The gold-standard autumn destinations in New Zealand are in the South Island. Our leafy colonial settlements are up there on the world stage for autumn beauty. The ubiquitous New Zealand calendar often features golden poplars reflected in Lake Wanaka or the picturesque stone buildings of Arrowtown surrounded by autumn's gilded delights.

I wonder whether we have worthwhile locations in the North Island that can measure up to the South Island's offerings? It is easy to spot the odd autumnal exotic tree in gardens or parks, but do we have any stand-out locations worth travelling to?

Autumn leaf biology
With days growing shorter and nights colder, the green colour disappears from the leaves of deciduous trees as their production of chlorophyll shuts down and photosynthesis stops.

Yellows and oranges are revealed once the green disappears. These colours are produced by carotenoids in leaves. Red and purple anthocyanins appear in autumn in response to bright light and excess plant sugars present in the leaf.

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Most New Zealand and other Southern Hemisphere native trees are evergreen, so in autumn it is easy to see which species hail from the Northern Hemisphere.

Go-to region for autumn colour
Regions that have extended periods of warm sunny weather and cool crisp evenings produce the best autumn colour. Pip and stone fruit orchards require the same conditions and are located in these areas too, so I narrowed off the east coast of the middle and lower North Island as the best region for leaf colour.

It just so happens that Hawkes Bay also has some of the most impressive large gardens and arboretums. Gisborne's 135ha Eastwoodhill Arboretum has the largest collection of Northern Hemisphere trees south of the equator. Then there is the 12ha Trelinnoe Park woodland garden in Napier, and 17ha Oruawharo garden and woodland in Takapau. The 90ha Guthrie Smith Arboretum in Tutira was opened to the public in 2013 and, although many of the trees are young, it is spectacular and worth visiting.

Streets alive with gold
Most established public parks provide a taste of autumn. In Auckland, this includes the Domain, Cornwall Park, Western Park and Western Springs.

On my whistle-stop tour to find the best autumn colour around central Auckland, I noted several of these parks had good splashes of foliar colour. Older established suburbs such as Remuera have some magnificent trees and, from certain viewpoints near the water's edge, you can see the suburb's northern slopes dotted with autumnal reds and golds.

Further east, near Whitford, Beverley McConnell's 4.8ha private garden, Ayrlies,can be viewed by appointment. It has a number of autumnal specimen trees, such as swamp cypress, pin oak and liquidambar.

Unlikely highlights are central Auckland's street trees. These are usually planted in one species en masse, so the effect of colour can be spectacular. This is the case in Mayoral Drive, where many tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera, are turning butter-yellow at once. Catch them in the afternoon with the sun shining through the foliage and the effect is breathtaking.

The golden leaves littering paths are lovely against the dark asphalt and pave the streets in gold. At this time of year, Mother Nature's gilding can be enjoyed by one and all.

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Five minutes' walk from Mayoral Drive, liquidambars in regal red and burgundy stand to attention on Wellington and Nelson Sts.

We might not match the South Island's autumnal beauty, but sometimes the best colour can be found right on our doorstep.

Places to visit

"Golden Ginkgo" celebration. Monday June 1 - Queens Birthday:

Cornwall Park's Pohutukawa Drive, Ginkgo Grove 1-3pm

Celebrate the glorious golden trees and their meaning to Chinese culture.

Visit:
Hamilton Gardens: Take the road on the west side of the Waikato River and admire a few brightly hued persimmon orchards on the way, then pass through Cambridge township which has many autumnal trees. Head back via Wairere Nursery in Gordonton.

Further afield: Visit Eastwoodhill Arboretum in Gisborne or Trelinnoe Park in Napier. Take a winery bike tour - the vines are looking gorgeous in their autumn finery - through Hawkes Bay or Martinborough.

Another idea is to go for a horse trek up the Tukituki river valley. The poplars should be at their golden best. Stop at Clearview Estate winery for lunch.