Top 10 New Zealand North Island Attractions
There’s immense beauty and opportunity for adventure around every corner in New Zealand. So, if you’re a first time traveller lucky enough to be there, it’s unlikely that you’ll struggle to find amazing things to see and do! Nonetheless, it’s useful to know what’s out there to ensure you don’t miss out on the best bits. Read on for my pick of the top 10 New Zealand North Island attractions.
Trying to fit New Zealand’s main attractions into a ‘Top Ten’ list is no mean feat.
Honestly, the North and South Islands are both so saturated with natural beauty and must do activities that it’s practically impossible to narrow them all down.
However, having done the same in my guide to things to do in South Island, I thought it made sense to do something similar for the North one too (you could also check out my article with tips on backpacking New Zealand as as first time traveller and how to travel New Zealand on a budget).
Indeed, though they’re only a short ferry ride away, in some ways the North and South Islands feel worlds apart.
Whether it’s to do with the mismatch in population density (75% of NZ’s 4 million inhabitants are based on the North Island) or contrasting landscapes, the overall ‘feel’ of both is quite different- and wonderfully so.
The North and South are uniquely beautiful and have their own, individual, awe-inspiring qualities.
Hopping from one to another provides a traveller with a whole host of new attractions to experience.
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Let’s take a look at 10 of the best attractions on New Zealand's North Island:
1) Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga is (pretty much) the most Northern part of New Zealand. It’s definitely the most northerly tip you can access...And it’s an amazing place.
In Maori culture this is a sacred site of deep significance: where the spirits of the deceased jump into the waters below, in order to start their journey back to Hawaiki, their ancestral home.
Cape Reinga provides you with the ultimate panorama.
Following a walkway from the car park, you’re high up on the hillside and walk down to a lighthouse and viewing platform, all the while overlooking the water that stretches to the horizon all around.
It’s difficult not to be impressed. In front of you The Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide, creating a tumult of surf that crashes far below, like some divine musical instrument.
There are numerous walks to do around Cape Reinga and you can descend to the beaches below if you wish. More than anything though, it’s the perfect place to sit, be present and drink in the surroundings. It’s also prime real estate for watching the sunset.
It isn’t just the obvious beauty on offer here. There’s a deep, emotive and palpable atmosphere to Cape Reinga that shouldn’t be missed.
2) 90 Mile Beach
Just down from Cape Reinga, on the Western side, is the misleadingly named 90 Mile Beach.
It’s only 55.
But, still, that’s a lot of beach.
Again, this is an incredible part of the country that offers travellers the chance to explore seemingly endless expanses of sand and sea. It’s uniquely beautiful: colours blend into one, as sand, sea and sky merge. Horizons distort; perceptions of space and distance alter.
Given the right set of wheels, you can drive on 90 Mile beach too.
Moving at pace over golden sand and through rivulets of glistening water, with the sun in your eyes and barely another soul around, is very special.
For the sake of safety and practicality though, make sure you have a 4x4, or at least know someone nearby with a winch and tow bar! People frequently ignore the warnings and get stuck...a lot. You could also pay to go on one of the special buses that take tourists.
Here's an awesome video showing 90 Mile Beach and the Dunes!
The famous Te Paki sand dunes are just off 90 Mile beach too. You can access them directly via the Te Paki Stream (again, think 4x4) from the beach, which is a memorable feat in itself.
Get to the dunes though, park up and you can hire a sand board to toboggan down the dunes until your heart’s content. This is an exhilarating, novel way to spend the afternoon- and good exercise walking up those dunes too!
3) Bay of Islands
To do the Bay of Islands justice would require an entire post!
It’s one of the great tourist attractions of the North Island, and for good reason too. Comprised of 144 isles it is home to some of NZ’s most impressive wildlife and beautiful scenery.
The scale and popularity of the Bay of Islands means there’s a huge amount to do here.
Whether it’s hiking, sea kayaking, dolphin & whale watching, or simply enjoying a drink or two in one of the many bars and restaurants, there’s something for everyone.
In peak season (think November through February) the atmosphere is buzzing as travellers flock to the area. However, despite its great vibrancy and liveliness, it can also feel overly busy and far more touristy than other parts of NZ, which may or may not be your thing.
However, even if you only come for the afternoon, the beauty and variety of the place shouldn’t be missed.
While you’re there, it’s worth visiting Waitangi and the Waitangi Treaty Ground.
This is another site of cultural and historical significance in NZ. It was here that the British and native Maori, who’d long been at war, signed in 1840 an accord known as the Treaty of Waitangi. It was not without its issues and is contended to this day.
Learning about the Treaty of Waitangi and the history of Maori-Pakeha (European) relations is essential to understand present day social and governmental issues in NZ.
Here's a brilliant article from Nomadic Matt with a comprehensive travel guide to the Bay of Islands.
4) Whangarei Heads
Whangerei Heads is a peninsula situated on the North Eastern side of North Island and one of the lesser known gems of the country.
It’s a heavenly place.
Stunning beaches, bays, inlets and isles abound here. There’s also great coastal and overland hiking as well as ample opportunity for fishing- whether from land or out at sea. If you have access to a boat, you’ll be in your element.
Two highlights are:
- Mount Manaia, where the panoramic views from the top over the beauty of the area justify the reasonable climb up &
- Ocean beach, on the Western side, where mile upon mile of white sand create the perfect place to spend the afternoon. It is a great place for snorkelling, surfing and sandduning too.
5) Jump from Auckland’s Sky Tower
Any trip to NZ should include a trip to its biggest city: Auckland.
