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New Zealand’s North Island is ‘Sweet As’

A view of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf, from a cool city overlook called Mount Eden.
A view of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf, from a cool city overlook called Mount Eden.Ron Driscoll for The Boston Globe

Yes, they really do say “Sweet as.”

Sweet as what? No matter. A New Zealander saying “Sweet as” means it’s all good, or very good, or even cool. You have the correct change? “Sweet as.” You’d like to sample the IPA? “Sweet as.” You’re from Boston? Yeah, that too.

Our tour of New Zealand in early March spanned 11 days and a wide swath of the country’s North Island, from Auckland, its most populous city, to Wellington, the capital. It was a family reunion of sorts, as one of our daughters met my wife, our other daughter, and me in Auckland, after the three of us completed a BOS-LAX-SYD-AKL odyssey that spanned 11,400 miles and more than 26 hours (not counting the day we lost crossing the International Date Line).

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It was worth the effort, and we would gladly do it again to see more of this mesmerizing country, where north is warmer than south and autumn runs from March through May. We arrived at the start of the fall, a highly recommended time to visit.

A sign warns of a crossing for the endangered kiwi bird in Tongariro National Park.
A sign warns of a crossing for the endangered kiwi bird in Tongariro National Park.Ron Driscoll for The Boston Globe

Auckland

We spent our first two days meandering and motoring about the “City of Sails,” which is all but surrounded by harbors, inlets and bays. Our hotel was in the heart of the city, not far from the Sky Tower. The tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 1,076 feet looms over the city “like a giant hypodermic giving a fix to the heavens,” as one guidebook aptly described it.

A 10-minute stroll from the tower is the City Works Depot location of Brothers Beer, which boasts more than 200 bottled options and 18 taps of their own concoctions. It was a perfect respite from our walking tour that included Albert Park, a Victorian space that sits adjacent to the prestigious University of Auckland and houses the Auckland Art Gallery, the nation’s largest art exhibit space.

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Even the Sky Tower looks small from Mount Eden, a dormant volcano that rises about 650 feet above the city and offers panoramic views of Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf (Hauraki means north wind in Maori). The plunging slopes of the volcano’s cone are grassed over, but it once housed a Maori village and the cone’s interior is considered sacred ground. A nearby marker charts distances to important landmarks, near and far (Moscow lies 16,202 kilometers — more than 10,000 miles — to the northwest).

Other notable Auckland sites include Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride away with topnotch beaches and more than two dozen boutique wineries; and One Tree Hill, about 5 miles from downtown in Cornwall Park. Some may know the U2 tune of that name: Bono and Co. recorded it as a homage to close friend and Kiwi Greg Carroll, who died in a 1986 motorbike accident in Dublin. The pastoral, obelisk-topped landmark that was the song’s inspiration long ago lost its “one tree,” a totara tree that was axed by English settlers in 1852. In recent decades, Maori protesters cut down replacement pine trees. The hill and surrounding farmland, dotted with grazing sheep, was gifted to the city in 1901 by John Logan Campbell, and the monument is his tribute to the Maori people.

Visitors stroll on the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand, where Peter Jackson filmed the movie trilogies "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit."
Visitors stroll on the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand, where Peter Jackson filmed the movie trilogies "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit."Ron Driscoll for The Boston Globe

Cambridge

Stop 2 on our itinerary was Cambridge, two hours south of Auckland, a charming market town with an equine element. Our Airbnb rental was the starting point for a visit to the Waitomo Caves, about 40 miles away, but first we enjoyed brunch at easy-going Fran’s Café. We spotted tributes embedded in the sidewalk along Victoria Street to some of horse racing’s most celebrated sires, who make the region’s stables some of the most successful in the world.

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Some of us toured the ancient limestone Waitomo Caves, with their famed glow worm grotto, on an idyllic boat ride, while others rode rapids in the dark. The payoff was a ceiling filled with thousands of the twinkling insects. The glow worm (arachnocampa luminosa) is unique to New Zealand, and the lore of the creature in pop culture is a fascinating sidelight to the 45-minute tour. Direct descendants of Tane Tinorau, the Maori chief who made the first extensive exploration of the caves in 1887 with an English surveyor, often lead the tours.

After departing Cambridge, we drove 30 minutes to Matamata, home of the Hobbiton Movie Set, one of several venues on the North Island that celebrate the area’s central role in the filming of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies by Kiwi director Peter Jackson (see related story).

Rotorua

Our next stop was Rotorua, a Maori cultural center due in part to the geothermal waters that continue to draw so many people to the region. We visited a downtown park where sulfuric steam hissed from fissures in the ground, and where Rotoruans and visitors chatted and soaked their feet in a thermal wading pool in the noonday sun.

