Heading south from Auckland you have many choices as you travel to Wellington, the Capital City at the southern end of the North Island. You could travel by air, train, car bus or bike down more or less through the centre of the North Island, or you could head eastwards to Gisborne and Napier on the east coast side, or to the western side via New Plymouth. The choice is yours.
Here on this section of the website – we have set down some more information to help you choose where and what you want to see.
BY AIR – It takes just an hour to fly from Auckland to Wellington and there are lots of choices of airlines and flight times. If you can get a window seat, you will have a great view of the country you will be flying over, depending on cloud cover on the day that you fly.
BY TRAIN – “One of the ‘great’ train journeys in the world!”
The Northern Explorer train service runs from the Britomart Transport Centre in Auckland to Wellington Railway Station in the south, a 681 kilometre long journey that takes a whole day travelling through some of the best scenery in the world. The train departs early morning and arrives in the early evening the same day – and there is lots to see and enjoy. You can book tickets at www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz
The train has big panoramic windows and even an open-air carriage where the windows have no glass – so you not only see the view, but can also feel the wind and air as you take in the views. There’s also an on-board café so you can grab a coffee, tea or enjoy a meal. On your journey south you will see sheep and farming areas, rivers, gorges, snow-capped mountains, volcanos, towns, tunnels, viaducts, lakes, craters and cross over an ever changing landscape.
CITIES and towns –
The Waikato River (Waikato Maori meaning is flowing water) is New Zealand’s longest river travelling a distance of 425 kilometres from Lake Taupo almost in the centre of the North Island and flowing north and then into the Tasman Sea at Port Waikato on the west coast. Along the journey the river flows past 8 hydro-electric power stations, where 8 artificial lakes have also been created, and it takes 18 hours for the water leaving Lake Taupo to eventually flow into the sea.
The river itself is fast flowing but has in most places a tranquillity about it, with bridges crossing over it at various points including in Hamilton where there are six bridges connecting the town located on both sides of the river.
Hamilton – has a population of around 145,000 people and is centre of a big dairying area, but also has the Waikato University located here too, as well as the Wintec Institute of Technology. The city also has manufacturing, healthcare and its centrepiece is certainly the Waikato River that flows through the city, with cycle and walkways along its banks. Hamilton is not really a tourist city as such, but it provides a true insight into New Zealand lifestyle. The great soil has enabled many gardens to be developed and a Garden Festival in summer attracts thousands of people to it. There are galleries, theatres, cafes, the Waikato Museum (www.waikatomuseum.co.nz ), a zoo and even Skycity Casino with Hamilton Lake also attracting lots of cyclists, walkers, and picnicker to enjoy it. There was and still is a large Maori community, and the entrance to Hamilton Gardens has a woven stone blanket sculpture – called the ‘Earth Blanket’ as a celebration respect for ‘Mother Earth’ and all she provides. There are lots of places to stay in Hamilton, and its clean riverside parklike environment and gardens as well as its closeness to Rotorua and other places of interest make it a city worth visiting. There are also cruises on the river and people also kayak, fish, row and being a city with lots of university and Wintec students, there is always something happening in the city to enjoy. The city is also relatively close to Rotorua, Waitomo Caves and the Hobbiton Movie Set and Wairere Falls – see below.
Cambridge – has a population of around 15,000 people and is about 24 kilometres south of
Hamilton. The town is a centre of thoroughbred horse breeding in New Zealand with a number of
horse studs located here including Windsor Park, Trelawney, Chequers and others.
Lake Karapiro is also located here and is used a lot of rowing events and training.
Rotorua – is about 105 kilometres south of Hamilton and is very much a tourist town attracting thousands of visitors every year to its thermal pools, mud baths and other attractions. All the big hotels are here with the city attracting tourists for more than 80 years. All of this thermal activity also means that there is sulphur ‘rotten egg gas smell’ that locals get used to but visitors find can be, let’s shall we say “Challenging”. If you are allergic to sulphur this is not
the city to visit! The city is surrounded by some 17 lakes, and activities such as water skiing, fishing, sailing, mountain biking, trekking and riding a jet boat (See www.riverjet.co.nz) are all here to be enjoyed.
