A good way to get an overview of the north’s variety and beauty is to take the Twin Coast Discovery Highway up the west coast, past the long, scenic sweep of the Kaipara Harbour and its river estuaries. At the peak of the kauri trade, the Kaipara was New Zealand’s busiest harbour, and the site of many shipwrecks on the sands of the northern bar. Walk to the old lighthouse on Pouto Peninsula and you get views of endless rolling dunes, lakes and pine plantations. Make time to visit Matakohe and explore the famous Kauri Museum and learn about the trade in kauri timber and gum. The sheltered waters of the Kaipara are an important spot for migratory wading birds, who flock here in their thousands - take your binoculars, ornithologists! With safe swimming beaches and lots of places to cast a fishing line, the Kaipara is a good place for a peaceful holiday.
The Kauri Coast and Hokianga
Yakas kauri tree, Waipoua Forest, photo: Northland Inc
Driving north it’s worth taking a side trip out to Baylys Beach. There’s a mix of quaint, old-school baches, a popular cafe, and lots of scope for long beach walks at sunset. Try a surf lesson or take a horse trek or quad bike along the sands. There’s an 18 hole golf course handy too. Drive north for 35 minutes, and the forest-fringed Kai Iwi Lakes provide the perfect spot for swimming, waterskiing, kayaking or a bit of freshwater fishing. Be sure to visit the mighty kauri forests at Waipoua, it’s humbling to walk beneath these ancient, giant trees. Mosey on and explore the scenery, arts and crafts, and historic villages of the Hokianga Harbour. From Rawene you can catch the ferry to Kohukohu, and continue north to Ahipara.
The Far North
Ahipara sits at the base of 90 Mile Beach, or Te Oneroa a Tohe, which is 55 miles long, if you want to be nit-picking about it. According to Te Aupouri iwi, Te Houtaewa, a great athlete, ran the length of the beach, to escape his enemies. This feat is celebrated every March in Te Houtaewa Challenge, a 62km beach run, or bike ride. (There are shorter course options for mere mortals.) March also draws crowds for the multi-day snapper fishing competition, with big prizes for the lucky winners. 90 Mile Beach is officially a public highway, and popular coach tours run from Kaitaia up the beach to Te Paki at the northern end, where you can careen wildly down the giant dunes on boogy boards.
If you’re visiting Kaitaia stop in at the new Te Ahu Centre, a community centre that hosts touring shows, the i-site visitor centre,a cinema, library, cafe, and Te Ahu Heritage Museum. The museum holds many treasures that illuminate the North’s rich Maori and European history, including the intriguing mix of Dalmatian and Maori heritage.
At the very tip of the north is Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua, a place of great spiritual significance to Māori. This windswept promontory, with its lone pohutukawa clinging to the rock, is the leaping off point of departing spirits on their journey back to the ancestral homeland, Hawaiiki. Walk to the iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse and you can watch the Tasman Sea and the bluer Pacific Ocean meet dramatically below.
Down the east coast of the Aupouri Peninsula there are beautiful and remote beaches, from Spirits Bay to the Parengarenga Harbour, and Henderson Bay. Fishing is legendary up north, and the Houhora Game Fishing Club has a restaurant and bar where you might glean some local tips.
Further east, the Karikari Peninsula and Doubtless Bay offer fantastic white sand beaches, such as Maitai Bay, Tokerau Beach and Whatuwhiwhi. If you tire of swimming and lazing in the sun, there is a championship golf course and vineyard at Carrington Resort and Karikari Estate. At Taipa there’s a whaling museum, or explore Matthews Vintage Collection of old cars and machinery.
Mosey on to historic Mangonui village, set on a picturesque harbour. Once a busy port, when the whaling, flax and kauri trades were in full swing, it now has a holiday feel, with cafes, restaurants and famous fish and chips. You can walk the 3kms heritage trail for a sense of Mangonui’s colonial past, or cross the bay to visit Butler House (by appointment), the whaling museum and gardens. Walk up to Rangikapiti Pa Historic Reserve, and there are great views of Doubtless Bay.
