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; it stands alongside the lake of the same name (Australasia's largest) 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. Laze the days away drinking at the local vineyards or, to truly get off the beaten path, head north to Gisborne; it's the easygoing center of isolated Eastland, the thick thumb of land that's east of Rotorua.