Iconic North Island: Rotorua, Bay of Islands & Northland

Geysers go off at Te Puia on the outskirts of Rotorua Town.
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Last of a four-part series on New Zealand’s North Island

                                     Text and pictures  © Allan Seiden, 2012


Geysers go off at Te Puia on the outskirts of Rotorua Town.

 As with Hawaii, New Zealand is a living landscape. On North Island, evidence of volcanic, seismic, and thermal activity defines the landscape, with Rotorua and vicinity, about three hours southeast of Auckland, ground zero for things volcanic. It also claims strong links the Maori past, with stories of settlement and war part of its history. 

The Bay of Islands near Paihia. Sheltered waters , a mild climate, and a beautiful coastline.


At about the same distance north of Auckland as Rotorua is to the south, the Bay of Islands replaces fire-and-brimstone with beach-lined, forested islands in a colorfully-hued sea that is home to dolphins, whales, and people seeking a day in the sun, with rooms harder to get in mid-summer (late December through mid-February) when Kiwi families head this way. On my springtime visit, rooms were offered at about $60US, about half the midsummer rate, another reason off-season travel is a plus.    136

It's 3+ hours from Auckland (A) to Rotorua (B).



Green & red mineral pool at Wai-O-Tapu, about 25 miles from Rotorua Town.

Rotorua often gets a bum rap, casually dismissed as touristy and second rate. Not so, I discovered in a two-day stay that started with an afternoon arrival as misty rain introduced Rotorua in a grey monotone, a perfect match for the bubbling mud that surfaces right in town and elsewhere.

Mud pools are found throughout the region.

        The day was salvaged by clearing skies as I made my way to the Polynesian Spa. Friends in Auckland had made a reservation for me for what they promised was a memorable massage after a soak in a series of increasing warm lakeside hot springs.  Hot springs and geysers have made Rotorua New Zealand’s top visitor attraction since the late 19th-century. The massage was a promise proved true, with North Island native

A lakeside thermal pool at the Polynesian Spa.

Billy Jo releasing tension in a body rubdown beneath a spray of heated water, your skin massaged to transcendent softness with gritty thermal mud.

There’s no denying that Rotorua caters to tourists, yet the town preserves an appealing sense of scale and style linked to the Victorian past when it emerged as a destination. The elaborately Victorian19thcentury bathhouse now serves as the Rotorua Museum.

Rotorua's original bathhouse is now home to the excellent Rotura Museum with a great collection of Maori art.

Overlooked by most visitors who head out to experience the area’s thermal attractions on foot, by boat and by air, the Museum takes aim at the Maori past, with beautifully displayed art and artifacts and a flow that marks the region’s historic importance in Maori tradition, with a dynamic film as an introduction.  It collection is far more elaborate that the National Museum’s collection in Wellington.

Things to Do

Native trout. Nearby Lake Taupo is renowned for its sizable trout. These were Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park.

Best way to get around is by rental car (I arrived in one), although there are plenty of tour options as well. Check out the visitor center in the heart of town for help in planning, with the Tourism Radio Guide potentially useful for planning. The tourism office in the heart of town can provide very helpful information and advice.

A Maori man, Rotorua: "What's the tattoo for?" I ask. "It's not something good, not something I'm proud of. It's from a time when I was lost and in a gang. It's something I gave up years ago." '

In Town

Te Puia offers miles of trails to geysers, mud pools, and a steaming landscape as well as performances of Maori music and dance. Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park introduces the kiwi, and other native birds and fish, with night visits for viewing these flightless, nocturnal birds in the “wild.”  Skyline gondolas provide mountaintop views of Rotorua and Rotorua Lake. Afternoon viewing can be particularly colorful. Give yourself at least an hour in the Rotorua Museum and make sure to include the excellent introductory film with seat-rattling effects.


In the Vicinity

         The surrounding countryside is quite beautiful, with scenic side roads to explore. There are many trails to consider in the surrounding countryside, with hiking and other activity options. Blue Lake offers water sports and a

lush hillsides hide the geothermal world below the surface

lovely setting. Aerial tours are a pricy, exciting option when skies are clear, but be prepared to spend big bucks.

       Blue Lake offers a range of water sports in a scenic setting, while Wai-O-

Wai-O-Tapu's trails pas through native forest and lead to colorful mineral pools.

Tapu’s forest trails lead to colorful geothermal lakes and mud pools.

Looking inland from Waiau Treaty Grounds


Before my visit, I’d heard wonderful things about the Bay of Islands, a coastal enclave rich in beauty and in the history of the nation, a place of islands and coves where dolphin are a common sight, with a

fleet of boats that cater to a variety of day trip adventures, including a swim with dolphin. Some operate year-round, but chill waters keep most visitors from a swim before December’s start of summer.

