Tropical ferns are scattered through the rolling hills of green grass. Dramatic cliffs jut out along blackish, volcanic beaches leading to blue waters. Food is fresh, from the sea and forests. Air is clean, from mountaintops to saltwater breezes.
Think this is on some tropical island, or even another planet? Think again – this is New Zealand’s North Island.
When people make the trek to Oceania, they often stop at New Zealand to get a giant lung-filled breath of nature. This is by far one of the most beautiful, wildest countries in the world. Although no large animals roam the land, the dramatic landscapes of the ocean, mountains, green countryside and dense trees are all what makes New Zealand special. While many travelers will make a beeline for the south island, where much of the Lord of the Rings was filmed behind giant snow-capped peaks, the North has just as much to offer in terms of one-of-a-kind scenery and things to do for the whole family.
When I explored the North Island, I took a week to do so, from north to south. We rented a car and drove from city to city, so these attractions are spread out. But even the longest stretch was only a few hours, and most of this can be experienced in the time frame. Away we go!
Hot Water Beach & Mt. Maunganui Beach
Depending on what time of year you visit the North Island, the beaches are the biggest draw. But even if there’s a little more chill in the air, it’s wonderful to simply let the little ones run up and down the water’s edge on the soft sand – or use it to make epic sandcastles. Watch kids who like to dig, as sometimes the sands can get heated under the surface by volcanic activity to make ti extra hot to sensitive little fingers. But the waves are gentle, the rocks smooth for skipping and the scenery breathtaking. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the beaches or head into town for some delicious fish and chips.
Sure, it’s just a road stop attraction, but it’s great to visit rain or shine. On the journey from Tauranga’s beaches onto the thermal town of Rotorua, we stopped here to learn all about the Kiwi fruit. Sorry to let you down – the kiwi is actually known as the Chinese gooseberry, but it underwent a marketing transformation to help bring more
awareness (and profit) to New Zealanders who were growing it. Nonetheless, this tour brings to in silly kiwi-shaped carts through the fields of trees to teach everyone about the tasty fruit. We picked up some great snacks for the road in the shop, from kiwi cupcakes and cookies to juices and ice cream.
In seemingly the middle of nowhere, famous director Peter Jackson staked out some privately owned farm land while he flew over by helicopter. This was to be the setting scene of his iconic Lord of the rings trilogy films. Most of the footage featuring the tiny hobbit homes was created on the north island. The farm own has permitted fans and a whole slew of staff to maintain the set as it once was for year so fans can travel from all over the world to enjoy it. Now, while the tour is expensive (roughly $60 NZD) it can take up the whole day and be a blast for anyone in the family who love these films. Start at the hobbit shop to buy tickets, then take coach buses into the gated farmland to reach Hobbiton. A guide will walk you through the lanes, pointing out things like Samwise’s house and where certain Frodo scenes took place. At the end, enjoy an adult cider (or kid’s juice) at the real Red Dragon pub. Just watched out for the bees that buzz around all the beautiful real flowers and plants all over the set – we got stung!
Easily a highlight for anyone with school-aged kids, this was a big pull for families visiting Rotorua. Take a breezy gondola ride up to the top of a large hill in town that overlooks the greenery and tiny buildings below. There’s a big Lego store, wine tasting bar and café at the top. To get down, you can either take the gondola again or opt for something a little more thrilling – land luging. Grab a plastic ‘sled’ and weave your way on wheels down the side of the mountain in tangent or solo. For kids to ride alone they have to be about 3 and a ½ feet tall, but anyone can ride double with an adult. They offer packages to try your luck three or more times up and down the three different tracks.
For a quick meal after your gondola and luging experience, swing by Burger Fuel. This is a New Zealand burger chain but was one of the best I had on the trip. They source all their meat locally and offer wonderful vegetarian options as well, including soy shakes and fried carrot bites. The kids will chow down on funky burgers drizzled with peanut satay sauce or juicy chicken tenders and aioli.
Where to Stay
As we left Auckland, the first place we stayed was the Hotel on Devonport. Clean, wallet-friendly and centrally located in town, it was a good introduction to the North Island’s hospitality. Our favorite place to lay our heads was the Millennium Hotel in Rotorua.Beds were super plush and the view overlooking some of the town’s thermal pools was wonderful. Breakfast was served every morning with a free upgrade, and the hotel offers a few onsite activities. For instance, dinner options down by the indoor pool included a Haka demonstration of the local indigenous customs, dancing and singing. While in Rotorua, make sure you visit the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Springs Wonderland an hour or so outside of town to see erupting geysers up close and (stinky!) pools of bubbling mineral waters and mud in every shade of the rainbow.
The Lonely Planet guide is super useful in planning out a good driving route along the island. Combine exploring the north with time in the south, or take a flight over to Australia as well. Do realize destinations are far from each other, so take as much time as possible to plan out your family’s adventure in this part of the world. Let us know if we can help!