Head north from Auckland on this diverse journey taking in New Zealand's Maori and colonial history, the best of an emerging artisan food, wine and beer scene, and a few spectacular and remote beaches only reached by well-chosen and quieter detours from the main highway. Get ready for an exciting trip taking in the northernmost tip of the country, and providing plenty of exciting opportunities to get active amid stellar Kiwi coastal scenery.
Departing New Zealand's most cosmopolitan city across Auckland Harbour Bridge, make your first stop 45km north at Puhoi. This quaint riverside village was first settled by German-speaking families from Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic – and Puhoi's Bohemian Museum is a poignant testament to the determination of these hardworking pioneers.
Continue north, turning right at the intersection just past Warkworth and head towards more New Zealand treats at nearby Matakana, especially if your trip coincides with the village's Saturday morning farmers market. Accompanied by a lazy days soundtrack of local musicians, stalls selling buffalo mozzarella, organic chocolate and zingy olive oil gather beside the shaded banks of the Matakana River.
Pick up a guide to the region's expanding wine scene – standout vineyards include Heron's Flight and Hyperion – before enjoying a tasting tray of Leigh’s, Sawmill Brewery's craft beers. Seasonal brews partner with the Sawmill's core brew range – try the citrusy Pale Ale – and their delicious bar snacks include barbecue goat with cumin-spiced flatbread. The Cafe also does great gourmet pizzas and hosts regular summer gigs from some of Kiwi music's biggest names.
When you’ve eaten your full, head north 3kms on the winding and often windy road to Goat Island. Established in 1975 as New Zealand's first marine reserve, Goat Island offers the opportunity to get up close and personal with plump snapper and shoals of smaller fish. You choose between snorkelling and diving, or relaxing above the water on a glass bottom boat tour. The marine life is so abundant it's even possible to wade in knee-deep and be surrounded by fish. The nearby Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre is super informative and includes a tide-pool packed with marine life.
If you continue along this meandering coastal, sometimes dirt, road via Mangawhai Heads and Langs Beach, you will reach Waipu, the sleepy gateway to nearby Bream Bay. Visit the local museum to learn about the hardy Scottish settlers who founded the town in the 1850s, or relax along the sandy arc of nearby Waipu Cove. It's not unknown for marine mammals including sea-lions to occasionally visit the river estuary near the local campground, so keep a safe distance.
With a population just exceeding 50,000, Northland's only city, Whangarei, is a laid-back stop on the road north. Don’t just whizz through, relax in the waterfront cafes of the Town Basin area before exploring the precinct's museums and galleries. Almost 1,500 clocks from around the world feature at the interesting Clapham's Clocks, and the permanent collection alongside temporary exhibitions combine to make the Whangarei Arts Museum one of regional New Zealand's best galleries. Nearby natural attractions include the 26m-high Whangarei Falls and the three underground caverns of the Abbey Caves. Ask for a cave map at the local information centre, pack a flashlight, and get exploring.
Less than 30km northeast from Whangarei, the coastal settlement of Tutukaka is the jumping off point for trips to the Poor Knights Islands. Washed over by subtropical currents, marine life not seen elsewhere in New Zealand can be observed here, and the idiosyncratic underwater landscape includes caves, arches and submarine tunnels. It's a stellar environment for experienced divers, but non-diving travellers can also experience the islands on Perfect Day trips with Dive! Tutukaka incorporating snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking. Keep your eyes peeled as dolphins and whales often accompany the boats, but please note, that tours only run from November to May.
An alternative route to SH1 north to the Bay of Islands is the coastal detour dubbed the Old Russell Rd. Head east 6km north of Hikurangi, and journey along forested roads with coastal views to the Helena Bay Gallery & Cafe. Quirky corrugated iron sculptures fill the cafe's verdant grounds, and you'll probably be welcomed by Wolfie and Picasso, two friendly Newfoundland dogs who think they run the place. From Helena Bay, the Old Russell Rd meanders past remote bays dotted with pohutukawas and traditional Maori marae (meeting places) before reaching Russell, a coastal settlement that was New Zealand's first capital in 1840.
Once packed with carousing, alcohol-fuelled sailors and whalers, Russell enjoyed an infamous reputation as the 'hell-hole of the Pacific' in the mid-19th century, but now the sleepy coastal village offers a relaxed heritage ambience. Stroll along Russell's tree-lined esplanade to Pompallier Mission, the site of a colonial printing press that distributed the Bible to local Maori, and climb Maiki (Flagstaff Hill) for stunning views across the Bay of Islands to the buzzy resort town of Paihia. To explore local wildlife –including the opportunity to see New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi – join a night outing with Russell Nature Walks.
Banner Photo Credit: Department Of Conservation