Northland might be one of New Zealand’s most underrated destinations, but it is packed with incredible things to do. Learn about its history, swim in its inviting waters, chase its waterfalls and do it all with a classic kiwi roadie. Here are Northland’s top 30 places to see.
This blog post details the top 30 destinations in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), including beaches, historic sites, hikes and activities. The list is numbered for an Auckland – Northland – Auckland road trip itinerary. Starting in Auckland, you will follow the west coast to the north cape and then head south along the east coast.
The Te Tai Tokerau region is one of Aotearoa’s most beautiful, with miles and miles of coastline, a rich cultural heritage and so many hidden gems to discover. Following this itinerary, our road trip took 12 days, on a very lazy holiday. You could see Northland much quicker if you spent less time sitting on beaches or simply picked out a few of your favourite places to see for a shorter roadie. But of course, I recommend you do them all because they’re all incredible experiences.
From Auckland, follow State Highway 1 (SH1) north towards Whangarei before turning west onto SH12 towards Dargaville.
1. Piroa Falls
The first stop is a 15 minute detour off SH12 along Waipu gorge road. The walk to the falls itself is only a few minutes long. You are greeted with a small waterfall when you arrive, with two great swimming holes at the bottom; a perfect spot to stop and cool off on a hot summer’s day!
2. The Kauri Museum
Disclosure: we were hosted by The Kauri Museum, however, all opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.
The Kauri Museum allows you to step back in time, an incredible way to discover the history of the Kauri Coast and learn about the livelihoods of European settlers that lived here. You can wander through a historical boarding house, school and church. It’s an amazing place to learn about Kauri gum, swamp Kauri and the huge industry that was centred around these natural resources. The museum has on display the world’s largest Kauri slab, measuring 22m in length as well as prehistoric fossilised trees that were buried for up to 43,900 years! It is humbling to think of historic events that occurred during the 1000-year lifespan of a single tree – trees that were alive when mammoths wandered the earth, before being buried and fossilised. Northland is the only place in the world with such well-preserved trees that span such a vast period of time–and the Kauri Museum is the place to see them.
3. Kai Iwi Lakes
Kai Iwi Lakes are that stunning spot with crystal clear blue water that you’ve seen popping up on your Instagram feed every now and then. The freshwater dune lakes are New Zealand’s largest of their kind. With a campground right on the lake shores, this is the perfect place to spend a night. Bring your togs, a kayak or paddle board and spend some time soaking up the sun, swimming in the unbelievably blue, inviting water, and relaxing in this picture-perfect spot. I would rank these lakes in my top 3 places to see as the clear, freshwater lakes are beautiful and so unique.
Continue up the west coast from Dargaville, through ancient kauri forests, until you see the Hokianga Harbour stretching out before you.
4. Waipoua Forest and Tāne Mahuta
Since SH1 goes directly through the Waipoua Forest, you have no excuse to miss this one. This ancient kauri forest is home to giants, including the world’s largest, oldest kauri trees and Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest. Follow the well sign-posted boardwalk into the forest and you can’t miss this magnificent tree. Then continue along the boardwalk deeper into the forest and see more ancient trees along the track. If only the trees could talk…
5. Arai te Uru Nature Reserve
The Hokianga Harbour is a wonder of its own and there’s no better place for panoramic views than from the Hokianga heads. There is a short walk from the carpark that takes you to an old signal station and up to a viewpoint offering gorgeous views of the Hokianga Harbour and Tasman sea. Walk through the Arai te Uru Nature Reserve to see the Harbour stretching out before you and 300m high sand dunes across the mouth of the harbour. If you have time, it is worth walking the 10km coastal track that takes you south to Kaikai Beach.
6. Manea – Footprints of Kupe
Disclosure: we received a media rate to visit Manea – Footprints of Kupe, however, all opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.
You have probably heard the names Captain Cook and Abel Tasman, two European sailors that voyaged to New Zealand, but have you heard of Kupe, the first man that discovered this stunning country floating in the South Pacific?
