Northland’s charm lies in its unspoiled, simple character. The region is blessed with two contrasting coastlines, which offer endless scope for outdoor recreation. As the site of first permanent contact between Maoris and Europeans, the region is also rich in history and has many well-preserved historic sites. There are three main bases from which visitors can explore the region: Paihia, which has its own attractions but is close to historic Russell, Waitangi and Kerikeri, and the beautiful Bay of Islands; Kaitaia, which attracts day-trippers to the Aupori Peninsula, Mangonui and Ahipara; and Opononi and Omapere, which have wonderful beaches and are close to Rawene, a historic settlement on Hokianga Harbour.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The northernmost city in New Zealand and the only one in Northland, Whangarei is a two-hour drive from Auckland. The city lies between forested hills and a deep harbor. The combination of fertile soil and temperate climate is reflected in the city’s lush gardens and in the surrounding farmlands and orchards. Whangarei’s historic Town Basin, in the heart of the city, has been redeveloped in a colonial theme. Its cafés, restaurants, art galleries, museums, and specialty shops make it a popular gathering place for locals and visitors. It is also one of the most popular destinations for yacht sailors wandering the world, who come here to avoid the cyclonic storms common in the South Pacific over the summer. The Town Basin and local marinas are often full of visiting yachts coming to refit. A giant sundial marks the location of the Town Basin’s Clapham Clock Museum, which houses more than 1,600 items donated by A Clapham, who made many of the clocks himself. The oldest, an English lantern clock, dates from 1720. The collection also includes Biedermeier wall clocks, grandfather and Black Forest clocks, and a staartklok (literally a “tail clock” because of the shape of its winding mechanism) from Friesland in the Netherlands. To avoid the deafening sound of the hundreds of time-pieces marking the hour simultaneously, the clocks have been set at different times. Just to the west of Whangarei is the Quarry Arts Centre, offering local arts and crafts for sale. Set in a bush-clad quarry the Trust is home to a number of artists who live on-site in adobe style dwellings. Further out is the Whangarei Museum, Clarke Homestead, and Kiwi House. The museum displays a fine range of Maori artifacts, while the 1885 homestead remains as it was when it was first built. The Kiwi House provides the chance to view one of the country’s most endangered birds. For those looking for more challenging activities, there are many tramping opportunities around Whangarei. The Parahaki Scenic Reserve, on the eastern side of the city, has good bushwalks. The war memorial at the summit of Parahaki Mountain can be reached via Memorial Drive or by two tracks from Mair Park or Dundas Road, for a superb panoramic view of the city and harbor. There are Maori pits and old gum-digging workings on all the walks, and a trail leads to a historic Maori pa site nearby. Whangarei Falls, known as the most photogenic waterfalls in New Zealand, lies northeast of the Parahaki Scenic Reserve in the suburb of Tikipunga, 3 miles north of the town center. The 86-ft high waterfall drops over basalt cliffs. There are natural pools and picnic spots, plus two viewing platforms that provide excellent views of the falls.
On the coastal loop road, a short distance from Whangarei, Tutukaka is a well-known base for diving trips to the Poor Knights Islands and for big game and deep-sea fishing. Several diving companies are based here and the sheltered, natural harbor is alive with yachts and fishing boats. One of the most popular diving sites off the coast between Tutukaka and Matapouri is an artificial reef created by the sinking of two former naval ships, the Tui and the Waikato. Several professional diving companies offer their services as guides to this underwater grave.
POOR KNIGHTS ISLANDS
About 15 miles from the coast at Tutukaka are the Poor Knights Islands. Once a favorite spot for fishermen, the area around these two islands was established as a marine reserve in 1981. Although landing on the islands is prohibited without a special permit from the Department of Conservation, the surrounding waters are accessible to divers. Well-known mariner Jacques Cousteau considered the reserve one of the world’s top five diving sites because of its exceptional water clarity and the variety of its sea life. The area benefits from a subtropical current that makes it warmer than the surrounding coastal waters and promotes a profusion of tropical and temperate marine life. Eroded volcanic rock has created a seascape of tunnels, arches, and caves where divers can view fish and sponges. Scuba diving in this haven can be enjoyed all year round. Boats leave daily from Tutukaka Marina. Reptiles such as geckos and tuataras can be found on both islands, which are thought to be the world’s only nesting spot for Buller’s shearwaters.
