There’s no lack of stunning landscapes in New Zealand, but in the central north island region – perhaps best known for being home to the Bay of Plenty – the natural attractions are matched by the cultural riches. And a road trip is the best way to explore.
Long before James Cook named the region “Bay of Plenty” for its abundant food and fish, and friendly people, the region was known as Te Moana a Toi by its Māori inhabitants. From Auckland to the coastal city of Tauranga, to the thermal and cultural heart of Rotorua, laidback lakeside Taupō, and lush Waikato, it’s an easy 680km round trip.
Three hours after leaving Sydney, I’m in Auckland and my New Zealand travel adventure begins. I slip behind the wheel of a Toyota Highlander that I christen Thelma, set the sat nav (now known as Louise) for Tauranga, about three hours away, and cruise down the Great South Road.
Exploring Tauranga & Mount Maunganui
A thousand years ago, the mighty Takitimu ocean canoe set sail from Hawaiki, the Māori’s Polynesian homeland, with the first Māori ancestors, and landed at Mauao (Mount Maunganui), at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour.
Here, my Bay of Plenty visit begins with a cultural tour of Mount Maunganui’s base. My guide, Paula Beilby from Te Ara Tourism, welcomes me with a traditional pōwhiri in language and song, and relates the mountain’s creation story of love and loss.
As we walk, Paula points out significant areas – here a stream where women birthed, there where warriors cleansed after battle – as well as middens, a statue of Tangaroa the sea god, and the rocks where the Ranui was shipwrecked.
Beside us, views of the harbour, Maunganui beach and the outlying islands unfold. Afterwards I explore the main street of Mt Maunganui, and its glistening harbour and surf beaches, and later in the evening, I go to the Wairoa River for the Waimarino Glowworm Kayak Tour.
At dusk we gently paddle our kayaks into the canyon at the head of Lake McLaren, which is transformed into fairyland by thousands of sparkling glowworms. During the three-hour tour, guides Royce and Ellie entertain us with fun glowworm facts, as well as Māori stories.
Trinity Wharf Tauranga offers 4.5 star luxury right on the harbour.Where to stay in Tauranga
Enchanted forests and Maori culture in Rotorua
Next morning, I fire up Thelma and Louise for a 57km drive along winding country roads to Rotorua, the steaming, bubbling thermal heart of tourism in New Zealand. Our first stop is the Redwoods Treewalk, where, suspended on bridges and platforms, we thread our way through a forest haven filled with birds, and silver ferns. At night the forest is transformed by 34 exquisite lanterns designed by world renowned designer David Trubridge floating above the forest floor (treewalk. co.nz).
Rotorua is also renowned as the destination of choice for Māori cultural experiences, and so I head to Te Pā Tū. Here, at the recreated Māori village, we share history and traditions over four hours of celebration, music, dance and feasting. Welcomed to the village by a powerful haka performed by the warriors, once inside we sample seasonal delicacies, and participate in performances and ceremonies.
Afterwards we enjoy a degustation feast of seafood, duck, lamb and pork and New Zealand’s most famous dessert, pavlova. It’s an immersive, entertaining evening, full of laughter and music.
Experience low-key luxury at Peppers on the Point Boutique lodge, situated on the waters of Lake Rotorua.Where to stay in Rotorua
The best things to do in Taupō
Leaving Rotorua, we take the Thermal highway past steaming hot spots, our destination the lakeside town of Taupō, about an hour’s drive away. First stop is the award-winning Lava Glass gallery, where we watch master glass artist Lynden Over at work.
Inspired by the New Zealand landscape, Lynden’s glass creations are showcased in the gallery, and 600 hand-crafted pieces feature in the beautiful sculpture garden.
After lunch at the gallery we head to the Aratiatia Dam for a river cruise to the Huka Falls. We arrive just in time to watch thousands of litres of water released from the dam cascade as rapids into the Waikato River.
Onboard the river craft, Captain Dave tells us about the local history, flora and fauna, before taking us right up to the thundering Huka Falls. The best view is from the outdoor platform, and the indoor cabin is cosy.
The Reef Resort, right on the shores of Lake Taupō and minutes from town offers the best of both worlds.Where to stay in Taupo
Waikato: the home of wildlife and Hobbits
For millennia, New Zealand was the land of the birds. After white settlement, however, many species became extinct and others critically endangered.
Sanctuary Mountain is a 3363-hectare nature reserve in an ancient rainforest, where native birds, including the vulnerable Takahē, live safely behind a predator-proof fence. My guide, Rosie, leads me through the forest and wetland, pointing out birds and reptiles among towering ferns and ancient trees.
In 1998, when Sir Peter Jackson was scouting locations for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, he flew over an area of gentle hills and dales. Far from power lines and other signs of modern life, Sir Peter had found his Shire on the Alexander family’s farm. After filming concluded, the set was preserved and opened to the public.
Our Hobbiton Movie Set tour winds past 44 Hobbit Holes with pretty painted doors and lush gardens. The attention to detail is astonishing, from washing on lines, to lunch laid on tables, and smoke curling from chimneys. It’s as if the Hobbits have just stepped out.
Our guide points out sites of memorable film moments, and explains how the movie magic was made. The tour ends with a beverage at the Green Dragon Inn before we leave Middle Earth. It feels like a perfectly magical way to end my New Zealand trip.