Though the South Island often takes centre stage in Aotearoa, there is no doubt that our North Island New Zealand highlights are world class.
Home to our best, most authentic cultural experiences, sub-tropical beaches, temperate weather, incredible hiking and awe inspiring geothermal activity, these are North Island New Zealand highlights that just can’t be missed.
Working from the tip of the North Island, right down to the bottom, near Wellington, this post covers off the very best of New Zealand’s most populated island.
Travelling throughout New Zealand is easy. Our roads are in excellent condition, drivers observe road rules and there are plenty of opportunities for you to stop and stretch your legs or rest.
As you’ll notice on the map below, many of our North Island highlights are in close proximity to each other, allowing you to create a fantastic North Island New Zealand itinerary.
This post is by no means intended to cover all of the travel highlights in the North Island; there are far too many to include in this post! It will, however, give you a great little taster and get you thinking about what you might like to do.
So, with all of that said, let’s dig into some of the best North Island New Zealand highlights, as shared by some of our fabulous blogging friends…
Cape Reinga, Northland: The Northernmost of our North Island New Zealand Highlights
Cape Reinga National Park was one of the very first places we visited in New Zealand but that’s not the only reason it has a special place in our hearts. It’s one of the most epic and picturesque places in the North Island.
Cape Reinga is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean; that meeting is just as rough as it is breathtaking. You can walk different paths in the national park, photograph the infamous lighthouse, collect some Vitamin D, and be the outdoorsy Kiwi you always wanted to be.
The northernmost part of the country surprises with stunning hidden beaches, fascinating wild flora and fauna, and the odd delicious ice-cream, home-made locally for you. The latter is a highlight to any visit to Cape Reinga, according to our Māori guide Waru. And we always trust locals, whenever we go!
To get to the cape, you can easily drive yourself or join a fun-filled day trip (which includes sandboarding and a whizz along 90 Mile Beach. If a day of hiking and absorbing the views is not enough for you though, you can even choose to go camping in the area. They say views of sunrise are worth millions!
So to sum it up – Cape Reinga is one of the highlights of the North Island as it gives its visitors plenty of things to do and views to enjoy – so we definitely recommend it!
Bistra – The Magic of Travelling
Whilst up North, you might also like to check out:
- Paihia – There, you can see wild dolphins, ‘the Whole in the Rock’, and the sunken Rainbow Warrior.
- The Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
- Russell – Where you can stop off at the iconic Duke of Marlborough for lunch.
- Tane Mahuta – The largest kauri tree in New Zealand.
- Maitai Bay or Matapouri – Both are incredible white sand beaches.
Aotea (Great Barrier Island), Auckland
Aotea is a unique off-the-grid island located approximately 90kms from Auckland City. It is easy to get to with a 30-minute flight from Auckland airport or a four-hour ferry ride from downtown Auckland.
The island has a main road that is approximately 35 kms long but it is very windy and takes nearly an hour and a half to drive from one end to the other; there are plenty of options for hiring vehicles on the island but you can also bring your own on the ferry.
Being off the grid means there is no light pollution at night which allowed the island to gain and official ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary‘ status, one of very few on the planet! This has really put the Aotea on the map with astronomy enthusiasts travelling from all over the world to experience the amazing night skies that are regularly on display there.
Other big attractions on the island include the amazing beaches, fantastic hikes, natural hot springs and wonderful wildlife life. With no possums or ermines on the island, the native bird life has less threats than the mainland and some species are thriving such as the incredible native kaka. Dolphins frequent the bays and beaches and occasionally orcas and whales also make an appearance. Fishing and diving is popular with numerous boaties making their way to the island over the summer months.
Finding a place to stay is easy with a number of accommodation options from luxury lodges to camping sites. The Department of Conservation have six serviced campsites on the island and Airbnb is a popular way to find a place to stay. Summer time can get busy so if you plan to visit in the peak season (mid December to the end of January) then it might pay to book your preferred accommodation.
Karllie – YOLO SOLO
Waiheke Island, Auckland
One of the very best things that you simply must do whilst in the North Island of New Zealand, is to hop on a Fullers Ferry at downtown Auckland, and take the 40-minute ferry ride across the sparkling Hauraki Gulf, past the iconic dormant volcano island that is Rangitoto Island, to Waiheke Island. It is frequently on the top of lists of the “best island escapes” in publications like Lonely Planet and Travel & Leisure Magazine.
Why? Firstly, the island is laden with over 30 boutique vineyards along with their tasting rooms with stunning views, and amazing restaurants usually featuring the best of local produce. This alone is good enough reason for Waiheke Island to be one of the best places to go in the North Island!
Not only that though, Waiheke Island also has over 133 km of coastline and 40 km of beaches and there are some beautiful sandy beaches like Onetangi Beach, Oneroa Beach and Palm Beach that are great for picnicing and swimming.
The local hop on-hop off bus offers some very interesting itineraries to suit different interests too. For example, ‘The Vista Points, Beaches and Walks Route’ is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, whilst ‘The Foodies Adventure route’ will see you sample local delicacies and ‘The Sampler Route’ is known for its amazing wineries, food, and great views.
There is a network of walking tracks throughout the island, showcasing the New Zealand flora and fauna and birdlife. You can also rent a kayak, go mountain biking, or ziplining through the trees if you’re looking for more challenging activity.
Waiheke Island was once known as an ‘alternative lifestyle’ spot in Auckland and still has many interesting art galleries and an outdoor sculpture exhibition that is held every two years in February or March. A very popular jazz festival also takes place over Easter.
Though there’s plenty to do there, on Waiheke Island you can always just choose to put your feet up, enjoy the view whilst chilling out and recharging! It really is an island paradise right on the doorstep of New Zealand’s largest city and one of the real North Island New Zealand highlights.
Maureen – So Many Places! So Little Time
Hot Water Beach, Coromandel
Hot Water Beach is easily one of the best attractions on New Zealand’s North Island. Not only is it a beautiful beach, but it is also a unique spot where you can actually dig a hole in the sand to make your very own natural hot pool!
Each day during low tide, people from all over the world come to Hot Water Beach to relax in steaming hot water with views of the ocean. Under the sand, there are actually hot vents that create hot water when you dig. In certain places, it is so hot in fact that you need to be careful not get burned! This is great because even in the winter, Hot Water Beach is a place you can enjoy.
It is important to visit only during low tide (or two hours maximum on either side). This is because the vents are located under the sand and are only exposed during low tide. If you come during high tide, you won’t be able to find the hot water as the beach will be lapping over the perfect spots.
You can rent shovels at the small shops near the beach or bring your own. We also suggest you take a delicious picnic lunch and really make a day of it.
It can get very busy during peak season, but this does make it easy to find the right place to dig – just go where all the other people are!
Bailey – Destinationless Travel
Blue Spring, Putaturu: One of the Best of All Our North Island New Zealand Highlights
The Blue Spring is easily one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand.
This waterhole and the rivers that lead to it are one of the most gorgeous things I think I’ve ever seen – and, while you can no longer swim in the Blue Spring to protect its purity, it’s still stunning to just look at.
It’s hard to define the most stunning thing about the Blue Spring. Is it the water that’s almost turquoise and so clear you can see right down to the bottom? Is it the fern fronds that stream through the water as it flows gently over the top, or the cute waterbirds floating about on the surface? It might even be the fact that it’s surrounded by green hills and bright blue skies as far as the eye can see – but whatever it is, this place completely took my breath away.
The best thing about the Blue Spring though is how easy it is to get to. It’s located just outside of the town of Putaturu in the middle of the North Island. That makes it an easy day trip from both Auckland or Hamilton. And if you’re going to Rotorua or Taupo, you’ll virtually drive past it.
Once you get there, things are also simple – you don’t have to hike miles into the bush to find it; just stop at the car park on Leslie Road. Then it’s an easy 15-20 minute walk up the dirt path – I did it in flip flops!
Helen – Destination>Differentville
Welcome to Middle-Earth!
The Hobbiton set is every bit as magical as any super-fan would expect it to be. All too often famous bucket list attractions don’t live up to expectations, but I can assure you that this one is not one of them!
The tour starts as you leave the village and head towards the Shire. As you drive the 1.5km route through the lush rolling hills of the property, you’ll learn more about the history of Hobbiton and will understand why Peter Jackson fell in love with Alexander Farm whilst flying over New Zealand scouting locations.
