Most New Zealand bound travellers disembark in Auckland, on the North Island. Smaller and more populated, the North Island has a lot going for it - both under the ground, where geothermal and volcanic forces are at work heating those bubbling hot springs, and above ground along the near perfect stretches of coastline.
You don't really need to head over the water to the South Island, the culture, scenery and wildlife of New Zealand are all here, and easily accessed along a route between Auckland, the largest city, and Wellington, the capital city.
This trip deserves at least five days but could do with seven, especially if you won't have time to do both islands. The North Island experience is more about New Zealand's culture and history, as well as about dramatic scenery, and about the treasures of the cities as much as the spectacular natural wonders.
Auckland is called the city of sails, for the balanced breezes of its sparkling harbour and the graceful sight of the boats out there on it. Even before visiting the Auckland Visitors centre in Aotea Square, the main local public space, a lot of visitors will have been tempted to get out on the harbour. One of the most novel ways to do it is to cruise on an old America's Cup Racer - this city loves the Cup, but even more it loves that it's produced some big winners. Landlubbers may prefer to survey the dual harbour scene from on top One Tree Hill, a spot with significance for both the the Maori and settler populations. This is also a significant spot to the band U2 – there's a song about it on their album The Joshua Tree.
Some of the most significant Maori and Polynesian artefacts are kept in the The Auckland Museum. This huge collection includes a waka war canoe dating from the 1830s, a personal highlight. To see what the Maori and Polynesian cultures are about today head over to the Otara Pacifica Market on a Saturday morning. The fact that this is the world's largest Polynesian market means you won't have any trouble finding traditional carvings in wood, bone, jade and greenstone, woven mats and bags, and paua and jade jewellery - ranging in quality from mass-produced-souvenir-cheap to hand-crafted-by-masters-expensive, as well as the usual mish mash of t-shirts, CDs etc. And food – smell the food! Food of Maori, Pacific Island, Pakeha and Asian descent.
If you came to NZ for adventure you can get your first taste of it without leaving the city on the Sky Jump - 16 seconds worth of bungee in the heart of the city - off Auckland's Sky Tower, which is where visitors come to get a look at the view.
About four hours drive to the north of Auckland is the Bay of Islands, it's not a long way to travel from a major city to go swimming or sailing amongst dolphins – the penguins are less friendly, but they put regular appearances. You can take a day trip out on the water but the warm seas and myriad of anchorages mean this is a really great choice for a my-first-sailing-trip. There are plenty of choices, from cruises to charters to boat hire - either way, local landmark Hole in the Rock, a narrow arch of rock, is worth sailing though.
Further north are the long lovely lines of beaches of the Northland region. This is a lovely area for camping, not too remote or uncomfortable, and very very pretty in a beachy way.
Just off the coast from Whangarei, the northern most city, are the Poor Knights Islands, which hide some of the best diving spots in the country. Largely un-bothered by man, these islands are a unique ecological experience – underneath they're a maze of caves and tunnels, and on top live a selection of unusual plants and creatures.
Also to the north are Waitangi, where the treaty between the Maoris and European settlers was signed, and Ninety Mile Beach - which is actually only 55 miles long - but with its dramatic looming dunes, which roll towards the water, it has a reputation of being one of the world's most beautiful beaches.
Head south again for Rotorua, inland from the Bay of Plenty, where Lake Rotorua bubbles mud and sulphur, geysers fire away, and the ground heaves and sighs with volcanic activity. A lot of visitors report back that it smells here – well that would be the sulphur, which also changes the colour of the rocks, so some of the hot springs you're welcome to go for a dip in are beautifully coloured in pale blues, greens and reds. The Maori people favoured this area for two main reasons – the convenience of heating and hot, bubbling waters, and the fact that seeing all that spurting water and bubbling mud rising out of the steam was enough to send most invaders on their heels. Te Whakarewarewa is the name of the geothermal field, but also of the traditional Maori village and museum built beside what's been a spa resort town since it became cool to 'take the waters' in the late 19th Century.
The highlights, in amongst all the bubbling and spouting, are Pohutu, the world's most frequently erupting geyser – it usually spouts once or twice an hour, anticipated by an eruption of the Prince of Wales Feathers geyser right next to it - and the Champagne Pool, so named because of the carbon dioxide bubbles emitted from its vent which make the water fizz.
The adventurous can also try Aqua Sphering here... If all that geothermal rumbling doesn't add up to enough water danger.
The Waitomo Caves are only a few more hours driving further south and are famous for the extreme sport of black water rafting and for being inhabited by their own unique kind of glowworms. This is a good place to spend a few days if you want to do a bit of adventuring while on the North Island, there's a big rafting centre and horse riding and bike riding trails on the land above the caves.
This is also the spot to get elf-y - it's one of the locations used for The Lord of the Rings – emulate the diminutive, hairy heros and stay overnight in a hobbit house.
Wellington is the final stop. It's not the largest city but it is the capital. If you missed out on seeing a kiwi or a weta or a kaka or any of the other exceptionally well named local animals you should remedy that now at the Wellington Zoo, before showing an appreciation for New Zealand's dual cultures at the Colonial Cottage Museum, Wellington's oldest building, hand built in 1858 by a newly wed carpenter for he and his wife, and the Te Papa Museum and traditional Maori welcoming place – which you'll unfortunately be saying your farewells from.
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