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New Zealand's Top-10 North Island Destinations

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by Ian Gill (subscribe)
I'm a Victorian based freelance writer & photographer. If you like this article click the 'Like' button, Facebook it to your friends & family and subscribe to my articles. Like my photos? Checkout my full collection at
Published June 7th 2021
Top Travel-Bubble Highlights
With the New Zealand travel bubble likely to be the only international travel destination open to Australians for a good while yet, I've come up with my selection of New Zealand's Top-10 north island attractions.

Auckland (Tamaki Makaurau)

Auckland is the largest and most populous city in New Zealand, situated between the Hauraki Gulf to the east and Manukau Harbour to the west. Its hills are covered by rainforest and the region dotted with as many as 53 dormant volcanic cones.

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Auckland is New Zealand's largest city and the nations financial capital. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

For a short while, Auckland was the capital of New Zealand, replaced by Wellington in 1865, but it has always been an important port and commercial centre for gold mining, logging and agricultural industries undertaken in the surrounding area.

Today it remains at the forefront of the New Zealand economy.
Auckland is an incredibly culturally diverse city, a melting pot of multiple ethnicities. The 2018 Census showed 41.6 percent of the Auckland regions population were born overseas.

Nicknamed the 'City of Sails', there are almost 150,000 yachts and motorboats registered in Auckland with about 1 in 3 of the cities households owning a boat.

To the east, Auckland has popular swimming beaches at The Neck near Devonport, Milford and Takapuna as well as to the north throughout the East Coast Bays. The west coast is popular with surfies, best known for beaches like Piha, Muriwai and Te Henga.

The city features a diverse range of attractions for visitors.
The Sky Tower, at 328-metres or 1,076 feet, is the tallest free-standing structure in the southern hemisphere and offers amazing panoramic views across Auckland and up the Hauraki Gulf.

The main commercial thoroughfare is Queen Street running from Karangahape Road, or 'K Road' as it's known locally all the way down to the harbour. K Road itself, a former red-light district, is well known for its bars and clubs.

If you're into the arts and café culture head for Ponsonby to the west of Central Auckland.

Across the harbour, you'll find the bayside village of Devonport with Victoria Road lined with cafes, seafood restaurants, pubs, craft shops, boutique clothing stores and some of the best fush & chups, sorry fish and chips, to be found in the country.

But for my money, the beating heart of Auckland is the Viaduct Harbour, a vibrant residential and entertainment precinct located on the Auckland waterfront.

Once a commercial harbour the Viaduct Basin as it was known then was redeveloped in the 1990s and served as the operational centre for the 2000 America's Cup Challenge.

Today it's home to numerous restaurants and bars, first-class hotels, some very swish apartments and the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

Cruising The Bay of Islands

There are cruising options aplenty in the Bay of Islands

The Rock Adventure Cruise offers two options, their Classic Overnight Cruise, described as the ultimate Bay of Islands experience, and a Day Cruise. Both are suitable for all ages and both will give visitors an amazing insight into the incredible beauty and often violent history of this part of New Zealand.

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The Bay of Islands is one of the worlds great cruising grounds. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

The Rock also offers a range of special charters including family celebrations, corporate events, health & wellness retreats and even a Boot Camp on water.

Fullers Great Sights offer high speed catamaran cruises throughout the islands including to Cape Brett and the famous 'Hole in the Rock'. Taking about 4-hours this cruise departs either Paihia or Russell and includes dolphin viewing, an island stop-over and the 'Hole in the Rock' experience.

The Cream Trip cruise follows the route taken by Albert Fuller who established a delivery service around the islands in 1927. Today the cruise continues to deliver mail & supplies to local residents and is the most extensive, historical cruise available in the Bay of Islands.

Fullers also run the iconic sailing ship R.Tucker Thompson. On this full-day cruise, guests are invited to be part of the crew – taking the helm, climbing the rigging and setting sails.

Of course if you're a sailor and you'd rather do your own thing then the Bay of Islands, New Zealand's premier cruising ground was made for you. Companies like Fairwind Yacht Charters, Bay of Islands Yacht Charters Ltd and Great Escape Sailing School and Yacht Charter offer bare-boat charters that will allow you to cruise the region at your own pace and for as long as you like in one of their luxury sailboats.

Russell in the Bay of Islands

Blue water, blue skies and an almost endless parade of sailboats make Russell in New Zealand's Bay of Islands a little slice of paradise.

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Russell, formerly Kororareka, was once tagged 'The Hell Hole of the Pacific'. But take a look at it now. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill Footloose Media

But it hasn't always been this way. In the early 1840s, Kororareka as Russell was then known had earned for itself the unenviable title of the "hell hole of the Pacific", a lawless town full of grog-shops, whalers, brawling seamen and Maori 'ship girls', prostitutes who traded sex for clothing, blankets and muskets.

