Head north from Auckland on this diverse journey taking in New Zealand's Maori and colonial history, the best of an emerging artisan food, wine and beer scene, and a few spectacular and remote beaches only reached by well-chosen and quieter detours from the main highway. Get ready for an exciting trip taking in the northernmost tip of the country, and providing plenty of exciting opportunities to get active amid stellar Kiwi coastal scenery.
Departing New Zealand's most cosmopolitan city across Auckland Harbour Bridge, make your first stop 45km north at Puhoi. This quaint riverside village was first settled by German-speaking families from Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – and Puhoi's Bohemian Museum is a poignant testament to the determination of these hardworking pioneers.
Continue north, turning right at the intersection just past Warkworth and head towards more New Zealand treats at nearby Matakana, especially if your trip coincides with the village's Saturday morning farmers market. Accompanied by a lazy days soundtrack of local musicians, stalls selling buffalo mozzarella, organic chocolate and zingy olive oil gather beside the shaded banks of the Matakana River.
Pick up a guide to the region's expanding wine scene – standout vineyards include Heron's Flight and Hyperion – before enjoying a tasting tray of Leigh’s, Sawmill Brewery's craft beers. Seasonal brews partner with the Sawmill's core brew range – try the citrusy Pale Ale – and their delicious bar snacks include barbecue goat with cumin-spiced flatbread. The Cafe also does great gourmet pizzas and hosts regular summer gigs from some of Kiwi music's biggest names.
When you’ve eaten your full, head north 3kms on the winding and often windy road to Goat Island. Established in 1975 as New Zealand's first marine reserve, Goat Island offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with plump snapper and shoals of smaller fish. You choose between snorkelling and diving, or relaxing above the water on a glass bottom boat tour. The marine life is so abundant it's even possible to wade in knee-deep and be surrounded by fish. The nearby Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre is super informative and includes a tide-pool packed with marine life.
If you continue along this meandering coastal, sometimes dirt, road via Mangawhai Heads and Langs Beach, you will reach Waipu, the sleepy gateway to nearby Bream Bay. Visit the local museum to learn about the hardy Scottish settlers who founded the town in the 1850s, or relax along the sandy arc of nearby Waipu Cove. It's not unknown for marine mammals including sea-lions to occasionally visit the river estuary near the local campground, so keep a safe distance.
With a population just exceeding 50,000, Northland's only city, Whangarei, is a laid-back stop on the road north. Don’t just whizz through, relax in the waterfront cafes of the Town Basin area before exploring the precinct's museums and galleries. Almost 1,500 clocks from around the world feature at the interesting Clapham's Clocks, and the permanent collection alongside temporary exhibitions combine to make the Whangarei Arts Museum one of regional New Zealand's best galleries. Nearby natural attractions include the 26m-high Whangarei Falls and the three underground caverns of the Abbey Caves. Ask for a cave map at the local information centre, pack a flashlight, and get exploring.
Less than 30km northeast from Whangarei, the coastal settlement of Tutukaka is the jumping off point for trips to the Poor Knights Islands. Washed over by subtropical currents, marine life not seen elsewhere in New Zealand can be observed here, and the idiosyncratic underwater landscape includes caves, arches and submarine tunnels. It's a stellar environment for experienced divers, but non-diving travellers can also experience the islands on Perfect Day trips with Dive! Tutukaka incorporating snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking. Keep your eyes peeled as dolphins and whales often accompany the boats, but please note, that tours only run from November to May.
An alternative route to SH1 north to the Bay of Islands is the coastal detour dubbed the Old Russell Rd. Head east 6km north of Hikurangi, and journey along forested roads with coastal views to the Helena Bay Gallery & Cafe. Quirky corrugated iron sculptures fill the cafe's verdant grounds, and you'll probably be welcomed by Wolfie and Picasso, two friendly Newfoundland dogs who think they run the place. From Helena Bay, the Old Russell Rd meanders past remote bays dotted with pohutukawas and traditional Maori marae (meeting places) before reaching Russell, a coastal settlement that was New Zealand's first capital in 1840.
Once packed with carousing, alcohol-fuelled sailors and whalers, Russell enjoyed an infamous reputation as the 'hell-hole of the Pacific' in the mid-19th century, but now the sleepy coastal village offers a relaxed heritage ambience. Stroll along Russell's tree-lined esplanade to Pompallier Mission, the site of a colonial printing press that distributed the Bible to local Maori, and climb Maiki (Flagstaff Hill) for stunning views across the Bay of Islands to the buzzy resort town of Paihia. To explore local wildlife –including the opportunity to see New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi – join a night outing with Russell Nature Walks.
Reached by a car ferry linking nearby Okiato to Opua, Paihia is a more energised alternative to genteel Russell. Jump on a boat trip (there are heaps of options that depart from both Paihia and Russell) with an international crew of backpackers to explore the Bay of Islands. Highlights include swimming with dolphins or zipping through the iconic Hole in the Rock in a roaring speedboat.
Once back on land, journey around the bay to Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the site of New Zealand's historic 1840 agreement between Maori tribes and the British Crown. The beautifully-maintained lawns and gardens are also home to the Museum of Waitangi, which opened in 2016 as a comprehensive showcase of the role of the Treaty of Waitangi in modern New Zealand.
