31 best things to do in the central North Island

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Image: Visit Ruapehu

Mine Bay. Image: Love Taupō


Huka Falls

Timber Trail

Taupō Tandem Skydiving

31 best things to do in the central North Island

Dominated by the enormous Lake Taupō and a trio of volcanoes including Mount Ruapehu, the Central Plateau is sporting a plethora of natural wonders, adventure destinations and relaxing retreats.

Go fishin’

Anglers will think they’ve died and gone to heaven with the world-class trout fishing on offer around here. You can seek out your own spot on back-country rivers, beaches and Lake Taupō, or take a cruise or charter to learn the best spots from the locals. Tongariro Lodge and Chris Jolly Outdoors offer guided fly fishing expeditions where you’ll get access to some of the best brown and rainbow trout fishing in the world, and with Fish Lake Taupō Charters, you’ll get a stunning scenic cruise along with your freshly-caught dinner.

Get amongst the cruisy life

Speaking of cruises, it’s essential to get out on the waters of New Zealand’s largest lake at some point, and a cruise is a beautiful and relaxing way to do it. You’ll get to admire the natural wonders and hidden treasures of Lake Taupō and learn more about the culture and history of the region while kicking back on a catamaran, yacht or steamboat.

Take a wild ride on a white-water raft

What better way to appreciate the Central Plateau’s wicked rapids than by careening down them in a rubber boat? With several great operators to choose from, you can experience the heart-pounding thrill of grade 3 rapids with professional guides, and you might even get a stop off at some hot pools on your way back.

Explore from the water on a SUP or a ‘yak

Kayak along the Waikato river, see bungy jumpers taking the plunge overhead and keep an eye on the crystal-clear water for trout, or experience the highest paddleboard adventure at 616m above sea level with My Kiwi Adventure.

Hike into Mordor

National Park boasts some of the most striking scenery in the North Island, and its centrepiece, Tongariro National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its unique landscape and cultural significance. Get the full impact of this breathtaking area by embarking on a Tongariro Crossing Guided Walk. The one-day Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes you past the famous emerald lakes and right up to the real-life Mt Doom, AKA Mt Ngāuruhoe. If the mountainous terrain and incredible views of this one-dayer aren’t enough for you, carry on to complete the three-to-four-day Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

Hit the slopes

Some of the North Island’s best skiing can be found in this region, with New Zealand’s largest field, Whakapapa, and its sister field Tūroa both found on Mt Ruapehu, as well as smaller club field Tukino on the eastern slopes. Tukino offers great off-piste action away from the crowds, while Tūroa and Whakapapa  give you the full mountain amenities, including excellent beginners’ areas as well as plenty of black runs to keep the experts happy.

Marvel at the Mine Bay Māori Rock Carving

The awe-inspiring 10-metre Māori rock carving at Mine Bay is one of those Lake Taupō bucket list things you won’t want to miss. Accessible by guided tour, kayak or cruise, the carving is a dramatic modern likeness of tohunga Ngātoro-i-rangi, and the sight of his stern face emerging into view across the pristine waters as you round the rock face is one you won’t soon forget.

Be blown away at Lava Glass Studio

Ever seen the way liquid glass moves? Visit the Lava Glass Studio to get a look into the fascinating art of glassblowing, see some of the largest pieces of glass blown in New Zealand and explore the incredible Glass Sculpture Garden with its beautiful manicured gardens and more than 600 glass works of art. Check out the handcrafted wares in the glass art shop on the way out.

Grab a photo op with a giant carrot

This is one of those world-famous-in-New-Zealand things that might seem just a little bit quirky, but honestly, where else do you get a chance to have your photo taken next to a carrot twice your size? Ohakune is not only the carrot capital of New Zealand, but also the gateway to the Tongariro National Park and a popular choice for skiers and snowboarders to stay before heading up Mt Ruapehu.