In 1840, at nearby Waitangi, a treaty was agreed upon between settlers and the Maori. But many Maori quickly became dissatisfied with their treatment under the disputed terms of the treaty and mistrust turned to conflict.

On the 11th March 1845, the Maori mounted an attack on Kororareka that started the Northern Maori War.

The fighting continued throughout the day, the heaviest around Christ Church at the southern end of town, where sailors from HMS Hazard fought alongside Marines defending a gun from a force of some 200 Maori. The British lost 6 men killed and many wounded before they were forced to retreat.

By late afternoon, with all civilians evacuated to ships in the bay, HMS Hazard commenced a bombardment and British and Maori alike sacked the town.

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Christ Church Russell dates back to 1835 and still bears the scars of the Northern Maori War of 1845. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

Today Russell is a place of relaxation and recreation, a quaint tourist town and safe anchorage directly opposite and just a short ferry ride from the tourist hub of Paihia.

Above its bay and beaches, the hillsides are dotted with luxury homes overlooking the magnificent Bay of Islands.

The town's historic sites and buildings have been meticulously restored and maintained. As you walk The Strand between Pompallier Mission and the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, stroll the back streets, explore the graveyard at Christ's Church or just sit on the wharf and gaze out over Kororareka Bay you can't help but get a deep sense of the history of the place.

Getting There ....

Russell is 237-kilometres north of Auckland, about a 3-hour 40-minute drive via State Highway 1. At Kawakawa take SH11 to Opua, Paihia and Russell. At the top of the hill approaching Opua make a right turn to the vehicle ferry. Operating continuous services throughout the day the ferry crosses to Opua. Russell is an 8 kilometre drive further up the main road.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Waitangi Treaty Grounds are the most historically significant site in all of New Zealand. It was here in 1840 that the countries founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

The Treaty Grounds include two new contemporary museums, Te Rau Aroha and Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, along with the carving studio, the Treaty House, Te Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House), traditional Māori waka taua or war canoes including Ngatokimatawhaorua, the world's largest ceremonial war canoe. These combined with a program of tours and cultural performances ensure the Waitangi Treaty Grounds provide visitors with a meaningful insight into New Zealand's culture and history.

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The 'Waka' house at Waitangi Treaty Grounds sits on the waters edge and close to the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

A Waitangi Experience Pass is valid for two consecutive days and gives full access to the grounds, including all heritage buildings, entry to Te Kongahu Museum of Waitangi and Te Rau Aroha museum, a 50-minute guided tour of the grounds, entry to a Maori cultural performance and demonstrations in the carving studio.

The Experience Pass costs International visitors $50 and NZ residents $25. Children under 18-years are FREE.

Getting There …..

Waitangi Treaty Grounds are near Paihia in the Bay of Islands an easy 2-minute drive or a 25-minute easy walk from the centre of town.


Kerikeri is the largest town in Northland, 80-kilometres north of the region's largest city Whangarei. Sometimes referred to as the 'Cradle of the Nation' Kerikeri was the site of the first permanent Mission Station in New Zealand.

Located on the western end of Kerikeri inlet, an arm of the Bay of Islands, Kerikeri is a popular tourist town with the slogan 'It's So Nice They Named it Twice'.

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Kerikeri's Stone Store is the oldest surviving stone building in all of New Zealand. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

The Stone Store is the oldest stone building in the country. Construction commenced in 1832 but it took 4 years to complete.

Kerikeri is a one-stop tourist shop steeped in Maori and European history but also a place where visitors can browse art galleries, wonder at spectacular natural attractions and enjoy the towns flourishing café culture.

Getting There …..

Kerikeri is 246-kilometres north of Auckland, a 3˝ -hour drive via State Highway 1.

Cape Reinga

Best known for its landmark lighthouse Cape Reinga sits at the end of New Zealand's northernmost roadway, State Highway 1.

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Often mistaken for New Zealand's northernmost tip, Cape Reinga is a Maori sacred site with the greatest spiritual significance of any place in New Zealand. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

The often wet and windswept Cape is the meeting place of two great waterways, the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, often a spectacular show of waves, broken water and spray as the two clash head-on just off-shore.

But more than that Cape Reinga is of enormous cultural significance to the Maori, a sacred site and the greatest spiritual significance of any place in the whole of New Zealand.

It's here the 'great navigator' Kupe named Te Rerenga Wairua, 'Where the Spirit Leaps', and declared it the point from which the spirits of deceased Maori depart on their journey back to Hawaiiki-a-Nui, their ancestral homeland.

The first European to sight Cape Reinga is thought to have been the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who passed this way on his voyage of discovery in 1642. Tasman mistook the Cape for the nearby northernmost tip of the island.

