The north–south journey travels from Northlands' towering subtropical rainforests and endless picturesque beaches to Auckland’s exciting cityscape, then south through rolling green pastures, past lakes, rivers and volcanic marvels, into the rural towns of heartland New Zealand, arriving finally in a capital city that’s acclaimed for its arts, culture and coffee.
Auckland and Northland
Northland's relaxed lifestyle springs from its subtropical climate and the many islands, bays and beaches around its extensive coastline.
The first Polynesian voyagers are believed to have arrived in Northland during the 11th century. It wasn’t until after the British sea voyager Captain Cook landed in 1769 that missionaries, sealers, whalers and traders arrived. The Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand, was signed in the Bay of Islands in 1840.
Northland is rich in Māori history, and more than a third of its population is Māori. The Ngapuhi iwi (tribe), the largest in the country, has a population of 125,601 Māori, according to the latest census.
With the Tasman Sea buffeting the west coast and the south Pacific Ocean lapping the east coast, activities in this region often involve being out on the water. Chartering a skippered yacht to explore the Hauraki Gulf or the Bay of Islands gives visitors quick access to isolated beaches, bays and islands. You can also explore by hiring a runabout (boat) or kayak, or taking a ferry. Snorkelling, surfing, big game fishing or dolphin watching are all experiences readily found along the region’s touring route, the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, with a population of more than 1.5 million people. Its unusual geography and temperate climate have inspired a lifestyle that’s regularly ranked among the world’s top 10 cities. Urban attractions such as shopping, restaurants, bars and local theatre are a significant part of the city’s fabric.
Auckland’s layout also makes it easy to jump quickly from one activity to another. Within half an hour of leaving the city centre, you can be on an island in the Hauraki Gulf, trekking through native forest, sampling wines at a vineyard or walking along a black-sand surf beach.
Central North Island
Of all the regions in New Zealand, the Central North Island is perhaps the most varied. It offers the Volcanic Plateau, high-altitude ski-fields, surf beaches, geothermal areas and wine regions.
There are two main touring routes. The Pacific Coast Highway follows the East Coast, skirting beaches around the Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty and Eastland, to Hawke’s Bay, one of the country’s key wine regions.
The Thermal Explorer route leads to or from Hawke’s Bay across the Volcanic Plateau, where New Zealand’s location on the "Pacific Rim of Fire" is most evident. You can visit natural hot-spring spas, geothermal parks full of geysers and boiling mud pools, and the site of New Zealand’s largest volcanic eruption in living memory, Mount Tarawera.
The city of Rotorua is the home of Te Arawa, one of the country's largest iwi. This accounts for the large number of Māori living in Rotorua and makes it one of the best places in New Zealand to learn about Māori culture.
Beyond the city of Hamilton – beneath the Waitomo area – is a labyrinth of limestone passages and caves, which can either be explored on foot or on water in an activity known as blackwater rafting. Not far away, the Hobbiton Movie Set spreads across a lush pastoral landscape.
Further south, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular one-day walk and counted among the world’s best. It offers a different type of adventure, featuring moonscape craters, lava formations and emerald green and blue lakes.
A solitary mountain looms over Taranaki – a huge, dramatic volcanic cone with a snowy top. One version of Māori history recalls how the mountain once lived in the centre of the North Island with other mountain gods: Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Nearby stood the lovely maid Pihanga, with her cloak of deep green bush, and all the mountain gods were in love with her.
When Taranaki could no longer keep his feelings under control and dared to make advances to Pihanga, a mighty conflict broke out between Tongariro and Taranaki that shook the foundations of the earth. The mountains erupted with anger and darkness clouded the sky.
When peace finally came to the land, Tongariro, considerably lowered in height, stood close by Pihanga’s side. Taranaki, wild with grief, tore himself from his roots and plunged towards the setting sun, gouging out the Whanganui River as he went. Upon reaching the ocean, he turned north. While he slept overnight, the Pouakai Ranges thrust out a spur and trapped Taranaki in the place where it now stands.
Hiking is the thing to do in the Egmont National Park encompassing the mountain and the land around it. Rainforest covers the foothills, but the landscape changes as you ascend, from tall rimu and kamahi trees at lower altitudes to dense subalpine shrubs, and then an alpine herb field with plants unique to the park. The forest on Mount Taranaki’s middle slopes is sometimes known as "Goblin Forest" because of the gnarled shape of the trees and the thick swathes of trailing moss.
Taranaki's climate perfectly suits extravagant flowering plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, old-fashioned roses and lavender plantations. Many private gardens are available for viewing year-round. Dozens of gardens open to the public for the Taranaki Garden Spectacular during the peak blooming period in late October and early November.
In March, tens of thousands of festivalgoers descend on the Bowl of Brooklands in the region’s major city, New Plymouth, for the annual WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) celebration.
Wairarapa and Wellington
The capital of New Zealand, Wellington, is a cultural as well as a political centre. It is home to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and national treasures such as the original Treaty of Waitangi and the childhood home of the prominent short story writer Katherine Mansfield. Set between a scenic harbour and bush-clad hills, the city is compact and easy to explore on foot.
Martinborough, a short drive across the Rimutuka Range from Wellington, is a popular wine-growing area, its specialties including Pinot Noir and Riesling.
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