Chagebale weather comes with its own rewards. A rainbow arches over a North Island landscape.
Changeable weather comes with its own rewards. A rainbow arches over a North Island landscape.

What’s Not To Like …A Visit to New Zealand’s North Island

Text and pictures by Allan Seiden

My recent visit to New Zealand’s North Island proved not only memorable, but also worthy of a hop-on-a-plane recommend. On my first visit some years ago I’d spent my time on South Island with fabled attractions like the Milford Track, Mt. Cook, the Southern Alps, and Christchurch fulfilling expectations that were now focused on North Island. Often considered second to South Island  in terms of

diversity and visual impact,

Sheep and cows rule North Island's lush pastures. Once forests prevailed, but these were systematically removed in the 19th century to create the pastureland that defines North Island today.

I found it to be every bit a match.

This first of  three articles provides an orientation to the other “downunder”, with the two features to  follow taking a head-to-toe look at what makes North Island a place to put on your travel wish list.

With centrally located Auckland as a base, I set out on three separate self-drive excursions, heading east to the Coromandel Peninsula, and south to volcanic Rotorua and Taranaki, and on to Wellington, the nation’s appealing capitol,  scenically situated at the very southern tip of North Island. My last trip took me north to the fabled Bay of Islands and the windswept lands beyond. It was a springtime visit, which in the southern hemisphere translates as late-October through mid-November, so weather was changeable, with a fair share of brilliantly clear days.

The Sky Tower provides a landmark to the Auckland skyline.Nearly half the country's 4.5-million people live in Auckland and its suburbs. The capital is far-smaller Wellington, about 275 miles to the south.

 

When sunny skies prevailed the beauty was awesome, the now-diminished word used in the pre-postmodern sense , as in AWESOME!, with lush green hillsides grazed by sheep and cows measured in millions, with dairy products one of the country’s key exports. Every curve in the road revealed yet another view of bucolic perfection, the colors almost surreal in their intensity.

The view approaching the peninsular town of Coromandel.

Just the Facts

North Island from 20,000 feet. An Air New Zealand jet enroute to Honolulu.

 

Getting There

Auckland is only 8.5 hours from Honolulu. Only Air New Zealand flies non-stop, with flights that retain gracious service and delicious meals (without wanting to compromise my credibility, my lamb dinner proved tender and delicious, the best lamb of my 3 week stay), with inspired entertainment options in film that don’t take only aim at lowest common denominator choices. There are twice weekly round trips between Honolulu and Auckland. Going over it’s a redeye that arrives in the early morning (as in 6:30AM) two days later since you cross the International Dateline. The return departs at a civilized 10:30 AM and reaches Honolulu about 8:30 PM the day before. Airport security and customs are quick: I was at the gate 25 minutes after I arrived at the airport, which is about 20 minutes from the city. Expect to pay $1,200, maybe more on roundtrip fares.

When to Go

Colorful pools steam with thermally heated waters at Rotorua, a 3.5-hour drive south of Auckland. Much of the island is volcanically active

Summer begins in December, with the peak season kicking off at Christmas when families head out to popular destinations like the Bay of Islands and Rotorua. From January through March you’re competing for space with vacationing Kiwis. Rates spike and bookings can be harder to find. Shoulder season rates

Springtime flowers include rhododendron, magnolia, and roses. A number of festivals, most notably in New Plymouth, open botanical gardens and homes to visitors.

are less expensive and rooms easy to come by, the compromise being rainier weather. The North Island climate is temperate, with shoulder season lows bottoming out in the 50s, with days in the 60s and low 70s farther to the north.During my mid-spring visit the weather changed often and quickly, sunny skies to clouds, clouds to rain, and a return to sunny skies. There were only a couple of overcast days, fewer than the number that were vibrantly sunny.

Red roses in a Taranaki garden.

Temperatures rise as you head north from Wellington with portions of the north reminiscent of northern California.  Ocean waters are swimmable, though very cold by Hawaii standards, even in summer.

 

 

 

A hearty New Zealand breakfast at the Whakataki Hotel in Castlepoint. Breakfast can be pricey, but the menu price is what you pay: No tips, no taxes are added on.

 

Costs

At first things seem a bit pricey, but once you factor in that tipping is not expected and no taxes are added to meals and purchases, and that a US dollar gets about $1.15-$1.20 in Kiwi dollars, it’s more in line with American prices. This is not a bargain-priced destination, but there are meal and hotel options that speak to most budgets. Hotel restaurants typically charge $20 and up for a full breakfast. Mine at the Whakataki Hotel in Castlepoint was a bargain at about $6.

