Aotearoa (New Zealand in Maori) is probably in everybody’s bucketlist, mostly because it’s the furthermost country making it the ultimate adventure for any traveller and backpacker. No matter if you do it by bus like I did or if you do it by van, you can’t miss exploring this jewel. It’s home of the most unique landscapes, natural wonders and one of the most interesting native cultures in the world, the Maori.
Even though both islands are really close to each other, they are very different. The north island is for the volcanoes and cities, while the south island is for the mountains and fjords.
Let’s see what you can’t miss when visiting the land of fire, the North Island:
I’ll put it simple: you can’t miss this city. Its airport is really well connected to other international airports and it not being the capital of the country, makes it cheaper to fly to compared to Wellington (and less windy too!).
The city is young, chilled yet vibrant, with a good food and cultural scene and with plenty of things to visit on a 2h drive. The shoppaholics can get their fix on Queen Street (from high street chains to luxury). The culturally hungry can get a full Maori experience at Auckland Museum and those like me that enjoy a nice wine can visit the nearby vineyard island of Waiheke (you may be lucky enough to see whales, orcas and dolphins during the trip on the ferry!).
This is probably my second favourite place of the North Island. Picture a mix of pristine beaches and misty forests and a very laid-back vibe that makes it just the perfect place to unwind and enjoy of the pleasures that mother Earth has for us all. Besides all the water-related activities like snorkeling, diving, kayaking… you can also do something very special: dig your own hot thermal water pool at Hot Water beach or visit a marvel of the world: the stunning Cathedral Cove.
Even though I wouldn’t rate it as unmissable unless your’e a surfer, this city is the capital city of the Bay of Plenty. Oh, and it’s where you need to be if you want to do a pretty impressive thing: a trek on the most active volcano of New Zealand. The White Island volcano tour is something out of this world, sitting at 49km offshore and with most of the volcano being underwater, you land on the crater itself, a lunar land of smoking vents and sulphuric pools that will make your jaw drop. Pricey, though it’s a once in a lifetime adventure!
This is by far my favourite part of the North Island. It’s home of Maori villages, full of thermal activity, unreal landscapes and probably the strangest natural pool on Earth. The dark side of it is that there’s a constant sulfur smell that sometimes can be pretty disgusting, though you’ll get used to it and forget it as soon as you admire the marvels of this area. You can read all about the things to do in Rotorua here. You can’t miss:
Wai-O-Tapu, a wonder of the wolrd
If you’ve previously visited volcanic landscapes you’ll know how surreal they can be. Well, go to Wai-O-Tapu and you’ll find another level of surreal views. Tapu is sacred in Maori, a clear hint of what to expect there: dozens of steaming holes, springs, mud pools, steaming lakes and the phenomenal Champagne pool & it’s relative, the arsenic pool. A great day out!
Tamaki Maori Village
You can’t leave New Zealand without getting close to the Maori culture. Tamaki Village is by far the best experience. Expect intimidating ritual dances, cultural performances, Hangi (traditional Maori meal) and to walk away with a whole new perspective. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be designated chief of your tribe, with the honour of saluting the Maori chief in the traditional way (Hongi – nose to nose salute).
With the world’s highest, commercially rafted waterfall at 7meters, Kaituna river is a challenge you can’t leave Rotorua without taking on. Wild waters, a huge drop and lots of fun. Adrenaline in capital letters. Check your hostel for booking your trip there.
Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest (free)
This is a hidden gem that you can do for free! Back in the 60s, people in Rotorua decided to plant loads of redwoods for business purposes. The result of that decision is an incredibly beautiful forest that you can explore by yourself following one of the three well-signed treks. Getting there is easy: a short bus ride on bus #3 or a 40 min walk from the town centre. There’s also a tree top walk that looks stunning (Rotorua Skyline), though I didn’t do because I found it a bit pricey.
Kuirau Park (free)
There are plenty of city parks, though not many cities can say theirs is a volcanic park! This green area is just a 5 minutes walk from the CBD (city centre) and it will blow your mind, quite literally. Expect steamy sulphur pools, thick bubbling mud ponds & colours (and smells) you’ve never seen before. And the best of all? It’s free!
Lake Rotorua (free)
This is one of those less known, underrated things to do in Rotorua. It’s understandable that after visiting a few thermal areas, you may leave this till the very last spot on your to do list, though I highly recommend going. You’ll enjoy a nice stroll along the water side accompanied by rare black swans. Once you reach the sulphur point you’ll see how chemics works… including the mixing of the water from the lake with the high acid levels of the thermal springs. A strangely calming show you can’t miss. Oh, have I said it’s also free?!
5- Matamata (Hobbiton)
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or if you just heard about it. This set location is so cute that I can’t encourage you enough to go and visit it. You’ll feel like you’re on a different world, one full of beautiful small hole houses, lush greens and even it’s own pub (I do recommend to at least have a stout here, even though the whole meal experience is incredible!). Beware that is still a movie set, so you can’t get into the houses. Don’t get upset, the pub is! Read how to get to Hobbiton here.
6- Tongariro National Park
The oldest National Park in New Zealand and a UNESCO wolrd heritage site, Tongariro is the marterialisation of the word stunning. A mix of lush greens on volcanic black stones, red craters covered by misty fog, turqoise blue lakes and highly steep slopes. A trekker dream, a Lord of the Rings fan dream (it’s the real Mordor). Everyone’s dream, though expect a very demandind trek (19km, 1 way). Please plan your visit, it’s an alpine crossing, not a walk!
The capital city, full of colours, culture and cool coffee places and bars. Oh, and wind. Lots of wind.
The pier is where you want to have those deserved beers after a long day exploring, Cuba street is where you want to go shopping or meet your hipster friends and try all the coffee places you can, they are great baristas at Wellington! You can’t miss the Te Papa museum for an incredible immersive cultural experience that will take you to the origins of the country and you can’t leave without visiting Zealandia, the place where you will see the most rare and unque animal species that you can only find in New Zealand. It’s a huge reserve where the animals roam completely free, it’s far from being a zoo. I recommend the night tour, I was lucky enough to cross paths with a couple of shy Kiwis!
Have you packed your bags yet?!