The city has lots of Maori history too – and there are a number of villages where you can get to see and understand more about the Maori culture and way of life – Ohinemutu Maori Village, Mitai, Tamaki and Whakarewarewa Maori Villages all attract many visitors each year. There is also the Rotorua Museum of Art and History and a Maori Meeting House that are both worth seeing. Look for the Waimangu Volcanic Valley and also the Poputu Geyser and well as the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland. There is also a buried village at Te Wairoa, which was covered by volcanic lava and ash when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886. If you like caves, head to Orankei Korako to see them. There are also lots of gardens in the city too, but without doubt the biggest attraction is the thermal activity – so definitely an experience to enjoy – all be it at the Blue Baths built in 1933 or at one of the newer resorts or thermal pool set ups.
Waitomo Caves –
Waitomo Caves are located about an hour south west of Hamilton on Waitomo Caves Road that comes off Highway 3. There are said to be over 300 caves under the hills around Waitomo formed over 30 million years ago, and there are three main cave systems to visit – the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave and all three are special in their own way.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves have thousands of Glowworms on the roof and sides of the caves, and you can travel under them in a boat with a guide to tell you all about this amazing cave system and the glowworms.
Ruikuri Cave has a spiral stairway entrance that enables you to walk down into the cave system to see the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations. To help you distinguish remember that when the mites go up, the tights come down. Ruikuri has water flowing in parts of the cave system – and a company – The Blackwater Rafting Company ( 585 Waitomo Caves Rd Tel: (7)- 8786219 See www.caveworld.co.nz) runs different adventure tours of the caves – where you can abseil, float on a rubber tube on the underground stream, zipline through a cave – adventures that take about 5 hours in all – and a great deal of fun too.
Aranui Cave is a dry cave and was only discovered in 1910. It also has stalactites and stalagmites and is also quite amazing to see.
Waitomo – wai meaning water and tomo hole translated as “The stream that flows under the ground” is one of the must see attractions in New Zealand, with the countryside around the caves also very attractive too. There is accommodation in and around Waitomo from lodges and bed and breakfast places as well as a camping ground and backpacker options to stay.
Matamata –Hobbiton and Wairere Falls -
Matamata is east about 67 kilometres by road from Hamilton so about 45 minutes driving. Here you the Hobbiton Movie Set close by at 501 Buckland Rd, Hinuera (See www.hobbitontours.com Tel: (7) 888 1505. This is where ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ films were filmed, and you will be able to see Middle Earth, Hobbit Holes, Green Dragon Inn and the Shires Rest Café. If you loved the movies or the book, this is the place to go.
Not far away also is the Wairere Waterfalls. These are located on the Goodwin Road off the te Aroha-Okauia Road south of Te Aroha. They are New Zealand’s highest waterfalls with a 153 metres fall – and you can easily see them and even climb stairs and take a walking track to the top to get a different view.
The Bay of Plenty – Tauranga & Mt Maunganui
The Bay of Plenty is on the east coast and about hours from Hamilton. Cruise ships come into Tauranga to enable passengers to both see around the Bay of Plenty area and also to take tours to Rotorua, Hobbiton and other places of interest. Tauranga is a busy port city right on the coast with great white sandy beaches, water sports, fishing, lots of walkways, cafes, gardens to enjoy, and Mt Maunganui is close by with both great ocean beaches and also harbour beach too. Both cities are popular tourist destinations in summer for the beaches. If you go to the top of Mt Maunganui you will get a great view over the whole coastline. The area also has a rich Maori history with one of the biggest battles, ‘The Battle of Pa’ fought here between the British military and the Maori people in 1864.