Get some waterfall action

The mighty Waikato and Tongariro Rivers offer literal tonnes of waterfalls to visit. The thundering Huka Falls are one of New Zealand’s most visited natural attractions, where nearly a quarter of a million litres of water per second hurtle through a rocky channel over an 11-metre waterfall. Also worth checking out are the Otupoto Falls, which emerge from a cliff and fall directly into Lake Taupō, and Tieke Falls, which can be reached along the popular and easy Waihāhā River Trail.

Roam the countryside on four wheels

This ridiculously fun off-roading experience takes you on an exhilarating tour of back country scenery, from beautiful native bush in Taupō to farmland in Tongariro National Park. Most operators offer lessons before setting out and will cater rides to the group’s ability.

On yer bike

With so many beautiful scenic rides in the area, including two New Zealand Cycle Trail Great Rides, cyclists and mountain bikers will be spoiled for choice in the Central Plateau. The Great Lake Trail takes you around the edges of Lake Taupō through lush forest, past waterfalls, beaches and a volcanic gorge, with some truly spectacular views from high points on the trail. The Timber Trail winds through Pureora Forest Park, home to 1000-year-old podocarps and passing historic attractions like tramways, suspension bridges and old logging machinery.

Feed baby prawns at Huka Prawn Park

There’s probably nowhere else in New Zealand where you can visit a prawn nursery and experience the strange sensation of feeding baby prawns by hand. The prawn fishing part of the park is currently closed due to a decline in numbers, but there are still heaps of activities to entertain the whole family, including aqua trikes, pedal boats, and water cannons. You can also feed the trout, take a bush walk and test the kids’ skills with a treasure hunt.

Visit the home of the haka

Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha is said to have first muttered the famous Ka Mate haka while hiding from pursuers in a kumara pit. This haka would later be made world-famous by the All Blacks. Learn all about its origins at Opotaka Historic Reserve, a Māori pa site on the edge of Lake Rotoaira where you can see the remains of the kāinga (settlement) that was once home to Te Rauparaha.

Look out over the Wairakei steam fields

The raw power of nature meets the industrial genius of human engineering at Wairakei Geothermal Power Station, where you’ll see the maze of pipes, enormous steel cauldrons and masses of steam billowing straight out of the ground. It’s a striking visual clash of industry and nature, and a rather lovely landscape into the bargain.

Try an all-natural hot tub

Soak in natural rock pools or under a waterfall in the famous (and free) Otumuheke Stream hot pools at Spa Thermal Park. A historic and culturally significant meeting place for Māori, it has recently undergone a significant upgrade including new changing rooms and a hot spring seating area. It’s also next to the starting point of the Huka Trail, leading to the Huka Falls, and some excellent bike trails along the Waikato River.

Something’s fishy here

It’s time to teach the young’uns how to fish.

Take your kids fishing and visit the trout hatchery at the Tongariro National Trout Centre. The hatchery is by the Tongariro River, one of the best fishing rivers in the world. See one of the country’s best collections of native freshwater fish at the Native Freshwater Aquarium, and learn about the history of rainbow trout in New Zealand and the history of fishing on the Tongariro River the Freshwater History Museum.

Feel the power at the Aratiatia Rapids

One of the most popular free attractions in the North Island, the raging rapids of the Waikato River drop 28 metres over the distance of one kilometre, and this natural power has been harnessed by Aratiatia Dam to produce sustainable electricity. Four times a day, you can witness the spectacle of a controlled water release from the dam surging through the narrow gorge.

Up your game at Mind Junction

Whether you’re getting lost in the Giant Maze, playing a round of mini golf, testing your pilot skills in the Flight Simulator or gazing in wonder at the hundreds of creations at the LEGO Display, this family attraction is a fun day out for all.

Buzz off to Huka Honey Hive 

If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, you’re going to want to get amongst the free honey, mead & liqueur tastings at Huka Honey Hive. You can also see the bees at work in the beehives, try your hand at beekeeping on a Honey Shack Tour (October to April), and browse the incredible range of health and wellness products, gifts, and honey-based skincare. Relax out in the gardens with a delicious honey ice cream in summer, or sit by the fire with a hot drink in winter.

