New Zealand’s winterless Northland region is a sub-tropical paradise surrounded by contrasting coastlines — with the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Tasman Sea to the west.
It’s quite a sight to see where these waters meet at the northern tip of the country — Te Rerenga Wairua — more commonly known as Cape Reinga. This is technically not New Zealand’s northernmost tip, but it’s as far north as the public can get.
Northland is home to some of New Zealand’s best hidden treasures, and there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track and discover them at your own pace on a road trip from Auckland. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a suggested Northland road trip itinerary. It’s intended to be flexible and can be achieved over four or five days if you don’t want to make too many stops. On the other hand, you could do it over a couple of weeks and really explore everything that Northland has to offer!
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Auckland to Whangarei
You can choose to take State Highway 1 from Auckland and be in the town of Whangarei in just over two hours. Alternatively, you can take the coastal route via Goat Island, Mangawhai, and Waipu for a truly scenic drive. This will take you just over three and a half hours without stopping, but it’s worth stretching it out over a full day to really enjoy what there is on offer.
Your first stop has to be Puhoi. Just 40 minutes’ drive north of Auckland, this little village was first settled by Bohemian immigrants. The small community still has a strong Bohemian influence and the Puhoi Valley Cheese Shop and Cafe is the perfect place for a coffee stop.
A bit of a detour from the town of Warkworth, but absolutely worth it on a nice day, is Goat Island. This was New Zealand’s first marine reserve and is a popular place to dive and snorkel with the array of large fish and other marine life. If you don’t have your own gear, you can hire some from Goat Island Dive and Snorkel. To learn about this marine reserve and some of the special creatures that live here, it is well worth visiting the Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre.
Mangawhai is a coastal town you’ll fall in love with. You may even decide to spend a night or two here. There is plenty to see and experience, including coastal and bush walks, a creative arts scene, plenty of sand and surf, rustic vineyards and a great range of places to eat.
From Mangawhai, it’s a gorgeous drive along the coast via Langs Beach and Waipu Cove to Waipu — a town with a strong Scottish heritage. Not too far from Waipu, you’ll find the Waipu Caves and glowworms. Make sure you have a torch if you plan to visit the caves.
From here, you are just under 40 minutes’s drive from Whangarei. This bustling town makes a great base for exploring the region over three or four days. Experiences to be had include the spectacular Whangarei Falls, city views from the top of Mount Parihaka, the Abbey Caves and glowworms, Matapouri’s white sand beaches, diving and snorkelling tours off the Poor Knights Islands, hiking on Mount Manaia and through Bream Head Scenic Reserve, as well as shopping and dining in the town basin.
Whangarei to Russell
The drive from Whangarei to Russell in the Bay of Islands can be done in an hour and a half, but the coastal detour offers some amazing scenery and views that you don’t want to miss. Turn right onto Russell Road (about 20 minutes north of Whangarei) and head out to Helena Bay, where you will find a small settlement, great beaches, stunning gardens and The Gallery and Café.
From Helena Bay, continue north along Russell Road. If you are keen to really explore this area, you can turn off onto Rawhiti Road, head out to Whangaruru and discover the popular holiday spot of Bland Bay. Alternatively, continue on to Rawhiti to find the secluded white sand beach of Oke Bay. This is where you will also find the start of the Cape Brett Track, which leads to the Cape Brett Lighthouse. This track is best done as an overnight hike with a stay in the keeper’s quarters at the lighthouse.
Make your next stop the charming town of Russell — once the capital of New Zealand and first known as Kororareka. Many people choose to stay in Paihia, but a night or two in Russell is a real treat. There’s a variety of accommodation options on offer.
The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations, and you’ll find plenty to see and do here. From Russell, you can catch a ferry across to Paihia and head to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where Māori and the British Crown signed a treaty back in 1840. Take another ferry out to Urupukapuka Island and spend some time exploring this predator-free paradise. From fishing charters and swimming with dolphins to paddle boarding and kayaking, there are lots of other great ways to fill your time.
Russell to Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga)
From Russell, catch the vehicle ferry to Opua and continue north on State Highway 10. A good photo stop along the way is Haruru Falls, and by taking a short detour, you can call by the town of Kerikeri for a photo opportunity at Rainbow Falls.
