Things to See and Do
In the heart of the North Island, Tongariro National Park’s grand (and occasionally lively) volcanoes are a must-see for their crazy rockforms and unique habitats. All three – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – can be explored via trails crisscrossing the park, many of which feature informative interpretation panels and the occasional puff of steam.
More geothermal energy bubbles up around Taupo, such as Craters of the Moon where a walkwalk wends through a strange, steamy park. Rotorua, however, is the biggest hotbed of activity. An historic thermal resort town with an infamously sulphurous aroma, it’s a great base for visiting various reserves such as Wai-o-Tapu replete with vivid silica terraces, geysers, bubbling mud and steamy pools.
The central North Island is rich in Maori history and mythology. At Rotorua Museum and Taupo Museum, thoughtfully curated exhibits present excellent introductions to this fascinating culture. Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre at Whakapapa also has informative displays. A powerful mix of geothermal sights and Maori culture are conveniently combined at Te Puia and Whakarewarewa reserves, where volcanic phenomena can be observed at close range alongside traditional Maori arts. Impressive carving, flax weaving and ta moko (tattooing) are displayed, while rousing concert performances feature waita (singing) and kapa haka (dance). Another popular way to encounter Maori culture in Rotorua is at an evening concert, often combined with a traditional hangi (earth oven) feast.
Walking & hiking
Tongariro National Park sports some of the most spectacular trails in the country, including the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a challenging day hike past Ngauruhoe and Tongariro volcanoes featuring shapely craters, steaming vents, alpine rock gardens and incredible panoramas. Various shorter walks from Whakapapa and Ohakune villages take in more peculiar volcanic sights and pretty native forest with the odd waterfall thrown in for good measure.
Rotorua and Taupo boast walks for every level of ability, with plenty of family friendly options featuring playgrounds, picnic and paddling spots. Taupo’s extensive Great Lake trails offer relaxing lakeside strolls, while the intermediate Huka Falls Walkway connects the town with New Zealand’s most famous cascade. Lakeside tracks are a speciality around Rotorua and its neighbouring lakes, with Okataina and Tarawera deservedly popular options.
Travellers looking for a shot of adrenaline are spoilt for choice. Taupo’s skydiving drop-zone often rates as the nation’s best, with awesome views over the volcanic plateau and massive lake. The rivers carving the landscape dish up plenty of watery fun, including jet-boating, kayaking and whitewater rafting. Taupo’s scenic bungy jump platform perches high above the Waikato River.
More unusual activities include rolling downhill inside a transparent orb (known as a Zorb or Ogo), zip-lining through the forest heights on Rotorua’s Canopy Tours, or flying through the air on Rotorua’s Sky Swing where you’ll also find the Skyline gondola and luge – exhilirating fun for all ages.
Rotorua is a major flashpoint for New Zealand’s cycling explosion, with trails from easy to epic. The Skyline gondola provides effortless ascent to the swooping downhills of Gravity Bike Park, while across town the internationally renowned Redwoods Forest has a vast network of all-level cycle rides through mature woodland. Rotorua’s national cycle trail – Te Ara Ahi – rolls through steamy terrain with significant sights such as Whakarewarewa and Wai-o-Tapu en route. The region’s two other national cycle trails are Taupo’s intermediate Great Lake Trail, and the epic Mountains to Sea that starts at Mt Ruapehu and takes in the history-laden Okakune Old Coach Road.