In 1996 and 2000 we travelled a combined 18 months through New Zealand and Northland was a very positive surprise to us. It was warmer than all other places, had the same gorgeous native bush as elsewhere and dozens of dream beaches that matched any other dream beach we have ever seen. Ultimately we decided to live in NZ and it was clear that our favorite place was to be Whangarei in Northland!
One hour’s drive north of Whangarei you will find the famous Bay of Islands, we think its real beauty is best seen from on the water. Paihia especially, is visited by many tourists but has little to offer, unless you book one of the many excursions to the hole in the rock or swimming with dolphins (similar tours can also be done from less crowded Tutukaka or other places).
The strong Maori community and the erratic rocky hills of the Whangarei Heads suggest a touch of Polynesia. Add to this the world class diving at Tutukaka and the amazing beaches at the Whangarei Heads, great shopping opportunities and only 2hrs distance to the big city of Auckland. Even in the city park (Mair Park) with its pretty river, cormorants and Kauri walks we felt as if we were in a Costa Rican National Park.
The drive up from Auckland is quite scenic, following the Northland Twin Coast Discovery Highway, in our opinion good stops until Whangarei are:
On the other hand Russell with its old architecture, charm and a lovely lookout walk should be on your list. You can either drive Russell Road along the coast, take a car ferry from Opua or take a passenger ferry from Paihia. To better understand New Zealand history and especially the original Maori inhabitants of this very special place on the edge of the vast Pacific go and visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds with its excellent Marae and exhibition to dig up loads of facts and impressions. Did you know that Friedensreich Hundertwasser lived in NZ (or perhaps you’ve never heard of him)? For sure you would enjoy his quirky design of the public toilets in Kawakawa.
After some gallery shopping in Kerikeri things will calm down enormously. In delightful Whangaroa the most excitement you will get will be the bustle of a fishing contest. Stroll around Hihi beach with its peaceful camping ground and have fish ‘n chips in Mangonui before you decide whether you go all the way up 90 Mile Beach to mystic Cape Reinga or not. But take care, your rental car is probably not insured for driving on the sand and you will take many risks going all the way, it’s best to book a tour from Kaitaia or Ahipara instead.
You can just enjoy this beautiful wide beach in Ahipara, after that drive south again down the west coast and relax to the maximum around Hokianga Harbour, where the early Polynesian discoverer Kupe once settled, cross with a car ferry to wild west Rawene and maybe another ice cream in Opononi. More spectacular is the view to the huge sand dunes across the harbour. East of Rawene we highly recommend a visit to the hidden Wairere Boulders valley (see www.wairereboulders.co.nz), where an idyllic river has cut its way through hard lava rocks with lush jungle to the left and right. The walk along bridges and stairs is interesting and very photogenic.
In the mystic Waipoua Forest you can feel like Frodo when you walk towards the 2000 year old giant Kauri trees. Feel the presence of Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) and Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), the two largest trees who once were only allowed to be approached by Maori priests.
In case you can’t get enough Kauri trees make a detour to the Trounson Kauri Park Walk where you can almost be guaranteed to hear a kiwi when you take a night walk with a ranger. Visit the largest freshwater Kai Iwi dune lakes where locals go to waterski. We really recommend you drive onto Baylys Beach where an unlimited speed sign awaits you for 110kms of smooth beach driving (don’t forget about the insurance). After some rural atmosphere in Dargaville drive down south until you get back to State Highway 1 at Brynderwyn. After Wellsford you can choose an alternative route (SH16) back down to Auckland and end your very own Twin Coast Discovery.
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