Every time I go home to New Zealand these days, I try to add on a trip to a destination that I haven’t been to before. This time around I did a Northland road trip from Auckland to Cape Reinga, at the northernmost tip of New Zealand.
Despite 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.
So I packed my Dad’s van and hit the road to travel from Auckland to Cape Reinga.
The Ultimate Northland Itinerary From Auckland to Cape Reinga
Over my week long Northland Itinerary, I camped, hiked, swam and drove through New Zealand’s sub-tropical north.
It 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 from Auckland 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 – you should definitely go there and it is on this list. But there is so much more to Northland.
In the short time that I had for my Northland Itinerary, I 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.
New Zealand isn’t well-known for its beaches, but Northland travel is alllll about the beaches. 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 everyone knows how amazing the beaches are in New Zealand.
Spread it around – New Zealand has INCREDIBLE beaches!
There were so many amazing places I visited that I put together a list of highlights, so you can plan your own Northland Road Trip, perhaps as part of a larger North Island road trip itinerary.
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. This is a quintessential Northland travel itinerary in my opinion.
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.
I strolled along a short section of the 14km beach, paddling in the translucent shallows and collecting multi-coloured shells.
Where to Stay in Pakiri: Stay in a self-contained cabin at Leigh Central, or camp or stay in an apartment right on Pakiri beach at Pakiri Beach Holiday Park.
Whangarei Heads – Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach in the Whangarei Heads is one of the best beaches in Northland for its 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.
If you have time, you should check out Whangarei Falls too – it’s one of the most beautiful falls in New Zealand.
Where to Stay in Whangarei Heads: Stay in Whangarei Heads in a private room or apartment at Oceans Beach House, or stay in Whangarei at The Cell Block hostel – in a former Police Station/Jail.
The Tutukaka Coast is home to some of the best beaches in Northland. The white sand beaches of Tutukaka’s Whale Bay and Matapouri, which 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 and a must for any Northland itinerary.
Some 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.
I camped in Tutukaka and was amazed by all the stars lighting up the clear night sky.
Where to Stay on the Tutukaka Coast: Stay in an apartment and enjoy the pool and hot tub at Pacific Rendezvous Motel, or enjoy the views from your chalet at The Lighthouse Lookout.
Bay of Islands
It’s the most obvious Northland itinerary stop and the most touristy – but I think it still has to be done.
I loved taking the ferry over to Russell, the sleepy historic seaside town that was once known as the hellhole of the Pacific when it was the first capital of New Zealand. It is a great place to spend a morning, checking out the shops and having a coffee or breakfast at one of the waterfront restaurants.
You have to get out on the water on an island or dolphin watching tour – I did one that stopped at beautiful Urupukapuka Island, which is the largest of the 140 islands in the bay.
If you are interested in New Zealand history, you can visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Museum in Waitangi, the birthplace of New Zealand.
Where to Stay in the Bay of Islands: Stay at the beautiful, historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront in Russell, or stay at Pickled Parrot Backpackers in Paihia for a budget option.
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.
Where to Stay in Matauri Bay: Stay at relaxing Te Koha Lodge with incredible views from the balcony and a hot tub, or stay at the magical Magic Cottages at Takou River.
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.
Where to Stay in Mangonui: Golden Sand Beachfront Apartments for well-appointed apartments by the beach, or a room or apartment at Mangonui Waterfront Apartment Motels closer to town.
Matai bay on the KariKari Peninsula is rugged and technicolored; a long, white beach that only had one other person on it when we visited in the height of summer.
It’s another perfect beach for peace, quiet and reflection.
Where to Stay in Matai Bay: Stay at KariKari Lodge where breakfast is included, or the Department of Conservation camping ground on a grassy peninsula above the beach with inspiring views.
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.
Where to Stay in Tapotupotu Bay: Camp right by the beach at Tapotupotu Campsite, New Zealand’s most northern. It is basic but the location can’t be beat.
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. I 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.
Where to Stay in Spirits Bay: Camp right on the beach at Kapowairua (Spirits Bay) Campsite, a Department of Conservation campground with basic facilities.
Ngawha Hot Springs
The Ngawha Hot Springs is a great wet weather alternative if you get a bit of rain on your road trip like I did.
These rustic springs consist of a number of small hot pools of varying temperatures with silt laden water, there is even mud you can lather all over yourself and wash off in one of the pools.
