New Zealand is comprised of three main islands—the North Island, the South Island, and Stewart Island/Rakiura—as well as lots of smaller islands and archipelagos. Both the North and South Islands are geographically and culturally diverse, and the North Island is best known for its volcanoes and other thermal attractions, sub-tropical beaches, big cities (by New Zealand standards!), and strong Maori culture.
Named Te Ika-a-Māui in Te Reo Maori, the North Island is smaller than the South in terms of land area, but much bigger in population: more than 3.5 million of New Zealand's 5 million inhabitants live in the North Island. That means it's more densely populated than the South Island, but this is relative to New Zealand's overall small size: even in the North Island, it's very easy to get far away from towns and villages.
Whether you have time for both the North and South Islands on your New Zealand trip or can only visit one, here are some of the best North Island sights and attractions to enjoy.
Witness the Meeting of Oceans at Cape Reinga
While most visitors to the North Island will start in Auckland, near the top of the island, they shouldn't miss heading even further north, to the northernmost tip of mainland New Zealand: Cape Reinga.
Cape Reinga is a spiritually important place to the Maori people, who call it Te Rerenga Wairua and believe that the spirits of the recently departed leave New Zealand through the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree at the cape.
The (disused) lighthouse is an iconic New Zealand landmark, and the dramatic view of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meeting is worth the long, remote drive up the Aupori Peninsula in the north of Northland. Short and longer hikes around the cape and to hidden beaches are worthwhile for energetic travelers. Te Araroa, a long-distance trek that spans the length of New Zealand, starts at Cape Reinga.
Learn About New Zealand History at Waitangi
South of Cape Reinga is the ever-popular Bay of Islands, a favorite vacation spot of Aucklanders. As well as being full of gorgeous beaches and islands, this is one of the most significant places in New Zealand history. Waitangi, just north of the town of Paihia, is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, between Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. Although certainly not uncontroversial, this is the modern country of New Zealand's founding document. There's lots to see here so dedicate at least half a day to exploring Te Whare Runanga, the Treaty House, the ceremonial waka, the artisan workshops and the forest and lawns at Waitangi.
Dive at the Marine Reserve of the Poor Knights Islands
South of the Bay of Islands but on the same coast of the peninsula, the Poor Knights Islands, north-east of Whangarei, are considered to be one of the best diving spots in the whole world. They are a natural and marine reserve, and a huge variety of underwater plant and animal life call them home, thanks to the warm ocean currents that flow here. The islands are the remains of ancient volcanoes, so underwater caves, arches, tunnels and cliffs provide added interest for divers. If you don't dive, snorkeling can also be done here, but definitely not fishing, due to the islands' protected status.
Enjoy Sweeping Panoramic Views from Auckland's Skytower
Auckland is the city that many New Zealanders from elsewhere love to hate, but there's no denying it has the best skyline of any New Zealand city. With the pointy Skytower at its center and the hundreds of yachts that give Auckland its "city of sails" nickname, it's attractive by day or night. The best views can be enjoyed from the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the North Shore, or from the road journey south from Northland.
Ride the Ferry to Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is the most populated island in the Hauraki Gulf, about 12 miles from downtown Auckland, and can be reached by ferry or charter plane. It's a great day trip or overnight destination from Auckland, with attractive beaches, a thriving art and artisan community, short walks, and about 30 vineyards. As Waiheke Island is popular with Aucklanders, book accommodation well in advance if you're visiting in high season or during school holidays. Otherwise, a day trip via the ferry is good.
Spot Dolphins in Tauranga
The small city of Tauranga, on the east coast of the upper North Island, is popular with cruise ship passengers who disembark here. But however you arrive in Tauranga, it's a good place to spot dolphins, orcas, pilot whales, blue penguins, fur seals, and even humpback whales during the migration season.
See Film History Come to Life at Hobbiton
Tolkien fans are not short on "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" destinations throughout New Zealand, but a particular highlight is Hobbiton, in the Waikato town of Matamata. While many places across New Zeland used in filming are just natural landscapes these days, Hobbiton retains parts of the film set, so visitors can be immersed in the atmosphere of the Shire. Guided tours last about two hours, and take you to some of the 44 "hobbit holes".
Splash Down the Rere Rockslide Near Gisborne
You won't find any major watery theme parks in New Zealand, but you don't really need them when there are exciting natural equivalents, like the Rere Rockslide near Gisborne. Grab a bodyboard or inflatable ring to slide down the smooth, slick rocks about 40 minutes west of Gisborne. The nearby Rere Falls are also worth visiting.
Taste Fine Wines in the Hawke's Bay
The Hawke's Bay region on the east coast is the North Island's premier wine-making area, with around 90 wineries. The merlot, syrah, and chardonnay from this region are particularly good. The main towns of Hawke's Bay are Napier, Hastings, and Havelock North, which are also renowned for their Art Deco architecture. Hawke's Bay is quite a long drive from other major areas of interest in the North Island, so it's worth visiting for a few days.
Watch the Powerful Volcanic Activity at Taupo and Rotorua
A visit to the North Island would be incomplete without checking out the steaming hot pools, bubbling mud, gushing geysers, and sulfurous terraces of the central North Island. While Rotorua is most famous for these attractions, Taupo has many, too. Buying a ticket to a dedicated nature and culture park is not a bad idea, but there are various unticketed places to enjoy geothermal attractions, such as Rotorua's public Kuirau Park, which has geothermal foot baths.
Go Black-Water Rafting in the Waitomo Caves
The white-water rafting in the North Island is among the best in the world, but a fun twist on the theme is black-water rafting, offered at the Waitomo Caves, south of Hamilton. In the darkness of the underground caves, guides lead visitors on rubber tubes down underground rivers lit up by thousands of glowworms.
Hike Around the Perfect Conical Peak of Mt. Taranaki
The dominant, inescapable landmark of the west coast of the North Island is Mt. Taranaki, a snow-capped volcanic peak that can be seen from many miles around (on a clear day). It sits within the Egmont National Park, one of only three national parks in the North Island, which has many hiking trails from which to appreciate views of the mountain. A full circuit of Mt. Taranaki takes four to five days, but many shorter hikes are also possible.
Canoe Down the Mighty Whanganui River
Another of the North Island's national parks is the Whanganui National Park, through which the Whanganui River flows. As New Zealand's longest navigable river and surrounded by native bush, the Whanganui is a perfect place to kayak or canoe. Huts, campsites, and Maori-run marae accommodation along the river provide long-distance paddlers places to stay. Paddling the Whanganui River is also an essential part of Te Araroa, the trekking trail that spans the length of New Zealand.
Shelter From Wellington's Famous Wind at Te Papa
New Zealand's capital is a notoriously windy city, and this stereotype is firmly grounded in truth. Fortunately, there are excellent indoor activities to enjoy in Wellington, including the Te Papa museum on the waterfront. Its full name is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Visitors are informed and entertained through permanent and temporary exhibits on an array of cultural, historical, and natural themes related to New Zealand and its people. There's something for everyone at Te Papa, and is a Wellington must-do, even when the wind isn't in full force.
Ride the Northern Explorer Train From Wellington to Auckland
One way of seeing a lot of the North Island in a short time while getting from A to B (Wellington to Auckland, or vice versa) is to ride the Northern Explorer. This passenger train travels from Wellington, up the Kapiti Coast, through the Central Plateau (and past the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park) and the atmospheric King Country, before arriving in Auckland. The journey takes ten to 12 hours, but if you have to travel the length of the North Island, it beats driving, and you'll see more than when flying. There's a dining cart, an open-air viewing platform, and informative commentary through headphones.