New Zealand’s North Island is often overlooked by travellers. They’ll do a speedy road trip but the aim is usually to get through it as quickly as possible so they can reach the South ASAP. But we have a list of unmissable and uique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island, that will change that perspective and make you realise just how much there is to see and do on the North Island. We’ve included wildlife, hiking, culture, beaches and history… all in the hope to inspire you to spend just a tiny bit longer on that beautiful Island in the North.
The magical cove of Castel Point
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Here are 20 unique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island!
Hike Mount Paku – Coromandel Peninsula
This famous Coromandel Peninsula is breathtakingly stunning and a great way to experience some of New Zealand’s beauty for free! Most people know this area for its famous Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, but our first experience of it came in the shape of a dormant volcano called Mount Paku in the town of Tairua. The walk is a steady 30-40 minutes with a 179m elevation, it gets steep in places and there are quite a few steps but the views from the top are really something. You’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the ocean, small islands and your first proper glimpse of the Coromandel’s Volcanic landscape.
There’s also a really beautiful free campsite here, just at the base of Mount Paku looking out over the bay, so if you love the area as much as we did you can stay overnight without issue!
Curious about Tairua and the Coromandel Peninsula, find out more in this post.
The view from the top of Mount Paku
The Muriwai Gannet Colony
Between August and March every year, the Muriwai cliffs become home to one of the largest gannet colonies in New Zealand with a viewing platform that offers you an up-close and bird-friendly encounter for free – which is why we consider this a really unique place to visit on New Zealand’s North Island.
Muriwai beach is only an hours drive from Auckland CBD so even if you don’t plan to drive to the Far North you can still do a day trip to see the Muriwai Gannets.
There are three viewing options at Muriwai depending on the tide. At low tide, you can walk around the base of the cliffs and watch the gannets as they sore overhead looking for their meals and nesting materials, while at high tide there are two upper platforms that offer a view out over their nesting area. The first platform has a closer view, depending on where the birds decide to nest of course!
Having this up-close encounter means you can really see them show off their natural behaviours. From building the nest, rearing their young and even greeting each other with their unique ‘beak dancing’, as I heard a child nearby call it.
There is another colony in Napier that is larger but the walk to the nesting ground is currently closed (2019) for the foreseeable future, meaning the only way to get there is by boat tour. It’s something to keep in mind though if Napier is already on your itinerary and you don’t fancy a trip to Muriwai.
One of the greedy gannets from Muriwai
Coca Cola Lake – Northland
Suggested by Jennifer from Backyard Travel Family: Active Family Travel Specialists in New Zealand
If you have ever dreamed of bathing in Coca Cola, then your prayers have been answered. Take a trip to Lake Rotopokaka aka Coca Cola Lake. But don’t worry, it’s not actually Coca Cola, it is a freshwater lake where the natural tannins have coloured the water, leading to a crazy reddish-brown lake. It is completely safe to swim in and even drink. Some Maori believe it has healing properties. It is easily one of the most unique things to do on NZ North Island.
How to get here: Coca Cola Lake is found in Doubtless Bay, about an hour north of Kerikeri and 25 minutes from Kaitaia. It can be found off just off Ramp Road
Jennifers image of Cola Lake
Be the first to see the sunrise – Gisborne
New Zealand’s most easterly city, Gisborne, is the first city in the world to see the sunrise every morning during the summer months. It’s for that reason alone that it makes it to our list of things to do on NZ North Island in 2020.
It’s also the first place Captain Cook landed in New Zealand on October 6th 1769 and if you time your visit right, you might be able to join in with the yearly celebrations where a replica ship sails into the harbour.
Other things to do in Gisborne include visiting Tuahine Lighthouse on Gisborne’s Tamarua Peninsula, feeding stingrays in the shallows of Poverty Bay and there are plenty of wineries in the Gisborne District too!
Just one of the beautiful bays in Gisborne
Paddle Board to glow worms – Rotorua
Suggested by Nina from Where in the world is Nina
While most will flock to Waitomo to get the chance of seeing glowworms, I’m telling you about another option that’s not as crowded, expensive and doesn’t require a detour! Rotorua should certainly be a place you stop while campervaning New Zealand, glowworms or not! It’s a stinky place due to the geothermal activity in the area. Dip in the hot springs, walk around the alien territory (think bubbling pools, geysers, and neon coloured landscapes), and now, see glowworms too!