Take an extra hour or two and head out to Matauri Bay, which is home to some fascinating history and million dollar views. Just offshore are the Cavalli Islands, where you’ll find the sunken wreck of the Rainbow Warrior — bombed by French foreign intelligence agents back in 1985. The wreck has created an impressive marine eco-system and is popular for fishing and diving. A memorial to the ship can be found at the summit of Pukepika, which also offers incredible views of the surrounding area.
Continue on to Mangonui, where you’ll find the world famous Mangonui Fish Shop! Renowned for the best fish and chips in the far north, make this your lunch stop.
From Mangonui, the drive up to Cape Reinga takes almost two hours. If you decide to break the trip up with an overnight stay, then Hukatere Lodge is a great choice. This affordable eco-accommodation option is located right on famous Ninety Mile Beach and offers the comfort of a B&B, or basic cabins and camping facilities.
It’s worth taking the whole day to explore Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga), which means ‘leaping place of the spirits’ in Māori. There’s not a lot to see on the drive, but there are some great walks and beaches in the area, and you’ll want to spend time at the cape itself and take in the views. You can take a detour out to Spirits Bay, which is also the start of the 48-kilometre Te Paki Coastal Track — a fantastic multi-day hike for those who have the time.
When you’re ready to head south again, you may decide to drive along Ninety Mile Beach all the way to the town of Ahipara. Be warned that you do so at your own risk. It is recommended that only 4WD vehicles undertake this journey and rental cars will not be covered by insurance if something goes wrong. However, it’s a wonderful experience if you have the right vehicle and take the opportunity to drive along this majestic stretch of coastline.
Ahipara is a good place to stop for the night and recharge the batteries for the journey back towards Auckland. With a good range of accommodation to chose from, you’ll find it easy to sit back and relax in this quiet west coast town. And if you’re fortunate, you may be treated to a spectacular sunset!
Ahipara to Dargaville
After leaving Ahipara, head straight to Kaikohe and the Ngawha Springs. These therapeutic hot pools are like nothing else you will find in New Zealand, and at a NZD $4 entry for adults, they are probably also the cheapest commercially run hot springs in the country!
After you have had a nice soak at Ngawha, head back out to the west coast by following State Highway 12. As you reach the coast, you’ll arrive at the settlement of Opononi — made famous by the friendly dolphin named Opo, who made this her home over the summers of 1955 and 56.
From Opononi, continue on for another 40 minutes through the Waipoua Forest to meet Tane Mahuta — New Zealand’s largest living kauri tree. It’s a short five-minute walk from the carpark to this majestic giant, believed to be around 2,000 years old and named after Tane — the Māori god of the forest.
If you are ready to stop for the night, the town of Dargaville is a good choice. It offers plenty of places to stay. Alternatively, you can pop out to Baylys Beach and spend a night at the Holiday Park, which offers a range of accommodation options. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out the fantastic collection of memorabilia at the Dargaville Museum.
Dargaville to Auckland
The last leg of this journey will take you back to Auckland via State Highways 12 and 16, which will allow for a stop at The Kauri Museum in Matakohe. The drive from Dargaville to the museum takes about half an hour. The Kauri Museum is the largest undercover attraction in Northland and is completely unique. Its main focus is kauri trees and it covers everything from the region’s pioneering history to the most extensive collection of kauri gum in the world.
Getting from the museum back to central Auckland via State Highway 16 will take just over two hours direct, but why rush? Take your time, make a few stops and enjoy the views along the way. You will pass by Gibbs Farm, which is unlike any other New Zealand farm! From giant sculptures to a collection of animals you wouldn’t normally expect to see in this setting, Gibbs Farm is open by appointment only. From the roadside, you can get a glimpse of what it has to offer.
You should make one final stop at Kumeu — just 20 minutes’ drive from Auckland. This thriving wine region is home to a number of boutique vineyards, breweries, cafes and restaurants. It will be a great way to finish your ultimate Northland road trip!
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About the writer
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. In 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home, and spent the next three years travelling full time. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In recent years, Karllie has visited more than twenty countries across three continents. She loves hiking and anything to do with the ocean.