New Zealand’s North Island – The Ultimate Hotspots for Families
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New Zealand’s North Island – The Ultimate Hotspots for Families

Warmer climes awaited us, as we left our rather inclement adventures on New Zealand’s South Island behind and took the Interislander Ferry to Wellington (with a decent discount of 15%, thanks to the “Top 10 Holiday Parks Membership Card”, which costs NZD 49 and also gives you a very handy 10% discount on the country’s Top 10 parks – making it a total no-brainer if your budget is limited). About 2.5 hours later and NZD 315 lighter we arrived on New Zealand’s North Island.

A warm breeze welcomed us, the temperature being around 20°C. Woohoo!

Our route across New Zealand’s North Island

Over the course of a week, my husband Florian and I, along with one toddler (Tessa, 3) and one preschooler (Julian, 4) drove up the length of the island, stopping at some choice spots along the way, the details of which you’ll find further down.

Handy hint: If you’re looking for info about a particular place, you can skip right ahead by clicking on the place names below.


 Heading to New Zealand’s South Island, too? Read our guide!

Wellington

It might be the Capital city, but with limited time, lots to see elsewhere, and a nickname like ‘Windy Wellington’, we decided to forego the additional weather challenges and move right on the day after arriving – even if it did mean missing out on reliably child-friendly attractions like the historic cable car, the botanical garden (with its very own children’s garden), the ‘space place’ at the Carter observatory, and the waterfront promenade.

Instead, after a quick breakfast by the sea, bathed in the warmth of something apparently known as ‘sunshine’, we made the 320 km (4-hour drive) to our first stop: UNESCO World Heritage Site and New Zealand’s oldest national park (founded in 1887 as the fourth oldest national park in the world!): Tongariro National Park.

 

Tongariro National Park

A beautiful, sparse and unusual place with three active volcanoes – the highest of which, Mt Ruapehu, stands at 2800 m – it’s exactly how I’d imagined New Zealand’s North Island to be.

That’s not to say it isn’t ‘tourist-ready’, of course. Like everywhere else in New Zealand, you’re only ever a Hobbit’s step away from a hiking or horse riding expedition, or a scenic flight.

Speaking of Hobbits, it’s here that you’ll also find Mt Ngauruhoe (2200 m, last eruption 1977) – better known as ‘Mt. Doom’ in Lord of the Rings – the perfect backdrop for delighting the kids with a speedy re-telling of Frodo’s quest to throw that dastardly ring into the mountain fire.

That evening, we enjoyed a perfect dinner all by ourselves, by the side of the gravel road to Tongariro Alpine Crossing, before hunkering down for the night. The raw, steppe-like volcanic landscape, a beautiful sunset, a warm blanket, and a glass of red wine were the perfect accompaniments – what else could you possibly need?

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My mind wandered as the light dipped… This is where the world-famous track begins. Very popular in summer, it offers breath-taking views over the area’s volcanic craters and its emerald lakes. The 19 km day–tour is supposed to be one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the world. If your visit happens to coincide with some of the best weather conditions, I’ve no doubt that it’d be a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Alas, the time, for us, is not now – maybe when the children’s legs have had another decade to muscle up.

Nevertheless, we were all up to some hiking and Whakapapa Village is the central starting point for smaller hikes, so that’s where we set off to the next morning.

Accommodation: Campervan 
Location:  On a gravel road on the way to Tongariro National Park 
Cost: FREE
Kid-friendliness factor: Indeterminable
Opinion: Stay there only if you’re self-contained and are planning to move on the next morning

 

Taranaki Falls hiking trail, Tongariro National Park

From a whole series of possible walks, we chose ‘Taranaki Falls’. It’s a 6 km circular walk through steppe and forest. Roughly halfway, you come across the stunning waterfall (about 20 m high) after which the walk is named, as well as beautiful views across the entire National Park. It’s a picture-perfect place for a picnic or a jump into the crystal-clear little pool below the waterfall. And as we discovered, it attracts lots of visitors on sunny days. The rest of the walk wasn’t crowded, however.

