Over my year in New Zealand, I made sure to make the most of days off to explore the amazing scenery and attractions that the country had to offer. One area that I spent some time in was central North Island, including the popular areas of Rotorua, Taupo, the Coromandel’s, and National Park.
Rather than speaking about each individual trip, I thought I would instead talk about each area, where there is to see and do there and my thoughts.
Situated in a peninsula east of Auckland, the Coromandel’s are technically not in central North Island but I decided to include it because… why not? The area is known for its amazing beaches, spectacular views and laid back lifestyle. I visited for three days and was able to visit the two most popular attractions here as well as a few more.
The first is Cathedral Cove. I had seen this beach on many Instagram feeds and knew it was somewhere I wanted to visit. The walk to the beach itself is surprisingly long and full of up an dows making for quite the trek. There are a number of smaller coves to visit along the way though, including some great spot for snorkelling.
When you finally make it to the beach, it is quite busy but with enough room for everyone to spread out. The famous archway and rocks are all on display and make for a great photo backdrop. The highlight for me was the walk to the cove as the beach was little to busy to fully enjoy.
If the walk isn’t suitable for you, there is a boat which you can pay and reverse which will take tourists back and forth to the beach. We didn’t account for how long the walk would take and with it getting later in the afternoon and not fancying the long walk back, we decided to take the boat back to the starting point. Make sure to book it in plenty of time though as you will not be the only one having this idea!
Hot Water Beach is also another popular spot along the Coromandel’s and is famous for the hot spring running directly underneath it. In a certain spot along the beach, you’ll know it when you see it, you can dig a hole and enjoy a DIY bath. Be careful to not choose a spot that is too hot though or dig too deep, you might find yourself getting burnt! You can bring your own spade or hire one from the local café. However, if you prefer, you can hop in a previous visitors make shift bath and borrow another groups spade to reinforce if needed. We went here in the evening and loved watching the sunset as we relaxed in our little spa.
The Coromandel’s is also home to many more amazing beaches, some so white that I was amazed we were still in New Zealand! The peninsula is full of fantastic rainforests to hike through as well as a number of scenic drives complete with twisting and turning roads. Be careful to not drive too fast on these! The area also has several sweet towns which cater for the tourists as well as locals. Thames, the main town of the area, is a fantastic example of an old colonial settlement and has a lot of interesting whaling and logging history.
This part of New Zealand is a must see and well worth a few days to week of your itinerary. It can get very busy and crowded in the summer months so do be prepared to join the crowds. It’ll be worth it though!
This popular tourist destination situated in the North-east of the North Island is an adventure playground. The area is renowned for its thermal activity with a number of spas and attractions all allowing you to experience the magic of the earth yourself. As well as this, slightly obvious attraction to Rotorua, you also have an abundance of adrenaline activities to try out including zorbing, ziplining and skydiving. The area surrounding Rotorua is also beautiful, with clear lakes (free of sulphur) to swim in the popular Bay of Plenty not too far away.
On the one occasion I explored this part of New Zealand, we stayed one night and two days and tried to fit in as much as we could into our time there. We first went zorbing. This adrenaline activity is unique to New Zealand and I believe was founded in Rotorua. They have three different routes you can take with your zorb ball, the straight and relaxed, windy route and finally the extreme route which includes a jump with a decent amount of air! We decided to be brave and try out all three.
Since we went in summer, our zorb ball was filled with a small amount of water and once in the zorb, you are zipped in and pushed down the hill. It is a unique feeling and very fun! I’d say the windy route was the most dramatic as you are being tossed from side to side and have no idea which way is up or down. The zorb company even has a hot tub which you can relax in after your turns are up. I would recommend this unique thrill to those seeking something new.
The town of Rotorua is very touristy and has a lot of gift shops and fun bars. The town also has a popular park which features some of the thermal activities underground. The smell of sulphur is prevalent throughout the town but after a few hours you’ll get used to it. The lake which Rotorua sits on is very sulphuric and is not safe to swim in. A quick walk around the river front will show you why as you’ll notice mud bubbling away a short distance from the walkway.
