Three of the best day trips from Auckland – the Waitakere Ranges, Waitomo Caves and Bay of Islands.
Auckland makes a great base for exploring New Zealand’s North Island. Many of the country’s highlights are reachable within a day trip from the biggest city. Ancient trees, boat rides through glowworm-lit caves, adrenalin-packed cruises between islands and places of great spiritual significance to the Maori are just some of the options available.
The stunning Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands
You don’t necessarily associate New Zealand with laid-back, beachy destinations, but the Bay Of Islands is the place where Aucklanders come to chill out in the sunshine. According to a 2006 study, only Rio De Janeiro has bluer skies than this part of the world.
The name may not win any awards for originality, but at least it’s accurate. There are over 150 islands stretched around the bay, making cruises around them extremely popular.
Some are more relaxed than others, but if you want to go for an adrenalin rush, then a jet boat is the way forward. These high-octane craft crank up the speed dial, let the sea spray in all directions and occasionally get perilously close to the rocks.
One of the more popular routes is to head through the Hole In The Rock (I did mention that originality isn’t a strong point in naming things here, didn’t I?). The trip does exactly what it says on the tin.
There are plenty of other options here – kayaking, swimming with dolphins and just having a lazy splash between the main islands are all pleasant ways to pass the time.
But it’s not all recreation in the Bay of Islands – there’s plenty of history too. The town of Russell was New Zealand’s first capital city and developed a charming reputation of being the “Hellhole of the Pacific” due to its boisterous clientele of drunken sailors and whalers. It has cleaned up its act now, and most people stay either in Russell or nearby Paihia.
The Bay of Islands was also modern New Zealand’s birthplace. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi – the controversial agreement between the English and the Maori that tackled issues of sovereignty and land ownership – was signed here.
Today the Waitangi National Reserve is a giant cultural centre. The Treaty House – where the controversial agreement was signed – is now both memorial and museum. A copy of the treaty is inside, while the gardens outside are wonderful on a summer’s day. Meanwhile, the visitor information centre is packed with information, Maori weaponry and video displays.
There are also daily Maori cultural shows to watch.
Be amazed at the Waitomo caves
Over millions of years, the layers of limestone under Waitomo have been buckled and bent by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The gaps have become an extensive cave system, which was first properly explored in 1887. Two years later, parts were opened up as a tourist attraction.
The Waitomo caves have been wowing visitors ever since, and a variety of options are available for poking around them. At the more extreme end of the scale is a proper caving adventure, complete with climbing and abseiling, but the introductory option is a 45 minute walk-through tour.
The first surprise is that parts of the chambers seem like they’re gleaming – the white limestone makes for brighter caves than most (when it’s lit up, of course).
Some of the rock formations, such as the ‘pipe organ’ in the largest cavern (known as The Cathedral) are hundreds of thousands of years old. The Cathedral also has plenty of stalactites and stalagmites, plus great acoustics – the likes of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Rod Stewart have performed concerts here.
But what makes the Waitomo Caves unique are the arachnocampa luminosa larvae. Better known as glowworms, they form a series of tiny lights across the roof of the cave.
The light is designed to attract food. Sandflies and mosquitoes that are brought into the caves by the Waitomo River fly up towards the light where they are trapped on sticky silk-like lines that dangle from the larvae. Taking a look at hundreds of these lines dangling down is pretty incredible, but the real jaw-dropping awe factor comes when you take a boat out on the river.
The boat drifts through the cave in pitch darkness, but the glowworms light the way, creating a celestial pattern of illumination. Floating through in complete silence, with only drops of water plopping into the river to interrupt, is one of those rare occasions where the word ‘awesome’ is truly appropriate.
For the more active types, it’s also possible to see the glowworms light the way from the inside of a tube; one of Waitomo’s best alternative adventures is tubing through them along the river.
Under an hour’s drive from Central Auckland, yet a world away, the Waitakere Ranges are a green escape for the city dwellers.
And it’s the high rainfall we have to thank for saving the area. In the early days of settlement, up until the 1920s, the Waitakere Ranges were prized largely for the abundance of kauri trees. The huge giants of the rainforest were chopped down for timber, and now there are few of the really big ones left.
But its uses as a water catchment area let to protective measures, and now the regrowth of the forest leads to a wilderness feel.
The natural beauty of the region cannot be understated. There are sensational views of Auckland and both its harbours from the many lookouts, while the carpet of trees and ferns covers the dramatic hillsides.
It’s worth taking a walk through one of the few remaining outcrops of giant kauris. For some perspective, some of these have been around for over 1,000 years. They were there before the first humans ever arrived in New Zealand.
The highlight of the trip, however, is Karekare Beach. This black sand beauty featured in hit movie The Piano, and is reached via a steep, winding round. The desolate look of the beach is in strict contrast to the vividness stream running into it and bright green surrounding hills.
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