Taranaki Falls is a real paradise for kids, offering lots of opportunities to climb and explore. JT and I crossed the creek by hopping from one stone to the other. An idyllic little scene, only interrupted by him slipping on the stones at the swimming hole and getting completely soaked. It was nothing the warm sunshine couldn’t fix though. That and the general public’s obliviousness to him subsequently wandering around in his pirate underpants.

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On our way back, we crossed little bridges passing over small ravines and strolled through the lush forest. It was incredibly peaceful – until the children turned feral and found some sticks which they used to attack each other, various birds and several innocent walkers!

The Verdict

We all had a great day in these stunning natural surroundings. Tongariro National Park, and the Taranaki Falls hiking trail in particular, is a ‘must-do’ on your journey to New Zealand’s North Island! Make sure you do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing if you can, too – we’ll definitely be back to cross that one off our list one day!

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Lake Taupo

Call us wimps, but due to the cold and rainy weather we spent only a day at New Zealand’s largest lake. Lake Taupo is, in fact, a 500-meter-deep crater, under which slumbers a super volcano! We merely drove past this extraordinary site, happy to be sheltered from the elements by our cozy camper.

Besides, we all needed a break. That’s why we decided to spend the night at Taupo DeBretts Holiday Park and Spa. They offer the whole range of self-contained accomodation, from deluxe family cabins to five star spacious campspots.

Accommodation:  Taupo DeBretts Holiday Park and Spa Resort
Location: 76 Napier-Taupo Road, SH 5, Taupo, New Zealand
Cost:  $50 NZD per night per camper on a powered site
Kid-friendliness factor: 3/5 stars – playground complete with trampoline, water playground inside the hot springs spa
Opinion: Served all our needs and beyond, friendly staff, very clean, great facilities (showers with underfloor heating!), discount on the hot springs spa, restaurant, free Wi-Fi. Not the cheapest campground we have stayed at, but you sure get value for your money here!

 

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Another morning of drizzle passed us by as we reveled in the relaxing luxury of our undeniably commercialized surroundings, kept warm by the hot water springs and our sense of righteousness.

Spa Thermal Park

The need to get off the beaten path soon kicked in again, however, and we later set out in search of a hot spring that’s not trapped within the confines of man-made boundaries. If this sounds more like your kind of thing, you’ll find free hot spring baths at the confluence of Waikato River and Otumuheke Stream, at the northern border of the Spa Thermal Park in Taupo. Also popular with locals, it can be crowded at times, but it does gets quieter in the evening.

Depending on where you choose to bathe in, the water is warmer or cooler, so it’s possible to find the perfect temperature for each member of the family. It was a great experience for the kids, who were amazed and amused in equal measure by the fact that the water was heated by magma bubbling away somewhere beneath their butts!

Other places worth seeing in this area include Huka Falls and the Tongariro River, where you can have a go at salmon fishing. As always, adrenaline junkies are well-served too, with all the usual ‘extreme sport’ activities available.

Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings

Touted as one of the largest and most extraordinary attractions of New Zealand’s North Island, and only reachable by boat, I was firmly under the impression that the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings were created ‘a long, long time ago’. In fact, they’re the work of five Maori artists, who started in 1976 and completed their work in 1980 (which actuallyisa ‘long, long time ago’ as far as our kids are concerned).

Their artwork includes a representation of an ancestor of one of the artists as well as various Celtic characters, demonstrating the multicultural nature of New Zealand.

Call me ignorant, but the kids and I decided to skip the carvings. Turns out we made a wise (and cost-effective!) choice – FN went all by himself and came back with the opinion that we’d missed nothing. To look at, the carvings make up an impressive piece of art, but without a deeper historical context, they’re somewhat over-rated, not to mention painfully expensive to see. A place with the smell of monetization.

 

Rotorua

The stinking city! Sulphur-washed, greenish-yellow pools everywhere! Cloudy, poisonous bubbling waters and mud holes that spew hot steam. All in all, a pretty apocalyptic atmosphere. Nonetheless, people live here, and the town also attracts pretty much every New Zealand traveler at some point during their trip.

