Most Kiwis call the North Island home and love nothing more than heading off to their favourite spots on holidays and long weekends. What is it that makes it so special and where should you visit on your New Zealand holiday? Lucky for you, we’ve had a lifetime of Kiwi holidays all over the North Island, it’s our home and we reckon we know it better than anyone around. Here’s our take on the very best New Zealand North Island Itinerary.
New Zealand North Island Itinerary
What can you do and see here that you can’t do in the South Island, or anywhere else on the planet, for that matter? Here’s what we love about the New Zealand’s North Island and what people tell us makes it so much fun:
All New Zealand’s volcanoes are in the North Island. You can visit an active one, hike on one, climb one and spend the night in comfort sleeping in the shadow of one. The city of Auckland is even built on a cone of extinct volcanoes! Volcanoes above ground means boiling mud and shooting geysers under it, all our geothermal areas are in the North.
The North Island is the centre of the universe for Maori culture. The main cultural centres are all in the North, there are maraes and even living Maori villages you can visit easily, plus some really amazing places like the Hokianga harbour where the first humans landed to discover the last major landmass on earth.
If you ask most Kiwis what their memories of summer holidays as kids are and they’ll say something about playing cricket and wearing jandals on the beach. Kiwi parents will remember cars filled with sand on the way back from the beach! As New Zealand is upside down (hottest bits in the north, coldest bits in the south) all our best beaches are in the North Island.
Yes, New Zealand has cities too and our best are in the North. Auckland, the ‘City of Sails’ was ranked the 3rd in the world in the 2016 Global Quality of Living List and Wellington has been dubbed ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ by Lonely Planet. Or how about Napier, a wee gem of a city just a little off the beaten track, blessed with sunny weather, friendly locals, great wine and an architectural style of their own.
Birthplace of the Nation
The story of how New Zealand came to be is unique, the joining of the Maori and European worlds. From a historical perspective, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 was ground breaking. So was the first instance in the world of an indigenous people gifting land to a colonising government, this is how Tongariro National Park came to be.
So roll all this up and here’s what we’ve come up with as our best New Zealand North Island Itinerary. Cut and dice this as you like, it makes for a comprehensive ‘best of the North Island’ itinerary, a short fun filled Northland itinerary, or from Auckland south a cultural, volcanic and culinary theme to your trip.
Our favourite North Island Itinerary
Day 1 - Auckland
If you’re coming to visit from overseas then take a day to acclimatize to things like the time difference, our 'monopoly money' and Kiwi English! Auckland’s a pretty sprawling metropolis these days, so we reckon it’s best to stay right downtown, that way you can walk everywhere and don’t have to deal with all those crazy Auckland drivers (Disclaimer - We live in Auckland so we’re allowed to say that!)
Day 2 - Explore Auckland
What do we tell friends to do when they’re visiting us here in Auckland? Well that’s easy, you have to get out on the Hauraki Gulf. Take your pick from a short trip across to Devonport for ice cream, a day trip to islands to the Waiheke wineries or TiriTiri Matangi birdlife, race on an Americas Cup Yacht or a Whale & Dolphin Spotting Cruise, Auckland’s all about the water. The best restaurants in the country are all right around the Viaduct and Ferry Building, see why all other Kiwis are jealous of us JAFAs! (Just Another Friendly Aucklander)
Day 3 - The Auckland Beaches, Kauri Forest and Hokianga Harbour
The rugged beauty right on the black sand beaches and the Waitakere Ranges surprise everyone, it’s just a short hop from the CBD but it feels like another world. Do you remember that movie from the 1990s, the Piano (Sam Neil, Harvey Keitel, Holly Hunter), that was filmed out here. We always check out the gannet colony at Muriwai before heading into northland and the Kauri forests. These are the last of the largest of New Zealand’s native trees, like the Redwoods in California, a source of spiritual energy for the Maori and the precious gum and timber which drew the Europeans to the area. ‘Tane Mahuta’, the lord of the forest is the most symbolic of all, the only way to see this is with one of Tane’s descendants from the Ngapuhi tribe. Waipoua forest is just down the road from the Hokianga Harbour, which is the perfect place to stop for the night, the very spot where the first Polynesians landed after navigating the Pacific guided only by the stars.