In New Zealand's Maori language, Kerikeri translates to 'Dig Dig', and the area's fertile soil ensures a bountiful supply of citrus, kiwifruit, and grapes from an often overlooked wine region. Ake Ake Vineyard or Marsden Estate are your best options for an alfresco lunch packed with local produce, and the Sunday morning Kerikeri Farmers Market is one of the country's best. For history buffs, the Stone Store and Kemp House on the sheltered waters of Kerikeri inlet are New Zealand's oldest stone building and house. Pop into the old mission house for a spot of reminiscing as it’s crammed with colonial memories.
On the shores of Doubtless Bay – named by British maritime explorer Captain James Cook when he noted the expansive natural harbour was 'doubtless a bay' – Mangonui is one of those historic New Zealand settlements where it's very easy to while away a very pleasant afternoon. Negotiate a lazy path around historic waterfront buildings, peek into antique shops and galleries, and enjoy fresh fish and chips at the Mangonui Fish and Chip shop. When you're ready for something slightly more active, there is great swimming and bodysurfing at nearby Coopers Beach, Cable Bay or Taipa.
Perched at the spectacular northern tip of the North Island, the white-washed Cape Reinga lighthouse is reached by a gentle 1km stroll flanked by some of New Zealand's most spectacular beaches. To the southwest and fringed by dunes, Te Werahi Beach curves gently to touch Cape Maria van Diemen, while east from Cape Reinga, the gob smackingly beautiful Spirits Bay is known to local Maori as the final departure point for souls heading to the spiritual homeland.
If you've got time, take a walk (around four hours return) on the well-maintained track from Cape Reinga to isolated Tapotupotu Bay. The views are spectacular and it’s the perfect spot for a dip to cool off after your big walk. However perhaps the best time for the Cape is sunset, so you can pitch a tent for the night at the DOC Tapotupotu Camp grounds and see both the setting and the rising sun.
If the east coast of Northland is defined by Maori and colonial history, an excellent artisan food scene and the touristy vibe of the Bay of Islands, the region's west coast is altogether more rugged, authentic and off the beaten track. South of Cape Reinga, the giant sand dunes of the Te Paki Recreation Reserve challenge the South Island's bungy jumping and jetboating scenes in the action adventure stakes. Boogie boards and plastic toboggans are available for hire, and while the slog up the towering dunes is a slowly, slowly exercise, the downhill thrills ending in a refreshing marine estuary make it all worthwhile.
As you head back south, there's more rugged West Coast scenery at Ahipara, a remote coastal surf spot west of Kaitaia. Marking the end of Ninety Mile Beach (actually around 90 km) stretching south from Te Paki, Ahipara and the surrounding area were settled by families from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia in the early 20th-century. They worked in the region's gumfields and kauri forests, but now Ahipara's rolling dunes and glorious long beach can best be explored on quad bikes, sand yachts, horseback and mountain bikes.
Welcome to one of New Zealand's most atmospheric historic settlements, a ramshackle collection of well-preserved heritage buildings on the forested edges of the expansive Hokianga Harbour. Given a different history, the Hokianga may have developed as the North Island's biggest trading port, but further south, sprawling Auckland assumed that role. Now Kohukohu has a fine waterfront pub – with equally fine coffee and homemade pies – and is the northern terminus for a vehicular ferry that travels for just ten minutes across to slightly more busy Rawene.
History abounds in sleepy Rawene. The town on the Hokianga Harbour was actually New Zealand's third European settlement so jump out of the car and have a wander. Sturdy heritage buildings, crafted from the region's once sprawling kauri forests punctuate the harbourfront. Six different churches attest to the god-fearing nature of early settlers, and Clendon House is an expansive homestead built by a wealthy shipowner in the 1860s. In this new century, Rawene is developing as a regional arts hotspot, and interesting local galleries include No 1 Parnell and the Tony Bridge Gallery.
Keep driving west about 20km over the scenic and winding road that links Rawene to Opononi at the head of the Hokianga Harbour. Across the silvery expanse of water, giant sand dunes mark a natural barrier at North Head. And yes, it's also possible to sandboard down these dunes too. There are a couple of Northland's great local pubs here too, and they are always grand places to grab a cold beer and meet the locals. Set yourself up in an outdoor spot on the deck at the Opononi Hotel for salty, maritime views, and just around the coast at Omapere, the raffish lounge bar at the Copthorne is packed with game-fishing memorabilia and the obligatory cold beer.
Stands of New Zealand's indigenous kauri trees once covered much of Northland, but this enclave, declared a forest sanctuary in 1952, is now a limited reminder of earlier times. Driving the forested 18km stretch of SH12 is a twisting and turning thrill, and an essential stop is to visit Tane Mahuta, a giant tree named after the Maori god of the forest. Reckoned to be the country's largest living kauri, Tane Mahuta is estimated to be up to 2000 years old.
Who knew a museum about Northland's forestry history could be so interesting? Illuminating the hard working lives of the families who shaped the region's heritage, the highlights of Matakohe's Kauri Museum are the poignant black and white photos of settlers carving out a tough new life several months' hard sail from the ports of Mediterranean Europe where they came from. The Museum also houses huge cross sections of some of the massive trees these people felled for a living, as well as original examples of all of the tools and logging processes used to fell these magnificent giants.
Continuing south towards Auckland on SH1, make sure you turn left at Wellsford onto SH16 for a quieter, scenic return trip. There is a look out about 10 minutes south of Wellsford that has 180 degree views that are awe inspiring. And then one final essential stop before hitting the city again is to enjoy the delicious dining around the fast-expanding rural town of Kumeu. A top pick for lunch is the Mediterranean-infused menu at The Tasting Shed, or try the biergarten at Hallertau in nearby Riverhead, as this is a great place to toast your Northland journey over a West Auckland craft beer.