New Zealand - Exploring the land of the long white cloud

Picturesque Northern New Zealand by road in just two weeks.

In just two weeks, packed into an old camper van, and a bunch 'Kia Ora' 's thrown around, we discovered New Zealands epic North Island.

Flying into the countries capital Auckland, immediately we relaxed with the friendly vibes greeting us as we disembarked.

I was positively struck by the dominant presence of the native New Zealand Maori culture, how exciting and powerful it was to be so instantly immersed in such a strong and proud culture.

We briefly rendezvoused in Auckland, knowing we'd also be back at the conclusion of our trip and made way out of the city towards the winding ranges taking us coast-ward.

Day 1: Piha 

Only a short drive West of Auckland you will find picturesque Piha, you'll struggle to believe you're even still on the same land mass. The winding roads surrounded with lush and dense forest lead a steep descent into what can only be described as a real life neverland.

Piha is quite the visual contradiction... it's the quaintest of tiny towns,  yet the black sand beaches stretching between amazing rock formations jutting out from the surf give you a feeling of insignificance in the scheme of the world. It's tiny wooden pizzaria and the old houses poking up throughout the foliage on the mountain give a feeling of homeliness and warmth. You'll spot tiny bunnies scattered throughout the grassy areas and if you're lucky enough wild dolphins surfing the waves.

This tiny towns population peaks at 600 locals, however during the summer months this swells to cater to tourists, surfers and city folk escaping to the coast for prime weather and great waves. It's alluring year round, if anything, winter tends to amplify it's beauty; the forest comes alive from the increased rainfall, the sunsets are the brightest pink before the temperature drops further, obliging you to hibernate and get cosy indoors.

Piha is an absolute must do destination in New Zealand's North Island, if was ever a recommendation to heed, this would be it, do not miss out on experiencing Piha.

Day 2 - 5: Raglan

The surfing home of New Zealand, Raglan is nothing short of epic.

Also on the west coast of the tiny North Island, this town is all about surfing, it alludes chill vibes and the locals seem to take it in turn to run the tiny stores in the main town and head out to it's infamous surf breaks - a few actually closing for good swell.

It's hard to not be in a good mood here, time seems to have turned back 20 years and you'll feel like you're amongst the set of an old surfing film, and a good one at that.

Locals and tourists alike tend to amass on the headland early morning from Indicators right through to Manu Bay. You'll be sure to see the same folk most mornings for the pilgrimage out to the headland, it didn't take long until we felt like we knew the scene.

There's no argument that it's waves are world class, the continual motion of swell lines seem to stem from the horizon and almost appear systematic.  Raglan presents a rare opportunity for beginners through to experts to surf the same headland, in various spots offering up heavy barrel sections through to beginner green waves. Although, as with any world class surf break comes the crowd, during the swell months it's not uncommon to count literally hundreds of surfers trying their luck on the worlds longest left. Unfortunately there isn't really much of a reprieve from the crowds and it can be frustrating at times as often you'll get plenty of beginners right in the thick of the action causing literal chaos.

By night Raglan has a few local watering holes, again exuding the same chill cool that seems to float in the air throughout the town. 

Day 6: New Plymouth

Without really much expectation, we drove south on day six on our way to Wellington and decided to camp the night at New Plymouth out of necessity rather than namesake.

At the foot of the snow capped Mt Taranaki sits New Plymouth, a somewhat lesser known, but worthy addition to any journey through the north.

Upon reaching the coast at dusk, we were greeted with yet another bright pink, post rain sunset, the black sand glimmered as the small surf lolled in along the long open stretch of ocean. The local van park is a great spot on the coast, just a stone's throw from the action itself - if you've never fallen asleep to the sound of the ocean, this could be your chance. 

If you manage to get up shortly after dawn you'll be greeted by the dewy green grass a hive of activity with bunnies hurriedly hopping around the camp site. The ocean will most certainly already be awake and  spiritedly sending small waves crashing against the shore.

The pathway hugging the coast it perfect for a morning stroll, mostly deserted, and will lead you to possibly the best discovery we made all trip, an unmanned A frame wave at the mouth of a river running freezing with melted snow from the Mount itself - you'll surely question if you're dreaming.

From a unintentional stop over to one of my favorite spots all trip, New Plymouth delivered one of the best surfs I had whilst in New Zealand. It's A-frame is a perfect steady take off for intermediate and even beginner surfers, providing you're happy to contend with the near freezing conditions (literally).

The town is worth a stroll, there are a few small cafes and eateries around, if caffeinated brews are your thing, you can't go past Escape Coffee Roasters for quality coffee, quite often featuring live buskers and a great little back seating area complete with old school surfing books and mags. For everything else, check out Lonely Planet as this will be your best bet at locating these.

Day 7: Wellington

On wards South to round out the first week of our trip and we were headed straight for Wellington, New Zealand's most beautiful city and the gateway to the South Island.

Driving along the coast is a joy in itself, watching the enormous vessels heading towards the port carrying all sorts of cargo from people to vehicles to god-knows-what, the sheer scale of them is a spectacle.

Well, Wellington, what can I say, for a city it's extremely relaxing with the central business district framing a beautiful harbour lined with delicious eateries, bars, restaurants and things to do, such as the National Te Papa Museum.

If it's culture and history you're chasing, you won't find a better chance in New Zealand than at the Te Papa Museum. If you're lucky enough to be there during a major exhibition you'll be more than wow-ed by the sheer effort and expertise that go into creating these fantastic installments. With plenty of learning opporutnities not only about New Zealand, but the world, history and even the ecosystem, there's something in Te Papa for everyone, you'll even find a photo-op of an old plane parked right out front!

