New Zealand is a coveted destination by many and in the two main landmasses that comprise it, it’s no news that the South Island (Te Waipounamu) typically steals most of the tourists’ attention — however, there are a lot of amazing things to do in North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) that everyone should NOT miss out on too!
In fact, apart from the usual sublime combination of forests and mountains, the North Island is highly known for its wild surf beaches (particularly on the west coast and Coromandel Peninsula), geothermal activity (as per Taupo and Rotorua’s wonders), cultural concentration (given that the Māori are primarily concentrated there), and LOTR origin (think of the famous Hobbiton and Weta Workshop).
Clearly, there are an array of spectacular activities that you can check off of your bucket list here. In fact, to make it a whole lot easier for you, I have listed below the top must-do’s and must-see’s for your New Zealand adventure in the North Island! The best part…? You can do most of these epic activities if you join a road trip adventure with Wild Kiwi!
Top photo of Whangarei Falls from Shutterstock.com
Things to Do in North Island
#1 – Have some ocean fun
Cathedral Cove from Shutterstock.com
Pristine beaches, legendary surf, and rugged cliffs — North Island’s coastline is the perfect place to relax or catch some waves!
- Auckland: Called as the “City of Sails”, you should not leave this hub without exploring its coast and nearby islands — from the famed Rangitoto Volcano to the lush Waiheke Island. Otherwise, you can frolic around the black sand beaches of Karekare and Muriwai, and then pop over to Piha to surf and explore Lion Rock. If you’re rather looking for a sailing experience, you can do a harbour cruise tour or better yet, get a taste of what it’s like to yacht race in one the world’s most prestigirous sailing regata.
- Bay of Islands: With over 140 subtropical islands in its enclave, this is a great destination in the summer since it is full of hidden beaches and great terrains. Start your journey from the sea port of Russells which is the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand as you explore historic buildings and promenades. Afterwards, some of the things you must see in this group of islands are Urupukapuka Island and Rainbow Warrior (shipwreck in Matauri Bay).
TIP: Wanna travel with ease? Book a tour to the Bay of Islands and Waitangi here.
- Coromandel Peninsula: This natural wonder has two top highlights…
- Hot Water Beach at Mercury Bay = This place is unique for its underground geothermal hot springs that can easily be ‘accessed’ by digging through the sand because it is then that the hot water escapes through the surface — thereby forming somewhat of a hot water pool for visitors.
- Cathedral Cove (Te Whanganui-A-Hei) Marine Reserve = With its beautiful white sand, turquoise waters and towering rock formations, this place is quite a sight! I assure you that the hike to this cove is worth the effort; besides, the pathway here that is well-known for being the opening scene from the movie Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
- Raglan: This small coastal town is famous for its overall surf culture and its black sands in Ngarunui Beach. As one of the world’ longest left-hand surf break, it will be quite an experience to surf here!
#2 – Experience natural spas
Photo by Polynesian Spa
The place to be is in Rotorua given its unique geothermal activity which steams up from just about anywhere: from the town’s pavements, the geyser fields, the mud pools and the hot springs. As such, you should take advantage of this thermal experience by visiting the following…
- Polynesian Spa: Voted as one of the world’s top 10 spas, this lakeside establishment is renowned for its healing waters and decadent therapies since the 1800s. Basically, waters from two natural springs are fed into their 28 hot mineral pools, so there’s plenty to go around for everyone! (See their website here).
- Hell’s Gate: For a different experience, Hell’s Gate is best known for its mud baths and sulphurous spas, as reminiscent of the bathing and beauty therapies practised by the Maori people. If I may share a tip, follow it up with a traditional Maori ‘Miri Miri’ massage that they have. (Book your relaxation retreat here).
TIP: You could also discover thermal pools to bathe in at the forest of Kerosene Creek or at the ‘hot water beach’ of Lake Tarawera.
#3 – Try white water rafting
This is a great thing to do with your family or friends when in Rotorua’s Kaituna River! This is actually one of the things to do in North Island that I made sure to check and it surely turned out to be an extraordinary experience!
We went through steep native bush canyons and over 14 rapids and 3 waterfalls, including the world-renowned 7-meter Tutea Falls which is the ‘Highest Commercially Rafted Waterfall in the World’! Truth be told, this was my first white water rafting activity of all time and it was absolutely a great first. (Best to book this with Kaitiaki).
