Exploring Northland & Bay of Islands

Clendon House Pou | Image: David Kirkland

Exploring Northland & Bay of Islands

Northland offers a spectacular coastal and marine environment with excellent beaches, truly world-class diving and hundreds of islands to discover and explore. On land, you can visit some of the nation’s most significant historic sites and gain a fascinating insight into New Zealand culture.

Around the Regions

Beach Life on the East Coast An essential stop along the Twin Coast Discovery Highway for most visitors, the east coast of Northland is an easy drive north of Auckland and, with a coastline that boasts numerous beautiful beaches, it’s a popular summer holiday destination for Kiwis. The Tutukaka Coast, Whangarei Heads, Waipu and Bream Bay are all enticing beachside destinations and each has a unique character all of its own. Within easy reach of the beaches is Whangarei; with a population hovering around 50,000, it’s the only city in Northland. With a good selection of facilities, eateries and shops and a marina right at its heart, it is an ideal base for boating, fishing and exploring. Tutukaka Coast: Gateway to the famous Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, Tutukaka is home to a marina where you can join a diving adventure, fishing charter or laid-back cruise. Waipu and Bream Bay: From Pohutukawa-fringed Waipu Cove and Langs Beach to the wide-open expanse of Ruakaka, there’s no shortage of sun, sand and surf in Bream Bay. Whangarei Heads: Whangarei Heads is home to numerous great beaches from the sheltered bays of Whangarei Harbour to the 5km stretch of sand at Ocean Beach.

Bay of Islands The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations – and no wonder! Sheltered coves, glorious white-sand beaches and dozens of islands, all in a mild subtropical climate, make this the ultimate maritime playground, perfect for boating, fishing, kayaking, dolphin spotting and swimming. This is the birthplace of New Zealand as a nation; the place where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. Paihia: The main town in the bay and departure point for cruises, fishing charters and sailing adventures, Paihia offers a good range of accommodation, eateries and shops. Kerikeri: Famous for lush subtropical orchards and roadside stalls selling avocados and citrus, as well as an art and craft trail and wellness retreats. Russell: Known in centuries gone by as a lawless port teeming with whalers, sailors and escaped convicts, today Russell is a charming village full of cafés and galleries. Waitangi: At the Waitangi Treaty House and Grounds, visitors can see the Treaty House and Te Whare Runanga, a fully carved Māori meeting house, all set within a beautifully tranquil 506-hectare waterside estate.

Ways to See the Bay What you see on land is just a small portion of this place’s magic – much more lies offshore, in private coves and on shimmering waterways. Departing from the main wharf in town, many cruises visit the Hole in the Rock off Cape Brett – some even pass right through it! Sailing is another exciting way to see the many different bays and islands. The Bay of Islands has been famous for fishing since Zane Grey, American writer and adventurer, visited in the 1920s. With species from marlin to shark, tuna and kingfish, this is one of the world’s foremost game fishing destinations. For a budget-friendly cruise, hop aboard a ferry to Russell. Passenger ferries depart from Paihia Wharf, while just down the road at Opua, a car ferry departs every 10 minutes throughout the day. The Bay of Islands is inhabited by several species of dolphins, whales and penguins. Any boat trip offers the chance to spot the local marine wildlife, but some cruises enable visitors to enter the water and swim with dolphins!

The Far North The northernmost tip of New Zealand’s North Island is a remote and magical place where vast stretches of beach and immense sand dunes form a wild backdrop to a range of adventure activities. Kaitaia is New Zealand’s northernmost town and the gateway to iconic sights such as Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach. Pause here to join a guided tour or stock up on groceries – amenities are scarce further north along the Aupouri Peninsula.

Exploring Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach The road to Cape Reinga is partially unsealed and the alternative, Ninety Mile Beach itself, can be hazardous to vehicles – it’s not uncommon to see stranded cars that have become bogged down. For these reasons, most car hire companies do not permit their vehicles to be driven to the Cape, and the best option is to join a guided tour. Day tours depart from the Bay of Islands or Kaitaia and many include sand-tobogganing. This unique thrill involves climbing to the top of a sand dune and sliding down on a boogie board!

Northland’s Wild West Coast The west coast of Northland is a patchwork of rural landscapes, country towns and some of New Zealand’s largest remaining forests of Kauri trees. Dargaville, the main centre, offers a good range of amenities beside the mighty Northern Wairoa River. North of the Kauri Coast, the Hokianga is a beautiful, unpretentious place of mangroves and quaint villages. Hokianga Harbour: Hokianga offers visitors authentic New Zealand culture in an unspoilt landscape. The region draws artists seeking inspiration, resulting in a thriving arts and crafts scene, and visitors will find a host of walks and boat tours as well as adrenaline-pumping pursuits such as sand tobogganing and mountain biking. Horeke: This was New Zealand’s second European settlement, after Russell in the Bay of Islands. Rawene: New Zealand’s third-oldest European settlement is home to historic buildings including Clendon House, built in the 1860s by New Zealand’s first US Consul. Opononi & Omapere: These towns are strung along a white-sand beach. In the 1950s a wild dolphin spent a summer befriending swimmers here – a statue stands near its grave.

