Thailand? Bali? No, it's much closer

The water lapping at the shorelines was Aegean blue, the secluded beaches Whitsundays-worthy and then, as if on cue, a pod of dolphins appeared.

It took all my powers of restraint not to dive in and join them as they danced around our fast-moving boat, so spontaneous and joyous was the moment.

I wasn't expecting this. I knew the Bay of Islands atop the North Island of New Zealand (three hours' pleasant drive or a 35-minute flight north of Auckland) would be beautiful, but in my ignorance, I thought it would be something to be seen rather than experienced.

I didn't fathom a subtropical island holiday like those I've enjoyed on the Bahamas, Indonesia, Thailand and Greece. I didn't believe the water would be warm enough to swim in sans wetsuit, or that I would be donning a snorkel and ogling coral atolls, or that I could dive with dolphins in water so pristine I could see the intricate seashells crunching beneath my toes.

See: Greece's most beautiful island

Having explored the South Island many times with snow skis on my roof, I always believed the North Island would be a poor cousin to the South's alpine beauty. I was wrong. And how.

It was an excited and extremely well travelled girlfriend from Canada who enticed me in to join her on an AAT Kings trip, Northern Discovery, to explore the North Island. Coming from Australia, I explained to her, NZ can feel like an interstate sojourn, instead on an overseas adventure. She couldn't believe I was blase. For her, the trip was a bucket list tick, a dream destination. It turned out, she was right.

Our trip began in incredibly cool Auckland and it's hippest hotel, The Langham. With rock stars in the lift (Billy Idol and Cheap Trick were staying when we were there, as every artist who tours NZ tends to), their glamorous WAGS in the foyer and an ambience many grand hotels lack (oh, and perhaps the best buffet I've ever eaten – honest!) it was a perfect base.

And while the Bay of Islands was certainly spectacular, heading south from Auckland towards Rotorua was no anti-climax. Take, for example, our detour to Waitomo Caves' glow-worm grotto. Again, I thought this might be interesting, when the reality was astonishing. Imagine drifting in a boat in tranquil silence as millions of stars hover overhead, so close you can actually touch them. Instead of stars, these ethereal lights are actually living glow-worms, dwelling in darkened cathedrals of limestone dripped over thousands of years like a heavenly candelabra.

We  headed on to Rotorua, which is a place first smelt, rather than seen, thanks to the acrid smell of the area's geothermal activity  and probably the only place in the world where a golf course's hazards include bubbling mud and hissing steam geysers. There is so much to do in the area, but my first stop was the hot mineral pools (choose your temperature and recline overlooking the lake) at the Lake Spa Retreat, where I put on a thermal mud mask. The local mud beauty products are cheap and I swear by them.

Revived and relaxed, we spent the night enjoying a traditional "hangi" feast of lamb, chicken and vegetables slow cooked underground in the traditional way, while learning about Maori culture and customs at the interactive Tamaki Family Marae village.

The next day was a hard choice: visit some Lord of the Rings locations or the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. I chose the rumble and steam of active geysers and simmering mud, a unique and magical natural landscape that could well be the moon for its otherworldly magnificence. Next trip, I will seek out the villages of my hairy-footed friends from Middle Earth.

The following day's drive from Rotorua took in the rushing swirl of Huka Falls, the scenic shores of Lake Taupo, the snow-topped alpine scenery of Mt Ruapehu and then the postcard-pretty dairy country of Manawatu.

Before arriving in the happening city of Wellington, we enjoyed an exclusive AAT Kings experience with afternoon tea and delicious local wines in the company of Simon and Claudia Nottingham at their incredible property, Shenandoah.

The couple has painstakingly restored their home, redolent with history, to include a military museum of sorts, along with biggest collection of Harley Davidsons in the Southern Hemisphere (as much as I enjoyed the bikes, it was their pet pig who stole my heart).

From there, it was a short drive along the Kapiti Coast to Wellington, where we spent a final night enjoying everything this, young, vibrant city has to offer, including a cable car ride to Kelburn lookout, where the harbour city lies resplendent some 120 metres below.

It was a wonderful taste of New Zealand's north, one which has left me hungry for more. And so, I'm booking a summer holiday in the Bay of Islands. And this time, I won't be so ignorant as to not pack my flippers.




Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Qantas and Jetstar have regular flights from Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to several North Island airports. A hop across the Tasman takes a comfortable three hours from Australia's east coast, with heavy discounts available for advance bookings.


AAT Kings' eight-day Northern Discovery guided holiday starts at $2475 per person. See

Wendy Squires was a guest of AAT Kings.

See also: Ten things you can only do in New Zealand

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to New Zealand