Located a short distance north of Tutukawa on the coastal loop road, Matapouri has one of Northland’s most beautiful beaches. Tucked between headlands and dotted with islets, Matapouri’s calm waters and white sands make it a popular place for swimming and snorkeling. A walking track connects the beach with Whale Bay, 1.2 miles north. Lookout points on the track offer magnificent views of the coastline and ocean.
At the turn of the 19th century, Russell, then known as Kororareka, served as a shore station for whalers. It became a lawless town, earning the title “Hell-hole of the Pacific”. It was renamed Russell in 1844 in honor of the British colonial secretary of the day. Today, the quiet town is involved in tourism, fishing, oyster farming, and cottage industries. Formerly known as the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, the Russell Museum features a working model of Captain Cook’s Endeavour and memorabilia from American author Zane Grey, who helped establish the Bay of Islands as a game fishing center in the late 1920s. There is also a collection of early settlers’ relics. Christ Church, built in 1836, is the country’s oldest surviving church. One of the contributors to the church was Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, who visited New Zealand in 1835. Stately Pompallier Mission was built on the waterfront between 1841 and 1842 to house the Marist mission’s Gaveaux printing press. The building later became much neglected, until it passed to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1968 and was restored to its original state in 1993. The country’s oldest standing industrial building, it now houses a printing and bookbinding exhibition, which includes the original printing press. Flagstaff Hill serves as a reminder of Russell’s turbulent past. It was here that Hone Heke (1810–50) cut down the British shipping signal flagpole in 1844.
Starting life as a mission post in 1823, Paihia now joins places such as Russell and Tutukaka as a base for deepsea game fishing. To the north of Pahia, on the road to Kerikeri is the Lily Pond Farm Park. The park gives visitors the chance to interact with a whole range of farm animals including sheep, pigs, and goats. There are also more exotic species of animals, such as eels, alpaca, and emus. It is a working farm that will appeal to families with small children. Located 2 miles from Paihia, on the Waitangi River, are the Haruru Falls. The track from Waitangi to Haruru Falls was recently closed due to a devastating flood. Visitors can still walk to the mangroves, however, to see herons and nesting native shags. An alternative approach to the falls is by kayak along the river. Kayaks can be hired from Coastal Kayakers.
WAITANGI TREATY GROUNDS
Waitangi earned its pivotal place in New Zealand’s history on 6 February 1840 when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in front of the house of James Busby (1800–71), the British Resident. The Residency renamed the Treaty House, became a national memorial in 1932. The house and grounds are a gathering point for Maoris and government leaders each year on 6 February, Waitangi Day. Visitors are recommended to take the guided tours.
The pretty town of Kerikeri is noted for its subtropical climate, citrus and kiwifruit orchards, historic buildings, and an art and craft trail. The Kerikeri Basin is home to Kerikeri Mission Station, one of New Zealand’s earliest settlements. It was the second European mission station to be set up in New Zealand, in 1819, under the protection of Maori chief Hongi Hika; the first mission was established near the entrance to the Bay of Islands five years earlier. The mission station includes Kerikeri Mission House. Constructed in 1821, the building belonged to the Kemp family in 1832 and was left to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1974. Restored, it looks much as it did in the 1840s. The mission station also encompasses New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building, the Stone Store, built in 1835 as part of the mission house. Intended as a storehouse, it gradually turned into a general store and, from the 1960s, a souvenir shop. Its merchandise includes hand-forged nails and other products in keeping with its history. On the slope behind the mission house is St James Church, constructed in 1878 of native timbers such as kauri and puriri. Above the Basin are the remnants of Kororipo Pa, a Maori fortification. The strategic base of Hongi Hika, the pa is best known as an assembly point for war parties in the 1820s. Across the river from the pa is Rewa’s Village, a reconstructed pre-European Maori fishing village built from native materials, those used before the missionaries came. It provides an introduction to traditional buildings such as a marae (gathering place) and pataka (communal raised storehouse). There are two ancient canoes at the village and a large, traditional garden.
Not far from Kerikeri is Waimate North, a missionary community in the 1830s. It was also the site of New Zealand’s first large English-style farm. It is now best known for Te Waimate Mission, the sole survivor of three mission houses built in 1832 and first occupied by the Clarke family. It is furnished with missionary-period furniture and early tools.