The highway continues on to beautiful Whangaroa Harbour, world famous in NZ as “the Marlin Capital”. Try fishing, game-fishing, kayaking, wind-surfing, exploring the bays and rivers, or the walking trails through native forest. Diving is popular, particularly at the wreck of the Greenpeace vessel “The Rainbow Warrior”, sunk by the French, now resting off the Cavalli Islands, with fish flitting through it. Matauri Bay is another popular spot, with Mahinepua Bay a scenic walk away, for swimming and fishing, and Kauri Cliffs Golf Course 15 minutes drive away.
www.doc.govt.nz - DoC walks in the Kaitaia area
Bay of Islands
Urupukapuka Island, Bay of Islands, Photo: Northland Inc
With a wealth of beautiful islands, harbours and beaches, the Bay of Islands is more than just a pretty place. From the melting pot of local Maori tribes, rowdy whalers, French and British missionaries and early traders, a colourful tapestry of founding stories, national firsts and historic places has emerged.
Kerikeri is famous for its historic Stone Store and Kemp House, its orchards and vineyards, arts and crafts. The Kerikeri region was one of the first places where Maori and Europeans lived and worked together. Visit Rewa’s Village - a replica of a pre-European fishing kainga, and learn about Ngati Rehia and Kerikeri history, and walk a trail between Maori medicinal plants. You can take a walk up to Kororipo pa, once the seat of the fierce and powerful Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika, who launched his canoes and raiding parties from here. In 1814 Rev. Samuel Marsden established the first church mission at Rangihoua, near the mouth of the Kerikeri inlet. The second mission was established at Kerikeri in 1819 under the protection of Hongi Hika, who was more interested in gaining muskets, trade and influence than Christianity. Kemp House, built in 1821-22, was built as a mission house, and is New Zealand’s oldest European house. The Stone Store was built in 1832-36 and is the country’s oldest surviving stone building. On a little hill behind the Stone Store is St James, a pretty, wooden church, opened in 1878.
Many small citrus orchards were established in Kerikeri in the late 1920s, and the area is known as “the fruitbowl of the north”. Visit the Farmers’ Market, held every Sunday morning, and stock up on the freshest local produce.
There are many scenic walks in the area. Take your swimming togs and walk to the Rainbow Falls. Or drive about 20 minutes to the Puketi Kauri Forest and stroll along the boardwalk on the Manginangina Kauri Walk, amongst forest giants.
Head 23 kms south east from Kerikeri and visit popular Paihia for fantastic beaches, bush walks and sea sports, such as game-fishing, swimming with dolphins or kayaking. From Paihia you can visit Waitangi, or catch the car ferry to pretty Russell, another town steeped in history and surrounded by lovely beaches and islands.
www.doc.govt.nz - DoC walks in the Bay of Islands
Whangarei is a pleasant seaside city, with a subtropical climate that lends itself to gardens and greenery, and a lovely setting on the harbour basin. There are many gorgeous beaches within easy reach. The region has so much to offer it has its own guide - read it here Whangarei District
Drive about 20 minutes north east from Whangarei and explore the Tutukaka Coast, with its lovely coves and beaches, and easy access to the Poor Knights Islands.
About 40kms south of Whangarei is Waipu, a little town set on the golden sweep of Bream Bay. The town’s Scottish heritage is celebrated at the Waipu Museum and in the Waipu Highland Games, held 1st January.
Where to stay
- www.northlandnz.com - Northland’s tourist information site
- www.teahu.org.nz - Te Ahu Centre in Kaitaia
- www.kauri-museum.com - The Kauri Museum, Matakohe
- www.doc.govt.nz - Waipoua Forest
- www.nzcycletrail.com - Twin Coast Cycle Trail
- www.nzmuseums.co.nz - Museums in Northland
- www.northlandnz.com - Farmers’ Markets and local markets in Northland
- www.okahuestate.co.nz - Okahu Estate Winery, near Kaitaia
- www.kiwinorth.co.nz - Whangarei Museum, Kiwi House and Heritage Park
- www.whangareiartmuseum.co.nz - Whangarei Art Museum