For a skinny little stretch of land at the top of New Zealand, north Auckland and Northland certainly pack 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. (Just a little pointer, this trip is best left for weekends that don’t coincide with major public holidays as the road gets a little chocka).
This jaunt is for people looking to get out of Auckland for a long weekend or just-because-you-can four day getaway. Head from the City of Sails up to the idyllic Bay of Islands and back again for a roadie full of culture, history, fab food and spots to splash in, as well as all the information you need if you’re an EV crusader. It really has it all, and some. Just make sure you’ve charged your EV to 100% before setting out, and that you have pre booked all of your accommodation - just to be sure of a comfy spot to lay your head and guarantee you the perfect overnight charge.
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?
How good does it feel to leave the madness of the city behind you before you’ve even had breakfast? Skip Auckland first thing on day one of your roadie and cruise out west to Kumeu, where a beautiful wake-up call awaits you at Boric Food Market, in the form of a velvety cup of organic Kokako coffee. If you’re not caffeine-dependent (congratulations?), try a beautiful freshly-smoothed smoothie instead. Partner your drink of choice with something tasty from their deli cabinet (though that doesn’t narrow it down a lot, as the whole lot is pretty damn delish), and chill out on their huge deck and watch the chickens foraging around the orchards - or indeed your feet. Your day could start off a lot worse. And hey, now’s a great time to stock up your emergency roadie supplies (i.e. snacks, snacks and more snacks), because you never want to be left wanting on the road.
Just so you know the stress of city life is behind you, take a bit of time to detox at Parakai Springs. It’s an important part of every road trip, so we like to tell ourselves. Geothermally-heated, this is such a dreamy and healing spot, it’s hard to believe it’s only 45 minutes from Auckland. Full of spots to lounge in 40℃ heat, spots to splash around in 32℃ warmth and spots to scream down a wild waterslide, Parakai Springs is just a whole lot of good old-fashioned fun. There are also private thermal pools you can book if you feel like something a little more romantic. And at only $6 per person per half hour, who wouldn’t? There’s nothing wrong with a little pampering, folks.
For history buffs, a stop in Helensville is like stepping into pure heritage heaven. Their museum and pioneer village is a charming collection of historical buildings, which have all been moved together and magically set up to depict life since early settlement in the South Kaipara district. Displays inside the buildings show many different aspects of life, such as education, business and communication, as well as different periods in history, from kauri digging to railway construction to farming. It’s like a mini theme park for people who like their theme parks with fewer rollercoasters and more education. Speaking of, the whole town has been described as being ‘just like MOTAT, only real life.’ And for anyone who has visited Auckland’s MOTAT, that’s the only review you’ll need.
Grab a spot of lunch at Mangawhai’s Sandbar Eatery, which is so good it’s making us hungry just thinking about it. From their ideal possie in the heart of Mangawhai Heads, you can feast on one of Sandbar’s beautiful dishes, then bounce down to the estuary for a splash. Their Surf and Turf Fritters, made with an unexpected combo of market fish, cured pork and blue cheese, are a must if you don’t mind trying out new (but delicious, might we add) flavours. But you can’t go wrong with their Bang Bang Chicken either, which is embellished with toasted peanut, sichuan, sesame & soy. Too good. Sandbar’s slogan is ‘where the locals meet to eat,’ and everyone knows that if the locals love it, it’s a winner.
After you’ve refueled, perhaps it’s time for an energetic scurry to get the movement back in your body. Head down to Mangawhai Heads Beach, where all the options for activity are right in the palm of your hand. Whether you’re a surfer dude, a beach bum, or a walk-aholic, it’s a haven of adventure in this little spot, and a hub of happenings. Our personal favourite if you’re short on time but eager for exploration is the little track up to the top of the cliffs above the beach, which is steep but snappy and will have you to a million dollar view of the Mangawhai estuary, dune and heads in 10 minutes flat. Take the pathway on the left hand side as you come into the car park and head straight up. The waves will be patiently waiting for your return, once you’ve snapped all those selfies at the top. And to top it all off, grab a coffee or fresh berry ice cream from the carts nicely positioned by the car park during the summer months.
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.
After a long day of travelling and touring, it’s well past time to hit the hay. At moments like these, the Whangarei TOP 10 Holiday Park becomes your best friend, with its lush bush surroundings and just-like-home facilities. The location of this holiday park is quite something; the tranquility of the bordering Parihaka Scenic Reserve would make you think you were miles from any city, when in fact all the life of Whangarei’s centre is less than 2 km away. If you are sleeping in your vehicle or planning on tenting beside it, make sure you plug in so your battery is more than prepared for the next day’s activities. If you feel like tonight requires a little more comfort, you could also check in to the Bella Vista Whangarei, which provides overnight EV car parking for guests.
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 that 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.
Banner Photo Credit: GeoZoneUserId_243429