When you get to Rotorua, after a trip through the rolling, sheep-speckled fields of the Waikato and the wild Mamaku Ranges, the aptly named "Sulfur City"—with its mud pots, geysers, and stinky air—comes as a complete surprise. Rotorua, the mid-island's major city and Māori hub, has been a tourist magnet since the 19th century, when Europeans first heard of the healing powers of local hot springs.
South of Rotorua is the small town of Taupo, which stands alongside Australasia's largest lake bearing the same name and is the geographical bull's-eye of the North Island. From the lake, you'll have a clear shot at Ruapehu, the island's tallest peak and a top ski area, and its symmetrically cone-shape neighbor, Ngauruhoe. Ruapehu dominates Tongariro National Park, a haunting landscape of craters, volcanoes, and lava flows that ran with molten rock as recently as 1988. As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (a zone that's earthquake- and volcanic-eruption prone), the area's thermal features remain an ever-present hazard—and a thrilling attraction.
Southeast of Lake Taupo lies Hawke's Bay and the laid-back art deco town of Napier with neighboring Hastings. Laze the days away drinking at the local vineyards or to truly get off the beaten path, head north to Gisborne, the easygoing center of isolated Eastland, the thick thumb of land that's east of Rotorua.