Northland, New Zealand, jutting 350km north of Auckland, separates the Pacific Ocean from the Tasman Sea. The two can be seen pranging together off the coast of Cape Reinga, the most northern, road-accessible point in New Zealand.
The road through Northland, known as the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, follows a circular path around the peninsula. The east and west coasts differ drastically; the west is long, vast and beachy. The east is a circuitous route of coves, caves and beaches, excellent for exploring.
If you’re renting a car, Planit NZ recommends you hire a 4-wheel-drive which is insured to drive on Ninety-Mile Beach, though this may be difficult to find. It is a registered road (speed limit is 80km/h) and can get a bit hairy at times, especially entering or exiting through the Te Paki Stream.
There’s a lot to see and do in the beautiful Northland, so make sure you make the most of your days.
Day One: Auckland to Kaitaia
Day one will consist of a good amount of driving. Prepare for a road trip! Pack your lunches and your friends, load up the iPod, and leave the bad vibes behind. Leaving Auckland early in the morning, head north on State Highway 1, ready for an adventure.
When you reach Brynderwyn, turn left to head up the west coast on State Highway 12 (signs for Dargaville). As you drive, follow the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, also indicated by a brown square with a dolphin and a crashing wave. Of course, if you miss the signage, or you choose to keep driving straight, you’ll be heading the opposite direction around the loop. It’s up to you.
After your left turn, and a small bit of driving, take a detour and a break—head to the Kai Iwi Lakes for a dip. The Kai Iwi Lakes are a collection of some of New Zealand’s deepest and largest dune lakes, with crystal clear water fringed by powder-white sand. All the lakes are fed by rainwater and, outside of January, it should be quiet. If the water’s feeling warm, suit up and go for a swim.
Twenty kilometers north, you’ll find the Trounson Kauri Park, a small, protected Kauri forest. Once covered in these mighty trees, the Northland must now preserve them. Ranked alongside the sequoias of California as some of the largest trees in existence, the Kauri provide a beautiful wood. Thus, in the late 19th century, the Europeans felled the majority of them. Nowadays they can only be found in a few places. The 40 minute round-trip walk is easy but entertaining.
Continuing your journey north, the Tane Mahuta (Mauri for “Lord of the Forest”), is a 2000-year-old Kauri and is New Zealand’s mightiest tree. Along State Highway 12, it’s well signposted and is less than a five minute walk from the main road. There are a few other tracks you can walk, depending on your time.
Late afternoon will bring you to Omapere. There’s a beautiful lookout in Omapere down Signal Station Road which will come up quickly on your left. If you get here at the right time, the view over the sand dunes across the Hokianga Harbor is absolutely breath-taking. There are some picnic tables at the lookout so break out the cheese and crackers and bask in the evening.
Other than a lengthy drive around the harbor, the only way to get farther north and across Hokianga is on a vehicle ferry from Rawene (about $15 one-way). This 15 minute ferry ride departs every hour on the half-hour take place every hour on the half hour until 7:30pm. Keep driving north to Kaitaia. You will be journeying into the night and you may be tired. Rest well— tomorrow is a big day. Check out Wotif for the best deals on Kaitaia accommodations.
Day Two: Kaitaia to Cape Reinga to Paihia/Bay of Islands
Before leaving Kaitaia for the day, make sure you have everything you might need. There’s not much in the way of stores or supplies any farther north than here.
If you have a 4WD, and are insured to drive on the beach, follow your first sign left towards Ninety Mile Beach! This access point, known as the Waipapakauri Ramp, is 6 km north of Awanui. If you’re unsure about driving on the beach, consult the locals. Remember—slow down for streams and avoid loose sand!
Your only exit is on the northern end of the beach, through the Te Paki Stream. It’s not signposted, but assuming you weren’t the first people on the beach that day, there will be plenty of tire tracks leading you in the right direction. This will require some skilled driving and navigation through the quicksands of a river (seriously)! Always start in a low gear and, once you start driving, don’t stop. And whatever you do, stay off the dunes.
By the time you reach the end of Te Paki Stream you’ll be due for a break. Park the car in the lot and rent yourself a board—it’s time to go sandboarding. Hang ten, dude! On your way out, when you reach the main road, turn left towards Cape Reinga. If you’re not interested in driving the beach, follow the main road north and skip the beach altogether. You’ll pass the entrance to the Te Paki Stream where it’s worth checking out the dunes anyway. It’s a 20 minute walk up the dunes for some great boarding.
Cape Reinga, “the leaping place of the spirits,” is where the Maori believe their people return home after death. They enter the underworld through the sea by climbing down the roots of an 800-year old kahika tree. As you drive, rolling green hills will unfold on all sides, turning into magnificent seascapes nearer to the point. Cape Reinga hosts a well-trodden path to a dramatically perched lighthouse overlooking the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Take your time to wander about, reading the signs along the way. There is a lot of fascinating history here.
Now, as there’s only one road, the journey south is quite self-explanatory. On your way to Paihia, take any beach detours that look attractive. After all, it’s an adventure. When you reach Kaitaia, follow signs to Paihia. As you head south, be sure you stop in Mangonui. There is an iconic fish and chip shop in Mangonui that is well worth a visit (Beach Road, Mangonui). This quaint little shop sits on stilts in the bay and serves up some of the freshest fish and chips you'll find in New Zealand. Don't miss it.
If you have time, Doubtless Bay, on the Karikari peninsula, is well-known for its remoteness and unspoiled coastline. Paihia is a lively little town with no shortage of places to eat, sleep or drink.
Go out, explore the town a bit and have yourself a drink, a solid meal, and a good night’s sleep.
Day Three: Paihia/Bay of Islands to Auckland
Paihia is the perfect jump-off point to explore the Bay of Islands. You’ll want to book yourself an early morning trip exploring the bay. Whether you fancy yourself a scuba diver, snorkeler or a sailor, it’s all available from Paihia. There’s also plenty of kayaking, paddling, jetboating. If you want to get airborne, try taking a flight over the bay or parasail your way through the islands! If you’d rather stick to the ground, there are guided horseback rides and quad biking tours, too. Paihia is one of only a couple places in New Zealand you can swim with dolphins.
17km south of Paihia is Kawakawa. It’s a small working town with a few small cafes and restaurants for a cup of coffee, light snack, or full lunch. If you do find yourself here and needing to “go,” make sure to use the Hundertwasser toilets along the main drag—an artsy pair of bathrooms covered in ceramic tiles, broken bottles and found objects.
Farther south, in the Whangarei region (pronounced Fahn-ga-RAY), a blanket of water cascades over a basalt ledge. Signs will point you to the parking lot at Whangarei Falls. Park your car and follow the trail to the bottom of the falls—there’s a popular swimming hole at the bottom. Bring your suits.
It’s a windy road through Whangarei and beyond so driving times are likely to take longer than you might expect. Depending on your time frame, either head straight to Auckland or keep exploring. There is no shortage of museums, beaches, walks and caves to stop and visit along the way. Note the time, anticipate your arrival in Auckland, and as you head south, just go adventuring! After all, that’s what you’re here for.