The North Island on a budget

As our working holiday visas drew to a close, the last few weeks of our time in New Zealand were spent exploring the beautiful North Island. This can be an expensive country to travel, with most excursions pushing the boundaries on what we were willing to spend. This post will help provide some details on the route we took and how to keep costs down!

Firstly, we began our journey in the capital, Wellington. Cities can often lead to unnecessary spending but we found the ‘Te Papa Museum’ along the waterfront to be a fun experience which immersed us in Maori culture, informative New Zealand history and funky art exhibitions…all for free! On a warmer day, visiting Oriental Bay or the Botanic Gardens is an ideal way to explore the greener parts of the city. We also found it useful to download the ‘All Trails’ phone app as it’s perfect for showing all the different walking trails that New Zealand has to offer. A real life saver for days when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere and have time to kill.

Te Papa Museum

Our next stop was Hastings, Hawkes Bay. This sleepy, coastal town is home to some of the best wineries New Zealand has to offer and bicycle rental is just $30 NZD in winter months. With the wineries opening at 11am, you can pedal along to each location (pre-booking is vital due to COVID-19 restrictions) and for a small cost, (sometimes even free!) you can sample around 6 different wines at each stop. Depending on your preference, bottles will settle around the $20 mark and are a delightful addition when watching the sunset, on the local beach, at the end of the day.

Wine Cycle Tours were our choice!

2 hours North of Hastings is Taupo. This hillside town is part of the Taupo Volcanic zone, an active volcanic area, home to the largest freshwater lake in Australasia; Lake Taupo. The town is widely known for its jet boat experiences and particularly, the Maori rock carving which is located in Mine Bay, along Lake Taupo. Using the BookMe website, we managed to find the Ernest Kemp boat tour which took guests out to view the carving for just $30 each. This tour also included a free beer or wine and a brief commentary about the contemporary art piece. Since Taupo and the surrounding areas are part of an active volcanic zone, this meant that there were plenty of thermal parks to visit. However, these can be expensive and we found the cheapest trail which still encompassed a lot of interesting features, was the ‘Craters of the Moon’. The boarded pathway is inclusive to all walking abilities and leads you around the various bubbling pools and steaming crevices.

Maori Rock Carving

Rotorua is known for its gurgling mud pools, erupting geysers and the constant lingering fart smell that shrouds the town. Perfect for nature enthusiasts, Rotorua is teaming with geothermal parks but don’t be swayed by the hefty entry costs! There are a number of free activities to enjoy here as well. Firstly, ‘Kurirau’ park is in the centre of town and offers a chance to see a variety of geothermal pools; all for free! Everywhere you wander in this small town, you’ll notice their misty waves billowing across the skies. Unfortunately, Kurirau doesn’t offer the chance to see an active geyser, but these exploding pillars of steamy water and the colourful sulphur pools are what an expensive $45 will get you if paying for the alternative ‘Te Puia’ geothermal reserve. For a splash of culture, travellers can visit Ohinemutu; a living Maori village which is a short stroll from Kurirau park and still has a large settlement today. (Make sure to keep photos to a minimum here, out of respect for the residents!) Rotorua’s other free activities include visiting Redwood park; a forest filled with the enormous, botanical giants and full of footpaths. Or even try visiting the Rotorua museum gardens! As another money saving tip, I’d recommend staying in the ‘Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park’, there you can enjoy the use of 4 natural hot springs included in the overnight price.

Craters of the Moon walk

Mt Maunganui is a further 1 hour drive towards the coast and the sea breeze will certainly clear your lungs of the sulphurous stink that Rotorua kindly exudes. If you wish to stay right on the beach and still be within a 10 minute walk to the centre, the ‘Mt Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park’ is your best campsite option and offers cheaper use of the neighbouring hot pools. The beauty of this little area is that you’re never far from BYOB restaurants and great happy hour deals such as $8 frozen rosé at Pronto’s beachfront bar. The real gem of this town has to be Mt Maunganui itself, the free walking track is around a 45 minute upward hike where you can overlook the glorious, blue seas as they shimmer along the shoreline. Another trail is the Motoriki blowhole walk which is situated on the small peninsula that juts out from the main beach – make sure you go during high tide and windy weather to see the spectacle in its full glory.

Mt Maunganui summit view!

We then headed towards Raglan, with a short stop on the way being McLaren falls. These miniature waterfalls are settled next to the swing bridge which leads to another local park. This area offers even more walking trails for those wishing to burn off those extra calories that they gained from their splurge along Mt Maunganui’s seaside ‘strip’. Raglan itself is a small, shabby chic town which has a penchant for great coffee and surfing. Visitors can rent body/ surf boards from the local shops for the price of around $30. Now, being the tail end of winter and as a blustery storm was beginning to hit, we decided to avoid this activity and instead, turned our attentions the following day to hitting the 4 hour Karioi hike on the outskirts of Raglan; after a strong morning coffee of course! Bridal Veil falls is a further 15 mins drive from the Karioi region and is another glorious natural attraction to visit.

