Navigating New Zealand’s North Island Article cover photo
16 June 2016

Navigating New Zealand’s North Island

While the towering peaks and hulking fjords of the South Island are legendary, the North Island has equally impressive scenic beauty, especially in the fabulously named Bay of Plenty.


A town of 56,000 built on the southern cusp of its namesake lake, Rotorua has a strong indigenous influence—the population is about one-third Maori, the highest concentration in the country. Rotorua is also the thermal capital of New Zealand, with the ubiquitous nosetingling smell of sulphur a reminder of the geothermal activity that dominates the region. Historically it was thermal springs in the area that lured the Maori to settle here in the 14th century and today Rotorua is a busy tourist destination, the landscape forged by volcanic explosions over the millennia.

//Cathedral Rocks at the Waimangu Volcanic Valley//

In the morning head to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, a short drive south of Rotorua, to learn first-hand about the area’s geothermic activity and get close—but not too close—to Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest boiling lake (temperatures hover in the 50-60C range). Head back for lunch before a stop at Ohinemutu a suburb of Rotorua that is a 10-minute walk from the centre of town. This Maori village, home to the Ngati Whakaue tribe, has a pretty marae, or meeting house, enlivened by a carving with hundreds of inlaid abalone shells, and homes with thermal pools on the property.

//Rotorua's geothermal mud bath spas are a popular tourist attraction//

Be sure to return to Rotorua by late afternoon for a visit to the Rotorua Museum ( The Tudor pile, a former bathhouse building situated in the wonderfully landscaped Government Gardens, is quite a spectacle while inside is a trove of photographs, art, and Maori cultural objects. Grab an early dinner, stroll around the town for a bit before a visit to Polynesian Spa. Moving among the five, shallow hot pools—some with views of Lake Rotorua—fed by the Rachel and Priest springs is the perfect way to unwind at the end of the day. The hot mineral-rich pools will dehydrate you, so keep drinking water, and will knock you out for the evening, so don’t plan on doing anything afterward other than stumbling back to your hotel room and hitting the sack.

//Pohutu Geyser Rotorua//

W h e r e t o E a t

Eat Streat, a small section of Tutanekai Street, is geothermally heated and has a central walkway that is covered, making it a pleasant place to wander even in the rain. It offers a wide choice of places to chow down, including Indian, steak, craft beer, Middle Eastern, Italian, Thai, tapas, and even an ice-cream parlour, with flavours like hokey pokey, white chocolate and raspberry, and the guava-like feijoa.


Rise early, scarf down a quick breakfast and prepare for a long, activity filled day. Make the 75-minute drive to Whakatane, a coastal town with a rich Maori history, to arrive before 9am to make the 9.15am departure for White Island with White Island Tours.

//White Island's topography is filled with steam-spewing crators//

The country’s only active marine volcano, 49 kilometres offshore from Whakatane, White Island was once home to a sulphur factory, abandoned in the 1930s, and its topography is almost alien, with craters and steam rising from fumaroles, bright yellow and orange sulphur deposits at every turn. You’ll get two hours on the island, a place that seems like its from another galaxy – bring a good camera, the photographic opportunities are endless. Enjoy a light packed lunch on the ferry ride back and once off the boat hurry to Mataatua before it closes. This Maori site, named for a sacred canoe, has a deep, fascinating history, its marae built in 1875 in the North Island and taken apart and reassembled numerous times as it traveled from New Zealand to Australia to London and then back to South Island before returning home.

//Whakatane Maatatua entrance gate//

Today the complex comprises the marae, a visitors’ centre, a shop and a dining hall, and time here offers visitors a strong insight into the culture of the local Ngati Awa tribe and the region’s pre-European roots. You’ll learn of Toi, who used the constellations to navigate the Pacific Ocean, and Wairaka (earlier in the day you’ll have seen her sculpture atop Turuturu Rock, near Whakatane Harbour), the daughter of Ngati Awa chief Toroa, and how she saved the sacred voyaging canoe Maatatua.

Whakatane is also considered the Kiwi capital of the world, and no other urban centre in the country has the endangered bird foraging in such proximity. The Whakatane Kiwi Trust, which runs the New Zealand’s most successful kiwi breeding programme, hosts kiwi night walks in the Ōhope Scenic Reserve every Friday during May and June ( Other options for the evening, depending on your energy levels, include a quiet night in, or joining the excursion to Whale Island (Moutohora in Maori) with White Island Tours. This small isle is home to a colony of 160,000 greyfaced petrels, also known as muttonbirds. The birds are out at sea all day, searching for food, but at night they return home to the island, landing in their own unique style by closing their wings and dropping from the sky. It’s a fascinating, hugely entertaining– albeit potentially dangerous – excursion, with participants given hard hats to wear in case a bird drops on their heads!

W h e r e t o E a t

Ohope Beach, a few kilometres east of Whakatane, is home to Fisherman’s Wharf Café (340 Harbour Road; 64-7- 312-4017). The relaxed restaurant has striking views of a harbour and serves fabulous, artfully plated seafood. The French country-casual interiors create a lovely place to linger for a couple of hours over dinner.