Hop on a SUP board and float and paddle down one of Rotorua’s off-the-path lakes at sunset. As the sun starts to dissipate on the horizon and everything gets dark, the glowworms come out to play. There are a few small caves hidden on the shores of the lake where you can lay back on the SUP board and get transported to another world as the glowworms light up the ceiling!
To have this epic experience, you’ll have to book a tour with Paddle Board Rotorua so they can show you the secret spots.
Nina’s image from her time SUP’ing to the glow worms
Visit Waihi, New Zealand’s heart of gold – Coromandel Peninsula
While this is still part of the Coromandel, I feel it deserves to be on the list of unique places to visit on NZ North Island in 2020 and is a town you absolutely can’t miss.
Waihi was voted New Zealand’s most beautiful town for 2019 and I can really see why. It’s seeped with a gold mining history that goes back over 3 centuries and has retained its heritage beauty. There’s plenty to do here but our favourite was the nearby Martha Mine. This is an active mine pit that you can walk around the top of while looking down into its deep pit. Other things to do near Waihi include the Karangahake Gorge (more on that below!), coastal walks and plenty of gold mine tours!
One of our fave unique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island.
Kapiti Island – Wellington Region
Suggestd by Jub from Chur New Zealand
A day trip to Kapiti Island is amazing thanks to the island being pest-free since 1996. This has allowed both the native bush and wildlife to flourish with the assistance of the DOC staff. With only 160 people allowed to visit Kapiti Island each day, you aren’t going to a place with too many tourists. It’s a true bird lovers paradise as they’re not all spooked by humans, so you can see all sorts here including weka, kaka, takahe, New Zealand pigeon, saddlebacks, and if you stay overnight there’s the opportunity to see one of the 1200 little spotted kiwis foraging on the island – the ultimate thing to do in New Zealand, surely? Afterwards, you can see a view of Kapiti at the top of Hemi Matenga and finish the day by watching the sunset over the island in Waikanae.
You can book a day trip to Kapiti Island from Wellington!
A cheeky Kaka
Maori Rock Carvings – Lake Taupo
Here’s one for the adventurers! Lake Taupo was where I had my first experience of kayaking, and it’s now something I think everyone should try – especially on this mammoth lake! Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake and also the caldera of the regions volcano. Along its vast shores hides a spectacular piece of art that can only be reached by kayak or boat… Maori Rock Carvings.
The rock carvings are a steady 1.5 hours paddle (one way) from the nearest kayak rental, Taupo Kayaking Adventures, further if you head out from Taupo’s main town. If you want to hand around Lake Taupo – and we really suggest you do – there’s a really pretty free campsite next to the lake and about 10 minutes outside of town.
Here’s our full post for more information on Kayaking Lake Taupo.
Kayaking on Taupo – an experience unique to New Zelaand’s North Island
Don’t fancy kayaking? Book one of these boat tours instead!
See Elephant and Horse rock – Taranaki Region
New Zealand is teeming with unique landscapes that are forever changing, but none more so than the coastal cliffs of Mount Taranaki Region. These limestone formations are always being crafted into new shapes by the ever crashing waves. The most famous one is without a doubt elephant rock. Before anyone chimes in, yes, the original elephant rock recently lost its trunk but there’s a new one nearby as well as this really unique horse shape too.
You can find these awesome rock formations 30 minutes North of Mount Taranaki on the West Coast. There’s even a free camp right on the beachfront here! From the car park, follow the beach around the corner and you’ll soon find the formations.
Be sure to check out the tide times as you can only reach these at low tide. At high tide, there is a cliff lookout just 5 minutes up the road (north)
Elephant Rock – Taranaki’s unique rock formations
20 unique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island!
Taranaki black sand beach – Taranaki Region
Suggested by Blake at We Love Lanka
One of the most beautiful attractions in the North Island of New Zealand is visiting Taranaki. Not only is this place not yet overrun with tourists, but there is so much for the outdoors type to do and explore!
Mountains, lakes, rivers, oceans, beaches.
I’m sure we’ve all basked on a perfect white sand beach, but have you topped up your tan on a black sand beach? The region is home to the darkest black sand beaches in the country.
