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Throughout my travels, it is without a doubt that 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. With my ex-boyfriend, a born and bred kiwi we set off in our car/campervan which in my opinion is the best way to see this beautiful country. 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. This post is based on my personal experiences and may not be to everyone’s interests, but will hopefully inspire you to add these to your north island itinerary.
Top Tip; Travel North to South – Campervan or hop on/off bus
Cape Reinga/90 Mile Beach/Te Paki Sand Dunes
Cape Reinga, 90-mile beach and the Te Paki Sand Dunes are a must! Located at the northern-most tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, the walk to the lighthouse (a well-known New Zealand landmark) was absolutely breath-taking, full of unspoiled scenery and rich in 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. 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)
Tip; 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, there are plenty of tours that visit here daily that are worth
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 instagramers paradise and is well worth the trek (although I managed fine wearing flip-flops, most people wore sturdy shoes). 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. (perfect 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. However, if you’re looking for a day trip, Waiheke Island is full of beautiful beaches, wineries, cafes and quaint shops (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 (in water, tumbling down a steep hill in what felt like a big hamster ball). 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 anyone that’s uncomfortable in dark and confined spaces). Just for the heads up, they do not allow you to take your own photos, however, there is a photographer which you can purchase the photos for a reasonable price.
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 (must have been the amount of sheep). I’m so glad I got to experience it by car, having the freedom to stop off anywhere and explore this tranquil paradise. Although these were my highlights and experiences of the north island there was still a lot more activities/experiences that I wish I had done. One of them being the Tongariro Alpine Crossing ‘a hikers heaven’ which 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?