Highlights of New Zealand: The North Island

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Hiking on the remote Waikaremoana Ruapani Circuit in New Zealand

After travelling the North Island of New Zealand for five weeks earlier this year, we did a personal ranking of our highlights of New Zealand. Before we went to New Zealand we had consulted guide books and social media about the must-sees and must-dos in New Zealand.

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We visited some of them – not all: we skipped, for instance, Hobbington (by choice) and the Glow Worm Caves (bad planning on our part). It turned out that our personal favourites did not necessarily coincide with the standard tourist portfolio.  Anyway here are our tops – subjective and personal, but all of them spectacular!

NB: Double rankings are caused by the point system – No.1 gets five points, No. 2 four points and so on. We do this both and add up the points.

#1. Seal colony near Cape Palliser

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Originally we went to Cape Palliser south of Martinborough to do a short hike around the nearby Putangirua Pinnacles, a very strange forest of spikey rocks that served as a location in the “Lord of the rings”. The hike was nice enough but didn’t take the whole day, so we decided to go all the way to Cape Palliser Lighthouse.

On our way back we spotted the seals lounging on the rocks just off the coastal road. They were quite relaxed and at ease with occasional human visitors and we could stand a couple of meters away watching them. Once a seal even broke out of the bushes right behind us and crawled past. Definitely one of the highlights of New Zealand!

#1. Five-day canoe tour on the Whanganui River

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We may not have thought on the first of those days on the River Whanganui that this would become one of the highlights of our New Zealand trip – but in retrospect the trip into the wilderness was among our most cherished experiences. The Whanganui River is one of the longest rivers in New Zealand and flows through spectacular landscapes. Read here about the ups and downs of paddling on the Whanganui River.

#2. Giant Kauri trees

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The huge and ancient Kauri trees were one of the reasons to visit New Zealand in the first place, especially after having read about them in books like “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx and “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. We did finally see them during the last week of our New Zealand trip, but there was some great information in Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, too.

On the Northland peninsula, we spent two days looking for the nowadays rare and endangered Kauri trees: in the Kauri Museum in Matakohe we learned even more about their size (up to 50 m high and 17 m circumference!), age (the older ones around 2000 years) and the use of their wood (for everything). Kauri trees are easily damageable because humans and even most animals arrived so late in New Zealand that the trees have not adapted to them. You can see the enormous trees in several protected forests.

#3. Hiking near the Waikaremoana Lake

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None of the other hikes we did (Tongariro Circuit, Edmonton National Park and the Cape Brett Walk near Paihia) made it on the Top Five list – but we immensely enjoyed our day walk in the Waikaremoana National Park. Originally we had intended to do the Waikaremoana Great Walk, a three-day hike along the shores of Lake Waikaremoana, but the trail was closed because of storm damages. Instead we dide the Ruapani Circuit, a day trek from the visitor centre and camp ground. The trail was partly along the more popular Waikareiti Trail leading up to Lake Waikareiti and back. On this part of the trail we met 4 other walkers, but on the more overgrown part of the Ruapani Circuit, we were alone. This part of the trail was quite natural, unlike the mass-compatible boardwalks of the Tongariro Circuit.

#4. Hot sand bath in Hahei

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In general, we did not find the much-hyped Coromandel Peninsula particularly enthralling (Cathedral Cove, for instance, seems absolutely overrated to us – we had bad weather, though). But a bath at Hotwater Beach near Hahei was fun: The beach is heated in some places by volcanic activity, and by digging pools in the right spot you can tap a (very) hot spring. In low tide, this is a very popular activity and dozens of shallow sand bath tubs cluster in a small area of the beach, where the water is neither to cold nor to hot.

#4. Auckland museums

We visited a number of museums in New Zealand, and several made it into our Highlights of New Zealand list. Particularly interesting were the two main museums in Auckland: In the Auckland Museum in the large park called the Domain, we found the displays about other pacific island cultures especially intriguing. The Maritime Museum at the harbour presented an interesting mix of Maori boats, whalers, and America’s Cup Yachts, combined with stories from the emigrant ships.

NB: Our trip to New Zealand was not sponsored in any way, we organised the round trip on our own and paid everything ourselves.


  1. We have New Zealand on our travel planning board for a long visit one day. Travelling around the North Island for 5 weeks sounds perfect. Interesting to read that your ranking of some of the top sights was different than the standard tourist portfolio. Just the kind of recommendations we look for! I was nodding along until I came to the hot sand bath. Something I had never heard of before.

    1. Dear Linda, the hot sand bath was a highlight. We have been to one in Southern Japan too, on the island of Kyushu. But in New Zealand you can dig your own pool – such a fun activity!

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