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New Zealand’s North Island

A week of adventure on New Zealand's North Island left our family exhilarated and eager for more.

New Zealand packs a mighty punch as an accessible and inclusive holiday destination. Whether you are an adrenaline seeker or nature lover, you’ll find plenty of ways to explore New Zealand’s North Island.

After two previous visits to the South Island, the time had come for our family to head north to explore the beaches, thermal wonderlands, and forests of New Zealand’s North Island. A week of adventure left us entertained, exhilarated, and eager to explore more.

Taupo

Taupo is centrally located in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, approximately 3.5 hours’ drive from Auckland. Its location provided an ideal base for our day tripping around the region.

Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings & Sunset Cruise

Taupo has a long list of must-see attractions, the most famous being Lake Taupo. It’s often referred to as the great inland sea of New Zealand’s North Island. Locals flock to the area in summer to enjoy a variety of watersports and other adventures.

We chose to explore the lake with a relaxing sunset cruise on the electric eco-yacht Barbary. The famous Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings were listed as the highlight of the trip, and they did not disappoint. Standing 14 meters above the water, the giant rock carving of Ngatoroirangi is one of the most extraordinary contemporary Maori artworks on New Zealand’s North Island. After taking it in, a refreshing swim in the lake and a pizza snack (with a glass of local wine to wash it down) ensured we all disembarked happy.

Two young people smiling on a sailboat, on blue waters of Lake Taupo
Big smiles on the sunset cruise on Lake Taupo, in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island.

Due to limited space on board, we sailed without our son’s wheelchair. For visitors needing to remain in their wheelchair, Chris Jolly Outdoors offers a similar cruise on Lake Taupo with wheelchair access on the Cruise Cat (gangway width 73cm). As with most boats, the steepness of the gangway will depend on water levels at the time of booking.

Getting Steamed Up Amid The Geothermals

Overcast skies, plumes of steam, and bubbling mud makes a visit to Craters Of The Moon an otherworldy experience.

An accessible boardwalk leads visitors around the popular tourist attraction. It was created in the 1950s, when the nearby power station lowered underground water levels. As hot water was drawn from deep within the field, the water level in the reservoir dropped and the remaining water boiled more violently, producing more steam. Large quantities of this extra steam escaped at Craters Of The Moon, which now draws curious tourists from around the world. Some inclines along the boardwalk required extra muscle-power with our son’s manual wheelchair.

Two people, one standing and one in a wheelchair, on a boardwalk in amongst fog at Craters Of The Moon
Craters Of The Moon is an otherworldly experience on New Zealand’s North Island.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a 40-minute drive from Taupo. It’s the most popular and colourful geothermal attraction of New Zealand’s North Island. The Lady Knox Geyser is a major draw-card. Enthusiastic crowds gather in the amphitheatre to watch its assisted eruption, which reaches heights of 10-20 meters.

That was impressive, but our favourite attraction was the Champagne Pool hot spring. At 65 meters in diameter, it’s the largest hot spring on New Zealand’s North Island. It formed an estimated 700 years ago, as a result of a hydrothermal eruption.

We managed a day at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland with our son’s manual wheelchair, but it was tough going in some areas. We left thinking that a power wheelchair would be an asset.

Get Your Motor Running In Taupo

New Zealanders love their adventure sports, and they have an inclusive attitude. So, it was no surprise, when my daughter wanted to go quad biking, that the owner of Taupo Quad Adventures found a way for my son to join in, too.

My husband and daughter hopped on their bikes, and my son and I joined the owner in a buggy. We were all decked out in wet weather gear (practical, but far from fashionable), ready for the muddy, messy conditions. Our gear had to be hosed off at the end, testament to a truly immersive experience. We all left smiling from ear-to-ear.

Two people in a motorised buggy, next to two people on separate quad bikes, on a muddy path in green scrubland
Start your engines at Taupo Quad Adventures on New Zealand’s North Island.

Rotorua

Cruising The Tracks

Rotorua is an easy 60-minute drive from Taupo, home to world-first RailCruising. The RailCruising journey may be sedate, but it proved a winner with our whole family, including our transport-loving son. The rail stretches 19km, between Mamaku and Tarukenga Railway Stations. Ever-changing scenery and the audio tour kept us entertained as we cruised along at a leisurely 20km per hour. The silence of our surrounds was only broken by the clickety-clack of the RailCruiser of the tracks, and the giggling of the occupants in our rail car.

Visitors need to be able to transfer from a wheelchair to step into the vehicle. It has a high side, so we needed to use portable stairs, provided by RailCruising.

Relaxing in Muddy Waters

Relaxing in a thermal pool is a rite of passage when visiting New Zealand’s North Island. Hell’s Gate Rotorua is the only Maori-owned thermal pool. They combine mud baths and thermal pools with a spectacular geothermal walk.

As well as being a lovely relaxing experience, the geothermal mud has unique qualities, providing a gentle exfoliation of the skin. It’s also just plain fun covering yourself in mud, and it makes for great photo opportunities.

Two young people in a mud pool at Hells Gate
There are excellent photo opportunities if you don’t mind getting a little messy, at Hell’s Gate Rotorua.

Time in the mud pools is limited to 20 minutes for safety. Then, it’s time to rinse off and relax in the thermal pools.

Afterwards, we wandered past the many bubbling mud pools, took a native bush walk, and saw New Zealand’s only mud volcano. Hell’s Gate is also home to Kakahi Falls, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere, with a temperature of 40°C.

As we were travelling with our son’s off-road tyres on his manual wheelchair, we managed to negotiate the uneven terrain involved in the geothermal walk. A power wheelchair would have made it easier, and in retrospect, we would choose to take the walk first before relaxing in the pools.

Auckland

As we were visiting New Zealand in the summer, our only choice to hit the slopes was at Snowplanet, an indoor snow recreation centre located in Silverdale (about 30 minutes north of Auckland).

Two snow tracks allowed us to try snow tubing for the first time. A ski mat, which works like a travelator, helped us get our son to the top of the track. From there, we were able to double our son for the ride down on the tube. The average temperature is -5°C, so appropriate clothing needs to be worn or hired.

We were keen to thaw out after our time at Snowplanet, so we took a 15-minute drive to the coast. We swapped our thermals for swimmers at Orewa Beach. The compact sand allowed us to get close to the water with our son’s wheelchair, and enjoy a swim. Since our visit, a beach wheelchair program has begun, and now chairs can be borrowed from various surf lifesaving clubs (including Red Beach Surf Club Orewa, Longbay, North Shore, and Takapuna).

A wide aerial view of Orewa Beach in Auckland on a bright sunny day
Orewa Beach was the perfect place to warm up in Auckland. Credit: New Zealand Tourism

Follow Grab Your Wheels Let’s Travel for news and more information on travelling New Zealand’s North Island with a wheelchair.

This article first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.

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