With definitions of ecotourism as varied and sometimes as indecipherable as there are shades of green in a rainforest, it can be daunting to separate the genuine constituents of sustainable tourism for the preservation of the planet from the "greenwashers"—travel industry and tourism professionals purposely shielding their offerings with a polished green veneer designed to mislead the consumer into thinking they’re buying into a product or service that is good for the environment.
One of the simplest ways to step outside this controversy and feel confident our travel footprint remains minimal is to step outside—literally.
The author's favorite definition of ecotourism is from the good old-fashioned Merriam-Webster: the practice of traveling to beautiful natural places for pleasure in a way that doesn't damage the environment there.
Here are six trip ideas for exploring the beautiful natural places of New Zealand's North Island we can stand (hike, pedal, or paddle) behind. New Zealand is an incredible country to step outside the parameters. Or just step outside...
1. Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This 19.4 km (12 mile) trek begins in the Mangatepopo Valley in Tongariro National Park about one hour south of Lake Taupo in the central area of the North Island. The crossing passes three volcanoes (Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Ruapehu) as well as the pristine cobalt shimmer of Blue Lake, the often windy Red Crater rim (the trek's highest point) and numerous steaming fumaroles rising over hillsides painted in yellow buttercups.
The spectacular Emerald Lakes are carved into the landscape as if the jewels from which they take their name were strewn at the base of the volcanoes specifically to capture the sparkling morning sunlight. The mist clearing to reveal their otherworldly green patina (created by sulphur seeping in from the adjacent thermal area) is apt reward for the sometimes taxing ascent.
Most travelers park their cars at Ketetahi Road and catch a shuttle (around $30NZD) to the northern point of the track, essentially walking the track back to their vehicles. For a person of average physical fitness, the crossing will take 5.5 to 7 hours depending on breaks. The key word to remember when preparing/packing is layers. Some sections warrant hats, gloves, and windbreakers, while others are blazing hot even in just a t-shirt.
2. Kayak Bay of Islands
The 144 islands north of Paihia in the northeast of the North Island are best explored with paddle in hand. Coastal Kayakers offers an excellent 2-day eco-tour that includes kayaking under the stunning Haruru Falls and through archways and hidden caves. The company also offers a "freedom hire" option if you prefer to create your own itinerary.
None of the islands have accommodation, which makes camping overnight on Urupukapuka Island an experience to remember. Overnight campers can enjoy the southern hemisphere constellations illuminating a night sky absent of the interference of any artificial light. Most kayak companies won't rent to solo travelers for safety reasons; plan on pairing up if you are on your own and don't intend to book a tour.
3. Surf Mahia Peninsula
About halfway between Gisborne and Napier on the East Coast and as far from the typical backpacker trail as one can get is the wild, remote and rugged coastline of the Mahia Peninsula.
Easily planned as a side trip on a route around the cliff-edged East Cape from Whakatane to Wairoa, the Mahia Peninsula is escapism at its best. Tourist infrastructure is minimal but hey, that's why you came here, right?
The Spit is a hollow, barreling left and right point break just south of Mahia township, with the left taking precedence in quality over the right. This wave breaks optimally in a northeast swell at 4-to-12 feet and is best left to experienced surfers as it can be quite steep. Nearby Blacks Reef (right hand reef break) is known as one of the most consistent waves on the North Island and is best at 2-to-8 feet. Opoutama has more of a variety of long sandy beach breaks suitable for both novices and seasoned pros. San Diego this isn't—bring your own board or rent in Gisborne and respect the locals and the spiritual nature of the region.
4. Cycle the vineyards of Waiheke Island
Just a 40 minute boat ride from Auckland, unique and lovely Waiheke Island is a perfect day trip
even for travelers with limited time in the region. A green option for touring the numerous vineyards and sparkling coastline of the island is renting a bike from eCyclesNZ. The company offers both traditional sweat-powered mountain bikes for fit cyclists that don't plan on over-indulging in the tempting local vitacultural offerings and e-Velo (electric assistance available) for those after more of a leisurely afternoon pedal.
Overnighters will appreciate the sustainable ethics and luxurious touches of Owhanake Bay Estate overlooking gorgeous Owhanake Bay. Owner Christy is finishing her master's degree in environmental education and is dedicated to preserving Waiheke's delicate ecosystem and giving back to the community. The property makes its own honey, collects rainwater, grows organic vegetables, and raises hens and ducks. For socially conscious trip ideas for nearby Auckland, read this responsible travel guide.
5. Walk/Kayak Cathedral Cove
In a country renowned for jaw-dropping scenery, the Coromandel Peninsula which juts off the east coast north of Auckland is a contender for the most spectacular coastal vistas on the North Island. The towering limestone cliffs, pure white sands, and turquoise waters of Cathedral Cove wouldn't be out of place in southern Thailand, but thanks to the protected status of the Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, you won't find any hawkers selling their wares on the beach.
The cove is accessed only by foot, boat or kayak. The walk begins at the end of Grange Road at Hahei Beach and takes about 90 minutes round-trip, also providing access to Gemstone Bay and lovely Stingray Bay along its length. Prefer to paddle? Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours offers a 3-hour guided tour known as the Cathedral Cove Classic daily in the summer at 8:45 am and 1:45 pm. Its popularity is warranted.
6. Experience the Whanganui Journey
Kia Wharite means "to work in partnership," and it is the theme of a restoration project centered around re-integrating native flora and fauna of Whanganui National Park in the southwest of the North Island. The Department of Conservation, local iwi (Maori social unit), the Horizons Regional Council and private landowners are collaborating to restore native vegetation as well as blue duck and brown kiwi populations.
Witness the positive results of this ecological project while simultaneously contributing to the Department of Conservation by paddling the scenic landscapes of the Whanganui River on a multi-day journey by canoe. If you have the time we recommend the full 5-day (145km) trip from Taumarunui to Pipiriki. The abbreviated 3-day (87km) version beginning at Whakahoro still manages to include some of the most striking scenery. The Whanganui Journey huts along this and all New Zealand Great Walks are provided by the DOC ($32 per person per night) and booking ahead is essential. The amenities are basic (bunk beds, toilets, water, and heat) but the cascading waterfalls, dramatic gorges, and lush foliage that cradle the river will be the only luxuries you'll need on an adventure like this.
Leave the helicopters and cruise ships to the masses and go placidly and quietly amongst New Zealand's greatest treasures—its unparalleled natural wonders. It's a country filled with wahi tapu (sacred places) so please have respect, take care and enjoy.
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.