Autumn in New Zealand begins early March and continues until late May – a period when most locals have returned to work after the long summer break leaving an uncrowded outdoors to inspire a wide variety of adventures.
Here’s our take on five golden ways to experience the North Island during autumn.
1. The great outdoors
Whether your idea of communing with nature involves nothing more strenuous than a scenic drive, a lakeside picnic, or crunching through great drifts of leaves on a brisk walk, autumn is a superb time to be out and about in the North Island.
An easy kayak journey from Wenderholm Regional Park to the historic Puhoi township north of Auckland will carry you across tidal water flats, through a landscape of gloriously golden foliage populated by cheeky native birdlife. The journey of about two hours suits all ages and abilities.
A short drive from Hobbiton, on the outskirts of Hamilton, you can take a cruise on the Waikato River Explorer to view the dramatic colour changes of trees along the shoreline. In the city itself, maple trees lining the Japanese Contemplation Garden – one of nine themed gardens in the Hamilton Gardens – also ring the seasonal changes. Over the past 40 years, the gardens have been transformed from a garbage dump to be named International Garden of the Year in 2014.
Walking, biking or riding horses among the native flora and Californian coastal redwoods of the 5,600 hectare Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua is recommended year-round, but it’s especially lovely in autumn when the leaves are turning and the crisp, clear air intensifies the panoramic views. You can also take a “tree walk” among the towering redwoods, along a series of suspended swing bridges. Steam rising from the geothermal spring at Kerosene Creek becomes more pronounced when the air temperature drops in autumn. You can enjoy an atmospheric spa with a difference here, beneath a two metre deep waterfall.
2. Flavours to savour
It’s harvest time for vineyards and orchards, and you can share their bounty at cellar doors, roadside stalls and the many growers’ and farmers’ markets. Autumn also inspires festivals celebrating the good things in life, including wine and food.
From April, the Pacific oysters farmed in the Mahurangi Harbour north of Auckland are plump and succulent. To harvest, shuck and feast on Mahurangi oysters, join a guided tour aboard the Shuckle Ferry in Warkworth.
Pumpkins are part of the culinary repertoire of most New Zealanders and in the Waikato region, growing them is a competitive sport. Even if you’re not a fan of the golden squash, you’re likely to enjoy the Great Pumpkin Carnival held on the Rhododendron Lawn of Hamilton Gardens (April 3). As well as featuring in scones, muffins, cakes and pies, pumpkins are rolled downhill in races and carved out and rowed down the river as boats. Pumpkins tipping the scales at hundreds of kilograms compete in a monster weigh-off.
Feilding’s farmer’s market received the royal stamp of approval with a visit by Prince Charles and Lady Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2012. You can savour farm-fresh produce in the gracious old town square at the market each Friday.
Fine wines from 16 of the Wairarapa’s major producers are paired with the region’s best produce in a beautiful riverside setting beneath ancient native trees in the Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival (12 March).
3. Arts and culture
Join the locals at some of the many community and international events on autumn’s busy itinerary.
Tens of thousands of visitors come together to celebrate Pacific peoples and communities at the Pasifika Festival in Auckland (12 - 13 March), the biggest event of its kind.
International arts festivals run at the same time in Auckland and Wellington during March. Auckland’s Arts Festival has a choice of more than 200 free exhibitions of dance, theatre, music and visual arts, while in Wellington about 900 artists and performers appear in 300 different acts. Find out just how much Wellington likes to party, when CubaDupa in Cuba Street, the city’s coolest quarter, wraps up the festivities (19 - 20 March) with streetside dance, vaudeville, street art, and carnival and circus performers.
Balloons over Waikato (16 - 20 March, Hamilton) culminates in the Hamilton Night Glow, an orchestrated show with live music and fireworks.
The WOMAD festival in New Plymouth (18 - 20 March) is a family-friendly celebration of some of the world’s best and most diverse music, art and dance. The performances take place on a number of different outdoor stages in Pukekura Park, a New Zealand Garden of National Significance.
4. Close encounters with wildlife
Native wildlife is especially active in autumn. Keep a lookout for dolphins, orca whales, penguins, dolphins and rare native birds.
Some of New Zealand’s unique wildlife species can be sighted on beaches and trails around Whangarei in Northland. Ocean Beach is home to endangered dotterel, feeding gannets and the little blue penguin, while Whangarei Harbour itself is a feeding ground for orca. Unguided two- and three-day walks take you through the Bream Head coastal forest reserve south of Whangarei, an important conservation area that is home to 90 reintroduced kiwi.
Tiritiri Matangi, an open wildlife sanctuary north of Auckland, has a rich Māori and early European history and New Zealand’s oldest still-operating lighthouse. Catch a ferry across the Hauraki Gulf to see rare native birdlife in a lush bushland setting. Along with planting about 300,000 native trees, conservation volunteers have reintroduced 12 endangered birds and three reptile species to the island. If you arrange to stay overnight, you can watch nocturnal wildlife such as little spotted kiwi emerging from their daytime hiding places as the sun goes down and then awaken to a serenade of birdsong.
A short boat trip from Paraparaumu, north of the capital Wellington, lands you at Kapiti Island, one of the country’s most important nature reserves. Here, you can observe rare flightless birds in the wild, climb a winding forest track to stunning vistas of ocean and land, and even stay overnight in a small family-owned lodge or “glamp” (camp glamorously) in a tranquil wilderness setting. In autumn you can see the island’s prolific birdlife feeding intensively in preparation for the coming winter. It’s one of the best times to see kiwi, free of their nesting duties, out and about in their natural environment. The island lies between two marine reserves visited by fur seals, whales and dolphins and approaching by boat enables you to get great shots of the seal colony, also active at this time of year.
Northeast of Wellington, in the Wairarapa wine-growing region, Cape Palliser also has a large seal colony and is a great place to explore heritage sites and photograph the scenic landscapes.
5. Sporting events
Some of New Zealand’s major sports events take place in autumn. Stay on the sidelines or join the locals in sport and at play.
Te Houtaewa 90 Mile Beach Challenge in Northland (12 March) is the world’s only ultramarathon run entirely along a beach. It honours the legendary Māori athlete Te Houtaewa, the fastest runner of his day, and draws competitors from around the world.
Crankworx in Rotorua (9 - 13 March) is the world’s biggest mountain biking festival, with competitive events and fun activities for all, ranging from biking pro-athletes to amateur and non-bikers, including a music festival featuring some of New Zealand’s top performers.
The Rotorua to Taupo 100 km flyer (9 April) between two of the North Island’s best-loved destinations is open to anyone with a bike and attracts about 3500 participants each year.
Billed as an alternative to lycra-clad competitive cycling events, the Big Easy in central Hawke’s Bay on Easter Saturday (26 March) offers a relaxed ride along cycle trails from the Church Road Winery. Along the 45km route are a series of tempting stops, culminating in a finale concert and party at Black Barn Vineyard. Later in the season, Hawke’s Bay International Marathon (14 May), a serious competitive event, passes through wineries and alongside unspoilt beaches.