Highlights of a road trip to the top of New Zealand

Every time I go home these days, I try to add on a trip to a destination that I haven’t been to before. This time around it was Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand, that was calling my name.

P1170212Despite living in the North Island of New Zealand for the majority of my life, I was yet to make it up that far. I have seen so many photos of the famous lighthouse and rugged coastline and I thought that I was long overdue to see it in the flesh.

A tad hungover on New Years day, we started the long drive from Mum’s place in Tauranga, first stopping a night at my Grandmother’s in Matakana, before heading up to Northland for a four day road trip.

As I have mentioned before, Matakana is a special place to me. My Dad’s family has lived there for 15 years and I have seen it change over time from a small, quiet barely-village to the trendy, thriving weekend retreat that it has become.

I loved it before and I love it now.

But the point of this trip was to go somewhere that I hadn’t been before, so after a night visiting family and squeezing in one of the Matakana must-do’s – a drink at the Matakana Village Pub – we were on our way.

Over four days we camped, hiked, swam and drove through New Zealand’s sub-tropical north.

P1170139It was wonderful.

Northland is a popular destination for tourists visiting the North Island and rightly so. The main stop is generally the Bay of Islands, with some people also making it up to Cape Reinga, before rushing back down to Auckland again.

Don’t get me wrong, if you only have a couple of days, The Bay of Islands is a great destination and it is stunning.

But there is so much more to Northland.

P1170148In the short time that we had, we managed to visit so many incredible beaches and small towns and I was blown away by how exceedingly beautiful it is in this part of the world. We skipped the Bay of Islands this time around as we had last been up there only a couple of years ago and we knew there was so much else to discover.

New Zealand isn’t well-known for its beaches, but after seeing the deserted white sands and turquoise waters of the beaches in the far north, I don’t think it will be long before that changes.

P1170152Spread it around – New Zealand has INCREDIBLE beaches!

P1170130There were so many amazing places we visited that I put together a list of highlights. I hope to inspire you to visit this unique and picturesque region soon – before the rest of the world is let in on the secret too.


Pakiri Beach

Pakiri is a rugged long, sandy beach, popular with surfers and for horse riding along the sand. Although not technically in Northland (Pakiri is in the Rodney District, which is part of Auckland), Pakiri is a great place to stop to break up your drive from Auckland City. We strolled along a short section of the 14km beach, paddling in the translucent shallows and collecting multi-coloured shells.

P1170090 P1170093Whangarei Heads – Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach in the Whangarei Heads is one of my favourite Northland beaches for it’s perfect sized waves for jumping and bodysurfing, glorious clear water, giant sand dunes and the short track up the headland for spectacular views over the beach and out to sea. I love swimming here and the drive out there past small beachy communities, lush green forests and volcanic peaks is something special unto itself.

P1170099 P1170104Tutukaka Coast

The white sand beaches of Tutukaka’s Whale Bay and Matapouri are surrounded by lush, green native bush and lapped by the blue-green waters of the South Pacific Ocean. The Tutukaka Coast was voted one of the best coastlines in the world by National Geographic Traveler Magazine in 2010, and when you see it you will see why. The slow pace and lack of crowds make it an ideal destination.

P1170118 P1170141Some of the best diving in the World is just off-shore around the Poor Knights Islands. The Marina in the small settlement of Tutukaka is a beautiful place to eat dinner while watching the sun set. We camped in Tutukaka and were amazed by all the stars lighting up the clear night sky.

P1170115Matauri Bay

This beach has to be seen to be believed. With turquoise waters and sugary white sand, it wouldn’t look out of place somewhere like French Polynesia or Fiji. It is undeveloped, there is no settlement there, just a couple of houses and a camping ground. You first catch sight of the incredible beach as you crest a hill before the long drive down: be prepared to be wowed. You may not want to leave.

P1170151 P1170154Mangonui

A cute, seaside village that is a great place to stop for a wander. The pace of life is slow and the locals are friendly. The Mangonui fish shop claims to have the best fish and chips in New Zealand; I don’t know about that but they are pretty damn good. There is something special about this little town, it has a calming effect on me. I have only ever stopped in Mangonui for a short time but I would love to linger for a while.

P1170164Matai Bay

Matai bay on the KariKari Peninsula is rugged and technicoloured; a long, white beach that only had one other person on it when we visited in the height of summer. There is a great Department of Conservation camping ground on a grassy peninsula above the beach with inspiring views. Another perfect beach for peace, quiet and reflection.

