New Zealand – North Island Travel Guide

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According to Maori legend the North Island of New Zealand is the fish which the Polynesian god Maui caught; the South Island was his canoe from which he caught it. Since the days from which those legends sprang this country has grown into one of those rare places on the planet which every kind of visitor adores. New Zealand truly is a destination for all, no matter how old or young and no matter what interests you have.

Anyone who has watched The Narnia Chronicles or The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies which were filmed exclusively in New Zealand will probably already feel they have come to know the country’s incredibly stunning landscapes. These are lands crammed with belching volcanoes, ancient glaciers, towering mountain peaks, silent lakes, thick forests, cascading waterfalls, sensational beaches, verdant forests, natural hot springs, rugged coasts and vineyards and more. Almost all of it will leave you agape over and again at the beauty of it all.

There is a menu of things to see and do so extensive you couldn’t get through them all if you lived your whole life here. Everything is possible, from swimming with wild dolphins to shark cage diving and from following art deco trails to traditional feasting Maori style. The following should give you some idea of what’s in store for you.

A Ton of Freebies

As backpacking destinations go New Zealand ranks as one of the more costly ones but luckily this is a land which has tons of see and do freebies ranging from the award winning national museum known as Te Papa in Wellington to toilets so unique they attract bus-loads of tourists. That means even if your budget is very limited you are not going to miss out on some high grade fun stuff. Here are just a handful of things which you can enjoy without spending a single penny.

young man posing with board at Te Paki sand dunes, New Zealand

  • Te Papa Museum, Wellington – New Zealand has heaps of free museums but arguably the jewel in the crown is the vast and wonderfully fascinating national museum known as Te Papa. Highlights include the Maori rooms, an earthquake simulator experience and a giant squid of behemoth proportions.
  • Wild Swimming – With a landscape which rarely deviates from the lovely, the North Island is chock full of exceptional places to take a dip. Take your pick from cascading fairy pools, hidden spots on lake shores, sparkling mountain streams and magical waterfalls with crystal clear pools. Not sure where to go? Ask a local – they always know the best secret spots.
  • Hundertwasser Toilets, Kawakawa – Utterly unique and almost guaranteed to be unlike anything you have ever seen before, the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa are both stunningly gorgeous and quirky in the extreme. Designed by an Austrian artist, these public conveniences are totally devoid of straight lines ((because according to Hundertwasser straight lines are evil). What you will find however is a crooked loveliness made up of ceramic tiles, rainbow coloured glass, little sculptures and even a living tree. You can of course spend a penny if you wish but most visitors just come to have a gawp and take photos.
  • Dune Surfing, Te Paki Sand Dunes, Ninety-Mile Beach – As a destination beloved by the adrenalin junkie, New Zealand’s North Island is not exactly bereft of opportunities to get you catapulting, leaping, rolling, swinging or hanging in a variety of ways (usually from a great height) between which activities the only thing the same is the intention to induce terror. Most of these can be expensive but if you head to Ninety Mile Beach armed with a body board (or tea-tray, piece of cardboard etc) you can get some adrenalin kicks for free. Make your way to the top of the giant sand dunes here which stand as tall as a 50 storey building and launch yourself downhill.
  • Rere Rock Slide, Gisborne District – Another of the get-your-kicks-for-free choices can be found in the native bush a little way out of Gisborne. In this beautiful nature-surrounded spot you will find a 60 metre sloping rock face down which runs a constant trickle of water which then empties itself into a lagoon at the bottom. The vehicle of choice for this ride tends to be an inner tube but body boards, yoga mats, air mattresses and even cardboard seem to work too. If you manoeuvre it right and are still facing forward on reaching the bottom your ride will terminate with a graceful aquaplane across the lagoon. Most just finish with a giant splash.
  • Natural Spa, Hot Water Beach, Coromandel – Beautiful it most certainly is though it isn’t Hot Water Beach’s aesthetic charms which draw people here but the presence of a geo-thermally heated underground river. If you dig a hole in the sand a couple of hours either side of high tide you will find it fills itself with steaming water creating a personal spa.
  • Exploring Middle Earth – A vast majority of the LOTR/Hobbit filming locations are on public land in the North Island – many highly accessible – so it is easy to organise yourself a free Middle Earth tour. Tracking some of them down takes a little effort but the Internet is full of information and there is even a small inexpensive publication which details the filming locations.

A Destination as Safe as it Gets

Unlike its Australasian cousin to the north, New Zealand is bereft of poisonous snakes and spiders (with the exception of one species so rare you’d make the news if you got bitten by it!) It also happens to rank in position two (only Iceland beats it) on the Global Peace Index of 163 countries. Crime figures are low (although not of course absent) and violent crime is unusual. And it isn’t just the contentment, standard of living, economic stability and culture of its people which make this such a safe country – it is also a numbers game. Less than 5 million people call New Zealand home which means that outside of the cities it is empty of people for vast distances.

