Being marooned in New Zealand for the past 13 months, I’ve unintentionally become more familiar with the country than many locals. I’ve spent most of my time on the North Island and been blessed to be here at a time when tourism is low. Even Hobbiton had only 40 people when I visited, in contrast to its normal 4,000. Here are a few of my favorite places in New Zealand’s North Island. You may recognize some, but they’re often overlooked by tourists who have only a week or two to see the entire country.
The first thing you’ll notice is how it feels to be there. The vibe is highly relaxed, a bit like a surfer town. The center of town is small, and in a day you’ll meet so many people, and see them again, that you’ll feel like you’re home.
As you stroll through town (you’ll probably stop for a bite at Isobar Raglan at some point), make sure to venture down the small alley that leads to an unexpected outdoor coffee shop. Continue down the main street, and you may be surprised to find a tourist office and museum as well as an exchange box. (You can take something you need and donate something you don’t.)
One of my favorite walks was down Wallis Street, out to the harbor, where you can enjoy a very fresh fish and chips. (The type of fish changes every day in accordance with the catch of the day.)
You can easily visit most of Raglan in a couple of days, but you may want to stay forever.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the art deco and plethora of vineyards (which span into nearby Hastings and Havelock North), but after a month there, I learned it’s full of many other amazing things to see and do.
There’s a wonderful gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. You can get there with a tractor tour along the beach. Unlike the one in Auckland, you’ll be literally next to the birds and possibly get to watch juveniles frantically flapping their wings trying to fly for the first time.
Go to Bluff Hill for a beautiful view of the harbor, and stroll down the forest path for some time in nature. You can walk from there to Ahuriri, one town over. It’s not as lively as Napier, but it has several restaurants on the water and a winery in town.
Napier also has a botanical garden with a historical cemetery and reminders of the earthquake that leveled the town in 1931. (I happened to be there recently for the huge quake in March.) There’s even a prison and hot pools to explore.
Another favorite activity is wandering along the very long boardwalk, best done with an eBike or scooter so that you can get all the way to the Maori Star Compass.
You could spend 3 or 4 days in Napier, or easily a week, and not run out of things to do.
A few hours from Napier, this city may not be as charming, but I was intrigued that they explain that Captain Cook’s crew murdered several Maori after arriving. The city pays tribute to the men killed with local sculptures and historic explanations. As a world traveler, I’m impressed that these facts have been publicized for a more accurate understanding of history. If you do pass through, make sure to visit the Tairawhiti museum, providing a blend of history and cultural information of the area.
Gisborne also claims to be the place that starts every new day with the first sunlight on earth. Technically, Samoa is the first to pass into the new day, but the East Coast of New Zealand gets the first sunlight each day, with Gisborne being seconds behind the actual place that gets first light.
4. Whitianga And Coromandel Town
You won’t regret a trip to the Coromandel Peninsula. Whitianga is a charming town, and the Lost Spring is worth an afternoon for a perfect massage and dip in the hot pools. Nearby is the Hot Beach, where you can literally dig your own pool of hot water and meet new friends by the sea. Drive to Coromandel Town via the 309 -- a windy road with four stops to see a forest, a waterfall, a small amusement park, and a bunch of pigs. (You just have to see the pigs for yourself, and you’ll understand why you’ll have to stop.) A visit to Cathedral Cove is another must-do.
Coromandel Town is small and quaint. You only need a day there, and make sure you do the Driving Creek Railway ride. Truly a work of art in more ways than one. A ferry runs from Auckland to Coromandel Town and back. It’s a beautiful ride, however, it doesn't take cars.
Most roads on the peninsula are windy, so keep that in mind if you suffer from car sickness.
I learned there are three valid pronunciations of this city. It’s also spelled with and without the “h,” adding to the confusion. It was one of the first settlements in New Zealand because of the strategic views it offers up and down the river.
While you can easily see this city in a day, you might want to take a few more to allow time for the nearby sites. Within Whanganui, don’t miss the underground elevator and views from the top, as well as the Rotokawau Reserve for a beautiful nature walk. If you’re in town on the weekend, the local market is one of the more fun ones I’ve been to in New Zealand.
There’s a plethora of refreshing international cuisine in the town center; my favorites were the Japanese restaurants.
You’ll need a car (and time for a boat ride) to see the nearby Bridge To Nowhere, not to be confused with The Forgotten Highway, another treat in the area. A final must-see is The Bason Botanic Gardens.
The town of Opotiki itself isn’t much of a destination. It’s close to the town of Whakatane, offering more activities and life. Opotiki has lots of nothing. The rolling hills, the cattle, the peaceful silence, and the beauty give you a perfect relaxation experience without the hassle of lots of tourists cramming in to see a famous site.
A highlight of my time there was staying at the Hideout, an AirBnB with a farm, and milking the cows. The rolling hills in the distance provided the perfect retreat.
7. New Plymouth
This is another city with a seaside boardwalk that stretches for miles. Rent a scooter or bike and travel to both ends. There’s a delightful French coffee shack and whale bridge near one end. The other end will lead you to the harbor, where you can catch a boat ride around the Sugar Loaf Islands.
Of course, this area is most well known for Mt. Taranaki. The hike up and down is around 10 hours and involves some very challenging terrain. It’s not for the faint-hearted or injured. (I gave it a pass.) This is the mountain with the long white cloud in front of it for which New Zealand gets its name, Aotearoa. It’s a true gift to see it for yourself.
I couldn’t leave out the town where I was “stuck” in lockdown. In addition to the waterfall hikes and nearby forests, you can use it as a base to see Mount Reigna and, perhaps even more intriguing, The Wairere Boulders and The Koutu Boulders towards Opanoni. The surprising city of Whangarei is 2 hours away. There’s also a volcano to be climbed at St Paul’s Rock in Whangaroa, which involves a small section that is so steep it can’t be done without holding on to the chain, and, in my case, someone to push you on the way up, and hold your hand on the way down.
Better known places that get an honorable mention: Waiheke Island, an hour ferry ride from Auckland, with fabulous wine, beautiful scenery, hikes, and restaurants; Wellington for the amazing Zealandia sanctuary, Cable Car ride, and a visit to Weta Workshop (to name just a few); and Rotorua for its quirkiness, Redwoods Tree Walk, and fabulous hot pools.
Pro Tip: You’ll need to rent a car to see The Coromandel Peninsula and remote areas outside Kerikeri. Most other places I’ve mentioned can be reached with the Intercity Bus.