TIP: Another place where you can do this is in Tongariro River near Taupō.
#4 – Visit breweries, wineries & vineyards
Not a lot of people know this but New Zealand does not only have great wine but also great beer! The best place for this in the North Island would have to be the premier wine region of Hawke’s Bay which has been often called as the ‘Wine Country’. So for starters, go crazy on the red and white wines there — but more so on the red since the region is a leading producer of full-bodied red wines. When it comes to beer, take note of the craft beer of Hawkes Bay Brewing Co. in Napier.
In case you can’t go to Hawke’s Bay, check out the tours below that are held near the major cities of the North Island:
- From Auckland: Auckland Highlights with Wine Tasting at Waiheke Island
- From Wellington: Martinborough Gourmet Wine Tour
#5 – Go up high
As the land of adventure and breathtaking landscapes, admiring New Zealand from up high is a MUST on your things to do in North Island!
- Sky diving: Dive with highly-trained tandem skydiving instructors and free fall from thousands of feet in the air — it’s sure to be an experience that will leave you speechless (and you’ll even get to go home with bragging rights!). For this, I suggest doing it either in Auckland or Taupo in the North Island.
- Sky Walk: Get the best vantage point of Auckland city from the 192-meter Sky Tower, the highest building in New Zealand! (To book your spot, go here). In this experience, you will basically walk on a 1-meter wide platform with no handrails, but with a safety harness of course. While you walk 360 degrees around this tower, you’ll get to stop at various points to have your photo taken, learn more of Auckland’s history, as well as lean over the edge.
#6 – Go jump
Photo from Taupo Bungy
Did you know that New Zealand invented bungy jumping? …Well okay, technically, people in Oceania have been leaping from tall towers for centuries — BUT, it was a group of Kiwis who commercialized bungee / bungy jumping in the 1980’s, and as you know, the rest is history. Given this fact, it will be a blast to challenge your fears and do a bungy jump in the country that started it all. For the best places, see below…
- Auckland: Sky Tower Jump or Bridge Bungy
- Taupo: Taupo Bungy (done over Waikato River at 47 meters high and this is the highest water touch bungy in New Zealand).
#7 – Go fast
Photo by Huka Falls Jet
There are various things to do in North Island that will let you go through a fast and thrilling experience…
- Luge: Somewhat of a mix between a go-kart (without the engine) and a toboggan (without the snow), Rotorua’s “Luge” is a fun and fast-paced adventure activity that is great for people of all ages! I enjoyed this so much and a lot of people even say that this place is better than the Luge activity found in South Island’s Queenstown, so go and give this a try!
- Jet Boat: This is an adrenaline-pumping activity that was invented by New Zealand. So if you like speed, spins, and thrills combined with marvelous water scenery, going on a jet boating activity will be worth your while! I have gone through this experience myself with Hukafalls Jet in Taupo and it was loads of fun!
- Zorb: Also called as ‘globe riding’, zorbing involves rolling down a hill inside a huge inflatable ball. Invented in 1994 in New Zealand, this has become one of the ‘must-do’ activities when in the country and it often gives you the chance to choose the kind of trail that you’ll go through — may it be zigzag or straight!
#8 – Kayaking
There are diverse kayaking opportunities in the North Island wherein you can get up close with the nature’s spectacular coastal formations in clear subtropical waters. Some of the best places to do it are in Auckland, Bay of Islands, Lake Taupo,and Lake Rotoiti (Tasman) among many others.
…Better yet, if you ever sight a body of water, look for the nearest kayaking shop to rent some for you and your family and friends!
#9 – Chase After Waterfalls & Lakes
Whangarei Falls from Shutterstock.com
With New Zealand’s majestic natural terrain, there is always a gorgeous waterfall or lake nearby — wherever you may be. Some of the notable ones will be…
- Lake Taupo: This is a breathtaking lake that is actually the caldera of the Taupo Volcano. As the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand, one of the popular things to do here other than kayaking is sailing in order to enjoy its waters or to go fishing. Plus, one spectacular stopover for your things to do in North Island will be the iconic Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings which is made up of several individual carvings that each has its own story and meaning.
- Bridal Veil “Waireinga” Falls: Found in Pakoka River in Waikato area, this plunge waterfall is 55 meters high and with its power, it has formed a large pool at its base over time.
