The region of Northland
The northern tip of New Zealand is called Northland. It starts just after leaving rural north Auckland behind (near Warkworth) and goes all the way up to Cape Reinga. Northland is known as the “Winterless North” as it is the closest to the equator and hence the warmest region on New Zealand.
Northland, and especially the Bay of Islands, is extremely popular with kiwis and tourists alike, because the waters are clear, sheltered and full of beautiful islands and beaches. But not only this, there are lots of Bay of Islands activities (and all other places in Northland, too)!
Mangawhai Cliff Walk
Only 90 minutes north of Auckland, Mangawhai Cliff Walk is one of the best short walks in New Zealand! Stroll on the beach, walk high over the cliffs with stunning views and along the rocky shore line...and all of this in only 8 kilometers! The walk takes anything between 90 minutes and 3 hours, depending how fast you walk and how many pictures you take. Please be aware that it's only possible to do the Mangawhai walkway about 2 hours either side of low tide.
Explore the Waipu Caves
The Waipu Caves are a little gem, just south of Ruakaka. Off the main road, it’s a 13km drive inland to a parking lot. From there, you walk over a grass field towards the caves. Once inside, there is a stream with very cold water. Don’t let this scare you away and wade deeper into the cave (might not be possible after heavy rain).
Make sure to bring your torch as it is pitch black and muddy. When you are deep enough in the cave, switch of your torch and look around you. Millions of little glow worms above you will make you feel like you are looking at the night sky! An experience you will never forget! Please be mindful of the amount of water in the stream as it can be dangerous. The Waipu glow worm caves are managed by the Department of Conservation and not under constant surveillance.
There is also a big DOC campground on the long beach near Ruakaka if you feel like staying for a night or two like we did on our first camping adventure in New Zealand.
Admission fee: Free
Shopping and coffee in Whangarei
Whangarei is the gateway to the Far North and is a very charming town with a lively town center. The shopping street has pretty, english looking alleys with cute shops and restaurants.
Further down, on the Hatea River, is the town basin. White colonial houses, filled with artsy shops and cafes line up along the waterfront and invite you to sit down and enjoy the sun with a cup of coffee and a yummy cake.
If you had too much to eat and drink and need to walk it off, head to the Whangarei Falls. From the parking lot it’s an easy 30 minutes’ walk to this pretty, 26 meters’ high waterfall. The pool looks very inviting to swimmers, but unfortunately it’s not advised to do so, due to low water quality.
If you feel like even more walking, keep going on the Sands Road Loop track, which takes you on a 4.5km loop.
Read more about the Whangarei Falls and the walks nearby.
Kauri Museum in Matakohe
Kauri trees are native to New Zealand and are mostly found in the northern part of the North Island and on the Coromandel. Many of the trees have been logged in the early 1900s to build houses, but the ones remaining are now protected. Learn more about the history of the kauri from past to present at the Matakohe Kauri Museum.
Admission fee: Please check their website.
Kai Iwi Lakes
Those crystal clear lakes can be found on the south-western part of Northland, just out of Dargaville. The 3 freshwater lakes are part of the Taharoa domain, a large recreational reserve.
The lakes are perfect to be explored by kayak, wind surfing or boat and there are extensive walking tracks around the lakes, for those who prefer to stay dry.
The campgrounds on the Kai Iwi lakes are very popular in summer. But even if you’re only passing through, I suggest you take a break and a short swim in the incredible clear blue water.
Waipoua kauri forest
No Northland trip would be complete without visiting the “Lord of the forest”, Tane Mahuta in the Waipoua kauri forest. Tane Mahuta is the largest kauri tree in New Zealand. His age is unknown, but he is round about 2000 years old.
From the car park, it’s a short and easy walk to the massive tree. If you have some more time, it’s worth to discover some of the other walks in the forest, too. They are all quite easy and don’t take too long.
Michelle from Walking on Foreign Chels has some more valuable tips for you when visiting the Kai Iwi Lakes and Waipoua Forest.
Bay Of Islands activities
This is the most famous and most popular part of Northland and there are heaps of things to do in the Bay of islands. Often, people talk about the Bay of islands and don’t realise it’s only a small part of the whole, big, Northland.
But the Bay of Island area definitely has the right to be the most famous. It’s the birthplace of modern New Zealand after all, where the Maori and the English signed the treaty of Waitangi.
In the present, though, Bay of Islands is synonymous with beaches, clear water and constant summer feelings.
Hundertwasser Toilets Kawakawa
Probably the most famous toilets in the world. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a famous Kiwi-Austrian artist and architect, has designed those toilets in his trademark style. Hundertwasser has lived in Kawakawa until his death in 2000. The toilets were his last projects and attract visitors from all over the world since the opening in 1999.
Using the bathroom has never been more interesting and sophisticated.
Behind the toilets, construction for the Hundertwasser Park will start in the second half of 2018 and aim at opening in 2019, 20 years after the opening of the toilets. The park will be celebrating Hundertwasser’s achievements, as well as all sorts of local arts.
