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, north of Auckland at the northernmost tip of New Zealand, that was calling my name.
It was time to do a Northland Road Trip!
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.
The Ultimate Northland Road Trip
A tad hungover on New Years day, I 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 five day road trip, hitting up lots of incredible spots along the way between Auckland to Cape Reinga.
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 – I was on my way.
Over four days 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 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, and it is the best New Zealand Road Trip option if you love beautiful beaches.
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 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.
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 New Zealand 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 NZ Road Trip 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.
Whangarei 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. Ocean Beach is definitely one of the best beaches in Northland.
If you have time, you should check out Whangarei Falls too – it’s one of the most beautiful falls in New Zealand.
The Tutukaka Coast is home to some spectacular Northland beaches. 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 trip 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.
Bay of Islands
It’s the most obvious Northland 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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a great Department of Conservation camping ground on a grassy peninsula above the beach with inspiring views, and I highly recommend spending one night of your Northland Road Trip here.
It’s another perfect beach for peace, quiet and reflection.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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. I swam in the pool then watched the sunset from outside my tent.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
Other Northland Road Trip 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
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.
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.
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.
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. The Kai Iwi Lakes Campground is a pretty sweet spot too – 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.
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?