The presence of very much alive volcanoes should alert you to the fact that this is a land where the forces of Mother Nature can and do wreak havoc. Both islands are earthquake prone and there is also a level of tsunami risk on the coasts.

Otherwise, New Zealand is a modern, progressive country with high levels of hygiene and health care and with much that will be familiar to the Western visitor. In short, all of this equates ultimately to having all the fun you want without having to worry too much about safety or well-being.

Adventure Activities

While New Zealand has a bonus column of draws which include sensational scenery, Maori culture, geo-thermal phenomena, buzzing cities, gorgeous beaches, unique wildlife and so forth there is no denying that one thing which ensures the crowds of younger travellers just keep on coming is its adventure and adrenalin menu. New Zealand is often referred to as the adventure capital of the world and so extensive are its choices it enables all-comers to tick off bucket-list entries by the dozen – from the more commonplace to the totally unusual. Also in the mix are a few astonishing activities invented by Kiwis and found nowhere else. The whole list is literally an A-Z of excitement; here are just a selection of some of the North Island’s possible adventure experiences.

tandem sky dive

  • Airborne adventures – skydiving, bungee jumping, hang gliding, paragliding, hot air ballooning, helicopter rides, stunt-plane rides, zip-lining, flying foxes
  • Water-based adventures – surfing, white-water rafting, black-water rafting (underground), kite-boarding, wake boarding, white water sledging/body boarding, jet-boating, diving, swimming with wild dolphins, shark cage diving
  • Land-based adventures – climbing, abseiling, caving, canyoning, coasteering, skiing, quad biking, rally driving, live volcano exploring
  • Impossible to categorise adventures – zorbing, canyon swings, dam-dropping

A Journey Through Middle Earth – A Mecca for Lord of the Rings & Hobbit Fans

LOTR fever hit New Zealand full on when the first film trilogy was released, as fans from every corner of the world rushed to check out the incredible scenery they had seen on the screen. The second rush of the same fever came in 2012 after the Hobbit trilogy was released – also, just as with LOTR, filmed in its entirety in New Zealand.

There are companies galore that offer LOTR-themed tours and trips ranging from hours to days and for some of the more inaccessible filming locations this is the way to go. However, many of the sites are hidden within plain sight such as Harcourt Park in Upper Hutt just outside of Wellington which were the Gardens of Isengard where Gandalf and Saruman strolled together, Kaitoke Regional Park which served as Rivendell and the volcano of Mount Ngauruhoe which was Mount Doom.

The most popular LOTR site is in Matamata – aka Hobbiton. This is the only place in New Zealand where the film set is still in place – including Hobbit holes – making it easy for the imagination-challenged to immerse themselves in a Tolkien-esque world.

Another fun thing to do is take a visit to the Weta Cave and Workshop in Wellington. As any self-respecting LOTR fan will know Weta were the special effects and props company responsible for the movie magic. The Cave Shop crammed with replicas is free to enter and there is a 45 minute behind-the-scenes tour on offer too.

A Backpacker’s Ideal Infastructure

New Zealand as a whole is in every way a traveller’s delight. Along with everything else it has going for it you can factor in that this country has tourist infrastructure down to a fine art.

For starters there are tour companies by their thousands offering everything from day tours to several week long full-immersion experiences. There are choices for those on a tight budget right up to the ultimate in luxury and there is something for every taste and inclination from adventurously sporty to culturally sophisticated and from total relaxation to total adrenalin rush.

For those who like to get active and right off the beaten track New Zealand has two mighty strings to its bow – the ‘Great Walks’ (3 of which are on the North Island) and the ‘NZ Cycle Trails’ network. Both can be done in bite-sized chunks if you are short on time or energy or in their multi-day entirety with the Department of Conservation back country huts set strategically en route for overnight stays during your Great Walks.

If you’d rather get around under engine power there are a great range of hop-on hop-off buses covering a variety of routes which allow you to pick and choose where and how long you spend your time.

When it comes to having a place to lay your head each night there are a huge range of choices. From the backpackers’ favoured option of hostels found even in the most tucked away corners of the country to top-end luxury hotels and everything in between. The everything in between includes all  kinds of interesting options too such as staying and helping out on a farm, campsites in the most idyllic middle-of-nowhere spots or beaches (which you can often have all to yourself), Department of Conservation huts and home-stays.

Last but very definitely not least is that wonderful New Zealand institution known as an i-SITE which is nothing short of a treasure trove for tourists and travellers. Ditch the guide book – you won’t need that here. Instead make the local i-SITE visitor centre your first stop as soon as you hit town (and they are found in even the tiniest of settlements) to load up on maps, tourist literature, information on all the free and cheap stuff to do in the region, tours on offer and to tap into the friendly and readily offered local knowledge. Almost all of what you will need is free – with the exception of larger OS maps.