Swimming with Dolphins Bay of Islands
Hardly any water activity is more memorable than to swim with dolphins in the wild! Many Bay of Islands tours have this amazing experience in their product range. They have a system to know where the dolphins are on any specific days and bring the people there. Once there, you receive your snorkel and masks and off you go in the water. Don’t forget to breath while trying to keep up with the dolphins.
And don’t worry, the tour operators make sure this isn’t a stressful experience for the dolphins. You are not allowed to touch them and it’s forbidden to swim with the dolphins when they’ve had babies recently.
On top of this, the dolphins are still wild and have the possibility to leave any time they feel uncomfortable with us humans.
Swimming with dolphins is definitely one of the most amazing memories and should be on your list of things to do in the Bay of Islands!
Walk around historic Russell
Walking around the quaint town of Russell, it’s hard to imagine that this romantic place in the Bay of Islands once used to be called the “hell hole of the pacific”, where debauchery and mayhem reigned.
In a short walk around Russell, you’ll get to see a lot of historical places, like Christ Church, the the oldest church in New Zealand. Also worth a visit are the Pompallier House and the Old Customs House and the very sweet Russell Museum.
Finish off your historic walk on the Russell beachfront. The colonial houses have been turned into shops and restaurants. There is no better place to be for a romantic sundowner. Russell is one of the only places in New Zealand where you actually have restaurants directly on the beach (often, there is a busy street between restaurant and beach) and it’s the perfect to watch the sunset.
Waitangi treaty ground
A very interesting lecture in New Zealand history that can’t be missed! With your day ticket, you have the chance to take part in the 1 hour guided tour, where you learn about the history of the relationship between the English and the Maori before and after they all signed the treaty as you walk around the Treaty Grounds.
You see the war canoes that have been built for the 100th anniversary of New Zealand and walk inside the beautiful treaty house.
After the tour, you will be lead to the maori meeting house (whare Rūnanga), where you enjoy an impressive 30-minutes maori cultural show, listening to maori songs, show fights and, of course, the haka.
Once the tour is finished, you’re welcome to walk around on the treaty ground all day. Make sure to visit the museum to find more information about the treaty and the people involved.
Admission fee: NZD 50 per person.
Good to know: Residents of New Zealand pay half price when showing a proof of address or drivers license at time of purchasing a ticket.
Ngawha Springs hot pools
Probably the best kept secret in all of Northland are the Ngawha Springs hot pools. Just a 20-minutes drive from Paihia are the only hot springs in Northland. They are nothing fancy, just straight forward, relaxing hot pools. Especially on a cooler day they are worth a visit. The pools have different colors and temperatures depending on the spring they’re coming from and each pool has its own, cool name.
Admission fee: NZD 4 per adult, cash only
The fee is low on purpose, so that everyone can afford and enjoy the Ngawha Springs.
Kayak and walk Haruru Falls
The popular Haruru Falls walk is a good 5km one way and takes a regular walker about 1.5 hours. The walking path goes along the big estuary, mostly through the forest.
What makes it special is the wooden walkway over the water through the magical mangroves. As you come out of the forest, about halfway to the falls, onto the walkway it feels like you’re walking into a fairy land. You’ll feel happy to be in New Zealand and not in Australia, as it looks like you’d expect some crocs in there.
The Haruru Falls are very pretty too, but it’s really more the walk that makes it an experience.
Another, very cool way to experience the falls are by kayak. If you book a tour, you will kayak up the estuary, right to the waterfall. Depending on how much water it carries, you’ll be able to get really close to it and feel the spray.
You then exchange your kayak for your walking shoes and take the track back to the beach.
Discover Aotearoa tip: The path can be quite muddy after heavy rain. Better bring some water proof shoes along if you prefer for your feet to stay dry.
Book your kayaking experience here:
Stone Store and Kemp house
Another bit of history in the Bay of Islands. The Stone Store is the oldest surviving stone house in New Zealand. The building was erected to become the local mission’s trading post, but had to shut down as it couldn’t keep up with the local competitors. The stone house also served as a library, barracks and boys’ school. It now is a store again and accommodates a cute little museum upstairs.
Admission fee: Stone Store Shop is free. Guided tours cost a small fee.
The (very) far north
90 Mile Beach and Cape Reinga
The absolute highlight of Northland is a trip up to the very northern tip of New Zealand.
Although Ninety Mile Beach isn’t quite as long as the name suggests, it’s still one of the most incredible beaches in New Zealand. If the tide is long enough, it’s even wide enough to drive on it (but this is only advised with four wheel drive and not allowed with rental cars). The giant sand dunes of Te Paki make for a fun sand boarding experience.
On the tip of the peninsula lies Cape Reinga with its picturesque lighthouse. Here, the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean in spectacular currents. For the Maori, this is the most spiritual place in all of New Zealand. They believe that after death, all Maori spirits travel up the coast to Cape Reinga and from here depart into the underworld (meaning reinga).