- Whangarei Falls: Arguably the most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand, this 26-meter watefall has ample walkways around and along the river and is a popular picnic spot since th 80s.
- Huka Falls: This powerful yet astonishing set of bluish waterfalls on the Waikato River drains onwards to Lake Taupo. It is said that per second, the volume of water flowing through it often approaches 220,000 liters! For an extraordinary experience, don’t forget to try jet boating with Hukafalls Jet here!
- Lake Waikaremoana: Located in Te Urewera, you will find here one of New Zealand’s 9 “Great Walks” which is the Lake Waikaremoana track that involves a 3 to 4-day tramping (vigorous walking). This approximately follows half of the lake’s circumference as you go through a pristine rainforest, wetlands, valleys of mist, waterfalls, rivers, and a magical ‘goblin forest’.
#10 – Cycling
If you’re into biking, no matter if you’re a beginner or not, New Zealand is a great place to do it in — rest assured, there are plenty of rental providers that you can find during your stay. To start off, there are several “Great Rides” in Nga Haerenga (“The Journeys”) trail to choose from for every age and ability and some of the places to do it in are in…
- Hawke’s Bay Trails
- Rimutaka Cycle Trail
- Great Lake Trail
For a complete list, see here.
#11 – Witness Maōri Culture
Powhiri ceremony photo by Graeme Murray
The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand and Rotorua as well as its surrounding towns arguably has the highest concentration of Māori villages.
With that in mind, it is a must to visit at least one of those villages in order to immerse yourself with the history and customs of the Maori people — a culture that the country is highly proud of. I visited one of the best villages, Tamaki Maori Village, and some of the many amazing things that you’ll experience and which I personally loved was witnessing the grand pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony with waka or warrior canoe), practicing hongi (traditional greeting in which people press their noses together), seeing the powerful haka (traditional war cry), learning about the Maori history, partaking in a hangi (traditional Maori feast), and more!
Some other villages that you could also check are…
- Mitai Maori Village: Quite similar to Tamaki Maori Village wherein the experience is done in a natural bush setting and the welcoming ceremony (powhiri) is done with an ancient warrior canoe (waka). To book, go here — otherwise, you can also buy a bundled ticket where you will also enter the Rainbow Springs in Rotorua (a compact zoo with a kiwi hatchery and interactive animal encounters).
- Te Puia: The performances in this village are done in a modern makeshift building (unlike Tamaki and Mitai wherein it’s done in the bush or forest), but the unique thing about this place is that aside from the Kiwi House (where you can witness the elusive kiwi), you can also marvel at the geothermal wonders that are spread over its 60 hectares of land, including the famous Pohutu Geyser which is the Southern Hemispheres largest active geyser. For your immersion, you can choose either a day or night experience (but I personally recommend the night portion since you can enjoy everything under the starry sky).
#12 – Do city/town tours and stops
During your whole adventure, the following tours and stops should be high on your things to do in North Island…
- Auckland City Highlights
- Auckland Harbour Cruise
- Wellington Coastline Tour
- Wellington Te Papa Museum Tour
- Feilding: A constant winner for being called as the country’s ‘Most Beautiful Town’ given its beatiful Edwardian architecture, boutique shopping and rural charm.
- Napier: Popular for its beautifully-preserved 1930s architecture of art-deco buildings.
- Raglan: A great coastal community with a ‘boho’ vibe. It also offers the best surfing in the country.
- Russell in Bay of Islands: The first permanent European settlement in New Zealand.
- Te Mata Peak near Hastings city: A picturesque peak offering views over the Heretaunga Plains, Hawke’s Bay and Napier.
- Whakatane: Found in Bay of Plenty, it’s known as being New Zealand’s ‘Sunshine Capital’.
#13 – Visit Middle-earth
For the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit‘ movie fans like me, a trip to New Zealand is your once-in-a-lifetime chance to venture off into your own Middle-earth adventure! The good news? Most of it is found in the North Island. The top two places for you will be…
- Hobbiton Movie Set: This is the famous 12-acre movie set of the iconic village of the Shire. As a visitor, you will be guided through a two-hour walking tour to the different hobbit hole houses (e.g. Sam and Frodo’s house) and other quintessential landmarks like the Mill and the Green Dragon Inn (where you can also grab a complimentary drink that is brewed only in Hobbiton!)
