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Throughout my travels, New Zealand has been one of my best highlights with all it’s natural beauty, spectacular scenery, and stunning coastlines, it really does hold a special place in my heart. Having spent a few weeks traveling New Zealand, I wanted this post to represent my highlights and recommendations for your backpacking journey. In terms of time frame, it really does depend on your schedule, budget, and interests, therefore I have not included this in the overview below.
Disclaimer; This post is based on my personal experiences and may not be to everyone’s interests, but hopefully will inspire you to add these to your north island itinerary.
How to get around the North Island?
Getting around New Zealand will completely depend on your budget and your preferences. The most popular option is to travel by Campervan or with a Bus Tour Operator. However, there are also many who rent a car.
My ex-boyfriend was born and bred kiwi, so we set off in our campervan which in my opinion is the best way to see this beautiful country.
Why is a campervan the best way to get around New Zealand?
The main reason is that you’ll have the freedom and flexibility to do what you want! There are hundreds of campsites located around the north island and just like hostels, it’s easy to make friends and have some beers around the fire pit. Due to the increase in competition Campervans are very affordable and you don’t have to constantly pack/unpack your backpack and carry it from place to place with you. Be sure to ask for any deals or offers they may have on at the moment.
For me, since I like to go off the beaten track and like to be spontaneous when traveling, a campervan seemed the most suitable for my needs. Plus I like to stop every time I see a cool town, sign, or animal.
Things to keep in mind;
- A useful resource is the camper mate app.
- The coldest months are June, July & August
Again freedom and flexibility are a big factor in getting around by car. Rental prices will depend on the time of year whether you’re there in peak season or off-season. Regardless, with car rentals it’s usually further in advance you book, the cheaper it will be.
Things to keep in mind when driving in New Zealand;
- In New Zealand, they drive on the left side of the road.
- Be aware that animals like to wander into the middle of the road.
- Make sure you know if there are any toll roads in the area.
- Make sure you inspect the vehicle and even take some pictures beforehand.
- Stick to the speed limit!
Bus Tour Operators
Backpacker bus is probably the most popular way to get around New Zealand. As backpacking becomes more popular, there are more tour operators catering to the individual needs of their customers. Here is a list of some of the most popular operators in New Zealand. Some offer a hop-on/hop-off service, some have a set itinerary so it depends on your preferences.
Things to keep in mind;
- Make sure you read the companies reviews and compare what type of passengers and destinations you’ll want to go to.
- Most backpackers travel North to South & you’ll most likely bump into the same people and might even become friends after a beer or three.
Cape Reinga, 90 Mile Beach, Te Paki Sand Dunes
Cape Reinga, 90-mile beach, and the Te Paki Sand Dunes are a must when backpacking New Zealand! Located at the northern-most tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, the walk to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga (a well-known New Zealand landmark) was absolutely breath-taking, full of unspoiled scenery and rich in the history of the area with cultural significance. Watch the two oceans collide where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean and read the historic plaques of the leaping spirits. Even though it was a little on the windy side, it was definitely worth the drive and the clear blue skies and glistening sun really did make a difference to the day.
Te Paki Sand Dunes
As for the Te Paki Sand Dunes, a slight strain on the legs but a thrilling ride downhill was such a blast & I could have easily spent all day there. Prepare to get sand everywhere, and I mean everywhere!
Things to keep in mind;
It’s about a 3-hour drive from Paihia but after passing the main towns there are limited food or gas stations just to bear in mind.
Cathedral Cove & Hot Water Beach
Again, a must-visit site on the Coromandel, Cathedral Cove an iconic rock archway nestled on the beach. The walking track to Cathedral Cove is quite steep in places and takes about 30/45 minutes however the picturesque scenery & panoramic views is an Instagrammers paradise and is well worth the trek. Although I managed fine wearing flip-flops, most people wore sturdy shoes.
Hot Water Beach
Check the time for low tide and head over to Hot Water Beach (10/15 minutes away) and dig into the sand to create your own hot spot in the sand. However, bear in mind that the beach can get pretty crowded in high season so be sure to pre-plan in advance.
Paihia, the main tourist town in the Bay of Islands and the perfect base to explore the surrounding areas. Take a thrilling jet boat ride (Mack Attack) to the ‘hole in the rock’ and ride the waves with the wild dolphins alongside the boat.