The area is also well known for it’s Maori heritage and culture. There are a number of culture shows to attend in the area but we chose to visit Tamaki Maori Village. You are first greeted by the chief of the village, your tour groups chosen leader sent to demonstrate you that mean no harm with the offering of a fern leaf. Once welcomed onto the land, you follow a series of short demonstrations which show the various ways of life still adopted by Maori people. This part was really interesting and we also got to try the Haka and other dances. What made this portion a shame for us was that our tour group happened to have a large number of German tourists. This wasn’t a problem, but due to things having to be translated into German, our group often overran the time allotted for each demonstration which meant we missed quite a bit of information.
After the demonstrations, you are invited to watch a cultural show which included the haka and other native dances. It was great to see and really is so important in keeping the culture alive for more generations. After the show you are treated to a feast which we happily indulged in. This evening is a great way to experience the culture of the Maori people and help connect to those who keep New Zealand as culturally vibrant as it is today.
Around an hour away from the town is a series of freshwater lakes all surrounded by amazing rainforests. We decided to drive to one of these on a hot afternoon and enjoyed a sunbathe and swim. There are quite a few to chose from so you’ll hopefully not have any trouble finding parking.
The highlight of our stay in Rotorua for myself was our trip to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. This attraction showcases the huge array of thermal activity in the Rotorua area and allows you to watch a geyser erupt, walk alongside the famous thermal lakes and take in some of the more unusual sights such as a bright green pond! We spent most of a day here and loved the well-marked route around the attractions.
I would have loved to have stayed another day in this part of the North Island, mostly to try out some of the other attractions on offer in the town such as the cable car and zip lines. I would have also maybe have been tempted to try out a spa which are popular for the healing properties of the mud used. Overall, Rotorua is a great and varied destination with something for everyone and a must do in New Zealand.
Located slap bang in the middle of the North Island, this small town and its magnificent lake are well worth your time. I have been able to visit here twice but felt that I didn’t make the most of my time here each time I visited. Both trips to Taupo were fleeting but I was able to visit the popular sights such as Haka Falls and see the lake. Lake Taupo was formed by a huge volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. This left a large crater which over time filled up with water creating the aquatic playground we see today.
The lake is huge and is perfect for sailing, kayaking or simply swimming in. You can find hundreds of spots to relax in around the lake, make sure to hire a car to get the most out of the area or hire a boat and explore the lake this way.
The popular sight of Haka Falls is also close to Taupo and is a great stop for a photo and a walk. This impressive waterfall rushes along at a huge speed and the colours of the water are fantastic. The falls are free to visit and have a series of walks alongside them to explore the surrounding area. If you want a slice of adrenaline, there is a jet tour of the falls which gets you crazy close to them, some might even say too close!
The town of Taupo is very touristy and is home to a few shops and fun restaurants and bars. It is also the home of the only McDonalds in the world which has an airplane one site, which you can sit in! I mainly ate and slept whist in the town of Taupo itself, but it is a great place to base yourself if you want to explore the lake, skydive, or make a worthwhile stop on your trip.
The final area of central North Island which I was lucky to visit is the amazing National Park. After driving past the majesty of Lake Taupo the landscape changes, with flatlands making way to awesome mountains and volcanic peaks. This area of the country has seen a lot of volcanic history and was the setting of the mighty Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
We stayed in this area for two nights in a rustic hostel. The temperature dipped when we entered the National Park and we swapped our shorts for fleeces and long leggings. The purpose of our trip to National Park was to hike Tongariro but it is also popular for skiing in the winter months. The mountain Whakapapa is well known for having some of the best skiing conditions in New Zealand and is another volcano.
Our full day in National Park was spent hiking. Tongariro is a famous 19km hike which crosses varied terrain to the peak of the Tongariro volcano. We walked past flatlands, marshes, craters and finally at the peak were rewarded with the amazing view of the volcano’s lakes, all with their own unique colour. Next to these lakes rises puffs of steam from thermal vents. The walk is challenging at parts but was so worth it. The worst part was the walking down as it is very repetitive and made our legs very shaky by the end. As soon as we got back to the hostel we went straight to sleep and left early in the morning for the long drive back to Auckland.
If a 19k walk doesn’t sounds appealing to you, there is a large variety of walks available in the National Park area and it is well worth a stay to take in the amazing volcanos, especially in the shoulder seasons as they often have snow covered peaks.
As you can see, Central North Island has something for everyone and is varied from its beaches to its volcanos. Although some may be tempted to fly from Auckland to Wellington before heading to the South Island, I urge you to spend some time in central North Island to discover some real hidden gems.