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11 New Zealand north island hidden gems

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Updated: 2nd September 2017

When I landed in New Zealand, my friends told me the places to skip: Taranaki, Hamilton, Palmerston North… But being me, I completely ignored that advice and I headed straight for them.

When it comes to traveling, I’m a sucker for the underdog and while New Zealand is home to two of the most beautiful islands in the world, some parts don’t see as many visitors. No matter where you end up, however, nature will do its best to impress you.

Here are a few of New Zealand’s north island hidden gems I developed a crush on while I was living there.

1. Rings Beach, Coromandel

The best thing about Auckland is the opportunity for weekend getaways, within a couple of hours you can be at some of the most stunning beaches on the island. The Coromandel Peninsula is home to turquoise waters, cave kayaking adventures, and soft white sands that are a stark contrast to the black volcanic beaches on the lower west coast.

Hot Water Beach, with its unique attraction of digging a hot pool in the sand, attracts most of the area’s tourism. If you are like me and prefer your sunbathing sans the crowds, then just drive a little further along the Peninsula, and you’ll hit Rings Beach. The whole stretch of Bluff Road is epic.

Even when I visited in January, the peak summer season, there were only a handful of people.

2. The Old Coach Road, Ohakune

Ohakune is an odd little place and well worth including in your New Zealand North Island itinerary. It’s well known for its giant carrot statue (you’ll get used to weird oversized things after a while in the country). Part of the sleepy town is open in Summer, while the other half kicks into action during ski season.

Sitting at the base of towering Mount Ruapehu, it’s an attractive base for Tongariro National Park and the famous great hike that nearly all visitors to the region will do.

The Old Coach Road is a leisurely half day cycle route, or walk, which takes in old bridges, viaducts, tunnels, clear views of the mountains and rolling hills. It’s also a chance to step back in history as this was the route that used to transport people by horse and coach between the two railway lines before they were joined up in 1908.

If you don’t fancy tackling the mount or find yourself with extra time in Ohakune, I highly recommend hiring a bike and enjoying the views.

3. Plimmerton, Porirua

I woke up in Plimmerton to the sounds of seagulls, lapping waves and bay windows, forgetting for a minute that I was no longer living in the south of England.

Plimmerton was my go-to ‘escape’ when I used to live in Wellington, and I had a few weekends here enjoying the slower pace of life. A short train ride from the capital will make you feel like you’ve gone back about thirty years. There is nothing much to do in the local area, but if you want some downtime between exploring islands, then check into Moana Lodge and switch off.

4. The Redwoods, Rotorua

I’m not sure I’ll get away with including anywhere in Rotorua in a ‘New Zealand hidden gems’ list, as this is one of the main tourist draws to the North Island. Thanks to its unbelievable geothermal activity and Maori culture the town has a buzzing vibe and a unique smell of rotten eggs which you’ll quickly get used to.

The impressive Whakarewarewa Forest is full of towering Californian Coast Redwoods, and between the cycling tracks, hiking paths and tree-top bridges, you can spend hours getting lost among the trees. It also smells less of fart here, which is a bonus.

One truly epic ‘hidden gem adventure’ I’m dying to do on my next visit is to head to a Volcano in the middle of the ocean. You can take a helicopter from Rotorua to white island, where billowing smoke seems to rise from the water. An active volcano, this is a really epic detour from the main land that you shouldn’t miss if time and budget allow.

5. Whangamomona & The Forgotten Highway

Have you ever met a president who was a goat? Whangamomona used to have one. In fact, I’ve been to this tiny little spot and voted for a cat to rule supreme in the last ‘election.’

Back in 1989, over regional boundary disputes, this small town declared itself a republic and hosts its republic day every two years—anyone can run for president, and the small population increases by around 1000 per cent for the day; you can even get a Whangamomona passport.

The Forgotten Highway is a mighty fine, yet damn scary, and in some parts, single file drive. The landscape looks almost pre-historic jungle rather than the rolling hills across much of the north island. There are a whole host of quirky stops along The Forgotten Highway, and this is the epitome of New Zealand’s hidden gems

6. The Pouakai Crossing, Taranaki

One of the main reasons Taranaki was named a top region in 2017 by Lonely Planet is this impressive multi-day hike. The Tongariro crossing might be the most famous on the north island, but this trek (tramp to Kiwis’) takes in tarns, marsh, mountains, and views. I passed around 30 other people during my route, making this a much less ventured way.

