Stretch your legs on the breathtaking Escarpment Track, running above the Kāpiti Coast in Wellington. 

10 free things to do in the North Island


Looking for free activities to flesh out your summer travel plans? Here are ten secret spots around the North Island to add to your wish list. Plus, we’ve got much more to discover in each region to help you keep exploring.

Botanica Whangārei, Northland

This gem of a garden just outside Whangārei City is deceptively bigger than you’d think, stretching over nearly an acre. With a fernery of natives across three shade houses, a small outdoor section, a room specialising in desert succulents, a Japanese garden and a heated conservatory with beautiful floral displays, make sure you set aside a decent chunk of time to enjoy Botanica Whangārei in full. Linger and soak in the tranquility of spaces filled with colourful and exotic plants. You can also opt to pack a picnic and enjoy the adjoining Cafler Park which has a lovely collection of specimen trees, a small rose garden and scented gardens.

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Northland

Whatipu, Auckland

Whatipu Scientific Reserve is a particularly special place on Auckland’s west coast. The beach, on the northern mouth of the Manukau Harbour, is battered and exposed, known for its wide openness and its history as the scene of kauri logging enterprises and ships coming to grief. It’s at the end of a challenging road so has maintained its isolation and, for this reason, it’s designated an area for science and education, with an emphasis on conservation and protection of its dunes, coastal vegetation, wetland and extensive birdlife. While you can visit and take long, wind-blown walks along the beach, you can’t take your dog, not even on a leash. There are several spectacular walks to enjoy here; a good short option is the Whatipu Heritage Walk which goes from the car park to the beach and is about 40 minutes return. To get to Whatipu, head west to Titirangi then take the road to Huia. Whatipu is at the very end of it.

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Auckland

Pori Pori Waterhole, Bay of Plenty

Loved by local thrill-seekers and largely undiscovered by out-of-towners, the Pori Pori waterhole in Lower Kaimāī is one of the best swimming spots in the Bay of Plenty. Access is easy if you don’t mind a river crossing. Best suited to confident swimmers, as the water is deep and you’ll have to jump off the rocks to get in, but there are some shallow rock pools for safe swimming and exploring, too. One of New Zealand’s best stretches of accessible white water can also be found right here on the Wairoa River, above State Highway 29. Every Sunday during summer, the power company opens the dam at nearby McLaren Falls which makes rafting and kayaking heaps of fun.  

Victoria Battery, Coromandel

On the banks of the Ohinemuri River opposite Waikino in The Coromandel you’ll find the remnants of one of New Zealand’s most impressive industrial sites. Constructed between 1897 and 1898, the Victoria Battery was the largest gold ore crushing battery in the country and was operational for 54 years until its closure in 1952. Today you can walk amongst the hulking concrete remains of cyanide tanks and ore roasting kilns. The original transformer house is now a museum where you can learn more about this intriguing site and the extensive gold mining activity that happened here. On open days you can also take a guided tour to explore underground tunnels or ride the small tram that winds amongst the relics. 

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in The Coromandel and Bay of Plenty

Kāwhia Hot Water Beach, Waikato

For a rustic bathing experience, head to Ocean Beach in Kāwhia. At two hours either side of low tide – BYO spade – and start digging for a free natural hot water spa accompanied by serene harbour views. While you may struggle to dig a pool more than about 20cm deep in the black sand, the water from the Te Puia Spring is pleasantly hot, though the temperature varies depending on location. It's an ideal west coast spot to catch a sunset if the tide is right. To reach the beach, head to the end of Ocean Beach Road and walk over the sand dunes to the edge of the ocean.  

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Waikato

The lakefront, Rotorua

The latest addition to the Rotorua Lakefront is the excellent new family-friendly playground. With wide wooden boardwalks looping alongside and out above the water, the lakefront is an ideal spot for walking, running or exploring on two wheels. The playground itself is designed for adventure. Kids can soar above the play area on one of two flying foxes, clamber across the rope course, shoot hoops at the half basketball court or burn off energy on the swings and slides. There’s also a dedicated toddler play area for littlies with a climbing wall, sand play area and carousel swing. All set against the scenic lakeside backdrop.

