With its soaring alpine landscapes and miles of turquoise shoreline, New Zealand ranks towards the top of many traveler’s “bucket lists”.
For travelers who have yet to visit the island nation, New Zealand is often atop the list of places they would love to see before their passport has seen its last stamp. Similarly, for those travelers who have spent time in Aotearoa (the traditional Maori name which means “Land of the Long White Cloud”), the country often tops the list of places they’d go back to if only given the chance. Simply put, rarely will you encounter a traveler who isn’t infatuated with New Zealand.
Tell someone who is familiar with the country that you’ll be traveling there, however, and the first question you’ll surely be met with is “North Island or South Island?” Although both islands offer dozens of adventures for intrepid travelers, the two islands are markedly different in the types of experiences they offer.
While a related post discusses how to spend one week on the South Island, here are some helpful tips for how to spend one week on the North Island.
To begin with, nearly all travelers to the North Island of New Zealand will enter the country in Auckland. While it isn’t the nation’s capital (that honor goes to Wellington), Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and is home to nearly 25% of the population. Since many travelers have a fair bit of jet lag to accommodate for, it’s best to spend your first day simply experiencing the city before rushing off to somewhere else. While one day is by no means enough time to properly explore Auckland, walking the harborfront and taking an evening cruise on Waitemata Harbor are two ways to get a feel for the “City of Sails”.
After having explored the city, consider venturing up into the “Northland” for the justifiably-heralded Bay of Islands. This northern sprig of the North Island is the warmest and most tropical part of this Polynesian nation, and the protected, turquoise coves are a favorite anchorage of yachties from across the Pacific. More than just sailboats, however, the Bay of Islands is home to numerous day excursions which cruise the waters to Cape Brett and the iconic “Hole in the Rock”. While many of these tours can be arranged in the town of Paihia, you can also combine a Bay of Islands cruise with transportation from Auckland for a long but adventurous day. If you choose to spend a night in the Bay of Islands, consider taking a second tour the next day which heads further north to “Ninety-Mile Beach” and the tumultuous Cape Reinga—a craggy promontory where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean that is steeped in Maori lore.
With the city scoured and the Northland conquered, spend the rest of your week exploring the interior of the North Island on a multi-day tour of Waitomo Caves, Taupo, and Rotorua. Unless you have your own transportation, tours are one of the easiest ways to experience all three regions in such a short period of time, and each area offers their own adventures which are completely distinct from the last.
The out-of-the-way Waitomo Caves are renowned for their glowworm grottos, and this subterranean complex of caverns remained completely unexplored until 1887 when an English explorer and local Maori chief mustered up the courage to explore this realm which no man had ventured to navigate. Today, visitors can now drift along the underground waterways and gaze upwards at a ceiling which appears much like the night sky. With hundreds of twinkling glowworms illuminating the dark interior, Waitomo is the best glowworm theater found anywhere in the Pacific.
Moving from glowworms to geysers, Rotorua is not only the center of the island’s geothermal activity, but it’s also home to the largest Maori population in all of New Zealand. Steam vents and hot springs ring the outskirts of the city, and native Maori cultural performances provide an authentic reminder that this mountainous, volcanically-active island is still a part of the Polynesian Triangle.
Meanwhile, in nearby Taupo, the 238 sq. mile lake is the largest body of freshwater in all of New Zealand and the centerpiece of the popular resort town. While kayaking and boating are highlights for many locals, most visitors enjoy trekking or jet boating to raging Huka Falls, a waterfall complex on the Waikato River that drains the massive lake. If you have extra time in Lake Taupo and want to spend another day, consider venturing further south to Tongariro National Park for a day of trekking through the lunar landscape that was the site of “Mordor” in the Lord of the Rings. During the winter months this area is home to two of the top ski resorts on the North Island, although the warmer, summer months offer hiking trails that weave their way around active volcanoes and above alluring emerald lakes.
From here it’s a lengthy, four hour drive back to urban Auckland, although over the course of seven days you will have had the chance to sail around Auckland’s harbor, cruise the Bay of Islands, slink your way through a glowworm grotto, weave around active geysers, experience Maori culture, hike past gushing waterfalls, and if you decide to take a side trip, walk across a landscape which is straight from the surface of the moon. While you could easily spend months visiting all of the island’s corners, those with only a week to spend on the North Island can nevertheless get a taste of the ceaseless beauty that makes New Zealand a travelers favorite.