above the ground. It’s made up of suspension bridges connecting 22 different redwood trees to make a 553 meter walk. At night trees all around park are decorated with unique handmade lights by David Trubridge to make the tree walk at night a totally different experience. Walking at night with the lights and being high up off the ground was truly a one of a kind experience.
Coming from a Snowboarding background, New Zealand in the winter was just what I needed. To satisfy my need for snow we headed to the volcanic Mt. Ruapehu. The journey takes about 4 hours and 30 minutes so we booked a cozy chalet to stay in for the weekend. The first day we all went up to the mountain to enjoy the early season snowfall from the day before. The terrain on the mountain was unlike anything I have ridden before. With no trees what so ever on the mountain, large rocks and boulders took their place to shape each trail. This terrain gave me plenty of cliff drops and snow drifts to have fun on. A warning for those who like to venture off the beaten path; Rocks hide very cleverly under the thin early season snowpack so beware of your expensive gear.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The next day we headed to the acclaimed Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Unfortunately due to snow and insufficient gear we couldn’t complete the full 19.4 km hike. We hiked about 7 km to the saddle near the summit before hunkering down for lunch, taking in the beautiful landscape. Well worth the walk. We had an amazing view of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans) and the surrounding mountains and craters.
The Tongariro Crossing is considered a moderately difficult hike but in the winter, weather can change very quickly and make a fun day on the mountain not so fun. For more information on the Tongariro Crossing during the winter click here.
Over to you…
Do you have any favourite spots or activities in the North Island? Share them in the comments below!