Unexpected Adventures on New Zealand’s North Island

Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Arrive in Auckland
  • Day 2: Head north to Paihia
  • Day 3: Cape Reinga day trip
  • Day 4: Morning exploring Russell Island and then back to Auckland
  • Day 5: Drive to Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula, kayak to Cathedral Cove and visit Hot Water Beach
  • Days 6-8: Leisure days in Hahei (snorkeling, hiking)
  • Day 9: Drive to Raglan
  • Day 10: Visit Waitomo Glowworm Caves and drive to Rotorua
  • Day 11: Visit Rotorua mud pools and drive to Lake Aniwhenua for a cultural immersion evening with a Maori family
  • Days 12-13: Blue Duck Station farm stay
  • Day 14: Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
  • Day 15: Wellington
  • Day 16: Ferry to South Island

Dates: February 19 – March 6

Our Odyssey: 

If I told you about a place with jagged coastlines, aqua blue waters, and beaches for miles, New Zealand probably wouldn’t be the first country that would come to mind, but it’s the first impression Tim and I had when we started exploring the north island. And, yes, we were surprised!

After a long journey from Manila, Philippines (via Taipei, Taiwan and Guangzhou, China), we arrived in Auckland, New Zealand to continue our 20-month honeymoon. We had a quick evening there before starting our road trip. Our original plan a few months ago was to rent a campervan and self-drive over the north and south islands, but after some research, I found a cheaper, easier option – buying a bus pass. There are a couple of companies that offer hop-on/hop-off bus passes that cover popular tourist routes (Kiwi Experience and Stray are the two I saw everywhere) that include your transportation on the busses as well as scenic stops and hikes along the way. You can take the full route straight through on the minimum number of days, or you can hop off and stay a little longer, since the busses depart for the next destination almost every day. You book your own a accommodation and activities (your bus driver can help), so you have a lot of flexibility while having the convenience of a driver/guide and a general itinerary laid out for you.

So the next morning we boarded our first Stray bus (at the time of this writing, we’ve boarded the bus 15 times) outside their main Auckland office and headed north to Paihia, which is the gateway to the Bay of Islands (which is what it sounds like).

During the ride, our driver shared a lot of information about the indigenous Maori people. He explained that the Northland is considered the birthplace of New Zealand, as this is where European settlers first arrived and where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between colonists and the Maori was signed. The document is contentious to this day, because imperfect translations between English and Maori resulted in the British believing they now owned all the land and the Maori believing they were just giving the British access to manage it. Maori tribes have pursued restoration of their land rights in courts, and haven’t had much success. That said, the overall attitude and treatment towards Maori people is very positive, especially when compared to Australia’s treatment of aboriginals. The very fact that our guide was telling us about their culture and history at all was a stark difference from our experience in Australia back in 2014, where it almost seemed like nobody wanted to even acknowledge their existence.

Like many ancient peoples, the Maori attach spiritual significance to the earth and nature, believing that gods and the spirits of their ancestors inhabit the wind, earth, trees, etc. Glaciers are the result of tears from a goddess, and the earth itself the work of a god who was tired of living in the dark all the time and pushed his parents (the sky and the land) apart.

With this context fresh in our minds, our group stopped in a native forest to see a kauri tree. These trees are not only very large and very old (comparable to the Redwoods or Sequoias of North America), they hold special spiritual significance for the indigenous Maori people. Europeans logged them in detrimental quantities, favoring the blemish-free timber for building and furniture. The kauri trees have no knots in their wood. They’re also now at risk due to contamination from the dirt brought in on the soles of people’s feet from elsewhere. Frankly, they’re dying in most parts of New Zealand, but places where they are still healthy are protected by conservationists.

When we arrived into Piahia, a small beach town, it was raining and blustery. We checked into our hostel (a 6 bed dorm – not my favorite sleeping arrangement but it’ll do when private rooms aren’t available) and didn’t really do anything aside from the requisite search for food.