 >> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Rotorua

Lake Waikareiti, Eastland

In Te Reo, Waikareiti means ‘little rippling water,’ likely in reference to its location next to the much larger Lake Waikaremoana ‘the sea of rippling water.’ This small lake in Te Urewera is reached on an hour-long walk through gorgeous red and silver beech forest that’s home to native kākā and kākāriki. The most remarkable thing about Lake Waikareiti is its incredible water clarity. Formed by a massive landslide more than 1,800 years ago, the lake is crystalline, with a pale sandy bottom, and is popular for trout fishing. The track to reach the lake begins about 200m from the visitor centre. While you’re there, head a little further up Aniwaniwa Road to see the impressive Papakorito Falls.  

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Hawke’s Bay and Eastland

Paritutū, Taranaki

They call it a 'rock,’ which is bit of a misnomer for this giant craggy outcrop on the New Plymouth coastline. Sitting between the black sands of Back Beach and Ngāmotu Beach is the 156-metre-high Paritutū Rock, a short, steep, exhilarating climb that rewards the brave with outstanding views over the Taranaki region. Good footwear is advised – do not attempt this climb in jandals, because as you get higher, it gets scarier. For the last section of the 15-minute clamber you’ll be hauling yourself up almost vertical rock using chains. Paritutū was originally occupied by local Māori who flattened the top to make shelters and storage pits. Today, this level viewing platform allows you to absorb the 360º vistas over the ocean punctuated by Ngāmotu, the Sugar Loaf Islands and north to the mountains in Tongariro National Park.  

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Taranaki

Kuratau Lost Lagoon, Taupō

This is a mysterious spot that’s well off the beaten track. Locals keep this picturesque swimming hole a closely-guarded secret, and in fact it’s known by several different names. The Champagne Pools aka the Fairy Pond aka the Lost Lagoon is a deep underground spring emerging in a bush clearing on the outskirts of Tūrangi. With crystalline water so clear you can see all the stones on the bottom and natural rock formations perfect for leaping off, it’s worth making the effort to seek out this special pool. Be warned, the spring water is icy cold year-round. From Kuratau, about 30km north west of Tūrangi, park towards the end of Kuratau Hydro Road – if you get to the power station you’ve gone too far. Follow the stream, and the lagoon can be reached on a ten-minute walk through the bush on a faintly-marked track. 

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in the Central North Island

Paekākāriki Escarpment Track, Wellington

Keen to stretch your legs? Head to the Kāpiti Coast for one of the region's most stunning walks. The Paekākāriki Escarpment Track is part of the national Te Araroa Trail. Opened in 2016, this 10km path is chiselled into the hills about the Tasman Sea, between Paekākāriki and Pukerua Bay. You can do it in around 2.5 hours but allow time to take lots of photos because the views across the water and, on a good day, to the South Island in one direction and Mount Taranaki in the other, are pretty spectacular. The walk is great for families, but it is not recommended for the faint-hearted: you’ll scale around 1,200 very steep steps, navigate narrow pathways across ridge lines and traverse two swing bridges.

>> Find more Kiwi Gems and free things to do in Wellington and Wairarapa

More free things to do in the North Island

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Climb the soaring sand dunes at Lake Wainamu

Hidden behind the towering black sand dunes near Auckland’s Te Henga / Bethells Beach is a freshwater lake, ideal for safe summer swimming.  Read the story . . . 

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Hike or bike The Coromandel Coastal Walkway

Explore the northern tip of The Coromandel Peninsula on foot or mountain bike along the spectacular Coromandel Coastal Walkway.  Read the story . . . 

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Get away from it all at Kai Iwi Lakes

Summer camping at Northland’s Kai Iwi Lakes is a quintessential Kiwi experience.  Read the story . . . 

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Take an alpine walk to Taranaki Falls

Taranaki Falls are one of the Tongariro National Park’s most impressive and accessible waterfalls.  Read the story . . .