North Island, New Zealand: In the world's best travel country is written by Jakob Linaa Jensen
Why the North Island?
For many years I have dreamed of coming to New Zealand. Many have referred to it as the world's best travel destination, and the combination of European civilization and alien nature seemed enticing.
In the winter of 2017-18, I completed the trip with a subsequent slip in Stillehavet together with my boyfriend. It turned into two and a half weeks on the North Island and three weeks on the South Island. This is the story.
Most people recommend spending the most time on it The South Island. I did then too, but the North Island was surprisingly interesting.
The worst thing about New Zealand is the long flight. Even with the best connection, it takes 26 hours, so I am injured when, after arriving late at night, I wake up in a private B&B close to Auckland Airport.
In a red SsangYong, I drive out of Auckland at noon and down Highway 1. It is easy going, and people drive very civilized. I turn onto Hovedvej 2, and soon I am in hilly farmland with sheep farming and small cozy farms.
The road gets narrower and the hills around higher as I drive down and into Karangahake Gorge; a fine river valley where the river has cut into the rocks.
I stop at Waikino, which in its heyday as a quartz and gold mining town housed 700 inhabitants, had two schools and a fully equipped town. Today it is ruined, but the old installations are partly left behind, and the old railway across the cliff is now a cycle path. It's a nice walk along suspension bridges, but it's hot and I'm tired after the trip, so I do not walk it all.
Further down the road I find Owharoa Falls, which is a small but nice waterfall where people bathe in the clear water. The road is still quite winding as I drive towards the coast and Mount Maunganui.
Here it is obviously go-to-town night also on Tuesdays and there is an atmosphere of surf and beach. People come in almost in swimwear, and the atmosphere is relaxed.
Mount Brewing is a beer bar with local beers, and already here I get a warning about the fantastic beers that await the whole trip on both the South and North Islands.
I sit in the warm evening with a view of the street and enjoy being away from the cold Danish winter. A musician plays rock classics live, and he does it magnificently.
I feel comfortable in this country.
On shaky, smoking subsoil on the North Island
The next day it's down to Rotorua – known as one of the North Island's highlights due to its hot springs.
On the way it passes Te Puke, which declares itself to be the 'kiwi capital' of the world - nothing is too big or small here. At Okore Falls, a collection of fine waterfalls through the rainforest, it begins to smell of sulphur; a sign that I am approaching Rotorua. The town and the lake are already visible from up here.
I check in at Spa Lodge - a battered backpacker place in the middle of the main road, but with a cozy courtyard. The room smells of old carpets and a lot of use of different kinds. The town is characterized by being a typical settler town with low houses and without much style. However, it is nice down by the lake where I see the first bubbling and smoking pools.
The whole city rests on volcanic subsoil, and even in the middle of private gardens, steam columns often rise. I drive out to Whakarewarewa Forest, which is famous for its redwood pines.
A 'tree top walk' has been made between the giant trees, and I cannot stand it. It's a nice walk up there along suspension bridges and with lots of blackboards explaining all sorts of things about trees I did not know.
A local artist has made lamps from sustainable materials that hang in the trees and light up at night. I'm pretty much the only one up there and I'm taking my time. Down at ground level it is a very varied and natural forest with lots of ferns and small streams through.
Late in the evening my good friend Karl arrives and we are now spending the next few days together. First stop is Wai-O-Puto Thermal Wonderland, which is a breathtaking landscape with an unmistakable smell of sulfur. Here are smoking holes, craters where the landscape has collapsed under the pressure of water and steam, and bubbling mud puddles.
The major attraction is the Champagne Pool in the middle, whose excess water flows over the surrounding surfaces. The landscape is an orgy of shades of yellow, brown, green and light blue from the water. It is the various chemical compounds that give the color.
Yellow is of course sulfur, green is manganese, red is iron, etc. It really is a palette of colors that are at stake here, and in several of the lakes there are also salt deposits on the edge. It looks inviting, but you do not have to bathe. The water is up to 90 degrees hot here.
Next stop is Te Puie. There are more mud puddles here, but not as many colors.
The top attraction is the two geysers that are said to erupt several times an hour, but now appear to be erupting all the time. There is movement in it, and you get wet if you get close.