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Partially fascinated, partly disgusted, we paid the requisite visit to the town. A few kilometers before reaching the city border, sulfuric odors began to seep into the camper through the air conditioning system, and by the time we reached our Freedom Camping spot for the night, FN was ready to veto the decision. Despite wonderful climbing trees and a botanical garden around the corner, the constant clouds of sulfur wafting towards us (sometimes greenish, sometimes violet-yellowish, but always smelling deadly!) were too much for him and JT to ignore. Us girls would have coped, but the boys won, and alternative accommodation was found!

Accommodation: A small resting area at the roadside (not one of the romantic ones!)
Location: Resting area close to Rotorua
Cost: FREE
Kid-friendliness factor: Indeterminable
Opinion: Alright for one night, especially since there were no “extraterrestrial” odors billowing around us.

 

On the one hand there is the Wai-O-Tapu Wonderland with the Lady Knox Geyser. This geyser erupts only with chemical help – at the same time each day. There are also mud pools in impressive colors to admire. 

In Te Puia there are several naturally spewing geysers, as well as somewhat less colorful mud pools, two kiwis (in a night enclosure) and a Maori village with a the vision of cultural education for visitors. Of course you can book various packages for both locations (Te Puia with and without Maori presentation, with steamed lunch or dinner Maoriart over a boiling water hole). 

Te Puia Center for Maori Culture and Geothermal Wonders

With a renewed sense of adventurousness, we returned the next morning to explore one of two famous sites known as the “geothermal wonders”, and to acquaint ourselves with Maori culture.

The two sites are quite different. On the one hand, you have Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which features the Lady Knox Geyser, who erupts only with chemical help and happens at the same time, every day. There are lots of impressively-colored mud pools to admire here, too.

In Te Puia, the geysers spew their guts in their own time. The mud pools are less colorful, too. But this site has other features which draw visitors – namely, two kiwis (kept in a night enclosure) and a Maori village, designed to educate visitors on local culture and traditions.

You can book various packages for both locations. In Te Puia, for example, you can opt for an interactive Maori presentation, which culminates with a meal, which is steam-cooked over a boiling water hole.

We chose Te Puia because of the naturally and almost continually spewing geysers.  This way we didn’t feel completely trapped in a tourist show.

Kiwi spotting

We were excited about seeing the kiwis. With them being the national bird, you might think they’re everywhere, but your chances of seeing one in the wild are almost zero. The kiwis were the last item on our bucket list for that day, and we were tired when we entered the (pretty small) walk-through night-illumination enclosure. But it turned out to be the best time to go – because 4 p.m. is feeding time and we were able to watch the two kiwis enjoy “dinner”! The kids were fascinated – by both the birds and the night-enclosure. I was taken aback, too, mainly by the size of them. They’re more like large chickens than the little creatures I’d imagined. To quote CT, they were “Not very pretty, but somehow cute.”

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Maori culture

We didn’t book the Maori show, although we did get to see the beginning of it since it takes place outside the Maori Cultural Center. Serving as an invitation to potentially paying guests. I quickly got the impression that the Maori are proud to share their culture. Luckily for us, we gained a little bit more insight into the ancient way of life. We watched a local chef taking cooked fish from a natural steamer on our hike along the geysers and mud pools.

Geothermal wonders

There aren’t as many lakes and mud pools as there are at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. And they’re certainly not as colorful, but they do bubble. The autonomously spitting geysers are a sight to behold if it’s your first time seeing a geyser. As it was for the kids.

The Verdict

The spitting geysers, the “mud volcanoes”, the ancient Maori village, the kiwis and the Maori warship that was on display, were the main attractions for the children. So, despite my mixed feelings about the Maori ‘tourist show’ and the enclosed kiwis, it was an educational and exciting day for them. So much so, that they quickly forgot to complain about the awful smell. The oversized ice-creams served at the café at the end of the day topped it all off. We were all satisfied, the words ‘Maori’ and ‘kiwi’ no longer being just words in a guide book, but elements of New Zealand’s culture that we were now more familiar with.

