For a skinny little stretch of land at the top of New Zealand, Northland certainly packs a punch in experience. There’s not much you can’t find in the so-called winterless north, except for maybe snow-capped mountains or less-than-perfect beaches. And that just makes it all the better for northbound road trippers. We dare you to not have the time of your life.
This jaunt is for people looking to get out of Whangarei (not that we’re suggesting there’s not enough to do in Whangarei, of course!) for a short but super sweet weekend getaway. Head from the Northland capital up to the beautiful Bay of Islands and back again for a roadie full of culture, history, fab food and spots to splash, as well as the information you need if you’re an EV crusader. It really has it all, and some.
Believed to be the landing spot for the original Māori waka over a thousand years ago, Northland is often thought of as the place where Aotearoa’s story began. On this trip, you will learn these stories of tangata whenua/people of the land, as well as the change that came with the arrival of European settlers, with a generous dash of Northland’s famous coastlines, landscape and seafood thrown in for good measure. The Bay of Islands was found to have the second bluest sky in the world in a 2006 study, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a more dazzling backdrop for your next ‘gram. Need we say more?
Rise and shine Whangarei, there’s a new breakfast heavyweight in town. Biggie Bagels have been bringing doughy joy to Northland since December 2017, which can be enjoyed with many magical filling combinations, all made freshly right in front of you. Think manuka-smoked salmon, New York-style pastrami, or even a mouth-watering combo of blueberries, cream cheese and bacon. These hand-rolled sourdough bagels can be made for any dietary requirements, so anyone can jump on the bandwagon and taste the goodness. Make sure you bring along your Keep Cup too, so you can get 50c off your coffee. And do a bit of good for the planet, of course. All before breakfast.
On your way up State Highway One towards the far north, stop off just before Waro, where you will find one of the most unexpected roadside attractions in Northland. The Waro Limestone Scenic Reserve is an area of geological marvel, with a network of too-crazy-to-be-true limestone formations and a small but scenic lake to walk around. The 7.5 hectare reserve is dotted with information panels to explain the geology and human history of the area, including the coal-mining narratives of the Hikurangi district. While you’re off on your morning exploration, please keep to the track and leave the limestone formations untouched out of respect to local iwi. And watch out for sinkholes! Stuck below ground wouldn’t exactly be the best way to start your roadie.
Step into a galactic spectacle just off SH1 from Waiomio, where standing in the Kawiti Caves feels like standing under an earth-side Milky Way. There are so many spots in New Zealand where you can experience the magic of glowworm caves, but this one is pretty unique, being family-owned and operated since they opened to the public in the 1950s. Discovered and established by Te Tawai Kawiti, great-grandson of the famous Māori Chief Kawiti, his descendents have hosted thousands of visitors since, including a rather huge celebrity endorsement through Bill Gates. Not a bad claim to fame, right? For a fraction of the price of many other cavernous attractions in NZ, with just as much buzzy bug glow, this 30 minute tour should definitely be on your hit list.
How many towns can say their biggest attraction is their public toilets? We’re willing to bet not many, but arrive in Kawakawa and you will want to see nothing more than their main street loo. This offbeat attraction was designed by world-renowned Austrian architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, probably the town’s most famous resident, who fell in love with the area and made it his home in the 1970s. Recycled materials were predominantly used to construct the quirky and colourful toilets, and any vegetation removed from the site was re-planted on the roof. Funky and environmentally-friendly! A pit-stop here is an absolute must, even just to sit on the throne (if you know what we mean) and appreciate the absolute creativity of the project.
Get your health kick for the day at this lunch stop, which serves up delicious wholefood goodies that will give you your 5+ a day in one sitting. Having opened in 2017, Elaine’s Kitchen is a relatively new cafe in Kawakawa, but it has built a devoted loyalty in many locals who previously had slim pickings for great food. But don’t worry, meals are just as tasty when you’re just passing through the small town. In fact, they’re so good, you’ll wonder how they can still be healthy. Especially the slices. Melt. In. Your. Mouth.
To get across the gorgeous Waikare Inlet, get in line for the vehicle ferry, which goes from Opua to Okiato every 10-15 minutes until 10pm. At only 10 minutes long, it’s a fairly zippy ferry ride, but there’s plenty of time to get out of the car, stretch the legs, and enjoy the beautiful Bay of Islands scenery. Once you roll back off the boat at Okiato, it’s just a 10 minute drive to Russell, and a pretty good-looking drive at that.
Russell, or Kororāreka as it was previously known, is one of the most historically significant locations in New Zealand, being the first site of permanent European settlement and the country’s first seaport. Prior to Pākehā arrival, it was home to various Maori tribes, making it an important point of interaction, trade and, ultimately, conflict. As soon as you arrive, you’ll be able to see why settlers chose to make camp at this spot. Greener-than-green native forest, bluer-than-blue waters, and sprinkles of golden sand and red pohutukawa, Russell is a rainbow of colour, with the beautifully preserved 19th century buildings adding an extra layer of charm. The perfect base for a Bay of Islands holiday, you’ll wish you were staying weeks on end. So make the most of your afternoon in Russell by going for a swim, hiring some kayaks, exploring the heritage, and sitting on the balcony of a local bar imagining what it might have looked like 200 years earlier. Maybe only slightly different.
