Leave Auckland and start driving north. This is Northland and it stretches all the way to the tip of the island and extends to both coasts. When you jump in your rental car and point it in the direction of Cape Reinga – not the northernmost point in New Zealand but certainly the furthest you can go – you’re setting out on a 400km journey you’ll never forget. It’s a five-and-a-half-hour drive straight through, but this is a region you’ll want to explore at leisure, so allow at least four days, even more if you want to spend some time on the west coast – it’s rich in Māori history, ancient kauri forests, and rugged, remote beaches – during the drive back to Auckland.
There are so many places to discover during a road trip from Auckland to Cape Reinga. Here are a few suggestions on the best things to see and do in Northland.
First Stop: Whangārei
About two hours after you leave Auckland, you’ll find yourself in the vibrant city of Whangārei, where you can head to Quayside for a coffee at one of the cafes overlooking the Hatea River. Stretch your legs and admire the colourful murals on the City Centre Street Art walk.
Just outside Whangārei, get back to nature. Take a scenic walk-through native bushland and past kauri trees to stunning Whangārei Falls. It’s only about a 10-minute stroll to the viewing platform where you can see water cascading 26m over basalt cliffs into a deep pool. It’s an easy walk down to the bottom, where there’s a lovely spot for a picnic.
Whangārei Heads is a collection of harbour and ocean beaches, as well as unspoiled landscapes. If you’re looking for an energetic, three-hour walk leading to epic views, hike to the summit of Mount Manaia. Wind your way up through forests and past rocky outcrops and stands of tree ferns until you’re 420m above sea level. The vista from the peak takes in headlands, islands and bays.
Best of the Bay of Islands
Depending on the time of year and the sort of activities you’re planning, you might want to consider staying in the Bay of Islands – somewhere like Paihia or Kerikeri – for a couple of nights. There are more than 144 islands just off the coast, pretty bays, rugged coastline and marine reserves. In fact, Jacques Cousteau named Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve one of the world’s top five diving locations, but it’s also a great spot for snorkellers. You’ll see sponge gardens, gorgonian corals, subtropical fish, moray eels and stingrays, as well as caves and arches. To see the best of it, join a dive charter, even if you’re only snorkelling, from Tutukākā Marina.
If you’re not keen to get into the water, catch the passenger ferry from Paihia to Russell (there’s also a vehicle ferry from Opua to Okiato, which is about 10 minutes’ drive from Russell). Located on a peninsula across the harbour from Paihia, Russell was the first European settlement in New Zealand and many of its historical buildings remain. If you’ve caught the ferry and aren’t driving, enjoy yourself at the Duke of Marlborough on the waterfront. It was the country’s first licensed bar and restaurant, and still operates to this day. Russell is also a popular departure point for many Bay of Islands cruises.
One unmissable part of the Bay of Islands is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, one of New Zealand’s most important historical sites. Throughout the day, explore two contemporary museums, go on a guided tour, stroll through native forest and gardens, and see powerful Māori cultural performances in an authentic meeting house.
North to the Cape
The town of Kaitaia is the last stop before you reach New Zealand’s top. Cape Reinga, about another hour and a half in the rental car, is as far as you can go. There is one place further – North Cape – but it’s a scientific reserve, so it’s not accessible to the public.
Walk to Cape Reinga Lighthouse and bask in the view of the spot where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. A little further along, you’ll find a pohutukawa tree thought to be about 800 years old. Māori history says the spirits of deceased kin would leap from this tree into the ocean to return to the ancestral home of Hawaiki.
The other attraction in this northernmost part of the country is the beaches, some with incredible surf, others calm and perfect for swimming. The most famous is Ninety Mile Beach. Even though it’s classified as a highway, you’ll need to leave your car in Kaitaia and take a coach tour to go for a swim, dig for tuatua (local clams) or slide down the sand dunes.
Ready to explore New Zealand’s Northland? Hire a rental car to get going.