TIP: If you’re up for it, you can get a packaged tour where you not only get to visit Hobbiton but also the Waitomo Caves from Auckland.
- Weta Workshop: This is where you get the exclusive ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour on the workshop of the creative geniuses who are behind the films of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, District 9, King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia and more! Throughout the experience, you’ll be up close with all the props, armor and vehicles created for the aforementioned films and to cap it off, you’ll stop by the Weta Cave shop where there is a mini museum, collectibles and movie merchandise for all the fans out there. (For this you can choose a day tour or an extended evening tour with the starting point being in Wellington).
TRIVIA: The co-owners of Weta are Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jamie Selkirk.
TIP: For a fuller experience, you can partake in this half or full day Lord of the Rings tour that explores the film sets all over Wellington city, including the Shire, Rivendell, Isengard and the Great River Anduin. It will also stop over at Weta and capped off with an orc-sized LOTR-themed lunch at the Scorch-O-Rama cafe.
#14 – Watch a rugby game
All Blacks doing Haka from Shutterstock.com
If you’re mad for rugby like the Kiwis — most especially to their beloved ‘All Blacks’ national team (who I first discovered by watching a viral video of their powerful ‘Ka Mate’ haka performance) — then, there is no better place to indulge in this affair than to watch a game of the All Blacks in their home ground which is in Eden Park in Auckland!
For a national game, prices are usually between NZ$20 to $30 per person, while international games are about NZ$60 to $150, depending on where you choose to sit.
#15 – Eat, eat, eat!
New Zealand’s cuisine is largely influenced by America, Europe and Southeast Asia and closely-related to Australia. Whereas Maori cuisine is a different thing altogether; but to give you an idea, below is a list of food that you must try!
- Afghans: Crunchy chocolate cookies
- Crayfish: If you’re from the Philippines like me, shelling out about NZ$80 might be overkill, but New Zealand fishermen pride themselves when catching this so give it a try!
- Fish and chips: This might not be an original of New Zealand but it’s a vital part of the local food
- Hangi: You can best try this traditional Maori cooking method if you join one of the Maori cultural village tours
- Hokey Pokey: A vanilla ice cream mixed with caramelized sugar
- L&P (Lemon & Paeroa): This is a softdrink that’s proudly made by Kiwis. I’m not into softdrinks but I love this for its sweet lemony taste
- Lamb: This meat is cheaper in the country — after all, the sheep population is larger than New Zealand’s human population!
- Manuka honey: You’ll find a lot of things in New Zealand mixed with this and it makes sense to bring home a jar as a souvenir too
- Paua: A large sea snail that is eaten raw, fried, etc. (The shell of this snail is beautiful, by the way!)
- Pavlova: I am in LOVE with this meringue dessert which has a crispy outer layer and soft inner core
- Meat or mince pie: Kiwis love their mince pies and this is basically a pastry filled with meat and gravy
- Tuatua: Eating this kind of shellfish is believed to be a Maori tradition
- Whitebait fritter: A kind of omelette mixed with small juvenile fish
- Wine and cheese: New Zealand has a great wine region and for the best indulgement, pair a fruity red wine with cheddar cheese
#16 – Go hiking or trekking / tramping
Tongariro National Park from Shutterstock.com
Choose from any of the following…
- Any of the “Great Walks”: See the complete list here.
- Wanna trek through Mordor? Check the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park.
- Do the Cape Brett Walkway: This is a challenging yet rewarding coastal hike in the Bay of Islands.
- Coromandel Coastal Walk: Meanders through forests and gives great sights over Coromandel Pinnacles, Great Barrier Island, Port Charles and Cuvier Island.
#17 – Climb mountains and summits
Mount Ruapehu from Shutterstock.com
Key options would be…
- Visit mountains:
- Mount Ruapehu:This is the highest mountain in the North Island, and though it is an ative vlvano, it is enjoyed by a lot of hikers, skiers and snowboarders.
- Mount Taranaki: The 2nd highest mountain in North Island. Climbing this is quite hard but the views from up high will be worth it.
- Go up Rangitoto Summit: An Auckland icon, this grants great panoramic views of the cityscape as you go through lava fields and forests.
