STARTING FROM THE TOP: OUR TOP TEN HIGHLIGHTS OF NZ’S FAR NORTH.

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A Northland road trip is the best way to see all the sights of this beautiful region. Northland has beaches and coastlines, bush walks and boat trips and a rich history of New Zealand.

Last summer we spent eight weeks back at ‘home’ in the Far North, so we may be slightly swayed in our sharing… But we reckon its the best part to explore! Here are our top ten favourites from the North; a good place to start with planning your trip to Northland.

OUR TOP 10 IN NORTHLAND:

  1. Cape Reinga and the far far North
  2. Tāne Mahuta and the Hokianga
  3. A day trip to Urapukapuka and the islands
  4. Visiting Waitangi and the Treaty Grounds
  5. Paihia and Haruru Falls
  6. Opua’s best bush walks
  7. Russell – its not actually an island!
  8. Te Rāwhiti and the back roads
  9. Kerikeri and Rainbow Falls
  10. Ngāwha Hot Springs

CAPE REINGA AND THE FAR FAR NORTH

We spent two full days road tripping in the Far North, starting the journey to Cape Reinga with a morning stop at the small fishing town of Mangonui to stock up for our Northland road trip…

  • Fish bait ✔️ 
  • Sandwich bread ✔️ 
  • Crisps (for sandwiches) ✔️

And of course our ‘jandals’!

Stopping to stock up for our Northland road trip at the Four Square in Mangonui.
Mangonui Four Square; an iconic NZ supermarket, and this one juts out over the sea!

Cape Reinga is geographically the most northern point of the north island of New Zealand; 100km north of the nearest town of Kaitaia. There aren’t any shops nearby, making it the perfect outing for a day trip with a picnic.

At the cape you can see the spectacular swirl of ocean currents where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean and as you look down the coastline you can see a gnarled, old pohutukawa tree, believed to be over 800 years old! This tree holds particular significance to Maori, as according to legend, the spirits of their deceased descend from this tree into the ocean to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.

There are two ways to get right up to the Cape: by bus with a tour company, or with a rental car, but we would recommend hiring a car, because there are a lot of spots that are worth more than a short stop as you make your way north.

We drove ALL over both coasts of Northland, but found Henderson Bay on the East Coast topped it off as the most beautiful for a spot we had never been before! 

Beautiful white sands at Henderson Bay.

The boys (all three) headed straight for the water… following the locals out onto the rocky rises just past the shore line, where the waves were breaking gently and the water was so incredibly clear!


Fresh kina (sea urchin) eaten on the beach, given to us by some local fishermen at Henderson Bay.

And, if the timing on the way back works out for fish and chips at the famous Mangonui Fish Shop, then you are in luck!


TĀNE MAHUTA AND THE HOKIANGA

We still can’t decide which day of Northland road tripping was our favourite. Heading west towards the Hokianga and beyond meant paying a visit to New Zealand’s largest living kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta; Lord of the Forest.

This majestic tree towers over 50m tall, creating an impressive rooftop canopy in the Waipoua Forest, about 30 minutes drive south of Opononi.

In myth, Tane the forest God, broke apart the embrace of Ranginui, the “sky father” and Papatūānuku, the “Earth mother,” allowing the space and light for life to flourish…

The incredible Tane Mahuta.

Opononi and Omapere are dual beach settlements overlooking the Hokianga Harbour and impressive sand dunes. Opononi is renowned for the famous ‘friendly dolphin’, Opo, who made the harbour his home in the 1950’s. We liked the story of Opo, but I have to say that an ice cream on the wharf may have been a more dominant highlight of our Northland road trip for some…!

A compulsory ice cream stop on Opononi Wharf

RAWENE

Rawene is New Zealand’s third oldest town and an interesting stop for your Northland road trip. At first it was a timber centre, before a mill and shipyards were established in the 1800’s. Now it is a sunny little town on the south side of the Hokianga Harbour.

It can be reached by road as you head north in a little over an hour from the Bay of Islands.

Take the car ferry in Rawene as part of your Northland road trip.
Boarding the Hokianga Vehicle Ferry as foot passengers for the ride.

How cool is the Hokianga Vehicle Ferry as a foot passenger, when you’re a kid?! 😁 [And, as adults for providing such an adventure for $4 return!]. We enjoyed taking a ride over the harbour on foot. It’s easy to park your car at Rawene. (We timed it perfectly for a beachfront picnic!).


