The dagger-shaped North Island is 680 miles long from Cape Reinga, in the far north, to Wellington, New Zealand's capital city, at the southern tip. Auckland, the arrival point for just about all international flights, is the closest thing the country has to a major metropolis, with sophisticated restaurants, museums, and nightlife. It's also the perfect jumping-off point for travel to Northland, with its luxuriant forests, and the Bay of Islands, with its pristine, miles-long beaches and fishing villages.
South of Auckland, the scenery gets more extreme. Tongariro National Park, home to three active volcanoes, is a hiker's dream of forests, crater lakes, and mountains. Just south, the Volcanic Plateau has created a swath of bubbling, steaming, surreally colored landscapes extending all the way to Lake Taupo, famous for its trout fishing. The southeastern part of the island has two distinct wine regions, Hawke's Bay and Martinborough, as well as the southerly city of Wellington, where daily ferries leave for the South Island.
WHEN TO GO
The North Island is temperate year-round. Even in the winter months, between June and August, the average temperature is about 60ºF. (This is very different from the South Island, where the Southern Alpine winters are bitterly cold, with snow and ice to match.) Summers in the far north (December through February) can be subtropical—great for hitting the beaches, but you'll share them with thousands of vacationing Kiwis. Autumn (March to May) is the best season for fair weather and thinner crowds—especially in wine country as the grapes are harvested and the trees flame with bright colors. Springtime (between September and November) has changeable weather, but the green hillsides are dotted with thousands of new lambs.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most flights from the United States land at New Zealand's largest and busiest airport, Auckland International, in the suburb of Mangere, southwest of the city (www.auckland-airport.co.nz). Flying time from Los Angeles—where most direct flights originate—is about 12 hours. Both United Airlines (www.united.com) and the superbly comfortable Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) provide these direct flights. Taxis are available at the International Terminal; a trip to downtown should cost around NZ$55 (about US$40) and take 30 to 45 minutes. Shared shuttle taxis, charging about NZ$18 (US$13), also leave from the same spot. The AirBus departs from in front of the International Terminal every 20 to 30 minutes, from 6:20 a.m. to 10 p.m., and arrives in the city about an hour later. The fare is NZ$15 (about US$11).
Public transportation on the North Island is not extensive, and train service is limited. If you want to take in the countryside, your best bet is to rent a car. The main rental agencies, such as Hertz and Avis, maintain offices at Auckland International Airport, and most domestic airports. If you're short on time or want to avoid long-distance drives, all areas are well serviced by domestic flights. Helilink Limited (1 Solent St., Mechanics Bay; 64-9-377-4406; www.helilink.co.nz) has charter helicopter flights leaving downtown Auckland for any destination.
Tourism New Zealand's comprehensive Web site, www.newzealand.com, has detailed information about destinations all over the North Island—as well as driving routes and maps.
All major New Zealand destinations have tourism information bureaus called i-Sites. For a list, check out www.newzealand.com/travel/i-sites/i-sites_home.cfm. The one at the International Terminal at Auckland International Airport stays open from 5 a.m. until the last flight of the day arrives.
137 Quay Street
Tel: 64 9 307 0612
Bay of Islands i-Site
The Wharf, Marsden Road
Tel: 64 9 402 7345
1167 Fenton Street
Tel: 64 7 348 5179