Northland’s landscape can be described as seemingly endless rolling green hills, flanked by stunning beaches and dotted with grazing livestock. You can drive for hours through land reminiscent of Montana’s cattle country and suddenly stumble onto some dramatic coastline with turquoise waters and great expanses of beach littered with surfers.
It’s a land worth visiting for its many hidden gems & rich cultural heritage. Here is a list of the places we visited on-route and during our stay WWOOFing at Ake Ake Vineyard in Kerikeri, which is located in the Bay of Islands in Northland. Ake Ake is family run vineyard and winery with a restaurant on-premises which is the best in town. The hosts John and Aynsley are wonderful, warm people who are proud of their wines and happy to educate on the wine-making process. If you’re ever in Kerikeri, it’s definitely worth a visit to their establishment.
But more on Kerikeri later… First, let’s start at the beginning:
AUCKLAND TO THE BAY OF ISLANDS:
Driving north from Auckland, a couple good places to stop are Mangawhai and Waipu Cove. Both have stunning beaches with views of looming off-shore islands and Bream Head. The town of Waipu is a Scottish settlement and surf town. The Waipu Museum showcases the town’s Scottish heritage. Even the famous “Pizza Barn” restaurant has a tartan theme in one side, and a surf theme in the other. The pizza there is inventive and yummy… (imagine lamb pizza with minted yogurt, or pizza with venison sausage)! Worth a stop for lunch or dinner, but it fills up fast, so be prepared to wait.
Between them is Lang’s Beach. Another great stop for a dip or a quick surf with killer views.
Further north is the city of Whangarei. An often-visited city for it’s convenient location on-route to other Northland destinations. Whangarei is one of the larger cities in this region, so it’s a good place to hit up some cafes or shop and stock-up. The reason for our visit there was Whangarei Falls; a waterfall right in town, which Maori youths used to jump off of as a right of passage. It’s an easy, accessible walk from a car park down to the bottom. There are picnic tables to sit and enjoy the view whilst having a nibble before heading on.
Just north of Whangarei is the Tutukaka Coast. A jumping off point to the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve. The Poor Knights Islands were rated as one of the top 10 diving spots in the world by Jacques Cousteau! Because it’s a reserve, the abundant marine life here is allowed to thrive. It’s often possible to see dolphins (which we were fortunate to see on our trip), whales and even orcas! Not certified to dive, we opted to take a “Perfect Day” cruise, which takes you to the Poor Knights, provides wet suits, snorkel gear and kayaks for your use. They also take you through sea arches and the world’s biggest sea cave. The snorkeling was top-notch and the scenery was stunning. The crew also tells you about the history of the islands. These islands were mostly untouched since pre-historic times, except for one island being inhabited by a Maori tribe. Because of this, they are full of unique flora and fauna, and are a scientist’s dream. Many ecologists use these islands for research as a look back in time. In fact, only the DOC and researchers are allowed to actually set foot on the islands. And the Maori burial grounds on the one island are taboo to enter even by researchers. It’s a truly special place, untouched by the usual poisons of modern man.
THE BAY OF ISLANDS:
The next major stops are Pahia, Russell, Waitangi & Kerikeri, which all lie in a region known as the Bay of Islands. This area is best pursued via boat if you can swing it. But there is plenty to see from the coast as well. Captain Cook landed here in 1769, and there’s many a monument in his name.
Pahia is a touristy town on the shore with a laid-back feel and plenty of places to drink and eat in the sunshine. There are many aquatic adventures to tempt your fancy from the Pahia Wharf, including trips out into the Bay of Islands, swimming with dolphins tours, and ferries to take you to Russell. Russell is a quaint, sunny town with victorian-inspired buildings dotting it’s main street. Looking at the cookie-cutter appearance of the town, it’s hard to believe it was once deemed “the hell-hole of the Pacific” due to it’s seedy sailor history. There are many walks in Russell to admire the lovely views of the bay, including a walk atop Flagstaff Hill. This hill marks the site where famous Maori warrior Hone Heke chopped down the British flagpole on 4 separate occasions to protest british rule.
Another famous walk in the area is the Cape Brett Lighthouse Track (16 hrs return), which we did not partake in ourselves. The old lighthouse keeper’s house is now a DOC run hut. The views along the track are said to be spectacular.
