Are you trying to figure out what to include on a New Zealand North Island itinerary? Well, I’m not surprised! I know from personal experience how hard the task can be. This place is so inundated with incredible sights that you’re spoiled for choice!
Everywhere you go will blow your mind with its natural beauty, laid-back kiwi vibes, and room for adventure. However, whether you’re planning a short New Zealand North Island 7 day itinerary, or have months to play with, there are certain spots you shouldn’t miss.
Want to know what they are? Keep reading to discover 10 top NZ attractions to include on your New Zealand North Island self drive itinerary,
10 Essential Stops on North Island
These places will help make your trip to the NZ North Island itinerary one to remember. Oh, and don’t forget to take the best backpacking camera possible to help record the trip!
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. In Maori folklore, this is where the spirits of the dead jump into the waters below to begin the journey back to Hawaiki, their ancestral home.
Cape Reinga provides you with the ultimate panoramic view. Following the walkway from the car park, you’re high up on the hillside. You walk down to a lighthouse and viewing platform, all the while overlooking the water that stretches to the horizon all around.
It’s hard not to be impressed at the beauty of it. 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 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. Follow in the footsteps of famous explorers and see this inspiring place for yourself.
2) 90 Mile Beach
Just down from Cape Reinga, on the western side, is the misleadingly named 90 Mile Beach. It’s actually only 55 miles. But, nonetheless, that’s a lot of beach!
Again, this is an incredible part of the country that offers travelers the chance to explore seemingly endless expanses of sand and sea. It’s uniquely beautiful: colors 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 4×4, 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.
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 4×4) from the beach, which is a memorable feat in itself. Get to the dunes, park up, and you can hire a sandboard 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 to itself! It’s one of the greatest tourist attractions on 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 mean 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 travelers flock to the area. However, despite its vibrancy and liveliness, it can also feel a little too busy at times. It’s definitely far more touristic 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.
4) Whangarei Heads
Whangarei 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 another heavenly place and the most underrated stop on this North Island itinerary.
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 creates the perfect place to spend the afternoon. It is a great place for snorkeling, surfing, and sand-duning too.
5) Auckland and the 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 meters 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?!
I could write a whole new piece on things to do in Auckland. There’s masses on offer. Take the time to explore it. And be sure to head across the bridge to the north shore and Devonport. This trendy little town is an awesome break from the city, with cafes and bars galore.
Sit with a beer, swim in the sea, and revel in the views of the Auckland skyline in front of you.
Waitomo is a tiny little place on the Western side of North Island. It’s also one of my personal favorites. 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 labyrinth of caves that are home to these incredible creatures. There are a 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.
7) Lake Taupo
Slap bang in the center of North Island is the momentous Lake Taupo.
Taupo is a traveler’s dream and offers something for everyone. It’s another popular destination on the road through New Zealand. With dozens of bars, restaurants, hostels, and cafes, there’s a real buzz to Taupo.
Nightlife 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 favored spot for hiking and mountain biking, Taupo has plenty of opportunities 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 worth the money for an experience, you’ll never forget. 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 to the Spa Thermal Park 2km outside town for some awesome free hot pools just sat off from the river. I recommend going at night. Lazing in the hot water and gazing up at the starry night sky above is an extra special experience.
There’s a good little free campsite in Taupo too. It’s not far from the hot pools but on the other side of the river, along its bank. It’s called Reid’s Farm Free Campsite. This is a good bet if you’re traveling 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. A lovely riverside walk extends from the Spa Thermal Park to the Huka Falls. This makes for a nice afternoon activity.
8) The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This is, for me, a must-do activity on the north island. 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, taking the time to enjoy it is worth it. Taking the walk slowly is not only safer, but it also enables you to take it all in. The hike takes you up and over leg and lung-busting paths, past pristine emerald lakes, and through Lord of the Rings style terrain.
In fact, there’s good reason for the LOTR resemblance: Mount Ngauruhoe (nah-ruh-hoe-ee), which you have the option to climb as part of the route. This conical volcano was ‘Mount Doom’ in the actual films.
Take exceptional care if you choose to climb Ngauruhoe. There’s no real pathway up. It’s a matter of scrambling up the shingle any way you can. It’s very steep and hard work. People get injured on it every year and get medivacked off.
A general tip: wait for good weather. The winds can get to crazy speeds up there. It’s genuinely dangerous at times. Furthermore, bad weather means zero visibility. And that would be an enormous shame given the immense views on offer on a good day.
9) Coromandel Peninsula
On the Eastern side of the North Island, the Coromandel peninsula is another special part of the country. There are 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 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 the 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) New Plymouth and 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 worth checking out.
As far as volcanoes go, it’s a good-looking one! It’s the quintessential volcano you draw as a child (minus the crater and lava spewing down its sides, of course!). 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 flat as a pancake, which makes its towering presence even more impressive. Get there on a good day, and it is a breathtaking sight.
Unfortunately, in poor weather, it literally disappears. I had to go on two separate occasions to actually see it. It’s well known for eluding travelers. So go on a sunny day!
There’s a car park and visitor center (with a great little cafe) and numerous hikes to do around it. Huts are scattered around, providing comforting shelter for overnight expeditions. It’s well worth the trip to the West Coast of North Island simply for a chance to see this incredible volcano.
As another quick aside, New Plymouth itself is quite nice too! There’s not a huge amount to do here. However, there are some stunning beaches to wander along, and masses of farmland to explore. I liked its laidback, fairly rural feel.
Exceptional Places in New Zealand’s North Island
That brings to a close my pick of 10 essential attractions on New Zealand’s North Island. Alas, there are so many other amazing things to do here, which I’ve not been able to include on this list.
Go to the North Island and you’re bound to end up in extraordinary places doing awesome things. However, if you’re putting some thought into the must-dos for an upcoming trip, hopefully, these suggestions will have helped.
Which parts of New Zealand North Island do you think sound best? Drop a comment below to let us know!
Guest Author: Danny Newman is currently writing and traveling his way around the world in a bid to figure out exactly what he’s doing with his life. He’d love you to follow along with his journey over at What’s Danny Doing. You can also follow him on Facebook.