URUPUKAPUKA AND OTHER ISLANDS

We are (admittedly) biased, because this is home for us(!). But, if you come to the Bay of Islands then definitely grab the opportunity to get out on the water!

The Bay of Islands is made up of 144 islands and really is the perfect destination for swimming, boating, fishing, diving, kayaking, picnicking, hiking, exploring – you name it!

There are all kinds of day trips and organised tours you can take to visit different islands in the bay. You can even take a boat to see the Hole in the Rock. But, our favourite island to explore is Urupukapuka. We take the ferry transfer from Paihia to Otehei Bay with Explore NZ and spend the day on the island.

There are varying levels of walking tracks around the island suitable for the whole family. The bays themselves are marine reserves so even if you don’t get any further out on the water you will see an abundance of fish just off the jetty!

A perfect picnic spot on Urupukapuka Island.

Pack a picnic for a great day out in the Bay!


WAITANGI TREATY GROUNDS

The Bay of Islands is regarded as the ‘birthplace of New Zealand’. A visit to Waitangi offers visitors the opportunity to learn about the the history of early European settlement and Maori culture. A must-do on any New Zealand itinerary.

The historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed here in 1840. It is generally considered the founding document of New Zealand as a nation, and a symbol of the coming together of two diverse cultures – Māori and Pākehā.

At the Treaty Grounds you can visit the beautifully carved Maori meeting house, Te Whare Runanga, and see the largest of Maori war canoes, Ngatokimatawhaorua. If you are visiting the Bay of Islands then definitely make time for visiting Waitangi. Don’t forget to check the daily schedule for the Maori cultural performance, and grab a coffee afterwards at Whare Waka Cafe… The boys loved counting the incredible long-fin eels you can see from your table and keep asking to go back!


PAIHIA AND HARURU FALLS

Paihia is a beautiful base to explore the entire of the Bay of Islands and right up to the Far North from. And, its one place we LOVE to call home! If you have a few days in Paihia on your Northland road trip, then definitely make the most of the beautiful beaches, playgrounds, restaurants, cafes and ice-cream that are on offer.

It’s easy to hire a kayak for the morning from Dan (the kayak man’) at Bay Beach Hire and explore the nearby bays and beaches. And after that I definitely recommend a coffee at the busy little local favourite, Third Wheel Vending.

Stay in Paihia on your Northland road trip.
Looking back at Paihia wharf from the ferry.

Paihia is beautiful from the water and there are all kinds of water transport options to experience.

You can kayak up the Waitangi River, but there is also a beautiful bush walk from Waitangi to Haruru Falls. From Paihia, the track is 6km each way and starts at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Northland road trip - stopping to check out Haruru Falls.
The beautiful Haruru Falls. Do you reckon we walked?!

[You can also drive to Haruru and park right by the waterfall. Either way, it’s worth admiring!].


THE TWO BEST BUSH WALKS IN ŌPUA

This area of Northland is surrounded by pristine bush and stunning coastal walkways. There are walking trails of all levels and lengths to suit, but two of our favourites are in Opua. The Coastal Walkway from Paihia to Opua (I have been walking this trail since I was a child!) and the Oramahoe Forest Track.

The most beautiful day hike. Opua Coastal Track. Northland road trip.

PAIHIA – OPUA COASTAL WALKWAY

This can either be done as a one-way track from Paihia to Opua and back, or as part of a longer loop track starting and ending in Paihia, crossing over to Russell and returning by ferry to the start point.

We found the Paihia to Opua track perfect with the boys as there is so much to look at and explore. The track winds up and down through the native bush and right down into small beaches, coves, and bays.

That is, if you can get them past the first bit of the track in Opua and all the boats and boardwalks!

The boardwalk on the track to Opua, looking towards Okiato over the bay.

Coastal Walkway: Paihia to Opua
START POINT: Paihia
LENGTH: 5.5km
TIME: 2 hours one way

Gavin and I also enjoyed the Coastal Walkway Loop as a day walk, sans kids. We started in Opua and took the car ferry to Okiato as foot passengers walking the bush tracks to Russell, before getting the ferry back across the channel to Paihia. It’s a big day, but a beautiful walk through acres of native bush. It felt well deserving of a boysenberry gelato on arrival in Russell!