The next morning was an early one- included in our Stray pass was a day trip up to Cape Reinga, the northernmost point of New Zealand and where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. We were picked up for the tour in the morning. Our driver/guide was great – a Maori man himself, he told us a lot about his life and how modern Maori fit into contemporary New Zealand life. Students learn both Maori and English languages, as well one or two other major world languages. We also noticed that signs and descriptions are displayed in both languages (this is something very apparent on the North Island, less often on the South).

90 Mile Beach

As part of the trip north, we spent about an hour driving on a unique highway – 90 Mile Beach. It’s literally a beach, with no paved roadway or signs. It’s not 90 miles long, but it is very long, with absolutely no development (hotels, resorts, etc.) around it. It’s as if you are on a beach no other humans have found yet.

Tucked back from the shore are large sand dunes, where we did the first of several “firsts” while in New Zealand – sand boarding! As the name suggests, you take a body board, climb up the sand dune, and then ride down head first. I was a little scared at first, but it ended up being a lot of fun!

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Sand Boarding

From here we continued the tour up to the very northernmost point of New Zealand – Cape Reinga. We were stunned to find lush green foliage, steep jagged cliffs, and perfectly blue and teal water blending together where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. To our left was a long sandy beach, with endless rows of white capped waves rolling to shore. It’s no wonder the Maori believe this where souls leave the earth. On our right, a beautiful 1940s light house still operates. It brought back my childhood fantasy of living in a lighthouse (inspired by the painting scene from the original Pete’s Dragon film).

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Cape Reinga

We spent a bit of time walking around the foot paths and mostly just looking around us saying “wow”. This was really the first big thing we did in New Zealand and it was completely unexpected – I never thought about beaches or coastline when I thought about New Zealand, always imagining dense forests, mountains and glaciers instead. Of course, and as we would learn during our travels through this remarkable country, New Zealand has everything.

Read more: What to Expect from your Cape Reinga Day Trip

That evening back in Piahia we ventured out to get a beer after dinner. We only made it next door to our hostel when we saw a sign – “Tommy Pickett, February 21”. I did a double take. My dad’s name is Tommy Puckett. February 21 in New Zealand is February 20 back home in the US. He died two years ago February 20. All I can say is that the universe works in mysterious ways. Little signs of my dad always make my smile.

The next day we took the water taxi to Russell Island for a short forest hike, and then were back on the Stray bus to head back to Auckland for a night. We ended up in a dorm room again, but it was decent enough. It’s a nice way to meet other travelers in any case! After dinner we decided to go out to an area of bars we had walked by a few nights ago when we had just arrived. We ended up in a Belgian beer themed bar called The Occidental and had the most fun night out of our trip up to that point. We met locals and travelers, listened to a good cover band, drank New Zealand wine and ended the evening with a little bit of dancing. It’s pretty awesome when you can go out with your husband and have such a fun night.

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Auckland

The next morning we were off on the bus again, headed to a place I hadn’t even heard of before we booked the bus pass – Hahei, a small town on the Coromandel Peninsula. This is basically where New Zealanders go to vacation on their summers. The town booms in population with seasonal visitors, but only has one bar and a few food stands all year round.

When our bus arrived at the holiday park (which is what they call RV/camping/backpacker type accommodations), Tim and I were super happy to snag a private little cabin for all 4 nights we’d be staying there. Note: when I say cabin, I mean it was a small box with a door. Regardless, we loved it.

As soon as we checked in, we headed out with a few others from our bus on a kayaking tour around the nearby islands. We started by heading out to an island directly offshore from Hahei Beach, navigating through rock archways and by the little blue penguins that live in the waters around New Zealand and southern Australia, their little heads bobbing up out of the water ahead of us. We then arrived ashore at Hahei’s most iconic spot, Cathedral Cove. This beach is only accessible by foot or boat, and the picturesque rock features, fresh water waterfall, and large cave you can walk through from one side of the beach to the other make it perfect for exploring.