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Accommodation:  TECT All Terrain Park Freedom Camp
Location: P O Box 12803, Greerton, Tauranga 3143
Cost: FREE
Kid-friendliness factor: 2/5 stars – large clearing and woods to explore, impressive treetop adventure course nearby (but kids have to be at least 1.30 m tall). Perfect for bigger children though!
Opinion: it feels great to wake up to the morning sun shining through the treetops on this large secluded clearing. Very close to nature, still clean toilets, a lot of sports and hiking possibilities. A perfect overnight stay for nature lovers like us and has a lot more to offer than most freedom campgrounds these days. Be sure to read our article on freedom camping in New Zealand to get all the information on how to find a good camp spot, the apps and to set realistic expectations.

 

Coromandel Peninsula

Looking for somewhere remote on New Zealand’s North Island? Untouched nature? You can cross Coromandel off your list. The insider tips are no longer insider tips, but now must-do’s on the bucket list of every visitor. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful piece of earth with grassy hills, green woods, wide-open beaches and small bays. With its friendly and relaxing atmosphere, it’s exactly the right place for holidays with the family. Not knowing if we’d ever have the chance to come back, we chose to visit the most famous spots for our first trip.

Hot Water Beach 

Want to create your own spa? At Hot Water Beach you can borrow shovels for a fee and dig deep holes in the sand. That’s possible only at low tide – you’ll find tidal information here. With a bit of luck, you’ll soon reach warm waters. Sound good? It is! Unfortunately, that’s also the opinion of hordes of fully-clothed Asian tourists. They visit the area in such great numbers that their collective digging results in a landscape akin to the moon! Each day!

We decided to withdraw and seek out new terrain. Just a short walk along the beautiful beach, we found a beautiful spot, complete with climbing rocks for the children. We didn’t dig holes; the kids were happy running into the water and back, fleeing from the waves. FN and I just sat there, astonished by the frenzy of digging. Even more by the fierce ‘hole protection’ that was occurring a few hundred meters left of us.

As the day drew to a close and the other tourists loaded back onto their buses, we returned to the craters. JT and CT jumped from one to the other. Pouring sand into some with their bare hands. Digging others yet deeper. Of course, the water had long since cooled down, but with the whole ‘planet’ almost to ourselves, it was dusk before we finally decided to retreat to the camper. Full of sand, wet, hungry and, above all, happy. After a quick meal and the usual short fight over brushing teeth we all fell into a deep sleep.

Accommodation:  Cooks Beach Reserve
Location: near Whitianga
Cost: FREE
Kid-friendliness factor: 3/5 stars – this is just a perfect place for children of all ages! Playground and beach for the small ones, watersports and boats to watch for the bigger ones.
Opinion: Great camp spot on a large grassy area (only six vans allowed per night though). There’s a family friendly beach around the corner with shallow waters, clean facilities, SUP and bodyboard rental. You can park under shady pine trees during the day, but please spend the night in the special area marked for campers.

 

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Cathedral Cove

On the penultimate day of our trip around New Zealand’s North Island, we ticked another item off our bucket list. The aptly-named Cathedral Cove, north of Hahei beach. This place is a must-do, despite all the inconvenience that comes with it.

Getting there

To avoid the hordes of tourists, we waited until the afternoon before going in search of this naturally-formed rock cave. We chose the more challenging of the two ways there are to reach it. The easiest way is by water taxi (or kayak) from Hahei Beach; the other one is by bus. The bus drops you off at a turning point up the hill after a 5-minute drive from the central parking lot. From there you have to walk for a good 30 minutes.

The bus turned out to be a relic of earlier days – huge and, like its driver, charmingly characterful. A nice prelude to the hilly, picturesque walk which followed. Hilly being the operative word in the case of our small kids, whose legs soon tired of the uphill struggle. Undeterred and more motivational than an Instagram post on a Monday, we did, however, manage to get us all there.

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Our efforts were rewarded with absolutely breath-taking views of the ocean and surrounding rocks. You descend a steep staircase and it’s at the bottom that you get your first real-life sighting of cathedral cove. It’s a very special experience, even if it doesn’t quite match up to those picture-perfect depictions in the guide books. And one we were keen to capture. But with lots of people still frolicking at the small bay, and a long line-up for the water taxi, we weren’t able to achieve a photo of the four of us alone in the “cave”. Turns out that if you’re intent on finding some time alone there, you need to arrive before sunrise.

