Northern Nirvana

It is a common misconception that visitors to New Zealand yearning for spectacular natural scenery should just visit the South Island and tick the country off their list.

This is all the more surprising since I have repeatedly heard from Kiwi friends that the North Island has sights to match, and with far fewer tourists.

So on a recent trip to New Zealand, I aimed to debunk the myth - to experience the North Island and see how it fared compared to South Island, which I had toured some years earlier.

Since the North Island is huge - almost 160 times larger than Singapore - I focused on an area south and east of the main city Auckland, maximising the variety of what I could see in less than a week. I also decided to sightsee using different modes of transport, to add more facets to the itinerary.

Craters of the Moon

My first stop was Taupo, where I had come to see the fantastically named Craters of the Moon. The 45-minute loop walk around the spare contours of this attraction is an unforgettable introduction to the area's geothermal activity.

It is caused by New Zealand's location: It straddles the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates along what is known as the Ring of Fire. Plumes of steam rose out of the ground and pools of mud bubbled, hinting at the pressure brewing underground. I moved on to Lake Taupo, the largest freshwater lake in New Zealand. It is a caldera created by a giant eruption 26,000 years ago. Today, the lake is renowned for trout fi shing - teeming with fi sh so large, as the local joke runs, that when one is caught, the lake's water level drops.

I hopped onto a boat with Chris Jolly Outdoors, an operator that has taken tourists out on the lake for four decades. The boat left the crystalclear waters of Taupo harbour and soon, banks of houses ceded to small hills of fir trees. The wilderness is never far in New Zealand.

It was a cool, slightly overcast day and the giant lake - a shade smaller than Singapore - was empty save for one other boat, its white sails brilliant against the dull horizon.

Our boat wound its way across a small section of the lake, stopping at an inlet adorned with a carving completed in 1982. It was a tribute to Ngatroirangi, a Maori chief who found the lake.

Later, as the boat plied the waters, the captain asked if anyone wanted to jump in; a few hardy passengers, myself included, leapt in from the top deck, though nobody lasted long in the 16 deg C water.

For a change of pace after the lake trip, I booked an excursion to get my heart pumping. Hukafalls Jet sends thrill seekers out on the Waikato, the country's longest river, in flat-hulled aluminium boats powered by jets that enable incredible manoeuvrability and speed.

The sensation of skimming the water, the boat drifting sideways, sending ducks scampering for their lives, or barrelling into rapid spins was electrifying - evident from the shrieks and whoops of fellow passengers.

The pilot got close to the Hukafalls, New Zealand's top tourist attraction (it drew one million visitors last year), and the roiling, blue, glacial waters testified to the force of the rapids. It certainly gave me an adrenaline rush, and at the end of a long day, I was keen to unwind at Wairekei Terraces, a series of thermal pools with restorative mineral enriched water.

Constantly changing landscape

The morning drive north-east from Taupo to Whakatane on the Bay of Plenty passed through misty pine forests, bands of sunlight peeking from above. At times the canyon of trees would open to a vista of rolling hills and cattle-rich pastures.

The landscape changed constantly throughout the 90-minute drive, and reminded me of several places - the English countryside, rural Italy, the heaths of Scotland, parts of forested northern California and alpine British Columbia.

Whakatane is a base for trips to White Island, the country's only active marine volcano, 50km offshore. It can be reached by boat or helicopter, and since I had to squeeze a lot into my short holiday, I chose to travel with Frontier Helicopters.

As the Robinson R44 chopper climbed to 1,500 feet (460m), the sun shimmered off the waters below and the fuming crater of the volcano came into view.

The island, home to a sulphur factory until the early 1900s, is other- worldly - an alien landscape with columns of steam billowing out of craters and fumaroles, rocks striated in all shades (one section looked as if it had been lifted out from the Grand Canyon) and craggy sections caked with bright yellow sulphur.

I wish I could have worn a spacesuit to complete the feeling of leaving Earth behind. Between White Island and Whakatane is Whale Island (or Moutohora in Maori), a hilly speck that is home to a thriving colony of grey-faced petrels, colloquially known as muttonbirds.

White Island Tours, based in Whakatane, received permission from the Department of Conservation and the local Maori tribe to begin the evening tours this year, so I joined one.

The muttonbirds are stellar fliers, out all day at sea hunting for food, but their return to the island at dusk is almost comedic - to land, they simply locate the approximate area of their burrows, close their wings and drop. So much for evolution.

Witnessing this first-hand as dusk rolled in was equal parts exciting and hazardous - all participants had to wear hard hats to protect themselves against crash landings.

