New Zealand's Northland Region of the North Island begs to be explored on your trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud. A combination of golden beaches, secluded coves, breathtaking seascapes, ancient forests and heaps of activities to cater to all budgets makes Northland one of NZ's most tourist friendly spots.
Its close proximity to Auckland means it's no more than a three hour drive away (yet we recommend you take longer). Northland is a winterless paradise and New Zealand's 'first' land - we think you'll love it.
In a country not typically known for its past, Northland emits a sense of history not found most places in New Zealand. Waitangi is the spot where the treaty between Maori chiefs and the British Crown was signed in 1840 and a significant debate still continues over this signing 170 years later. Northland is very much 'the birthplace of a nation' and the strong Maori influence throughout Northland will add a lingering dimension to the rest of your trip to New Zealand.
History aside, Northland is a winterless paradise that takes in everything from white sand beaches, blue-green waters and tropical islands to the rugged and wind-swept coast of its West Coast. Most activities mentioned here are based in one way or another around the aquatic playground that Northland is.
Destination Northland: Getting There.
You'll arrive in Northland after having left Auckland - be that by car, bus or plane. Northland's Hot Spots listed below are all within a couple hours drive of each other.
The two main routes to Northland - either east or west - will ultimately land you at Cape Reinga, New Zealand's northwestern most point and the spot where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.
The west coast route to Northland will first pass the Kauri Coast through Matakohe, Dargaville, the Waipoua Kauri Forest, the scenic Hokianga Harbour along to Kaitaia (pick up some Kaitaia Fire, NZ's 'tobasco' whilst there) and finally to Cape Reinga.
The east coast route to Northland generally follows the SH1 - if you're in a hurry, you can catch this from AKL and arrive in Paihai in just about three hours if there is no traffic coming out of the city. We suggest you take your time and check out some of the east coast beaches - many Aucklanders holiday here for good reason and the further up the coast you get, the less developed and more beautiful the coast gets.
Destination Northland: Hot Spots.
Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time traveling in Northland.
Leigh & Goat Island
Chances are you wouldn't pass through Leigh if it wasn't for the nearby Goat Island. Leigh itself is a quaint wee town which sits on a harbour clad with an assortment of fishing boats. Three kms outside of Leigh is the Goat Island Marine Reserve - New Zealand's first marine reserve at 547 hectacres and established in 1978.
The sea has subsequently essentially become a giant aquarium in which you can snorkel, dive or take a trip in a glass bottomed boat. Visibility is normally well over 10 metres deep and you'll see snapper, blue maomao, crayfish - and, if luck is on your side, orca and bottlenosed dolphins.
Tutukaka Coast & the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve
Thirty minutes northeast of Whangarei and about an hours drive from Paihia and you reach the Tutukaka Coast. This is the gateway to the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve - reputed to have the best scuba diving in NZ and one of the top ten best dives in the world.
Warm sea currents from the Coral Sea mean the Poor Knights are renowned for their clarity and abundance of sea life – a diver’s paradise, but equally as appealing to snorkelers and kayakers. Massive underwater cliffs - 40 metres to 60 metres - drop steeply and their surface is a maze of caves (largest underground cave in the world is found here) and archways which result in a wide variety of underwater vegetation and manta rays.
The scenic drive to the Tutukaka Coast is lined with stonewalls and a number of orchards where you can stock up on your way to visiting some of the fantastic beaches such as Ngunguru, Matapouri and Whale Bay.
Northland's majestic West Coast is home to windswept harbours, historic country towns and ancient Kauri Forests. It's these ancient trees that give name to the Kauri Coast and they should claim most of your attention (unless of course you have a strange interest in kumara (sweet potatoes) in which case you should head to Dargaville, the Kumara Capital of New Zealand).
These forests are sadly all but gone now; yet back in the 19th Century, these Kauri Trees provided NZ with much of its wealth as they were harvested for timber and gum. The Waipoua Kauri Forest is a fantastic example of what the coast would have once all looked like. In 1952, harvesting of the trees ceased and 18kms of this jungly forest was set as a reserve. A Kauri Tree can grow up to 60 metres tall and have a trunk 5 metres in diameter.
Te Matua Ngahere - The Father of the Forest - is believed to be the oldest Kauri in New Zealand and it's reckoned that Te Matua Ngahere is over 2000 years old. The largest Kauri tree in New Zealand, Tane Mahuta, is nearby and stands 51 metres tall.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands - an inlet off the South Pacific dotted with over one hundred tropical islands (144 if you're counting) - are a must see on your trip to New Zealand. On a clear day, the blue-green, emerald waters contrasted with the white sand beaches will take your breath away and you'll wonder if NZ can get any better.