Camper-van Heaven (for the hard to reach bits)

As many of the country’s most stunning spots are well off the beaten path and because getting there is usually not possible by public transport a huge industry has arisen in camper-van hire and sales. In this regard there is quite possibly nowhere else quite like it in the world and because the industry is so highly competitive and a constant stream of vehicles are being sold and resold vast numbers of travellers choose this option. It also cuts costs considerably in many cases as the camper is both vehicle and home for the duration of the trip and inheriting a van-load of camp gear along with the vehicle is the norm as no-one wants to lug all that home with them.

Factor in that New Zealand has camp-sites by the bucket-load – often in the most idyllic locations – as well as an extensive network operated by the Department of Conservation (DoC) for a handful of dollars a night (or even free) and you might start to see why New Zealand for many qualifies as road-tripping heaven.

Although you could find a suitable camper for sale anywhere, the North Island’s prime locations for buying a camper are Auckland’s Backpacker Car World/Auckland Car Market on East Street, the Auckland City Car Fair, Saturdays 9.00 am to 1 pm, 27 Alten Rd and the Auckland Car Fair, Sundays 9.00 am to 12 noon, Ellerslie Racecourse, Greenlane, Auckland.

The best thing about establishments such as these rather than private sales is that all that you need to think about is pretty much organised for you such as legal checks, pre-purchase mechanical inspections, change of ownership, insurance and roadside assistance cover.

North Island VS South Island – What’s the Difference?

New Zealand is split into two halves – the North Island and the South Island. Ideally, and if you have enough time, you need to see both but in reality many people only have time or budget for one or the other. So, how do you choose? What are the main differences? Which is best?

The answer to the last question very much depends on what you are looking for. The majority of the bigger cities, including the country’s largest (Auckland) and its capital (Wellington) are on the North Island which makes it the higher populated (approximately 3 out of every 4 New Zealander’s live on the North Island) but this is still a land where you will find miles and miles of emptiness as the population is so tiny.

If an essential part of your trip is an exploration into the Maori culture the North Island is your best bet as is also the case if you want live volcanoes (there aren’t any on the South Island) and experiences of the geothermal kind. In both cases Rotorua acts as the central tourist hub for these things but there are lots of other places too which include White Island volcano in the Bay of Plenty, Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands.

Rotorua

Where gorgeous beaches are concerned the North Island probably tips the scales, especially once you add in the sub-tropical climate of the Far North which makes beach time typically more fun. Both islands offer vast areas of national park although the South Island has the lion’s share (9 of the total 13) while the South Island also has the highest mountains and all the glaciers. If hiking or cycling the wilds, mountain biking or kayaking coasts are you thing both islands offer plentiful opportunities with excellent networks in place with the epic ‘Great Walks’ and the ‘NZ Cycle Trails’.

Where things to do feature there are many cases where both islands offer possibilities for similar things such as swimming with wild dolphins, skiing, exploring Lord of the Ring sites, enjoying wine trails and so forth. Queenstown on the South Island is generally touted as the supreme adventure capital for such things as bungee, skydiving, jet-boating, white-water rafting etc but most of what you can do there can also be done on the North Island although admittedly not all in one place.

Some Other Bits

While getting to know a country is impossible until you get there and start exploring there are always a few handy things to know in advance. Here is a selection of those which haven’t already been covered.

Transport 

If there is one thing which New Zealand is lacking it is a public transport system which reaches every nook and cranny. It is this very reason which has led to such a huge camper-van and motor-home hire and second-hand sale industry in the country which we have mentioned previously.

The other popular option for the country’s visitor is a range of hop-on hop-off type buses with various passes or multi-day or multi-week bus-based tours by their thousands. Within the cities the buses are efficient and frequent and there are also some inter-city services such as Naked Bus. Outside of these you might struggle to get to certain destination with this form of transport.

Train travel is very limited with only one line – the Auckland to Wellington – serving the North Island.

Ferry services are also frequent and efficient where they are found, typically to get you to various islands.

Season & Climate Facts

As New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere its winters are June, July and August and its summer months December, January and February. In the main the North Island enjoys a temperate climate with decent summers (maximum temperature averages 20 – 30ºC) and plentiful sunshine hours as well as mild winters unless you are at altitude. Snow is rare at sea level on the North Island. The Far North region enjoys a sub-tropical climate so typically enjoys higher temperatures than elsewhere on the island.

Money

The New Zealand currency is the dollar – NZ$. As an advanced Westernised country its banking systems are secure, plentiful and efficient with ATMs everywhere and credit cards accepted as the norm.

Working Holiday Visas

Offering a working holiday scheme visa to citizens of more than 40 countries, New Zealand is an ideal place to combine some work and play and a perfect way to top up the travel funds. You could find youself throwing cocktails in an Auckland bar, harvesting apples in Hawke’s Bay or lending a hand in a quaint cafe in the back of beyond.

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