Explore North Island
A rugged volcanic coastline, covered in rainforest, flanked by rolling hills and vivid green pastures is usually the first sight that greets visitors flying into Auckland International Airport. Its easy to see why the Maori called this country Aotearoa, meaning, the land of the long white cloud. This is the name that Hine, the wife of the legendary navigator Kupe, called out from their canoe as they approached the land that their ancestor Maui had fished up from beneath the sea. Cloud formations usually cling to the hills and mountain ranges that form the backbone of this ancient land, formed from rocks laid down on the sea floor over 550 million years ago. Located on the line of a huge fracture, where two of the continental plates making up the Earth’s crust meet, the land rose from beneath the sea and for millenia formed part of a huge supercontinent called Gondwanaland. As the continents drifted apart New Zealand was separated from the other land masses and for the last 70 million years its unique plants and animal species developed in isolation in its ancient rainforests, many of them surviving long after they had disappeared from other parts of the world. Humans have only walked these shores for the last 1500 years and that is what makes this country so special. Today in Northlands forests you can still find the giant kauri, whose ancestors once grew on Gondwanaland. These enormous trees, many of them over a thousand years old, are protected in forest and island sanctuaries along with rare flightless birds, including the kiwi and living relics from the age of the dinosaurs like the tuatara.
You can wander through giant sand dunes, explore the countless secluded bays with their sparkling white silica sands and take a journey back in time to view the preserved remnants of ancient forests in the far north. The human history of Northland’s settlement is preserved in the many Maori fortified pa sites that dot the headlands along the coast, as well as in the historic buildings and townships built by the first European settlers. The nations historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the Bay of Islands and Russell was its first capital. Now a magnet for yachties and a centre for big game fishing, the Bay of Islands features exciting boat trips out to the famous Hole in the Rock near Cape Brett while small towns all along the coast and further inland, celebrate their history in a fascinating array of small museums and tourist attractions, featuring everything from pioneering farm equipment to working steam trains and steamships. Auckland has also retained many of its historic buildings set amongst a landscape dominated by 48 volcanic cones that provide expansive viewpoints over the city of sails, with its twin harbours. There is plenty to see and do in what became the nations second capital, before heading south across the Bombay Hills into the verdant green pastures of the Waikato with its rolling farmland, or east to the Coromandel Peninsula where forests cloak a rugged volcanic landscape that was a centre for goldmining during the last century. Further south lies the King Country and the country’s longest river, the Waikato which stretches deep into the heart of the island where you will find the massive expanse of Lake Taupo, set high on the central volcanic plateau. Fed by melt-waters from the volcanic peaks of Mt Ruapehu, Ngaruhoe and Tongariro, rivers stretch north to Taupo as well as southwest to Wanganui on the coast, where according to Maori legend another peak, Taranaki which once stood by their side, fled after a battle between the mountains.
With its mild climate, high sunshine hours and rich volcanic soils, Taranaki farmland is amongst the most productive in the country, while the mountain itself provides both a landmark and a venue for numerous recreation activities, including skiing, tramping and mountaineering. Volcanic activity is a feature in the centre of the island at Rotorua where numerous thermal parks and other attractions make this one of the main tourist destinations on the island. The main geological alpine fault line running the length of the south island continues through into the North Island from Wellington up to the volcanic plateau, curving across to Rotorua and creating the volcanic hot spots that extend out to White Island in the Bay of Plenty. There are well established orchards and long sandy beaches spread out all along this part of the coast and around a string of beautiful bays all the way to the East Cape. To the south lies Gisborne and Napier where you will find a fascinating collection of art deco buildings and some of the countries finest vineyards. This is the part of New Zealand where Captain James Cook first made landfall in 1769. Further south is the Wairarapa farming district bordered by the Tararua and Rimutaka mountain ranges stretching south towards Wellington. Clinging to steep hills, set around a magnificent harbour, New Zealand’s capital city is packed full of attractions and makes a fitting end to any North Island visit before you head across the Cook Strait to what the South Islanders popularly call the Mainland.
Exploring the Mainland
Separated by the Main Divide of the Southern Alps, the South Island features a myriad of distinctive landscapes split between the east and west by this magestic range of mountains. The alps are crossed by spectacular scenic highways leading over high mountain passes that provide impressive scenic journeys, including the trip across the Lewis Pass through magestic beech forests, the alpine crossing at Arthurs Pass which will take you high into the central parts of the mountains and the beautiful scenic highway from Haast leading across the Haast Pass to the huge glacial lakes at Hawea and Wanaka. Undisputably the best scenic highway of all, however, is the road to Milford which takes on a different, more dramatic character in rainy weather and is a trip that should not be missed whatever the conditions. The West Coast of the South Island features an often stormy coastline with forests descending right to the wave beaten shoreline in the north, to the glaciers stretching down from the mountains in the centre of the island and to the flooded glacial valleys of Fiordland in the south. Historic gold mining towns lie scattered along the coast and there is a multitude of world class walking tracks leading into the forests and mountains all along this magnificent stretch of coastline.
Some of the most famous walks, including the Milford Track, the Routeburn, Hollyford and Keppler tracks, are in the mountains of Fiordland in the south, while the Copeland crosses the alps from Westland to the Mount Cook National Park and the renowned Heaphy track leads from the sandy coastline north of Karamea, across the ranges towards Golden Bay in Northwest Nelson. The Abel Tasman coastal track attracts thousands of visitors every summer to the beautiful crystalline sandy bays of the Abel Tasman National Park, while slightly further north the sheltered inlets and waterways of the Marlborough Sounds stretch out towards the turbulent waters of the Cook Strait.
Beyond lies the Canterbury Plains and the city of Christchurch with its English style boarding schools, cathedrals, civic parks and squares as well as an array of elegant homes. Historic trams carry visitors around the city, while to the south lies the historic port of Lyttleton, on the other side of the Port Hills, along with the quaint settlement out at Akaroa on the nearby peninsula of the same name. Wide braided rivers cross the alluvial plains on the eastern side of the alps and the farmland stretches all the way south through a string of old English style towns, including Ashburton, Oamaru, Timaru and culminating at the city of Dunedin. To the south lies Invercargill while inland are the gold towns of Cromwell and Alexandra as well as Queenstown, the tourist centre of the South Island. It is here that visitors will find every imaginable form of adventure sport from bungee jumping, white water rafting, jet boating and paragliding to heli-skiing, along with cruises out on Lake Whakatipu aboard a historic steamship to the Mt Nicholas sheep station. To the north, across the often snow covered Lindis Pass and through the McKenzie Country, lies the vivid blue expanse of Lake Pukaki and the magnificent peak of Aoraki/Mount Cook (the cloud piercer) beyond. This is the highest mountain in New Zealand, at 3,754 m, set in a world heritage park that features 140 peaks over 2,000 m in height as well as 72 named glaciers. With so many spectacular landscapes, crammed within such a small island, its no wonder that the South Island has become a world renowned tourist destination, complimented by its friendly people and laid back atmosphere.