Bay of Islands - Paihia & Waitangi
The main town in the Bay of Islands is Paihia and is a fantastic spot to base yourself for your time traveling in Northland. Paihia is a busy little resort town with plenty of hostels and budget accommodation, loads of bars, and sits directly on the bay (can you picture yourself with a beer watching the sunset?). You’re within a days drive of 90 Mile Beach (below) and can escape the resort like feel of Paihia with a quick ferry ride across the bay to historic Russell (below).While visiting you’ll have no shortage of things to do – spend your days sailing around the islands, jet boating around the islands, kayaking around the islands (following the theme here?) dolphin watching, diving, or simply soaking up the sun on the Paihia beachfront.
Ten minutes away from Paihia nestled between the Waitangi River and the bay is Waitangi National Reserve. It is here that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the British Crown. The well maintained grounds are home to the Treaty House and one of the largest Maori wakas (war canoes) at 35 metres. A visit here is a must for anyone traveling New Zealand.
Bay of Islands - Russell
A short car ferry ride away from Paihia is quaint and historic little Russell. Much has changed since the early 1800s which Russell was known for being 'the hell hole of the pacific' - let's just say the whalers, traders and sailors knew how to have a good time. Today, you're far less likely to find drunk sailors and prostitues and more inclined to stumble upon quaint cafes, waterfront restaurants selling fresh fish and New Zealand's oldest licensed pub.
Top of the North: Cape Reinga & 90 Mile Beach
Cape Reinga is often referenced as the northernmost point of New Zealand. In reality, it's darn close but a point east of the Cape is the northernmost point. Nonetheless it's an absolutely stunning place and well worth a trip during your time traveling in Northland. From the Cape you can see an area of especially rough and choppy water where the mighty Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean - resulting in waves of up to 10 metres high in stormy weather.
Cape Reinga too is an important place in Maori spiritual culture. The word Reinga in Maori means “underworld” and Maoris believe that after you die, your spirit makes its way north over New Zealand and along the 90 Mile beach before entering the underworld after leaping off the Cape. Another Maori name for the area is, Te Rerenga Wairua which translates to the, ‘leaping-off place of spirits.’ Be sure to show respect for local traditions by refraining from eating or drinking while visiting Cape Reinga.
South of Cape Reinga is the majestic 90 Mile Beach which stretches for some 60 miles (go figure, read on). Years ago when missionaries had to travel the beach via horseback, they assumed their horses could travel 30 miles each day. It would take them three days to travel the beach, so they ultimately named it the 90 Mile Beach. Their math was flawed as they didn’t take into consideration the fact the horses traveled slower in the sand.
Distances aside, with white sand, beautiful blue water, and the surf stretching as far as you can literally see, it’s an absolutely stunning sight and worth a visit (many tours combine Cape Reinga with 90 Mile Beach).
We suggest you check out a tour as many a visitor has unsuccessfully attempted to travel 90 Mile Beach in their own vehicle – only to find themselves stuck. The bus drivers know the tide times, areas to avoid, the best access and exit points, and how to navigate the small streams which run onto the beach (and rise quickly during rain). Considering this, most of the time, they do it successfully.
Toilets? Yup, we are actually recommending you check out some toilets. And not any toilets, public toilets. Read on. Kawakawa wouldn't otherwise really be a terribly inviting place if it wasn't for the Hundertwasser's Toilets (okay, it's still not someplace you'll hang out for too long). Yet these public toilets were designed by Austrian-born artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser who lived in Kawakawa in an isolated house without electricity from 1973 until his death in 2000.
These toilets claim the title, 'most photographed in New Zealand,' and are typical Hundertwasser. Brightly colored bottles, wavy lines, mosaics and grass and plants on the roof sure make for an unusual site. Go on, you know you want to check 'em out. While you're in Kawakawa, run across the street from the toilets to grab a 'take-way' hangi from the butcher.
Destination Northland: Final Thoughts & Recommendations.
Northland is a pretty fantastic place. We suggest if possible you avoid the hotspots in the high of the high season - Paihai swarms with visitors during the summer months.
A trip to Northland really won't be complete without getting out in the Bay of Islands - there are heaps of tours to choose from, but consider checking one out that combines dolphin watching/swimming with a cruise around the bay. Be sure to get some fresh fruit whilst in Northland - try some persimmons and let us know what you think!
Northland has a growing wine scene so we recommend you call in and sample some local wines. Lastly, don't miss a stop at the Mangonui Fish Shop - a lovely wee spot right over the water in Mangonui Harbour and offering fantastic locally caught fish.