But we did enjoy our picnic on the sand and were among the last to leave. Unfortunately, however, our late departure resulted in a 2-hour night walk. We had missed the last shuttle bus at 6 pm. Almost scared stiff, both children behaved perfectly well (CT was entirely mute throughout!) as we made our way through the night, with the sound of wild animals as our soundtrack. I picked out all the hiking songs I could think of. FN made up a couple of tales, until eventually, we reached the camper. Which by then was trapped in the carpark!

Mercifully, we got out, and our unexpected adventure came to soothing end, with hot chocolate and warm milk before bed.

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Accommodation:  Someone’s driveway, close to Cooks Beach Reserve!
Location: near Whitianga
Cost: FREE
Kid-friendliness factor: 3/5 stars – see above
Opinion: See above for our opinion on Cooks Beach Reserve. We were given an extra special impressions of the place on the second night, by a couple of friendly New Zealanders, who invited us to spend our last night in their driveway (close to the beach) because the usual parking area was full! The next morning, they offered us a wonderful breakfast, which we really enjoyed. The kids were absolutely taken by Romy, the giant Golden Retriever of our hosts. They  wanted to take the dog home, but unfortunately she was not for sale.

 

Hobbiton Movie Set

Nowadays, a trip to New Zealand’s North Island isn’t complete without visiting Matamata, a.k.a. ‘The Shire’. Although we are not diehard fans of ‘Lord of the Rings’, we do like the movies. We were also confident that a miniature village like this would be a fantastic experience for the children. They’d be just the right size to fit through the enchanting round doors!

So, we hopped on another bus and took the guided tour (there’s no other way you can do it, the masses must be controlled!). As we learned, 30% (!) of visitors don’t even know the movies or books, but come to see the set anyway. Been there, done that – that’s the motto.

To cut a long story short, Hobbiton is nice. Period. No more and no less. As in so many highly touristic locations, the experience is tightly organized. Our group took the walk through the Shire with a pleasant, but somewhat pushy guide, who was clearly driven by the fact that the next group was constantly breathing down our necks (the tours start every 10 minutes, so there are at least five happening simultaneously, at any given time).

When we visited, it wasn’t possible to enter one of the houses – not that it mattered to our kids. They  liked Frodo’s story, but were totally unimpressed by the Hobbits’ cute little dwellings. Despite the fact that they were really well staged.

Still, it was nice to see the vegetable garden. Full of giant pumpkins, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes, it would make the hobby gardener (myself included) weep with envy. We also saw the bakery, cheese dairy, candy shop and more. After the walk we were invited to enjoy a complimentary cider or original ‘Shire’ beer at the “Green Dragon” pub. And, of course, it was all set within a beautiful landscape of lush green hills, which on that day glowed under the warm light of the sun.

The Verdict

Would I pay the entrance fee again (NZD 80 per person / children under nine are free)? No. Because in the end, Hobbiton still falls short of your expectations. You want to be whisked away to another world, but what you get is a commercialized, highly-structured experience, without time to explore – without magic.

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Onwards we go…

And that’s pretty much where the story ends. Time to say goodbye to New Zealand’s North Island – and thank you for the adventures, laughs and occasional frustration (read more about managing travel expectations on the road and how we learned it the hard way!).

To mark the occasion, we spent the evening making our own magic, eating popcorn and candy whilst reading our kiwi books.

What thrilling adventures did you experience with your family in New Zealand? What are your favorite spots? Leave a comment below.


And last but not least, we are introducing:

A Bookworm’s Treasury

This is our travel library, the section where we recommend our favorite books about the countries we go to, travel in general, and other things that kids find interesting. Always carefully read and children – approved.

So if you are wondering what to read to your little ones in preparation for or during your trip through New Zealand, try this:

–       the Maori legend of “how the kiwi lost his wings

–       the story of a “fearful little kiwi” (German) who eventually finds his courage or witness “one year in the life of a NZ kid” (English) . These wonderfully inventive tales make perfect family reading. They also give you a real sense of this majestic land and its people.

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