I climbed to a ridge, the faint light of a crescent moon giving the sky a silvery glaze, and lay back as scores of birds circled and swooped low overhead. Sometimes, I would hear a dull thud or rustling sound as the birds hit trees or dropped into leafy branches. There are 160,000 petrels on the island and as night emerged the air was filled with the dreamy sound of birdsong.

Many mountains in New Zealand are associated with Maori legends, and Mount Maunganui is no exception. The 230m-high cone at the end of a skinny peninsula is, according to mythology, a spurned mountain that asked to be dragged out to sea to drown.

Bay of Plenty

I had planned to climb the mountain for the aerobic benefits and the incomparable views - on a clear day, you can see White Island, 90km away.

But rain scuppered my plans (the peak of Maunganui was cloaked in clouds so no views there), so I journeyed up the coast to Waihi Beach, the westernmost reach of the Bay of Plenty.

The bay, originally named the Bay of Plenty Resources by Captain James Cook in 1769, has 260km of open coastline, and is home to some of the country's finest beaches, including Waihi Beach, a popular holiday spot for New Zealanders.

It is easy to understand why Kiwis love it. The place has the archetypal small-beachtown charm, the coast is spotless, and on a morning walk, as the sun rose, I could make out the clear outline of Mount Maunganui in the distance.

Waihi is also a short drive from the Karangahake Gorge section of the Hauraki Rail Trail, an easy cycle track built on old rail lines with vestiges of the area's gold-mining history at every turn. It is also a convenient jumping-off point for trips up the Coromandel Peninsula, which comprised the final part of my trip.

My focus in the Coromandel was an iconic New Zealand site, Cathedral Cove. Situated about halfway up the peninsula, it is the sort of stunningly picturesque place that regularly graces tourist brochures and marketing campaigns.

The drive north from Waihi Beach took in dairy farms, spiky mountain ranges, snatches of river and wild reedy grass along the riverbank and the striking headland in the town of Tairua.

As I began the 25-minute hike down to Cathedral Cove from the parking area, I felt a light drizzle and saw a bright rainbow arcing through the sky. The rain soon stopped and I walked through woods rich with pohotukawa trees and the country's ubiquitous ferns.

Down by the beach, I walked into the peaked cave that gives the cove its name, and watched the clear blue sea gently ebb and flow.

I could not resist leaping into the warm water (tropical compared with Lake Taupo) and as I floated, I scanned the hills, the giant rocks around me and the rugged coastline. The South Island seemed a long, long way away. And that didn't bother me one bit.


- I flew from Singapore to Rotorua on Air New Zealand with a connection in Auckland.

- New Zealanders are an unfailingly friendly bunch, and you can say "Good morning" or "G'day" to anyone and get a similar response.

- "Kia ora" is a traditional Maori greeting that means "Be well" but is more informally used as "hello".

- The letters "Wh" in Maori are pronounced with an "f" sound, so Whakatane is pronounced Fa-ka-ta-nay.

- The country is blessed with fantastic meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable farms, and most decent restaurants will identify dishes that are vegetarian (V) or gluten-free (GF) in the menu.

- In Taupo, the cavernous Vine Eatery & Bar ( started as a wine-selling business, but today it is a great local hangout, not least for the roasted lamb rack. The gooey date pudding with maple and walnut ice cream is a must.

- Fisherman's Wharf Cafe on a narrow peninsula east of Whakatane has a lovely setting on the water, French-countrystyle interiors, and fabulous fish and chips (340 Harbour Road, Port Ohope).

- Crispy, tasty nachos and giant, juicy burgers are just two of the reasons to stop by the fun Astrolabe near Mount Maunganui (

- A good range of lodging options is available, from backpacker dorms to luxury lodges accessible by helicopter.

- Hilton Lake Taupo has pretty lake views and rooms with the biggest beds I've ever seen (

- White Island Rendezvous, part of the same company that runs White Island Tours in Whakatane, has spacious motel-style lodging and a great cafe with plenty of healthy options (

- The road network is farreaching and well signposted, and roads are in good condition, so self-driving is the most efficient way to get around.

- New Zealanders drive on the same side as Singaporeans, on the left.

- Summers are generally dry, but rain can sweep across the country any time of year, so pack accordingly.

- Australia and New Zealand have the highest skin cancer rates in the world, and the sun is very strong, so slather on the sunscreen and wear a broad-brimmed hat.

This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.

This article was first published on August 18, 2015.
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