Northern Highlights: the best bits from New Zealand’s North Island

Featured photo by Olivia Brady

I feel at home as soon as my feet step from the scratchy carpet of the plane and onto the kiwi tarmac – whether this has more to do with the fact that the air is no longer the 97% humidity of Asia and instead has the familiar almost-drizzle of arriving in Heathrow I am not sure but regardless, I know I will love it here.

Our first night is spent just outside of Auckland in One Tree Hill homestay which is indescribably lovely; the town itself is adorable and the homestay is even better. Having a kitchen and being able to cook for the first time in 3 months is a dream and the bed is the comfiest thing I think I have ever had the pleasure of laying down on (this may be ever so slightly enhanced by the fact that we have just done a journey with multiple stops, on the cheapest possible airlines and correspondingly uncomfortable seats, but either way it is still the best bed ever). 

The following day we make our way to Nomads hostel in the centre of Auckland via a local bus driven by an elderly man with a welcoming smile and warm eyes – first impressions of the locals are good then. My impressions of Auckland itself are mostly the colour grey, but also memories of a fun bar crawl with new friends and the new Bridget Jones film, which is actually great. Another thing Auckland is good for is shops – if you have just arrived from outrageously hot countries and failed to pack sensibly for a colder climate (whoops) then do not panic, Auckland will have what you need – if you are on a budget then Warehouse is a godsend. 

Helloo Auckland: photo by Olivia Brady

One drizzly 7am we find ourselves on the very first bus on our ‘Kiwi Experience’. We are headed North,  first stop: The Bay of Islands. The quaint little town of Paihia has all the seaside charms of Cornwall, with just as delicious fish and chips and about 90% less tourists. We spend our time here strolling around the town, along the coast and up to a lookout point. Obviously we also win (smash) the beer pong competition in the local pub because we are pro. 

Just us and the smiling faces of the group of people who just lost

On our way further North, we stop at the 90 miles beach which is just as great as it sounds: a beautiful expanse of deserted beach with a glorious sunshine canopy, it’s reflection twinkling on the shore. Later we pause in Cape Reinga to take in the view at the Northern tip of New Zealand, where an old lighthouse overlooks the point at which the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea.  

90 miles of bliss: photo by Olivia Brady
Where an ocean greets the sea and everything else seems miles away
Our journey continues as we start to move south and head to Cathedral Cove for a coastal hike followed by Hot Water Beach, which is imaginatively named due to the naturally occurring hot water that eagerly awaits you a few inches below the surface layer of sand. It is not unusual to see groups of people sat in shallow pools close to the shore line, regardless of the weather (which is not exactly balmy for our visit).
Cathedral cove: photo by Olivia Brady

We continue the unusual activities with a visit underground to the Waitomo  caves to see the glowworms, which are almost as cool but not quite as lovely as fireflies which will never fail to mesmerise me. Despite coming in at second place for my favourite phosphorescent insect, they are definitely worth a visit and a must-do if you travel to this area. That night we all pile into the cosy lounge of the hostel for a screening of the first in the Lord of the Rings trilogy in preparation for a much-anticipated visit to Hobbiton the following day. 

I am not sure how to describe our day galavanting around Hobbiton without sounding like a raging LOTR fanatic. It is honestly one of the best days; it is unlike anything else I have done on my trip and definitely worth the $75 entrance fee. Even if you aren’t a fan of the films, you will find yourself entirely under the spell of the teeny tiny world of the hobbits, which stretches out before you over the rolling hills of an unassuming farmers’ back garden. Before you know it you’ll be taking selfies with the round front door of some miscellaneous hobbit who’s name you don’t even know. Even the grumpiest guy in your group will be grinning into his complimentary pint in the pub at the end. Trust me, it is that good.

Bilbo’s house: photo by Olivia Brady
Delicious
We move from one magical world to another, and enter the enchanting land of the Maori tribes, deep in the forest of Rotorua. This cultural experience gives you an insight into the mesmeric Maori culture and the origins of the kiwi culture as a whole and I really could not recommend it more. Rotorua continues to be a treat with a morning full of go-carting down the side of a mountain, followed by an afternoon walking through the beautiful redwood forest.

The activities are set to continue as we enter Taupo; the town built around the largest fresh water lake in Australasia, which turns out to actually be the crater of a (hopefully) sleeping volcano. Unfortunately the weather is not on our side and we are unable to hike across the Tongariro Crossing, which is apparently incredible so definitely worth a look if you are in the area (especially for any Lord of the Rings fans eager to catch a glimpse of Mount Doom). 

Our active aspirations quashed, we settle for eating pizza and getting merry whilst sailing around the lake on some local guys yaht. I think I can safely recommend that you do not jump into this lake during the month of October, based on the reactions of two very chilly members of our group. We do manage to see some pretty impressive water action though, and a few brave people try their hand at New Zealand’s highest water touch bungy (others remain in the safety of their beds).

The crazy Hukka Falls
We pick back up where we left off and get active whilst staying the night in River Valley lodge, which is quite literally in the middle of nowhere – with no phone signal, no wifi and no TV but heaps of board games, a delicious roast dinner and a bar with an open fire. After a very funny evening followed by a night spent in a (slightly questionable) dorm room that is essentially just one large bed on top of another, we set off for our various activities – horse riding or white water rafting. 

I opt for the horse riding which is one of the best mornings of my entire trip; wondering around the stunning scenery that is characteristic of New Zealand, with the mountain breeze in my face (and one or two drops of rain), on the back of what can only be described as a gentle giant, was well worth the $149 splurge. 

Feel the love

Our Northern adventures end with a place I could imagine myself actually living in. My biggest tip would be to go and get lost in Wellington: wonder around the Kiwi capital and lose yourself in the curious character of the artistic streets. Highlights include hopping on the old cable car up the hill and strolling back down through the botanic gardens; visiting Te Papa museum and the iconic parliament building known as The Beehive; hunting down some underground art markets and finding some unusual street art; chilling out in a quirky cafe or by the harbour in the sun and just generally drinking it all in. 

Photo by Olivia Brady
A little slice of tranquility in the middle of the city – the duck pond in Wellington botanic gardens
The skate park at Wellington pier: photo by Olivia Brady
Photo by Olivia Brady

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