Waitangi’s claim to fame is its historical significance. On February 6, 1840, it was here that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The treaty was drafted by the British Captain William Hobson and signed by Maori Chiefs, handing sovereinty of New Zealand over to British rule. In return, the Maori were promised use of their lands and the full rights of British citizenship. Of course, as we’ve witnessed far too many times in history, the native people of Aotearoa didn’t get exactly what they were promised.
Today, you can visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which overlooks the Bay of Islands. There are cultural performances, Maori art and artifacts, a Maori meeting house (Whare Runanga), and the original Treaty House (once home to British settler, James Busby) to explore. It’s a worthwhile pilgrimage, especially if you are fortunate enough to visit on Waitangi Day (February 6th) for their annual celebration.
Kerikeri is farming country. Many a crop are grown here on this sunny land by the sea. Everything from oranges, avocados, kiwifruit and even vineyards thrive here. If you are in New Zealand on a working holiday, this is a popular spot to look for harvesting work. Otherwise, it’s a pretty small blip on the radar. Things you shouldn’t miss are Rainbow Falls and Aroha Island – home to a brown kiwi sanctuary. While visiting Aroha, we didn’t stay to see the illusive kiwi bird, but rented kayaks instead to explore the maze of shady mangroves nearby.
THE FAR NORTH
Heading north from Kerikeri, is Whangaroa, a sleepy and quaint fishing town with a harbour. Above the landscape is St. Paul’s Rock. We hiked up to this monolith for grand views of the surrounding waters and lands. Well worthwhile for a picnic with a view.
Next stop is Manganoui, which is nestled beside Doubtless Bay. For the best fish n’ chips (you’ll find many establishments proclaiming this honour in NZ), make sure you save room in your belly to eat lunch at the Manganoui Fish Shop. This is where I succumbed and learned to love fish n’chips. This place is literally right ON the water and you can look out the large windows watching the boats reel in your lunch. The town itself is like many fishing towns in Northland… quaint and cozy and a perfect stop along a scenic drive. As a New England girl, it reminds me of a much smaller, Pacific version of Cape Cod or Rhode Island.
Kaitaia may seem like the best jumping off point for a visit to Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach. However, in my opinion, it’s pretty bland and commercial. It’s a good place to stock up on supplies at Pak n Save, whilst choosing to rest your head in the smaller villiage of Ahipara.
While in Ahipara, we stayed at Endless Summer Backpackers. A beautiful, historic house literally right on the beach at the edge of town. The owner was very friendly and helpful, and the place felt more like staying at someone’s home (as it was) than a busy hostel. Above the hostel is a lookout you can hike to, and down the beach to the left are sand dunes to surf down. To the right, you can see the stretch that is 90 Mile Beach. This is apparently the cheapest place to hire surf lessons, and with all the wetsuits drying in the hostel courtyard, it seemed to be a popular place to catch a wave. Alas, our time here was too short to squeeze in a lesson.
During our stay here, we ventured north to the magestic Cape Reinga. This place is sacred to the Maori, as they believe it is the jumping off point for souls traveling to the afterlife. In particular, they believe that they slide down the roots of the sacred pohutukawa tree at the tip of the cape. This is also the place where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meet. A walk to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape gives you the feeling of being at the edge of the world. Go later in the day to avoid crowds and savour the magical late afternoon light playing off the ocean. It was so peaceful and magical, I didn’t want to leave.
On route to Cape Reinga, be sure to stop at the Te Paki Sand Dunes for a joy ride. Be prepared and bring your own boogie boards, however because the ones for hire will cost you a fortune. After a tiring and breath-sucking climb to the top of the dunes, you can ride your boogie board down at full speed. (See video on our website). It’s definitely a blast for as long as you’re willing to climb back up.
HOKIANGA & THE KAURI COAST
This region is very rural and rustic. Don’t be surprised to find cows sitting in the road if you choose to take the less-traveled gravel roads as a detour. Most visitors come here for a visit to the Waipoua Kauri Forest, home of Tane Mahuta, the largest Kauri tree still alive. Kauri are impressive, massive trees that have been cut down to near extinction for their wood and gum. This forest is a preserve, showcasing some of the most impressive examples of its species.
Northland is a region not to be missed. And don’t be afraid to tread off the beaten track to discover some of its true gems. There are many secret idyllic beaches to discover, allowing you to soak up the sunshine in peace, as well as many walks and forests to explore. This is a place where farmers end their days surfing secluded beaches, and Maori celebrate their culture on sacred sites and in the many meeting houses still present in their communities. It’s a land of endless sunshine and fertile crops. This is a true taste of New Zealand, and should be included on any traveler’s itinerary.