All I wanted was to wake up in a forest on Christmas Day. After a hellish year, I was seeking a place of peace – I found it in New Zealand’s Waipoua Forest, on the Kauri Coast of the North Island. The green halls of this ancient place, formed by towering kauri trees and veils of ferns, provide a sense of being out of time.
This is especially so when you stand before Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), the country’s largest kauri tree, which is about 2,000 years old, and Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest), nearly 1,000 years its senior. Life goes on.
We were staying in a low-key cabin at the Waipoua Forest Visitors Centre on a somewhat peripatetic self-drive holiday, criss-crossing the North Island from hot spring to deep forest, fishing village to tall city. It is a popular pastime for Australian travellers to New Zealand, with about 325,000 Aussie visitors hitting the road last year, up 6 per cent on the previous year.
The most popular self-drive regions are Auckland on the North Island, and Canterbury and Otago on the South Island, with the average length of time spent on a self-drive holiday being 13 days. Tourism New Zealand general manager, Australia, Tony Saunders says visitors love the accessibility of the country’s attractions and the freedom to explore on their own schedules.
“On average, visitors are spending around $2,710 per self-drive holiday in New Zealand, which is a cost-efficient way to explore all corners of an incredible country,” Mr Saunders says. “Jumping in a car or campervan allows travellers to head off the beaten track and discover a beautiful beach or waterfall, leading to a much more spontaneous journey.”
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Spontaneous ours was. We flew into Auckland and hit the road to the city of Hamilton, on the Waikato River.
Home to the beautiful Hamilton Gardens, with its series of ‘rooms’ based on themes from Italy to Asia, Hamilton makes a great base for exploring further south. We headed to Waitomo Glowworm Caves for blackwater rafting; and southwest to Rotorua, where I realised my other wish of sitting in an outdoor hot spring.
And then began our zig-zag to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island, where I envisaged dramatic scenes of the Tasman Sea smashing into the Pacific Ocean, in a swirl of mighty currents. No matter that it was the calmest day in a decade, and the sea was like glass. A short and steep trek down to nearby Sandy Bay, a tiny inlet with a small and beautiful beach, more than made up for the lack of theatrics.
Along the way we stopped to burn our bums at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula (dig a hole in the sand to access the hot springs below, but guard your shovel and test the water first!). We sipped wines near Whangarei in the Northland wine region, had the best fish and chips of my life in Mangonui, saw the old men of the forest on the Kauri Coast, marvelled at polished kauri gum at The Kauri Museum in Matakohe, and kayaked the impossibly beautiful Bay of Islands. On our return to Auckland, we paused to explore its buzzing waterfront, whisky bars, stylish boutiques and top restaurants.
If you prefer less aimless wanderings, there are plenty of established itineraries to follow. Here are just two examples.
Follow the North Island golf trail, visiting the spectacular clifftop holes of the Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers golf courses, the deftly designed Wairakei Golf & Sanctuary and Kinloch Club; and Wellington’s Royal Wellington Golf Club and Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club.
On the South Island, take a round trip from Christchurch to Milford Sound, for mountain scenery and eco-experiences. Revel in the rivers on the way to Oamaru and its little penguins.
Discover albatrosses and architecture in Dunedin, and meet the creatures of the Catlins region. Catch the ferry to Stewart Island for kiwi encounters and cruise Milford Sound before some Queenstown fun. Mount Cook will inspire you on your way back to Christchurch.
But whatever route you choose, try to fit in a forest or two.