Fun Things To Do On New Zealand's North Island -- New Zealand Sightseeing
NZ In A Nutshell
When I told people we were visiting NZ, many were surprised, noting that we've "already been" to Australia. Yes, we did spend some time in that part of the world -- known as Australasia -- but Oz and NZ are nothing alike, save for the fact that both are in the Southern Hemisphere and both share connections with England. If anything, there's a bit of a friendly "rivalry" between the countries and there are plenty of things to do in New Zealand.
That said, NZ had a decidedly different feel from Australia, and NZ's north island felt differently than its south island. The north island is more populated and is warmer. The south island, meanwhile, was emptier (save for the 44 million sheep!) and boasted more amazing scenery. Both were beautiful, though, and offered a lot, even though it is a small country. Here are some of the things to do and see on New Zealand North Island.
Upon landing in Auckland, NZ's biggest city, it felt like ... Seattle. It's coastal, it's usually pretty cloudy and/or rainy there, and it has a Sky Tower (the tallest building in the S. Hemisphere) which resembles the Space Needle. Only in this case, people can sign up to jump off of the Sky Tower. We could see them (and hear them!) all the way from our hotel, which was in view of it. No deaths that we know of...
I'm not sure how extreme sports became so popular in NZ. Perhaps it's because of the extreme scenery of mountains, rain forests, volcanoes and geysers. Perhaps it's because it's isolated and people have little to do. Perhaps people are just afraid that the sheep (that 44 million I mentioned was not an exaggeration; that's the real estimate) will rise up against them. But wherever you go, you see signs of extreme activity. On Auckland's Harbour Bridge, there's a sign to watch out for bungee jumpers. You can join a group to scale buildings ... and in the rest of the country, people jump off planes, bridges, anything with height, basically. We did not participate in any of these things, but it was still interesting to observe this part of the culture.
Auckland itself is much like any other large, Westernized city we've been to. We were lucky in that our hotel, the Hyatt Regency, upgraded us to a residence suite, so we had a huge apartment with a nice view of the harbour. It's extremely hilly -- so much so that it felt like "climbing" the city -- and the Asian population has a strong presence. One of the things we liked best was visiting "Food Alley," a food court that had 13 different Asian eateries set up. It was really cheap and good! We also enjoyed Auckland's maritime climate (it's known as the City Of Sails) and took a cruise around the harbour.
Auckland is surrounded by several volcanic islands, so you can take ferries to visit them. We hiked around Devonport, a funky, artsy town, which is built around two small volcanoes. What's funny is that all of the guides about Auckland suggest attractions which are outside of the city. It's true -- the best places to see are all a 10-minute ferry ride away.
Rotorua is one of NZ's more touristy areas (some call it Roto-Vegas), but we were there during the off season (October) so it wasn't crowded at all. The lakeside town itself is small and artsy, but it's surrounded by geothermal parks and has a large Maori population. Maoris are also Polynesian (like Hawaiians), so on our first night, we enjoyed our hotel's -- the Novotel Lakeside Hotel -- "hangi," which is similar to a luau. During the festivities, the group of Maoris hosting the event sang and danced for us, and told us some stories about their culture. It's amazing how similar it is to the Hawaiian culture, given how far apart the islands are. Both people came from somewhere around Tahiti, and both ended up on lush, volcanic islands.Then again, maybe it isn't so surprising that they have things in common.
The next day, we visited several of the geothermal parks. Rotorua is similar to Yellowstone in that respect; there are geysers, mud pools and odd-colored boiling lakes. However, knowing that these places are sacred to the Maoris gave them a "strong" feeling. We also visited a local Maori village, where we saw people chanting at their marae (meeting house). We weren't allowed to go in, but hearing them added to the atmosphere.
What's cool is that one of the parks we visited was actually just a standard, neighborhood park until 3:30 p.m. on January 26, 2001. On that day, the park basically "exploded" and a bunch of geothermal features suddenly appeared. So now the fishing pond boils and bubbles, and steam comes out from between all of the trees!
While there, we also had the opportunity to "zorb." Zorbing is a sport where you enter a large, inflated plastic bubble, in which you're strapped in or sit in some water. You're then rolled down a steep hill in this thing. Those who complete this inane activity -- and live to tell about it -- are known as "zorbonauts."
Zorbing Down A Hill In Rotorua
Next up, we drove to Tongariro Nat'l Park. Along the way, we stopped at Wai-o-taipu Thermal Park, which is arguably the best of the geothermal places. There, we went on a two-hour hike past yellow sulfur waterfalls, boiling blue, rainbow and emerald lakes -- including a neon green one filled with arsenic, called the "Devil's Bath." We also saw the famed "Champagne Pool," which is this carbonated (!) lake filled with turquoise water. It was gorgeous and worth making the effort to see.
We then arrived at Tongariro, which is flanked by three huge, snow-capped volcanoes. One even has a perfect "cone," and looks a bit like Mt. Fuji in Japan. In Tongariro, we stayed at the historical Chateau, which is a 1920's manse set at the base of the mountains. I nicknamed it the Creepy Shining Hotel, because it reminded me very much of the haunted hotel, The Overlook, which was featured in Steven's King's "The Shining." We did not see any ghosts, but we did see many beautiful views as we hiked around the park's numerous trails. We'd chosen Tongariro to be a stop-over as we drove to Wellington. In retrospect, I wish we'd had more time there, because it turned out to be one of our favorite places on the trip.
New Zealand's Geothermal Attractions
When we arrived in Wellington, NZ's capital, it was raining, which is apparently the case there most of the time. Like Auckland, Welly is another large, westernized city, and is supremely hilly.
Our first night we discovered that a "late night" for these people is around 7 p.m., so as we looked for a place to eat, we encountered crowds of drunken youths. While dining at a Malaysian eatery, one asked if he could exchange some of his food with us for eggs and onions. We didn't know what the heck he was talking about, nor did we take him up on it.
The big museum to visit in Welly is called Te Papa (Of The People), and is a great place for kids. It has a lot of hands-on exhibits and a beautiful replica of a marae. I found the Passports section to be particularly fascinating. It chronicled the immigrants' journeys to NZ, and I was surprised to learn how many Russians, Poles, Italians, Irish and Jews came over during the 1800s. I'd always figured that NZ's immigrants were Asians and Pacific Islanders (who are both there in large numbers but started arriving later), and had no idea that their history is so similar to the U.S.'s.
In Welly, the must-do attraction is taking the cable car up to the top of one of the mountains. It's a short, fun ride, and takes you to the entrance to the botanical gardens. The gardens there are very different in that they wind around the mountain. We descended through them and enjoyed the great views, but if you want a really intense workout, you can walk up through them. Our favorite part of the walk was when we were befriended by Ebby, a fluffy, black cat with bright yellow eyes. Ebby (that was the name on his collar) came up to us as if he's known us forever and asked for belly rubs. He then followed us for a few feet before chasing a bird up a tree. I hope that Ebby lives near the park and was just out for the day, and not lost. But I guess if a cat had to be lost, there are worse places to be than a huge garden.
Thoughts On The North Island
Overall, it amazed us how a country that's really not that large can have such diverse scenery and cultures. After spending a week in such a fascinating place, we could only begin to imagine what awaited us as we made our way to the South Island....
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