Road Trip Itineraries - The Northern Explorer

Journey through the winterless north on the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, covering both east and west coasts, venturing to the tip of NZ in just 10 days!

Auckland to Wellsford

Before leaving Auckland, take time to discover Waiheke Island, enjoying its vineyards, secluded beaches, thriving art community, great walks, restaurants and captivating views back to the city. Or jump on a relaxing Auckland Habour Sailing Experience with Explore taking in the volcanic peaks and city skyline from the best view in town.

Departing Auckland head northwest, with the first stop on your journey being Kumeu, home to many of Auckland’s great vineyards and restaurants. A little further north is Woodhill Forest, a mountain biker’s paradise and equally as great for those on foot. Driving from Helensville to Wellsford on hilly rural roads, you’re afforded amazing views over Kaipara Harbour and surrounding farmland.

Wellsford to Opononi

You'll reconnect with State Highway 1 briefly from Wellsford to Brynderwyn before heading off on State Highway 12, again along the west coast. Just south of Brynderwyn is Kaiwaka, a small village known for its Dutch cheese; that's surely worth a stop!

Once you hit the coastline on State Highway 12, you’ll be rewarded with view upon view of beautiful sandy beaches. Baylys Beach, just west of Dargaville, is one such example and a great place to spend the day and the crystal clear Kai Iwi Lakes are great for camping, fishing and hiking.

The Kauri Coast - Waipoua, Mataraua and Waima Forests - are the largest areas of native forest in Northland. Waipoua Forest has some of the largest and oldest living rainforest trees in the world, including Tane Mahuta - 'Lord of the Forest' - New Zealand's largest living Kauri tree, estimated to be 2,000 years old, 51 metres high, with a girth of 13.77 metres! Join Footprints Waipoua for an intimate encounter to learn how these trees are inter-twined with the lives of local Maori and the important role they play in the eco-system that is the Waipoua Forest.

Just to the north, Opononi and the neighbouring settlement of Omapere are a mass of white sandy beaches in the heart of the Hokianga Harbour - great for swimming, fishing and dune surfing on boogie boards. A little slice of laid-back paradise.

Opononi became famous during the summer of 1955/56 for Opo the friendly dolphin. Opo was a wild bottlenose dolphin who started following fishing boats around the harbour after the death of its mother, and would play with beach balls and other objects and even let people make contact with her. People came from all over the country to watch her.

Activities to try:

  • Discover the Bay cruise at the Hole in the Rock, Bay of Islands
  • Coastal Kayakers, Bay of Islands

The Far North

There are some absolute must-do's when travelling through the Far North, one of these is 90 Mile Beach (Ahipara to Scott Point), which despite being a sandy beach is actually a highway! Sadly you can't drive your rental vehicle on it unfortunately. Interestingly, the beach is only 55 miles long (88km), early missionaries thought it to be a lot longer when they traversed the beach on horseback in 1800s! Grab a boogie board and ride the Te Paki sand dunes. At low tide, dig for Tuatua (a local shellfish delicacy) which sit just below the surface. Ninety Mile Beach is also a great spot for swimming, fishing and spectacular sunsets.

Back on State Highway 1, drive from Kaitaia to Cape Reinga or Te Rerenga Wairua in Maori, meaning "the leaping off place of spirits" (about 1.5 hours drive). You’ve now reached the very top of New Zealand, marked by a quaint lighthouse, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a swirling collision of oceanic proportions. Five kilometres to the east is Tapotupotu Bay, a great spot for a rest, picnic or camping.

Cape Reinga to Bay of Islands

The east coast of Northland is renowned for its spectacular, unspoilt beaches - Matai Bay, Karikari Peninsula, Doubtless Bay, Taupo Bay, Whangaroa, Matauri Bay and many others. Don't be surprised if you're one of only a few on the beach because there are just so many amazing spaces to choose from! Check out Coca Cola Lake at the end of Ramp Road on Tokerau Beach where the water is the colour of Coca Cola due to the peat that surrounds it. If you’re into diving, the Rainbow Warrior (the Greenpeace boat which was sunk in 1985 to form a natural reef), now lies at the Cavalli Islands and is home to amazing marine life. Hungry? Be sure to visit Mangonui for the best fish 'n' chips in New Zealand!

Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands encompasses 144 islands as well as Kerikeri, Waitangi, Paihia and Russell and is regarded as a 'game fisher's' and boater's paradise. To truly appreciate this enchanting part of the world take it all in from the end of a 1200ft tow line with Flying Kiwi Parasail, or hit the water and explore the islands with the local experts at Coastal Kayakers. A night or two at the luxurious Waterfront Suites, Bay of Islands, part of Heritage Hotels Boutique Selection, is an absolute must and will make exploring the Bay almost effortless.

Waitangi is the birthplace of New Zealand, home to the historic Treaty House where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, marking the beginning of New Zealand as a nation. The historic buildings, treaty house, waka, grounds and surrounding bush walkways are impressive.

Across from Paihia is Russell, the first capital of New Zealand following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, before it was relocated to Auckland. Russell is a quaint township, with a cluster of tourist shops, bars and restaurants and home to the oldest licensed pub in New Zealand - The Duke of Marlborough - dating back to 1827. It's an excellent place to watch the sun go down, or enjoy a picnic on the beach directly below. Whilst in Russell, check out Christ Church, New Zealand's oldest church originally built in 1835 and still serving the community today. You can catch a passenger ferry from Paihia to Russell, or a car ferry further south from Opua.

Activities to try:

  • Flying Kiwi Parasail, Bay of Islands Recommended
  • Footprints Waipoua, Northland

Kawakawa to Whangarei

Be sure to stop in Kawakawa, famous for toilets, pies and steam engines! Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser designed and built the famous Kawakawa toilets in the late 1980’s; they’re a work of art that attract thousands each year. The creamed paua pies at a local bakery are to die for and you just have to meet Gabriel, the last steam engine of her kind still operating in New Zealand. Less than 30 kilometres from Kawakawa heading west, not far from Kaikohe, are the Ngawha Hot Springs, where you can bathe in hot mud thermal pools. A little further on at Gumdiggers Park near Awanui, see 40,000 -150,000 year old massive buried kauri trees that have been exposed. (You can also reach the hot springs and the Gumdiggers Park from the State Highway 12 route).

Driving south from Kawakawa at Waiomio, take a side road to the Kawiti Glow Worm cave with amazing rock formations and lush rainforest.

Once you arrive in Whangarei, drive east to Whangarei Heads and spend a day at Ocean Beach, a favourite spot for surfies. Tutukaka, a little further on, is a marine wonderland and rated by National Geographic as one of the "top coastal destinations on this planet"! White sandy beaches, snorkelling or diving at Poor Knight's Islands Marine Reserve and the world’s largest sea cave, Riko Riko.

Whangarei to Auckland

At this point consider an eastern detour to the spectacular beaches of Langs Beach, Waipu Cove, Mangawhai Heads and others. Matakana is a bustling village servicing neighbouring farmland and the popular holiday spot, Omaha. Saturday mornings there’s a flurry of activity at the village market, packed with local produce and artisan delights.

For more road trip ideas, read our next article in the Avis big break series, "The Heartland Loop".

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