Manea – Footprints of Kupe is a step into the world of Te Ao Māori, the Māori worldview. Here, you are taken on a 75 minute, multisensory journey, with the people of Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe, Kupe’s descendants, bringing his story to life. You begin with a guided walk along a pathway of giant atua (deity) carvings. Just as stories have been shared orally for generations, storytelling brings the carvings alive, as mythology explains Māori origins and connections to the world we live in. Next, you are invited to view an incredible live performance, with Kupe’s descendants sharing the stories of his ocean exploration, voyages and the challenges he faced. The sensory experience is like no other and this is an opportunity that you cannot miss in Northland.
Before heading to one of the more rural parts of Aotearoa, ensure that you fill up your vehicle and get groceries at Kaitaia, the last big town for a while.
7. Rarawa Beach
Rarawa Beach, located on the east coast, is a Northland gem that not many people know about. The squeaky white sand and clear blue waters make it a stunning spot to spend a day at, perfect for swimming and relaxing. The rock pools are fun to explore and you never know what sea life you’ll discover! There is also a DOC (Dept. of Conservation) campsite next to the beach, ideal if you want to stay a few nights.
8. Spirits Bay
Spirits Bay is a wonderful campsite and beach south-east of Cape Reinga. It is located down a long gravel road, making you feel like you have ventured off the beaten path! It is a large campsite, with good facilities, and plenty of big pōhutukawa for shade! The campsite is just next to the beach with wonderful views along the bay towards the Cape. It’s definitely worth spending a night or two here while you are on your way to or from Cape Reinga. If you are feeling adventurous, there is a coastal walking track starting here and ending at the cape. Find out more about the walking tracks here.
9. Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga)
The northernmost point of Aotearoa New Zealand is a deeply spiritual place for Māori. According to mythology, spirits of the dead travel to the Cape as part of their journey to the underworld and ancestral home of Hawaiki. Depending on when you visit, you might be the only person there, or you might be sharing the views with throngs of people that have made the long drive up to the tip of New Zealand. From here you can see where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, colliding with their different colours.
10. Te Paki Sand Dunes
These World-Famous-In-New-Zealand sand dunes have earned their title. The Te Paki sand dunes make you feel like you are in the middle of the Sahara Desert, not floating on an island in the South Pacific. It’s iconic to take a boogie board down the steep slopes, there are several rental places nearby if you don’t have your own. My favourite thing was to wander through the dunes, (almost) getting lost. The incredible hills and valleys of sand amazed me, with the wind gently blowing sand off each ridge, the landforms are constantly changing. This spot ranks in my Top 3 places to see as it’s phenomenal and the only place in Aotearoa that you’ll feel like you’re in a desert!
11. Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach is another icon of the Far North. Famous for being a ‘legal road,’ you can book bus tours to drive along the beach, or dare to take your own vehicle onto the sand. (Most insurance plans do not cover you for beach driving, including rental vehicle insurance. Check before you go.) The beach stretches from Ahipara in the south to the Te Paki dunes in the north.
Karikari Peninsula (Doubtless Bay)
Heading south-east from Cape Reinga, stop by at the Karikari peninsula, known for its spectacular beaches.
12. Maitai Bay
The perfect horseshoe-shaped curve of the Maitai Bay makes it a Northland icon, and its gentle waves have turned it into a favourite swimming spot for families. The clear waters are great for snorkelling around the rocks. A short headland hike gives you beautiful views of Maitai Bay and Waikato Bay. There is a DOC campsite, operating on a first come-first serve basis, if you want to spend a few days here.
13. Tokerau Bay
Tokerau Bay is a great place to start when you’re exploring the Karikari Peninsula. There is a large freedom camping ground located right on the beach, perfect if you’re travelling in a self-contained vehicle and a great accommodation option for those wanting to explore Karikari on a tight budget.
14. Rotopokaka Lake
Close to the campground lies Rotopokaka Lake (Coca-Cola Lake). It is a freshwater lake with dark brown (but not murky) water. It is a popular swimming spot, and it is believed that the waters have healing powers.
15. Pukepuke Hill
The short hike up Pukepuke hill rewards you with stunning views across the Karikari peninsula, looking down towards Karikari beach and across the peninsula to Doubtless Bay. From the carpark, the walk is about 20 minutes uphill, but definitely worth it. The access road is gravel, so may only be suited for 4WD vehicles depending on weather conditions.