The Shire is a 12-acre plot that houses one of the most magical towns I’ve ever seen. Initially created in 1999, the set consisted of 39 Hobbit holes of which only 17 bare plywood facades remained after the filming wrapped.
That was enough to get the tours started, but the set didn’t become what it is today until 2009 when the Hobbit trilogy was green-lit. Alexander Farm agreed to let the production team rebuild the set with the condition that it’d be left up permanently. For the Hobbit, 5 additional Hobbit Holes were built to support the storyline. You can enter some of them during the tour, though they’re empty and super small.
Visiting Hobbiton is a Kiwi experience that will stay with you. No doubt, you’ll want to bust out those LOTR and The Hobbit DVDs for a great big binge as soon as you get home!
Ioana – The World Is My Playground
Experience Authentic Māori Culture in Rotorua
The Tamaki Māori Village and The Mitai Maori Village – A Cultural Celebration
Māori, the indegineous people of New Zealand, still have a significant place in New Zealand today. Whilst Māori influence can be found all over the North Island, the best place to further learn about and explore Māori culture is, without doubt, Rotorua.
The two most well-known Māori cultural experiences in Rotorua are the Tamaki Māori Village and the Mitai Maori Village. You’ll have similar experiences with both, so just choose one based on whichever fits into your schedule better.
During the few hours over which the tour lasts, you’ll not only learn about Māori culture and customs, but you’ll be fully immersed in their way of life. Before even disembarking the bus at the village, we had chosen a tribe leader from our bus, who performed the rituals on our behalf and led us through the village during the remainder of our time there.
While New Zealand is often known for its beautiful landscapes and adventure activities, a visit to New Zealand is incomplete without experiencing its history and culture. Make sure you stop by Rotorua when visiting the North Island and learn about a very important piece of New Zealand history that has carried its influence into modern day life.
Diana – MVMT Blog
Te Puia: The Māori Village – Where Culture and Nature Combine
New Zealand is like a palette of colours, with a wide range of activities and experiences waiting to be explored. While the South Island is mainly popular for its scenic beauty and the plethora of adventure activities to choose from, the North Island is a great reflection of the culture and heritage of the country.
As mentioned, the Māori influence is especially evident in the North Island, where the the use of the Māori language is very high. Whilst there are museums and memorials dedicated to Māori history, throughout New Zealand, in Rotorua you can actually get a taste of the lifestyle and culture of the oldest inhabitants of New Zealand – the Māori.
In Rotorua you’ll find Te Puia; This Māori village which is home to the largest geothermal geyser in the Southern Hemisphere, incredible geothermal activity and an amazing authentic cultural experience.
Visitors can head to Te Puia and spend an entire day exploring and experiencing the Māori culture, whilst interacting with the indigenous people of New Zealand. There you’ll learn about their architecture, art forms, craft and traditions, all of which are being passed on at the New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute. You can also get the view of the incredible Pōhutu Geyser, the various mud pools and the kiwi bird at the Kiwi Conservation Centre, whilst learning about the beliefs and system of local iwi (tribes).
Personally, I considered my experience at Te Puia as the highlight of my New Zealand trip. After exploring the extent of scenic beauty in this natural heaven, a dash of culture and a deep dive into the roots of the earliest people living here. My visit opened up exciting personal revelations about their style of worship, their family values, their scientific and cultural acumen, their food and above all the pride with which they still, preserve their culture and share it with strangers like us who visit them from all around the world.
Te Puia is an absolute must while exploring New Zealand’s North Island.
Parampara – Awara Diaries
Looking for more to do in Rotorua? You’ll be spoilt for choice!
- Take on The Squeeze – One of the most uniquely ‘Kiwi’ activities you can do in New Zealand!
- Go luging – Fun for the whole family.
- Giggle yourself silly Zorbing – World famous in New Zealand.
- Drive your own 4WD at OffRoad NZ.
- Raft the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world!
- Check out other geothermal parks and treat yourself to a mud spa.
North Island New Zealand Highlights: Mt Tarawera Crater Walk, National Park
If the Mt Tarawera Crater Walk isn’t on your North Island bucket list yet, you should seriously consider adding it!