Just a fifteen minutes ferry ride from Paihia, I would highly recommend heading over to Russel for the day as it’s full of historic buildings, restaurants, and cafés in a stunning seaside setting. It’s the perfect place for couples.
Also don’t forget to stop off at Haruru Falls (waterfalls) if you’re driving past, perfect for a picnic and spot of scenic photography and not too far from Paihia.
A thriving multi-cultural hub of the north island, Auckland has something to offer everyone. The iconic Sky Tower is a must to get panoramic 360 views across the city but if you’re really looking for a unique adrenaline activity then the SkyWalk and Skyjump is definitely for you. The viaduct is a beautiful harbor located in the heart of Auckland packed with a great choice of restaurants and bars and has a hive of activities, so well worth a stroll or a night out.
If you’re looking for a day trip from Auckland, Waiheke Island is full of beautiful beaches, wineries, cafes, and quaint shops. It’s great for nature lovers to hike around the island and just a short ferry ride away. If you have time take a trip to Waitakere Ranges, a lush native forest full of magical waterfalls, beautiful hikes, and a range of activities, close to the city but completely unexpected as its full of wildlife and picturesque scenery.
A geothermal city, packed with fun activities and immersed in Maori culture (with a faint smell of rotten eggs in the air due to the sulfur). On a sunny day, I would definitely recommend checking out the lakes, perfect for picnics in a tranquil setting with great photo opportunities. In terms of activities, there is something for everyone, to which mine included;
- Zorbing for the first time (tumbling down a steep hill in what felt like a big hamster ball & FILLED WITH WATER).
- The Gondola/Luge Skyline which is part go-cart, part tobogganing and will definitely keep you busy for a couple of hours.
- Alternatively, if you happen to have a drizzly day or just fancy an easy day to recuperate from traveling, chill out in the Polynesian spa which consists of several different hot pools outside overlooking the volcanic history across the lake.
- Lastly, I would recommend visiting the iconic Wai-O-Tapu which is one of the most famous geothermal parks, different colored pools of up to 100 degrees water bubbling all around like nothing I’ve ever seen before. (a really unique and interesting experience as long as you can hack the smell).
Another unique experience was seeing the magical glow worms in their natural environment at Waitomo caves. I opted for the Tubing tour which was full of adventure and exploring, floating underneath the milky way of glow worms, slipping through narrow cave holes and jumping backward off waterfalls in the caves. However, I would not recommend it to anyone that’s uncomfortable in dark and confined spaces.
Things to keep in mind;
They do not allow you to take your own photos, however, there is a photographer in which you can purchase the photos for a reasonable price.
River Valley is based in Hawkes Bay which is very rural-off the beaten track but beautiful scenery. River Valley provides horse trekking services and of course the grade 5 river rafting experience you’ll never forget. What an exhilarating experience it was! Although I was pretty nervous, the thrill and excitement of rushing down the rapids quickly woke me up and I enjoyed every second of it with my adrenaline pumping to the max. The lodge is a fantastic gem, with delicious food, friendly staff in a gorgeous setting.
Located at the bottom of the north island is the capital of New Zealand, Wellington (i can definitely see why they call it windy Wellington). Packed with boutique café’s, chilled out bars, and a creative art scene it definitely serves up a vibrant city experience (check out Cuba Street). The Te Papa Tongarewa Museum was my favorite attraction within Wellington as it definitely had some unique exhibits, but very informative and I could have spent hours there. It’s a great insight into the history and culture of New Zealand and ‘the giant squid’ completely blew my mind. The greatest thing about this place is that it’s FREE.
Be sure to take a stroll to the Mount Victoria Viewpoint which offers the best lookout point with a 360-degree view of the picturesque outlook. The Cable Car which boasts yet another vantage point for the perfect photo opportunity with a small historic museum based on the top is also worth the money if you are looking for something different.
On reflection, the north island exceeded my expectations as it has so much to offer and reminded me of my home country Wales. It must have been the amount of sheep! I’m so glad I got to experience it by campervan, having the freedom to stop off anywhere and explore this tranquil paradise.
Although these were my highlights and experiences of the north island there were still a lot more activities/experiences that I wish I had done. One of them being the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, hikers haven! It takes you to the highest peak of the island Mount Ruapehu and the active volcano of Mount Doom (definitely one for the bucket list next time).
I would love to hear about your North Island Experiences.
What were your highlights?