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We toured Whakarewarewa, a village where Maori have lived for centuries, harnessing the heat from more than 500 thermal springs and geysers on the property. They keep their culture alive through traditional songs and dances, including the menacing, wide-eyed war dance. Pohutu, translated as “Big Splash,” is the largest geyser in the country, spouting nearly 100 feet in the air on our visit. The nearby village center is highlighted by an ancestral meeting house with intricate wood carvings that recount legends and genealogy (or whakapapa); Maori language was introduced to the national school curriculum in 1982.

A short drive from Rotorua is the Redwoods Treewalk, a spectacular experience that opened in 2016 and takes you up to 65 feet above the ground on a series of 28 bridges suspended between California redwoods. These trees were first planted here in 1899 by the forestry industry to ascertain which species would flourish. The trees, which are illuminated by massive hanging lanterns, are sheathed in “slings” that use no nails, bolts, or screws to ensure that they continue to grow unscarred.

With the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, Ryan Brandeburg of Golf Tourism New Zealand hits a tee shot on the spectacular Cape Kidnappers golf course.
With the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, Ryan Brandeburg of Golf Tourism New Zealand hits a tee shot on the spectacular Cape Kidnappers golf course. Ron Driscoll for The Boston Globe

Napier and Hawke’s Bay

Napier is a lovely city whose distinctive architecture was born out of disaster. We arrived just before sunset on what resembled a 1930s Hollywood movie set. Napier boasts the largest concentration of art-deco buildings in the world, a product of the rebuilding effort after a devastating earthquake leveled the city in 1931, killing 258 people in the region.

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We admired the facades as we walked streets named for Tennyson, Dickens and Emerson, then crossed the Marine Parade to the beach. After dark, a neon sign that asked, “Who Shot the Barman?” coaxed us down an alley to Monica Loves, a retro-cool cocktail bar.

The next morning, Ryan Brandeburg paused to make a point before sending his golf ball soaring down the fairway of “Infinity,” a hole on the spectacular Cape Kidnappers golf course in nearby Hawke’s Bay that draws its nickname from the South Pacific Ocean, the hole’s stunning backdrop and the world’s largest infinity pool.

“We want people who came to New Zealand to backpack in the 1970s and 1980s to come back and see everything we have to offer now,” said Brandeburg, the head of Golf Tourism New Zealand. Now likely to be nearing their retirement years, those visitors can revisit their “tramping” days, as the locals call hiking, but they can also add destinations like Hawke’s Bay, a region dotted with award-winning wineries and golf courses.

Cape Kidnappers is a bucket-list course and a complete splurge, but its sublime setting more than 400 feet above the bay — near one of the world’s largest gannet colonies (September-April) — is helping to raise New Zealand’s golf profile, along with renowned layouts such as Kauri Cliffs and Tara Iti, both north of Auckland, with more courses coming.

A sign near the airport references Wellington's nickname ("Windy Welly") and its reputation as the world's windiest city.
A sign near the airport references Wellington's nickname ("Windy Welly") and its reputation as the world's windiest city.Ron Driscoll for The Boston Globe

Wellington

The 4½-hour drive from Napier to Wellington, the nation’s capital, provides vistas that the word “expansive” barely does justice to. We are also reminded along the route of a quote from a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in 1949: “We saw hills full of stones. What a stony country, we thought. But when we got closer, the stones started moving; the hills were full of sheep.”

Along the way is Kaitoke Regional Park, another LOTR stop of note that provided the final calm before the wind. The capital’s nickname is “Windy Welly,” and it is generally acknowledged as the windiest city in the world, with an average of 173 days per year with winds greater than 36 miles per hour. The prevailing gusts funnel through Cook Strait between the North and South Islands, creating a so-called “river of wind” that once forced officials to install ropes so pedestrians wouldn’t be blown into traffic.

The city is nonetheless very walkable, and Te Papa Tongarewa Museum (loosely translated as “treasure box”) on the waterfront is a mammoth, five-story ode to Maori heritage and the nation’s melting-pot culture. We rode a cable car up to Kelburn, then walked back down through the lovely Botanic Garden, which spills over 60-plus acres and ends near the distinctive beehive-shaped Parliament building.

We savored seafood at the Dockside restaurant on Queens Wharf on our last evening, thankful for the gentle breeze that accompanied our postmeal stroll. We crossed the funky City to Sea pedestrian bridge, passed a pickup soccer game and a statue of acclaimed writer Katherine Mansfield, then packed for the return to Boston, where “Sweet as” would be replaced by “What can I get yez?”

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rfdkmsd@yahoo.com.