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Ten Days in the Subtropical North

It always astounds me that so many overseas visitors arrive in Auckland and immediately drive or fly south - or that they avoid the North Island altogether in favor of the south. Sure, the South Island landscapes are more dramatic, but the top of the North, especially in summer, is a quintessential Kiwi experience: white-sand beaches, warm oceans, endless days of swimming and sunbathing, barbecues at the beach, campfires, parties, boats, surf, and sun. I've mapped out 10 days that include three of Auckland's nearby islands to give you a feel for the more laid-back side of New Zealand life. Waiheke Island is the most populated and the most popular and heaven for wine drinkers, while the much less-visited Great Barrier Island (many New Zealanders have never even been there) is an unspoiled treasure that operates on its own clock.

Day 1: Arrive in Auckland

Rest for a while before heading off to Viaduct Harbour, which will give you an instant appreciation of New Zealanders' obsessions with boats. Sit in one of the stylish cafes and restaurants, and watch the boats come and go. Visit the New Zealand National Maritime Museum for an insight into what the ocean really means to northerners. In the afternoon, take the Explorer Bus to Auckland Museum, where you can admire the views and the grassy green swathe of the Botanic Gardens. Drive around to Mission Bay's seaside promenade and have a picnic dinner as you watch people swim at sunset.

Day 2: Take to the Water

Have a rare sailing experience on America's Cup yacht, NZL 40, or join Fullers Auckland for an invigorating cruise of Waitemata Harbour. It's all sea spray, sunshine, and flapping sails out there, plus you'll have great views of the city skyline. Enjoy lunch wharf-side and then go up the Sky Tower for the best views in New Zealand.

Day 3: Waiheke Island

Rise early and take the ferry to Waiheke Island. Save time and go straight into a guided tour of the island, or hire a car and drive around the beaches, wineries, and pretty, unpopulated bays. There's something intangible at work here and you'll quickly be seduced into the relaxed pace of island life. Have lunch at Te Whau Vineyard and dinner at Mudbrick Vineyard, or eat fish and chips on Onetangi Bay after a late-afternoon swim.

Day 4: Matakana & Kawau Island

Head back to Auckland and then drive north to Warkworth and the Matakana/Sandspit area. Catch a water taxi across to Kawau Island for a fun day out. New Zealand's early governor, Sir George Grey, built the historic Mansion House on the island; you'll find unexpected Australian "natives" here - eucalyptus trees, wallabies, kookaburras, and rosella parrots.

Day 5: The Bay of Islands

Back on the mainland, drive north to Paihia. Base yourself here if you want to try all the attractions, or go to Russell if you're after a peaceful retreat. Visit Waitangi Treaty Grounds for a dose of Maori culture and some lovely boardwalks through native bush and mangrove swamps. Wander through the cool, green leafy grounds to find Waikokopu Café and the massive Maori waka (canoe) on display by the beach. Sit on the beach and enjoy the sun.

Day 6: Kerikeri

This is our northern fruit capital. Enjoy citrus, persimmons, kiwifruit, and macadamia nuts. Stop at Kerikeri Bakehouse for picture-perfect picnic food. Take your bounty down to the Kerikeri Basin and eat by the river before exploring the local sights. Spend the afternoon at Marsden Estate Winery or drive to a local beach and swim until the sun goes down.

Day 7: Drive to Auckland

Drive back to Auckland Airport and catch a plane to Great Barrier Island. It's a 35-minute flight in a small plane, so don't go taking everything but the kitchen sink. Your fellow passengers are likely to be dogs, surfers with their boards, and other eccentric sorts who have made this charming island home. The flight is a worthwhile experience in its own right. Fly in over the beach and drop down onto the grass runway. Grab a hire car and make your way to Earthsong Lodge on the sandhills of Medlands Beach.

Day 8: The North of the Island

Drive north to Glenfern Sanctuary and take Tony Bouzaid's guided walk through native bush. Watch for dolphins leaping about in the deep green waters of Fitzroy Harbour. Drive farther north along unpaved roads to Whangapoua Beach and don't be surprised if you're the only person there. It's a surreal experience to feel like the last person left on earth as you stand on this perfect horseshoe of pristine white sand. Walk along the beach to the S.S. Wairarapa shipwreck graves.

Day 9: Tryphena & Okupu

Spend the morning at Tryphena. Take a kayak trip and watch for the friendly dolphins that swim here. Drive back to Claris for lunch at Claris Texas Café and ask about the historic pigeon post at the postal agency next door. Follow the road over to Okupu, calling at Christine Young's unique little museum. Drop down to the beach, park your car, and walk to the south end of Okupu Beach to meet with the little track that takes you around the headland and into Blind Bay.

Day 10: Fly Back to Auckland

You'll have fallen in love with "the Barrier" by now, so have a lazy morning on the beach, go for a swim, watch the surfers, or take a boat ride with Richard Lintott to see the gannet colony. Fly back to Auckland in the late afternoon to connect with your flight.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.