16. Cable Bay
A slice of tropical paradise nestled in Northland. We stopped at this cute little seaside town while making our way from Karikari to the Bay Of Islands. With shady trees to picnic under, Cable Bay is the perfect place to stop for an ice cream, to cool off in the clear water or explore the nearby rock pools.
Continue south from Karikari Peninsula towards the Bay of Islands. Whangaroa is a small, but beautiful district with its hilly terrain and large harbours.
17. Kairara Rocks
The views from the top of Kairara Rocks (Duke’s Nose) are something else. You feel transported to Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay with the dramatic cliffs falling into the Whangaroa Harbour. The lookout point is accessed by boat from Lane Cove, followed by a 45 minute steep climb to the summit. Alternatively, you access the summit via the Wairakau Stream Track, starting at Totara North. The return hike from Totara North is 5-6 hours. Access to the summit is granted by the local Māori iwi, so please respect their request of no eating, drinking or camping at the top. This spot also lands in my top 3 places to see because of the incredible panoramic views and moderate walk.
18. St Paul’s Rock
On the other side of the Whangaroa Harbour is St Pauls Rock, a quick 20 minute climb that offers views over the township and inlet below. The track is quite steep at the top and is very exposed, so remember to take a sunhat! While not offering quite the same views as Kairara Rocks, it is a shorter walk and more accessible, making it an easier alternative.
Bay of Islands
Continue south along the east coast to the Bay of Islands, with the towns of Kerikeri, Waitangi, Paihia and Russell. After your time in the unpopulated North, you’ll be surprised to see people again!
19. Waianiwaniwa (Rainbow Falls)
Perhaps the most iconic waterfall in Northland, Waianiwaniwa is a favourite as you can access the cave behind the falls. In summer, it’s the perfect swimming hole as well. It’s magical to stand behind the falls with the mist making you ever so slightly damp and the sound of the falls drowning out any attempt at talking to one another. It’s a spot you can’t possibly miss.
20. Old Stone Store
The Old Stone Store in Kerikeri is the longest surviving stone building in New Zealand, built in 1836 to be used as a trading post. You can go inside and browse the shop on the ground floor or visit the small museum upstairs. Located on the Kerikeri river, there are a few walking tracks nearby and also an Anglican Church, Mission House, Rewa’s Village and Kororipo Pa site. The area is rich in both Māori and Pākehā settler history and well worth the stop.
21. Opua Forest Paihia Lookout Track
The lookout track was a great way to get out in nature and spend some time in the bush. The walk is mostly a gentle uphill, following a stream for the most part. It brings you to a viewpoint overlooking Paihia and the Bay of Islands. The track is easy going and well formed, so perfect for families or those looking for an easy walk to do!
22. Bay Beach Hire Kayaking
Disclosure: we were hosted by Bay Beach Hire, however, all opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.
It would be a crime to visit the Bay of Islands without getting out on the water. Bay Beach Hire is a convenient place to hire kayaks in Paihia, with a choice of guided or independent kayak and paddle board rentals. Dan and Nick will advise you on the best spots to paddle to, the direction of the wind and everything else you need to know for a perfect adventure. With two single kayaks, we paddled around Motumaire Island and discovered a sandy, secluded beach on the far side. After taking a rest and basking in the sun we headed back, passing Taylor Island. The whole trip took us around 3 hours.
23. Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Disclosure: we were hosted by Waitangi Treaty Grounds, however, all opinions are my own and my experience is expressed authentically.
A visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is essential, whether you’ve lived in New Zealand your whole life, you’re just having a holiday here, or you fit somewhere in between. The Treaty of Waitangi and Te Tiriti o Waitangi are two important founding documents in our country’s history and this is where they were signed. There are several tour options when you visit the Treaty Grounds, but you can be assured that whichever choice you pick, you will be taken care of by your guide and will learn something new about the history of Aotearoa. After your guided tour, you can wander through the grounds and go back to any places of interest, or visit one of the two museums, the Treaty House, flagstaff or browse the gift shop. A highlight of our visit was the cultural performance, which allowed the audience to step back in time and explore the evolution of Māori song and dance over the years.
