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Northland in Summer

Summer in the Bay of Islands and Northland is the best place in the world to be – perfect temperatures, sunny days and a gentle breeze. The perfect destination for our short self-drive tour from Auckland.

We took our time to drive up from Auckland, normally a 3 1/2 hr drive, but we took the coastal roads and spent most of the day driving slowly enjoying the scenery and stopping off in various beachside spots for coffee, ice creams as well as a stroll on the beach. The beaches up there are unlike anywhere else. We drove out to the coast from Warkworth an hour north of Auckland to Tauwharanui which is in a regional park. The beach is stunning – surf, white sand and a huge pohutakawa tree with its branches stretching out over the sand making a cool, shady spot for us. We had fun scrambling round the rocky headland, caves and rock pools at the end of the beach where we found another beach on the eastern side of this peninsula, just as large, ringed with pohutakawas and interesting tracks to walk.

We pressed on and suppressed the temptation to stop at the surf beach of Mangawahai Heads. There is a long sand dune island along one end of the beach which is a wildlife refuge ‘no-go’ area to save the endangered banded dotterels, fairy tern and Caspian tern that nest there. They lay their eggs on the beach and it’s very easy to stand on them without seeing them. This island makes a calm inlet on the other side where children can play in the shallows. We had a stopover at Langs Beach a little further on to poke around the rock pools looking for crabs, limpets and tiny fish. It was lunchtime by now, so we stopped at Waipu Cove at a cute roadside cafe to have a lunch of fish and chips on the verandah. Waipu Cove is renowned for its surf and it looked marvellous that day.

The road turned westward for a while and we drove into Whangarei, the only city in Northland, population 70,000. It’s also a nice place to stop for lunch. You can go to the harbour and walk along the wharf to see yachts from all over the world moored there.

We drove east out of Whangarei through rural landscapes of farms with dry stone walls out to the coast to Tutakaka, the starting point of deep sea fishing and diving charters, on to Matapouri Beach. When you arrive at the beach you can’t see it until you jump out of the car, walk up a tiny mound and there is the beach shaped like a perfect half round basin. Looking out through the two headlands you can make out the Poor Knights Islands 24 kms off the coast. A marine reserve and a mecca for scuba divers around the world, renowned for its clear water and diversity of marine life. Jacques Cousteau rated it as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.

Matapouri Beach has shady pohutakawas hanging over the beach and large rock outcrops jutting out of the sand, little grass worn tracks over the hill to the next cove as well as steep sided black rock with deep green water surging and swirling around the inlet. I saw a couple of divers just ready to plunge in. Matapouri beach is the most beautiful I have ever seen. For now there are only small old beaches, one store and a few quiet roads. I only hope it stays that way. We had a glorious swim there.

We were now 2 1/2 hours drive north from Auckland. We got back on the main road and drove on up to Opua just south of Paihia. We had planned to see Russell, New Zealand’s first European settlement built back in the early 1800’s, and in Opua you can drive on to the car ferry and make for Russell that way. A pleasant little ride over the inlet with the green hills reflected in the water and yachts as well as launches of all ages moored about. It would have been nice to spend a couple of days in this area as I love to paint and there were so many pictures to make. I love the colours of the clay cliffs in Northland,  from ochre to sienna. The water is very deep at Opua and in the summer cruise liners sometimes berth there.

Just a few kilometres to Russell which is surrounded by bush clad hills. We walked around the little village. The first church built in New Zealand is there, still with its bullet holes from the 1845 battle with Hone Heke of the Ngapuhi people of Northland. A feeling of discontent had grown about land deals and gradually grew until it erupted into the sacking of Kororareka (Russell) and the Europeans had to flee to Auckland for safety. The three churches in Russell were the only buildings saved due to Hone Heke putting a “tapu” over them. Such a pretty village looking out over a pebble beach to the islands in the Bay of Islands and to Paihia on the western side. Ferries run between the two spots several times a day. It’s worth driving for a couple of minutes over the hill from Russell to Long Beach, with its single line of houses across the road from the sand. A beautiful spot to while away an afternoon with a good book and the occasional dip in the water.

