The first Maori explorers named this country Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. If you're like many Americans, New Zealand sounds like a pretty exotic place to visit, but honestly, most folks aren't really quite sure where it is … somewhere “down under” and near Australia. When we tell them this little country is comprised of two islands, considerately named North Island and South Island, and that it's southernmost point is considerably south of Tasmania's southernmost point, they're always surprised.
We arrived in the springtime (November) in the tiny town of Opua, the first Customs/Immigration port on New Zealand's North Island. It's a major yacht port and we found that the Northland region was a wonderful place to begin our travels and get some boat work done. It was a fine introduction to the friendly, laid-back Kiwis and the native Maori culture.
Our travels on the North Island involved borrowing or renting a car for some inland trips, but mostly visiting port towns by boat. That's okay, because New Zealand has some 8,700 miles (14,000km) of coastline … ranking it #10 in coastline mileage for all countries in the world. (The USA is #9, by the way, and Canada is #1). As always, we didn't get everywhere and we didn't see everything (a reason to return), so we can only comment on what we actually saw. We used Lonely Planet New Zealand as our travel guide.
Here's a list of our favorite spots to visit on New Zealand's North Island ….
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is known for big game fishing, sailing, and much, much more. You will need a boat to get to many of the 150+ islands in the Bay of Islands, but there are lots of tours available from Paihia or head to Opua and see if you can bum a ride with a yachtie. There are hiking trails and camping on some of the islands. Our favorite island was Urupukapuka … it was glorious.
The little town of Russell is quaint and fun and shouldn't be missed. You can drive there, but it's more fun to take the ferry from Paihia. A little trivia ... in 2006, the Bay of Islands was found to have the second bluest sky in the world (Rio de Janiero, Brazil was #1).
The Waitangi Treaty House is located here in Paihia. If you're interested in Maori culture, this is a great place to visit.
At the northwesternmost tip of New Zealand, the Pacific Ocean waters meld here with the Tasman Sea and you can actually see the turbulence of the water at the meeting point. There's the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, outstanding views, some great walks and the dunes of the 90 Mile Beach aren't far away.
We love the redwoods and giant sequoias of the USA, so we were very interested in exploring the Kauri Coast and seeing the giant kauri trees of New Zealand. At the Waipoua Forest, you can see among others, Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, and the largest and one of the oldest living kauri trees in New Zealand. Estimated to be ~2,000 years old, this magnificent tree stands 166' (51m) high and definitely lords over the forest. The easy trek along well-kept tracks through this native forest is great for seeing not only kauri trees, but lots of other native flora and fauna.
With Mount Taranaki as its backdrop, New Plymouth is a gem of a city on New Zealand's wild, unprotected west coast. It's a walking city and fun to explore.
We particularly loved Pukekura Park with its botanic gardens, a zoo and miles of walking trails. There's even a glow worm cave. The scenic coastal walkway is 7 miles (11km) long with great views of the Tasman Sea.
Windy Wellington is New Zealand's capital city and it's wonderful. The Te Papa museum has to be one of the best museums we've ever visited and entry was free. We went back three times.
The city is vibrant with lots to see and do. Try taking the cable car up to Kilbourn for great views of the city below. Walk through the Botanic Gardens. Check out the Bee Hive, the nickname for the government center. There are sculptures, parks and pubs galore.
Explore more of New Zealand's North Island with us tomorrow... check back.