A small, scenic settlement with a beautiful harbor, Whangaroa is best appreciated from the summit of St Paul, a rock formation that dominates the town. The surrounding hills were once covered in huge kauri trees, which have long since been turned into ship masts and timber. Croatians worked the Matauri Bay gum fields in the late 19th century, extracting resin. Today, Whangaroa Harbour has become well known for its big game fishing, cruises, diving, and snorkeling.
Said to be the first landfall for the explorer Kupe, Doubtless Bay was an important base for whalers in the early days of European settlement. The bay encompasses a wide crescent of golden beaches, including Cable Bay and Cooper’s Beach, popular with swimmers and snorkelers. The fishing village of Mangonui, situated on the bay’s estuary, has many historic buildings.
The largest town in the Far North, Kaitaia is a good base for day trips in the area. It is home to the Far North Regional Museum, which has the earliest authenticated European artifact left in New Zealand – a 3,300- lb wrought-iron anchor, lost in a storm in Doubtless Bay by J F M de Surville, the French explorer, in 1769.
Reinga, meaning “underworld”, refers to the Maori belief that this is where the spirits of the dead leave for the journey to Hawaiki. The roots of an old pohutukawa tree at the tip of the cape are said to be the departure point for these spirits. Looking out from Cape Reinga over the Columbia Bank, visitors can see the Tasman Sea converge with the Pacific Ocean. The cape is not the very end of the country; the northernmost point is on North Cape.
NINETY MILE BEACH
A misnomer, Ninety Mile Beach is, in fact, only 60 miles long. The longest beach in the country, this area is almost like a desert, with sand dunes that can reach 470 ft high fringing the beach. It was once a forested region, but the kauri trees were destroyed by inundations of water during successive Ice Ages. Pine trees have been planted to stabilize the dunes. Surf fishing and digging for shellfish are popular activities.
A service center for farms in the area, Kaikohe is best known for the Ngawha Hot Springs (Waiaraki Pools). While such hot springs have been turned into major tourist attractions in places such as Rotorua, they are mainly a local feature in Kaikohe, where most visitors and the attendant are on first-name terms. Outsiders are welcome, and if they can accept the springs’ unadorned character, they will enjoy the hot spring waters with temperatures between 90 and 108 °F. Kaikohe’s Pioneer Village indoor and outdoor museum is a collection of houses and artifacts related to the district’s early European history. A conducted tour takes visitors to attractions from the 1862 Old Courthouse to Maioha Cottage (1875), Utakura Settlers Hall (1891), and Alexander’s Sawmill (1913). There are also vintage vehicles, a fire station, a bush railway, and a small railway station. From a hillside monument to Chief Hone Heke (grandnephew of the old chief), there are fine views of both coasts.
This quaint village, which has shops jutting out over the water, was home to James Reddy Clendon (1800–72), the first US Consul in New Zealand. He later became Hokianga’s Resident Magistrate. Clendon House, now owned by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, was probably built after 1866. The ferry across Hokianga Harbour links with an alternative route to Kaitaia, via Broadwood and Herekino.
In the minds of many New Zealanders, the small beach town of Opononi is forever linked to that of its most famous visitor, Opo. This dolphin became a national celebrity when it spent the summer of 1955 playing with children and performing tricks with beach balls. Sadly, it was killed by unknown dynamite fishers. A sculpture by Christchurch artist Russell Clark marks the dolphin’s grave outside Opononi’s pub. A video of Opo can be viewed at the Hokianga Information Centre. Diagonally across the road from Opo’s statue is the wharf, which is the starting point for a short boat trip to see, at close range, the giant sand dunes on the far side of Hokianga Harbour.
Waipoua Forest is well worth a visit because of its magnificent kauri trees. Being in the presence of a tree that has entered its third millennium is a memorable experience, as photos seldom capture the grandeur of these trees. Local Maoris have christened the country’s largest living kauri Tane Mahuta, “the god of the forest”. Reached by an easy 5-minute walk from the road through the park, the tree is 168 ft high, has a girth of 46 ft, and a volume of 8,635 cu ft. Department of Conservation experts estimate the tree to be about 1,500 years old. Four other known giant trees in the forest are at least 1,000 years old. The forest also contains around 300 species of trees, palms, and ferns.
Dargaville is the nation’s kumara capital and many road stalls with honesty boxes offer the opportunity to buy these sweet potatoes. The Dargaville Museum is not just of interest to sailors. Apart from Maori canoes, ship models, and other nautical items, the displays range from old photos of the local Yugoslav Social Club to memorabilia from the Northern Wairoa Scottish Society and a pig skull from New Mexico.