About a 90-minute drive outside of Auckland lies a rural region of New Zealand dubbed the “Winterless North.” Northland stretches from Mangawhai in the south to the tip of the North Island, marked emphatically by the Cape Reinga Lighthouse.
It’s a subtropical paradise of white-sand beaches, native bush, mangrove-fringed bays and bustling townships. It is also the heart of Maori culture and the site where Aotearoa’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840.
There is so much nature, culture and history in this part of New Zealand that it can be hard to know where to start. Luckily, we’ve prepared a little cheat sheet for you.
Cape Reinga, known to local Maori as Te Rerenga Wairua, is known to be the place where the spirits of the dead enter the underworld, meaning it holds great spiritual significance to many people. The bony fingertip of land jutting out into the ocean is New Zealand’s northernmost point and where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meet. On a blustery day, it can be a tumultuous union, with the waves and currents crashing and the wind whipping through your hair.
Hike to the famous Cape Lighthouse, 800 meters along an easy track, or if you have a whole day to spare, join an all-terrain bus tour that includes not only Cape Reinga, but also Ninety Mile Beach and Te Paki Stream, where you can try your hand at sandboarding on the incredible dunes.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is a must-visit for anyone venturing into New Zealand’s far north, with 140 sunny subtropical islands scattered around a large, sheltered bay. You can charter a sailboat, go big game fishing or watch dolphins, or just swim around the golden sand beaches. A half-day cruise is a great way to immerse yourself in aquatic wonders.
It was in the Bay of Islands that New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840 by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. The treaty site in the small town of Waitangi is the country’s most important historic site.
There are two museums on site – one dedicated to the treaty and the other honoring Maori who fought in wars overseas – while a flagpole in the park marks the spot where the treaty was been signed. Cross the lawn and you can admire the intricately carved meeting house of Te Whare Runanga, which opened on the centenary of the signing of the treaty.
A Waitangi Experience pass includes two days access to the grounds, a guided tour, viewing of the world’s largest ceremonial waka (traditional canoe), museum access, cultural performance and carving demonstration.
Rakaumangamanga, also known as Cape Brett Peninsula, has a 1000-year history of helping sailors navigate New Zealand’s delicate coastline. The first Maori who migrated from mythical Hawaiki were said to have been guided to the landing by the light of dawn reflecting off its sheer cliffs. It remains a hugely important place for Te Tai Tokerau Maori, as well as more modern maritime travelers.
In 1906 Cape Brett Lighthouse was built to guide ships sailing through the dangerous entrance to the Bay of Islands. Today the light is automated and the old lighthouse keeper’s house has been restored and opened to the public for accommodation.
You reach the cabin (now called Cape Brett Hut) via the Cape Brett Track, which traverses 16 kilometers of rugged coastline. Or, if you’re not up for the trek, you can take a water taxi from Paihia. Reservations for overnight stays in the hut are essential and you will need to bring your own sleeping bag, gas stove, food and cooking equipment.
Head east from Whangārei and you’ll reach the sometimes overlooked adventure playground of the Tutukaka Coast. There is little urban development along this isolated coastal strip lined with white sand beaches, native bush and hidden rocky coves.
Sandy Bay is a safe place to learn to surf. Tutukaka Surf offers group or private lessons and has a well-stocked surf shop. The area is also a hotspot for divers, who enjoy exploring the sunken wrecks of HMNZS Tui and HMNZS Waikato or encountering underwater wildlife in the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. Several dive companies launch boats from the Tutukaka Marina, where you can rent your equipment or sign up for a diving course.
Whale Bay should be on everyone’s itinerary. This secluded beach is only accessible on foot, which limits crowds. Park on Matapouri Road, take a 10-minute walk through the native bush, and find a sheltered spot under one of the stunning Pohutukawa trees.
Northland’s largest city is a mecca for modern art and Maori culture, big enough for a lively atmosphere and good coffee (all-important), but small enough to feel connected to the surrounding natural wonder.
Top of your to-do list should be a walk through the Parihaka Scenic Reserve. This ancient volcano was once the site of New Zealand’s largest pa (hillside fort). A walking path ascends from the Hatea River to the 241-meter summit, with sweeping views of the city across Whangārei Harbour. If you prefer to stick to the apartment, the Hatea Walkway is a peaceful riverside walk.
Photo ops abound at Whangārei Falls, just a 10-minute drive from town. The 26-meter falls, over basalt cliffs, are spectacular after heavy rains; a swim in the natural pool at the bottom is mandatory on a hot day.
For a modern cultural boost, head to the Hundertwasser Art Centre, New Zealand’s newest and most anticipated regional art gallery, which opened its doors this year. Inside are two galleries: one devoted to the works of the homonymous avant-garde artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian who fell in love with the Far North, and the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, which showcases contemporary Maori art .
For something a little different, visit the Claphams Clock Museum, named after eccentric clock collector Archie Clapham, who once had over 400 clocks in his home. The museum opened in 1962 and expanded the collection to over 2000 clocks, watches and other timepieces.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with 100% Pure New Zealand.