Unfortunately the weather gods weren’t kind to us when we went on the tour and we were stuck in a rain cloud for most of the time on the mountain, but even then we were blown away by the beauty of Tarawera (the clouds might have made it look more mystical even). Red Basalt, black rocks and green lichen made the colours around us literally pop!
The most fun is the 400m scree run into the volcano crater! You get to run, skip, hop or even roll down a sandy slope right into the heart of the crater, filling your shoes up to the rim with volcanic sand.
The Tarawera crater walk is a great alternative to the Tongariro Crossing, especially if you’re worried about having to hike for 20km. The Tarawera tour takes half a day and is only approximately 4km. It leads you through a stunning volcanic landscape, just like the more famous Crossing does.
And if you’re luckier with the weather than we were, you’re rewarded with wide views over the Rotorua lakes, all the way to the Bay of Plenty!
It really is an experience not to be missed on the North Island!
Alex – Discover Aotearoa
Tongariro Alpine Crossing, National Park: The Most Hike of our North Island New Zealand Highlights
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.5 kilometre hike through the volcanic heartland of New Zealand’s North Island. A world-renowned trek, it is often described as the “world’s greatest day walk”.
This trek takes you through a remarkable volcanic landscape, with crazy rock formations, moonscape vistas, mighty volcanoes, beautiful coloured lakes and steaming cracks in the earth. The views are spectacular throughout!
For movie buffs, this hike takes you into Lord of the Rings territory – right in the very heart of Middle Earth. You’ll see Mount Ngauruhoe (pictured below) which is the infamous Mount Doom in the trilogy, along with other highlights which include Mount Tongariro itself, the beautifully coloured Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake.
Of real note is the highest point of the hike, known as Red Crater; at 1886 metres high, it offers unbelievable views in every direction.
This is a point to point hike, so transport arrangements must be made for both ends of the hike; this can be arranged from the local village.
The Tongariro Crossing takes between six to eight hours to complete. All food and drink must be carried on the hike, as well as essentials for changing weather conditions.
This is a challenging hike with a grading of difficult, but if you’re fit and have done some previous hiking, it is the most amazing experience! We hiked the Tongariro Crossing with our three boys when they were 8, 11 and 12, and it rates as one of the best hikes we’ve ever done (and we’ve done a fair bit of hiking)!
Nicky – Go Live Young
Paekakariki Escarpment Track, Wellington
The Paekakariki Escarpment Track is one of the best things to do in the North Island.
Can you think of anything better than azure blue coastal views that look like you’re in Fiji? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but it absolutely exists in the lower North Island!
This track is part of the Te Araroa Trail which walks the length of New Zealand, but you can do it as a half day walk thanks to the fantastic Wellington rail system. This part of the track is 10km long and will take adults 3-4 hours to walk. It is also known as the stairway to heaven as there are numerous very steep stairs right on the hillside.
The whole track runs from Paekakariki to Pukerua Bay and takes in the amazing Wellington coastline, where on a good day, you can see all the way to the South Island. Aside from the incredible views and crystal-clear water, the other highlights are the two amazing swing bridges joining the hillside. The summit of the track is only around 200m elevation, however it is undulating.
Do be aware that those who suffer from vertigo and have problems with heights may find this track difficult as there are no railings and the track runs along the cliffside. As you head down the very steep steps, you are very aware of the severity of the cliff!
To get there, you can drive or take the train to Paekakariki train station or Pukerua Bay train station, then walk the 10km and take the train back (to your car, or train straight home). Do make sure you bring cash for the train.
You can walk the track in either direction, it really doesn’t matter. Be sure to include this walk on your North Island itinerary though – it really is one of the best North Island New Zealand highlights.
Jennifer – Backyard Travel Family
Looking for more to do in our capital city, Wellington?
- Check out Te Papa – Our national museum.
- Weta Workshop – Visit the site where movie magic happens in New Zealand!
- Ride the Wellington Cable Car.
- Enjoy the many amazing cafes sprinkled around town.
- Visit the Beehive – New Zealand’s parliament building.
With so many varied, memorable things to do, these North Island New Zealand highlights really should be a part of your next NZ itinerary.
Whether you’re planning a large itinerary or are looking to cherry-pick a few favourites, the North Island is the place to be!
Planning a visit to Aotearoa? Pin this post to come back to these North Island New Zealand highlights at a later stage…