Day 4 - Hokianga Harbour to the Bay of Islands
For a real local flavour in the Hokianga, we love heading across the harbour with Pete the local ferryman, grabbing one of his boogie boards and sand board down the dunes, jump right into the water for a cool dip on a hot day. This is why our cars were always filled with sand on summer holidays Dad! Pete will come back and pick you up after sand boarding and a long walk on the beach, ask him about the story of ‘Opo’, the famous friendly dolphin who visited the Hokianga in the summer of 1955! After your Hokianga morning, make the easiest crossing of the North Island anywhere around, it’s a short hop over to the eastern side of the island, Waitangi, Paihia and Russel in the Bay of Islands. This is where the union between the Maori and European became official, the Waitangi Treaty House is just down at the edge of town in Pahia. We always love spending a couple of nights in Paihia, if you’ve just started your trip then you’ll love slowing down and sinking your toes into the Kiwi sand for a few days!
Day 5 - Bay of Islands Cruise & Russell
Getting out on the water is must in the Bay of Islands, there is so much choice from the Paihia main wharf, like sailing, kayaking, a cruise out to the Hole in the Rock Cruise or maybe now is the time to tick swimming with dolphins off your bucket list. You can even do a skydive or scenic flight, hire a jet ski, try your hand at ocean fishing or sail on a historic schooner! Make sure you get across to Russell, the original capital of New Zealand, an really laid back Kiwi spot that has come a long way since the lawless pre Treaty days.
Day 6 - Bay of Islands back to Auckland
We always like to break up our North Island trip with a night in the City of Sails instead of trying to do the big drive down to Rotorua in one day, you’re on holiday right, so take your time! A couple of our favourite stops on the road to Auckland are Kawakawa and the Kawiti Glowworm Caves. Kawakawa is home to the work of famous Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, his piece de resistance is the Hundertwasser Toilets here in Kawakawa. We’re serous, Google them and see for yourself, this will be the most interesting trip to the toilet you’ll have in ages! Just off the main road after Kawakawa are the Kawiti Glow worm caves, a privately owned and family run glowworm cave. You’re guided by descendents of Hineamaru, the chief of the Ngati Hine tribe who discovered the caves in the 17th century. We really love the relaxed family feel to the caves, it’s the perfect stop for an hour before you continue on your journey. Stop in the Whangarei Basin for lunch and if it’s not Sunday, check out the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre, a community run conservation project where you can talk to the volunteers and get close to a real kiwi. It’s a little over 2 hours to Auckland from Whangarei, plan your arrival time to miss the famous Auckland traffic! Back in Auckland, we love staying right in the heart of it all, like the Sebel Suites in the viaduct!
Day 7 - Auckland - Karangahake Gorge, Te Puke, Lake Rotoiti, Rotorua
We live in Auckland, so it’d be pretty sad if we couldn’t come up with a fantastic day from our home to Rotorua now wouldn’t it! First stop is the excellent short walk and mining relics at the Karangahake Gorge, on State Highway 2. When overseas mates come to visit, they always tell us they want to learn about Kiwifruit, and as it happens this area is the Kiwifruit capital. Drop in and see our friends Ronnie and Donnie at Kiwi 360, they’ll even give you a taste of the fruit right off the vine, funny how it tastes so much better this way! Grab some lunch around here then head on down toward the Rotorua Lakes, here’s our tip for the perfect trip out on the lake - give our mate Matt at Pure Cruise a ring and he’ll take you out on his yacht over to the hot pools on the other side of Lake Rotoiti, they’ll have you back in time to get to Rotorua for dinner. Most other travellers just rush down from Auckland to Rotorua, but follow our little tips here to make your day one you’ll never forget.