If you only have one day to discover 90 Mile Beach and Cape Reinga, it’s easiest to book one of the many day tours from Paihia or Kaitaia and save yourself a lot of driving.
There are awesome tours by GreatSights what cruise along Ninety Mile Beach and, take you sand boarding and show you the spiritual Cape Reinga.
Food tip: Mangonui Fish Shop
We haven't been there yet, but I keep hearing people raving about the best Fish and Chips in all of Northland. Mangonui Fish Shop is about half way between Paihia and Cape Reinga and makes for a great pit-stop on your way up or down.
Their fish is freshly caught in the bay and straight away prepared for your fush'n'chups (as the kiwis say) or fish burger. The shop is beautifully located right on the water and is fully licensed.
How to get to Northland
Auckland to Bay of Islands
The distance from Auckland to Paihia in the Bay of Islands, is about 230km. According to Google Maps, it would take about 3 hours driving time. If you’re driving with your own vehicle, be sure to add at least 1 hour for coffee and toilet breaks to your planning, if not more.
Paihia to Cape Reinga
Many are surprised by the distance between Paihia and Cape Reinga. To get from Bay of Islands to the lighthouse, it’s another approximate 210km! Don’t you also find it looks a lot closer on the map? It’s really not. If you want to travel to the northernmost tip and back to Paihia in a day, this easily comes up to 6 hours of pure driving, sightseeing not included.
If you don't have a car to drive to Northland yourself, you can always take the bus. InterCity brings you to almost every important destination up north and they're running several times per day.
Discover Aotearoa tip for a food break along the way:
The Cove Cafe
Because you should always take the scenic route: On your way up north or back home, break away from Highway 1 and drive along the scenic coastal road to Waipu Cove. This pretty little town is a summer holiday resort with a really nice vibe.
Along the coast road, with views to the beach, you’ll find a cool little beach cafe with the atmosphere of a surf shack. The Cove Cafe only cooks with ingredients they either grow themselves or buy from local farmers. The staff is very friendly and the food just amazing and must not be missed!
Accommodation in Bay of Islands
There are a lot of places to stay in Bay of Islands, from Backpackers to 5* hotels. Most accommodation is found in Paihia as it is bigger and easier to reach, but romantic Russell has some really amazing hotels, too. I’ve got you a few tips for both places:
Low Budget: Mousetrap Hostel
Charming accommodation, only a 2-minutes walk from the beach and 5 minutes to the town center of Paihia. Cozy wooden communal areas with fireplace and deck with sea views. The comfy twin and double rooms are upstairs while all dorms are located downstairs.
The equally charming 30thirty bar is just on the other side of the street.
Medium budget: Bounty Motel
In the town center but still in a quiet location, Bounty Motel is a great place for families to stay. The motel has one and two-bedroom studios and all are equipped with kitchenettes. It’s only a 2-minutes walk to the beach as well as to the center with cafes and restaurants.
Higher budget: Paihia Beach Resort
The perfect beach hotel for your beach holidays! Being in pole position to the beach, all rooms look out to the water. Enjoy a relaxing glass of wine on your own little balcony or take a swim in the luxurious pool. After a day of exploring the Bay of Islands, unwind in their spa with a relaxing treatment. If you feel like exploring the town centre of Paihia, it’s about a 10 minutes’ walk along the beach.
Medium budget: Motel Russell
This charming little gem sits in a subtropical garden with a small pool. It’s in a quiet corner of Russell, about a 5 minutes walk from the town center. There are family rooms, which makes it ideal for a getaway with the kids.
Higher budget: Duke of Marlborough Hotel
The most famous hotel in Russell is probably the Duke of Marlborough. The history of the “Duke” started 1827 and the place has been mostly succesfull ever since. Not only is the location directly on the beach a stunner, but also the building and the rooms are real eye-candies. They combine the best of the colonial times with a new, modern touch.
Bay of Islands nightlife
There isn’t that much going on in either Paihia or Russell in terms of party. However, after a bit of searching, we managed to find 2 absolute gems you should visit for a drink or two:
This amazing bar lies a few minutes away from the pier in Paihia, but still in walking distance. The small, friendly bar is the go-to place for tourists and locals alike. They have the best live music ever on weekends, jam sessions and host quiz nights. Play a round of Donkey Kong or other classic arcade games on their (free) old school Namco.
And on top of all this, 30thirty bar serves changing craft beer from the area and their food is to die for yummy! We can especially recommend the Gourmet Burger (and their homemade mulled wine in winter)
Duke of Marlborough tavern
The Duke of Marlborough is pretty much everywhere in Russell. There’s their beautiful restaurant on the waterfront, but if you like it more casual, we suggest you visit their tavern one row away from the beach. Housed in a colonial building that is typical for romantic Russell, it’s a great place for a beer, dinner, live music and playing pool. Overall a very charming and inviting place.
Do you have more hot tips or know of things to see in Northland that need to be on this list? Do you have a question? Let me know in the comments below.
FInd more things to do in Bay of Islands: