The North Islands 35 Best Kept Secrets
Updated: Nov 23, 2018
New Zealand is full of incredible places to visit, but a quick search through Instagram makes it look like there are only five. That’s because so many people who visit New Zealand only have enough time to see the big spots like Mount Cook, Lake Tekapo or Milford Sound and they miss all the amazing things in-between. On top of this, the North Island unfortunately (or fortunately depending on who you talk to) is generally overlooked because it doesn’t have the same mountainous landscapes as the South.
Megan and I have spent a year and a half exploring New Zealand as thoroughly as we could. Of course we saw the main attractions to get a first hand experience of all the fuss, but it was the lesser known places we came across that made the trip so awesome for us. We were lucky enough to have an atlas that directed us to some pretty obscure attractions (I’m looking at you largest fig tree in the country), but many we stumbled across by ourselves while trying to drive all the roads in the country. We lived by the rule that brown road signs generally point to something worthwhile. Some of our other favourite spots were recommended to us by friendly locals who wanted to show us something we hadn’t seen before. There are ridiculous feats (you can’t miss the longest footbridge in the southern hemisphere!), short hikes to beautiful views, hidden lighthouses, and secret areas that we could have spent all day at. After each one we kept asking ourselves why we hadn’t heard more about these awesome areas, so we decided to share some of them with the world.
Here’s a list from north to south of our favorite things to do on the North Island that you've probably never heard of.
1. St Paul’s Scenic Reserve
An easy 20 minute rock to the top of this rock will be rewarded with 360 degree views of the surrounding harbor. There are chains for your assistance to the top, and it is a good idea to go on a nice day or else expect some mud.
2. Koutu boulders
From the carpark, follow the brown signs to the water’s edge. Then it is a 30 minute walk along the beach to find the large spherical boulders sticking out of the sand. There are some cool rocks along the way, but the main cluster of them are at the very end. If the tide is coming up, there is a secondary (fairly muddy) trail up on the headlands. The boulders can only be accessed and seen at low tide.
3. Hokianga Harbor at Arai Te Uru Scenic Lookout
A spectacular spot for either sunrise or sunset. The view across the harbor to the massive sand dunes looks stunning during the golden hour. There’s a short 15 minute walk out to the lookout. This carpark is also the start of a longer coastal walk which can be done over a few days.
4. Kauri Trees in Waiopua Forest Park
There aren’t many places left to see the largest trees in New Zealand now that Kauri dieback disease has spread to so many places, so the boardwalked Waiopua forest is a real treat. Even if you only have time to drive through this park, you can glimpse a few of these standing giants from the road. The largest living Kauri tree, Tane Mahuta, is an easy 3 minute walk from the parking area. *Kauri dieback disease is spread through tiny bits of earth, so always clean your shoes at the wash stations, stay on the marked paths, and refrain from touching the trees or the bark they have shed so that we don't lose these trees forever.
5. Whananaki Footbridge (The Longest Footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere)
This is one of those things that we never knew we wanted to see, but were glad we saw it anyways. Depending on the direction, it requires 30 minutes to an hour of driving on the worst gravel road we saw in New Zealand, but that’s hardly a price to pay for such a sight.
6. Matapouri Mermaid Pools
Outside Matapouri, there are a few crystal clear tide pools overlooking the ocean that are large enough to swim in. The walk there takes about 20 minutes and the trail may be steep, but the mermaid pools are worth the effort. Go at low tide or else the waves will quickly ruin your day (or possibly your life).
7. Whangerei Heads (Mount Manaia Walk)
Whangerei Heads is an exciting area with beautiful beaches and a few massive volcanic plugs leftover from long gone volcanoes. The Mount Manaia walk takes around 1.5 hours for 360 degree views of Whangerei Harbor and New Zealand’s only oil refinery. Oh and did I mention there are only 1,093 steps to the top?
8. Maungaraho Rock
This walk is similar to St Paul’s reserve in that there is a large rock you can climb with the assistance of chains. The views aren’t quite as nice as St. Paul’s, however the climb and surrounding trails are much more adventurous and exciting. The whole hike can be completed in an hour or so. As the top of this trail is very exposed, use caution on windy days.
9. Giant Fig Tree at the Pahi Beach Holiday Park
This is one we had our atlas to thank for. It was by far the largest fig tree we’ve ever seen and brought out the kid in us as we couldn’t resist climbing all over it. If you time it with fig season you could easily eat for a month.
10. Mangawhai Heads
An absolutely spectacular beach with great surfing and a nice hike to do up along the cliffs. The full cliff walk hike can be completed in 2 or 3 hours, but there are many other shorter side trails to explore for the less enthusiastic.
11. Sawmill Brewery
A nice little spot with a great sampling of beers. The restaurant itself has a great menu and atmosphere, so you can make this brewery a full evening out.
12. Bethell’s Beach Caves
A nice beach on the west coast only 45 minutes out of Auckland. The caves are carved out by waves and form neat labyrinths to explore. We found a live octopus while we were there! Also you could walk on the Te Hanga walkway for 10km and get to Muriwai Beach, which is famous for the large colony of gannets nesting nearby.
13. North Head – Devonport
Devonport is just across the Harbour Bridge from Downtown Auckland. The old army batteries are open to the public and are so cool to explore. From here you also get a wonderful view of the city, and of the surrounding islands.
14. Square Kauri and Siamese Kauri (Coromandel)
If you aren’t going to Waipoua Forest Park up north, then the Coromandel is your next best chance to see Kauri trees. There is a short 10 minute walk from the road to see an edgy Kauri (because it is literally a square) and a lightly less intensive walk to see two Kauri stuck together, as well as lots of other regular ones.
15. Whenuakura (Donut) Island
This is an old volcanic island that has collapsed in on itself. There is a small secret passage leading to the inside of the island, and it is only reachable by a short 15 minute kayak trip. Rent kayaks in Whangamata at Pedal and Paddle.
16. Giant L&P bottle
If you’ve never heard of L&P then step one is to grab yourself a bottle of this New Zealand treat. It is a soft drink that tastes like a cross between sweet tea and Sprite. In the town of Paeroa (where they get the “P” part of L&P) there is a giant statue of the bottle, and a ton of information about the drink too!
17. Victoria Battery in Karangahake Gorge
You can walk through old relics of the quartz mining days. The striking cyanide vats, and the impressive brick structures above the mine tunnels are worth the trip alone, but you can walk through the gorge and back for 4.3 km to see Ōwharoa Falls. There are guided trips into the old gold mining tunnels as well. If you're out in the evening you might even see a few glowworms.
18. Kawhia Hot Water Beach
This hot water beach is on the seldom visited west coast town of Kawhia. You can rent shovels in town if you didn’t bring your own. Just line up the 2 sticks and start digging until warm water comes up. This is a much quieter spot than the Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel.
19. Mangoapohue Natural Bridge
This 20 minute walk boasts fantastic limestone formations during the day, and thousands of glow worms at night. Also it’s free! So you can boast about all the money you saved to the people down the road at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves.
20. Hamurana Springs
Away from all the geothermal hustle and bustle (as well as rotten eggs smell) is a beautiful spring on the northern side of Lake Rotorua. The walk meanders through bush along the edge of a golf course which doesn’t sound very enchanting. However the closer to the spring you get, the clearer and more enticing the water becomes.
21. Tarawera Falls
The only place in New Zealand that we found where you can see a waterfall shooting straight out of the side of a cliff. It costs $5 to access the road, but it is well worth it. The road access pass must be purchased at the local I-site, so check the opening hours before you drive down. There are also a multitude of walks past the falls towards a few campsites along Lake Tarawera.
22. Hukutaia Burial Tree
A neat botanical park with 2,000 year old tree used by the Maori for burying their honored dead. The park is lovingly maintained, and is a through collection of New Zealand flora. The trees here are all labeled, so if you are wanting to learn more about New Zealand trees, this is a great place to start.