Day 8 - Full Day in Rotorua
When you’re on the good old Kiwi Road trip, it’s good to break it up with a couple of nights in the same bed every now and then, Rotorua’s a good spot for that. We love staying right down on the Lakeside where everything’s in close walking distance including the museum, government gardens and Ohinemutu Maori village. Stroll down the Lakeside to the marae and their church, look out for the stained glass panel showing Jesus in a Maori cloak. There’s plenty to fill the rest of your day in Rotorua, we like the Kiwi Encounter at Rainbow Springs, Te Wairoa buried village, the Maori Arts & Craft Institute at Te Puia and for a bit of fun, the gondola and Luge. There are plenty of hot pools in and around Rotorua, here’s a tip - some hotels have their own private spas which we love for a hot soak at the end of the day without having to go out!
Day 9 - Rotorua, Wai-o-Tapu, Taupo, Tongariro National Park
Kiwis call this part of the country the central volcanic plateau, there’s bubbling mud and geysers everywhere around here. First stop on the road out of Rotorua is the Wai-o-Tapu (which means sacred waters), the easiest way is to jump on a guided tour to see and learn all about the most colourful of all the geothermal areas, the largest mud pool in the world plus the Lady Knox geyser. This is the perfect interlude before heading down to Taupo for lunch, a cool little lakeside town right on the largest lake in NZ. On a good day you can see all the way to Mt Ruapehu, under an hour from Taupo but a totally different world of volcanic rock and mountain views. Whakapapa Village is where we love to stay, right at the foot of Mt Ruapehu and on the doorstep of great short walks like the Taranaki Falls and Silica Rapids. You can drive up to the Skifield base and the chairlift runs all year, so go and grab a coffee at the highest cafe in New Zealand. The hot pools in the basement of the Chateau Tongariro for a great finish to your day.
Day 10 - Tongariro National Park - Napier
Now this is where we take a little turn off the beaten track, most people head on down to Wellington from Tongariro but we’ve got so many fantastic holiday memories from Hawke’s Bay that we reckon it’s a must for any Kiwi holiday. Head back around ‘Great Lake’ Taupo and over the to ‘the Bay', you’ll know you’re getting close when you see the first fruit stall on the side of the road, and even closer when you pass your first vineyard - no prizes for guessing this is one of the sunniest parts of New Zealand. Marine Parade’s the place to be in Napier, it’s a really cool little city designed in the Art Deco style of the 1930s, something all Kiwis know and love and all the locals have taken this to heart! The best way to take it all in is to walk along the waterfront and around Napier’s icons like the Sound Shell, Pania of the Reef and the T&G Building. All the local restautants have just the right food matches for the best Hawke’s Bay wines, you’ve got excellent choices for dinner right around the waterfront and just over the hill in Ahuriri.
Day 11 - Napier - Wairarapa - Wellington
Start the day with a jaunt around the idyllic Hawke’s Bay countryside, be warned, you’ll probably want to move here! Take your pick from one of the many wineries for a tasting and if you’re staying a little longer, grab a bike to wheel through the vineyards! When you eventually drag yourself away, you’ve got some great stops on your way down to the capital, like Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre, one of the very few places you can see Takahe close up. As you get closer to Wellington you’ll come through another wine region, the Wairarapa, our favourite little spots are Carterton and Greytown (Schoc Chocolates in the main street, yum!). What makes Wellington ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ is that everything’s so close and it’s super easy to walk everywhere. We love the walk along the waterfront past the boat sheds around to Te Papa National Museum. And for the best views in town, the cable car up Mt Victoria, right from the centre of town is a Kiwi ‘must-do'. We also love Zealandia - the world’s first urban eco sanctuary, head there at night to see the Kiwis and their nocturnal habits, go to Courtney Place at night to see another type of Kiwi and their nocturnal habits! Want something quirky, Kiwi and totally irreverent, check out the Backbencher bar just across the road from parliament, complete with big stuffed puppets that look just like all our politicians!
We grew up here in New Zealand’s North Island and have been holidaying all over since we were kids, and this is our take on the best spots and things to do for your New Zealand holiday in the north. What people tell us surprises them most is how warm and friendly the people are and how strong those spiritual connections to the land are. We know you’ll love our home island and would love to show you round too!