An ice cream in Russell... an essential part of our Northland road trip!
One of the highlights and essential stops in Russell!

Coastal Walkway Loop: Paihia to Opua to Russell to Paihia
START POINT: Paihia, Opua or any point in between
LENGTH: Approximately 14km total
TIME: 5.5 to 6 hours total

ORAMAHOE FOREST TRACK

This is a lesser known track and a secret favourite of ours. The walk itself is only 1.5km return but boasts native trees and birds that are spectacular. Definitely make time to stop for a moment and just listen to the birdlife and song in the forest.

Washing our shoes before entering the forest at Oramahoe.

Oramahoe Forest Track, Opua
START POINT: 5km along Oramahoe Road
LENGTH: 1.5km return
TIME: 30 minutes one way


RUSSELL

If you haven’t got time for an organised boat trip out into the Bay of Islands then definitely don’t miss out on visiting Russell! The peninsula of Russell is confusing, as the most accessible way to visit is by boat but contrary to thought it is in fact part of the mainland. The best thing about it is that it will make you feel like you are getting out in the Bay of Islands when you take the ferry to get there!

Taking the passenger ferry from Paihia to Russell

Russell was home to the first of New Zealand’s 19th century whaling ports. The smaller port of Okiato only a few kilometres away, was the site of the country’s first capital. Today it is the perfect small town to wander on foot. Check out the whaling museum, stroll the waterfront promenade, get fish and chips to eat on the beach, or have a beer at the Duke of Marlborough – New Zealand’s first tavern.

And check out Christ Church, built in 1835. This was the first church in the country, originally holding services in both English and Māori. Even now, if you walk around the the outside and look closely you can still see the musket holes from the Battle of Kororareka in 1845!

Inside the beautiful Christ Church in Russell.


TE RĀWHITI AND THE BACK ROADS TO RUSSELL

The Old Russell Road was the only way in via land access before the car ferry was put in at Opua. The road itself hasn’t changed much since those days, and winds all the way out to the Rawhiti Peninsula about an hours drive from Russell township.

We’d done the passenger and car ferry to Russell before, so made an adventure out of it and spent the day roadtripping. We completed an entire loop from Opua to Russell and Rawhiti, and right down the coast to Oakura and Whangarei. A very cool Northland road trip!

A northland road trip around the back roads to Russell and Rawhiti.
Fun on the beach in Te Rawhiti on the Russell Peninsula.

The old roads are gravel and windy, but make up for it with secluded beach spots and stunning scenic tastes of Northland.

A special stop for ice cream in Oakura.

KERIKERI, KORORIPO PĀ AND RAINBOW FALLS

It’s only a 30 minute drive from Paihia, but Kerikeri is another historic town of Northland and setting of the first Mission Station in the country. Here you can see the Old Stone Store. Literally the oldest stone building in New Zealand, and Kerikeri Mission House (Kemp House) – the first European style building.

Kororipo Pa is only a short walk from the Stone Store, perfect for kids. It is a great opportunity to see a historic Maori settlement with such significance and history for New Zealand.

Nearby is the Rainbow Falls track which is another great option for walking with children. The full track takes about 1.5 hours to complete the 3.5km path one way. Otherwise, you can opt for a shorter version at only 20 minutes from the Stone Store basin.

Visiting Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri on our Northland road trip.
The beautiful view from the Rainbow Falls lookout along the track.

You won’t be disappointed to reach the waterfall and see exactly how it go its name!


NGĀWHA HOT SPRINGS

Have you heard of Ngawha Hot Springs?

It’s a small geothermal area just east of Kaikohe with natural hot springs. The hot springs bubble from the ground into different mud pools. T hey are known in Northland for their healing properties (*and recognisable aroma!). It’s an awesome experience! Each pool has its own individual spring and so has a different colour, temperature, and name to the next one… 

[We keep going back to ‘Kotahitanga’ and ‘Favourite’ which sit at about 40-41 °C. Only Gavin has made it into the ‘Doctor’ at 45 °C!].

Having a swim at Ngawha Hot Springs as part of our Northland road trip.

We travel the world to see sights like these!


How many of these did you see on your Northland road trip??

You might also like our other New Zealand posts. Check out our South Island road trip for 25 of the best campsites we recommend.

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