We drove back to the car ferry landing and ferried back over to Opua on to Paihia to make a booking for the following day to go out on Fullers “Cream Trip” a day cruise which takes you around the Bay of Islands. We drove for a few minutes from there to Kerikeri, where New Zealand’s oldest house was built in 1822 (Kemp House). This area is known for its citrus fruit and is very pretty. We stayed in a “B & B” there called “William and Mary’s” which is a separate, quite large, two bedroom house built on a few acres and looking out over a golf course. Nothing has been forgotten in the accoutrements in this house. Very comfortable. A beautiful spot. We arrived around 6:0pm and had booked dinner for our arrival. Mary had prepared a scrumptious dinner for us. We put our bags in our bedrooms, opened a bottle of wine, sat out on the deck and ate our dinner while watching the sun go down.

Next morning we found a parking lot close to the foreshore and boarded the catamaran for our day out on the Bay. A large comfortable boat probably taking about 70 people. Some had brought their bathers for a planned “swim with the dolphins” option you can take. We brought our lunch with us but you can buy food on board.  We took on a few more people in Russell and then set out for the islands. The captain gave us an interesting commentary all the way, telling us about the history of certain bays and islands.

The northernmost point was Cape Brett, the “Hole in the Rock” which we went through with hardly any room to spare. Very clever steering. It was great! We were on the look out for dolphins all the way and the captain had the call from another boat that a pod had been sighted so we took off for that area. The dolphins swam around the boat ducking and diving having a marvellous time. Our swimmers jumped into a net that had been let down the side of the boat for them. They hung on to it until the dolphins came close and then swam among them. When they were all back on board, we made for Urupukapuka Island where we walked to the top of one of the hills overlooking a beautiful bay and ate our lunch. Some stayed on the beach where we berthed and ate at the cafe there, others had a swim. We arrived back in Paihia at about 4:00pm. A great day.

The following day we drove north, first to Mangonui where we had heard of the famous fish and chip shop built out over the water on a wharf where the fresh fish came in daily. Don’t miss this lovely little village when you go up north. So picturesque (and the fish and chips were tasty). It was still early in the day. We drove up past Coopers Beach and Cable Bay both in Doubtless Bay and then on through Taipa to the Karikari Peninsula jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  After a while the sealed road ran out and we drove on the metal road past a large vineyard until we reached Matai Bay. Only a couple of beaches there and a pleasant looking camping ground. This beach too is circular. You sit on one side and look directly across at the other side of the same beach. We set out our picnic lunch under a pohutakawa but I couldn’t resist a swim first in the clear waters of the bay. We spent the rest of the afternoon slowly walking the beach and finding the best shells, just relaxing. Then a glass of wine at the vineyard we had passed before driving back to Kerikeri where we found a delightful little restaurant there for dinner to finish our day.

We decided to head back down to Auckland on the west coast and planned the drive to coincide with the northern side of the Hokianga Harbour at Kohukohu so we could take another car ferry ride to Rawene on the southern side. We could have taken a route that came out on the southern side. Kohukkohu is a very old town which would be interesting to paint and I took some photos there but I wouldn’t call it a pretty town.

We enjoyed our ferry ride and when we arrived on the other side we drove on to Opononi and had a picnic lunch there. You look across the huge sand dunes on the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour. I had imagined the sand would be black as it is further down the west coast at Muriwai and Piha but these sand dunes are golden.  We wended our way down through hauntingly beautiful Waipoua Forest and stopped at a little cutting in the forest to to walk in to see Tane Mahuta, the largest kauri tree in New Zealand. It only takes 2 minutes walk to get there. It is at least 1250 years old and has a girth of 13.77m (45ft ). Further south is the Matakohe Kauri Museum which is an amazing place and well worth a visit. Interactive displays, recreations of a kauri house, there is a school built in the 1800’s, church, machinery, fabulous kauri objects, carvings, bowls, that you can buy, etc. Not long after that we rejoined State Highway 1 and travelled back to Auckland an hour an a half or so to the south.

Let Relaxing Journeys plan your next summer self-drive trip to the north of New Zealand.