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New Zealand’s South Island gets all the glory.
And I won’t lie…we spent the majority of our visit there and didn’t regret it. The hiking we did there and an overnight wilderness cruise we experienced were incredible. But I’m so glad we got this glimpse into the (also) spectacular North Island.
If you’re flying into Auckland—New Zealand’s largest and busiest international airport—it’s easy to hit a few highlights in a day or two before flying south (which I recommend if it’s your first trip).
There are many things to do here, but there are three things you must see on New Zealand’s North Island:
1. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves
So…these incredible caves are a 2.5 hour drive south of Auckland and look as stunning in person as they do in this photo.
Waitomo is Maori for “the stream which flows into the hole in the ground.” And what a stream it is! We took a 45 min boat ride through these underground caves and ogled the glowworms over our heads the whole way. It was just like sitting under a starry, starry night sky. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Glowworms are unique to New Zealand. They are essentially the larvae of insects that use their glow to attract a food source. You can see them in other places within the country, but they are perhaps at their most impressive here in Waitomo.
Also, they are cannibals. True story. A glowworm lives for three days and gives birth to 100 babies. But just 20 will survive thanks to all the other glowworms who gobble them up.
So many huge stalactites and stalagmites in the caves. I found myself meditating on the power of perseverance as our guide encouraged us to watch a bead of water pool on the tip of a vast stalactite over a period of minutes and then drip into the pool of water below.
It takes millions of years for these caves to form. Why? In 100 years, a stalactite only grows as much as a fingernail!
If you have more time, consider buying a combination ticket for a guided walking tour of the nearby Ruakuri Caves. (Adventurers can also choose from longer tours that include rappelling, diving and ziplining some of these caves!)
Don’t want to rent a car? There are lots of day tours from Auckland that include other fun things to do as well as a visit to Waitamo…like this one that includes a tour of the Lord of the Rings Hobbiton movie set! (Definitely on my list for a next visit.)
2. Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park
After an hour at Waitomo, we cut across the North Island to see the stunning Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park in the afternoon. It was a super scenic drive through constantly shifting landscapes. There was bucolic pastureland, steep cliffs, and then rain forest.
As we neared Rotorua, steam vents appeared here and there (with steam drifting up from both sides of the road). And when we finally approached the park, a strong sulphur smell permeated everything.
Wai-o-tapu is a surreal experience…It’s a geothermal park on the edge of a collapsed volcano that was formed 230,000 years ago. Boiling mud pots abound. I’m not sure where you can see anything quite like this anywhere else in the world…
The park is relatively small and flat, so there’s a big pay-off for a 60 or 90 minute hike around it. However, be aware that if you plan an afternoon visit, you’ll miss the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser, which takes places at 10:30 am daily. (The bonus: No crowds! We had the place almost completely to ourselves.)
3. Enjoy an authentic Maori Evening and Dinner
No trip to New Zealand would be complete without learning a bit about the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
The Maori (pronounced “Mow-ree”), a Polynesian people, make up 14 percent of New Zealand’s population. The Maori culture is deeply threaded throughout New Zealand’s language, culture, and daily life.
One of the best way to experience it for yourself is to head to one of the native Maori villages. Descendants of the Maori in residence at the one we visited have lived there since 1350 AD.
As we entered the villages, we passed crackling open fires in a forest, traditional homes, and participated in a Maori welcome ceremony.
In our few hours there, we were treated to demonstrations of everything from the games they played and an explanation of Maori history to demonstrations of Hangi cooking—meat and fish roasted in a pit dug into the ground— and explanations of their unique tattoos.
For example, facial markings are like a person’s resumé, a history of personal achievements and status. On a man, markings above the eyes signal his spiritual gifts.
Finally, after learning about the history of the Maori, we enjoyed a delicious Hangi meal of meat, seafood, and root vegetables and a final cultural performance of traditional Maori song and dance.
Proverbs are very important in Maori culture. They are a poetic form of the language, with underlying messages and perspectives about Maori values and how to live.
So as dark fell and we closed out the day, it seemed appropriate that they shared this lovely blessing with us:
“May the calm be widespread,
May the ocean glisten as greenstone.
May the shimmer of light ever dance across your pathway.”
If you go:
Waitomo Glowworm Caves—Book ahead to avoid long lines. Adult tickets are $51 NZD/$37 USD for the 45 minute boat tour. Combination tickets available for longer tours and adventure experiences in other nearby caves are available.
Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland—Lady Knox Geyser erupts at 10:30 am daily so plan accordingly. Tickets are $32.50 NZD/$23.50 USD.
*If you have extra time, how about a mud bath at nearby Hell’s Gate? Tour the mud pools, then add a soak in the sulphur springs, massage or mud bath. Prices start at $50NZD/$36USD.
Rotorua Maori Hangi Dinner—Book ahead for $96 USD. (Bus pick-up at your hotel included if requested.) We enjoyed this experience, but I’d also be interested to explore this Maori option, which was recommended even more highly by our local Airbnb host.
And last, here’s where to stay in Auckland.