New Zealand’s North Island is full of exciting secrets – and Auckland is the perfect place from which to seek them.
Only three hours by plane from Australia’s east coast, Auckland is a gateway to beach and forest, relaxation and adventure. From snorkelling in the crystal-clear waters around Waiheke Island to exploring the wild fern-filled forests of the Waitakere Ranges – and even travelling back in time to Ancient Egypt – here’s what locals say are some of the greatest day trips and hidden gems of the North.
The adventurous side of Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island, Auckland
Just a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland’s CBD, Waiheke Island is famous for its wineries and slower pace of life. But seek a little further and it can also be an adventure-lover’s paradise. “Less than 10 minutes’ drive from our store in Oneroa [the main island village] and you’re at an epic beach that you just can’t get to on public transport,” says Adam Whatton, director of Waiheke Dive & Snorkel, which takes guests diving and snorkelling in the island’s warm waters. “Have a briefing, gear up and you’re in water where you’re just as likely to see a super-friendly ray swimming by as you are a seahorse or octopus.”
Seeking an adrenaline hit? Zoom along a zipline with EcoZip Adventures. Afterwards, there’s no shortage of award-winning wineries (try Stonyridge, east of Oneroa, for French-style cabernets) and eateries to refuel at. Tantalus Estate, reminiscent of a Bordeaux vineyard, is where you can enjoy executive chef Gideon Landman’s set menus featuring seasonal produce, such as pasture-raised lamb and aged Ōra King salmon. Or try the tapas-style sharing dishes, like goat’s cheese croquettes, in the restaurant overlooking rolling vineyards at Casita Miro.
But Whatton has another idea for going further and really experiencing the island like a local. “I’d totally recommend walking down Oneroa’s main street and into Timmy Smith,” he says. “She makes stunning handmade jewellery utilising island sand and precious metals but also offers the most epic tea tastings. Ever had an ice-cold sparkling hibiscus and ginger tea before?”
The wild north-west North Island
Muriwai is a scenic coastal community about 45 minutes west of central Auckland. Bordering the Tasman, it offers dramatic beaches that are popular for day trips – and for surfing. Muriwai Surf School even has a shuttle, available for groups of 5–9 people, that takes you through rolling green farmland from Auckland to the beach. (Smaller groups or solo travellers can take the shuttle from nearby Waimauku, which is easily accessible by public transport.) “There are always waves – and there are areas suitable for all ability levels,” says the surf school’s co-owner Bridget Wallis, who has one word to describe Muriwai and the region: “awesome”.
But there’s more than surfing, says Wallis – there’s horseriding, mountain biking, kitesurfing, hiking, swimming, home-style cafes, a golf club and camping. Or just sit back and check out the dramatic coastline and towering cliffs, which seabirds nest on in the hundreds. “The gannets nesting on the cliffs are a real tourist attraction,” Wallis says. “The cliffs are easily accessed and the views of the coastline and surfers pulling into solid barrels are great for photographers. Sunset is worth the wait.”
Returning to Auckland from Muriwai, explore the sprawling Waitakere Ranges – which offer excellent hikes through native jungle-like forest – or drive through them on the aptly named Scenic Drive. Go further up the coast and you’ll reach Northland, the northernmost region of New Zealand, perhaps most famous for the Bay of Islands.
It’s warmer than the rest of the country up here, with beautiful, sandy beaches and towering palm trees. Northland is also a significant site for Māori people. Visit Waitangi, where the Treaty of Waitangi – one of the most important documents, recognising Māori rights and land ownership, in Aotearoa New Zealand – was signed.
The Waikato, waterfalls and Ancient Egypt
South of Auckland you’ll find the mighty Waikato. This vast green region of rolling hills, forests and picture-perfect waterfalls is a must-see. At Bridal Veil Falls, a two-hour drive from central Auckland, watch as the roaring ribbon of water plunges into a circular pool below.
There are also pretty towns to explore. Check out Raglan, along the Tasman Sea, with its dramatic black-sand beaches and laid-back cafes offering fresh fish and chips (the simply named Raglan Fish, located on the wharf, delivers huge portions in a simple setting and is highly recommended).
Nearby is the Waikato’s biggest city, Hamilton. There’s plenty to do here, but at Hamilton Gardens you might forget you’re in New Zealand altogether. “Hamilton Gardens is a totally unique concept, telling the 4000-year story of gardens and civilisations from 2040 BCE to now,” explains director Lucy Ryan. “You won’t find anything like this anywhere else.”
This is especially true at the new Ancient Egyptian Garden, which has its own columned, hieroglyph-covered temple and pool area that looks straight from a film set. But it’s just one part of the site – there are more than 50 hectares to explore, including an English flower garden, Italian Renaissance garden (Ryan says it’s spectacular in summer), Japanese garden, tropical garden and more. There’s also Te Parapara – New Zealand’s only traditional Maaori productive garden, filled with herbs to be used for food and medicine.
Hamilton Zoo, the North Island’s largest zoo, with more than 600 native and exotic animals, is another place Ryan says should be on your itinerary. She also suggests Waiwhakareke Natural Heritage Park, a 60-hectare reserve on Hamilton’s north-west outskirts, with easy, beautiful walking tracks through native bush along a scenic peat lake. “This region is so geographically and culturally diverse,” she says. “There’s something for every traveller.”