Bridal Veil Falls

Waitomo is a 1hr 15 mins journey from Raglan and is best known for its glow worm caves. Trying to stay on a reasonable budget, the pricey excursions that were on offer didn’t really take our fancy but we were surprised by how amazing our experience was when visiting the free Ruakuri reserve. Firstly, we scoped out the short bush walk during daylight, to make sure we had an idea of where the track lead. Then, we returned once darkness fell and were astonished by how many of the little creatures littered the rock walls which surrounded the pathway. The small caves and bridges were an even more spectacular area to catch sight of the critters and for those who don’t want to take part in any abseiling glow worm tours, this free bush walk is still a worthwhile experience. Depending on which time of the year you decide to visit, you can even give a morning feed to the baby lambs and calves, when you stay at the local YHA hostel/ campsite.

YHA’s 2 week old lambs

Hamilton is a pretty average city in the North Island and could be missed if you’re strapped for time but the Hamilton Gardens are a gorgeous sight on a warm, sunny day. Another freebie, it will take you a couple of hours to view all of the exhibitions; each with a different, botanical theme. The city has a lot of shops and restaurants to choose from if you’re feeling peckish and you can spot a Rocky Horror Picture Show memorabilia statue along Victoria Street – there’s even a camera poised and ready to catch you performing the time warp.

Hamilton Gardens

You can’t visit the North Island and not see Hobbiton! Fans of the film or not, exploring the movie set is a fantastic experience and despite the $89 price tag, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity worth trying out. Your phone memory will no doubt be jammed with endless pictures of your grinning face alongside the rounded, wooden doors and you can even enjoy a free alcoholic drink at the ‘Green Dragon Inn’.

Hobbiton!

Try not to make the same mistake as we did for Coromandel! The town itself is over an hour’s drive from the famous Cathedral Cove, not ideal when you book accommodation this far from the attraction. Coromandel is a quaint, little village and has the Driving Creek railway which takes you on a (steady) informative train ride through the hills and overlooking the beautiful bay. This activity gives you a little bit of history on the area and passes the time if you’ve ended up further away from the cove than you’d originally hoped. You’ll also find a little surprise if travelling via the 309 road to Cathedral Cove; a large group of wild boars and their baby piggies will be wandering around the area as you pass ‘Stu’s wild pig farm’.

Driving Creek Railway’s view from the top

The Cathedral Cove trail takes you through a rainforest backdrop, around 45 minutes one way and opens up to the iconic rocky archway which over 500,000 travellers venture to each year. On a summer’s day, this beach is packed with sun worshippers, diving enthusiasts and picnicking families, so head there early for the best scenic photographs. Although overshadowed by the main attraction, I’d still recommend stopping at both Sting Ray and Gemstone bay which feature along this walk. These are also stunning, little hideaways and Hahei beach is a further 35 minute walk from the car park, in the opposite direction. This has a pristine, sandy shoreline with clear, blue waters; perfect for swimmers and snorkelers! Hot Water beach is also a short 10 minute drive from the cove and is best-known for its ability to heat up your tootsies as you dip them into the seawater filled sand holes which you can dig yourself.

Cathedral Cove

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and although it has been slammed for its lacklustre vibe, there are still a few activities which travellers can enjoy on the cheap. Being a city, it’s not short on a variety of cuisine and shopping options. The harbour offers trendy bars and restaurants with a sunset view, or you can often find cheap ticket deals floating around Facebook for the Auckland Sky Tower. We paid half price; $16 as we visited during Winter. For any free activities, these are further afield from the CBD. You can venture to the Botanic Gardens, hike up Mt Eden or even take a walk up to the One Tree Hill memorial statue which overlooks the city. On warmer days, the local beaches are also a great spot to enjoy a picnic!

Auckland Harbour

Waiheke Island is a little, tropical paradise, an hour’s ferry ride away from Auckland. Being so small, visitors can enjoy the scenery of this island best on foot. Idyllic beaches such as Onetangi and Palm beach are frequented often during the summer months but this place also boasts some great wineries. The island tends to offer a lot of guesthouse stays; cheap deals can be found easily on websites such as Booking.com. We had a fantastic stay at the ‘Waiheke Island Guesthouse’ which had fresh eggs in the morning from the on-site chickens and homemade cookies to munch down.

Onetangi Beach, Waiheke Island

The best part of New Zealand is its sheer, unspoilt nature and keeping costs to a minimum can be easy for those who make the most of its great outdoors and take full advantage of the beauty that this country has to offer. As a final word, we thank you New Zealand for a memorable 18 months, you will be missed but your taste in music certainly won’t.

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