There’s a lot to do here but one of the main attractions is the Sky Tower, which you can choose to jump from if you so wish.
At 192 metres it’s a reasonable fall, so it’s not for the faint hearted. However, if you’re into this sort of adrenaline fuelled activity, then why the hell not?!
Look like something you'd want to do?
Waitomo is a tiny little place on the Western side of North Island.
It’s also one of my personal favourites and people flock from all over the globe to visit.
Why? Because it’s one of the world’s best places to see glow worms in their natural environment. Beneath Waitomo there’s a veritable labyrinth of caves that are home to these incredible creatures.
There are number of operators in the area offering different caving/glow worm experiences, but a visit to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves is one of the most popular.
Descending into the dark of this otherworldly environment you take a boat, underground, to float lazily along an underground river while gazing upwards at the green luminescence from the glow worms above.
It’s a magical, ethereal experience.
For all the information on what’s available in Waitomo, check out this site.
7) Lake Taupo
Slap bang in the centre of North Island is the giant Lake Taupo.
Taupo is a traveller’s dream and offers something for everyone; it’s an incredible popular destination. With dozens of bars, restaurants, hostels and cafes, there’s a real buzz to Taupo.
Night life is lively but there’s also plenty of opportunity to escape the noise. Go for a swim in the lake or a foray into the surrounding area. As a favoured spot for hiking and mountain biking, Taupo has plenty of opportunity for outdoor pursuits.
If you want to do something more extreme, check out Skydive Taupo and jump out of a plane from 15,000ft. It’s not cheap, but IMO it’s definitely worth the money. You can get a video as a memento of the experience.
Taupo is also a famous geothermal area, boasting some unmissable (and free!) hot pools right next to the river. Head there at night for an extra special experience, lazing in the warm water and gazing up at the starry night sky above.
There’s a good little free campsite in Taupo too, not far from the hot pools but on the other side of the river, along its bank, called Reid’s Farm Free Campsite. This is a good bet if you’re travelling on a budget.
Head further down the river to see the sublime Huka Falls. Enough turquoise blue water floods this fall an Olympic sizes swimming pool every 11 seconds. That’s a lot of water and it’s epic to behold.
8) The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Situated in the Tongariro National Park, just South of Lake Taupo, the Tongariro Crossing is a 19.4km hike that’s worth every iota of effort it requires to complete.
7-8 hours is the recommended completion time, but at a reasonable pace it’s possible in less. Having said that, take the time to enjoy it. Slow down and don’t rush, unless there’s good reason to speed ahead.
Taking the walk slowly is not only safer, but it also enables you to take it all.
The hike takes you up and along mind bogglingly wondrous paths, past emerald lakes and over Lord of the Rings style terrain.
In fact, there’s good reason for the LOTR resemblance: Mount Ngauruhoe, which you have the option to climb as part of the route (see image), was ‘Mount Doom’ in the actual films.
Here’s the website for all you need to know about the Crossing.
9) Coromandel Peninsula
On the Eastern side of the North Island, the Coromandel peninsula is another special part of the country.
There are a many highlights in this region, but Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach are two that stand out.
Cathedral Cove is a famous beach that’s accessible on land by foot, or from the sea by boat and/or kayak. It’s a world famous and picture perfect geological feature so named due to the cathedral-like cavern that’s been worn away from the rock over millennia.
This is a fascinating, unique beach with a great atmosphere, but it gets busy!
Hot Water Beach is down the Eastern side of the peninsula. Here, you can hire a spade, or bring your own, to dig yourself a bathing pool. If you’ve dug in the right place, your hole quickly fills with hot water, heated by the geothermal activity beneath the surface.
Sitting in a self-dug, natural hot water sand pool, while gazing over endless expanses of ocean isn’t something you do every day! It’s an amazing place but it gets utterly jam packed with people wanting the same experience.
Get there early to ensure there’s space and it isn’t overcrowded.
10) Mount Taranaki
Mount Taranaki, also known as Mount Egmont, is an active 2518m volcano situated in New Plymouth, on the West coast of North Island.
This is another sacred site in Maori culture and the story in Maori history is one of wonder. Unfortunately it would take too long to tell here, but here’s an article with the story of Taranaki.
As far as volcanoes go, it’s exceptionally good looking- don't you think?
I mean, it’s literally the quintessential volcano you draw as a child- minus the crater and lava spewing down its sides. Mount Taranaki is an upside down V shape with a perfect conical top, rising mightily from the ground, dominating its environment.
The surrounding region is remarkably flat, which makes its towering presence even more remarkable.
Get there on a good day, and it is a breathtaking sight. Unfortunately, in poor weather it literally disappears and is well known for eluding disappointed travellers. So go on a sunny day!
There’s a car park and visitor centre (with a great little cafe) and numerous hikes to do around it; huts are scattered around, providing comforting shelter for overnight expeditions.
It is well worth the trip to the West coast for a chance to see this incredible volcano.
So, that brings to a close my pick of the top 10 attractions on New Zealand’s North Island.
And again, like I mentioned at the start, there are many many more amazing things to do, which I’ve not been able to list here. Rotorua, for example, is another popular tourist destination and a unique place to visit on North Island that I haven't talked about at all (check out this piece by discover-aotearoa.com for more on Rotorua).
Go to the North Island and you are bound to end up in extraordinary places doing astonishing things. However, if you’re putting some thought into the must dos for an upcoming trip, hopefully these suggestions have helped!
Have I missed anything out? Are you planning on heading somewhere that isn’t on my list? Let me know in the comments!