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Kayaking to Cathedral Cove

After our beach break we were back in the kayaks, where our guide led the way into another cave, this one with a small sandy beach deep inside. The waves sloshed us around and echoed off the rock walls, with only the light from the entrance to illuminate the space.

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Cathedral Cove, under the cave

Back out in the open, we kayaked by Stingray and Gemstone Bays on our way back to the beach. Overall it was a really fun tour, and Tim and I would have never ventured into the cave on out own!

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Kayaking inside a cave

Shortly after arriving back to the holiday park, our bus driver, Skippy, took our whole group about 15 minutes driving to Hot Water Beach, where you dig your own hot pool. It’s a very unusual beach – there’s a hot spring river running under the ground, and during low tide you can dig into the sand and create a hot tub. It was very unique, but I’ll admit when it comes to relaxing I prefer not having to dig my own pool. Thankfully, Tim seemed to enjoy the hard work!

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Tim making us a hot pool

Our next day was spent doing taxes, laundry and blogging (hey, we can’t go on fun adventures every day!). It was actually really relaxing to laze around the property all day. We did venture out to the one bar for drinks and dinner with others in our group, and it ended up being a fun night of games and conversation.

Most of the group left the next morning since the standard Stray stop is 2 nights and we were staying longer. We rented snorkeling equipment and hiked to Cathedral Cove. On the walk back we stopped in Stingray Bay for a picnic and to search for the bay’s namesake animal. We saw one well-camoflaged in the sand. He (or she) was from tip to tail as long as I am tall, and as wide as two Tims, much larger than we expected. We were pretty startled when the stingray’s fins flapped against the ground three times, kicking a blur of sand around his body. We decided that was close enough, and swam back to shore. We also snorkeled in Gemstone Bay, accessed from the same trail but with a large boulder “beach” you have to climb over to get into the water. Having just snorkeled a ton in the Philippines, it was really interesting to see the fish in this part of the world. They were bigger, and at one point Tim and I were swimming in a giant school of them. One even grazed my leg (and I responded appropriately by thrashing around like I’d been attacked by a sea monster).

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Views during our hike to Cathedral Cove

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Look closely, it’s a stingray!

The next day, our last in Hahei, was another lazy one until late afternoon, when we headed out for another hike along the beach and up a cliff called Te Pare, where Maori warriors would keep watch against invaders. We found a rope swing, large trees, a river running into the ocean, and views over the surrounding islands. It was a fun evening to end our time in Hahei!

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Rope swing fun

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View from the top of Te Pare

The next day we were back on the bus, this time heading to the west coast town of Raglan. Known for its world class surfing, Raglan is, in my opinion, a “take it or leave it” destination if you aren’t interested in surfing. Since it’s on the Stray route, though, we spent a night there in a cute lodge in the jungle. We went on a muddy hike around the property, made a good dinner, relaxed in the sauna, made friends over food and drinks, and spotted glow worms at night in the bushes. It was nice and relaxing overall for a one night stop.

The next day was one of my favorites – we visited the famous Waitomo glow worm caves, and they are as beautiful as they are hyped up to be. We opted for an activity called the Spellbound Tour. The standard price is $75 NZD, but we paid a bit less by being in the Stray group.

The tour starts with an easy hike and a walk through a cave, where we saw the usual stalactites and stalagmites. What excited me most in this first cave, however, were the skeletal remains of a moa bird. Now extinct, they lived during the Miocene Era (13 to 23 million years ago) up until about the 1300s, when they went extinct primarily from hunting by the Maori. We also saw glow worms and learned that what makes them glow is actually a digestive enzyme. Bugs are attracted to the light and get caught in the glow worm’s strings of urine such function like a web. One the glow worm has a bug, it’s mealtime!

