I've been to New Zealand's North Island twice already, but any mention of its many charms instantly sparks an insatiable desire to plan a third trip.
I can sing the praises of the likes of Auckland and Wellington – both big cities maintain that easygoing small town vibe that encourage unhindered exploration. Even the sulphur tinged air of Rotorua couldn't dissuade me from falling head over hills for the incredible culture and natural beauty of this Waikato hotspot. It's all well worth a peek, but the North Island is much more than these main tourist hubs.
My last Trans Tasman adventure was spent away from the typical travel trail to explore some of the North Island's lesser known destinations, starting with a short flight from Auckland to Taupo. Located in the heart of the North Island, this destination holds up a spot along the shores of picturesque Lake Taupo. As you might expect, the majority of the activities in the area centre around the glassy surface of this immense body of water. It's no wonder with renowned trout fishing and boating charters readily available.
As I was visiting in the spring, I rightfully decided to skip plunging into the frigid waters of the lake, but basking in the sun while skimming across the water's surface en route to the Maori rock carvings of Mine Bay is highly recommended. Rising out of the cerulean waters of the lake, this impressive piece of art was carved directly into the sheer cliff in the likeness of Ngatoroirangi from Maori legend. It reaches a height of 10-metres with smaller carvings on the rocks surrounding the sheer cliff.
Two hours south of Taupo, my next stop was the even smaller town of Ohakune. Those in the know have probably already been entranced by the charm of this small town. Though quiet, it is the perfect base from which to trek, tramp and cycle your way around the Mount Ruapheu region. The spoils of Tongariro National Park lie in every direction. Just north, the Turoa Ski Fields call to powder hounds. A little further on, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is tramping at its finest, and to the south, Old Coach Road is perfect for a cycling adventure.
While I have yet to accomplish the alpine crossing, I did take to the peddles to complete Old Coach Road. Even in the rain and at its most challenging moments, it paid off tenfold in astounding natural beauty and incredible views.
Heading north with Whakatane in my sights, I was prepared for a day or two on the Bay of Plenty. Seaside views aside, this little town is New Zealand's longest continually occupied settlement and home to the Mataatua: The House That Came Home. I spent the afternoon at the Mataatua Maori Marae Experience learning about this incredible story and sharing in a unique and exciting Maori experience.
Just off the shores of Whakatane, White Island plays home to New Zealand's only active volcano. Adventurous travellers can take to the skies or the sea to reach the island by boat or helicopter to have a look around. I chose the latter, taking flight on a 20 minute scenic flight over the ocean.
Coming in for landing, the aerial views of the steaming cone are astounding, but landing on the surface is akin to landing on another planet. Vents hiss and spew sulphuric steam and mud pots glop and slosh with thick viscous earth. The landscape is rough, with guides carefully leading their groups along the safety of the trails to the mouth of the cone. To say it's incredible is understating the amazing experience of walking on the surface on an active volcano.
I finished up my North Island journey at Hobbiton. Though not quite off the beaten trail, it is still worthy of a stop for any would-be adventurer. Even if you're not a fan of JRR Tolkien's books or Peter Jackson's movies, this real life Shire is worthy stop to finish off any North Island journey.
All images courtesy of Carlie Tucker