Voted New Zealand's 'coolest' city by Lonely Planet, Wellington is packed with epic eateries, and hipster bars a-plenty. Wander up the main mall and you'll find Wellington's version of night markets, reminiscent of that found in China town, but without the frantic pace. Trendy vintage clothes and books, accompanied by possibly the best sweet crepes I've ever eaten, this was a find I was more than happy to stumble upon, and I hope you find it too.

Day 8: Napier

And on the eighth day we drove North, heading again for waves a yonder and out of the city.

Travelling to Gisborne, Napier is worth a drive through, although we didn't stop over night it was enough to get a good feel for this little seaside town. If you're a lover of fine wine's you're in luck as Napier is home to Hawkes Bay, the the world's best Savingnon Blanc.

In addition to it's fantastic wine, this quaint little town is full with art deco inspired architecture, beautiful blooms and delicious, high-end restaurants. For those travelling without budget constraints, this is a great stop over to wine and dine.

Day 8 - 10: Gisborne

Yet another surf-centric stop over, by dusk we rolled into an ocean-side camp ground that can only be described by a small city unto it's own.

By this stage you'll begin to piece together the common theme that New Zealanders tend to build a lot of their towns on and around the ocean, and when it's as stunning as this, you'd be mad not to.

Waikanae beach is the central focus for the town, a stunning spot sitting opposite Kapiti Island giving it a mostly glassy ocean look. 'Gissy' as it's affectionately known to locals is a well known hot post for families and retirees, if you're younger however don't let that deter you, Gissy has a number of local watering holes, a cabaret style cinema and bar and quality surf.

Leave your transport parked and you'll give yourself the best possible opportunity at discovering the town of Gisborne. Stroll along the grassy esplanade of Waikane beach or towards the town which has all the necessities including supermakets, eateries and if you're looking for a spot of entertainment, movies! Check out the Dome Cinema for an authentic, cabaret feeling cinema complete with gourmet cinema snacks and cocktails. 

If you're travelling by van, you won't get a better spot in town, literally, than the Waikanae Beach Holiday Park, what strikes me was that this van park even took ocean front precedence over any hotels. Complete with tennis courts, free WIFI and walking distance to town - what more do you need? 

DAY 11: Whakatane 

The weather was against us as we continued along the New Zealand East Coast to Whakatane on our way to Rotorua. With pelting rain and howling winds, we found solace in the local Irish Pub in the city centre. It was warmth we were seeking, and warm we received with fantastic British style bangas and mash coupled with a beer to wash it down.

With the weather against us, this was a brief stop over - sadly nothing more to report.

DAY 11: ROTORUA

The first thing you'll notice when driving into Rotorua is the distinct 'eggy' smell, caused by the sheer volume of sulfur in the air spilling out the natural geysers and hot springs surrounding the city. You'll take a while to get use to it, but rest assured your nostrils will adjust and you'll soon cease to notice the smell!

Rotorua seems to be the cultural heart of the North Island, featuring variations of everything New Zealand had on offer from authentic cultural experiences, natural hot springs and mud baths, hearty local cuisine and stunning landscapes to boot! Rotorua is a 100% must do destination in the North Island - if you don't make it here, than you haven't seen the real New Zealand.

Attractions are a-plenty in Rotorua and it's a fantastic opportunity to be fully immersed in the strong indigenous culture of the Maori people. From my experience, New Zealand has one of the most well integrated societies of anywhere I've visited, not only are New Zealand's first people still very much practicing and proud of their amazing culture, it is widely adopted, spoken and practiced by the entire population. To truly experience the intensity of this thousand year old culture, what better opportunity than to book yourself onto a cultural tour.

Tamaki Maori Village is the pinnacle of Maori cultural experiences in Rotorua which will leave you speechless in awe by the end of your evening. With pick up from your hotel, enjoy the hospitality of the tour guides before you arrive in the mountains surrounding the town which will feel like a journey back in time. The village is the ultimate time capsule, with local Maori people dressed traditionally in a traditional setting completed with thatched roof villages, you'll be given the chance to learn traditional dance, taste delicious traditional food and hear the powerful songs from their ancestors passed down through generations. This is an experience not to be missed.

Throughout the day, relaxation is the key. Explore the natural geysers in the center of town as they explode with sulfur all day long, followed by a dip in the Polynesian Spa to soak in the natural minerals.

DAY 12-13: MOUNT maunganui

Arguably the pride and joy of the North Island, 'The Mount' as it's known by the locals, is a summer hot spot for locals and tourists and alike, and for good reason.

The Mount is a funky little town, sitting at the foot of the mountain itself, offering probably the best bars and eateries we experienced in NZ and is perfect for the younger backpacker crowd. The landscape is a major draw card, imagine crystal clear turquoise water gently hugging the shore, with a tiny islands situated in walking distance from the mainland bridged with a sandbar pathway. 

Strolling out to the tiny island feels like entering another world, within 100 meters from shore, yet mostly deserted and with a clear view Eastward to the seemingly endless turquoise ocean. 

The Mount is best depicted in visuals, as no words can give jsutice to this little slice of North Island paradise. 

Day 14: Raglan en route Auckland

Finally our magnificent two week tour in New Zealand was drawing to a close, with what felt like a life time of experiences, it was onwards to Auckland (with a brief stop through Raglan of course!) and sadly back home.

Kia Ora Aotearoa, thanks for having us!