The North Island
The North Island is the northern (obviously) of New Zealand’s two main islands. It’s 113,729 square km in area, which makes it the world’s 14th-largest island (some more kiwi trivia for you!). About three quarters of the population of New Zealand lives in the North Island.
Due to its more northerly location (closer to the equator), the North Island enjoys a slightly warmer climate than the South Island, though because of its long, narrow shape, the temperatures and weather conditions from the top to the bottom of the island can differ quite considerably.
You’ll need to allow at least 5 days a week just to visit the tourist spots of the North Island on your campervan rental holiday. More about planning your trip
There are nine recognised local government regions in the North Island, and twelve cities or towns (with many smaller towns as well). Here’s a quick summary of the main regions and what they’re best-known for.
This area is often called the Far North or Winterless North, due to its sub-tropical climate. One of the most-visited tourist spots is the famous Bay of Islands – the first area of New Zealand to be settled by Europeans, and site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Northland is long, narrow and surrounded on both sides by stunning coastline. The most famous stretch is 90 mile Beach (actually 88 km long) on the West Coast. Cape Reinga, one of the northernmost points of New Zealand and the point where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Oceans meet, is a must-see. Northland is also known for its native kauri forests, and it’s here you’ll find the massive Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest tree. The biggest city in the region is Whangarei.
The Auckland region is named for Auckland City, New Zealand’s largest urban area. A third of NZ’s population live here (though it has the second-smallest land area of the NZ regions). Much of the city lies on a dormant volcanic field, creating a fascinating landscape of volcanic cones and craters. The two best-known of these are Mt Eden and One Tree Hill.
Known as the ‘city of sails’, Auckland city is spread out along a beautiful and interesting harbour. A ferry system takes commuters and visitors from the city centre to the North Shore as well as the Eastern Beaches. Devonport, a quaint historic village on the North Shore, is an easy ferry ride from the city and a great place to visit. There are many islands dotted around the harbour. The most well known of these are Waiheke Island, famous for its food and wine, and Rangitoto Island, an imposing and majestic volcanic island – both can be visited by ferry.
Auckland city is a great place to enjoy shopping (we recommend the boutique areas of Ponsonby and Parnell, or the bustling shopping centres of Newmarket and Takapuna) and dining. The Sky Tower is well worth a visit, to enjoy fantastic views of the region.
The west coast of Auckland is well known for its rugged black sand beaches such as Piha and Muriwai, and beautiful native bush (forest). The movie The Piano was filmed on Auckland’s West Coast.
The Bay of Plenty is located in the eastern central part of the North Island. It was named by Captain James Cook because of the abundant food supplies enjoyed by the indigenous Maori people there. There are three main population centres: Rotorua, Tauranga and Whakatane. Tauranga and Whakatane are both located on the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, a spectacular touring route offering beautiful beaches and native bush.
Rotorua is the drawcard for many to the Bay of Plenty region. Known for its unique geothermal attractions, Maori culture and adventure activities, it’s a definite inclusion on any North Island campervan rental holiday itinerary.
The region is also home to White Island, an active volcano.
The 4th-largest region in New Zealand, the Waikato covers a diverse region in the upper central North Island. The country’s longest river, the Waikato River, runs through the region (the name Waikato translates to ‘flowing water’). In the north of the region is the Coromandel Peninsula, famous for unspoilt beaches and native bush, and a popular holiday spot with the locals. To the west is the rugged west coast with black sand beaches, the most famous of these being surfing hot-spot Raglan.
The hub of the Waikato is the city of Hamilton, home to just over 200,000 people. The economy of the region is strongly based on agriculture, particularly dairy farming, and it’s home to the New Zealand National Fieldays, the largest agricultural event in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Waikato has many interesting rural towns. Matamata is home to Hobbiton, film site for Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit. The pretty town of Cambridge is known for horse breeding and racing, as well as rowing on nearby Lake Karapiro. Te Awamutu was the birthplace of famous New Zealand musicians Neil and Tim Finn. It’s close to Maungatautari, an ecological inland island surrounded by 47 km of predator proof fence.
To the south of the region are the famous Waitomo Caves, a popular tourist attraction featuring subterranean limestone caverns and glow worms., and a variety of adventure activities such as caving and rafting.
The Gisborne region covers the entire East Cape region of the North Island. It’s less visited by tourists than many other areas, mainly because it is ‘off the beaten track’. Gisborne is definitely well worth visiting, and will give you a taste of ‘the real New Zealand’. The region is known for stunning, pristine beaches and native bush, history, and horticulture. One of the best-known landmarks is Young Nick’s Head, the white cliff headland visible from Gisborne city. The cliffs were the first part of New Zealand to be sighted by the crew on Captain James Cook’s ship the Endeavour. Gisborne is the first city in the world to greet the rising sun each day.
The ‘Naki, as it’s affectionately referred to by the locals, is another NZ destination that’s often left out of itineraries as it’s off the main tourist track. Located in the west of the North Island, it’s named for the main geographical feature of the region, the beautiful Mount Taranaki.
The main centre of Taranaki is the town of New Plymouth. Voted the ‘top city’ in New Zealand, New Plymouth features the beautiful Pukekura Park, some stunning beaches, plenty of outdoor activities (including amazing surf and an award-winning 10km coastal walkway along the stunning coastline), a relaxed atmosphere and a very passionate and proud community. Known as the ‘events capital’ of New Zealand, the city hosts a range of events and concerts throughout the year. The region has a strong economy with lots of agriculture, and the Maui gas field off the South-west coast.
We strongly recommend you include the Forgotten World Highway in your itinerary if you can. This 155 km highway is a three-hour scenic drive between Stratford in Taranaki and Taumaranui on the Central Plateau. There are over 30 historic or natural points of interest enroute, including the tiny village of Whangamomona, with its 30 residents, which declared itself a republic in 1989 – you can get your passport stamped at the local Hotel.
Note that 12 kms of the Forgotten Highway are unsealed road. There are no petrol stations on this highway so make sure you fill up before you leave!
This region covers a large proportion of the lower North Island and includes two significant rivers, the Whanganui and the Manawatu. The two major towns in the region are Wanganui and Palmerston North.
A seventh of the area of this region is designated conservation land. To the north of the region is Tongariro National Park, the oldest national park in New Zealand and a world heritage area, dominated by the three volcanoes Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Mt Ruapehu is a popular ski destination for North Islanders in winter months.
There is a strong rural quality to the region, with half of the population living outside the main centres. The rivers provide access to beautiful scenery and walks as well as adventure activities such as white water rafting.
Located in the east of the North Island, the Hawkes Bay region is internationally recognised for its award winning wines thanks to long hot summers and cool winters. It’s also a major fruit growing region.
The two main towns in the area are Napier and Hastings. In 1931, the area was devastated by an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale, which killed 256 people. The rebuilt Napier City is now famous throughout the world for its Art Deco buildings.
The Hawkes Bay region hosts many festivals and events including a popular food and wine festival and an Art Deco weekend. It’s also home to a hill with the longest place name in New Zealand (the longest in the world according to the 2009 Guinness Book of Records): Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.
The Wellington region, covering the south of the North Island, is home to New Zealand’s capital city. The ‘capital of cool’ city of Wellington is famous for its arts and culture, film connections and events, shopping, nightlife and the notorious Beehive parliament building. A must-do in the city is a visit to the museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa.
The Wellington region stretches north to the Kapiti Coast district, famous for gourmet cheese and other produce, and Martinborough, a well-known wine region.