New Zealand’s North Island

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal seven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

There’s something very special about New Zealand. Reader surveys by Wanderlust, the U.K.’s leading travel magazine, consistently place these beautiful antipodean islands in top spot in the ‘Best Country’ category.

Picturesque waterfall below Mount Doom (Tongario National Park).
Picturesque waterfall below Mount Doom (Tongario National Park).

Called ‘the land of the long white cloud’ by the Maoris, New Zealand usually surpasses visitor expectations and it is easy to see why. It has spectacular scenery from the fantastic beaches and smoking volcanoes of the north to the dramatic mountains and deep fiords of the south.

The wildlife is exotic with some of our planet’s strangest birds, the wine is world class and those that seek ‘adventure on the edge’ can experience the perfect adrenalin rush, from jet-boating to bungee jumping.

New Zealand is hosting the Rugby Union World Cup at present so 70,000 international rugby supporters will boost tourist numbers. There are rugby venues on both the North and South Islands so there is great opportunity for fans to experience the many delights the country has to offer.

Although structured tours can be arranged around the nation’s top attractions, we think that campervans are a better option as they offer the flexibility and freedom to explore at your own pace.

During our campervan journeys through both islands, we enjoyed the generous hospitality of the welcoming ‘Kiwis’ and witnessed a diversity of magnificent landscapes unmatched anywhere in the world.

Hot water beach
Hot water beach

Balmy Bay of Islands

Famed for its superb coastal scenery, the Bay of Islands is close to the northern tip of New Zealand, has a balmy climate, friendly people and is just a three-hour drive from Auckland.

As well as a popular tourist destination, the area is of enormous historical significance as the site of the first permanent English settlement and in 1840, the signing of the Treaty of Waitingi with the Maori chiefs.

Although, the town of Paihia is the hub of the Bay of Islands, we preferred the nearby sleepy historic town of Russell, with its fine old buildings, delightful waterfront and delicious fish and chips.

We walked the town’s heritage trails and learned of Russell’s lawless past as a whaling port, nicknamed the ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’! Aboard a day-cruise boat we watched dolphins, seals and tiny blue penguins speeding through the clear blue sea before swimming and picnicking on a secluded beach on one of the many tiny islands.

A few days staying in this idyllic region is the perfect way to begin a New Zealand holiday.

Brooding volcano above Rotorua
Brooding volcano above Rotorua

Coromandel Christmas

The Coromandel is a scenic finger of land with 400 km of coastline in the NE of the island and the place where the ‘Kiwis’ themselves love to holiday.

The centre of this wild but beautiful peninsula has bush-clad mountains, scene of New Zealand’s first gold rush in the 1850’s, whilst the east coast is renowned for its white sandy beaches.

We spent Christmas in Whitianga, a small town on the east coast with a marina crammed with yachts and fishing boats. On Christmas Day we strolled along a nearby beach to the impressive Cathedral Cove with its large arched cavern before taking a relaxing spa treatment at Hot Water Beach.

Here, thermal waters bubble up just below the sand and armed with spades, we joined the happy holiday crowd and dug our own personal natural spa pools.

There was a joyous festive atmosphere as people slowly ‘cooked’ themselves in the hot water before completing the spa experience with a cooling dip in the ocean Hawke’s Bay

The most attractive gateway to Hawke’s Bay, on the sunny east coast, is the beautiful Te Urewara National Park. Reached by a long dirt road, the main focus of the park is the majestic Lake Waikaremoana, which is surrounded by lush untouched natural forest.

This peaceful area, with wonderful ‘bush walking’, lies off the normal tourist routes and gives discerning visitors an opportunity to intimately enjoy one of North Island’s secret scenic pleasures.

The twin cities of Napier and Hastings are Hawke’s Bay’s main centres. Napier occupies a fine coastal position, was virtually destroyed in a huge earthquake in 1931, and then rebuilt in the art deco style of the day.

It now has the highest concentration of art deco architecture in the world. The perfectly groomed Marine Parade retains the air of an old-fashioned English seaside resort complete with beds of flowers behind its pebble beach.

Hot summers and cool winters provide ideal conditions for grapes and Hawke’s Bay is well known for its quality Chardonnay. Near Hastings, we toured St. George’s winery before lunching at the site restaurant.

Cheerful and informative staff served us locally caught grilled salmon, complemented perfectly with a glass of their own delectable Muscat.

Mount Doom

A string of active volcanoes sweep across North Island, with centrally positioned Rotorua the most popular tourist destination. Nicknamed ‘Sulphur City’, it lies below brooding volcanoes and is replete with lively thermal activity that boils, plops, gurgles, whooshes and gushes to entertain the many visitors.

Even more interesting, however, are the giant pyrotechnic volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, the highest of which is Mt Ruapehu. In computer-enhanced form this intimidating peak is better known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. The Park has excellent camping facilities at Whakapapa Village and outstanding walking trails.

The tough eight-hour Tongariro Crossing traverses a landscape of immense geological splendour and is claimed to be the world’s best one-day walk. Due to dreadful weather at high elevations, we tackled some of the easier lowland trails.

They were no less picturesque and passed through tortuous lava flows, tumbling waterfalls, odd-coloured pools and strange mineral springs.

New Zealand is only a small and lightly populated country but packs an incredible amount into its two main islands. North Island possesses the best beaches, stunning native forests, stark volcanic landscapes and a strong Maori cultural influence. It also boasts a truly international metropolis in Auckland, the ‘City of Sails’, whose airport is the usual port of entry.

Even though travelling distances are relatively short, a minimum of three weeks should be allowed for a comprehensive exploration of this island paradise.

New Zealand’s South Island is covered in Part 2 of this article.