The black sand can be terrifyingly hot in the summer sun, so don’t forget your flip flops! However, it makes for some of the most incredible landscapes. Colours and tones that I’ve never seen before. Imagine sitting watching the most violent explosions of red, orange and yellow in the sky as the sun is setting, while looking down at this dark black sand on the beach.
Taranaki is a region that is not on the to-do list of many travellers due to its location a little further off the main tourist route but it is a destination not to be missed!
Great Barrier Island Dark Sky Sanctuary
By Maureen Spencer from So Many Places! So Little Time!
Great Barrier Island, in the outer Hauraki Gulf, about 100 km northeast of Auckland, has to be one of the most overlooked attractions in New Zealand! Because it is about an hour’s thrilling plane ride in a small aircraft, or a four and a half to five-hour, often rocky, boat ride, Great Barrier Island is often perceived as a difficult place to get to, but it really is well worth the trip!
Great Barrier Island is one of only five Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world and the night skies are simply stunning. Thousands and thousands of bright stars gleam and sparkle overhead against a black velvety background, along with a few shooting stars and circling satellites.
Great Barrier Island is ‘off the grid.’ The locals depend mainly on solar power, windmills or generators to self generate their own electricity and it is relatively isolated from large areas of population. The nearest larger center of population is Auckland City which is 100 km away, and the population on the island itself is only about a thousand residents who are generally very eco-conscious. The forests, beaches, and bays on the island are pristine and give the opportunity for a wide array of outdoor and wilderness adventures.
If you are looking for unique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island, we strongly recommend a stay on Great Barrier Island.
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Middle earth at Cape Palliser – Wellington Region
Another reason to explore more of the North Island’s East Coast is Cape Palliser. Just a stone’s throw from Wellington, the first location you’ll hit on your way down Cape Palliser is the Putangirua Pinnacles, these are one of the lesser-known (and more out of the way) Lord of The Rings filming locations and they’re well worth a stop. We highly recommend the river track that winds through them instead of the busier lookout out track, just be aware that it is badly signposted in places and requires several stream crossings – not great during/after heavy rainfall.
After the Putangirua Pinnacles, you’ll pass through the North Island’s largest seal colony. Drive slowly as they’re often right by the road, unfortunately, we saw too many who had fallen victim of an unobservant driver.
From here the road gets narrow so we decided to park up the motorhome and walk to the Cape Palliser Lighthouse instead. By doing this, we got a closer and more prolonged look at the seals without disrupting them.
The end destination is, of course, the lighthouse. It has fantastic views over the coast if you dare to brave the 100+ steep steps to get to the top!
Leah stood staring up at Putangirua Pinnacles
Karangahake Gorge – Coromandel Peninsula
Suggested by Holly from Four Around The World
One of the best things to do when the weather is fine in New Zealand is to get outdoors and Karangahake Gorge is a great place to do it. Especially if you are trying to keep costs down with free entertainment!
Located not far from Auckland and Waihi, Karangahake Gorge offers some incredible walking tracks through beautiful scenery. Explore a bit of local history as you wander through the massive train tunnel from mining days and spot old mining relics scattered through the trees.
There are many different walking and cycling tracks to take, suitable for most fitness levels and ages. If you have the time, a visit to the nearby winery or restaurant would be a great way to complete your day!
Holly’s image of Karangahake
Kai Iwi lakes – Northland
Suggested by Michelle from walking on foreign chels.
Kai Iwi Lakes are the only sand dune lakes in the country, and they are fed exclusively by rainwater. This makes them perfect for swimming and boating! Located approx. 45 mins from Dargaville on the road to Waipoua Forest, they’re a great place to stop and cool off during the summer months. Head to Lake Taharoa (the main lake of the five) and park your car where you’re told to but don’t head to the beach here, instead, go towards your right and follow the old road around until you get to a small beach in front of a derelict changing shed and car park – this is the best beach for swimming!
Michelle’s image of Kai Iwi Island
Dolphin spotting – Bay of Islands
Suggested by Lotte from Phenomenal Global Travel
New Zealand is one of the best ecotourism destinations and has very strict regulations about interaction with dolphins. All tour operators in the Bay of Islands adhere to these rules and do their utmost to disturb the dolphins as little as possible.