P1170170 Tapotupotu Bay

My Dad told me about this hidden bay, reached by a small side road near Cape Reinga, and I am SO glad that we visited. There is a beautiful beach (they all are up here) but what is really great about it is the unbelievably clear river flowing into the ocean. You can jump in about 100 metres down and ride the fast flowing river into the sea. So much fun! I wasn’t intending on swimming so was not wearing my bathing suit, I was too excited to go back to the car and get changed so I ended up just jumping in with my clothes on. A definite highlight – I felt like a kid again.

P1170262Spirits Bay

It was a long, bumpy drive to get there but every bump was worth it. This isolated beach is made up of a slow curve of sand and lapped by pale blue water and surrounded by rounded, rocky peaks covered in lime-green grass. The Maori believe that the spirits of their dead depart this world via Spirits Bay. It has an end of the world feel to it. We walked around a small black-rock island connected to the beach and along the sun-bleached sands. There was so much silence. It was blissful.

P1170276 P1170286 P1170293Rawene

This tiny community in the remote Hokianga definitely surprised me. We took the ferry across the Hokianga Harbour from Kohu Kohu and decided to stay in the camping ground in Rawene after an exhausting day of driving. Originally we had planned to stay further on in the small beach town of Opononi but we were exhausted. Rawene didn’t look like much when we were driving through the town centre as the sky was darkening, but the camping ground was amazing.

It is set amongst native bush and overlooking the harbour with fantastic kitchen and bathroom facilities and even a pool – it was one of the best camping grounds I have ever been to. We swam in the pool then watched the sunset from outside our tent.

P1170307Waking to the sound of native birdsong the next morning, we decided to drive back into Rawene for another look. I’m so glad that we did as this village is simply charming. We had an excellent coffee at the trendy boat shed café and loved the historic buildings and giant trees draped in vines. At times I felt I was in the Deep South USA rather than a tiny town in New Zealand.

P1170324 P1170313Cape Reinga

I thought that it could be overrated. I thought that the tourist hoardes would be off-putting. I didn’t think it could live up to the hype.

It did. By God, it did.

Cape Reinga is stunningly beautiful.

P1170226A low mist lingered over the iconic New England style lighthouse. Aquamarine waters raged far below us and the faint glimmer of impossibly white sands gleamed in the broadening sunlight, further along the sharp coastline.

I was in awe of the colours and the beauty.

P1170196After walking down to the lighthouse, we decided to do the short hike along a lofty ridgeline and down steep switchbacks to Te Werahi beach below.

P1170245Although short, at only about 90 minutes return, it was one of the most spectacular hikes I have ever done. The views were unsurpassable.

I would love to do some of the longer hikes next time I visit.

There will definitely be a next time.

Other highlights:

In addition to the above, here are some other spots in Northland that are definitely worth a look if you have the time.

Ninety Mile Beach

It is in fact only 88km long, but that is still long nonetheless. It is officially deemed a highway but is only really suitable for 4-wheel drive vehicles. We didn’t risk it in the car that my step-Dad loaned us, I think he would have killed us if we got it bogged in the sand. It’s pretty cool to stand on a beach and literally not see the end of it. The Te Paki sand dunes at the northern end of the beach are a great place to sand board. We didn’t have the time to do it but it looked like fun. Wandering amongst the dunes, it feels as if you are in the Sahara Desert.

P1170265 P1170191Keri Keri

A lovely little town surrounded by orchards with some fantastic cafes. We stopped for lunch and nabbed a leisurely spot in a Café Garden – bliss.

Tane Mahuta

New Zealand’s largest known living Kauri tree, Tane Mahuta’s sheer height and girth are quite impressive and if you are driving through the Hokianga region of Northland, it is definitely worth stopping to see this impressive native tree.

P1170342Kai Iwi lakes

We had sun every day of our road trip except our last, which was the day we visited these famous freshwater dune lakes. They didn’t look that impressive under the grey skies but I have been told that they are a stunning baby blue when the sun is shining. And the lake beach is white sand. It is definitely somewhere I will need to revisit when it is sunny.

Tauranga Bay

A lovely beach with golden tinged sands and clear water. It is a beautiful spot but I was more impressed by the other beaches we visited in Northland. The competition was just too strong for Tauranga Bay to make it into my first round of highlights.

P1170160Did I inspire you to visit this gorgeous part of New Zealand? Which place stands out to you the most?

10 comments on “Highlights of a road trip to the top of New Zealand”

  1. THose beaches look so pristine!
    i never understood why everyone is going for australie when NZ is so close by. Sadly flight from europe take like 20 million hours – else i’d be there more often.

    Oh and before i forget it. WHen i was a kid lighthouses were something magical for me. The idea of someone living high up and lonely in that small little tower and lightening the way for other ships was…uh..i guess romantic!

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