23. East Cape – East Cape Lighthouse and Tolaga Bay Wharf
The East Cape is seldom visited because it is the longest “scenic route” New Zealand has to offer. But if you don’t mind taking the time to chase beauty, you will be well rewarded.
The East Cape lighthouse is a 30 minute drive down a gravel road, and then 200 steps to get to the top. If you get there early enough, you’ll see the first sun rays in all of New Zealand.
Tolaga Bay boasts the longest wharf of all New Zealand and is worth a stop for photos both on top and underneath.
24. Lake Waikereiti
Located in Wairekemoana Park, and just a short drive (and hike) from the Great Walk, this crystal clear lake is a real treat. The best part is that you can rent boats (pick up the keys from the office near the campground) and go for a paddle out to one of the tiny islands in the centre. Once there, you can park up and take a short walk up to a small lake. It’s a lake within a lake! *mind blown*
25. Mahia Peninsula
This picturesque peninsula is pretty no matter which side you’re on. It is located between Gisborne and Napier and is a good stop to get out and stretch your legs if you're driving through. The sea-formed coast is a ton of fun to explore.
26. Cape Kidnappers
A four hour walk along massive limestone cliffs that can only be done at low tide. At the end there is a gannet colony, which is full of squawking birds October-April. Your feet might still get wet at one point regardless of how low the tide is, but should be shallow enough to wade through. You can take a tractor tour out to the cape instead if you prefer.
27. Cider Tasting Napier
The Thomas & Rose Cider Tasting place is spectacular. We tried every cider they have (over 15) and left with 6 of our own feeling very happy and unable to drive for a while. We had so much fun, we didn't even manage to snag a picture.
28. The Pillars of Hercules
Five seconds from the parking lot a bouncy swing bridge offers an impressive view of the Tongariro River gushing through a narrow gorge. On a sunny day, the water glows a bright blue. This is a good area for exploring, just watch out for mountain bikes!
29. Toss Gumboots in Taihape
You shouldn’t miss a chance to toss a gumboot in the gumboot capital of New Zealand. This is definitely worth a stop to see how you stack up against New Zealand’s best. They have a small gumboot throwing area with lots of extra gumboots so you don’t even need to bring your own. Don’t forget to get a picture on the giant gumboot at the edge of town!
30. Whitecliff Boulders
Yes New Zealand has a lot of spherical boulders. These ones are particularly special because they are in a forest, so there is no need to wait for tides. The fact that all the boulders are covered in green moss is an extra bonus. A $5 donation is suggested as they are located on a private farm.
31. Elephant Rock aka The Three Sisters
This was one of our favorite places in all of New Zealand. It is only accessible at low tide unless you don’t mind getting a little bit wet. Try to time it with the tide going out (or even sunset) for better reflections. Give yourself lots of time here as there is lots to explore.
32. Rotokare Sanctuary
Lynyrd Skynyrd would love this place because it is a free bird sanctuary outside of Mount Taranaki (hah). Make sure you don’t have any rodents in your car before you enter the predator proof gates; the volunteers work very hard to keep this place pest free, so don't make their jobs harder. There is a nice walk around the lake, and a more difficult one up on the hill. If you arrive just after the sun sets you have a good chance of spotting kiwi or seven!
33. Cape Egmont Lighthouse
This is the western-most light house on the North Island. Heads up though: we drove past this road a few times since it is so poorly marked, look for a really tiny sign. Come here on a clear day for spectacular views of the lighthouse and Mt Taranaki, you won’t be disappointed.
34. Castlepoint Lighthouse
One of the coolest lighthouses to explore around because it is built on upthrust sea floor. There are billions of fossilized shellfish to check out, as well as a cool walk on the ridge around the bay.
35. Cape Palliser
Another picturesque lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the North Island. There are a lot of stairs to reach the top, but you get a beautiful view along the coast. You’ll likely come across some New Zealand Fur Seals while you’re there as well.