Ten Outdoor Adventures on New Zealand’s North Island

The North Island of New Zealand is relatively small island, but it is packed edge to edge with excitement. We only scratched the surface on our visit. If you are considering a visit now or in the near future and are the adventurous type, here are the adventure highlights from our trip. We roughly followed this ~700 mile route around the island:

We traveled place to place by car, but once we got to a spot, we often borrowed bikes from our airbnb or rented bikes for a day of exploring. Auckland has tons of trails and the Kiwis give out free and helpful maps everywhere.

Once you’re on your bike, there are great waterfront trails all around the city. Keeping to the coast will also help you stay off the giant hills as you move more inland. 

While many, including us, picture the Campervan as the quintessential New Zealand vehicle, we booked our trip too late and didn’t grab a van in time. We ended up with a rental car, which worked perfectly for the four of us. We stayed mostly in airbnb’s with kitchens, which was cheaper, healthier, and probably tastier. (Side note, we were generally underwhelmed by the cuisine in New Zealand. Maybe we just hit the wrong places but we had a lot of British type pies and casseroles that were just mediocre.)

There are great bike trails all over Auckland, and many of them are along the water,

Don’t forget to take a cycling break to watch some cricket in Victoria Park if you pass by on a Saturday in the summertime!

The players are just a tiny bit blurry because they were all moving so fast. Ha! Cricket joke!

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road was an entertaining activity. The thing Adam and I both found hardest about driving on the left was hitting the wipers when you wanted a turn signal!

Too cool for pictures.

Driving about two hours south from Auckland, we went on our first adventure in a glowworm cave with a tour group called Spellbound in Waitomo. We saw illuminated insects all over the ceilings of the caves during a short walk. Then, to make it more awesome, we floated on a raft up and down a cave river with the only light coming from the glowworms.

We rode a raft like this through the glow worm caves. Photo Credit: Spellbound Tours
We rode a raft like this through the glow worm caves. Photo Credit: Spellbound Tours

The glow worms are actually gnat larvae. The species is unique to New Zealand. In the larvae stage, the glowworms illuminate above sticky web-like strands to catch other flying insects. (We have seen similar creatures hanging webby strands during our cave adventures in Mulu, but never with their own lights.)

Here’s a close up of the strands I snagged during the walking tour. The actual glowworms are bright enough to see easily but were impossible to photograph, at least with my little camera.

After the caves in Waitomo, we continued south to hit up Tongariro National Park and hike the Alpine Crossing. This ~12 mile day hike gets you up close and personal with three volcanoes, beautiful alpine lakes, and crazy volcanic scenery.

Ogres and ogres in training on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Ogres and ogres in training on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Leaving Tongariro, we headed for the Hawke’s Bay and Napier region to ride bikes around town and to wineries.

We had a great time checking out Hawke’s Bay and also heard great things about Waiheke Island.

From there, we found the original adventure town of New Zealand: Rotorua. This town is known for geothermal activity, especially geysers and mud baths, but it also has plenty of spots for hiking, paddling, and other adventure sports like skydiving and ZORBing.

Lest you think you need to visit the South Island for stunning water surrounded by temperate forest, check out Blue Lake in Rotorua.

After our calm and serene hike, we moved on to the more bizarre: ZORB. In this New Zealand invented activity, people are sealed into a giant plastic ball with a little water and then rolled down a hill. It looks something like this:

While it may look like the Zorb ball is rolling quite slowly, it feels much faster inside! We got our tickets on a New Zealand version of Groupon called Grab One, and I would strongly recommend looking for those discounts before zorbing.

If, and really only if, you are a huge LOTR movie fan, then you may want to check out Hobbiton. Frankly, I was underwhelmed by this experience, especially given the hefty $70 price tag, but I am not a huge fan of the LOTR or Hobbit books or movies. It would’ve been helpful to have re-watched some of the films before attending too so we could appreciate the scenery and the descriptions of the special effects.

Look! A hobbit house!

After leaving Hobbiton, we headed to Tauranga to enjoy a little more hiking, especially this short but challenging walk up Mount Maunganui for beautiful views before heading back to Auckland.

We did a short but beautiful hike up Mount Maunganui.
We did a short but beautiful hike over the beaches and up Mount Maunganui in Tauranga

To recap, if you want an action-filled week of adventures on the North Island, try any of all of the following, listed in our order of attack:

  1. Grab one of a million free maps and ride bikes on the waterfront and around Auckland.
  2. Watch rec-league cricket in the park. Beers are optional and questionably legal.
  3. Drive a car on the left side of the road
  4. See glowworms with Spellbound in Waitomo
  5. Hike the moderately challenging ~12 mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing
  6. Get back in the (bike) saddle and pedal on a DIY wine tour around Hawke’s Bay
  7. Take a leisurely stroll around Blue Lake in Rotorua
  8. ZORB: Ride in a giant plastic ball down a hill in Rotorua
  9. Feel tall at Hobbiton, but please only visit if you are a big LOTR fan
  10. Hike up the short but challenging Mount Maunganui in Tauranga

4 thoughts on “Ten Outdoor Adventures on New Zealand’s North Island”

  1. So glad you enjoyed the North Island! As you know we stayed for 3 weeks only on the South Island. Loved it and agree that the food was underwhelming but the jaw dropping scenery made up for it, right? We heard about zorbing but didn’t actually see anyone doing it. We went paragliding though in Queenstown/Arrowtown–pretty exciting! We WATCHED the bungee jumpers but decided against that!

    1. I am jealous of your time on the South Island, it sounds really amazing. We were only there 5 days and I know that didn’t do it justice! Paragliding sounds like it was a better way to enjoy the scenery than Zorb.

  2. When you rented your car, did you get a GPS unit too, or did you find your way alright without one? My husband and I are going in October and I can’t decide if we’ll need one.

    1. Hi Brianna,
      We did not use the GPS. We found free maps everywhere, at the airport, car rental shop, and various other tourist spots. There aren’t too many roads in NZ so we found it really easy to get around without one.

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