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Moa remains

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A life-size Moa replica at the Te Papa museum in Wellington, to give you a sense of what this animal was

After this first cave, we had a coffee and tea break provided by our guide before heading to the second cave. We each got a helmet and descended down. This time, rather than walking through a cave, we all got into a raft. We kept our headlamps off so it was totally dark, allowing our eyes to adjust. Once everyone was in the raft, our guide navigated us through the long, narrow cave. The deeper we went, the brighter the glow worms were. It looked as if there was a river of blue light on the ceiling above us, and it reflected off the actual river below us, surrounding us in the glow. It was stunning and unlike anything else I’d ever seen before. Pictures on our phones certainly don’t come anywhere close to what it looks like in reality, but the tour company did send us good photos from professional photographers using long exposures.

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Our photo

Glowworm lights and threads corrected

Professional photo with long exposure, courtesy of Spellbound Glowworm and Cave Tours

After the glow worm tour, the bus took us to Rotorua for the night. Rotorua is known for its geothermal activity, such as geysers and hot springs. It’s similar to Yellowstone  in the US but much smaller, and, in my opinion, a lot more commercialized. For instance, the most popular geothermal features are not part of a national park, but rather are privately owned by businesses. Waiotapu even puts soap in the Lady Knox geyser every morning at 10am to prompt an eruption. This all seemed artificial to us, and we also weren’t sure about the environmental ethics around it. On top of that, these sites are pricey. We decided to forgo the touristy geothermal sites in Rotorua in favor of a relaxed night of local beer and dinner. The next morning, we slept in late and walked around town until it was time for the bus departure. The bus ended up stopping at some free mud pool viewing platforms on the way out of town anyway, so we feel we made the right choice by not contributing to the commercial side of things.

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Mud pots – always stinky, always funny to watch

From Rotorua we headed to Lake Aniwhenua and the Kohutapu Lodge . This was a really special part of our trip, as this was an authentic Maori home stay. A Maori guide joined us on our bus to show us the local tribal land (including ancient rock carvings of the boats that the Maori people used to arrive to New Zealand (Aotearoa) from the Polynesian Islands) and the small town. He explained that the town today is in poverty, and that shops are boarded up and many of the young men are in local gangs.

The lodge itself is fun by a Maori family who returns their profits to the community, sponsoring scholarships and educational trips for students and donating meals for lunch at the schools. The woman who runs it is very energetic, and her personality is overwhelming at first. The more I learned about their projects, though, I understood why she had so much passion. She wanted to give her children and others the opportunity to know where they came from and to know their ancient culture and language. She explained her parents were beaten at school when they spoke Maori, in order to force them to speak English. They had to repress their heritage. She wants the younger generation to have what her parents’ generation could not – the ability to cherish their heritage while simultaneously seeing a future for themselves in the world at large.

For dinner that night, they prepared a traditional Maori hangi. After heating coals in the ground, they stacked food (meat and root vegetables) on racks, covered it in thick wet blankets, and then covered the mound with dirt. Three hours later, the meal is uncovered and you have a mix between a steamed and grilled vegetable and meat meal.

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Hangi Step 1 – put the food on hot coals

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Hangi Step 2 – put wet blankets on the food

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Hangi Step 3 – bury it and wait

The next day, the group from our bus took our leftovers to the local school. Then each child got to pick one of us to play with during their recess time. I ended up playing army vs dinosaurs with a few kids, followed by a silly photo shoot with SnapChat filters. Tim ran around playing tag in a sand pit. Since they regularly spend their recess with a different foreign visitor, I don’t think we have any significant impact on them individually, but hopefully the exposure to people from all over the world is exciting for them.

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Playing at the Maori school

Leaving Lake Aniwhenua, we then traveled on the bus to another unique Stray location – Blue Duck Station, a rural farm set among mountains. It’s to New Zealand what a remote outback station is in Australia. The drive up to it feels precarious for a big bus in the best of weather, and we later learned from people traveling through a few weeks later that heavy rain storms had washed out the roads and they had to send in helicopters to get everyone out on schedule (whoa!).

