New Zealand's North Island offers quiet charms from scenic spots to Maori rock carvings

The Auckland skyline in New Zealand in July 2017.
The Auckland skyline in New Zealand in July 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS
A hobbit hole in Hobbiton, the film set for the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit film series.
A hobbit hole in Hobbiton, the film set for the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit film series.PHOTO: HOBBITON MOVIE SET

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - It is the inevitable question any newbie visitor to New Zealand will ask: North or South - which is best?

For adventure-seekers, the South lures with many adrenaline-pumping opportunities to bungee jump or go skydiving. For landscape-worshippers, the South's fjords offer the kind of jaw-dropping scenery to lure even the most jaded Instagrammer.

That said, the North has its own trump cards too.

The island has a greater Maori presence and boasts quiet scenic spots for those who want to be one with nature. And if "walking on an active volcano" is on your bucket list, you are in the right place, thanks to White Island.

What is in a name? If White Island were a person, he would have been hauled up for misrepresentation. It sounds like a private island with luxury resorts and white sandy beaches, but it could not be further from the truth, starting with the black volcanic sand.

It was named in 1769 by explorer Captain James Cook because it always appeared to be in a cloud of white steam.

The "island" is, in fact, an active volcano. Situated 49km off the coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty, White Island is New Zealand's most active volcano and has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the last 150,000 years. Its last eruption was in 2001.

Most of the volcano sits under the sea, with only its peak visible. The only human visitors to the island are researchers and tourists. The rest are Australasian gannets, a species of birds that lives on the island, and the occasional seal.

To get to the island, take a boat. But if travelling by helicopter is an option, there is no better experience than landing right on the peak, with direct access to the crater complex.

The landscape is raw and streaked with yellow and orange hues from the sulphur. There are bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and a lake of steaming acid. The smell of sulphur is strong in the air and the provided gas mask makes breathing easier. Hard hats are a must here too.

Guided walking tours last 90 minutes and include a visit to the remains of the sulphur factory, which closed down at the height of the depression in the 1930s. There are different detection devices in place on the island which measure the earth's movements and heat.

On North Island itself, the towns of Rotorua and Taupo are popular destinations for outdoor activities such as trout-fishing and trekking. Locations for certain activities can be so exclusive, there is little chance of bumping into big tourist groups.

Rotorua and Taupo are about three hours by car from Auckland and you can make a pit stop at the Hobbiton Movie Set along the way. It is about an hour's drive between Rotorua and Taupo.

Just outside of Rotorua lies Lake Tarawera, one of the country's largest lakes. There are different treks to go on, including the Tarawera Trails, a 15km walk that takes visitors across crystal-clear streams and native New Zealand bush filled with pohutukawa trees and groves of giant mamuku ferns.

If that sounds too long, there is the shorter Tarawera Falls Track, a 700m easy walk that leads to the viewing area of the spectacular 60m-high Tarawera Falls, where water surges out of fissures in a large rock cliff-face surrounded by native bush.

Walking shoes are a must, but do not forget to pack a bathing suit. The lake has geothermal activity, which means there are natural hot pools to dip in. Some of the streams leading into the lake are naturally heated and the locals cook their fish in this hot water - think of it as nature's sous-vide machine.

Speaking of fish, trout fishing is a big deal in this part of the country.

The season runs from October to April and the regional lakes of Tarawera, Rotorua and Taupo are all popular spots for snaring a week's worth of brown or rainbow trout.

If you are out of luck, do not think you can make up for it with a nice seafood dinner at a restaurant. Surrounding eateries are banned from serving trout. If you want to eat it, you have to catch it yourself.

Besides fishing on Lake Taupo, which is the size of Singapore, one of its biggest attractions is the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. Towering 14m above the water, the rock carvings are considered one of the country's most extraordinary artworks.

The carvings were sculpted over the course of four years and completed in 1980. Maori carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell led a team of four artists to create a spectacular carving of his ancestor Ngatoroirangi on the rock face. The carvings can be seen from a cruise boat. There is also the option of kayaking to them.

When it comes to accommodation, Rotorua and Taupo have two of the best resorts. Solitaire Lodge, outside of Rotorua, has nine luxurious suites, all with panoramic views of Lake Tarawera. Its secluded location makes it very private, but its lakeside location means not having to travel far to enjoy activities on the lake. It also has a helicopter pad, so helicopter rides to White Island are possible.

Over at Taupo, there is Huka Lodge, the choice for discerning travellers, and also for Queen Elizabeth II when she visited.

Its 25 suites have views of the Waikato River. Service is top notch and what makes staying at the lodge special is the option to dine at over 20 venues on its grounds, such as in the wine cellar, trophy room or library.

The North Island is easy to get around and activities and accommodation are easy to book. But if you do not want to deal with the hassle, using a travel agent is often the easiest choice.

Founded by New Zealander Alexandra Stewart, Antipodean Luxury Travel has exclusive helicopter rights and private access to Unesco sites, wilderness fisheries and coastal coves, and is known for curating bespoke experiences.

The writer was a guest of Antipodean Luxury Travel.