New Zealand: one week on North Island

I’ve wanted to explore New Zealand for as long as I can remember. I’ve been envious of friends’ pictures and stories of amazing landscapes and awe-inspiring hikes on countless occasions, but the time finally came for me to see it all for myself. Lauren and I arrived in Auckland a few weeks ago full of excitement for the next three weeks. We had a week ahead of us on the north island, followed by two weeks in a campervan on the south.

Clearly, one blog isn’t going to cover everything we got up to in New Zealand, so I thought I’d kick things off by talking a bit about what we crammed into our seven days on the north island in the hope that it can help others who have a similarly short period of time to explore New Zealand’s [unfairly] oft-disregarded northern island to formulate a plan of their own.

We had to be pretty brutal about what we wanted to see and do with only seven days on the north island, which meant that we had to skip a lot of places we would have loved to have visited. I started listing these places when I first wrote this blog, but the list was too long, so I’ll just list what we actually ended up doing below.

Day one: Auckland to Matamata

We opted to drive down the spine of the island, which meant renting a car at Auckland airport and driving for a relatively brief two hours to Matamata—the home of the shire for Hobbit fans. Here, we found a lovely Airbnb, took a walk around the village’s tree-laden centennial drive, and caught up on some sleep before heading off early the next morning.

Day two: Matamata to National Park, via Rotorua

Today was a much busier day! We managed to drive between Matamata and National Park, stopping at various points to walk some trails or see certain areas. Half an hour after leaving Matamata, our first stop was the Putaruru blue spring, which is something we can’t recommend highly enough. There are two parking areas for it, but we opted for the Leslie Road option as it was slightly closer to the spring, which meant we could fit more into our day. The spring’s water was crazily blue and clear, so it wasn’t particularly surprising to hear that it supplies around 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water.

From here, we drove to widely-lauded Rotorua to see what the fuss about. While we don’t want to sound like moaners, we weren’t that impressed: The town is fairly dull in appearance and you have to pay for all of the best thermal-activity areas, which somewhat detracts from the area’s charm. If you’ve been to Yellowstone and experienced amazing geysers and springs for free, why would you want to pay to be crammed in a pen to see them here? Anyway, we left Rotorua town fairly swiftly to visit the Redwoods, which are found a very short drive away. We loved our walk around these massive trees, and we clearly chose the right thing to do in the area as Prince Harry and Meghan visited the same place just a few days later!

Back in the car we got, this time to drive 30km south to the Rainbow Mountain summit track. Here, we walked up to see the crater lake’s astoundingly blue waters. We could’ve chosen to carry on hiking up after this to see views over the local area (well worth it according to most reviews we read), but we chose not to as we still had a good amount of driving left to do to get to National Park for sunset.

From here, we drove further south to Taupo where we stopped at Huka Falls to check out the amazing force of more than 220,000 litres of water per second powering over a relatively small 11m ledge. A nice quick stop to do and well worth seeing, we thought. After this, we drove for an hour and a half to National Park, admiring the perfectly still water in New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo, for the first half of the journey, and then the serenely beautiful landscape of the national park surrounding Mt. Ngauruhoe (or Mt. Doom to most of us). The views on this final stretch of our journey were made even more beautiful by the setting sun, causing us to pull over and happily watch the skies pinken with the silhouette of Mt. Doom in front of us.

Day three: Tongariro alpine crossing

We woke up at sunrise on day three to tackle the Tongariro alpine crossing—a 19.4km hike (or tramp, as the Kiwis would say) that is thought of by many as New Zealand’s best full-day hike (although it seems every single hike across the whole country is lauded in a similar way, which calls into question the ranking system somewhat, but more on this in another post). Recently introduced laws have made it virtually impossible to park in the car park at the foot of the trail, so the majority of people pay around NZ$40 for a return shuttle trip from the town they’re staying in instead. Although the price is steep for what you get, you’re going to struggle to do it any other way, so just sucking it up and taking the shuttle option is what we did!

We were really impressed by how well-marked and maintained the trail was: The DOC (Department of Conservation) has clearly invested a lot in the trail’s maintenance, with boardwalks, steps, and even ropes on some trickier areas. The views of Mt. Doom are amazing throughout, and you get to see some pretty cool thermal lakes along the way too. We did find that the trail was pretty busy because of its popularity, but if you walked at a good enough pace, you soon lost the big packs of tourists and ended up in your own space.

After about six hours, we got our numb legs into the shuttle back to our car before driving to Taupo. Here, we stayed in a lovely airbnb with an equally lovely lady called Pat and her cheeky cat, Minty.

Days four and five: Havelock North and Hawke’s Bay area

Stiff but rested from the day before, we woke up and got back on the road, this time to drive to the Hawke’s Bay area. This was one of our favourite drives in New Zealand: I’d say that’s because we were following a brand-new McLaren a lot of the way, but Lauren would also add that the road was pretty stunning, winding alongside a river through a pine-clad gorge much of the way. Our first stop was Napier, a town famous for its art-deco architecture, much of which came about following the devastation ravaged by 1931’s tragic earthquake. When we saw the much more recently devastated Christchurch later in the trip, our thoughts came back to Napier and the tasteful way the town had rebuilt itself: We can only hope that Christchurch rebuilds itself in a similar way that embraces stylish, sustainable urban architecture over concrete-clad, and cheaper, highrises—a topic, we heard, that is currently being widely debated, resulting in a bureaucratic stalemate over the past six or so years.

A short drive later, we arrived at our latest Airbnb in Havelock North. At this point, we realised that we were either: a) very good at choosing places to stay, or: b) extremely lucky with the places we’d chosen so far. Isobel and Mike’s place felt like home for the next few days, not just because it was a beautiful house perched on the hill above Havelock North (including a huge balcony/terrace with views over the local area), but also because of the kind and welcoming hospitality provided by Isobel and Mike. We can’t thank them enough for introducing us to the local area, for sharing their home with us, and for subsequently offering us a place to stay on the last night of our trip on the South Island. This was another moment that confirmed that one of our favourite parts of travelling is the people that we meet, not just the places that we see.

Here, we explored the local towns and countryside over the next few days, including wine tasting at some of Hawke’s Bay’s famed new-world wineries.

Days six and seven: Wellington

We spent our final two days on the north island in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. We loved the city for its laid-back vibe and the fact that it was small and less over-facing than some capital cities. Wellington is a pretty hilly city, which means that quite often you have a very steep hill to walk up, but we were able to walk around its main sites relatively easily, and the views were great from a lot of these. The (free) botanical garden stands out for its views, with a great panorama over the city, the bay, and the surrounding hills. We took Wellington’s cable car/funicular to get up here, which is a cheap and novel way of getting about.

It was Lauren’s 28th (or 21st in her eyes) birthday while we were there, so we had a good time checking out the city’s cool spots to eat, drink, and hang out, including numerous microbreweries. Our favourite of these was The Garage Project in the Aro district, in case anyone is in the area and wants to try it out.

The one downside to this point of the trip was that Lauren started to feel very weird, and when things got worse on the south island—really bad neck and back pain, no appetite, fever, falling asleep on a bench at 5pm (not that napping is uncommon for Lauren…), and so on—we had to go to the doctor, which is when we found out that Lauren had likely got the Zika virus in Samoa. So, that wasn’t cool! After a week of antibiotics and some TLC, L finally starting feeling normal again, so phew! Aside from Lauren feeling crap, more on our adventures on the south island in another blog.

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