Rich in history and culture, Northland’s sub-tropical coastline features kilometres of golden beaches, giant sand dunes, tranquil harbours, a myriad of islands and large tracts of ancient kauri forest to explore. The birthplace of the nation, it was the landing place of the great Maori adventurer Kupe, the seat of New Zealand’s first government, and where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840.
The three-day journey, with the optional one-day excursion to Cape Reinga, begins in Auckland. We travel the Twin Coast Highway to Paihia, take part in a traditional Maori ceremony, savour Kerikeri’s gastronomic delights, take a cruise through the Bay of Islands, explore historical Russell, collect mussels from rocks in Mitimiti, and walk amongst giant kauri trees in the Waipoua Forest.
Following the Twin Coast Highway, we head north. It’s a route I know well, but as this is the first of many journeys, I’m hoping that my travelling companion, Bob, will shape up to become a worthy co-pilot. As we leave Auckland’s sprawl at Orewa, uncertainty sets in. “What’s with Pie-hire?” he says jabbing his finger hopefully at Paihia, on what (in less than an hour) has fast become a crumpled page. I laugh outright; skilled navigator or otherwise, at least – if nothing else – he’s a man after my own heart when it comes to food!
And so we stop in Warkworth, where life is as mellow as the river upon which it was built. On a sunny terrace we breakfast upon eggs with vivid-yellow yolks. “Do you think they add dye?” asks Bob, sipping on his latte.
We leave town driving on through Wellsford and Kaiwaka where the concrete turrets of café Utopia signal that we’ve entered quirkier climes. At the top of the Brynderwyn Hills, Northland’s scenery begins to unfold with the fabulous panorama of Bream Bay from the jagged silhouette of Whangarei Heads to the dramatic peaks of the Hen and Chicken Islands. Bob’s still agog as we glide past Waipu and on to Ruakaka’s broad sweep of sand, dominated by Marsden Point Oil Refinery’s chimneystack.
A quick stretch of the legs - Bob deposits shells and a mottled crab’s claw into the glove box - and we drive to Longview Vineyard, where eighty-five-year old Milly Vuletich presses a tasting glass into our hands. The Vuletich family set up a self-sufficient winery in 1964, and Milly’s son, Mario, crafts its estate-grown wines and ports.
At Whangarei’s Town Basin, situated on a dock overlooking the marina, seafood chowder, full of fish and cream, is the order of the day. Later we wander past the NZ Fudge Farm’s gooey treats, a host of galleries and artists’ studios and stop outside Burning Issues to watch glass being blown.
Next we call into the spectacular Whangarei Falls, which plunge some 25 metres into a tranquil, bush-fringed pool. It’s a leisurely 20-minute hike around the falls before we rejoin SH1 and drive to Kawakawa, where we stop to bask in the sun outside the Trainspotting Café. There are no trains to speak of (even though the tracks run the entire length of the main street) and so we watch passers-by, who seem to be milling around the public loos. Our waitress, following Bob’s gaze as she sets down our teapot, kindly explains that they are the last works of renowned Austrian-born artist, Friedrich Hundertwasser.
Commissioned in 1997, Hundertwasser, who made New Zealand his home in the 1970s, encouraged locals to take part: students crafted tiles and the windows were made from old bottles found in the neighbourhood. Intrigued, Bob photographs its mosaics while I queue with camera-toting tourists for a far more prosaic purpose!
We leave and drive along Paihia’s waterfront, past families building castles in the sand, to the village proper where couples stroll hand in hand, and the squawking of gulls’ blends with laughter from its many cafés and bars.
After checking into our waterfront hotel, we enjoy an early dinner of fish and chips, seated – Paihia-style – on a park bench overlooking the water. Beady-eyed gulls observe our every move, while we in turn watch the bustling wharf from which vessels depart continuously: some ferry passengers to Russell, others carry dolphin-watchers or tour the bay’s 144 islands en route to the Hole in the Rock.
As the sun sinks slowly into a blood-red sky, we walk across a long single-lane bridge to Waitangi, where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840. By day it’s a haunt for the historically-minded; by night it’s the setting for a modern cultural production performed by a talented group of local Maori.
To Bob’s delight, our guide, Kena Alexander, chooses him to act as our honorary ‘chief’. As the light fades to dark we’re greeted by a formidable band of warriors, but Bob (quietly quaking in his shoes) holds his ground to fulfill his chiefly obligations. Formalities completed, we’re invited inside the Whare Runanga, where local tales unfold in a musical, narrated by an old Maori gentleman to his grandson. The whare depicts the ancestors of many Maori tribes in its intricate carvings including the great explorer Kupe, who landed in the Hokianga, on Northland’s west coast.
Much later, aided by a glowing moon, we make our way back to Paihia and lulled by the gentle lapping of waves, drift off to sleep.
The soft early morning light brings showers. Water activities are off the agenda, but there are numerous other options. The vibrant township of Kerikeri seems inviting, so after a continental breakfast, we set off.
Half an hour later, rows of orange trees and mandarin groves hemmed with poplar indicate our arrival in this town, a haven for the gourmet traveller. From locally produced wine, olives and avocados, to cheese, ice cream and chocolate, there’s something here to tempt everyone’s taste buds.
Makana Confections is our first port of call and here we sample irresistible chocolate dipped apricots and tantalisingly fresh citrus jellies – they taste as though they’ve just been picked from a tree! Bob leaves with a box of macadamia butter toffee crunch tucked under his arm, and we tour the workshops of talented artisans who craft a range of house-wares including kauri furniture, ceramics and even kaleidoscopes.