Whakatane is also located on the Bay of Plenty about 91 kilometres south from Tauranga. This is also a place rich in Maori history and culture and here you will find the Mataatua Wharenui – The House that came home (See www.mataahua.com Tel: (7) 308 4271 105 Muriwai Drive, Whakatane). This is a great place to really get to know Maori culture and even enjoy a ‘Hangi’ feast too – Hangi being meat cooked on stones underground.
In the early times of explorers, ‘souvenirs’ – flora, fauna, relics, antiquities and other items of interest were gathered from wherever the explorers travelled – and you will see in museums around the world Egyptian, Greek, North American, South American, African, Pacific Island and other amazing ‘collections’ from these times – both small items but also much bigger ones too. The Maori House that you see here travelled around the world as an “exhibit museum piece” from the time it was built in 1875 until it was returned in 2011. This is an amazing story and something very significant to see and understand – hence the name “The House that came home”.
In Whakatane – there are beaches including the 11 kilometre long Ohope Beach. There is also great deep sea fishing, whale and dolphin watching in season, bird sightings including Kiwi Birds to be seen, mountain bike tracks and walking trails – and just offshore is one of the most amazing things to experience – White Island, 48 kilometres off the Whakatane coastline.
White Island is one of the four islands in the Olive Island group, and it is an active volcano. The island rises above sea level by 321 metres, but it rises from the sea bed 1600 metres. The water around it is clear with great visibility and you can dive or scuba here and see both fish and also the steam vents that create warm water next to them. There are a number of tour operators in Whakatane that can take you to dive, or to walk on the island to see the Volcano close up, even fly over it by helicopter or scenic flight.
Lake Taupo –
One of the many things that you learn to appreciate about New Zealand is the diversity of landscapes and activities all within a relatively short distance of each other – from beaches, to farmland, to cities, mountains, volcanos, lakes and ski fields.
Lake Taupo is the biggest fresh water lakes in New Zealand with the waters coming from the snowfields and then flowing out of the lake northwards on the Waikato River. Taupo claims to be the skydiving capital of the world, but you can also experience Bungy Jumping and here you will also find cruises on the Lake where you will be taken to see a 10 metre high Maori stone carving on the side of the Lake. It’s a bit like Mt Rushmore in South Dakota. You can also go kayaking, Trout Fishing, or jet Boating over rapids on the Waikato River and see Huka Falls or go Mountain Bike riding on some of the 200 kilometres of trails here. The Huka Falls are spectacular and located in Wairakei Park. Here the 100 metre wide Waikato River surges through a 15 metre wide gorge creating a mass of turbulent water and foam as it exits the narrow gorge. There is a walkover pedestrian bridge over the gorge so you can look down at the water below, or you can take a jet boat and head up to the Falls over the rapids.
If you enjoy hiking there is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that goes through the World Heritage Listed Tongarira National Park, and in winter there are the ski fields at Mt Ruapehu.
Mt Ruapehu –
Mt Ruapehu is about one and a half hours from Taupo at the southern end of the Lake, and here you will find some of the best ski fields in New Zealand – with slopes to suit beginners, intermediate skiers and advanced skiers and snow boarders.
There are two fields – Turoa on the South West of the mountain that has beginner slopes with a 120 metre long carpet lift, 12 groomed runs, and 25 advanced runs with the ‘Highnoon Express’ lift being the longest ski lift in New Zealand to take you to the top of the longest and most challenging vertical descent. The other snow field is Whakapapa on the North West Slopes of the mountain and here you will find long gentle slopes for beginners, 30 groomed slopes for intermediate and 24 advanced runs. No doubt you will try both ski fields if you are staying for a while depending on the snow reports.
There is accommodation nearby at Ohakune, Turangi, Tongariro, and Tauumarunai. Take a look at www.mtruapehu.com and also www.ohakune.info and remember that the ski fields may still be operating as late in the year as October. Even in summer this area is a great place to go for the fresh alpine climate and the trout, white water rafting, mountain hiking and other activities.