The Mount even stood in for Mount Fuji in The Last Samurai film, and with its regular snow dump on the top, its perfect postcard reflection has become the poster boy of the region. While trekking to the top is possible on some days, the summit is sacred to the Maori, so I opted not to do this.

With cabins around the park where you can bunk up for around $10 a night, it’s an excellent way to disconnect your phone signal and enjoy that famous Aotearoa fresh air. The main city of the region was also one of my favourites; a few days in New Plymouth, especially when an event or festival is on, is never a bad idea.

7. Utea Park, 90 Mile Beach

Northland, the point part of New Zealand above Auckland, is often skipped due to it being in ‘the wrong direction,’ and those who venture up here usually do so for the calm blues of the Bay of Islands.

Utea Park was a completely accidental find after driving down a dirt road for far too long. This wacky campsite sits on the beach amongst the sand dunes and has both tent pitches and cabins to hire. The sunset was incredible, the beers were cold, and the twenty or so other people in the camp were the only people we could see for miles at one of the longest beaches in the world. Falling asleep to the crashing waves here was an unexpected treat.

If you make it right to the top of Northland, Cape Reinga and its lighthouse are where the two oceans meet and are an incredibly important spot for Maori culture.

8. Whangarei & Falls, Northland

The northernmost city in New Zealand, Whangarei, is a great pit stop on a road trip and is surrounded by lush nature. The small city is ideal for stocking up on supplies before continuing further north or going camping on the 90-mile beach, and the waterfalls pictured above are just a short stroll from the centre.

9. Tawhai Falls, Tongariro

If you are as useless as I am and manage to sprain your ankle before tackling New Zealand’s premier hike, then fear not; Tongariro offers up plenty of shorter alternatives.

The road which leads up to the Whakapapa Ski Resort has a few places to park and enjoy some shorter hikes to impressive falls and vantage points. One of my favourite hidden gems is the Tawhai Falls, where you can either jump from the top into the refreshing pool below or just stop for a picnic and to enjoy Mother Nature’s work.

10. Hamilton (and Gardens), Waikato

Waikato is home to some of New Zealand’s top sights, such as Raglan for the surf, Waitomo glow worm caves, and Hobbiton movie set.

Its capital city of Hamilton, though, is regularly mocked (unfairly?) online as somewhere to avoid. I drove through a charming-looking place half asleep on a bus ride and thought it was Hamilton, so on the return trip, I booked two nights there.

I quickly realized it was not Hamilton. Determined to enjoy my weekend still, I walked along the river, chilled out by Lake Rotorua and spent hours marvelling at the pristine Hamilton Gardens, which take influence from around the world. Currently, donation-based, there has been a debate about a charge coming into play, but even if you are just driving past the city, they are worth swinging by for a visit. I honestly couldn’t understand why this city gets knocked so much.

11. Castlepoint, Wairarapa coast

One of my final stops in New Zealand was to beautiful Castlepoint with my dear friend Amanda. It was a long weekend, so we used Book a Bach to rent someone’s vacation home and see off down some slightly beaten tracks to get here.

This is a pretty remote spot and a bit of a detour, but if you want to escape and disconnect from it all, it’s an amazing stop. We played board games, watched the incredible star-lit sky with no light pollution and then got up early to witness a breathtaking sunrise over the lighthouse and little bays around Castlepoint. Seriously remote and seriously magical!

You are spoilt for choice in New Zealand, and on a short vacation, you are bound to stick to the most famous stops to get it all in. If you do have a little extra time or are on a WHV like I was, then go hunt out your own New Zealand hidden gems, no matter how much hate people give them; even Palmerton North wasn’t that bad ;)

7 replies
  1. Jenn says:

    I’m dying to get back to New Zealand. Thank you so much for this great info. I visited Auckland a few years ago, but didn’t get the opportunity to do much traveling outside the city. Still, it was gorgeous.

  2. Maharata Nikora says:

    Hi, I just wanted to pop in to say I love your work. You’re so talented. Keep doing what you do. I hope you don’t mind but I have put some of your images on my Instagram to express my desire to travel to see my family but can’t because of being in lockdown. I have referenced you on each of your photos. I chosen images of places from my home or places I’d rather be right now, hence my #manifestingme. Let me know if this is not ok, I’ll pull them down.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Tirau is a hidden gem too, not so much a natural wonder but the town uses corrugated iron like I’ve never seen anywhere else! Worth the drive. 😁👍🏻

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