New Zealand's northernmost region is long and narrow, edged by a convoluted coastline of vast bays, inlets, coves and beaches, with hundreds of islands offshore.
Unsurprisingly, a road trip around Northland is one where the ocean is a constant companion, encountered in an almost endless number of ways. The signposted Twin Coast Discovery highway follows the more developed east coast, and the quieter west; both are laden with detours, historic sites and hidden gems.
There are plenty of ways to lengthen or shorten the journey.
Auckland to Auckland
Best Time of the Year
- Tutukaka Coast
- The Bay of Islands
- Karikari Peninsula
- Cape Reinga
- Kauri Coast
To survey the City of Sails before hitting the road, overnight at Manukau Holiday Park, 15 minutes' drive from the Britz Depot, and catch a bus to downtown Auckland. Once you've wandered along Queen Street and around the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter harbourside precincts, set your sights on Auckland Art Gallery or Museum, Ponsonby's restaurants and bars, or board a cruise to the volcanic island of Rangitoto.
Auckland to Whangarei
Distance 195km - Driving Time 3 hours
The urban sprawl stretches for miles as you head up east on SH1, but for a taste of the splendid coastal scenery to come, detour to one of Auckland's excellent regional parks. Shakespear and Tawharanui, both situated at the tip of peninsulas, offer a peaceful blend of farmland, bush reserves, beaches and birdlife. Between the two is Puhoi Valley cheese factory, and Warkworth, which has decent cafes and shopping in the midst of Matakana wine country. Leigh Sawmill, a fine country pub and brewery, is five minutes' drive from Goat Island where you can hire gear to snorkel in the marine reserve.
The signposted Twin Coast highway follows SH1 to Whangarei, Northland's only city. The Hatea River Walkway and Town Basin areas feature waterside parks, a busy marina, cafes and the small but excellent Art Museum. Notable dining establishments include the Old Stone Butter Factory Amongst many other reasons to linger are the lively arts scene, and the scenic drive to Whangarei Heads that takes in Ocean Beach, the short but sharp climb up Manaia, and the waterside Parua pub.
Tutukaka Coast to Whananaki
Distance 43km - Driving Time 58 mins
Along with beautiful scenery, there are two great reasons to detour off SH1 along the Tutukaka Coast on your way to the Bay of Islands. The first is a diving or snorkelling trip to the world-renown Poor Knights marine reserve. The second is Whananaki, a salty little settlement where the Southern Hemisphere's longest footbridge crosses a picturesque estuary. The holiday park is a gem, as is the DOC camp nearby at Otamure Bay.
Whangarei to Russell
Distance 195km - Driving Time 3 hours
Whakapara on SH1 signals the turn-off to the Bay of Islands via the alternative winding Russell Road (add 30 minutes), passing Helena Bay Gallery and detours to blissfully remote DOC campsites. The quicker route is via Kawakawa at which point the Twin Coast Discovery veers off on to SH11; be sure to spend a penny in the famous Hundertwasser Toilets before pushing on to the Bay of Islands, Northland's premier maritime playground.
The bay's maze of waterways are lined with miles of intricate coastline and dotted more than 150 islands, most undeveloped. Along its shores are various settlements, including one once known as 'the hell hole of the Pacific', reached via road or by vehicle ferry from Opua near Paihia. Historically significant Russell is an endearing village offering dining, walks, Pompallier Mission House Printery and delicious swimming at Long Bay. Russell–Orongo Holiday Park is a bird lover's paradise and a great base for exploration.
Russell to Kerikeri
Distance 40km - Driving Time 50 mins
The Twin Coast highway passes through Paihia – pretty, popular, and convenient for Bay of Islands marine trips. These run the gamut from parasailing, diving, dolphin swimming and kayaking, to the classic 'Hole in the Rock' cruise. It's also close to Waitangi Treaty Grounds, widely considered the birthplace of the nation. Historic buildings, exhibits and Maori cultural performance offer insight into the intent and significance of New Zealand's founding document.
Just beyond Paihia, pull over to eyeball Haruru Falls before rejoining SH10 to Kerikeri, a neat and tidy town servicing surrounding agricultural producers. Winemaking is on the increase here (and throughout Northland); visit Marsden Estate for a taste of the terroir, and Makana Confections to sate the chocoholics. Kerikeri's major draw card, however, is the Mission Station at the river basin where you can visit the Stone Store (1836), and the Mission House (1821), complete with heritage tours, an excellent gift shop, and idyllic picnic areas.
Kerikeri to Karikari Peninsula
Distance 92km - Driving Time 1 hour 40 mins
The east coast has all but ended as you round the bend into the increasingly sandy, duney, swampy and sparsely populated Far North. If time allows, take the loop detour through Matauri and Tauranga Bays before rejoining SH10 towards Doubtless Bay. Mangonui is a treat for its crafty shops, historic pub, and fish & chip shops. Sheltering the epic bay is Karikari Peninsula, where you'll find Whatuwhiwhi Top 10 and DOC's Maitai Bay campsite. White sands, sublime swimming and walking make these wonderful overnight stops.
Karikari Peninsula to Rawene
Distance 105km - Driving Time 2 hours
Return to SH10 and continue west to Kaitaia, noting the turn-off to Cape Reinga if you're making the pilgrimage north. Kaitaia is a good place to stock up. Follow the Twin Coast to surfy Ahipara where you can size up Ninety Mile Beach if you haven't already. It's a lovely rural drive to Kohukohu, on the shores of quiet Hokianga Harbour. Walk the streets or pop into the pub before boarding the cross-harbour ferry to Rawene, 15 minutes away. This down-to-earth village is home to historic Clendon House, socially conscious No1 Parnell Gallery and the Boat Shed Cafe, along with a basic holiday park should you wish to break your journey.
Cape Reinga Te Rerenga Wairua
It's a good 90 minutes' drive each way between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga along the narrow Aupouri Peninsula. Commonly considered New Zealand's northernmost point, the Cape is also the place Maori believe their souls depart for the afterlife. There are epic views from the lighthouse perched above the swirling meeting point of the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea. The Aupouri Peninsula's west coast is lined by Ninety Mile Beach, best explored on a tour from Kaitaia or Ahipara. Three of the peninsula's DOC campsites are vehicle accessible, our pick of which is Tapotupotu.
Rawene to Dargaville
Distance 107km - Driving Time 2 hours
Follow SH12 west towards Opononi and Omapere, stopping at Arai Te Uru Lookout for harbour entrance views. Here the highway follows an inland route south along the Kauri Coast, so-named for the mighty tree that once reigned over Northland. The largest remaining tract is Waipoua Forest, where Tane Mahuta – 'God of the Forest' – can be admired via a short walk from the road, with similarly powerful kauri throughout the 15km forest drive. Break your Kauri Coast journey at Kai Iwi Lakes (basic camping, excellent swimming), or Bayly's Beach near Dargaville where there's an old-fashioned holiday park, the Funky Fish cafe, and sunset views from wild Ripiro Beach.
Dargaville to Auckland
Distance 176km - Driving Time 2 hours 30 mins
Half an hour's drive from Dargaville is the must-see Kauri Museum at Matakohe, for which you should allow at least two hours. Few New Zealand museums so powerfully evoke the trials and triumphs (not to mention ecological travesty) of pioneer life, from the bushman swinging his axe, to the local farm boy who rose to the rank of prime minister. SH12 joins SH1 at Brynderwyn. The Twin Coast Discovery peels off on to SH16 at Wellsford; a couple of excellent pop-ins on the way back to Auckland are Kumeu River Wines, and Hallertau Brewery, a great spot for lunch nearby at Riverhead.