Cape Reinga's iconic lighthouse was built in 1941 using the glasshouse and light mechanism from an earlier lighthouse erected on nearby Motoupao Island.

Just 10 metres high the Cape Reinga Lighthouse sits 165 metres above sea level. It was the last manned lighthouse to be built in New Zealand and was initially managed by two Keepers and their families. The lighthouse was automated in 1897 and further upgraded in 2000.

A visit to Cape Reinga offers a mystical and thought-provoking experience if you go there forearmed with a little knowledge of its significance in Maori culture and see it for what it is, a sacred site.

Getting There …..

Cape Reinga is 421 kilometres north of Auckland via State Highway 1, a bit over a 5-hour drive in normal traffic.

90-Mile Beach and the Te Paki Sand Dunes

On the way to or from Cape Reinga, you'll want to stop off at 90-mile Beach and Te Paki sand dunes, both just a small part of the most remote region of New Zealand's north island. Strolling along the 90 Mile Beach or surfing the Te Paki sand dunes provide a great 'green' experience and some seriously good fun.

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90-Mile Beach is officially a Highway but one you probably wouldn't take the family sedan on. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

Actually 88-miles long the beach is renowned for some incredible sunsets and one of the world's great surf breaks.

Located in the far northwest of the north island 90-Mile Beach stretches from Ahipara to Scott Point, just short of Cape Maria van Diemen and Cape Reinga. It is officially a Highway but really only suitable for 4WD vehicles and then only at specific tide times.

Nearby Te Paki sand dunes are 10-kilometres long by 1-kilometre wide and 150-metres high. The steep, for some laborious climb to the top, is rewarded by an exhilarating slide down the face of the dunes.

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It's a taxing walk to the top of Te Paki sand dunes but a hugely exhilarating slide back to the bottom. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

People of all ages, grannies included, have become addicted to surfing the Te Paki dunes.

Getting There …..

90-Mile Beach is 176-kilometres northwest of Paihia, about a 2 ˝ - hour drive via State Highway 10, State Highway 1 and State Highway 1F.

Te Paki sand dunes are at the northern end of the 90-Mile Beach, just 4-kilometres off State Highway 1 and easily accessible via a good quality gravel road.

Kawau Island

Kawau Island, on the Hauraki Gulf and just north of Auckland, is a favourite spot with 'boaties', holiday-home or 'batch' owners and local & international tourists alike.

As early as the 17th century, the islands strategic dominance over the Gulf and adjacent islands together with an abundant supply of seafood made it a favourite habitat of various Maori iwi and the site of a great deal of inter-tribal fighting.

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The stately Mansion House is a highlight of any visit to Kawau Island. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

The first European to see Kawau was probably Captain James Cook who passed on his 1769 voyage of discovery. The missionary Samuel Marsden visited briefly in 1820 but the island remained largely uninhabited by Europeans until 1837. Then it was bought from the local Maori by Henry Taylor for the princely sum of three muskets and a quantity of gunpowder. In 1840, Taylor sold it to the North British Australian Loan and Investment Company.

The new owners located commercial quantities of copper and quickly established a small settlement at Garlick Bay. Later renamed Mansion House Bay it became the site of a substantial house for the mine manager, a jetty and a street lined with cottages for the mineworkers and their families. The workforce peaked at about 300 miners and by 1850 3,000 tons of ore had been extracted.

The mine continued to develop until competition, flooding of the shafts and the loss of large numbers of workers to gold rushes on the Coromandel, in Australia and California led to its closure in 1855.

In 1862, Kawau was purchased by New Zealand's Governor Sir George Grey. He set about renovating the former mine managers house at Garlick Bay, converting it into a stately home by adding 20 new rooms to the original 10. He also built houses for his staff and their families, a school at Schoolhouse Bay and a number of farm buildings.

Grey's passion in life was collecting exotic plants & wildlife and Kawau stands today as testament to his enthusiasm. Despite warnings that it wasn't appropriate to introduce large numbers of plants and animals to areas in which they were not native more than 30 species of animals and countless cuttings & seeds from around the world were brought to the island. African Zebras and monkeys shared the estate with Australian wallabies, Kookaburras and Peacocks.

Between 1888 and the 1930s, Kawau changed hands several times and the condition of the Mansion House deteriorated in later years.

Sold to the Government the property was absorbed into the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park in 1967 and leased as a licensed hotel until 1976 when the lease was surrendered.

Today the Kawau Island Historic Reserve is administered by the Department of Conservation and is a great day out exploring the Mansion House, copper mine and some of the nearby beaches. There are 6 kilometres of walking trails within the Historic Reserve and the walk from Mansion House to the old copper mine is a round-trip of about 2 ˝ - hours.

