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Top Tips for Touring the Hidden Gems of New Zealand's North Island

New Zealand needs no introduction. With its beautiful scenery, friendly people and adrenaline-inducing activities, it's a dream destination for travellers all over the world. But many who visit spend most of their trip in the South Island, overlooking its northern counterpart. Recently back from a fantastic North Island road trip, my message to anyone thinking of New Zealand is go North! There are so many hidden gems to discover...

Win $10,000 or look silly trying at Lake Taupo

The largest freshwater lake in New Zealand, Taupo is truly awesome. There's no shortage of activities at the lake, from cycling tours to watersports, and even skydiving. For the less adventurous but still ambitious, there's the Hole-in-One challenge, where budding Rory McIlroys can have a go at hitting a golf ball into a hole on a pontoon in the water. The $10,000 prize for a successful hole-in-one is certainly not to be sneezed at! I came very close, in that I did actually manage to get the ball in the lake a few times. My husband nearly hit a scuba diver on the head. Neither of us won $10,000.

Do go chasing waterfalls

Just up the road is the wonderful Huka Falls. I occasionally experience what I call “scenery fatigue” in New Zealand – a phenomenon whereby I become a bit overwhelmed by the beautiful surroundings. There's no shortage of amazing waterfalls in the North Island, so I wasn't especially excited about Huka Falls. They are, however, breathtaking. The bright blue, frothy waters dramatically crash through the surrounding cliffs with a deafening roar on their way from the Waikato River to Lake Taupo. An absolute must-see, regardless of how many waterfalls you visit!

Rotorua: A full sensory experience

Rotorua is certainly unique, not least due to its famous, ahem, “aroma”. The hydrogen sulphide emitted by thermal activity gives the town a very distinctive scent, like rotten eggs. However, the eclectic range of activities in Rotorua almost makes up for the stench! Check out the traditional Maori village of Whakarewarewa, built in the midst (and the mists!) of the geothermic landscape. Locals cook and bathe in the naturally heated waters, and visitors can experience unusual sights like boiling mud and powerful geysers. I really enjoyed learning more about Maori life and traditions from our friendly tour guide, Girlie, seeing the village cultural performance and sampling one of their famous hangi pies!

Make new (feathered) friends

On the outskirts of Rotorua is Rainbow Springs, a nature reserve featuring a fantastic selection of New Zealand's native wildlife and plants. I even had the privilege of meeting a baby Kiwi at the park's hatchery! No photos allowed of these endangered birds, so you'll have to pay Rainbow Springs a visit yourself to see one. Although witnessing New Zealand's iconic bird in the flesh is always a very special experience, my personal highlight was the very friendly Tui who flew over to serenade me!

History and legend in New Zealand's Northland

The far north of New Zealand is not to be missed. Before going there, I had associated it with beaches (probably because one of its key attractions is Ninety Mile Beach, which is actually only 55 miles long. Doesn't have the same ring to it!), but was pleasantly surprised to discover it is as green and pastoral as the rest of the North Island, with a spectacular coastline to boot. Start in the Bay of Islands, three hours north of Auckland and the birthplace of New Zealand as we know it. Here you can learn all about the controversial Treaty of Waitangi – New Zealand's founding document – in the village where it was signed. I highly recommend taking a boat trip around the Bay of Islands, stopping off for a sunset dinner in the historic town of Russell, the country's first European settlement.

I took a day trip from Paihia to the most northerly point of New Zealand – Cape Reinga, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. The cape is where Maori spirits leave Aotearoa (New Zealand) after death, so it is a sacred place of pilgrimage for the nation's indigenous population. It has a truly special atmosphere and stunning ocean views.

Surf's up on the sand

Although drenched in history, Northland is not lacking in modern activities! Take, for example, sand surfing. My fear of heights means that I tend not to partake in extreme sports, and when I saw the giant Te Paki sand dunes I was pretty sure that I'd be sitting out on sand surfing, too. However, when I saw my husband careering through the sand on his board, my fear-of-missing-out took over, and I bravely ran up the dune. To be honest, that was probably the most challenging part, as those dunes are steep. What's more, once you've made it to the top the only feasible way down is on a board, so really I had no choice but to surf. I'm pleased I did!

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Written by Margaret Donnellan

I'm originally from Ireland but have lived and worked in the UK and USA. A communications professional, when I'm not writing for work or pleasure I can be found travelling the world, sampling local cuisines and getting up close and personal with native wildlife! Find me on Instagram: @margaretd13.

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