I could probably dedicate a whole blog to New Zealand. Especially when it comes to the North Island, where I lived for more than eight years growing up. It’s my second home and one of the most beautiful countries you’ll ever visit.
That said, there’s already a ton of great information out there about the better-known tourist attractions, sights and activities. (Including this awesome post on Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel)
That’s why I decided to dedicate this post on some lesser known but truly beautiful hidden gems in New Zealand’s North Island that you should absolutely fit into your North Island itinerary!
Get away from the crowds and experience some of the North Island’s genuinely stunning spots.
Top Tip: Rent a car in New Zealand. There’s really no way to really experience the true beauty of New Zealand without driving yourself!
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Northland Hidden Gems
Okay, so I’ve probably picked the least sensational (for lack of a better word) of my North Island hidden gems first, but we chanced upon Langs Beach on our way up to Whangarei from Auckland, and it was such a beautiful picnic spot that I couldn’t not mention it.
Yes, it has limited facilities, with a moderate resident population, but it’s a really picturesque crescent shaped beach with clean white sand.
It’s a great spot for a lazy day at the beach or clambering along the rocks of the headlands at either end.
Continue up the coast from Langs Beach to Waipu Cove, and you have the option to tick Waipu Caves off your list as well.
Now, New Zealand is pretty proud of its glowworms, and there’s a very popular paid attraction to view caves and glowworms in Waitomo in the Waikato region of the North Island.
But, Waipu is a huge limestone cave system in its own right. Best of all, is free to enter! What more do you want from your North Island hidden gems?
It covers about four square kilometres and it is home to millions of glow worms.
Please note that it is also somewhat undeveloped. There are no set tracks in the cave, and it is narrow and tight in places. If you’re in any way claustrophobic, you may want to sit this one out.
Top Tip: Make sure you bring a good torch! It’s very dark within the caves and you’ll want to be able to see where you’re going.
You will need to wade through water but you’ll be rewarded with a stunning glowworm display if you persevere.
Top Tip: Stay quiet! Glowworms extinguish their lights if they get scared!
Whangarei is the northernmost city in New Zealand and a great starting point to explore the Northland region. You’ll find Whangarei Falls at the northern end of the city.
While maybe not truly a hidden gem on New Zealand’s North Island anymore, Whangarei Falls are a must-visit spot none the less. It’s a picturesque curtain waterfall about 26m high. It is definitely best viewed after heavy rainfall but either way, it is surrounded by a well maintained park, native New Zealand bush and walkways.
It’s a popular spot for swimming as it’s easy to access with plenty of parking.
You can take in the waterfalls from three different viewing platforms, around an easy circular walk. If you fancy a more challenging walk though, there are a few longer options to choose from as well, ranging between 1 – 4 hours return.
Personally, I hadn’t even heard of Tutukaka until one of my best friends decided to get married there a couple of years ago. If that’s the case after living in New Zealand for eight years, it has to be a true North Island hidden gem!
Tutukaka offers breathtaking views over rocky shorelines, and a true “New Zealand Vibe” with the many Pohutakawa trees (New Zealand Christmas trees) that add a vibrant red colour to the scenery when in bloom.
It’s not too far on from Whangarei but you’d definitely want to spend at least a night here to soak up the calm atmosphere.
Go for a walk to the beautiful and sheltered Whale’s Bay, hire a fishing charter or brave the slightly colder waters of New Zealand and go diving.
Bay of Plenty Hidden Gems
McLaren Falls & Park – Tauranga
To be honest, I probably prefer to park over the main waterfall, but you’ll drive over it on your way in to the park, so it’s worth a quick stop to take them in.
How spectacular the fall is will depend on whether or not there’s been heavy rain as there’s a Power Generation Station upstream which will limit the flow of water. But, the last time I visited was after a heavy storm and the power of the falls was absolutely unbelievable!
The park itself is no less than 190 hectares of parkland alongside the pretty Lake McLaren. Not surprisingly, it’s popular for camping, fishing, kayaking, bush walks and picnics.
If you’re a movie buff you might be interested to know that one of the early scenes in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon was filmed here!
One of the highlights of the park is the Waterfall Track where you’ll be able to spot glow worms on either side of the track after dusk. Maybe not quite as spectacular as the Waipu Cave glowworms display, but a neat little hidden gem for you regardless!
It’s a great place to camp and stay overnight, although it’s only about a 20 minute drive from Tauranga so there’s plenty of accommodation options there as well.
Top Tip: Don’t light a campfire. There are gas BBQ’s that you can use for cooking but New Zealand is super strict about lighting fires due to the risk of bushfires!
Tarawera River & Forest – Kawerau
Kawerau is not a well known place at all. It’s a sleepy little town hidden away about 30mins from Whakatane and 45mins from Rotorua. But, it has some spectacularly beautiful walks that could easily keep you busy for a week or more.
Plus, there’s the amazing bonus of the free but beautifully maintained natural hot-water pools too. They’re great for a relaxing dip after your hike!
Kawerau really is one of those hidden gems in New Zealand’s North Island that even Kiwis don’t really know about!
If you’re a nature lover and enjoy a good but easy hike, the Tarawera River and Falls walk is definitely the one to do.
Top Tip: Make sure you purchase a permit before you head off though ($10 per car – $5 for locals!) You drive in on private roads and can get a hefty fine if you haven’t got a permit. You can purchase a permit either online or pick one up from the Maori Investments office (weekdays) or the tourist information center (i-Site) in town (weekends).
Note: This can only be purchased on the day you intend to use it!
The river water is unbelievably clear. Just look at that colour!! It really is indescribable and even the photos don’t really do it justice.
You can do the relatively short and easy walk (20 minutes or so) to the falls, or continue on for an additional 2 hours one-way to the Tarawera Outlet.
Southern North Island Hidden Gems
I’ll preface this by saying that this hidden gem takes a bit of commitment! The Cape is located at the southernmost point of the North Island about 150km southeast of the capital, Wellington.
The drive takes you down a dramatic narrow and windy road, wedged between the coast’s rugged rocks and towering cliffs. It ends with a fairly long stretch on a gravel path where there are often rather big potholes to navigate around.
But, once you get there it is a tranquil place to spend a few hours, or even to stay overnight.
The black sand beaches here are striking, but the main attraction are the seals. It is New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony, and you can spot hundreds of them basking in the sunshine and playing in the shallows and the waves.
They’re pretty used to people so for the most part aren’t too upset if you walk past. But, of course, as with any wild animal, be cautious and make sure you don’t make the adults feel like you’re threatening their young! They will challenge you if threatened!
Top Tip: Test your fitness and climb the 250 odd steps up to the Lighthouse for some fantastic views!
There are SO many stunning places to visit in New Zealand that you could spend months there and still not see it all.
But, I hope that this little insider’s view of some of my favourite hidden gems on New Zealand’s North Island will help you get off the beaten track and experience some of the lesser-known beauties on offer.
Have you been to New Zealand? Did you get off the regular tourist paths? What North Island hidden gems did you discover?
Please leave a comment below!