The drive northwest to the small town Mount Maunganui winds intermittently along the coast and inland and takes a touch over an hour. The eponymous mountain, now called The Mount or by its Maori name Mauao, is also imbued in local lore: A huge conical extinct volcano at the end of a sand bar, it is said to represent a nameless hill whose love for the hill Puwhenua was spurned, so it asked the local fairy people to drag it out to sea so that it could drown. A hike to the top of the mountain is a must and should take less than an hour, climbing 230 metres above sea level. Once at the top, the views are spectacular, taking in the town beach, long stretches of coastline, the harbour of neighbouring town Tauranga, and the Bay of Plenty’s endless expanse of the water.

//Mount Maunganui Bay of Plenty//

After the hike, the Mount Hot Pools, heated, natural saltwater pools, are a perfect way to ease aching muscles or simply unwind. Spend the afternoon wandering round the town, it’s an easygoing, compact place, popular as a summer holiday spot with New Zealanders, and has fun shops and places to eat. Keep the evening free for a glow-worm tour with Waimarino Kayak Tours—you’ll paddle on Lake McLaren into a high-sided canyon blanketed in bioluminescent worms for a truly magical, unforgettable experience.

W h e r e t o E a t

Astrolabe, a brewery bar with a fun menu, has a cool, funky vibe to it (82 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui; 64-7-574-8155). The burgers are succulent, the kumara fries with sweet chilli oil and sour cream are addictive, and the nachos are outstanding.


The one-hour drive from Mount Maunganui to Waihi Beach snakes just inland of Tauranga Harbour. Waihi Beach sits at the western reach of the Bay of Plenty and by the base of the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s a hugely popular summer holiday spot for New Zealanders and one peek at the kilometres of uninterrupted beach on the Pacific will explain why, but more of that later.

//Waihi Beach//

First stop is the Martha Mine in the nearby town of Waihi. Blink and you almost might miss it, the mine is a jaw-dropping spectacle, a giant terraced cone dug deep into the ground. At once one of the world’s most important gold and silver mines, today it’s still operational though not as productive; during a tour here, you’ll get a full appreciation of the mining process and the mechanics involved in transporting and sifting through the ore. After the mine, stop by the town’s Gold Discovery Centre to get a deeper understanding of gold, and why it captivates us. By now you’ll have worked up an appetite, so drive about 15 minutes west to the Karangahake Gorge for lunch at Ohinemuri Estate, a winery/hotel/restaurant where the seasonal food includes sensational salmon.

//Martha Mine speaks of area's history as one of the world's most important gold and silver mines//

After lunch hop on a bike and cycle for about an hour on the gentle paths of the Hauraki Rail Trail, it’s right by the restaurant, one of the picturesque cycle trails in New Zealand (see for information and cycle hire). Head back to Waihi Beach by late afternoon for a quick dip and then a stroll along the gorgeous white sand beach; look carefully to the right and you’ll be able to make out the conical Mount Maunganui in the distance.

//Karangahake Hauraki Trail//

W h e r e t o S t a y

The reasonably priced Ibis Rotorua has spotless, functional rooms, but what sets it apart is its location a couple of minutes south of the lake, within walking distance of the heart of the town and Eat Street but far enough from the action to ensure it’s blissfully quiet ( In Whakatane, the White Island Rendezvous, a sister business to White Island Tours, has huge, comfortable motel-style rooms, and an excellent café with plenty of healthy dishes ( The only property on the harbour-side of Mount Maunganui, the Westhaven Motel has simple décor; the units have full kitchens and are pet-friendly ( Situated on a hill, Tohora View Bed & Breakfast is comfortable with incredibly warm, welcoming owners. As expected with the name, the views are outstanding: Waihi Beach below in the near distance, Mount Maunganui on a clear day, and pastoral countryside everywhere else.

G e t t i ng T h e r e

Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand have a codeshare agreement and fly direct from Singapore to Auckland. Other airlines, such as Emirates, British Airways, or Qantas connect in Sydney or Melbourne, and usually require a change of planes. From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Airlines has nonstop flights.

G e t t i ng a r o u n d

New Zealand has great public infrastructure and a well-developed road system, and the most efficient way to get around the country is by car. Vehicles are driven on the left side of the road, just like in Singapore, and drivers in New Zealand are generally law abiding and generous on the road – cars will often give way, something we aren’t used to in Singapore. There are a number of car rental companies with branches at Auckland Airport, including Avis and Thrifty. Among the most competitively priced is Go Rentals, a locally grown company with offices in the North and South Islands.

C l i m a t e

The Bay of Plenty, sitting in the central slice of the North Island, doesn’t get the regular buffeting wind of Wellington further south, and isn’t quite as balmy as the Northland region, but it certainly is mild and one of the warmest parts of the country. If you visit during the summer (December-March), bring swimming gear, though you can even swim into early autumn (April and early May). Days peak around 26 Celsius in the summer, and 16 Celsius in the winter, while rainfall is highest in the east and west parts of the Bay.

//Maori artefacts at Whakatane Mataatua//

Images: Tourism New Zealand/Adam Bryce, Chris-Mclennan