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North Island NZ Adventures

tauposunsetNorth Island immediately feels busier than the South Island, and so it should. There are over 3 times the number of people (3.3 million) in half the space. Many more of the indigenous Maori's are in the North so its a good place to come if you want to learn about their culture.

Once in the car we are gone - straight out of Auckland. Cities don't need to be part of the experience here. It's all about the abundance of natural beauty. Before long cattle and sheep escort us along the highways: farming is huge. The radio confirms this with adverts offering fertilisers and cattle dip. We drive right out to Lake Taupo, in the middle of the island, where we plan to relax. In fact there are numerous activities to distract (sky diving, para-sailing, bungy, rafting...) but we need a quiet couple of days. There's a good view from our window of the lake. It's hard to miss being the largest freshwater lake in Australasia. This area is known for its thermal activity so we have booked into a place with a naturally-heated outdoor pool, a pleasant 32 degrees. The kids have a good splash around while I get some things done.

explorerbbqI visit the Explorer boat at the Marina and meet owner Dan. The boat can sleep 6 and would be a good base for a group of friends or a family. Decor is basic but there is everything you need on board. Dan isn't uptight about you having a good time on there. You could cook up a meal and have 'a few wines', or start up the BBQ on the back as you look out over the water. Despite the fact we are experiencing beautiful blue skies and the best winter can offer and there are heaters, I think you would fully appreciate a stay on the Explorer in the warmer months. It's possible to take a skippered cruise during the day for an additional fee.

We take a walk along the river, past the bungy leaping-off point and through the thermal park and on to Huka Falls. Along the way we see bathers in the hot springs and kayakers taking a peaceful meander of the river. Do they dare to go over the fierce froth of the falls? It may feel safer to do this on the Hukafalls Jet. There's a honey hive shop, climbing wall, a thermal walkway called Craters of the Moon plus bike and horse treks around here too. It's all pretty empty in winter which suits us fine. Beyond is the Aratiatia Dam where you can see a small stream get engulfed in a thundering gush of water let through at certain times of day, set for Auckland.

Rotarua is another thermal area offering geysers, bubbling mud and colourful pools in the centre of the Island. This is the best place to experience Maori cultural tours. There's a themed tex-mex hostel here called Cactus Jacks Backpackers.

But, this time, we are off in the opposite direction as our priority is to make the most of the winter and ski. An hour or so on and we reach Mt Ruapehu. I drop the family on the mountain and they get straight on the slopes. Meanwhile I settle us into a Skotel cabin in Whakapapa Village and take a circular walk to Taranaki Falls. It takes 2 hours, but there are longer ones to lakes beyond too. I walk through mossy woods, over scrubland - all with the striking backdrop of Mt Ngouruhoe, snow gleaming in the sunlight - to the pretty falls. If you like to hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing would be a great challenge when its warmer, and there are loads of bike trails in the area too.

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Our cabin has views over the Tongariro National Park, a kitchen and, best of all, an electric blanket. Oh how I have fallen in love with electric blankets over here! We cook up some dinner and watch english-speaking tellie together - that's a novelty. Next day we all ski on Whakapapa snowfields. The workers are chirpy and welcoming, the parking free, there's a great cafe which overlooks casual picnicking, and to top it all we have perfect weather. It's a joy to ski in t-shirts for a change - but the slopes are limited as they haven't had a big dump lately. Half the lifts are closed. There's enough to keep us busy for the day, especially as we have booked a day package - with gear and lift pass - that includes a class ($155 per adult for intermediate skiiers). As the school holidays have just finished there's not a lot of people about. We have a class to ourselves - we work on improving our style.

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There seems little point in skiing the same area the following day. A 40-minute drive to the 'dark side' of the mountain brings us to Turoa skifield. This is very popular with snowboarders and has more pistes to offer. There is a lot more snow at present there although, as it sees less sun, the slopes are icy. The staff are a little more frosty too. But its a larger area and all open - we get stuck in. We're only there for the afternoon as it takes until almost then to soften up a bit so the time flies by - despite a treacherous icy slide at one point which we all got caught up in. On the way home we stop off at Ohakune - a small town at the base of the mountain with plenty of shops and places to eat. The kids have a go at the climbing walls (their energy seems to be limitless) and then we have delicious food on sofas around the fire at The Cypress Tree next door.

An overcast day (our first) and we are on the road again. This time to New Plymouth at the coast - perhaps not on the regular tourist destination. It's a large town with a beach, a white mountain peak and plenty of dairy farms. We are visiting friends who live here. They show us their typical Kiwi weekend - walking the dog on the beach, a tractor ride and calf birth (Ed pulled the thing out by its feet in front of us!) waitomoand the children's rugby tournament with ferociously avid parents on the sideline. Our British friend has found his ideal, competitive base where his need for extreme sport (marathons up mountains and the like) is considered the norm.

Waitomo is our last stop - half way back to Auckland. We stay at Woodlyn Park - picking an apartment on the large boat 'moored' at this rural accommodation. There is also a plane, hobbit houses and train to choose from - all with farm animals milling around them. Billy Black, the owner, hosts a show with sheep-shearing and a dancing pig to get you right in the New Zealand spirit of things. Nearby are the famous Waitomo caves with glowworms.

With more time there is plenty more that the North Island can offer - the Bay of Islands and Coromandel Peninsula would be priorities in the summer months. As always we leave New Zealand with some sadness. The laid-back, straight-talking attitude of the locals adds to that. Even the policeman we met on the highway, on our way to the airport, handed over the fine with a smile.