Northland is way too often forgotten in travel itineraries but this region is truly worth a visit. Between the west coast, with its ancien kauri forest, and the east coast with its heavenly beaches, the Northland region is full of breathtaking landscapes. But this is also home to lots of history. Indeed, many important events in New Zealand’s history have taken place here.
I recently went on a road trip to this beautiful part of the country, so I’m going to share with you in this blog post my little finds and must-sees in the Northland. Starting from Auckland by the wild west coast to reach Cape Reinga (the most northern point of New Zealand) and going down by the east. Here are Northland’s must-sees!
Kai iwi lakes
Kai Iwi Lakes are located about 3 hours (210km) from Auckland on the west coast. This is a popular spot for families living in Auckland to spend their summer holidays. The lakes, nestled in a 538-hectare reserve, are the perfect place to relax, swim in crystal clear water or enjoy water sports: kayaking, paddles, jet skiing and boating all meet in this lake.
Two campsites are available on the shores for an incredible view when you wake up.
Less than an hour from Kai Iwi Lakes, continuing north, you enter the Waipoua forest, New Zealand’s oldest Kauri forest. Here you can see giant Kauri, the largest and oldest Kauri trees in the world. As well as Tāne Mahuta, the 51.2m tall and 14m ‘Lord of the forest’, known to be the largest living Kauri, which is approximately 2,000 years old.
You can’t miss this lush and impressive forest, as the SH12 main road runs through it.
Hokianga Harbour, Te Hokianga – Nui-a-Kupe, is a long estuary stretching for over 30 km. But above all, it is a special place for the Māori. History tells us that it was here that Kupe, the ancestor of the Māori, first discovered New Zealand.
The estuary begins at Arai Te Uru Reserve. Stop here for the stunning view of the sand dunes that cover the tip of the peninsula on the opposite shore. On the way back, you will pass through many small villages, you can continue on the SH12 to get back to the main road, SH1. However, I recommend that you take the ferry with your car from Rawene which will take you through Hokianga Harbour to the small village of Kohukohu. From there, you can then find up SH1.
The crossing takes about 15 minutes and costs $20 per vehicle and $2 per passenger. I highly recommend taking the ferry as it will save you time rather than going around the peninsula. There are no points of interest on this part of the road.
Ahipara and 90 mile Beach
Ahipara is located at the southern end of the so famous 90 mile beach. Surfers and sunset enthusiasts alike will be in heaven in this small town. Shipwreck Bay is one of New Zealand’s best left-break surf spots and sunsets are always stunning. No wonder Ahipara means sacred fire!
From Ahipara, up towards the top north Cape Reinga to Te Paki Dunes, you will discover 90 mile beach. An 88 km long beach that is also officially a highway when the main road is closed. Yes, you heard me right, a highway. Of course, it’s best to venture there with a 4×4 and at low tide.
However, if you are confident at driving on the sand, it is possible to drive on parts of it with a campervan. We did it with our Toyota Hiace with no problems. Several exits to the main road are available along the 88 km. But beware, most car insurances (and rental companies) do not cover for beach driving so think twice before going.
Tip: consider filling up your vehicle and getting some groceries in Kaitaia, the last major town before heading into one of New Zealand’s most rural areas.
Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand, 230km from Auckland (4 hours). The road to get there may seem endless, but it is well worth it! The landscapes are just awe! Lots of secluded beaches, the famous Ninety Mile Beach (which I mentioned earlier), and the beauty of watching two oceans meet at Cape Reinga Lighthouse.
When you visit Cape Reinga, you’ll learn this place is a sacred and spiritual site for Māori. Indeed, according to the legend, this is where the spirits of the dead jump into the ocean to return to their ancestral land of Hawaiki. Plan to stay here for a few days if you also want to do some hiking and enjoy this beautiful area.
On your way down to the south-east of Cape Reinga, make a stop at the Karikari Peninsula. Renowned for its incredible white sand beaches and bays such as Maitai Bay. This bay, located at the tip of the peninsula, is a popular holiday destination for New Zealand families. It has turquoise blue water and white sand for swimming and snorkelling. A DOC campsite is available (this is a first-come, first-served campsite so make sure to arrive early during peak season).
Don’t forget to visit the other wild beaches in the surroundings, such as Karikari beach or Tokerau beach. The latter, located in Doubtless Bay in the south of the peninsula, is perfect if you want to stay for the night for free. Indeed, a large free camp is located right on the beach. Unbeatable view on the bay guaranteed!
And not far from Tokerau Beach, Lake Rotopokaka, also known as Coca-Cola lake (because of its brown colour that looks like coca-cola), is a great spot for swimming. Apparently, the water in this lake has healing properties.
Whangaroa – St. Paul’s rock
We continue south towards the Bay of Islands! On the way, the charming little town of Whangaroa offers a breathtaking view of the area. The small road along the sea already gives a taste of what awaits us at the top of St Paul’s Rock Lookout. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to climb to the top of the rock. And once at the top, enjoy the immensity of the landscape. Once again, the Northland region leaves us speechless.
Bay of Islands
From Whangaroa, it is only a half-hour drive to reach the beautiful Bay of Islands. What a dream name! Bay of Islands is one of the most popular tourist areas in Northland and offers a dream setting. With its sub-tropical climate and 144 islands, each more looking like paradise than the next, as well as towns full of history, this region is well worth spending a few days.
If you are coming from the north, the town of Kerikeri is the first stop you should make. Here you can see New Zealand’s oldest building, the Old Stone Store, built in 1836.
For nature lovers, the Rainbow Falls is beautiful and easy to get to. Perfect for a swim in summer. Its specificity: you can go behind the waterfalls in the cave. Pretty cool, isn’t it?
– Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Want to learn more about New Zealand’s history? A visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a must on a Northland road trip. It was at Waitangi, on 6 February 1840, that the agreement between the Māori chiefs and the British Crown was signed. The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand.
During your visit, a 1-hour guided tour of the grounds will tell you more about the history of that treaty and many anecdotes about how things really happened. You’ll see the iconic flagstaff representing the exact spot where the treaty was signed, the treaty house and some impressive waka taua (war canoe). After this tour, you can walk freely around the site and visit the 2 museums: Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi and Te Rau Aroha (newly opened in 2020)
If you wish, and I highly recommend it, you can also participate in a cultural performance. This one will take you back in time with traditional Māori songs and dances. I’ve had the opportunity to watch several cultural performances in different cities around New Zealand and this is definitely one of the best I’ve seen so far.
Here the official Waitangi Treaty Grounds website: https://www.waitangi.org.nz/book-now/
I was hosted by Waitangi Treaty Grounds as part of a collaboration, however, having contacted them myself as a result of this collaboration and being free on the content creation, my experience and opinions are personal and sincere.
Paihia: Explore Bay of Island by boat
Paihia is the main town of Bay of Islands and the departure point for boat cruises in the bay. Bay of Islands is made up of 144 islands, so a boat trip to explore these paradise islands is a must. And definitely the best way to enjoy the area in all its beauty. You will be able to see a lot of wildlife such as dolphins, seals, gannets,…
During our trip in the region of Northland, we had the opportunity to visit the Bay of Islands from the sea thanks to Explore and their “Discover the Bay” boat cruise. A 5-hours expedition on the crystal blue waters of the bay with a 1h30 stop on Urupukapuka island. This island is a little heaven on earth where you can relax on Otehei Bay or explore the island thanks to numerous hikes and viewpoints.
Throughout the day, the captain and the crew (A big thank you to Andy, Marty and Blair for this amazing day on board) gave us a lot of information and stories about the Bay of Islands with a few stops at the main points of interest:
- First of all, we could discover the very specials “black rocks”, formed by volcanic eruptions about a million years ago.
- But also see some gannets and seal on Mahenotapuku (Bird Rock). Unfortunately, we did not see any dolphins that day. However, it is very common to see them in the bay so keep an eye out for them.
Hole in the Rock
- The highlight of the day for me was seeing the iconic “Hole in the Rock” at the northern end of Cape Brett. This imposing rock, with its steep cliffs rising 150 metres above the sea, was carved out by the ocean and forms a 16 metre hole. As the weather conditions were good, we were also able to pass through this hole with the boat. It was really impressive!
I can’t recommend enough this cruise as it offers a great overview of the Bay of Islands. And if you don’t have half a day to discover the bay, Explore also offers a 1.5 hour ‘ocean adventure’ cruise. A thrill guaranteed! Check out their website for more information.
Here is the link for the ‘Discover the Bay cruise with Explore: https://www.exploregroup.co.nz/bay-of-islands/discover-the-bay/
I was hosted by Explore Group as part of a collaboration, however, having contacted them myself as a result of this collaboration and being free on the content creation, my experience and opinions are personal and sincere.
The small village of Russell also has an important place in New Zealand’s history. It was the first European settlement and therefore the first seaport and nearby the first capital of New Zealand, Okiato.
It is a charming little town where it is pleasant to stroll around to see the historic buildings or have a drink on the terrace of the first licensed hotel-bar-restaurant, the Duke of Marlborough. Many says that visiting Russell is like stepping back in time.
Matapouri & Tutukaka Coast
From Russell heading south, I highly recommend taking the Russell Rd and then the Twin Coast Discovery Highway rather than the main SH1. This route is likely to be longer but will take you through fantastic views and beaches.
Stop off near Matapouri to relax at the beautiful Sandy Bay or Whale Bay. A short 10-minutes walk will take you to the last. There are many natural pools inviting you to take a dip. Explore the area by yourself and look for your own private rock pool, of which there are many along the coast.
The (too) famous Matapouri Mermaid Pool is now closed due to damage to its ecosystem by visitors. With a lot of rubbish, towels and sunscreens left behind after visitors have passed through, this sacred place for Māori is closed indefinitely to allow its ecosystem to rebuild. Please be aware and respect this decision by not going there.
Please remember to respect the places you travel to. This type of natural environment is very fragile and it is disappointing to see this kind of behaviour still happening today. Simple everyday habits like reducing plastic consumption (reusable bottles are a lot cooler for going to the beach, aren’t they?) and using ocean-friendly sunscreen are a good start to be more respectful of our beautiful planet.
Drive along the Tutukaka Coast to Whangarei (pronounced Fangarei – Wh is pronounced F in Māori language), the capital of Northland. You’ll find great views at Mt Parihaka or Mt Mahia on Whangarei Heads. A waterfall is also easily accessible from the SH1 about 30 minutes north of the town: Whangarei Falls.
Then on the way out of Whangarei heading south, stop at Waipu Caves to see glowworms. This is a great spot to see them if you’ve never seen them before and it’s free. Don’t forget your torch (a headlamp would be even more useful) and wander through the caves to find these incredible glowworms.
And there you have it! You now know the highlights of the Northland region. This region has a lot to offer, both for sea and nature lovers. Not to be missed on a trip to New Zealand’s North Island. For scuba diving enthusiasts like me, the best diving spots in New Zealand are also in the Northland: Poor Knights Islands and Rainbow Warrior.
Last recommendation: having done this road trip in my van, I recommend you to visit this region by self-driving. You can stop wherever you want and the northland offers many free camps or paid campsites for the night. Find all the information about buying a vehicle in New Zealand in this article.
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