Do & Discover

Northland is a marine paradise and there are plenty of ways to make the most of the coasts, beaches and islands of the region and experience the water. Try Dive! Tutukaka and Perfect Day Ocean Cruise at the Poor Knights Dive Centre and Tutukaka Surf. In Paihia, choose from Coastal Kayakers and Paihia Dive, while Northland Sea Kayaking can be found at Tauranga Bay. Northland boasts a huge number of heritage sites and offers a unique look at the history of New Zealand both pre- and post-European colonisation. Take in the Culture North Night Show in Paihia or visit the Kerikeri Mission House, Pompallier Mission in Russell, Russell Museum, Kerikeri Basin's Stone Store, Waipu Museum, Whangarei Museum, Kiwi North in Whangarei, Matakohe's unique Kauri Museum, Dargaville Museum, Claphams National Clock Museum  in Whangarei, or New Zealand's most historic site, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in Paihia, where New Zealand became a modern nation with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Tour Northland with Far North Outback AdventuresExplore Urupukapuka IslandFullers GreatSights, Russell Mini Tours or Footprints Waipoua. Want to indulge your adventurous streak? Head to the Ahipara Adventure CentreAhipara Horse Treks to take in the sights on horseback, or the Wairere Boulders Nature Park.

Food & Drink

Regional hub Whangarei offers some excellent restaurants, and there are more, as well as some great cafes and pubs, dotted around the wider Northland region. The Mangonui Fish Shop has established a reputation for itself as the nationwide champion of the favourite Kiwi takeaway – fish and chips. For coffee in Whangarei, try Nectar and at Whangarei Heads visit The Deck Café, an unpretentious place that serves good wine as well as great fish and chips! For more substantial fare, try Frings. In the Bay of Islands, seek out the gourmet fare at Makana Confections Kerikeri. Good restaurant options in the Bay include Zane Grey’s Restaurant and BarDarryl’s Dinner Cruises, where you can soak up the glorious scenery while you eat, and The Black Olive. If you're after a drink, hit the Duke of Marlborough Hotel or Rocksalt Bar & Restaurant. In the Far North, Okahu Estate Winery in Kaitaia is worth a look, while Birdies Café in the heart of Kaitaia gets consistently good reviews. For cheap eats, sample Mangonui Fish Shop's ‘world famous in New Zealand’ fish and chips, or head to Beachcomber Restaurant or Karikari Estate, which offers incredible views from its cliff-top vantage point. Over in the Hokianga, Bryers Room Restaurant at Copthorne Hotel & Resort Hokianga is a good option for dinner.


Northland has plenty of options for travellers on a budget but also provides options at the other end of the scale, with some internationally renowned luxury retreats. In and around Whangarei try Little Earth LodgeLodge BordeauxPacific Rendezvous Resort Motel in Tutukaka or the Tutukaka Holiday Park. You'll find good providers in the Bay of Islands including Arcadia LodgeBase Bay of IslandsPaihia Top 10 Holiday ParkCasa Bella Motel in Paihia, Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge PaihiaRussell Cottages and The Duke of Marlborough Hotel. In the Far North, check out the Doubtless Bay Lodge offerings. At the other end of the scale there's Ninety Mile Beach Holiday Park and Puketiti Lodge backpackers. On the West Coast and in Hokianga Harbour try Copthorne Hotel & Resort HokiangaKauri Coast Top 10 Holiday ParkKokohuia Lodge’s BB offering in Hokianga Harbour, the Postmaster’s Lodgings (also a B&B), The Tree House backpackers and, for a little piece of luxury etched in history, there's Waipoua Lodge in Dargaville.

Local knowledge

Whangarei, Kerikeri and Kaitaia airports offer domestic flights. Access to Northland via road from Auckland is via SH 1 on the east coast and SH 12 on the west – together they form the Twin Coast Discovery Highway. The Northern Gateway Toll Road costs NZ$2.30 for cars, but shortens the journey to Northland by about 15 minutes. Coaches operate between main centres. Vehicle ferries operate across the Hokianga Harbour between Rawene and Kohukohu, and across the Bay of Islands between Opua and Okiato. Passenger-only services operate between Paihia and Russell. Get around with Salt Air. Find out more at the Whangarei i-SITE, 92 Otaika Road, Kaitaia i-SITE at the corner of South Road and Matthews Avenue, Paihia i-SITE at The Wharf, Dargaville Visitor Information Centre, 4 Murdoch Street, or Opononi i-SITE at 29 SH 12.

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