We peek into historic Kemp House (NZ’s oldest-standing European building) and the Stone Store, dating back to 1832, before doubling back past roadside stalls where I (to Bob’s amazement) slip $5 into an honesty box in exchange for juicy oranges.
Passing Living Nature, where the fruits of Northland are used to produce natural skincare products, we arrive in time to lunch at Cottle Hill, on a sheltered terrace overlooking vines. A glass of Sailor’s Delight Rosé teams well with an antipasto platter, and under Mike and Barbara Webb’s guidance, we sample others from the vineyard’s award-winning range.
Back in Paihia the sun’s out so we jump aboard the Dolphin Seeker, a catamaran that takes us out to the Hole in the Rock via Russell, a round trip of about four hours. Bob spots a charter boat hunting for marlin, before we double back past Urupukapuka Island. Here we’re joined by a pod of bottlenose dolphins that ride our bow waves to Moturua Island, where Captain Cook landed in 1769 to take on fresh water.
Bob and I take the option of disembarking in Russell, a quaint town full of historical buildings, each with its own colourful tale. We sit quietly for a time on its pebbled shores, trying hard to imagine the 1800s when this genteel settlement was overrun by whalers and deserting seamen, and earned its nickname, ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’.
Today this couldn’t be further from the truth. As the sun dips in the sky we walk along the waterline, then follow a bushwalk up to Flagstaff Hill where Hone Heke’s warriors felled the British flag four times in protest of European settlers.
Suddenly a loud bell rings. “What on earth?” says Bob. We follow our ears to the wharf, where a charter boat has returned with a marlin. Locals and visitors alike mingle together as they await the weigh in; we retreat to Kamakura to dine on melt-in-the-mouth snapper beneath an orange-hued sunset before boarding a ferry back to Paihia.
“Morning!” chirps Bob. We arise earlier on this, our last day, and travel across to the west coast and Rawene, a picturesque harbourside town located on the tip of a peninsula. There are many noteworthy buildings here, including Clendon House, but we make a beeline to The Boatshed Café. Built on stilts overhanging the harbour we breakfast on its terrace, watching mist rise from the mangroves as water laps gently beneath our seats.
A hoot from the vehicular ferry heralds its departure and we decide to take a side-trip, chugging across the Hokianga Harbour to Kohukohu. We drive through Panguru to the wild ocean beach at Mitimiti, where the misty peaks of the Warawara Forest roll down to meet the dunes.
And here – by fortune or design – we meet a local man, Tipo Cash. He shows us around his marae and onto the beach sharing riveting stories about the chief who was killed on a rock giving Mitimiti its name, the graves of Chinese flax workers in the dunes, and legends of the Waitaha.
A keen fisherman, Tipo reckons drag netting for mullet using traditional methods is the most popular activity in these parts. “Have a go,” he urges, but instead we help gather mussels off the rocks for the elders.
Back in Rawene we drive to Opononi, the home of Opo, a young, friendly bottle-nosed dolphin who adopted the town and played with children during the summer of 1955-56. A committee was set up to safeguard her while regulations for the protection of dolphins were passed into law. In a tragic twist, Opo was found dead in a pool the following day, jammed between a cleft in the rocks. Today all that remains is a stone memorial opposite the wharf and some old film footage at the museum.
A group of locals gathers outside the Four Square store. They tell us the fishing has been good of late and ask if we’d like to try sand boarding. We choose to watch from the wharf as kids and backpackers cart old body boards up giant dunes and ride them down, landing with a splash in the harbour.
In Omapere a viewing area provides a last glimpse of the harbour, before entering Waipoua Forest. We pass the visitors centre and numerous hikes but decide to make only one stop en route: to pay our respects to Tane Mahuta, the largest kauri of all. A five-minute walk, alive with birdsong, leads us through bush to this enormous kauri tree, and we sit in silence beneath, revelling in its sheer magnificence. Estimated to be around 2000 years old, Tane Mahuta is one of several notable kauri trees in the forest.
Further south we skip the Kai Iwi Lakes in favour of lunch at Baylys Beach. Here we relax at the Funky Fish Café, surrounded by sculpture and original art works, tapping our feet in time to 88.2 FM, a radio station operating from a local’s shed. Its reception is only one kilometre but that’s more than enough coverage for the folk surfcasting from the beach.
Refreshed we continue to Dargaville and to Ruawai through flats lush with kumara crops.
In Matakohe we stop to stretch our legs at the Kauri Museum and lose ourselves for a while in days of old: a rugged world of kauri felling, gum digging and hardy pioneers. For a time Bob disappears; I find him stroking a giant piece of kauri gum with an amber- glint in his eye.
At the antiques store in Paparoa we join the locals in sifting for treasures. Bob discovers a nice souvenir - a translucent piece of gum. East of Maungaturoto, SH12 meets SH1 and we return south to Wellsford. Caught up in my own lecture on the hardships of the gum digging days, I miss the alternate route to Auckland via Helensville.
And my co-pilot? Well he’s on auto, having stashed our map in the glove box along with his shells, chocolates and kauri gum. Somewhere near Puhoi I think I smell sulphur from the Waiwera Hot Pools but it turns out it’s Bob’s now-reeking crab’s claw. Luckily it’s a well-timed reminder as there’s no finer way to end a day. We relax in hot thermal pools before returning to the glittering lights of the city.