By Amy Louise Bailey
May 20, 2022
THERE IS A LOT TO LOVE in New Zealand. And while you may know of adventure capital Queenstown, sauv blanc heaven Marlborough, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, and historic Christchurch, those are all on the South Island. We’re here to tell you: the North Island of New Zealand also holds countless gems, and to find the must-visit spots, it’s best to let locals be our guide.
Why? During and after two years of being locked in (and locked out), Kiwis, famous for their internationally peripatetic ways, “have spent an extra NZ$1.1 billion on domestic travel compared to pre-Covid levels,” says Sarah Handley, general manager of Tourism New Zealand in the Americas and Europe. “More than half have experienced a new tourism activity or visited a new place over the past year.”
Between the adorable capital of Wellington in the south and northerly Auckland and beyond, the North Island of New Zealand is a prime destination to roadtrip to pristine beaches, indulge in fresh food and great wine, experience colorful nature adventures, and generally enjoy the low-key luxury this far-flung country is renowned for.
In New Zealand, the love of the land you’ll find among locals is infectious, so here’s our guide to lesser-known, extra-awesome North Island destinations to visit now that borders have reopened.
Consider this the Napa Valley of New Zealand, but with beaches in the immediate vicinity. It’s only 45 minutes north of Auckland by car and is anchored by a charming village with local boutiques and an artisan farmers market that is renowned for its quintessentially Kiwi food; think whitebait fritters, Manuka honey, angus steak and rosemary pies, molten mellowpuffs, and of course, excellent flat whites.
Beyond the village, one of the most interesting places to book for lunch and a wine tasting is Brick Bay, which boasts an impressive sculpture trail with 60 large-scale creations from New Zealand artists. A similar destination that opened more recently is Sculptureum, which has more than a kilometer of sculpture gardens and six themed galleries with contemporary works from all around the world.
There are also many traditional wineries throughout the region, where you can dine al fresco amid lush country landscapes and sample wines produced onsite. And for a day spent by the sea? There are some of the most picturesque white sand beaches within 10 minutes of the village, including Omaha (where many Aucklanders have holiday homes), Snell’s Beach, Pakiri, and Tawharanui Regional Park. Also in the area is New Zealand’s oldest protected marine reserve, Goat Island, which is a wonderful place for children to snorkel and marvel at the colorful variety of sea life.
Only a 40-minute boat ride from downtown Auckland, Waiheke Island is a popular day trip for people who want to get away without really getting away. The island is replete with verdant rolling hills, golden sand beaches, and some of the region’s most revered wineries, which are coveted venues for weddings and events.
Tantalus Estate, Mudbrick, Cable Bay, and Man O’War are the most picturesque, and there are many wineries with excellent restaurants, including The Shed at Te Motu, and Poderi Crisci which has legendary long lunches each Sunday. Some of the more rustic vineyards host Coachella-inspired music festivals to ring in the New Year, while Casita Miro has a whole season of live jazz, enticing mature crowds across the Hauraki Gulf.
There are always events that make for a sophisticated day out on Waiheke, from outdoor sculpture exhibitions, to music festivals, and experiences that showcase the island’s incredible food and wine. Another highlight that draws Aucklanders across? The beautiful beaches, which are uncrowded and family-friendly, including Palm Beach, Onetangi and Oneroa, close to the main township. This beautiful island is New Zealand’s answer to the Hamptons — high-end but low-key, and perfect for a day of relaxation and indulgence.
Bay of Islands
New Zealanders with a penchant for maritime activities are right at home in The Bay of Islands. The name is quite literal — there are 144 islands in the sparkling subtropical region between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula, all of which are best explored by boat.