I had a great time there, chatting to locals and other visitors while relaxing in the hot waters.
Where to Stay at Ngawha: Stay at the neo-classical designed Left Bank in nearby Kaikohe which offers charming private rooms and backpacker dorms.
This tiny community in the remote Hokianga definitely surprised me. I 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 I had planned to stay further on in the small beach town of Opononi but I was exhausted. Rawene didn’t look like much when I was driving through the town centre as the sky was darkening.
Waking to the sound of native birdsong the next morning, I decided to drive back into Rawene for another look. I’m so glad that I did as this village is simply charming.
I 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.
Where to Stay in Rawene: Camp at Rawene Holiday Park, which offers campsites and cabins and is set amongst native bush overlooking the harbor with a fantastic pool. Alternatively stay in the nearby beach town of Opononi at the Opononi Hotel.
I thought that it could be overrated. I thought that the tourist hoards 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, and exploring the area is Northland travel at its finest.
A low mist lingered over the iconic New England style lighthouse – one of the top Cape Reinga attractions. 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.
After walking down to the lighthouse, I decided to do the short hike along a lofty ridge line and down steep switchbacks to Te Werahi beach below.
Although short, at only about 90 minutes return, it was one of the most spectacular hikes I have ever done. The views were unsurpassable. And this was one of the Cape Reinga attractions that not many people bother experiencing – they are missing out.
I would love to do some of the longer hikes next time I visit.
There will definitely be a next time.
Where to Stay in Cape Reinga: The closest accommodation to Cape Reinga is the campgrounds in Spirits Bay and Tapotupotu Bay, otherwise stay at the Pukenui Lodge Motel which is a 40 minute drive away.
Other Northland Road Trip Highlights
In addition to the above, here are some other spots in Northland that are definitely worth adding to your Northland itinerary if you have the time.
Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach 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. I didn’t risk it.
It’s pretty cool to stand on Ninety Mile 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. I 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. The cute beach town of Ahipara is a great base for the beach.
Where to Stay in Ahipara: Stay at the massive Ahipara Holiday Park which has campsites, cabins and motel rooms, or at Ahipara Bay Motel which has rooms with sea view balconies.
A lovely little town surrounded by orchards with some fantastic cafes. I stopped for lunch and nabbed a leisurely spot in a café garden – bliss.
There are some lovely beaches nearby as well and Keri Keri is a great spot to base yourself to visit upper Northland. Visit the the Stone Store – the oldest surviving stone building in New Zealand, and beautiful Rainbow Falls.
Where to Stay in Keri Keri: For a luxury option, stay at beautiful Moon Gate Villa which has an outdoor pool and lush garden, or at the popular Woodlands Motel which offers quality rooms at a low price, and also has an outdoor pool and beautiful gardens.
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.
Where to Stay for Tane Mahuta: Stay at the luxurious Copthorne Hotel & Resort, located right on the beach and only a 20 minute drive from Tane Mahuta.
Kai Iwi Lakes
I had sun every day of my Northland road trip except for the last day, which was the day I 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.
Where to Stay at the Kai Iwi Lakes: Stay at the Kai Iwi Lakes Resort in an apartment rental or dorm, or camp at the Kai Iwi Lakes Campground located right on the lakes edge.
A lovely beach with golden tinged sands and clear water. It is a beautiful spot but I was more impressed by the other beaches I visited in Northland. The competition was just too strong for Tauranga Bay to make it into my first round of highlights.
Where to Stay in Tauranga Bay: Camp at Tauranga Bay Holiday Park right on the beach which has cabins, tent and RV sites and motel units.
Northland should be on anyone’s New Zealand Trip Itinerary – it really is that amazing – and even if you don’t have a lot of time to explore, you can reach a number of amazing Northland destinations on a day trip from Auckland.
Did I inspire you to do a Northland Road Trip? Which place stands out to you the most?
The Best Travel Insurance for your Northland Road Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip, just to be on the safe side. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with.
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you liked this post, check out some more of my North Island New Zealand content:
- The Best Cheap Eats in Auckland (for Under NZD$15)
- Twenty Best Auckland Activities to Make you Love the City
- Enjoying the Slower Pace of Life in North Auckland
- Hiking the Hillary Trail on Auckland’s Wild West Coast
- Waiheke Island: A Subtropical Island Paradise
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- Glamping in the Remote Wairarapa
- Exploring Hobbiton: My Dad’s Home Town