 

Driving

There’s no better way to see New Zealand than by car. Any here-to-there drive comes with beautiful scenery… an iconically scenic mix of pasture, hills, mountains, bays, beaches, and coast .

Cold, colorful waters border the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.

Driving on the left takes some getting used to, which means driving consciously. Roundabouts are found everywhere and are well marked. Roads have only infrequent signage with destination and distance the standard, with route number signage rare.  In my 2,000-mile visit, I never got

Driving is on the left, with most travel on well-maintained two-lane roads.

lost without using a GPS device offered as a rental car add-on. Best car deal I found was with GO, which provides recent model cars at NZ $35 per day (about US $30) and has convenient pick up locations and a toll free number for US bookings: 800-584-1330 or online at info@gorentals.co.nz .

Travel Distances

There are not many miles of freeway on North Island. Travel is mostly on well-maintained two lane roads that are a pleasure to drive, with intermittent passing lanes that allow faster traffic (65 mph) able to make progress. It’s paced to take in the scenery, make a picnic pit stop, or to pay a visit to some quaint country town.

Kiwi crossing. These endangered nocturnal birds are rarely seen in the wild.

The island is about 500 mile long, on a north/south axis. Daily drives typically pace out at no more than 250 miles, and often less . Auckland is more or less central, with Wellington about 250 miles to the south. There are wilderness drives in the central mountains and in volcanic Taranaki province where active volcanoes are to be found. Gas is expensive, sold by the liter, it prices out at more than $6/gallon. Fuel for my 2,000-mile-long North Island travels cost more than $650.

Accommodations

A homey bed and breakfast priced at $80 (US) per night.

There are upscale hotels in cities like Auckland, Wellington, New Plymouth, and in tourist destinations like the Bay of  Islands and Rotorua,  but accommodations can be found in the $75-$100 range during spring (Oct./Nov. early December)and fall (April May) shoulder seasons. Rates spike for the Kiwi summer (mid-December throughFebruary. Winter means skiing and puts upward pressure on prices.

 

 

Old hotels, with clean and comfortable rooms at $40/night provide an alternative to pricier options. There are accommodation options to suit most budgets.

Many smaller towns have century-old hotels…basic, quirky, but comfortable and priced at $40-$50/night.  There are many on-line alternatives offering seasonal discounts.

 

 

Meals

Fish-n-Chips. a delicious national favorite.

Lamb is the national specialty, which is no guarantee that it will taste as memorable as you expect. Same applies to meat pies, an inexpensive fast-food option offered with a wide variety of meat and vegetable fillings. Fish and chips are a tasty  fast food favorite, The best food is found in Wellington, where ethnic fare (kebabs, Thai, Indian, Chinese, fushion) broadens dining options, even in smaller towns.

 

At a Martinborough vineyard. Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand's most renowned wine, but vintners produce a range of whites and reds.

The People     They’re better than nice: they’re warm, sincere, courteous and helpful. An influx of Asian immigrants is broadening New Zealand’s national identity, particularly in Auckland,, but the look and style is still largely Anglo Saxon.

A small country with plenty of creative energy. Model at the World of Wearable Art a design extravaganza in Wellington Sept. 27-Oct. 7, 2012. Info: www.worldofwearbable art.com.

The Maori
Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud was the named the Polynesians called these islands when they arrived, most likely from Samoa (although some say Hawaii), about 800 years ago, the last part of the Pacific settled by the Polynesians. In 1840 an agreement was signed by the British Government and the Maori chiefs, designed to sustain Maori identity and rights under the British Crown.

Man in the Street: Face tattooing, a Maori tradition that;s part of a cultural revival.

Intermarriage proved the rule, and most of today’s estimated 300,000 Maori (14% of the country) are largely of mixed ancestry. Marae (communal meeting compounds) number in the hundreds, and are found throughout the island, allowing the dispersed Maori people to sustain cultural and family bonds. There is an on-going revival in Maori identity, with tattooing, wood carving, music and dance all integral parts of New Zealand’s identity. “We are grateful for the way our culture can flourish,” our 76-year-old host remarked with an admirable mix of humility and pride. Others I spoke with seemed comfortably defined by both their Maori and national identities. Issues of poverty, drug abuse, and family violence, however, remain problematic for a portion of the Maori community. North Island is where both Maori and European settlement began and there are a number of historic sites linked to both.

 

 

Next : Auckland & Wellington :
Urban New Zealand Comes in Two Flavors

Near Paihia, Bay of Islands, a favorite playtground 2.5 hours north of Auckland.

KEY CONTACTS

Tourism New Zealand www.newzealand.com

Beauty, dawn to dusk.

Air New Zealand www.airnewzealand.com

Allan Seiden aseiden@hawaii.rr.com

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