For exceptional dining in Russell, you can’t go past the Duke of Marlborough, a New Zealand institution which acquired the country’s first ever liquor licence. Established in 1827 by ex-convict Johnny Johnson, the land the hotel and restaurant sits on was one of the first land sales to a European in New Zealand, with the hotel itself playing an important role in turning around the perception of Russell as the ‘hellhole of the South Pacific.’ No, we’re not joking, that was actually what this paradise was once known as. Pretty hard to believe today, right? With an epic view to match the epic historical facts, and a menu that blows both out of the water (Sichuan Peppered Calamari or Mustard Crusted Bacon Hock, anyone?), the Duke is the kind of place to put on your dining bucket list, and tick off time and time again.
And the best news? While you wine and dine at the Duke of Marlborough, your accommodation is right above your head. Perfect for many reasons, not least of which being the fact that you can sneak away to bed whenever you start to get sleepy. Or that you can stay as late as you want without having to worry about how to get to your accommodation. Whichever reason you choose, it goes without saying that the Duke is absolute premium accommodation, especially the waterfront rooms which let you wake up to the views of the oh-so gram-worthy Bay of Islands. Best of all, they are accommodating for EV drivers. Just contact them ahead of your stay and they will work something out to ensure you and your wheels are ready for the next day.
Get an early morning history lesson with a walk up Maiki/Flagstaff Hill, one of the most important landmarks in the Bay of Islands. It was here that powerful Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke cut down the Union Jack flagstaff four times in the 1840s, in protest of the increasing British control over Māori affairs and their dishonouring of the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi. Just a short 30-45 minute trek will get you to the summit of this epoch-making hill and back again, rewarding you with a pretty epic view of Russell, Paihia, Waitangi and the Bay of Islands at the top. Before you go, be sure to check tidal hours and the DOC website for information, because access to the track differs depending on water levels.
Grab your post-walk fuel from the York Street Café, which has been feeding hungry locals and visitors since 1975. Located in a colourful courtyard just back from the waterfront, enjoy your brekkie surrounded by magnolias and hibiscus bushes. They make a cup of coffee that will satisfy all your caffeine cravings, and the big breakfast will seriously keep you going throughout all your morning activities. Or if you’re running late for the Opua ferry, they have a fab takeaway menu that you can have on the go. But let’s be honest, when they go every 10 minutes, you would have to be trying pretty hard to miss it.
There have been many locations on this roadie which we’ve described as being the most historically-significant locations in New Zealand, but this one takes the cake (or keke) for sure. Often called ‘the birthplace of our nation,’ the Waitangi Treaty Grounds were the location of the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The Waitangi Grounds are now New Zealand’s most important destination, telling the story of the coming together of two peoples, Māori and European, through a museum, cultural performances, forests and gardens, guided tours and much more. Be fascinated, illuminated and moved by the stories of our nation’s history.
Charlotte’s Kitchen was named after one of the first Pākehā women to live in New Zealand, who was also believed to have been a pretty badass ex-convict and pirate. The Paihia restaurant brings perhaps a little less vagabond to the monicker than Charlotte Badger did, but we’d like to think just it’s got just as much badassery. Stylish and sophisticated, perched perfectly over the bay, you won’t be wanting to leave any time soon. The only downside is how full the menu is of delicious and diverse meals, which makes choosing a very difficult task. Take our advice and order some plates to share, because when everything is as good as this, food envy is inevitable. A Frutti di Mare platter is surely on the cards, because when you’re literally sitting above the ocean, you can’t not order seafood.
When you hit Kerikeri, the best place to discover your inner adventurer is at Charlie’s Rock. This spot is a bit harder to get to than Kerikeri’s most famous waterfall, the Rainbow Falls, but you’d best believe it’s worth it. Basalt rock formations create an impressive waterfall, spilling over into a large swimming hole at Charlie’s Rock, and with a 20 minute walk off the beaten track to get there, it has all the makings of a local favourite. And local favourite it absolutely is, attracting crowds in the summer seeking to beat the heat of the winterless north. However, it’s less popular among tourists, making it a perfect balance between lively and private. If you want to jump off the high rocks into the water, be sure to check the safest spots with a seasoned Charlie’s Rock-goer first, but other than that, just step off that ledge and bombs away.
There’s not many places in New Zealand you can stand inside a building that has been up since 1822. Actually, there’s only one place, and that’s the Kerikeri Mission Station/Kemp House, which is the country’s oldest European building. Beside it stands the oldest stone building in New Zealand, the Stone Store, which has had a variety of different uses since 1832. But it doesn’t stop there. Just across the bridge from the mission station is Rewa’s Village, a life-size depiction of a Māori fishing village, or up the hill is Kororipo Pā, an ancient fortified Māori settlement. Yep, this little area is seriously old. Or at least old by Aotearoa’s definition, that is. With tonnes of exploring to be done.
When you finally reach Whangarei, we wouldn’t be surprised if your stomach is a-rumbling. Luckily, we have the perfect antidote. No. 8 is fresh to the Whangarei dining scene (just having celebrated its first birthday), but was established by local champions of the game, Lloyd Rooney and Michael Fraser, who are bringing Asian/Kiwi fusion tapas to town with this latest venture. And with plates on the menu such as Pakistani Chicken (that’s chicken marinated in almonds, black pepper and yoghurt), sashimi (market fish, green nam jim and coriander) and crispy pork belly (with chilli caramel and sour herb salad), it would be hard to go past, without even mentioning their prime location by the Whangarei Marina. And that’s before you even get close to their deep-fried ice cream… There’s a good night of eating ahead of you, that’s for sure.