Find your bliss at Taupō DeBretts Hot Springs

This beautiful thermal resort is the place to get your relax on in gorgeous and well-equipped surrounds. Kids will love the warm water playground, dragon hydroslide and racing slides, while grown-ups will find just as much to smile about in the enriching mineral waters of the hot pools. Take treating yourself to the next level and indulge in one of the spa packages, including massage, facials and mud wraps.

See nature’s extremes at Orakei Korako Cave & Geothermal Park

Between Taupō and Rotorua is a wonderland of geysers, hot springs, mud pools and geographical marvels just waiting to be explored. The park boasts the most active geysers of any geothermal park in New Zealand, so you know you’ll get some excellent steam-gushing action while you take in the vibrant colours and amazing silica terraces – the largest of their kind since the Pink and White Terraces were lost in 1886. Ruatapu Cave is New Zealand’s only geothermal cave, extending 35m down to the Waiwhakaata or Pool of Mirrors at the bottom.

Experience New Zealand’s only cliff top bungy

Admire the stunning scenery from a cliff top, high above the Waikato River before flinging yourself into the great expanse, either on an AJ Hackett Bungy or Swing. You can choose to touch the water below or stay dry on the bungy, and you’ll reach speeds of up to 70kph as you soar through the air on the Taupō Swing.

Burn some sick water donuts with Huka Falls Jet

The only jet boat company to take you right to the base of the mighty Huka Falls, a ride with Huka Falls Jet will make memories to last a lifetime. Zoom past the incredible cliffs and bush as well as attractions such as the Aratiatia Dam, Wairakei Geothermal Power Station and Huka Prawn Park, and experience the exhilaration of the Huka Jet’s trademark 360-degree spin.

Start your engines

Come along to experience the sheer excitement of drifting, superbike and drag car racing, as well as national race track series events for cars and motorcycles at Taupō’s Motorsport Park. It’s the only circuit in the country able to host Grade 2 international motorsport events.

Get thermal at Tokaanu

A short walk through the steaming hot pools and glooping mud pools in the adjacent Tokaanu thermal area near Tūrangi will lead you to the family-friendly Tokaanu Thermal Pools, with private natural mineral pools as well as a large public pool. These thermal springs have long been used by local Māori tribe Ngāti Kurauia for their therapeutic qualities.

Skydive into the blue

Get a whole eyeful of the region’s incredible scenery from 18,500ft. Rated the best skydive on Tripadvisor, Taupō Tandem Skydiving has been operating for over 25 years and offers four different height options, with a freefall of up to 75 seconds! See coast-to-coast views, snow-capped volcanoes and pristine blue waters on this uniquely heart-pounding experience.

Hit the greens

The Taupō region is proud home to two of Aotearoa’s top golf courses, Kinloch and Wairakei. The Jack Nicklaus-designed course at Kinloch takes in stunning views over Lake Taupō and provides plenty of challenge on its undulating fairways over acres of countryside. The Wairakei golf course is designed to blend with its natural surroundings and is actually a wildlife sanctuary, where takahē and kiwi are protected in a predator-free environment. You’ll be surrounded by natural beauty and a chorus of birdsong on this world-class championship course.

The most beautiful worms you’ll ever see

The sight of what resembles a starry night sky from within a cave or underground tunnel is one of those unique New Zealand marvels you won’t want to miss out on, and the Kakahi glow-worms not far from Taumarunui are one of the places you can see this natural wonder for free.

Stop and smell the lavender

Located along the historic Forgotten World Highway just outside of Taumarunui lies a photogenic and olfactory delight in Lauren’s Lavender Farm. The flowers are in full bloom between late December and early March and you can enjoy a bite to eat in the café and browse the beautiful lavender-infused products and local art in the shop all year round.

Go behind military scenes at the National Army Museum

This unique museum is all about showcasing and remembering New Zealand’s military history, telling the stories of Kiwi soldiers and exhibiting hidden treasures and photographs from past wars. The museum is located along the Desert Road, which is itself worth a journey for its almost otherworldy beauty.

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