However, if you are lucky these curious intelligent creatures will swim up to the boat to investigate, sometimes giving a show by jumping out of the water and swimming under the boat. Note that these are wild animals and there is no guarantee you will see dolphins during your cruise.
Regardless, the scenery is stunning, and there is a high probability you will also see other wild animals such as tiny blue penguins and gannets, who let themselves fall from the sky and dive into the water to catch fish.
Another must-do activity in the Paihia area is a visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds often called the ‘Birthplace of our Nation’ where you can learn about the history of New Zealand and how the nation came to be.
A wild dolphin of the coast of Bay of Plenty
New Zealand’s tallest Kauri Tree – Northland
Suggested by Kylie from Our Overseas Adventures
Leah at the base of Tane Mahuta
Tama Lakes Track – Tongariro National Park
The Tama Lakes track is just around the corner from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and offers a fantastic alternative for those winter closures, or if you’re looking for a slightly less challenging walk.
The Tama Lakes hike is a 7-8 hour (return) walk across volcanic alpine fields, past beautiful waterfalls and rapids before reaching what I consider the prettiest lakes in the area, 1430m above sea level.
Surrounded by black soils and red tussock bushes, the vivid blue glacial water of the lakes really stand out and are worth adding another day to your Tongariro National Park itinerary.
The start of this track is behind the Chateau Tongariro Hotel and you can return via the same track or take a detour via the waterfall which will only add 20-30 minutes onto your walk and bring you out in town.
In the winter don’t forget to check the weather + avalanche forcast. If in doubt, ask at the information centre for the lates updates.
The view of lower Tama Lake from the upper track
Explore Cape Reinga – Northland
Suggested by Aimee from Snap Happy Travel
The famed Cape Reinga is the most Northerly point of New Zealand and the point where two oceans meet (the Tasman and the Pacific). This cool fact alone makes it well worth the visit in 2020, equally as interesting is the fact the Maori believe it is the point their souls enter the afterlife. Cape Reinga is very popular and can get quite crowded so try to get here early or late to avoid the tour buses. To get the best photo of the Lighthouse, stand at the top of the hill directly facing it.
There’s also an absolutely incredible beach about a 25-minute walk from the Cape Reinga lighthouse called Te Werahi beach. We even went for a swim in its wild and icy waters.
To break up the long drive to Cape Reinga, I recommend stopping at Te Paki Sand Dunes, here you can do sandboarding for $15.
Aimee’s image of Cape Reinga lighthouse
Hamilton Gardens – Hamilton
Suggested by Nadine from Le Long Weekend
Hamilton’s award-winning gardens are a local favourite but are still somewhat undiscovered by many visitors to New Zealand. Unlike traditional botanic gardens, the Hamilton Gardens have established a reputation for their elaborately themed gardens. Each of the 5 collections houses several gardens in differing themes, from the impeccably pruned Italian Renaissance garden to the Rhododendron Lawn that’s perfect for picnics. Exploring the gardens is like taking a trip around the world – but much more achievable! It goes without saying that it’s one of the best things to do in Hamilton with kids too – little ones love discovering the embellished and fairytale-like space. Not to mention the adventure playground at the end!
Nadine’s image from the Hamilton Gardens
Mt Tarawera crater walk – Bay of Plenty
Suggested by Alex from Discover Aotearoa – New Zealand from N to Z
If it comes to volcanic landscapes, The Mt Tarawera near Rotorua is hands down one of the best alternatives to the overcrowded Tongariro Crossing. It’s a lot shorter than the crossing, only 4 km long, which makes it a great option for people who can’t or don’t want to walk for 6 hours straight.
Mt Tarawera is private which means you and your tour group will have the mountain all for yourselves. On a good day, you get amazing views over the Rotorua lakes, sometimes all the to White Island in the Bay of Plenty. And I promise you’ll have the most fun on the 400m scree run right into the heart of the crater!
Alex’s image from the Mt Tarawera Crater
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Unique places to visit on New Zealand’s
So there you have it, 20 of the most unique places to see on New Zealand’s North Island in 2020. There are so many more places all across the North but these are by far our favourites! If you have time, click over to the pages of this weeks contributors to check out more of their New Zealand work! And for more unique places to visit on New Zealand’s North Island, be sure to check out this page.
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