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New Zealand traffic jam coming in to Blue Duck

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This sweet farm dog was as smelly as he was cute

Blue Duck was a relaxing spot to unwind for two nights. On our free day Tim and I did a short hike to a beautiful waterfall, which was made even better by being the only ones there, and finding some kayaks on the rocky shore. We didn’t take them far, and it was fun to just putz around in the water together. Others in our group spent the day horseback riding or hunting. Like Raglan, this was another “take it or leave it” spot. It’s certainly beautiful up there and it’s cool to see farm life, but unless you’re very interested in farmstays, horseback riding or hunting, I wouldn’t consider it a New Zealand must-do.

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Chasing waterfalls

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Pretending to kayak

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Pro tip: In Maori, the “Wh-” is pronounced as an “f”. Go ahead, say “Whakahoro” aloud.

Our next adventure, though, is another story. Leaving Blue Duck, our bus then went to Tongariro National Park, where we were able to complete the epic 20-ish kilometer alpine crossing hike. This was by far my favorite day in the north island, and possibly in New Zealand as a whole.

From the Mangatepopo carpark (altitude 1120 meters) the hike starts on a flat boardwalk, with views of alpine desert wildflowers and Mount Ngauruhoe volcano. About a half hour into the trek, the trail begins to ascend Mount Tongariro. The ascent takes about an hour and a half, with intermittent descents and level portions. After the first big climb, the trail descends again into the volcanic crater. After crossing the crater, it then ascends again to a steep ridge overlooking another crater. The views get bigger and bigger before one last steep climb to the top of another ridge. It’s windy and rocky – and admittedly kind of scary given the height!

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The start of the Tongariro Crossing hike – looks nice and flat, but it’s a trick

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Volcano views

Once at the top, we had our lunch, took photos and stretched our legs. The initial descent on the other side overlooks the crossing’s three iconic lakes, perfectly blue and green against the burnt tan dirt landscape surrounding them. The descent to the lakes is very slippery over loose volcanic ash. Combined with the wind, it sometimes felt like I was going to slide right off the ridge. This was mostly psychological though, since if you were to actually slip you’d stop long before you’d end up in the crater (I think).

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Looking out from where we came after the first ascent

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As we climbed up the first ridge, the volcano views became even more dramatic as we stared down into a caldera

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Looking back towards the crater basin we had just crossed as we began the second ascent

Fumeroles emit smoke all around the lakes, and combined with the craters and volcano looming above, the entire landscape is incredibly otherworldly. If you had shown me pictures and told me it was Mars (minus the lakes), I probably would have fallen for it.

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Probably the most famous view from the hike

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That smoke is volcanic steam

After leaving this beautiful area, we walked by another large lake and around the other side of the Ngauruhoe volcano, where we could see the hardened river of lava spilled out over the valley.

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That black stuff behind me is a river of hardened lava

From here the hike is a series of switchbacks descending down for what feels like forever (you’re descending in altitude lower than where you started the trek to end at the Ketetahi carpark, altitude 800 meters). This part of the trek is admittedly boring. Eventually you reach a forest and cross by a stream marked with signs warning of flash floods and to move quickly and not stop. So that’s kind of exciting.

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A little bit of adrenaline for the last half hour of the hike

Even with the never-ending descent via repetitive switchbacks, this is one of the best day hikes I’ve ever done. It’s challenging without beating you up entirely, and the views and landscape are unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. We were also incredibly lucky with the weather. Being a volcanic alpine desert, the weather is very erratic and many days are so overcast and foggy that you can’t see anything.

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Unreal landscape (also two Tims)

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From the top of the ridge

The next day was our last on the north island. We made our way to the capital city of Wellington for the afternoon and visited the impressive national museum Te Papa.

The next day was an early one, as we took the ferry down to the South Island, leaving the north and its tropical beaches, wild volcanos, glowing insects and big cities behind.

Read more: New Zealand North Island Detailed Itinerary

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