If you’re travelling up from the South Island, you’ll notice quite a change in Wellington. The country’s capital is known as Windy Welly to locals, with an almost ever-present blustery force created from the narrow strait between both islands. There’s so much to do, see and eat. If it’s food you’re after, head to Cuba Street for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The vibrant corridor has a number of independent and chain eateries, fit for any palette.
So long as the wind isn’t too strong, walk off your meal with a stroll along the headlands, taking in views of the Cook Strait and mountains on the horizon. If it’s too blustery, choose to stay indoors and head to the national museum, Te Papa, where you can learn about Māori culture and natural history. Here, you’ll learn how the island nation was formed, and about earthquakes – not an uncommon occurrence in the country.
If you happen to be in the capital on a Sunday morning, check out the Wellington Harbourside Market – which has an array of fresh fruit and vegetables on sale. Stuff your face with more delicious food here, choosing from Cantonese, Greek, British and many more cuisines.
On your way out of the city, stop by Mount Victoria, where you can hike or drive up to the lookout, granting you some spectacular panoramic views over the city.
Napier is situated on the east coast of the North Island, and was hit by a major earthquake in 1931. With the town largely flattened, rebuilding took place through the 1930s, and now Napier has become New Zealand’s Art Deco gem, hosting an Art Deco festival every year. The seaside town gives off a Miami vibe, with a tree-lined coast and striking buildings on every corner.
Bluff Hill is a challenging ascent ending with a view over the town’s port. Head out of town to find Mission Estate Winery, the oldest winery in New Zealand and the self-proclaimed birthplace of the country’s wine heritage. Hear how the winery came to be and try out some of their Syrah wines, or of course, a signature sauvignon blanc.
After a relaxing night in Napier, head northwest to Lake Taupo, a lake the size of Singapore. If the region is expecting high winds or rain, wait for the weather to pass. That road can be one of the most dangerous in the country.
For adventure seekers, Taupo is your stop for skydiving. Arguably New Zealand’s best spot to skydive with aerial views over the Lake and surrounding landscape, you will not regret it. Choose a dive between 2,743 metres (9,000 feet) and 5,639m (18,500ft), and pay a bit extra for a personal videographer on the way down who will create a film for you to relive the experience – and prove you did it.
Wind down a little and head out of town to Aratiatia Dam, where thousands of gallons of water is released from the dam into the river, creating a wild and turbulent rapid below.
Just nearby is the Huka Honey Hive, where you can watch the local bees create Manuka Honey, a product unique to New Zealand. Try the honey with a free taster, or browse the beeswax-based products, from lunch wrappers to soap.
Now you’re in geothermal territory, and you’ll be able to smell the sulphur before you see any spouts. The east coast of the North Island lies on a fault line, making the land both ideal for vineyards and hot springs. Take a look at the Huka Falls, a roaring river rapid, before backtracking to the Otumuheke Stream, where you can sit and bathe in the hot spring.
One unmissable day hike on the North Island is the Tongariro Crossing. Many tour companies in Taupo offer drop-off and pick-up services, as the track is about a 90-minute drive from the town. The 20-kilometre (12-mile) trek is a bucket-list kind of walk, journeying through Mars-like volcanic craters alongside Mount Ngauruhoe, which was used as the setting for Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Weather permitting, you’ll have one of the best views in New Zealand from the top of Mount Tongariro, looking over the gorgeous Emerald Lakes. The white layer of calcium carbonate at the bottom of the lake combined with sunlight creates a rich emerald colour that photographs well. After six hours of hiking, you’ll leave mesmerised, and tired.
From Taupo, the next destination is Rotorua – infamous for its stench. Unfortunately, it’s something you’ll just have to cope with, as it’s part of the furniture. The high level of geothermal activity makes for an ever-present odour of sulphuric acid.
Rotorua is the place for all things related to Māori culture. Choose from a range of dining and performance experiences, with both authentic and replica Māori villages dotted around town. See the haka up close and indulge in a hāngi dinner to see how life was before Europeans settled in the country. Learn the history of wood carving and weaving, and how they’re still used today to preserve the rich Māori heritage.
At Te Puia, see New Zealand’s tallest active geyser, Pohutu. The scientific wonder has been known to spurt water 30m (98ft) into the air, but on average reaches about 20m (66ft) when erupting.
Rotorua is a great place to go white water rafting. The Kaituna River plunges over waterfalls up to 7m (23ft) tall, making it one of the most dangerous but rewarding rafting routes on the North Island.
Hobbiton should be your next stop en route to Mt Maunganui, especially if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, where you can immerse yourself on one of the most impressive film sets you’re likely to see.
If hiking is your thing, then how about a walk to Waireke Falls? A steep 45-minute walk along boulders and under rainforest-like treetops ends at a pleasing vista of the North Island’s tallest waterfall.
Mount Maunganui is a laid-back surfing town with eateries, independent shopping and even saltwater hot pools. With a younger population, it’s a great stop for couples and those who like a challenging walk. Hike Mount Maunganui itself, a now-extinct volcano with coastline views. If you look down long enough, you might just spot a seal or a dusky dolphin. ‘The Mount’, as it’s known to locals, is a great place to stop for a relaxing night or two.
You’ve got free reign on the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s your place to surf, swim, snorkel, and soak up some of the North Island sun.
With hundreds of bays and beaches to choose from, it’d be impossible to choose the best. A better idea is to map a region and choose a handful of sites to explore. You’re likely to stumble across a load of surfers – so if you can, try your hand at riding the waves.
Make time for Cathedral Cove – another geographical wonder at the end of a lovely coastal walk from Hahei. A lot of New Zealanders come here for their holiday, so trust the locals that you’re in the right place.
Though you’ll be flying out of Auckland, head past the big city to Northland and the Bay of the Islands. Go dune-boarding in Te Paki; stop off at Waitangi, where the treaty between the Crown and local iwi (tribes) was signed in 1840, and explore Ninety Mile Beach, which is actually only 55mi (89km) and extends to Cape Reinga. Once you get to Cape Reinga, you can see where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea collides, and a gnarled pohutukawa tree, which, according to Māori beliefs, is the point where the spirits of deceased Māori leap from to return to their ancestral land. Stick around for a stunning ocean sunset and catch some of the best surf breaks in the country.
The region’s sheer enormity makes it perfect for cycling and self-led exploration, and without easy access to most places by road it’s a paradise like no other.
Much like the Coromandel Peninsula, you can be your own guide here – following trails that suit you and ending up on beaches you might never have planned on visiting.
Encased by two harbours, Auckland is like no other place in New Zealand. The Sky Tower sits above the skyline and there’s the option to do a SkyWalk or SkyJumps (if you’re feeling brave enough). For a cheaper panoramic view of the city, catch the ferry across to Devonport and walk 300m (984ft) up to the Mt Victoria peak overlooking the city of Auckland and the Waitematā Harbour.
Back on the city side, absorb the country’s fine sporting heritage with a visit to Eden Park, which regularly hosts All Blacks rugby games, and is just a stone’s throw from Mount Eden, a once-active volcano with a near-perfect crater.
Time permitting, make Waiheke Island your last stop. Easily accessible by ferry out of the city, the island is home to 30 wineries, or go for something a little more daring with a zip line across native bush.