Travel with Christina Valhouli: North Island, New Zealand

There’s a good reason why New Zealand tops many travel bucket lists: There’s nowhere like it on earth. This island nation in the middle of the Pacific is home to an otherworldly landscape, dotted by volcanoes, geothermal springs and eerie forests. Beyond the landscape, plenty of opportunities present themselves to see contemporary art and architecture, as well as the rich cultural history of its indigenous Maori people. On this trip, I explored the design hotspots of the North Island.

Auckland | Surrounded by more than 40 dormant volcanoes, New Zealand’s largest city is also its art and design hub. Drop your bags at Hotel DeBrett (2 High Street), the city’s only boutique hotel, which has a midcentury modern design. The recently remodeled Auckland Art Gallery (corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Streets) is crafted from local kauri wood and is meant to evoke a tree-like canopy. Don’t miss the 19th-century portraits of tattooed Maoris by Charles Goldie. The Auckland War Memorial Museum aucklandmuseum.com is housed in a neoclassical building on top of a dormant volcano. Come here to see the world’s largest collection of Maori and Polynesian artifacts. The Britomart is central Auckland’s most stylish neighborhood, and it offers a mix of restored historic buildings and new developments. Refuel at the farm-to-table Ortolana (33 Tyler Street) or grab a bowl of pho at Cafe Hanoi (Excelsior Building, Galway and Commerce streets). See local and international artists at the Britomart Project Space (26/28 Customs Street East), which has rotating exhibits. Take a cab to the nearby Ponsonby neighborhood, and start off at Ponsonby Central (136/146 Ponsonby Road), an old printing warehouse that’s been converted into a retail and dining space. Pick up stylish souvenirs at the Poi Room (130 Ponsonby Road), a gallery showcasing New Zealand artists. At Annex (63 Ponsonby Road), owner Anne Wilson transforms vintage maps into paper dresses.

Rotorua | After leaving Auckland, hit the Thermal Explorer Highway to reach Rotorua, New Zealand’s top area for geothermal springs and bubbling mud pools. At Wai-O-Tapu (201 Waiotapu Loop Road), walk along the gravel paths or follow the boardwalk over the wildly different colored pools. The Artist’s Palette pool has swirls of lemon, green and orange. Te Puia (Hemo Road) is famous for its Pohutu geyser, which erupts 20 times a day, but is also home to the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, which keeps traditions such as basket weaving and boat building alive. Visitors can see works in progress and artisans perfecting their craft. Housed in a Tudor mansion, the Rotorua Museum (Government Gardens Oruawhata Drive) was once used as a spa retreat; current exhibits highlight the area’s past as a spa destination. The best dining options are at the pedestrian only Eat Street. Tuck into grilled halloumi or beef with coconut puree at Atticus Finch (1106 Tutanekai Street). The most luxurious place to stay is Treetops (351 Kearoa Road, Horohoro), tucked away on 2,500 private acres of forest. The guest villas are contemporary, and glass walls make the most of the scenery.

Hawke’s Bay | Think of Hawke’s Bay as the Sonoma or Calistoga of New Zealand, combined with Art Deco architecture and ocean views. One of the best ways to explore the area’s wineries is to hire a bike from Takaro Trails (9 Nelson Quay, Napier) and head to Elephant Hill (Clifton Road, Haumoana), which has a dramatic, modern cellar and restaurant. Black Barn (Black Barn Road, Havelock North) hosts outdoor concerts at its amphitheater and is home to Black Barn Kitchen, a boutique stocked with locally made craft beer and fig cakes. To feel right at home, stay at The Lodge at Craggy Range (253 Waimarama Road, Havelock North), a sleek home with a private plunge pool and gourmet chef’s kitchen. Hawke’s Bay is also a foodie paradise with locally made artisanal cheese, honey and chocolate. Chalk & Cheese (393 Te Mata Road, Havelock North) is the modern retail store and cafe operated by Origin Earth dairy. In between eating, check out the Art Deco gem of Napier, which was flattened by a devastating earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in Art Deco style. Tour the city in a vintage Packard through the Art Deco Trust (7 Tennyson Street, Napier).

Hamilton & Waikato | This area south of Auckland is known for being New Zealand’s horse country but is also home to two can’t-miss sights. A tour of the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves (39 Waitomo Caves Road, Waitomo Caves, Otorohanga) begins deep in a limestone cave, followed by a boat ride in complete darkness to see thousands of tiny glowing worms on the cave’s ceiling. The visitor’s center is an unexpected architectural gem. The sprawling Hamilton Gardens (Hungerford Crescent, Hamilton) is arranged as a series of architecturally themed areas, so in one visit you’ll stroll past Italian Renaissance themed gardens, as well as a modernist area, complete with a Marilyn Monroe mural and a glass pavilion.

Spotlight: Sharon Stewart | While any trip to New Zealand guarantees an extraordinary experience, Sharon Stewart can take a trip to the next level. She runs Love My New Zealand lovemynewzealand.com, which arranges bespoke luxury experiences that can range from off-roading in the forest in a Range Rover while a private chef arranges lunch to tea and scones at nearby Piha Beach, known for its black sand. Here, she shares some of her top spots in New Zealand. Waitakere Estate (573 Scenic Drive, Waiatarua, Auckland). Just a 30-minute drive from Auckland, you’d think you landed in Jurassic Park as the hotel is nestled deep in the Waitakere rainforest. I adore high tea on a Sunday with its old-world charm whilst looking over the magnificent native bush. Geothermal Hot Pools (Thames, Coromandel). A sigh escapes as we immerse our tired bodies into this little oasis of calm of 38 degree Celsius natural, mineral hot pool bliss. Karangahake Gorge and Goldmine (State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi). A hidden gem I found with my children. We giggle as we walk through the kilometer-long old railway tunnel pretending to be zombies before breaking out into sunshine and stepping through the mighty gorge in full rushing glory. Glow Worm Kayaking at Night (39 Waitomo Caves Road, Otorohanga). Cambridge is a tranquil old world town, and for me, gliding through glow worm canyons at night, looking at incredible silent sparkling cities, is pure magic.

Spotlight: Giapo Grazioli | Giapo Grazioli has been called the “Willy Wonka of Ice Cream.” The Auckland-based, Italian-born entrepreneur whips up wildly flavored gourmet gelato at the artisanal Giapo (279 Queen Street) in Auckland. His menu is constantly changing, but flavors have included siamu popo, a coconut and caramel jam from Samoa, and The Kiss, inspired by actress Sophia Loren and topped with big, red chocolate lips. He shares some of his favorite New Zealand experiences. Try the traditional Maori hangi meal, where food is placed in a basket, buried beneath the ground, and slowly cooked. Experience the hospitality of the Maori culture at the Tamaki Maori Village (1220 Hinemaru Street, Rotorua). Gate crash (or get invited) to a Sunday kiwi BBQ or stay at The Huka Lodge (271 Huka Falls Road, Taupo) one of the most beautiful resorts in the world with a sublime combination of natural beauty, impeccable service and magnificent food.

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