North Island, naturally

New Zealand's North Island, home to three quarters of the nation's 4.4 million residents, often suffers from the misconception that most of the country's truly jaw-dropping natural beauty is on the South Island.

Loaded with geothermal wonders and towering volcanoes, the North Island offers a host of can't-miss natural splendor all it's own. View a slideshow here or by clicking on the images.

The AJ Hackett Bungy pod bolted beneath the Auckland Harbour Bridge looks a lot like a shrewdly concealed UFO.

From the right distance, in fact, one might mistake the shrieking humans regularly jumping out of the metallic orb for abductees, fleeing their alien captors with a desperate plunge only to be reeled back moments later thanks to the elastic tether strapped around their ankles.

The truth, of course, is even more ridiculous. Thrill-seekers, some who have traveled thousands of miles, actually pay AJ Hackett Bungy good money to dive out of that silver spaceship, which fits snugly into the bridge's buttressing more than 130 feet above the water. And during a recent visit to Auckland, I decided to join them.

Having bungee-jumped for the first time elsewhere in New Zealand several years ago, I didn't lose any sleep the night before my Auckland experience, but I don't mind admitting my heart was racing as I inched out toward the end of the narrow jumping platform, staring so far down at all the wrinkled turquoise beneath me.

AJ Hackett Bungy Auckland Harbour BridgeA bit of terrific advice popped into my head, though, right as I toed the edge of the platform. It was something I overheard one of the AJ Hackett bridge staff whispering to a severely panicked participant a few minutes earlier.

"Walking out to the edge is the hard part," the jump master said. "Once you're there and I finish the countdown, don't wait. Just jump."

So I didn't wait, despite some passionate lobbying from much of my body, and just flung myself off the bridge right on the count of three.

Those first few split seconds of falling were actually peaceful, even familiar, like diving out over a swimming pool, but as I continued to drop, the speed of the plunge seemed to increase exponentially. The wind started to roar past my face, thundering in my ears, and just as I began to think I'd made a huge mistake, the cord took over, slowing my descent. Before long, I was bouncing back toward the bridge, grinning from ear to ear.

"I still get a little nervous every time I jump," said Sam Allen, the Auckland sales manager for AJ Hackett Bungy. "And that's half the fun. You're meant to be scared. It's an adrenaline rush."

Allen likes to tell particularly nervous people, those wavering about whether or not to bungee, about the awesome sense of achievement folks typically feel right after a jump.

AJ Hackett Bungy Auckland Jump"Anybody can do a bungee," she said, noting that an 89-year-old Auckland resident recently set a new age record for the company. "And it's really rewarding. Once you've done it, you're going to feel amazing and feel like you've really accomplished something."

For Corrine Goodman, the owner of Chicago-based Down Under Endeavors, reliving her first bungee experience is an important part of her sales pitch.

"When I jumped, I literally could not scream — it was stuck in my throat," she told me. "After I'd dunked in the water, though, then I could scream, and I loved it so much I did it a second time straight away."

Dunking is strictly optional off the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and something I decided not to try, but I did join the 90-minute bridge climb following my jump. Loaded with excellent history and stunning panoramic views of Auckland, the guided climb up a clandestine series of manageable staircases to the bridge's summit, nearly 210 feet above the harbor, was a terrific way to burn off the bungee-related adrenaline.

"The bridge climb definitely caters to people wanting something exciting but perhaps not quite as adventurous as the bungee jump," Allen said.

Both the bridge climb ($120 for adults, $80 for ages 7 to 14) and the bungee experience ($150 for adults, $120 for ages 10 to 14) are commissionable to agents, and AJ Hackett Bungy offers a range of different jumps and other high-adrenaline activities throughout New Zealand, including Queenstown, where Hackett pioneered the sport with Henry van Asch in the late '80s.

Goodman sells Hackett products regularly to U.S. travelers and said his role in the introduction of bungee as a commercial sport often helps reassure her clients who are on the fence about jumping.

"They have a great safety record, so I know my clients are in good hands," she explained, adding that her agency is sending many families to New Zealand at the moment. "We initially book a lot of teenage kids on bungee products and then find out later that the parents ended up jumping as well because they didn't want to miss out."

Visit www.bungy.co.nz.

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