Once called “The Hellhole of the South Pacific,” Russell is a spot that you must visit in the Bay of Islands. The historic coastal town takes you back in time, as the waterfront is lined with old buildings that date back to back to pre-Treaty times. Visit the Pompallier House or grab a bite to eat in one of the many beach front restaurants. It’s best to take a passenger ferry from Paihia or car ferry from Opua to get to Russell. The alternative is an hour-long drive around the Waikare Inlet, along winding roads.
From the Bay of Islands, you can take the car-ferry to Russell and follow the winding, rural Russell Road towards the Tutukaka Coast. Or head south from Opua, join SH1 at Kawakawa and turn off at Hikurangi towards Matapouri. Bonus stop: Visit the Hundartwasser public toilets at Kawakawa – a work of art.
25. Whale Bay
Whale Bay is definitely a must do in Matapouri. Following a 10-minute walk from the carpark, you’ll find the pristine white sand beach, rock pools, pohutukawa trees and crystal clear blue water. It truly is a slice of paradise. The beach gets quite narrow at high tide, so keep that in mind when planning and opt to visit at low-tide if possible. There are toilets and changing rooms at the beach. The car park also provides access to the Matapouri Mermaid Pools, but these are currently closed due to a rāhui, so please respect this and do not visit.
26. Tutukaka Lighthouse Track
The walk to the Tutukaka Lighthouse is an enjoyable 1 hour return walk, with beautiful views along the whole track. The lighthouse is located on Kukutauwhao Island, and is only accessible at low-tide. To access the island at low tide, you walk along a thin stretch of land, with beautiful coves on each side – one rocky and one sandy. There are beautiful views of the Tutukaka Harbour and Poor Knights from the lighthouse, and it’s a fun spot to watch boats or jet skis speed by. On a clear day, you can also see as far as Aotea (Great Barrier Island).
Follow the Twin Coast Discovery Highway from Tutukaka to Whangarei, Northland’s largest town. Then continue South and you’ll be back in Auckland before you know it.
27. Whangarei Falls
The iconic Whangarei Falls are a perfect pit stop on your roadie. Whether you visit them in the dry season or after a big rainfall, they don’t disappoint. The loop track takes you from the carpack, to the base of the falls and back again.
28. Mt Manaia
The views from Mt Manaia have me coming back again and again – I’ve hiked the track 3 or 4 times! On our last sunrise visit, we even saw a wild kiwi along the path! The walk is a steep one, taking about 45 minutes to reach the summit, but in the end you are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views from the top, looking across the Whangarei Harbour on one side and out towards the sea on the other. Take plenty of water, and something warm to wear at the top as it can get quite windy.
29. Ocean Beach
The drive to Ocean Beach through the Mangawhai heads is almost as beautiful as the beach itself. The road winds along the basin before the peninsula ends and you’re greeted with the white sands of Ocean Beach. It’s a perfect swimming spot and there are also a number of walking tracks you can take to scenic viewpoints, Peach Cove Beach and Smuggler’s Bay, which are only accessible by foot.
30. Waipu Caves
The Waipu Caves are located just off SH1, with clear signage informing you when to turn off. The caves are free to visit and if you’re not claustrophobic, you can wander through the caves and underwater stream to see glowworms. It is advisable to take head torches and wear sturdy shoes. Stay safe and don’t do anything that you are uncomfortable with.
And there you have it! These are the Top 30 must-see places in Te Tai Tokerau, a perfect itinerary for a roadie. We visited this region in the Summer of 2020-2021 and absolutely loved the flexibility of travelling in a van, finding plenty of designated freedom camping areas and affordable campsites in the region.
If you are interested in seeing more raw video and photo content from our Northland roadie, click here to watch my Instagram highlights!
I can’t wait to hear all about your Northland road trips, so send me a DM on Instagram, comment down below, pin with me on Pinterest or tag me in your photos, because I just can’t get enough and I would love to hear what your roadie highlights were!