#18 – Marvel at glow worms and explore caves
Photo by Waitomo Glowworm Cave
Waitomo is a village that is well known for its extensive underground cave systems, and as a visitor, you can do the following…
- Waitomo Glowworm Cave: Do you want to see stars up close — or better yet, see a galaxy of ‘tiny living lights’? With this tour, you will be gliding silently on a boat through Waitomo River as you go through the “starry” wonderland of the Glowworm Grotto which has thousands of tiny glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa) that radiate a luminescent bluish light in the dark. Mind you, these creatures are unique to New Zealand only!
TIP: If you’re up for it, you can get a packaged tour where you not only get to visit the Waitomo Caves but also Hobbiton from Auckland.
- Ruakuri Cave: Much like the main Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Ruakuri Cave tour offers the magical experience of sighting glowworms up close; but more than this, you’ll be winding your way through spectacular limestone formations and crystal tapestries.
TIP: If you want a more adventurous experience, black water rafting is the best choice for you as you abseil, weave, jump, climb and float through the stunning underworld of Ruakuri Cave and a few waterfalls too.
- Aranui Cave: Though this is the smallest out of Waitomo’s 3 main caves, visiting Aranui Cave will rather give you a closer look at all the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones and other limestone formations.
#19 – Witness the wildlife
Photo by Zealandia
New Zealand has long evolved into a continent with unique flora and fauna, so if you want to sight its local wildlife, go and visit any of the following spots…
- Zealandia Sanctuary: This is a protected natural area in Wellington wherein 225 hectares of forest is being restored. To date, this is said to be the world’s first fenced urban eco-sanctuary and it has since helped increased the number of sightings of species such as tui and kākā. Other than these, you can also see the Little Spotted Kiwi, glowworms and other native wildlife here. (To buy a ticket, go here).
- Rainbow Spring Nature Park: A compact zoo in Rotorua with a kiwi hatchery and interactive animal encounters. (To buy a ticket, go here).
- Cape Kidnappers: This cape is home to the largest and most accessible gannet (seabird) colony in the world.
- Red Rocks Reserve: This easy coastal walk from Owhiro Bay will lead you to an amazing fur seal colony with pups.
- Tiritiri Matangi Island: This island on the Hauraki Gulf is a stunning wildlife sanctuary for the country’s native birds and endangered species. It is also home to a 150-year old lighthouse, a network of trals, and pristine beaches.
- Tāwharanui Marine Reserve: The best way to enjoy this reserve is to do either diving or snorkelling so that you can observe its colorful reefs and fishes. Truth be told, dolphins and orcas are even often sighted in the area.
#20 – Visit geothermal wonders
Wai O Tapu from Shutterstock.com
Rotorua is packed with several geothermal parks that will leave you in awe, and if I may suggest, you should choose from any of these top 3 places (and then steel your sense of smell!)
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland: This showcases New Zealand’s most colorful and unique active geothermal elements that have been sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity. (Book your ticket here).
- Te Puia: Other than being a Maori cultural village, Te Puia is famous for its geothermal activity especially that of its Pōhutu Geyser which is said to be the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere. It also erupts once or twice every hour at heights that could reach 30 meters!
- Hell’s Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Spa: Other than witnessing boiling pools and erupting waters, you could also enjoy their hot spring services that are coupled with a therapeutic mud and sulphur spa. (Book a spot here).
- White Island: This is the country’s most active cone volcano and it is found on the Bay of Plenty. Despite its roaring gases and bubbling mud pools, it is actually possible to step foot on this live volcano’s inner crater through a tour! So if you’re up for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, go and grab this chance.
IMPORTANT: New Zealand has STRICT quarantine laws for undeclared food and other biohazards. This means that you should not bring in any kind of fresh food such as bananas, apples, honey, etc. as you make sure that you dispose of them before going through the baggage claim area. Processed or packaged food can be accepted but you are supposed to declare them on your arrival card. If you’re ever in doubt, ask for clarification — otherwise, you will be charged with a hefty fine.
If you’ve got outdoor equipment like diving gear, hiking boots, etc. you must clean them before you travel to New Zealand in order for the inspection process to go more quickly for you. Be advised that New Zealand is firm about this given how they have sniffer dogs and bio-sensitive X-ray machines to detect any unwanted items.
I hope this list will help you to better streamline your New Zealand adventure itinerary! In fact, to better make your adventure hassle-free, consider checking the road trip tours of Wild Kiwi. Enjoy!
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Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.
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