Wine, wine, wine on the North Island of New Zealand
We have considered several routes south but we decide on the walk through the rainforest at Te Urewera and we will not regret it, even though it is a long walk.
The ride initially goes through farmland, but the fun soon begins.
Here are wild turns and it goes up and down through fine rainforest with rivers, waterfalls and first and foremost wild trees. The beautiful landscapes here on the North Island continue all the way to the town of Hastings, which together with Napier forms one of New Zealand's most famous wine regions, Hawkes Bay.
First stop is very appropriate a combined brewery and winery. Abbey Winery is a beautiful old reconstructed church building with a microbrewery next door. Here is lovely summery surrounded by vineyards and hop vines. Here is cozy, and the locals are on a bike ride or on a bachelor party and have lunch here.
The next night we spend the night in Napier right next to the water. There was a huge earthquake in 1931, where most of the city was laid in ruins. The city center was then rebuilt art deco - the style of the time - and that means that Napier, along with Miami Beach, is the world's leading art deco capital. The city also houses New Zealand's National Aquarium, which has blue penguins, an ocean tunnel with sharks and rays and fine tropical fish.
Outside Napier is Gimblett Gravels, which has become a very famous wine region in recent years. The area was severely affected by the earthquake in 1931, when the whole landscape moved and lots of soil was turned. The rivers changed course, so that the best area with the much mineral soil lies between two streams sheltered by a large ridge.
Just 40 years ago, there were no vineyards here, but since then it has gone strong and there is a rift around the land. Each winery has many different small fields, just like in the large areas of France, where you share the best Grand Cru fields.
We visit the oldest and most famous place, Mission Estate, which is New Zealand's oldest winery and was founded by monks in 1851. It is a classic place with old living rooms with oak panels and exquisite antiques.
The wine does not fail anything either, and the service is formal and impeccable. Here is nice and an atmosphere of the world of yesterday, as I have also found it on vineyards in Chile.
It's time for Karl to return home to the cold after some lovely days together. I drive south through Norsewood, which is an old Norwegian settler town that cultivates its Norse past with stave churches, workshops and in general a cult of the Nordic. Here is cozy and quiet and only a few older people on tour.
Further south, it is less interesting in the alleged Danish town of Dannevirke, which has only a Danish mill on the main street and a town sign with a copy of Harald Bluetooth, as a testimony to a possible Danish connection. The city itself is enslaved; a long main street surrounded by residential roads and I drive fast on.
My next stop is Martinborough, a famous little wine region. I'm staying at the Margrain Vineyard Estate. I get to taste their wines as well as visit two other places, Ata Rangi and Luna Estate.
I walk home through vineyards on a beautiful summer evening with scents and warm air and enjoy a slightly drunken drink at home in the very nice room – the most beautiful of the whole trip.
It is beautiful here between the black southern starry sky and the vineyards.
Wellington - one of the world's friendliest capitals
The next morning I drive out to Cape Palliser Lighthouse on the southeast coast of the North Island.
It is one of the best drives of the entire journey through fields and blooming ditch edges with yellow flowers with the sour-sweet scent that I love, which reminds me of Danish rapeseed fields and wildflowers.
The lighthouse itself is reached by a steep staircase, and here there is a nice view. A very classic red and white striped lighthouse that reminds me of havets adventures, shipwrecks and pirates, even if it is a calm and summery day.
Wellington is beautifully situated on the southern tip of the North Island and turns out to be a cozy town, beautifully situated by the water and with beautiful streets and interesting museums in addition to a beautiful botanical garden.
The city also offers excellent microbreweries. Fork and Brewer has the best beers on the go with a rooftop bar right in downtown.
Garage Project is located in a disused gas station, where the cute hippie girls let me taste all the beer. Then it goes towards their tap room where I drink the ones I have not tasted. Here I run into a charming Kiwi-Irish couple. We give many rounds to each other of more or less strange beers. The nicest evening of the trip, but still results in the next day being a bit uncomfortable…
On my way out of Wellington the following day I see Mount Victoria with the fine Botanic Gardens, after which I am inside Parliament to attend a little debate; you must be a political geek...
