The North Island of New Zealand is quite different from the South Island and is itself a place of great contrasts. There are picturesque beaches and islands along the east coast, mountains, forests, thermal and volcanic areas, and lots of green farmland. It's every bit as enjoyable to visit as the South Island, just different. This quick overview of the North Island will give you some ideas on the places to visit if you are planning a trip to this island of New Zealand and an itinerary for a road trip. It starts and finishes in Auckland.
For most visitors to New Zealand, the journey starts in Auckland. As New Zealand's largest city, it's a great place to explore for at least a few days. Check out the nightlife, restaurants, and entertainment. Stroll around one of the city's shopping districts or the lovely harbor area around the Viaduct. You could also take a ferry ride to one of the islands of the Hauraki Gulf or visit one of Auckland's great beaches.
From Auckland, head north to Northland. It's a large area with many great beaches and forests. Travel up the east coast through Northland's main city, Whangarei, 100 miles from Auckland. From there drive on another 44 miles to Northland's best-known tourist destination, the Bay of Islands. Learn about the history of the Maori people and their relationship with the early European settlers at Waitangi or Kerikeri. Take a boat trip into the bay from Paihia to explore some of the 144 islands.
From the Bay of Islands continue north to the very northern tip of mainland New Zealand at Cape Reinga. This is a special, remote, and dramatic place. It is 130 miles from Paihia but well worth the journey.
As you travel back to Paihia, choose the route along the west coast. You can drive along Ninety Mile Beach, although it is not recommended for cars or rental vehicles. Pass through Kaitaia and take the scenic route through the Waipoua Forest and the magnificent kauri trees, some of which are 2,000 years old.
Drive back through Auckland and continue on to the Coromandel Peninsula. Like Northland, this is a place of beaches and forests. Make sure you check out Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, both on the eastern coast near Whitianga.
Further south along the east coast is the Bay of Plenty and the towns of Tauranga and Whakatane. Take a flight to the active volcano White Island and then drive further along the eastern coast, through Ohope and Opotiki, along one of the loveliest stretches of coast in the country. From there it's past the east coast lighthouse and on to Gisborne, New Zealand's easternmost city. There are more great beaches to explore.
The next stop heading south is Hawke's Bay and the two cities of Napier and Hastings. Like Gisborne, this is an important wine region. Hawke's Bay is renowned for its red wines and is the largest wine region in the North Island. At this point, the main road heads inland on the final stretch to Wellington. On the way, you'll pass through another wine region, the Wairarapa, and the towns of Masterton and Martinborough.
Wellington, New Zealand's capital, is a vibrant and cultural city. It's also the departure point for the ferry to the South Island. Spend a few days in Wellington exploring the harbor area and especially Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum.
Manawatu-Wanganui and Taranaki
The drive north toward the western side of the island takes you through the towns of Palmerston North, Wanganui, and New Plymouth. Near New Plymouth is Mount Taranaki (formerly called Mount Egmont), one of the North Island's most distinctive landmarks. Further north are the Waitomo Caves, an incredible maze of glow worm caves.
Through the center of the island are some of the country's most impressive natural features and the most volcanically active part of New Zealand. The Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand's three UNESCO World Heritage sites. Within its boundaries are the mountains of Ruapehu, Ngaurahoe, and Tongariro. The Tongariro Crossing is regarded as New Zealand's best day walk. Ruapehu also is the location of the North Island's ski fields, Whakapapa and Turoa.
In the distance is Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest lake. It's a great place for trout fishing, hiking, and boating. Just 50 miles from Taupo is Rotorua. This is one of New Zealand's most famous tourist destinations and a must-see for any North Island tour. In addition to the unique geothermal areas, featuring geysers, mud pools, hot springs and sulfur pools, it is the best place in New Zealand to gain an appreciation of the Maori culture.
The road then takes you through the green farmland of the Waikato, the setting for Hobbiton in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, and back to Auckland.