A missionary-era tannery and book bindery make for an interesting visit in Russell.
The pier at Paihia, departure point for bay cruises and the historic village of Russell.

The town of Paihia is the center of gravity for the Bay of Islands, offering passenger ferry service to nearby Russell, the still-rustic town where European settlement of the Bay area began in the mid-1800s. Russell can also be reached by car at a turnoff before reaching Paihia. Russell is worth the visit, a low-key Lahaina with an oceanfront promenade lined with historic 19th century buildings, with an overnight a recommend, with the historic-but-pricey Duke of Marlboro Hotel, or at a bed and breakfast.

Rustic, historic Russell, ten minutes by ferry from Paihia.












Carvings on the marae at the Treaty Grounds.

Just outside of town the Waitangi Treaty Grounds honor the site where, in 1840, a treaty was establishing governance for New Zealand was signed between the British and the leading Maori chiefs. A beautiful Maori marae (meeting house) is nearby. An hour-long Maori cultural show can be added to a visit.

Time Frame

The ferry captain talks story as we head from Russell to Paihia.

Three days, allowing time for on-land exploration and time for a half-day or full-day excursion by boat. Calm water beaches invite swimmers in the warmer summer months.Paihia is a good place to overnight, with historic Russell offering missionary-era charm.

Mangonui & North

From Mangonui toi Cape Rienga.
A beer at the end of the day. Mangonui.

      The landscape flattens as you head north from Bay of Islands, although pasture still prevails. An old missionary home and trade house are worth an en route visit to Kerikeri. I over-nighted about 90 minutes further on in the bayside village of Mangonui,

Mangonui Hotel, basic but comfortable at $30US a night

using it as a base for a day trip still further north, to Ninety Mile Beach, in fact a 70-mile-long stretch of hard packed sand that serves as a road north, which comes with the caveat that cars have been trapped by soft patches of we sand and the incoming tide. Good reason that most prefer the paved road that runs parallel to


the beach on its way to Cape Rienga. With storm clouds

The Tasman Sea comes ashore at 90 Mile Beach

forming, I took a walk on Ninety Mile Beach’s wide, shell-littered sands, the wide, long, rolling waves as the Tasman Sea hit sandy shallows, with grassy dunes and a powerfully cold wind creating a moody grandeur.

At Cape Rienga an iconic lighthouse overlooks turbulent currents when the waters of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific meet. Nearby dunes and native forest add a wild sense of place. To the Maori this was a place of spiritual significance, the jumping-off entry to the afterlife, a concept similar to that of the Hawaiians.

Mangonui Fish & Chips: Fresh caught and delicious.

Most of those who head to Cape Rienga take the highway, avoiding the risks of an incoming tide and waterlogged patches of beach that have stranded those making the run on Ninety Mile Beach, which is actually 64-miles long.

Mangonui, famed for its fish-and-chips (noteworthy), proved a highlight of my northland excursion thanks to a scenic setting, viewed with 360-degree totality from atop Rangkapiti Pa, an earth-terraced hilltop that centuries ago had been a Maori fortification. I lingered even as cold winds blew in from the open ocean, waiting as a fishing boat slowly made its way into the sheltered waters of Mill Bay.


A fishing boat returns to Mill Bay as night descends over Northland.

Morning dawned to overcast skies and low-lying clouds. A breakfast of freshly brewed coffee and just-out-of-the-oven cranberry-nut muffins and I set out for Auckland, about four hours to the south, skies slowly clearly to blue-sky beautiful as the city skyline came into view.

Native fuchsia in full bloom.
Red liies are one of many springtime flowers, which include magnificent rhododendron.

Time Frame

Two days allows time for the trip to Cape Rienga at the northernmost tip of the island.

In the Stone House in historic Kerikeri, en route from Bay of Island to Northland.

Getting There

Breakfast in Russell. Camper vans are a popular travel option.

It’s not much more than 2 hours to Paihia, with apportion of that on wide freeway, the rest on typical two-lane roads with intermittent passing lanes. Traffic generally flows smoothly at 100 kmh (65mph), but there are plenty of twists and turns where it slows to 15-30 mph. You can make it from Paihia to Cape Rienga in less than four hours, but its better to break it into a 2-3 day extension, with Mangonui a good place to overnight after the Bay of Islands. My room at the

‘40s-basic Mangonui Hotel cost $30, a day infused with Northland beauty coming to an end with surreal intensity watching Orson Wells film noir classic in my own film noir setting. Mangonui’s fish house is renowned throughout North Island, with great fish and chip meals and other fresh seafood.

Useful Contacts: 


Tourism New Zealand:  www.newzealand.com>





Afternoon in the Bay of Islands.








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