When I told people I was going on holidays to New Zealand’s North Island, the most common refrain I got back was that ‘the South is more beautiful’. Now, although I’ve never been to the South, the North Island was spectacular. From beautiful seaside camping to Rotorua’s pristine lakes and red forests, to the striking Coromandel Peninsula, it was a sure winner.
Before we touch down, I’ll offer a few musts to add to your pre-trip checklist.
• Firstly, the free app ‘Campermate’ is absolutely wonderful. It’s basically a map of all the campsites in New Zealand. It works offline, and it colour codes the campsites into free, medium cost ($8-15), and high ($25 plus.)
Each campsite price bracket has its merits. We found the free campsites, or the ones run by the National Park service to be the most natural, and due to the absence of electricity and hence lighting, they offer the best nightscapes. As they usually don’t usually have shower/kitchen facilities, a good camping strategy is to do one-night free camping, then one-night medium cost and so forth.
• Secondly, being a purveyor of exploration over preparation, I hit my first hurdle upon arrival, when, dressed in a singlet and thongs, it became apparent that I failed to pack warm clothes for New Zealand’s autumn climate.
After frequenting a few thrift shops, I must say that thrift shops in NZ have such an extensive range of cheap outdoor clothing and camping gear, it’s almost a better plan to spend $20 on a few jackets on arrival than to lug them across on a plane. It’s also a great place to stock up on camping gear, hot plates, cutlery, etc., all for a dime.
• Renting a car is essential for exploring NZ. I found that with all the camping gear etc. a Toyota Yaris or similar hatchback is suitable for two people at most. Price wise you should aim for about $35-40 a day, including insurance. Rental prices per day are significantly cheaper when you rent from Auckland as opposed to picking up the car in a smaller town.
All that done, and the car packed, it’s them to get out of the city and let the adventure begin. A solid plan is to drive to your furthest point of interest from Auckland and to gradually meander back towards it, to save you a long drive at the end of the holiday.
Napier is a delightful little Art Deco style town in the Hawke’s Bay region. The best time to go is from the 14th to the 18th of February when the town comes alive with a vibrant art-décor festival where the punters dress in chic 1920-style clothing and promenade in dashing automobiles. Near the town is The Bluff Hill Lookout, which gives an excellent panorama out over the deep blue ocean.
2. CENTRAL LAKES
A two-hour drive brings you inland to the Central Lakes of Taupo and Rotorua. New Zealand has brilliant public amenities, and there are great free barbeque spots all the foreshore of Lake Taupo. After a picnic why not chance your luck at the driving range where you can drive golf balls out into the lake at a floating golf green?
Next stop is the lakeside town of Rotorua. Must-sees here include the Governor’s gardens which include a fabulous governor’s residence as well as rose gardens, and geothermal springs. For dinner, Rotorua’s fashionable Eat Street offers cuisine from all over the world. If you’re in the mood for adventure, the nearby Whakarewarewa Forest are a scenic redwood forest with trails for walking, biking & horse-riding.
However caveat emptor, the geothermal activity around Rotorua gives this area its characteristic sulfurous aroma!
You shall not pass… without first stopping in for a tour of Hobbiton. Amazingly the tour guide told use that 50% of the visitors to Hobbiton have never seen The Lord of the Rings. This permanent hobbit village doesn’t disappoint, and you get an appreciation of how much detail went into making this idyllic dreamland, and you hear about some ingenious cinematic techniques used by Peter Jackson. The tour finishes with a free brew in the iconic Green Dragon pub.
The Coromandel Peninsula is a place where driving becomes more than a duty. It becomes a pleasure. The winding coastal roads are probably the most enjoyable and scenic roads I’ve ever driven, and give beautiful vistas across the bays.
Points of interest include hot water beach, where you can dig your own natural hot tub in the sand when the tide is out. Complement your geothermal hot tub with a cold beer and a striking sunset and you’re set for a perfect finish to the day.
Also on the peninsula is Cathedral Cove, which is a massive white natural rock arch that takes an hour’s hike to reach. It’s very popular, and the car park tends to be full, but my advice would be to keep driving around the car park and you’ll get rewarded with a space… in time.
The Pinnacles is meant to be a fabulous hike that gives panoramic views of the Peninsula, alas we didn’t get to complete it because the park was closed due to heavy rains.
For accommodation, I’d highly recommend staying at the Tapu campsite. For only 10$ per person, you can get a tent spot a few metres from the ocean with an unobstructed view of superb sunsets in front, and a background of green hills behind you.
5. BAY OF ISLANDS
The Bay of Islands is an excellent place to bring your holiday to a close, given its extensive beaches and boutique style towns. One short hike I’d recommend is out to the Tutukaka Lighthouse, which can only be reached at low tide, so make sure you check the tides before you venture out!
Further north, the trendy town of Paihia offers artisan markets and craft fairs. A pleasant ferry ride across the bay brings you to the boutique town of Russell, where the chic café strip makes for a perfect coffee stop. The Wharf café and restaurant had excellent coffee and the seating is right on the waterfront. These towns are a popular cruise ship stop, so a café break here is sure to drum up some interesting conversation.
So with your holiday drawing to a close, one final thing to remember is to do a quick stop in the charity shop to drop off all the camping gear you accumulated, where it will be picked up by the next holiday makers who come on through, and the cycle continues.
I’ll like to draw attention to the fact that the places I’ve mentioned in this blog are far from an exhaustive list of all there is to see in the North Island. But when I remember the beautiful lakes of Rotorua, the hikes of Coromandel, and the chicness of the Bay of Islands, the next time I hear someone say ‘the South is more beautiful’, I’ll say ‘wait till you see the North’.