Out on the coast, I spend the night at a ramshackle seaside hotel, the Barnacles Seaside Inn, which must have been fancy in the thirties. But here it is cozy and cheap.
Mount Doom - in the middle of the North Island
It goes from the southwest coast into the country. I take the Wanganui River Track, which is a long dirt road up a nice river. Today's destination is Tongariro with beautiful alpine landscapes and views of the extinct volcano that has also become known as 'Mount Doom' in the Lord of the Rings movies.
I am staying at Skotel Alpine Lodge - a hotel taken out of the Alps. The next day it's time for some hiking, but for once on this trip, the weather is bad. Both Mount Doom and the other mountains are shrouded in clouds.
The next highlight is the so-called Forgotten World Highway with beautiful gorges, rainforest and wild roads. There is little agricultural land, but otherwise there are endless green, curved hills, ridges, so-called 'saddles', where the road meanders in endless and eventually also unbearable hairpin turns. It's not a fast ride, but it's beautiful.
I make stops in Whangamomona, where at one point the locals have proclaimed the city an independent republic independent of New Zealand. It is at the city's famous and infamous hotel that the independence movement has its headquarters, and the locals behind the bar apparently take it seriously.
Like the United States, New Zealand is full of eccentrics. The Republic also has its own post office and souvenir shop, which, however, looks closed. The car workshop has satirical and deeply socially critical remarks painted all over the facade.
I'm out on the coast again when I reach New Plymouth here on the North Island.
Here, a highlight is the Taranaki volcano and Egmont National Park. I take a nice walk up to a plateau with a view of Taranaki, which stands with its snowy summit completely cloudless.
Here is a beautiful memorial and a multitude of flowers with spicy and sweet scents. Here there are ferns of all shapes and beautiful flowers. I am enveloped in the essence of summer, and go into deep meditative thoughts and enjoy the moment, enjoy being in the middle of the world, enjoy being.
It is wonderful.
Caves and glow worms
Then follows another one of those trips that, according to Lonely Planet, is semi-boring, but it will be one of the most beautiful trips with wild gorges, views of havet and summery scents. I stop again and again at rushing rivers, beautiful views and giant ferns. And it just goes on and on.
After eight o'clock I reach Kiwi Paka in Waitomo. It's actually closed, but I'm checked in by a sweet girl who's the manager, and I'm given my own room.
The next day I start with what I and everyone else comes to waitomo for, namely the famous Glowworm Caves. You can only see the caves and the small luminous animals on a guided tour, where you sail into the caves, so there is no way around it.
The price is pricey.
I see a nice little museum about glowworms, which is not a worm, but rather a kind of caterpillar that grows in dark moist caves and lures small animals into a thread that hangs down from the animal itself. It's a sad and short life to be a glowworm: as soon as you hatch, you multiply and die within a day. New eggs are laid and the show can start all over again.
There is entrance through a huge entrance hall. This is clearly one of New Zealand's major tourist attractions. We walk in the caves, which are based on stalactites, and see beautiful formations and feel the cold and the humidity. We also see the first glowworms under a rock ledge.
There are many tour groups down here, but eventually it will be our turn. In a small boat, where a Maori guide pulls us forward via an ingenious string system, we are sailed around the cave, silently and in the dark. There are lots of luminous glowworms that make the cave look like the southern starry sky that characterizes the nights outside.
There are plenty of other fine attractions in this limestone landscape. Natural Bridge is a natural bridge. It has actually been a cave, but several of the ceilings have collapsed and now there is only a natural arch left, between two rocky sides of sandstone. Here is beautiful rainforest and an orgy of green ferns.
The next stop is the Piripiri Cave – a slightly smaller cave with stalactites – and then it's on to more waterfalls.
It is a long trip up to Kawhia, which is a small fishing village with a nice pier. I get fuel and drive on up towards the very rocky surfer town of Raglan, where I get fish and chips on a pier.
Here too I could have stayed, but I choose to get close to the airport and end up in Drury with a nice family. A Danish couple lives here, and I talk to their German lodgers, who go hand in hand while they rebuild their campers.
I sleep in a nice little shed with its own bath and bed with lambskin blanket. I dream of the next day, which is the last day on the North Island, and of the next trip The South Island.