Between Taupo and Wellington – there are other cities that you might like to see – and we have set down some brief details about them here. In between the bigger cities there are also many smaller towns and villages – and in some ways travelling wherever the mood and the way the roads goes can be even more fun than having a fixed itinerary.
Napier and Hastings – Hawke’s Bay – are on the east coast of the North Island. Napier has a population of about 59,000 people and is a port city with ships transported wool, wine, stone fruit, apples, pears, meat, timber, wood pulp and other produce to the world from here. Marine Parade is an ocean boulevard with the city famous for its Art Deco architecture, and the Pania of the Reef Statue that is here, while Hastings only 10 to 20 kilometres further inland is said to be “The fruit bowl of New Zealand” with more than 75 wineries around the city. The ‘Horse of the Year’ is also celebrated here each February and in spring a blossom Festival. Nearby by at Cape Kidnappers is the biggest Gannet colony in New Zealand – and amazing sight to see when the nesting takes place. (see www.gannets.com ) . With so many wineries, great food and country and coastal scenery, the whole of the Hawke’s Bay region is an easy and comfortable place to see and travel.
Palmerston North – has a population of around 85,000 and is the home of Massey University, one of New Zealand’s foremost Universities. The city is located on the Munawatu River and right in the centre of town is a stunning park area called “The Square” and given the Maori name Te Marae o Hine meaning “The Courtyard of the daughter of peace”.
If you love Rugby Union – there is a Rugby Museum with lots of great photos and memorabilia and this is next door to the Te Manawa Cultural Museum and Gallery. There are lots of cafes, restaurants, boutiques and places to stay and shop, and in the Victoria Esplanade Gardens you will also find the Dugald McKenzie Rose Gardens too. The city is close to the Munuwata Gorge area, and also just 136 kilometres north of Wellington. It is called Palmerston North to distinguish it from Palmerston on the South Island on the Shag River just north of Dunedin.
New Plymouth – lies on the far west coast and has black sandy beaches. It is 353 Kilometres from Wellington and 360 kilometres from Auckland in the north, so quite a long way from the two big cities. Here you will find Pukekura Park first established in 1876 set on 128 acres (52 hectares) of gardens and lakes with a unique fernery and on one end of the Park is the Brooklands Zoo. From the Park and also New Plymouth you can see Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont), a magnificent snow-capped volcano mountain peak that rises to 2518 metres in height. It is just 52 kilometres from New Plymouth, and there are 50 rivers and streams that flow from it in the summer months. In winter you can ski there on the Manganui Ski slope at Mt Taranaki (See www.skitaranaki.co.nz) . In New Plymouth look for the dramatic building called Puke Ariki – a cultural museum and gallery with changing exhibitions during the year. It’s well worth a visit, as is the Govett Brewster Art Gallery.
Wanganui – is located 200 kilometres north west from Wellington near the coast on the Whanganui River – a magnificent wide river that is renowned for kayaking, jet boats and cruises on the 1899 ‘Waiwere’ Paddle Wheeler that is located here. The steam powered Paddle Wheeler plied the river for years taking goods and people up and down the river until 1952 when it sunk and lay there in mud until 1993 when it was pulled from the river and restored. There is also a museum next to the entrance to the Paddle Wheeler wharf. (See www.paddlewheeler.co.nz)
The town has a rich history in Maori, missionary, military and settler history and a number of splendid buildings in town including the Royal Wanganui Opera House. One of the most interesting and different structures is the War Memorial Tower that sits in Durie Hill – where you enter a tunnel under the hill that leads to a vertical historic elevator (built in 1919) to take you to the top of the hill where you can then climb to the top of the Tower. In the city there is also the ‘Sarjeant Gallery’ with a collection of paintings some dating back to the 16th Century and a regional museum.
I hope you have enjoyed finding out more about the North Island.
NOW – head to Wellington on this website for the last part of your journey through the North Island…