Of course, if you want to stay a little longer you can take advantage of the broad range of accommodation options available and enjoy an extended stay savouring Kawau's peace and tranquillity and learning a little more about its blood-thirsty past.

Getting There …..

Kawau Island is in the Hauraki Gulf, just under 50 kilometres north of Auckland. Kawau Cruises and Kawau Water Taxi's operate from Sandspit, just a short drive from Warkworth.

Taupo and its fabulous Lake

The township of Taupo sits at the northeastern end of Lake Taupo, New Zealand' largest freshwater lake, and at the centre of one of the world's most active geothermal regions. It is surrounded by one of the most visually dramatic landscapes in the whole of New Zealand including the Tongariro National Park, Orakei Korako Geyserland, the Waikato River and the mighty Huka Falls, New Zealand's most visited natural attraction.

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Lake Taupo is one of New Zealand's great tourism drawcards. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

The first Maori to settle the region, the Ngati Tuwharetoa are thought to have arrived more than 700 years ago and initially suffered many lean seasons due to the very poor nature of the volcanic soil and the harsh winters. Taupo was known then as Tapuaeharuru, 'the place of echoing footsteps'.

The earliest Europeans to visit the area were mostly missionaries, the first thought to be the Reverend Thomas Chapman who trekked overland from Rotorua in 1839. Taupo itself was first settled in 1869 as an outpost of the Armed Constabulary, pakeha and Maori militiamen raised as a police and military force following the withdrawal of English forces from New Zealand.

There was little to attract settlers to the area initially. The poor volcanic soil couldn't support large-scale agriculture. It wasn't until as late as the 1950s that a long and expensive program of land clearing and fertilisation turned up good fertile farmlands.

Tourists were first attracted to the area by the thermal springs in the late 1870s. By 1890, the lake had been stocked with rainbow trout and Taupo became the centre for a sport fishing industry that continues to attract anglers from around the world today.

Visitors to the waters of Mine Bay, on the lakeshore about 10-kilometres from Taupo, might be excused for thinking they'd stumbled upon an ancient Maori ceremonial site complete with rock carved totems. But the Mine Bay rock carvings are a relatively modern addition to the districts attractions.

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Master rock carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell has created an amazing work of art at Lake Taupo's Mine Bay. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media

During the late 1970s, the renowned master rock carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell returned to his mother's homeland at Lake Taupo intent on creating a significant carving in the area.
After selecting a cliff face at Mine Bay for the site of his work Matahi, with the aid of four assistants, worked through 4 summers to create a 10 meter high likeness of the great navigator Ngatoroirangi who led the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes to the Taupo region.

The Mine Bay carvings were gifted by Matahi to the people of Taupo and are only accessible by boat.

For the ultimate in natural relaxation, you might want to lay back in the geothermally-heated and very soothing waters of the Wairakei Terraces, a series of silica steps filled with mineral waters which the Maori have used as a natural therapy for centuries.

If fishing is your thing, Lake Taupo and the surrounding streams are the place for you, offering up incredible catches of brown and rainbow trout on bait, lure or fly.

Taupo and its Lake really do offer something for everyone.

Getting There …..

Taupo is in the middle of the north island, 271-kilometres south of Auckland and about a 3˝ - hour drive via State Highway 1.

Goat Island and the Cape Rodney- Okakari Point Marine Reserve

Goat Island (Te Hawere-a-maki), just a short drive north of Auckland, is located within the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve, New Zealand's first such reserve established in 1975.

An area that was formerly over-fished the park now teems with sea life and is a hugely popular spot with snorkelers and SCUBA divers eager to explore everything from sandflats to deep reefs, underwater cliffs and canyons.

If you want to stay dry but still check out what's happening underwater you can hire a 'clear
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Goat Island is a world-renowned snorkelling and dive site, part of the Cape Rodney-Okakari Point Marine Reserve. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
kayak' and enjoy a magical view right through the bottom of the boat.

At low tide fossicking on the rocky shore is a popular pastime and there are two walking trails that lead visitors through coastal forest to quiet picnic spots and some spectacular coastal views.

Getting There …..

Goat Island is 90-kilometres north of Auckland, just under a 90-minute drive State Highway 1 and Warkworth.

So there you have it - 10 great destinations to burst your bubble on a Covid-Safe trip to New Zealand's north island.
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Why? With the New Zealand travel bubble likely to be the only international travel destination open to Australian’s for a good while yet this selection of New Zealand’s north island attractions might provide some incentive for a great family getaway.
When: Anytime is a great time to visit New Zealand's north island.
Phone: Check the individual service provider websites for contact details.
Where: North Island, New Zealand
Cost: Many of the individual north island attractions shown here are free. Check the individual service provider websites for detailed information, cost and on-line booking availability.
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