People come here to go fishing, jet around the islands, and sail alongside dolphins, whales, and an abundance of wildlife. It is a three-hour drive north of Auckland, or a 35-minute flight, (yep, the North Island goes very far north) and has long been a favorite to visit in summer for locals who like in this part of New Zealand. The area is composed of the towns Paihia, Kerikeri and Russell, which was the nation’s first capital, close to the significant historic site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. Predating that, New Zealand’s spirited pub culture got its start at the country’s first pub, the Duke of Marlborough, which opened in Russell 1827, and still remains a hugely popular establishment today.
Much like many European seaside towns, the coast is dotted with yachts during the summer and locals visit for extended periods of time over the holiday season, embracing the nature and laid-back way of life. The region is also home to two particularly notable hotels that have garnered international acclaim: Eagle’s Nest and The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, which is one of only seven Relais & Chateaux properties in New Zealand.
Surfers flock to Raglan year-round for its consistent waves and laidback lifestyle. It’s a serene seaside town that has built an identity around surf culture. The vibe is evident from the moment you arrive, with surfboards lining the sidewalks, bohemian boutiques, organic cafes, and lively gastropubs playing reggae music. For locals on the North Island, Raglan is the ultimate place to embrace #vanlife and visit the great outdoors of New Zealand on a budget. There are various camp grounds and holiday parks where people can pitch a tent, have a barbecue, and imbibe under the stars before heading out to catch a wave the following morning.
Glamping retreats have also popped up in recent years; Nikau Sanctuary and The Round Tent are popular getaways for young couples, with luxury yurts featuring outdoor bathtubs and fire pits. Now for the surf: Those who are experienced head to Manu Bay, while beginners typically go to Ngarunui Beach. There are several local operators that offer lessons, including Raglan Surf School or Green Wave, but if you’re down for something less physically demanding, paddleboards and kayaks are available for rent, or you could hang back on the beach and admire the black sand coastline and the ancient limestone formations. Before you leave, be sure to visit Raglan Fish for classic fish and chips served in newspaper — a favorite Kiwi snack.
Located in the heart of the North Island between Auckland and Wellington is Taupo, home to the largest lake in New Zealand, i.e., it’s roughly the size of Singapore(!) so even locals can’t help but be awed on a visit. It’s also home to the most-touristed natural attraction in the country, Huka Falls, where water thunders through a narrow chasm at 220,000 liters per second, creating a spectacular white and turquoise whirlpool. Along the same river (the Waikato) is a revered five-star luxury hotel, Huka Lodge, which has hosted Queen Elizabeth, Miuccia Prada, and Bill Gates among many other high-profile guests. It’s a much-lauded escape for many New Zealanders and a fabulous place to celebrate a milestone event.
Another major attraction nearby is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site with otherworldly emerald lakes and red craters — a life-changing experience for hikers. But on a more regular basis, people head to Taupo for its proximity to New Zealand’s largest commercial ski slopes at Mount Ruapehu. And in the summer, the adjacent town of Kinloch (situated on the northern edge of Lake Taupo) is bustling with New Zealanders who have invested in holiday homes there. The ultimate accessory in this part of the country? A speedboat for trout fishing and waterskiing on the lake.
Hawke’s Bay is a haven for the finer things in life — there are exceptional wineries, luxury lodges, beaches, golf courses, and the highest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world. The last is the result of a devastating earthquake that leveled the town of Napier in 1931, leading to its prompt rebuilding at the peak of the Art Deco era. This area, famous for pinots, is the first stop on the classic New Zealand Wine Trail, as it has the first winery in the country, at a former monastery, of course. And it has a flourishing hospitality scene, with The Farm at Cape Kidnappers leading the way.
“For Kiwis, the Hawke’s Bay is known for its stunning wines and produce,” says James Cavanaugh of Robertson Lodges (The Farm’s umbrella company). “It’s also known as the first place on Earth to see the sun each day. The ocean sunrises through sea mists are worth setting an alarm for, or let the native birdsong get you up to start the day.” It’s a truly idyllic retreat that is popular for a long-weekend escape. For more intrepid experiences in the region, people embark on the Lake Waikaremoana track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.